The periodical (17-year) cicadas are most definitely here. And there has been a lot of information floating around about them. If you’re confused about where to get the most accurate details, look no further than here!
Below are links to three items: a blog piece and two videos—all by renowned local nature experts.
If you only have time to do a quick read, check out the piece by Alonso Abugattas, Arlington’s Natural Resources Manager for the Department of Parks and Recreation. It includes need-to-know details to identify cicadas, and learn how they mate, where females lay eggs on tree branches, and who eats them (including people!). http://capitalnaturalist.blogspot.com/2021/02/periodical-cicadas.html.
A couple of hour-long videos provide a bit more detail:
The first is by Kirsten Conrad, the Agriculture Natural Resources Extension Agent for ArlingtonCounty and the City of Alexandria. Along with Alonso Abugattas, Kirsten covers many of the same details as Alonso’s blog (history and distribution, species, lifecycle, tree damage, management, and resources), with visuals and closed captions. The video notes the exact time that each topic is discussed, for quick analysis. https://mgnv.org/brood-x-cicadas-video/.
The other video is by Ken Rosenthal, a Park Naturalist at Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington. Ken is known for his “Deep Dive” presentations on a variety of nature topics and recently gave one on cicadas. Ken details more differences between the periodical and annual cicadas. He also includes a lifecycle calendar of the “what” and “when” from emergence of full-grown nymphs to return of “baby” nymphs underground for the next 17 years. https://youtu.be/2C4w-oCeIcI.
A few concerns have arisen about deformed cicadas, including those both alive and dead with body parts missing. The experts here note that these happen with every cicada cycle: some of the insects don’t survive the molting process from nymph to adult (it’s a tricky, time-sensitive progression), others are infected with a fungus that results in the loss of body parts while the cicadas are still alive, and—of course—most are eaten by predators. The cicadas’ only “strategy” to continue their brood to the next generation is to overwhelm cicada hunters with prodigious numbers.
So, while listening outdoors to the alien-sounding background of cicada mating calls, and a (hopefully covered) beverage, enjoy one or more of these excellent accounts of this most amazing phenomenon!
Glenn Tobin is the 2020 Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award Winner
On April 20, 2021, Glenn Tobin received Arlington County’s Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award for the year 2020. The award recognizes an individual or group whose efforts show ongoing dedication and tangible benefit to Arlington’s natural resources, parks, and public open spaces.
Glenn has been an ARMN member since 2016 and a Trail Maintainer with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) since 2015. For years, he removed invasive plants at Windy Run Park and the adjacent Potomac River waterfront in the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Because of his work alone and with other volunteers, significant natural areas are recovering and becoming more beautiful and biodiverse. In 2020, Glenn raised money and worked with the PATC and the National Park Service (NPS) to rebuild the stone stairway that connects the Windy Run park trail to the Potomac Heritage Trail along the river, improving access for many people. Then, inspired by the reemergence of diverse native flora at Windy Run and along the Potomac, Glenn began working with experts in ecology, botany, and natural resources to create the website, Natural Ecological Communities of Northern Virginia, which provides information about the local natural plant communities to help make better plant selections for ecological restoration purposes in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C., and close-in Maryland. As a result of Glenn’s leadership, ARMN is adopting natural plant communities as a framework for park restoration, in collaboration with local jurisdictions. This work will have lasting impact on restoration planning throughout the County and on selection of plant species for the County’s native plant nursery.
Some of Glenn’s other work includes helping lead Weed Warrior Training with the NPS, assisting in leadership for Park Stewards, and mentoring others who share deep passion for helping restore natural areas in Arlington County and beyond. (From: The Arlington, VA webpage: “Arlington Honors Park Volunteers”.)
In a clip from the April 20, 2021 Arlington County Board Meeting, Board Member Karantonis describes Glenn’s accomplishments followed by an address from Glenn. In closing, Chair de Ferranti congratulates Glenn and 2019 Bill Thomas award winner, Elaine Mills: https://youtu.be/oPU84gCj9Lw.
ARMN is selected for the Virginia Chapter of the Wildlife Society’s 2021 A. Willis Robertson Award
On January 29, 2021, ARMN was selected as the 2021 recipient of the A. Willis Robertson Award from the Virginia Chapter of The Wildlife Society for its work on public outreach and education related to deer management. The award honors a wildlife non-professional or group that has exercised outstanding conservation practices on their own land or have made significant contributions to conservation activities in the Commonwealth.
