Monthly Archives: April 2020

Who’s Caring for the Park Authority’s Nature Center Animals While Parks are Closed?

It usually takes a village to care for the animals who live in the exhibits at the county’s nature centers. A combination of staff, volunteers and visitors help feed the critters and provide them with human interaction. These days, with volunteers at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, a slimmed down staff remains on the job to keep the animals healthy until park facilities reopen.

Hidden Oaks

Under normal circumstances at Hidden Oaks Nature Center, Avery Gunther oversees 16 animal care volunteers, half of whom are teens gaining science experience and service hours. She normally uses two or three volunteers a day to feed 23 live animals ranging from the shy millipede to the venomous copperhead snake. The volunteers also help maintain the 17 tanks in the nature center that the reptiles, amphibians, insects, arthropods, crustaceans, and a hamster call home. Since parks were closed, Gunther now has responsibility for all the feeding, cleaning, and chatting up duties.

The nature center purchases many of the animals’ menu items, including crickets, mealworms, reptile food sticks, vegetables and fruit. Staff members raise some earthworms for feeding. Other foods are found outdoors in nature, a search that often used to fall to volunteers.

The nature center’s favorite creature is an Aussie named Spike. This bearded dragon is an engaging lizard who helps to teach compare-and-contrast lessons on subjects such as desert vs. woodland animals and dinosaurs vs. reptiles. Although he looks like a fierce dinosaur, he is a crowd favorite – especially when mealworm treats are on the menu.

With fewer people in the nature center, Gunther believes the animals may be a little more relaxed these days because nobody is forgetting the guidelines and tapping on aquariums and vivariums. It’s a good reminder to visitors to be on their best behavior when the nature center reopens!

With visitors gone, it’s a bit easier to do some of the deep cleaning of tanks. However, cleaning larger tanks, especially the snapping turtle indoor pond, has become a bigger challenge since this is usually a two-person job that takes several hours.

While the nature center’s doors are closed, Gunther has been sending updates to the 23 sponsors who have virtually adopted individual site critters by providing funds to help with feeding and vet bills. With more than 33 years of experience with the Park Authority, Gunther is sharing her knowledge, skills and abilities with young and old, human and reptile, vegetarian and carnivore.

Hidden Pond

Hidden Pond Nature Center cares for 35 animals, including snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, spiders, and fish in its displays. Since the COVID-19 closure, staffer Brian Umanzor has been handling much of the animal care and exhibit upkeep, with a little help from the site manager and a seasonal employee. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the area, most of the feedings and about half of the exhibit upkeep duties were carried out by volunteers.

Most of the foods used for mealtime are purchased from local pet shops or suppliers. For the aquatic species that eat fish, the nature center prefers catching its own fish to reduce the risk of spreading a disease in the tanks from fish bought at pet shops. The main worry is fungal infections spreading from critters, such as goldfish, into the nature center’s aquatic set-ups. There are some risks from wild-caught fish, too, but the nature center has had good success with its current procedures.

Visitors to Hidden Pond are often given the opportunity to interact with the animals during visits, through programs, and at events such as nature-themed birthday parties. Manager Mike McCaffrey doesn’t think the animals are reacting in any negative way to being handled less. He notes that many of the animals on exhibit are former “pets” that have been donated to the center. They have long been acclimated to being around people and should have no problem when visitors return.

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) has 13 animals on display to help educate and engage the public. There is a painted turtle, common snapping turtle, copperhead, Eastern rat snake, corn snake, bull frog and yellow bullhead catfish. The park has two five-lined skinks, two red-eared sliders and two grey tree frogs.

In the past, there have been 8 to 12 student volunteers helping care for the animals under the direction of the animal care supervisor, Justin Lott. It’s an opportunity for the students to gain experience and earn service hours. Currently, Lott is working with park staff to handle animal care.

The meals aren’t likely to sound too appealing to you, but the snakes and snapping turtle enjoy eating previously frozen mice of various sizes. The catfish gets bottom-feeder specific food tabs, and the turtles get food sticks. The frogs and skinks get crickets. The turtles and bull frog dine on earthworms, too. Some of the food fed to the animals is purchased from pet stores, while earthworms and other small invertebrates are readily available by searching outside.

While ECLP has been missing its volunteers, the staff is making sure there is always someone available to handle animal care at the visitor center. Lott has been coming in regularly to care for the venomous copperhead snake, which needs specific care performed only by trained staff. Routine feedings and animal care are performed whether or not visitors are present. In the past, any tank changes and filter cleanings were usually done when the visitor center was closed.

The exhibit turtles react to people when they are near because they associate people with meals. With no public visitors these days, the turtles get excited when they see the only person coming in for the day to feed them. Long-term, the lack of human activity may have an impact on the park’s ability to keep its snakes accustomed to being handled regularly with groups. Having a snake that is calm and used to being handled is important to the success of many of the park’s programs for visitors.

