Sparrow Pond is an artificial wetland and stormwater remediation complex along the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail between Route 50 and Columbia Pike in Arlington. Built circa 2000-2001, the pond has been very successful in capturing sediment that otherwise would have flowed into Four Mile Run, then the Potomac River, and eventually Chesapeake Bay and the ocean. But this success has meant the pond has been filling up with sediment and self-destructing. By Summer 2019 the pond was almost dried up. While restoration of the pond is planned for 2021–2022, in the meantime, the pond looked to be pretty dysfunctional. Then the beavers appeared.
We can only guess how the beavers arrived in the pond: Maybe from downstream via the Potomac River or Four Mile Run; maybe from somewhere upstream, perhaps riding the wave of the great flood of July 8, 2019. In any event, they went to work doing what beavers do: building a dam and a lodge for living quarters. In the process, they gnawed down vegetation, both for food and for their engineering projects. Their work was clearly visible from the trail and the viewing platform on the north side of the pond.
Since late this past summer, the beavers’ impressive dam has raised the water level by perhaps 4 to 5 feet, so that Sparrow Pond is indeed a pond again! Especially over the winter holiday weeks, my wife and I took several walks to the viewing platform, looking over the scene and marveling how it has changed.
While it was not a conscious plan to draw other onlookers, we were amazed by how many people came by, saw that we were looking at something, and took an interest in what was going on. Some folks were aware that beavers were at work; more had no clue. As a master naturalist, I found myself with a number of “teachable moments” as I explained the presence of the beavers and their ecosystem engineering. No one ran away with eyes glazed over!
It brought home to me how we, as master naturalists, have various opportunities to do some low-key teaching about the nature that surrounds us when people show an interest. I encourage you to visit Sparrow Pond and hang out for a bit, and maybe have your own teachable moment. And you may have opportunities closer to home in parks, on trails, or even in your own backyard to engage in similar low-key interactions.
Over 100 individuals gathered on Theodore Roosevelt Island to participate in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service on January 20th. Despite the chilly 24 degrees, it was an otherwise sunny day, and enthusiastic volunteers warmed to the task of cutting non-native invasive plants that have overrun many parts of the island.
The MLK Day of Service event was organized by ARMN member Jenny Wiedower, who partnered with the National Park Service (which oversees the park) and Friends of Teddy Roosevelt Island who help NPS preserve and protect this unique memorial. A team of ARMN volunteers helped the participants distinguish between native and exotic invasive plants and how to cut the invasives without harming the natives.
The volunteers represented various ages and backgrounds from across the region who honored Dr. King by helping to restore native habitat on the island.
During the two-hour service event, the individuals:
collectively logged 224 hours from the 112 volunteers
cut English ivy from at least 97 mature trees
snipped 400 square feet of wine berry (roughly the size of a two-car garage)
chopped down 43 honeysuckle bushes
cut Japanese (vining) honeysuckle from 33 trees
Dr. King and Theodore Roosevelt would surely be proud!
Text by Kristin Bartschi. Photos by George Sutherland.
Ducks. They’re cute, they paddle around in parks. Some ducks are so commonplace that we don’t really think twice about them (i.e. the quintessential mallard). But, as with all animals, there is a lot to learn and every duck has a unique story.
Recently, I decided to expand my rudimentary knowledge and attend a deep dive on ducks at Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington. Naturalist Ken Rosenthal hosts deep dive lectures about once a month at Gulf Branch. Each hour-long talk focuses on a different topic, such as pollinators or homes made out of sticks.
Attending one of these has been on my list for a while and it did not disappoint. Ken’s enthusiasm and knowledge of animals is infectious, and the hour-long presentation flew by.
Did you know there are 154 species of ducks worldwide? 50 of those species can be found in North America, with 48 different species in Virginia and 28 right here in Arlington.
Now, we covered A LOT in this deep dive, so I’m just going to pull out a couple fun facts.
How do ducks stay dry?
Did you ever think about this? I actually hadn’t until this talk, but it’s fascinating. Ducks have oil glands at the base of their tails. They use the oil from these glands to preen their feathers, which waterproofs their feathers and allows them to dabble or dive without getting wet. Ducklings have fluffy plumage which traps air and helps them stay buoyant above the water.
Total eclipse of the feathers
One of my favorite facts was about “eclipse plumage.” When male ducks molt after breeding season, they acquire a temporary plumage that closely resembles the camouflaged plumage of female ducks. This helps to protect them from predators during the molt. If you look at a male mallard during his eclipse plumage, he looks almost identical to a female mallard! Want to spot the difference? While plumage color changes during molting, duck bill colors never do. So, the mallard’s yellow bill (as opposed to the female’s brown and orange bill) will give him away.
