Tag Archives: Alexandria

A Whiff of Winter Witch Hazel

Subtle fragrance is a calling card for winter walks, and many witch hazels have their name on that card.

We simply call her ‘Jelena.’

Jelena's colorful blooms and subtle fragrance brighten up a winter day.

Jelena’s colorful blooms and subtle fragrance brighten up a winter day. Photo by Brenda Skarphol

We say, “Did you see ‘Jelena’ in the parking lot?” She is beautiful decked out in her copper-colored fringe.  A reliable bloomer and stunning. ‘Jelena’s full name is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena.’  She’s a hybrid witch hazel whose parents, H. mollis and H. japonica, are of Asian origin. She has greeted visitors to Green Spring Gardens since 1996. However, fragrance is not her thing.

To beguile you with a sweet fragrance, can we entice you to walk west of the site’s Historic House? In the grove nestled between the house and the path to the ponds, you’ll find a fine collection of more than 20 witch hazels. The Chinese witch hazels are among the most fragrant, and here two yellow witch hazels won’t disappoint, H. mollis ‘Early Bright’ and H. mollis ‘Kort’s Yellow.’

Winter Beauty blooms near the historic mansion.

Winter Beauty blooms near the historic mansion. Photo by Brenda Skarphol

Among the witch hazels, the strap-like petals and cup-like calyx both contribute to the color effect. The color ranges include yellows, oranges, reds and purples. The combinations, such as red blending to yellow found in H. intermedia ‘Feuerzauber’ and purple blending to cream found in H. intermedia ‘Strawberries and Cream,’ add intrigue and depth.

'Strawberries and Cream' is a popular variety of witch hazel.

Strawberries and Cream is a popular variety of witch hazel. Photo by Brenda Skarphol

The impetus to develop a strong collection of witch hazels came with our successful application to the American Public Gardens Association’s North American Plant Collections Consortium. Through this project, 65 member gardens focus on a particular group of plants, each site providing a documented repository of plant types for their particular group. We specialize in witch hazels.

H. Intermedia "Feuerzauber"

H. Intermedia ‘Feuerzauber’ Photo by Brenda Skarphol

Our collection started with a gift of six witch hazels from the Chapel Square Garden Club in Annandale. We now have selections from all the Hamamelis species, including the native eastern witch hazel, H. virginiana, the Ozark witch hazel, H. vernalis, and many of their hybrids. Our collection of varieties of the well-known Asian hybrid, H. intermedia, will soon top 100 specimens.

H. virginiana "Harvest Moon"

H. virginiana ‘Harvest Moon’ Photo by Brenda Skarphol

For many of you that regularly strolling the garden in the winter months, you know how the witch hazel beckons, furling and unfurling its petals as the day warms and emitting a come hither fragrance. If it has been a while since you visited, let our witch hazels be the calling card that brings you back to explore.

More than 200 witch hazels beckon you to visit Green Spring Gardens during their peak bloom season, January through March. Green Spring is at 4603 Green Spring Road in Annandale.

Author Mary Olien is the site manager of Green Spring Gardens.

The Improbable Mr. Wilson: A Tale Of A Wandering Warbler

There has been a lot of chirping about a little yellow bird at Huntley Meadows Park recently. Ever since a Wilson’s warbler was unexpectedly seen during the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count on Sunday, December 30, staff, volunteers, and visitors have been curious about the bird’s origin. A tiny patch of orange plumage above the bird’s beak sparked a debate and led to the endearing moniker, The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

Meet The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

Meet The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

According to park manager Kevin Munroe, Wilson’s warblers, like most warblers found in the park, are neo-tropical migrants, which means they breed somewhere in the northeastern U.S. and Canada each spring and summer before traveling south to spend their winters in Mexico, Central America, or South America. Munroe says it’s not unheard of to see a misplaced migrant at this time of year, but they typically either move on or expire due to a lack of food sources. For a specialist in hunting insects like Mr. Wilson, January in Northern Virginia is a tough place to find a meal.

However, Mr. Wilson has proven to be a resourceful visitor. Since his first sighting, scores of people have reveled in the sight of the wandering warbler feeding at the birdfeeders next to the visitor center. He has managed to avoid the hunting hawks and was photographed chomping on a caterpillar. Mr. Wilson has also been seen feeding on Sweetgum seeds along the paved trails. As people inadvertently step on the spiky pods, Mr. Wilson swoops in to munch on the released seeds.

Wilson's Warbler by Dave Boltz

The Improbable Mr. Wilson snacks on a caterpillar.

One theory about Mr. Wilson’s visit is that he is filling up for a late departure for the Southeast U.S. or the Gulf Coast, where he could survive on seeds, berries, and any available insects. But it is the presence of the bright orange markings visible in the many high-quality photos being shared online that have birders wondering if Mr. Wilson may have traveled from the west, not the north.

The bright orange patch above Mr. Wilson's beak caused quite a stir.

The bright orange patch above Mr. Wilson’s beak caused quite a stir.

After seeing the orange forehead in a photo, longtime birder Bill Young exclaimed, “Mr. Wilson appears to be even more improbable than he seemed at first glance.” Young has had many close looks at Wilson’s warblers in the past, but doesn’t recall ever seeing the orange marking. He and Paula Sullivan consulted the Garrett and Dunn warbler guide and found that there are three varieties of Wilson’s. Of the three, only one displays the orange markings, the chryseola. They learned that the chryseola variety breeds along a narrow band of the West Coast, from southern British Columbia to Southern California, and winters in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and south to western Panama.

This revelation led Young to declare, “So Mr. Wilson is most likely not an eastern or central bird who is a little late and a bit off course; he probably came from the other coast of North America, which is a pretty amazing trip for a creature who weighs about a quarter of an ounce.”

