Bird Mobs at Long Branch Nature Center

by Steve Young

ARMN member and Long Branch environmental steward Steve Young shares a mindful encounter with nature.

During a warm July morning, I found myself walking along the Long Branch Nature Center access road. Just east of Willow Pond, I began to hear a commotion among small birds. First to get my attention were the scolding alarm calls of Wood Thrushes—”Whip! Whip!” Then I began to notice other birds calling and in some cases flying around near the stream: Eastern Towhees, Common Grackles, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Blue Jays, and undoubtedly some others I either missed or have forgotten.

To me the uproar was almost a sure sign of the presence of some predator. Birds alert each other to a predator and often “mob” it. Interestingly, even though there are crows around and they tend to be very aggressive mobbers, I heard or saw none.

I slowly walked closer to the stream, toward the epicenter of the activity, expecting to see perhaps a ground-based predator like a domestic cat or a fox, maybe with a victim in its grasp, since that would amplify the upset of the birds. But I saw nothing. Barred Owl? I looked up in the trees, but saw no owl. Finally, about 15 feet above the stream, I spotted a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk perched motionless in a tree. This was the cause of the racket. As I got close, it flew to a new perch about 3 feet away from its previous one. As soon as it moved, two grackles dived at its head. There was no more direct mobbing, but the sonic uproar continued. I took several pictures and walked on.

Red-shouldered Hawk at Long Branch (upper right in tree)

Red-shouldered Hawk at Long Branch (upper right in tree)

Had I not focused on the message from the birds and realized they could tell me something, I would never have known the silent, motionless hawk was there. The more attention we pay to nature with our various senses, the more stories nature shares.

Applications for ARMN Fall Training Class Due August 20

Identifying non-native invasive plants

Learning to identify nonnative invasive plants at Fort C. F. Smith

Macro-invertebrate stream monitoring

Assessing stream health by observing collected macro-invertebrates

“I love ARMN and opportunities it offers.”

“I enjoy the broad spectrum of volunteer projects/opportunities, the many continuing-education possibilities, the good networking between the local nature groups and organizations/agencies /events, and the exchange of information about nature stuff, events, organizations—and more!”

~Current ARMN master naturalists

Do you have a great interest in nature? • Do you want to learn more about insects? • birds? • mammals? • reptiles? • geology? • aquatic and terrestrial ecology? • native and invasive plants? • parts of nature you didn’t even know existed? • Would you like to help keep our natural world healthy or share what you learn about nature with neighbors/schools/the larger community?

Then apply now to train as a master naturalist during ARMN’s 14-week Fall 2016 basic training course. No prior experience is necessary—just your interest in the natural world.

Classes will be held on Tuesday evenings from 7:00 to 10:00 pm, from September 6 through December 6, 2016, at Long Branch Nature Center, 625 S. Carlin Springs Rd, Arlington, VA 22204. Four Saturday field trips will be scheduled at parks around the area.

Learn more about the program on the armn.org website under Training (https://armn.org/basic-training/). See the Apply tab (https://armn.org/apply/) for the application form, which you can fill out and deliver to Long Branch by mail or in person no later than August 20, 2016. Space in this popular course is limited, so act now.

Contact: Caroline Haynes (703-525-3614) for questions.

We hope to see you in September!

Arlington 4-H’s Environmental Programs Help Kids Explore Nature

by Caitlin Verdu

Here, 4-H Agent Caitlin Verdu provides a glimpse into the 4-H Outdoor Explorers program, which pairs volunteers with Extended Day staff to get children outside to enjoy nature. Interested in learning more? Attend a free information session on Tuesday, August 23 from 7–9 pm at Walter Reed Community Center or contact Caitlin directly (cverdu@vt.edu or 703-228-6404).

On a chilly April morning, the Arlington County Public Schools’ (APS) Extended Day staff huddled in a silent circle around an oak tree. For sixty seconds, the group scrutinized the branches. After the quiet minute, each participant shared something they had observed:

  • I think I see a bird’s nest.
  • The tree is so tall; I bet it is very old.
  • There is a little plant growing at the base of the trunk.
  • Many of the branches are broken, so it’s probably been in some strong storms.

