Come volunteer to help heal the environment on Martin Luther King, Jr., National Day of Service Weekend, Jan 14-16, 2023! You’re invited to join Arlington Regional Master Naturalist (ARMN) Park Stewards to remove non-native invasive plants and help restore the natural ecosystem, while enjoying time outdoors with community members in our area’s beautiful parks. Wear gloves, sturdy shoes, long pants, and bring a water bottle. Bring tools if you have them; extras will be provided. All ages are welcome. Children must be supervised at all times by a parent or guardian.
Hibernation is for big, ol’ hairy bears—NOT humans. Bundle up and head outside to discover winter’s wonders!
It’s downright easy to spy our hometown Bald Eagles nesting in leaf-bare sycamores and other mammoth trees. And you might catch a sly Red Fox prancing through your neighborhood searching for his Valentine. Their breeding season peaks in late January. If you peer a bit more closely, you can also eyeball our many other winter visitors, like perky Ruby-crowned Kinglets popping up their crowns as these curious critters land near you to say hello. And if you learn where to look, your eyes will reveal one of our planet’s wackiest wildflowers, self-heated Skunk Cabbage that resembles a curvy chartreuse and plum-colored Georgia O’Keefe painting on the outside and a coronavirus-like ball on the inside during its flowering stage. (Hint: They thrive by mucky creeks.) These brumal miracles could even transform a winter loather into a winter lover.
Gobs of “snowbirds” choose Virginia as their Miami Beach. As a wildlife photographer, my personal favorites include the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (no, it’s not a cartoon character), White-throated Sparrows (they sometimes sound like computers), Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Dark-eyed Juncos. I also adore wintering waterfowl like Canvasback Ducks with vampire-red eyes, ballerina-graceful Tundra Swans, chunky Snow Geese, and feisty American Wigeon Ducks with green-striped heads and squeaky voices.
You can find the general location of these birds with Cornell University’s eBird website and free mobile app and use it to alert you to rarities, like teensy but tough Rufous Hummingbirds, which are increasingly more common winter wanderers. You can pinpoint birds, critters, and plants with the iNaturalist website and free mobile app by National Geographic and the California Academy of Sciences.
You’ll know you’ve stumbled upon a Sapsucker if you hear a nasal mewing and spot trees with perfect rows of round or rectangular holes. Itsy-bitsy Golden-crowned Kinglets might flit down beside you to show off their sunflower-yellow crests. These and many other birds hang out in area forests or at the forest edge, especially if it bumps into a meadow. It doesn’t hurt if there’s a creek, a waterfall, a bird bath, or another water source nearby. In Northern Virginia and throughout the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia), you’re never more than a mile from a “birdy” park or other public land. Winter ducks—including Scaup, Ruddy, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, and Ring-neck—even promenade around the pond at Constitution Gardens on the National Mall near the U.S. Capitol. And as long as you’re crossing the Potomac River, head to Gunner’s Lake in Germantown for a cornucopia of dazzling ducks.
In the DMV, eagles and owls both nest during the winter. You might notice Ma and Pa Bald Eagle flying in with new branches to spiff up their massive nests in early winter and sitting on their eggs by February. Both of these big nesters live along the Potomac River in Arlington near Spout Run and at Alexandria’s Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve. To find dozens of eagles in Northern Virginia, consult the unparalleled Center for Conservation Biology’s eagle nest map. Just don’t venture closer than 660 feet to an active nest or the feds might swoop in to bust you since eagles are highly protected by federal laws.
Owls aren’t quite as easy to see. But at Dyke Marsh, you might glimpse Barred Owls “honeymooning” in the winter. Babies come a bit later. Depending on the weather, Virginia’s Great Horned Owls typically hatch by late winter or early spring. They have recently nested at Fort C. F. Smith Park in Arlington and at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Woodbridge.
Barred Owls also parade around “must-see” Huntley Meadows Park. In the winter the owls are joined by their country cousins, pint-sized Brown Creepers (with two-toned curved beaks) that spiral upward around frigid tree trunks. Northern Pintail ducks dabble for dinner along the boardwalk of Huntley’s locally famous wetland. If you’re lucky, you might spy a Common Muskrat chomping on its leafy green dinner or see a playful North American River Otter. Visit late in the day if you’re eager for Beavers. In late February and early March, American Woodcocks with their Pinocchio-sized beaks lure mates with buzzing sounds and spiral “sky dances.”
Some parks, like Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly, hang bird feeders, which make it even easier to gawk at beautiful birds close-up. And Arlington’s Long Branch Nature Center is now likely the most dependable place in the United States to see Southern Flying Squirrels up close. It offers a few public programs during the winter.
But you don’t have to visit those hotspots for birds, blooms, or beasts. Just trek anywhere along the thousands of miles of public trails in the DMV. Stop often to look and listen for sights (especially movement) and sounds of life. You might encounter rascally Raccoons, acrobatic Eastern Gray Squirrels (and maybe some white and black morphs), White-tailed Deer, and perhaps even a Virginia Opossum, with a whopping 50 teeth, the most teeth of any wild mammal in North America and North America’s sole marsupial with its kangaroo-like pouch. By late winter, you may hear the deafening, high-pitched wailing from a hidden brigade of thumbnail-sized Spring Peeper Frogs introducing themselves to their mates.
