Road Salt Trivia from the Virginia DEQ

A December 2019 survey found that around half of the population in Northern Virginia is allowed to telework during a winter storm. Of that population that can telework, only 20% always or mostly take advantage of that opportunity during a winter storm. Similarly, only 23% of people always avoid or postpone non-work activities during a winter storm. However, it is promising to note that 87% of respondents are willing to consider reducing or eliminating their travels if salt use had to be reduced. Although the impacts from salts were not well known by the respondents (on average less than 40% knew), most respondents (86%) are willing to consider supporting reductions in salt use if they knew of the impacts to drinking water and the environment. Click here to see the full summary that was presented at the last Education & Outreach workgroup meeting in February, 2020.

Learn more about the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Salt Management Strategy Development.

Nature in Isolation: Fairfax Master Naturalists find things to do during the pandemic, Part II

Sit Spot example

Claudia Thompson-Deahl recommends signing up to start a Sit Spot routine. A Sit Spot is a place on the land that you go to every day or several times a week. It is your special spot that is kind of like an anchor where you get to watch all that is going on in nature over the course of the year. You might sit on a rock, lean against a tree, up on a hill, etc. It is a place where you sit quietly, observe, interact and get to know the land on a deeper level. Subscribing provides daily emails for 14 days. Read the email, then go to your Sit Spot and do the daily nature activity. Claudia observes, “It’s been a really great way to start each day and these posts are a great inspiration.”

Mike Walker: Being confined to my home and having to cancel all time consuming outside volunteer activities, coincided with this long, cool spring and has evolved into a wonderful opportunity to examine closely my quarter acre corner of the universe, just like Thoreau did at Walden Pond. I have lived in my home for over 30 years but having much more time (and newly cleaned windows) has shown me many signs of nature that I had never seen before. By keeping the bird feeder filled into late May, I have been rewarded with visits from many bird species right outside my dining window. Just today a Rose Breasted Grosbeak, tufted titmouse and Black-capped nuthatch had breakfast with me. Maybe they were always around, but more time at the window means more interesting sightings.

Photo by Mike Walker

Two fox families are also in the neighborhood, one a block away with six hungry kits. Mother or dad pass through several times a day, I know of at least 5 squirrels that won’t try to rob my bird feeder anymore.

As I patrol my shrub and flower beds with more time on my hands, I am more aware of individual plant phenology, particularly given the cool spring and chilly nights. Watching the rapid spring growth of cool tolerant shrubs like the hollies and winterberry is amazing. I am in Year 8 of a battle to eradicate the six types of bamboo I cultivated (yes, willingly) for my koi pond. I lost the battle to “control” it and resolved to remove the bamboo before it and my wife and neighbors removed me. I am “down” to about 500 pencil-thin shoots that I trim back daily, finding the occasional 3 foot renegade hidden within a shrub when on bamboo patrol. My goal is to deprive the roots of any chlorophyll. I cautiously hope I am winning!

Photo by Mike Walker

Using instructions from Google, I have made multiple Mason Bee Houses (try it – help our native bees) and my compost bin door is left open so the wrens and chickadees can harvest the many insects for their nestlings. I am hopeful that the many bags of leaves from my yards and my neighbors that cover the perimeter of my property will reap a huge harvest of Fireflies in June.

Like Thoreau or Aldo Leopold, taking the gift of time to watch, be be aware, to listen, puts me closer to the natural world that exits right outside my kitchen door. I am making the most of this gift of time.

Cape May Warbler from mpnature.com

Janet Quinn: I saw my first warbler! After watching Bill Young’s Audubon Society of Northern Virginia’s two webinars on Spring Warbler Plumage and Behavior, and viewing his webpage mpnature.com, I traveled to Monticello Park in Alexandria with binoculars and mask. Although I had to ask my fellow birders what I was seeing, I will always remember the brightly yellow-hued Cape May in the honeysuckle bush along the stream. On a second trip, an American Redstart sang cheerfully on a branch right above my head. Although there were many flits and shadows in the bushes and trees I could not identify, I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to learn about and experience these tiny natural wonders.

