Why Do the Mockingbirds Rage? And Other Backyard Mysteries

by Rosemary Jann

It must be an indication of how preoccupied I’ve been lately: I didn’t realize the mockingbirds were nesting again until their scratchy chat call exploded over my head as one buzzed me crossing the yard.

Photo of a northern mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird, copyright David Howell.

Northern Mockingbirds are fond of the native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) in our yard, especially for their first nesting of the season. According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, mockingbirds raise upwards of two broods a year but don’t reuse their nests, opting instead for a new site in their territory. The trumpet honeysuckle provides a protective tangle of vines at their preferred nesting height, 3 to 10 feet off the ground. Native to North America, they have adapted especially well to suburban environments, which provide mowed lawns for foraging, tall telephone lines for surveilling their territory, and nearby shrubs for shelter. I don’t know whether these are the same birds that were here in past years, but Wikipedia notes that suburban mockingbirds often return to sites where they previously bred successfully.

Of course, the best-known trait of Mimus polyglottos is signaled by their name, which means “many-tongued mimic.” Although both sexes mimic, the male is especially prolific in adding new songs throughout his lifetime (up to 200 in all, according to Cornell Lab’s guide, All About Birds). In suburban settings, these can include not just the songs of other birds and animals (like cats), but also common sounds like car alarms and ringtones.

Their noisy aggression is equally distinctive, however. Cornell states that scientists debate the purpose of the male’s characteristic flashing of the white patches on his wings. Is it intended to startle insects, to intimidate rivals, or, like his song repertoire, to help attract a mate?

Photo of a northern mockingbird spreading its wings
A Northern Mockingbird spreads its wings. By Manjithkaini, CC BY 3.0.

Their often-displayed aggression against other creatures can also serve multiple purposes. They use their chat call as they run off territorial rivals and while attacking nest predators. I had seen mockingbirds dive-bombing cats; I was puzzled when witnessing a particularly vicious and prolonged attack on a hapless squirrel, until I learned that they too predate on eggs and nestlings. Crows and other larger birds are also nest robbers, which explains why the mockingbirds were so violent in driving off some crows casing their nesting site in our yard last week. Mockingbirds apparently endorse the belief that the best defense is a good offense.

Aggression plays a role not just in natural selection but also in sexual selection. A high level of aggression in the male signals to the female that he is likely to be more invested in the parenting process and therefore deliver more nesting success. This is important, says the Animal Diversity Web page on Northern Mockingbirds, since both build the nest, both feed the chicks, and the male educates the nestlings while the female starts building a new nest. So, if you find yourself annoyed by the aggressive behavior of this noisy backyard neighbor, it may help to understand that the mockingbird’s feistiness plays an important role in its survival—and to wear a hat if you can’t avoid being dive-bombed on the way to the car.

Virtually Exploring Virginia’s Flora and Fauna

Text by Kristin Bartschi; Logo collage by George Sutherland

I don’t enjoy being inside. Getting out in the open air and enjoying nature with my husband and a few friends brings me true joy, so adjusting to quarantine was challenging. Outside of walks around the neighborhood, I spent the first few weeks obsessively reading news stories, scrolling through Instagram, and watching a lot of Netflix and Disney+. But that started to get old. Lately, I’ve been trying to use this extra time to reconnect with my creative passions and pursue new learning opportunities.

My husband, George, and I have started exploring webinars and resources to learn more about our local environment. Recently, we attended a webinar on white-tailed deer in Northern Virginia. We learned about the increasing population of white-tailed deer in our community, the causes of the population boom, the impacts on local wildlife and plants, and solutions that different counties and cities are pursuing. It was a fascinating talk which brought to light how extreme population changes in one species can impact an entire ecosystem.

If you’re interested in learning more about our local and state environment, there are several excellent resources to explore. Here are a few to get you started!  

