ARMN Celebrates 10 Years Serving Community and Launches Facebook Page

by Kasha Helget

The Arlington Regional Master Naturalists have reached a major milestone and expands its public outreach to the community in new ways.

Ten Years of Service, Growth, and Outreach

The Arlington Regional Master Naturalists group just finished its 10th year as a Virginia Master Naturalist chapter, and over 70 members celebrated the milestone at the Annual Meeting in December.

Photo of a meeting. Groups of people are sitting around round tables watching a presentation.
ARMN 10th Anniversary celebration, December 2018. Photo courtesy of Alonso Abugattas.

President Marion Jordan welcomed all the members and supporters at the gathering. She also gave a special nod to the first class of 2008, with over half the graduates still as active members. Jordan then thanked the ten+ partners who have worked with ARMN over the years.

She highlighted ARMN’s past achievements, present efforts, and plans for future activities. This included an acknowledgment of the various projects on which members have donated thousands of hours during the decade.

Six ARMN volunteers plant vegetation under a tree.
2017 Barcroft Park Restoration Planting. Photo courtesy of Karen Thomas.

Among these are stewardship activities (such as invasive plant removals from regional parks and public lands, stream cleanups, and native plant nursery work);

2015 Champion Tree Bicycle Ride. Photo courtesy of Lori Bowes.

Also, education and outreach programs (including public events and instructional programs, nature center support, work with children inside and outside of the classroom, and school gardens);

2014 Marie Butler Leven Preserve e-Mammal Survey. Photo courtesy of Toni Genberg.

Added to this are citizen science (such as stream water monitoring, bird counts, tree, plant, and insect surveys, and more recently, bioblitzes and other surveys that use internet-based iNaturalist, eBird, and GPS tools to track plant, animals, and restoration efforts).

For the future, Jordan stressed the priority of expanding ARMN’s outreach to include more members of the community with events such as “pop-up parks” (to provide nature mini-presentations to passers-by both in parks and elsewhere), as well as more structured outreach to a variety of organizations and citizens.

The ARMN members also submitted their own reflections on their past and present involvements in the organization, and how they looked forward to continued participation during the next decade.

Active membership in ARMN has grown to over 175 individuals whose contributions have multiplied throughout the years. Just in 2018, members reported over 15,000 hours of work in support of the natural environment locally and throughout Virginia!

The ARMN organization has also been honored during its ten years by awards from the National Park Service and Arlington County, and individual members have been honored for their efforts in supporting Arlington’s natural environment.

ARMN Adds Facebook to its Outreach

ARMN has recently launched the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists Facebook page to engage members of the general public about local natural events, photos, discussion topics, or other items of interest in our natural world. Anyone can join by applying for inclusion in the group. We hope to see YOU participate there, too!

How to make your winter more interesting, help birds, and give a second purpose to your holiday tree!

Many people have mixed feelings about taking down the Christmas tree each year: Glad to have it out of the house when it starts to drop needles, relieved that the county or city tree pick-up program makes for easy disposal, but sorry that the short-lived but valued purpose is gone.

You may want to wait before tossing it to the curb.

One way to prolong the useful life of an already cut Christmas tree is to repurpose it as a natural bird feeding station in your garden, or perhaps a bird-friendly neighbor’s garden if you don’t have one of your own. And if you do not have your own holiday tree, you can give and receive the same benefits by “borrowing” a neighbor’s tree after it has been put on the curb for the tree collection truck.

A winter-feeding station makes very good use of your tree, and can be done easily by placing a small or medium sized feeder in the top branches of your tree. Spillage trickles down and gets trapped in the branches, with some reaching the ground below the tree. This distributes the seeds for different sizes of birds, with different browsing styles, including typical ground feeders. And, it also provides shelter, or at least sheltered feeding, with snow, sleet, and cold winter winds.

Winter temperatures will keep your tree green and it will perform its function for your backyard bird population through the season. Generally, it has done its job by mid-March and you can decide when to put it out for green-cycle pickup as spring approaches.

ARMN: Getting to Know Phil Klingelhofer

By Bill Browning and Phil Klingelhofer

Phil Klingelhofer is the Vice President, Service Committee Chair, and an active member for ARMN. I was lucky enough to interview Phil for this series over a cup of coffee at Northside Social on Wilson Boulevard. I learned that he does a lot more with ARMN than his job on the Board. He has already logged in 1000 volunteer hours since he graduated from the training class in Fall 2014. And he does a lot of Master Naturalist-like activities outside our region.

