Tag Archives: Invasive Plants

Doing Something About Invasive Plants

Tired of looking at ugly, amorphous greenery masquerading as a park near my home, I decided that something had to be done about it. Years ago children used to play in Vienna’s Borge Street Park, but now the only people willing to fight their way through the jungle of brambles were hooligans – some of them potentially inebriated, judging by the caches of empty beer bottles there.

I contacted the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive Management Area (IMA) Program and asked if I could volunteer to clean up the park. I had some credentials, as I had majored in environmental conservation and management, and had recently completed Fairfax Master Naturalist training. But the reality was, aside from occasionally volunteering at Meadowlark Gardens, I knew little about native plants or gardening. And, although I didn’t admit this to anyone at the time, no one had ever trusted me with a sharp pair of clippers before. My boyfriend says he’s too fond of my fingers to let me anywhere near them.

Luckily, you don’t need an impressive resume to be a site leader. Erin Stockschlaeder, the volunteer coordinator for the IMA program, gives you a short training session, comes out to the site, identifies the invasive plants, lends you some tools, and finds volunteers to help you. All you need is the willingness to work, the time to lead four workdays during the course of a year, and – if your area has thorns – a slightly masochistic temperament.

The brambles at Borge Street Park – a mix of Himalayan blackberry, Japanese honeysuckle vines, oriental bittersweet and binding weed – were reminiscent of the thicket protecting Sleeping Beauty’s castle. After several weeks of chopping and clipping, I looked like I had been wrestling with a barbed-wire fence – and this despite wearing long pants, sleeves and leather gloves. The reward, though, was undeniable. Underneath that mass of invasive plants I discovered trees – Black walnut, sassafras, redbud – all a bit straggly and limp, but still very much alive. Even better, I unearthed a field of milkweed. I had never seen so many milkweed in one place. And what an aroma! I never knew milkweed flowers could be so fragrant.

The butterflies thought the same. For me, nothing could be more satisfying than to see a mother and her young daughter chasing swallowtails through the newly opened field, knowing that a few months ago the park had been filled with only the more adaptable denizens – the ubiquitous deer, squirrels, mice, sparrows, and blue jays. Other flowers, long held captive by the invasive plants, began to free themselves from the undergrowth. I stared down a deer eating the yellow flower of the evening primrose, and the Velcro-like seeds of the tick-trefoil glued themselves to my clothes.

Of course, I didn’t do this on my own. An unexpected benefit of this endeavor, other than the increased muscle tone in my arms, is that I met so many interesting people and made so many new friends.  First came students seeking service hours or experience to add to their resumes. Some showed up once or twice; others came long after they no longer needed the hours. James, a good-looking, affable young man, came equipped with a machete. He told me he lived on raw meat, raw eggs, and unpasteurized milk. Bianca was the daughter of diplomats, and she told me of her life in Honduras and of the trees that grew there.

Other volunteers included a gay-rights activist, theatre kids, and occasionally a youngster who was actually interested in the environmental field. I reconnected with an acquaintance from my son’s elementary school days.  She’s a Cornell graduate who wrote a book on learning how to use tarot cards. And then there’s Al, an elderly gent, long retired, who used to work as a nuclear physicist. He’s become an avid supporter, helper, and cheerleader of my efforts. We’ve bonded, and I have spent several pleasant afternoons at his house, sipping tea and doing jigsaw puzzles.

The park has become my passion. When people ask me what I do for a living, I say, “Which one? The one I get paid for? Or the one I prefer?” I’m at the park every week, even in the snow.  A neighbor says that whenever he strolls past the park on the way to the playground and I’m not there, his toddler demands to know where I am. My park project gives me the chance to be outside and teach about the environment, another of my passions. I explain to the students, volunteers, and curious passersby about the dangers of invasive plants and the need for biodiversity. I suggest that they read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home that explains the correlation between native plants, native insects and other wildlife.  I also mention The Ecology of Lyme by Richard Ostfeld, in which he relates his findings on biodiversity and Lyme disease.  His work suggests that the more biodiversity an area has, the fewer cases of Lyme disease will occur. But mostly I hope that the park will look so pretty and so full of wildlife that other people will be inspired to adopt their own local park.  Our parks need lots of help. Everybody’s help.

Learn more about invasive plants and the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive Management Area program here. Receive a free t-shirt by volunteering to help IMA Take Back the Forest during April and May, 2014.

