Tag Archives: Old Colchester Park and Preserve

Archaeology In A Digital Age

Virtual ColchesterWhen people think about archaeology, they usually think of digging and processing artifacts. That’s part of it, but the Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) is more than field and lab. CART is a part of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Cultural Resource Management and Protection Branch, and it’s CART that is investigating Old Colchester Park and Preserve, a marvelous piece of history on Mason Neck in southern Fairfax County.

Marion Constante is at the forefront of that investigation, and her tool is a geographic information system (GIS), a technology that combines hardware, software and data to make sense out of geographic information. GIS helps make maps and charts and reports and helps understand the relationships of the things in those maps and charts. The county’s Virtual Fairfax map is an example.

Since joining the CART team, Marion has taken our GIS from a tool used to record and analyze to a whole new level. We now have the ability to see the historic town of Colchester from a perspective that has not existed for over 200 years. The project is entirely data-based and without conjecture. Marion integrated historic and archaeological data to create “Virtual Colchester,” for which she won the “Best Cartographic Product” award from the Fairfax County GIS and Mapping Services Branch in November 2013.

Perhaps of equal importance was her application of a programming language to create 3D projections.  Marion wrote a script – a tool to automate processes and tasks – to more efficiently model 3D structures found at Colchester. Spatial data with information about the size and shape of the buildings was linked with the necessary tools to create a model.

We can apply this script to archaeological and historical data from other parks, and the things we learn will make the Park Authority better at teaching visitors about the changes in Fairfax County’s landscape across time. The next step will be equally, if not more, challenging: to create environments for all periods of human occupation at Old Colchester back to the Early Archaic Period, approximately 10,000 years ago.

Marion has taken the information from a database about where artifacts were found at Old Colchester and written scripts that can be used with other scripts to create maps that show where things were found. These artifact distribution maps (similar to the one shown below) help us see where concentrations of artifacts were found, and that gives us a visual aid in understanding what people were doing at the site. The brighter colors on the map are areas of higher artifacts concentrations. Marion can create these “heat maps” to show the distribution of any artifact type or time period, and that helps us target areas that are of the greatest research value and ability to teach us about Fairfax County’s rich cultural heritage.

The Friends of Fairfax Archaeology and Cultural Resources are hosting a free open house at Old Colchester Park on Saturday, May 3, 2014, from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Visitors will be able to tour the park and see Native American and Colonial artifacts from the site. Tours of the Town of Old Colchester are scheduled for 10 a.m. and 12 noon. A one-hour hiking tour of the park begins at 1 p.m. Old Colchester Park is at 10605 Furnace Road in Lorton, VA. There will be a shuttle bus from the parking lot at Mason Neck West Park, 10418 Old Colchester Road in Lorton. Information at 703-534-3881.

Author Megan Veness is the Field Director of the Colchester Archaeological Research Team, and co-author Marion Constante is a GIS Specialist.

Shared Stewardship Versus Stolen History

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The citizens of Fairfax County celebrate their history and take pride in the county’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.  For this reason, when a co-worker sent me a photograph published in the January 4, 2014 edition of The Washington Post, I initially responded with distress only later tempered by introspection.  The image depicted the dark silhouette of an adolescent contrasted against a snow-brightened landscape.  The caption indicated that the young man and his father were metal detecting for, “whatever the ground will offer us,” somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Fairfax, a county-owned and operated park.  I was worried that this activity occurred on publicly-owned parkland.  For, although metal detecting is allowed on private property with the expressed consent of the landowner, it is a violation of park regulations and a Class 4 misdemeanor to use a metal detector on parkland.  According to the Virginia Antiquities Act, metal detecting on a state-designated archaeological site is a Class 1 misdemeanor.  The former is punishable by a $250.00 fine; the latter by a fine of $2500.00 and/or a year in jail.

