Monthly Archives: December 2015

Donor of Popular Garden Site Passes

image001 Dr. Belinda Crompton Straight died peacefully on December 5, 2015, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Dr. Straight was a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. for 55 years until 2007. In 1970, she and her former husband, Michael Straight, donated their house and property to the Fairfax County Park Authority. That land is now Green Spring Gardens.

“We’re saddened that she has passed, but very grateful for her enduring legacy to the residents of the County of Fairfax and beyond,” said Debbie Waugh, Green Spring’s Historic House Coordinator. Waugh said the Straight’s donation put Green Spring on the map historically because of the architect and designer they used at their home, because “it means the site is able to interpret the historical significance of the house and the landscape.”

The Historic House was the Straight’s family home. They raised five children there.  The following comments by Debbie Waugh were delivered at a memorial service for Dr. Straight.

Dr. Belinda Straight created an enduring legacy for the residents of Fairfax County and beyond. In 1970, she and her husband, Michael, jointly gifted their family home, Green Spring Farm in Alexandria, to the Fairfax County Park Authority. Their donation of 16 acres of land and the 1784 historic home was made on condition that the property be preserved for the benefit of the community. And so, Belinda’s Green Spring Farm became today’s Green Spring Gardens, a beautiful public garden, horticulture center and historic site enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.

When Belinda and Michael came to Green Spring Farm in 1942, the house had been standing for 158 years and already had an interesting history. But Michael and Belinda proceeded to write a whole new chapter that was to be pivotal. As soon as they arrived, they brought in two American masters of design – Colonial Revival architect Walter Macomber and famed landscape designer Beatrix Farrand – to redesign their house and gardens. As a result, Historic Green Spring is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. A pivotal chapter indeed.

To commemorate this unique claim to historical significance, a Historical Highway Marker was dedicated at Green Spring on June 12, 2010. That day we were honored to have Belinda in attendance and delighted when she chose to speak to the audience about her former home.

At marker dedication on June 12, 2010: Green Spring Gardens Site Manager Mary Olien, Dr. Belinda Straight, her son Michael Straight, Jr., and his wife, Audrey

At marker dedication on June 12, 2010: Green Spring Gardens Site Manager Mary Olien, Dr. Belinda Straight, her son Michael Straight, Jr., and his wife, Audrey

We know that Belinda was a generous and gracious hostess when she lived at Green Spring, opening her home to many distinguished guests as well as friends and neighbors in the community. Today, we uphold her tradition of hospitality by welcoming visitors to Green Spring Gardens and the Historic House year-round.

Her generous gift is now considered a treasure in our community that finds its way into the hearts of everyone who visits; it’s a sanctuary for quiet contemplation and enjoyment, it’s a resource for adults and children to discover nature and gardening, and it’s a historic home of grace and beauty where guests learn about local history and hear stories of the lives of its many former residents. Belinda was a woman ahead of her time, and she led a remarkable life of personal and professional achievement. At Green Spring, we will continue to enjoy sharing her story with our guests.

The staff and volunteers at Green Spring Gardens and all of our visitors are deeply grateful to Belinda for providing that all-important chapter in our story and a legacy that continues to enrich our lives.


Debbie Waugh is the Historic House Coordinator at Green Spring Gardens.

Winter is the New Spring in Fairfax County Parks

Sul W burn_0077Winter is the new spring – at least at the Park Authority. While you might set your sights on a big spring cleaning project, park staff are already hard at work on annual maintenance projects.

Jon Shafer, a naturalist at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, says winter is the perfect time for a number of resource management actions. “For instance, if we’re doing manual mowing or bush hogging (a type of rotary mowing), we wait until the winter because the plants have already dropped their seed and there are no animals doing much with those.” Shafer explains, “It’s the one time of year we can come in and do mowing and burns that prepare for the next growing season without negatively impacting the animals that are using it. Animals that would be active in the meadows and still there, like meadow voles, are underground. They’re not out and active. It’s a safer time to do those kinds of actions.”

One of those controlled burns took place at ECLP earlier this month in an effort to help manage the park’s meadows. These grass-dominant systems flourish if burned on a regular basis, such as every one to three years. The fire removes accumulated plant debris, heats the seed-bank in the soil, and exposes soil to sunlight. All of this allows native plant seeds to make contact with the soil, makes nutrients available to the plants, removes old material that inhibits new growth, and allows new plants to sprout. You’ll be able to see for yourself next spring and summer.

Winter is also a time for staff to get the park ready for the animals you’ll see in the spring. For example, fellow ECLP naturalist Tony Bulmer says, “We repair bluebird boxes and empty out our tree swallow boxes.” He adds that they also prepare the managed vernal pools for spring. “We put new sticks in them because sticks wash out. The sticks give salamanders a place to attach their egg masses.”

The drop in temperatures and the dropped leaves of wintertime also make it a great time to conduct animal surveys to aid in programs such deer management.

Some surveys are done from above. Shafer says airplanes can be used to overfly an area looking for the heat signature of deer during the winter’s cold.


Winter conditions improve the staff’s ability to conduct surveys using wildlife cameras, too. Schafer explains, “It’s easier to draw animals to food when they’re not on territory and they would like extra, free calories. So, it’s a good time to do surveys using baiting as a tool.” Survey feeding stations are set up for only short periods of time so animals don’t become dependent on this easy source of food.