Whenever visitors return to the parks, the animals will be ready and waiting for the extra company.

Author Carol Ochs compiled this story with the assistance of Hidden Oaks Visitor Services Manager Suzanne Holland, Hidden Pond Manager Mike McCaffrey and ECLP Naturalist/Scout Coordinator Lara Dolata.


Caring for the New Kids on the Block During the Time of COVID-19


Farmer Olivia Madigan feeding one of the new kids.


With more than 100 animals in its care, Frying Pan Farm Park has long been a magnet for families and local animal lovers, especially in springtime. That’s when the farm sees the majority of its baby animal births, and who can resist a cute kid, calf, lamb or piglet?

Though visitors are restricted in the animal areas this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, farmers remain hard at work behind the scenes caring for all the barnyard critters.

Frying Pan is a working farm that preserves and interprets farm life of the 1920s to 1950s. The farm has dairy and beef cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, peafowl, ducks, turkeys, and cats. Four farmers are currently handling all the feeding and animal care duties. Two other groups of four are trained and ready should anyone in the primary cohort get sick or need to go into quarantine. In such a suburban region, it is hard to find other Park Authority staff with the skills needed to care for horses, cows and other farm animals.

Fortunately, much like grocery stores, farm feed stores are considered essential businesses and are continuing to provide hay, grain, customized feed blends, minerals and other supplements. Unlike grocery stores, the feed stores have not been struggling with any supply chain issues at this time.

IMG_7933With limited staff to cover feedings three times a day/seven days a week, the team’s ability to take a day off or get a break is limited. However, the farmers are all committed to provision of exceptional animal care. Staff members say the animals don’t seem to be reacting to the absence of visitors, but the younger animals are not getting acclimated to visitors as they usually would.

News about animal births, and photos of the youngsters, can still be found on the Park Authority’s website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. News of these births accompanied by video or photos is always popular!

IMG_7915It can get lonely on 130 acres, and Farmer Paul and staff are looking forward to the day when visitors can return to Frying Pan to see all the newborns and the daily changes happening on the farm.


Create a Dog Agility Course in Your Own Back Yard

Spending more time than usual with your dog these days? Put the time to good use with these tips from one of the Park Authority’s dog obedience and agility instructors.

SR Dog Obedience_190411_0064

Kids are doing their school lessons from home these days. Why not a little homeschooling for your dog?

COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of obedience and agility classes for now, but pet owners can use this time to practice some basic obedience behaviors with their dogs so they will be ready when classes begin again. All the Park Authority’s upper-level classes require a dog to be able to sit, lie down, stay and come. Practice those commands in your back yard, front yard or down the street in front of a neighbor’s house.

Dogs are situational learners, so get out and explore and ask your dog to do those behaviors on his leash in new areas.  You might be surprised to find that it will be hard for them when they have lots of different smells and things happening around them.

If you think you might want to explore our agility programs, you can start by teaching some basic skills to get your dog ready.

Use a card table, place a towel or blanket over it, and ask your dog to tunnel through it. This will become the tunnel and chute behavior in class. (“Tunnel” is the command word)

If you own a hoola hoop, place the hoop in either hand. Keeping one edge on the ground, ask your dog to walk through it from one side to the other and then back again. This will help get the dog get ready for the tire jump. (“Tire” is the command)

You can use a couple of bricks and a broom stick to teach your dog to jump. Place the bricks on the ground and lay the broomstick over the top. Keep this low. You don’t need height. You just need to have the dog pick up his back feet to jump. This is the skill we will need in class. (“Jump” or “Over” is the command)

Another exercise will help your dog learn where his feet and back end are located. This can be taught by placing a ladder on the ground. Ask the dog to walk the ladder keeping his feet and legs between the rails and stepping over the rungs. (“Walk It” is the command)

Dog Agility_042516_0090Dogs will also need a skill called two on and two off. To teach this behavior, take a small butter or yogurt lid, put a treat on top and place it at the bottom of the stairs. With your dog on leash, ask him to walk down the stairs and at the bottom keep the two front feet on the landing (where the treat is) and the back two feet and the rest of the body still on the staircase. (“Target” or “Bottom” is the command)

Dogs can be taught all of these skills by positive reinforcement with treats, a marker word or a clicker. Kids can help, too, with a little parental supervision. Be enthusiastic, make it fun, but keep it safe!

I hope this gives you something to work on during our days away and that we will see you in one of our Pet Place programs soon.

The Fairfax County Park Authority has one of the largest dog training programs in Northern Virginia offering everything from puppy, general obedience and agility classes to competition classes. There’s even a camp for kids and their dogs. Go to Parktakes online and search the Pet Place category to see a complete list of canine classes.

