Hidden Oaks Nature Center – Their Animals Hit the Trail

All photos by Jerry Nissley

By volunteering at or simply visiting the many Fairfax County Parks we have all noticed how each park fills a niche. Each park has unique attractions and exemplary qualities that delight visitors and Hidden Oaks just extended theirs.

Suzanne Holland and Bob Dinse with Wildlife Tree Sculpture

Hidden Oaks Nature Center is nestled inside the 52-acre Annandale District Park. You’ll find live animal displays, exhibits, a pond, creeks, woodland trails, gardens, play areas, a rain garden and a resource library. In 2019 artisan Andrew Mallon was commissioned to carve a wildlife tree sculpture utilizing the 10’ high tree stump left after a poplar tree was struck by lightning right outside of the Nature Center. The fabulous carvings creatively depict 11 animals native to the park. Now in 2021 to complement the tree sculpture and enhance the learning experience, the park distributed replica cutouts of those 11 animals along the Old Oaks nature trail in habitat areas appropriate for each animal.

Suzanne Holland, the Visitor Services Manager at Hidden Oaks, explained that finalizing this project took awhile due to the pandemic. “I had the signs created by last fall (2020) but we kept adding components and, since we did not have a deadline looming, I waited until everyone was able to participate who wanted to do so. I had the wonderful assistance of three FMN. Toni Oliveira designed the correlative trail brochure. Susan Martel assisted with brochure copy and where to place the cut out signs and Bob Dinse attached the signs along the trail.”

Fox Marker – potential den under fallen tree in background

Suzanne said, “The purpose of this activity was to extend the learning opportunities based on the 2019 woodland wildlife tree sculpture. I wanted to have the representations of the 11 animals, created by Northern Virginia Woodcarvers, to be posted along our Old Oak Trail in about the area that the real animal would live. The brochure provides habitat information for each of the native species. Additionally we have a QR code on each sign so that visitors can scan the code to see a 30 second video about the animal and its habitat needs.” She graciously added, “Hidden Oaks is fortunate to have so many stellar FMN volunteers and this project is only one of many they have contributed to.”

Racoon Marker – hollow tree den

Susan Martel who helps with crafts and enrichment projects had a lot of fun with this one.  She commented, “I researched and wrote the content for the brochure, which was also used for the narratives that accompany the videos shown in conjunction with the QR codes.  I thought HONC’s idea of using the Woodland Wildlife Sculpture as a launching point for the interpretive trail was a great way to teach visitors about where the different animals can be found in the park/nature and why the habitat suits them.”

Bob Dinse, who is a trail monitor and interpreter at Hidden Oaks explained, “Since I take care of the trails at Hidden Oaks Suzanne asked me to fasten the cut out animals to a trail marker post or dead tree. So as not to deface the cut outs I cut slats of wood a little bigger than the cut outs and used a water proof glue to fasten the slats to the cut outs. Suzanne and I walked the Old Oak Trail to decide where I would put up the cut outs. I have been at Hidden Oaks almost 12 years and am proud to be part of the team led by Suzanne Holland and Michael McDonnel that keep adults and children coming to the park.”

Turtle Marker – semi open wooded area

The creativity, willingness to serve, and high energy of the Hidden Oaks park staff and cadre of volunteers, many of which are FMN, truly establish this as a park worth visiting and supporting. So bring the kids or just yourself but come on out to Hidden Oaks. Tour the visitor’s center (see website for hours), checkout the 10 foot high wildlife sculpture, explore Old Oaks Trail, and find the individual critters along the way. It’s a success story worth experiencing.

WJLA TV interview with Suzanne Holland:

https://wjla.com/news/local/kidd-around-town-hidden-oaks-nature-center

Volunteerism Blooms at Laurel Hill Park

Photos: Susan Laume

By FMN Susan Laume

A Virginia Master Naturalist led effort, supported by over two dozen amateur gardeners, literally bloomed to fruition this spring in Laurel Hill Park in Lorton. Many of the volunteers had done no gardening of any kind before, and had no knowledge about native versus non-native plant species. However, willing hands and sustained effort over several months turned one weed-choked, and one barren parking lot island into two native plant gardens, welcoming to pollinators and park users, mirroring only the native wildflowers and grasses found throughout the park.