Besides just evergreen trees and shrubs, Virginia’s forests are splattered with other greenery all winter. Clumps of American Mistletoe cling to bare trees. This parasitic plant’s white berries may poison humans but yield a yummy snack for Cedar Waxwings and other crayon-colored birds. Tropical-looking Christmas ferns spill over rocks with dark emerald green fronds. Plant-like lichens light up trees and rocks with a light-green, yellow-green, and green-gray palette. Pincushion, brocade, and a tapestry of other mosses form a spongy green oasis on the ground suitable for leprechauns and other fairies. Invasive vines, such as English Ivy, wind their way up trees. The birds and critters that use them can’t know that the gnarly vines are choking the trees to death. Pint-size Partridge-berry plants (a Virginia Native Plant Society “Wildflower of the Year”) and Spotted Wintergreen plants also decorate the drab dirt. Summer-blooming Cranefly Orchids stand out with two-tone leaves—green on top and cranberry-colored underneath.
Native berry-like “drupes” (fruits), and seeds also brighten the winter woods and gardens. The birds will help point out their fave eye-candy seeds and drupes, like brick-red Staghorn Sumac, sometimes spotted with a woodpecker dangling underneath. Woodpeckers are also fond of the Poison Ivy drupes that often cause an allergic reaction in humans. Humans won’t need help finding the shiny-red drupes of American Holly, beaming purple Beautyberry, salmon-colored Coralberry, regal-red Winterberry, red-orange fruits of native Coral Honeysuckle, and rosy-red rose hips from Virginia’s native Swamp Rose.
And don’t forget to look in your own backyard for wintry wonders. You’ll likely find a super-model bird: a fiery-red male Northern Cardinal with an orange beak, kinetic crest, and a black Zorro mask. Cardinals are considered one of the most beautiful birds in the entire world. These living ornaments, which often adorn Christmas cards, are one of our America’s—and Virginia’s—most cherished winter wonders.
So, grab your cardinal-red scarf and gloves and go exploring for your own winter wonders. The only thing you likely won’t stumble upon is a big ol’ hairy bear!
Have you ever wondered how a duck can tolerate swimming in icy water? Or what happens to wood frogs when the temperature drops and the cold winds blow? Animals have a variety of ways to survive the cold winter months when food sources are scarce and the temperatures dip.
During a recent webinar, Ken Rosenthal, Park Naturalist at Gulf Branch Nature Center, highlighted some of the unique and resourceful ways animals adapt to these chilly winter conditions.
They can hibernate, where their body temperature and heart rates drop. These animals, such as the groundhog, will eat a lot of food going into hibernation and lose up to 37 percent of their weight during this time.
Dormancy is another approach. Reptiles and amphibians may enter “brumation” during the cold winter months, when, similar to hibernation, reptiles shut down their bodies to conserve energy. Snakes and turtles will often stop eating before their metabolism slows so they have time to digest their meal. (Undigested food can ferment inside the body and be deadly.)
Wood frogs, tree frogs, and spring peepers can hide under leaf litter, but can’t dig down into the ground to avoid freezing. “The minute the tips of the toes on tree frog, wood frog, or spring peeper begin to freeze they sense the formation of crystals, and their body starts to move sugar into their vital organs,” Rosenthal said. Wood frogs can freeze to the point where they appear dead but thaw out after about six hours.
Migration is another option. Many migratory birds such as warblers that rely on insects, follow the food. As the days get shorter, birds begin to accumulate fat in their body to get ready for the migratory process.
Water birds that hang around our area during the winter such as geese, ducks, and gulls, have a unique adaptation that enables them to tolerate the snow and ice in “bare feet.” Within their legs is a side-by-side blood vessel pair that helps conserve heat: An artery that carries warm blood to the feet heats the blood in the vein that returns colder deoxygenated blood back to the body.
“That’s how ducks can stand in the snow and paddle in the frigid cold water,” Rosenthal said.
Birds such as mourning doves fluff their feathers to conserve heat and will crouch low over their feet to keep them warm. Other birds, such as black-capped chickadees, survive the cold by changing the amount of heat they generate overnight. They drop their body temperature so they have to use less energy. Their body fat drops from 7 percent at night, to 3 percent in the morning.
Some birds such as the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the Golden-crowned Kinglet, have a lot of extra fluff and insulation surrounding their bodies. As a result, these small, active birds are able to endure freezing temperatures while maintaining a normal body temperature.
Fish don’t need as much food during the winter because their metabolism has slowed down, and they also don’t need as much oxygen. The same is true for turtles and frogs, which tend to nestle into the mud at the bottom of the pond as the temperature drops.
Terrestrial turtles, such as our eastern box turtles, dig into the ground during the winter, can remain frozen for up to 73 hours and can survive spring floods due to a slowed metabolism.
Garter snakes huddle together in a den (by the hundreds and thousands!) to stay warm, and bald-faced hornets die off except for the queens who overwinter and begin a new colony in the spring. Honey bees also huddle together in the hive. They can maintain a temperature that can be up to 40 degrees warmer than the temperature outside.
