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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.

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

Pinatas That Educate? Sweet!

By Mike Walker with Jerry Nissley

Mike Walker (Certified Master Naturalist) recently submitted the following creative success story detailing one constructive way to present conservation concepts AND have a great, fun time with your kids.

Mike related that he often looks for ways to drive home environmental messages to diverse groups of adults and children. Last December, with his son as his sage adviser, he created a pinata in the form of a dam for the annual Holiday Party at the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church.

Why a dam you might ask? Well, let’s take a short ride in the way-back machine: When his family joined the church 35 years ago, the annual Holiday Party featured a Santa Claus pinata. It occurred to Mike and his wife, Laura, that beating a beloved seasonal figure-head with a baseball bat seemed a bit odd – and face it, disrespectful to Santas everywhere – so Laura entered into negotiations with party organizers. Negotiations immediately determined that a traditional donkey pinata was out as well, since it might potentially offend members of both the Democratic party and PETA. Negotiations stalled, so the next year, candy was offered in a politically correct, plain, ecologically responsible, recyclable brown paper bag. WHOO HOO!

Well okay, that turned out to be rather boring and uninspired, so Laura decided to kick negotiations up a notch. The following year, she volunteered to make the pinata and constructed a modestly sized replica of the Berlin Wall, which was in the process of being torn down; the kids were invited to, “strike a blow for freedom (actually took 23).”

Since that time, the Walkers have made over 30, “socially responsible” pinatas – from Scud Missiles and rocket launches, to assault rifles, hand guns, a Litter Bug, a Gas Guzzler, a Gulf Oil Spill, a Box of Cigarettes, and a Box of Plastic Straws. Over time, the kids have not only struck blows for freedom but health, ecology, economy, and safety as well. As the topical causes expanded, so did the size of the pinatas. They currently measure in as large as 8 feet in length and 4 feet tall; and must be strong enough to withstand 50 bat-wielding kids for a few rounds who know that only paper and wood stand between them and handfuls of candy.

Replica Dam Pinata - Mike Walter
Dam Pinata – photo Mike Walker

The most recent pinata was a huge “hit” literally and figuratively since it modeled the dam in the popular children’s movie “Frozen II”, which (spoiler alert) is destroyed near the end of the movie. Party favors included clever educational fliers with coloring pages and illustrations of dam fish-passes.

It was a fun and thought provoking opportunity for kids and adults to learn about the spawning cycle of diadromous fish and eels. The event also raised awareness of the potential hazards caused by river barriers such that some kids still talk about the plight of fish that, “can’t get home.”

Think Beyond What We See

Jerry Nissley

I recently viewed a beautifully composed, thought-provoking New York Times video, entitled, “The Church Forests of Ethiopia”, by Jeremy Seifert.

Even though the video is about Ethiopia, the concepts presented in it are easily extrapolated and applied to the need for maintaining the biodiversity of our local forests. It illustrates how abiotic factors interconnect with biotic factors and emphasizes the particular significance of trees in that ecosystem. The highlands of Ethiopia, where the story takes place, were once part of a continuously forested landscape. Over time, the vast majority of that ecosystem has been replaced by agricultural land void of trees, save the “Church Forests” that have been preserved by patrons of the church. The surrounding void has drastically changed the landscape.

I am preaching to the choir here when I say the mission of VMN is, in part, to help care for forests, and the video elegantly presents why we should. Preservation is mutually beneficial – we are inside the forest and the forest is inside us. Emergent properties and behaviors form that could not otherwise exist without interaction between all components (human, animal, plant, and even geology). Forests do not necessarily last forever and we must have a conservation plan. If we lose them – that’s it.

As VMNs, we are confronted with much the same communication problem as are the churches of Ethiopia, but to a lesser degree given that the two countries have different needs and demographics. That notwithstanding, both need to communicate with our communities to create an awareness about how vitally important our forests are and the benefits of preserving them sometimes in lieu of housing developments, industrial parks, and agriculture.

In a sense, we may think of our county, state, and national parks as our current Church Forests. Consider Huntley Meadows – it literally has a wall (fence) around it to protect the forest and wetland. We should do all we can to care for our parks and while we are at it, spread the word and always be in search of new church forests to plant.

Conservation Poster Contest for K-12 Students–Entries due May 15

Calling all student artists! The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District is seeking students to design posters to submit to the 2020 Youth Poster Contest. The theme for this year is Where would we BEE without Pollinators? 

