Tag Archives: nature

Cindy Dyer: A Photographer at Green Spring

Forever Stamps

A Green Spring visitor’s photos appear on Forever postage stamps.

“How can I make a living off of this?”

A question asked one day in Cindy Dyer’s garden would lead her to a successful career in photography. The buoyantly inspiring Dyer has been honing her craft with a camera since high school, where on the staff of the yearbook, which she lovingly refers to as “photography boot camp,” she discovered her skill in the art of capturing images.

“I first started noticing all that hard work paying off when I was doing a shoot for the football team during one of their games,” Dyer said. “I was taking some really great action shots; passes caught, touchdowns being scored, and players getting tackled. I’ve never been a big sports fan, but that was something that got me pumped to go to those games.” After college, Dyer became a graphic designer by trade, though she maintained a close relationship with photography, cataloging her botanical endeavors on her Zenfolio account. After being fervently pressured by her friends, she began to promote her photography skills and to do more with her abilities. Her first major triumph came a few years ago from a local park where she had already shot most of her material — Green Spring Gardens.

“A friend of mine introduced me there seven years ago now, and it’s just a lovely park,” Dyer said. “It’s smaller, so it makes it a bit easier to get around in, and the horticulturists are always planting some unusual stuff that you really don’t see anywhere else. To me, even the bigger parks don’t do as well for photographing as Green Spring.”

She pitched the idea for a gallery exhibition to the park’s volunteer manager, and then spent three winter months matting, framing and planning. She said her show in the spring of 2012 had “a really great reception,” adding that “it really solidified that I could make it doing photography.”

Her success continued with the help of a very important patron at the Green Spring show. During the first month of the show, she met the wife of one of the U.S. Postal Service’s art directors. “She bought a piece of mine, went home and talked about my show with her husband who, luckily for me, was tasked with putting together a series of stamps with ferns, palms, and orchids,” Dyer said.

Dyer received a call from Photo Assist, a procurement agency for the Postal Service, asking about her show and if they could license some of her fern photos. Those stamps were issued in January and re-released in March 2014 as a part of the Forever Stamps series.

Dyer’s photography also received notice in 2011 when Nikon web columnist Barry Tanenbaum interviewed her for a how-to piece illustrating the mechanics of photography and used 12 of her images to demonstrate tenants of the discipline. That led to another interview and photo feature with Tanenbaum when he later wrote for Talking Pictures Magazine, and she gained more exposure for her photography in Shutterbug Magazine.

In a tone that is both matter-of-fact and undeniably humble, Dyer attributed her burst of success to Green Spring Gardens. She said that the park takes an intelligent approach by endorsing an attitude of quality over quantity in terms of space and how it is used.

Discussing photography at Green Spring, Dyer said some plants are more predictable because they naturally grow there. “I can look in my calendar and say ‘okay, it’s mid-April, I’ll bet this is in bloom,’ and I’ll usually be on the money.” She also adores the park’s “beautiful bunch of lilies” and her personal favorite, the Love in a Mist. Those she described as “something you’d see in outer space.” She noted that Green Spring marks its flowers with both a plant’s common and Latin names, which Dyer calls invaluable. “Being able to add even that little bit of information to my photos helps make it look a bit more professional,” she said. Dyer added that the park’s intimate size limits the walking she has to do between shoots on her searches for interesting photo subjects.

Her tips for inspiring photographers center on the thought that “a good photographer can do a lot with a little.” Her point is that good photography is not about the camera and its associated toys:

“You need to not just have the gadgets; you also need to have a good eye for capturing the moment. Don’t be so obsessed with equipment. Get the best for what you can afford. If you really want to invest your money into an important part of the camera, invest in the lens. Scientifically speaking, photography is about capturing light and the piece of equipment that does that job the most is the lens. I’ve taken some great pictures that have ended up going on my website with my iPhone. Those things have some really solid lenses.

“Another essential piece of equipment, I’d say, for photographing still scenes/objects is a tripod. Even if you have hands steady as a surgeon, the tripod will do the job for you 100 percent right, 100 percent of the time, and it frees you up to move around the shot to see if there are better angles to get an even better shot without having to focus through the lens or lose where you were originally standing.