Want to learn more (and catch a glimpse of some of Arlington’s unique ducks)?
If you’re interested in learning more about the animals that surround us, I’d certainly recommend signing up for one of Ken’s deep dives in the future. (If you’re an ARMN member, any deep dive will count towards your CE credits.) They occur once a month on Thursday evenings and are $5 to attend. To look for upcoming talks, visit the events page on the Arlington Parks and Recreation website. Ken’s next deep dive will be Animal Meteorologists on Thursday, February 13th from 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. at Gulf Branch Nature Center. Check it out!
In the meantime, if you’d like to take a look at some of our local ducks, good viewing locations are at Gravelly Point or Roaches Run.
Paul Gibson has been a stalwart volunteer ever since joining the ARMN program in Spring 2013, especially in the areas of citizen science. I was able to interview him online and then finally got to meet him at the ARMN Annual Chapter meeting in December 2019. Here are some fascinating things I learned about Paul.
What are your favorite ARMN volunteer projects?
I really enjoy a variety of projects. I have been doing stream water quality monitoring since shortly after I became a Master Naturalist. I recently became a Master Identifier so I’m looking forward to taking my turn at identifying the critters that we find in the streams next year.
I find it fascinating to see the variety of macroinvertebrates that are in our streams, their variation by stream, and what that says about water quality in different parts of Arlington county. It’s also rewarding to talk with members of the public who pass by when we are out monitoring. Everyone is so curious about what we are doing and when they find out, they want to know more about water quality. I think that the public education that we do is a very important part of our role as master naturalists.
I also monitor bluebird nest boxes at Taylor Elementary School. This project provides a clear view of the perils and successes experienced by our feathered friends. It’s been heartwarming to see bluebirds, chickadees, and tree swallows go from nest-building to egg laying to hatching to raising chicks to fledging but there have also been stark examples of nest predation on eggs or chicks. For better or worse, it’s a front-row seat to the circle of life.
Another citizen science project in which I have participated for a number of years is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Grasses for the Masses program. Members of the public propagate native underwater grass seeds in a grow-out system in their homes, schools, or businesses over the winter and then gather to plant the grasses in area rivers to bolster grass populations and help restore the Bay.
What has surprised you most about ARMN?
The speed at which the organization is growing. It is gratifying to see the numbers of new ARMN members who graduate out of the Basic Training program every year.
What do you like most about ARMN?
There is such a wide range of volunteer activities available that there’s really no reason not to participate. With my schedule, it’s hard to get to a lot of organized events but I can also participate at times of my choosing, depending on the project. Monitoring the bluebird boxes, for example, doesn’t need a rigid schedule, so I can fit in two or three visits a week during nesting season in a way that works for me. But there are also a lot of scheduled events to build in, which is great because it’s also nice to participate in projects with other ARMN members.
Tell us something about your life experience that has shaped your perspective on nature.
I grew up in Wisconsin, two blocks from Lake Michigan, and visited Lake Superior every summer when I was young. So, I was exposed to the variety of fish and birds in those areas at an early age. In northern Wisconsin, I remember marveling at the wild shorelines but also learning about the hazards of taconite discharges into Lake Superior from the iron mining range in Minnesota. These experiences taught me that nature and biodiversity were all around us but so were the threats to it introduced by humans.
What is your background?
Growing up in the upper Midwest, I was aware of and, in a way, just took for granted, that we lived among the remnants of age-old geologic forces. It wasn’t until I moved east for graduate school that I realized how unique that area is. (I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in Political Science and I have a Master’s in Information Management from Syracuse University.) As I settled into the DC area, those experiences gave me the background to appreciate the rich biodiversity and geology of the Potomac River Valley and the Chesapeake Bay. Besides the ARMN programs, I have learned so much from courses in the Natural History Field Studies certificate program of the Audubon Naturalist Society.
What would people find interesting about the non-ARMN parts of your life?
I train our dogs in the canine sport of “nosework.” It’s analogous to what law enforcement detection dogs do except it’s a sport for pets. Instead of looking for illegal substances, we look for target odors in organized competitions. But the skills of the dog and handler are the same. Along those lines, there are growing numbers of detector dogs that search for invasive species. So, one of my goals is to train our dogs to find invasive plants or insects, which is increasingly being done. It would be a natural intersection of two of my interests and hopefully be beneficial to conservation.
Tell us something unusual about yourself.