I first grew to know Phil when our kids were in school together and we were both on the Washington-Lee PTA leadership team. Phil was a great collaborator and leader there and he has become a key leader for ARMN, too. Here’s the essence of our conversation

Photo 1

Phil and other volunteers during a stream monitoring event at Bluemont Park on September 28, 2018.

Tell us about the ARMN projects you spend time on.

I lead the Service Committee for the ARMN Board. I have four talented and dedicated volunteers—Juliet Purll, Joy Tobin, Beth Kiser, and Louis Harrell—who help with a variety of related tasks and issues. We are working to provide ARMN members with a wide variety of service projects that will make a real difference in our community and citizen science opportunities to engage the curiosity we all have in nature. We’re a great team, and we have fun at our meetings. Care to join us?

A major priority for the Service Committee is to develop ARMN’s Park Steward program. The aim of this program is to provide ARMN and Tree Steward volunteers with the training, resources, and a collaborative network to take leadership roles and leverage their expertise and knowledge for the protection and enhancement of natural habitat and wild spaces in our local parks. In October, we held our first training session for the program. As part of this stewardship effort, we will also reach out to organizations such as private companies and churches who have groups of volunteers to help with some of our stewardship work. We hope that a number of our volunteer events will be led by an ARMN expert with10-20 participants learning about our natural environment and contributing to our mission. These volunteers should be force multipliers in our invasive work in the parks. We’re also moving the ARMN Service Committee into an area where we can increase the options for citizen science and do a better job of measuring the impact of our work.

My own personal pet project is a habitat restoration effort at Bluemont Park. After I started this effort, Lyndell Core, a fellow ARMN member and county employee, recommended that I apply for Neighborhood Conservation funds from Arlington County for assistance with the invasive removals. Based on the application I wrote and support of my neighborhood, our habitat restoration project was approved two years ago. It includes a five-year invasive plant treatment program by a professional firm, along with other park enhancements. This has already made a huge difference in our restoration effort.

I also frequently work at a variety of habitat restoration sites, indulging my passion for removing non-native invasives, making good use of a shovel to install native plants, and leading a regular stream monitoring team for a number of years. I also love serving on the ARMN Board, where I can help plan ARMN’s path forward with other dedicated Board members. In addition, I serve on the Arlington Urban Forestry Commission and Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee, where I try to give a voice to nature in our community.

Personally, and outside ARMN, I just returned from a week of birding on the North Carolina Outer Banks at the Wings Over Water Birding Festival. It’s the third year that I have attended this event, and I participated with small teams on two “Big Days.” My teams set records of 122 bird species, then 125 species, on consecutive days. O.K., I am a bit of a bird nerd…. The highlights of the trip included watching Northern Harriers sweep the fields for dinner, while black bears ate below and the snow geese and white pelicans swooped in for landing on the water impoundments.

ARMN volunteer Phil poses in front of a marsh with two sets of binoculars

Phil at the Bodie Island Lighthouse, Nags Head, North Carolina on October 17, 2018.

What brought you to ARMN?

I heard about ARMN from my sister-in-law who lives in Rockbridge County and is a Master Naturalist there. I was intrigued with the program because I’ve always loved nature and science. So, I started paying attention to ARMN from afar while I was still working, and as soon as I retired, I seized the opportunity to take the training.

What do you like most about ARMN and what has surprised you most?

I like hanging out with people who like nature and put their backs behind their mouths. People in ARMN like talking about nature and being out in it. But more than talk, they are willing to work and make a difference in terms of improving our natural environment through physical labor and sharing their love of nature with others.

I have been surprised by how many ARMN members are serious experts about a wildly diverse set of scientific issues.

Tell us something about your childhood experiences that shaped your perspective on nature.

I fell in love with birding when I was about five years old. My older brother built a bird blind in our backyard with a drip buck over a small pond. I would lie on my back for hours watching the birds take advantage of the habitat my brother had created and use my Field Guide to the Birds, (Peterson, 1947, 2nd edition) to identify them.

What is your background?

I started out as a physics major in college because I wanted to be an astronomer. When the math became more intense than I anticipated, I switched to become a psychology major. I worked in the banking industry and then ran the operations for a national trade association in the energy field, but I’ve always loved science and nature.

What are some other interesting or unusual things about yourself fellow ARMN members and others might want to know?

I was once fluent in German and French. As an elementary student, I attended the German School (run by the German Embassy in Washington) for nearly four years, taking classes and exams 100% in German. My father was born in Germany and came to the US just before World War II. Later, to confuse things, I studied French for six years in high school and college. And while my German and French are still pretty good, I’m no longer fluent. I like to think I only need to take a few trips to Europe to bring it all back.

