Glenn Tobin is the 2020 Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award Winner
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.
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.
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.
I was Zoom talking with a small group of ARMN Park Stewards the other day about what inspires us as we help restore ecosystems in our parks. (ARMN Park Stewards are volunteer leaders who work with local park management and staff to help preserve, enhance, restore, and potentially expand the parks’ natural areas, habitats, and ecosystems.)There were many inspirations, but everyone had one in common—seeing how nature begins to heal itself when troublesome invasive plants are removed. It does not happen immediately, but if one observes, the rewards are great.
Several weeks ago, I was walking along a path I frequent in Windy Run Park in North Arlington. Those who have been there know that the park connects to the George Washington Memorial Parkway and from there to the Potomac River via a steep set of stairs along a beautiful waterfall.
As you descend, you might use your right hand to steady yourself along a vertical rock face that extends up from the stairs to far above your head.
In 2016, that cliff face was covered with English ivy. After getting the o.k. from the National Park Service, I began clearing invasives along the river. The problems were huge in comparison to that small spot. However, I decided to clear it to improve the overall look of the area as I would walk up the stairs.
As I walked down the stairs several weeks ago, I looked at the cliff face more closely and noticed that a new set of beautiful plants had colonized cracks in the wall from which the ivy had been pulled earlier. Here’s a wide view:
Then I started to look more closely. As I saw more and more detail, I also saw more and more beauty—and a great variety of living organisms. Here are two pictures:
Sometimes I tell people that the process of ecological restoration is like an addictive drug. You rip some ivy off a small rock wall in 30 minutes and then a few years later something like this emerges. It is magical. I dream of a day where we have restored our forests, and the true beauty of biodiverse natural systems becomes obvious to all.
And there are more improvements to the park than just invasive plant removal. If you know the Windy Run area, you are aware that more than a decade ago, a rockslide destroyed the lower part of the stairs and getting across the boulder field was a bit tricky. Last fall, the stairs and handrail were repaired to address the safety concerns. A unique collaboration across ARMN, the National Park Service, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, and a few regular trail users funded stone masons and iron workers to make the necessary repairs.
The photos below show the before/after stair repairs. The small blue circles provide common reference points across the two pictures.
The new stairs are much more accessible to a wider range of hikers now. Below is some detail of the improved surfaces.
And finally, this photo shows the new handrail along with the new stairs.
(The “Warning” sign has since been removed.)
Access to Windy Run Park is from the cul de sac at the end of North Kenmore Street, off of Lorcom Lane. The waterfall and stairs are about a half mile away, following the stream. There are four unimproved stream crossings before reaching the top of the stairs (and the stairs themselves are very steep), so the park is not for everyone. You should feel comfortable on rough terrain and crossing potentially wet rocks to make the trip. But if you can manage it, Windy Run Park and the Potomac riverfront along the Potomac Heritage Trail are among the most beautiful spots in the region.
What a wild ride. The past eight months have been a roller coaster of unprecedented challenges—seemingly insurmountable ones at that. I think I can state with a fair amount of confidence that we’ve collectively experienced anxiety, frustration, and also heartbreak. Maybe a bit of anger too. These have been tough days.
Fortunately, there’s this wonderful thing called nature out there. Woodlands, meadows, wetlands … outdoor spaces that allow us to de-stress. There’s no doubt the pandemic has illuminated the value of such protected areas, at least for those of us lucky enough to live near them.
I’ve had the luxury of spending many hours in some of these nearby natural areas, often to help destroy invasive plants. But a large chunk of my outdoor time is spent in my own personal sanctuary. While the mass movement to visit parks and to simply get outside continues, I experience that decompressing ahhhhhh feeling just footsteps from my door. On this quarter-acre lot four miles from bustling Tysons Corner Center, essential native plants feed uncommon bumble bees, delightful monarch caterpillars, hungry migrating birds, and much, much more.
This habitat did not come about by accident, however. And it wasn’t created overnight. My garden-with-native-plants-or-die journey began about seven years ago with a lecture given by renowned entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy. His groundbreaking research showed that native plants support all life, even our own. (Yay, science!)
