It’s Time to Boil Down Sap Into Syrup at Colvin Run Mill

It’s called a spile. You probably don’t have one lying around the house unless, perhaps, you grew up in Vermont. You’ll see them, though, at the Colvin Run Mill Maple Syrup Boil Down.

A spile is the draining tube that is drilled into maple trees in the first step that starts the long, slow late winter/early spring process of making the maple syrup that puts the zing in morning pancakes. This is not the artificially flavored stuff. This is the real thing.

Tapping maple trees is the process of getting the sap out of a tree and, eventually, onto a waffle. It’s done in the late winter/early spring, when sap starts to flow as the trees prepare for spring growth. February, when daytime temperatures are above freezing but nighttime temperatures are not, is the usual time in Fairfax County. Weather conditions can affect the timing.

A small hole is drilled into a tree – not very far, just under the bark. Often the best place is below a large branch or above a large root. Three feet or so off the ground will do. The spile goes into the hole, and a food-grade bucket is hung below the spile. A lid goes over the bucket to keep out debris like dust and leaves. Sweet and simple. Tapping stops when buds start forming on the tree.

Sap, which is clear and looks like water, may start running immediately. Depending on the tree and how much sap is rising through it on a given day, there could be a slow drip or a flow heavy enough to fill the bucket in a day. The sap is then kept cool, but not frozen, until the boil down.

The sap can be tasted straight from the tree, but like most things in nature, that’s not a particularly good idea because it might contain bacteria you don’t want exploring your body. Boiling takes care of that. More boiling is needed to make syrup. A lot more.

maple syrup boil down at Colvin Run MillSyrup is the goal of the maple tree tapping and the maple syrup boil down that takes place each year at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. To turn that sap into maple syrup, the sap is filtered, perhaps through cheesecloth, and then has to have a lot of excess water removed. The boil-down ratio to remove that excess water for sugar maples in northern states is 40-to-1. It will take 10 gallons of sap to make a quart of syrup – 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. Colvin Run Miller Mason Maddox, your guide at the boil down, says Colvin Run’s rate is 60-to-1 – 15 gallons of sap per quart of syrup.

By the way, if you make syrup at home, don’t boil the sap indoors. At a 60-to-1 ratio, that’s a lot of steam rolling into your house. If you boil outdoors – follow laws and make fire safety the first priority. The syrup can be filtered again with a food-grade filter before being bottled.

Each spring, Colvin Run Mill taps trees and hosts a trio of boil downs where you can enjoy a crisp day outdoors, watch the steaming cauldron of sap turning into syrup, enjoy some snacks, mix with neighbors, and even taste pure maple syrup over cornbread while supplies last. No reservations are needed. The cost is $5 per person. The boil-downs are 12 noon to 2 p.m. on three upcoming Sundays – February 7 and 21 and March 6.  

Colvin Run Mill Historic Site is located at 10017 Colvin Run Road in Great Falls, Va.


Where Will Animals Go During the Snow Storm?

DSC_3944_edited-1With a foot or two of snow hitting the Washington area this weekend, officials are telling folks to stay home, hunker down and sit it out.

But what about wildlife, the animals out there in the storm? Well, most of them will stay home, hunker down, and sit it out. Here’s what we learned from a little research conducted with Fairfax County Park Authority Naturalist Kristen Sinclair:

Deer: They’ll bed down for the storm and sit it out. When it’s time to feed again, they’ll browse on anything they can reach. Still, that can be a little problematic if the snow depth hits a couple feet or more. Does become dominant in winter and will sometimes drive other deer away in their search for food. When the weather clears out Sunday, they’ll start walking around.

DSC_3068Squirrels: A storm like this can be hard on squirrels, especially the young. A Chicago scientist says that 30% to 40% of the population can be lost in a major storm in that area. They’ll shelter in their tree nests, wrap their tails around their bodies, and wait for the next feeding opportunity.

Chipmunks: They’re underground, dormant and inactive. They don’t accumulate fat and hibernate, but rather they store food and rely on that. They’ll go underground in severe weather and plug the entry hole to their burrow.

Groundhogs: These guys are true hibernators. They’ll sleep it off and get ready for their big day on February 2.

DSC_3034_edited-2Birds: Birds can take a hit in a major winter storm. They’ll try to find shelter in the usual places they frequent, fluff and puff up their feathers, and try to get into a position to avoid getting dumped on. The birds in our area at this time of year are seed eaters. The insect feeders have gone south. A bird feeder in your yard can be very helpful at this time. Even throwing some seed out over the snow will help them – and, likely, squirrels. Birds, especially Carolina chickadees, may focus their feeding attention on a particular area in winter, and if that spot is emptied of food they may not have a backup plan and could be in trouble. If you start feeding birds in winter, stick with it or the birds that were coming to your feeder may not know where else to go. Don’t put out any other foods for other animals. That will just cause problems for you in the future.

