The Ozone Bio-indicator Garden Project: A Cooperative Effort Between ARMN, Arlington County, NASA, and Harvard

By Jane Metcalfe, Louis Harrell, Nicolasa Hernandez, and Barbara Hoffheins

ARMN has been working with Arlington County, NASA, and the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Science Education to build and maintain a “bio-indicator” garden as part of a project to monitor the impact of ozone air pollution on plants. Bio-indicator gardens consist of plants that exhibit a typical and verifiable response when exposed to ozone air pollution. This project is part of a NASA-sponsored network of ozone bio-indicator gardens across the U.S.—and internationally—in conjunction with its the TEMPO (Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring Pollution) mission.

TEMPO will be the first space-based instrument to monitor major air pollutants across the North America continent every daylight hour at high spatial resolution. Data collected from the garden over a period of three or four years will be merged with data from other gardens across the country. The mission’s ultimate aim is to monitor the air we breathe with greater detail and precision. This information can be learned from monitoring the plants chosen for the project.

In addition to the overall mission, what are the goals of this ozone bio-indicator garden and what information will it collect?

The Ozone Garden has several goals:

•           To illustrate visually the impacts of ozone pollution on plants

•           To educate all ages about air pollution in Arlington

•           To connect individual actions, as well as official policy, to local air pollution

•           To better understand the impact of ozone air pollution on plants.

Understanding the impact of ozone air pollution will be achieved by merging Arlington data with data from across the country. Data will be collected from all participating gardens using a standard procedure and reported to a project website used by all the gardens. Uniform procedures are critical for data quality.

The TEMPO satellite, which is currently projected to be launched in 2022, will provide very high-resolution hourly data on ozone and will be correlated with data on the impacts to plants in the bio-indicator garden in Arlington.

How concerned are we about ozone in this area?

Ground-level ozone is a harmful air pollutant and is likely to reach unhealthy levels on hot sunny days in urban environments. Ozone can be transported long distances by wind. For this reason, even rural areas can experience high ozone levels. The Washington-Baltimore-Arlington area is one of the country’s most polluted areas due to ozone pollution. The American Lung Association gives Arlington an “F” for ozone pollution from 2016-2018 (the latest information available) (http://www.stateoftheair.org/city-rankings/states/virginia/arlington.html). The American Lung Association also notes that the entire DC area is ranked 20th out of 229 metropolitan areas for high ozone days (https://www.stateoftheair.org/dev/city-rankings/most-polluted-cities.html). The Environmental Protection Agency currently places the Washington DC area in “Marginal – Nonattainment” for ozone standards (https://www3.epa.gov/airquality/greenbook/jbca.html#Ozone_8-hr.2015.Washington).

How did ARMN become involved with the project and where is the garden located?

2018 ARMN trainee, Jane Metcalfe, became aware of the NASA effort in the process of developing a class presentation. She then spearheaded an ARMN Project for an ozone garden and worked with other ARMN volunteers to launch it. The Ozone Monitoring Garden became a true partnership: ARMN developed the project and provided basic funding and volunteers; Arlington County furnished the garden site along with site support, mulch, and fencing; and NASA/Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Science Education is responsible for providing genetically-similar plants and seeds, and support for education and outreach.

Walter Reed Community Center in Arlington was chosen for the garden’s site because its conditions were suitable for the plants and it is visible to the community for visits and eventual education events. An area was fenced off and the ground was initially broken and prepared for planting in September 2019. However, an early frost in 2019 prevented the garden from being planted that year and the subsequent pandemic prolonged efforts to continue work on the space. In addition to Arlington, the NASA/TEMPO program directors were unable to get seeds to the 17 gardens across the U.S. and internationally.

Photo of the garden
Photo on March 11, 2020 just before all work stopped with pandemic. Photo courtesy of Kasha Helget.

Has the ozone garden been planted?

Yes! It was determined last fall that planting and monitoring could proceed with Covid-19 safety procedures in place. So, a team led by new ARMN member, Nicolasa Hernandez, along with other members of ARMN and the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia, began clearing the site on August 7, 2020.

Seeds were planted on October 2, 2020 so they could establish before the first frost of the season. The bed was divided into four areas that were outlined with mulch paths. Individuals can walk on the mulch paths to get a close look at the plants without disturbing them. They can later inspect the plant leaves for evidence of any elevated presence of ozone. 