For more information and fun facts, and to view the entire presentation go to:
Recently I participated as an ARMN volunteer for a tree planting event at the Ben Brenman Park in Alexandria. The event was hosted by the Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria. When I arrived, an impressively large group of volunteers was watching a tree planting demonstration. D.C. area native and former Coast Guard Officer Bonnie Petry described in meticulous detail how to put tree seedlings in the ground. Although everyone present may have privately thought, “I already know how to plant a tree,” her authority conveyed the loftier goal of giving the tree the best possible chance of survival at Ben Brenman Park.
Bonnie described the benefits of gravity for extracting a tree from its pot, a technique less damaging to the roots than the typical you-hold-the-pot-while-I-pull maneuver. She showed the simplest way to gauge the depth of the hole relative to the depth of the root mass using a horizontal stake to mark ground level and a vertical stake to estimate depth. “And you don’t want it to go too high or it can kill the tree,” she said. And then she had everyone laughing as she described how to spread the roots out “like in the old Bugs Bunny Cartoon.”
Once we were briefed, the group split into teams of 2-4 people armed with shovels, pickaxes, stakes, mulch, and a tubular stake-driver tool. The event was made possible by the nonprofit, One Tree Planted, that pledges to plant a tree for every dollar donated. And the seedlings already sat perched in their designated planting spots, expectant.
The first step was starting the hole, which meant breaking through turf grass with a shovel or, preferably, a pickaxe. Many volunteers had no experience with pickaxing, which made for an exciting challenge. But some were naturals. Volunteer Amanda got right to work, planting her legs firmly and swinging the heavy tool. She aimed for the middle of the hole as she moved in a circle, pulling soil to the side with each swing. She was careful to pile all the soil in one mound, as learned from the demonstration.
Linda was also a natural with the pickaxe. Although she had never wielded one before, she swung it vigorously, explaining “I just do like the cheetah. I sprint then I poop out,” then passed the tool to fellow volunteer, Chantrel. From Washington State, Chantrel said that she had always loved helping the environment and participating in community events. This was her first pickaxing “rodeo,” but Linda cheered her on with “Yay, our hole is getting really big.” Then, Will and Linda came up with another use for the pickaxe: to break up the compacted roots at the base of their seedling. Along with his ARMN member wife, Carol, Will has attended lots of volunteer events, including stream monitoring and invasives removals.
Nearby, the Girl Scouts from St. Mary’s Troop 4215 worked hard, too. They were excited to be completing the last step to honor the annual World Thinking Day, which was focused on conservation this year. The task, for Girl Scouts and Girl Guides all over the world, was to plant a tree. The girls lowered the tree into the hole, tapped the soil on it, and stepped back to admire their work.
Meanwhile, said Volunteer Marcus of his friend, Rose, “When we watched the demo, Rose wanted to do the pickaxe thing … She’s just rockin’ it.” It turned out that Rose already had plenty of pickaxe experience from working along the Appalachian Trail. As she made headway, Rose switched to the shovel, and they all got their hands into the emerging hole to remove dirt. “I think we’re close, Marcus, let me know if there are rocks.” She, Marcus, and his wife, Amanda are a regular trio for hiking, playing sports, and visiting breweries. They like spending time in parks but have noticed how these have become degraded from human use. In this project, said Rose, “You can see the fruits of your labor,” as they gently lowered the tree into the new hole.
Nearby, a 7-year-old worked with his mom, who said it was not their first project either. When asked how he liked it, the boy first wrinkled his nose with “I don’t really like it,” but quickly changed his tune as he picked up the shovel and said, “I like digging with it … I watch a lot of digging videos of people building houses in the wild. And they dig it like this [kicking the shovel into the soil]. But for a shovel, they use spears to dig.” His mom, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in wildlife trafficking, explained that he had seen videos of native tribes putting trees into the ground, and that she and her son chose this project for the “love of the trees.”
A young adult volunteer named Sergio extracted plastic webbing from the soil, likely the remains of structural material from turf grass planting. He had already gotten one tree in the ground and was eagerly working on another. “I found out about this on Eventbrite. I was just browsing for free opportunities. I work as an officer in commercial construction, but still don’t have enough chances to get my hands dirty. I’m tired of keyboarding and mousing!” Sergio said that he’s telling his friends about tree planting and other projects, spreading the word. Reflecting on a tree he planted in his dad’s yard when he was a Woodson High School student, he said, “It’s still there. It marks the time.”
There were also lots of seasoned Tree Stewards that day who put trees in the ground but also circulated to help others. Tom Arata is both an ARMN member (2017) and a tree steward (2020). Because his degree was in forestry, but his career as a computer programmer software analyst, the volunteering reconnected him with trees. Noreen Hannigan is a former Training Chair for ARMN who has been a member since 2015 and a Tree Steward since 2020. She added the Tree Steward membership into the mix to increase her knowledge of the “tree aspects” of the ecosystem.
Lori Brent, a Tree Steward since Spring 2022, is a trainee in the current ARMN class. She had approached these memberships from a wild perspective, in keeping with her pagan religion. First, she managed her front yard as habitat, attracting box turtles, raccoons, possums, and even a screech owl. When she learned there was a way to physically help restore tree canopy, she couldn’t wait to participate on her way to becoming an ARMN member. “We need to bring the wild back,” she asserted while confidently pounding a stake into the ground next to a newly planted tree using the heavy steel stake-driver.
