Monthly Archives: March 2014

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.