“And of course the big one is that if you really believe in your work, get it out there. Don’t be shy. Get a blog, get a website, and just post your photos somewhere. It really wasn’t until my friends started asking me, ‘why don’t you get a show for your work?’ that I started to truly push for my work to get more exposure. Getting my show opened so many doors for me, more people were seeing my work, and I was getting paid to do what I love. All because I was in my garden taking pictures of my plants wondering, how can I make money off of this?”

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Author Dominic Lodato is a summer intern for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division. To see more photos of Green Spring Gardens, visit Cindy Dyer’s website.

Editor’s Note: All professional photographers conducting business on FCPA property or in FCPA facilities must obtain a photography permit and submit appropriate fees in advance. To learn more and apply for a permit, visit Professional Photography in the Parks.

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.

Hiking Amid Wetlands And Wildlife

Observant hikers may spot a river otter in the wetland. Photo by Ed Eider.

Observant hikers may spot a river otter in the wetland. Photo by Ed Eider.

One of the largest parks in the Fairfax County Park Authority system is not, generally speaking, a hiking or biking park. Oh, there are trails at Huntley Meadows Park, but it’s not the place to take off blazing new paths through a woods. There are only two short miles of trails, but they are a celebration of wildlife watching and nature photography.

Fairfax County has more than 500 miles of trails ranging from the paved and noisy biking path alongside the Fairfax County Parkway to the isolated, steep, rugged stretches of hillside climbs at Scott’s Run. There’s the lakeside jaunt around Burke Lake, the South Run Stream Valley mix of wide, paved paths and narrow twists of dirt. There are the horse trails of The Turner Farm and Laurel Hill. Among the others, of course, is the 40-mile Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail. Our mapping tool, Trail Buddy, will help you find an appropriate hiking, biking, equestrian or wildlife watching trail.

Then there’s Huntley Meadows. There’s nothing else quite like it in the county because it is home to the largest non-tidal marsh in Northern Virginia. The very sensitive ecosystem that comprises the park, especially its central wetland, is rare habitat in this area. The forests, wildflower-dotted meadows and cleansing wetlands of the park draw rich numbers of wildlife, and the half-mile boardwalk that traverses the wetlands is the reason for this area’s claim as the best place in Northern Virginia to watch wildlife.

The boardwalk at Huntley Meadows leads visitors into the heart of the wetland.

The boardwalk at Huntley Meadows leads visitors into the heart of the wetland.

That boardwalk is the key to hiking in Huntley Meadows. First, it is ADA accessible, which opens this world of wildlife to all comers. It runs right through the heart of the wetlands, which means when you visit, look up to the sky, down into the waters and mud, left and right across the fields and away into the woods. There’s wildlife large and small to be seen in the distance and, sometimes, right under your feet. It’s a wildlife photographer’s utopia.

The $3 million dollar wetland restoration project was recently completed at Huntley Meadows.

The $3 million dollar wetland restoration project was recently completed at Huntley Meadows.

It’s a pretty utopian place for wildlife, too. The wetland, part of an area once carved by the Potomac River, underwent a major restoration in the past two years, and the result is a prime wetland that is attracting an increasing number of wildlife and welcoming the return of species that had abandoned the park prior to the restoration. Huntley’s 1,500 acres now include the wetland, woodlands, a visitor center, and a historic house built by a grandson of George Mason that is located nearby.

Because of the sensitive ecosystem and the numerous animals, the park’s hiking options are both unique and restricted in order to protect natural resources. That means we ask visitors using the ADA accessible boardwalk and observing wildlife to leave bikes and dogs behind. The boardwalk doesn’t have safe space for cyclists and a dog in the wetland, even quiet and on a leash, scares the park’s locally rare bird species. Studies show that even silent dogs on a leash can reduce breeding bird populations by more than 40% because birds see them as predators. Just a few dogs in the wetland could convince the park’s rails, bitterns and grebes to move on and nest elsewhere. Dogs, litter and loud music on park viewing platforms threaten and disturb the wildlife and therefore should not be a part of any visit to this site.

One of the ways to approach the central wetland is via the park’s one-mile Hike-Bike Trail, an easy and flat path that is excellent for small children. It’s not an appropriate place for speed/racing bikes or for mountain biking, and we ask those who bike in the park to ride responsibly and stay on the trail. Leaving the trail could land you on fragile conservation areas among ground nesting birds and slow-growing woodland wildflowers, and the park’s salamanders and forest frogs can all be devastated by a few off-trail bike trips. That fragility is actually true for most of the park’s forest, meadow and stream trails, which is why park personnel ask that you stay on the established trails and blaze no new ones.

