One Thousand Tires Removed From Elklick Preserve

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Anyone who has ever taken a walk in the woods has seen them. Tires. They appear as circular black islands in shallow creeks and lurk beneath thorny undergrowth. Pyramids of vulcanized rubber can be found at trailheads like perverse monuments to illegal dumping. They’re everywhere. Not only are discarded tires unsightly, but they’re also a nuisance to public health. When water pools inside a tire’s hollow interior, it becomes the perfect breeding ground for pesky mosquitoes. Tires also don’t break down naturally. So unless someone hauls a tire away, it will become a permanent fixture in the forest.

Natural Resource Specialist Justin Roberson of the Park Authority’s Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch explains, “Tires are not consumable by biological organisms and don’t decompose through biological processes, only through physical process (heat, freezing, thawing, etc.). These processes will take a very long time, especially if buried. This timeframe could be on the order of hundreds to thousands of years.”

One place where tires can be found in abundance is at Elklick Woodlands Natural Area and Preserve, a 226-acre tract of land located in the heart of Sully Woodlands in western Fairfax County that is home to a globally rare oak-hickory forest. Tires are counted in the thousands there, but that’s changing thanks to an Eagle Scout’s project and the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Area 5 Management crew.

During the past five months over 1,500 tires have been removed from the preserve as part of Bridgestone’s One Team, One Planet spent tire recycling program, a partnership with River Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring rivers and wetlands in the U.S. The program seeks to meet Bridgestone’s goal to reclaim one spent tire for every new tire the company sells in the U.S. each year. Since the partnership was forged in 2012, over 70,000 tires have been removed from public land and waterways (for free!) and sent away to be recycled into asphalt, mulch, playground surfaces, and other uses.

Michael Torruella, a student at the New School of Northern Virginia, needed to complete a service project to earn his Eagle Scout award. After learning of the tire recycling program from his Boy Scout troop leader, Torruella contacted Kevin Williams, the Park Authority area manager in charge of maintenance at Elklick. Williams was more than happy for any help in getting the tires out of the park because state funds for refuse disposal had dried up in recent years. “We knew the tires were there but just never had a viable option to get rid of them without incurring substantial fees,” said Williams. He told Torruella where to find four large tire deposits on the property and provided guidance on how to access the undeveloped property.

Torruella and 20 friends he recruited from his school, troop, and church spent seven hours gathering 500 tires at the preserve last fall, moving him within “one meeting and a letter away” from his Eagle Scout award. “I was able to pull off the whole project on donations of vehicles, a trailer, food, tools and labor. The only money I spent was five dollars on a roll of marking tape,” Torruella said.

After seeing how many tires the group was able to remove, Area 5 Manager Williams decided to piggyback on the scout’s success. He knew his guys could get a lot more tires out of the preserve, but would Bridgestone pick them up? The recycling program had been created to help community groups remove tires from waterways, not for a county agency trying to clean up an inherited mess on the cheap. Bridgestone was sympathetic to the cause and made a one-time exception, arranging for Baltimore, Md.-based Emanuel Tire Company to haul away up to 1,000 tires.

Williams placed Dolen Crawford in charge of retrieving the tires. Crawford, Ryan Herbert, Garry Murray, Sean Saunders, Rich Howes, Armando Crespin, and David Adams navigated a narrow dirt road through the park to one of the dump sites. The conditions were tight and the tires were knotted up in vegetation, but the hearty crew successfully extracted tire after tire and transported them back to the shop. “There are plenty more to remove. Hopefully, we can get a community group to join in on the next round,” said Williams.

If you’ve seen tires in your local park or along trails, visit the One Team, One Planet website to organize a community cleanup.

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer, Fairfax County Park Authority

Doing Something About Invasive Plants

Tired of looking at ugly, amorphous greenery masquerading as a park near my home, I decided that something had to be done about it. Years ago children used to play in Vienna’s Borge Street Park, but now the only people willing to fight their way through the jungle of brambles were hooligans – some of them potentially inebriated, judging by the caches of empty beer bottles there.