This past February, right before the covid-19 pandemic changed the way we lived, Tallamy’s lecture circuit brought him once again in front of a massive audience in Manassas. His rousing message urged us to repurpose turfgrass with native plants to form our very own “Homegrown National Park.” Reducing just half of all lawns across the country this way would return more than 20 million acres of America to wildlife habitat. Twenty. Million. Acres.
A pandemic prognosticator, Tallamy listed these benefits of building a park at home:
You can enjoy nature on your own time at your own pace
Avoid travel hassles
Experience the natural world alone
And now there’s one more benefit:
Keep safe from droplets!
See what a Tallamy-inspired garden, enthusiastically documented over the past eight months of isolation, has attracted:
If you’re curious about how best to create your own private park, here are some environmentally-sound suggestions:
Buy locally native plants to support our indigenous critters and to keep our wild areas ecologically intact. I like to frequent Earth Sangha’s plant list to choose my local ecotype plants. The Earth Sangha family is always happy to help you to select the right plants for your site conditions and your needs.
If you have an appropriate location, plant native keystone plants such as white oak (Quercus alba) and wild black cherry (Prunus serotina). These trees are the two top supporters of Lepidoptera spp. (moth and butterfly) larvae.
Remove invasive plants because they can escape from your yard into natural spaces. Getting rid of invasives on your property is equally as important as planting natives.
Reduce lawn. Turfgrass is considered to be ecologically devastating because of the problematic way humans maintain it (use of fertilizers and weed killers) and because of how little life it supports.
Forgo the pesticides. Grub controls, mosquito sprays, and rodent poisons harm more than just the targeted “pests.”
Leave the leaf litter to maintain plant and soil health and to harbor a variety of animals. Slugs, moths, and spiders are just as important as our enchanting fireflies and butterflies—which rely on leaf litter to survive.
Strive to keep discarded plant material on your property. It takes resources to haul it away and process it.
Use some of that unwanted plant material to build a brush pile for birds and small mammals.
Leave a dead tree (called a “snag”) standing when feasible. Any size snag can support wildlife but leaving at least a six-foot-tall dead or dying tree feeds innumerable insects and can provide homes for woodpeckers and other animals.
Allow branches and logs to rot in your garden or lug neighbors’ chain-sawed tree parts onto your property or do both! These logs make a lovely natural edging and are as enticing to insects as snags are.
Keep outdoor lights off to help moths, birds, and bats. Yellow light bulbs in a motion-activated fixture are also a good solution. Note that some studies show that residential exterior lights do not prevent crime.
Although the landscape I nurture is still fluid and an ongoing labor of love (yes, my garden is much more work than lawn is), it has from the get-go provided valuable eco-services. I recommend taking on small sections at a time. Begin by planting lower-maintenance trees and shrubs. Then just add water. And love.
There’s never been a better time or reason to create your own oasis. Even if you have only a patio or a balcony, a few native plants grown in containers can attract and support a variety of teeny animals such as our native bees and caterpillars. Let’s help the critters we are passionate about and also help ourselves.
I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more terrific way to spend a wintry afternoon than my (pre-pandemic) tea (& goodies!) at Silver Diner with Beth Kiser early this year. I knew of Beth from her efforts to organize the Park Stewards program (Adopt-a-Park leaders who oversee volunteer stewardship work in Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church parks and engage with neighboring park communities). But I was pleased to find we had many other overlapping priorities and friendships. I enjoyed getting to know Beth and I’m sure you will too. We began by talking about the more distant past….
Tell us something about your life experience that has shaped your perspective on nature.
I grew up in western North Carolina and spent a ton of time outdoors. My toy Fisher Price people had campfires and root cellars and cooked roasts over a spit. I remember the thrill of uncovering toads and snakes, eating chinquapins, and finding “touch-me-nots” (Impatiens capensis) with my granddad, with the seeds exploding in all directions. I remember hiking with my dad in hemlock forests and drinking icy cold spring water and breathing in the earthy smell of the woods.
Conservation and restoration always felt to me like a totally normal and practical thing to do. I learned how non-native invasive plants can take over when I first saw kudzu swallowing the hillsides of the Blue Ridge Parkway. When I lived in Wisconsin in the 1990s, I was able to volunteer with a prairie burn. A lightbulb moment was reading Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, about native plants, the insects that co-evolved to eat them, and the birds that eat only insects. I now feel like anytime I plant anything in our yard, it’s a fun opportunity to build our local ecosystem while getting to watch it up close. (And I love to grow and share native plants!)