Huntley Meadows also differs from other parks in Fairfax County in that there are no large loop trails. It’s not a park designed for long-distance, cardio workouts. The park’s trails are relatively short and designed with two main goals in mind – getting you close to wildlife for observation and protecting sensitive conservation areas. When viewed and visited with that understanding, Huntley Meadows is indeed a special type of hiking/biking park.

Written by Dave Ochs, manager of Stewardship Communications for the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division, and based on notes from Huntley Meadows Park manager Kevin Munroe.

After 22 years of planning, 60 public meetings, and a cutting-edge design and construction process, the wetland at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Va., has been restored. The Fairfax County Park Authority invites the public to attend the grand opening Saturday, May 10, 2014 from 10 a.m. to noon.

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.

Staff Manages Snakehead Threat At Huntley Meadows Park

Thirty-three Northern snakeheads were removed from the central wetland last fall.

Fifty Northern snakeheads were removed from the central wetland last summer.

One of the wildlife critters we’ll be keeping an eye on following the wetlands reconstruction at Huntley Meadows Park is the Northern snakehead. The exotic, predatory fish has been in the Dogue Creek portion of the Potomac River since at least 2004. They are well established in the Potomac River and have spread to other Chesapeake Bay tributaries. They were first seen in the Huntley Meadows central wetland in 2009.

Now, five years after the first sighting in the park and following the reconstruction that adds water depth to the central wetlands, there are new questions about the impact the snakehead will have at Huntley Meadows.

We sat down with the experts to get a better feel for the issue. Here are some questions and answers about snakeheads from that conversation with Huntley Meadows Park Manager Kevin Munroe, Huntley Meadows Resource Manager Dave Lawlor, and former Park Authority Resource Management and Protection Branch Manager Charles Smith:

Which species are most at risk from the introduction of snakeheads to the central wetland?

Smith: From our discussions about wetland management, the biggest concerns are the amphibians, particularly the frogs. Huntley Meadows has one of the only, and certainly the largest, breeding populations of southern leopard frogs in the region. There is concern that snakeheads could greatly reduce this population.

Lawlor: The native fish species will likely see the biggest impact from snakeheads.  However, after an electroshocking project last summer, the fish biomass and species abundance was very high and impressed everyone present, including the experts.  We do not know what kind of impact they are having on our amphibian populations.  The most significant impact would be the southern leopard frogs.  However, given the wetland project’s deep pool habitat created for fish and their predators (kingfishers, otters, bald eagle, grebes, etc.), all fish, including snakeheads, will probably experience more predation. This is a good thing, as it creates a more complete food web, and it may mean snakeheads experience more control from otters and eagles.

Staff use electro-fishing equipment to shock and count fish. Snakeheads are removed.

Staff use electro-fishing equipment to shock and count fish. Snakeheads are removed.

Is there any evidence that snakeheads are negatively impacting any species in the park?

Smith: There is no evidence yet.

At what age do snakeheads start having babies?

Lawlor: I believe they are sexually mature when they reach about 12 to 16 inches long.  We caught two here a couple of years ago, both around two to three pounds (17 to 20 inches), and they were both full of eggs.

Small schools of snakehead fry have been seen near the park.  Where would the adult female live?

Smith: In the same general environment – shallow water, often in vegetated areas.

Lawlor:  Females snakeheads of breeding age are living in the wetland complexes and likely in the central wetland along with many siblings and offspring.  Staff conducted an electroshock cull last summer while the wetland was drawn down for construction. Fifty snakeheads were removed from the wetland, including some large three to five-pound specimens.  Unfortunately, it appears snakeheads are here permanently, and we will have to continue to manage their populations.

Which animals eat snakeheads? Is it enough to control the snakehead population?

Smith: Wading birds, osprey, eagles, otter, snakes, and snapping turtles can all eat snakeheads depending on their size. It apparently is not enough to prevent snakeheads from breeding, but no one knows if there are enough predators to keep the snakeheads in check.