I contacted the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive Management Area (IMA) Program and asked if I could volunteer to clean up the park. I had some credentials, as I had majored in environmental conservation and management, and had recently completed Fairfax Master Naturalist training. But the reality was, aside from occasionally volunteering at Meadowlark Gardens, I knew little about native plants or gardening. And, although I didn’t admit this to anyone at the time, no one had ever trusted me with a sharp pair of clippers before. My boyfriend says he’s too fond of my fingers to let me anywhere near them.

Luckily, you don’t need an impressive resume to be a site leader. Erin Stockschlaeder, the volunteer coordinator for the IMA program, gives you a short training session, comes out to the site, identifies the invasive plants, lends you some tools, and finds volunteers to help you. All you need is the willingness to work, the time to lead four workdays during the course of a year, and – if your area has thorns – a slightly masochistic temperament.

The brambles at Borge Street Park – a mix of Himalayan blackberry, Japanese honeysuckle vines, oriental bittersweet and binding weed – were reminiscent of the thicket protecting Sleeping Beauty’s castle. After several weeks of chopping and clipping, I looked like I had been wrestling with a barbed-wire fence – and this despite wearing long pants, sleeves and leather gloves. The reward, though, was undeniable. Underneath that mass of invasive plants I discovered trees – Black walnut, sassafras, redbud – all a bit straggly and limp, but still very much alive. Even better, I unearthed a field of milkweed. I had never seen so many milkweed in one place. And what an aroma! I never knew milkweed flowers could be so fragrant.

The butterflies thought the same. For me, nothing could be more satisfying than to see a mother and her young daughter chasing swallowtails through the newly opened field, knowing that a few months ago the park had been filled with only the more adaptable denizens – the ubiquitous deer, squirrels, mice, sparrows, and blue jays. Other flowers, long held captive by the invasive plants, began to free themselves from the undergrowth. I stared down a deer eating the yellow flower of the evening primrose, and the Velcro-like seeds of the tick-trefoil glued themselves to my clothes.

Of course, I didn’t do this on my own. An unexpected benefit of this endeavor, other than the increased muscle tone in my arms, is that I met so many interesting people and made so many new friends.  First came students seeking service hours or experience to add to their resumes. Some showed up once or twice; others came long after they no longer needed the hours. James, a good-looking, affable young man, came equipped with a machete. He told me he lived on raw meat, raw eggs, and unpasteurized milk. Bianca was the daughter of diplomats, and she told me of her life in Honduras and of the trees that grew there.

Other volunteers included a gay-rights activist, theatre kids, and occasionally a youngster who was actually interested in the environmental field. I reconnected with an acquaintance from my son’s elementary school days.  She’s a Cornell graduate who wrote a book on learning how to use tarot cards. And then there’s Al, an elderly gent, long retired, who used to work as a nuclear physicist. He’s become an avid supporter, helper, and cheerleader of my efforts. We’ve bonded, and I have spent several pleasant afternoons at his house, sipping tea and doing jigsaw puzzles.

The park has become my passion. When people ask me what I do for a living, I say, “Which one? The one I get paid for? Or the one I prefer?” I’m at the park every week, even in the snow.  A neighbor says that whenever he strolls past the park on the way to the playground and I’m not there, his toddler demands to know where I am. My park project gives me the chance to be outside and teach about the environment, another of my passions. I explain to the students, volunteers, and curious passersby about the dangers of invasive plants and the need for biodiversity. I suggest that they read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home that explains the correlation between native plants, native insects and other wildlife.  I also mention The Ecology of Lyme by Richard Ostfeld, in which he relates his findings on biodiversity and Lyme disease.  His work suggests that the more biodiversity an area has, the fewer cases of Lyme disease will occur. But mostly I hope that the park will look so pretty and so full of wildlife that other people will be inspired to adopt their own local park.  Our parks need lots of help. Everybody’s help.

Learn more about invasive plants and the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive Management Area program here. Receive a free t-shirt by volunteering to help IMA Take Back the Forest during April and May, 2014.