Beverly Rivera: I am using this ‘calmer’ time to improve other aspects of my life. For years, I have complained that my household throws away too much food, but now with more leisure time, and with my family captive to meal-planning meetings, we are using up everything, spending a lot less on food, and throwing away (or composting) far less. I also repurposed pieces of fabric and sewed napkins and cleaning cloths so that we have cut back on the use of paper towels to almost zero (and the timing couldn’t have been better).

I’ve also come to notice that you can still tell that someone’s smiling even though they’re wearing a mask. Everyone is going through a lot at the moment and a friendly ‘Good Morning’, a smile and a wave can go a long way to making someone’s daily routine more enjoyable.

Made a Difference to That One

By Beverley Rivera

When the gyms closed because of Coronavirus, I started pacing around my local trail instead. The trail angered me because of the prevalence of invasive plants. There are acres of lesser celandine, which were all in glorious bloom at the time, groves of Chinese wisteria, areas where all you can see is English ivy and bamboo, and impenetrable thickets of multiflora rose. But what really bothered me as I stomped around the trail yanking out armfuls of garlic mustard, was the number of tiny shrubs and trees that were completely overrun with honeysuckle and oriental bittersweet; our fledgling future forest was being girdled, smothered and out-competed by invasive plants.

Sapling in a strangle hold

At that time, very few of the tiny trees actually had leaves; but the bittersweet and honeysuckle start early, snaking to the top of the plants and then branching into an anchor before spreading and flourishing. What appeared to be a healthy leafy plant was actually a tiny stick of a seedling smothered with invasive vines.

Like most Master Naturalists, I suddenly had time on my hands due to the cancellation of many volunteer opportunities, so along my walks I started untangling the tiny plants and cutting back the vines. I knew it was a temporary measure, the invasives would be back, but my rationale was to give the seedlings a season to grow unencumbered and when invasive workdays resume, try to get back to do a more thorough job.

Making a Difference: I was reminded of that old story where someone walks along a beach and discovers thousands of starfish have been washed up and are dying. The person starts picking them up and tossing them back into the ocean. A passer-by comments that there are so many that it was impossible to make a difference; to which the starfish tosser replies, ‘Made a difference to that one’.

Sapling freed from entanglement

Walking the trail now, I am amazed by what a difference one person can make, I see healthy young trees and shrubs leafing out and it inspires me for what can be achieved when it is safe to resume our regular invasive management workdays again.

Planning Ahead: Careful planning is something that doesn’t always happen during the chaos of my everyday life. But instead of just jumping in and trying to get things done, I now have the time to plan: ‘How could I turn this into a learning experience for a school group?’ ‘When is a good time of year for inexperienced volunteers to be removing certain plants?’ ‘How could this seemingly impossible situation be made to work?’

Cultivating Patience: Last year I was involved in setting up an invasive management program at Lake Accotink Park and we were just at the point of getting a steady group of volunteers and making significant progress, when the Fairfax County Park Authority asked us to halt all activities until it is safe to have large gatherings again. Like other Master Naturalists, this also meant that many of my other events were cancelled. So, I have had to develop a patient attitude; things will get done, just not right at the moment. It was a major adjustment, but my frenetic exercise program has turned into enjoyable strolls where I notice things that I never noticed previously, a hillside covered with may apples, bluebirds, a fern I’ve never seen before. It’s allowed me to step back and enjoy the things that make us Master Naturalists in the first place.

Porch Sitting

By Jerry Nissley

Porch sitting – A function exclusively characterized by occupying space on a porch in a seat, hence the name. The porch can be a deck, patio, or similar structure but must include a chair or a bench so one can sit. What one does while porch sitting is up to the individual. Recently I’ve seen friends and neighbors getting together for dinner or libations by ‘porch sitting’ while maintaining appropriate distancing.

I use my porch and deck primarily to observe activity in my backyard while enjoying a good cup of coffee. You know, to keep an eye on those rascally birds, squirrels, skinks, bugs and occasional fox that flit, flutter and fly around throughout the day.

