Impact of White-Tailed Deer on Arlington’s Forests

by Leslie Cameron and Bill Browning

In mid-November, ARMN members Bill Browning, Jeff Elder, Steve Young, and Leslie Cameron met with Arlington Parks and Recreation Conservation and Interpretation Manager Rachael Tolman to evaluate a deer “exclosure” in Gulf Branch Park. 

Photo of ARMN volunteers standing in front of a deer exclosure
L-R: Rachael Tolman, Steve Young, Bill Browning, Jeff Elder at damaged Gulf Branch deer exclosure. Photo by Leslie Cameron.

The deer exclosure was built in 2017 as part of an Eagle Scout project for a local Boy Scout troop to protect the vegetation inside from deer browse. As the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population in Arlington has grown, their impact on Arlington’s forests has grown too. Deer exclosures are one strategy for protecting habitat from deer browse and can also play a role in collecting data on the impact of deer in our forests. They can also potentially play a big role in educating people, who can compare protected and unprotected areas as they walk by. In the 4 years since it was constructed, the deer exclosure in Gulf Branch has fallen into disrepair.

Photo showing a damaged deer exclosure.  The fencing is crumpled and has pulled off the post.
Damaged deer exclosure at Gulf Branch Park. Photo by Bill Browning.

The group discussed repairing or rebuilding the exclosure (exclosures need to be 8-10 feet high to effectively exclude deer) and reducing the size to make it easier to maintain. To collect data on the impact of deer, a fenced exclosure (the “variable”) is paired with a same-size nearby unfenced reference plot (the “control”). The diversity of species and quantity of vegetation in both plots is documented over time. Signage can inform the public about the project, as well as discourage residents from disturbing it. 

Impact of deer on a healthy forest

Deer are Virginia’s largest herbivore. An adult eats 5-7 pounds of vegetation a day, or a ton each year. If there are more deer than the land can support, deer browse begins to degrade the understory in a forest. The forest understory—forest floor, herbaceous plants, shrubs, seedlings, and young trees—supports native ground-nesting birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Deer browse limits the food and cover for these species, and they decline. The understory also includes the young trees that form the forests of the future. A forest without its understory cannot regenerate, which means that there will be no mature trees in the future. Because deer prefer native plants, deer browse disturbs the diversity of plants, and allows invasive plants to multiply in their place. 

Photo of the understory at Lacey Woods Park
Lacey Woods Park in Arlington has not been heavily deer browsed and has a healthy understory. Images 3 and 4 were taken on the same day in November 2021. Photo by Steve Young.
Photo of the understory at Long Branch Nature Center
Long Branch Nature Center Park has been heavily deer browsed. Without a healthy understory, forests cannot regenerate. Images 3 and 4 were taken on the same day in November 2021. Photo by Steve Young.

Male deer also rub antlers on trees, which can damage them. For more background on the effects of deer on our forests, see the May 2020 ARMN blog article, “White-tailed deer and Forest Health in Northern Virginia.”  

Deer population over time   

By the 1930s, deer had almost disappeared from Virginia and had declined in many eastern states. States implemented regulations to protect deer and their habitat, and the population began to rebound.  Effective predators of deer (like the gray wolf and eastern cougar) were extirpated from Virginia, and development and fragmentation have increased edge habitat, which deer prefer. These changes have contributed to a rapid increase in the population of deer. 

Graph of deer population of Virginia from 1600 to present.  Present population is between 1 million and 1.25 million.
From p. 11, Fig 2 of: “Virginia Deer Management Plan 2015-2024.”

Assessing Arlington’s deer population and next steps

In response to concerns about the impact of deer in Arlington’s forests and other natural areas, Arlington County hired an independent contractor to conduct a drone survey of the population in spring 2021. Some Federal property owners (National Park Service, Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, Reagan National Airport) did not grant permission for the aerial drones so these areas were excluded. Further, the contractor was unable to obtain a permit to fly the drones at night when the heat signatures are easier to detect. The survey counted a minimum of 290 deer in Arlington that were concentrated in wooded and natural areas. Four of the survey sections had deer counts at levels which most experts agree is too high for regeneration of native plants. All of Arlington’s seven Natural Resources Conservation Areas had too many deer. The contractor recommended aggressive deer management, particularly in those areas. 