Insects: They’re not moving around. They just wait it all out underground or in leaf piles, depending on the whims of their species. And no, a storm like this won’t have any long-term effect on the population of everybody’s favorite-to-gripe-about insects, ticks and mosquitoes.

Edit-Racoon 059-aRaccoons: These bandits will find a hollow log, a burrow (maybe one made by another animal), or a brush pile. Raccoons generally are inactive at this time, not because of the cold, but because of the snow cover.

Beavers: They’ll stay in their den. So will muskrats. They’ve stored shoots and twigs, and they’ll happily feed on those. They’re not like people having to feed every four hours or they get crabby. They can comfortably go long stretches without food.

Rabbits: They could be in a little trouble when they come out after the storm. They’ll want a little food, and so will everybody else.

DSC_3932_edited-1Foxes/Coyotes: They’ll bed down in their dens. And when the storm is over? See the section on rabbits.

Mice: They’re hiding underground. So are moles, in burrows.

Bats: Bats go into a torpor, somewhat like hibernation. Their breath, heart, and metabolism all slow down. They build body fat in the fall and may be out of action for several months in winter. They might not even know it snowed.

Fish: The water’s already cold. Fish are dormant in winter. Their metabolic rate decreases as temperatures go down in winter. As long as their lake doesn’t freeze solid, they’ll be fine, except for certain schools of shad that will see a die off from the cold.

This coming Sunday or Monday may be a good day to look for wildlife. There’s sun in the forecast, and the animals will start coming out of their shelters to seek food following the storm. There won’t be a lot of camouflage around, so spotting them may be easier than on a day without a snow cover. Look for tracks in the snow. In addition, nocturnal animals may come out in the daytime at this time of year to avoid the bitter cold of winter nights.

The Park Authority has other animal concerns in a storm like this. Some of the local nature centers have exhibit animals. Kiersten Conley, the Visitor Services and Operations Manager at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, says the key to caring for them is preparation. There are heat lamps for the snakes, a backup generator, and ECLP has moved any animals close to windows further into rooms. Staff also is assuring that all the animals are well fed. In addition, all the ECLP exhibit animals are native, so they are acclimated to these conditions.

Farm Manager Paul Nicholson at Frying Pan Farm Park says most of the farm animals have been spending time in a barn or a run-in shed.  Barns and sheds will keep the livestock sheltered from the wind and snow. The snow wouldn’t bother them as much the high winds.  Meanwhile, farm staff has been making extra stalls in the barn and machine shed to move animals around before the snows. They’ll be moved closer to the feed room, milking parlor and hay storage areas to make it easier for staff to care for them. “Everyone will be bedded down with extra hay and straw and plenty of water,” Nicholson said. “We do have some young goats that are drinking from a bottle and a few mothers that are due in early February, so we will keep a close eye on them as well.” Two staffers live within five miles of the park and will do what it takes to care for the animals during the storm, even stay in the farm office overnight if needed.

Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side of Winter

Deer leave hoof prints in the snow.

There’s snow in the forecast!

So go leave some footprints in a park. A lot is hidden under the green leaves of summer and only reveals itself when the weather turns cold. Make tracks along with the animals and bring someone special with you. You might even get to steal a kiss under the mistletoe.

The parks around you might look kind of dreary this time of year, but if you take a closer look, there’s actually a lot going on. Wildlife can be easier to see with the leaves gone, and some birds can only be seen in Fairfax County at this time of year.

To get the most out of your walk in any park, Tony Bulmer, a naturalist at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP), says “Focus on the evergreen trees, because everything’s hiding in those. The owl can’t hide in the oak tree, so if you can find a nice stand of cedar, it’s very productive in the winter.”

Hawk0313Resident owls start setting up their nests in winter, and this is when you might spot a Saw-whet owl, a migratory owl that only passes through the area in wintertime. This is also a great time to see hawks and other birds of prey.

Not only are birds easier to see because the leaves are down, they also tend to congregate in larger groups. Because they’re not busy defending breeding territory, they’re more likely to band together in their search for food and shelter.

Mammals are out and about, too, and it’s easier to see their tracks in the snow. Look for the prints of deer, fox, coyotes, rabbits and other woodland critters. Bulmer notes that it’s a great time to see where squirrels have been keeping house. The squirrel nests, or dreys, are much easier to spot in wintertime. It’s also a better time to see those elusive flying squirrels.