  • High Five from Nature – Each of these webinars from the Virginia Master Naturalists (VMN) covers five topics related to Virginia flora, fauna, and ecosystems. Subjects include spring butterflies, stream quality, native shrubs, and much more.
  • VMN also offers a continuing education webinar series with classes ranging from marine debris to sea level rise to wilderness rescues. Last week, I watched a 2019 webinar from the VMN High Knob Chapter on maple syrup as a forest product (and learned some interesting facts about harvesting and processing maple syrup).
  • With summer just around the corner, check out Encore Learning’s recent webinar, Safely Enjoy the Outdoors Despite Mosquitoes and Ticks and learn how to identify, control, and protect yourself from mosquitoes and ticks in an environmentally safe way (webinar begins at minute 5:20 in this recording).
  • The Audubon Society of Northern Virginia’s online programs include four classes on spring warblers, including insights on plumage, behavior, and vocalizations.  
  • Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia are offering their April and May public education events online. These sessions are free and open to the public and cover topics from garden design to composting to tomatoes.
  • Plant NOVA Natives offers helpful guidance on using local natives to build habitats and provides landscaping solutions for native planting.
  • You can still participate in citizen science initiatives from home! Use iNaturalist to observe and document the plants and animals you see on a walk (or the birds in your backyard!). The DC City Nature Challenge site offers guidance on using iNaturalist effectively, any time of the year.
  • The Northern Virginia Bird Club puts out a quarterly newsletter that is well-worth a read.
  • Each month, the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society offers free lectures on a variety of topics related to native plants. Currently, these are being offered online.
Pictures of logos from city nature challenge, plant nova natives, virginia native plant society, virginia master naturalists, iNaturalist, encore learning, and the northern virginia bird club

I’ve found that taking the time to learn about something like white-tailed deer or making maple syrup or composting, makes me forget about any stress or anxiety I might be feeling about what’s going on in the world right now. It’s a good reminder that although the current situation can feel overwhelming, the world still turns and there are still things to learn and explore within it.

I hope these resources give you not only a reprieve from the news stories we are inundated with every day, but a chance to learn something interesting about the world around us.  Stay safe and be well!

White-tailed Deer and Forest Health in Northern Virginia

by Bill Browning

Deer are a natural and beautiful part of our forest. They are Virginia’s largest herbivore, and despite their size, they are fast, agile, and graceful. They are an integral part of our ecosystem. However, their population has grown to the point where they unfortunately are overwhelming other species, degrading our forests, and harming the environment.

Photo of a herd of deer on a lawn in front of a house
Deer congregating on household steps. Photo courtesy of Donna Owen.

Population History

Deer helped fuel European settlement in the 17th-19th centuries. Our colonial ancestors hunted them for food and clothing, and even used deer skins (buckskins) as a form of money to trade for goods; the slang word for money, “buck,” comes from this era.

Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) estimates that there were somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 deer in Virginia in the early 1600s. We nearly extirpated them from the Commonwealth by the early 20th century as hunting and economic development drove them from our landscape. Deer became so scarce in Virginia that DGIF even had to import deer from the Midwest to satisfy the local hunting community.

During the latter part of the 20th century, as hunting declined and agricultural land was transformed into suburbia, the deer population exploded in our area. Deer are an “edge species” which means they prefer territory where natural woodland habitats meet encroaching human habitats. William McShea, a wildlife biologist with the National Zoo, says that “the eastern United States was [originally] one deep, dark forest. Now it’s deer nirvana. It’s one big edge.” Today, we likely have more than a million deer in Virginia.

Graph showing estimated decline in deer population from 1600 to 1900 followed by growth in deer population from mid 1900s to the 2000s
Conservative DGIF estimate of deer population.

More Deer Mean More Deer Browse

Deer are eating machines. An adult deer eats between 5-7 pounds of vegetation per day. Wildlife biologists at the National Park Service estimate that one square mile of a healthy forest can generate enough vegetation to feed about 15-20 deer. The jurisdiction of Arlington County, for example, has slightly more than one square mile of deer habitat (natural areas), suggesting that it can support little more than 15-20 deer in total. Many of us have spotted more than a dozen deer in our own neighborhoods, much less the whole county. The results are likely similar in other parts of Northern Virginia.

Photo of ARMN volunteer Todd Miners holding vegetation
Todd Minners holding vegetation representing 8 pounds. Photo courtesy of Sandy Minners.

As a result of this overpopulation, deer are destroying the understories in our natural areas. Forest understories are vital for habitat and for ecosystem services. When the forest is degraded, there’s no place for many songbirds to build their nests and no cover for mammals and amphibians to hide from predators. Moreover, there’s less plant material to absorb rainfall, making the Chesapeake Bay more vulnerable to pollutant runoff and our urban neighborhoods more susceptible to occasional flooding.

Through selective feeding, deer affect forest plant communities by reducing tree seedling numbers, species composition, and seedling height. They also affect herbaceous plant composition as they browse on some species and ignore others. The Virginia Native Plant Society notes that deer browse removes hundreds of plants that provide food for insects, birds, and small animals that depend on them, such as orchids, trilliums, oaks, milkweeds, hickories, and blueberries.

A 2016 Penn State Extension Report notes that, when the deer population density exceeds what the land can support, forest regeneration suffers. Decades of overbrowsing by deer have so severely depleted the habitat that many residents have never seen a healthy forest understory. And it is this healthy forest understory that provides the environment from which future canopy trees can emerge. Richard Parker, regional director of the Genesee State Park Region (New York), said that “as the current forest dies, there will be nothing to replace it.” 