Native wildflowers in spring bloom with a non-native volunteer Purpletop Vervain

This is a story about one of many collaborative efforts between Master Naturalists and our friends in the Fairfax County Park Authority. Under the auspices of the Laurel Hill Park Volunteer Team (PVT) founded by the author, the park area maintenance manager designated the garden development areas.  He also provided limited start up assistance by way of dumping wood mulch, and amending mowing contracts to protect the garden areas. The Park Authority assisted with advertising for members through the county volunteer opportunities system.  The first garden involved merely managing the volunteer plants which populated the space.  For the second garden, the County also authorized limited funding for starter plant purchases through the native plant nursery, “Earth Sangha”.  Garden design, bed preparation, mulch spreading, planting, establishment watering, weeding, and subsequent plantings for both garden locations were all accomplished by a changing set of citizen volunteers. 

Blue Spider Wasp garden visitor

With the first garden started in May 2020, and the second in September 2020, progress in both was slowed by Covid -19 park restrictions.  Spring 2021 was the first opportunity to see real results of the efforts in terms of blooms and visiting pollinators.  While the full beauty of the gardens is yet to blossom, the gardens already have accomplished much. Dozens of people have worked there and now know about native plants and their importance to our environment. Many more have visited the garden and asked about its purpose and plants. Dragonflies, bees, beetles, wasps, bugs, and birds visit regularly, enjoying the diversity of plants created by management of the space. Small mammals and snakes move and hide within the grasses and green, drawn by the food now found there. In coming seasons, as the gardens fill with more plants, both planted and seed volunteers, they will continue to achieve their goal — welcoming and educating people about the beauty and wonder of native plants.

One antidote to a pandemic: Training to be a master naturalist

Photo: Ron Grimes

By Julie Shaw, Spring 2021 Graduate

The Fairfax Chapter Master Naturalist training program saved me from the grim claustrophobia brought on by the pandemic in the winter and spring of 2021.

While avoiding the news in December 2020, I came across a notice about the training in the Fairfax Master Naturalist Newsletter and I jumped at the chance to apply. So did a lot of other people: The spring 2021 training had more than 50 applicants for 20 slots.

I was lucky to make the cut, and it was just what the doctor ordered. I work—now from home—at a day job in communications for an environmental organization, but that job mostly takes place behind a computer. I do not frequently get the kind of connection with nature, or with people, that I find most meaningful. And with degrees in English literature and journalism, I have a lot to learn about nature and how to help it.

Our trainee cohort came from diverse backgrounds. Some studied or have degrees in nature-related fields. Some have served in the military or government. Our group also included young people just starting out in their careers (one is a high school student), parents planning to spend treasured free time to educate their children and others about nature, and retirees eager to use their energy and experience to support local ecosystems and wildlife. The class also incorporated participants from the spring 2020 Master Naturalist training who were completing a pandemic-interrupted education.

For the volunteers who organize the training, the switch from in-person to online meetings brought some minor difficulties — from just getting people into the Zoom session to getting presentations to display correctly. But the sessions were relatively smooth since many people have become accustomed to Zoom.

Members of our class did miss out on some of the bonding that in-person training sessions can facilitate and, perhaps more importantly, the associated snack-time tradition. But we were fantastically fortunate when it came to weather for our field trips (although several of us used our cars as warming shelters during the surprisingly cold May 1 visit to Mason Neck Wildlife Refuge and State Park). And we benefited greatly from the efforts of an impressive team of volunteers and presenters who delivered a well-oiled and engaging program.

Reviews from my fellow trainees for the program have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. And while our experience has been colored by the pandemic, what we’re taking away from the training will likely have a much more enduring and positive impact on our lives.

NOTE: More helpers are always needed for the training program. Contact Lori Scheibe at lscheibe@cox.net to volunteer.

Fairfax Master Naturalists Talk Pollinators and Citizen Science at June Environmental Expo

Photo: Marilyn Schroeder

By Mike Walker

FMN members hosted a booth at the first “post pandemic” Outreach Event in 2021. This was the Mount Vernon-National Park Service Environmental Expo at Fort Hunt Park on June 26. Marilyn Schroeder and Mike Walker set up and staffed the booth, with Master Naturalist and Bat Expert Deborah Hammer offering training and use tips for the iNaturalist system. Many of our local partner organizations were present at the Expo, including Friends of Huntley Meadows and Mason Neck as well as various Fairfax County government organizations, such as the Green Breakfast folks from the Soil and Water Conservation department. Chapter sponsor Jim McGlone, representing the forestry department, was also there promoting proper tree planting.