Author Jennifer Pradas is the Invasive Management Area Site Leader at Borge Street Park in Vienna, Va.

Wow Your Toddler With A Trip To The Farm

If you are looking for something to do with your toddler that doesn’t involve a long drive, is free (or inexpensive—ok cheap!) and big on a wow factor for the little ones, Frying Pan Farm Park is a winner for families.

As a working parent and a member of the Park Authority Board I know that free time with your little ones is precious.  Like most families, my husband and I try to make the most of our weekends with our two-year-old son.  We have made Frying Pan a once a month “go-to” destination for our family since our little guy was just a few months old.

While the Park Authority has many outstanding facilities throughout Fairfax County, I think Frying Pan is one of the top destinations for families with young children.  In my opinion, a visit to Frying Pan is perfect for a toddler’s schedule (as a new mom I quickly learned that the daytime window to get out is limited to the time they wake up in the morning until lunchtime which is generally followed by a nap).  As such, the morning hours are perfect for a visit to the farm because the animals are very active.  You on the other hand may need your cup of coffee to stay awake!

I’ve found that springtime at Frying Pan is very special and the farm is full of surprises to delight little ones.  New baby animals are born nearly every month with February through May having the most deliveries.  On a recent visit we were able to see and photograph lambs, piglets and a calf.  Seeing these animals up close never fails to delight and interest our little boy.  Not only does he get to see these very social animals up close, but he hears the sounds they make.  Children learn more about the sights and (yes, smells) of the farm each time they visit.  Since the animals are cared for and handled by our amazing staff and dedicated “Friends of Frying Pan Farm Park” volunteers regularly, the animals are gentle and friendly to all.  Simply put, getting close to the animals brings the farm to life for the youngsters who visit.

This working farm is home to cows, sheep, pigs, rabbits, goats, a horse, ducks, turkeys and even peacocks!  Your little farmer-in-training can even test out the miniature stationary tractors.  The park is a year-round destination.  During warmer months you can enjoy wagon rides and an old-fashioned carousel.  When it’s really cold outside you can drop-in at the visitor center to learn about the history of the farm.  You even have the chance for a lesson in milking a cow at 4 p.m.  When it’s warm, little ones can watch the farmer milk a real cow in the barn.

If your little farmer is especially energetic after viewing the animals, take him or her to the playground down by the Country Store and carousel.  There are two spaces for play, one for toddlers and another for older children.  There are also benches for grownups to sit back and relax.

We enjoy our frequent visits to Frying Pan.  It has become a special part of our lives and in the life of our son.  I hope that you will make it a special part of your life as well!

Here are some of my Mommy DO’s and DON’Ts for visiting Frying Pan with your toddler or little one:

  • DON’T stress about parking.  There’s plenty of parking that’s close to the action (unless there’s a big special event).  No need to stress about long walks and you don’t have to haul a diaper bag along because the car is never far away.
  • DO bring rain boots for lots of puddle splashing (especially after rain or snow).  Puddles are half the fun!
  • DO bring an extra jacket (sometimes it gets windy on the farm and the temperatures can feel cooler).
  • DO bring a change of clothes.  There are lots of opportunities for kids to get dirty!
  • DO take a picture of your little one on the mini tractors!
  • DO take photos of the animals.  These are a great teaching tool for your kids when you get home.
  • DO bring a snack (there are lots of picnic tables and places to sit, have a snack, and talk about the animals with your children).
  • DO bring hand-sanitizer (as if you don’t have 12 bottles stashed in your bag already!)  It’s always good for cleaning up afterward.  If you forget, there are hand-washing stations throughout the park.
  • DO try the carousel or the wagon rides when they are operating.  They are LOADS of fun!
  • DO visit the country store.  After seeing the chickens you can swing by and pick up some farm fresh eggs and make a tasty omelet for dinner or breakfast the next day!

For more information about Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, visit their website.

