Tag Archives: Annandale

Finding Love In All The Right Places

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Worn down. Eroded. Unstable. Degraded.

And it didn’t even have a name.

Talk about feeling unloved.

But a year from now, this small stream will be stabilized. It will have the flow and look of a natural creek. It will meander, it will trickle across rocks, its banks will be secured with native plants, flowers will line those banks, and the water it sends into Accotink Creek will be cleaner.

And it now has a name. Wakefield Run.

Talk about love and appreciation for the outdoors. It’s happening because a lot of people who care got together and did something.

There’s a project under way to restore Wakefield Run, a stream that Laura Grape, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (NVSWCD) calls, “a piece of jewelry, a gem in the Accotink Watershed.”

When the project is over, life will be a little bit better for the Fairfax County hikers, runners, bikers, birders and scouts who use the trail along the stream and for the wildlife that lives around and in it.

Wakefield Run starts west of Ossian Hall Park in Annandale and flows under the Beltway before joining Accotink Creek in Wakefield Park and sending its waters on to the Potomac River. Runoff from the 100 acres it drains has eroded the banks and damaged the stream.

When part of Wakefield Park was taken for the expansion of I-495 to make room for the Express Lanes, the Fairfax County Park Authority was given $75,000 towards site mitigation. The Park Authority approached NVSWCD with the idea of putting the funds toward the restoration of 800 feet of Wakefield Run. That kicked off a partnership that led to the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) putting up $300,000, and Dominion Power stepped forward with another $35,000. The Fairfax County Park Foundation joined the effort and garnered more support from the I-495 Express Lanes contractor, Transurban Fluor, and the Friends of Accotink Creek arranged monitoring of the stream so everybody would know how much the project helped.

At the groundbreaking ceremony on July 24, Supervisor John Cook called the involvement of the Friends of Accotink Creek “a great example of citizen engagement,” adding, “This is how we will make environmental management, in a good way, the reality in Fairfax County.”

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Grape thanked the Park Authority for bringing the idea to NVSWCD as she explained the project to the groundbreaking ceremony audience. She said the project design will reduce the size of the stream’s outfall at I-495, and a pool will slow runoff of the drained acreage. A more natural setting will replace riprap, clean the water and reduce runoff speed. Revamping of a stream crossing used by Virginia Dominion trucks and mountain bikers will reduce the environmental impact usually caused by such crossings. Water flow will be diverted away from banks and toward the center of the stream, which Grape said is what traditionally happens in less urban waterways. Some trees have to be removed during the work, but Grape said that will allow some invasive species to be removed as well, and the area will naturally recover. A plant save has already been conducted with plans for replantings later.

Grape called the project “a tremendous example of the investment being made in the Accotink watershed by Fairfax County and by our local communities.”

DPWES Director James Patteson pointed out that partnerships and projects such as this one are part of an evolution. He said that 20 years ago his department may have just assessed the situation and built “an armor channel,” but that now the department is staffed with urban foresters and biologists who understand environmentally responsible design.

Dominion Virginia Power’s Manager of state and local affairs, Tim Sargeant, said his company was glad to be invited into the partnership. “This great partnership of public and private organizations and individuals will yield an environmental and aesthetic benefit that allows all of us to share a sense of pride and accomplishment and contribution to our communities,” he said.

Suzy Foster of the Friends of Accotink Creek said the project “will serve as a small example of a healthy and stable state that we hope to achieve for the entire Accotink watershed and Fairfax County.” Another citizens group, Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts, will have key input into the design of the stream crossing, and Earth Sangha will play a role in the native plantings.

Friends of Accotink Creek representative Suzy Foster spoke passionately about protecting the local environment.

Friends of Accotink Creek representative Suzy Foster spoke passionately about protecting the local environment.

The Park Authority Board’s Braddock District representative, Anthony Velluci, summed up the groundbreaking by noting that roads like the nearby Beltway are just as much a part of the county as the natural resources of the Wakefield Run project. “We have to realize that that’s just not going to go away,” he said. “We have to find that balance between environment and development where we do smart things and not haphazard things that we have done in the past, and I think we’re doing that.”

