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

By Caroline Haynes

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

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

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

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

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

During the two-hour service event, the individuals: 

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

Dr. King and Theodore Roosevelt would surely be proud!

Deep Dive Recap: Dabbling and Diving Ducks

Text by Kristin Bartschi. Photos by George Sutherland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do ducks stay dry? 

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

Total eclipse of the feathers

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

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

Ken recommended quite a few books, including: 

A stack of bird guide books

Interested in attending a deep dive? 

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

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

ARMN: Getting to Know Paul Gibson

by Alison Sheahan

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

Paul Gibson. Photo by Alison Sheahan.

What are your favorite ARMN volunteer projects?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has surprised you most about ARMN?

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

What do you like most about ARMN?

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

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

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

 What is your background?

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

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

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

Tell us something unusual about yourself.

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

Family Fun at the International Coastal Clean-up

Text by Kristin Bartschi and photos by George Sutherland

On a sunny Saturday morning on September 21st, EcoAction Arlington hosted a stream clean-up in Barcroft Park as part of the International Coastal Clean-up. The International Coastal Clean-up (ICC) is part of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. Every September, over 100 countries take part in the ICC, making it one of the largest efforts to rid the ocean of trash. In 2018, 1 million people collected 23 million pounds of trash from rivers, streams, and beaches around the world.

Two men and a boy are picking up trash in a stream. The boy holds a white trash bag.
Families picking up trash together at the International Coastal Clean-up.

That morning, George and I joined EcoAction Arlington and our local community to help clean-up trash along Four Mile Run stream. Four Mile Run flows through Barcroft Park and into the Potomac River. The Potomac runs into the Chesapeake Bay and, ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean.

Volunteers of all ages attended the event, including families, couples, and a corporate group. We found lots of trash along the riverbanks and a few volunteers even ventured into the water—luckily, it was warm! In total, we collected 40 bags of trash and 12 bags of recyclables. Interesting finds included an umbrella, traffic cone, toilet seat, engine block, and various pieces of wiring, wood, and metal.

A woman kneels next to a stream putting trash into a trash bag.
Picking up some candy wrappers along the stream.

There is something for everyone at the ICC. For example, if picking up trash isn’t for you, ICC volunteers can document the trash found during a clean-up. This data delivers a snapshot of trash found at different sites around the world, which provides key insights for researchers and policy makers.

A girl holds a pencil and consults a checklist by the stream.
One of the volunteers documenting what was found at the clean-up.

Even if you missed this year’s International Coastal Clean-up, there are lots of ways you can help protect your local waterways. Research “clean-ups” hosted by local non-profits, community groups, and/or your city or county. You’ll be surprised about how many there are once you do some digging. If you have a special area near you that needs some attention, reach out to your local environmental government/community groups about hosting your own clean-up!

There are also several steps you can take every day to reduce the amount of trash that ends up in our oceans and waterways. Properly disposing of all trash and recycling helps to ensure that it doesn’t end up polluting our environment. Better yet, look for ways to reduce your trash altogether! There are tons of simple swaps you can make to reduce waste that ends up in landfills or in our natural world. For instance…

  • Swap plastic water bottles for a reusable one.
  • Use a reusable cup for your morning cup of coffee—most coffee shops will even give you a small discount for doing this.
  • Bring reusable bags to the grocery store instead of using paper or plastic bags.
  • And this is just the tip of the iceberg!

Trash clean-ups like the ICC always remind me of how collective impacts can change our world for the better. Picking up a piece of trash, or saying “no” to a plastic bag, may seem insignificant when done by one person. But, when millions of people come together to improve the world we live in, we can make a big impact.

Fall is a Great Time to Shop for and Plant Natives!

Text and photos by Kasha Helget

There is a not-so-secret maxim among gardeners that autumn can be the best time to install new plants! The soil is well warmed, but the air is cooler, which provides less stress for transplants. And the native plant sellers are ready to provide you with the best choices of the season. The plants should become established well enough before winter, and by next spring will be ready to do their provide benefits to the critters that depend on them AND add wonderful beauty to your garden to boot! So, please consider a few—or several—native plants to brighten your yard, patio or deck. The native wildlife will appreciate it.