Author Jennifer Pradas is the Invasive Management Area Site Leader at Borge Street Park in Vienna, Va.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Deer and Forest; Balance and Management

Fairfax County Deer Management Sign

If you visit a park in fall or winter, you may notice orange archery signs popping up along trails and in parking lots. September signals the start of the white-tailed deer management season, and with that program come many questions from park users about the need for deer management and about the safety aspects of a deer management program.

First, a bit of background.

The Fairfax County deer management program originated in the late 1990s after a local librarian was killed in a deer-vehicle collision in Great Falls. The program is overseen by the Fairfax County wildlife biologist, who serves within the Fairfax County Police Department. Deer management takes place primarily on parkland with the coordination and consent of the Park Authority.

What started as a public safety response to deer overpopulation has expanded for several reasons. There is greater evidence and awareness today that deer browse is one of the top threats facing the county’s forested natural areas. Biologists from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries estimate that there could be more than 50,000 deer currently living in Fairfax County. This is more than 100 deer per square mile, and that is six to ten times higher than a healthy ecosystem can support.

Deer have become over-abundant because we feed and shelter them. Our suburban ecosystems, including our fertilized lawns and gardens, create sumptuous buffets for deer. Many does give birth to twins each year. Large predators, such as resident bears or packs of wolves, are gone from this area. Humans are the only remaining predators of deer, and hunting pressure has steeply declined over the past few decades.

In many of our parks, there is no native vegetation growing between six inches and six feet above the ground because of browsing deer. This summer, our natural resources team measured browse levels at 140 plots countywide and confirmed ongoing, severe browsing in most of the surveyed parks. Many local biologists and naturalists are concerned about the future of our forests, and citizens also have cause for concern. As mature trees die or fall during storms, what replaces them? Under current conditions, very few native seedlings will survive, and invasive species, which the deer aren’t able to eat, often take hold in their place.

Over the long term, forests will degrade and will fail to provide the air quality, water quality and stormwater management benefits we rely on. On a personal level, the property values of homes next to parks may decrease, and the quality of life will diminish as there are fewer places to escape into the cool and quiet of a summer woods. The loss of native shrubs and trees also contributes to a broad decline in native insects, migratory songbirds, and so on up the food chain. It’s like a house of cards. Pull out the right card at the bottom, and the whole pyramid is coming down.

The deer management program relies on several different methods of population reduction including archery, managed hunts, and sharpshooting. There are currently no feasible alternatives to controlling deer populations other than lethal means, in both effectiveness and expense. Archery is the least imposing and most cost-efficient method currently in use because parks can remain open and volunteers can be recruited to hunt on behalf of the county. We recognize that some residents oppose lethal deer control, so we continue to provide public education and to address specific concerns regarding safety. For example, new signs include the international symbol for archery for those who may not be able to read the text.

2013 is the fifth year that we are allowing archery in the parks. In 2012, archery was implemented in more than 30 parks, and there were no safety incidents with people or with pets. This includes heavily-visited parks such as Burke Lake Park, Lake Accotink Park, Huntley Meadows Park, Riverbend Park, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, and Wakefield Park. The 2013 archery program has expanded to over 40 parks, including several inside the beltway. Each park has been marked with orange signs.

Hunting is confined to tree stands in specific areas of the parks, with hunters at least 50 feet from a trail and at least 100 feet from a property line. Each site is reviewed for safety. All of the volunteer archers must abide by strict rules to participate in the program. They must have superior ability with the bow and must qualify at a range to participate. Modern archery equipment is extremely precise and effective, and the program’s wounding rate has been less than four percent each year.

The next time you see a sign during one of your visits, take a minute to search for an oak, maple or hickory seedling. Do you see any? The future of our forests depends on fewer deer.

Author Kristen Sinclair is the senior natural resource specialist in the Park Authority’s Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch.

Saving Nature By Learning To Live With It: The Benefits Of Native Plants

Dr. Doug Tallamy is a Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. He is the author of “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.” He recently spoke to about five dozen land managers, naturalists and public service employees of Fairfax County. His appearance was funded by the same fund that produces the Park Authority’s Stewardship Brochures.

Replacing turf lawns with native plants creates favorable habitat for wildlife.

Replacing turf lawns with native plants creates favorable habitat for wildlife.

