by Joan Haffey (ARMN), with input from Charlie Haffey (helpful brother)
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the programming coordinator for a senior services center near me asked if I would do some “Bird Zooms” for isolated seniors. Their clients are often locked down in their apartments or worse, in their room, with few, if any, external contacts. The coordinator knew that I was a master naturalist and interested in birds, and we thought watching birds through a window and trying to identify them might be an entertaining activity that one could do alone, especially with a good app like the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID.
The senior center had done an excellent job of orienting their clients to online conferencing and providing both tech and security support before and during various Zoom programs they offer. It also had a number of security features in place, such as only allowing the host to share materials on the screen. While using Zoom to walk through the most basic steps of the app was useful, there were still some challenges.
How could I make sure everyone could clearly see, via video conferencing, the basic steps in action on a smartphone app? And how could I simplify the demonstration so the host did not have to manage the meeting while cueing up relevant portions of excellent resources on Cornell’s website?
Enter my brother, Charlie, a retired science teacher who has made many an educational video in his day. I provided a script, and he made a “Quick Look” video:
It proved to be both easy to use and the highlight of the talk! We have both been surprised at the steady pace of people who view the video. We also decided to make it available to anyone who would like to use it for educational purposes. So, here are some suggestions for anyone who wants to pair this video with a talk about how best to use the app:
Where Are Some Places This Video Could Be Used?
Home or online school programs
Video conferencing with isolated individuals
Evaluations of this Bird Zoom for seniors show that one of the favorite parts of the talk was the cooperation with my brother. In that spirit, I asked him for a few ideas for successful video-conferenced presentations.
What are the best preparations for a presentation like this on an online conferencing platform?
It helps to have one person manage the conferencing needs while the other presents. It can be difficult to do both at once, especially monitoring for questions and security breaches.
Only have open on the computer the files to be shared during the presentation. This minimizes confusion or the potential for shares of information not meant for the audience.
An alternative to having files open on your desktop is to prepare a slideshow that includes all the information you need. Then you only have to open one file.
Do you have any guidance on clearly presenting information via video conferencing platforms?
Follow an outline with minimal points
Stick to these points
Keep the presentation short
Minimize visual and verbal information
Personalize the presentation as appropriate to connect the audience better with the presenter
We hope this video helps widen the worlds of people who really appreciate birds, both now and in the future!
I learned from renowned entomology professor and author, Doug Tallamy, that native host plants are critical sources of insects for birds to feed their young. One of the earliest Continuing Education events I can remember attending after I graduated ARMN training in 2015 was a talk by entomology researcher Desiree Narango. Her graduate study (with Doug Tallamy as her advisor), discussed how the availability of native plants in residential landscapes influences the nesting success of Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis). She found that if there was less than 70% native plant biomass, insect populations declined as well as the chickadee population rate.
I walked out of the lecture hall coo-coo for Carolina chickadees and immediately decided to set up a chickadee nesting house. I live on a somewhat busy street in North Arlington in a 1947-era neighborhood. When we moved here in 1982, we took Carolina chickadees, goldfinches, and titmice for granted because they were in abundance. But my ARMN training opened my eyes to how poor the habitat had become, and how many non-native starlings, grackles, and house sparrows had taken over while I wasn’t paying attention.
I doubted my yard had anything interesting for chickadees, but I pressed ahead. Two things I did quickly were: (1) consult Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, for a tree that would fit in my small yard and support a decent number of caterpillars, and (2) head to a bird store for a chickadee house. Within a few days of hearing Ms. Narango’s talk, I planted a river birch (Betula nigra) and installed the chickadee house. Then I waited for the avian real estate market to get active in early spring.
Carolina chickadees are year-round residents and live in flocks for much of the year. In late winter, nesting pairs (who are thought to mate for life) break off and look for nesting sites in natural cavities such as holes in decayed trees, but they will also use man-made bird houses if they are 5-15 feet above the ground and built to the right dimensions. Houses for many kinds of birds are commonly sold in bird stores, or you can make your own. Be sure, though, that you buy or make the right house for the bird you want to attract (and watch out for pushy house sparrows). Bird houses are easy to make if you are reasonably handy and have some basic tools. If you are going to make your own house, be sure to use the suitable dimensions and untreated wood.
