The Secret Lives of Chipmunks

By Rosemary Jann

We have always lived peaceably with our backyard chipmunks. I knew that they had burrows under the cement pad for the AC and behind the garden shed.  But when I found a new burrow hole right up against the foundation of our house, I confess I had the urge to declare war.

Photo of a chipmunk with full cheeks
Copyright David Howell.

Arlington’s local chippies are Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) and members of the squirrel or Sciuridae family. Their scientific name means “striped storer,” a reference to their characteristic field marks: white stripes bordered by black on each side of their backs plus a black stripe down the centerline, as well as white stripes around their eyes. Adults weigh in at 5 oz. or less and measure about 10” long, including their bushy tails, which they hold high while running. And they’re usually on the move when you see them, since their small size makes them vulnerable to predators. According to the Mother Nature Network, these include hawks, owls, foxes, snakes, and, especially in our backyards, free-roaming cats. An article in the Journal of Mammalogy explains that chipmunks have different calls to warn about different predators: a chip for terrestrial foes and a cluck for aerial ones, plus a chip-trill when they’re being pursued. This National Geographic page on chipmunks includes a video with these three calls.

Chipmunks are also constantly on the move because they need to use every daylight hour to collect food, especially in the fall. The National Wildlife Federation describes them as omnivores who will eat fruit, nuts, grain, berries, insects, fungi, small amphibians, and even bird eggs or nestlings if they find them on the ground. According to the Mother Nature Network, their cheeks can expand to three times the size of their heads to carry food.

Photo of a chipmunk with very full cheeks
Photo by Gilles Gonthier (CC by 2.0).

Alonso Abugattas, the Capital Naturalist, notes that since they mostly consume seeds and nuts within their burrows, chipmunks are not a significant source of seed dispersal. But their appetite for mushrooms does help to distribute mycorrhizal fungi that is beneficial to trees and plants.

In their underground burrows, chipmunks create multiple food caches that will sustain them through the winter months. They are not true hibernators, but rather exist in a state of torpor, waking periodically to eat. The National Wildlife Federation mentions scientific studies suggesting that global warming may be undermining chipmunks’ survival rates by disrupting their normal hibernation cycles.

Their underground burrows can be up to 30 feet long and have at least two widely spaced openings. Nesting areas are separate from food caches. The Mother Nature Network describes chipmunks as generally solitary except for mating, which occurs in the spring and sometimes again in late summer.  The female raises 2-5 pups, who leave the nest and go off on their own within 6 weeks.

Although typically forest dwellers, chipmunks have adapted readily to suburban environments and thus can come into conflict with people by eating bulbs, raiding bird feeders, and digging too close to foundations. Although they do carry ticks,  the Humane Society notes that chipmunks themselves are not known to spread diseases to humans, and their burrows seldom cause significant structural damage. The Society advocates tolerance rather than termination and various methods to deter them: move bird feeders at least 15 feet from your house, sweep up spilled seed, avoid plantings close to your foundation, use wire mesh to protect bulbs.

I wound up following the advice of the Bi-State Wildlife Hotline and placing a rag soaked in ammonia and a cup of moth bulbs near the new foundation hole. That way I can remove both without harming the soil once the chipmunks have relocated. The Hotline also mentions various commercial and home-made remedies to discourage them from chewing on decks and fencing.

Everyone has a different level of tolerance when it comes to living with backyard wildlife. In stepping back from the brink of war, I’ve reminded myself that the rewards for learning to coexist with chipmunks are supporting a more diverse ecosystem and enjoying the continuing antics of these tiny, charismatic neighbors.

Why Do the Mockingbirds Rage? And Other Backyard Mysteries.

by Rosemary Jann

It must be an indication of how preoccupied I’ve been lately: I didn’t realize the mockingbirds were nesting again until their scratchy chat call exploded over my head as one buzzed me crossing the yard.

Photo of a northern mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird, copyright David Howell.

Northern Mockingbirds are fond of the native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) in our yard, especially for their first nesting of the season. According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, mockingbirds raise upwards of two broods a year but don’t reuse their nests, opting instead for a new site in their territory. The trumpet honeysuckle provides a protective tangle of vines at their preferred nesting height, 3 to 10 feet off the ground. Native to North America, they have adapted especially well to suburban environments, which provide mowed lawns for foraging, tall telephone lines for surveilling their territory, and nearby shrubs for shelter. I don’t know whether these are the same birds that were here in past years, but Wikipedia notes that suburban mockingbirds often return to sites where they previously bred successfully.

