Monthly Archives: December 2015

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.