I explained that this was our Meeting Tree. If we had multiple sessions, we would return to this tree to find differences throughout the seasons. We would search for wildlife, plant seeds, mimic animal adaptations, play in the dirt, and gaze at the clouds—all in the name of exploration. We would become 4-H Outdoor Explorers and, most importantly, we would have FUN!

The 4-H Outdoor Explorers program operates through the APS Extended Day program. School staff are trained in the curriculum and carefully plan out a schedule of activities. Then, with volunteer support, they lead elementary-aged youth in simple nature lessons. In the fall, this program will run at Randolph, Drew, Ashlawn, and Hoffman Boston Elementary Schools.

Photo 1

The 4-H Outdoor Explorers program is one of two exciting 4-H opportunities for volunteers to reach budding naturalists. The other is the 4-H Nature Knights, a club for youth ages 9–13. These curious conservationists meet monthly to investigate a nature topic. Volunteers join the fun by leading one-time nature activities or field trips. Activities are only limited by imagination, and recent offerings have included a tree identification walk, stream surveying, and a lesson on hummingbird migration.

By exposing youth to the wonders of the natural world at an early age, 4-H is developing the next generation of conservation leaders. In order to continue this important mission, we need your help.

Photo 2

We’re looking for volunteers who are interested in sharing their passion for nature with youth. Do you enjoy playing in the dirt? Do you like exploring the outdoors? Do you want to help develop the next generation of naturalists? Then come out to the 4-H training on Tuesday, August 23 from 7–9 pm at Walter Reed Community Center to learn how to put your talents and enthusiasm to use. We will cover program opportunities, share tips and tricks for successful environmental education programs, and experience the 4-H model of “learning by doing” through educational games.

Questions? Contact Caitlin Verdu at cverdu@vt.edu, 703-228-6404, or just stop by her office at the Fairlington Community Center, 3308 S. Stafford St., Arlington, VA.

Amazing Grasses . . . Right Under Our Feet!

by Caroline Haynes (photos courtesy of Toni Genberg, unless otherwise indicated)

A hardy group of ARMN and Virginia Native Plant Society members braved the late-July heat at Fort C. F. Smith Park for an early morning native grasses ID walk. Leading the trek was ARMN member and plant expert Margaret Chatham. As is typical for continuing education events, there was a range of expertise in the group, but it is safe to say that everyone seemed to learn something new!

Schizachyrium scoparium

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) (photo by Kasha Helget)

From the “barber pole” coloration of the stem or culm of Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) to the number and scales on the spikelets of the Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus), Margaret shared clues that help identify the plants we saw.

Cyperus_esculentus_IMG_2289

Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus)

Having scouted the site before the walk, Margaret provided a list of the species we were likely see. This helped immensely in trying to capture the distinguishing characteristics of the variety of grasses (and a few rushes and sedges) that we found in the park.

Many thanks to Margaret for sharing her considerable expertise and to Toni Genberg who took most of the photos seen here.

Cyperus_echinatus_IMG_2287

Globe Flatsedge (Cyperus echinatus)

 

Dichanthelium_clandestinum_IMG_2301

Deer Tongue (Dichanthelium clandestinum)

Elymus_virginicus_IMG_2308

Virginia Wildeye (Elymus virginicus)

 

Tridens_flavus_IMG_2310

Purpletop Tridens (Tridens flavus)

Application Period Open for ARMN Fall 2016 Training Class

Identifying non-native invasive plants

Learning to identify nonnative invasive plants at Fort C. F. Smith

Macro-invertebrate stream monitoring

Assessing stream health by observing collected macro-invertebrates

“I love ARMN and opportunities it offers.”

“I enjoy the broad spectrum of volunteer projects/opportunities, the many continuing-education possibilities, the good networking between the local nature groups and organizations/agencies /events, and the exchange of information about nature stuff, events, organizations—and more!”

~Current ARMN master naturalists

Do you have a great interest in nature? • Do you want to learn more about insects? • birds? • mammals? • reptiles? • geology? • aquatic and terrestrial ecology? • native and invasive plants? • parts of nature you didn’t even know existed? • Would you like to help keep our natural world healthy or share what you learn about nature with neighbors/schools/the larger community?