I have two wildlife cameras in our back yard. I am always amazed at the visitors we have. I’ve captured pictures of foxes, raccoons, deer, flying squirrels, and even a hummingbird that tried to pollinate the lens. But I’m still waiting for Wile E. Coyote to show up!
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.
Text by Kristin Bartschi and photos by George Sutherland
On a sunny Saturday morning on September 21st, EcoAction Arlington hosted a stream clean-up in Barcroft Park as part of the International Coastal Clean-up. The International Coastal Clean-up (ICC) is part of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. Every September, over 100 countries take part in the ICC, making it one of the largest efforts to rid the ocean of trash. In 2018, 1 million people collected 23 million pounds of trash from rivers, streams, and beaches around the world.
That morning, George and I joined EcoAction Arlington and our local community to help clean-up trash along Four Mile Run stream. Four Mile Run flows through Barcroft Park and into the Potomac River. The Potomac runs into the Chesapeake Bay and, ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean.
Volunteers of all ages attended the event, including families, couples, and a corporate group. We found lots of trash along the riverbanks and a few volunteers even ventured into the water—luckily, it was warm! In total, we collected 40 bags of trash and 12 bags of recyclables. Interesting finds included an umbrella, traffic cone, toilet seat, engine block, and various pieces of wiring, wood, and metal.
There is something for everyone at the ICC. For example, if picking up trash isn’t for you, ICC volunteers can document the trash found during a clean-up. This data delivers a snapshot of trash found at different sites around the world, which provides key insights for researchers and policy makers.
Even if you missed this year’s International Coastal Clean-up, there are lots of ways you can help protect your local waterways. Research “clean-ups” hosted by local non-profits, community groups, and/or your city or county. You’ll be surprised about how many there are once you do some digging. If you have a special area near you that needs some attention, reach out to your local environmental government/community groups about hosting your own clean-up!
There are also several steps you can take every day to reduce the amount of trash that ends up in our oceans and waterways. Properly disposing of all trash and recycling helps to ensure that it doesn’t end up polluting our environment. Better yet, look for ways to reduce your trash altogether! There are tons of simple swaps you can make to reduce waste that ends up in landfills or in our natural world. For instance…
Swap plastic water bottles for
a reusable one.
Use a reusable cup for your
morning cup of coffee—most coffee shops will even give you a small discount for
Bring reusable bags to the
grocery store instead of using paper or plastic bags.
And this is just the tip of the
Trash clean-ups like the ICC always remind me of how collective impacts can change our world for the better. Picking up a piece of trash, or saying “no” to a plastic bag, may seem insignificant when done by one person. But, when millions of people come together to improve the world we live in, we can make a big impact.
There is a not-so-secret maxim among gardeners that autumn can be the best time to install new plants! The soil is well warmed, but the air is cooler, which provides less stress for transplants. And the native plant sellers are ready to provide you with the best choices of the season. The plants should become established well enough before winter, and by next spring will be ready to do their provide benefits to the critters that depend on them AND add wonderful beauty to your garden to boot! So, please consider a few—or several—native plants to brighten your yard, patio or deck. The native wildlife will appreciate it.
Why Choose Native Plants?
Because they’re “from here,” natives are adapted to our climate and soil conditions. They are often the only or most healthful source of nectar, pollen, seeds, and leaves for local butterflies, insects, birds, and other animals. They also:
require little or no fertilizers and few if any pesticides,
need less water than lawns, and help prevent erosion,
help reduce air pollution,provide shelter and food for wildlife,
promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage,
and are beautiful and increase landscape values!
How to Choose the Right Natives for Your Yard or Pots
It’s important to install the right plants for your
conditions (wet, dry, shade, sun, slope, bog, soil type, etc.). One of the best
sources to answer these questions is the Plant Nova Natives website: http://www.plantnovanatives.org/,
with easy-to-follow tips, lots of photos, and additional links to learn what
will work for your situation.
List of Fall Plant Sales Where Can You Buy Natives
Most commercial nurseries do not carry many native plants. If your favorite place has a weak selection of natives, ask them to stock more! In the coming weeks, however, plan to visit the increasing number of native plant sales in the area (many of which provide food, entertainment, and fun for kids, too). Below is information on several in Northern Virginia. Happy shopping and planting!
VNPS First Wednesday of the Month Native Plant Sale
10am to 1pm
Green Spring Gardens
4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria VA
The VNPS native plant sale takes place behind the Horticulture Center
Text by Kristin
Bartschi and photos by George Sutherland
Recent ARMN Basic Training
graduates Kristin Bartschi and George Sutherland joined in a very satisfying
service activity on the Potomac River. Kristin’s observations demonstrate how they
could get wet and dirty and provide a valuable service at the same time.
