Monthly Archives: October 2013

My Favorite Drive

Percheron draft horses

Jesse and Michael, Frying Pan Farm Park’ s Percheron draft horses

Have you ever dreaded a day because you fear change? You have something great, but it has to leave, and you are not sure if you will like the replacement. A year in school, a new teacher, a boyfriend or girlfriend. How often was your fear replaced with gratification, and you even had trouble remembering why you were worried?

That happened at Frying Pan Farm Park with the arrival of the Jackson boys.

Years ago, when I began working at Frying Pan, there were eight Belgian Draft horses walking those fields. Kidwell Farm housed two aged mares named Kit and Kay. All the other horses were their offspring. There was a huge, light blonde gelding named Dusty, his younger brother Sam, and a cousin named Pete. Their color favored toward sorrel with white manes and tails. They had two younger sisters, Sara and Leigh. Kay was nursing a young gelding named Major when I arrived.

Over the next couple of years, for a number of reasons, the demonstration farm sold all the males and kept the team of mares and the team of fillies. Kit and Kay performed traditional work and powered interpretive wagon rides. They were huge draws, especially during special events. There were several attempts to train Sara and Leigh to eventually replace their mothers; however they just couldn’t be trusted in a public atmosphere under harness. Some said they were spoiled, and others said they were just too ornery. They were eventually sold to another farm, and Kidwell Farm faced a dilemma.

The farm needed a new team.

Kit and Kay were Kidwell cornerstones and beloved by thousands. They were valuable for routine farm tasks and special events; however they couldn’t perform in a routine and continual manner. They were forced into retirement and landed out west on another farm. Sarah and Leigh were still on hand, but more for show than work.

The task of finding another team that could perform so many duties with a staff of people who didn’t grow up working draft horses on a regular basis seemed impossible. Staff traveled through three states and looked at a dozen teams of multiple breeds — Belgians, Clydesdales, Suffolks, and crosses.

Some could pull hayrides well but couldn’t do field work. Some were great except in public. Some teams had one horse that was calm, well trained and could do everything, but its partner wasn’t as good. I remember traveling through the hills of West Virginia and viewing the most beautiful team you ever saw, but they scared me to death, and that was on their own farm. We saw one team with a lame horse. The farmer told us that would get better. We didn’t think so.

My biggest concern was finding a team that would not get spooked. I wanted them bombproof, a term used in the equestrian world to represent an extremely calm horse that can handle any surprise.

I got a call from someone in the Virginia Draft Horse Association who told me there was a team in Manassas we should see. Honestly, I thought Manassas? How would a decent team of horses be in the urbanization of Manassas? They were geldings, about 15 years old, and Percherons. I’d never worked with Percherons, and we wanted to stick with Belgians because the park had had success with them. However, I didn’t want to seem unappreciative, so I said we’d go take a look.

A few of us travelled to Catharpin, near the battlefield in Manassas, and arrived at a small farmette with some paddocks, a barn, sheds and a nice house. We saw some ponies and a few riding horses. As we met with the farmer, he showed us two large, solid black draft horses with little stars of white hair in the middle of their faces. Jesse and Michael. The farmer told us that you could only tell them apart by the gray hair around Jesse’s nose. They looked very healthy and in great shape. They were comfortable with us walking around for close inspections and petting them. I picked up hooves, and the horses cooperated. The farmer told me they were named after Jesse Jackson and Michael Jackson. Jesse was more muscular and a little heavier than Michael. Michael was taller, better balanced and better looking.

The farmer hitched them up and began answering our questions. Jesse and Michael came out of the hills of Tennessee, had done some logging and farm work, could plow, rake, hay, disk fields, and had occasionally pulled hayride wagons. If they had a problem, it was that they were almost always trained better than their drivers. My ears perked when the farmer said he took them to the annual Christmas parade in downtown Manassas – a public experience.

The horses didn’t move as he harnessed them up and connected them together. As he drove them out behind the barn, the farmer said he loved them but needed to sell them because he was losing some acreage that he used for grazing. He hitched them up to a wagon that he used for the parades and drove us out to a field, telling us stories about Jesse and Michael. We came to an open gate and a few feet of dirt road, then nothing. You couldn’t see anything. The road disappeared. As we neared the entrance, I saw the road dropped sharply about 100 feet. It was an old dirt path crossed with windy ditches of obvious erosion. My fellow Frying Pan staffers looked at each other. Nobody spoke. We were thinking, “What is this nut going to do with us?”