Photo of volunteer in the garden
Volunteers Barbara Hoffheins and Todd Minners install seeds and mark walkways on October 2, 2020. Photo courtesy of Nicolasa Hernandez.

The team installed two of the areas with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) a local native perennial, the third area with snap beans that are sensitive to ozone (Phaseolus vulgaris ‘S-156’), and the fourth with snap beans that are less sensitive to ozone (Phaseolus vulgaris ‘R-331’).

Below is a photo of the garden three weeks after planting. The first two leaves of each of the snap bean plants are easily visible. These plants should continue to develop through the winter. The seeds planted for the common milkweed (a perennial requiring overwintering) will emerge in late this spring. The weeds that have returned throughout the garden since planting will be removed by the team.

Garden three weeks after planting with visible snap bean plants. Milkweed hadn’t come up yet. The remaining plants are weeds. Photo courtesy of Nicolasa Hernandez.

What will ozone impacts to the plants look like?

Damage caused by ozone is typically observed as stippling or purpling on the top side of older leaves of the plant. If foliar damage occurs on younger leaves, then it is not ozone damage. The team also has to be aware of mimicking symptoms and other pest problems that look like ozone injury.

Later, signposts will be placed in the garden to describe its purpose and identify each area along with photos that indicate the conditions to look for.

As the plants grow, ARMN volunteers will monitor them for physical effects of ozone pollution and report the results to the national database.  

What is the future plan for the ozone garden?

ARMN volunteers will need to keep the garden weeded, and plan to install additional seeds this spring.

ARMN, via the Virginia Master Naturalists, has applied for a grant from Harvard to pay for signage to explain the project and how it links to TEMPO. A public education program is planned so that members of the community will be able to see the link between ozone and plant health. Additional procedures will be developed for people who will be monitoring the garden.   

For more information about the TEMPO Citizen Science program, see: http://tempo.si.edu/pdfs/AGU_O3garden_1Dec2016.pdf.

Finally, thanks go out to the ARMN Ozone Bioindicator team for their hard work and dedication in the development and care of this Ozone Garden: 

  • Sonya Dyer
  • Mary Frase
  • Louis Harrell
  • Nicolasa Hernandez
  • Barbara Hoffheins
  • Phil Klingelhofer
  • Jane Metcalfe
  • Todd Minners
  • Marj Signer

2021 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service Environmental Events

Please join your friends, neighbors, and fellow environmental stewards in participating in the following habitat restoration events during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Enjoy the satisfaction of helping to restore these natural areas. Dress in layers for cold weather, bring work gloves, your own tools, filled reusable water bottle, and face mask. Please also follow COVID guidelines for each event.