As it happened one day last week while I was porch sitting, I observed a blue jay purposefully shuttling back and forth from a copse of trees into a row of massive photinia that line a portion of my back-neighbor’s yard. I figured it was busy catching insects to feed chicks in a nest buried deep within the photinia. A vibrant blue dart trimmed in bright white swooping 25 feet between perches, very eye-catching. As the light of day began to fade, I noticed its brilliant blue coloration fading as well. As the direct sunlight faded the jay appeared to turn a grey-brown. The bright white outline of primary tail and wing feathers was basically all I continued to see as dusk settled in.

Blue Jay – open source photo

I recalled then a science project my daughter did in high school on iridescence, pigment, and color. She used a blue jay feather as an example of pigment and light reflection. That project was more than a few years ago, so I decided to do additional research to refresh my memory on the subject. Research on why a blue jay appears blue has been refined quite a bit since that science fair project so, at risk of telling a group of Master Naturalists something they already know, I thought I would share my findings.

This article is not intended to fully describe a blue jay to you but stirring your mind by way of a sincere reminder is always appropriate for an FMN article. Briefly, according to Cornell Lab Bird Academy the blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is a passerine bird in the family Corvidae, native to North America. It resides throughout most of eastern and central United States and breeds in both deciduous and coniferous forests so it is common in residential areas such as our local backyards.

Color is a theme for this article so its worth highlighting that a blue jay’s plumage appears blue in the crest, back, wings, and tail, and its face is white. The wing primaries and tail are strongly barred with black, sky-blue and white. However, the intense blue we perceive on a blue jay is due to the microscopic structure of its feathers and the way they reflect blue and violet light. This is known as structural coloration.

Source: Cornell Lab

A simple way to experience structural coloration is to hold a blue feather up to the sky so it is back-lit. With sunlight streaming through the feather the blue color vanishes and the feather appears a drab grey-brown. However, bring the feather down so the light bounces off, scattering blue wavelengths of light and the feather appears blue once again. Indeed, for many years scientists thought birds look blue for the same reason the sky does: red and yellow wavelengths pass through the atmosphere, but shorter blue wavelengths bounce off gas molecules and scatter, emitting a blue glow in every direction. But more recently Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University, discovered that the blue in bird’s feathers is slightly different.

Prum discovered that as a blue feather grows, protein molecules called keratin (located within the feather cells) separate from water molecules, like oil from vinegar. When the cells die, the water evaporates and is replaced by air, leaving a specific structure of keratin interspersed with air pockets. This three-dimensional arrangement of the keratin/air layers within feather barbs is what reflects blue wavelengths of light back to our eyes as illustrated in Cornell’s graphic below. Prum also discovered that different shapes and sizes of these keratin/air layers create different shades of blue that we see among various species of birds. However, even though the appearance of blue is a structural color Prum determined the key to this entire phenomenon is the presence of the pigment melanin, because without it all blue birds would look white.

Blue Feather Graphic – Cornell Bird Lab Academy

Visible light strikes the feathers and encounters the keratin-air nano-structures. The size of the nano-structure matches that of the wavelength of blue light. So, while all of the other colors pass through the feather, the blue does not. It is reflected, so we see blue. As further evidence, if the ‘blue’ feathers of a bird are ground up they turn brown. Once the nano-structures are destroyed, you see the bird’s true color.

You can explore the uniqueness of blue feathers by observing a feather in different light conditions. In the shade, a blue jay’s feather will appear gray because the intrinsic gray-brown color of the melanin pigments is visible. Looking through the feather into the light, you’ll see just the gray-brown color of melanin as light passes through the feather. When you place it so that light falls directly upon it and is reflected to your eye, the feather will appear blue. Try the same with a cardinal’s feather and it will appear red each time.

The blue jay is a noisy, bold, and aggressive bird. It is a moderately slow flier and thus it makes easy prey for hawks and owls when flying in open areas. Virtually all the raptorial birds sympatric in distribution with the blue jay may prey upon it, especially swift bird-hunting specialists such as the Cooper’s, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks common in our Northern Virginia area.

Jays may occasionally impersonate the calls of raptors, possibly to test if a hawk is in the vicinity, though also possibly to scare off other birds that may compete for a food source. Because flight speed is somewhat slow it may impersonate hawks as passive defense mechanism. I mention this factoid because of another observation I made while porch sitting. I noticed a resident Red-tailed hawk circling a tall oak in the yard making its unmistakable high-pitched hawk shriek and what I thought to be its mate responded from a perch in the tree. I thought its mate was simply calling back but as the in-flight hawk approached the tree a blue jay fell out of the tree in a directed free-fall from the perch into low, dense bush cover.

