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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.”

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

Keep learning with Smithsonian Museum of Natural History webcasts

Smithsonian Science How

Bring a Smithsonian Scientist into your classroom with Smithsonian Science How! Check out the Science How schedule below to get started, or preview our formats by watching a program from our video webcast archives.

Video Webcasts

These free, interactive, live video webcasts take questions from your students while introducing them to science concepts and practices through the lens of Smithsonian research and experts. The shows provide opportunities for your students to interact via live polls and Q&A with the scientist.

  • Grades 3-8; optimized for students in grades 3-5
  • Developed in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s children’s theater, Discovery Theater
  • Scientists take your questions
  • Complementary teaching resources
  • 30 minutes long
  • Aligned with national science standards

Schedule

Here is the webcast schedule for the 2019-2020 school year. Want to suggest a topic for a future show? E-mail us at ScienceHow@si.edu.

Upcoming Shows

We’re moving our popular webcast series to video webinars to connect your learners to natural history science and careers more often. Webinars will be presented on Zoom video. All times are Eastern Time.

Completed Shows

Video Archives

We’ve produced 52 Smithsonian Science How webcasts over the last six years. They feature Smithsonian experts and cover specific topics in the disciplines of Earth Science, Life Science, Paleontology, and Social Studies.

Browse the video archives.

Ask Science How

Teachers and students: Do you have a question for our science experts? Send us your questions, either before or after a webcast. We’ll send you the answer. Ask Science How

Christmas Bird Count Workshop

Photo (c) by Barbara J. Saffir

National Wildlife Federation, Wildlife Center Drive 11100, Reston, Virginia
November 24, 2019
1:00 pm – 03:00 pm

Location:

Join Phil Silas, the Manassas-Bull Run Christmas Bird Count compiler, at the National Wildlife Federation to learn about this long-running citizen science bird survey. Phil will cover its purpose and scope, explain how we organize our CBC, and show where the data goes and how it is used. The workshop offers tips on preparing for a winter bird count and will review how to identify many of the birds seen in our area in winter. Workshop is free, but registration is required. 

Birding the Blue Ridge, Nov 23

November 23, 2019

8:00 am – 11:00 am

Location: Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, Harpers Ferry Road 11661, Purcellville, Virginia

Join Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy at the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship (BRCES) for a walk through parts of this beautiful 900-acre preserve and see what lives in this diverse habitat.  As the leaves fall, it gets easier to see birds on trees. This outing takes place every fourth Saturday of the month except in December. Meet at the Education Center; bring binoculars if you have them. Click here for more information.

BRCES is located just north of Neersville at 11661 Harpers Ferry Road (Route 671); detailed directions at www.blueridgecenter.org.

Christmas Bird Count at Clifton Institute, Dec 15

The Clifton Institute
6712 Blantyre Road
Warrenton, VA, 20187
Sunday, December 15, meet at 8:00 AM

Join The Clifton Institute for their annual Christmas Bird Count! Spend the day surveying the birds in a 15-mile-diameter count circle. This is a great way to meet other birders in the area and to see what birds have migrated here for the winter. The count circle includes a nice variety of habitats and we see a diversity of waterfowl and grassland birds. There’s always a chance for Short-eared Owl and American Tree Sparrow! 

Please contact Alison at azak@cliftoninstitute.org if you are interested in participating. She will assign you to a team and each team will decide when and where to meet for the day. We’ll wrap up the count with a compilation potluck dinner at 5:30 at our headquarters. We hope to see you there!

All skill levels welcome. Dress in layers for chilly, wet weather. Rain or shine! 

Photo by Cameron Darnell.

Citizen science in chest waders

Photo: Barbara J. Saffir

David Gorsline

David Gorsline monitoring nest boxes in Huntley Meadows. Photo by Barbara J. Saffir

For the past 25+ years, I have participated in a program of monitoring nest boxes for Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers in Huntley Meadows Park.

Our team monitors 16 boxes in the park’s wetlands. We are the people with the big boots and sticks, because almost all of the boxes are mounted on poles in one to three feet of water.

These two species of duck begin laying eggs in very late February, and the last of the eggs hatch by about Memorial Day, sometimes a little later. Both of these birds bear what are called precocial young; that is, the ducklings come out of their eggs already covered in down, ready to be on their own, and they leave the nest box with their mother after only a day or two. Thus, it’s not often that we see chicks in the nest, unlike our counterparts on the Eastern Bluebird team. But, come April, if you keep a close eye on the vegetation at the edge of the marsh, you might spot a line of little ducks swimming behind a female.

FMN Kat Dyer inspecting box #68, Huntley Meadows Park, June 2017. Photo: David Gorsline

There’s about six of us on the team, including FMN Kat Dyer. At the start of the breeding season, we clean the boxes and lay down a fresh layer of wood chips. We handle simple repairs in the field; we notify park staff if a box needs to be completely replaced. During the season, we check boxes once a week, count any eggs we find, and record hatching events. Our collected information goes on file at the park, as well as to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s NestWatch project.