Huntley Meadows volunteer and avid bird buff Larry Cartwright, known among birding circles as an expert, concurs with Young’s assessment.  “I think this vagrancy from the west happens frequently. We had a dark yellow warbler that turned out to be one of the dark western subspecies, and there is quite a number of Rufous/Allen’s hummingbirds reported this year and they are all from the west. So Bill is absolutely right.”

Although Munroe is confident the wandering warbler began its journey on the West Coast, he said, “We can’t exactly check his passport, so we’ll never really know.” He remains open to other theories and welcomes discussion.

Mr. Wilson was last seen in the park on Wednesday, January 2. The birders who were fortunate enough to have seen him are grateful for his improbable visit and wish him a safe journey home – wherever that may be.

Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Wilson.

Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Wilson.

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer

Advancing Northern Snakeheads Thwarted at Huntley Meadows Park

Resource Manager Dave Lawlor shares the history of Northern Snakeheads in Dogue Creek and recounts a close call with this invasive fish at Huntley Meadows.

Former Huntley Meadows Park staff member Danielle McCallum holds a 17” Northern Snakehead caught while electro-fishing Dogue Creek in 2008. This was the first snakehead caught in the park.

Huntley Meadows Park, a 1,500-acre complex of freshwater marshlands located in Alexandria, Va., has long been a destination for birders, wildlife photographers, and students. No matter the season, people flock to the boardwalk trail to observe migrating birds, soaring raptors, moss-covered turtles, beavers, delicate dragonflies, and many more species in the park’s 50-acre central wetland, the largest in the region. Freshwater wetlands are considered rare habitat in the Washington, D.C. region and harbor the greatest biodiversity of any habitat type in temperate climates. However, in recent years Huntley’s central wetland has come under threat from an invasive fish species, the Northern Snakehead. If allowed to breed within the park, with their voracious appetites snakeheads have the potential to wreak havoc on the park’s large populations of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

Listed by the state Board of Game and Inland Fisheries as a predatory and undesirable exotic species, snakeheads have been slowly migrating from the Potomac River up Dogue Creek toward the central wetland since 2004. Nine snakeheads were caught in the tidal section of the creek that year, and a year later two fishermen caught more than 80 young fish only a mile and half downstream from the park. Once snakeheads were found in the non- tidal sections of Dogue Creek, park staff became very concerned and took action to try to protect the central wetland from invasion.

Northern Snakeheads have razor sharp teeth.

In 2006, the Resource Management staff at Huntley Meadows requested staff from the Watershed Planning and Assessment Branch of the Department (WP&AB) of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) conduct an electro-fishing survey of Dogue Creek at the park’s southern tip.  Electro-fishing doesn’t kill the fish but renders them immobile for several seconds, enabling staff to net, identify, and count the fish before releasing them.  With this survey, staff attempted to determine if snakeheads had made the mile and half migration up the creek from the Route 1 overpass where 80 snakeheads had been caught the year before.  Unfortunately, one 17” snakehead was caught inside the park just as the shocking crew was finishing for the day.  Although just one fish was caught, it was evident that snakeheads had made the long upstream migration and were only about one mile below Huntley’s central wetland.

Heather Ambrose, Shannon Curtis, Eric Forbes
and Dave Lawlor shock, net, and count fish in Dogue Creek at Huntley Meadows Park in 2010. No snakeheads were found during this survey.

In 2007, staff conducted another electro-shocking survey in Dogue Creek at Wickford Park, which is about one mile upstream from where the 17” snakehead had been caught in 2006. This section of the migration would be much tougher to navigate due to shallow wetlands that periodically dry up as well as multiple beaver dams that impede migration.  Although no snakeheads were found during the survey, park staff and visitors began to see snakeheads in the central wetland in 2009 and 2010. Two of these fish were very young, indicating snakeheads were either reproducing in the park or immigrating into the wetland from Dogue Creek. 

During the spring of 2011, Huntley Meadows Park patrons and volunteers reported seeing a large snakehead in the central wetland along the boardwalk just past the loop.  Soon reports were coming in almost daily and the snakehead number doubled when two large snakeheads were seen in a ditched portion of the wetland, right on top of the water. Immediately park staff jumped into action and tried to net the fish, but these large fish were elusive.  Park staff became very concerned that the fish would breed in the wetland, potentially releasing hundreds or thousands of baby snakeheads which could take over the central wetland and wreak havoc on the wetland’s incredibly diverse aquatic populations. 

Two large snakeheads were netted in the central wetland at Huntley Meadows Park in 2011.

Shannon Curtis and Chad Grupe from the WP&AB were contacted. These folks live and breathe water quality and are sought after professionals when it comes to fish and anything that lives in Fairfax County waters. They brought their electro-fishing backpacks to the park to try to help catch the two large snakeheads before they started upsetting the wetlands sensitive ecologic balance. Within an hour they caught two large snakeheads measuring 20” and 25”. 

After another hour or two of searching no more snakeheads were located in the wetland and the search was called off.  Both of the large snakeheads were females and they were packed full of hundreds of eggs.  As required by state law, the fish were destroyed.  Staff examined the stomach contents and the large fish’s stomach contained a large goldfish (Carassius auratus) and the smaller fish’s stomach contained a smaller fish or tadpole of an undetermined species due to nearly complete digestion.  

Huntley staff continues to be diligent in the search for more snakeheads and we expect this will be a long-term battle.

Dave Lawlor, natural resource manager, Huntley Meadows Park

The severity of the Northern Snakehead problem was made clear this summer when, during a survey at Old Colchester Park and Preserve, Park Authority staff spotted this dark cloud in a tidal marsh near the Occoquan River. It was identified as a “fry ball,” or a group of 10,000-15,000 newly hatched snakeheads.