Two important takeaways for me: first, next to our booth was an entomologist with the National Park Service. He explained that staff from the Department and local universities have discovered and documented five new, previously undiscovered species of insects found on parkland. Field investigations have been taking place in Dyke Marsh, Turkey Run Park and Great Falls-Riverbend parks. Second, on display and available for inspection were about a dozen all electric automobiles and a Fairfax County Public Schools electric school bus. What had been wishful thinking on a new age of automobiles now appears to be becoming mainstream and even affordable. One owner of a Chevrolet Volt told me he has owned his electric car for 10 years and has never returned to the dealer or had any repairs other than new tires and wiper blades. Lots of interesting information.

Keep your eyes open for our booth at the next public environmental event. Stop by, ask questions, or just visit!

FMN CE Hike: Bluebird Box Monitoring — Awesome!

BB nest feature photo by Barbara J. Saffir

Have you ever wondered what’s inside those white boxes on poles standing in open fields? They are Bluebird boxes paid for and erected by Bluebird Societies to provide habitat for Bluebirds, native cavity nesters. Trained personnel regularly monitor the boxes to record data for scientific research. A Fairfax Master Naturalist group recently explored the inside of 12 of them with Larry Meade, Northern Virginia Bird Club President and volunteer with the Virginia Bluebird Society. I was reminded of the carol The 12 Days of Christmas as Larry carefully opened each “gift” for a peek inside.

Organized by FMN Barbara Saffir, we met at Clark’s Crossing in Vienna on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail. Larry tapped the side of each box first to warn the parent bird of our approach. Their departure from the box was our first clue to which species was inside. The boxes are intended for use by Eastern Bluebirds but the conservation groups don’t mind if they are used by Tree Swallows (TS), Chickadees and other native cavity nesters. Nesting by other species, such as the non-native House Sparrow, is prevented by removing nesting material before it is completed. The opening is too small to allow entry by European Starlings.

Larry then unscrewed the side of the box, lowered it and we’d look inside. What follows is the day’s official report, enhanced by Larry’s astute birding observations and comedic interludes:

TS nest by Julie Ables

Nest 1 – TS nest – 5 eggs
Tidbit: Tree Swallows use feathers to “feather their nests.”

Nest 2 – BB nest – 3 eggs
Tidbits: Bluebirds use pine needles to make their nests. Larry was logging eBird sightings and “birding by ear.” He wryly noted “butterflying by ear” doesn’t work.

Nest 3 – TS nest – 4 babies ready to go
Tidbit: We viewed quickly so parents could return and resume feeding these voracious eaters.

Nest 4 – BB nest – 3 babies
Tidbit: Larry used a mirror so we could see the babies tucked deep in the nest. This is the second brood in this box for the Bluebird pair.

Nest 5 – TS – 4 babies

Nest 6 – TS nest – 5 eggs
Tidbit: Parent was agitated and circling us. We moved on quickly.

Nest 7 – TS nest -4 big babies
Tidbit: Box monitors remove a nest after the babies have fledged so parents can build a new one. Turkey Vultures are known as TVs. What is a pair called? A TV set.

Nest 8 – TS nest – 5 babies

Carolina Chickadees by Marilyn Parks

Nest 9 – Chic nest – 3 Babies
Tidbit:  Carolina Chickadees! Parents use moss to make the nest. Chickadees are native species and left alone.

Nest 10 – empty
Tidbit: In nearby trees we see a juvenile Orchard Oriole! Larry notes that seeing a new bird is like seeing a movie star.  So true!

Nest 11 – TS nest – 3 babies
Tidbit: We discover a nearby mulberry tree and taste some of the berries. No wonder birds love them!

Mulberry photo by Barbara J. Saffir

Nest 13 – BB nest – 5 eggs
Tidbit: The nest is about 3 times as high as the other BB nests we’ve seen.

If you are interested in volunteering to monitor bluebird boxes, contact the Virginia Bluebird Society. Monitoring season runs from the end of April to early August each year. The excitement and joy of opening the boxes will enhance your contributions to citizen science!