Of course, the best-known trait of Mimus polyglottos is signaled by their name, which means “many-tongued mimic.” Although both sexes mimic, the male is especially prolific in adding new songs throughout his lifetime (up to 200 in all, according to Cornell Lab’s guide, All About Birds). In suburban settings, these can include not just the songs of other birds and animals (like cats), but also common sounds like car alarms and ringtones.

Their noisy aggression is equally distinctive, however. Cornell states that scientists debate the purpose of the male’s characteristic flashing of the white patches on his wings. Is it intended to startle insects, to intimidate rivals, or, like his song repertoire, to help attract a mate?

Photo of a northern mockingbird spreading its wings
A Northern Mockingbird spreads its wings. By Manjithkaini, CC BY 3.0.

Their often-displayed aggression against other creatures can also serve multiple purposes. They use their chat call as they run off territorial rivals and while attacking nest predators. I had seen mockingbirds dive-bombing cats; I was puzzled when witnessing a particularly vicious and prolonged attack on a hapless squirrel, until I learned that they too predate on eggs and nestlings. Crows and other larger birds are also nest robbers, which explains why the mockingbirds were so violent in driving off some crows casing their nesting site in our yard last week. Mockingbirds apparently endorse the belief that the best defense is a good offense.

Aggression plays a role not just in natural selection but also in sexual selection. A high level of aggression in the male signals to the female that he is likely to be more invested in the parenting process and therefore deliver more nesting success. This is important, says the Animal Diversity Web page on Northern Mockingbirds, since both build the nest, both feed the chicks, and the male educates the nestlings while the female starts building a new nest. So, if you find yourself annoyed by the aggressive behavior of this noisy backyard neighbor, it may help to understand that the mockingbird’s feistiness plays an important role in its survival—and to wear a hat if you can’t avoid being dive-bombed on the way to the car.

Virtually Exploring Virginia’s Flora and Fauna

Text by Kristin Bartschi; Logo collage by George Sutherland

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

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

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

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

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

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

White-tailed Deer and Forest Health in Northern Virginia

by Bill Browning

Deer are a natural and beautiful part of our forest. They are Virginia’s largest herbivore, and despite their size, they are fast, agile, and graceful. They are an integral part of our ecosystem. However, their population has grown to the point where they unfortunately are overwhelming other species, degrading our forests, and harming the environment.

Photo of a herd of deer on a lawn in front of a house
Deer congregating on household steps. Photo courtesy of Donna Owen.

Population History

Deer helped fuel European settlement in the 17th-19th centuries. Our colonial ancestors hunted them for food and clothing, and even used deer skins (buckskins) as a form of money to trade for goods; the slang word for money, “buck,” comes from this era.

Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) estimates that there were somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 deer in Virginia in the early 1600s. We nearly extirpated them from the Commonwealth by the early 20th century as hunting and economic development drove them from our landscape. Deer became so scarce in Virginia that DGIF even had to import deer from the Midwest to satisfy the local hunting community.

During the latter part of the 20th century, as hunting declined and agricultural land was transformed into suburbia, the deer population exploded in our area. Deer are an “edge species” which means they prefer territory where natural woodland habitats meet encroaching human habitats. William McShea, a wildlife biologist with the National Zoo, says that “the eastern United States was [originally] one deep, dark forest. Now it’s deer nirvana. It’s one big edge.” Today, we likely have more than a million deer in Virginia.

Graph showing estimated decline in deer population from 1600 to 1900 followed by growth in deer population from mid 1900s to the 2000s
Conservative DGIF estimate of deer population.

More Deer Mean More Deer Browse

Deer are eating machines. An adult deer eats between 5-7 pounds of vegetation per day. Wildlife biologists at the National Park Service estimate that one square mile of a healthy forest can generate enough vegetation to feed about 15-20 deer. The jurisdiction of Arlington County, for example, has slightly more than one square mile of deer habitat (natural areas), suggesting that it can support little more than 15-20 deer in total. Many of us have spotted more than a dozen deer in our own neighborhoods, much less the whole county. The results are likely similar in other parts of Northern Virginia.

Photo of ARMN volunteer Todd Miners holding vegetation
Todd Minners holding vegetation representing 8 pounds. Photo courtesy of Sandy Minners.

As a result of this overpopulation, deer are destroying the understories in our natural areas. Forest understories are vital for habitat and for ecosystem services. When the forest is degraded, there’s no place for many songbirds to build their nests and no cover for mammals and amphibians to hide from predators. Moreover, there’s less plant material to absorb rainfall, making the Chesapeake Bay more vulnerable to pollutant runoff and our urban neighborhoods more susceptible to occasional flooding.