But don’t just look up. Bulmer says, “With all the leaves down now, the leaf litter is a great place to explore because everything’s in the leaves.” You might come across a butterfly chrysalis or the cocoons from moths, so please be careful. Insect eggs may also be tucked in the ground under those leaves. They’re going through a growth stage to be ready for spring. One thing you won’t be bothered with on your hike is those pesky ticks and mosquitoes. They wait for temperatures in the 40s and 50s to emerge.

Bulmer says a lot of people don’t realize that creeks, streams and other waterways are humming with activity in the winter. “Two-lined salamanders and northern duskies are active all year round because the water never really drops in temperature enough to freeze.” ECLP offers naturalist-led hikes to the streams so you can see for yourself what’s going on.

Wood Frogs in the PondIf you’re into winter botany, Fairfax County Park Authority Ecologist Kristen Sinclair says this is a good time to get a close look at bud scales and bark on deciduous trees. These leaf-droppers go into a dormant state above ground to survive the winter, but Sinclair says the roots are still growing in preparation for spring. Sinclair notes you might be surprised to learn you can actually see plants in bloom, too, during the winter. The cold season is when the flowers on witch hazels erupt. Green Spring Gardens specializes in these plants and has a nationally significant and wide variety for you to enjoy.

Most of us are familiar with evergreen trees, such as cedar and pines, that bring color to the woods in winter, but there are other plants greening the landscape. Sinclair points out that many of them are invasive species, such as English ivy, vinca, winter creeper, and Japanese holly. She notes, “If you see a lot of green, it could be invasives.” These invasive plants are often nice to look at, which is one of the reasons they were brought here, but they can be harmful to other plants and animals. Many have been transferred here from similar temperate climates and don’t mind our weather at all.

Now, about that mistletoe. It’s a parasitic plant that lives off others, and there’s more of it around than you might suspect. It does a good job of blending in with tree leaves during summer, but in winter you can spot the berry plant hanging in ball-like clumps from the top of oaks and other trees. What you do when you find it is up to you.

Author Carol Ochs works in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Public Information Office.

Historic Tree Removed at Frying Pan

This was the issue:

1A closer look at it:

See that tombstone on the left?  Rotting oak tree, leaning toward the cemetery. That’s the issue. Trees in a graveyard cause problems. They drop seeds. Other trees grow. The roots can disturb the soil, topple gravestones. Or if the tree falls, the roots can disturb gravesites, and that brings on a plethora of legal issues.


The tree also was pretty close to a historic building. That’s the Meetinghouse at Frying Pan Farm Park, and the location tied in to another problem: It was a historic tree that was alive during the Civil War. Why is that a big deal? Because most trees in areas where troops camped were cut down to provide firewood, fence lines, roads, coffins, etc. Frying Pan Farm Park Manager and Historian Yvonne Johnson said J.E.B. Stuart’s 1,600 troops camped at the Frying Pan Meeting House for several days after Second Manassas, and “if there was a tree big enough to provide decent shade for the soldiers, it tended to be saved.” But most trees near a camp were felled.

Step by step:


Limb by Limb:


Piece by piece:


Chunk by chunk:


The reason for this: the tree was rotting. Johnson said the base of the tree was so hollow that the age of the tree could not be determined. There weren’t enough rings to count.


The result: Reusable wood.


Nearing the end:


Done carefully, the tombstone is undisturbed:


“In the old days, the first parks were cemeteries,” Johnson said. “That’s where you went on Sunday afternoon. You went to visit Uncle Joe at the cemetery because it was a parklike setting and you’d have a picnic. It was a very positive family activity to go visit the ancestors.” Johnson says she’s even seen raised gravestones that served as picnic tables.

When all is done:


The tree was gone. The Meeting House was safe. The cemetery’s stones were undisturbed. It took two and a-half days of careful work by Park Authority maintenance crews to remove the tree and protect the site.

The crew:



Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.  Photos courtesy of Yvonne Johnson and Martin Graves.


Frogsicles and Snow-Melting Plants: Nature Faces Down Winter

winterwalk-ECLYou might think you’re pretty clever with those chemical hand warmers and polyester layers to keep you warm and toasty, but the plants and animals around you have developed some pretty cool tricks of their own to cope with blustery winter weather.