Introspection came with the realization that otherwise concerned, well-intended, and respectful citizens sometimes engage in these activities because professional archaeologists and resource managers have been remiss in their responsibilities to engage and educate the public.  We have a poor record in returning to the community what we learn through careful, scientific study.  We often come across as boringly technical and aloof, at best.  At our worst, we are perceived as indifferent, snobbish, and elitist.  This is a huge disservice not only to our profession which relies on public support to continue in our roles; but, more importantly, rather than empower citizens as responsible stewards, oversights in public engagement can result in what is tantamount to the theft of our shared heritage.

Archaeology is a discipline of context.  We often gain our most valuable information about lives past through mundane items, casually discarded.  For an example, let me turn to the recent work of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s, Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) at the Old Colchester Park and Preserve.  With funds derived from a land swap and dedicated to understanding our natural and cultural resources, CART has been conducting scientific archaeological studies at the park.  Recently they discovered a pit, filled and forgotten centuries in the past.  Archaeologists recognize this type of pit as almost exclusively the work of enslaved Africans and African Americans.  Careful laboratory and special analyses were conducted on the artifacts and even the soil was carefully excavated from this pit so as to preserve the context of each and every find.

The dirt contained neither Civil War memorabilia nor articles of any inherent value.  Yet, the everyday refuse within the pit proved a fount of knowledge.  Simple hand-made nails demonstrated that a structure, perhaps a kitchen, had overlaid the pit when it was in use.  Broken pottery and tobacco pipe fragments indicated that it had been filled during the mid to late 1700s.  Meticulous methods allowed CART to find the smallest of artifacts, straight pins and tiny glass beads, likely evidence of a woman’s presence.  Thousands of miniscule fish bones and scales indicated specific species of fish that were being eaten.  Analysis of seeds revealed not only the composition of the native forest at the time, but also evidenced the introduction of cultivated species for both consumption and ornamentation.  In short, professionally-led archaeological study revived the landscape and life-ways of an enslaved Fairfax woman who lived over 250 years ago and who, until now, circumstances excluded from our understanding of our shared past.

These new understandings were only possible because of the application of detailed archaeological methods designed to preserve the context of even the smallest artifacts and seeds. We are able to understand the information from this feature because we can see all of the components together. Removing objects from this assemblage paints an incomplete picture, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Recent, popular television shows and profit-driven events have romanticized metal detecting, even suggesting that its practitioners are part of the preservation process.  However, the reduction of artifacts to a monetary value or conversation pieces deteriorating on fireplace mantles wastes a non-renewable resource.  Unless done as part of a professional study and under the supervision of trained archaeologists, it deprives the many of their past for the benefit of the few. It steals our history, robbing our citizens of that which inherently belongs to all; our cultural heritage.

Our work is only possible through the support and understanding of the public we serve.  Towards this end we attempt to give back what we learn through talks to school groups and scouts, the conduct of youth summer camps, college internship programs, and participation at public and professional events and conferences.  Perhaps our best outreach comes from our active volunteer program which is essential to our success and which we invite all interested parties to join.  It is our goal that all residents will understand, enjoy, and respect our heritage and through common interested become stewardship partners.

Written by Christopher Sperling, senior archaeologist, Fairfax County Park Authority

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.

Advancing Northern Snakeheads Thwarted at Huntley Meadows Park

Resource Manager Dave Lawlor shares the history of Northern Snakeheads in Dogue Creek and recounts a close call with this invasive fish at Huntley Meadows.

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.

Huntley Meadows Park, a 1,500-acre complex of freshwater marshlands located in Alexandria, Va., has long been a destination for birders, wildlife photographers, and students. No matter the season, people flock to the boardwalk trail to observe migrating birds, soaring raptors, moss-covered turtles, beavers, delicate dragonflies, and many more species in the park’s 50-acre central wetland, the largest in the region. Freshwater wetlands are considered rare habitat in the Washington, D.C. region and harbor the greatest biodiversity of any habitat type in temperate climates. However, in recent years Huntley’s central wetland has come under threat from an invasive fish species, the Northern Snakehead. If allowed to breed within the park, with their voracious appetites snakeheads have the potential to wreak havoc on the park’s large populations of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

Listed by the state Board of Game and Inland Fisheries as a predatory and undesirable exotic species, snakeheads have been slowly migrating from the Potomac River up Dogue Creek toward the central wetland since 2004. Nine snakeheads were caught in the tidal section of the creek that year, and a year later two fishermen caught more than 80 young fish only a mile and half downstream from the park. Once snakeheads were found in the non- tidal sections of Dogue Creek, park staff became very concerned and took action to try to protect the central wetland from invasion.

