Meet the Litter Critters

Cliff Fairweather
Park Naturalist, Long Branch Nature Center

It happens every autumn, the leaves turn color and then drop to the ground. So why don’t the leaves pile up to the branches, along with all the twigs, branch, and logs that fall throughout the year? A vast army of organisms recycles all that organic material back into the soil, releasing nutrients that support new plant growth. This critical task goes on virtually unseen by the most humans.

Fungi and bacteria do the heavy lifting in this world, decomposing of 80 – 90% of forest detritus. But other than mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of fungi, they are mostly visible only under high magnification. More visible, if you know how to see them, are a wide variety of animals that also play an important role in breaking down all that stuff that falls from the trees. Though some of them are microscopic or nearly so, others are visible with the naked eye or with a magnifier.

Collectively, these animals are often called litter critters, since they dwell in the leaf litter covering the forest floor. Perhaps the best know litter critters are earthworms, which emerge from their burrows at night to feed on dead leaves. Another familiar litter critter is the roly-poly or pill bug. Roly-polies are crustacean rather than an insects and breathe through gills. To keep their gills moist, roly-polies usually stay in the moist microclimate under leaves, logs, or other cover.

A pseudoscorpion uncovered during a ARMN litter critter ID  class, October 5, 2014 (Photo by Cliff Fairweather)

Ready for its closeup: A pseudoscorpion uncovered during an ARMN litter critter ID class, October 5, 2014. (Photo by Cliff Fairweather)

Other readily visible litter critters include slugs, snails, millipedes, adult beetles, beetle grubs, and fly larvae. Much smaller, and usually found under logs, termites play a huge role in decomposing fallen branches and logs. This is because they are among the few animals capable of digesting cellulose, the major component of wood. Smaller still are various springtails (of the order Collembola) and mites. These are best appreciated through a hand lens, although you might spot a bright red velvet mite walking across the dead leaves.

Not all litter critters eat leaf litter. Spiders, centipedes, ground beetles and other tiny predators search the forest floor for other litter critters. And the danger isn’t limited to predatory invertebrates. Salamanders, relative giants in this world, feed on predators and detritivores alike. It’s a real jungle down there!

You can get a glimpse of this world by sifting a few handfuls of leaf litter through some hardware cloth onto a white sheet. Watch for tiny creatures moving a few moments after you stop sifting. A small jar or bug box will help you detain some of these critters for a closer look. But be sure to them back in the leaf litter to continue their important work. They might be tiny, but they are essential to the health of the forest.

Five Favorite Woody and Perennial Native Plants

Just in time for the fall native plant sales (See sidebar), ARMN volunteer Kasha Helget shares some of her favorites for landscaping.

by Kasha Helget

I grow a number of native plants in my yard, but there are some real standouts that deserve special recognition. Here are five each of shrubs and perennials and the features that make them real stars.

First, the shrubs:

by Kasha Helget

Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet) is a good foundation plant to place near an entrance because of its fragrant blooms. It can grow tall or be pruned to be shorter (after the bloom period). It has nice structure even without leaves in the winter. It can handle average moisture conditions and does well in part sun.

Wildlife: Butterfly nectar

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Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf Hydrangea) has wonderful year-around interest. First are the big white blooms in spring that smell terrific, and that later become pinkish, and then tan. Even when foliage drops in fall, the dormant flowers look good. It’s a good screening plant even with no leaves. It prefers part shade and average moisture.

Wildlife: Bird habitat

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Hypericum frondosum ‘Sunburst’ (St. John’s Wort) is another year-around favorite. It is fast growing, which makes it a good border plant. Its beautiful yellow blooms in spring are a magnet for a variety of bees. It’s a behaved self-seeder, and benefits from pruning after flowering. It can handle average moisture and full to part sun.

Wildlife: Bee nectar

Itea virginica 8-13-14

Itea virginica (Virginia Sweetspire) is a very versatile woody. It can take sun or part shade, and can handle moist or fairy dry conditions. It’s a moderate spreader (suckers) that are easily controlled or can be rooted as new plantings. It’s a great foundation or screening shrub.