Photo of yellow flowers with black center
Orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

Why Choose Native Plants?

Because they’re “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. They also:

  • require little or no fertilizers and few if any pesticides,
  • need less water than lawns, and help prevent erosion,
  • help reduce air pollution,provide shelter and food for wildlife,
  • promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage,
  • 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, bog, soil type, etc.). One of the best sources to answer these questions is the Plant Nova Natives website: http://www.plantnovanatives.org/, with easy-to-follow tips, lots of photos, and additional links to learn what will work for your situation.

List of Fall Plant Sales Where Can You Buy Natives

Most commercial nurseries do not carry many native plants. If your favorite place has a weak selection of natives, ask them to stock more! In the coming weeks, however, plan to 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 in Northern Virginia. Happy shopping and planting!

  • 9/07/2019
  • Master Gardeners of Prince William County Plant Sale
  • 9am to Noon
  • St. Benedict Monastery
  • 9535 Linton Hall Rd., Bristow VA
  • Contact:Mastergardener@mgc.gov.org
  • 9/14/2019
  • Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Fall Native Plant Sale
  • 9am to 3pm
  • Morven Park
  • 17263 Southern Planter Ln, Leesburg, VA
  • www.loudounwildlife.org   
  • 9/21/2019
  • Town of Vienna Fall Native Plant Sale
  • 9am to 1pm
  • 120 Cherry Street, SE, Vienna VA
Photo of Northern Sea Oats
Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
Photo of Woodland Sunflower, a yellow flower
Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus)

Getting Dirty and Keeping Our Rivers Clean

Text by Kristin Bartschi and photos by George Sutherland

Recent ARMN Basic Training graduates Kristin Bartschi and George Sutherland joined in a very satisfying service activity on the Potomac River. Kristin’s observations demonstrate how they could get wet and dirty and provide a valuable service at the same time.

There’s nothing I love more than finding new and exciting ways to get outdoors. A few weeks ago, my husband, George, and I heard about a kayak cleanup run by EcoAction Arlington. Volunteers would kayak around the Potomac and fish trash out of the water. What an awesome way to get outside and clean our local river at the same time!

According to the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, the Potomac provides about 486 million gallons of drinking water every day to people in the DC metro area. The health of the river has improved drastically in the last few years, but polluted runoff, deforestation, and attacks on water protections threaten to reverse that progress.

Our local storm drains carry rain and other drainage away from streets and into local waterways. This means that anything that washes down a storm drain enters our rivers and streams, and eventually is water we will end up drinking! Keeping our waterways clean helps us all—plants, animals, and people too.

The last Saturday in July, we arrived at the Washington Sailing Marina in Alexandria at 8:00 a.m. Over 40 volunteers were there. After a brief presentation by EcoAction Arlington and a safety demonstration from the Washington Sailing Marina staff, we were ready to get into our kayaks and clean up some trash! 

People launch kayaks from a wooden dock
Volunteers set off on their kayaks at the start of the cleanup.
Volunteers stand on mud flats on the river. There are kayaks in the water.
A group of volunteers collects trash off the mud flats.

It was a beautiful, sunny day to be paddling around the Potomac. George and I kayaked deep into the Four Mile Run tributary. The water glistened with a film of pollution as we collected plastic bottles, candy wrappers, and beer cans from the riverbank.

A woman in a kayak pulls trash from vegetation along the river bank
Pulling trash from the riverbank on Four Mile Run tributary.

We waved to a group of fisherman casting lines beneath an overpass and were cheered on by a friendly cyclist, urging us to, “Keep up the good work!”

A kayaker paddles beneath a bridge covered in graffiti
Paddling beneath the overpass along Four Mile Run.

When we paddled back towards the marina, we noticed a commotion along the mud flats. We pulled up to investigate and see if we could help. A group of volunteers had found an old mattress onshore and were busy cutting it into pieces with a box-cutter so that it could be divided onto the kayaks returning to the marina. We each took our share and headed back in with our bags of trash in tow.