Bar chart of deer population in Arlington neighborhoods.
From p. ii of: “White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) Population Density Survey using sUAS Infrared: Arlington County, Virginia – Spring 2021” that shows the approximate numbers of deer in Arlington neighborhoods.

Arlington is in the process of hiring a second consultant to determine if a deer management strategy is needed and if so, to develop an implementation plan. Please see the County’s website for its current plan.

One management strategy some jurisdictions have considered is immunocontraceptive vaccines such as porcine zona pellucida (PZP) or GonaCon. In practice, this strategy has challenges with open herds. Annual injections may be needed to produce infertility. These vaccines are injected by hand into captured deer or hypodermic darts are fired remotely. Deer are susceptible to capture myopathy muscle damage that results from the extreme stress of being repeatedly captured. Darts delivered remotely can miss the target or fall out before delivering the dose. Despite many attempts nationwide, there are few reported instances where these medical intervention strategies have proven even marginally effective. Moreover, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources does not approve of these techniques for managing the size of deer herds.

Another strategy is managed hunting, which can take several forms, depending on location. This method usually involves professional sharpshooters or volunteers with rifles or archery tackle. Managed hunts can be conducted safely in restricted or urban areas, and done properly, result in very low rates of nonlethal wounding for deer. As noted in the 2020 ARMN blog piece cited above, neighboring jurisdictions have taken steps to manage their deer populations. Fairfax County has had a deer management program in place since 1998. Montgomery County established a deer management program in 1996. Both counties use all three hunting methods. The National Park Service established a deer management plant in 2012; the NPS primarily uses professional sharpshooters who hunt at night in collaboration with a variety of police authorities. All three jurisdictions have had no safety incidents since their programs’ inceptions.

Where they are highly concentrated, deer are damaging forests and degrading habitat in Arlington, at the expense of the other species that occupy the ecosystem, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. Without natural large predators (wolves or mountain lions,), the deer population is out of balance. It is important to take steps to restore this balance to protect the future of Arlington forests and all their inhabitants.

Actions members of the public can take 

Learning about the impact of deer on forests and other natural areas is critical. Anyone can assist in education efforts:

  • Share this blog piece with friends and neighbors in community newsletters and on “Next Door” or other community social media.
  • Is your neighborhood community group interested in a deer education presentation? If so, send that information to ARMN via “Contact Us” on armn.org.  
  • Ask about nature walks to bring attention to the impact of deer in natural areas via ARMN’s “Contact Us” feature.
  • Participate in Arlington programs that are approved to rebuild and maintain deer exclosures and gather data on the impact of deer on natural areas. 
  • Avoid feeding deer or encouraging them to approach. You may also protect your landscape with a deer exclosure and other strategies. For more details, see: Virginia Cooperative Extension publication, “Deer: A Garden Pest.”

For more information 

The following resources have more information about the impact of deer in natural areas and about Arlington’s process for assessing the problem and determining next steps.

ARMN resources:

Deer Management

Arlington County Deer Survey and Next Steps:

Click to access arlington-county-deer-survey-and-next-steps.pdf

ARMN Ozone Garden Work Continues at Walter Reed Community Center

by Barbara Hoffheins, Todd Minners, Terri McPalmer, and Jon Bell

In 2020, Arlington Regional Master Naturalist (ARMN) volunteers initiated the Ozone Garden with the cooperation and support of Arlington County Parks at Walter Reed Community Center (WRCC) located at 2909 16th St S, Arlington, VA 22204. (The beginnings of this project were reported in an earlier blog piece, “The Ozone Bio-indicator Garden Project: A Cooperative Effort Between ARMN, Arlington County, NASA, and Harvard.”) 

The garden is part of the Ozone Bioindicator Garden Network, which is coordinated by the Harvard University and Smithsonian Institution Center for Astrophysics (Smithsonian Astro Observatory), and affiliated with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (sponsored by the National Science Foundation), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA’s TEMPO (Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring Pollution) mission is to measure air pollutants at high precision across North America with a specially designed instrument scheduled to launch on a satellite in 2022.  