Author Dave Ochs is the manager of Stewardship Communications for the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Spring Ephemerals In Bloom At Hidden Oaks

Longing to enjoy the beauty of spring but don’t have the time or energy to hike out and find the elusive native wildflower spring blossoms? Walk one hundred feet of sidewalk from our driveway to the front door and enjoy a burst of spring color from over a dozen native plants!

Blooming today are Virginia bluebells, toad trillium, squirrel’s corn, violets, golden ragwort, spring beauties and the unusual Dutchmen’s breeches. Also marvel at the redbud tree with the bright pink blossoms popping right off the limbs and the last of the tiny yellow flowers of the spicebush. Wander a short woodchip trail to see more flowers plus mayapples and ferns. 

Jacob’s Ladder will be blooming soon, so head over to the nature center to see these spring ephemerals before the shade of the trees wraps up one of nature’s glorious shows. If you have a few minutes more, head over to the pond around the other side of the nature center. Thousands of yellow-spotted salamander eggs are catching some rays and wood frogs are munching on plants in their tadpole stage. Any day now the male toads will arrive, trilling for their mates and strings of toads eggs will be added to this busy little pond.

Suzanne Holland, visitor services manager, Hidden Oaks Nature Center

A Wonder of Winter, A Harbinger of Spring

A marvel of nature roams the woods, usually silent but for a raucous spring display. Wood frogs, Rana sylvatica, which spent the winter frozen under leaves, have started their annual concert tour of Fairfax County Park Authority forests.

Wood frogs are the only frogs that can live north of the Arctic Circle. They can withstand more than half of their body water freezing without damaging their cells because urea accumulates in their tissues and glucose forms in their livers. This is natural antifreeze that also enables the frog’s heart to cease beating and the lungs to stop breathing. The wood frogs, buried under woodland leaves instead of overwintering on muddy pond bottoms like most other frogs, can thaw and refreeze throughout the winter without harm.

Last month, males began racing to their local hangouts — ponds and vernal pools — emitting a noisy, bizarre call that resembles a laughing cartoon duck to entice the females to join them. Wood frogs are not the first amphibians you’ll hear heralding spring in our area. That honor goes to the smaller spring peeper. However, wood frogs, brown with a black eye mask and about three inches in length, are more easily seen and heard.

Wood frogs' camouflage help them blend into their surroundings.

Wood frogs’ camouflage help them blend into their surroundings.

Wood frogs commonly choose vernal pools as a breeding area because these temporary bodies of water do not host fish and turtles, which are natural predators of the frog eggs and tadpoles. At Hidden Oaks Nature Center  is a pond that is purposely kept free of fish and bullfrogs to support breeding amphibians. Each year we welcome wood frogs, followed by American toads and then spotted salamanders, to breed.

Wood frogs visit the pond to seek out a mate.

Wood frogs visit the pond to seek out a mate.

Even with a suitable site, there are difficulties finding love in the pond. During the breeding frenzy, males may mistake a male for a female or may drown the female, especially problematic for the first females to arrive on the scene. Males emit a loud croak to warn off the advances of other confused males. When the females – the silent sex – arrive, the males clasp them with their forearms in an embrace called “amplexus”. The smaller male holds onto the female until she deposits her eggs (over 1,000 of them), which usually attach to submerged plants or other egg masses.

Female wood frogs can lay over 1,000 eggs.

Female wood frogs can lay over 1,000 eggs.

After just a couple of days, breeding is complete and the parent frogs return to the forest to hunt for insects, worms and arachnids. Tucked back into the forest floor, the adults ignore their offspring and leave behind standing pools soon to be filled with hundreds of tadpoles.

Meanwhile, the egg masses develop algae which provide more oxygen for the young. The eggs in the center of the mass, warmed by the other eggs, develop faster. The warmer the water gets, the speedier the development. Within weeks, the tadpoles wriggle out of their jelly-like egg masses and develop rapidly, growing their back legs first. They scrape algae and decaying plants with a beak-like mouth. As they mature, they are omnivorous and will eat other amphibian eggs and larvae, including other wood frog larvae. Overcrowding and low temperatures can be deadly at this stage, and many tadpoles become meals for another frog, a turtle, a salamander, beetles, leeches or even an owl. Ever full of surprises, the wood frog tadpoles actually seem to recognize siblings and congregate with them. Nevertheless, the sisters and brothers are together for only a few weeks.