The farmer talked on. Jesse and Michael started down the hill. We held on. Then, something amazing.

A team of horses is the “stop and go” of a wagon ride. They’re the engine. The team works side by side and even with each other. But this was beyond just working side by side.
As they began to go down the hill, Jesse and Michael swung their butts out and away from each other, stretching the harnesses out as far as they could. They turned their backsides out so far they were looking at each other. Then they sidestepped all the way down the hill, controlling the wagon speed. Our eyes were bigger than the ones on the horses. The farmer said he didn’t train them to do it, it was just their instinct.

I started thinking that I bet they’re not as good in public situations as promised. As we came to the end of the field, the farmer said we’d go back to the barn. Again, we looked at each other and wondered about climbing the huge hill we’d just descended. Instead, the farmer pulled up to busy Route 234 where cars were crossing the horses’ faces at about 60 miles per hour. The horses just stood there. Then a slap of lines on their backs, and the team pulled out onto 234 in a gap between cars. Our mouths looked ready to catch bugs. The horses started trotting and remained under great control. Cars flew by, cars turned, cars passed us. Jesse and Michael could not have cared less.

I was sold.

Michael and Jesse arrived at Frying Pan shortly after Sara and Leigh departed. The public instantly loved them, and the horses became famous. We worked together like I had driven them for a long time. Michael loved to start off fast. I would hold him back for about 10 minutes until he calmed. Other times I would let him trot to burn that energy off a little, although that may not have pleased his partner. Jesse was calmer and conserved his energy. About a half hour into their work, Michael would drop back and Jesse would wind up pulling most of the load. I often wondered if they spoke about that back in the stall. I learned a lot about teamwork from watching those guys.

Draft horses Jesse and Michael after a December 2009 blizzard.

Draft horses Jesse and Michael after a December 2009 blizzard.

Years went by, so did wagon rides, demonstrations in the crop fields and thousands of hands rubbing the long faces of these gentle giants. As they aged, the team went into a semi-retirement. They would get hitched up for special occasions and events, and each December they’d pull Santa around with anxious kids and their parents. One year, Jesse decided he was done providing that service, and he made that decision in the middle of a ride. I could not persuade him to finish. I disembarked the wagon and led the team back to the barn. They never pulled Santa again.

The last public time Jesse and Michael were hitched was in 2010 to haul some dignitaries around the site as Fairfax County Park Authority celebrated its 60th anniversary. The boys didn’t pull a wagon again. They went into retirement and were often the first things people saw as they arrived at the park. They remained some of the very few animals referred to by name rather than species. I am sure there are more pictures of Jesse and Michael than of any other feature at Frying Pan Farm Park.

I visited Jesse and Michael in the late summer of 2013. Surpassing 35 years of age, Jesse resembled an old man with muscle tone absent and simply not looking as tall and powerful as before. Michael still looked in great shape with his body confirmation still intact. His eyes weren’t as clear as they once were, his face had some grey, and veterinarians had told us there were internal concerns.

As when anyone or anything gets older and is no longer with us, we feel sad. I was, that day. But I found myself remembering all that these guys had done for thousands of people over the decades. They were an era of Frying Pan Farm Park, a huge part and attraction to the site during a burst of park visitation and growth.

In my 22-year park career, including days at Frying Pan and now at agency headquarters, I have had hundreds of great days. But the best days are by far the ones spent behind the butts of those gentle giants. Taking Jesse and Michael out to the field to work or driving them on the road for a wagon ride for the public, I felt like the type of farmer my dad and his dad were. Those days allowed me, for a while, to make my life journey parallel that of my father, grandfather and my heroes. So I thank Michael and Jesse for that and for so much on behalf of thousands who forged their own experiences because of the team. I am proud to say that I was the first person to drive those horses at Frying Pan Farm Park and the last one to have them in harness there. Drive on guys, you will be missed.

Shortly after author Todd Brown wrote this remembrance, Michael died on September 12, 2013, at age 34. Brown is the Operations Branch Manager in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division and a former site manager of Frying Pan Farm Park.

