Showing Up Early to Nature’s Party

Here cicadas, there cicadas, everywhere……

Cicada 3

Nature glories in being mysterious, but recently she has been downright confusing. Why cicadas now? These clumsy, noisy creatures are bumbling through the air looking for a mate but not having much success. Turns out that the raucous critters are four years too early.

Back in 2004, millions of periodic cicadas in Fairfax County created a din rivaling that of a lawn mower. These cicadas were to spend their 17 formative years underground as a larva quietly sipping sap from tree roots. Then, in a mysterious synchrony, they would emerge to shed their exoskeleton above ground. They would then leave a crispy, tan exuvae behind as they fly off in their adult form.

So why, suddenly, a 13-year cycle instead of 17? First, a little about these insects.

Weird looking, but not harmful

Cicadas cannot bite or chew, nor can they sting, so they pose no risk to curious kids. Cicada 2aThey can use their beak-like proboscis to pierce twigs to consume tree fluids. They are a scrumptious treat for most wildlife from birds to mammals to fish to fungus, and with only a short life as an adult, under two weeks, the periodic cicadas typically survive by overwhelming their predators with sheer numbers. As large and noisy as these insects are, they are easily found and munched. Those who do not get eaten get to mate.

As adults, that’s the main goal for cicadas — find a mate. Females quietly cruise while the males beat a come-hither call with their bodies. As a result, a lot of noise.

Cicada 1The lucky surviving females lay their eggs in thin twigs on trees and then die. The twigs eventually snap, resulting in dead leaves called flagging that hangs off tree tops. The tiny larvae sup on the fluids in the twig, grow, and soon fall to the ground. There they burrow underground to start their count to 17 (or 13 if that is their cycle). This elegant dance takes but a few weeks, and then the tree tops are quiet again.

Periodic cicadas baffle humans, even when they are expected. How can they count to 17? How do they all emerge at the same time? Why are they flying into my face? Why are they all over the road? Cicadas were pre-Ice Age residents, and our dominance of the landscape is a relatively recent phenomenon. As the ground cicadas dig into is paved over, the patient larvae emerge only to bump their heads and lose the chance to mate or be a meal to a grateful predator.

Do cicadas count?

The early emergence of the periodic cicadas is not a new phenomenon. Chris Simon, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, surmised that the cicadas have four-year development cycles, which could explain why “stragglers,” cicadas that are four years too early or too late to the party, regularly occur. Others proffer that global warming could speed up the larvae development. Scientists estimate that this spring’s emerging population represented ten or less percent of the total population. If that’s accurate, just wait ’til 2021!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACicadas may creep out humans with their size, noise and numbers, but they shout the primacy of nature. For a few short weeks, nature cannot and will not be ignored. That alone makes the mystery of the cicada inspiring. Perhaps that is why genus name is Magicicada.

For now, Fairfax County residents can marvel at the noisy, bumbling mystery. We may never know all the answers but can take joy in the wonder.

Author Suzanne Holland is the Assistant Manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale, Va. Photos provided by Park Authority staff and photographer Tuan Pham.

Scott’s Run: Terrific, Torrential, Treasured and Terrifying

Scott's Run waterfall 2One of the most scenic parks in Fairfax County is also among the most jeopardized and potentially dangerous.

The park is Scott’s Run Nature Preserve, and it needs a little love. The preserve’s troubles are an age-old issue – folks who don’t understand the consequences of their actions and a lack of understanding about how nature works. (Video)

The park draws people because it is remote and beautiful, but some visitors take advantage of that to drink alcohol illegally and to leave the site trashed. Trash is a blight Scott's Run, trash 5-19-17that ruins the next visitor’s park experience and that eventually floats downstream in the Potomac River into the Chesapeake Bay, causing pollution and impacting wildlife. The wrapper you drop in the woods can choke a turtle or a fish downstream.

Scott’s Run is blessed and cursed by beautiful sections of stream that invite people to wade or swim, but wading and swimming in the stream is illegal, unsafe and irresponsible.

Scott’s Run starts in one of the highest spots in Fairfax County, under the towering buildings of Tysons, and it flows into the Potomac River in an area called The Potomac Gorge. The Gorge is special, probably more special than most folks in the Washington area realize. The park’s terrain and the Potomac River’s floodwaters that transport seed from the Shenandoah Mountains are a combination that has created one of the rarest biological ecosystems in the mid-Atlantic. There are floodplains, rocky cliffs, and narrow valleys that were carved over eons by the erosive forces of the Potomac River. It is a union of rocks and river that is home to many unusual plants and animals.