In the pair of photos below, the forest on the left provides food and habitat for many species of insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. This well-structured forest can filter sediment and pollutants out before the rainwater reaches the Chesapeake Bay. It can also generate enough seedlings to take over from the current canopy trees in the next generation. Conversely, the forest on the right is what we frequently see in northern Virginia where intense deer browsing means that any native plant that dares to poke itself up out of the ground is nipped off almost immediately by a deer passing by.

Photo of a healthy forest with under story and a browsed forest
Healthy and deer-browsed forests. Photo courtesy of Charles Smith.
Photo of a wood thrush bird in her nest
Wood thrush nest. Photo courtesy of David Howell.

Too many deer are ruining our home gardens, defeating our park restoration efforts, and potentially endangering our health. They eat the plants we put in our yards unless we happen to have a dog patrolling the property or we spray deer repellent on our plants after every rain event. They eat the plants we install to restore our parks, unless we protect the plants with heavily fortified deer cages. And finally, as they wander through our parks and neighborhoods, they defecate where they please; deer can spread a variety of illnesses, such as giardia, in fecal matter that can end up in streams.

Photo of deer exclusion fence around a plant
Deer exclusion fence around a plant in Powhatan Park in Arlington. Photo courtesy of Bill Browning.
Photo of a deer in a playground
Deer in playground area of Boulevard Manor neighborhood in Arlington. Photo courtesy of Ron Battocchi.

Too Many Deer Equals Unhealthy Deer

Many wildlife biologists argue that the deer have so decimated our local forests that they are unable to find sufficient food to remain well nourished. And while that fact may be debated by some other biologists, there is no disputing the fact that deer density is contributing to the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) which is similar to mad cow disease. CWD is transmitted through saliva and other fluids, and as deer congregate closer to one another, they are more likely to transmit this disease. CWD is insidious. Once infected, death is certain. CWD first showed up in white-tailed deer in 2001 in South Dakota and Nebraska. It has now spread to 24 states, including Virginia, where it appears to be migrating eastward from the West Virginian border.

A map showing cases of chronic wasting disease in Virginia from 2009 to 2019
Chronic Wasting Disease positive results in Virginia, 2009-19.

Losing—and Regaining—Balance in our Deer Population

Human expansion and economic progress have driven natural predators out of Virginia, giving the deer free rein. We have not had effective predators for deer, such as wolves or mountain lions, in Virginia since the early 20th century. And other predators, such as foxes or coyotes, are ineffective. Foxes prefer smaller mammals and coyotes are unable to bring down anything but a small fawn. If you hear that a recovered fox or coyote carcass happens to have deer meat in their intestines, it most likely came from scavenging.

Given that human population and economic growth has allowed deer to expand in our area, we need human intervention to bring balance into the system. People frequently ask whether contraception or sterilization could be used as a humane way to control the deer population, but it is not humane. According to DGIF wildlife biologists, deer are susceptible to capture myopathy, also known as white muscle disease. This response to being captured, restrained, and handled causes the deer to build up lactic acid in their muscles. This lactic acid affects blood pH and can kill many of the internal organs, especially the heart. While some experts say it is possible to capture deer with low mortality rates in order to treat them with a contraceptive, it has not been shown to be effective in managing deer populations in an open environment. These methods require frequent follow up and can be quite costly. Further, DGIF only approves of medical intervention with deer for research, not for population management.

Given these limitations, local jurisdictions have adopted managed hunting as the best way to control the deer population in our area.

Fairfax County began an archery program after a librarian was killed in a car collision with a deer in 1997. The county’s managed hunting program now includes archery, shotguns, and high-powered rifles that has grown to cover about 100 of its county parks and properties (more than 80% of county parkland). The volunteer archers alone have culled about 1,000 deer per year since 2014 and the county donates venison to the Hunters for the Hungry program. Police and wildlife managers exercise strong oversight and there have been no safety incident or injuries to park patrons (or pets) since the program’s inception.

Montgomery County, MD manages archery, shotgun hunting, and sharpshooting operations in 54 parks, covering more than 50% of the county’s total park area. The county program began in the late 1990s, and hunters have removed over 19,500 deer from the parks and donated 315,000 pounds of venison to the Capital Area Food Bank. County police records document that collisions with deer have declined near the parks where culling takes place, and there have been no injuries to hunters or citizens as part of these programs.

A sign altering the public of a park closure for a deer hunt
Deer hunt sign in Montgomery County, MD. Photo courtesy of Todd Minners.