Wildlife: Birds; larger mammals.

Symphoricarpos orbiculatus 8-13-14  

Symphoricarpos orbiculatus (Coralberry) is even more versatile than the Itea virginica. It has beautiful foliage all year; great “coral” colored fruit in the winter, likes both shade and sun, can handle dry conditions, its runners are easily transplanted, and it can hold soil on a hill. It doesn’t grow very tall, which makes it a good foundation plant for low windows. While it can get powdery mildew, it can be prevented easily with a baking soda/dish soap/water spray.

Wildlife: Birds (berries); butterflies, moths, and bees (flowers). The dense thickets can provide nest sites.

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Going Batty at Gulf Branch

 

We’ve all heard of Christmas in July, but how about Halloween in August? The annual Gulf Branch Nature Center Bat Fest on Saturday, August 16, definitely had the feel of a Halloween preview with its celebration of all things bat. The planet’s only true flying mammals got their moment in the sun…er, dusk…with a wide variety of activities that acknowledged their important roles in insect control, pollination, and ecosystem health–– and especially their enormous contribution to international agriculture.

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Why Bats Matter: A display from The Save Lucy Campaign (Photo courtesy of David Howell)

There were games of skill, crafts, bat walks, and lectures and live-bat demonstrations, as well as several opportunities to “be” a bat. ARMN volunteer Samantha Gallagher made another one of her whimsical animal boards that allowed bat aficionados of all ages to be photographed as a bat on the wing. To make the experience more authentic, the bat wannabe could chose from a variety of bat nose types to wear in the photograph. (Samantha’s glow-in-the-dark firefly board has been the hit of the past two Firefly Festivals at Fort C.F. Smith.)

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A vampire bat and a leaf-nosed bat hit the skies. (Photo courtesy of David Howell)

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A Red-shoulder’s Red Letter Day

by Mary Martha Churchman

On July 11, a Red-shouldered Hawk soared into the trees at Turkey Run Park, as an excited crowd of about forty fans––including ARMN members––watched and applauded and four local TV news channels filmed the release.

The bird’s journey to that moment began one evening in early April, when Mark Stein was walking his dog in the woods at Turkey Run. He noticed a large bird on the ground near the path and was concerned enough to go back the next morning to check on the bird, which was still there. He called the National Park Service Police and stayed with the injured bird until the park police arrived, along with National Park Service (NPS) Biologist and ARMN friend Erik Oberg, to capture the hawk and transport it to Raptor Conservancy of Virginia for recovery and rehabilitation.

According the press release issued by the NPS, “this hawk was likely struck by a vehicle on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. It suffered a concussion and leg injuries but did not have any broken bones.”

Erik Oberg and Gabby Hrycyshyn with the rehabilitated red shouldered hawk

Erik Oberg of NPS and Gabby Hrycyshyn of the Raptor Conservancy with the rehabilitated Red-shouldered Hawk (Photo by Sherrie Burson)

At the Raptor Conservancy center, the adult hawk was treated for its injuries and fed. Once it was medically stable, it was put into a large flight cage to regain its strength for flying––and eventually, hunting.

Before the rehabilitated bird was released, Oberg introduced Mark, the Good Samaritan, who seemed pleased to see the results of his intervention, though slightly embarrassed by the attention, especially from the TV reporters with their notebooks, microphones, and cameras.

As songbirds in the trees loudly signaled their distress, Gabby Hrycyshyn of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia displayed a flightless Red-shoulder, trained as an education bird, and explained the important role raptors play in local ecology.

When the moment arrived just after noon, Gabby removed the rehabbed hawk from its cardboard pet carrier, held it for a moment while the TV cameras rolled, and then gently tossed the bird aloft. It knew just what to do and soared immediately into the woods, perching on a high branch just long enough to look back over a red shoulder at its admirers before returning home.