I love more than finding new and exciting ways to get outdoors. A few weeks
ago, my husband, George, and I heard about a kayak cleanup run by EcoAction Arlington. Volunteers
would kayak around the Potomac and fish trash out of the water. What an awesome
way to get outside and clean our local river at the same time!
According to the
Commission on the Potomac River Basin, the Potomac
provides about 486 million gallons of drinking water every day to people in the
DC metro area. The health of the river has improved drastically in the last few
years, but polluted runoff, deforestation, and attacks on water protections
threaten to reverse that progress.
Our local storm
drains carry rain and other drainage away from streets and into local
waterways. This means that anything that washes down a storm drain enters our rivers
and streams, and eventually is water we will end up drinking! Keeping our
waterways clean helps us all—plants, animals, and people too.
Saturday in July, we arrived at the Washington Sailing Marina in Alexandria at
8:00 a.m. Over 40 volunteers were there. After a brief presentation by
EcoAction Arlington and a safety demonstration from the Washington Sailing
Marina staff, we were ready to get into our kayaks and clean up some
It was a
beautiful, sunny day to be paddling around the Potomac. George and I kayaked
deep into the Four Mile Run tributary. The water glistened with a film of
pollution as we collected plastic bottles, candy wrappers, and beer cans from
We waved to a
group of fisherman casting lines beneath an overpass and were cheered on by a
friendly cyclist, urging us to, “Keep up the good work!”
When we paddled
back towards the marina, we noticed a commotion along the mud flats. We pulled
up to investigate and see if we could help. A group of volunteers had found an
old mattress onshore and were busy cutting it into pieces with a box-cutter so
that it could be divided onto the kayaks returning to the marina. We each took
our share and headed back in with our bags of trash in tow.
With the help of
the kind folks at the marina, we clambered onto the dock and hauled our trash
onshore. We were sweaty, muddy, and tired, but together our group had pulled 85
bags of trash from the Potomac!
Citizen science activities are an important way for individuals to contribute to scientific knowledge and for members of the public to increase their knowledge of local natural resources. Currently, the largest citizen science project that ARMN supports is the City Nature Challenge. Read about the results of this year’s challenge and the role that ARMN played in the success of our local area.
Cities around the world compete in the City Nature Challenge to see who can make the most observations of plants and animals using the iNaturalist app to record photos and information, find the most species, and engage the most people. The 2019 City Nature Challenge was held from April 26–29, 2019, and included 159 cities. Like last year, ARMN-sponsored events contributed significantly to the success of the event. In total, ARMN lead 25 events that were attended by 173 people. In the Greater Washington, DC area (which includes close-in Virginia and Maryland communities), 1,268 people made 29,996 observations and identified 2,258 species. Worldwide, Cape Town, South Africa had the most observations and species. Washington, DC was in fifth place worldwide with the number of observers, and 10th overall. See Capital Naturalist by Alonso Abugattas for more details about this year’s CNC, with the focus on activities in Arlington.
The most observed species in our area were: Mayapple, Virginia Creeper, Poison Ivy, Tulip
Tree, Garlic Mustard, and Virginia Spring Beauty. Below are photos of these
species taken by City Nature Challenge participants in our area.
On April 25, 2019, ARMN member, Bill Browning, was honored with the
2018 Bill Thomas Outstanding Park Service Volunteer Award for his volunteer
work for the parks in Arlington. This award was established to pay tribute to
lifelong parks volunteer Bill Thomas and to honor and encourage residents with
passionate dedication and support for the county’s dynamic programs, natural
resources, and public open spaces. Details regarding the award are on Arlington
County’s Environment webpage. Below, Bill recounts his and others’ efforts to change a
neglected park into a haven for birds, plants, and people. He realizes that he
could not have won this award alone.
Nearly six years ago, I was inspired to bring Powhatan
Springs Park back from abandonment. Powhatan
Springs is a small park next to a heavily-used Arlington County skate park and
county soccer field. The natural area contains a small stream and several
native trees and plant communities that had been neglected for decades and had become
overrun with invasive plants and trash.
Near the end of my graduation from the ARMN Basic Training course in the Fall of 2013, Jim Hurley (a Spring 2009 ARMN graduate) took me and my fellow class member, Matt Parker, to see the site. Jim thought that a little bit of effort by us could make a huge difference for the wildlife in the park. Simply killing the ivy and euonymus that was choking the trees could open up the site to many bird species, Jim thought. So, Matt and I began removing the invasive plants from the park during the early part of 2014.