The National Park Service began its Rock Creek Park deer management program in 2012 and uses professional sharpshooters to hunt at night when the park is closed to the public. Since March 2013, almost 400 deer have been removed from the park and over 10,000 pounds of venison has been donated to D.C. Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization that distributes meals to homeless shelters in the metro area. In the decade between 2009 and 2019, NPS estimates that in Rock Creek Park seedling numbers rose from 2,240 per hectare (2006-2009) to 5,960 per hectare (2016-2019). There have been no hunting accidents in the park.

Arlington County and the City of Alexandria do not have a deer management program at this time.

Perhaps some of our analysis can be best summarized by a quote from Aldo Leopold in the 1940s. Leopold was a wildlife biologist, a professor, and an early conservation thinker, who helped change our country’s land management approach from one of conquering the land to living in harmony with it. He wrote in A Sand County Almanac:

“just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.”

By ignoring the deer overpopulation problem, we are allowing the deer to degrade the environment at the expense of many other native species and the future of our forests.

Flying Squirrels—They’re Still Here!

by Kasha Helget

A couple of years ago, I shared a story about a wonderful program that Long Branch Nature Center runs each year about our local flying squirrel population. Among other things, we learned that these are southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans), 8-10 inches long (including their tails), and weighing on average a couple of ounces. Also, there are about as many flying squirrels as there are gray squirrels in our area. We don’t usually see the flyers because they’re nocturnal and generally hang out in the higher canopy of mature trees. And flying squirrels do not actually “fly.” They glide using skin flaps (patagium) that connect their arms and bodies. They are crazy cute with their huge eyes and tiny bodies—almost like big-eyed children in a Margaret Keane painting.

Photo of a flying squirrel
Southern flying squirrel, “set to soar,” by Christian Collins, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

I was totally intrigued with the flying squirrel nesting box that Long Branch staff attached to a tree along with a feeding platform for nuts and peanut butter. So, I convinced my handy husband, Michael, to build one, which he attached to a tree near our deck with a roof deck where we could place nuts. I ended the story with us waiting to see whether “if we built it, they would come.”

We had no luck that year. It was late February and too near the end of the winter season to encourage the little flyers to use the nest box or grab nuts from the roof deck.

Last season was a mixed bag. Shortly after Thanksgiving, we began setting out mixed nuts for the squirrels as soon as it was fully dark. We set up a night camera to check on visitors and learned a couple of things: a few flyers did visit, usually well into the night. But almost as often, raccoons stole the nuts before the squirrels got to them.

Photo of a racoon peering out from behind a tree trunk
Raccoon looking for nuts on the nest box deck. Photo by Michael Helget.

That’s when we realized that the flyers preferred peanuts to the harder shelled nuts. The very best discovery, however, was that they actually used the nest box for their young! There was traffic in and out of the entry holes, and peanut “hand-offs” to a parent flyer inside the box.

And then came the shocking incident. The advice we read online was to clean the nest box only in January or February—the only time the box would definitely be empty. So, Michael climbed a ladder to remove the box for cleaning last February, and two very surprised squirrels emerged, and an equally surprised Michael retreated, deciding that the box was probably clean enough. He did finally remove it early this April to make a small repair. It was not occupied but definitely needed cleaning of nesting materials and peanut shells. I guess the flyers didn’t read the online advice about vacating the box in February instead of April.

This winter has been another story. We again began setting out peanuts right after Thanksgiving, and it didn’t take long till our little flying squirrels started showing up and waiting for their nightly treat. It’s become very predictable that when it is fully dark there are up to four visitors either sitting on the roof deck waiting for their peanut delivery or running up and down the tree till we place the nuts out for them. The whole show is over within seconds. They are incredibly quick, usually grabbing a peanut and “flying” to the ground or running up the back of the tree with their treasure.

Video of flying squirrels grabbing their peanuts, by Michael Helget.

We plan to continue feeding our little guys peanuts well into the spring or as long as they’ll take them. It has become the best 10 second thrill for us each evening, and definitely worth pausing Netflix to enjoy.

Spring Ephemerals Are Blooming Now. Enjoy Them Before They’re Gone!

Text and photos by Caroline Haynes.

In this time of “physical distancing,” while on a solitary walk in a natural area or in your own native plant garden, keep an eye out for some of Virginia’s beautiful spring ephemerals. Ephemerals bloom for a fairly short time early in the spring and take advantage of the sunlight before the trees leaf out and block the light on the forest floor. Here are several of the lovely, transient flowers that you may encounter for just a while longer.

One of the showier species is Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). With the pink and blue buds, and blue to purple flowers, they are easy to identify and are typically found along rivers and floodplains. 