Consider the wood frog. This critter can freeze solid in the winter. It has no heartbeat and doesn’t breathe, but when the weather warms up, it thaws out good as new. Most frogs don’t take things that far, but Ellanor C. Lawrence Park naturalist John Shafer says a lot of amphibians go through chemical and physiological changes to protect their cells during winter’s cold. Because there is moisture in cells, if that moisture freezes and expands in the winter, cell walls could pop. Certain amphibians have developed something that amounts to cellular antifreeze to keep that from happening.

It’s well-known that bears just don’t bother with winter at all and go into a period of hibernation. Of course, we don’t see many bears here in Fairfax County, but we do have one local hibernator — woodchucks. Don’t bother looking for them again until spring.

Some animals enter into a hibernation-like state known as brumation. They don’t really sleep like a hibernating bear, but their metabolisms slow way down. When the weather warms, you may see them up and around again, until the next cold front passes through. Chickadees can go through a brumation cycle every night, dropping their body temperatures way down after dark and warming them back up again so they can fly in the morning.

Shafer says gray squirrels are a prime example of animals that go into a state of torpor to shrug off the weather. He explains that in brumation, animals shut down some of their body systems. “Torpor is more like you have the flu and you stay in bed and sleep for three days,” says Shafer. “If you get a snowstorm, you don’t see the squirrels because they’re just like, eh, forget it. When it warms back up, they’ll come out and mess around.”


Some animals are just naturally good planners and never have to leave their homes to get a winter snack. Tony Bulmer, another of the Park Authority naturalists at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, says that when chipmunks get hungry during the winter, they just eat from their pile of stored food. They can sleep on top of the stockpile and work their way down. “When it’s about done, it’s time to come out,” adds Bulmer.

Beavers like to plan ahead, too. Shafer says, “They store food, usually branches that they shove into the mud under the surface of the water. So, even if the whole pond freezes, they can come out of the lodge in their under-surface entrance, grab the food they’ve cached, just like our chipmunk, and then bring it back into the lodge to eat.”

HM Burke_0173

You’re also less likely to see turtles popping up for air during the winter. Turtles can go down to the bottom of a pond and dissolve oxygen out of various parts of their skin during the whole winter. Bulmer says they can absorb or exchange just enough oxygen through the water to survive.

Water fowl have yet another coping mechanism. Some ducks and geese can shut certain veins off in their feet to prevent freezing. Bulmer says you might see them standing with one foot out on the ice.

When it comes to insects, you may not see adults flying around, but whatever eggs were laid in the fall are slowly developing into another stage. Those insect eggs can be just about anywhere, in the ground or in the trees.

Many people hope a cold winter will mean fewer of those annoying insects come spring, such as mosquitoes and ticks, but that’s not likely to happen around here. FCPA Ecologist Kristen Sinclair notes, “Everything has a point where it’s going to die, but it has to be really cold for a long time.” And when it comes to ticks, Sinclair says they’re “pretty darn active year round.”

In general, plants are more likely to react badly to temperature changes than animals. For instance, Bulmer says that with trees, “If we get five or six days that are 55 or warmer, it takes them out of the state of rest and they start producing buds. Then, if it freezes again, that can hurt the tree by injuring new buds.” Plants can’t put a bud under a bud, so those early buds can become a sort of dead spot on the plant.

One of the area’s earliest blooming plants is a native that uses chemistry to simply outsmart the weather. Shafer explains, “Skunk cabbage will actually heat up and melt itself a hole in the snow cover early in the spring so it can bloom and come up and get started.” Feel free to marvel at its cleverness, but you probably don’t want to take too big a sniff of this aptly-named plant.

More about winter wildlife

Author Carol Ochs works in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Public Information Office.

Donor of Popular Garden Site Passes

image001 Dr. Belinda Crompton Straight died peacefully on December 5, 2015, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Dr. Straight was a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. for 55 years until 2007. In 1970, she and her former husband, Michael Straight, donated their house and property to the Fairfax County Park Authority. That land is now Green Spring Gardens.

“We’re saddened that she has passed, but very grateful for her enduring legacy to the residents of the County of Fairfax and beyond,” said Debbie Waugh, Green Spring’s Historic House Coordinator. Waugh said the Straight’s donation put Green Spring on the map historically because of the architect and designer they used at their home, because “it means the site is able to interpret the historical significance of the house and the landscape.”

The Historic House was the Straight’s family home. They raised five children there.  The following comments by Debbie Waugh were delivered at a memorial service for Dr. Straight.

Dr. Belinda Straight created an enduring legacy for the residents of Fairfax County and beyond. In 1970, she and her husband, Michael, jointly gifted their family home, Green Spring Farm in Alexandria, to the Fairfax County Park Authority. Their donation of 16 acres of land and the 1784 historic home was made on condition that the property be preserved for the benefit of the community. And so, Belinda’s Green Spring Farm became today’s Green Spring Gardens, a beautiful public garden, horticulture center and historic site enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.