Author Debbie Barrows is an instructor with the Park Authority. She can be reached at

Don’t Fawn Over Fawns

Lake FX Deer_062713_0958

Maybe it’s the spots. Or the cute faces. Or those wobbly legs. There’s just something so sweet about baby deer that it brings out the protective instinct in humans.

Unfortunately, too much fawning over fawns can be harmful to them.

April through July is the peak time for births among the white-tailed deer in Virginia, and you may run across a young deer bedded down along a trail or curled up in your backyard that appears to be abandoned. Fairfax County Wildlife Biologist Katherine Edwards warns: “If you see a fawn that appears abandoned, leave it alone.”

Back Yard Fawn 034In almost all cases, fawns are only temporarily left by their mothers for protection and don’t need any help from you. Edwards explains, “People don’t often see that mother deer return at dawn and dusk to move and/or nurse their young. Keep children and pets away and give the fawn space to allow the doe to return to its baby.”

Don’t be a fawn “kidnapper!”

If you or someone you know has already handled or “rescued” a fawn, return it immediately to the exact place where you found if less than 24 hours have passed. Its mother will be looking for it.

Do seek help if you see a fawn that is showing obvious signs of injury or distress. Call on the experts if you see a fawn that is wandering and crying incessantly, has swollen eyes, has visible wounds or broken bones, or if there is a dead lactating doe nearby. If you see these signs, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, veterinarian or the Animal Protection Police for further assistance and instruction.

If you have questions about whether an animal needs help, contact the professionals. Call the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline toll-free at 1-855-571-9003, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or search online to locate a licensed wildlife rehabilitator,  The Fairfax County Animal Protection Police can be reached through the police non-emergency line at 703-691-2131.

Learn When Wild Animals May Need a Little Human Help

Owl 1Frying Pan Farm Park keeps close tabs on the all the new baby animals that arrive in the barn each spring, but who looks after youngsters in the wild? Animal parents usually do just fine taking care of their young without any human intervention. However, there are times even wildlife could use a little assist.

In Fairfax County, the Animal Protection Police Officers are among the folks to call if you’re concerned about the welfare of any wild animals you may spot in your parks or in your neighborhood. This is baby boom time in nature, and the officers respond to numerous calls each year about wildlife that appear to be orphaned or abandoned. In most cases, the animals are probably just sitting tight until their parents arrive with a meal.

DSC_0184There are some signs that indicate an animal may be in trouble. The police say an animal may need help if it:

  • Shows signs of flies, worms or maggots, which look like grains of rice
  • Was caught by a cat or dog
  • Shows signs of trauma, such as an open wound, bleeding, or swelling
  • If the parents are known to be dead or are separated and cannot be united
  • Is very cold, thin or weak
  • Is on the ground unable to move
  • Is not fully furred or feathered


In December 2019, Animal Protection Officers were called when local residents discovered a bald eagle on the ground that appeared to be hurt and couldn’t fly.

After getting some TLC from professional wildlife rehabilitators, the eagle took flight weeks later at Burke Lake Park with hundreds of visitors watching as it dramatically spread its wings and returned to its natural habitat.DSC_7012

The Animal Protection Police say some of the wildlife most frequently found and “rescued” in Fairfax County include squirrels, red foxes, raccoons, rabbits, skunks, opossums and songbirds. If you’re worried about the condition of a wild animal, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, veterinarian or the Animal Protection Police for instruction on how or whether to intervene.

The police warn: “Please do not handle any baby wild animal and do not attempt to offer food or water unless instructed to do so by a professional. This can do more harm than good.” They report that the survival rates of rehabilitated animals are often low. A young animal’s best chance for survival is to receive natural care from its parents and remain wild.

If you have questions about whether an animal needs help, reach out to the professionals. If you want to locate a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, contact the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline toll-free at 1-855-571-9003. This helpline is available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 pm. Animal Protection Police can be reached through the Police non-emergency line at 703-691-2131. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries also provides information at:

The Origins of Camellia Sinensis – Better Known as Tea!

Whether you like to relax with a soothing cup of tea or find yourself doing a little stress-baking these days, Chef Laurie Bell offers some tea history and tea-infused recipes to make your day.

2 leaves and a bud brewedTea. Do you prepare it from loose leaf? From a teabag? Drink it plain? With milk, sugar or lemon? Do you drink green, oolong or black tea? There are so many styles of tea and ways to drink it. And there are lots of ways to cook and bake with tea, too!

Let’s explore the origins of tea and see how tea can be used as an ingredient in recipes.

There are over 5,000 years of tea history to explore, so this is just a drop in the teacup.

Around 2700 BC, Emperor Sheng Nong was sitting under a tree waiting for his water to boil. He was also known as the Divine Cultivator and credited in China for developing agriculture and herbal medicine. So, it is no wonder that he knew boiling water made it safer to drink. When a leaf fell into his water pot, an amazing aroma drifted through the air as the water turned a spring green hue. After tasting this intriguing infusion, tea was discovered!