Then apply now to train as a master naturalist during ARMN’s 14-week Fall 2016 basic training course. No prior experience is necessary—just your interest in the natural world.

Classes will be held on Tuesday evenings from 7:00 to 10:00 pm, from September 6 through December 6, 2016, at Long Branch Nature Center, 625 S. Carlin Springs Rd, Arlington, VA 22204. Four Saturday field trips will be scheduled at parks around the area.

Learn more about the program on the armn.org website under Training (https://armn.org/basic-training/). See the Apply tab (https://armn.org/apply/) for the application form, which you can fill out and deliver to Long Branch by mail or in person no later than August 20, 2016. Space in this popular course is limited, so act now.

Contact: Caroline Haynes (703-525-3614) for questions.

We hope to see you in September!

ARMN Members Win Environmental Education Challenge

At last month’s ARMN chapter meeting, members Mary McLean and Melanie LaForce re-enacted the skit that won them the Golden Paddle at the February 2016 conference of the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education. Here, Mary reports on the the premiere of “The Secret Lives of Migrating Blue-hatted Boobies.” Marion Jordan provided the photos of the June re-enactment.

by Mary McLean

ARMN members Mary McLean and Melanie LaForce teamed up to win the Golden Paddle in the annual Challenge at the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE) conference last February. MAEOE is a nonprofit organization that serves teachers, natural resource managers, nature center staff, and environmental program managers with dynamic training programs, workshops, conferences, awards programs, networking opportunities, and educational resources. The conference provides professional development opportunities that are relevant beyond Maryland’s borders, which is why Mary and Melanie attended.

Once there, they were intrigued by the Challenge, a fun highlight of the program. Past Challenges have included making a sculpture from recyclables, creating a song, or acting out a pantomime. This year’s Challenge was to to present a skit that interpreted MAEOE’s mission “to encourage, engage, and empower the community to understand, responsibly use, and promote the natural world.” Armed with with a bag full of detritus props, all of which had to be used, Mary and Melanie decided to go for it in a skit they entitled “The Secret Lives of Migrating Blue-hatted Boobies.”

photo courtesy of Marion Jordan

Mary McLean and Melanie LaForce as “Blue-hatted Boobies”

The skit began with empty-nester boobies Mary and Melanie playing “Go Fish” while waiting to migrate. The female spotted signs of fall (a handful of leaves thrown in the air). The male got ready by preening with a lint roller. They both fattened up with a handful of Tootsie Rolls and cotton balls thrown from the audience.

Then they debated, “How do we migrate?

How about a National Geographic video? ~Nah. Player broken.

A Chesapeake Bay book map? ~Nope, won’t go far enough.

What would “James” do? (a book about James Monroe.)

Then the male had an idea (a plastic light bulb over the head).

“Let’s use these! Then we can see to fly at night!” (a reading headlamp and a patriotic flashlight.)

As they flew over the ocean, the male spotted a (tiny, green plastic) sea turtle far below.“There goes a flying fish!” (a bubble-blowing form), he observed, as it “flew” out into the audience.

“We made it to Costa Rica!” the boobies shouted. The female sang and played her “maracas” (sponges) and the male yelled “Fore!” while swinging a toy golf club.

Another successful migration!

The End.

The skit was a clear favorite of the conference attendees and Mary and Melanie took home the Golden Paddle—a canoe paddle printed with each year’s winning team since 1997. The win also marked the first time that the paddle traveled from Maryland to the “other side of the (Potomac) river.” As Challenge winners, Mary and Melanie get to keep the paddle until next year’s conference when they will choose the format of the next MAEOE Challenge.

courtesy of Marion Jordan

Mary McLean and the Golden Paddle

 

Arlington County Recognizes ARMN’s Eric Midboe as “Outstanding Volunteer”

FullSizeRender

Eric Midboe, an Arlington Regional Master Naturalist, has received one of 14 “Outstanding Volunteers for 2016” awards from Arlington’s Department of Parks & Recreation.

He was acknowledged for his regular care for animals at Long Branch Nature Center, as well as for being a cheerful ambassador to center visitors. Eric has also worked on complex grounds projects and used his background in aerospace and marine sciences to assist staff with other challenges around the nature center.

The Director of the Arlington County Department of Parks & Recreation expressed appreciation for Eric’s willingness to go above and beyond for a program that does so much for so many.