Photo of Martin Luther King Jr
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=136494.
  • Date: Saturday, January 16, 2021
    Event: Habitat restoration and invasive plant removal
    Time: 10:00 am – Noon
    Location: Tuckahoe ParkContact: Mary McLean, 703-966-2047, marydmclean@verizon.netDetails: Please call ahead since we’re limited to 10 people in the group. Meet at Tuckahoe Elementary’s parking lot. After orientation, volunteers head into the park.
  • Date: Saturday, January 16, 2021
    Event: Restoration work
    Time: Noon – 3:00 pm 
    Location: Upton Hill Regional Park
    Contact:
    To register, email Jill Barker, crosswell2630@verizon.net.
    Details
    : Rototiller day! Volunteers will come behind it and remove five-leaved akebia to prepare pollinator plant beds. This event is for volunteers over age 9. Training on invasive removal will be provided. Participation is limited to ten persons per event, so registration is essential.
  • Date: Sunday, January 17, 2021
    Event: Habitat Restoration & Invasive Removal
    Time: 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm
    Location: Long Branch Park
    Contact
    : Steve Young, 703-966-2966, frazmo@gmail.com
    Details
    : COVID restrictions/limits on volunteer numbers apply, so rsvp required. Dress for the weather, and consider wearing appropriate clothing, including sturdy footwear. Bring work gloves, clippers or a folding hand saw, trash bags, water bottle, sunscreen/hat.
  • Date: Monday, January 18, 2021
    Event: Invasive Removal
    Time: 10:00 am – Noon
    Location: Mary Carlin Woods at Bluemont Park (bounded by N. Carlin Springs Road, N. Kensington Street, N. 4th Street, the Bluemont Junction Trail and the Arlington Forest Club). Meet at the Mary Carlin Woods entrance along the Bluemont Junction trail just west from the rocks.
    Contact: Register by emailing: naturalresources@arlingtonva.us
    Details: COVID restrictions/limits on volunteer numbers apply, so rsvp required.
    Training on identifying invasive species and proper removal techniques will be provided by Master Naturalists and Tree Stewards. Participation is limited to ten persons per work site, so registration is requested. Bring your own gloves, tools, filled reusable water bottle, and face mask. Weather appropriate clothing is advised.
  • Date: Monday, January 18, 2021
    Event: Invasive removal or cleanup
    Time: 10:00 am – Noon
    Location: Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve. Meet at the Belle Haven Park south parking lot registration table.
    Contact: Register here and indicate your choice of invasive removal or cleanup, as described below.
    Details: There are two types of service: (1) a shoreline trash cleanup, and (2) removing English ivy from trees. Volunteers can choose either activity. You do not need prior plant identification experience. Under Covid-19 protocols, registration is required and participants are limited to 15in each group. Work gloves, tools, trash bags and hand sanitizer will be provided. Wear a mask, sturdy shoes, long pants and sleeves, winter gloves and sun protection. Bring your own water.
  • Date: Monday, January 18, 2021
    Event: Invasive Removal on the Mount Vernon Trail
    Time: 10:00 am – Noon
    Location: 615 Slaters Lane, Alexandria, VA 22314. Group will meet in the courtyard behind the Salvation Army Headquarters and then walk to the work area.
    Contact: Register at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/133621847543
    Details:
    Volunteers will remove English Ivy from trees along the Mount Vernon Trail. No special skills are needed. Bring hand pruners (There will be several to borrow), work gloves (There will be several to borrow), filled water bottle, face covering.

Thank You!!

How Your Very Own Wildlife Habitat Can Bring Ahhhhhh to These Troubling Times

Text and photos by Toni Genberg

What a wild ride. The past eight months have been a roller coaster of unprecedented challenges—seemingly insurmountable ones at that. I think I can state with a fair amount of confidence that we’ve collectively experienced anxiety, frustration, and also heartbreak. Maybe a bit of anger too. These have been tough days.

Fortunately, there’s this wonderful thing called nature out there. Woodlands, meadows, wetlands … outdoor spaces that allow us to de-stress. There’s no doubt the pandemic has illuminated the value of such protected areas, at least for those of us lucky enough to live near them. 

Photo of tree canopy.
Trees please. This kind of habitat can naturally lift downtrodden spirits.

I’ve had the luxury of spending many hours in some of these nearby natural areas, often to help destroy invasive plants. But a large chunk of my outdoor time is spent in my own personal sanctuary. While the mass movement to visit parks and to simply get outside continues, I experience that decompressing ahhhhhh feeling just footsteps from my door. On this quarter-acre lot four miles from bustling Tysons Corner Center, essential native plants feed uncommon bumble bees, delightful monarch caterpillars, hungry migrating birds, and much, much more.

Left: Photo of a backyard with garden beds. Right: Photo of wildflowers
LEFT: Even a small backyard, when planted with locally native plants, can become a functioning wildlife habitat. RIGHT: Butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and narrow-leaf mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) grow along with other shorter perennials in the front garden.

This habitat did not come about by accident, however. And it wasn’t created overnight. My garden-with-native-plants-or-die journey began about seven years ago with a lecture given by renowned entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy. His groundbreaking research showed that native plants support all life, even our own. (Yay, science!)

This past February, right before the covid-19 pandemic changed the way we lived, Tallamy’s lecture circuit brought him once again in front of a massive audience in Manassas. His rousing message urged us to repurpose turfgrass with native plants to form our very own “Homegrown National Park.” Reducing just half of all lawns across the country this way would return more than 20 million acres of America to wildlife habitat. Twenty. Million. Acres.

A pandemic prognosticator, Tallamy listed these benefits of building a park at home:

  1. You can enjoy nature on your own time at your own pace
  2. Avoid crowds
  3. It’s free 
  4. Avoid travel hassles
  5. Experience the natural world alone
  6. Hunt lizards!