Scott's Run waterfall 2-editBecause Scott’s Run is a nature preserve, the park’s entire area and all its resources are protected, including the creeks and streams. Wading and swimming are not allowed for a couple of reasons. First, the water can be polluted by runoff from upstream. Second, wading and swimming damage the fragile composition of the stream bed and possibly harm the area’s unusual combinations of plants and animals.

In addition, the beauty of the gorge’s carved valley is deceptively dangerous.

Water’s thunderous power is obvious at one of the gorge’s feature attractions, the cascades and falls at Great Falls National Park. But that’s not the only place along the Potomac River that the gorge creates quick, threatening currents speckled with underwater hazards.

The large creek flowing through the western end of Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is surrounded by steep hills. When there is rain, water falling on the roads and rooftops of Tysons flows not into the ground but rushes over those impermeable surfaces into Scott’s Run. By the time the creek reaches the park, it has swollen into a massive amount of water. At the preserve, the steep hills act like a funnel. Combine the swelling waters from upstream with the water rushing down the steep slopes of the park into the narrow canyons of the creek, and water levels can leap upwards in just moments. Those quiet waters become a raging maelstrom that can knock over a human and drag him underwater into twisting, treacherous currents. People can die in these waters.

That’s why swimming and wading are prohibited. Swimmers at Scott’s Run are in danger if waters rise. Waders are exposed to water that could be polluted, and waders kick up stones that provide shelter and housing for tiny animals. Yet the perception of Scott’s Run as a safe swimming hole persists, fueled by social media posts of people on rocks around the creek and near its low waterfall.

Fairfax County Park Authority regulation 1.21 states that swimming, bathing, and wading are prohibited in parkland bodies of water. Scott's Run - Lt. Jason Allegra, FCPA and John Callow, Riverbend Park Site ManagerThe Fairfax County Police Department is going to enforce those rules this summer. The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department website says nearly three out of four times that the department responds to a river emergency something has happened along the shoreline, not in or near a boat. There have been rescues of people trapped by high water in Scott’s Run.

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is one of the most beautiful, alluring, remarkable parks of the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit the park, take care of it, and enjoy this special place responsibly.

And arrive safe and sound at home after you visit.

Author John Callow is the Manager of Riverbend Park, which sits a short distance upstream from Scott’s Run Nature Preserve. Co-author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Park Authority.

Discovery Trail 2017: Fairfax County’s 275th Birthday

#WhereIsLordFairfax?Disc Trail

Got summer plans? We hope they include a tour of your local parks. In addition to tons of fun, you could bring home a prize package or a free bike after a park tour along the Discovery Trail.

Our popular Discovery Trail Map returns for a fourth straight summer of fun, and in celebration of Fairfax County’s 275th anniversary, this year’s map chronicles milestone moments in each featured park’s history. Best of all this year, the program is expanding so that both children and adults are eligible to win.

Here’s how it works:

  • Pick up a map at any staffed Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) location, any Fairfax County Public Library, any of the five Northern Virginia Spokes, Etc. locations, your Board of Supervisor’s office, or download one from
  • Visit eight of the 12 featured parks between May 27 and September 4, 2017.
  • Collect a sticker at each site, and place it in the corresponding box on your map.
  • Once you’ve collected eight stickers, you qualify for a prize pack valued at $93 that includes passes to more summer fun. You’ll also be entered in a drawing to win one of four bikes donated through the Fairfax County Park Foundation by Spokes Etc. and Trek.
  • Turn in your completed map at the main office at Burke Lake Park, Lake Accotink Park, or Lake Fairfax Park to get the prize package that includes admission tickets for a round of mini-golf, a carousel ride, a train ride, a tour boat ride, a pedal boat outing, camping, a wagon ride, a RECenter pass, AND a boat rental!
  • While you’re there, fill out a form to enter the drawing for a bike. Disc Trail - Spokes and Bike 1

Four people will take home bicycles. One winner will come from each of four groups – preschoolers through second grade, grades three through seven, grades eight through 12, and adults age 18 and older.

Participating sites are Burke Lake Park, Colvin Run Mill, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, Frying Pan Farm Park, Green Spring Gardens, Hidden Oaks Nature Center, Hidden Pond Nature Center, Huntley Meadows Park, Lake Accotink Park, Lake Fairfax Park,  Riverbend Park, and Sully Historic Site. Directions to each of the parks can be found on the Park Authority website and in Parktakes magazine.