Congratulations, Eric!

Master Naturalists Visit the Shenandoah Valley’s SCBI

ARMN member Mary Martha Churchman reports on a rare and valuable opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.

IMG_9627

The author (front, center) and fellow ARMN members on the SCBI tour (photo courtesy of Caroline Haynes)

by Mary Martha Churchman

On June 7, 17 Arlington Regional Master Naturalists traveled to Front Royal, where they were joined by 7 members of the Banshee Reeks Master Naturalists chapter to tour the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) [https://nationalzoo.si.edu/SCBI/]. The 3,200-acre facility is not open to the general public, but docent-led tours are provided by appointment to selected groups.

Following a brief orientation film in the auditorium, the naturalists filled two vans to tour the grounds. Knowledgeable docents drove and narrated as we viewed the pastures and pens where various species are studied and bred for reintroduction to natural areas and zoos, both domestically and internationally. These include Black-footed Ferrets, Scimitar- horned Oryx, Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes, Dama Gazelle, Tufted Deer, Eld’s Deer, Przewalski Horses, and—of course—the charismatic Cheetahs.

While Congressional appropriations fund the permanent staff and facilities, the institute’s research projects are subsidized by grants, some international. The Scimitar-horned Oryx, for example, are funded by the United Arab Emirates and will be released into the Sahel (sub-Saharan Africa) as game. Eld’s Deer will be reintroduced to Southeast Asia as prey to support the tiger population. The ancestors of the ferrets have successfully colonized in Colorado.

Many of the rolling-foothill meadows are planted in grasses that are mown to feed not only the animals at SCBI but all the hoofed stock at the National Zoo. In turn, manure from the zoo is brought back to Front Royal, composted, and reapplied to fertilize the fields.

In addition to the featured animals, we witnessed other projects of special interest to master naturalists. The docents spoke passionately about the fight against invasive plants at the sprawling facility. The staff work with volunteers to control Autumn Olive, Multi-flora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet, among others. In addition, research is underway to exclude deer from selected plots and observe the changes. Virginia Working Landscapes [http://www.vaworkinglandscapes.org/] is trying to rehabilitate unused fields.

Local volunteers monitor bluebird houses, which produced 175 fledglings in one recent year. Several experimental garden plots highlight strategies for reintroducing native plants. SCBI hosts one of fifty sites of the Natural Environmental Observatory Network (NEON) [http://www.neonscience.org/about], which continuously observes 14 data points and is the site of an annual overflight to monitor environmental conditions. Apart from the ongoing research, the SCBI also has a cooperative academic program with George Mason University to train a new generation of conservation biologists.

At the end of the tour we were able to get out of the vans to stretch at the grassy racetrack, a legacy of the years from 1911 to 1948 when the property was a U.S. Army Cavalry Remount Station that was used for veterinary science. The use persisted through ownership by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Since 1975, the National Zoo has conducted conservation biology at the site, first through its Conservation and Research Center and from 2010 as the SCBI.

Spring Wonders in Potomac Overlook Regional Park

ARMN volunteer and Master Gardener Joanne Hutton reports on spring’s largesse in the native plant garden at Potomac Overlook Regional Park (with photos by the author unless otherwise indicated).

by Joanne Hutton

Spring rains yielded floral abundance this year, and the unfolding of spring at Potomac Overlook Regional Park’s Shady Native Plant Demo Garden was glorious—if you got there in between the showers. This is a space that ARMN maintains for public enjoyment and edification.

The PORP garden was the brainchild of, among others, Long Branch Nature Center naturalist Cliff Fairweather, and has enjoyed support and donations from the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, Virginia Native Plant Society, Earth Sangha, Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia, and the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists. It is coming into its own in its fifth year, even as it is a work in progress. We’ve learned a lot about what the deer like to eat in a setting to which they were already habituated, especially geraniums, goldenrods, viburnums, ninebark, and some asters.

We have watched the lovely Woodland Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) establish under a dogwood and twine with the Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens). The latter is a very quiet little groundcover, and I’ve discovered that, while it’s happier with the drainage a small slope offers, this year it bloomed happily the first week of June, despite the rainy conditions.