The bright yellow of the Golden ragwort (Packera aurea) is also out in full bloom now. Golden ragwort is a prolific spreader, thrives in moist, shady locations and is found in low woods, ravines, and along streams and rivers. Once the flowers fade, the basal leaves provide an attractive ground cover for most of the growing season and extending into mild winters.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), with its distinctive shaped leaves with five to nine deep lobes and showy single flowers, is in the poppy family and can be found in rich woods.

Moss phlox (Phlox subulata) is also blooming now, with shades of pink to blue to purple to white. Moss phlox is very tolerant of hot sun and dry soils and can be found on rock ledges and other open, sunny locations. It also looks pretty in the winter as leaves turn purple with the cold.

Spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) have narrow leaves and delicate pink to white flowers that are out during the day, but close up at night. They’re common in rich woods and wetlands; look for them along trails, too.

Early saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis), with tiny white flowers in branched clusters can be found tucked among rocks and along shaded banks.

Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), so-called because they resemble a pair of pantaloons hanging upside down, are especially rewarding with these quaint flowers and delicate foliage. Look for them in moist shady areas.

And while these bloomers bring a lot of joy to the human eye, they have a much more important purpose. If you stop and linger on a sunny day, you may be rewarded with the variety of native insects feasting on the nectar of these early spring flowers.

It’s Springtime . . . Shop for and Plant Natives!

Text and photos by Kasha Helget

Note: After this was posted, most plant sales were cancelled with the coronavirus. But some individual sellers continue to operate. For example,  Nature by Design and Earth Sangha are selling native plants with special distancing/handling precautions. So, don’t give up on planting natives! But please check the sales links or contact sellers before you go.

With longer daylight hours, warming soils, and the return of bird, bees, and butterflies, it’s ready to think about gardening, and in particular, installing native plants in your pots or yards. Our local animals depend on them, AND they provide beauty to our landscapes. So, please consider a few—or several native plants to brighten your yard, patio or deck. The native wildlife will appreciate it!

Why Choose Native Plants?

Because they are “from here,” natives are adapted to our climate and soil conditions. They are often the only or most healthful source of nectar, pollen, seeds, and leaves for local butterflies, insects, birds, and other animals. Other benefits of native plants are that they:

  • do not require fertilizers and few if any pesticides,
  • need less water than lawns, and help prevent erosion,
  • help reduce air pollution,
  • provide both shelter and food for wildlife,
  • promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural spaces, and
  • are beautiful and increase landscape values!

How to Choose the Right Natives for Your Yard or Pots?

It’s important to install the right plants for your conditions (wet, dry, shade, sun, slope, soil type, etc.). How do you know what’s right for you? One of the best sources is the Plant Nova Natives website: http://www.plantnovanatives.org/, with easy-to-follow tips, dozens of photos, and additional links to learn what will work best for your situation.

Where Can You Buy Natives?

Most commercial nurseries do not carry many native plants. If you have a favorite place that has a weak selection, tell them to please stock more. But there is a wonderful solution in the coming weeks: visit the increasing number of native plant sales in the area (many of which provide food, entertainment, and fun for kids, too). Below is information on several sales in Northern Virginia. Happy shopping and planting!

A plant with yellow flowers
Woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus)

2020 Spring Native Plant Sales

NOTE: Please check sale sites for information on any changes due to COVID-19.

Friends of the National Arboretum, Lahr Symposium and Native Plant Sale
03/28/2020 CANCELLED.
Visit the sale site.

Potowmack Chapter Weekly Plant Sale
From April 1st through October is a low-key plant sale on the first Wednesday of each month at the propagation beds behind the main building at Green Springs Garden.
10am to 1pm
4603 Green Spring Rd
Alexandria, VA 22312
Visit the sale site.

Walker Nature Center
Pre-order through 5pm on 04/03/2020. Order online for pick up April 18, 2020 from 10am–1pm at the Nature Center.
Walker Nature Center: 11450 Glade Drive, Reston, VA 20191
Click here for: Online form

Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Native Plant Sale
04/04/2020
9am to 3pm
Right BEFORE main parking lot at Morven Park: 17263 Southern Planter Ln, Leesburg, VA
Spring and fall sales.
Visit the sale site. 

American Horticulture Society, Spring Garden Market
04/17-18/2020
10am to 4pm
River Farm: 7931 E. Boulevard Dr., Alexandria, VA
Includes some native plant vendors.
Visit the sale site.