Each planted tree got a trunk protector and two supporting stakes before it was watered. As it started to rain, the pace picked up so that all the trees would be safely nestled in soil. Said Lindsey, “We’d better hurry it up!” while she and another volunteer, James quickly tied stakes. They had found this tree-planting opportunity on Facebook, and it seemed like a fun thing to do together. “The stakes look pretty good,” said Lindsey, and James replied with “Sweet!”
And the watering was well planned, like the rest of the process. Explained leader Bonnie, “We’re not going to waterboard the tree. If it starts pooling and not going down, we’ll stop.” The Ben Brenman site was formerly a U.S. Army base since about 1942, for which the swampy land was infilled with 30 feet of materials. Thus, the substrate is quite compacted and is only gradually regaining a layer of topsoil. Still, says Bonnie, “Each tree just gets half a bag of mulch. We want it to be 3 to 4 inches deep and the soil should show through. Let it be fluffy!” Mulch should also not touch the bark; just surround the tree at least a few inches away from the tree itself.
Also participating that day was ARMN member, Mikki Atsatt, who became a member in Spring, 2022, Mikki had done a lot of volunteering already. He explained that he’s around ARMN people a lot now and always feels welcome, like “part of the family.” Although he works on invasive plant removal projects, too (which he finds “strangely satisfying”), Mike said “It’s so important to build back our canopy. I figured I’d better learn to plant trees. I want to learn how to plant instead of just pull.”
All the expectant seedlings made it into the ground that day, ready to provide shade, food, and shelter for years to come.
Text and photos by Devin Reese, unless otherwise noted.
When I arrived to volunteer for a recent invasive removal event at Fort Scott Park in South Arlington, I was drawn to Park Steward Terri McPalmer’s wheelbarrow full of gloves, poison ivy protection, clippers, and other essentials. It also contained a long white metal tool that looked like something you’d use to jack up a car and was branded “Uprooter.”
“What is that?” I asked, which yielded a demonstration of what’s possible with the right tools. Terri showed me and the other handful of volunteers how she positioned the grasping head of the tool at the roots of an invasive bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.). When it grabbed correctly, its long sturdy handle allowed her to leverage her weight on the “weed wrench” to hoist the undesirable plant right out of the ground. Getting it positioned just so around the base of the plant was a challenge, but nothing compared to the task of the pickaxing and sawing needed to otherwise remove these invaders. Her efforts were rewarded with the sight of the giant root ball that had been anchoring the bush honeysuckle, helping it get a foothold in this temperate soil.
Volunteers spread out along the trail of the 12-acre Fort Scott Park, looking for other invasives, such as English ivy (Hedera helix) and oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) that would require less charismatic tools than the weed wrench. Some wielded large clippers, which could be used to remove the branches of bush honeysuckle or Nandina (Nandina domestica), with bright red berries toxic to our native birds), to make the roots more visible to the weed wrench.
Others wielded smaller clippers to snip English ivy vines at the base as they snaked upward into trees. Even some of the ivy that had been previously cut some months ago appeared to have slinked itself back up the trees from the roots that remained at the base of the tree. “It’s amazingly tenacious,” said Terri.
As we clipped, pulled, and uprooted our way through the tangles of invasives, some native plants peeked their heads out. We found American hollies (Ilex opaca) that had been blanketed with invasive honeysuckle vines. Underneath tangles of porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) were seedlings of willow oaks seeking sun by spreading their branches out horizontally (seeWildlife below). It was motivating to clear areas around these native plants, reducing the competition they had been facing from exotic invasives that had colonized the park. Terri showed us the dramatic contrast between areas that the volunteer crew had already worked through and areas that awaited attention.
Volunteer Allison McCluskey, an Arlington Regional Master Naturalist trainee, was enthusiastic about her first visit to Fort Scott Park. She explained that she loves just getting out in the field and being physical, which gets her in touch with the human side of land restoration. As a professional, Allison helps protect land for the National Wildlife Refuge System, which can make for lots of desk time. “It’s fun to pull stuff out of the ground,” she said as she took another slice at Nandina with the long clippers. Doug Brown, who completed ARMN training in 2021, agreed. He likes biking to the site and getting the restorative experience of being out in nature. The invasive plant removal takes him back to his roots as a biology major (pun intended).
Working near Allison was long-time Fort Scott volunteer Patty McCarthy. Because she’s a nurse practitioner by profession, the group chose her as the person to spring into action if anyone clonked themselves with the weed wrench. Patty has been a regular volunteer since she and Terri started trying to improve the Park. They both live walking distance away and had already enjoyed trekking through the Fort Scott woods before they each retired. Says Terri, “I guess because I walk through this park all the time, there’s a sense of wanting to care for it.”
Terri liked Fort Scott Park for its proximity to her house, noting that she actually lives on what used to be part of Fort Scott when it was a Civil War fort for the Union Army. Built in 1861, Fort Scott included barracks, officers’ quarters, magazines, a guardhouse, a well, and a flagpole (seehttp://arlingtonhistoricalsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/1965-4-Scott.pdf). During the 1940s, about half of the historic earthworks disappeared under new construction of homes and streets. Later development of playgrounds and other recreation features mostly altered the remainder. However, the observant visitor can find an area adjoining the playground that includes evidence of the original fort.