Through selective feeding, deer affect forest plant communities by reducing tree seedling numbers, species composition, and seedling height. They also affect herbaceous plant composition as they browse on some species and ignore others. The Virginia Native Plant Society notes that deer browse removes hundreds of plants that provide food for insects, birds, and small animals that depend on them, such as orchids, trilliums, oaks, milkweeds, hickories, and blueberries.

A 2016 Penn State Extension Report notes that, when the deer population density exceeds what the land can support, forest regeneration suffers. Decades of overbrowsing by deer have so severely depleted the habitat that many residents have never seen a healthy forest understory. And it is this healthy forest understory that provides the environment from which future canopy trees can emerge. Richard Parker, regional director of the Genesee State Park Region (New York), said that “as the current forest dies, there will be nothing to replace it.” 

In the pair of photos below, the forest on the left provides food and habitat for many species of insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. This well-structured forest can filter sediment and pollutants out before the rainwater reaches the Chesapeake Bay. It can also generate enough seedlings to take over from the current canopy trees in the next generation. Conversely, the forest on the right is what we frequently see in northern Virginia where intense deer browsing means that any native plant that dares to poke itself up out of the ground is nipped off almost immediately by a deer passing by.

Photo of a healthy forest with under story and a browsed forest
Healthy and deer-browsed forests. Photo courtesy of Charles Smith.
Photo of a wood thrush bird in her nest
Wood thrush nest. Photo courtesy of David Howell.

Too many deer are ruining our home gardens, defeating our park restoration efforts, and potentially endangering our health. They eat the plants we put in our yards unless we happen to have a dog patrolling the property or we spray deer repellent on our plants after every rain event. They eat the plants we install to restore our parks, unless we protect the plants with heavily fortified deer cages. And finally, as they wander through our parks and neighborhoods, they defecate where they please; deer can spread a variety of illnesses, such as giardia, in fecal matter that can end up in streams.

Photo of deer exclusion fence around a plant
Deer exclusion fence around a plant in Powhatan Park in Arlington. Photo courtesy of Bill Browning.
Photo of a deer in a playground
Deer in playground area of Boulevard Manor neighborhood in Arlington. Photo courtesy of Ron Battocchi.

Too Many Deer Equals Unhealthy Deer

Many wildlife biologists argue that the deer have so decimated our local forests that they are unable to find sufficient food to remain well nourished. And while that fact may be debated by some other biologists, there is no disputing the fact that deer density is contributing to the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) which is similar to mad cow disease. CWD is transmitted through saliva and other fluids, and as deer congregate closer to one another, they are more likely to transmit this disease. CWD is insidious. Once infected, death is certain. CWD first showed up in white-tailed deer in 2001 in South Dakota and Nebraska. It has now spread to 24 states, including Virginia, where it appears to be migrating eastward from the West Virginian border.

A map showing cases of chronic wasting disease in Virginia from 2009 to 2019
Chronic Wasting Disease positive results in Virginia, 2009-19.

Losing—and Regaining—Balance in our Deer Population

Human expansion and economic progress have driven natural predators out of Virginia, giving the deer free rein. We have not had effective predators for deer, such as wolves or mountain lions, in Virginia since the early 20th century. And other predators, such as foxes or coyotes, are ineffective. Foxes prefer smaller mammals and coyotes are unable to bring down anything but a small fawn. If you hear that a recovered fox or coyote carcass happens to have deer meat in their intestines, it most likely came from scavenging.

Given that human population and economic growth has allowed deer to expand in our area, we need human intervention to bring balance into the system. People frequently ask whether contraception or sterilization could be used as a humane way to control the deer population, but it is not humane. According to DGIF wildlife biologists, deer are susceptible to capture myopathy, also known as white muscle disease. This response to being captured, restrained, and handled causes the deer to build up lactic acid in their muscles. This lactic acid affects blood pH and can kill many of the internal organs, especially the heart. While some experts say it is possible to capture deer with low mortality rates in order to treat them with a contraceptive, it has not been shown to be effective in managing deer populations in an open environment. These methods require frequent follow up and can be quite costly. Further, DGIF only approves of medical intervention with deer for research, not for population management.

Given these limitations, local jurisdictions have adopted managed hunting as the best way to control the deer population in our area.

Fairfax County began an archery program after a librarian was killed in a car collision with a deer in 1997. The county’s managed hunting program now includes archery, shotguns, and high-powered rifles that has grown to cover about 100 of its county parks and properties (more than 80% of county parkland). The volunteer archers alone have culled about 1,000 deer per year since 2014 and the county donates venison to the Hunters for the Hungry program. Police and wildlife managers exercise strong oversight and there have been no safety incident or injuries to park patrons (or pets) since the program’s inception.

Montgomery County, MD manages archery, shotgun hunting, and sharpshooting operations in 54 parks, covering more than 50% of the county’s total park area. The county program began in the late 1990s, and hunters have removed over 19,500 deer from the parks and donated 315,000 pounds of venison to the Capital Area Food Bank. County police records document that collisions with deer have declined near the parks where culling takes place, and there have been no injuries to hunters or citizens as part of these programs.

A sign altering the public of a park closure for a deer hunt
Deer hunt sign in Montgomery County, MD. Photo courtesy of Todd Minners.

The National Park Service began its Rock Creek Park deer management program in 2012 and uses professional sharpshooters to hunt at night when the park is closed to the public. Since March 2013, almost 400 deer have been removed from the park and over 10,000 pounds of venison has been donated to D.C. Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization that distributes meals to homeless shelters in the metro area. In the decade between 2009 and 2019, NPS estimates that in Rock Creek Park seedling numbers rose from 2,240 per hectare (2006-2009) to 5,960 per hectare (2016-2019). There have been no hunting accidents in the park.

Arlington County and the City of Alexandria do not have a deer management program at this time.

Perhaps some of our analysis can be best summarized by a quote from Aldo Leopold in the 1940s. Leopold was a wildlife biologist, a professor, and an early conservation thinker, who helped change our country’s land management approach from one of conquering the land to living in harmony with it. He wrote in A Sand County Almanac:

“just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.”

By ignoring the deer overpopulation problem, we are allowing the deer to degrade the environment at the expense of many other native species and the future of our forests.

Spring Ephemerals Are Blooming Now. Enjoy Them Before They’re Gone!

Text and photos by Caroline Haynes.

In this time of “physical distancing,” while on a solitary walk in a natural area or in your own native plant garden, keep an eye out for some of Virginia’s beautiful spring ephemerals. Ephemerals bloom for a fairly short time early in the spring and take advantage of the sunlight before the trees leaf out and block the light on the forest floor. Here are several of the lovely, transient flowers that you may encounter for just a while longer.

One of the showier species is Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). With the pink and blue buds, and blue to purple flowers, they are easy to identify and are typically found along rivers and floodplains. 

The bright yellow of the Golden ragwort (Packera aurea) is also out in full bloom now. Golden ragwort is a prolific spreader, thrives in moist, shady locations and is found in low woods, ravines, and along streams and rivers. Once the flowers fade, the basal leaves provide an attractive ground cover for most of the growing season and extending into mild winters.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), with its distinctive shaped leaves with five to nine deep lobes and showy single flowers, is in the poppy family and can be found in rich woods.

Moss phlox (Phlox subulata) is also blooming now, with shades of pink to blue to purple to white. Moss phlox is very tolerant of hot sun and dry soils and can be found on rock ledges and other open, sunny locations. It also looks pretty in the winter as leaves turn purple with the cold.

Spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) have narrow leaves and delicate pink to white flowers that are out during the day, but close up at night. They’re common in rich woods and wetlands; look for them along trails, too.

Early saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis), with tiny white flowers in branched clusters can be found tucked among rocks and along shaded banks.

Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), so-called because they resemble a pair of pantaloons hanging upside down, are especially rewarding with these quaint flowers and delicate foliage. Look for them in moist shady areas.

And while these bloomers bring a lot of joy to the human eye, they have a much more important purpose. If you stop and linger on a sunny day, you may be rewarded with the variety of native insects feasting on the nectar of these early spring flowers.

When Nature Takes Charge and We Get Teachable Moments

By Steve Young

Sparrow Pond is an artificial wetland and stormwater remediation complex along the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail between Route 50 and Columbia Pike in Arlington. Built circa 2000-2001, the pond has been very successful in capturing sediment that otherwise would have flowed into Four Mile Run, then the Potomac River, and eventually Chesapeake Bay and the ocean. But this success has meant the pond has been filling up with sediment and self-destructing. By Summer 2019 the pond was almost dried up. While restoration of the pond is planned for 2021–2022, in the meantime, the pond looked to be pretty dysfunctional.  Then the beavers appeared.

A beaver swims in water.
Beaver swimming in Sparrow Pond. Photo courtesy of David Howell.

We can only guess how the beavers arrived in the pond: Maybe from downstream via the Potomac River or Four Mile Run; maybe from somewhere upstream, perhaps riding the wave of the great flood of July 8, 2019. In any event, they went to work doing what beavers do: building a dam and a lodge for living quarters. In the process, they gnawed down vegetation, both for food and for their engineering projects. Their work was clearly visible from the trail and the viewing platform on the north side of the pond.