With the help of the kind folks at the marina, we clambered onto the dock and hauled our trash onshore. We were sweaty, muddy, and tired, but together our group had pulled 85 bags of trash from the Potomac!

If you’d like to get dirty and help out your local waterways, look for a cleanup in your area! EcoAction Arlington will be hosting a clean-up at Barcroft Park and Four Mile Run on Saturday, September 21 from 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. as part of the International Coastal Cleanup. Some other groups that sponsor periodic cleanups both on the water and onshore include: Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation, Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, and Potomac Conservancy. Contact them if you’d like to combine your river experience with valuable clean-up work!

Outstanding Participation in the 2019 City Nature Challenge! What Are the Next Steps?

by Louis Harrell

Citizen science activities are an important way for individuals to contribute to scientific knowledge and for members of the public to increase their knowledge of local natural resources. Currently, the largest citizen science project that ARMN supports is the City Nature Challenge. Read about the results of this year’s challenge and the role that ARMN played in the success of our local area.

Cities around the world compete in the City Nature Challenge to see who can make the most observations of plants and animals using the iNaturalist app to record photos and information, find the most species, and engage the most people. The 2019 City Nature Challenge was held from April 26–29, 2019, and included 159 cities. Like last year, ARMN-sponsored events contributed significantly to the success of the event. In total, ARMN lead 25 events that were attended by 173 people. In the Greater Washington, DC area (which includes close-in Virginia and Maryland communities), 1,268 people made 29,996 observations and identified 2,258 species. Worldwide, Cape Town, South Africa had the most observations and species. Washington, DC was in fifth place worldwide with the number of observers, and 10th overall. See Capital Naturalist by Alonso Abugattas for more details about this year’s CNC, with the focus on activities in Arlington.

If you couldn’t participate in this year’s Challenge, there are still many opportunities to contribute!  To move an observation from a “casual” observation to “research grade” in iNaturalist, the observation needs to be validated by at least one other knowledgeable person. You can find these observations on iNaturalist and validate them yourself. For a few hints about how to identify observations efficiently, see https://www.inaturalist.org/posts/24425-keep-cranking-with-those-id-s and https://www.inaturalist.org/posts/24578-one-last-push-results-will-be-tallied-9am-monday.

The most observed species in our area were:  Mayapple, Virginia Creeper, Poison Ivy, Tulip Tree, Garlic Mustard, and Virginia Spring Beauty. Below are photos of these species taken by City Nature Challenge participants in our area. 

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) (279 observations) https://www.inaturalist.org/photos/37640276
Photo 37640276, (c) Beth Kiser, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) (258 observations) https://www.inaturalist.org/photos/36699786
Photo 36699786, (c) ecomoser, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)
Poison Ivy (237 observations) https://www.inaturalist.org/photos/37748617
Photo 37748617, (c) Beth Kiser, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)
Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) (222 observations) https://www.inaturalist.org/photos/37504678
Photo 37504678, (c) Ken Rosenthal, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolate) (210 observations) https://www.inaturalist.org/photos/37510565
Photo 37510565, (c) Ken Rosenthal, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)
Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)(200 observations) https://www.inaturalist.org/photos/37639606
Photo 37639606, (c) Beth Kiser, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)

Virginia State Symbol: The Northern Cardinal

Text and Photos by Ames Bowman

With its distinct red feathers, or plumage, its deep orange beak, and a crest that resembles a well-groomed mohawk, the presence of the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) in Northern Virginia is unmistakable. The Northern Cardinal is Virginia’s state bird. I tagged along with part-time Arlington County Park Naturalist Yolanda Villacampa on Sunday, March 24, 2019 at Long Branch Nature Center to learn more about this bird as a part of her Virginia State Symbols program series.

Photo of an adult male norther cardinal in a tree
Adult Male Northern Cardinal, Outside Long Branch Nature Center.

