Monthly Archives: January 2014

Frying Pan Celebrates 15 Years of Acoustic Jams

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Back in 1998, after a tree fell onto her Kidwell farmhouse office, Frying Pan Farm Park Historian Yvonne Johnson (now park supervisor) was working in a temporary office in a construction trailer. One day Debbie Billodeaux, a woman with a Louisiana accent and a little dog named Missy, knocked on the trailer door with an idea to allow musicians to gather and play on the front porch of the new Country Store. Johnson loved the Acoustic Jam idea and thought the sessions might draw a handful of people; however, in less than a year, 20 to 40 people were showing up to play at each jam.

Since then, visitors have enjoyed Acoustic Jams every month, as friends come together in a warm, friendly setting to play harmonies on string instruments such as guitars, banjos, mandolins, dobros, fiddles and bass. According to Johnson, a couple hundred visitors might see the musicians play on a nice day. “It was so gratifying to see the response from the visitors,” Johnson said.

Billodeaux’s dream of having a place for musicians to play and introduce music to new audiences is still going strong. The park celebrated its first “Jam-iversary” earlier this month, marking the fifteenth anniversary of the jam with cake, speeches, camaraderie, and, of course, music. Looking back, Johnson said, “Debbie came up with a great idea that improves visitors’ experiences and doesn’t cost the park anything. Over the years, the jams have touched the lives of thousands of people.”

Here is the history of the Acoustic Jam, in Debbie Billodeaux’s own words.

“The Acoustic Jam started out as a once-a-month jam on the third Sunday of each month. I was inspired to start the jam when I saw the Country Store being opened up at the park in the spring/summer of that year. I thought this would be a perfect place to jam and, I must say, very convenient for me as I live close by.  I liked jams because I could play with others, learn new songs, and the flexibility of a jam worked well with my busy schedule. At the time I was going to the CABOMA jam (Capitol Area Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association) in Arlington. Yvonne and I talked about how a jam would work and also be reflective of how people historically enjoyed music in a rural farming community. We intentionally set the Frying Pan jam up on the third Sunday so it would not interfere with the CABOMA jam in Arlington (second and fourth Sundays).

“The first jam was attended by less than 10 people, but it grew steadily.  It was usually bigger in the summer when people can be outside.  The early jams were at the Country Store, which is near the playground, and it has always been interesting to see how kids react to live music and seeing a variety of instruments close-up. In the early years, my guitar teacher at Chantilly Music, Bill Suter, would often suggest that his students get out and play with other people. He would tell them about the jam and a dozen or more people came from his referral. I often send out an email reminder to those at the jam reminding them of the jam date and also telling them about other events and jams in the area.  Jim Norman is a local resident and dobro and bass player who attends the jam, and he pushed for us to increase it to twice a month. In March 2002 we began holding jams twice a month.

“The park staff typically will ask if there are a couple of people that can play music at the Farm Harvest Day or an event for the Friends group, and so we typically do that once or twice a year. Several years the jam has been the closing act on the performance stage at the 4-H Fair. Sometimes a picture of those performances showed up in a newspaper. The Frying Pan Jam was featured once as the cover story on the Herndon Connection. Through the years we have had a couple of people that show up to listen on a regular basis.  Margaret and Ben Peck are in that group and I have a good picture of them sitting on the porch one sunny afternoon. There was another older lady who came regularly often requesting certain songs.  She grew up in West Virginia and had heard many early country legends sing as a child.  She was a music fan and she would have her husband drive her over. When he was too old to drive, they would have friends bring them. I do not know her name, but I took a picture of her and a friend and gave her a copy.

“We have had a couple of professional musicians stop by. It is a real treat for us.  We have quite a few people that are in now or have been in regional bands. We have had a number of people that have met others at the jam and then formed small bands. We also have a lot of beginners so there is usually a big mix of experience at the jam.”

Acoustic Jams are held semi-monthly at Frying Pan Farm Park on the first and third Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m.

Written by Matthew Kaiser, Fairfax County Park Authority deputy public information officer, and Debbie Billodeaux, volunteer and park neighbor.

Keeping Fairfax County Blue

2013 was a good year for native, cavity-nesting birds of Fairfax.