The observations of ozone effects on plants in the ozone gardens add to the understanding of ground-based ozone seasonal patterns, distribution, and intensity. Ozone is formed by the interaction of sunlight with carbon monoxide from burning fossil fuels, nitrous oxides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Elevated ozone levels can seriously damage crops and forests and cause respiratory damage or distress in humans and animals. See: USDA Agricultural Research Service report. These and other reasons are why NASA is interested in monitoring and tracking ozone globally. 

Ozone enters the leaves from the underside through the stomata and interferes with the photosynthetic process. Ozone damage is typically observed as brown stippling (spots), on the tops of mature leaves, in between and not crossing the veins, and for many plants, not visible on the underside of the leaf. The damage starts with a few spots and can increase to cover and eventually kill the leaf. Insect damage, such as chewing or cutting, and disease effects are visible on both the tops and bottoms of leaves but can be mistaken for ozone damage.

Photo of a leaf showing yellowing and spots
Sensitive bean damage from ozone (spots) and insects (holes) observed August 13, 2021. Photo by Barbara Hoffheins.

Ozone damage to leaves of sensitive plants can be observed when the ozone level is sufficiently high over a long enough period. This could be a very high level of ozone for as few as two hours or a moderate level for many hours or days. The bean plants in ARMN’s Ozone Garden started showing signs of ozone damage in late summer. To roughly correlate with the visual observations, data was used from the Arlington County air pollution monitor located at Aurora Hills Visitor Center that measures and reports nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and ozone levels on an hourly basis. During the 2021 growing season, there were very few days when the Aurora Hills monitor reported ozone at sustained elevated levels and most of the days were in late July, early August. 

ARMN’s Ozone Garden is located on the west side of the WRCC building near a children’s playground. In the spring of 2021, ARMN volunteers constructed three raised beds and planted the following provided by the Smithsonian Astro Observatory:

  • Sensitive and tolerant varieties of snap beans (Phaseolus vulgaris): tolerant is var. R-123, sensitive is var S-156. 
  • Sensitive and tolerant varieties of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum L.): var. BEL B is tolerant, var. BEL W3 is sensitive.
  • Sensitive potato (Solanum tuberosum): var. La Chipper.
  • Sensitive milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  
Photo of a garden planted in raised beds
Garden on July 27th at the peak of growing season. Photo by Barbara Hoffheins.

ARMN prepared informational signs in English and Spanish about the garden purpose and ozone effects to inform passersby. The volunteers monitored the garden throughout the season to water, weed, and report observations of the plant leaves. Sometimes visitors to WRCC stopped by to chat with volunteers.

ARMN volunteers learned a lot this season. Although the volunteers collectively have a variety of relevant skills and expertise, monitoring for ozone damage and distinguishing ozone damage from other garden problems were new activities for all.  Other issues that needed to be address were insufficient water drainage early in the season, a soil test that indicated excessive alkalinity, and plant leaves that exhibited insect and disease damage. The team also installed rabbit protection for the potato plant after discovering bitten off stems and leaves. The volunteers consulted several sources, including experts from the Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Ozone Bioindicator Garden Network, online scientific publications, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and NASA brochures. 

Recently, the team added some manure where the tobacco had grown, turned over the beds, and planted coneflower and milkweed seeds that need winter weather to trigger germination in the spring in pots that are sunk in the ground. They also tightened up corners of the raised beds that had moved a bit during the summer.

Photo of volunteers standing on a path next to the garden
Winter prep on October 22, 2021. Photo by Todd Minners.

The ARMN Ozone Garden Team has these goals for the 2022 growing season:

  1. Use the garden to illustrate visually the impacts of ozone pollution on plants. 
  2. Add signs with more detailed photos of each type of plant and instructions for how to find ozone damage and include a QR code on the signs to connect to online educational links.
  3. Enumerate actions that anyone can take to reduce ozone levels.
  4. Develop and conduct outreach programs at the garden to educate all ages about air pollution in Arlington and the negative impacts on agriculture and human health.
  5. Collect data on ozone damage present in the garden and report findings to the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
  6. Monitor and maintain soil quality for health and consistency across all three garden beds.