At the beginning of the program, Yolanda shared some interesting facts about the Northern Cardinal:

  • While the Northern Cardinal is the state bird of Virginia, it is also the state bird of six other states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia.
  • When you see a bright-red cardinal with a black patch at the base of the beak (or bill), you’re looking at an adult male Northern Cardinal.
  • Adult female Northern Cardinals are tan but share characteristics of the male: the pronounced crest, the short but big orange bill, and some red feathers.
  • Juvenile Northern Cardinals (both male and female) look like the females but with a grey beak.
  • The bird’s diet is primarily seeds and berries, but it is also known to snack on insects.
  • The bird has several calls, they are easy to identify when the male and female call back in forth in the same song.

Before heading out on the trail from Long Branch Nature Center to Glencarlyn Park, we listened intently to a recording of the bird’s several calls so that we could identify the cardinal by ear on the trail. Click here to listen to calls and responses of male and female Northern Cardinals. (Credit: Larry Arbanas/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML466840).)

We also learned how to use a field guide to identify other birds that we were likely to encounter on the trail and received a quick tutorial on how to focus our binoculars and, quietly, alert others in the group to the location of a bird.

During our walk, we heard several Northern Cardinal duets and observed one male Northern Cardinal. We also saw and identified three White-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) and two Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens). One White-breasted Nuthatch was defending its territory on a tree from a nearby squirrel by extending its wings and swaying back and forth.

Photo of a stream
Glencarlyn Park, Convergence of Four Mile Run Stream and Long Branch Creek.

Virginia Symbols Programs

Join Yolanda on her next Virginia Symbols program!

  • Program Name: Virginia Wildlife Symbols: The Eastern Oyster
  • Date, Time, and Location: Sunday, June 23, 2019, 3:30 PM – 5:00 PM. Meet at Gulf Branch Nature Center
  • Website and Additional Information: During this program, we will learn about the Virginia coastal two-shelled mollusk resident. The program will include a shell activity. The program is geared towards families ages 7 and up—children must be registered separately and must be accompanied by a registered adult. Stay tuned to the Arlington County Parks and Recreation – Nature & History Program webpage to register for this program. The cost of registration will be $5/participant.

Learn more about the Virginia Symbols program leader, Yolanda Villacampa, a part-time Arlington County Park Naturalist and ARMN member in the 2018 blog post, ARMN: Getting to Know Yolanda Villacampa.

Be a Birder!

You, too, can watch the Northern Cardinal and other birds! While early March till early May are ideal times to observe courtship rituals and migratory species that pass through the region before the onset of summer, Northern Virginia is home to many native birds that you can see year-round! Learn about the courtship ritual of the male American Woodcock in a companion ARMN blog piece, “Sky Dancer: The American Woodcock.”

Whether you’re a beginner birder with a basic interest or a pro, consider joining either of the weekly bird walks at the nearby parks or with groups listed below. Make sure to check ahead before you venture out for information on where to meet, updates, weather-related cancellations, and other birding events. Happy birding!

Location Date & Time Website
Huntley Meadows Park Every Monday, beginning
at 7:00 AM
Friends of
Huntley Meadows Park
Dyke Marsh
Wildlife Preserve
Every Sunday, beginning
at 8:00 AM
Friends of Dyke Marsh
Audubon Society of
Northern Virginia
Various dates and times,
parks throughout
Northern Virginia
Audubon Society of
Northern Virginia –
Bird Walks and Field Trips

Sky Dancer: The American Woodcock

Sky Dancer: The American Woodcock

Text and photo by Ames Bowman

Chances are you have heard the familiar “peent” call of the male American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) if you have ever ventured near a meadow at the edge of the forest on a spring or summer evening. From early March until early May, Huntley Meadows Park in Northern Virginia offers Evening Woodcock Walks for adults and families eager to witness and hear the male woodcock in action during its mating ritual. On Saturday, March 9, 2019, I attended such an event and here is what I learned about this fascinating bird.

Courtship Ritual Observation in Huntley Meadows Park

The American Woodcock is a regular visitor to Huntley Meadows Park and favors a habitat of both forested and heavily thicketed areas—making the diverse habitats there a prime spot for this migrant species. American Woodcocks are also known to be regular inhabitants of the area, depending on seasonal weather patterns and yearly migration behaviors of the species.