NoVA PRISM- A New Partnership with ARMN

Photo 1

by Alex Sanders

In 2017, Arlington County sought and was awarded a matching grant to create a new multi-jurisdictional partnership. Known as the NoVA PRISM (Northern Virginia Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management), this effort is bringing together government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), volunteer groups, for-profit organizations, and individuals to coordinate their work on invasive species through outreach, education, and field projects in Northern Virginia. Here’s more about the effort and how you can join in.

One doesn’t need to travel far in our region to see invasive species—in yards, on the sides of streets, and worst of all, in our parks and natural areas. Because these species are free from the natural controls they had in their native lands, these organisms cause ecological, economic, or human harm in the new lands they’ve been introduced into. They can reproduce very quickly and outcompete native flora and fauna. The National Wildlife Federation estimates that 42% of threatened and endangered species are at risk due to invasives. 

 As understanding of the problem of invasive species has grown, many, including ARMN volunteers, have taken on the challenge of managing these organisms. But as the species have spread across the landscape, we’ve come to realize that the threat must be addressed through collaborative action beyond jurisdictional boundaries. So, this why Arlington County created NoVA PRISM.

Over the last year, the PRISM has been organizing, conducting outreach in the region, and working on a series of pilot projects along the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail. We’ve collaborated with NGOs in Loudoun County on a forum on sustainable landscaping for homeowner associations, are sending out educational mailers to thousands of residences, and have set up a website. The PRISM also conducted a plant survey along the W&OD Trail, has led several volunteer removals, and is in the midst of two restoration projects: in Falls Church and in Arlington. ARMN has been a key partner, and we are looking forward to further coordination and more involvement by neighbors in the community.

Photo 2

The challenges of invasive species in our region are substantial, but there’s plenty we can do as individuals and communities. First and foremost, try to remove as many invasives from your property as possible, and install native plants both for their beauty and to support our local wildlife that depend on them to survive. Your ARMN neighbors are doing just that and can provide expert advice. Other great resources are Plant NOVA Natives (for photos and descriptions of local native plants, where to buy them, landscaping tips, and additional resources), and Audubon at Home (for on-site consultation, and other recommendations to help you establish and nurture sustainable natural habitat in your backyard, neighborhood, school, church, park or business). You can also tell your favorite nursery to offer native plants. The more people who do can make a difference in what’s offered. And you can volunteer with groups such as ARMN to help restore our natural areas and educate others. Finally, visit the new NoVA PRISM website  or contact us at Look for upcoming habitat restoration events coming to a neighborhood near you and sign up to pitch in!

ARMN: Getting to Know Mary McLean

By Alison Sheahan

Mary McLean’s name is well known among ARMN members and many others interested in our local natural areas. She has been a force for environmental education generally, and for stewardship of Tuckahoe Park particularly, for many years!  It was a pleasure to get to know her further for this interview.  

Photo of ARMN memmber Mary McLean

Mary in Tuckahoe Park. Photo courtesy of Alison Sheahan.

Tell us about your background and what early experiences shaped your perspective of nature.

I grew up in a rural area just northeast of Birmingham, AL. Our 1910 house was on 9 acres of open land with a pond near a natural spring and my mother’s beautiful formal gardens. As the “caboose” in our family of 3 children, I remember being free to roam a lot on my own and I was always drawn to exploring and learning about the outdoors.

One of my earliest memories of my father was identifying a brown thrasher for me. I also connected to the natural world as a spiritual place, fitting with my Dominican and Jesuit parochial school teachings. In high school I was able to do several science internships with the University of Alabama and went off to the University of Virginia (’78) for college, thinking I might major in one of the sciences. The premed competition insured that was not to be—though I did meet my future “spice” there at my first stream study! Instead, I discovered a deep affinity for history and teaching. I later received a masters’ degree from George Washington University for History of Science. I worked for several years in administration and research at various institutions, including the Library of Congress, but I came back to my love of natural sciences and education through my three children.

What brought you to ARMN?