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Births of animals at Frying Pan Farm Park are publicized and celebrated, but not all of the births in the park take place in the barn. There are Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) hatchings in nest boxes around the park, and sometimes the newborns are known only to the staff and volunteers who monitor those boxes.

There weren’t a lot of them around during the Great Depression. Bluebirds weren’t common in the 1930s.  The usual problems — habitat loss and the introduction of non-native competition –depressed their population. The European starling and the English house sparrow, both aggressive species, competed with bluebirds for nesting cavities.

But people liked them, even crooned about them. Dame Vera Lynn sang about bluebirds over “The White Cliffs of Dover” in 1942. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” with the line “Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder,” won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Original Song. “Bluebird of Happiness,” recorded in 1945 by tenor Jan Peerce, was a worldwide hit.

More empirical, but just as romantic at the time, were bluebird enthusiasts. These folks installed and monitored nest boxes, and bluebirds recovered. We still use nest boxes, romantics that we are, to support the Eastern bluebird population in Fairfax County.

You can see bluebirds at Frying Pan year round, often near the park’s upper horse ring or the stormwater pond.  During the spring and summer, they nest in cavities in trees and in the nest boxes.  The small size of the entrance hole in the park’s 13 bluebird nest boxes keeps out the larger starling, and the monitors remove house sparrow nests to discourage them from using the boxes.  The starlings and house sparrows still nest at the park in the farm yard.  The bluebird boxes welcome all native species and are used by tree swallows, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, house wrens and others.  You can learn more about the boxes and how they work by finding the display box along Frying Pan’s wagon ride path near the visitor’s center.

The bluebird monitors keeping an eye on those flirting birds in the boxes are park staff and volunteers with the Virginia Bluebird Society (VBS), a 17-year-old non-profit that promotes bluebirds and other native cavity nesters. Information about bluebirds, their nesting habits and how the monitoring program works is on the organization’s website. VBS is working to establish a statewide network of bluebird trails. Here’s what they learned by keeping count last year.

In 2013, 29 bluebirds and 19 tree swallows were born and fledged from the Frying Pan boxes.  July’s hot weather seemed to discourage the birds, which may be why this total of 48 birds was down a bit from the two previous years (56 birds each in 2011 and 2012).  The numbers fluctuate naturally, and the drop in 2013 is not a concern. It’s still a nice total, and it’s still fun to look for the bluebirds when you visit the park.

The number of bluebirds fledged in 2013 in monitored nests across Northern Virginia was up 2.2 percent from 2012. That’s 3,603 birds successfully raised from 56 monitored nests. In 2012, monitors logged 3,523 birds fledged on 49 trails, up from the 2,974 birds fledged on 47 trails reported in 2011 data. The numbers recorded by the monitors annually since 2000 are on the VBS web page.

Frying Pan is not alone among Fairfax County Park Authority sites hosting bluebirds. Burke Lake, Cub Run, Eakin, Ellanor C. Lawrence, Greendale, Lake Fairfax, Langley Fork, Laurel Hill, Nottoway, Oak Marr, Riverbend, and South Run are some of the Park Authority sites that host bluebird boxes.  Another is Huntley Meadows (HMP), whose monitors track nesting box results in the park and at the adjacent Coast Guard Station (CGS). HMP has 27 boxes, 20 of which are paired to permit Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows to nest side by side, reducing competition within those species. Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows forage differently and do not compete for the same prey base.

Two paired boxes are located behind the observation tower on the south side of Huntley Meadows, and the others sit near the hike/bike trail on the northwest side of the park. The CGS hosts five boxes that overlook a well-kept lawn in contrast to the park boxes, which are located in open but typically overgrown meadows. All boxes are equipped with predator guards as prescribed by the Virginia Bluebird Society.

The VBS trains and organizes volunteers to monitor the nest boxes. If you are interested in becoming a monitor, contact VBS president Carmen Bishop. Many of the trails in Fairfax County are monitored by teams of four people, and there is a need for volunteers.

