It Takes a Community to Nurture a Habitat

Text and photos by Jackie Rivas

Our natural world is under siege by invasive plant species that outcompete native species for sunlight and water, quickly overwhelming the native habitat and eliminating food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and other pollinators. We have a biodiversity crisis, and these invasive species are part of the problem.

Fortunately, groups of concerned nature lovers are tackling the crisis, community by community. In Arlington, the latest example is a collaborative project of the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists (ARMN), the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia (ASNV), and a private swimming pool club called the Dominion Hills Area Recreation Association (DHARA), off Wilson Boulevard.

The pool property includes a wooded area that backs up to Reeves Creek, far from the pool and clubhouse. This area had become severely overgrown with invasive species. The pool’s directors knew there was a problem and they attempted to control it, but competing priorities prevailed.

However, because the property is adjacent to parklands that are already being rehabilitated through ARMN’s park steward program—Powhatan Springs and Upton Hill—it was deemed to be strategically important and deserving of assistance from ARMN and ANSV.

ASNV and ARMN member Carolyn McGavock pitched the idea of a community project to the DHARA Board. When the Board graciously welcomed the assistance, ARMN’s Bill Browning and Joan Haffey of ASNV (and ARMN) presented the
DHARA management with an invasive plant removal and habitat restoration plan.

Bush honeysuckle and other invasives blanket the ground and trees at a remote part of the Dominion Hills pool property. Photo by Jackie Rivas.

Habitat restoration is a long-term project. The first step is to remove and control the invasive plants, no mean feat. Then native plants are installed and nurtured until they are established.

Native plants will provide the necessary food and shelter to attract native birds and other fauna. ASNV and ARMN members will monitor and evaluate changes, primarily through measuring the extent of habitat restored as well as noting observations posted to eBird (an online database of bird observations) to track bird species and abundance over time. ARMN also plans to document the restoration progress
with photographs through the duration of the project.

A number of mature canopy trees near Reeves Creek are threatened by English ivy (Hedera helix). English ivy is very harmful to trees big and small. Its dense evergreen foliage blocks sunlight from reaching the tree’s leaves and the forest floor. When weighed down by snow and ice, ivy can break branches and even topple tall trees.

It wreaks havoc on saplings as well. Ivy’s rootlets wrap around bark and provide an environment for disease and decay, killing the tree in the process. On the ground, ivy provides an ideal habitat for mosquitoes.

Bush honeysuckle also found a hospitable environment at the rear of the DHARA property. The three most common types of bush honeysuckle in our area are:  Amur (Lonicera maackii), from China; Morrow’s (Lonicera morrowii), from Japan; and Tatarian (Lonicera tatarica), from Russia.

These plants produce leaves in early spring and grow rapidly, stealing sunshine and crowding out native plants. Their bright red berries tempt migratory birds in the fall, but the berries lack the fat and other nutrients that the birds need for their long journey. And, unfortunately, after consuming the berries, birds expel the seeds conveniently wrapped in fertilizer, ready to start another crop of bush honeysuckle in their flight path.

A team of nature lovers began the project of clearing out the invasive plants over the weekend of June 23, 2023. Volunteers came from many different community organizations:  ARMN, DHARA, ASNV, Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network, among others. It was also a family affair with a number of kids lending a helping hand.

On Sunday, June 25, about twenty-five community volunteers and their families joined the effort. Geoff Vaughan, DHARA Board Member and Executive Committee Member, was wielding a power saw to cut back the bush honeysuckle. He had been tackling the English ivy on his own for the past few years. While he found removing the ivy therapeutic during the pandemic, it was a Sisyphean task for a one-
person operation. Geoff welcomes the additional help to contribute to general habitat restoration.

Karen Kirchoff, Dominion Hills pool member, brought her two kids, Greta, who will be entering Swanson Middle School in the fall and Cam, a rising 6th grader there, to help out. Karen wants to instill a volunteer spirit in her kids as well as an appreciation of nature. Prior to this event, they participated in stream clean-ups and other environmental activities.

Clearing the area of invasives, as volunteers did in this section of the Dominion Hills property, is the first step in the long process of habitat restoration. Photo by Jackie Rivas.

ASNV representatives were present as well. Carlyn Kranking, enthusiastic invasive fighter, learned through an ASNV email about the opportunity to support wildlife in Northern Virginia. She was keen to give birds a reason to come to Arlington.

ASNV Board and ARMN member Joan Haffey was chopping bush honeysuckle on behalf of ASNV’s new program, Stretch Our Parks. This is “both a conservation and a social initiative, aimed at improving and creating wildlife habitat while building a greater commitment by a broader northern Virginia community in saving wildlife” and supporting their local parks.

ASNV chose to launch its initiative here to accelerate the efforts of many partners—led by ARMN park stewards and including ASNV—already working together at Upton Hill Regional Park and Powhatan Springs Skate Park.

Under Stretch Our Parks, ASNV facilitated the newest partnership in that effort with DHARA, extending the corridor further east. ASNV is also partnering with the Lockwood/Elmwood senior housing complex adjacent to Upton Hill Regional Park on a restoration effort.

The restoration project at the Dominion Hills pool property builds directly on the successful restoration work done by ARMN next door at Powhatan Springs Skate Park and Upton Hill Regional Park (where ARMN park stewards Bill Browning and Jill Barker have been leading invasive removal efforts for years).

Unencumbered by English ivy and other invasive plants, Arlington’s tree canopy and understory have a chance to thrive and support native wildlife.

The first step in liberating trees from English ivy is to sever the vines at the base of the encumbered tree. Then uproot the vines, if possible. But leave the ivy above the severed part on the tree to avoid damaging the tree bark. Without nutrients from its roots the ivy will dry out and fall off over time. For bush honeysuckle, the treatment is to cut the stump down to about six inches. Then treat the stumpwith a small dab of herbicide.

It takes a community to ensure that our flora and fauna will be here for generations to come!

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