 As I began teaching at the Rock Spring Cooperative Preschool in Arlington and then volunteering at my children’s school, Tuckahoe Elementary, I found myself drawn to those involved in environmental education in Arlington. I was on a committee that planned Tuckahoe’s wildlife habitat and school gardens from 1990-2003 and helped to develop Tuckahoe’s “Expeditions” Exemplary program for outdoor learning. During that time, I took the Master Gardener training, and got into even more nature programs at the Tuckahoe Elementary. In addition, I worked with others to develop a nature trail at Tuckahoe Park and learned about stream restoration. Then, after receiving an English as a Second Language master’s degree, I worked at various local schools and communities as well as the National Audubon Society in Maryland. All the time I always kept in touch with my naturalist and schoolyard friends, including two particularly influential ones: Alonso Abugattas (currently, the Natural Resources Manager for Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation) and Cliff Fairweather (currently, a park naturalist with Arlington’s Long Branch Nature Center). Alonso encouraged me to take the ARMN training with the very first class in 2008. The rest is lots of fun volunteering and learning.

What do you like most/surprised you most about ARMN?

 I absolutely love the people of ARMN and the camaraderie that develops as we care for our environment. Where else can you find so many slightly geeky, humble, knowledgeable, and knowledge-hungry folks?  And the number of overlapping human connections is amazing and constantly surprises me!  I also love and was surprised by the deep learning in the training class and have been pleasantly surprised by how that training continues with the wonderful annual conferences and statewide meetings. There’s nothing like sharing a long car ride to SW Virginia to get to know each other, either!

Tell us about your ARMN projects.

 Well, I still do spend a lot of time in Tuckahoe Park! It’s such a precious little oasis in a busy urban area at the intersection of Lee Highway and North Sycamore Street. We have been very active trying to remove invasive species here in both the woodland and wetland areas and continue to hold monthly invasive plant pulls in which the public is invited to help. I also helped to develop the information along the park’s interpretive trail. I had the honor of receiving the Bill Thomas Outstanding Park Service Volunteer Award along with Don Walsh for our work in 2014. I love to help with so many of the projects at Arlington’s nature centers like the Firefly and Bat Festivals, as well as citizen science projects like the Cricket Crawl and Bioblitz events.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

 I think that I kind of fell into becoming a naturalist/environmental educator “seven ways to Sunday.”  There was so much in my childhood learning and church upbringing and love of outdoors that brought me to where I am. I believe that the best way of learning about what is most important for children—or adults—is out in nature where we evolved.  When you learn outside you learn with real stuff that you can use anywhere. ARMN folks, like park rangers and professional naturalists, represent the best teachers because they connect people to nature and to valuing natural resources by experiencing them.

2018 Arlington BioBlitz is September 15th!

Arlington will be conducting its second Bioblitz, and this year it will take place at only one site: Glencarlyn Park. This is a wonderful opportunity for individuals to participate in a valuable citizen science inventory of plants, wildlife, and other living organisms in the community.

What is a BioBlitz?

It is a (usually) 24-hour survey to find and identify as many species as possible in a specific area. The information collected will help the County to update its Natural Resources Management Plan. Last year’s BioBlitz was a wonderful success. (See event summary at: 2017 blog.) This year the team decided to conduct surveys in only one park instead of several throughout the county.

Why would you want to participate in the BioBlitz?

Because it is a great way to find and learn about the wildlife, plants and other living things in Arlington. Participants will be teamed with experts to help find, identify, and catalog what they find, using a free application called iNaturalist. While you do not need any experience to partake in the event, individuals with expertise in plants, wildlife, or other living organisms are encouraged to participate.

Photo of a Carolina Chickadee bird on a tree trunk. THe bird has a black topped head followed by a white strip and a grey body. The tree trunk is light brown streaked with dark brown and has a flaky bark.

Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) at Glencarlyn Park. Photo courtesy of Steve Young.

Photo of the plant Virginia Sweetspire. The sweetspire has obovate shaped, alternate green leaves with long stalks of small white flowers.

Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) at Tuckahoe Park. Photo courtesy of Christine Campe-Price.

When, Where, and Who

The inventories will begin as early at 7:30 am and run as late as 8:30 pm in a variety of focus teams: birds, botany, herps (amphibians and reptiles), fish, fungi, insects, trees, butterflies and dragonflies, streams, insects and nocturnals, and groups that will look at various taxa. Here are the relevant details:

Date: September 15, 2018

Time: Varied. Click on Sign-up Genius to pick your event and time

Meeting location: Glencarlyn Park Picnic Pavilion #1, 401 S Harrison St., Arlington, VA 22204

Who can participate: Anyone 13 years and older

Cost: FREE

For questions, please contact: Alonso Abugattas at 703-228-7742 or email

Add Native Plants to Your Fall Garden and enjoy them again next Spring and Summer!

Text and photos by Kasha Helget

Fall is the BEST time to install native plants. The cooler air temperatures are less stressful to stems and foliage, and the still-warm soil gives roots a great head start to become established before winter. So, consider choosing a few—or several native plants to brighten your yard, patio, or deck!