I put it up in late winter so any chickadees in the area could scout it out before breeding season. Perhaps I overthought the process, but I worried that the house was too exposed to the elements, so I bought a wrought-iron arbor kit that I assembled and placed over the pole-mounted house. Then I planted a crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), which is semi-evergreen, to provide some protection in spring. It took a couple of years for the crossvine to get established, but it is growing over the arbor now and is casting shade and protection from the rain, as intended. (Yes, I have to keep it trimmed.) The cross braces on the arbor have also provided places for the adults to perch as they go in and out with nesting materials and food for the nestlings, which affords me the ability to observe them better.
The choice of the river birch proved to be a good one. Doug Tallamy lists river birch among the top five Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth)-supporting trees. Indeed, it has proven to be a popular perching and foraging place for chickadees and other birds in my yard. It is a fast-growing species, so it only took one or two years to attain a good size and be discovered by many birds. While nesting, the chickadees fly straight to it dozens (hundreds?) of times a day to peck at the peeling bark and branches to find insect protein for their nestlings. I cannot always see what they are finding on the tree, but they never seem to come away empty-beaked. Bonus: Goldfinch couples are also attracted to it and love to eat the seeds off the catkins (drooping flower clusters produced by trees) in late spring.
Nesting chickadee couples start looking for nest sites around early April. I see them visit the yard, call to each other, and inspect the bird house. Like any landlord, I eagerly anticipate signs that a couple wants to sign a lease. Some say it isn’t necessary, but I “prime” the inside of my chickadee house with a couple of inches of wood chips. You can use debris from a decaying tree, or even clean hamster bedding from the pet store. Just be sure the material is untreated. One sign that chickadees are seriously considering your house is when they start throwing out your wood chips. Don’t take it personally, though. Being cavity nesters, they will work on making the interior to their liking and then start bringing in moss and other materials to finish it. After this behavior has lasted a week or two, I gently raise the hinged roof panel (after giving a gentle warning knock) every two or three days to look for eggs.
The next thing I do is somewhat controversial: I put up a “wren guard” as soon as the first eggs appear to keep house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) from getting inside and throwing out the eggs. House wrens are a native species, but they are very competitive for nest sites. They use the same-sized holes and cavities that chickadees do, so they will also be interested in these houses. Some naturalists are opposed to using wren guards and recommend letting the birds work it out on their own. I understand that point of view, but confess I am so intent on boosting the chickadee population around my small suburban yard that I use them.
Once I see the eggs and attach the wren guard, I observe that the parents are momentarily puzzled, but they figure out how to fly around it and into the entrance after about five or ten minutes. Using a wren guard is not a guarantee that a wren won’t get in, but it has worked for me several years in a row. Note that it is important to take the wren guard off when the nestlings are a week or two old (too big for a house wren to pick up) because it will interfere with their fledging. If you chose to use a wren guard, keep track of the timing.
To be clear, I like house wrens and don’t wish to harm or eradicate them. This is their native breeding range, and they are valuable to the ecosystem, too. I merely want them to wait until my chickadees have launched before coming in. House wrens can also take over the nests of other birds such as bluebirds and tree swallows. As this website notes, use of a wren guard should not be your first course of action. The best way to prevent predation by house wrens is to put the nest box away from sites that would be attractive to them. But because of my small yard, I have few options for nest box placement.
I locate my nest box a few yards from my back porch because I’m a nosy landlord and I want to know everything my tenants are doing! While they are feeding their brood of five-ten babies for 16-19 days, they work from dawn until dusk every day bringing in hundreds of caterpillars—thousands before they’re done. The adults are tireless in their parenting duties. In addition to providing those thousands of caterpillars, they also take out all of the babies’ “fecal sacks” (poop in a gelatinous membrane) in order to keep the nest clean. It’s in with food, out with poop, hundreds of times a day for as many as 10 nestlings. That’s an incredible amount of energy and dedication generated by birds that only weigh about a half an ounce.
Whether it would have happened without using a wren guard, I can’t say, but a lot of new chickadees have fledged from my little house. I am usually fortunate to be watching the day they fledge, and I generally count seven or eight fledglings as they emerge. Unlike robin babies that hop around on the ground until they learn to fly, chickadee young take immediately to the air and wait in nearby trees and shrubs for their family to gather. The parents then lead them to a suitable habitat and continue to feed them in the wild for another two or three weeks. Some years I don’t know where they go after they leave my nest box, but this year the fledglings hung around the vicinity for about a month. I watched as they would transit my yard, usually in the mornings, perching from the river birch, to the red maple, to the holly, etc., at first being fed by the adults, but then learning to pick at branches and twigs for their own food. I could also tell as the days and weeks went by how their calls went from squealy little “dee dee dee” noises to more dignified-sounding “chickadee-dee-dee-dee” adult calls.