Since the 1991 breeding season, the number of boxes that we have deployed and monitored has varied between 14 and 21. Not all the boxes are used in a given season, but typically about three-fourths of them are used. Hooded Mergansers, expanding their breeding range, began nesting in our boxes in 2001.

Between the Mergansers and the Wood Ducks, the number of ducklings leaving our boxes has fluctuated year to year. Our lowest year was 2015, with only 26 fledged; our big year was 2013, with 140 fledged. The annual average for the past 28 years (I’m still compiling results for 2019) was 87 ducklings.

Clutch of Wood Duck eggs. Photo: David Gorsline

Who enjoys this birdy bounty? Everyone who visits the park. Especially the nature photographers take particular pleasure when they can document a fledging. When the monitoring team is out on the marsh, we often field questions from park visitors who wonder what we’re up to, and how the ducks are doing.

This project falls under C106: FCPA Citizen Science Programs. We’re always looking for new volunteers. I like us to work in pairs, just in case someone takes a tumble or gets stuck in the mud. What can I say? Nature happens.

For me, perhaps the greatest pleasure comes at the beginning of the season. It’s cold, there may be snow on the ground and the wetland iced over. Yet, I know that I will be giving these birds a boost in their struggle to thrive.

Fairfax Master Naturalist earns Reston’s 2019 55+ Volunteer of the Year Award

Don Coram

On April 18, I received the Reston Association 2019 55+ Volunteer of the Year Award. This surprised me since, although I am a certified Virginia Master Naturalist in the Fairfax Chapter, and my volunteer work was related to insects, my career was in mathematics. So how did I end up getting an award for service related to insects? Here is the story.

The Volunteer Reston Service Awards aim to recognize all of Reston’s volunteers and to distinguish a few volunteers who have gone above and beyond to support Reston Association (RA) and the Reston community. As a volunteer, I have been working to fill voids in Reston’s nature program, specifically related to insects and other arthropods. Insects may seem to be insignificant, but there are increasing alarms in the scientific community about the decline of insect populations and the negative effects to life on earth, including humans. 

One of the global issues is whether seasonal activity of plants, insects and birds are all responding synchronously to climate change. This issue is being addressed by CaterpillarsCount!, a National Science Foundation-funded study with lead universities of University of North Carolina, Georgetown University, and University of Connecticut. Reston’s Walker Nature Center (WNC) is one of the 73 sites in the Eastern United States. Georgetown University approached the WNC seeking volunteers to collect data. WNC in turn contacted the FMN members in Reston to ask for volunteers. I volunteered and became the lead citizen scientist data collector for WNC site. The project required weekly surveys of caterpillars and other arthropods, in accordance with a strict scientific protocol, throughout the season. A colleague from Georgetown and I briefed the results in an FMN-recognized program at the WNC on April 23.  

Another challenge that I accepted was publicizing the bee kill in Reston. I also informed the Reston Association Board of Directors, briefed the Fairfax County Environmental Quality Advisory Committee, notified the Environmental Protection Agency, and contacted the Xerces Society, the national society for invertebrate conservation.  

I have participated in Reston’s Dragonfly Counts for many years and was recently promoted to instructor for the preparatory class and leader for the counting teams. (The class and the counting are FMN continuing education and service activities, E252 and C171, respectively.)  The original instructor on dragonflies in Reston moved away several years ago, so I volunteered to take over this project. Similarly, I led both teams surveying dragonflies in the 2018 Reston BioBlitz, when the leader of one of the teams was unable to participate.  

I have also volunteered in Reston surveys of butterflies and birds (FMN continuing education and service projects, E250,  C171, and C248). In fact, my volunteering began years ago with birds, continued to butterflies, and now includes dragonflies and caterpillars.  

I used the data gathered on butterflies, dragonflies, native bees, and caterpillars to author the invertebrates section of the Reston Annual State of the Environment Report (RASER), yet another FMN service project: C245. In the first edition of RASER, I contributed to several other sections, but observed that these sections were well-covered by the RASER working group, except for invertebrates. Thus for the second edition, I focused on invertebrates as the sole author.  

For each of the above projects, I volunteered time and expertise to photograph the subjects. For example, all of the photographs I used in the identification section of the Reston Dragonfly Class were taken in Reston. I believe that amateur photographs taken locally are easier for students to relate to than professional photographs in field guides covering a wide, unfamiliar area. I also submitted many of these photographs to iNaturalist and BugGuide.  

The activities discussed above illustrate success in meeting the FMN goal “to provide education, outreach and service for the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas in the Fairfax County area”. I first learned about FMN at the Spring Festival at the WNC in Reston.    