Photobombing Coyotes and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night in Parks

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Most people around Northern Virginia probably don’t get to see what wildlife is doing on a daily basis, and there is a lot of wildlife here. The Fairfax County Park Authority has several ways of connecting people and wildlife, such as nature centers and hiking trails. One of the fun methods of connection is the candid camera.

Since January, Riverbend Park staff has been conducting a camera-trap survey to learn about wildlife in that park. Cameras with infrared sensors that detect both heat and motion, called trail cameras or game cameras, are placed along wildlife trails. When an animal drifts by and breaks the infrared beam, the heat or motion triggers the camera, which can be set to record one or multiple frames. The boxes can be fitted with an infrared flash that will limit any disturbing of the animals. And the cameras can be programmed with a delay of five or ten minutes between shots so that the same animal isn’t photographed dozens or hundreds of times while hanging around.

Staffers never know exactly what to expect each time they check the camera storage cards. Riverbend features a large meadow, a riverbank, creeks, ponds, and deep forests — diverse habitats. These combine to host a wide range of wildlife. Sometimes thousands of pictures reveal nothing. Other times, there are pleasing surprises.

Among Riverbend’s photobombing animals are coyotes, which confirms their presence in the park.

The most common visitors strolling past these cameras have been white-tailed deer, raccoons, and gray squirrels. Foxes and otters also have stopped by for portraits. Riverbend Head Camp Counselor Brian Balik, who uses his own cameras to record some of the photos, says his favorite picture so far has been that of a red fox with white legs. Those are unusual markings and something he’s not seen before.

This fox has unusual markings.

This fox showed off its unusual white legs for the camera at Riverbend Park.

The value in these photos is in learning what animals are around. That helps staff know what steps to take to protect the wildlife. Years ago, people had to rely on actual sightings of animals. Now, staff can see exactly what is in a specific area 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The cameras also reveal animal behavior. They record the times the animals are awake, the population, the areas of a park they use, and how frequently they use particular areas. Riverbend staff is hoping the cameras will help them learn where the visiting coyotes live and whether their home is in the park.

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) in Chantilly also has conducted camera-trap surveys, and a coyote has been a common visitor there as well. ECLP Naturalist Tony Bulmer says that in late September that coyote brought along a friend, and he suspects the pair may hunt together. Coyotes do not travel in packs, like wolves, but rather they move about separately or in a family unit. ECLP is hoping their cameras will have more to teach about the coyotes, a species that Bulmer calls “one of the most maligned mammals in the United States.”

Huntley Meadows Park staff used four infrared cameras in 2011 to survey the population of deer at Old Colchester Park on Mason Neck.

Huntley Meadows Resource Manager Dave Lawlor analyzed almost 4,000 photos in the Old Colchester survey, and he pointed out that reviewing them on a computer became a little strange because, since the camera doesn’t move, the background of the photos never changes. “It makes your eyes go fuzzy after a while,” he said. Lawlor used antler points and branches to identify individual bucks, but identifying individual does is much harder.

The Old Colchester survey, possibly the most thorough one ever conducted on Mason Neck, revealed an estimated population of up to 60 deer in the 139-acre park, the equivalent of 278 deer per square mile – a lot. Naturalists estimate that the healthy population of deer in an eastern forest is 15 to 20 per square mile.

Another survey was conducted at Old Colchester this fall, and those photos will be analyzed over the winter.

Huntley Meadows Park Manager Kevin Munroe said that Northern Virginia has an overstock of deer because there’s often much more food available for deer in a suburban setting than in a pristine forest. Lawlor added the amount of nutrients deer can ingest in suburbia could be ten times that of a forest and that people think fertilizer feeds plants. He said fertilizer is nutrients for deer.

The large number of deer also affects forested areas. Some parkland has virtually no vegetation for four or five feet up from the ground except for invasive plants that deer won’t eat.

Information like this, plus the input from the trail cameras, can be used as part of the structuring of a deer management plan.

Oh, and those coyotes are widespread across the county, too. The Old Colchester survey also turned up a photo of a coyote on Mason Neck.

