Tag Archives: Ellanor C. Lawrence Park

Stewardship of Vernal Pools

Anybody ever say to you, “Look, but don’t touch?”

A lot of Fairfax County Park Authority programs are look-and-touch programs, but there are times that the no-touch guideline is critical.

There’s a new wayside information sign at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) with information on it about salamanders and frogs. The sign, along the south side of the gas line that runs through the north end of the park, includes life-size photos of salamanders and frogs and QR codes that link to frog calls.

ECLP has been working closely with the Virginia Herpetological Society (VHS) to design and install the sign, which also has information about the best ways to interact with vernal pools and to protect those pools.

So, what’s a vernal pool, and what do they have to do with signs about frogs and salamanders and the no-touch guideline?

Vernal pools are temporary puddles and ponds of water that are large in the spring and dry later in the year. When the water is there, they teem with life. Spotted salamanders, wood frogs, American and fowler toads breed in them. There are also small insects – dragonfly larvae, water bugs, fairy shrimp and plants. Because there’s so much going on in these pools, protection of them is part of good natural resource stewardship.

ECLP Naturalist and Historian Tony Bulmer has monitored vernal pools for the past 14 years. “The best way for the public to interact with vernal pools is to stay out of them,” Bulmer said. “If they sit quietly and just watch, they will see frogs, tadpoles and salamander larvae.”

That’s the “look” part of “look but don’t touch.” Everything is working as it should.

“Many people think they are doing a good thing by catching tadpoles and relocating them,” Bulmer said. “They are afraid the pool is going to dry up. But relocating them can hurt the tadpoles, especially if they are relocated to an area that has fish.” This has been an issue in large parks like Burke Lake and unstaffed parks, where people have removed tadpoles and salamanders and taken them home. Remember, removing anything from a park violates park rules and can impact the park’s natural resources.

Bulmer says people sometimes move tadpoles to deeper water that may have pollution that the human eye cannot detect. That’s why he suggests sitting quietly and watching the magic of the vernal pools. If that desire to help is overwhelming, volunteer to be an egg mass counter or sign up for park programs about amphibians.

Habitats like vernal pools are avenues to learning about amphibians living in our forests. So are signs like the one at ECLP that grew out of the partnership between VHS and the Park Authority. It’s a terrific partnership, and VHS is an information source for FCPA employees on the front lines of stewardship in the parks. The VHS website can be a go-to place for information about reptiles and amphibians.

There’s more information online about Ellanor C. Lawrence Park and the Virginia Herpetological Society, and the Park Authority has a video on the Hidden Pond web page about frogs and their calls.

 

Down The Trails Of Ellanor C. Lawrence Park

I am new to Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, so our trails are the perfect place to explore the park while allowing my senses and adventurous side to run wild. ECLP is a place where you can take a hike or run the natural surface trails and let the noises of the modern world fade into the sounds of your feet rhythmically hitting the path and mix with the rustle of squirrels playing in the woods and the conversations of numerous species of birds above.

Park Manager John Shafer says, “Research indicates proven health benefits from walking in the woods.  I definitely notice the mental health benefits, but there are also physical benefits beyond the exercise.  Observing seasonal changes and cycles in the woods helps me feel comfortable and hopeful.”

I never enter the woods without a little advice. When you visit, please swing into the Walney Visitor Center first.  Did you know that Ellanor C. Lawrence Park is more than 650 acres with five miles of trails?  To aid you on your hike there is a trail map on the Park Authority website that displays the length of trails and the trail surfaces. There also are trail signs throughout the park to help guide you.

Naturalist Mark Khosravi is another woods walker. He says a “walk in the woods leads to discovery – witnessing species interactions or a new species observed (reptiles, amphibians and birds) to add to my life list.”

TurkeysWhat is a life list? All birders or herpers, professional or non-professional herpetologists, try to see as many types of species as possible in their habitat.  “The North Loop is great for raptors and turkeys,” Khosravi adds, “or take a stroll on the Walney Creek trail to the pond and check out the turtles.”  If you are working on a life list, different trails can reveal new and numerous species.