When Belinda and Michael came to Green Spring Farm in 1942, the house had been standing for 158 years and already had an interesting history. But Michael and Belinda proceeded to write a whole new chapter that was to be pivotal. As soon as they arrived, they brought in two American masters of design – Colonial Revival architect Walter Macomber and famed landscape designer Beatrix Farrand – to redesign their house and gardens. As a result, Historic Green Spring is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. A pivotal chapter indeed.

To commemorate this unique claim to historical significance, a Historical Highway Marker was dedicated at Green Spring on June 12, 2010. That day we were honored to have Belinda in attendance and delighted when she chose to speak to the audience about her former home.

At marker dedication on June 12, 2010: Green Spring Gardens Site Manager Mary Olien, Dr. Belinda Straight, her son Michael Straight, Jr., and his wife, Audrey

At marker dedication on June 12, 2010: Green Spring Gardens Site Manager Mary Olien, Dr. Belinda Straight, her son Michael Straight, Jr., and his wife, Audrey

We know that Belinda was a generous and gracious hostess when she lived at Green Spring, opening her home to many distinguished guests as well as friends and neighbors in the community. Today, we uphold her tradition of hospitality by welcoming visitors to Green Spring Gardens and the Historic House year-round.

Her generous gift is now considered a treasure in our community that finds its way into the hearts of everyone who visits; it’s a sanctuary for quiet contemplation and enjoyment, it’s a resource for adults and children to discover nature and gardening, and it’s a historic home of grace and beauty where guests learn about local history and hear stories of the lives of its many former residents. Belinda was a woman ahead of her time, and she led a remarkable life of personal and professional achievement. At Green Spring, we will continue to enjoy sharing her story with our guests.

The staff and volunteers at Green Spring Gardens and all of our visitors are deeply grateful to Belinda for providing that all-important chapter in our story and a legacy that continues to enrich our lives.


Debbie Waugh is the Historic House Coordinator at Green Spring Gardens.

Winter is the New Spring in Fairfax County Parks

Sul W burn_0077Winter is the new spring – at least at the Park Authority. While you might set your sights on a big spring cleaning project, park staff are already hard at work on annual maintenance projects.

Jon Shafer, a naturalist at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, says winter is the perfect time for a number of resource management actions. “For instance, if we’re doing manual mowing or bush hogging (a type of rotary mowing), we wait until the winter because the plants have already dropped their seed and there are no animals doing much with those.” Shafer explains, “It’s the one time of year we can come in and do mowing and burns that prepare for the next growing season without negatively impacting the animals that are using it. Animals that would be active in the meadows and still there, like meadow voles, are underground. They’re not out and active. It’s a safer time to do those kinds of actions.”

One of those controlled burns took place at ECLP earlier this month in an effort to help manage the park’s meadows. These grass-dominant systems flourish if burned on a regular basis, such as every one to three years. The fire removes accumulated plant debris, heats the seed-bank in the soil, and exposes soil to sunlight. All of this allows native plant seeds to make contact with the soil, makes nutrients available to the plants, removes old material that inhibits new growth, and allows new plants to sprout. You’ll be able to see for yourself next spring and summer.

Winter is also a time for staff to get the park ready for the animals you’ll see in the spring. For example, fellow ECLP naturalist Tony Bulmer says, “We repair bluebird boxes and empty out our tree swallow boxes.” He adds that they also prepare the managed vernal pools for spring. “We put new sticks in them because sticks wash out. The sticks give salamanders a place to attach their egg masses.”

The drop in temperatures and the dropped leaves of wintertime also make it a great time to conduct animal surveys to aid in programs such deer management.

Some surveys are done from above. Shafer says airplanes can be used to overfly an area looking for the heat signature of deer during the winter’s cold.


Winter conditions improve the staff’s ability to conduct surveys using wildlife cameras, too. Schafer explains, “It’s easier to draw animals to food when they’re not on territory and they would like extra, free calories. So, it’s a good time to do surveys using baiting as a tool.” Survey feeding stations are set up for only short periods of time so animals don’t become dependent on this easy source of food.

Another survey technique that can be more easily used in winter is spotlight surveys. Schafer says this method uses lights to detect eye shine for animals who are active. “Because there are no leaves on the trees, you can see farther.”

So, think about getting an early start on your spring cleaning, because Fairfax County parks will be spiffed up and ready for you as winter draws to a close.

Author Carol Ochs works in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Public Information Office.