While at the parks, keep an eye out for Thomas, Baron Cameron, sixth Lord Fairfax. He was an influential friend of George Washington and was the only English titled nobleman ever to reside permanently in the colonies. Lord Fairfax was born in England in 1693, inherited the land between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers ranging from the Chesapeake Bay to the Shenandoah Mountains, and moved to Virginia permanently in 1742. In 1748, Washington was one of the men he hired to survey his land. The two remained close until Fairfax’s death in 1781.

(You’re already learning stuff!)

Disc Trail - Lord Fairfax_051117_0003If you happen to encounter a cardboard cutout of Thomas, snap a selfie with him and upload it to our Instagram page with the hashtag #WhereIsLordFairfax. The best photo of each week wins a prize. Check the FCPA Facebook page weekly for clues about Lord Fairfax’s whereabouts.

Each featured site on the map has a connection to Fairfax County history. One of the parks exists because of Fort Belvoir, another was a private recreation facility, and a third was home to illegal moonshining. Learn which one was almost an airport. One housed a 19th century biracial church, and one almost became a lake.

The Discovery Trail Map is a great way for students to keep the knowledge flowing during summer months, for families to explore nature and history close to home, and for you to learn about your fabulous local parks.

So, pick up or download your Discovery Trail Map, explore your parks and win!

Co-Author Karen Thayer is the editor of the Park Authority’s Parktakes Magazine, and co-author David Ochs is the editor of the agency’s ResOURces newsletter.


History by the Shovelful at Colvin Run Mill


Update: May 15, 2017


nails2Nailed it.

Renovations are underway at the Colvin Run Mill Historic Site’s miller’s house, and pleasant, historic surprises are being discovered. Consider this one an unintentional time capsule.

The house is getting new shingles, and it may not be surprising that nails were found during the renovation – but these nails from the building’s roof appear to be originals from the time of the house’s construction. The Park Authority’s Heritage Conservation Branch Manager, David Buchta, confirmed that when he examined them.

“They are all hand headed and appear to have been made from nail stock,” said Colvin Run Mill Site Manager Mike Henry.

Site Historian Kathryn Blackwell said the nail stock production likely came “at a time between hand-forged and machine made, so they’re a really interesting find!”

The conservation work at the Colvin Miller’s House by the Heritage Conservation Branch is nearing completion. “Exterior work includes a new cedar shingle roof, extensive masonry work, which removed inappropriate mortar applications, and new shutters,” Buchta said. “The interior work is highlighted by reinforcement of second floor joists, historically accurate painting, and re-created custom millwork for doors and moldings.”

May 2, 2016

CRM-Arch-WorkBiggest mole holes you’ve ever seen? Nope, just test pits being dug by Fairfax County Park Authority archaeologists in a new search to uncover the past at the Colvin Run Mill Historic Site.

Colvin Run’s main feature is a restored and working mill – a water-powered technological marvel built around 1811. But among the other structures on the site is the Miller’s House, home to the families that operated the mill. In 2011, a formal Historic Structures Report for the house identified problems with the structure and recommended steps needed to preserve and maintain the facility for generations to come.

Funded by bond money, that treatment plan is now set to be implemented. One of the proposed improvements is the installation of a ramp that will allow mobility-impaired patrons to experience the building. Because installation will disturb the ground at the historic site, archaeology began on the property before work commences. Swinging into action, archaeologists Alisa Pettitt and Jonathan Mayes from the Park Authority’s Cultural Resource Management and Protection Branch mapped a grid around the house and began to dig.


Documenting every shovelful of earth they turned, the team conducted a systematic search around the house, uncovering artifacts and clues as they went. More than two dozen shovel test pits were opened and explored. Combining the information they uncover with historic documents, the archaeologists will be able to piece together some of the activities that occurred at the Miller’s House. Their work will reveal any past features that might be present and, hopefully, provide data that will both assist in the restoration and interpretation of the building.

So what did they find?

During excavations at the house, archaeologists discovered intact features and an intact soil layer that had not been impacted by modern activities. Although most of the artifacts recovered from tests were architectural, such as bricks, nails, and window glass, there were several unique finds. A ceramic doll arm, discovered on the east side of the house, evoked images of a young child playing in the yard on a spring morning. A piece of lead shot from the west side of the house called to mind hunting activities. A small fragment of Jackfield ceramic, which dates to the late 18th or early 19th century, was usually made in the form of coffee or tea services, suggesting an important activity of the time.  The excavation, analysis and preservation of these and other artifacts offer a window into the lives of the folks who lived and worked at this historic mill.

While the final analysis and report has yet to be written, the process of uncovering fragments of the past has added an additional sense of excitement to the restoration project. The story of the Miller’s House and its generations of inhabitants will continue to unfold one shovelful of clues at a time.

