Monthly Archives: January 2016

Where Will Animals Go During the Snow Storm?

DSC_3944_edited-1With a foot or two of snow hitting the Washington area this weekend, officials are telling folks to stay home, hunker down and sit it out.

But what about wildlife, the animals out there in the storm? Well, most of them will stay home, hunker down, and sit it out. Here’s what we learned from a little research conducted with Fairfax County Park Authority Naturalist Kristen Sinclair:

Deer: They’ll bed down for the storm and sit it out. When it’s time to feed again, they’ll browse on anything they can reach. Still, that can be a little problematic if the snow depth hits a couple feet or more. Does become dominant in winter and will sometimes drive other deer away in their search for food. When the weather clears out Sunday, they’ll start walking around.

DSC_3068Squirrels: A storm like this can be hard on squirrels, especially the young. A Chicago scientist says that 30% to 40% of the population can be lost in a major storm in that area. They’ll shelter in their tree nests, wrap their tails around their bodies, and wait for the next feeding opportunity.

Chipmunks: They’re underground, dormant and inactive. They don’t accumulate fat and hibernate, but rather they store food and rely on that. They’ll go underground in severe weather and plug the entry hole to their burrow.

Groundhogs: These guys are true hibernators. They’ll sleep it off and get ready for their big day on February 2.

DSC_3034_edited-2Birds: Birds can take a hit in a major winter storm. They’ll try to find shelter in the usual places they frequent, fluff and puff up their feathers, and try to get into a position to avoid getting dumped on. The birds in our area at this time of year are seed eaters. The insect feeders have gone south. A bird feeder in your yard can be very helpful at this time. Even throwing some seed out over the snow will help them – and, likely, squirrels. Birds, especially Carolina chickadees, may focus their feeding attention on a particular area in winter, and if that spot is emptied of food they may not have a backup plan and could be in trouble. If you start feeding birds in winter, stick with it or the birds that were coming to your feeder may not know where else to go. Don’t put out any other foods for other animals. That will just cause problems for you in the future.

Insects: They’re not moving around. They just wait it all out underground or in leaf piles, depending on the whims of their species. And no, a storm like this won’t have any long-term effect on the population of everybody’s favorite-to-gripe-about insects, ticks and mosquitoes.

Edit-Racoon 059-aRaccoons: These bandits will find a hollow log, a burrow (maybe one made by another animal), or a brush pile. Raccoons generally are inactive at this time, not because of the cold, but because of the snow cover.

Beavers: They’ll stay in their den. So will muskrats. They’ve stored shoots and twigs, and they’ll happily feed on those. They’re not like people having to feed every four hours or they get crabby. They can comfortably go long stretches without food.

Rabbits: They could be in a little trouble when they come out after the storm. They’ll want a little food, and so will everybody else.

DSC_3932_edited-1Foxes/Coyotes: They’ll bed down in their dens. And when the storm is over? See the section on rabbits.

Mice: They’re hiding underground. So are moles, in burrows.

Bats: Bats go into a torpor, somewhat like hibernation. Their breath, heart, and metabolism all slow down. They build body fat in the fall and may be out of action for several months in winter. They might not even know it snowed.

Fish: The water’s already cold. Fish are dormant in winter. Their metabolic rate decreases as temperatures go down in winter. As long as their lake doesn’t freeze solid, they’ll be fine, except for certain schools of shad that will see a die off from the cold.

This coming Sunday or Monday may be a good day to look for wildlife. There’s sun in the forecast, and the animals will start coming out of their shelters to seek food following the storm. There won’t be a lot of camouflage around, so spotting them may be easier than on a day without a snow cover. Look for tracks in the snow. In addition, nocturnal animals may come out in the daytime at this time of year to avoid the bitter cold of winter nights.

The Park Authority has other animal concerns in a storm like this. Some of the local nature centers have exhibit animals. Kiersten Conley, the Visitor Services and Operations Manager at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, says the key to caring for them is preparation. There are heat lamps for the snakes, a backup generator, and ECLP has moved any animals close to windows further into rooms. Staff also is assuring that all the animals are well fed. In addition, all the ECLP exhibit animals are native, so they are acclimated to these conditions.

Farm Manager Paul Nicholson at Frying Pan Farm Park says most of the farm animals have been spending time in a barn or a run-in shed.  Barns and sheds will keep the livestock sheltered from the wind and snow. The snow wouldn’t bother them as much the high winds.  Meanwhile, farm staff has been making extra stalls in the barn and machine shed to move animals around before the snows. They’ll be moved closer to the feed room, milking parlor and hay storage areas to make it easier for staff to care for them. “Everyone will be bedded down with extra hay and straw and plenty of water,” Nicholson said. “We do have some young goats that are drinking from a bottle and a few mothers that are due in early February, so we will keep a close eye on them as well.” Two staffers live within five miles of the park and will do what it takes to care for the animals during the storm, even stay in the farm office overnight if needed.

Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side of Winter

Deer leave hoof prints in the snow.

There’s snow in the forecast!

So go leave some footprints in a park. A lot is hidden under the green leaves of summer and only reveals itself when the weather turns cold. Make tracks along with the animals and bring someone special with you. You might even get to steal a kiss under the mistletoe.

The parks around you might look kind of dreary this time of year, but if you take a closer look, there’s actually a lot going on. Wildlife can be easier to see with the leaves gone, and some birds can only be seen in Fairfax County at this time of year.

To get the most out of your walk in any park, Tony Bulmer, a naturalist at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP), says “Focus on the evergreen trees, because everything’s hiding in those. The owl can’t hide in the oak tree, so if you can find a nice stand of cedar, it’s very productive in the winter.”

Hawk0313Resident owls start setting up their nests in winter, and this is when you might spot a Saw-whet owl, a migratory owl that only passes through the area in wintertime. This is also a great time to see hawks and other birds of prey.

Not only are birds easier to see because the leaves are down, they also tend to congregate in larger groups. Because they’re not busy defending breeding territory, they’re more likely to band together in their search for food and shelter.

Mammals are out and about, too, and it’s easier to see their tracks in the snow. Look for the prints of deer, fox, coyotes, rabbits and other woodland critters. Bulmer notes that it’s a great time to see where squirrels have been keeping house. The squirrel nests, or dreys, are much easier to spot in wintertime. It’s also a better time to see those elusive flying squirrels.

But don’t just look up. Bulmer says, “With all the leaves down now, the leaf litter is a great place to explore because everything’s in the leaves.” You might come across a butterfly chrysalis or the cocoons from moths, so please be careful. Insect eggs may also be tucked in the ground under those leaves. They’re going through a growth stage to be ready for spring. One thing you won’t be bothered with on your hike is those pesky ticks and mosquitoes. They wait for temperatures in the 40s and 50s to emerge.

Bulmer says a lot of people don’t realize that creeks, streams and other waterways are humming with activity in the winter. “Two-lined salamanders and northern duskies are active all year round because the water never really drops in temperature enough to freeze.” ECLP offers naturalist-led hikes to the streams so you can see for yourself what’s going on.

Wood Frogs in the PondIf you’re into winter botany, Fairfax County Park Authority Ecologist Kristen Sinclair says this is a good time to get a close look at bud scales and bark on deciduous trees. These leaf-droppers go into a dormant state above ground to survive the winter, but Sinclair says the roots are still growing in preparation for spring. Sinclair notes you might be surprised to learn you can actually see plants in bloom, too, during the winter. The cold season is when the flowers on witch hazels erupt. Green Spring Gardens specializes in these plants and has a nationally significant and wide variety for you to enjoy.

Most of us are familiar with evergreen trees, such as cedar and pines, that bring color to the woods in winter, but there are other plants greening the landscape. Sinclair points out that many of them are invasive species, such as English ivy, vinca, winter creeper, and Japanese holly. She notes, “If you see a lot of green, it could be invasives.” These invasive plants are often nice to look at, which is one of the reasons they were brought here, but they can be harmful to other plants and animals. Many have been transferred here from similar temperate climates and don’t mind our weather at all.

Now, about that mistletoe. It’s a parasitic plant that lives off others, and there’s more of it around than you might suspect. It does a good job of blending in with tree leaves during summer, but in winter you can spot the berry plant hanging in ball-like clumps from the top of oaks and other trees. What you do when you find it is up to you.

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

Historic Tree Removed at Frying Pan

This was the issue:

1A closer look at it:

See that tombstone on the left?  Rotting oak tree, leaning toward the cemetery. That’s the issue. Trees in a graveyard cause problems. They drop seeds. Other trees grow. The roots can disturb the soil, topple gravestones. Or if the tree falls, the roots can disturb gravesites, and that brings on a plethora of legal issues.


The tree also was pretty close to a historic building. That’s the Meetinghouse at Frying Pan Farm Park, and the location tied in to another problem: It was a historic tree that was alive during the Civil War. Why is that a big deal? Because most trees in areas where troops camped were cut down to provide firewood, fence lines, roads, coffins, etc. Frying Pan Farm Park Manager and Historian Yvonne Johnson said J.E.B. Stuart’s 1,600 troops camped at the Frying Pan Meeting House for several days after Second Manassas, and “if there was a tree big enough to provide decent shade for the soldiers, it tended to be saved.” But most trees near a camp were felled.

