Virginia State Symbol: The Northern Cardinal

Text and Photos by Ames Bowman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Symbols Programs

Join Yolanda on her next Virginia Symbols program!

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

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

Be a Birder!

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

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

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

Sky Dancer: The American Woodcock

Sky Dancer: The American Woodcock

Text and photo by Ames Bowman

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

Courtship Ritual Observation in Huntley Meadows Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun Anatomy Facts about the American Woodcock

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

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

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

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

Be a Birder!

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

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

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


Bringing Back Wild Bees, Wild Flowers, and Wildlife to Local Backyards

Text and photos by Gigi Charters, unless otherwise noted

Photo of a "bee hotel," which shaped like a bird house but filled with cut bamboo
Example of a pre-made bee house structure, set up at the event.

Last month, I had the opportunity to listen to USGS Wildlife Researcher, Sam Droege, and Arlington County Parks and Recreation Natural Resource Manager, Alonso Abugattas, in the exciting event, “Morph Your Yard into a Bee Grocery Store—Not a Bee Fast Food Joint! Building Homes and Habitat for Native Bees and Pollinators,” sponsored by ARMN and the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia.

Sam and Alonso discussed the significance of wild bee populations and two important ways that we can help our local bees thrive: provide pollen sources and nesting structures.

To begin, Sam briefed the audience about the apparent over-reliance on honey bee populations, and how we may be driving out another critical lifeline in the event of ecosystem collapse––the overlooked, super pollinating, native bees.

Photo of a native sweat bee
Native sweat bee, Augochloropsis sumptuosa. Photo courtesy of Sam Droege.

“Wild bees are not like honey bees,” Sam emphasized. In fact, I learned that there are around 4,000 species of native bees in North America alone, and they have been playing a critical role in sustaining ecosystems and natural resources for millions of years. The majority are solitary, can be as small as a grain of rice, and do not sting people (stingers cannot break through our skin). 

Moreover, unlike the honey bee, which was actually imported by colonists, native bees provide us with the essential pollinating services we need for native plants, in addition to commercial crops. Sam explained that the big issue is that land-use changes and habitat loss are diminishing wild plant populations, which conversely diminish wild bee populations, which means: no bees, no plants, no species who depend on those plants, and eventually, ecosystem collapse.

So how can we fix this?

Step 1: Provide pollen by planting a garden of native wildflowers!

Photo of Sam Droge standing in front of a projection which has a picture of a bee and says "Can gardens save the bee universe? Its worth a shot"
Sam Droege explains how gardening with native plants can help bees.

Sam says “re-wild” your land by moving away from lawn/corporate kinds of landscapes and start bringing back naturalized types of landscapes. The big picture is about saving plant and bee diversity, so it’s important to plant a variety of native species. This is especially important since some native bees are specialists, meaning they are dependent on one—and only one—type of flower. Some bees can only reproduce if they have specific pollen from the native plants they evolved with.

Step 2: Provide Nesting Structures!

Photo of pre-made wooden bee hotels
Various pre-made bee house structures at the event.

Alonso continued the discussion by stressing the importance of another crucial native bee resource in need of recovery––bee nesting structures.

About 70% of all bee species live in burrows in the ground, so it’s important to create ideal ground space, such as loose soils that are free of vegetation and exposed to the sun.

The remaining bee species live above ground, in pre-existing cavities like old beetle holes, or hollow empty stems of reeds or grasses. Alonso added that “this is one more reason to leave garden plants standing through the winter, as many are housing insects in various parts of their life cycle, including pupating or adult overwintering bees.”

He noted that in addition to buying select bee houses, people can also make their own structures at home. While many species will make use of them, Mason bees (Osmia sp. peaceful, dark, solitary bees) in particular, are likely their most common tenants, and “luckily what usually works for them, generally works for other species,” said Alonso.

Photo of Alonso Abugattas gesturing to a bee hotel in discussion with Kit Britton
Alonso discusses various mason bee houses with Kit Britton.