In the last few years, members of ARMN led by Bill Browning have spearheaded public education to alert the community to the effects of deer browsing and begin the process of addressing barriers to developing an effective and humane program to control deer population in Arlington County. (See armn.org blog piece, “White-tailed Deer and Forest Health in Northern Virginia” that addresses how deer impact our forests.) The team worked on deer browse surveys, major outreach events with the Virginia Native Plant Society, the Deer Advisory Council for Northern Virginia, Arlington’s Urban Forestry and Environmental Services departments, and in 2019, with regional experts from VA, MD, and DC to create a volunteer training and public presentation that has been delivered over 40 times in the past two years.
Bill (the 2018 winner of the Bill Thomas award) and the other volunteers have also addressed Arlington County Board members, School Board members, the County Manager, the Chair of the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Acting Chief of Police. Bill also made presentations to Park and Recreation department employees and to several Arlington County civic commissions who have supported this message with letters to the County Board.
They also talked to civic/neighborhood associations, garden clubs, Extension Master Gardener volunteers, local TV and social media, and spoke at regional parks and conservancy, and hunting club meetings. This outreach has done much to bring the issue forward, engage stakeholders, and provide county decision-makers with sound, unbiased information for their consideration of a deer management plan.
ARMN is excited for this honor and opportunity to credit members like Glenn Tobin for their instrumental work to benefit our local natural environment.
By Jane Metcalfe, Louis Harrell, Nicolasa Hernandez, and Barbara Hoffheins
ARMN has been working with Arlington County, NASA, and the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Science Education to build and maintain a “bio-indicator” garden as part of a project to monitor the impact of ozone air pollution on plants. Bio-indicator gardens consist of plants that exhibit a typical and verifiable response when exposed to ozone air pollution. This project is part of a NASA-sponsored network of ozone bio-indicator gardens across the U.S.—and internationally—in conjunction with its the TEMPO (Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring Pollution) mission.
TEMPO will be the first space-based instrument to monitor major air pollutants across the North America continent every daylight hour at high spatial resolution. Data collected from the garden over a period of three or four years will be merged with data from other gardens across the country. The mission’s ultimate aim is to monitor the air we breathe with greater detail and precision. This information can be learned from monitoring the plants chosen for the project.
In addition to the overall mission, what are the goals of this ozone bio-indicator garden and what information will it collect?
The Ozone Garden has several goals:
• To illustrate visually the impacts of ozone pollution on plants
• To educate all ages about air pollution in Arlington
• To connect individual actions, as well as official policy, to local air pollution
• To better understand the impact of ozone air pollution on plants.
Understanding the impact of ozone air pollution will be achieved by merging Arlington data with data from across the country. Data will be collected from all participating gardens using a standard procedure and reported to a project website used by all the gardens. Uniform procedures are critical for data quality.
The TEMPO satellite, which is currently projected to be launched in 2022, will provide very high-resolution hourly data on ozone and will be correlated with data on the impacts to plants in the bio-indicator garden in Arlington.
How did ARMN become involved with the project and where is the garden located?
2018 ARMN trainee, Jane Metcalfe, became aware of the NASA effort in the process of developing a class presentation. She then spearheaded an ARMN Project for an ozone garden and worked with other ARMN volunteers to launch it. The Ozone Monitoring Garden became a true partnership: ARMN developed the project and provided basic funding and volunteers; Arlington County furnished the garden site along with site support, mulch, and fencing; and NASA/Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Science Education is responsible for providing genetically-similar plants and seeds, and support for education and outreach.
Walter Reed Community Center in Arlington was chosen for the garden’s site because its conditions were suitable for the plants and it is visible to the community for visits and eventual education events. An area was fenced off and the ground was initially broken and prepared for planting in September 2019. However, an early frost in 2019 prevented the garden from being planted that year and the subsequent pandemic prolonged efforts to continue work on the space. In addition to Arlington, the NASA/TEMPO program directors were unable to get seeds to the 17 gardens across the U.S. and internationally.
Has the ozone garden been planted?