And now there’s one more benefit: 

  1. Keep safe from droplets!

See what a Tallamy-inspired garden, enthusiastically documented over the past eight months of isolation, has attracted:

Photos of a bird, red bud flowers, and a squirrel.
MARCH: LEFT: This dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), foraging through leaf litter, will eventually make its way north to colder regions. CENTER: Redbud (Cercis canadensis) blossoms are an early source of nectar. RIGHT: Essential to forest regeneration, Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are also a constant source of entertainment.
Photos of Carolina wren birds, an eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, and a white throated sparrow.
APRIL: LEFT: The cutest Carolina wren fledglings (Thryothorus ludovicianus) hatched in the brush pile out back and were raised on an incredible number of spiders. CENTER: A puddling eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) in an area that was once asphalt. RIGHT: White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), here all winter, will depart soon and return again in October.
Photos of a Painted Lady butterfly, a horned passalus be
MAY: LEFT: Painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) lay eggs every spring on plantain-leaved pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia). CENTER: Decaying wood feeds many horned passalus beetles (Odontotaenius disjunctus). RIGHT: This monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) showed up on May 4th to lay eggs on common milkweed (Asclepius syriaca).
Photos of a house wren on a bird house, a hoverfly pollinating a sundrop flower, and a brown thrasher bird.
JUNE: LEFT: Yes, I know it’s “just” a house wren (Troglodytes aedon), but I was glad to see her using the unoccupied bird house. CENTER: Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) brighten the garden and feed pollinators and other flower visitors—like this margined calligrapher (Toxomerus marginatus). RIGHT: A brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) fledgling’s surprise visit. These birds are a declining species that forage in leaf litter.
Photos of a bumblebee visiting a flower, a caterpillar on a black-eyed susan, and a hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower.
JULY: LEFT: A fuzzy bumble bee (Bombus sp.) nectaring on Winged monkeyflower (Mimulus alatus). CENTER: This camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora aerata) dressed up in the bright petals of black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). RIGHT: Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) and are in turn pollinated by this wee bird.
Photos of a mockingbird perched on elderberry berries, a red oak leaf with holes eaten by insects, and a thistle flower with bees.
AUGUST: LEFT: Common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) feeds northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) and many other birds and mammals. CENTER: Oaks such as this northern red oak (Quercus rubra) support the highest numbers of butterfly and moth (Lepidoptera spp.) caterpillars along with other insects. RIGHT: So many animals are attracted to field thistle (Cirsium discolor).
Photos of a male common yellowthroat bird, juvenile goldfinches reaching for food from an adult goldfinch, and a magnolia warbler perched on a twig.
SEPTEMBER: LEFT: A male common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) flits about as it forages in stands of native perennials. CENTER: Feed me! Juvenile American goldfinches mob dad for field thistle (Cirsium discolor) seeds that ripen under the cable line. RIGHT: A migrating magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia) whom I hope to see again in the spring.
Photos of a palm warbler, a ruby-crowned kinglet, and a downy woodpecker peeking out a
OCTOBER: LEFT: A sighting first: a pretty palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), another migratory bird. CENTER: An adorable ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) poses on a log I placed for such occasions. RIGHT: A front garden snag-turned-art-carving invites a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) to build a home.

If you’re curious about how best to create your own private park, here are some environmentally-sound suggestions:

  • Buy locally native plants to support our indigenous critters and to keep our wild areas ecologically intact. I like to frequent Earth Sangha’s plant list to choose my local ecotype plants. The Earth Sangha family is always happy to help you to select the right plants for your site conditions and your needs. 
  • If you have an appropriate location, plant native keystone plants such as white oak (Quercus alba) and wild black cherry (Prunus serotina). These trees are the two top supporters of Lepidoptera spp. (moth and butterfly) larvae.
  • Remove invasive plants because they can escape from your yard into natural spaces. Getting rid of invasives on your property is equally as important as planting natives. 
  • Reduce lawn. Turfgrass is considered to be ecologically devastating because of the problematic way humans maintain it (use of fertilizers and weed killers) and because of how little life it supports.
  • Forgo the pesticides. Grub controls, mosquito sprays, and rodent poisons harm more than just the targeted “pests.”
  • Leave the leaf litter to maintain plant and soil health and to harbor a variety of animals. Slugs, moths, and spiders are just as important as our enchanting fireflies and butterflies—which rely on leaf litter to survive.
  • Strive to keep discarded plant material on your property. It takes resources to haul it away and process it.
  • Use some of that unwanted plant material to build a brush pile for birds and small mammals.
  • Leave a dead tree (called a “snag”) standing when feasible. Any size snag can support wildlife but leaving at least a six-foot-tall dead or dying tree feeds innumerable insects and can provide homes for woodpeckers and other animals.
  • Allow branches and logs to rot in your garden or lug neighbors’ chain-sawed tree parts onto your property or do both! These logs make a lovely natural edging and are as enticing to insects as snags are.
  • Keep outdoor lights off to help moths, birds, and bats. Yellow light bulbs in a motion-activated fixture are also a good solution. Note that some studies show that residential exterior lights do not prevent crime.