By: Kala Quintana, Fairfax County Park Authority Board Member, At-large

Staff Manages Snakehead Threat At Huntley Meadows Park

Thirty-three Northern snakeheads were removed from the central wetland last fall.

Fifty Northern snakeheads were removed from the central wetland last summer.

One of the wildlife critters we’ll be keeping an eye on following the wetlands reconstruction at Huntley Meadows Park is the Northern snakehead. The exotic, predatory fish has been in the Dogue Creek portion of the Potomac River since at least 2004. They are well established in the Potomac River and have spread to other Chesapeake Bay tributaries. They were first seen in the Huntley Meadows central wetland in 2009.

Now, five years after the first sighting in the park and following the reconstruction that adds water depth to the central wetlands, there are new questions about the impact the snakehead will have at Huntley Meadows.

We sat down with the experts to get a better feel for the issue. Here are some questions and answers about snakeheads from that conversation with Huntley Meadows Park Manager Kevin Munroe, Huntley Meadows Resource Manager Dave Lawlor, and former Park Authority Resource Management and Protection Branch Manager Charles Smith:

Which species are most at risk from the introduction of snakeheads to the central wetland?

Smith: From our discussions about wetland management, the biggest concerns are the amphibians, particularly the frogs. Huntley Meadows has one of the only, and certainly the largest, breeding populations of southern leopard frogs in the region. There is concern that snakeheads could greatly reduce this population.

Lawlor: The native fish species will likely see the biggest impact from snakeheads.  However, after an electroshocking project last summer, the fish biomass and species abundance was very high and impressed everyone present, including the experts.  We do not know what kind of impact they are having on our amphibian populations.  The most significant impact would be the southern leopard frogs.  However, given the wetland project’s deep pool habitat created for fish and their predators (kingfishers, otters, bald eagle, grebes, etc.), all fish, including snakeheads, will probably experience more predation. This is a good thing, as it creates a more complete food web, and it may mean snakeheads experience more control from otters and eagles.

Staff use electro-fishing equipment to shock and count fish. Snakeheads are removed.

Staff use electro-fishing equipment to shock and count fish. Snakeheads are removed.

Is there any evidence that snakeheads are negatively impacting any species in the park?

Smith: There is no evidence yet.

At what age do snakeheads start having babies?

Lawlor: I believe they are sexually mature when they reach about 12 to 16 inches long.  We caught two here a couple of years ago, both around two to three pounds (17 to 20 inches), and they were both full of eggs.

Small schools of snakehead fry have been seen near the park.  Where would the adult female live?

Smith: In the same general environment – shallow water, often in vegetated areas.

Lawlor:  Females snakeheads of breeding age are living in the wetland complexes and likely in the central wetland along with many siblings and offspring.  Staff conducted an electroshock cull last summer while the wetland was drawn down for construction. Fifty snakeheads were removed from the wetland, including some large three to five-pound specimens.  Unfortunately, it appears snakeheads are here permanently, and we will have to continue to manage their populations.

Which animals eat snakeheads? Is it enough to control the snakehead population?

Smith: Wading birds, osprey, eagles, otter, snakes, and snapping turtles can all eat snakeheads depending on their size. It apparently is not enough to prevent snakeheads from breeding, but no one knows if there are enough predators to keep the snakeheads in check.

Lawlor: I would just add other fish, assuming other fish are able to survive in the wetland with them.  With the deeper pool habitat being created with the wetland project, other fish (crappie, perch, sunfish etc.) should have a chance to flourish in the wetland, too, and all of these fish eat other fish.

What should a person do if they spot a snakehead in Huntley Meadows? Is it ok to net and kill snakeheads on the boardwalk?

Lawlor: We ask people to notify us if they see a snakehead in the park.  We would prefer not to have the public randomly killing fish.  Not everyone knows how to ID a snakehead.

Is there a program in place to monitor snakeheads in the central wetland? 

Lawlor: I wouldn’t say we have a plan to monitor them, but they will be managed by removal whenever possible.  We are considering doing some removal this summer.

Are there any regularly scheduled culling dates?