NOVA Soil & Water Conservation District, Native Seedling Sale
Online orders are sold out. However, there are often extra seedlings for sale on the pick-up days (April 17 and 18) and will sell for $2 a “stem” on a first-come, first-served basis. The pick-up begins at 9:00 am on Friday, April 17, and this time will give you the best selection. Sleepy Hollow Bath & Racquet Club, 3516 Sleepy Hollow Rd, Falls Church, VA 22044.
Visit the sale site.

Prince William Wildflower Society Annual Wildflower and Native Plant Sale
04/19/2020
9am–12pm
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church picnic area, 8712 Plantation Lane, Manassas, VA
Visit the sale site.

Long Branch Nature Center
Pre-order through 4pm on 04/15/2020. Order online for pick up Fri., April 24 from 3-6pm and Sat., April 25 from 10am–3pm
On site sale 04/25/2020
1 to 4pm
Long Branch Nature Center
625 S. Carlin Springs Road, Arlington, VA 22204
Spring and fall sales.
Click here for: Online form and sale site.

Northern Alexandria Native Plant Sale
04/25/2020
9am to 2pm
The Church of St. Clement: 1701 N. Quaker Ln, Alexandria, VA
Spring and fall sales.
Visit the sale site.

Rappahannock Plant Sale at Waterpenny Farm
04/25/2020
8am to 2pm
53 Waterpenny Lane
Sperryville, VA 22740
Visit the sale site.

Friends of Riverbend Park Native Plant Sale
04/25/2020
8 to 11am
Riverbend Park Outdoor Classroom/Picnic Shelter on Potomac Hills Street in Great Falls.
Pre-order through March 21. Pick up pre-ordered plants Friday, April 24 at the Riverbend Park Outdoor Classroom/Picnic Shelter.
Click here for: Online form and sale site.

Earth Sangha Plant Sale
05/03/2020
10am to 2pm
6100 Cloud Drive, Springfield, VA
Visit the sale site.

Friends of Runnymede Park
05/03/2020
10am to 3pm
195 Herndon Parkway, Herndon VA
Spring and fall sales.
Visit the sale site.

Green Springs Garden Day Plant Sale
Potowmack Chapter native plants and other native vendors
05/16/2020
9am to 3pm
Green Spring Gardens: 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA
Visit the sale site.

When Nature Takes Charge and We Get Teachable Moments

By Steve Young

Sparrow Pond is an artificial wetland and stormwater remediation complex along the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail between Route 50 and Columbia Pike in Arlington. Built circa 2000-2001, the pond has been very successful in capturing sediment that otherwise would have flowed into Four Mile Run, then the Potomac River, and eventually Chesapeake Bay and the ocean. But this success has meant the pond has been filling up with sediment and self-destructing. By Summer 2019 the pond was almost dried up. While restoration of the pond is planned for 2021–2022, in the meantime, the pond looked to be pretty dysfunctional.  Then the beavers appeared.

A beaver swims in water.
Beaver swimming in Sparrow Pond. Photo courtesy of David Howell.

We can only guess how the beavers arrived in the pond: Maybe from downstream via the Potomac River or Four Mile Run; maybe from somewhere upstream, perhaps riding the wave of the great flood of July 8, 2019. In any event, they went to work doing what beavers do: building a dam and a lodge for living quarters. In the process, they gnawed down vegetation, both for food and for their engineering projects. Their work was clearly visible from the trail and the viewing platform on the north side of the pond.

Since late this past summer, the beavers’ impressive dam has raised the water level by perhaps 4 to 5 feet, so that Sparrow Pond is indeed a pond again! Especially over the winter holiday weeks, my wife and I took several walks to the viewing platform, looking over the scene and marveling how it has changed.

A beaver dam on the side of a pond.
Beaver dam at Sparrow Pond. Photo courtesy of Steve Young.

While it was not a conscious plan to draw other onlookers, we were amazed by how many people came by, saw that we were looking at something, and took an interest in what was going on. Some folks were aware that beavers were at work; more had no clue. As a master naturalist, I found myself with a number of “teachable moments” as I explained the presence of the beavers and their ecosystem engineering. No one ran away with eyes glazed over!

A beaver lodge next to a frozen pond.
Beaver lodge at Sparrow Pond. Photo courtesy of Steve Young.

It brought home to me how we, as master naturalists, have various opportunities to do some low-key teaching about the nature that surrounds us when people show an interest. I encourage you to visit Sparrow Pond and hang out for a bit, and maybe have your own teachable moment. And you may have opportunities closer to home in parks, on trails, or even in your own backyard to engage in similar low-key interactions.

Addendum 5-6-20:

A reader expressed concern that Arlington County may euthanize the beavers because they are in a pond where they do not belong.