The ARMN Ozone Garden team welcomes visitors to the beds at Walter Reed Community Center to see where the project is taking place. As noted above, the beds are located in front of the building on the west side.

Two Honors! Glenn Tobin Earned the 2020 Bill Thomas Volunteer Award, and ARMN is presented the Virginia Chapter of the Wildlife Society’s 2021 A. Willis Robertson Award

Glenn Tobin is the 2020 Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award Winner

Photo of Glenn pulling kudzu vine in front of a creek
Glenn conquering invasive kudzu from Windy Run Park. Photo courtesy of Toni Genberg.

On April 20, 2021, Glenn Tobin received Arlington County’s Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award for the year 2020. The award recognizes an individual or group whose efforts show ongoing dedication and tangible benefit to Arlington’s natural resources, parks, and public open spaces.

Glenn has been an ARMN member since 2016 and a Trail Maintainer with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) since 2015. For years, he removed invasive plants at Windy Run Park and the adjacent Potomac River waterfront in the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Because of his work alone and with other volunteers, significant natural areas are recovering and becoming more beautiful and biodiverse. In 2020, Glenn raised money and worked with the PATC and the National Park Service (NPS) to rebuild the stone stairway that connects the Windy Run park trail to the Potomac Heritage Trail along the river, improving access for many people. Then, inspired by the reemergence of diverse native flora at Windy Run and along the Potomac, Glenn began working with experts in ecology, botany, and natural resources to create the website, Natural Ecological Communities of Northern Virginia, which provides information about the local natural plant communities to help make better plant selections for ecological restoration purposes in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C., and close-in Maryland. As a result of Glenn’s leadership, ARMN is adopting natural plant communities as a framework for park restoration, in collaboration with local jurisdictions. This work will have lasting impact on restoration planning throughout the County and on selection of plant species for the County’s native plant nursery.

Some of Glenn’s other work includes helping lead Weed Warrior Training with the NPS, assisting in leadership for Park Stewards, and mentoring others who share deep passion for helping restore natural areas in Arlington County and beyond.
(From: The Arlington, VA webpage: “Arlington Honors Park Volunteers”.) 

In a clip from the April 20, 2021 Arlington County Board Meeting, Board Member Karantonis describes Glenn’s accomplishments followed by an address from Glenn. In closing, Chair de Ferranti congratulates Glenn and 2019 Bill Thomas award winner, Elaine Mills: https://youtu.be/oPU84gCj9Lw.

ARMN is selected for the Virginia Chapter of the Wildlife Society’s 2021 A. Willis Robertson Award

On January 29, 2021, ARMN was selected as the 2021 recipient of the A. Willis Robertson Award from the Virginia Chapter of The Wildlife Society for its work on public outreach and education related to deer management. The award honors a wildlife non-professional or group that has exercised outstanding conservation practices on their own land or have made significant contributions to conservation activities in the Commonwealth.

Photo of a plaque in the shape of Virginia for the A. Willis Robertson Award
The Virginia Chapter of The Wildlife Society’s 2021 A. Willis Robertson Award for ARMN. Photo courtesy of Marion Jordan.

In the last few years, members of ARMN led by Bill Browning have spearheaded public education to alert the community to the effects of deer browsing and begin the process of addressing barriers to developing an effective and humane program to control deer population in Arlington County. (See armn.org blog piece, “White-tailed Deer and Forest Health in Northern Virginia” that addresses how deer impact our forests.) The team worked on deer browse surveys, major outreach events with the Virginia Native Plant Society, the Deer Advisory Council for Northern Virginia, Arlington’s Urban Forestry and Environmental Services departments, and in 2019, with regional experts from VA, MD, and DC to create a volunteer training and public presentation that has been delivered over 40 times in the past two years.

Photo of ARMN volunteer Bill Browning
Bill Browning. Photo courtesy of Toni Genberg.

Bill (the 2018 winner of the Bill Thomas award) and the other volunteers have also addressed Arlington County Board members, School Board members, the County Manager, the Chair of the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Acting Chief of Police. Bill also made presentations to Park and Recreation department employees and to several Arlington County civic commissions who have supported this message with letters to the County Board.