Riverbend Park Head Camp Counselor Brian Balik, Huntley Meadows Resource Manager Dave Lawlor, and Stewardship Communications Manager Dave Ochs contributed to this story.

Let’s Make History

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McLean High School students are making history at Sully Historic Site.

Each year students at McLean take part in Project Enlightenment, a program in which they recreate a day in the life of 18th century America. They adopt and exhaustively research historic associates of the founding fathers and then bring their findings and talents to local historic settings. They become statesmen, philosophers, scientists, artists, and musicians who interact with each other and with an audience in a program that both entertains and instructs. It is an authentic, lively performance complete with period costume, music, dance and demonstrations.

Since the program’s founding 20 years ago, the students have portrayed more than 150 historical figures. Some are famous, like Thomas Jefferson and Dolley Madison. Others are less well known, like chemist Joseph Priestly, who befriended George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. Some are ladies or gentlemen farmers, doctors, actors and musicians who might have known Sully residents Richard Bland Lee and his wife Elizabeth. The students weave these seemingly disparate persons together based on common historic threads. They become detectives delving into nuances of history that are often lost in textbooks and glossed over by standardized testing.

At Sully, members of Project Enlightenment have presented an alfresco performance of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and have portrayed local gentry during Colonial Day, an annual celebration of rural life in Virginia. One group used historic astronomy equipment to help visitors enjoy and understand last year’s Transit of Venus. Some have stepped outside their usual interpretive time period to help with Victorian programs. And they’ll be back at Sully for Historic All Hallows Eve on October 26, 2013.

The program is a valuable opportunity for students to see the intricacy of the causes and effects that led us to where we are today. Studying history in this way goes far in making them life-long learners and knowledgeable citizens. Furthermore, they have the chance to “do well by doing good,” to quote Poor Richard, by teaching what they have learned to others in an environment that transcends the classroom in splendor, beauty, and stirring atmosphere. The program incorporates the concept of “virtue through good deeds,” allowing students to become teachers and impart their knowledge to others for the greater good, an undertaking that would have pleased the men like Washington who saw civic duty as an indispensable part of life.

These students adopt history as part of themselves, which in fact it already is. Be it a mock debate between Republicans and Federalists or a re-creation of Dr. Franklin’s experiments in electricity, the portrayal of what might be a dusty footnote in a history textbook becomes a living lesson with a permanence that all teachers desire.

The most surprising element of Project Enlightenment is that these students participate on a purely volunteer basis. They receive no grades or gold stars. They do it for the enjoyment of learning, a fact that I find most uncommon and immensely rewarding as their teacher. They are motivated by an academic spirit without pretense or insincerity. Consequently, the students fondly embrace their experience in a genuine sense – a sense of belonging to their characters, the era, our founding fathers, and the historical site itself. We believe that this is what an appreciation of our heritage is truly about.

In his 27 years as a physics teacher at McLean High School, author Dean Howarth has tried to push the envelope of “conventional” classroom strategies. He has long promoted the value of interdisciplinary education, feeling that his students will not only master but also appreciate what they learn in physics if they can see how it relates to the other fields of study. He is the sponsor of McLean’s Project Enlightenment.

Deer and Forest; Balance and Management

Fairfax County Deer Management Sign

If you visit a park in fall or winter, you may notice orange archery signs popping up along trails and in parking lots. September signals the start of the white-tailed deer management season, and with that program come many questions from park users about the need for deer management and about the safety aspects of a deer management program.

First, a bit of background.

The Fairfax County deer management program originated in the late 1990s after a local librarian was killed in a deer-vehicle collision in Great Falls. The program is overseen by the Fairfax County wildlife biologist, who serves within the Fairfax County Police Department. Deer management takes place primarily on parkland with the coordination and consent of the Park Authority.

What started as a public safety response to deer overpopulation has expanded for several reasons. There is greater evidence and awareness today that deer browse is one of the top threats facing the county’s forested natural areas. Biologists from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries estimate that there could be more than 50,000 deer currently living in Fairfax County. This is more than 100 deer per square mile, and that is six to ten times higher than a healthy ecosystem can support.

Deer have become over-abundant because we feed and shelter them. Our suburban ecosystems, including our fertilized lawns and gardens, create sumptuous buffets for deer. Many does give birth to twins each year. Large predators, such as resident bears or packs of wolves, are gone from this area. Humans are the only remaining predators of deer, and hunting pressure has steeply declined over the past few decades.