Yes! It was determined last fall that planting and monitoring could proceed with Covid-19 safety procedures in place. So, a team led by new ARMN member, Nicolasa Hernandez, along with other members of ARMN and the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia, began clearing the site on August 7, 2020.
Seeds were planted on October 2, 2020 so they could establish before the first frost of the season. The bed was divided into four areas that were outlined with mulch paths. Individuals can walk on the mulch paths to get a close look at the plants without disturbing them. They can later inspect the plant leaves for evidence of any elevated presence of ozone.
The team installed two of the areas with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) a local native perennial, the third area with snap beans that are sensitive to ozone (Phaseolus vulgaris ‘S-156’), and the fourth with snap beans that are less sensitive to ozone (Phaseolus vulgaris ‘R-331’).
Below is a photo of the garden three weeks after planting. The first two leaves of each of the snap bean plants are easily visible. These plants should continue to develop through the winter. The seeds planted for the common milkweed (a perennial requiring overwintering) will emerge in late this spring. The weeds that have returned throughout the garden since planting will be removed by the team.
What will ozone impacts to the plants look like?
Damage caused by ozone is typically observed as stippling or purpling on the top side of older leaves of the plant. If foliar damage occurs on younger leaves, then it is not ozone damage. The team also has to be aware of mimicking symptoms and other pest problems that look like ozone injury.
Later, signposts will be placed in the garden to describe its purpose and identify each area along with photos that indicate the conditions to look for.
As the plants grow, ARMN volunteers will monitor them for physical effects of ozone pollution and report the results to the national database.
What is the future plan for the ozone garden?
ARMN volunteers will need to keep the garden weeded, and plan to install additional seeds this spring.
ARMN, via the Virginia Master Naturalists, has applied for a grant from Harvard to pay for signage to explain the project and how it links to TEMPO. A public education program is planned so that members of the community will be able to see the link between ozone and plant health. Additional procedures will be developed for people who will be monitoring the garden.
The Virginia opossum is much maligned, and has a reputation as being a repulsive, aggressive, dirty, garbage-eating pest that should be avoided or killed. Sadly, it is misunderstood and is unappreciated for its contribution to the environment, public health, and science.
The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is one of the oldest surviving mammals on the planet, and the only marsupial found in North and Central America, Mexico, and Canada.
In 1608 in Jamestown, Virginia, John Smith first observed and described the opossum as the size of a cat with the tail of a rat and the head of a pig.
Males are usually larger than females. They weigh from 4-15 pounds and are 2-3 feet long, including the tail. Opossums have hairless black or white ears, black eyes, a triangular shaped head with a long white face, a pink nose, and mostly dark gray fur. They have 50 teeth, the most of any marsupial. Their front toes have a span of 180 degrees and their opposable great toes on their hind feet act as thumbs and help them grasp and climb. Their scaly mostly hairless prehensile tail also helps with climbing, provides balance, as well as carrying leaves, grass, twigs, or other material for nesting.
Opossums are generalists, adapting to a wide variety of habitats such as deciduous forests, open woods, marshes, streams, and urban and suburban areas. They move from an area when water and food are not available. They don’t hibernate but they do slow down in cold temperatures; their hairless ears, nose, and tail are susceptible to frostbite. Opossums are not destructive in creating habitat: they don’t dig holes or build burrows. Rather, they’re opportunistic in selecting living arrangements made by other animals or seeking shelter in garages or under sheds. Opossums are not territorial but can be confrontational during mating season or if encountering individuals in their current habitat.
Opossums are nocturnal, solitary, independent, and do not initiate an attack on animals larger than themselves including humans. If confronted by a perceived threat, its offense, which is really bluffing, is to open its mouth showing its teeth, drool, growl, hiss, belch, scream, or screech to scare away whatever is frightening them.
If stress increases, their defense—which is an involuntary physiological response—is to collapse. This is what is often called “playing ‘possum.” Their heart rate and respiration decreases, eyes are open or slightly closed, mouth is open, drooling is evident, defecation and urination can occur and if that isn’t enough to ward off whatever is bothering them, they can excrete a foul-smelling green liquid from their paracloacal glands near the base of the tail. This coma-like state can last from a few minutes to 4 or 6 hours.