Although the landscape I nurture is still fluid and an ongoing labor of love (yes, my garden is much more work than lawn is), it has from the get-go provided valuable eco-services. I recommend taking on small sections at a time. Begin by planting lower-maintenance trees and shrubs. Then just add water. And love.

Photo of an insect on a purple flower.
Carolina elephant’s-foot (Elephantopus carolinianus) attracts smaller insects.

There’s never been a better time or reason to create your own oasis. Even if you have only a patio or a balcony, a few native plants grown in containers can attract and support a variety of teeny animals such as our native bees and caterpillars. Let’s help the critters we are passionate about and also help ourselves. 

For more of Tallamy’s philosophy, see: April 2020 Smithsonian Magazine interview, “Meet the Ecologist Who Wants You to Unleash the Wild on Your Backyard.”

Don’t put all your fallen leaves out for curbside pickup; build a firefly habitat instead!

by Phil Klingelhofer

Photo of a firefly with it's tail illuminated
From: From firefly.org website, firefly_71578.

Gardeners often don’t realize that gardens make for great firefly habitat, helping to replace their lost natural habitat. The common firefly—the Big Dipper Firefly (Photinus pyralis)—readily takes to an organic habitat. The trick is to make your garden as inviting as possible for fireflies to take up residence.

Gardens are meccas for food fireflies eat. If you have fought off snails, slugs, various insects, and worms, then fireflies can lend a hand by helping to control these pests.

Fireflies spend up to 95% of their lives in larval stages. They live in soil/mud/leaf litter and spend from one to two years growing until finally pupating to become adults. This entire time they eat anything they can find. 

Photo of a firefly larva
Xerces Society website, photo by Katja Schulz, Flickr Creative Commons 2.0.

As adults, they only live two to four weeks. Females that have mated successfully need a place to lay eggs. They will lay eggs in many spots, but gardens offer an oasis with a source of soil moisture good for larval development.

Some inventive tips for attracting fireflies:

  1. Don’t rake leaves and put them on the curb. You are raking up firefly larvae and throwing them away.
  2. Collect paper bags of leaves to make “Bag Compost.” Collect 5-15 bags.
  3. Wet bags down in a shady lawn area. Keep moist/wet for 3-6 months or up to a year.
  4. Bags will attract snails/slugs. This is food for growing fireflies.
  5. In Spring, put bag compost in your garden. Put it in mounds and work it into your soil.
  6. Repeat each year. It might take as long as 5 years, or as quick as that same year, to get fireflies in your garden.

For more information, see: the Firefly.org website.

If you want a deep dive into the biology of fireflies, see: Virginia Master Naturalist webinar on fireflies.

So please don’t put all your fallen leaves out by the street for collection. Save them and grow your own fireflies!

Fall Native Plant Sales are Still On!

Text and photos by Kasha Helget

Think there are no opportunities to purchase native plants this fall? Think again!! Below are locations where you can indeed buy the perfect plants to benefit local wildlife and spruce up your yard, too.

Autumn is the best time to install new perennials, trees, and shrubs with warmer soils but cooler air temperatures, which reduces transplant shock. Planting now should give plants plenty of time to become established before winter. Then, in the spring they will provide benefits to the critters that depend on them AND add wonderful beauty to your garden. Below are places to purchase native plants in safety for both buyers and sellers. So, take advantage of these opportunities and bring home a few—or several—native plants to brighten your yard, patio, balcony, or deck. The native wildlife will appreciate it.