He gave the example: “One simple way is to cut some bamboo, Phragmites (a good use for both these invasives), elderberry, and/or sumac at their nodes, hollow them out all the way to the node so one side is still sealed, and bundle them together (with the open ends facing one direction) for the bees to discover. Place them where they will get some sun in the morning and some shelter from the rain.”

Photo of Alonso Abugattas standing in front of a projection of an image of a bee hotel
Alonso with an example of a bee “hotel.”

To learn more about native bees, how to create your garden of bee-friendly plants, and how to build your bee homes, check out Alonso’s blog piece, which includes information about nesting structures, best ways to encourage and protect bees, and a list of the best plants for specialist bees. Following these guides will help restore local biodiversity!

Also, to see more incredible photos of these bees, visit Sam’s webpage with photos from the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, and follow the Instagram/Tumblr accounts @USGBIML.

So, let’s kick off spring with an abundance of native flowers and bee homes! Remember, every resource area, whether it’s a patch in the ground, or an epic garden, can have huge impacts on sustaining bee populations during these urgent times. We just need your help to provide them with the assets to make that comeback!

ARMN: Getting to Know Peter Hansen

By Bill Browning and Peter Hansen

Peter Hansen is a recent graduate of the ARMN training class (Fall 2017). He became a Certified Master Naturalist the first year he was eligible and will receive this certificate at our upcoming March chapter meeting. I was able to sit down with Peter for conversation over a cup of tea in late January. I was looking forward to this conversation because Peter is part of the next generation for ARMN, and I’m anxious to see where he and his compatriots are able to lead us in the future. I was not disappointed. Here’s the essence of our conversation:

ARMN volunteer Peter sitting at a table holding a black snake while other volunteers stand behind him.
Peter volunteering at an Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing event. (Photo courtesy of Nina Janopaul.)

Tell us about the ARMN projects you spend time on.

Last year, I mostly volunteered at various nature center-run events in Arlington County. I helped out with World Migratory Bird Day at Lacy Woods Park, Firefly Festival at Fort C.F. Smith Park, and the Bat Fest and the Fall Heritage Festival at Gulf Branch Nature Center and Park. I think Arlington’s nature centers do a wonderful job creating arts and crafts projects that draw kids’ attention to nature. I love engaging the next generation of environmental stewards. I particularly enjoyed quizzing Bat Fest attendees about the animal sounds that color our evenings in Arlington. Though no one—not even my fellow Master Naturalist volunteers—could identify all the mystery sounds I played, many young attendees blew me away with their already expansive knowledge.

One especially meaningful aspect of partnering with Arlington’s nature centers was the opportunity to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community in Arlington. I assisted at the Long Branch table at the Latino Community Festival, and with the World Migratory Bird Day event, which was bilingual. Promoting inclusion is near and dear to my heart, and I support ARMN’s efforts to reach and represent the full diversity of people in our area. In a prior job at the Federal Reserve Board, I worked to increase diversity and inclusion in the fields of Economics and Finance. I look forward to transferring these skills to my volunteer work in the local community.

This year, I joined the ARMN Board of Directors as Secretary. I look forward to involvement in critical strategic decisions that shape the future of our organization. I also hope that my relative youth and experience reaching out to underrepresented groups might bring some useful perspectives. So far, it has been a sincere pleasure to collaborate with the experienced and highly competent members of the Board.

What has surprised you about ARMN?

Two things: First, the volunteer basic training covered more areas than I could have imagined. If a subject was at all related to anything in nature, we addressed it in class. Second, I have been pleasantly surprised that ARMN has a broader distribution of people from young to old and a better mix of men and women than I anticipated.

What do you like most about ARMN?

I like the credibility that the ARMN basic training class has given me. Because of my Master Naturalist certification, I am trusted, particularly by the staff at the nature centers, and am able to volunteer there in ways I otherwise could not have. For example, I can handle turtles and snakes to show kids and parents at events like the Latino Community Festival. It is so rewarding to introduce kids to animals that might seem a little scary at first and show that they are really excellent fellow neighbors.