During the woodcock event, leader and naturalist, P.J. Dunn, explained that woodcocks are difficult to spot by day due to their impressive camouflaging feathers. However, they are easily recognizable by night with the distinct calls of the males in the breeding season that begins in early spring and lasts through the early summer months.

After our group became familiar with the peent call and courtship flight ruffling of the male American Woodcock during a quick educational presentation, we set out on the Evening Woodcock Walk during which we were treated to a chorus of calls at dusk. Our group made a short trek to a small and brushy clearing at the edge of a dense forest to observe the carefully coordinated courtship display. In great anticipation, we waited for the peent call. Not ten minutes passed when we began hearing this call from various points in the clearing, apparently by several male woodcocks. A very loud peent came from the brush not five yards from us; however, we were unable to spot the bird because it was so well camouflaged—a terrific technique to elude predators and eager bird enthusiasts, alike!

Male woodcocks use the peent call to attract a female for mating prior to and just after the main event of its courtship display: the sky dance. The male woodcock repeats this call for several minutes in the same location on the ground. Then, it launches 200 feet or higher into the sky to begin its dance, featuring the musical talents of specialized feathers and chirps. As it circles in the sky, the woodcock then makes twittering noises solely from the vibrations of its specialized feathers. When it begins its descent until about 70 feet off the ground, the woodcock vocalizes through kiss-like chirps to accompany its feather twitters in an elaborate display, still circling its initial point of departure on the ground. As it descends below 70 feet, the woodcock silences and returns to the ground—often in the exact location from which it departed—to begin the elaborate ruse once again. A single woodcock may repeat this ritual up to twenty times in a single evening!

While we were fortunate to hear all three sounds of the male American Woodcocks: the distinctive peent, the twitter of its feathers, and the vocalized chirps as they performed their aerial dance, we were not able to witness the sky dance in its entirety due to overcast skies. Then, the courtship displays came to an apparent abrupt halt when two Barred Owls (Strix varia) began engaging in their own mating ritual and calling back and forth to each other like caterwauling from the far edge of the clearing. As it turns out, it takes only two species to make a crowd!

Watch and listen to the sky dance of the American Woodcock Here. (Video credit: YouTube user MassLPWS.)

Fun Anatomy Facts about the American Woodcock

While on our excursion, we learned some interesting facts about the anatomy of the American Woodcock:

Its feathers, or plumage, allow for it to camouflage against dense thicket, brush, and forested areas. This makes it possible for the bird to nest and scavenge on or near the ground without detection by predators of ground and sky.

They have super long beaks, similar to sandpipers, to plunge into the ground and find insects. The tips of these beaks open slightly (like tweezers) to catch their snack. Earthworms are a staple item in the diet of the American Woodcock.

The bird has eyes far back and near the top of its skull. This is so it can keep its eyes above ground while its beak is prodding for food, reducing its vulnerability to predators.

Be a Birder!

You, too, can watch the American Woodcock and other birds! While early March till early May are ideal times to observe courtship rituals and migratory species that pass through the region before the onset of summer, Northern Virginia is home to many native birds that you can see year-round! Learn more about the state bird of Virginia that can be seen (and heard) in all seasons in a companion ARMN blog piece, “Virginia State Symbol: The Northern Cardinal.”

Whether you’re a beginner birder with a basic interest in nature or a pro, consider joining one or more bird walks at the nearby parks or with groups listed below. Make sure to check ahead before you venture out for information on where to meet, updates, weather-related cancellations, and other birding events. Happy birding!

Location Date & Time Website
Huntley
Meadows
Park
Every Monday, beginning at
7:00 AM
Huntley Meadows Park
Dyke
Marsh
Wildlife
Preserve
Every Sunday, beginning at
8:00 AM
Friends of Dyke Marsh
Audubon
Society of Northern
Virginia
Various dates and times,
parks throughout
Northern Virginia
Audubon Society of
Northern Virginia –
Bird Walks and Field Trips


It’s Springtime . . . Plant Natives!