Research into the phenomenon of mimicry revealed blue jays are able to make a large variety of sounds and individuals birds may vary perceptibly in their calling style. Like other, corvids (crows, magpies, ravens, etc) they may even learn to mimic human speech. Their most commonly recognized sound is the alarm call – a loud, almost gull-like scream. There is also a high-pitched jayer-jayer call that increases in speed as the bird becomes more agitated. I have seen backyard blue jays use this call to band together to mob potential predators such as crows and drive them away from the jays’ nests.

OK, so that’s my story and I’m sticking to it – back to my porch I go. As Satchel Paige (or A.A. Milne, et al.) once said, “Sometimes I sit and think and other times I just sit.”

Interview with Dr. David Wilcove, Author of No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations

Alison Zak, the very talented education associate supporting The Clifton Institute in Warrenton, interviews Dr. David Wilcove, professor at Princeton University and author of No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations.

Is there hope? Dr. Wilcove says, yes, and urges us to persevere. This is a stimulating, positive, worthwhile use of 24 minutes.

Access the video here.

NVCT Social Distancing Nature Photo Contest, entries accepted May 11th – June 15th

During these tough times, nature is bringing much-needed peace and tranquility to us all as spring blooms throughout Northern Virginia. Northern Virginia Conservation Trust wants to celebrate this beauty with you by holding the first-ever Spring Edition of their annual photo contest. The rules are the same as usual with one new twist that all photos will be judged together. We welcome submissions from anyone – especially young people – that wish to participate and submit their photos using our guidelines

Categories for Spring 2020:
From My Window
Photos of the nature visible from your window. This can be everything from views to your own flower boxes. Great for folks who may not have their own yards and live in apartments or condominiums.
My Backyard
Photos of the natural world available in our yards to those who have them. Kids and dogs playing are welcome!
Spring is Here
Photos that show the beauty of the world waking up from its winter slumber. New buds on trees, fox kits, baby deer – basically anything that says spring to you.
Social Distancing in Nature
Photos depicting how you and yours are social distancing while being renewed by nature during these difficult times.

Learn more here.

Observe Locally – Help Globally :  Participate in the next international Socially Distant BioBlitzes, June 14th, July 5th

Article and photos by Bill Hafker

It’s tough on those of us who thrive on getting with a group of friends to hike, bike, kayak or otherwise just get outside and observe nature, to feel locked out of doing that. However, it is still possible to find ways to stay safe and enjoy the outdoors.  Whether you just go into your backyard, or find a trail or park that’s open, you can still take part in doing the citizen science/monitoring work you love.  If you enjoyed participating in the City Nature Challenge during April, or if you missed it and wished that you could have been part of advancing a group goal in support of the environment while doing socially distanced nature observations, it’s not too late to do so! 

American Carrion Beetle

The first-ever International Socially Distant BioBlitz was held on April 5th.  It connected 346 participants who together made over 12,500 observations documenting more than 3,000 species.  It was such a success that the organizers at Antioch University New England did it again on May 3rd.  I participated on that day by spending hours documenting everything I could find on a trail near my home.  I had a great time being one of 417 participants from 52 countries, contributing 241 observations and 134 species to their new record numbers of over 22,000 observations and 6,137 species.  I’m planning to try to participate in the upcoming BioBlitzes by walking the same trail each time to see how the species present change, and hoping to find things that I didn’t see the times before.  What was especially cool this time was that I received a comment from someone in the iNat community who thinks I may have posted an invasive beetle not previously documented in the east.  My pictures weren’t good enough for him to be sure of the species, so I’m hoping to find it again on a subsequent date so that I can send him the specimen that he requested.

Trombidium

Based on their success, the organizers will be holding these Socially Distant BioBlitzes on a tri-weekly basis until stay-at-home orders are lifted across the globe.  Hopefully you can join the next ones, and encourage others to participate as well.  Info can be found at https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/socially-distant-bioblitz-5-24-2020.   Everyone is encouraged to also check out the Socially Distant BioBlitz series, an umbrella project that keeps track of cumulative totals and compares individual bioblitzes at    https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/socially-distant-bioblitz-series.