Why Choose Native Plants?

Because they’re “from here,” natives are adapted to our climate and soil conditions. They are often the most healthful—or only—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, with easy-to-follow tips, lots of photos, and additional links to learn what will work best in your situation(s).

Where You Can Buy Natives This Fall

Nature by Design

  • Seven days a week
  • 7am to 6pm
  • 300 Calvert Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22301
  • Click HERE for details on availability, appointments, and pickup.

VNPS Wednesday Native Plant Sales

  • Each Wednesday till 10/7/2020
  • 10am to 1pm
  • Green Spring Gardens
  • 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria VA
  • The VNPS native plant sale takes place behind the Horticulture Center
  • For details, click HERE

Earth Sangha Wild Plant Nursery Self-Service Saturdays

  • Five Saturdays from 9/5/2020 till 11-14-2020
  • 6100 Cloud Dr., Franconia Park, Springfield VA         
  • Sign up for a 1-hour time slot to peruse the nursery at your leisure (limited to 10 customers per hour)
  • Click HERE for details and to sign up for a time slot.

Town of Vienna Fall Native Plant Sale

  • 9/12/2020
  • 8am to 12:30pm
  • 120 Cherry Street, SE, Vienna VA.
  • Click HERE for details.

Glencarlyn Library Community Garden AutumnFest

Arlington Native Plant Sale

  • Plant pickup 10/3/2020
  • 1pm to 4pm
  • Native Plant Nursery parking lot behind Tucker Field at Barcroft Park.
  • 4250 S Four Mile Run Dr, Arlington, VA
  • Plants must be pre-ordered by September 24 before 5pm.
  • Click HERE for plant selections and other details.

DC/Baltimore/N. VA “Cricket Crawl,” August 21st: A Fun Citizen Science Project for the Whole Family!

Logo for the Washington DC/Baltimore Cricket Crawl

by Louis Harrell

Every year, Discover Life invites citizen scientists of all levels to identify the calls of crickets and katydids in the District of Columbia, the Baltimore area, and Northern Virginia. This year’s annual “cricket crawl” will be on the evening of August 21, 2020, any time after 8:30 pm. It is a particularly good event for 2020 because it is led by individuals and families in their own yards or other open areas where they can socially distance safely. The rain date is August 22. This project is a collaborative venture between Discover Life, The Audubon Naturalist Society, and The Natural History Society of Maryland.

Participants must first learn to differentiate between the six species of crickets and katydids being tracked that are common to the region. These are: 

  • Jumping Bush Cricket (Orocharis saltator)             
  • Japanese Burrowing Cricket (Velarifictorus micado
  • Greater Anglewing (Microcentrum rhombifolium)
  • Lesser Anglewing (Microcentrum retinerve)
  • Oblong-winged Katydid (Amblycorypha oblongifolia)
  • Common True Katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia)

So, how do you learn to identify the different calls? There are a couple of ways:  

The best way is to register for a Zoom Cricket Crawl prep event that will be given by Ken Rosenthal on Tuesday, August 18th at 7:00 pm. You can register here for Program #642840-H, by 4pm on August 17. Ken will send you a link on the day of the presentation. If you miss the deadline, contact him directly at Krosenthal@arlingtonva.us. At Ken’s presentation, you will learn to identify the different calls, how and why they sing, and more. 

In the alternative, you can click on Discover Life’s Cricket and Katydid species page to view the insects’ photos and listen to their calls.

Then, on the night of August 21st, between 8:30 and about 11:30, record the data requested on the “Cricket Crawl Data Form” at the Discover Life home page. Record only one collection for each location you survey but try to cover many locations with one minute surveys. Note the address or cross streets for each location. Put some distance between sites — 1/4 mile is very safe. You can submit your results to the cricket hotline at (240) 801-6878 or email the form to: speciesobs@gmail.com. You may also contact this email address with additional questions. Jen Soles, Jsoles@arlingtonva.us, can be contacted with any questions about the survey in Arlington or elsewhere in Northern Virginia.

For more information visit: https://www.discoverlife.org/cricket/DC/.