Step by step:


Limb by Limb:


Piece by piece:


Chunk by chunk:


The reason for this: the tree was rotting. Johnson said the base of the tree was so hollow that the age of the tree could not be determined. There weren’t enough rings to count.


The result: Reusable wood.


Nearing the end:


Done carefully, the tombstone is undisturbed:


“In the old days, the first parks were cemeteries,” Johnson said. “That’s where you went on Sunday afternoon. You went to visit Uncle Joe at the cemetery because it was a parklike setting and you’d have a picnic. It was a very positive family activity to go visit the ancestors.” Johnson says she’s even seen raised gravestones that served as picnic tables.

When all is done:


The tree was gone. The Meeting House was safe. The cemetery’s stones were undisturbed. It took two and a-half days of careful work by Park Authority maintenance crews to remove the tree and protect the site.

The crew:



Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.  Photos courtesy of Yvonne Johnson and Martin Graves.


Frogsicles and Snow-Melting Plants: Nature Faces Down Winter

winterwalk-ECLYou might think you’re pretty clever with those chemical hand warmers and polyester layers to keep you warm and toasty, but the plants and animals around you have developed some pretty cool tricks of their own to cope with blustery winter weather.

Consider the wood frog. This critter can freeze solid in the winter. It has no heartbeat and doesn’t breathe, but when the weather warms up, it thaws out good as new. Most frogs don’t take things that far, but Ellanor C. Lawrence Park naturalist John Shafer says a lot of amphibians go through chemical and physiological changes to protect their cells during winter’s cold. Because there is moisture in cells, if that moisture freezes and expands in the winter, cell walls could pop. Certain amphibians have developed something that amounts to cellular antifreeze to keep that from happening.

It’s well-known that bears just don’t bother with winter at all and go into a period of hibernation. Of course, we don’t see many bears here in Fairfax County, but we do have one local hibernator — woodchucks. Don’t bother looking for them again until spring.

Some animals enter into a hibernation-like state known as brumation. They don’t really sleep like a hibernating bear, but their metabolisms slow way down. When the weather warms, you may see them up and around again, until the next cold front passes through. Chickadees can go through a brumation cycle every night, dropping their body temperatures way down after dark and warming them back up again so they can fly in the morning.

Shafer says gray squirrels are a prime example of animals that go into a state of torpor to shrug off the weather. He explains that in brumation, animals shut down some of their body systems. “Torpor is more like you have the flu and you stay in bed and sleep for three days,” says Shafer. “If you get a snowstorm, you don’t see the squirrels because they’re just like, eh, forget it. When it warms back up, they’ll come out and mess around.”


Some animals are just naturally good planners and never have to leave their homes to get a winter snack. Tony Bulmer, another of the Park Authority naturalists at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, says that when chipmunks get hungry during the winter, they just eat from their pile of stored food. They can sleep on top of the stockpile and work their way down. “When it’s about done, it’s time to come out,” adds Bulmer.

Beavers like to plan ahead, too. Shafer says, “They store food, usually branches that they shove into the mud under the surface of the water. So, even if the whole pond freezes, they can come out of the lodge in their under-surface entrance, grab the food they’ve cached, just like our chipmunk, and then bring it back into the lodge to eat.”

HM Burke_0173

You’re also less likely to see turtles popping up for air during the winter. Turtles can go down to the bottom of a pond and dissolve oxygen out of various parts of their skin during the whole winter. Bulmer says they can absorb or exchange just enough oxygen through the water to survive.

Water fowl have yet another coping mechanism. Some ducks and geese can shut certain veins off in their feet to prevent freezing. Bulmer says you might see them standing with one foot out on the ice.

When it comes to insects, you may not see adults flying around, but whatever eggs were laid in the fall are slowly developing into another stage. Those insect eggs can be just about anywhere, in the ground or in the trees.

Many people hope a cold winter will mean fewer of those annoying insects come spring, such as mosquitoes and ticks, but that’s not likely to happen around here. FCPA Ecologist Kristen Sinclair notes, “Everything has a point where it’s going to die, but it has to be really cold for a long time.” And when it comes to ticks, Sinclair says they’re “pretty darn active year round.”

In general, plants are more likely to react badly to temperature changes than animals. For instance, Bulmer says that with trees, “If we get five or six days that are 55 or warmer, it takes them out of the state of rest and they start producing buds. Then, if it freezes again, that can hurt the tree by injuring new buds.” Plants can’t put a bud under a bud, so those early buds can become a sort of dead spot on the plant.

One of the area’s earliest blooming plants is a native that uses chemistry to simply outsmart the weather. Shafer explains, “Skunk cabbage will actually heat up and melt itself a hole in the snow cover early in the spring so it can bloom and come up and get started.” Feel free to marvel at its cleverness, but you probably don’t want to take too big a sniff of this aptly-named plant.

More about winter wildlife

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