 

ARMN Announces Fall 2014 Training Class

Arlington Regional Master Naturalists is offering a Fall 2014 Basic Training Course beginning September 8 through December 8, 2014, on Mondays from 9 am to 3 pm at Long Branch Nature Center in Arlington, and other locations around the county. (Please note that here will be no class on October 13.) Classroom training will be scheduled for the mornings with field training to follow in the afternoons.

Join a great group of folks of all ages and backgrounds who are interested in learning more about the natural world and our local natural resources –– and how we can all pull together to take care of them. No experience? No problem! Get into or get back to nature by taking the ARMN basic training course.

The deadline for applications is Monday, August 18, 2014. For more information, click on the  Basic Training and Apply tabs above.

Citizen Science: Turkey Run Park Insect ID

Citizen Science: Turkey Run Park Insect ID

 

 

Confessions of an Invasives Hitman

By Steve Young

For years, while mercilessly killing non-native invasive plants at Long
Branch Nature Center, I have harbored the admitted fantasy that the
invasives removal will magically reveal some cool, unexpected native
plants. And to be sure, I have seen some nice native plants and have been
able to track how many of them respond positively to the removal of the
invasives. For example, native tree seedlings pop up again in places where
they were choked out before. Plants like Mayapples poke up happily in
vigorous patches where the invasives are gone. I contemplate how plants
like Mayapples are survivors that evolved to cope with the fall of giant
trees on top of them, able to come back years later when the conditions
improved.

Back in April, as I enjoyed whacking dense ground webs of Japanese
Honeysuckle, something caught my eye. Around me were many white-flowering
plants of Star (or Great) Chickweed, an under-appreciated native. But this
white-flowered plant was different. A vague memory offered up Dwarf
Ginseng, but I thought “Naw, no way, it’s something else, more common, that
I should recognize.”

Dwarf Ginseng

Dwarf Ginseng (Photo by Steve Young)

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An Interview with Stumpy, Arlington County Spokes-turtle

 

Stumpy, Long Branch Nature Center’s three-legged eastern box turtle, is one of only a few wildlife rescues at Arlington County nature centers that have been given individual names. Most animals on exhibit answer to generic monikers, such as Ms. Owl or Mr. Ratsnake. This is to remind people that the resident animals are not pets, but belong in nature, whether or not they will ever be able to return to their natural habitats. Stumpy, however, is a special case, as he would be the first to tell you.

Stumpy, Long Branch Nature Center's celebrity box turtle

Stumpy (Photo courtesy of Amanda DuPrey)

 

In advance of the annual Turtle Trot fundraiser on Saturday, May 17, at Lower Bluemont Park, a volunteer with the Arlington County Master Naturalists (ARMN) visited Stumpy at his residence at Long Branch to get his take on life and the importance of the Turtle Trot. As the interviewer was not fluent in box turtle (well, at least not in the eastern dialect), Amanda DuPrey, a Long Branch staff naturalist, assisted with the translation.

ARMN: You’re an eastern box turtle, Stumpy. I notice that you’re not in a pond habitat like some other turtles at Long Branch. Can you tell us something about box turtles and their lifestyle?

Stumpy: Everyone thinks that turtles belong in the water, but I much prefer the terrestrial life. In my opinion, the grub is much better. Worms, mushrooms, insects––oh, my! I’m drooling at the thought of a worm. There is really so much to say about turtles. We are great! Turtles are one of nature’s longest-lived creatures. I take pride in my long life span and leisurely lifestyle. I’m hoping to break that record of 138 years old. I say, 140 years old or bust! Part of the reason we live so long is because we don’t have a lot of enemies. Our shells keep us well protected and we can close ourselves up just like a box when we are scared or in danger.

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ARMN Receives 2013 Bill Thomas Award

On April 22, 2014, ARMN president Marion Jordon accepted the 2013 Bill Thomas Outstanding Park Service Volunteer Award from the Arlington Parks and Recreation Commission at the County Board’s regular meeting. The award is given in the name of lifelong parks volunteer Bill Thomas and honors both individuals and groups who have demonstrated a “passionate dedication and support” for Arlington’s natural resources and public open spaces.