In many of our parks, there is no native vegetation growing between six inches and six feet above the ground because of browsing deer. This summer, our natural resources team measured browse levels at 140 plots countywide and confirmed ongoing, severe browsing in most of the surveyed parks. Many local biologists and naturalists are concerned about the future of our forests, and citizens also have cause for concern. As mature trees die or fall during storms, what replaces them? Under current conditions, very few native seedlings will survive, and invasive species, which the deer aren’t able to eat, often take hold in their place.

Over the long term, forests will degrade and will fail to provide the air quality, water quality and stormwater management benefits we rely on. On a personal level, the property values of homes next to parks may decrease, and the quality of life will diminish as there are fewer places to escape into the cool and quiet of a summer woods. The loss of native shrubs and trees also contributes to a broad decline in native insects, migratory songbirds, and so on up the food chain. It’s like a house of cards. Pull out the right card at the bottom, and the whole pyramid is coming down.

The deer management program relies on several different methods of population reduction including archery, managed hunts, and sharpshooting. There are currently no feasible alternatives to controlling deer populations other than lethal means, in both effectiveness and expense. Archery is the least imposing and most cost-efficient method currently in use because parks can remain open and volunteers can be recruited to hunt on behalf of the county. We recognize that some residents oppose lethal deer control, so we continue to provide public education and to address specific concerns regarding safety. For example, new signs include the international symbol for archery for those who may not be able to read the text.

2013 is the fifth year that we are allowing archery in the parks. In 2012, archery was implemented in more than 30 parks, and there were no safety incidents with people or with pets. This includes heavily-visited parks such as Burke Lake Park, Lake Accotink Park, Huntley Meadows Park, Riverbend Park, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, and Wakefield Park. The 2013 archery program has expanded to over 40 parks, including several inside the beltway. Each park has been marked with orange signs.

Hunting is confined to tree stands in specific areas of the parks, with hunters at least 50 feet from a trail and at least 100 feet from a property line. Each site is reviewed for safety. All of the volunteer archers must abide by strict rules to participate in the program. They must have superior ability with the bow and must qualify at a range to participate. Modern archery equipment is extremely precise and effective, and the program’s wounding rate has been less than four percent each year.

The next time you see a sign during one of your visits, take a minute to search for an oak, maple or hickory seedling. Do you see any? The future of our forests depends on fewer deer.

Author Kristen Sinclair is the senior natural resource specialist in the Park Authority’s Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch.

Looks Nice Outside

Fall Colors

The temperature is 71 degrees outside right now. One of those to-die-for fall days, a blue sky with cloud puffs balanced on a bowl of Trix-colored trees – raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange.

I’m lucky. I have a window in my Herrity building office. It overlooks a patch of trees that sits between the Fairfax County Government Center and the Fairfax Corner shopping center. Probably doesn’t sound very exciting to a naturalist or volunteer who spends time at a place like Burke Lake or Huntley Meadows, but that patch of trees is important to me. There are times when it’s mine, and just mine. Nobody else around it.

I do a lot of writing, and those trees are often my inspiration, something to look at when I need to clear my mind. Often I look at them and words start bouncing through my keyboard. Like now.

I’m in my office, writing. One year ago, on a similar day, I wrote a first draft for an article in ResOURces newsletter. It was about trails at Riverbend Park and the Riverbend Park Tree Walk. The first draft of the article opened like this:

Remember sitting in your office and staring out a window, wishing you were outside because it was such a beautiful day?

See? It’s true. Writers write what they know. The article talked about remembering those days you wished you were outside, and then getting outside when you have the chance.

Or maybe, instead of waiting to see if we have a chance, maybe we should create that opportunity. Consciously decide to go take a walk in a park.

There are over 400 county parks with patches of trees like my little one outside my window and across the street. Every one of them is an opportunity for a moment of refreshment.

It is a nice day. Blue sky, autumn-drenched trees nearing their peak, perfect temperature. Those trees, like the ones in parks all over the county, aren’t very far away from me. Probably some not far from you, either.

I think I see an opportunity before I go home.
Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.