By June, the froglets leave the pond, unaware that they’re joining their parents in the nearby woods. About one-fifth scatter, unfortunately finding their way onto roads and, without the important skill set developed in the video game Frogger, they get squished, providing food for birds, raccoons and opossums. By the time they settle into their homes in the woods, they are virtually indistinguishable from the leaf litter. They will spend the summer finding food and trying to avoid snakes, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, foxes and birds. Wood frogs in turn hunt for snails, worms, beetles, spiders, slugs and other arthropods. They are adept hunters that can ambush their prey. Staying silent until the end of winter, wood frogs’ cacophonous duck-like chatter will again pierce the March air next year.

You’ll find wood frogs from the southern Appalachians into the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. In late February and into March, you can see them closer to home in our own park woods and waters.

Meet some of our area’s native amphibians and maybe catch a glimpse of American toad courtship at Hidden Oaks Nature Center  as well at the county’s salute to Earth Day and Arbor Day, the April 27, 2013 Springfest at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Author Suzanne Holland is the assistant manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center

View On Nature: Woodpeckers

“Guess who!? Ha-ha-ha HA-ha!” – Woody Woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

Winter is a colorful season for woodpeckers in Annandale. Those of us at a certain age can remember Woody Woodpecker’s signature quote and his subsequent maniacal laughter. However, when folks call us at Hidden Oaks Nature Center to ask about woodpeckers knocking on their houses, they generally aren’t laughing.

Woodpeckers knock for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is communication and territorial establishment. That’s why sometimes they knock on metal drainpipes and gutters to the puzzlement of our patrons. “But it’s not wood!” they contest. Woodpeckers though, know that drainpipes, like many hollow logs and snags in the forest, are amplifiers. Once they learn through experience how raucously they can knock, they return to the source. That’s how woodpeckers tell others of their presence and/or perhaps availability. That’s the good news they want to broadcast.

However, they might be broadcasting bad news to you. If they’re knocking on your wooden eaves or fascia boards they might be hunting insects that are already rooting around in there, potential headaches for homeowners.

And about those headaches — why don’t woodpeckers suffer from them? It turns out that, unlike heavy-metal millennials in a mosh pit, a woodpecker’s head is designed for head-banging. They can knock up to 22 times per second, and their tongues wrap all the way around the backs of their heads to provide excellent cushioning for their brains. This enables woodpeckers to withstand decelerations (knocking and its after-effects) at more than 100 times the impact than can humans. In fact, woodpeckers’ shock absorption qualities were intensely studied to design cases for flight recorders in airplanes.

That same super-long tongue is the scourge of insects everywhere, which wrongly think they’re safe hiding in deep holes of logs and standing dead trees or buried in the wood siding of your house.

Woodpeckers use their excavating skills to hollow out burrows, which are often used year-round as homes. Sometimes they’ll use existing holes, but some individual birds like to create their own nesting cavity each year. Different strokes for different species.

Hairy woodpecker

Hairy woodpecker

At Hidden Oaks right now, there’s potential for you to see downy, hairy, red-bellied, northern flickers and, during really cold weather, yellow-bellied sapsuckers at the suet feeders. You might also spy the much-larger pileated woodpecker with the prominent comb often thought of in connection to the aforementioned Woody Woodpecker. Cartoonist Walter Lantz, however, noted that the acorn woodpecker from the west was the actual inspiration for his ideas in the 1940s.

Woodpeckers breed in the late winter/early spring, but the pairing-off and courtship often starts in winter. During this time certain species get their brightest coloration to be more attractive to potential mates. This effect makes woodpeckers brilliant and vivid contrasts to the backdrop of winter’s bleakest, gray months.

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker

Do you want to see woodpeckers in your backyard this winter? Suet feeders are the best way. Fill them with commercially-sold suet bricks, or just fill them with raw beef fat purchased from or donated by your local butcher.

Hidden Oaks Nature Center keeps suet and fat feeders out during the winter so our patrons can view these beautiful creatures on the fly. Come see for yourself.

By Michael McDonnell, manager, Hidden Oaks Nature Center