Colvin Run Mill Historic Site is located at 10017 Colvin Run Road in Great Falls, VA.


Author Mike Henry is the Site Manager at Colvin Run Mill. Co-author Dr. Elizabeth Crowell is the Cultural Resource Management and Protection Branch Manager for the Park Authority.

Hidden Pond’s Almanac

Following nature step-by-step


How would you like a personal guide to lead you step-by-step through the changes occurring in nature as spring passes into summer? We’d like to offer you Jim Pomeroy, the retired site manager of Hidden Pond Nature Center in Springfield, Va.

Jim used his experience at the park to create an almanac that presents a pretty good picture of what’s going on at any given time in nature at the park. You can use the almanac, with a little adjustment, to learn about things that are happening in your own yard or in a nearby park.

Hidden Pond’s monthly almanac is kept up to date on Hidden Pond’s website. We’ll get you started here with Jim’s notes for May 2017.



Almanac for May, 2017


Natural events and fearless predictions based upon 30 years of observations at Hidden Pond. Your observations may vary. Hidden Pond is not responsible for errors, erratic behavior or other whims of nature.

First Week

The bright object in the east after sunset is the giant planet Jupiter. Red admiral butterflies now pass through on their way north. Leaves are usually all the way out by now. Maple leaves as big as your fist signal it’s safe to plant corn. Our local marsupial, the possum, has as many as 13 young that emerge now from mother’s pouch. Pink lady’s slippers are in bloom. These plants may live 100 years, though they are nearly impossible to transplant. Black locust trees bloom with white pea-like fragrant flowers. The call of the gray tree frog, a ragged, drawn-out chirp, can be heard coming from tree tops.

Second Week

There’s a full moon on May 10. Spectacular luna moths Luna Moth, Westmorelandemerge from the cocoons in which they spent the winter, mate, lay eggs on walnut, persimmon and hickory trees, and then die. Young cardinals and robins have fledged (left the nest). Not yet able to fly, they are vulnerable to cat attack. White-eyed vireos have arrived from South America. Heard more often than seen, they seem to say “Quick, under the window Chip,” or something like that. Spring ephemerals (wildflowers that appear briefly) have withered and been absorbed into the forest floor.

Third Week

Blog edit-Snapping turtle

Snapping turtles lay eggs in sunny places, sometimes hundreds of feet from water. The sex of baby turtles is in part determined by the temperature of the site; warm sites favor females, cooler sites favor males. Ox-eye daisies are in bloom. White pine trees release clouds of pollen, which is carried from tree to tree by the wind. Tiny American toads about one centimeter long, the result of this year’s spawning, leave the water. Many, no doubt, will be eaten by birds.

Fourth Week

Honeysuckle and multiflora rose, two invasive but fragrant plants, fill the air with perfume. Mountain laurel is in bloom. Shad bush berries ripen; robins and catbirds seem reckless in their determination to eat every last berry. The first lightning bugs (beetles, actually) appear at nightfall. They include movement with their flash, which for some species gives the impression that the beetles are constantly ascending.Blog edit-Bull frog

Bull frogs lay eggs. Their tadpoles will take a year to develop into adult frogs.

Gardening with Children

GS Children's Garden 2I held my first garden party 55 years ago when I was 12. We were celebrating the start of a new school year. Nine of my girlfriends and a cousin my mother made me include were invited. We felt very grown up. My grandfather and parents were an integral part of the event. Earlier in the spring, months before thoughts of a garden party, my grandfather and I scattered flower seeds that I helped him harvest in the fall. I don’t recall what kind, but I suspect zinnias. I had my own special area of the garden that was my responsibility, and on party day I proudly showed off the flowers. I’m sure I exaggerated how hard I worked all summer tending plants, but I remember being happy and, I’m sure, boastful.

For the party, my father built a long table on the lawn, and my mother planned a magical afternoon. We each picked flowers, and my grandfather kept repeating, “Altenzione i fiori preziosi. Non passo su di loro.” (Be careful of the precious flowers. Do not step on them.) My mother showed us how to arrange flowers for table decorations, and we made flower crowns to wear. My grandfather took us to the vegetable garden to harvest tomatoes, basil and oregano. Each of us made our own pizza, and the adults supervised as we cooked on the grill.

I often wonder if that afternoon cemented my love of gardening and entertaining. The cousin I didn’t want included is now one of my dearest friends. She is an extraordinary gardener and, like me, she credits my mother and our grandfather for instilling her passion for gardening. I’ve become a Green Spring Master Gardener, and my cousin is probing the North Carolina Extension Service for a Master Gardener program near her.