In China, like most countries through history, as tea was introduced, it was originally quite expensive and rare, so it was consumed mainly by the rulers and the royal court. It was used as a form of medicine, a form of nutrition, and a form of money.

Tea originally was also blended with herbs, spices and vegetables as a form of nourishment, and today’s flavored and blended teas have a basis in that ancient tea history.

Tea was an integral part of Buddhist monks’ prayers as this beverage kept them awake for their long hours of meditation and also kept them calm and serene. It was this aspect of tea that Japanese monks studying in China took back with them to Japan around 800 AD.

Camellia Sinensis tea plant with flower

Camellia Sinensis tea plant with flower.

It was the early 1600s when Europeans first started trading tea with China and to a lesser extent, with Japan. Trade with western Europe was originally by sea while trade with Russia was overland – the Silk Road trading routes by camel caravans.

The Dutch and Portuguese were the first western Europeans to trade tea with China. Of course, this was green tea. Oxidation to turn green tea into oolong or black tea had not yet been discovered.

It was the Dutch who first introduced tea into the American colonies – at their colony of New Amsterdam – which eventually became New York.

But now – let’s explore ways to use tea as an ingredient in recipes.

Tea Shortbread Cookies

Tea Shortbread cookies.

Tea can be used in cooking and baking in several forms: ground dry as a spice or herb (in brownie and cookie doughs, cake and muffin batters, in truffles, cream cheese, fruit spreads, in brining liquids, spice rubs, smoking meats, to flavor mayonnaise, etc.); infused into a liquid (for sauces sweet and savory, ice creams, distilled spirits, fruit and wine punches, etc.); brewed (used as a brine, stock for soups, deglazing, sauces, cooking rice and pastas, as a poaching liquid for tea marbled eggs, seafood, poultry, fruit; in syrups, sorbets, etc.).

Here are two recipes to get you started: Crazy Chocolate Tea Cake and Tea Shortbread Cookies. Both can use grain stone-ground at historic Colvin Run Mill.

Author Chef Laurie Bell is a Certified Tea Specialist at Great Falls Tea Garden, LLC. She regularly presents tea-related programs at the Park Authority’s historic Colvin Run Mill. Visit her website at

Be Bear Aware this Spring

Bear 1You may be sleeping in and sticking closer to home these days, but for bears in Virginia, it’s time to end their hibernation and start doing the things that bears do.

Bear sightings are not common in Fairfax County, but there are usually a few bears spotted each spring and summer as they wander into residential areas in search for food.

Bear 2Black bears and cubs emerge from their winter dens in the state from March through May. They usually try to avoid humans, but the aroma of your food may be too hard to resist. Bears may be drawn your bird feeders, garbage, outdoor pet food, compost piles, fruit trees, beehives and berry-producing shrubs.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Fairfax County wildlife management specialist recommend the following simple steps to reduce your chances of encountering a black bear in your neighborhood:

  1. Secure your garbage in bear-resistant trash cans or store it in a secure building.
  2. If you have trash collection service, put your trash out the morning of the pickup, not the night before.
  3. Do not store household trash, or anything that smells like food, in vehicles or on porches or decks.
  4. Remove bird feeders if a bear is in the area and keep them down for 3-4 weeks. Birdfeeders are a common lure for bears in Fairfax County.
  5. Keep your grill clean. Do not dump drippings in your yard.
  6. Don’t put meat scraps in your compost pile.
  7. Don’t leave pet food outdoors.
  8. Make sure your neighbors are following the same recommendations.

Bear 3Black bears usually detect you and move on before you ever see them, but if you do encounter a bear, heed these suggestions from officials:

  • Respect the bear’s space. If you see a bear, enjoy watching from a distance.
  • Never run from a bear. Running could prompt the bear to chase. If in a group, stay together and make sure that any dogs stay leashed.
  • If a bear is up a tree on or near your property, give it space. Do not approach, and bring your pets inside to provide the bear a clear path to leave your property.
  • If the bear hasn’t seen you, calmly leave the area, while making a bit of noise so the bear will not be surprised by you.
  • If the bear has seen you, back away slowly while facing the bear.
  • If a bear huffs or “woofs,” clacks its teeth, growls or slaps the ground, it is warning you that you are too close.
  • Never feed a bear under any circumstances. In Virginia, it is illegal to feed bears on both public and private lands.

Report your bear sightings to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries through the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline at 855-571-9003, TTY 711. Unless the animal is sick or injured, or poses a threat to public safety, the Fairfax County Animal Protection Police do not take actions to remove bears from a neighborhood. Black bears have a natural fear of humans, and in most cases, would rather flee than encounter people.