Monthly Archives: December 2013

Keeping Promises At Colvin Run Mill

Colvin Run Mill Historic Site

We made a promise last spring.

About six months ago, Colvin Run Mill entered a contest to win grant money through
the Fairfax County Park Foundation. We sought help, asking you to join the site’s supporters and cast votes through social media outlets on behalf of the mill. You met the challenge, in the manner of the old political joke, by voting early and often. The result was a fourth-place finish among 24 historic sites in the contest and a $75,000 grant for Colvin Run Mill, the largest grant in the site’s history.

Colvin Run Mill has actually been spinning slightly out of sync over the years – a bit like playing guitar with one string inappreciably out of tune. Inside the mill are two giant, horizontal power shafts called counter shafts. They are key parts in the system that turns the runner stone, a French buhr stone used for fine grinding. The runner stone is the top stone that turns above a stationary bedstone when the mill grinds grain. At Colvin Run, the first of those counter shafts connects to the second one through a metal attachment, sort of like railroad cars locking together. That second shaft powers the ‘country’ stone, a style of stone often used to grind corn.

At Colvin Run, that first shaft is slightly warped and thus unable to turn the second shaft. There wasn’t enough money designated to fix that problem when the mill restoration began in 1968, so Colvin Run has been turning only one millstone over the years.

We promised that if we earned some money from the Partners in Preservation contest that we’d use it to fix that and some other issues at the historic site. That would free up bond money that had been designated for mill repairs for other needs.

Now, we’re keeping our word. The Park Authority hired HITT Contracting, who turned to Ben Hassett and his Lynchburg company, B.E. Hassett-Millwrights, to lend a hand in the repairs at Colvin Run. Hassett-Millwrights specializes in repair, maintenance, restoration and reconstruction of wind-and water-powered agricultural and historic sites. The company has worked on historic mills in California, Maryland and Virginia, and will endeavor to preserve as much of Colvin Run’s original material as possible.

Hassett first removed the shims that locked the gears in place on the shaft, and then suspended those gears so that they hang freely. That allowed him to remove the estimated 800-pound counter shaft from the mill and take it back to his shop. It will be used as a guide for the creation of a new counter shaft that will be fashioned out of white oak, matching the material used in the original mill. The selected tree is at Hassett’s shop and was chosen with consideration for its growth pattern so that it is unlikely to twist and can withstand the torque it will endure in the mill. About 100 pounds of metalwork on each end of the counter shaft will be removed, re-milled if needed, and reused on the new shaft.

The next step is the one that has the staff at Colvin Run Mill excited. The new shaft will be attached to the second counter shaft and, with the warp removed from the system, that second counter shaft will turn the country stone. That stone has never turned at Colvin Run. The grinding station at which it will sit has run at least one time in the past, but no stones were in place at the time. The country stone will grind corn because its pattern does not produce flour as fine as the French buhr stone’s product.

Colvin Run staff and Hassett are documenting the process step-by-step with photos of the work along the way. That will preserve a record of the repairs being made now and provide a guideline for any future work the mill requires.

This current project, which continues the mill restoration that began in 1968, will last until late 2014. The current phase of work on the mill’s first floor is expected to be completed by spring so that public tours during the mill’s prime season won’t be affected. Subsequent work is planned on the building’s second and third floors. That will include designing and installing grain cleaning equipment, completing the mill’s system of flour delivery, completing an internal rope hoist, and changing some fittings to a more period-appropriate design.

So once again, thank you. The mill will soon be tuned and grinding again. With the help of county residents who cast votes in the Partners in Preservation contest, the Fairfax County Park Authority is able again to protect resources.

We work and play well together, and our parks are better off for it.

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Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications in the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Something Old, Something New

New Nature Programs Planned at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park

This is no time to get lost in nostalgia. True, December holidays are a time of tradition, and Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) is reaching back to its past by continuing its annual holiday festivities, such as Holidays at Walney Farm. But staff has eyes peering ahead to the future.