Roaming Charges: The Environmental Costs of Outdoor Cats

by Rosemary Jann

Photo of a cat eating a bird
Photo by Gaëtan Priour, courtesy of American Bird Conservancy

Domesticated cats have lived in human communities for so long that they may seem like an integral part of our natural landscape. However, cats are non-native animals that can pose a significant threat to native wildlife, in the process undermining biodiversity and disrupting the balance of our natural environment.  At least in the case of owned cats, there are things owners can do to help right this balance.

Anyone who has watched a cat stalk and pounce on a toy mouse can appreciate how the quick reflexes, sharp teeth, and retractable claws of domestic cats have superbly adapted them to be hunters of small prey. These same hunting abilities played a crucial role in their domestication. According to National Geographic, cats began to frequent human communities in the Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East at least 8,000 years ago, as the development of agriculture resulted in the storage of crops that attracted rodents, and the rodents in turn attracted local wildcats. For thousands of years, cats and farmers enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship as tamer cats in essence selected themselves for living in proximity to humans. The European domestic cat (Felis catus) was imported into the New World by mariners and colonists, leading eventually to a population explosion of domestic cats in the United States. In 2017, Statistica.com estimated that 94 million cats lived in U.S. homes. National Geographic adds that an additional 70 million feral cats may live in our communities. All these “domestic” cats are actually non-native imports that did not evolve with our local wildlife.

And therein lies the root of an environmental dilemma. Although other factors like habitat loss, pollution, and disease also endanger animals, cats play a significant role in wildlife mortality.  A 2013 review of research by biologists Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra estimated that free-roaming cats annually kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds and between 6.3 and 22.3 billion mammals in the United States alone, making them the largest single source of anthropogenic mortality for those animals. In addition, cats kill numerous insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Exact numbers are difficult to pin down, especially given the challenges of conducting research on feral cats, who cause the highest wildlife mortality. But even the low range represents a significant problem.

In Cat Wars (2016), Marra and Chris Santella show that cat predation has pitted proponents of native wildlife against proponents of feline welfare for over a hundred years. Today, the sharpest controversies involve Trap Neuter and Return (TNR) programs, which vaccinate and neuter feral cats and return them to the community, often in colonies supported with food and shelter. In Cats and Conservationists: The Debate about Who Owns the Outdoors (2020), Anna Peterson and Dara Wald hold out hope for finding common ground in debates over TNR, but they mostly document a deeply-entrenched standoff in which the various sides cannot even agree on what counts as scientific evidence, much less how to act upon it.

There is more clarity in what can be done about the cats that people own. Some cat owners believe that roaming and predation are natural behaviors that should be tolerated, and in a limited sense they are correct. As explained by International Cat Care, , because cats are obligate carnivores who must rely on animal protein, they have been naturally selected for effective hunting abilities. However, because small cats evolved as largely solitary hunters who never knew where their next meal might come from or how difficult it might be to capture, it made sense for them to kill whenever they had the opportunity. This means that their descendants, our domestic cats, are also hard-wired to hunt and kill regardless of whether they are hungry or not. A study in ScienceDirect  that tracked owned cats suggests that as much as 70% of what they kill is not even consumed. So, keeping a house cat well fed is no guarantee that it won’t hunt and kill smaller creatures.

And even when they don’t kill, Marra and Santella (61-62) explain that the mere presence of cats in a landscape can have indirect, sublethal effects, for instance, by reducing breeding fecundity in birds who are frightened into spending less time on the nest and hunting for food for their chicks. Even animals that escape from cats often die from bacteria in their puncture wounds, as noted by Alonso Abugattas  in his Capital Naturalist blog. Smithsonian Magazine adds that outdoor cats can also spread diseases to humans like rabies, plague, and a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii.  

Moreover, it can be argued that the position of domesticated cats in the environment is anything but “natural.” Scientists like Loss and Marra consider house cats (and supported ferals) to be “subsidized predators.” Because people give them food, shelter, medical care, and other support, they have distinct advantages over native predators and can reduce the amount of prey available to them. Cats are generalists who can switch prey more easily than can some native predators. Alonso Abugattas points out that unlike native predators, cats have the leisure to stake out and ambush the same areas (like chipmunk trails or bird feeders) repeatedly. Game camera footage of a cat carrying a dead squirrel in Barcroft Park suggests the toll that free-roaming cats can take on public lands.

Game camera footage courtesy of Alonso Abugattas.