Text and photos by Kasha Helget

With longer daylight hours, warming soils, and the return of bird, bees, and butterflies, get ready to roll up your sleeves and install some native plants. Our local animals depend on them, AND they provide beautiful enhancements 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!

Photo of orange flowers
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Why Choose Native Plants?

Because they’re “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 shelter and food for wildlife,
  • promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage, 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, bog, 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, lots of photos, and additional links to learn what will work 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 in Northern Virginia. Happy shopping and planting!

Close up photo of a plant with four leaves and clusters of purple berries
American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana
Close up photo of a button bush flower that is white and spherical which is being pollinated by a bee
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

2019 Spring Native Plant Sales

NOVA Soil & Water Conservation District, Native Seedling Sale

  • Order online till 04/2/19 or till supply runs out.
  • Pick up plants either Friday, April 5th, 9am to 4pm, or Saturday, April 6th, 9am to noon at Sleepy Hollow Bath & Racquet Club, 3516 Sleepy Hollow Rd, Falls Church, VA 22044.
  • Visit the Sale Site.

Friends of the National Arboretum, Lahr Symposium and Native Plant Sale

  • 03/30/2019
  • 8:30am to 4pm
  • U.S. National Arboretum: 3501 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC
  • Sale located in R Street parking lot at Arboretum.
  • Visit the Sale Site

Potowmack Chapter Weekly Plant Sale

  • From April 3rd through October is a low-key WEEKLY 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
  • Park Website: http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/greenspring/

Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Native Plant Sale

  • 04/06/2019
  • 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

  • 4/12-13/2019
  • 10am to 4pm
  • River Farm: 7931 E. Boulevard Dr., Alexandria, VA
  • Includes some native plant vendors.
  • Visit the Sale Site.

Long Branch Nature Center

  • Pre-order through 04/24/2017. Order online for pick up 05/03/2019 from 3-6pm, or 05/04/2019 from 10am-3pm.
  • Sale 05/04/2019 (Rain date 05/05/2019)
  • 1 to 4pm
  • Long Branch Nature Center
  • 625 S. Carlin Springs Road
  • Arlington, VA 22204
  • Visit the Sale Site.

Northern Alexandria Native Plant Sale

  • 04/29/2019
  • 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

  • 04/27/2019
  • 8am to 2pm
  • 53 Waterpenny Lane,
  • Sperryville, VA 22740

Friends of Riverbend Park Native Plant Sale

  • 05/04/2019
  • 8 to 11am
  • Riverbend Park Outdoor Classroom/Picnic Shelter on Potomac Hills Street between Jeffery Road and the Visitors’ Center.
  • Pre-order through March 16. Pick up pre-ordered plants Friday, May 3 at the Riverbend Park Educational Pavilion on Potomac Hills Street in Great Falls. If plants do not emerge and look healthy by this date, we will refund your payment or replace with a similarly-priced item.
  • Visit the Sale Site.

Reston Association, Spring Festival

  • 05/04/2019
  • 1 to 5pm
  • Walker Nature Center: 11450 Glade Drive, Reston, VA
  • Includes a native plant sale.

2019 Girl Scout Troop 676 Native Plant Sale (Falls Church)

  • 05/05/2019
  • 11am to 1 pm (for pick up only)
  • Cherry Hill Park, 312 Park Ave, Falls Church, VA (behind the community center near the basketball court)
  • This sale is pre-order only. All orders must be received by May 2nd with payment by either mail or drop-off at this address: 802 Ridge Place, Falls Church, VA 22046.
  • Click here for details. Click here for the plant list.

Earth Sangha Plant Sale

Prince William Wildflower Society Annual Wildflower and Native Plant Sale

  • 05/11/2019
  • 9am to 12pm
  • Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church picnic area, 8712 Plantation Lane, Manassas, VA
  • Visit the Sale Site.

Friends of Runnymede Park

Green Springs Garden Day Plant Sale

  • Potowmack Chapter native plants and other native vendors
  • 05/18/2019
  • 9am to 3pm
  • Green Spring Gardens: 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA
  • Visit the Sale Site.