Orchard Bee Monitoring – fait accompli

Photo Jerry Nissley

For the last three years or so there existed the FMN Citizen Science opportunity, C252 – Native Orchard Bee Monitoring. Many Virginia Master Naturalists throughout the state participated including several FMN members, by installing Orchard Bee boxes in their yards or community, recording and reporting statistics and observations, and returning boxes for laboratory study to the chief scientist, Kate Leroy –  PhD candidate in University of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Sciences.

On May 27, 2021 Ms. LeCroy successfully defended her dissertation – All About Mason Bees. She presented an entertaining and very informative hour-long video via Zoom. The cameo appearance by Dolly Parton put it over the top!

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished.

That will be the beginning.”

                                                                                                    – Louis L’Amour

Mason Bee Box with 5 chambers occupied – Photo Jerry Nissley

I thought the above quote is appropriate from several perspectives of the project. For contributing community scientists – it is not often that we actually get to see results of a project. Kate’s presentation details the amount of additional analysis that begins in the lab once field data is collected. For Kate – the completion of this PhD phase simply opens the door to the beginning of so much more in her career.

Kate kept the lines of communications open with her contributors during the data collection phase and graciously thanked all of her supporters from colleagues to community scientists in her presentation. She even included photos and I recognized at least a few FMN faces (see video mark 39.30). Interestingly, a pie-chart in her presentation indicated that 45% of her contributing team was made up of community scientists. For example, in 2019 Kate had 102 sites contributing field data. Kate contacted VMN at the beginning of her research and Michelle Prysby helped her established a service project code that then filtered out to the various statewide chapters. Her presentation acknowledged 29 VMN chapters.

Congratulations to Kate for her success thus far. Given her knowledge, energy, and gracious spirit, feel confident that her success will continue throughout her career.

Kate gave permission to include a video link to her dissertation defense:

Kate’s Dissertation Defense Link:  linked here   Passcode: 28G6$ybS

In the Time of the Wood Thrush

Article and feature photo by Stacey Remick-Simkins

In 2017, I was heartbroken.

There are such delights found in birdsong that often people listen for a particular song at particular times to mark new beginnings, new lives and new seasons. Such is the song of the Wood Thrush for me. I had come to anticipate their fluty and enchanting melody as a way to usher in the joy and beginnings of life that comes with a verdant Virginia summer.

This summer, though, I would be heartbroken by the absence of their song. I had failed to hear them at all that spring anywhere that I hiked. So, one June morning, I ventured out to Manassas National Battlefield Park to conduct a summer bird survey with a long- time birding partner. We covered a standard range of forests and open grasslands as we had done in previous years only to discover that there were no Wood Thrush songs to hear. They were heart-rendingly absent.

I would soon learn that their habitats were being destroyed systematically around the world leaving them bereft and endangered. I feared that I would have to learn to accept that I may never hear them again.

Hope arrives in 2020.

During the summer of 2020 the Wood Thrush has appeared everywhere, including St. Peter’s in the Woods forest. When I conducted a survey in June 2020, I was overwhelmed to hear a Wood Thrush singing within feet of me. It was hidden well, foraging and likely gathering food for a nest and/or young. This thrush had found the SPW forest to be a safe and good place to set down roots. The 7-acres was deemed by at least one to provide the sustenance and safety that can be counted on.

Keeping this forest a place of sanctuary for those such as the Wood Thrush is practicing a stewardship that is critical. That one Wood Thrush in our forest could tip the balance in saving the lives of those that migrate here. Next year, we may have another couple of them settling in for the summer to create new life that once again may be able to survive because there was that small safe place in our forest for them to shelter in.

Preserving and stewarding this sanctuary is a primary project for St. Peter’s and I am proud to be one helping to monitor and build a database so that we may see how effective our practices of sustaining long-term conservation are. Several of us who attend St. Peter’s are Fairfax Chapter Master Naturalists. We work towards maintaining the native plant balance with the birds and continue our own data collection. Knowing that a Wood Thrush found our small haven a place to safely breed and forage was a great moment of excitement and hope.

They remain endangered and threatened by continued assaults on the forests all around them. Their migrations are threatened as are the forests that they return to in South America. St. Peter’s Sanctuary forest will remain a place for hope where we can be thankful for the chance to steward the gifts of our small sanctuary of wilderness.