Photo of a green plant with small white flowers surrounding a tree trunk

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata), is a spreading perennial that bloom in early-mid fall, thrive in light to heavy shade, can handle dry conditions, and attract butterflies.

Why Choose Native Plants?

Natives are local species and are adapted to our climate and soil conditions. They also are often the only or most healthful source of nectar, pollen, seeds, and leaves for local butterflies, insects, birds, and other animals. These plants:

  • 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 scenic 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:, with easy-to-follow tips, lots of photos, and additional links to learn what will work for your situation.

Close up photo of a plant with yellowish green leaves and deep purple berries clustered around the stem.

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a shrub that can grow 3-5 ft. tall and wide. It prefers sun to light shade and moist conditions, produces purple berries in mid-fall, and attracts birds and butterflies.

Where Can You Buy Natives?

Most commercial nurseries do not carry a lot of native plants. If you have a favorite place that has a weak selection, tell them that you’d love if they could stock more. But there are many nurseries that bring plants to us—at local native plant sales. Below is a list of fall native plant sales nearby, with many providing food and entertainment. Happy shopping and planting!

Photo of light purple flowers with small petals and bright yellow centers

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is a spreading perennial that can grow 3- 6 ft, and bloom in early-late fall. It prefers part shade and moist conditions and attracts bees and butterflies.

Fall 2018 Native Plant Sales

Potowmack Chapter Weekly Plant Sale
Weekly plant sale on the first Wednesday of each month through October at the propagation beds behind the main building at Green Springs Garden.
10:00 am–12:00 pm
4603 Green Spring Rd, Alexandria, VA 22312

Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Fall Native Plant Sale
September 8, 2018
9:00 am–3:00 pm
Morven Park
17263 Southern Planter Ln, Leesburg, VA

Friends of Runnymede Park
September 15, 2018
9:00 am–2:00 pm
Runnymede Park
195 Herndon Pkwy, Herndon, VA

Glencarlyn Garden Autumnfest
September 16, 2018
10:00 am–3:00 pm
Glencarlyn Library Garden
300 S. Kensington St, Arlington, VA

Long Branch Native Plant Sale
September 22, 2018
1:00–4:00 pm
Pre-order deadline: September 12, 2018 at 4:00 pm
Long Branch Nature Center
625 S. Carlin Springs Rd, Arlington, VA

Town of Vienna Native Plant Sale
September 22, 2018
8:00 am–1:00 pm
Vienna Community Center
120 Cherry Street SE, Vienna, VA

Green Spring Garden and VA Native Plant Society Fall Garden Day
September 22, 2018
9:00 am–3:00 pm
Green Spring Garden Park
4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria VA

Earth Sangha Fall Wild Plant Nursery Sale
EXTENDED to September 30, 2018
9 am–Noon
Franconia Park
6100 Cloud Drive, Springfield, VA

Northern Alexandria Native Plant Sale
September 29, 2018
9:00 am–2:00 pm
Church of St. Clement
1701 N. Quaker Ln, Alexandria VA 22302

City of Alexandria Fall Native Plant Sale
Online through October 31, 2018
Pickup on November 3, 2018, 9:00 am–3:00 pm
Buddie Ford Nature Center
5750 Sanger Ave., Alexandria, VA 22311
Order information HERE, and click “Shop” button located at the top of the page and select Fall 2018 Plant Sale.


An Ode, Or Of Skunks in Arlington

By Steve Young and Lisa Stern

What happened to Arlington’s skunks?  A tale of elusive skunks in Arlington:

What happened to Arlington’s skunks?  A few years ago, when now-retired Arlington County Natural Resource Specialist Greg Zell conducted the first natural resources inventory of Arlington County, I recall that his nemesis mammal was the familiar striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). Although common in neighboring areas, Greg could not confirm any recent skunk sightings in Arlington. Apart from rumors, they just could not be found.

As described in NatureWorks, the striped skunk, about the size of a house cat, can easily be identified by the white stripes on black fur that run from head to tail, each skunk having a unique stripe pattern. Found only in North America, striped skunks tend to live in open areas with a mix of habitats like woods and grasslands or meadows, and usually are never further than two miles from water. Skunks mate from mid-February to mid-March and the babies (an average litter of five to six) are born about two months later. Baby skunks, blind and deaf when they are born, will nurse in the den for about a month and a half. And even after they leave the den, they may stay with their mother for up to a year ( So, where were Arlington’s skunks?