Lawlor: I would just add other fish, assuming other fish are able to survive in the wetland with them.  With the deeper pool habitat being created with the wetland project, other fish (crappie, perch, sunfish etc.) should have a chance to flourish in the wetland, too, and all of these fish eat other fish.

What should a person do if they spot a snakehead in Huntley Meadows? Is it ok to net and kill snakeheads on the boardwalk?

Lawlor: We ask people to notify us if they see a snakehead in the park.  We would prefer not to have the public randomly killing fish.  Not everyone knows how to ID a snakehead.

Is there a program in place to monitor snakeheads in the central wetland? 

Lawlor: I wouldn’t say we have a plan to monitor them, but they will be managed by removal whenever possible.  We are considering doing some removal this summer.

Are there any regularly scheduled culling dates?

Smith: Part of the design of the wetland restoration is to create deeper pools that can provide habitat for fish and other species during drought periods. During extremely low water, snakeheads should be confined to these pools. Park and county staff could then enter the pools with electrofishing equipment and remove all of the snakeheads in the pools while leaving the native species. This should provide the opportunity to greatly reduce the snakehead population every several years if not control them outright.

Lawlor:  We don’t have regularly scheduled culls, but we did a cull last summer and will continue to conduct culling operations when low water levels make it possible.

Is there a point at which we say, well, snakeheads are here, they may be non-native but they’re now a part of our local ecosystem?

Munroe:  We don’t know enough yet about the impact snakeheads have on our native ecosystems. They may turn out to be less of an issue than we originally thought, or they may be much worse. As we learn more, we can get a better handle on what our long-term approach and attitude should be.

Lawlor: I think that it is safe to say they are here to stay, after seeing the numbers of fish we removed from the wetland this past summer.  We have to accept that they are here, but we will do our best to manage the populations and keep their influence on our delicate ecosystem as small as possible.

What will deeper water in the wetland, one result of the reconstruction project, mean for the proliferation of snakeheads?

Smith: They can go where the water is, so snakeheads would follow the expanding pool during deeper water periods.

Lawlor: Also they would be able to survive the most severe droughts that would normally kill off their population. So the deeper water will ultimately benefit their populations in the wetland. But as Charles mentioned, this will be an opportunity for staff to manage their number by catching or shocking them in the deep water pools as we did in summer of 2013.

How big can a snakehead grow in the central wetland?

Lawlor: This is still unknown in the wetland system.  A record snakehead was caught in the Potomac River in 2013, around 17 to 18 pounds.  I am not sure they will be able to get that big in the wetlands because they will not have nearly as much forage – if they stick to fish.  So far the biggest snakehead caught in the central wetland was about five pounds.

Bowfin, lamprey and American eel look a little like snakeheads. Are those fish seen in Huntley Meadows?

Munroe: American eels yes, but not the other two species. However, eel have uniformly brown backs and sides, while snakeheads are patterned with black blotches on a pale background, much like a python, hence the name.

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.

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.

Lawlor:  American eels are common in the Dogue Creek and Barnyard Run watersheds.  The least brook lamprey is also found in the Dogue Creek Watershed, although none have been found in the wetland yet.  Least brook lampreys are typically less than six inches in length.  As Kevin mentioned, eels and lampreys are generally a solid brown or tan and do not have any patterns on their flanks making them easily distinguishable from snakehead fish.  I am not aware of any positive ID of a bowfin in Fairfax County, but they are found in some Virginia rivers.

Can people fish for snakeheads in Huntley Meadows?

Munroe: No. Fishing is not allowed at Huntley Meadows Park.

Is it safe to say that snakeheads are breeding in the central wetland?

Lawlor: Yes!  We will continue to manage their populations the best we can to reduce their influence on the wetlands ecosystem.

Prepared by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer; and Dave Ochs, stewardship communications manager.

Keeping Fairfax County Blue

2013 was a good year for native, cavity-nesting birds of Fairfax.

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Births of animals at Frying Pan Farm Park are publicized and celebrated, but not all of the births in the park take place in the barn. There are Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) hatchings in nest boxes around the park, and sometimes the newborns are known only to the staff and volunteers who monitor those boxes.

There weren’t a lot of them around during the Great Depression. Bluebirds weren’t common in the 1930s.  The usual problems — habitat loss and the introduction of non-native competition –depressed their population. The European starling and the English house sparrow, both aggressive species, competed with bluebirds for nesting cavities.