They also talked to civic/neighborhood associations, garden clubs, Extension Master Gardener volunteers, local TV and social media, and spoke at regional parks and conservancy, and hunting club meetings. This outreach has done much to bring the issue forward, engage stakeholders, and provide county decision-makers with sound, unbiased information for their consideration of a deer management plan.

ARMN is excited for this honor and opportunity to credit members like Glenn Tobin for their instrumental work to benefit our local natural environment.

Yellow-rumps: A Bird Watcher’s Delight in the Winter, Spring, and Fall

Text and photos by Ginger Hays (except as noted)

Photo of a yellow rumped warbler
Yellow-rumped “Myrtle” warbler.

Yellow-rumped warblers ((Setophaga coronateare a very abundant species of the Wood Warbler family—those small, often brightly colored birds that bird watchers go crazy about during spring and fall migration. Bird watchers affectionately call them “butter butts.” There are two primary subspecies of yellow-rumped warblers: the Myrtle warbler, and Audubon’s warbler. The Myrtle warblers are mostly in the eastern United States and Audubon warblers are mostly in the western part of the country.

I love bird watching and think it is a great entryway activity to get people more attached to and involved in protecting the natural world. I also like the meditative act of being alone in a park, yard, or garden and truly having to slow down to see and hear what is around me. I generally have a camera with me when I go out because it helps me record and remember what I have seen.

The yellow-rumped warblers are rewarding—and at times frustrating—for bird watchers. The rewarding part is that there are a lot of them in North America, so you are likely to see and learn how to identify them. They also often hang out in lower-level tree branches, so they are easier to see. But sometimes there will be such a large flock that everywhere you look, all the birds seem to be yellow-rumps. That’s when it can get a little bit frustrating (at least for me), if you are really hoping to see a variety of birds rather than this one species! 

I have met many lovely people on bird walks or hanging out at Monticello Park in Alexandria looking for spring warblers. But just a few weeks ago, I asked a fellow birder her thoughts about yellow-rumps. She said that she likes that they are warblers that you can see in the winter, and though they have more subdued colors in the fall and winter, it is nice because she can watch them more easily when the trees have lost their leaves. This is an interesting aspect to yellow-rumps. Though they do migrate, they don’t go as far south as most warblers, and many stay further north, sometimes as far north as Nova Scotia.

Yellow-rumps use a variety of ways to get their food. They are known to fly out from a branch to catch insects. They can forage on the ground for insects or berries or hang onto a tree trunk or branch. They eat berries from juniper, wax myrtle, Virginia creeper, dogwood, and poison ivy plants. And it is an interesting adaptation that they can digest the wax on juniper and wax myrtle berries. This adaptation enables them to remain further north than other warblers.

Photo of a yellow-rump warbler eating a juniper berry
Yellow-rump non-breeding male eating juniper berry. From: audubon.org website. Photo: Robert Cook/Audubon Photography Awards.

If you look at the range map on the eBird website, you will see that yellow-rumps are present in this area in spring, fall and winter. They only leave for the summer months when they breed in northern parts of the U.S. and in Canada.

So, how do you identify these interesting birds? Well, they do have yellow rumps!

They also may have yellow in three places: on the rump, a spot on the side breast, and—especially breeding males—a yellow spot on their crown. Females and fall warblers are more brown overall, while the breeding male has blue gray on their back and crown streaked with black, and a black mask. 

Myrtle warbles (Setophaga coronata coronate), are the eastern subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler and they have white throats. These are the yellow-rumped warblers you are likely to see in this area.

There is also a western subspecies, Audubon’s warbler (Setophaga auduboni auduboni), that has a yellow throat, rather than the white throats of the Myrtle warbler. Both of these warblers have what is called a “broken eye ring,” which is white above the eye and white below, but it doesn’t make a full circle.

Photo of a warbler in a bush.
Audubon’s warbler. I took this photo while visiting my sister out in California.

And to make it interesting, there are other wood warblers with yellow rumps: The magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia), and Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrine) have more yellow underparts and generally are not as brightly colored on the backside as the yellow-rump warbler. They all show up in the spring and fall. (Real warbler experts likely know the progression of when they show up. While I don’t, but it is possible that they could all be here at the same time.)