Photo of a skunk standing in dried grass. The skunk is arching its back and has its tail rasied.

Photo by Wallace Keck, National Park Service.

I have intermittently operated a game camera in my back yard for the last several years. Several days ago, I finally uploaded its last set of images to my computer and took a quick look. The batteries had died in late October 2017 and I had neglected it, finally bringing it indoors where it sat around for weeks. Scrolling through the thumbnails, I saw familiar images of miscellaneous squirrels, birds, raccoons, rabbits, foxes, opossums, roaming cats, and a funny-looking guy watering plants and mowing. But then, on October 24, 2017, shortly before the batteries died, there it was – one unmistakable picture of a skunk! Arlington does have skunks!  Since the skunk is primarily nocturnal, it is not surprising that I had not seen one during daylight hours. They sleep in burrows during the day and hunt at night. Interestingly, skunks usually don’t dig their own burrows, but tend to look for an abandoned burrow or find a natural hollow under a tree or building (NatureWorks). So, I had found my one skunk.

Black and white photo of a skunk. Skunk is at the bottom of the frame.

Photo by Steve Young (game cam photo).

But, apparently, there were more. Alonso Abugattas, the Natural Resource Manager for Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation, subsequently informed me that as of May 2018, he was aware of several other confirmed skunk sightings: one Ballston roadkill, two golf course videos, and an animal control officer who was sprayed by a skunk she was rescuing from a window well near the Fairlington neighborhood. (Some gratitude!) NatureWorks notes that, since it isn’t easy for a skunk to outrun a predator, the striped skunk has developed a unique defense system. When threatened, if it can’t run away, it tries to frighten the predator by arching its back, raising its tail and turning its back on the predator. If this doesn’t work, the skunk will spray its predator with a stinky fluid that also stings the eyes, giving the skunk time to escape. A skunk can spray fluid as far as twelve feet! So, one doesn’t necessarily want to have a close encounter.

In addition to Alonso’s information, Cliff Fairweather, Natural Resource Specialist at Long Branch Nature Center, mentioned that skunks (with their webbed toes and claws) dig for grubs and leave conical depressions in the ground.  NatureWorks adds that skunks are omnivores, and will eat insects, small mammals, fish, crustaceans, fruits, nuts, leaves, grasses and carrion. So, I had yet another clue that the skunk exists in Arlington—maybe that’s who dug up my back yard recently!

My game cam is now redeployed, and I am eager to see what other unexpected critters may turn up. Perhaps, at long last, the elusive Chupacabra….

Arlington Discovery: Intriguing Screech Owls at Home in Suburbia

By Mary McLean

Mary McLean recounts a series of fascinating encounters with a family of Eastern Screech Owls (Megascops asio) in early May 2018 at Tuckahoe Park in North Arlington. Mary and fellow master naturalists, park experts, and even animal welfare professionals provided thoughts and assistance to protect the offspring, and everyone learned something new about these (usually) nocturnal creatures along the way.

Early on May 6th, fellow ARMN member, Melanie La Force, contacted me with a wonderful find: baby gray Screech Owls roosting in Tuckahoe Park very close to the park’s trail. I arrived in a hurry, and we found three owlets at various levels on trees and on the ground; some without cover.

Not long after finding the babies, we looked straight up overhead from the trail to see almost silhouetted the singularly tiny, adult Screech Owl.

Photo of adult eastern screech owl sitting on a tree limb in front of green leaves in the background.

Photo courtesy of Kevin McLean.

The adult kept a close eye on the scene. While we stayed with the baby owls, the adult’s eyes went from person to person the entire time.

Screech Owls are rare to spot but both adults and juveniles would be very special bird identifications anywhere, especially in an urban park! They are small—only 7 to 9 inches on average as adults, and while mostly nocturnal, they can appear in twilight and during the day, as we witnessed here. They are also surprisingly comfortable in urban and suburban situations.

We conferred with fellow master naturalist, David Howell, as well as Alonso Abugattas, Arlington’s Natural Resource Manager, who agreed that the little ones were likely fledglings. Fledgling owls, known as “branchlets” or “branched out owls,” move from branch to branch once out of their usually high nest and before they can fly. At night they follow a parent’s call to get food, practicing locating prey by sound. Down on the ground they can get familiar with where they’ll find their prey and also learn to walk. During the day, a parent will watch over them. On hearing about the two near the ground Alonso suggested that maybe they were still learning. David Farner, Chief Naturalist and Manager at Fort C.F. Smith Park and a well-known bird resource, added that if they accidentally fell to the ground they would eventually figure out how to jump up to a higher location. With practice, those we saw will climb their way back up to a perch safely above the ground, even as one had already done.

