Tag Archives: Education

Tree Commission Celebrates Fallen Champion

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On the night of June 29, 2012, a line of intense thunderstorms known as a derecho charged across Fairfax County with winds gusting up to 80 mph. The ferocious winds leveled hundreds of trees and left thousands of residents in the dark and without power. Among the trees found in the storm’s wake was a former national champion Virginia pine (pinus virginiana), an impressive specimen that had towered 106 feet above the Reston South Park and Ride lot. Upon learning of the tree’s demise, members of the Fairfax County Tree Commission set out to commemorate the fallen champion.

Robert Vickers, chairman of the tree commission and Dranesville District representative, first noticed the great pine in 2009 while waiting at a traffic light at the corner of Reston Parkway and Lawyers Road. “Once I measured the tree and checked the Virginia Big Tree website, I realized it was the new state champion,” he recalled. The massive tree had an 82-inch circumference and its crown spanned 39 feet. Vickers invited Virginia Tech professor and keeper of the Virginia Big Tree database Jeff Kirwan to confirm the measurements. To their surprise, not only was the giant pine a Virginia state champion but it was the tallest tree of its kind in the country. It was then included in the National Register of Big Trees, a publication produced by American Forests, the country’s oldest nonprofit conservation organization.  Fairfax County was home to the national champion Virginia pine for two years until a larger tree was found in West Virginia in 2011. However, the tree remained the state champion until the powerful derecho uprooted it in 2012.

The fallen giant lay where it fell for more than a year until Vickers shared his story with fellow tree commissioner Jerry Peters, who suggested cutting a few “cookies” or cross sections of the tree to be displayed at various county offices. Luckily, the tree had fallen on parkland and hadn’t caused any property damage, so it had remained untouched since the storm. Peters reached out to the Reston Association for permission to do the cutting and the organization was excited to participate. “The Reston Association was delighted to hear that we had a national champion pine on one of our natural area parcels,” said RA Environmental Resource Manager Claudia Thompson-Deahl. “To think that these champion trees have been around to survive development, disease and storms is quite a feat.”

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Meanwhile, recognizing the need for experts with a big saw, Vickers contacted another tree commissioner, Everett “Butch” Loughry, who is also the Fairfax County Park Authority’s forestry crew chief. “Our crew is glad to help surrounding jurisdictions whenever needed,” Loughry said. The four-man crew removed the trunk from the stump to prevent it from rolling and then used a heavy-duty chainsaw to cut five “cookies” on Wednesday, January 8, 2014. Commemorative plaques made from the large wooden discs will be given to the tree commission, the Park Authority, the Reston Association, the Fairfax County Government Center, and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova. According to Vickers, each plaque will list the tree’s official measurements and the years in which the tree was recognized as a state and national champ.

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Tree Commissioner Peters counted at least 125 rings on one “cookie,” which means the tree had stood in the same place for parts of three centuries. To put this in perspective, it began growing when the U.S. flag still had only 38 stars and stood sentinel throughout two World Wars, the Space Race, the Civil Rights Movement, and the explosion of technological advances in the first decade of the 21st century.

One hundred twenty-five rings were counted in this cross-section of the tree. Photo by Sean Bahrami.

One hundred twenty-five rings were counted in this cross-section of the tree. Photo by Sean Bahrami.

For years Fairfax County boasted three national champion trees. But with the loss of the Virginia pine and the discovery of another tree that dethroned a champion chestnut oak in McLean in 2010, the county is down to one, an ancient paw paw growing along the Potomac River in Great Falls. Let’s hope it can withstand nature’s fury and stand tall long into this century and beyond.

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer, Fairfax County Park Authority

Flying Squirrels: Gliders of the Night

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Maybe it’s just a flash of movement. Just past dusk, you notice something out of the corner of your eye as long shadows play dart games with sunlight. Or perhaps the birdseed runs low unusually fast. Sitting on your deck at night, you hear a high-pitched chirp. There may be acorns with meticulously rounded holes cut through the sides scattered along a path.  In any of these cases, your backyard may be home to one of the area’s most abundant, least seen, and most charming wildlife neighbors – the southern flying squirrel.

These tree squirrels, Glaucomys volans, are active year-round but are typically unseen. Your best chance to spy one is in late fall through the winter when leaves have renounced their places among the branches. They will be high in the treetops dining on silkworm caterpillars, seeds, maple sap, fungi and fruits. It’s an omnivorous diet that includes bird eggs, carrion and sometimes a small mammal. As the temperature drops, so does their range of comestibles, so they focus on nuts. They’re partial to hickory and hazelnuts. Roosting and nesting boxes can easily lure them within viewing range if supplemented with nuts and mealworms.

So what are these curious creatures? They’re alluring rodents. Our native flying squirrel weighs less than 90 grams, about the same as a half box of mac and cheese or a king size candy bar. They’re less than 10 inches long with a tail less than five inches long. They rate very high on the “cute” factor with large black eyes and a face covered with whiskers. Their fur is a mottled grayish-brown on top and white underneath.

And they have this great gimmick. They can fly. Not flap-fly. They glide. They have something called patagium, stretched skin between the fore and rear paws that can expand. They’re like fuzzy parachutes. High speed photography has shown us that flying squirrels can adjust their skin flaps to turn, gain lift and outmaneuver predators of the nighttime forest, barred owls or great horned owls. The tail serves as rudder and brake while the whiskers, or “vibrasse”, contact the landing surface first, allowing for safe touchdown.