Another survey technique that can be more easily used in winter is spotlight surveys. Schafer says this method uses lights to detect eye shine for animals who are active. “Because there are no leaves on the trees, you can see farther.”

So, think about getting an early start on your spring cleaning, because Fairfax County parks will be spiffed up and ready for you as winter draws to a close.

Author Carol Ochs works in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Public Information Office.

Winter is a Great Time for Birding

Northern cardinal. Photo by Curtis Gibbens.

Northern cardinal. Photo by Curtis Gibbens.

Birds play a great game of peek-a-boo during the summer with all those leaves to hide behind. Turn the tables on them this winter and take advantage of the bare trees — and the current mild temperatures — to do a little birding.

Winter can be a great time to see birds for several reasons. Of course, it’s easier to spot them on those empty branches, but they’re also likely to be congregating in larger groups. At Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP), naturalist Tony Bulmer says it’s not unusual to see a dozen bluebirds hanging out in the same spot because they’re not competing for breeding territory during the cold season.

John Shafer, a fellow naturalist at ECLP, says the lack of food and the need for warmth also forces birds into larger groups. And there are simply fewer varieties around in winter, so it makes identification a little easier for those new to birding.

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Just what will you see? Fairfax County Park Authority Ecologist Kristen Sinclair explains that birds fall into three major groups: the ones that are here during the breeding season, the year-rounders, and the ones that come from farther north. So, some of your summertime favorites may be soaking up rays in the south, but our mid-Atlantic climate feels pretty good to many northern birds, such as rough-legged hawks or snowy owls, that are escaping the much colder tundra regions and reside here only in winter.

It’s food that tends to dictate whether birds stay or fly south. Shafer explains, “If the birds specialize on nectar or insects for food, those are usually the ones that move because in the winter their food is not going to be as prevalent.” Birds that specialize in seeds or those that are a little less picky about their food choices are more likely to stay. Still, there are no hard and fast rules. Woodpeckers eat grubs and insects, but they often stick around. Some red tails stay all winter, while others migrate. The same applies to Canada geese. A fairly common species you’ll only find here in winter is the yellow-rumped warbler.

000-Huntley_0099Sinclair says you’ll find a big diversity of birds on large bodies of water that don’t freeze, such as Burke Lake at Burke Lake Park, the wetlands at Huntley Meadows Park, and the Potomac River along Riverbend Park. She notes, “Some ducks eat aquatic vegetation, some like mussels, some like fish, but they all need open water to drink and dive in.”

Birds of prey also are exciting to spot in the winter when they’re more concentrated in the trees, and come February you’ll find bald eagles actually starting to nest. The Park Authority offers van trips in winter specifically aimed at spotting raptors. Shafer says, “Their behavior changes in winter making it easier to go find them.”

The birds won’t be making this game of hide-and-seek easy for you. They’ve got a few winter tricks, too. What you see in your bird guidebook may not be what you see looking back at you from those barren branches. Many birds take on a more subdued look for winter to blend into the landscape, so there may be just a hint of their more colorful summer plumage. Juvenile birds may look distinctly different from their parents. That’s why it’s great to take one of those van trips or join a walk with a Park Authority naturalist who can help you identify what you’re seeing. Birding programs are offered year-round at parks such as Huntley Meadows, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park and Riverbend.

The changing climate is literally causing some birds to go a little loopy and engage in a phenomenon called rebound migration. Temperatures may warm enough to get birds on the move north, but when they arrive, they find that plants and insects they depend on for food may not have emerged just yet. So, they head back south and try again and again until everything’s in sync. Catbirds are one species that have signaled changes in the climate. Bulmer says, “We’ve been getting catbirds all winter where they shouldn’t be pretty much every winter for the past five or six years.”

Sinclair says that, in general, “Birds have moved 65 miles northward in their ranges over 20 years and many species appear 21 days earlier than 30 years ago.” Some birds we used to see in this area simply don’t come any more because they don’t feel the need to migrate south.

Everything you see flying in the winter sky isn’t necessarily a bird or a plane. Bulmer says if the temperatures rise above 55 degrees, it’s not unusual to see red bats flying around ECLP. He says every year the nature center gets calls from people wondering what bats are doing out in the winter.

000-HM_022014_0782If you’re inspired by what you see in the parks, consider putting a bird feeder or two in your own yard. The naturalists do caution that if you start to feed birds in the fall, you’ll need to continue through the winter season and until food sources appear again in the spring. The birds will become dependent on you. It’s also a good idea to put some water out near your feeder. Birds get much of their water from their food source, but in winter when they’re dining on things like seeds and dried fruit, there’s a greater need for fresh water.

Bird feeders can be busy in winter. Sinclair says you might expect to get 10 or 15 different species at your feeder including cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches. You might also see some species that like to dine on those birds, such as the Cooper’s hawk or goshawk. Remember, they have fewer food sources this time of year, too.

More information:

Winter Weather Challenges Birds

Park Programs about Birds

Riverbend’s Bird Checklist

Attracting Birds to Your Yard

There are free, regular Monday morning bird walks at Huntley Meadows and Eakin Park. Call Huntley Meadows (703-768-2525) or Hidden Oaks Nature Center (703-941-1065) for information.


Author Carol Ochs works in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Public Information Office.