We raised this issue with Alonso Abugattas, the National Resources Manager for Arlington County Parks. He replied that the county hopes the beavers will move on from the pond when work on the planned restoration project for the pond begins. A beaver dam would cause damage to the restoration work as well as the trail there, and all things under it. So, beaver baffles will be installed to keep them from returning in the future. Mr. Abugattas added that it is illegal to trap or move the beavers because they would then become someone else’s problem.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Teddy Roosevelt, A Great Match for a Day of Service!

By Caroline Haynes

Over 100 individuals gathered on Theodore Roosevelt Island to participate in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service on January 20th. Despite the chilly 24 degrees, it was an otherwise sunny day, and enthusiastic volunteers warmed to the task of cutting non-native invasive plants that have overrun many parts of the island.

ARMN volunteer Stephanie Martin cuts an English ivy vine that is growing on a tree.
Stephanie Martin chopping English ivy. (Photo courtesy of Caroline Haynes.)

The MLK Day of Service event was organized by ARMN member Jenny Wiedower, who partnered with the National Park Service (which oversees the park) and Friends of Teddy Roosevelt Island who help NPS preserve and protect this unique memorial. A team of ARMN volunteers helped the participants distinguish between native and exotic invasive plants and how to cut the invasives without harming the natives.

ARMN volunteer cuts a twisted honeysuckle vine using loppers.
Volunteer attacking honeysuckle vine. (Photo courtesy of Caroline Haynes.)

The volunteers represented various ages and backgrounds from across the region who honored Dr. King by helping to restore native habitat on the island.

During the two-hour service event, the individuals: 

  • collectively logged 224 hours from the 112 volunteers
  • cut English ivy from at least 97 mature trees
  • snipped 400 square feet of wine berry (roughly the size of a two-car garage)
  • chopped down 43 honeysuckle bushes
  • cut Japanese (vining) honeysuckle from 33 trees
ARMN volunteer Caroline Hayes holds a piece of English ivy vine that was sawed off a tree.
Caroline Haynes hacking English ivy. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Martin.)

Dr. King and Theodore Roosevelt would surely be proud!

Deep Dive Recap: Dabbling and Diving Ducks

Text by Kristin Bartschi. Photos by George Sutherland.

Ducks. They’re cute, they paddle around in parks. Some ducks are so commonplace that we don’t really think twice about them (i.e. the quintessential mallard). But, as with all animals, there is a lot to learn and every duck has a unique story. 

Recently, I decided to expand my rudimentary knowledge and attend a deep dive on ducks at Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington. Naturalist Ken Rosenthal hosts deep dive lectures about once a month at Gulf Branch. Each hour-long talk focuses on a different topic, such as pollinators or homes made out of sticks. 

Attending one of these has been on my list for a while and it did not disappoint. Ken’s enthusiasm and knowledge of animals is infectious, and the hour-long presentation flew by. 

A man presents a powerpoint in front of an audience
Ken preparing to dive into duck plumage.

Did you know there are 154 species of ducks worldwide? 50 of those species can be found in North America, with 48 different species in Virginia and 28 right here in Arlington. 

Now, we covered A LOT in this deep dive, so I’m just going to pull out a couple fun facts.  

How do ducks stay dry? 

Did you ever think about this? I actually hadn’t until this talk, but it’s fascinating. Ducks have oil glands at the base of their tails. They use the oil from these glands to preen their feathers, which waterproofs their feathers and allows them to dabble or dive without getting wet. Ducklings have fluffy plumage which traps air and helps them stay buoyant above the water.  

Total eclipse of the feathers

One of my favorite facts was about “eclipse plumage.” When male ducks molt after breeding season, they acquire a temporary plumage that closely resembles the camouflaged plumage of female ducks. This helps to protect them from predators during the molt. If you look at a male mallard during his eclipse plumage, he looks almost identical to a female mallard! Want to spot the difference? While plumage color changes during molting, duck bill colors never do. So, the mallard’s yellow bill (as opposed to the female’s brown and orange bill) will give him away.   

Want to learn more (and catch a glimpse of some of Arlington’s unique ducks)? 

Ken recommended quite a few books, including: 

A stack of bird guide books

Interested in attending a deep dive? 

If you’re interested in learning more about the animals that surround us, I’d certainly recommend signing up for one of Ken’s deep dives in the future. (If you’re an ARMN member, any deep dive will count towards your CE credits.) They occur once a month on Thursday evenings and are $5 to attend. To look for upcoming talks, visit the events page on the Arlington Parks and Recreation website. Ken’s next deep dive will be Animal Meteorologists on Thursday, February 13th from 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. at Gulf Branch Nature Center. Check it out! 