Tell us something more about your background.
I work as an economist learning how risks can move through the financial system. I think my experiences in nature and through ARMN have brought me insights in economics, and vice versa. Economics and ecology are both about complex, interconnected systems.
What are your favorite ARMN volunteer projects?
Oh gosh, there are so many. I’ve had the opportunity to sample several over time. I love the annual “City Nature Challenge,” the bioblitz event where people in cities around the world collect and upload nature data that can be used for scientific research. It’s a great way to discover and record the cool critters and plants in our area. I’ve also enjoyed stream monitoring, especially getting in the water and turning over rocks to see what’s there. Through the Roving Naturalist program, I was able to take a live snake to the Arlington County Fair to share with the public. It’s so nice to meet people in our wonderfully diverse area and find out what they find exciting (or even scary!) about nature.
My favorite ARMN project today is the Park Stewards Program. Phil Klingelhofer and I started setting it up in 2017 and it’s really grown, thanks to all the volunteer leaders who’ve shared their amazing skills, knowledge, and hard work, and the natural resources and park managers in our area jurisdictions who’ve offered training and coordination. This work feels really important because it’s something we can actually do locally. Protecting the natural areas in our parks helps take carbon out of the air, prevents stormwater damage, and cools the “urban heat island.” It lets us see migrating birds in the spring and fall and fireflies in the summer. And it helps people connect with nature.
What has surprised you most about ARMN?
I’m always struck by the incredible range of expertise and leadership skills of people in this community, and the perseverance and hope that ARMN folks bring to their volunteer work.
What do you like most about ARMN?
I love the opportunity to be outside in nature while working with such kind and thoughtful volunteers. It took me awhile to connect with people after the initial ARMN basic training classes, but once I got into some regular projects, I was all in.
Tell us something unusual about yourself.
Hmm…Target shooting? In my early teens I participated with my dad in target shooting competitions using reproduction muzzle-loading rifles.
Thank you, Beth, for your passion, humor, humility, and wonderful outreach for our precious planet.
I learned from renowned entomology professor and author, Doug Tallamy, that native host plants are critical sources of insects for birds to feed their young. One of the earliest Continuing Education events I can remember attending after I graduated ARMN training in 2015 was a talk by entomology researcher Desiree Narango. Her graduate study (with Doug Tallamy as her advisor), discussed how the availability of native plants in residential landscapes influences the nesting success of Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis). She found that if there was less than 70% native plant biomass, insect populations declined as well as the chickadee population rate.
I walked out of the lecture hall coo-coo for Carolina chickadees and immediately decided to set up a chickadee nesting house. I live on a somewhat busy street in North Arlington in a 1947-era neighborhood. When we moved here in 1982, we took Carolina chickadees, goldfinches, and titmice for granted because they were in abundance. But my ARMN training opened my eyes to how poor the habitat had become, and how many non-native starlings, grackles, and house sparrows had taken over while I wasn’t paying attention.
I doubted my yard had anything interesting for chickadees, but I pressed ahead. Two things I did quickly were: (1) consult Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, for a tree that would fit in my small yard and support a decent number of caterpillars, and (2) head to a bird store for a chickadee house. Within a few days of hearing Ms. Narango’s talk, I planted a river birch (Betula nigra) and installed the chickadee house. Then I waited for the avian real estate market to get active in early spring.
Carolina chickadees are year-round residents and live in flocks for much of the year. In late winter, nesting pairs (who are thought to mate for life) break off and look for nesting sites in natural cavities such as holes in decayed trees, but they will also use man-made bird houses if they are 5-15 feet above the ground and built to the right dimensions. Houses for many kinds of birds are commonly sold in bird stores, or you can make your own. Be sure, though, that you buy or make the right house for the bird you want to attract (and watch out for pushy house sparrows). Bird houses are easy to make if you are reasonably handy and have some basic tools. If you are going to make your own house, be sure to use the suitable dimensions and untreated wood.