They are meticulous groomers to keep their fur clean and dry. And it is estimated that they can consume upwards of 5,000 ticks per year. Females are especially fastidious before and after giving birth.
Opossums are omnivores and eat whatever is available including fruit, nuts, insects, frogs, rodents, grass, pet food, garbage, and carrion. They are referred to as “nature’s sanitation engineer” or “nature’s cleanup crew.” Their keen sense of smell and ability to remember where to find food is second only to humans.
They have a low body temperature which is unsuitable for the rabies virus and they are resistant to venomous snake bites due to a naturally occurring protein in their blood, the Lethal Toxic Neutralizing Factor (LTNF) which binds and neutralizes the venoms. This is scientifically important and the NIH’s National Center for Biotechnology Information has found LTNF to be a potent antidote for animal, plant, and bacterial toxins including scorpion and honeybee stings, plant-derived ricin, and botulism toxins.
Opossums have a short life span of 1-2 years. Motor vehicle accidents, hunting and trapping, disease and parasites, exposure and starvation all contribute to their brief existence. While their shy demeanor and proclivity for being killed by cars during their nocturnal food hunts implies decreased intelligence, they outperformed rats and cats in maze testing.
Their reproductive cycle is the shortest of any mammal, 12-13 days, with usually 2 litters a year between December and June. Females may bear as many as 25 babies (also called joeys like their distant kangaroo cousins) but the average survival rate is only 7-9 young. The reasons for this high mortality are many: the embryonic newborns are light pink, blind, about 1/2 inch long, and weigh 0.006 of an ounce. While they have deciduous claws on their front feet to climb up into the pouch, once there, they need to locate one of only 13 teats—some of which will not be viable. Those who make it will remain in the pouch for about 10 weeks, then gradually begin to leave and return to the pouch, and finally be completely weened by about 13 weeks. They stay with the mother for another 3 to 4 months, becoming stronger and independent. Around 7 or 8 months they become sexually mature, and then the mating season begins again.
The Virginia opossum is indeed a remarkable animal with many distinctive characteristics that is worthy of respect and protection.
I was Zoom talking with a small group of ARMN Park Stewards the other day about what inspires us as we help restore ecosystems in our parks. (ARMN Park Stewards are volunteer leaders who work with local park management and staff to help preserve, enhance, restore, and potentially expand the parks’ natural areas, habitats, and ecosystems.)There were many inspirations, but everyone had one in common—seeing how nature begins to heal itself when troublesome invasive plants are removed. It does not happen immediately, but if one observes, the rewards are great.
Several weeks ago, I was walking along a path I frequent in Windy Run Park in North Arlington. Those who have been there know that the park connects to the George Washington Memorial Parkway and from there to the Potomac River via a steep set of stairs along a beautiful waterfall.
As you descend, you might use your right hand to steady yourself along a vertical rock face that extends up from the stairs to far above your head.
In 2016, that cliff face was covered with English ivy. After getting the o.k. from the National Park Service, I began clearing invasives along the river. The problems were huge in comparison to that small spot. However, I decided to clear it to improve the overall look of the area as I would walk up the stairs.
As I walked down the stairs several weeks ago, I looked at the cliff face more closely and noticed that a new set of beautiful plants had colonized cracks in the wall from which the ivy had been pulled earlier. Here’s a wide view:
Then I started to look more closely. As I saw more and more detail, I also saw more and more beauty—and a great variety of living organisms. Here are two pictures:
Sometimes I tell people that the process of ecological restoration is like an addictive drug. You rip some ivy off a small rock wall in 30 minutes and then a few years later something like this emerges. It is magical. I dream of a day where we have restored our forests, and the true beauty of biodiverse natural systems becomes obvious to all.
And there are more improvements to the park than just invasive plant removal. If you know the Windy Run area, you are aware that more than a decade ago, a rockslide destroyed the lower part of the stairs and getting across the boulder field was a bit tricky. Last fall, the stairs and handrail were repaired to address the safety concerns. A unique collaboration across ARMN, the National Park Service, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, and a few regular trail users funded stone masons and iron workers to make the necessary repairs.
The photos below show the before/after stair repairs. The small blue circles provide common reference points across the two pictures.