Smith: Part of the design of the wetland restoration is to create deeper pools that can provide habitat for fish and other species during drought periods. During extremely low water, snakeheads should be confined to these pools. Park and county staff could then enter the pools with electrofishing equipment and remove all of the snakeheads in the pools while leaving the native species. This should provide the opportunity to greatly reduce the snakehead population every several years if not control them outright.

Lawlor:  We don’t have regularly scheduled culls, but we did a cull last summer and will continue to conduct culling operations when low water levels make it possible.

Is there a point at which we say, well, snakeheads are here, they may be non-native but they’re now a part of our local ecosystem?

Munroe:  We don’t know enough yet about the impact snakeheads have on our native ecosystems. They may turn out to be less of an issue than we originally thought, or they may be much worse. As we learn more, we can get a better handle on what our long-term approach and attitude should be.

Lawlor: I think that it is safe to say they are here to stay, after seeing the numbers of fish we removed from the wetland this past summer.  We have to accept that they are here, but we will do our best to manage the populations and keep their influence on our delicate ecosystem as small as possible.

What will deeper water in the wetland, one result of the reconstruction project, mean for the proliferation of snakeheads?

Smith: They can go where the water is, so snakeheads would follow the expanding pool during deeper water periods.

Lawlor: Also they would be able to survive the most severe droughts that would normally kill off their population. So the deeper water will ultimately benefit their populations in the wetland. But as Charles mentioned, this will be an opportunity for staff to manage their number by catching or shocking them in the deep water pools as we did in summer of 2013.

How big can a snakehead grow in the central wetland?

Lawlor: This is still unknown in the wetland system.  A record snakehead was caught in the Potomac River in 2013, around 17 to 18 pounds.  I am not sure they will be able to get that big in the wetlands because they will not have nearly as much forage – if they stick to fish.  So far the biggest snakehead caught in the central wetland was about five pounds.

Bowfin, lamprey and American eel look a little like snakeheads. Are those fish seen in Huntley Meadows?

Munroe: American eels yes, but not the other two species. However, eel have uniformly brown backs and sides, while snakeheads are patterned with black blotches on a pale background, much like a python, hence the name.

Former Huntley Meadows Park staff member Danielle McCallum holds a 17” Northern snakehead caught while electro-fishing Dogue Creek in 2008.  This was the first snakehead caught in the park.

Former Huntley Meadows Park staff member Danielle McCallum holds a 17” Northern snakehead caught while electro-fishing Dogue Creek in 2008. This was the first snakehead caught in the park.

Lawlor:  American eels are common in the Dogue Creek and Barnyard Run watersheds.  The least brook lamprey is also found in the Dogue Creek Watershed, although none have been found in the wetland yet.  Least brook lampreys are typically less than six inches in length.  As Kevin mentioned, eels and lampreys are generally a solid brown or tan and do not have any patterns on their flanks making them easily distinguishable from snakehead fish.  I am not aware of any positive ID of a bowfin in Fairfax County, but they are found in some Virginia rivers.

Can people fish for snakeheads in Huntley Meadows?

Munroe: No. Fishing is not allowed at Huntley Meadows Park.

Is it safe to say that snakeheads are breeding in the central wetland?

Lawlor: Yes!  We will continue to manage their populations the best we can to reduce their influence on the wetlands ecosystem.

Prepared by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer; and Dave Ochs, stewardship communications manager.

Riverbend’s Bluebell Watch Has Begun

FINAL UPDATE: April 9, 2014

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Our phone has been ringing constantly this week and the main question is “How far along are the bluebells?” One caller said that she has a friend who visits every year around this time and that her two favorite things to do are see the cherry blossoms and come to Riverbend to experience the bluebells. Some of the flowers are blooming now, and for the next two weeks the bluebells will put on a spectacular show.

As I walked the river trail this morning I saw all the tightly packed pink blossoms that look like they are about to burst. Insects were flying around and crawling on the leaves. For me, I like to take in the whole forest floor covered with wildflowers and then kneel down for a close inspection of all the life on and near each plant.