ABOUT THE POSTER CONTEST

The Youth Poster Contest is a national competition sponsored by the National Association of Conservation Districts, and offered locally at the district level. District winners advance to the state level. Only Local Soil & Water Conservation Districts can forward their local winning poster entries to the VASWCD office for consideration at the state level. Virginia state winners will advance to the National Contest. National winners are recognized each year at the NACD Annual Meeting. The contest is open to the public, private or home school students, girl scout/boy scout troops, etc. 

Any Girl Scout  or Boy Scout who creates a poster and submits it to their local SWCD for judging can earn the VASWCD Poster Contest Patch.  When submitting a poster to earn the Poster Contest Patch, be sure to check the box on the entry form.  Please note that poster patches are distributed in December each year.

ABOUT POLLINATORS

Resources for Where would we BEE without Pollinators? are offered by the National Association of Conservation Districts and include booklets, activity sheets, storybooks, K-12 lessons and activities, coloring pages, and additional teaching materials. You can access these materials here.

Pollinators form the foundations of a healthy and sustainable future for food and the environment, but in recent years, they have shown concerning signs of decline. It’s important that we work to help them prosper by enhancing native pollinator habitats and protecting against pollinator declines. The Pollinator Partnership is one of many great resources when learning about pollinators. 

HOW TO ENTER

Entries from Fairfax County must be submitted to the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District by Friday, May 15, 2020.

The local NVSWCD competition follows the NACD national guidelines

Posters should be submitted digitally as a .jpeg, .png, or similar file format. Posters and images may be of any size. When photographing or scanning your poster for submission, be sure that the entire poster is clear and visible, the image is appropriately cropped, and the photo accurately reflects the original poster. 

Submit entries to Ashley Palmer, Conservation Education Specialist. An entry form should accompany your entry; download the entry form here

Local winners receive recognition and a prize from NVSWCD. 

A Special Evening Program with Dr. Drew Lanham, Feb 27

Explore the convergence of conservation and culture with Dr. J. Drew Lanham at a special evening program and book signing on February 27th at the Chapel on the campus of Sweet Briar College.

In this intimate evening, Dr. Lanham will reflect on his lifelong love of birds and wildlife and the part they play as connectors across time, place and cultures throughout our history. Dr. Lanham persuasively argues that conservation of wildlife can only be successful if it generates a deep appreciation for the cultural ties that link people of all backgrounds to the natural world and its power to unite.

Dr. Lanham is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, which received the Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Southern Book Prize and was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal.

Tickets are available to the General Public for $25.00 and for area students at a discounted rate of $10.00. Buy them online at https://vaee.wildapricot.org/event-3623910

Participation in the VAEE conference is not required to attend this talk. However, the talk is included in Full Conference or Day 2 Registration for the 2020 VAEE Conference.

Download this flyer about the event to share with your friends.

Conduct a food waste audit for the benefit of your budget and the planet

According to End+Stems’ Alison Mountford, it’s hard to measure household food waste at the scale of the individual home. She reports that 40% of all food produced is wasted and that 67% of the we waste at home is edible. In other words, the average family of 4 is throwing out upwards of $2100 worth of food annually. However, few people can say how much they themselves are wasting, why they wasted it, or which foods are most commonly going to waste.

Because it’s easy to overlook what goes in the trash, she recommends a food audit similar to a food journal. For 1 week, you and your family/housemates keep track of all edible items that throw out. Afterwards, you have a starting point to make simple changes to your household norms and routine.

Here’s the plan and the advice in full, including a free worksheet and access to a Canva template so that you can see what you’re finding.

Ends+Stems is laying the groundwork to conduct the first study to measure how much less food you waste when you plan meals and shop from a tailored grocery list.  

Consider writing to Ends+Stems at hello@endsandstems.com with the subject line “Food Waste Audit” to be part of an inaugural study to truly change how we act for the planet.

The Incredible Journey Game: Understanding the Water Cycle One Drop at a Time

Kristina Watts

There’s nothing on this earth more essential to life than water. Seventy-one % of the globe is covered in water, so it seems like we have an endless supply. However, about 97% of our water is in the salty oceans, and about 2% is currently stored in ice caps and glaciers. That leaves 1% of our water available as the freshwater all of us land-dwelling animals and plants require. Water scarcity is a real problem in many parts of the world, and as our global climate changes, conflicts are likely. Current U.S. leaders don’t seem to take the need for water conservation seriously. Is a lack of understanding of the water cycle at least partially to blame for this? 