If you want to explore our trails and learn about park and area history, try the Southern Trail or Meadows.  Shafer says, “I enjoy the sections of Big Rocky Run trail and the large meadow trail that follows the course of Big Rocky Run and that shows the natural beauty along with the signs of the mill development from the 1700s.”  Naturalist Cheryl Repetti, a history lover, adds her favorites, noting, “The south loop to the pond is great for the ‘history-meets-nature’ experience. There’s the ice house, the ice pond, and Mary Lewis’ house site overlooking Rocky Run to visit. And there’s something especially soul-soothing about walking along Walney Creek.” The creek, Repetti says, “…has that ‘just right’ Goldilocks character — it’s not too loud and not too quiet: a gentle burble.”

History and nature are interwoven at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. Jump on a trail and check us out.

See you this summer!

Author Kiersten Conley is the Visitor Services and Operations Manager at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park.

Photobombing Coyotes and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night in Parks

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Most people around Northern Virginia probably don’t get to see what wildlife is doing on a daily basis, and there is a lot of wildlife here. The Fairfax County Park Authority has several ways of connecting people and wildlife, such as nature centers and hiking trails. One of the fun methods of connection is the candid camera.

Since January, Riverbend Park staff has been conducting a camera-trap survey to learn about wildlife in that park. Cameras with infrared sensors that detect both heat and motion, called trail cameras or game cameras, are placed along wildlife trails. When an animal drifts by and breaks the infrared beam, the heat or motion triggers the camera, which can be set to record one or multiple frames. The boxes can be fitted with an infrared flash that will limit any disturbing of the animals. And the cameras can be programmed with a delay of five or ten minutes between shots so that the same animal isn’t photographed dozens or hundreds of times while hanging around.

Staffers never know exactly what to expect each time they check the camera storage cards. Riverbend features a large meadow, a riverbank, creeks, ponds, and deep forests — diverse habitats. These combine to host a wide range of wildlife. Sometimes thousands of pictures reveal nothing. Other times, there are pleasing surprises.

Among Riverbend’s photobombing animals are coyotes, which confirms their presence in the park.

The most common visitors strolling past these cameras have been white-tailed deer, raccoons, and gray squirrels. Foxes and otters also have stopped by for portraits. Riverbend Head Camp Counselor Brian Balik, who uses his own cameras to record some of the photos, says his favorite picture so far has been that of a red fox with white legs. Those are unusual markings and something he’s not seen before.

This fox has unusual markings.

This fox showed off its unusual white legs for the camera at Riverbend Park.

The value in these photos is in learning what animals are around. That helps staff know what steps to take to protect the wildlife. Years ago, people had to rely on actual sightings of animals. Now, staff can see exactly what is in a specific area 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The cameras also reveal animal behavior. They record the times the animals are awake, the population, the areas of a park they use, and how frequently they use particular areas. Riverbend staff is hoping the cameras will help them learn where the visiting coyotes live and whether their home is in the park.

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) in Chantilly also has conducted camera-trap surveys, and a coyote has been a common visitor there as well. ECLP Naturalist Tony Bulmer says that in late September that coyote brought along a friend, and he suspects the pair may hunt together. Coyotes do not travel in packs, like wolves, but rather they move about separately or in a family unit. ECLP is hoping their cameras will have more to teach about the coyotes, a species that Bulmer calls “one of the most maligned mammals in the United States.”

Huntley Meadows Park staff used four infrared cameras in 2011 to survey the population of deer at Old Colchester Park on Mason Neck.

Huntley Meadows Resource Manager Dave Lawlor analyzed almost 4,000 photos in the Old Colchester survey, and he pointed out that reviewing them on a computer became a little strange because, since the camera doesn’t move, the background of the photos never changes. “It makes your eyes go fuzzy after a while,” he said. Lawlor used antler points and branches to identify individual bucks, but identifying individual does is much harder.

The Old Colchester survey, possibly the most thorough one ever conducted on Mason Neck, revealed an estimated population of up to 60 deer in the 139-acre park, the equivalent of 278 deer per square mile – a lot. Naturalists estimate that the healthy population of deer in an eastern forest is 15 to 20 per square mile.