1 Fort CarsonIt’s never too early to garden with children. Know what your children like, work in your garden, and engage the children in activities. Do they like to get muddy? Can they tolerate dirty hands? Teach them the science of good soil and why plants need sun and water. Don’t fear teaching terms like photosynthesis, even to your preschooler. Exposure, exposure, exposure. I won a schoolwide science fair in fourth grade on the topic photosynthesis. The judges were wowed!

2 Woodley WonderworksHelp young gardeners experience success by selecting easy-to-grow plants like zucchini, radishes, and sunflowers. Growing their own veggies will encourage them to eat healthy. A child’s self-esteem will grow when he harvests a cucumber from his own garden. You don’t need a lot of space. Lean a dollar store trellis against an outside wall and grow beans or other edible vines. Grow sweet, cherry tomatoes or herbs in a container.

Supplement the hands-on experience of gardening with books and field trips. Green Spring Gardens has a library of gardening books for children to read and explore on site. It also has a fabulous children’s garden with activity sheets. Whitney Cohen and John Fisher wrote “The Book of Gardening Projects for Kids.” It’s filled with great advice and activities, even if the parent is not an enthusiastic gardener. It has suggestions on how to enhance the gardening experience.

Gardening with your children will give them a lifetime of love and respect for nature. So get your hands dirty. Experience, and make memories with your kids.

Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Green Spring Gardens Master Gardener.


Getting Down to Earth at Springfest

Spring Fest_042515_0211

“The earth is what we all have in common.” Wendell Berry, American novelist and environmental activist

On the first Arbor Day in 1872, an estimated one million trees were planted in Nebraska as pioneers realized that trees and shrubs were needed as windbreaks and fuel, for building materials and shade, and to keep soil in place. Nearly 100 years later, 20 million people turned out from coast to coast in celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970 to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment.

On April 29, 2017, the Clean Fairfax Council and the Fairfax County Park Authority join forces to carry on the traditions of both of these historic movements with a day of environmental activities at Springfest, which will take place for the first time at the Sully Historic Site.

Both Clean Fairfax and the Park Authority have a mission to preserve and protect the environment while spreading a message of good stewardship. They will do just that through activities for children and adults that combine fun with a dose of education and show how easy good stewardship is.

Clean Fairfax Executive Director Jen Cole says one of her goals with Springfest is to “put the earth back in Earth Day.” That will literally happen this year with the help of the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES). The agency will bring a contractor to Springfest for the first time to offer a food composting service on site. Yellow barrels will be provided for food waste, and visitors can learn about the benefits of composting – from reducing waste to helping to grow food.

How does that food grow? Springfest visitors will have a chance to learn first-hand from local growers and producers as the event helps kick off the Park Authority’s 2017 Farmers Markets. It’s a chance to chat with some of the folks who will be providing fresh fruits, vegetables and other farm products throughout the growing season.

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“You can eat healthy and it doesn’t have to be expensive,” says Cole, who adds that it’s good for children to see that “everything doesn’t come wrapped in plastic.” Kids can learn where their food comes from and how easy it is to grow your own, even if that means just a couple of planters on the balcony for peppers or tomatoes.

All of the non-food vendors who attend Springfest are required to get in the Arbor Day/Earth Day spirit by including some kind of environmental component to their display. Kids can get an Environmental Passport at the Clean Fairfax booth and make the rounds at Springfest, collecting stickers or stamps as they visit each vendor and pick up some tidbit about the environment. They can return to Clean Fairfax at the end of the day with their passports and collect a small prize, usually a packet of seeds.

Since things tend to slow down a bit later in the day, Cole says she enjoys taking some time with the kids to ask about the “most awesome” things they did. Inevitably, Cole says the children don’t talk about their pony rides or time in the bounce house. They share stories about “how they made a bird feeder out of a Coke bottle, or how they made a grocery bag, or what they learned about bees and how honey is made.”

Budding naturalists will be able to put themselves to the test this year with a tree scavenger hunt among the beautiful tree specimens on the Sully property. Armed with a poster filled with information about trees, leaves and bark, kids can play detective and try to identify the trees they see.

Pollution on both the land and in our waters threatens plant and animal life, so another component of the environmental message is a reduction in waste. Don’t look for any bottled water at Sully. Fairfax Water will be on site with a “water bar” to keep everyone fully hydrated. Don’t expect to see any polystyrene or Styrofoam either. Vendors are banned from using those polluters.

Springfest 2017 hopes to bring home the point that naturalist John Muir once made, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

Find common ground and learn about your place in the environment at Sully Historic Site on April 29 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free!

Find out more information at the following link: