Monthly Archives: January 2013

View On Nature: Woodpeckers

“Guess who!? Ha-ha-ha HA-ha!” – Woody Woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

Winter is a colorful season for woodpeckers in Annandale. Those of us at a certain age can remember Woody Woodpecker’s signature quote and his subsequent maniacal laughter. However, when folks call us at Hidden Oaks Nature Center to ask about woodpeckers knocking on their houses, they generally aren’t laughing.

Woodpeckers knock for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is communication and territorial establishment. That’s why sometimes they knock on metal drainpipes and gutters to the puzzlement of our patrons. “But it’s not wood!” they contest. Woodpeckers though, know that drainpipes, like many hollow logs and snags in the forest, are amplifiers. Once they learn through experience how raucously they can knock, they return to the source. That’s how woodpeckers tell others of their presence and/or perhaps availability. That’s the good news they want to broadcast.

However, they might be broadcasting bad news to you. If they’re knocking on your wooden eaves or fascia boards they might be hunting insects that are already rooting around in there, potential headaches for homeowners.

And about those headaches — why don’t woodpeckers suffer from them? It turns out that, unlike heavy-metal millennials in a mosh pit, a woodpecker’s head is designed for head-banging. They can knock up to 22 times per second, and their tongues wrap all the way around the backs of their heads to provide excellent cushioning for their brains. This enables woodpeckers to withstand decelerations (knocking and its after-effects) at more than 100 times the impact than can humans. In fact, woodpeckers’ shock absorption qualities were intensely studied to design cases for flight recorders in airplanes.

That same super-long tongue is the scourge of insects everywhere, which wrongly think they’re safe hiding in deep holes of logs and standing dead trees or buried in the wood siding of your house.

Woodpeckers use their excavating skills to hollow out burrows, which are often used year-round as homes. Sometimes they’ll use existing holes, but some individual birds like to create their own nesting cavity each year. Different strokes for different species.

Hairy woodpecker

Hairy woodpecker

At Hidden Oaks right now, there’s potential for you to see downy, hairy, red-bellied, northern flickers and, during really cold weather, yellow-bellied sapsuckers at the suet feeders. You might also spy the much-larger pileated woodpecker with the prominent comb often thought of in connection to the aforementioned Woody Woodpecker. Cartoonist Walter Lantz, however, noted that the acorn woodpecker from the west was the actual inspiration for his ideas in the 1940s.

Woodpeckers breed in the late winter/early spring, but the pairing-off and courtship often starts in winter. During this time certain species get their brightest coloration to be more attractive to potential mates. This effect makes woodpeckers brilliant and vivid contrasts to the backdrop of winter’s bleakest, gray months.

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker

Do you want to see woodpeckers in your backyard this winter? Suet feeders are the best way. Fill them with commercially-sold suet bricks, or just fill them with raw beef fat purchased from or donated by your local butcher.

Hidden Oaks Nature Center keeps suet and fat feeders out during the winter so our patrons can view these beautiful creatures on the fly. Come see for yourself.

By Michael McDonnell, manager, Hidden Oaks Nature Center

Seed Saving: Your Source For Free Plants And Sharing

Save Your Seeds 

Why would you do that? Can’t you just buy them at a local store?


Are you saving your seeds? Photo by Kathy Jentz.

Are you saving your seeds? Photo by Kathy Jentz.

Green Spring Gardens and Washington Gardener Magazine are co-hosting the 8th Annual Washington Gardener Magazine Seed Exchange on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at Green Spring Gardens. So why go to all this trouble?

Actually, it’s not trouble for the lover of gardening. It’s part of the process that leads to gardening’s rewards.

The first reason to collect seeds is thriftiness. No need for anything in your garden to go to waste. Compost, recycle, and re-use. The second reason is frugality. Why buy new plants every year when you can grow your own for free? Even further, why buy unproven plants or seeds when you know the plants from which you are collecting did well and obviously flourished in your yard.

Another reason to collect seeds is to ensure the propagation of heirloom varieties and rare, native plants that are not available through other means. Commercial growers and catalogs often only carry the most popular plants and seeds. By collecting seeds from particular flowers and edibles you safeguard the future of these species. You are guaranteeing genetic diversity.

The final reason to collect seeds is to trade them. That’s what the seed swap at Green Spring Gardens is all about. You may have hundreds of cleome seeds, and another gardener has hundreds of poppy seeds. Why not trade with each other? You are getting new plants for free or close to it.

Getting Started

Autumn is the time to start collecting your seeds. Many flowers are setting seed-heads and are about to burst open. Catch some of them before they burst, and you’ve got a head start on your garden for the next year.

Seed collecting is easy. Wait until the end of the growing season when your current flowers form seedpods. Check them every few days. They are ready when the pods are dry, brittle, and just ready to open. Don’t wait too long or they’ll break open on their own and cast their seeds to the wind. Pick a day with little breeze and no rain. Go out in mid-morning after the sun has dried the dewdrops from the leaves. Put a piece of paper under the seed heads, and then shake them gently. Be sure the seeds are thoroughly dry before you put them in tightly closed jars or zipper-locked baggies. Label them right away and store them in a cool, dark and dry place.

That labeling step is important. Label them with the date and variety. Be specific. Next spring you’ll be glad you did, as many seeds look alike. The date is important, because you will want to use your seeds within a year or two.  

A side note on seed collecting: not all plants can be propagated from seed. Many plants that you buy are hybrids or sterile. If you have hybrid flowers and vegetables, they may produce seeds; however the seeds may not produce offspring that are true to the parent plants. In other words, the seeds from hybrids are often a different variety than the plant you originally purchased, and their quality is often inferior.  

A simple way to start is to collect seeds from common annual flowers that open-pollinate: zinnias, marigolds, forget-me-nots, four-o-clocks, cosmos, cleome and sunflowers. As your gardening skills grow, move on to perennials and biennials. And swap the extras.


Swap your seeds! Photo by Kathy Jentz.

Swap your seeds! Photo by Kathy Jentz.

The 8th Annual Washington Gardener Magazine Seed Exchange is Saturday, February 2 at Green Spring Gardens. The seed swap runs from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. and includes lectures, planting tips, door prizes, and a goody bag. The cost for the entire program is $15. There is a $5 discount for members of the Friends of Green Spring and Washington Gardener magazine subscribers. Call 703-642-5173 to register for the program. Attendees do not have to bring seeds in order to attend the program.

 Author Kathy Jentz is the editor of Washington Gardener Magazine. She is currently saving seeds from her hollyhocks, which came to her garden from her grandmother’s seed collecting. Co-author David Ochs is the manager of Stewardship Communications for the Park Authority. His colorful home garden is one of the finest displays in Northern Virginia of gardening mistakes.

Riverbend Park: Truly A Winter Wonderland

The view from the deck at Riverbend Park is always beautiful, especially in winter.

The view from the deck at Riverbend Park is always beautiful, particularly in winter.

As much as I detest the snow, I must admit it’s truly beautiful. In the two winters I have worked at Riverbend, I haven’t yet had the privilege of seeing it snow-covered. Today changed that.

Riverbend is a natural beauty all its own that shines like a diamond in the rough. However, when the added element of snow is mixed into the equation, it’s truly breathtaking. The sun shimmers off the rippling surface of the gently-flowing river and makes the ground sparkle. I can see the snow reflecting light from the far bank and I feel as though it’s added a depth to a wall of trees. 

The birds are enjoying the weather as well. They’re frolicking in the snow below the bird feeders while munching away on the provided seed. Backyard birds love bird feeders and will come to one all seasons of the year if it’s kept filled. Try setting up one of your own to see what you can spot. Here are a few pictures of this morning’s visitors.

A Northern Cardinal perches near the bird feeders at Riverbend Park.

A Northern Cardinal perches near the bird feeders.

A Tufted Titmouse is joined by two Carolina Chickadees at the feeders.

A Tufted Titmouse is joined by two Carolina Chickadees at the feeders.

A Black-Eyed Junco takes a break on the snow-covered bench outside the visitor’s center.

A Black-Eyed Junco takes a break on the snow-covered bench outside the visitor’s center.

A Red-Bellied Woodpecker clings to the smallest feeder, scaring the smaller birds away.

A Red-Bellied Woodpecker clings to the smallest feeder, scaring the smaller birds away.

Riverbend truly has a view to remember. Brave the snow and come visit your own backyard winter wonderland.

Written by Michelle Brannon, naturalist, Riverbend Park

Volunteering At Hidden Pond – Not Just For Kids Anymore

Volunteers enjoy the dynamic environment at Hidden Pond Nature Center.

Volunteers enjoy the dynamic environment at Hidden Pond Nature Center.

New Year’s resolutions are usually intended to help us be “better” people in the New Year.  But often they are punishing in some way, and so are abandoned before winter is over. However, you can make a painless resolution that doesn’t involve restricting calories or creating sweat. And you can make it now, just as others are breaking their promises.