We used Earth Day 2014 to recruit community members to help.
From 2014–2017, there were three or four invasive and trash removal events each
year, and as we saw progress, the momentum started to build.
Our ARMN classmates from Fall 2013 also joined in. Alison Sheahan dove into the thickets of
multiflora rose and tackled getting them under control. More recently, Mary
Martha Churchman and Marian Flynn have made their own contributions in fighting
invasives on a regular basis. As Matt had to deal with other commitments, I was
fortunate enough to recruit other Master Naturalists to help. Among them were
Mary Frase (from the neighboring Fairfax Master Naturalist chapter), who has
become a de facto co-leader in the park. Mary has been instrumental in helping
volunteers distinguish invasives from native plants. When she’s not been
around, Beth Kiser (Spring 2010) and Joanne Hutton (Fall 2009) weigh in by
examining photos of plants that I send to them.
The park has also benefitted from other ARMN members regarding
the citizen science aspect of ARMN’s mission. Glenn Tobin (Fall 2016) used Powhatan
Springs to start building GIS databases of the parks where ARMN members work.
He, Emily Ferguson (Fall 2010), and I completed a tree inventory for the park,
which will help with monitoring and planning for ongoing rehabilitation
efforts. Colt Gregory (Fall 2017) has started conducting bird surveys in the
park. Just this spring, he has identified 28 different bird species in the
park; and David Howell (Spring 2018) recently captured a pretty cool photo of
one of them.
Louis Harrell (Spring 2015) and Phil Klingelhofer (Fall
2014) have helped put Powhatan Springs on the City Nature Challenge map. There
have been more than a dozen ARMN members who have participated in CNC in
Powhatan Springs over the last couple years.
Arlington County officials have also supported ARMN’s
efforts. Natural Resource Technician Scott Graham (Fall 2014) and Natural
Resources Manager Alonso Abugattas have provided native plants from Arlington’s
nursery. Scott also applied herbicide to bring the Japanese stilt grass under
control, and he has helped install cages to protect them from deer browse.
Natural Resources Specialist Sarah Archer (Fall 2013) helped
with the first Earth Day clean-up and has arranged for commercial support for
invasives control. Park Manager Lyndell Core (Spring 2014) and his team have
been instrumental in hauling away our trash and supporting a major planting
that will happen this fall. A neighbor, Sandra Spear, is donating about 200
native plants for installation in the park, which she will purchase from Earth Sangha from a list provided by Matt
Bright (Fall 2015).
There are a few lessons that I
have taken from the work in Powhatan Springs:
First, I have realized the power of my persistence and calm
I began working in the Powhatan Springs park in January
2014. We started slow and have built up steam over the last couple years. As of
now, people can reliably assume we’ll be having about one activity per month
Also, I’m a reasonably nice guy to work
with. [Editor’s note: “He is!”]
Most of the 70+ volunteers I’ve come in contact with feel
good (I believe) about what they accomplished and what I asked them to do.
I make it a point to read the volunteers’ faces, recognize
the difficulty of some of the work, and steer them towards something that
appears doable and that will give the volunteers a sense of accomplishment. I
take pride in having a wide range of groups (Boulevard Manor neighborhood
residents (thanks to Josh Handler), skateboarders from the skatepark, 4H groups
(thanks to Liz Allan (Fall 2016) and Elizabeth Gearin (Fall 2009)), and scout
troops (thanks to Fran O’Reilly and Jack Person (Spring 2017), all contributing
to the park’s renewal.
Finally, on a personal note, I’d like to say that I started this
project with modest objectives to open Powhatan Springs up for the birds. I do
not live near the park and I did not think it would be a long-term venture. But
I wanted a project to sink my teeth into after I graduated from ARMN. It has
become much more than that for me. I now realize the power of creating habitat,
no matter how small it might be. Thanks to a diverse group of volunteers, this
park is now becoming a real natural area. It has been very gratifying to watch this
park improve in habitat value. Last fall we saw a Barred Owl hunting in the
park which is just another reassuring sign that the park is recovering its
value as a natural habitat. Also, during the award presentation ceremony, I appreciated
when ARMN President Marion Jordan congratulatd me and all the other volunteers
for our work at Powhatan Park: “We are so fortunate to have these parks in our
urban areas and the restoration work at Powhatan shows that even a small area
can be restored as an important part of our natural resources. Congratulations to Bill and to all who contributed
to this important work at Powhatan Springs.”