In the meantime, if you’d like to take a look at some of our local ducks, good viewing locations are at Gravelly Point or Roaches Run.

ARMN: Getting to Know Paul Gibson

by Alison Sheahan

Paul Gibson has been a stalwart volunteer ever since joining the ARMN program in Spring 2013, especially in the areas of citizen science. I was able to interview him online and then finally got to meet him at the ARMN Annual Chapter meeting in December 2019. Here are some fascinating things I learned about Paul.

Paul Gibson. Photo by Alison Sheahan.

What are your favorite ARMN volunteer projects?

I really enjoy a variety of projects. I have been doing stream water quality monitoring since shortly after I became a Master Naturalist. I recently became a Master Identifier so I’m looking forward to taking my turn at identifying the critters that we find in the streams next year.

I find it fascinating to see the variety of macroinvertebrates that are in our streams, their variation by stream, and what that says about water quality in different parts of Arlington county. It’s also rewarding to talk with members of the public who pass by when we are out monitoring. Everyone is so curious about what we are doing and when they find out, they want to know more about water quality. I think that the public education that we do is a very important part of our role as master naturalists. 

Photo of two volunteers surveying macroinvertebrates with a D-net in a creek
Paul and fellow water quality monitor Ben Simon working at an Arlington stream. Photo by Jen McDonnell.

I also monitor bluebird nest boxes at Taylor Elementary School. This project provides a clear view of the perils and successes experienced by our feathered friends. It’s been heartwarming to see bluebirds, chickadees, and tree swallows go from nest-building to egg laying to hatching to raising chicks to fledging but there have also been stark examples of nest predation on eggs or chicks. For better or worse, it’s a front-row seat to the circle of life.

Another citizen science project in which I have participated for a number of years is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Grasses for the Masses program. Members of the public propagate native underwater grass seeds in a grow-out system in their homes, schools, or businesses over the winter and then gather to plant the grasses in area rivers to bolster grass populations and help restore the Bay.

Photo of Paul squatting next to a tub of aquatic grasses on a beach
Paul preparing to install native grasses in Belmont Bay at Mason Neck Park. Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Blair Blanchette Facebook page.

What has surprised you most about ARMN?

The speed at which the organization is growing. It is gratifying to see the numbers of new ARMN members who graduate out of the Basic Training program every year.

What do you like most about ARMN?

There is such a wide range of volunteer activities available that there’s really no reason not to participate. With my schedule, it’s hard to get to a lot of organized events but I can also participate at times of my choosing, depending on the project. Monitoring the bluebird boxes, for example, doesn’t need a rigid schedule, so I can fit in two or three visits a week during nesting season in a way that works for me. But there are also a lot of scheduled events to build in, which is great because it’s also nice to participate in projects with other ARMN members.

Tell us something about your life experience that has shaped your perspective on nature.

I grew up in Wisconsin, two blocks from Lake Michigan, and visited Lake Superior every summer when I was young. So, I was exposed to the variety of fish and birds in those areas at an early age. In northern Wisconsin, I remember marveling at the wild shorelines but also learning about the hazards of taconite discharges into Lake Superior from the iron mining range in Minnesota. These experiences taught me that nature and biodiversity were all around us but so were the threats to it introduced by humans. 

 What is your background?

Growing up in the upper Midwest, I was aware of and, in a way, just took for granted, that we lived among the remnants of age-old geologic forces. It wasn’t until I moved east for graduate school that I realized how unique that area is. (I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in Political Science and I have a Master’s in Information Management from Syracuse University.)  As I settled into the DC area, those experiences gave me the background to appreciate the rich biodiversity and geology of the Potomac River Valley and the Chesapeake Bay. Besides the ARMN programs, I have learned so much from courses in the Natural History Field Studies certificate program of the Audubon Naturalist Society.

 What would people find interesting about the non-ARMN parts of your life?

I train our dogs in the canine sport of “nosework.” It’s analogous to what law enforcement detection dogs do except it’s a sport for pets. Instead of looking for illegal substances, we look for target odors in organized competitions. But the skills of the dog and handler are the same. Along those lines, there are growing numbers of detector dogs that search for invasive species. So, one of my goals is to train our dogs to find invasive plants or insects, which is increasingly being done. It would be a natural intersection of two of my interests and hopefully be beneficial to conservation.

Tell us something unusual about yourself.

I have two wildlife cameras in our back yard. I am always amazed at the visitors we have. I’ve captured pictures of foxes, raccoons, deer, flying squirrels, and even a hummingbird that tried to pollinate the lens. But I’m still waiting for Wile E. Coyote to show up!