The new stairs are much more accessible to a wider range of hikers now. Below is some detail of the improved surfaces.
And finally, this photo shows the new handrail along with the new stairs.
(The “Warning” sign has since been removed.)
Access to Windy Run Park is from the cul de sac at the end of North Kenmore Street, off of Lorcom Lane. The waterfall and stairs are about a half mile away, following the stream. There are four unimproved stream crossings before reaching the top of the stairs (and the stairs themselves are very steep), so the park is not for everyone. You should feel comfortable on rough terrain and crossing potentially wet rocks to make the trip. But if you can manage it, Windy Run Park and the Potomac riverfront along the Potomac Heritage Trail are among the most beautiful spots in the region.
Please join your friends, neighbors, and fellow environmental stewards in participating in the following habitat restoration events during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Enjoy the satisfaction of helping to restore these natural areas. Dress in layers for cold weather, bring work gloves, your own tools, filled reusable water bottle, and face mask. Please also follow COVID guidelines for each event.
Date: Saturday, January 16, 2021 Event: Habitat restoration and invasive plant removal Time: 10:00 am – Noon Location: Tuckahoe ParkContact: Mary McLean, 703-966-2047, email@example.comDetails: Please call ahead since we’re limited to 10 people in the group. Meet at Tuckahoe Elementary’s parking lot. After orientation, volunteers head into the park.
Date: Saturday, January 16, 2021 Event: Restoration work Time:Noon – 3:00 pm Location: Upton Hill Regional Park Contact: To register, email Jill Barker, firstname.lastname@example.org. Details: Rototiller day! Volunteers will come behind it and remove five-leaved akebia to prepare pollinator plant beds. This event is for volunteers over age 9. Training on invasive removal will be provided. Participation is limited to ten persons per event, so registration is essential.
Date: Sunday, January 17, 2021 Event: Habitat Restoration & Invasive Removal Time: 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm Location: Long Branch Park Contact: Steve Young, 703-966-2966, email@example.com Details: COVID restrictions/limits on volunteer numbers apply, so rsvp required. Dress for the weather, and consider wearing appropriate clothing, including sturdy footwear. Bring work gloves, clippers or a folding hand saw, trash bags, water bottle, sunscreen/hat.
Date: Monday, January 18, 2021 Event: Invasive Removal Time: 10:00 am – Noon Location: Mary Carlin Woods at Bluemont Park (bounded by N. Carlin Springs Road, N. Kensington Street, N. 4th Street, the Bluemont Junction Trail and the Arlington Forest Club). Meet at the Mary Carlin Woods entrance along the Bluemont Junction trail just west from the rocks. Contact: Register by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org Details: COVID restrictions/limits on volunteer numbers apply, so rsvp required. Training on identifying invasive species and proper removal techniques will be provided by Master Naturalists and Tree Stewards. Participation is limited to ten persons per work site, so registration is requested. Bring your own gloves, tools, filled reusable water bottle, and face mask. Weather appropriate clothing is advised.
Date: Monday, January 18, 2021 Event: Invasive removal or cleanup Time: 10:00 am – Noon Location: Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve. Meet at the Belle Haven Park south parking lot registration table. Contact: Register here and indicate your choice of invasive removal or cleanup, as described below. Details: There are two types of service: (1) a shoreline trash cleanup, and (2) removing English ivy from trees. Volunteers can choose either activity. You do not need prior plant identification experience. Under Covid-19 protocols, registration is required and participants are limited to 15in each group. Work gloves, tools, trash bags and hand sanitizer will be provided. Wear a mask, sturdy shoes, long pants and sleeves, winter gloves and sun protection. Bring your own water.
Date: Monday, January 18, 2021 Event: Invasive Removal on the Mount Vernon Trail Time: 10:00 am – Noon Location: 615 Slaters Lane, Alexandria, VA 22314. Group will meet in the courtyard behind the Salvation Army Headquarters and then walk to the work area. Contact: Register at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/133621847543 Details: Volunteers will remove English Ivy from trees along the Mount Vernon Trail. No special skills are needed. Bring hand pruners (There will be several to borrow), work gloves (There will be several to borrow), filled water bottle, face covering.