ARMN members with County Board Chair Jay Fisette at Bill Thomas Award presentation

ARMN members with County Board Chair Jay Fisette at Bill Thomas Award presentation

The award was presented by Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Caroline Haynes, who noted that her unusual circumstance of being both a current ARMN member and former ARMN board member, along with fellow commission member Elizabeth Gearin, made it necessary to recuse herself from the consideration of the group award.

Wearing her Parks and Rec hat on the night, however, Haynes described ARMN as “an incredible group of dedicated volunteers” and cited the organization’s very impressive 10,000 hours of volunteer hours in 2013 alone, which included 2,350 hours in environmental education, 4,660 hours in invasive plant removal and other stewardship efforts, and 1,280 hours of data collection and management for citizen science projects. Haynes went on to acknowledge, “I know first-hand the hard work that the naturalists do on a daily basis and applaud their work and dedication” before extending her thanks to her “fellow Arlington Regional Master Naturalists.”

In accepting the award on behalf of the group, Jordan expressed her thanks for the award and also the opportunity for the partnership with Arlington County, adding “We look forward to continuing our service in the community in the years ahead.”

A reception was held for award recipients and their supporters immediately after the presentation. Winners of the individual awards were also on hand: Keith Fred, who was cited for his efforts on behalf of the Shirlington Community Canine Area and Peter Jones, who was recognized for his work to beautify and maintain the grounds of the Walter Reed Recreation Center.

2014 Dora Kelley Nature Park Frog Watchers Brave Roller Coaster Season

by Kasha Helget

A dedicated team of neighbors who live near the Dora Kelley Nature Park in Alexandria withstood the erratic weather for more than three weeks, from February 27 to March 23, to track the movement of frogs to the park’s marsh area where they breed in the late winter. This was the second year for the patrol in which individuals note the movements of frogs (primarily Northern Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus). These frogs winter in the adjacent woods and make the annual trek to the marsh where they likely were born. We then share the information with Mark Kelly and Jane Yeingst at Buddie Ford Nature Center for their frog database.

The neighbors partnered every other evening on an average for about an hour to count the frogs that crossed a path to and from the marsh and note the conditions –– temperature, wind, noise level, and other area observations.

Northern spring peeper on path photographed 3-24-14. Image courtesy: Linda Shapiro.

Northern Spring Peeper on path photographed 3-24-14.

 

Wood frog in marsh photographed 3-19-14. Image courtesy: Linda Shapiro.

Wood Frog in marsh photographed 3-19-14.

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Saturday, April 5: Habitat Restoration in Four Mile Run Valley

by Jim Hurley

On the northeast corner of S. Walter Reed and S. Four Mile Run Drives is the only remaining patch of woodland on the north side of the Four Mile Run stream valley in the Shirlington area. This woodland remnant has some of the same steep topography, underlying geology and hydrology (perched seeps), and plants as Barcroft Park, which is located on the opposite side of the valley.

Restoration site along S. Four Mile Run Drive at S. Walter Reed Drive. Photo from Google Map.

Restoration site along S. Four Mile Run Drive at S. Walter Reed Drive. Photo from Google Map.

Recently, Arlington County proposed to develop its part of the woodland. This proposal was opposed by a number of individuals, groups, and organizations that value the woods, so little of which is left. Nora Palmatier of the Tree Stewards made a commitment to initiate a cleanup of these woods––invaded by all the usual suspects (English Ivy, Japanese Honeysuckle, Bush Honeysuckle, Porcelainberry, etc.)––if the site were left undeveloped. (Thank you, Nora!) The County pulled back from its proposal just last week.

This Saturday, April 5, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., Arlington/Alexandria Tree Stewards, Master Naturalists, and residents of neighboring condominium associations will begin the promised restoration work. Arlington County Parks will provide trash bags for the debris.

The public is welcome to join in this effort. We recommend that volunteers wear long sleeves, long pants, and gloves, and bring hand clippers and/or pruning saws to cut ivy and other invasive vines from the trees. See you there!