Give a little of your time to make a difference in your community and the environment. If you resolve to volunteer, we’ll arrange a schedule to fit your schedule, teach you new, fun things about nature (or maybe you’ll teach us) and help you connect with other volunteers.

Hidden Pond Nature Center has hosted a vibrant and vital volunteer program for youth for years.  A few wonderful adult volunteers have helped along the way with administrative tasks, nature programs and other special projects.  We would like to spread the joy in 2013 to include more adults.  There are opportunities to fit every personality, and training will be provided.

Are you a people person?  Maybe you would like to volunteer at the front desk of the nature center.  You could expand your knowledge of nature without getting dirty or facing the weather.  Handling animals is optional in this position.  You would greet visitors and answer questions about the animals and park programs. 

Another great position for a people and nature lover would be as a nature program assistant, helping staff with programs.  Many of these programs are for children and would involve learning to handle the animals.  Have you dreamed of holding an exquisite Green Tree Frog in the palm of your hand?  This might be for you.

Maybe you consider working with the public a bit like one of those punishing resolutions.  Then you could volunteer for any of numerous other important activities at the park, including animal care, native plant gardening, invasive plant removal, trail maintenance, or naturalist surveys.

If you would like to talk with someone about volunteering at Hidden Pond, please contact Carmen Bishop, or ask for an adult volunteer application form at the nature center.

Make it a Happy New Year beyond January 1!

By Carmen Bishop, Hidden Pond Nature Center

Unwrapping The Milky Way at Riverbend Park

The Milky Way Galaxy can be seen on dark,clear nights. Photo by Derek Rowley.

The Milky Way Galaxy can be seen on dark, clear nights. Photo by Derek Rowley.

A few months ago, in anticipation of our upcoming Winter Astronomy festivals, Assistant Park Manager John Callow and I shook a year’s worth of cobwebs off of Riverbend Park’s Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, lugged it down to the Potomac riverbank and proceeded to explore the night sky at 100x magnification. It was a cold, clear December night, perfect for stargazing. As the sun set and our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the stars appeared one by one. At the last hint of sunlight I remember looking up and staring in amazement at a faint swath of billions of stars banded across the sky: the Milky Way.

As a D.C. resident, I’m usually attuned to an orange haze that descends when the sun goes down and thousands of my city’s streetlights reflect off of clouds. At Riverbend, it feels like I’m a million miles away. That December night was the first time I had seen the Milky Way in the Washington metropolitan area, and the first time I could appreciate what a special place the park is both at day and at night.

The fact that viewers can observe the Milky Way at Riverbend is astonishing when you consider the park’s proximity to urban, highly developed areas. The swath of parkland that separates Riverbend from the hustle and bustle of communities further away from the river is complimented by the semi-rural character of the park’s immediate neighbor, Great Falls. When night falls at Riverbend, inky shadows, starlit islands and moonlight reflecting off the water dominate the landscape. The singsong of birds and occasional rumble of traffic is replaced by the ambient noise of Great Falls downriver and the occasional hoot of an owl. But what really draws folks to the park at night is the unfiltered view of the night sky; it helps when we have a powerful telescope to explore it.

The sky, telescope and a variety of activities and demonstrations are on full display during our Winter Astronomy festivals, held monthly from November to March. Riverbend alternates between hosting festivals for Girl Scouts and for the general public.

A crowd of close to 300 Girl Scouts was at the park on a recent January weekend, and they had great views of the festival’s “featured planet,” Jupiter. A look through the powerful scope, purchased for us by the Friends of Riverbend, revealed the planet’s four Galilean moons and suggestions of Jupiter’s famous red bands. While a film of clouds prevented a clear view of the Milky Way that night, scouts and their families enjoyed constellation tours, arts and crafts, constellation stories around the campfire and, of course, hot chocolate.

Nights like those show the worth of shaking off cobwebs and exploring what’s in, and above, Fairfax County parks.

By Ethan Kuhnhenn, park/recreation specialist, Riverbend Park

Here’s more about astronomy programs in the parks and about programs at Riverbend.

What To Feed Birds When Your Kid Is Allergic To Nuts

Nuts.  An excellent food for birds.  Not so excellent for people with an allergy.

BirdfeederBird feeders are a great way to learn basics about common local birds and provide life to your yard in the winter. A bird feeder is a great family activity that can take you into nature right in your own backyard. Nothing is more fun than sitting inside your house with a cup of hot cocoa while watching birds visit your backyard feeders.