Snow-covered holly berries

Snow-covered holly berries

New programs are coming in the new year, and with them come opportunities for you to spend time outdoors, to imagine the past in the very place where history happened, and to become a park steward. Stewards are caretakers and adventurers, seeking knowledge and understanding, new and special relationships. Many people visit Ellanor C. Lawrence Park each day and enjoy its natural beauty as they walk or jog. Some seek a connection and would heartily agree with Ellanor Lawrence, one of the park’s greatest stewards, that this place “seems to have a kind of living spirit that needs the kind of love you and I have for it.”

Interpretative programs are an important and fun means to developing that special connection with stewardship. William Carr, the high school graduate who taught the first class on outdoor education at Columbia University, wrote, “Not having an interpreter in a park is like inviting a guest to your house, opening the door, and disappearing.” Programs reveal the amazing web of life that exists within the park’s many habitats and allow voices from the past to speak once again. They provide opportunities for learning, inspire curiosity, and engender a sense of wonder that we often leave only to children to enjoy. In a program with an interpreter you can uncover millipedes that smell like almond cookies, stroke the smooth, cool skin of a live snake, or try a taste of hard times washed down with sweet potato coffee.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

January provides an opportunity for you to learn how you affect a forest and how that forest shapes your life. It may not be obvious, but we live in a forest biome. How we treat that land, whether it is our parkland or our own backyard, has lasting impact. The new programs start with a January expedition to see Winter Birds at Mason Neck. You’ll join naturalists Michael Gregory and Megan Tolosa in exploring the Great Marsh Trail at the Elizabeth Hartwell Wildlife Refuge. By the end of this trek, you’ll have an understanding of the ways in which ECLP, the river, its winter birds and you are all connected. Families and dedicated birders both will fit well in this program.

February rolls out the Forest Treasure Campfire. Bundle up and hear the crackle of fire-licked logs while learning how trees helped to build our nation, figuratively and literally. You can bet the guides will bring along s’mores.

By March, it’s time to get down and get your hands dirty. Uncover the diversity of soil organisms and the crucial role that invertebrates play in keeping forests healthy at the new Life in the Leaf Litter program. Then, wash the dirt off your hands because you may want to return to the park for some Confederate cake and sweet potato coffee.  That’s part of another new program in March. Hard Times, Difficult Choices will take a look at the struggles and critical choices made by some of the people who lived and worked at Walney, the Machen family farm that once encompassed Ellanor C. Lawrence Park.

RAC debuts in March when spring critters are shifting out of winter patterns. The Reptile and Amphibian Club is for kids 6 to 15 years old. Award-winning naturalist Hayley Ake guides them through a one-hour adventure with snakes, lizards, salamanders, turtles and frogs. RAC will join ECLP’s already-established Bird Watching Club as a regular, once-a-month gathering at the park.

Along with spring showers, April will produce ECLP’s first Wild Bird Spring Camp (registration begins February 14). Kids will be able to spend the week of April 14 through 18 searching the park’s diverse habitats to discover and identify species that reside in the park or that may be passing through on their spring migrations. Naturalist Megan Tolosa will keep the week lively with her enthusiasm and her love of birds.

So set aside the nostalgia, plan a new adventure this year, attend some programs and become a park steward. Who knows where that will take you: park contributor? Advocate? Volunteer? Spend time in your parks this spring and discover a new you.

For information more information on programs at ECLP, visit their web page. Information about nature programs throughout the park system also is online.

Author Cheryl-Ann Repetti is a naturalist at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in western Fairfax County.

Wetland Restoration Project Starts to Sing!

The wetland restoration project at Huntley Meadows Park is nearly complete.

The wetland restoration project at Huntley Meadows Park is nearly complete.