Melanie and I worried that since two of the juvenile owls were perched so low they could be at risk from dogs. We both had regularly seen dogs running around the park off leash. On Alonso’s recommendation, Melanie called the Animal Welfare League of Arlington where volunteers connect concerned individuals to Arlington County’s Animal Control for an animal emergency like a potentially injured owl or off-leash animal. They came in 10 minutes! Officer Karina Swetnam and Officer Cliff Ballena told us they’d gotten a call about the owls earlier in the day and had already checked on them and they looked fine. When we told them about our concern regarding off-leash dogs, Officer Katrina contacted a raptor rehabilitator who took the two owlets from lower branches to keep them safe for a while. Now, the parent would just have one to watch.

The other Animal Control Office, Cliff, went over to where a group of people was playing in the park. There were two dogs off leash. While your dog may come when you call it, you may not be able to control its response to an unfamiliar animal like a baby owl, not to mention the danger to your dog from an owl’s talons! The protection of wild animals is yet one more reason to obey the law and keep dogs on a leash at all times in a public park.

The next day, Melanie said she’d spotted an owlet up in the canopy, and I was both happy that it was safe and exasperated I’d missed it yet again during my dog walk. But I did see a white pickup parked on the trail, with part of the trail on either side of the truck roped off. There was a special crew to take down dead trees (snags) that could fall on pedestrians who were on sidewalks and trails. We had seen the juveniles earlier in a pine snag that was marked with a white X for removal because it could fall on the trail.

So, I called the park manager, Kevin Stalica, who knew of the pine snag. He contacted the contractors to delay cutting it down. Kevin also contacted Alonso Abugattas about the situation and reported that Alonso said, “Once juvenile owls leave the nest out they stay out.”  So, if the nest was in this or another snag, the juveniles would likely be safe. We also learned that they perch on branches during the day as they snooze and grow more flight feathers, stronger muscles, and practice their flight skills.

A couple days later, we learned that Animal Control returned the two owlets to the park to let the fledglings learn from their parents and nature. At that point, David Howell saw them and was able to take some amazing photos, including both owl parents and all three of the owlets, safely up in the tree canopy together. Naturalist David Farner noted that while hunting is mainly done at night, with three hungry mouths to feed, both parents might hunt both day and night!

Photo of two eastern screech owls sitting in a tree obscured by tree leaves

Photo courtesy of David Howell.

David Howell also showed me his photos from Gulf Branch’s Migratory Bird Day Festival that was run by naturalists Jen Soles and Ken Rosenthal at Lacey Woods Park on May 12th. David captured photos of Screech Owl parents and they were not the same colors! One is a grey morph. The other is called a rufous (red) morph.

Photo of a juvenile eastern screech owl sitting in a tree on the left, and an adult eastern screech owl sitting in the tree to the right

Photo courtesy of David Howell.

Photo of an adult eastern screech owl sitting in a tree above two juvenile eastern screech owls

Photo courtesy of David Howell.

At Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s wonderful online guide “All About Birds”, I learned that there is also a Brown Morph for the (Northern) Eastern Screech Owl. It’s amazing how adaptable the owls are to different habitats! Here is a link to Cornell’s video of two Screech Owls during the day.

About a month after our first encounter, my “spice” Kevin and I took our dog, Declan, for his walk in the Tuckahoe Park woods early in the afternoon. There was a ruckus on the side of the trail. It was a mobbing of birds—and not the more familiar murder of crows badgering a hawk while escorting it around cawing incessantly in warning of the predator. Instead, a Blue Jay led a mixed flock of Robins, Cardinals, and Chickadees in protest of a Screech Owl! While we weren’t sure whether it was an adult or juvenile, the owl perched on a branch looked cool during the mobbing. Naturalist David Farner later explained that Screech Owls are a real threat to smaller song-birds, even as large as mockingbirds and thrushes, but not so much to Blue Jays.

Interestingly, the Screech Owl stretched its wings out again and again as if to say, “I’m bigger than I look.” Or maybe it was considering making a break for it. Ken Rosenthal noted that Screech Owls normally weigh twice as much as a Robin or a Blue Jay—the biggest in the mob—so maybe it stretched its wings to make sure they’d work. We later we surmised it must have been one of the owlets still learning how to be a predator.

While we wondered what it was doing awake at 1:00 in the afternoon or how it threatened the flock, a female Cardinal suddenly rushed towards the owl. It looked as if the owl fell from the branch but did not fly away. Instead, it hung upside down from the branch!