Yellow-rumped warblers ((Setophaga coronate) are a very abundant species of the Wood Warbler family—those small, often brightly colored birds that bird watchers go crazy about during spring and fall migration. Bird watchers affectionately call them “butter butts.” There are two primary subspecies of yellow-rumped warblers: the Myrtle warbler, and Audubon’s warbler. The Myrtle warblers are mostly in the eastern United States and Audubon warblers are mostly in the western part of the country.
I love bird watching and think it is a great entryway activity to get people more attached to and involved in protecting the natural world. I also like the meditative act of being alone in a park, yard, or garden and truly having to slow down to see and hear what is around me. I generally have a camera with me when I go out because it helps me record and remember what I have seen.
The yellow-rumped warblers are rewarding—and at times frustrating—for bird watchers. The rewarding part is that there are a lot of them in North America, so you are likely to see and learn how to identify them. They also often hang out in lower-level tree branches, so they are easier to see. But sometimes there will be such a large flock that everywhere you look, all the birds seem to be yellow-rumps. That’s when it can get a little bit frustrating (at least for me), if you are really hoping to see a variety of birds rather than this one species!
I have met many lovely people on bird walks or hanging out at Monticello Park in Alexandria looking for spring warblers. But just a few weeks ago, I asked a fellow birder her thoughts about yellow-rumps. She said that she likes that they are warblers that you can see in the winter, and though they have more subdued colors in the fall and winter, it is nice because she can watch them more easily when the trees have lost their leaves. This is an interesting aspect to yellow-rumps. Though they do migrate, they don’t go as far south as most warblers, and many stay further north, sometimes as far north as Nova Scotia.
Yellow-rumps use a variety of ways to get their food. They are known to fly out from a branch to catch insects. They can forage on the ground for insects or berries or hang onto a tree trunk or branch. They eat berries from juniper, wax myrtle, Virginia creeper, dogwood, and poison ivy plants. And it is an interesting adaptation that they can digest the wax on juniper and wax myrtle berries. This adaptation enables them to remain further north than other warblers.
If you look at the range map on the eBird website, you will see that yellow-rumps are present in this area in spring, fall and winter. They only leave for the summer months when they breed in northern parts of the U.S. and in Canada.
So, how do you identify these interesting birds? Well, they do have yellow rumps!
They also may have yellow in three places: on the rump, a spot on the side breast, and—especially breeding males—a yellow spot on their crown. Females and fall warblers are more brown overall, while the breeding male has blue gray on their back and crown streaked with black, and a black mask.
Myrtle warbles (Setophaga coronata coronate), are the eastern subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler and they have white throats. These are the yellow-rumped warblers you are likely to see in this area.
There is also a western subspecies, Audubon’s warbler (Setophaga auduboni auduboni), that has a yellow throat, rather than the white throats of the Myrtle warbler. Both of these warblers have what is called a “broken eye ring,” which is white above the eye and white below, but it doesn’t make a full circle.
And to make it interesting, there are other wood warblers with yellow rumps: The magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia), and Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrine) have more yellow underparts and generally are not as brightly colored on the backside as the yellow-rump warbler. They all show up in the spring and fall. (Real warbler experts likely know the progression of when they show up. While I don’t, but it is possible that they could all be here at the same time.)
There is a great presentation about warblers, including the yellow-rump, by Bill Young on the Audubon Society for Northern Virginia website: https://www.audubonva.org/online-programs. He includes fabulous pictures of warblers, most of which he took at Monticello Park.
Finally, I recommend a visit to the bird banding station that usually operates in the spring at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I took these two photos there. I was quite moved by the experience of releasing a bird after it was banded!
As I mentioned, I love birding, and love how these little guys show how birding can be rewarding any time of year. It gives one a reason to be outside, to slow down and observe, and while one is focusing on the birds, one generally learns something about the plants and wildlife around them! I hope you find, as I have, that they are a gift that keeps on giving!
What a wild ride. The past eight months have been a roller coaster of unprecedented challenges—seemingly insurmountable ones at that. I think I can state with a fair amount of confidence that we’ve collectively experienced anxiety, frustration, and also heartbreak. Maybe a bit of anger too. These have been tough days.