Terri pointed out that much of what we are standing on might be infill, now capped with layers of soil and plants. Besides beating back the invasives, Terri has worked with the Arlington County Arborist Otis Marechaux to plant more native trees. He targeted Fort Scott and brought tree stewards who, along with some of Terri’s volunteers, got 15 seedlings and 22 saplings into the ground in April of 2022. Thanks to access to a water tank provided by the County, the mix of redbuds (Cercis canadensis), dogwoods (Cornus florida) , shingle oaks (Quercus imbricaria), persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), and other native species have mostly survived the hot summer.
While the volunteer crew was out working, a homeowner living adjacent to the park approached, visibly upset. A brief, cordial discussion ensued about the location of the boundary line between her property and Fort Scott Park. Master Naturalist Colt Gregory explained the goals of the restoration and pointed out some invasive plants that were unsuitable, if not downright poisonous (Nandina) to native wildlife. After the homeowner thanked us for our work, we were all reminded that ARMN restoration projects are about the relationship between people and their natural environments.
Wildlife (All forms of life that are wild, including plants, animals, and microorganisms – Natural Resources Service)
Willow oaks (Quercus phellos) are deciduous trees native to Virginia and the rest of eastern North America from Long Island to Florida. They tend to grow along streams or in uplands with damp soils. You can recognize willow oaks by their long, slender, lanceolate (lance-shaped leaves). The Arbor Day Foundation notes that they grow quickly to a height of 40-50 feet, spreading about 35 feet wide. People appreciate willow oaks for their lumber and pulp, whereas wildlife benefit from their heavy acorn production. Willow oak trees start producing acorns when they’re about 20 years old, after which an individual tree produces up to 70 pounds of acorns per year! Its productivity makes it an important food source for birds (e.g., blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, and wild turkeys) and mammals (e.g., squirrels and deer).
The ozone bio-indicator garden at the Walter Reed Community Center (WRCC) is concluding its second full growing season. Arlington Regional Master Naturalists installed the garden in 2020 and are collecting data on the impact of tropospheric or ground level-ozone air pollution on plants, in cooperation with NASA, the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Science Education, and Arlington County. The garden is part of the international Ozone Bioindicator Garden Network, organized in part by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO. There are 17 ozone gardens across 12 states. Data on the impact of ozone on plants from this garden are uploaded and merged with data from other gardens in the network.
After its launch into space, anticipated in January 2023, an instrument called TEMPO (Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring Pollution) will begin taking measurements of major air pollutants, including ozone, across North America. Data from the network gardens will be coordinated with air pollution data from TEMPO. For more background on this project, see earlier blog articles about the mission and installation of the garden (February 2021), and a report on the first full growing season in 2021 (November 2021).
In 2022, ARMN members Barbara Hoffheins, Todd Minners, Jon Bell, Anne Doll, and Ruth Lane planted, maintained, and monitored the plants for ozone damage.
Other goals were to create signs with a QR code for more information and signs in English and Spanish to educate visitors about air pollution in Arlington and how to reduce ozone levels.
The Smithsonian Astro Observatory supplies all the seeds for this garden. The 2022 garden includes the same varieties of sensitive and tolerant snap beans, sensitive and tolerant tobacco, sensitive potato, and sensitive Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) as were in the 2021 garden. Sensitive Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia lacianata) was seeded in fall 2021 and added to the garden for the 2022 growing season.
Ozone causes stippling or purpling on the top sides of leaves (usually not undersides), and inside, not crossing the veins, and it usually affects older leaves (not younger). Damage from other causes may look like ozone. The first photo (below) shows what ozone damage looks like. The second photo shows damage that is not from ozone.
Ground-level ozone is more likely to reach unhealthy levels on hot sunny days, and ozone damage to plants is more likely in late summer. In this garden, ozone damage is likely to be more noticeable on second- and third-year perennials.
Beginning in March, garden volunteers regularly tracked planting, watering, weeding, and other maintenance completed, as well as weather (via NOAA observations for Washington/Reagan National Airport) and ozone levels (via the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality). No damage to plants from ground-level ozone was observed in 2022. These observations were confirmed by outside experts from Howard University and NCAR. The data from these observations will be uploaded to the Ozone Bioindicator Garden Network database in the fall.
Readings were also compared to a ground-level ozone sensor in the Arlington’s Aurora Hills neighborhood. Ozone levels vary from area to area and ozone can be blown around by the wind, so a sensor in a nearby area like Aurora Hills will not necessarily measure the same level of ozone as at the garden at the Walter Reed Community Center, about a mile away. However, a reading nearby may be a useful guide. The NCAR expert said that the reported levels of ozone from the Aurora Hills sensor did not appear to be high enough or of long enough duration to cause damage. For more on identifying ozone damage, see https://www.cgd.ucar.edu/research/ozone-garden/training.pl.
Other takeaways from the garden in 2022: Based on recommendations from a Howard University atmospheric science professor, the 2022 garden was partially replanted more sparsely to make cataloguing damage easier. The ARMN members maintaining the garden grappled with damage from the usual garden pests—rabbits and possibly other mammals. This will likely remain a challenge in 2023. Seed potatoes saved from 2021 were used to plant in 2022, and this year’s crop is large enough to share with other network gardens as this potato variety is not sold commercially and it is highly valued for ozone research. An idea for next year would be to ask the Aurora Hills community garden staff if they would be willing to plant tolerant and sensitive snap beans and potatoes in their garden to compare with the plants in the WRCC garden. These plants have been good producers, taste good, and they could serve two purposes—one for science and the other for food production.