Since late this past summer, the beavers’ impressive dam has raised the water level by perhaps 4 to 5 feet, so that Sparrow Pond is indeed a pond again! Especially over the winter holiday weeks, my wife and I took several walks to the viewing platform, looking over the scene and marveling how it has changed.

A beaver dam on the side of a pond.
Beaver dam at Sparrow Pond. Photo courtesy of Steve Young.

While it was not a conscious plan to draw other onlookers, we were amazed by how many people came by, saw that we were looking at something, and took an interest in what was going on. Some folks were aware that beavers were at work; more had no clue. As a master naturalist, I found myself with a number of “teachable moments” as I explained the presence of the beavers and their ecosystem engineering. No one ran away with eyes glazed over!

A beaver lodge next to a frozen pond.
Beaver lodge at Sparrow Pond. Photo courtesy of Steve Young.

It brought home to me how we, as master naturalists, have various opportunities to do some low-key teaching about the nature that surrounds us when people show an interest. I encourage you to visit Sparrow Pond and hang out for a bit, and maybe have your own teachable moment. And you may have opportunities closer to home in parks, on trails, or even in your own backyard to engage in similar low-key interactions.

Addendum 5-6-20:

A reader expressed concern that Arlington County may euthanize the beavers because they are in a pond where they do not belong.

We raised this issue with Alonso Abugattas, the National Resources Manager for Arlington County Parks. He replied that the county hopes the beavers will move on from the pond when work on the planned restoration project for the pond begins. A beaver dam would cause damage to the restoration work as well as the trail there, and all things under it. So, beaver baffles will be installed to keep them from returning in the future. Mr. Abugattas added that it is illegal to trap or move the beavers because they would then become someone else’s problem.

Deep Dive Recap: Dabbling and Diving Ducks

Text by Kristin Bartschi. Photos by George Sutherland.

Ducks. They’re cute, they paddle around in parks. Some ducks are so commonplace that we don’t really think twice about them (i.e. the quintessential mallard). But, as with all animals, there is a lot to learn and every duck has a unique story. 

Recently, I decided to expand my rudimentary knowledge and attend a deep dive on ducks at Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington. Naturalist Ken Rosenthal hosts deep dive lectures about once a month at Gulf Branch. Each hour-long talk focuses on a different topic, such as pollinators or homes made out of sticks. 

Attending one of these has been on my list for a while and it did not disappoint. Ken’s enthusiasm and knowledge of animals is infectious, and the hour-long presentation flew by. 

A man presents a powerpoint in front of an audience
Ken preparing to dive into duck plumage.

Did you know there are 154 species of ducks worldwide? 50 of those species can be found in North America, with 48 different species in Virginia and 28 right here in Arlington. 

Now, we covered A LOT in this deep dive, so I’m just going to pull out a couple fun facts.  

How do ducks stay dry? 

Did you ever think about this? I actually hadn’t until this talk, but it’s fascinating. Ducks have oil glands at the base of their tails. They use the oil from these glands to preen their feathers, which waterproofs their feathers and allows them to dabble or dive without getting wet. Ducklings have fluffy plumage which traps air and helps them stay buoyant above the water.  

Total eclipse of the feathers

One of my favorite facts was about “eclipse plumage.” When male ducks molt after breeding season, they acquire a temporary plumage that closely resembles the camouflaged plumage of female ducks. This helps to protect them from predators during the molt. If you look at a male mallard during his eclipse plumage, he looks almost identical to a female mallard! Want to spot the difference? While plumage color changes during molting, duck bill colors never do. So, the mallard’s yellow bill (as opposed to the female’s brown and orange bill) will give him away.   

Want to learn more (and catch a glimpse of some of Arlington’s unique ducks)? 

Ken recommended quite a few books, including: 

A stack of bird guide books

Interested in attending a deep dive? 

If you’re interested in learning more about the animals that surround us, I’d certainly recommend signing up for one of Ken’s deep dives in the future. (If you’re an ARMN member, any deep dive will count towards your CE credits.) They occur once a month on Thursday evenings and are $5 to attend. To look for upcoming talks, visit the events page on the Arlington Parks and Recreation website. Ken’s next deep dive will be Animal Meteorologists on Thursday, February 13th from 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. at Gulf Branch Nature Center. Check it out! 

In the meantime, if you’d like to take a look at some of our local ducks, good viewing locations are at Gravelly Point or Roaches Run.

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!

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

by Kasha Helget

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

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

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

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

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

Want to Learn/Do More?

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

Also, be “Winter Salt Smart” by:

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

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