Fortunately, there’s this wonderful thing called nature out there. Woodlands, meadows, wetlands … outdoor spaces that allow us to de-stress. There’s no doubt the pandemic has illuminated the value of such protected areas, at least for those of us lucky enough to live near them.
I’ve had the luxury of spending many hours in some of these nearby natural areas, often to help destroy invasive plants. But a large chunk of my outdoor time is spent in my own personal sanctuary. While the mass movement to visit parks and to simply get outside continues, I experience that decompressing ahhhhhh feeling just footsteps from my door. On this quarter-acre lot four miles from bustling Tysons Corner Center, essential native plants feed uncommon bumble bees, delightful monarch caterpillars, hungry migrating birds, and much, much more.
This habitat did not come about by accident, however. And it wasn’t created overnight. My garden-with-native-plants-or-die journey began about seven years ago with a lecture given by renowned entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy. His groundbreaking research showed that native plants support all life, even our own. (Yay, science!)
This past February, right before the covid-19 pandemic changed the way we lived, Tallamy’s lecture circuit brought him once again in front of a massive audience in Manassas. His rousing message urged us to repurpose turfgrass with native plants to form our very own “Homegrown National Park.” Reducing just half of all lawns across the country this way would return more than 20 million acres of America to wildlife habitat. Twenty. Million. Acres.
A pandemic prognosticator, Tallamy listed these benefits of building a park at home:
You can enjoy nature on your own time at your own pace
Avoid travel hassles
Experience the natural world alone
And now there’s one more benefit:
Keep safe from droplets!
See what a Tallamy-inspired garden, enthusiastically documented over the past eight months of isolation, has attracted:
If you’re curious about how best to create your own private park, here are some environmentally-sound suggestions:
Buy locally native plants to support our indigenous critters and to keep our wild areas ecologically intact. I like to frequent Earth Sangha’s plant list to choose my local ecotype plants. The Earth Sangha family is always happy to help you to select the right plants for your site conditions and your needs.
If you have an appropriate location, plant native keystone plants such as white oak (Quercus alba) and wild black cherry (Prunus serotina). These trees are the two top supporters of Lepidoptera spp. (moth and butterfly) larvae.
Remove invasive plants because they can escape from your yard into natural spaces. Getting rid of invasives on your property is equally as important as planting natives.
Reduce lawn. Turfgrass is considered to be ecologically devastating because of the problematic way humans maintain it (use of fertilizers and weed killers) and because of how little life it supports.
Forgo the pesticides. Grub controls, mosquito sprays, and rodent poisons harm more than just the targeted “pests.”
Leave the leaf litter to maintain plant and soil health and to harbor a variety of animals. Slugs, moths, and spiders are just as important as our enchanting fireflies and butterflies—which rely on leaf litter to survive.
Strive to keep discarded plant material on your property. It takes resources to haul it away and process it.
Use some of that unwanted plant material to build a brush pile for birds and small mammals.
Leave a dead tree (called a “snag”) standing when feasible. Any size snag can support wildlife but leaving at least a six-foot-tall dead or dying tree feeds innumerable insects and can provide homes for woodpeckers and other animals.
Allow branches and logs to rot in your garden or lug neighbors’ chain-sawed tree parts onto your property or do both! These logs make a lovely natural edging and are as enticing to insects as snags are.
Keep outdoor lights off to help moths, birds, and bats. Yellow light bulbs in a motion-activated fixture are also a good solution. Note that some studies show that residential exterior lights do not prevent crime.
Although the landscape I nurture is still fluid and an ongoing labor of love (yes, my garden is much more work than lawn is), it has from the get-go provided valuable eco-services. I recommend taking on small sections at a time. Begin by planting lower-maintenance trees and shrubs. Then just add water. And love.
There’s never been a better time or reason to create your own oasis. Even if you have only a patio or a balcony, a few native plants grown in containers can attract and support a variety of teeny animals such as our native bees and caterpillars. Let’s help the critters we are passionate about and also help ourselves.
Gardeners often don’t realize that gardens make for great firefly habitat, helping to replace their lost natural habitat. The common firefly—the Big Dipper Firefly (Photinus pyralis)—readily takes to an organic habitat. The trick is to make your garden as inviting as possible for fireflies to take up residence.