Enter environmental education for our future generations. The water cycle is one of my favorite topics to teach to children, but the typical cyclical diagram may be misleading in its over simplification. Plus, children tend to learn best by doing. That’s why I really like the Incredible Journey water cycle game by Project WET (Water Education for Teachers). It teaches the participants that there isn’t just one path that a water molecule might take, and there are certain places where water is more likely to stay for a long time than others. If you’re looking for fun environmental lesson activities to do with a group of children, this game is for you.

The premise of the activity is simple: you are a water droplet, about to travel on your journey around the Earth. The activity area (I like to use a large lawn space or big empty room) is set up with stations: ocean, lake, river, clouds, glacier, plants, animals, soil, and ground water. Each station has a cube (a die), marked with various stations. Each participant starts in one location, then rolls the die to determine where on their journey they’ll go next. The dice are not entirely random – they are weighted to approximate the likelihood of reaching anther spot (for example, the oceans cube is likely to keep you “trapped” in the ocean for a while rather than sending you on to the clouds.)

The method of tracking where each water droplet goes can be adjusted for the age of your group. Older students can track their journey on a worksheet, and then after a certain number of turns, the students can graph and statistically analyze the group’s results. But for younger kids – which is the audience I usually work with – the activity turns into a fun game when each child is given a piece of string to start with and collects a bead at each station (each station has a designated color bead). The children create a colorful necklace tracking their journey. At the end, no two participants’ necklaces are the same, but when we look at all the necklaces together, we can see that certain colors are more prevalent – telling us, for example, that a water droplet spends more time swimming around in the ocean or frozen in a glacier than in a stream or inside of an animal.  You can focus your introductory and concluding discussions however you like – the energy that powers each transition, the effect of the water in each location, potential pollution sources at each stage, etc.

I’ve led this game with Girl Scout troops, for a church Earth Day celebration, and at nature center summer camps, and each time I’m actually surprised at how much fun the kids have, running from station to station and growing their collection of necklace beads. (Make sure you have enough beads!  I’ve had to end the game not because the kids are ready to stop but because the supply runs out.)  It’s education in motion.

This activity is available for purchase at https://www.projectwet.org/resources/materials/discover-incredible-journey-water-through-water-cycle (assembly required). Or you can borrow it from the Fairfax County Soil and Water Conservation District; see https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/soil-water-conservation/enviroscape-watershed-model-classroom-presentation-lesson-kits for details.

Have fun!

Author Lecture: Dr. Doug Tallamy, Feb. 23rd

Manassas Park Community Center
99 Adams Drive, Manassas Park, VA
Sunday, 23 February 2020
3 – 5pm

Renowned entomologist and ecologist Doug Tallamy will present Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society February’s Author Lecture. Dr. Tallamy will have his new book available for signing, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. (Timber Press, available February 4, 2020).

Doug Tallamy is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, where he has authored 95 research publications and has taught insect related courses for 39 years. Chief among his research goals is to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities. His book Bringing Nature Home was awarded the 2008 Silver Medal by the Garden Writers’ Association. The Living Landscape, co-authored with Rick Darke, was published in 2014.  Among his awards are the Garden Club of America Margaret Douglas Medal for Conservation and the Tom Dodd, Jr. Award of Excellence, and the 2018 AHS B.Y. Morrison Communication Award.

Registration is requested and carpools are recommended.
For more information, contact the Extension Master Gardener Horticulture Help Line at 703.792.7747 or email master_gardener@pwcgov.org or Nancy Vehrs at nvehrs1@yahoo.com.

Help Virginia Working Landscapes help grassland birds

Photo by Ana Ka’ahanui

Virginia Working Landscapes is aware of the concern surrounding recent research highlighting the troubling decline of North America’s birds. Among those, grassland birds have been hit hardest.  

Working alongside a dedicated network of landowners, citizen scientists and partners, VWL has been at the forefront of identifying ways that private lands can help support this region’s grassland birds.  

For example, recent research provides insights into altering grassland management practices to promote habitat for overwintering birds. With these studies, VWL can create recommendations to help landowners make decisions about how they manage their properties, like these guidelines released in Spring 2019. And just this year, they’ve embarked on a groundbreaking project to track the local movements of eastern meadowlarks, one of our most iconic grassland species.   

They receive no federal support for their programs, and all activities are funded by donors.
 
This year, VWL will continue unraveling mysteries of eastern meadowlark movements; identifying best practices for establishing and managing resilient grasslands; developing science-based action items for protecting grassland birds and other wildlife; and training the next generation of conservationists.

Consider volunteering. VWL partners with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and FMN volunteers receive service projects credit under S182. Look for more stories on how to volunteer in December.