For more on the Wood Thrush
https://www.birdnote.org/show/wood-thrush-and-eastern-forests
https://www.birdnote.org/show/henry-david-thoreau-and-wood-thrush

FMNs: Service hours under St. Peter’s In the Woods Wildlife Sanctuary & Programs (Wildlife Surveys, Activity S266)

Robin Duska: VMN Volunteer of the Year Award

Riverbend; photo by Jerry Nissley

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” – John Muir

During the pandemic, the restorative value of walking along dirt paths became especially clear to Fairfax Master Naturalist Robin Duska, who was recently recognized by the Virginia Master Naturalist state board as 2020 Volunteer of the Year for her outstanding contributions to natural resource education, conservation, citizen science, and stewardship.

Robin Duska – photo by Richard Huff

The VMN award announcement identified Robin’s leadership in promoting the creation and conservation of wildlife habitat and in educating the community about the importance of natural, native habitat.  When serving as co-director of the Audubon at Home (AAH) program of the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia (ASNV), Robin often went out birding–and eBirding–along the 55 miles of trails near her Reston, Virginia home.  “It occurred to me,” she says, “that Reston Association (RA) staff like FMN Claudia Thompson-Deahl were already managing Reston’s natural areas to the standards of the AAH Healthy Yard Pledge one of the requirements for certifying properties as AAH Wildlife Sanctuaries.”  It also seemed likely, however, judging from behaviors like littering and letting dogs run off leash, that many Reston residents enjoyed the trails solely for recreation. “Having served with AAH inspired me to highlight the wildlife value of the natural areas in Reston through which the trails meander,” Robin added. As an AAH Ambassador, she got buy-in from AAH  and RA to conduct a project to certify natural areas as AAH Wildlife Sanctuaries and then hit the trails to locate  AAH Sanctuary Species.  After finding 60 Sanctuary Species, she certified six of the natural areas covering 400 acres. “Reston’s Chief Operating Officer Larry Butler signed the applications for certification, and it’s my hope that the AAH certification signage and related publicity will help educate Reston residents about the wildlife habitat value of these wonderful areas,” Robin says. 

AAH Certification Sign – photo by Robin Duska

Robin found it possible to manage over 500 hours of volunteer service in 2020 across a variety of activities.  She explained, “When I retired five years ago, I decided to structure my volunteering to make some kind of contribution on national, regional, and local levels. During the pandemic, when weekly public bird walks are not being conducted, it has still been possible for me, FMNs Kris Lansing and Janis Stone, and Arlington Master Naturalist Colt Gregory to help out authorities at Great Falls National Park by walking the dirt paths and providing a weekly update on the park’s birds.” She continued by saying, “sadly the pandemic precluded my other usual national-focused volunteering in the National Museum of Natural History’s Bird Division and Q?rius Learning Center—and sadly as well, I didn’t do much traveling in 2020.  But on the bright side, that left more time for regional and local service, much of which can be done outside, in writing, or via Zoom.” 

On the regional front, out on those dirt paths again in the absence of public bird walks, Robin and FMN Kris Lansing report weekly to park authorities on the bird life at Fairfax County’s Riverbend Park. Also, Zoom became a resource early on:  In March, having recruited experts from Pennsylvania Audubon to hold a jointly sponsored RA-ASNV program in Reston, Robin realized that the pandemic would preclude travel from Pennsylvania to Virginia. So, she restructured the program into a webinar—a continuing educational resource about bird-window collisions. In summer, she also facilitated Audubon at Home discussions with parties in Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties to expand AAH operations there–and the pandemic did not prevent drafting and coordinating the requisite documents to clinch the new AAH partnerships. 

Great Falls – Photo by Robin Duska

Locally, after a term on Reston’s Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC), Robin has remained involved with its project teams. “Reston is part of the Biophilic Cities Network, and I got to thinking that some residents who want to take action to help the environment might not know what is actually helpful,” she says. Therefore, she conceptualized a pledge and led the 2020 team that refined it and developed a communications plan for the Reston Biophilic Pledge, which asks Reston’s 60,000 residents to commit to specific actions.  For the 2020 update of the award-winning Reston Association State of the Environment Report (RASER), Robin and co-lead FMN Doug Britt worked with 16 authors via Zoom, email, and phone to assess the status of 21 natural resources and environmental topics.  A report card evaluating progress on RASER’s recommendations has been briefed to the RA Board of Directors every year since RASER first baselined Reston’s environment in 2017.