After 22 years of planning, three environmental engineering firms, numerous design drafts, and more than 60 public meetings, it’s hard to believe that the Huntley Meadows Wetland Restoration Project is just days from completion. As Fairfax County Park Authority  staff struggle with the challenges of directing contractors, managing finances, unpredictable weather and inevitable construction delays, the park’s wildlife have decided to ignore all these silly human issues and literally dive into the project.

First, a little context

Raising and then managing the wetland’s water levels in order to maintain a hemi-marsh full of biodiversity is the project’s primary goal. The wetland has been slowly, steadily losing depth for several decades because of silt and cattail spread. It lost almost a foot of depth since the 1980s. That’s one-third of its water, since it was never more than about three feet deep.

The restoration design has three main aspects — creating an earthen dam with a vinyl center to regain that lost foot of depth, installing pipes to create seasonally fluctuating water levels (essential for maintaining a healthy hemi-marsh), and excavating several deeper pools to create refuge for wetland wildlife during summer droughts and winter freezes. As an added plus, the project doubles the wetland’s boundaries, seasonally flooding surrounding forest to create additional swampland and vernal pools. Combined, those events restore a paradise for wildlife and wildlife watchers.

At least that was the idea. But would it work? Would 22 years of planning pay off? Would park wildlife agree with and adopt the design, or would we end up with a beautiful but empty wetland as animals high-tailed it for other parks not full of excavating bulldozers, 20-person construction crews and enough silt-fence to surround a small country? I’ve been telling people that three years was a good amount of time to wait until we saw real results. It turned out all the wetland needed was seven days of rain.

Seven days, not three years

Remember back in mid-October when it rained non-stop for a week? Well, the construction was far from complete, but the dam and pipes were finished. So we were able to raise the water level back to its 1986 levels plus an additional 10 inches. Wetland boundaries expanded, areas were submerged that had been dry for 30 years, and then we waited, watched, and listened. As park staff struggled with submerged trails and a small section of boardwalk that flirted with the idea of floating away, wildlife chose to ignore these mundane issues and had a ball.

Huntley’s resource manager, Dave Lawlor, and I were walking the trails to determine which sections to raise when we heard what sounded like the roar of a low plane moving towards us over the flooded wetland. The roar got louder, Dave and I had to shout to hear ourselves, but when we looked around — no plane in sight. Then we realized the deafening sound moving like a wave across the wetland was the largest chorus of southern leopard frogs we’d ever heard. One male frog starts to croak, cackle and gargle, his neighbor feels competitive and tries to outdo him, his neighbor does the same, and in seconds the sound wave rolls across 40 acres of wetland, echoing into the surrounding forest. The extreme volume was due to the increased wetland footprint. This was the largest the wetland had been in over 30 years, creating an enormous stage for one of Northern Virginia’s least common frogs and one of the species we had hoped to help with this project. “Build it and they will come” and sing.

Photo by Ed Eder

Southern leopard frogs, one of the least common frog species in Northern Virginia, are already benefitting from the expanded wetland.

The return of the birds

Wonderfully, and thankfully for an anxiously waiting park manager, southern leopard frogs were not the only wildlife that adopted and utilized the restored wetland. One morning as I joined Charles Smith, FCPA’s lead naturalist and resource protection manager, to inspect the project, we heard a warbled, bouncy bird call coming from the edge of a recently excavated habitat pool. “Purple finch? Goldfinch? No, I think it’s a winter wren!” A tiny, mouse-like bird that flits down from New England to spend its winters hiding in the moist thickets of the mid-Atlantic had its head thrown back and was singing its heart out from a wildlife brush shelter constructed only days before.

Unfortunately, a few hundred trees had to come down in order to create the new dam, pipes and pools. Our goal was to use all of those trees on-site as habitat enhancements (brush shelters, sunning logs for turtles, underwater breeding habitat for crayfish, etc.), and winter wrens were one of the species we were hoping to attract.

That same morning we heard several belted kingfishers throwing their rattling cries across the wetland, diving for fishy snacks in the newly excavated pools, and over the last few weeks numerous ducks have appeared to feed, court and mate in the expanded wetland. Northern shovelers, northern pintails, green-winged teal, and American black ducks are just a few of the winter waterfowl species now in the wetland, visiting from their summer homes in Canada and our upper Midwest.

None of the species I’ve mentioned so far, from frogs to ducks, are new to Huntley, but their numbers appear to have increased this fall/winter because of the larger wetland and historic water depth. Our goal was never to attract new species, but rather to return the marshland wildlife back to their 1980s numbers, and to convince rails, bitterns and grebes to nest here again as they did several decades ago. Will king rails and pied-billed grebes build nests and give birth again to new generations next spring and summer? We’ll see or, more accurately, we’ll listen.

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Mike Rollband, president and owner of Wetland Studies and Solutions Inc., discusses the wetland restoration project.

Author Kevin Munroe is the site manager at Huntley Meadows Park. See more photos of the project on Flickr.

Holiday Hustle and Bustle Calmed at Frying Pan Farm Park

Wagon Ride

It is early December. I feel the usual currents of holiday urgency coursing through Northern Virginia. With Thanksgiving so late in November this year, everyone seems tense, not jolly, about the holidays.  Whatever happened to “all is calm?”  Surrounded by angry taillights and jammed parking lots, it feels more like all is crazy.

Some of that crazy is shed at the Christmas season by families who visit Frying Pan Farm Park, a rural oasis to many locals.  “It has become a second home to us,” says a Springfield resident and parent of three. “The kids love the animals, and you can’t go many places like that for free,” she says. “We are so blessed to have something like this so close.”  She has been bringing her family to the park for years and is still discovering new things to do. After taking the kids for a wagon ride, she was surprised to find nature trails on the property as well.

For me, the most enjoyable part of Frying Pan Farm Park is the wagon rides.  There is something about rumbling through the woods in brisk December air that is magical and exhilarating.  The guide tells stories about the 1920s-1950s farm that is now a preserved piece of local history.  Park Manager Yvonne Johnson says, “The wagon rides take you through a Christmas past when ornaments were made from tin, paper, pinecones, and string; when families would listen to “White Christmas” on the radio; when the boys played with marbles and the girls read Nancy Drew.  It is important to remember that Christmas was not always this commercial or crazy.”

Frying Pan can be a reminder that Christmas is at least in large part about celebrating family.  Kids love the independence and self-sufficiency of children’s holiday shopping because they can pick out family gifts by themselves.  “It’s a great opportunity for kids to come visit an old-fashioned country store where they can buy knickknacks and trinkets for their friends and family,” says park staffer Joe Sawyer.  Friendly staff and volunteers help wrap the presents so the kids can take them home and place them under the tree.  It is a unique opportunity to get kids excited about giving and not just receiving in the midst of the holiday hustle and bustle.

Flashy wrapping paper and elaborate toys aren’t necessary to celebrate family.  The whole point is to be together.  In Northern Virginia, Frying Pan Farm Park is a place for family to take a moment to enjoy being with each other, bundled up on that wagon ride, with hot cocoa, rosy cheeks, and red noses.  It’s a place where they can feel calm and jolly while leaving the urgent holiday coursing to reindeer.

Take a family wagon ride at Frying Pan Farm Park this holiday season. It’s one of several parks with holiday activities to help you feel that all is calm, all is bright while you make family memories.

Author Cate Henifin is the marketing and development assistant at Frying Pan Farm Park.

Flying Squirrels: Gliders of the Night

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Maybe it’s just a flash of movement. Just past dusk, you notice something out of the corner of your eye as long shadows play dart games with sunlight. Or perhaps the birdseed runs low unusually fast. Sitting on your deck at night, you hear a high-pitched chirp. There may be acorns with meticulously rounded holes cut through the sides scattered along a path.  In any of these cases, your backyard may be home to one of the area’s most abundant, least seen, and most charming wildlife neighbors – the southern flying squirrel.