In a natural environment, the size of the predator population would be controlled by the amount of available prey. However, subsidized cat populations can readily exceed the size that a habitat can support without experiencing environmental degradation. As conservationist Paul Noelder puts it, letting cats outdoors “is like letting semis drive in the bike lane. It’s a killer[.]”

The debate over outdoor cats is sometimes framed as a concern for protecting biodiversity versus defending the needs and rights of cats. But there is also a third consideration: free-roaming cats can be vulnerable to many threats, as this poster suggests:

Me.me https://me.me/i/what-an-indoor-only-cat-misses-being-hit-by-a-3285167

Webmd estimates that on average, indoor cats can live as much as three times longer than free-roaming cats. Owned cats can find the enrichment they need indoors if their owners stimulate the cat’s natural predatory behaviors.  Cat Friendly Homesoffers useful guidelines on choosing toys that mimic a cat’s preferred prey and recommends allowing the cat to capture the toy at the end of the game to satisfy its hunting instincts. Bird videos, window perches, and food hidden in puzzle balls can provide mental stimulation for an indoor cat. The American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors” site lists safe outdoor access products for cats. These include cat harnesses and backpacks and  enclosures like the “Catio” and cat-proof fencing like the Purrfect Fence that provide outdoor spaces where cats and wildlife can be safe.

Owned cats are not the sole driver of wildlife reduction, but they are one significant factor that can be controlled, starting with the recognition that cat predation is more of a human problem than a feline one. Revoking our cats’ roaming privileges can be a crucial step in protecting biodiversity in our natural world.

Birds of A Feather: The Making of a Video on How to Identify Local Birds

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?

  • Senior centers
  • Civic associations
  • Home or online school programs
  • Church groups
  • NextDoor groups
  • 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!

Virtually Exploring Virginia’s Flora and Fauna

Text by Kristin Bartschi; Logo collage by George Sutherland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Status of Salt Management Strategy (SaMS) to Address Excessive Use of Road Salt

by Kasha Helget

Photo of road salt being dumped into a truck
from SaMS webpage.

Winter is here! And with the season comes snow, ice, and salt trucks on our roadways. Last month, Sarah Sivers from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) gave an update on the program to study winter salt use and how to reduce its unintended impacts and maintain public safety. This program, called the “Salt Management Strategy” (SaMS), was initiated following a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study that DEQ completed for the Accotink Creek watershed in July 2017.

The TMDL study identified a spike in chloride (salt) levels linked to winter deicing activities that adversely affected the water quality in the creek. Given that the excessive salt use was affecting other waterways in the region and not just Accotink Creek, SaMS was developed with focus on salt’s impacts for all of Northern Virginia.

The goal of SaMS is to develop a strategy that uses a stakeholder-driven process to reduce to acceptable levels the chloride loads identified in the Accotink Creek TMDL as well as the broader surrounding region, increase public awareness of the problem and long-term support to improve deicing/anti-icing practices, and foster collaboration among the various groups involved in winter deicing/anti-icing activities. The aim is to improve deicing practices to lessen the effects on the environment, infrastructure, and public health—all while continuing to protect public safety. 

The SaMS project started in earnest in 2018. Since then, various leadership groups including a Stakeholder Advisory Committee, six workgroups comprised of SAC members, and a Steering Committee with representatives from the workgroups have met to address the following issues: both traditional and non-traditional best management practices, education and outreach, water quality monitoring and research, salt tracking and reporting, and government coordination. The various meetings will continue until a plan is developed for public comment, finalized by December 2020, and implemented afterwards.

Want to Learn/Do More?

Stay informed about progress in the program by visiting the SaMS webpage. There you can read existing SaMS newsletters and sign up to receive future ones.

Also, be “Winter Salt Smart” by:

  • Staying off the road during winter events, whenever possible.
  • Shoveling after a storm around your residence and
    • Applying salt ONLY when/where needed or using an alternative traction material like sand, wood ash, or native bird seed. Also remember that a little salt goes a long way.
    • Being patient! Warmer temperatures and the sun can help melt snow away fairly quickly.
    • Sweeping up excess salt or traction material and saving it to use after the next storm.
  • Sharing this information with neighbors and friends so they can reduce salt use, too.
Photo of a stream with snow on the streambanks
VDOT image