So the answer to the question of how a mathematician became a volunteer entomology awardee is the Fairfax Master Naturalist program.  

I welcome your participation in any of the projects I support.

Audubon Afternoon: Raptors of Virginia, Maryland, and DC, June 9

Sunday, June 9, 2019
2:30-5:00 PM
National Wildlife Center, 11100 Wildlife Center Drive Reston, VA, 20190

Please join the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia for an exciting Audubon Afternoon.

As Secret Garden Birds and Bees presents “Raptors of Virginia, Maryland and DC,” they will have with them five live raptors for us to see and photograph, including a Red-tailed Hawk and a Red-shouldered Hawk.

The audience will gather for refreshments at 2:30 p.m., have a brief Annual Meeting to elect officers and directors at 3:00, and begin the main program at about 3:15.

This is an event the whole family will enjoy!  As always, they welcome any food and drink that you would like to share with everyone.

If we work together, we can be a true force for nature

Cathy Ledec

If variety really is the spice of life, my work with Fairfax Master Naturalists is a tasty dish indeed. I engage with many projects throughout the year: as the president of the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park, the chair of the Fairfax County Tree Commission, as an Invasive Management Area site leader and Resource Management Volunteer for the Fairfax County Park Authority, Audubon-at-Home Ambassador, and as President of the Pavilions at Huntington Metro Community Association.

Mt. Vernon Government Center before our project

One of the most rewarding projects has been establishing a Natural Landscaping Demonstration project at the Mount Vernon Governmental Center, in Alexandria, Virginia. I attend meetings at this Fairfax County building frequently, and observed that the landscaping around the building had no variety, included mostly turf grass, and lacked blooming plants. The center needed some TLC! When I mentioned my observations and thoughts to Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck, he was enthusiastic. So I marshaled resources and my network and went to work.

Next steps towards implementation included preparing a planting plan, with drawings of the landscaping beds; and researching and preparing plant lists. I consulted with fellow Fairfax Master Naturalist (FMN) Betsy Martin, who is also an Audubon-at-Home Ambassador and very knowledgeable about native plants. Betsy provided great guidance on low-impact ways to establish the mulched planting beds. These methods included covering the large areas of turf grass with cardboard or newspaper and covering with 3-4 inches of mulch. 

Betsy Martin and George Ledec deep in the mulch

We established the first planting bed in November 2017, with one of Betsy’s friends donating of a huge load of mulch. Consulting with technical experts from the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District and Earth Sangha was especially important to the research and writing that resulted in our receiving two grants from these organizations for this project. (The grant writing process was fast, only taking a few months).  

Someone said to me once, “If you don’t plan, plan to fail.” So plan I did! The first planting event was in early April 2018. At the same time that I was planning for the planting, I started pursuing the needed permissions from the Fairfax County Facilities Management Division (FMD). This process was more challenging than I expected, but I kept the end goal in mind and eventually signed off on the needed Memorandum of Understanding with FMD. I knew that once this was signed, it would pave the way for future projects of this type for my fellow FMNers.

The goals of this project were to restore and improve environmental conditions. Converting turf grass areas to mulched planting beds would result in:

  1. Improved stormwater management
  2. Reduced urban heat island effect
  3. Restoration of wildlife habitat
  4. Improved visual appearance of the building
  5. Trees planted to shade the building, reduce summer cooling costs, provide natural privacy screen for staff working inside, and improve the view to the outside for staff working inside

Anticipating questions from the visiting public, I also prepared outreach materials on the project that could be shared with interested visitors.   

Concurrently, I was also contacted during the planning phase by a scout leader looking for an outdoor project for his scouts—what great luck!—and an excellent project for this scout troop and their families. This serendipity brought in more than 90 volunteers to establish the planting beds and the spring planting. The scouts dug holes, planted trees, moved mulch, and completed their work in one weekend. Volunteers rock! Thanks to FMNer Patti Swain for her help guiding the scouts.  

FMNers Maryann Fox and Chris Straub

We did a second planting in the fall of 2018, with thanks to FMNers Christine Straub and Maryann Fox, who helped with weeding and the fall planting. Special thanks to Supervisor Storck and his wife Deb for their help with the planting. Supervisor Storck’s support for this project was key to our success. 

We planted over a dozen tree seedlings and more than 100 native plants. There will be continuing need for maintenance, so you’ve not heard the last on this project. You, too, can join with us on our next maintenance day (I’ll send out a note and put it on the calendar), and record service hours to Stewardship project S256.

Blooming New England Aster with bumble bee in Summer 2018

This past April, I was honored for my work improving our environment with the 2018 Fairfax County Citizen of the Year award, both a humbling and thrilling recognition.

It remains very rewarding to watch the landscape our little team built fill in, bloom, and attract the birds and the bees. Every time I go by, there is a new flower blooming, with bees in attendance.