Another survey was conducted at Old Colchester this fall, and those photos will be analyzed over the winter.

Huntley Meadows Park Manager Kevin Munroe said that Northern Virginia has an overstock of deer because there’s often much more food available for deer in a suburban setting than in a pristine forest. Lawlor added the amount of nutrients deer can ingest in suburbia could be ten times that of a forest and that people think fertilizer feeds plants. He said fertilizer is nutrients for deer.

The large number of deer also affects forested areas. Some parkland has virtually no vegetation for four or five feet up from the ground except for invasive plants that deer won’t eat.

Information like this, plus the input from the trail cameras, can be used as part of the structuring of a deer management plan.

Oh, and those coyotes are widespread across the county, too. The Old Colchester survey also turned up a photo of a coyote on Mason Neck.

Riverbend Park Head Camp Counselor Brian Balik, Huntley Meadows Resource Manager Dave Lawlor, and Stewardship Communications Manager Dave Ochs contributed to this story.

What To Feed Birds When Your Kid Is Allergic To Nuts

Nuts.  An excellent food for birds.  Not so excellent for people with an allergy.

BirdfeederBird feeders are a great way to learn basics about common local birds and provide life to your yard in the winter. A bird feeder is a great family activity that can take you into nature right in your own backyard. Nothing is more fun than sitting inside your house with a cup of hot cocoa while watching birds visit your backyard feeders.

One time after a bird program, I was approached by a family who said they loved feeding birds but their child had an extreme nut allergy. This had never entered my mind, but it seems to be more common each year.

I am often asked now what families can feed birds when they have kids who are allergic to nuts. Pretty much everything offered for bird feeding has some type of nut in it.

The solution is animal fat.

As a kid, my father would talk to the meat guy at the grocery store and ask for some animal fat. The meat guy would appear with a small package of white strips. He seemed very happy to get rid of it. The animal fat wound up in black wire suet cages that were hung for the birds. The birds loved it, and it has no nuts.

So, feed the birds. Talk to the meat guy at your favorite grocery store. Ask for strips of animal fat. Just ignore his puzzled look when you ask.

DSC_0783Author Tony Bulmer is a naturalist, historian and the senior interpreter at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. ECLP has Barred Owl Campfires, classes on bird banding and a Bird Study Merit Badge class coming soon.

Controlled Burning as a Management Tool for Fairfax County Parkland

One of the characteristics of human culture is our control and use of fire. But even though it is an essential tool, unplanned fires can take human lives and damage property; so fire suppression has been a common practice for over 100 years in the United States.

Although most people don’t realize it, almost every ecosystem in North America is fire adapted – it has species and processes that rely on periodic fire to maintain their health. This is true of forests as well as fields.

The Fairfax County Park Authority began using fire in 1997 to manage meadows. These grass-dominant systems flourish if burned as regularly as every one to three years.

Controlled (prescribed) burning is a common management practice throughout Virginia. As stated by the Virginia Department of Forestry in Virginia’s Smoke Management Guidelines, “The use of prescribed fire as a resource management tool has long been regarded as indispensable.” The Virginia Department of Forestry, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Department of Conservation and Recreation, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, etc. – in short, almost every entity that owns and manages natural areas in the state – all conduct prescribed burns annually in forest and field environments. According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, over eight million acres each year are managed using prescribed burns in the southern United States alone. Burning is considered a standard, highly-effective maintenance practice.

Most eastern ecosystems evolved with fire as an integral part of their lifecycles. In meadows, fire removes accumulated plant debris, heats the seed-bank in the soil, and exposes soil to sunlight.  These actions allow native plant seeds to come in contact with the soil, make nutrients available to the plants, remove old material that inhibits new growth, and promote and allow new plants to sprout. Fire also helps to suppress many invasive, non-native plants (e.g., tall fescue) that did not evolve with fire as part of their lifecycles. The result is a healthier plant community that supports a greater diversity of plants, animals and other organisms. No other maintenance method can provide the habitat benefits that fire does in meadow systems.