She has been volunteering in her own neighborhood as well. “In 2020 FMN Ann Garvey, other volunteers, and I organized a small group called Go Natives! in our Reston HOA that focuses on planting Virginia natives and educating our neighbors about why they are important,” she told me. “I’m now working on a presentation for landscaping committees in other Reston neighborhoods to share the lessons that Go Natives! has learned in the past year, to include sources for grant funds.”  In 2020, Robin also identified the need for a non-technical handout on pesticides geared to readers in HOAs and on their Boards, and she worked with FMNs Barbara Tuset (AAH Co-Director), Margaret Fisher (of  Plant NOVA Natives), and  Tami Sheiffer (Coordinator for both AAH in Fairfax County and Fairfax County’s Watch the Green Grow program) on a brochure that Tami inspired Fairfax County to produce.   

Blue Bird Box – Photo Robin Duska

Robin believes the most satisfying volunteer work involves teamwork like that described above.  Having spent much of her adult life outside the United States, she notes that she lacked information about the volunteer world when she moved to Virginia a few years ago.  “Becoming a Fairfax Master Naturalist in 2017 and volunteering with the regional Audubon Society of Northern Virginia and local Environmental Advisory Committee wired me into great networks and has helped me figure out how best to use my skills for a mix of ‘what needs to be done’ and ‘pure pleasure’ volunteer service,” she says. 

What’s in that “pure pleasure” category?  “Anything involving birds,” Robin tells me.  “It’s time to start monitoring bluebird nest-boxes again and happily, the paths to them are dirt.”

Izaak Walton says, Watch your Salt!

Article and photos by FMN Bill Hafker

Last fall I was looking for some environmentally beneficial things to do as winter approached and the usual opportunities were dwindling. Then I spotted information about the Izaak Walton League’s (IWL) Salt Watch program.  I was aware of the serious negative impacts that road salt can have on roadside vegetation, and more so on the aquatic systems that receive the runoff.  With IWL supplying the needed test strips by mail, and their phone app used to upload the data, this seemed to be an easy way to make a meaningful contribution. 
 
I did a bit more research on salt usage and was surprised to learn that if we think we use a lot of salt in our foods, we actually use over 10 times more on our roads annually. Doctors are starting to worry that road salt getting into drinking water could affect people with high blood pressure.  Most freshwater fish cannot adapt to salt in water, and it can also be harmful to macroinvertebrates and other food sources for fish, birds and other species that forage in impacted waters.  Chloride levels over 100ppm exceed natural background concentrations, with prolonged exposures over 230ppm being toxic to freshwater aquatic life.
 
Last winter, 222 Salt Watch results were submitted for the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area.  18% were above 100ppm, and 6% were above 230ppm.  It may be that there were relatively few samples submitted and high readings found, since we had a relatively mild and snow-free winter.

Strip on the calibration card
2020/21 DMV Salt Watch readings


Welcome 2020/21.  Snow and ice returned and I got a chance to get out for some before and after testing.  I went to two streams near roads I know are salted, with a small cup in hand, to collect a half-inch of water.  I did get some curious looks from passing drivers as I dipped my glass into the stream and started heading off to my car with it.  After putting the IWL test strip in the cup for about 5 minutes, I took a picture of the strip on the calibration card provided, and uploaded it to the IWL Water Reporter App.  Process complete!
 
The results were concerning, and seemed to mirror what others were finding around Fairfax this year (see chart).   Of the five pairs of readings I took, the baselines were at or below 50ppm, except in one case where the readings before and after a snow event were both over 600ppm.  In the other cases, two stayed at ~50ppm, one went up to ~100ppm, but in the final case it went to over 400ppm. 

I was curious about what the salt impact on some nearby ponds/lakes might be.  The two I tested registered below 50ppm.  Finally, I wondered how salty our tap water, which comes from the Potomac, might be, and was surprised that it had a 1.2 reading, which was higher than one of the lakes I tested.    
 