Reducing air pollution and keeping the air cleaner will benefit all of us. For tips on steps we can take, see AirNow.
The Ozone Bio-indicator Garden is located at the Walter Reed Community Center (2909 16th St. S., Arlington, VA), in front of the building on the west side. Visitors are always welcome!
More than two dozen ARMN members shared their love of nature with numerous visitors at the Arlington County Fair, August 19-21 at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center. The ARMN exhibit space provided an opportunity for members of the public to learn about their master naturalist neighbors’ passion about nature. While many were interested in information about the imbalance and destruction caused by deer and the pilot project to eradicate the highly invasive Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), the greatest interest was in native plants. Most people were well-informed about our natives, indicating perhaps that the combined outreach efforts of the environmental community are making an impact.
Our display was set in front of a three-panel backboard that told that basic facts of ARMN—we’re volunteer educators, citizenscientists, and stewards helping Virginians conserve and manage natural resources and public lands. Folks gathered in front of our table to enjoy the offerings, exchange stories, and talk about problems and tips.
The main attraction was a gummy worm guessing game, organized by Master Naturalist Susan Berry. The jar of candy worms attracted children of all ages and their families and friends. While kids pondered the question of “how many worms are in the jar?” we talked about the importance of caterpillars in the cycle of nature. (The gummy worms represented caterpillars.) For the record, there were 175 gummy worms in the jar. Guesses ranged from 50 to a thousand.
The serious lesson of the game was that lots of caterpillars, characterized by these candy worms, are essential to the maturing of baby birds. The worms in the jar represented one-third of the approximate number of caterpillars that a clutch of baby chickadees needs to eat every single day to mature and be ready to fledge. Some of our younger visitors were impressed to know that the container held just lunch or breakfast for one day. A clutch of chickadees, for example, needs somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to be ready to fly. Mama and papa chickadee work from about 6 am to 8 pm all day to bring three gummy worm jars’ worth of caterpillars to the nest of baby birds, and they do that every day for 16 to 18 days.
The gummy worms were the perfect entrée for talking about native plants as the best source of food for the baby birds. Master Naturalist Stephanie Martin commented: “I think at least some of the children and most of the parents got the message that we need native plants to host all those caterpillars for the birds.” Scientific research backs that up. According to the PennStateExtension website article, “A Case for Caterpillars,” “Many butterfly and moth caterpillars have coevolved with plants. Coevolution involves reciprocity—which means that an evolutionary change occurs between pairs of species as they interact with one another. That is to say that many caterpillars have evolved to be solely dependent on certain habitats and even a genera or species of plant.” In short, native plants are basic to the natural cycle of life!
Stephanie added: “Many of the extended conversations I had were with people who were already quite well-informed about the benefits of native plants. For example, I commiserated with one lady about the need to constantly pull English ivy year after year. People were interested in learning more about native alternatives. I directed quite a few to the Plant NOVA Natives website” (www.plantnovanatives.org). That website has a wealth of information about the importance of natives, the harm caused by exotic invasive plants like English ivy (Hedera helix), and a lot more for individuals and landscape professionals, including good choices of native plants for particular situations.
A display of native seed packets and plant cuttings was another attraction. The seeds were gathered from the pollinator garden, next to the PTA’s vegetable garden on the Thomas Jefferson Middle School grounds, literally around the corner from the fair. We had seeds from three species of native plants growing in that garden that attract pollinators: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), New York ironweed (Vernonia noveborecensis) and Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium spp.). We also had cuttings of all three on the table and a map of the garden so folks could visit “the real thing” if they were interested. Master Naturalist Amy Spector chatted with a young woman and her family about the seed packets. Showing the cuttings of each specimen, she pointed out that all three common names end with weed: milkweed, ironweed, Joe-Pye weed. They considered why this was so and narrowed it down to two possibilities. Either these plants are so prolific, sprouting up in unlikely spots, that people mistake them for undesirables, or they “grow like a weed.” It’s likely that these native “weeds” are just good spreaders, and just may need a bit of thinning sometimes.
We also displayed cuttings of the invasive porcelain berry plant (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) with the note: “bad weed.” Lively conversations sprouted up about how confusing it could be to tell porcelain berry from native grapevines (Vitis spp.) and the trials and tribulations of keeping weeds under control. Mary McCutcheon, Park Steward at Fort Bennett Park, shared her experience using a small “barbie saw” to cut down English ivy. A man from a north Arlington neighborhood told another story of saving trees from the grip of ivy. He removed an ivy infestation year after year until it was gone. This, he said, was his post-retirement contribution to community well-being and his way of keeping in shape.
Several visitors who lived in apartments and condos without personal yard space were interested in ways they could garden. Master Naturalist Colt Gregory explained that they could plant natives in a pot on a balcony or other such space and he gave them some of the seeds to try it out. “I think the seed packs were a great hand-out idea,” he said. “Folks were also interested in plant lists.” We had two brochures on easy-to-grow native plants—one on plants for sun and one on plants for shade—that were so popular that our stock was depleted well before Saturday evening. You can see these brochures and others at: https://www.plantnovanatives.org/quick-start-guide.