Given the fact that meadows are the fastest disappearing habitat type inFairfax County, preservation of the few remaining large meadow complexes through proactive means should be a priority. Burning is considered the best way to manage meadows for the health of the system and to prevent future fires by eliminating fuel that cannot be properly removed by mowing.

The successful burns at Riverbend Park in 1997 and Ellanor Lawrence Park in 1999 demonstrated that fire can be used safely in Fairfax County without adverse effects on human property or activities. In both of those cases, well-planned fires were conducted in partnership with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue and the Virginia Department of Forestry in small meadows in relatively close proximity to homes and public roads. The fires not only were accomplished without complication, but there were no complaints from neighbors and the public who responded positively to educational materials and programs which discussed the controlled burns.

The Park Authority formalized its prescribed burn program in 2006. The controlled fires support state rare species that rely on meadow habitats and a great diversity of wildlife including grasshopper sparrows, eastern meadow voles, black racer snakes, red foxes, owls and northern harriers. Each year fields ranging in size from a few acres up to 40 acres are burned at multiple parks. The most recent burns occurred in February and March 2012 at Laurel Hill Park in Lorton, Elklick Preserve west of Centreville, and Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Centreville.

Written by Charles Smith, manager, Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch

Heather Schinkel Leaves Natural Resources Well-Managed

Heather Schinkel leaves the Fairfax County Park Authority feeling good about where natural resource management is headed.

“We have strong policies; a well-educated public, staff, and leadership; and we’re moving towards active management,” she said.

Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch Manager Heather Schinkel mingles with colleagues at her going away party.

Heather and her family are heading west for other opportunities in Fort Collins, Colorado. Schinkel, the agency’s Natural Resource Management and Protection Manager, left the Fairfax County Park Authority last month after eight years of service. She joined the Park Authority shortly after the organization broke new ground in January 2004 by establishing an agency-wide Natural Resource Management Plan (NRMP). She remembers that, at the time, most people did not know what invasive plants were and how “incredibly important and threatening they are.” The agency had its dual mission at the time, but it was not as well integrated as it is now.

Today, the stewardship ethos and application is better distributed throughout the agency and park planning, development and maintenance processes integrate natural resource concerns. In addition, the agency has strong partnerships with the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, Department of Forestry, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, Earth Sangha, REI and other organizations to protect resources and educate county residents. “We’ve done a good job in getting the word out,” said Schinkel.

“And we are finally actively managing on the ground. That’s what the NRMP is all about, restoring and maintaining our natural areas,” she said. That management takes the form of projects such as those at Elklick Preserve, Old Colchester, and Laurel Hill, where there are site-specific natural resource management plans in place and funding to implement at least some management activities.

Then there’s the Invasive Management Area program.  

“IMA has been incredibly successfully,” Schinkel said. In its six years, the program has drawn more than 5,000 volunteers who’ve donated more than 20,000 hours on over 1,000 workdays. IMA will hopefully get another strong boost this spring from its Take Back the Forest campaign, an initiative to host 500 volunteers at 40 IMA sites. Agency personnel recently selected the winner of a t-shirt design contest that is tied to the program.  

Schinkel also sees success at Old Colchester, where a resource assessment and planning project was fully funded and timed well before the master plan to allow proper planning for the park. Funding for natural resources and stewardship awareness activities is difficult to come by in this time of austerity and Schinkel says the solution to properly managing resources ultimately has to be big. She estimates some $8 million and dozens of staff would be needed to fully manage natural resources on all of Fairfax County parkland. In context with current funding opportunities, the need is quite daunting. 

Though fully funding the NRMP is not foreseeable any time soon, the Park Authority continues to seek funding for at least a first phase of NRMP implementation. In addition, a key step is an upcoming demonstration forest management project at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park that is funded in part with 2008 bond funds.  This project will set the stage for the anticipated bond referendum in November. Passage of the yet to be approved park bond would fund a larger scale natural resource renovation project for the Sully Woodlands park assemblage. It would be one more significant step that would follow the many significant steps the Park Authority took while Schinkel was managing and protecting the agency’s natural resources.

Written by Dave Ochs, stewardship communications manager and ResOURces editor