“What could be better than sitting near a patch of Bluebells on sunny afternoon, watching a bumblebee foraging for nectar among the flowers.” Marijke Gate, naturalist, Riverbend Park

Don’t forget to join us this Saturday (April 12) at Riverbend Park from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. as we celebrate the bluebells at our second annual Bluebells at the Bend Festival. The event costs just  $5 person and features live music, wildflower walks, live animals, face painting, wagon rides, and other family fun activities. For more information, call Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018.

Written by John Callow, assistant manager, Riverbend Park

UPDATE: April 2, 2014

Bumblebees are big fans of bluebells, too.

Bumblebees are big fans of bluebells, too.


UPDATE: March 28, 2014

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Snow earlier this week and frigid nights can’t stop the progressing bluebells. Their leaves continue to push through snow, ice and whatever else the weather brings. These hardy plants are starting to take over the forest floor. The dark leaves have now taken on their familiar succulent green color and the deep purple flower buds are clustering.

Riverbend Park visitors Mona Enquist-Johnston and Gary Johnston describe the annual explosion of color this way: “Carpets of purple and blue ring in the spring.”

The coming weeks will offer visitors one of nature’s finest floral displays. Spring beauties, cut-leaved toothworts, trout lilies, and a host of other beautiful wildflowers will mix in and add texture to the bluebell palette. One of the earliest wildflowers, harbinger of spring, is already in bloom. This small member of the parsley family stands only two to three inches tall.

When the flowers are in bloom, take time to thank a pollinator. Pollination of spring wildflowers is completed by a host of insects. Bees and butterflies visit the colorful blooms spreading pollen. Some wild flowers like the sessile trillium do not rely on brightly colored blooms that attract visual pollinators. Their flowers produce a rotting smell which attracts beetles and flies to spread pollen. Stop at a cluster of wildflowers for five minutes and observe the wide variety of bees, butterflies, flies, and beetles hard at work.

Julie Gurnee, senior interpreter at Riverbend Park, said, “When the bluebells blanket the woods of Riverbend, it reminds me to take a closer look, for this is the time of year there are many more elusive treasures to be found.  This is the time to stop, look, and discover other spring ephemerals that may be tucked away in the woods.”

Don’t forget to join us at Riverbend Park on April 12 from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. as we celebrate the bluebells at our second annual Bluebells at the Bend Festival. The event costs just $5 per person and features live music, wildflower walks, live animals, face painting, wagon rides, and other family-fun activities. For more information, call Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018.

Written by John Callow, assistant manager, Riverbend Park

UPDATE: March 14, 2014

Virginia bluebells push through the floodplain at Riverbend Park.

Virginia bluebells push through the floodplain at Riverbend Park.

March has arrived with snow, sun, and temperatures that are bouncing around like a rubber ball.  Despite the dramatic weather, Virginia bluebells continue to push through the fallen leaves and soil as they progress toward their breathtaking explosion of color in April. Leaves are just starting to transition from deep purple to hints of delicate green.

The cherry blossoms are predicted to peak April 8 through12. At Riverbend Park, we expect the bluebells to peak between April 8 and April 15, just in time for the Bluebells at the Bend Festival slated for April 12, 2014. Unlike the cherry blossoms, which were a gift from Japan, the bluebells are a native gift to river floodplains and Riverbend Park provides the perfect garden.

Bluebells, along with many other spring wildflowers including spring beauties and cut-leaved toothwort, are called spring ephemerals. They bloom early and then by May all that is left are withering leaves and seeds. Come mid-May, bluebells pull a vanishing act, leaving no visible trace of their existence. All of these hardy wildflowers take advantage of the sunlight reaching the forest floor before the towering trees re-grow their leaves and close the forest canopy. In March more than 50 percent of the available sunlight reaches the forest floor. By mid-April this drops to 30 percent and then to 10 percent come May.

The bluebells and other spring wildflowers produce a different experience for everyone. The experience is personal and cannot be duplicated by pictures or stories. I enjoy talking to visitors and staff about the bluebells and hearing their stories. Each experience is unique and private, but I am glad they decide to share it with me.