Gardens are meccas for food fireflies eat. If you have fought off snails, slugs, various insects, and worms, then fireflies can lend a hand by helping to control these pests.
Fireflies spend up to 95% of their lives in larval stages. They live in soil/mud/leaf litter and spend from one to two years growing until finally pupating to become adults. This entire time they eat anything they can find.
As adults, they only live two to four weeks. Females that have mated successfully need a place to lay eggs. They will lay eggs in many spots, but gardens offer an oasis with a source of soil moisture good for larval development.
Some inventive tips for attracting fireflies:
Don’t rake leaves and put them on the curb. You are raking up firefly larvae and throwing them away.
Collect paper bags of leaves to make “Bag Compost.” Collect 5-15 bags.
Wet bags down in a shady lawn area. Keep moist/wet for 3-6 months or up to a year.
Bags will attract snails/slugs. This is food for growing fireflies.
In Spring, put bag compost in your garden. Put it in mounds and work it into your soil.
Repeat each year. It might take as long as 5 years, or as quick as that same year, to get fireflies in your garden.
Although we may not be aware of it, we live in a region of borderlands. Of course, our area is politically shaped by the explicit borders of the District, Maryland, and Virginia. But the diversity of our plant and animal life derives in part from the fact that the southern limit for many northern species overlaps here with the northern limit for many southern species [https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/natural-communities/document/ncoverviewphys-veg.pdf, p.23]. We also straddle a third significant geographic borderland, which is responsible for some of the most dramatic features of our region, like the Great Falls of the Potomac depicted below.
This border is known as the Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line, formed by the points on eastward-flowing rivers at which navigation becomes impossible because of rapids and waterfalls. This line runs down the mid-Atlantic, as seen in the diagram below, and has shaped the development of this area since its earliest history. The barriers to upstream navigation hindered inland migration by Europeans and spawned cities to their east to facilitate the transfer of goods and people: Georgetown and Alexandria in our area, but also Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg. Today, Interstate 95 roughly parallels the Fall Line in the mid-Atlantic region.
The Fall Line forms along the border between two physiographic provinces that meet in our area. A physiographic province is a geographic region with distinctive soils, topography, and vegetation. The Piedmont province is underlain by hard, crystalline bedrock. In the Coastal Plain, bedrock is deeply covered by softer sedimentary soils. As rivers flowing to the Atlantic over resistant bedrock meet the Coastal Plain, they begin to move more quickly and to cut down through those softer soils, creating waterfalls and rapids as the river descends to sea level [http://www.virginiaplaces.org/regions/fallshape.html].
The Great Falls of the Potomac, where the river drops 77 feet in less than a mile [https://www.nps.gov/grfa/learn/nature/naturalfeaturesandecosystems.htm], is the Fall Line’s most dramatic local manifestation. However, the rapids that originally blocked upstream navigation for European immigrants are actually located at Little Falls, slightly north of the Chain Bridge [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Falls_(Potomac_River)]. Over time, the energy of the Potomac has continued to erode the bedrock it flows over, causing the more dramatic waterfalls to migrate westward over millions of years, leaving Great Falls today approximately 14 miles upstream from Washington, DC.
That fact helps underscore the point that it is more accurate to talk about a Fall Zone than a Fall Line. Rather than a knife-edge transition from bedrock to sedimentary soils, the harder rocks of the Piedmont intrude into the Coastal Plain in irregular outcroppings over an area approximately 10 miles wide, creating a ragged boundary with patches of bedrock upthrust into Coastal Plain soils. We can witness this irregular border at Theodore Roosevelt Island, described by the National Park Service as the last bedrock island in the Potomac as it flows eastward to the Chesapeake Bay: “The island thus marks the Fall Line with bedrock exposures on the northern shoreline (Piedmont) and swamp and tidal marshes on the southern shoreline (Atlantic Coastal Plain)” [http://npshistory.com/publications/gwmp/nrr-2009-128.pdf, p. 14]. Both are illustrated in the photographs below.
When we add the plant diversity that we gain from having vegetation characteristic of both these physiographic provinces in our area, we can fully appreciate the richness of our Fall Zone borderland: it offers a living map to our geological history, serves as a reminder of how our cultural history has been shaped by natural forces, and helps enrich the biodiversity we enjoy as residents of northern Virginia.