But people liked them, even crooned about them. Dame Vera Lynn sang about bluebirds over “The White Cliffs of Dover” in 1942. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” with the line “Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder,” won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Original Song. “Bluebird of Happiness,” recorded in 1945 by tenor Jan Peerce, was a worldwide hit.

More empirical, but just as romantic at the time, were bluebird enthusiasts. These folks installed and monitored nest boxes, and bluebirds recovered. We still use nest boxes, romantics that we are, to support the Eastern bluebird population in Fairfax County.

You can see bluebirds at Frying Pan year round, often near the park’s upper horse ring or the stormwater pond.  During the spring and summer, they nest in cavities in trees and in the nest boxes.  The small size of the entrance hole in the park’s 13 bluebird nest boxes keeps out the larger starling, and the monitors remove house sparrow nests to discourage them from using the boxes.  The starlings and house sparrows still nest at the park in the farm yard.  The bluebird boxes welcome all native species and are used by tree swallows, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, house wrens and others.  You can learn more about the boxes and how they work by finding the display box along Frying Pan’s wagon ride path near the visitor’s center.

The bluebird monitors keeping an eye on those flirting birds in the boxes are park staff and volunteers with the Virginia Bluebird Society (VBS), a 17-year-old non-profit that promotes bluebirds and other native cavity nesters. Information about bluebirds, their nesting habits and how the monitoring program works is on the organization’s website. VBS is working to establish a statewide network of bluebird trails. Here’s what they learned by keeping count last year.

In 2013, 29 bluebirds and 19 tree swallows were born and fledged from the Frying Pan boxes.  July’s hot weather seemed to discourage the birds, which may be why this total of 48 birds was down a bit from the two previous years (56 birds each in 2011 and 2012).  The numbers fluctuate naturally, and the drop in 2013 is not a concern. It’s still a nice total, and it’s still fun to look for the bluebirds when you visit the park.

The number of bluebirds fledged in 2013 in monitored nests across Northern Virginia was up 2.2 percent from 2012. That’s 3,603 birds successfully raised from 56 monitored nests. In 2012, monitors logged 3,523 birds fledged on 49 trails, up from the 2,974 birds fledged on 47 trails reported in 2011 data. The numbers recorded by the monitors annually since 2000 are on the VBS web page.

Frying Pan is not alone among Fairfax County Park Authority sites hosting bluebirds. Burke Lake, Cub Run, Eakin, Ellanor C. Lawrence, Greendale, Lake Fairfax, Langley Fork, Laurel Hill, Nottoway, Oak Marr, Riverbend, and South Run are some of the Park Authority sites that host bluebird boxes.  Another is Huntley Meadows (HMP), whose monitors track nesting box results in the park and at the adjacent Coast Guard Station (CGS). HMP has 27 boxes, 20 of which are paired to permit Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows to nest side by side, reducing competition within those species. Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows forage differently and do not compete for the same prey base.

Two paired boxes are located behind the observation tower on the south side of Huntley Meadows, and the others sit near the hike/bike trail on the northwest side of the park. The CGS hosts five boxes that overlook a well-kept lawn in contrast to the park boxes, which are located in open but typically overgrown meadows. All boxes are equipped with predator guards as prescribed by the Virginia Bluebird Society.

The VBS trains and organizes volunteers to monitor the nest boxes. If you are interested in becoming a monitor, contact VBS president Carmen Bishop. Many of the trails in Fairfax County are monitored by teams of four people, and there is a need for volunteers.

A reminder: it is important that people not open the boxes unless they are a trained monitor. Opening a box that holds nestlings age 13 days or older might cause them to fledge prematurely. Monitors keep records, so they know when and which boxes to avoid opening. The birds generally are pretty tolerant of monitor visits, but not endlessly so. Too much disturbance can discourage them from nesting. For visitors not part of the monitoring program, watch but don’t touch. Enjoy a walk along a bluebird trail, and enjoy the results of the monitors who are trying to keep Fairfax County blue.

Author Carmen Bishop is the president of the Virginia Bluebird Society and a former Fairfax County Park Authority employee. Co-author David Ochs is the Park Authority’s Manager of Stewardship Communications.

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