These tree squirrels, Glaucomys volans, are active year-round but are typically unseen. Your best chance to spy one is in late fall through the winter when leaves have renounced their places among the branches. They will be high in the treetops dining on silkworm caterpillars, seeds, maple sap, fungi and fruits. It’s an omnivorous diet that includes bird eggs, carrion and sometimes a small mammal. As the temperature drops, so does their range of comestibles, so they focus on nuts. They’re partial to hickory and hazelnuts. Roosting and nesting boxes can easily lure them within viewing range if supplemented with nuts and mealworms.

So what are these curious creatures? They’re alluring rodents. Our native flying squirrel weighs less than 90 grams, about the same as a half box of mac and cheese or a king size candy bar. They’re less than 10 inches long with a tail less than five inches long. They rate very high on the “cute” factor with large black eyes and a face covered with whiskers. Their fur is a mottled grayish-brown on top and white underneath.

And they have this great gimmick. They can fly. Not flap-fly. They glide. They have something called patagium, stretched skin between the fore and rear paws that can expand. They’re like fuzzy parachutes. High speed photography has shown us that flying squirrels can adjust their skin flaps to turn, gain lift and outmaneuver predators of the nighttime forest, barred owls or great horned owls. The tail serves as rudder and brake while the whiskers, or “vibrasse”, contact the landing surface first, allowing for safe touchdown.

On the move from approximately 30 minutes after dusk until just before dawn, flying squirrels industriously cache nuts in multiple locations. eNature says flying squirrels may store 15,000 nuts, including acorns, for a season.

Preferring the high rent district of an abandoned woodpecker hole, these tiny creatures sometimes may have to build their own miniature “drey,” a squirrel nest made of leaves. Other accommodations could include attics or bird houses. They use multiple nest sites, but winter’s desire for warmth trumps solitude, and many squirrels may den together.

A lack of deep cavities in sturdy branches encourages flying squirrels to use manmade nesting boxes, which look like a long narrow birdhouse. The opening is next to the trunk instead of in the front, because flying squirrels avoid the potential exposure of climbing on the front of the box. If you want to draw them to your yard, add a roosting box downstairs on a lower part of a tree, and fill it nightly with a dozen unsalted roasted peanuts or, for a treat, hazelnuts or mealworms. Remember, the entrance hole needs to be next to the trunk to calm their fears.

Flying squirrels and our everyday grey squirrels are far from kissing cousins. They are more like mortal enemies. So if you want to attract flying squirrels, timing is everything. Feeding must coincide with the hours that grey squirrels have tucked themselves away at night. Try peanut butter inside the roosting box or on the metal flashing surrounding the entrance hole. Avoid putting peanut butter on the tree trunk. That will encourage chewing on the tree bark by all types of squirrels and raccoons.

The best way to be a good neighbor to flying squirrels and other wildlife is to keep one of their top predators away — house cats. Flying squirrels regularly return to earth to get water or nuts and seed. They sometimes fall prey to fox, but more often house cats.  Practice backyard habitat basics. Provide a fresh water source, plant native plants for their fruit and nuts and for the helpful insects they attract, leave trees with cavity holes standing when safe, and don’t use insecticides.

Lay out the welcome mat to flying squirrels, and you can usually see guests arrive within a week. By quietly getting closer, you may soon enjoy the thrill of watching them soar in from as far as 100 yards away. These squirrels get used to people quickly and will even stay still long enough for a well-prepared photographer.

An easy way to see flying squirrels and determine if you have them already in your yard is to attend a program on flying squirrels at a park nature center.  Since 2008, flying squirrels have been kindly showing up Hidden Oaks Nature Center on schedule to delight visitors.  Eagle Scouts have built and mounted roosting and nesting boxes, and the plans are available on request. 

Author Suzanne Holland is the assistant manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center.