Once you get outside and start looking around, it’s surprising what you can find in addition to what you are looking for.  Last fall I participated in the FMN education and field opportunities related to invasive water chestnut in local water bodies.  At one of the ponds I tested in Oakton, I was distressed to find the banks covered with the seeds of water chestnuts.  I don’t know if this infestation was already known, but I was able to report this finding to the USGS invasive species reporting website and to the researcher who taught us about this.


It’s fun to be able to find a meaningful activity that gives me an excuse to get out into the field at a time when most folks don’t get out.  The extra solitude and peacefulness actually makes this a wonderful time to do meaningful citizen science.  The data collected makes it possible to identify chloride hot spots and assess the impacts of the salting practices of various jurisdictions.  This allows researchers to assess possible impacts on affected environments, and policy makers and transportation department managers to evaluate salting options.  IWL’s Salt Watch is the only place where volunteer chloride data is collected on a national scale. 
 
If this appeals to you, please put a tickler in your calendar for next October/November to contact IWL about Salt Watch, get your test kits, and get out and get your feet wet.  And keep an eye on your salt! 

https://www.iwla.org/water/stream-monitoring/winter-salt-watch

[Ed. Note: The Washington Post’s John Kelly recently reported on IWL’s Salt Watch: A clean water group wants us to give the cold shoulder to excessive road salt}

Who’s Whooo Program at Huntley Meadows Park

It wasn’t the best weather for an outdoor event. Reports had predicted storms. Though the rain had passed through the area over night it was still blustery and overcast. Even with the sun trying desperately to peek through the clouds, occasionally succeeding, a chill remained in the air. The owls didn’t mind. The barred owl even panted a bit after flapping wildly on the handler’s arm, posturing for its admirers. A testament to how well dense feathers insulate an owl against the offerings of winter.


Huntley Meadows Park (HMP) hosted an owl program presented by ‘Secret Garden Birds and Bees (SGBB)’ on 5 Dec 2020. This organization of wildlife rehabilitators, falconers, beekeepers, and naturalists is dedicated to sharing their love of nature through informative and entertaining educational programs, events and activities. This day at HMP the team of Liz Dennison (VMN Banshee Reeks – Loudon) and Tim Dennison showcased 4 owls (Great Horned, Screech, Barn, and Barred) along with Big Red, a red-tailed hawk. As an organization they offer additional programs on general raptor habitat and identification, falconry, seasonal specific raptor behavior, as well as beekeeping and gardening. You may have had the pleasure of seeing them at events around the tri-sate area including Friend’s of Mason Neck’s Eagle Festival and Owl Moon Program. The birds have each been rehabilitated from injury (i.e. being hit by cars) but residual effects from their injuries (i.e. damaged eye sight, beak deformation) precludes safe release back into the wild. They are cared for on SGBB property in Loudon County along with bees and gardens.

SGBB Great Horned Owl – photo Jerry Nissley
SGBB Screech Owl – photo Jerry Nissley

The HMP program was offered through Fairfax County ParkTakes on-line registration system and was fully attended in compliance with current Virginia state limitations. The families in attendance were kept actively engaged and asked many questions about the bird’s behavior, characteristics, and habitat; and were treated to, how should I say, ‘spontaneous natural owl functions’ much to the joy of a couple of nine year old boys in the front row. Father said, “well son you got your wish”! The other function was the regurgitation of an owl pellet, which contained bone fragments from its last meal. Hey – people literally cheer for this bonus material folks!

SGBB Barn Owl – photo Jerry Nissley
SGBB Barred Owl – photo Jerry Nissley

To complement the spontaneous material the scripted information covered a description of each bird, how it nests, seasonal diets, how loss of habitat affects populations, the harmful impact to raptors that eat rodents that have ingested rodenticides, and preservation tactics such as owl box programs. Learning about how owls contribute to the environment and how they survive throughout the year builds a meaningful understanding of these magnificent birds of prey. The following Baba Dioum quote is on their website, “In the end we will only conserve what we love. We love only what we understand. We understand only what we are taught.” I say – we can never be taught too much! We just need to listen. This program was an excellent fun learning experience for all ages.

Contact information for Secret Garden Birds and Bees along with additional resources:

  1. www.SecretGardenBirdsAndBees.com email – liz@dennison.bz
  2. https://RaptorsAreTheSolution.org
  3. https://OwlPages.com
  4. https://www.PeregrineFund.org
  5. https://abcbirds.org