Lest you feel sorry for the house wrens who had been eying my chickadee house, I came outside the morning the chickadee family had flown, and right before my eyes, a house wren couple was already carrying its own nesting materials in. I let them stay.
Five years ago, I rarely heard a chickadee around my house, but I see and hear more and more with each passing year. Not all survive their first year, but some are thought to live two to five years. Every spring I look forward to nesting season the way some people look forward to baseball season. I get my bird house ready for them and position my porch chair for a good view. Little do they know how much joy they bring. For one thing, they are too busy raising their children and cleaning house!
We have always lived peaceably with our backyard chipmunks. I knew that they had burrows under the cement pad for the AC and behind the garden shed. But when I found a new burrow hole right up against the foundation of our house, I confess I had the urge to declare war.
Arlington’s local chippies are Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) and members of the squirrel or Sciuridae family. Their scientific name means “striped storer,” a reference to their characteristic field marks: white stripes bordered by black on each side of their backs plus a black stripe down the centerline, as well as white stripes around their eyes. Adults weigh in at 5 oz. or less and measure about 10” long, including their bushy tails, which they hold high while running. And they’re usually on the move when you see them, since their small size makes them vulnerable to predators. According to the Mother Nature Network, these include hawks, owls, foxes, snakes, and, especially in our backyards, free-roaming cats. An article in the Journal of Mammalogy explains that chipmunks have different calls to warn about different predators: a chip for terrestrial foes and a cluck for aerial ones, plus a chip-trill when they’re being pursued. This National Geographic page on chipmunks includes a video with these three calls.
Chipmunks are also constantly on the move because they need to use every daylight hour to collect food, especially in the fall. The National Wildlife Federation describes them as omnivores who will eat fruit, nuts, grain, berries, insects, fungi, small amphibians, and even bird eggs or nestlings if they find them on the ground. According to the Mother Nature Network, their cheeks can expand to three times the size of their heads to carry food.
Alonso Abugattas, the Capital Naturalist, notes that since they mostly consume seeds and nuts within their burrows, chipmunks are not a significant source of seed dispersal. But their appetite for mushrooms does help to distribute mycorrhizal fungi that is beneficial to trees and plants.
In their underground burrows, chipmunks create multiple food caches that will sustain them through the winter months. They are not true hibernators, but rather exist in a state of torpor, waking periodically to eat. The National Wildlife Federation mentions scientific studies suggesting that global warming may be undermining chipmunks’ survival rates by disrupting their normal hibernation cycles.
Their underground burrows can be up to 30 feet long and have at least two widely spaced openings. Nesting areas are separate from food caches. The Mother Nature Network describes chipmunks as generally solitary except for mating, which occurs in the spring and sometimes again in late summer. The female raises 2-5 pups, who leave the nest and go off on their own within 6 weeks.
Although typically forest dwellers, chipmunks have adapted readily to suburban environments and thus can come into conflict with people by eating bulbs, raiding bird feeders, and digging too close to foundations. Although they do carry ticks, the Humane Society notes that chipmunks themselves are not known to spread diseases to humans, and their burrows seldom cause significant structural damage. The Society advocates tolerance rather than termination and various methods to deter them: move bird feeders at least 15 feet from your house, sweep up spilled seed, avoid plantings close to your foundation, use wire mesh to protect bulbs.
I wound up following the advice of the Bi-State Wildlife Hotline and placing a rag soaked in ammonia and a cup of moth bulbs near the new foundation hole. That way I can remove both without harming the soil once the chipmunks have relocated. The Hotline also mentions various commercial and home-made remedies to discourage them from chewing on decks and fencing.
Everyone has a different level of tolerance when it comes to living with backyard wildlife. In stepping back from the brink of war, I’ve reminded myself that the rewards for learning to coexist with chipmunks are supporting a more diverse ecosystem and enjoying the continuing antics of these tiny, charismatic neighbors.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.