I put it up in late winter so any chickadees in the area could scout it out before breeding season. Perhaps I overthought the process, but I worried that the house was too exposed to the elements, so I bought a wrought-iron arbor kit that I assembled and placed over the pole-mounted house. Then I planted a crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), which is semi-evergreen, to provide some protection in spring. It took a couple of years for the crossvine to get established, but it is growing over the arbor now and is casting shade and protection from the rain, as intended. (Yes, I have to keep it trimmed.) The cross braces on the arbor have also provided places for the adults to perch as they go in and out with nesting materials and food for the nestlings, which affords me the ability to observe them better.
The choice of the river birch proved to be a good one. Doug Tallamy lists river birch among the top five Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth)-supporting trees. Indeed, it has proven to be a popular perching and foraging place for chickadees and other birds in my yard. It is a fast-growing species, so it only took one or two years to attain a good size and be discovered by many birds. While nesting, the chickadees fly straight to it dozens (hundreds?) of times a day to peck at the peeling bark and branches to find insect protein for their nestlings. I cannot always see what they are finding on the tree, but they never seem to come away empty-beaked. Bonus: Goldfinch couples are also attracted to it and love to eat the seeds off the catkins (drooping flower clusters produced by trees) in late spring.
Nesting chickadee couples start looking for nest sites around early April. I see them visit the yard, call to each other, and inspect the bird house. Like any landlord, I eagerly anticipate signs that a couple wants to sign a lease. Some say it isn’t necessary, but I “prime” the inside of my chickadee house with a couple of inches of wood chips. You can use debris from a decaying tree, or even clean hamster bedding from the pet store. Just be sure the material is untreated. One sign that chickadees are seriously considering your house is when they start throwing out your wood chips. Don’t take it personally, though. Being cavity nesters, they will work on making the interior to their liking and then start bringing in moss and other materials to finish it. After this behavior has lasted a week or two, I gently raise the hinged roof panel (after giving a gentle warning knock) every two or three days to look for eggs.
The next thing I do is somewhat controversial: I put up a “wren guard” as soon as the first eggs appear to keep house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) from getting inside and throwing out the eggs. House wrens are a native species, but they are very competitive for nest sites. They use the same-sized holes and cavities that chickadees do, so they will also be interested in these houses. Some naturalists are opposed to using wren guards and recommend letting the birds work it out on their own. I understand that point of view, but confess I am so intent on boosting the chickadee population around my small suburban yard that I use them.
Once I see the eggs and attach the wren guard, I observe that the parents are momentarily puzzled, but they figure out how to fly around it and into the entrance after about five or ten minutes. Using a wren guard is not a guarantee that a wren won’t get in, but it has worked for me several years in a row. Note that it is important to take the wren guard off when the nestlings are a week or two old (too big for a house wren to pick up) because it will interfere with their fledging. If you chose to use a wren guard, keep track of the timing.
To be clear, I like house wrens and don’t wish to harm or eradicate them. This is their native breeding range, and they are valuable to the ecosystem, too. I merely want them to wait until my chickadees have launched before coming in. House wrens can also take over the nests of other birds such as bluebirds and tree swallows. As this website notes, use of a wren guard should not be your first course of action. The best way to prevent predation by house wrens is to put the nest box away from sites that would be attractive to them. But because of my small yard, I have few options for nest box placement.
I locate my nest box a few yards from my back porch because I’m a nosy landlord and I want to know everything my tenants are doing! While they are feeding their brood of five-ten babies for 16-19 days, they work from dawn until dusk every day bringing in hundreds of caterpillars—thousands before they’re done. The adults are tireless in their parenting duties. In addition to providing those thousands of caterpillars, they also take out all of the babies’ “fecal sacks” (poop in a gelatinous membrane) in order to keep the nest clean. It’s in with food, out with poop, hundreds of times a day for as many as 10 nestlings. That’s an incredible amount of energy and dedication generated by birds that only weigh about a half an ounce.