A young woman who lives in a condominium community stopped by the ARMN table for assistance in explaining the value of native plants to her neighbors. She insisted on making a donation for two copies of the beautifully illustrated booklet: “Native Plants for Northern Virginia.” She felt the booklet offered the guidance she needed to convince her community about landscaping with native plants. The excitement and appreciation she showed for native plants was a joy.
We also had a nest of a bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) that Master Naturalist Gary Shinners brought in. Colt Gregory observed that the visitors didn’t think it was real and quickly poked their fingers through the papery material. Colt explained that each little cell inside the nest—which was now torn open—held eggs for baby hornets. “When I looked in myself, it really is amazing how many little octagon cells are inside a hornet’s nest,” he said.
The ARMN display table was part of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service group and placed between the Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria and the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia and near the Arlington Friends of Urban Agriculture. It was a lively section of the fair, with lots of visitors and some special and unanticipated attractions. Kirsten Conrad, the Agriculture Natural Resources Extension Agent for Arlington County and the City of Alexandria, donned a spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) costume to be sure we all remembered the danger posed by this invader. These insects, which are a federally regulated invasive pest, are spreading at an alarming rate, eating the sap of trees—including oaks and walnuts—as well as grapes, hops, vegetable plants, and herbs, among other plants in their path. Kirsten gave us a memorable performance of this destructive plant assailant, flitting throughout the area.
Susan Kalish, Director of Public Relations for the Arlington County Parks and Recreation Department, also made a definite impression on kids and at least one adult (the writer of this blog) with her handling of a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) who lives at Long Branch Nature Center.
Susan Berry reported that the best comment of the weekend, in her opinion, was made by a pleasant lady who was captivated by the discussion of the reliance of one species on another. She commented: “This is the best thing I have done all day, other than that Chardonnay-Frappe thingy I had outside.”
During the dog days of summer, it may be difficult to look ahead to January. But for property owners and tenants in Fairfax County with “running bamboo” in their yards, January 1, 2023, is an important date to mark now. On that date, a Fairfax County Bamboo Ordinance goes into effect to help homeowners suffering from incursions of bamboo from their neighbors’ properties. Fairfax County adopted this ordinance after the Virginia state legislature (like some other states in the North East) passed a law in 2018 designating running bamboo as a “noxious weed” and allowing localities to provide for control of it (Section 15.2-901.1 of the Code of Virginia). No other Northern Virginia jurisdictions, besides Fairfax, have such ordinances at this time. [Editor’s note:] After this piece was posted, we learned from Petra Riedel-Willems that there are two other counties in Northern Virginia—Fauquier and Stafford—with bamboo restrictions that predate the Fairfax ordinance. We appreciate the comment from Ms. Riedel-Willems that is posted below this article. And we believe that this information is valuable for others who may want to deal with running bamboo in their own yards or communities.
The Fairfax County ordinance says that bamboo owners, whether or not they planted the bamboo, must not allow bamboo to spread from their yards to any public-right-of-way or any adjoining property. While maintaining bamboo on one’s own property is legal, it is illegal to allow bamboo to spread beyond your property’s boundaries. Taking action now rather than waiting for a complaint to be filed against you is something to consider.
This ordinance was adopted because running bamboo (distinct from clumping bamboo to which the ordinance does not apply) is a destructive, fast-growing grass. Its horizontal rhizomes spread underground as much as 15 feet per year. Its roots can go through brickwork, patios, and weak spots in concrete. It also suppresses native plant species that are beneficial for our environment.
Running bamboo’s aggressive growth habit makes it difficult to remove and a sustained, multi-year effort may be necessary. A Fairfax County publication, “Running Bamboo,” recommends three containment/control methods: root barrier, removal, and cutting and herbicide application. The containment method involves installing vertical root barriers 30 inches below ground and six inches above to deflect rhizomes so they go towards the owner’s property and making the rhizomes visible at the barrier. Strong materials, such as metal or high-density plastic, should be used for the barrier. Alternatively, a homeowner might wish to control their bamboo by removing it completely.
A fellow ARMN member whose bamboo created a visual block between their property and a neighbor decided to encircle a section of bamboo between the properties with a cement wall one foot wide and two and a half feet deep. The wall has worked well to contain the bamboo since its installation in 2008.
Digging bamboo out may require heavy equipment for larger groves and in that case should be addressed under Virginia 811 rules (va811.com). See the “Running Bamboo” publication noted above for additional information.
All cut bamboo and roots must be disposed of in the TRASH, not in a compost pile or bin for lawn debris under the Fairfax County requirements. If you want to dry the culms or canes for another use, such as stakes or crafts, do not do so on top of the soil, which will risk it taking root.
The Fairfax County Department of Code Compliance is responsible for enforcing the ordinance based on complaints it receives. After a Notice of Violation has been issued, each day that running bamboo remains unconfined may result in a fine of $50, up to a maximum of $2,000 in a 12-month period. The number to file a complaint is 703-324-1300 or file online at www.fairfaxounty.gov/code.