Northern Snakeheads have razor sharp teeth.

In 2006, the Resource Management staff at Huntley Meadows requested staff from the Watershed Planning and Assessment Branch of the Department (WP&AB) of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) conduct an electro-fishing survey of Dogue Creek at the park’s southern tip.  Electro-fishing doesn’t kill the fish but renders them immobile for several seconds, enabling staff to net, identify, and count the fish before releasing them.  With this survey, staff attempted to determine if snakeheads had made the mile and half migration up the creek from the Route 1 overpass where 80 snakeheads had been caught the year before.  Unfortunately, one 17” snakehead was caught inside the park just as the shocking crew was finishing for the day.  Although just one fish was caught, it was evident that snakeheads had made the long upstream migration and were only about one mile below Huntley’s central wetland.

Heather Ambrose, Shannon Curtis, Eric Forbes
and Dave Lawlor shock, net, and count fish in Dogue Creek at Huntley Meadows Park in 2010. No snakeheads were found during this survey.

In 2007, staff conducted another electro-shocking survey in Dogue Creek at Wickford Park, which is about one mile upstream from where the 17” snakehead had been caught in 2006. This section of the migration would be much tougher to navigate due to shallow wetlands that periodically dry up as well as multiple beaver dams that impede migration.  Although no snakeheads were found during the survey, park staff and visitors began to see snakeheads in the central wetland in 2009 and 2010. Two of these fish were very young, indicating snakeheads were either reproducing in the park or immigrating into the wetland from Dogue Creek. 

During the spring of 2011, Huntley Meadows Park patrons and volunteers reported seeing a large snakehead in the central wetland along the boardwalk just past the loop.  Soon reports were coming in almost daily and the snakehead number doubled when two large snakeheads were seen in a ditched portion of the wetland, right on top of the water. Immediately park staff jumped into action and tried to net the fish, but these large fish were elusive.  Park staff became very concerned that the fish would breed in the wetland, potentially releasing hundreds or thousands of baby snakeheads which could take over the central wetland and wreak havoc on the wetland’s incredibly diverse aquatic populations. 

Two large snakeheads were netted in the central wetland at Huntley Meadows Park in 2011.

Shannon Curtis and Chad Grupe from the WP&AB were contacted. These folks live and breathe water quality and are sought after professionals when it comes to fish and anything that lives in Fairfax County waters. They brought their electro-fishing backpacks to the park to try to help catch the two large snakeheads before they started upsetting the wetlands sensitive ecologic balance. Within an hour they caught two large snakeheads measuring 20” and 25”. 

After another hour or two of searching no more snakeheads were located in the wetland and the search was called off.  Both of the large snakeheads were females and they were packed full of hundreds of eggs.  As required by state law, the fish were destroyed.  Staff examined the stomach contents and the large fish’s stomach contained a large goldfish (Carassius auratus) and the smaller fish’s stomach contained a smaller fish or tadpole of an undetermined species due to nearly complete digestion.  

Huntley staff continues to be diligent in the search for more snakeheads and we expect this will be a long-term battle.

Dave Lawlor, natural resource manager, Huntley Meadows Park

The severity of the Northern Snakehead problem was made clear this summer when, during a survey at Old Colchester Park and Preserve, Park Authority staff spotted this dark cloud in a tidal marsh near the Occoquan River. It was identified as a “fry ball,” or a group of 10,000-15,000 newly hatched snakeheads.

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