There is a great presentation about warblers, including the yellow-rump, by Bill Young on the Audubon Society for Northern Virginia website: https://www.audubonva.org/online-programs. He includes fabulous pictures of warblers, most of which he took at Monticello Park. 

Finally, I recommend a visit to the bird banding station that usually operates in the spring at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I took these two photos there. I was quite moved by the experience of releasing a bird after it was banded! 

As I mentioned, I love birding, and love how these little guys show how birding can be rewarding any time of year. It gives one a reason to be outside, to slow down and observe, and while one is focusing on the birds, one generally learns something about the plants and wildlife around them!  I hope you find, as I have, that they are a gift that keeps on giving!

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!

Flying Squirrels—They’re Still Here!

by Kasha Helget

A couple of years ago, I shared a story about a wonderful program that Long Branch Nature Center runs each year about our local flying squirrel population. Among other things, we learned that these are southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans), 8-10 inches long (including their tails), and weighing on average a couple of ounces. Also, there are about as many flying squirrels as there are gray squirrels in our area. We don’t usually see the flyers because they’re nocturnal and generally hang out in the higher canopy of mature trees. And flying squirrels do not actually “fly.” They glide using skin flaps (patagium) that connect their arms and bodies. They are crazy cute with their huge eyes and tiny bodies—almost like big-eyed children in a Margaret Keane painting.

Photo of a flying squirrel
Southern flying squirrel, “set to soar,” by Christian Collins, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

I was totally intrigued with the flying squirrel nesting box that Long Branch staff attached to a tree along with a feeding platform for nuts and peanut butter. So, I convinced my handy husband, Michael, to build one, which he attached to a tree near our deck with a roof deck where we could place nuts. I ended the story with us waiting to see whether “if we built it, they would come.”

We had no luck that year. It was late February and too near the end of the winter season to encourage the little flyers to use the nest box or grab nuts from the roof deck.

Last season was a mixed bag. Shortly after Thanksgiving, we began setting out mixed nuts for the squirrels as soon as it was fully dark. We set up a night camera to check on visitors and learned a couple of things: a few flyers did visit, usually well into the night. But almost as often, raccoons stole the nuts before the squirrels got to them.

Photo of a racoon peering out from behind a tree trunk
Raccoon looking for nuts on the nest box deck. Photo by Michael Helget.

That’s when we realized that the flyers preferred peanuts to the harder shelled nuts. The very best discovery, however, was that they actually used the nest box for their young! There was traffic in and out of the entry holes, and peanut “hand-offs” to a parent flyer inside the box.

And then came the shocking incident. The advice we read online was to clean the nest box only in January or February—the only time the box would definitely be empty. So, Michael climbed a ladder to remove the box for cleaning last February, and two very surprised squirrels emerged, and an equally surprised Michael retreated, deciding that the box was probably clean enough. He did finally remove it early this April to make a small repair. It was not occupied but definitely needed cleaning of nesting materials and peanut shells. I guess the flyers didn’t read the online advice about vacating the box in February instead of April.

This winter has been another story. We again began setting out peanuts right after Thanksgiving, and it didn’t take long till our little flying squirrels started showing up and waiting for their nightly treat. It’s become very predictable that when it is fully dark there are up to four visitors either sitting on the roof deck waiting for their peanut delivery or running up and down the tree till we place the nuts out for them. The whole show is over within seconds. They are incredibly quick, usually grabbing a peanut and “flying” to the ground or running up the back of the tree with their treasure.

Video of flying squirrels grabbing their peanuts, by Michael Helget.

We plan to continue feeding our little guys peanuts well into the spring or as long as they’ll take them. It has become the best 10 second thrill for us each evening, and definitely worth pausing Netflix to enjoy.

ARMN: Getting to Know Paul Gibson

by Alison Sheahan

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

Paul Gibson. Photo by Alison Sheahan.

What are your favorite ARMN volunteer projects?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has surprised you most about ARMN?

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

What do you like most about ARMN?

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

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

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

 What is your background?

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

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

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

Tell us something unusual about yourself.

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

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

by Louis Harrell

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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 armn.org 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 NaturalResources@arlingtonva.us.