Don’t wait. Catch that running bamboo now. This is good advice for Fairfax County residents and anyone else who has running bamboo on their properties!
Text and photos by Leslie Cameron. (Photos were taken on a July 12, 2022 workday unless otherwise noted.)
Historically, Arlington County is home to 28% of the native plant species in Virginia—representing substantial plant diversity in the county’s 26 square miles. Unfortunately, Arlington has lost an estimated 200 of these native plant species. Though 600 native plant species are still found here, many exist in small numbers or are considered locally rare.
Under the direction of Alonso Abugattas, Arlington’s Natural Resources Manager, and Jennifer Soles, Natural Resource Specialist, Arlington’s Native Plant Nursery helps to restore native plant species by propagating native trees, shrubs, and other plants for transplanting into Arlington’s parks and other public spaces. Since the Native Plant Nursery was established in 2014, it has enabled the installation of more than 10,000 native plants.
The Nursery propagates local-ecotype native plants and specializes in meadow species, locally rare plants, and native species that historically grew in Arlington but are no longer present. Plants from the nursery are also used in forested areas that have been cleared of non-native invasive plants.
ARMN members regularly volunteer at the Native Plant Nursery, along with other community volunteers, working to contribute to Arlington’s restoration efforts.
Volunteers mix and move soil and pot up seedlings. They add rice hulls, which are organic and sustainable, to pots as a mulch to retain moisture and also weed the potted plants on the ground.
An irrigation system keeps growing plants watered, and an overhead screen protects young plants during the hottest days. Plants spend an additional growing season in the nursery before being transplanted.
On this workday in July, volunteers helped to pot seedlings and label plants. It turns out the crows pick out the plant labels and toss them around, so volunteers are creating new labels to affix to stakes and pots more securely.
Seedlings potted up on this workday include White Cut Grass (Leersia virginica), a native grass that tolerates shade, and Path Rush (Juncus tenuis), which grows to around 2 feet and tolerates full sun to part shade, as well as some mowing and foot traffic. Arlington County plants Path Rush along the paths and trails through county parks where it does very well.
Later, plants will overwinter in the nursery or in the greenhouse nearby, where volunteer work continues into December.
After a bit of a hiatus in our GTKY series, we’re introducing you to three more individuals in our ARMN family. Let me present Tina Dudley, Dan Huddleston, and Elise Milstein, who completed their Master Naturalist training AND certification requirements in Fall 2021. According to Janet Siddle, ARMN Training Coordinator, “it is not unprecedented for a trainee to do both, but it is far from common!” I thought it was worth getting to know these overachieving classmates of mine a bit more, including how they managed to complete 40 service hours and eight continuing education hours while taking fourteen weekly classes, attending four day-long Saturday field trips, doing our homework, completing quizzes, and preparing and making a five-minute presentation to our class. They’re not resting either, as we’ll see from the kinds of volunteer projects on which they’re working now.
None of us in the class can forget Tina’s presentation on the wonderful but little regarded possum, Elise’s impassioned lecture (in costume) about the dangers of ticks, and Dan’s presentation of his stunning wildlife photos.
So how did these already busy people manage to get all their hours in while training? Tina says, “I was between jobs so had more time.” Well, other classmates and I who are retired and don’t have jobs didn’t manage this feat. So, there’s more to this story. Grit, determination, and an overwhelming passion for nature played big roles here!
Tina, a Goucher College women’s studies major, now lives in Reston, and works at the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia. Like Dan and Elise, Tina has tried out a variety of ARMN projects (invasive plant removals and interpretive events) and found she really loves caring for the reptiles at Potomac Overlook Regional Park and talking to the nature center guests, especially kids, about them. She is looking forward to teaching people about snakes in the future.
Dan graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in Environmental Design but has lived in Northern Virginia for 56 years. Dan, like Tina, has sought variety for his service hours but he has chosen to volunteer at several parks that either didn’t exist when he was growing up or that he never had had an opportunity to visit. He has enjoyed learning what each park has to offer with their unique histories and qualities. He finds working in the soil with plants very restorative and a pleasant change after working in a rat race. Ultimately, he decided to make the Buddie Ford Nature Center in Alexandria the focus of his activities. There is small cohesive group there and lots to do! They are lucky to have found a true buddy in him.
Elise grew up exploring Gulf Branch, Pimmit Run, and Great Falls, and currently lives in Arlington. With degrees in law, sociology, and public administration, her work managing legal and IT projects keeps her indoors and is often fast-paced and high-pressure. As an antidote, Elise escapes into nature for its mental health benefits. Like her colleagues, Elise has been sampling projects, like invasive plant removal, and chapter support. She enjoys birding and as an ARMN citizen science project, she has spent many hours reporting her findings on eBird. On her outings, besides noting many species of birds, she has met the Ambassador of Switzerland and one of the creators of the iNaturalist nature app that helps you identify the plants and animals around you. Ultimately, she’d like to do more education and outreach with kids to spark their curiosity and encourage their love and protection of the natural world. She posts some of her nature photos on Instagram at: sporangelise.
While the whole Fall 2021 class is remarkable in many ways, I think you’d have to agree these classmates stand out and are an inspiration to us and future classes. Please give them a high five the next time you see them as they volunteer in the community!