Per current VMN policy guidelines, participation in these bioblitzs can not be counted as service hours because they are not considered to be sufficiently focused on work with local partners or state sponsored agencies supporting beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within our own community.

Penguins and Seals and Whales, Oh My!

Shawn Dilles

A short time ago, in a world that seems far, far, away, my wife and I decided to visit the end of the Earth. We spent January on a large, now infamous cruise ship traveling from Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina by way of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, the Antarctic Peninsula, and the Falkland Islands. The natural beauty of the near-pristine landscape was monumental, made even more special by the volcanoes, glaciers, icebergs, and the most clear dark skies I have ever seen. The most wonderful part of the trip was getting (somewhat) up close and personal with the delightful wildlife of the region.

Magellanic penguins in Chile. Photo: Shawn Dilles

Penguins are, simply stated, a joy to watch. Maybe their shape makes them easy to anthropomorphize, and once you start thinking that they are small versions of people, their behavior is often hilarious. These highly evolved birds come in a variety of sizes and colors, with many of the species living side by side. They are amazing swimmers and seem to fly through the water, occasionally leaping through the air for a quick breath. The Straits of Magellan and the Darwin Channel in Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, house large colonies of Magellanic and Gentoo penguins. In the Antarctic Peninsula there are even more colonies of Gentoo, Adélie, and Chinstrap penguins. Emperor’s – the largest penguin species – also live in Antarctica, but none were sighted on this trip. In the Falkland Islands we saw Rockhopper, Magellanic, Gentoo, and a King Penguin.

Although penguins are relatively easy – even for me – to identify, I cannot say the same for other birds. The variety of novel species was obvious, and for the average birder visiting the region would undoubtedly be a very memorable experience. We saw hawks, shags, and geese (along with many other species) in Patagonia and the Falkland Islands, and two types of Albatross and countless petrels and other types of seabirds in the Drake Passage en route to Antarctica.  

South American Sea Lions are common on uninhabited small islands in the Beagle Channel – named after the H.M.S. Beagle, the hydrographic ship that carried Charles Darwin to explored the region in 1833. Both Chile and Argentina have set aside large areas of the tip of South America as national parks and reserves. 

What seals do on an ice raft. Photo: Shawn Dilles

Weddell and Crabeater seals live all along the shore and waters of the Antarctic Peninsula and on the icebergs and ice rafts there. The seals feed on krill, crabs and fish. One way to tell what the seals are eating is to look at the color of their ice rafts. If krill is a large part of the diet then the digested remains of the meal will tint the ice a pink or red color. 

Humpback whale. Photo: Shawn Dilles

Sighting a whale for the first time is a thing of wonder. We logged hundreds of sightings of humpback whales, a handful of killer whales and also dolphins in eight days of cruising around the Antarctic Peninsula. The humpback whales travelled in family units of two to six. A common sight was a mother and calf lazily travelling along the surface and occasionally diving to feed. A common way of feeding for humpbacks is for a small group to spiral through the water releasing bubbles that isolate then concentrate their prey. This so-called bubble feeding creates a net of bubbles that allows the whales to eat more efficiently. It is fascinating to think that one whale may have developed this strategy and passed it along so that humpbacks (and some other marine mammals) now do this around the world.

Two months after our cruise, the ship became internationally notorious for a corona virus outbreak. Eventually, the ship was allowed to dock, and the passengers disembarked. While I may not be ready to take another cruise now, there are many destinations, such as the south Pacific and Arctic, where ships provide the most practical – or only – access. I definitely will not rule out one in the future. 

Not ready to hop on a cruise ship any time soon? You can still see Antarctic penguins up close while contributing to citizen science as part of the Zooniverse Penguin Watch project at: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/penguintom79/penguin-watch

Zooniverse has dozens of other nature-related citizen science projects, and I encourage you to check some out.   

Seals in Tierra del Fuego. Photo: Shawn Dilles

Nightjar Surveys

By Laura Duval, Research Biologist & Program Coordinator, The Nightjar Survey Network ​

The U.S. Nightjar Survey Network (NSN) is a citizen science-driven research group that has worked to collect long-term occupancy data for this unusual group of birds over the past 12 years.