On the move from approximately 30 minutes after dusk until just before dawn, flying squirrels industriously cache nuts in multiple locations. eNature says flying squirrels may store 15,000 nuts, including acorns, for a season.

Preferring the high rent district of an abandoned woodpecker hole, these tiny creatures sometimes may have to build their own miniature “drey,” a squirrel nest made of leaves. Other accommodations could include attics or bird houses. They use multiple nest sites, but winter’s desire for warmth trumps solitude, and many squirrels may den together.

A lack of deep cavities in sturdy branches encourages flying squirrels to use manmade nesting boxes, which look like a long narrow birdhouse. The opening is next to the trunk instead of in the front, because flying squirrels avoid the potential exposure of climbing on the front of the box. If you want to draw them to your yard, add a roosting box downstairs on a lower part of a tree, and fill it nightly with a dozen unsalted roasted peanuts or, for a treat, hazelnuts or mealworms. Remember, the entrance hole needs to be next to the trunk to calm their fears.

Flying squirrels and our everyday grey squirrels are far from kissing cousins. They are more like mortal enemies. So if you want to attract flying squirrels, timing is everything. Feeding must coincide with the hours that grey squirrels have tucked themselves away at night. Try peanut butter inside the roosting box or on the metal flashing surrounding the entrance hole. Avoid putting peanut butter on the tree trunk. That will encourage chewing on the tree bark by all types of squirrels and raccoons.

The best way to be a good neighbor to flying squirrels and other wildlife is to keep one of their top predators away — house cats. Flying squirrels regularly return to earth to get water or nuts and seed. They sometimes fall prey to fox, but more often house cats.  Practice backyard habitat basics. Provide a fresh water source, plant native plants for their fruit and nuts and for the helpful insects they attract, leave trees with cavity holes standing when safe, and don’t use insecticides.

Lay out the welcome mat to flying squirrels, and you can usually see guests arrive within a week. By quietly getting closer, you may soon enjoy the thrill of watching them soar in from as far as 100 yards away. These squirrels get used to people quickly and will even stay still long enough for a well-prepared photographer.

An easy way to see flying squirrels and determine if you have them already in your yard is to attend a program on flying squirrels at a park nature center.  Since 2008, flying squirrels have been kindly showing up Hidden Oaks Nature Center on schedule to delight visitors.  Eagle Scouts have built and mounted roosting and nesting boxes, and the plans are available on request. 

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

Interns, Invasives, Introductions, Identifications

 

Interns Caitlin Lundquist  (right) and Melissa Letosky spent the summer in the field.

Interns Caitlin Lundquist (right) and Melissa Letosky gathered data in the field.

There’s a lot going on in this job! Prior to my internship with the Fairfax County Park Authority, natural resources were an abstract concept for me. Although I considered myself to be a pretty outdoorsy person, I now realize I was practically blind to the nature around me until this experience opened my eyes to the amazing life it contains. I was born, raised and educated in Northern Virginia, and even though I am studying environmental sustainability, I knew so little about the environment in my own backyard. This internship provided the best education I have ever had about the ecosystems in which I’ve lived.While I have volunteered for invasive plant removals in the past, this summer I was able to work on a long-term project to protect the local forest from non-native invasives. Throughout the internship, another intern and I surveyed more than 5,000 acres of forested parkland, focusing on the degree of non-native invasive infestation. The most diverse, undisturbed and publically valued forests receive higher priority rankings and are targeted for invasive treatment and further preservation efforts. This rating system helps the Park Authority’s natural resource managers determine how to efficiently allocate forest conservation funds. By approaching invasive management from a different perspective this summer, I learned about the details that make such large efforts successful.

The job as a Natural Resources Intern was packed full of a variety of learning opportunities. Right off the bat, I was taught how to identify non-native invasive plants, signs of a healthy forest, and a good number of common native forest plants. I also had the invaluable experience of working daily with geographic information systems (GIS) to make maps and log points in the field for data use. The interns attended an introductory GIS 101 class to gain additional technical skills.

In addition to this everyday hands-on experience, I had the opportunity to participate in deer browse surveys, vegetation plot analyses, rain garden maintenance and water quality assessments. Through experiential learning, I was educated about multiple conservation efforts that the Natural Resources Management Protection Section handles. For example, I was able to see why the overpopulation of white-tailed deer was such a problem when shown the baby oak trees they had hedged down to the ground.

While I became most familiar with forest ecosystems, I also learned a lot about wetlands and meadows. At Huntley Meadows Park, we toured the wetland restoration project, walking along the construction site to conduct water quality testing. We also spent a week assessing non-native species in the woods. Another special event the interns were fortunate to attend was a grass identification class held by a group of volunteers, where we were introduced to the huge variety of grasses, sedges and rushes in local meadows. Finally, an insightful talk by University of Delaware professor and author Doug Tallamy, a well-known native plant expert, stressed the importance of native biodiversity in all ecosystems.

I am currently going into my last year at George Mason University and am constantly thinking about what I want to do as a career. This internship has introduced me to a different aspect of the local area and to environmental protection in general. I have learned tons about how the county is organized and functions and am thankful to everyone I worked with for being so nice and willing to share their knowledge and resources. Working outdoors to improve the environment in my hometown has been extremely rewarding and has inspired me to improve my scientific and natural resources education.

 Author Caitlin Lundquist was an intern for the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division in the summer of 2013.

 

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