If half of American lawns were replaced with native plants, we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park.

The average, everyday homeowner can trigger dramatic reversal of environmental damage without waiting for changes to laws or for leadership from government or business. Dr. Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware believes that and cites the saving of the Atala butterfly as an example.

In a recent address to Fairfax County employees, Tallamy said the Atala butterfly was thought to be extinct in the 1970s. Then landscapers started placing the insect’s food source, a native plant called the coontie, around houses — not to help the butterfly, but because the plant was attractive in home landscapes. The result – a butterfly thought to be extinct found the suburban plants and today appears to be on the rebound.

Tallamy believes homeowners everywhere can have that kind of influence on their environment. To those who have forgotten or who have never known an environment other than modern suburbia, he says, “There are very few places where nature is functioning as it once did.”

Biodiversity is a key term in this discussion. It simply means how many different plants and animals there are at any place. That’s important, because each plant and animal plays a particular role in the outdoors as does each player on a football team. Take away the tight end and the quarterback can’t function because opportunistic defensive players (think of them as invasive plants) come rushing through and mess things up. If you continue to remove offensive players, the offense eventually collapses.

The same is true of a machine. Take out the rivets, and the machine falls apart.

“Biodiversity losses are a clear signal” that humanity’s support structure is failing, Tallamy says.  “Plants and animals are the rivets that sustain us.”

His suggestion: Don’t think about the environment globally. Ask, “What is happening in your front yard?”

Lawns, in his view, establish privacy. They were “not developed to share that space with other living things.” He cited numbers to support that assertion — monarch butterfly populations down 90%, bobolink (and some residents may even ask, “What’s a bobolink?” It’s a bird) populations down 97%, and total bird numbers down 50% over recent decades.

Monarch butterflies are rarely seen in some places now. People in their 50s and 60s will remember seeing them commonly last century.  What’s happened? Their food source has been removed. Tallamy says they’ll come back if homeowners plant milkweed again.

Where have all the Monarchs gone?

Where have all the Monarchs gone?

“We’ve come to see plants as decorations,” adds Tallamy. Turf is one of those plants. Lots with lawns don’t clean water, don’t provide clean air, and don’t support wildlife. Developed spaces are trying to borrow ecosystems services from elsewhere, but there is no “other place” where these ecosystem services are produced. “Our yards support very little biodiversity because they were not designed to do that,” says Tallamy. “We can save nature if we learn to live with nature.”

One solution is to plant native species. That leads to biodiversity. In order for a land area to be productive, there must be large numbers of insects which feed on the plants, and in turn feed the larger animals. Our native insects cannot eat non-native plant species. Yards planted with non-native species support almost no wildlife.

In addition, not all natives are equal. Some groups of plants support many more species of animals than others. For example, native oak trees support over 550 species of butterflies and moths. The larvae of these butterflies and moths, caterpillars, are the primary food used by birds when raising their young. Lose the caterpillars and lose the birds – support the caterpillars and support the birds. By bringing nature back into our landscapes, we reconnect with nature, provide benefits for other organisms and enrich ourselves.

Aren’t small parks and preserves the answer? Tallamy says they’re not big enough. Small populations of plants and animals are subject to local extinction during natural boom-and-bust cycles. “Our natural areas are not large enough to sustain nature,” Tallamy says.

Does a yard have to be 100% native? No. Tallamy says just move in the direction of native plants, and know what the plants in your yard are doing and not doing. Some are “biologically inert.” He says, “Think of them as statues.” He told his audience there are steps “each one of you can do at your own home at your own pace.” And remember to make sure any non-native plants are not invasive plants.

So what do we do? Tallamy offers this:

  • Create corridors, natural connections between your yard and the neighbor’s yard
  • Reduce lawn size
  • Out with invasives, in with native plants
  • Use lawn only in walking areas. That’s where turfgrass shines
  • Got leaves in the fall? Put them on your flower garden as mulch. Still have leaves? Make your garden bigger.

Tallamy says that if half of American lawns were replaced with native plants we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park.

The environmental movement intensified in the 20th century and continues today with us. It’s our turn to choose our legacy. What you protect today will still be around tomorrow for your children, and those children will form their outlook toward the environment from you. As Tallamy told his listeners, “There is no better way to expose children to nature than to bring nature home to them.”

Written by Dave Ochs, manager, Stewardship Communications