The Sweet Wake Robin (Trillium erectum var. vaseyi), also called the Stinking Benjamin, was also in bloom, although I confess I didn’t inhale it deeply. This plant is hardly “erectum,” which is why it’s treated as a separate species in some references, and is likely more common farther south. It has various medicinal (and also toxic) properties, and the freshly unfolding spring bracts are edible. To my mind they are too beautiful to consider harvesting.

Sweet Wake Robin (Trillium erectum var. vaseyi)

Sweet Wake Robin (Trillium erectum var. vaseyi)

(Trillium erectum)

Sweet Wake Robin, a.k.a. Stinking Benjamin

Deer do NOT browse on the Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) that has spread to several beds and throws a golden haze over them in March and April. Similarly, deer avoid the native Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) that’s created a rich green border under the Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus). Another delightful groundcover, Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), has eluded predation. Like the Partridge Berry, it prefers decent drainage, especially during winter months. It’s a merry little plant that bloomed this year for nearly two months and is still going strong. Try it in your garden, if you haven’t already. Better yet, come to a work party (look for upcoming events on the ARMN Volunteer page) and we’ll dig you a piece!

Green and Gold (Chrysogonum  virginianum)

Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)

Ferns are only occasionally sampled by deer, and you can see at least eight different species in the demo garden. Some are delicate and others like the Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) are statuesque.

Photo 4 Cinnamon fern fertile spikes (Joanne Hutton)

Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) spikes

There are always things to see in the park. Some of them require a careful eye—to discover a recently emerged toad, uncover a baby box turtle not two inches long while weeding, or spot the source of warbler songs in the high canopy above.

American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Photo 6 Baby box turtle (Elizabeth Gearin)

Baby Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) (photo courtesy of Elizabeth Gearin)

We are grateful for the support of the new park manager, Doranne Pittz. If you come to visit PORP, please introduce yourself to Doranne, who is new to Arlington. She has promised to install a sign to explain the garden’s purpose. And we are working on garden markers to highlight the valuable species that flourish in the shade and offer something for everyone—even the White-tailed Deer.

ARMN Joins Central Rappahannock on Visit to Crow’s Nest

Article and photographs by Suzanne Dingwell

ARMN member Suzanne Dingwell reports on a joint visit to the Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve with members of the Central Rappahannock Master Naturalist chapter.

L1340853

Mike Lott (pointing) describes the preserve’s mixed-hardwood forest.

Glorious weather presided over the field trip to Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve (http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/natural-area-preserves/crowsnest) on April 16, when ARMN joined the Central Rappahannock Master Naturalist chapter for a guided walk. The Stafford County preserve encompasses almost 3,000 acres of mixed-hardwood forest, and both tidal and nontidal wetlands, all dressed in spring’s finest. We had the pleasure of being led by the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) Mike Lott, the regional supervisor for Crow’s Nest. Mike’s extensive knowledge of the history and the ecology of the area were put to good use as a series of mini-talks at strategic locations along the trail; everyone learned something new and interesting!

Mike told us that the beautiful preserve was almost paved over at several points recently and it took a lot of perseverance and a little luck to enable DCR to finally save the area from bulldozers. Now the challenge for DCR is balancing the need to protect the preserve, while at the same time allowing public access. Public support is needed to make sure funds can be available to manage lands they already own and to fund future purchases. Master naturalists can play an important part in helping to educate the public in how they can be visitors who “do no harm” and why they should want to be.

L1340841

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) emerges along a stream.

Running through the preserve is a central ridge climbing to 160 feet and flanked by steep ravines falling to water’s edge, making for dramatic topography. We wandered up, down, and through, enjoying the emerging canopy with delicate greens backed by a brilliant blue sky. We listened to warblers––and spotted a few as well. Many of Virginia’s spring ephemeral plants were in abundance and the two chapters’ members engaged in serious cross-pollination of ID skills.

L1340898

Bluets (Houstonia caerulea) along a trail

The afternoon was capped off with a joint luncheon, perfect for a relaxed exchange of ideas and experiences. (One of the Rappahannock members opened her house and lawn to us and that group surprised us with lunch!) All in all, it was a most satisfactory day. The trails at Crow’s Nest will be ready for public use in September, so add it to the list of places you want to see.