Whether it would have happened without using a wren guard, I can’t say, but a lot of new chickadees have fledged from my little house. I am usually fortunate to be watching the day they fledge, and I generally count seven or eight fledglings as they emerge. Unlike robin babies that hop around on the ground until they learn to fly, chickadee young take immediately to the air and wait in nearby trees and shrubs for their family to gather. The parents then lead them to a suitable habitat and continue to feed them in the wild for another two or three weeks. Some years I don’t know where they go after they leave my nest box, but this year the fledglings hung around the vicinity for about a month. I watched as they would transit my yard, usually in the mornings, perching from the river birch, to the red maple, to the holly, etc., at first being fed by the adults, but then learning to pick at branches and twigs for their own food. I could also tell as the days and weeks went by how their calls went from squealy little “dee dee dee” noises to more dignified-sounding “chickadee-dee-dee-dee” adult calls.
Lest you feel sorry for the house wrens who had been eying my chickadee house, I came outside the morning the chickadee family had flown, and right before my eyes, a house wren couple was already carrying its own nesting materials in. I let them stay.
Five years ago, I rarely heard a chickadee around my house, but I see and hear more and more with each passing year. Not all survive their first year, but some are thought to live two to five years. Every spring I look forward to nesting season the way some people look forward to baseball season. I get my bird house ready for them and position my porch chair for a good view. Little do they know how much joy they bring. For one thing, they are too busy raising their children and cleaning house!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over 100 individuals gathered on Theodore Roosevelt Island to participate in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service on January 20th. Despite the chilly 24 degrees, it was an otherwise sunny day, and enthusiastic volunteers warmed to the task of cutting non-native invasive plants that have overrun many parts of the island.
The MLK Day of Service event was organized by ARMN member Jenny Wiedower, who partnered with the National Park Service (which oversees the park) and Friends of Teddy Roosevelt Island who help NPS preserve and protect this unique memorial. A team of ARMN volunteers helped the participants distinguish between native and exotic invasive plants and how to cut the invasives without harming the natives.
The volunteers represented various ages and backgrounds from across the region who honored Dr. King by helping to restore native habitat on the island.
During the two-hour service event, the individuals:
collectively logged 224 hours from the 112 volunteers
cut English ivy from at least 97 mature trees
snipped 400 square feet of wine berry (roughly the size of a two-car garage)
chopped down 43 honeysuckle bushes
cut Japanese (vining) honeysuckle from 33 trees
Dr. King and Theodore Roosevelt would surely be proud!
Paul Gibson has been a stalwart volunteer ever since joining the ARMN program in Spring 2013, especially in the areas of citizen science. I was able to interview him online and then finally got to meet him at the ARMN Annual Chapter meeting in December 2019. Here are some fascinating things I learned about Paul.
What are your favorite ARMN volunteer projects?
I really enjoy a variety of projects. I have been doing stream water quality monitoring since shortly after I became a Master Naturalist. I recently became a Master Identifier so I’m looking forward to taking my turn at identifying the critters that we find in the streams next year.
I find it fascinating to see the variety of macroinvertebrates that are in our streams, their variation by stream, and what that says about water quality in different parts of Arlington county. It’s also rewarding to talk with members of the public who pass by when we are out monitoring. Everyone is so curious about what we are doing and when they find out, they want to know more about water quality. I think that the public education that we do is a very important part of our role as master naturalists.
I also monitor bluebird nest boxes at Taylor Elementary School. This project provides a clear view of the perils and successes experienced by our feathered friends. It’s been heartwarming to see bluebirds, chickadees, and tree swallows go from nest-building to egg laying to hatching to raising chicks to fledging but there have also been stark examples of nest predation on eggs or chicks. For better or worse, it’s a front-row seat to the circle of life.
Another citizen science project in which I have participated for a number of years is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Grasses for the Masses program. Members of the public propagate native underwater grass seeds in a grow-out system in their homes, schools, or businesses over the winter and then gather to plant the grasses in area rivers to bolster grass populations and help restore the Bay.
What has surprised you most about ARMN?
The speed at which the organization is growing. It is gratifying to see the numbers of new ARMN members who graduate out of the Basic Training program every year.
What do you like most about ARMN?
There is such a wide range of volunteer activities available that there’s really no reason not to participate. With my schedule, it’s hard to get to a lot of organized events but I can also participate at times of my choosing, depending on the project. Monitoring the bluebird boxes, for example, doesn’t need a rigid schedule, so I can fit in two or three visits a week during nesting season in a way that works for me. But there are also a lot of scheduled events to build in, which is great because it’s also nice to participate in projects with other ARMN members.