“When you’re standing at a certain point on the trail and you can see just a covering of this cheery blue color all over, it gives you this sense of peace and tranquility that couldn’t possibly be found in any other setting,” said Michelle Brannon, an interpretive naturalist at Riverbend Park. “My favorite part about walking through the bluebells is finding the odd ones; the random little bursts of pink or the rarer blooms of white are like the flowers are sending you on their own little scavenger hunt.”

February 24, 2014

Virginia bluebells resemble dark purple spinach leaves.

Virginia bluebells resemble dark purple spinach leaves.

Winter’s grip gradually relaxes with each passing day. Patches of snow cling to every bit of shade as the late winter sun shines through the leafless trees. Something stirs just under the surface that reminds us of nature’s yearly cycle and the interaction between ecosystems.

Spring wildflowers are taking in nutrients and available water and pressuring the soil as they prepare to erupt with an array of blooms that magnificently display the season. One wildflower in particular shows its colors like no other, the Virginia bluebell (Mertensia Virginica).

“The most important part of bluebell season is when the purplish green leaves start breaking the soil in late winter early spring. It gives one hope that spring is riding the longer days to arrive,” Fairfax County Park Authority Naturalist Jim Dewing said.

The scientific name honors the German botanist Franz Karl Mertens, a German botanist (1764-1831.) The species name refers to Virginia, where the plant was first identified. Thomas Jefferson grew Virginia bluebells at Monticello. The bluebells at Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Va., were not planted by anyone; the river, wildlife, and climate have all pitched in to create this native garden.

Bluebells thrive in rich floodplain soils that are replenished each year by floods. This time of year they superficially resemble dark purple spinach leaves slicing through the sand and silt. By mid-April their purplish blue blooms will adorn acres and acres of forest floor at Riverbend Park.

Bluebells spread like a carpet of blue at Riverbend Park.

Bluebells spread like a carpet of blue at Riverbend Park.

I invite you to come to Riverbend Park on Saturday, April 12, 2014 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as we celebrate spring at our Second Annual Bluebells at the Bend Festival with live music, wildflower walks, live animals, face painting, wagon rides, and other family fun activities. Admission to the event is $5 per person. For more information, call Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018.

This page will be updated weekly with photos of the blooming bluebells, so check back often.

Author John Callow is the assistant manager at Riverbend Park.

What’s Going On At The Mill?

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When the Colvin Run Mill Historic Site first opened to the public in 1972, it was the culmination of over four years of exhausting preservation, restoration and recreation efforts.  Thanks to the hard work and craftsmanship of many individuals, the mill proudly featured an operational pair of millstones capable of grinding grains. Now, some 42 years after that date, the rest of the mill is being restored.

Based on the designs of the mechanical genius Oliver Evans, the Colvin Run Mill Restoration Project will complete the work started during the Nixon administration. With functioning grain elevators, wooden line shafts, grain cleaners and product sifters, the fully restored mill will stand as living testament to America’s industrial infancy, all the while producing wheat flour and cornmeal as it did over 200 years ago. The massive oak timbers and hand-crafted gears of the mill will once again provide a working link between the past, present and future of Fairfax County.

Leading the team on this monumental project is Ben Hassett, America’s only classically trained millwright (mill restoration specialist). Together with our miller, Mason Maddox, and the rest of the mill’s professional and volunteer staff, this expert assemblage has but one common goal – to make Colvin Run Mill the finest working example of federal period technology anywhere.

Funded in part by a Partners in Preservation grant from American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this exciting work started in January and has an anticipated completion date of November 2014. During that time, special tours featuring not only the history of the mill but also the restoration work in progress will be given.

Author Mike Henry is the site administrator for Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. The mill is supported by the efforts of the Friends of Colvin Run Mill.