Photo of adult eastern screech owl hanging upside down off a tree limb

Photo courtesy of Kevin McLean.

The owl hung long enough for us to notice an odd angle of one wing. Concerned that its wing was injured, I called Animal Control with the report of an injured animal, to which they are known to respond promptly. But as I waited for Animal Control personnel to arrive, the owl suddenly flew off with the birds in pursuit into the upper canopy and out of sight. Shortly afterward the forest quieted down. So, whatever it did, the owl was no longer seen as a threat to the smaller-sized birds.

I contacted Animal Control to explain that the owl was evidently o.k. and the Animal Control Officer said she’d never heard of such behavior. Neither had Alonso, David Farner, or Ken Rosenthal. Farner did allow that,

The inverted owl is odd, but you watch birds a while and you’ll end up seeing all sorts of odd behavior that isn’t described. My guess would be that the owl got itself into a position it had never been in before and it took a bit of processing to figure out how to extricate itself. When I used to do hawk banding we would sometimes lay a bird on the ground on its back when we released. It would then take awhile for the bird to realize it was free and roll on its side or flip up so that it could fly away.

We all have more to learn about our Arlington birds!

It was a wonderful educational adventure with Screech Owls, for which I thank Melanie La Force (who credits the assistance of her friend’s dog, on leash!), as well as the experts, Alonso Abugattas, David Farner, Ken Rosenthal, and David Howell (including his priceless photos!). Finally, Arlington’s very helpful Animal Control Officers Karina Swetnam and Officer Cliff Ballena, for whom Arlington animals and people are forever in your debt. Also, special thanks to my “spice” Kevin McLean, for his help, photographs, and eternal patience.

Firefly Fest – Fun for all Ages!

Text and photos by Jo Allen

On June 24, 2018, the 10th annual Firefly Festival was held at Fort C.F. Smith Park. This very popular event was scheduled to run from 7:00–9:30 p.m. but was cut short by a cloudburst around 9:10. Still, it was really a great time, especially for the little ones!

This was my first year volunteering at the Firefly Festival at Fort C.F. Smith Park. I got the “bug” last summer at Bat Fest at Gulf Branch Nature Center, where I helped dozens of kids stamp scarves and bags with bat images. It was so much fun, especially seeing the creativity the youngsters expressed. I had always wanted to attend the Firefly Festival (organized by Rachael Tolman, Park Naturalist at Long Branch) but just had never signed up. This was the year.

I was assigned to the table next to Ken Rosenthal, a park naturalist at Gulf Branch Nature Center, whose “Deep Dive” presentations into everything from migratory birds to white tail deer to eels have held audiences rapt each time he gives them. Ken was loaning out bug nets and clear jars to kids for 10 minutes at a time so they could see what they could catch. Grandparents were the best at showing kids how to do this effectively (probably because they did the same activity in their youth). Remarkably, kids of all ages returned the gear in time, no arguments. And some came back with bugs of all kinds, which Ken quickly identified and, with luck, photographed. One team returned a jar with six fireflies. Many others brought earlier-evening insects. But there were so many fireflies that it was possible to catch one carefully by hand as it helicoptered up, blinking its mix of luciferin and luciferase bioluminescence in search of a mate.

My table illustrated how other nocturnal creatures—moths and bats—find their “perfect partner.” Or in the case of bats, their perfect prey: moths.

Headbands, sissors, pictures of bats, insect nets, and jars sit on folding tables in a field

Photo of the moth/bat craft stand.

Kids were told that male moths detect pheromones of females with their fluffy antenna (think feather boa) and that female moths have plain antenna (mere pipe cleaners or chenille sticks) by comparison.

Only girls wanted feathery antenna. And given a choice, most kids went for bat ears, which were more complicated to make, but really fun to wear!

ARMN volunteer wears "firefly antennae" made from bright yellow pipe cleaners

Jo Allen with “firefly antennae.”

I made nearly all of the antenna and ears headbands myself even though this was supposed to be a kid craft project. I realized I needed to do a lot of the assembly when I handed a pair of kid scissors to a little girl who was handling them awkwardly.

“I don’t think she’s ever used scissors,” her dad said. “She’s only three.”

“I use them in preschool,” she promptly corrected.

But she was struggling, so I cut the flap on her paper bat ears, glue-dotted them to the chenille stick I had cut in half and twisted onto a plastic headband and placed it on her head.

“Can you hear better now?” I asked.

Echoing every youngster, and one adult, after donning their bat ears, she replied, “Yes!”