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

I led hiking, canoe, and climbing trips at The College of William and Mary when I was a student there. Canoe trips were my favorite because we all experienced the river exactly the same, plus we didn’t have to carry everything on our persons like backpackers do (though I find backpacking to be super fun, too). While I love climbing, leading those trips was stressful because I had to focus on safety and spent most of the time setting anchors and belaying participants (i.e., making sure all climbers are safely suspended by a rope in case of a fall).

Leading trips is one of the main reasons I am a Master Naturalist today. Early on, a fellow trip leader named Adam Rotche inspired me with his knowledge of the natural world. The way he identified plants and animals and explained the world around us elevated the experience of being outdoors to a whole new level. Becoming a Master Naturalist allows me to build my own knowledge of the natural world and share that extra layer of color with the others outdoors.

What is your background?

I grew up in Arlington. I attended Glebe Elementary, Swanson Middle School, and Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, and as noted above, I graduated from William and Mary, where I studied Economics.

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

I coach youth basketball with a close friend. Currently, we’re working with a sixth-grade boys’ team. Coaching packs a world of challenges: different personalities, learning styles, skillsets, outside stressors, and more. But it’s so rewarding to watch the kids learn new skills, overcome adversity, and gel as a team. And though they may only be 11, they’re fun and smart and always entertaining.

Tell us something unusual about yourself.

I’ve been volunteering with ASPAN (the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network) for most of my life. When I was five years old, my parents first took me to make and deliver food to people who are experiencing homelessness. I remember that in my first year or two, I was trusted with little more than dipping the bananas in lemon juice to prevent browning. They give me a little more responsibility these days.

Volunteering for such a long time on a single project is an experience that I would highly recommend. I’ve watched as the population we served swelled to a peak during the Great Recession, then decreased significantly with the improving economy and the opening of a new ASPAN shelter. I’ve also gotten to know some of the homeless people in our community. I think most people would be surprised to find out how smart, well-informed, and friendly most of our clients are. The forces that push an individual into homelessness are far more complex than many realize. Even after 20 years of serving this community, I have barely begun to understand it.

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.

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 novaprism1@gmail.com. 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.

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: http://www.plantnovanatives.org/, 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
https://vnps.org/potowmack/events/plant-sale-propagation-party/

Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Fall Native Plant Sale
September 8, 2018
9:00 am–3:00 pm
Morven Park
17263 Southern Planter Ln, Leesburg, VA
https://loudounwildlife.org/event/fall-native-plant-sale-2/

Friends of Runnymede Park
September 15, 2018
9:00 am–2:00 pm
Runnymede Park
195 Herndon Pkwy, Herndon, VA
http://www.frpweb.org/10.html

Glencarlyn Garden Autumnfest
September 16, 2018
10:00 am–3:00 pm
Glencarlyn Library Garden
300 S. Kensington St, Arlington, VA
https://mgnv.org/2018/08/22/autumnfest-at-glencarlyn-library-garden/

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
https://parks.arlingtonva.us/native-plant-sale/

Town of Vienna Native Plant Sale
September 22, 2018
8:00 am–1:00 pm
Vienna Community Center
120 Cherry Street SE, Vienna, VA
https://www.viennava.gov/documentcenter/view/3663

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
http://www.friendsofgreenspring.org/programs-a-events/fall-garden-day-2018

Earth Sangha Fall Wild Plant Nursery Sale
EXTENDED to September 30, 2018
9 am–Noon
Franconia Park
6100 Cloud Drive, Springfield, VA
http://www.earthsangha.org/wpn

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
http://northernalexandrianativeplantsale.org/

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.
https://www.alexandriava.gov/recreation/info/default.aspx?id=94340

 

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 (http://www.nhptv.org/natureworks/stripedskunk.htm). 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….