North American nightjars, or goatsuckers, include nine nocturnal (most active at night) and crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) species. Nightjars arrive in North America during late March after migrating from their wintering grounds, which can be as distant as South America. They typically breed and forage in deciduous and pine forests near shrubby or agriculture fields and bodies of water.  Depending on the species, nightjars typically lay 1-3 eggs in leaf litter found on the forest floor or in open pebbled and sandy tracts. The downy-feathered, semi-precocial nestlings (see photo) are mostly dependent on the adults for food, but are mobile near the nest within days of hatching. Nightjar young become independent after their parents feed them for up to a month in their natal territory. Nightjars begin their movements back to their wintering grounds as early as July, though some populations remain in southern states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona throughout the winter. 

Nightjars are included in a group of birds labeled “aerial insectivores” due to their foraging habits. Recent research has indicated that aerial insectivores are in the most drastic decline of all bird taxa. Factors affecting these birds include habitat degradation, human disturbance, agriculture practices (i.e., exposure to pesticides), and climate change. We know little about the specifics of their ecology because their nocturnal tendencies have made them challenging to study and simply hard to detect by millions of citizen scientists that submit observations in volunteer data portals such as eBird. Long-running programs such as the Breeding Bird Survey adhere to a diurnal survey period reducing the overall number of nightjars detected for that program. 

The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia established the network in 2007 in an attempt to fill gaps in knowledge for these species. Since its initiation over 3,000 surveys have been conducted nationwide. The project is designed to be effective over many years of surveying and over broad landscapes. With the support of the Virginia Master Naturalists we are hopeful that we can tap into a core group of local participants that would be willing to donate a few hours of their time once a year to this cause. A passion for scientific contribution, a willingness to work on a gorgeous moonlit night, and a vehicle is all it takes to become a surveyor. The structure of the survey network also encourages participants to conduct routes (even those without birds) for several years to lend insight into trends over time. 

2020 Survey Dates
Window 1: FL, TX, and low elevation AZ and NM: 1 April to 14 April
Window 2: Any location in the country: 30 April to 14 May
Window 3: Areas north of AZ, FL, NM, and TX, and for high elevation areas in the Northern U.S.: 29 May to 13 June
Window 4: North and western states (WA, OR, ID, MT, WY, Dakotas, MN): 27 July to 11 August

The 2020 season has already began, however, for Virginians there is still time to sign up and conduct surveys by visiting http://www.nightjars.org/. Survey windows 2 and 3 (see figure below) are the best times to detect nightjars in our state. Environmental parameters such as moon phase and face illumination, cloud cover, precipitation and wind affect the activity and subsequent detection of nightjars. Therefore, please adhere to the survey window dates and try to pick an evening where you have favorable weather. 

Instructions for how to create an account, select or create a route, conduct a survey and enter data can be found here: http://www.nightjars.org/participate/survey-instructions/. This year we developed instructional videos for accomplishing these tasks as well that can be viewed at http://www.nightjars.org/learn/

We have created a draft project proposal form for this project that you can use to get the project approved in your VMN chapter.

Feel free to contact us anytime with questions you may have at nightjars@nightjars.org

Sustainable Garden Tour Coming in June

The 2020 Sustainable Garden Tour will be held VIRTUALLY this year throughout the month of June.

For this year’s Sustainable Garden Tour, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (NVSWCD) is partnering with the Fairfax Food Council Urban Agriculture Workgroup to highlight front-yard gardens and edible landscapes. You’ll also see garden tour favorites like rain gardens, native plant landscaping, rain barrels, backyard wildlife habitat, composting and more. Local residents open their gardens and share their experiences landscaping with natural resources in mind. Hidden treasures and verdant landscapes await you!

Virtual experiences from each of this year’s incredible garden tour sites will be added throughout the month of June. Check the website for more information and a tentative schedule, or follow NVSWCD on Facebook to see garden tour materials as they are released.

View Resources for Sustainable Gardeners.

For more information or to nominate a future site, please email NVSWCD or call 703-324-1423, TTY 711.