Shared Stewardship Versus Stolen History

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The citizens of Fairfax County celebrate their history and take pride in the county’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.  For this reason, when a co-worker sent me a photograph published in the January 4, 2014 edition of The Washington Post, I initially responded with distress only later tempered by introspection.  The image depicted the dark silhouette of an adolescent contrasted against a snow-brightened landscape.  The caption indicated that the young man and his father were metal detecting for, “whatever the ground will offer us,” somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Fairfax, a county-owned and operated park.  I was worried that this activity occurred on publicly-owned parkland.  For, although metal detecting is allowed on private property with the expressed consent of the landowner, it is a violation of park regulations and a Class 4 misdemeanor to use a metal detector on parkland.  According to the Virginia Antiquities Act, metal detecting on a state-designated archaeological site is a Class 1 misdemeanor.  The former is punishable by a $250.00 fine; the latter by a fine of $2500.00 and/or a year in jail.

Introspection came with the realization that otherwise concerned, well-intended, and respectful citizens sometimes engage in these activities because professional archaeologists and resource managers have been remiss in their responsibilities to engage and educate the public.  We have a poor record in returning to the community what we learn through careful, scientific study.  We often come across as boringly technical and aloof, at best.  At our worst, we are perceived as indifferent, snobbish, and elitist.  This is a huge disservice not only to our profession which relies on public support to continue in our roles; but, more importantly, rather than empower citizens as responsible stewards, oversights in public engagement can result in what is tantamount to the theft of our shared heritage.

Archaeology is a discipline of context.  We often gain our most valuable information about lives past through mundane items, casually discarded.  For an example, let me turn to the recent work of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s, Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) at the Old Colchester Park and Preserve.  With funds derived from a land swap and dedicated to understanding our natural and cultural resources, CART has been conducting scientific archaeological studies at the park.  Recently they discovered a pit, filled and forgotten centuries in the past.  Archaeologists recognize this type of pit as almost exclusively the work of enslaved Africans and African Americans.  Careful laboratory and special analyses were conducted on the artifacts and even the soil was carefully excavated from this pit so as to preserve the context of each and every find.

The dirt contained neither Civil War memorabilia nor articles of any inherent value.  Yet, the everyday refuse within the pit proved a fount of knowledge.  Simple hand-made nails demonstrated that a structure, perhaps a kitchen, had overlaid the pit when it was in use.  Broken pottery and tobacco pipe fragments indicated that it had been filled during the mid to late 1700s.  Meticulous methods allowed CART to find the smallest of artifacts, straight pins and tiny glass beads, likely evidence of a woman’s presence.  Thousands of miniscule fish bones and scales indicated specific species of fish that were being eaten.  Analysis of seeds revealed not only the composition of the native forest at the time, but also evidenced the introduction of cultivated species for both consumption and ornamentation.  In short, professionally-led archaeological study revived the landscape and life-ways of an enslaved Fairfax woman who lived over 250 years ago and who, until now, circumstances excluded from our understanding of our shared past.

These new understandings were only possible because of the application of detailed archaeological methods designed to preserve the context of even the smallest artifacts and seeds. We are able to understand the information from this feature because we can see all of the components together. Removing objects from this assemblage paints an incomplete picture, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Recent, popular television shows and profit-driven events have romanticized metal detecting, even suggesting that its practitioners are part of the preservation process.  However, the reduction of artifacts to a monetary value or conversation pieces deteriorating on fireplace mantles wastes a non-renewable resource.  Unless done as part of a professional study and under the supervision of trained archaeologists, it deprives the many of their past for the benefit of the few. It steals our history, robbing our citizens of that which inherently belongs to all; our cultural heritage.

Our work is only possible through the support and understanding of the public we serve.  Towards this end we attempt to give back what we learn through talks to school groups and scouts, the conduct of youth summer camps, college internship programs, and participation at public and professional events and conferences.  Perhaps our best outreach comes from our active volunteer program which is essential to our success and which we invite all interested parties to join.  It is our goal that all residents will understand, enjoy, and respect our heritage and through common interested become stewardship partners.

Written by Christopher Sperling, senior archaeologist, Fairfax County Park Authority