A reminder: it is important that people not open the boxes unless they are a trained monitor. Opening a box that holds nestlings age 13 days or older might cause them to fledge prematurely. Monitors keep records, so they know when and which boxes to avoid opening. The birds generally are pretty tolerant of monitor visits, but not endlessly so. Too much disturbance can discourage them from nesting. For visitors not part of the monitoring program, watch but don’t touch. Enjoy a walk along a bluebird trail, and enjoy the results of the monitors who are trying to keep Fairfax County blue.

Author Carmen Bishop is the president of the Virginia Bluebird Society and a former Fairfax County Park Authority employee. Co-author David Ochs is the Park Authority’s Manager of Stewardship Communications.

Tree Commission Celebrates Fallen Champion

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On the night of June 29, 2012, a line of intense thunderstorms known as a derecho charged across Fairfax County with winds gusting up to 80 mph. The ferocious winds leveled hundreds of trees and left thousands of residents in the dark and without power. Among the trees found in the storm’s wake was a former national champion Virginia pine (pinus virginiana), an impressive specimen that had towered 106 feet above the Reston South Park and Ride lot. Upon learning of the tree’s demise, members of the Fairfax County Tree Commission set out to commemorate the fallen champion.

Robert Vickers, chairman of the tree commission and Dranesville District representative, first noticed the great pine in 2009 while waiting at a traffic light at the corner of Reston Parkway and Lawyers Road. “Once I measured the tree and checked the Virginia Big Tree website, I realized it was the new state champion,” he recalled. The massive tree had an 82-inch circumference and its crown spanned 39 feet. Vickers invited Virginia Tech professor and keeper of the Virginia Big Tree database Jeff Kirwan to confirm the measurements. To their surprise, not only was the giant pine a Virginia state champion but it was the tallest tree of its kind in the country. It was then included in the National Register of Big Trees, a publication produced by American Forests, the country’s oldest nonprofit conservation organization.  Fairfax County was home to the national champion Virginia pine for two years until a larger tree was found in West Virginia in 2011. However, the tree remained the state champion until the powerful derecho uprooted it in 2012.

The fallen giant lay where it fell for more than a year until Vickers shared his story with fellow tree commissioner Jerry Peters, who suggested cutting a few “cookies” or cross sections of the tree to be displayed at various county offices. Luckily, the tree had fallen on parkland and hadn’t caused any property damage, so it had remained untouched since the storm. Peters reached out to the Reston Association for permission to do the cutting and the organization was excited to participate. “The Reston Association was delighted to hear that we had a national champion pine on one of our natural area parcels,” said RA Environmental Resource Manager Claudia Thompson-Deahl. “To think that these champion trees have been around to survive development, disease and storms is quite a feat.”

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Meanwhile, recognizing the need for experts with a big saw, Vickers contacted another tree commissioner, Everett “Butch” Loughry, who is also the Fairfax County Park Authority’s forestry crew chief. “Our crew is glad to help surrounding jurisdictions whenever needed,” Loughry said. The four-man crew removed the trunk from the stump to prevent it from rolling and then used a heavy-duty chainsaw to cut five “cookies” on Wednesday, January 8, 2014. Commemorative plaques made from the large wooden discs will be given to the tree commission, the Park Authority, the Reston Association, the Fairfax County Government Center, and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova. According to Vickers, each plaque will list the tree’s official measurements and the years in which the tree was recognized as a state and national champ.

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Tree Commissioner Peters counted at least 125 rings on one “cookie,” which means the tree had stood in the same place for parts of three centuries. To put this in perspective, it began growing when the U.S. flag still had only 38 stars and stood sentinel throughout two World Wars, the Space Race, the Civil Rights Movement, and the explosion of technological advances in the first decade of the 21st century.

One hundred twenty-five rings were counted in this cross-section of the tree. Photo by Sean Bahrami.

One hundred twenty-five rings were counted in this cross-section of the tree. Photo by Sean Bahrami.

For years Fairfax County boasted three national champion trees. But with the loss of the Virginia pine and the discovery of another tree that dethroned a champion chestnut oak in McLean in 2010, the county is down to one, an ancient paw paw growing along the Potomac River in Great Falls. Let’s hope it can withstand nature’s fury and stand tall long into this century and beyond.

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