Tell us something about your life experience that has shaped your perspective on nature.
I grew up in Wisconsin, two blocks from Lake Michigan, and visited Lake Superior every summer when I was young. So, I was exposed to the variety of fish and birds in those areas at an early age. In northern Wisconsin, I remember marveling at the wild shorelines but also learning about the hazards of taconite discharges into Lake Superior from the iron mining range in Minnesota. These experiences taught me that nature and biodiversity were all around us but so were the threats to it introduced by humans.
What is your background?
Growing up in the upper Midwest, I was aware of and, in a way, just took for granted, that we lived among the remnants of age-old geologic forces. It wasn’t until I moved east for graduate school that I realized how unique that area is. (I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in Political Science and I have a Master’s in Information Management from Syracuse University.) As I settled into the DC area, those experiences gave me the background to appreciate the rich biodiversity and geology of the Potomac River Valley and the Chesapeake Bay. Besides the ARMN programs, I have learned so much from courses in the Natural History Field Studies certificate program of the Audubon Naturalist Society.
What would people find interesting about the non-ARMN parts of your life?
I train our dogs in the canine sport of “nosework.” It’s analogous to what law enforcement detection dogs do except it’s a sport for pets. Instead of looking for illegal substances, we look for target odors in organized competitions. But the skills of the dog and handler are the same. Along those lines, there are growing numbers of detector dogs that search for invasive species. So, one of my goals is to train our dogs to find invasive plants or insects, which is increasingly being done. It would be a natural intersection of two of my interests and hopefully be beneficial to conservation.
Tell us something unusual about yourself.
I have two wildlife cameras in our back yard. I am always amazed at the visitors we have. I’ve captured pictures of foxes, raccoons, deer, flying squirrels, and even a hummingbird that tried to pollinate the lens. But I’m still waiting for Wile E. Coyote to show up!
Text by Kristin Bartschi and photos by George Sutherland
On a sunny Saturday morning on September 21st, EcoAction Arlington hosted a stream clean-up in Barcroft Park as part of the International Coastal Clean-up. The International Coastal Clean-up (ICC) is part of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. Every September, over 100 countries take part in the ICC, making it one of the largest efforts to rid the ocean of trash. In 2018, 1 million people collected 23 million pounds of trash from rivers, streams, and beaches around the world.
That morning, George and I joined EcoAction Arlington and our local community to help clean-up trash along Four Mile Run stream. Four Mile Run flows through Barcroft Park and into the Potomac River. The Potomac runs into the Chesapeake Bay and, ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean.
Volunteers of all ages attended the event, including families, couples, and a corporate group. We found lots of trash along the riverbanks and a few volunteers even ventured into the water—luckily, it was warm! In total, we collected 40 bags of trash and 12 bags of recyclables. Interesting finds included an umbrella, traffic cone, toilet seat, engine block, and various pieces of wiring, wood, and metal.
There is something for everyone at the ICC. For example, if picking up trash isn’t for you, ICC volunteers can document the trash found during a clean-up. This data delivers a snapshot of trash found at different sites around the world, which provides key insights for researchers and policy makers.
Even if you missed this year’s International Coastal Clean-up, there are lots of ways you can help protect your local waterways. Research “clean-ups” hosted by local non-profits, community groups, and/or your city or county. You’ll be surprised about how many there are once you do some digging. If you have a special area near you that needs some attention, reach out to your local environmental government/community groups about hosting your own clean-up!
There are also several steps you can take every day to reduce the amount of trash that ends up in our oceans and waterways. Properly disposing of all trash and recycling helps to ensure that it doesn’t end up polluting our environment. Better yet, look for ways to reduce your trash altogether! There are tons of simple swaps you can make to reduce waste that ends up in landfills or in our natural world. For instance…
Swap plastic water bottles for
a reusable one.
Use a reusable cup for your
morning cup of coffee—most coffee shops will even give you a small discount for
Bring reusable bags to the
grocery store instead of using paper or plastic bags.
And this is just the tip of the
Trash clean-ups like the ICC always remind me of how collective impacts can change our world for the better. Picking up a piece of trash, or saying “no” to a plastic bag, may seem insignificant when done by one person. But, when millions of people come together to improve the world we live in, we can make a big impact.