One time after a bird program, I was approached by a family who said they loved feeding birds but their child had an extreme nut allergy. This had never entered my mind, but it seems to be more common each year.

I am often asked now what families can feed birds when they have kids who are allergic to nuts. Pretty much everything offered for bird feeding has some type of nut in it.

The solution is animal fat.

As a kid, my father would talk to the meat guy at the grocery store and ask for some animal fat. The meat guy would appear with a small package of white strips. He seemed very happy to get rid of it. The animal fat wound up in black wire suet cages that were hung for the birds. The birds loved it, and it has no nuts.

So, feed the birds. Talk to the meat guy at your favorite grocery store. Ask for strips of animal fat. Just ignore his puzzled look when you ask.

DSC_0783Author Tony Bulmer is a naturalist, historian and the senior interpreter at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. ECLP has Barred Owl Campfires, classes on bird banding and a Bird Study Merit Badge class coming soon.

The Improbable Mr. Wilson: A Tale Of A Wandering Warbler

There has been a lot of chirping about a little yellow bird at Huntley Meadows Park recently. Ever since a Wilson’s warbler was unexpectedly seen during the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count on Sunday, December 30, staff, volunteers, and visitors have been curious about the bird’s origin. A tiny patch of orange plumage above the bird’s beak sparked a debate and led to the endearing moniker, The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

Meet The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

Meet The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

According to park manager Kevin Munroe, Wilson’s warblers, like most warblers found in the park, are neo-tropical migrants, which means they breed somewhere in the northeastern U.S. and Canada each spring and summer before traveling south to spend their winters in Mexico, Central America, or South America. Munroe says it’s not unheard of to see a misplaced migrant at this time of year, but they typically either move on or expire due to a lack of food sources. For a specialist in hunting insects like Mr. Wilson, January in Northern Virginia is a tough place to find a meal.

However, Mr. Wilson has proven to be a resourceful visitor. Since his first sighting, scores of people have reveled in the sight of the wandering warbler feeding at the birdfeeders next to the visitor center. He has managed to avoid the hunting hawks and was photographed chomping on a caterpillar. Mr. Wilson has also been seen feeding on Sweetgum seeds along the paved trails. As people inadvertently step on the spiky pods, Mr. Wilson swoops in to munch on the released seeds.

Wilson's Warbler by Dave Boltz

The Improbable Mr. Wilson snacks on a caterpillar.

One theory about Mr. Wilson’s visit is that he is filling up for a late departure for the Southeast U.S. or the Gulf Coast, where he could survive on seeds, berries, and any available insects. But it is the presence of the bright orange markings visible in the many high-quality photos being shared online that have birders wondering if Mr. Wilson may have traveled from the west, not the north.

The bright orange patch above Mr. Wilson's beak caused quite a stir.

The bright orange patch above Mr. Wilson’s beak caused quite a stir.

After seeing the orange forehead in a photo, longtime birder Bill Young exclaimed, “Mr. Wilson appears to be even more improbable than he seemed at first glance.” Young has had many close looks at Wilson’s warblers in the past, but doesn’t recall ever seeing the orange marking. He and Paula Sullivan consulted the Garrett and Dunn warbler guide and found that there are three varieties of Wilson’s. Of the three, only one displays the orange markings, the chryseola. They learned that the chryseola variety breeds along a narrow band of the West Coast, from southern British Columbia to Southern California, and winters in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and south to western Panama.

This revelation led Young to declare, “So Mr. Wilson is most likely not an eastern or central bird who is a little late and a bit off course; he probably came from the other coast of North America, which is a pretty amazing trip for a creature who weighs about a quarter of an ounce.”

Huntley Meadows volunteer and avid bird buff Larry Cartwright, known among birding circles as an expert, concurs with Young’s assessment.  “I think this vagrancy from the west happens frequently. We had a dark yellow warbler that turned out to be one of the dark western subspecies, and there is quite a number of Rufous/Allen’s hummingbirds reported this year and they are all from the west. So Bill is absolutely right.”

Although Munroe is confident the wandering warbler began its journey on the West Coast, he said, “We can’t exactly check his passport, so we’ll never really know.” He remains open to other theories and welcomes discussion.

Mr. Wilson was last seen in the park on Wednesday, January 2. The birders who were fortunate enough to have seen him are grateful for his improbable visit and wish him a safe journey home – wherever that may be.

Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Wilson.

Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Wilson.

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer