Tag Archives: Stewardship

The Shampoo Theory of Hiking

Fox Kits at Lake Mercer

Turn around. Look behind once in a while.

Did you ever see a squirrel or a deer cross a road in front of a car? Yeah, they do that. And you know what? They cross behind you, too.

The same thing happens when you hike in a park. Every once in a while you’ll see a deer, or a squirrel, or a fox jump out on the trail ahead of you. Every once in a while they do the same thing behind you. If you hike in an area often enough, you’ll learn that they cross those trails in the same places time and time again. It’s like the highway signs that warn of deer crossing. Those signs aren’t random. Deer repeatedly use those areas.

Animals, like people, are creatures of habit. Deer wander close to edges, where woods and meadows meet, so they often can be spotted near park entrances, along creeks, or along hiking paths. If you’re hiking along a maintained trail, keep an eye out on the forest floor for subtle pathways where plants appear to be pushed down or trampled. Sometimes those are trails blazed by people, but often they are animal trails. Remember those spots, because animals frequently use the same trails repeatedly.

Bass on a nest

It’s like fishing. If you catch a big fish, return to that spot in the future. There’s a reason that fish was there – maybe food, maybe shelter, maybe both. The same thing is going on in the woods. Animals return to the places that provide food, shelter and safe passage. If you like taking photos of wildlife, then remember where you see the animals and return to those places with camera in hand.

Study the weather when you hike. Meteorological conditions can impact wildlife. There are times on a walk in the woods you won’t hear a single bird singing or see any animal movement of any kind. There are other times when every bird in the neighborhood seems to be visiting your feeder, every animal in the woods is in motion, and every fish in the lake is feeding. Consider what the atmospheric conditions are when wildlife is active – sunlight, temperature, cloud cover, barometer, frontal passages, wind speed and direction, and even moon phase. Return when there are similar conditions, and there will be a good chance wildlife will be active again. For example, largemouth bass usually spawn on a new or full moon in spring on the north or northwest banks of a lake where the sun shines longest and when rising water temperatures reach the high 50s to mid 60s. Walk along shorelines under those conditions and look in the shallows for round, white circles where the fish have cleared their beds. Look closely and you’ll see bass circling those beds. Those same areas will draw bluegills in to spawn next when the water temperature rises a few more degrees. You can count on that happening year after year under the same meteorological conditions. Nature is like that. The more you observe, the more fascinating and predictable it becomes.

The best hiking/wildlife day I’ve had in Fairfax parks came during fall a couple of years ago. During an early morning, 45-minute walk at Lake Mercer I spied raptors, fox outside a den, antlered bucks giving their equivalent of high-fives along the water’s edge, a box turtle and countless serenading birds. It was a quiet, calm, cool morning after several consecutive days of steady, calm weather. Spring walks produce choruses of frogs and wildflowers in predictable places as wet, warming conditions repeat year after year.

Atmospheric conditions also can help you predict when wildlife is not active. Consider Washington summers, when temperatures boil into the 90s and days get so hot that not even the air wants to move. Not much wildlife in motion then, either.

So when you head out for a hike in a park this summer, take along this shampoo theory. Lather, rinse, repeat for consistent good hair. On your next hike, enjoy, look, listen and learn. Repeat for consistently good experiences. And increase your odds of seeing wildlife by occasionally turning around and looking back.

Author Dave Ochs is the manager of stewardship communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

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.

Wetland Restoration Project Starts to Sing!

The wetland restoration project at Huntley Meadows Park is nearly complete.

The wetland restoration project at Huntley Meadows Park is nearly complete.

After 22 years of planning, three environmental engineering firms, numerous design drafts, and more than 60 public meetings, it’s hard to believe that the Huntley Meadows Wetland Restoration Project is just days from completion. As Fairfax County Park Authority  staff struggle with the challenges of directing contractors, managing finances, unpredictable weather and inevitable construction delays, the park’s wildlife have decided to ignore all these silly human issues and literally dive into the project.

First, a little context

Raising and then managing the wetland’s water levels in order to maintain a hemi-marsh full of biodiversity is the project’s primary goal. The wetland has been slowly, steadily losing depth for several decades because of silt and cattail spread. It lost almost a foot of depth since the 1980s. That’s one-third of its water, since it was never more than about three feet deep.

The restoration design has three main aspects — creating an earthen dam with a vinyl center to regain that lost foot of depth, installing pipes to create seasonally fluctuating water levels (essential for maintaining a healthy hemi-marsh), and excavating several deeper pools to create refuge for wetland wildlife during summer droughts and winter freezes. As an added plus, the project doubles the wetland’s boundaries, seasonally flooding surrounding forest to create additional swampland and vernal pools. Combined, those events restore a paradise for wildlife and wildlife watchers.

At least that was the idea. But would it work? Would 22 years of planning pay off? Would park wildlife agree with and adopt the design, or would we end up with a beautiful but empty wetland as animals high-tailed it for other parks not full of excavating bulldozers, 20-person construction crews and enough silt-fence to surround a small country? I’ve been telling people that three years was a good amount of time to wait until we saw real results. It turned out all the wetland needed was seven days of rain.

Seven days, not three years

Remember back in mid-October when it rained non-stop for a week? Well, the construction was far from complete, but the dam and pipes were finished. So we were able to raise the water level back to its 1986 levels plus an additional 10 inches. Wetland boundaries expanded, areas were submerged that had been dry for 30 years, and then we waited, watched, and listened. As park staff struggled with submerged trails and a small section of boardwalk that flirted with the idea of floating away, wildlife chose to ignore these mundane issues and had a ball.

Huntley’s resource manager, Dave Lawlor, and I were walking the trails to determine which sections to raise when we heard what sounded like the roar of a low plane moving towards us over the flooded wetland. The roar got louder, Dave and I had to shout to hear ourselves, but when we looked around — no plane in sight. Then we realized the deafening sound moving like a wave across the wetland was the largest chorus of southern leopard frogs we’d ever heard. One male frog starts to croak, cackle and gargle, his neighbor feels competitive and tries to outdo him, his neighbor does the same, and in seconds the sound wave rolls across 40 acres of wetland, echoing into the surrounding forest. The extreme volume was due to the increased wetland footprint. This was the largest the wetland had been in over 30 years, creating an enormous stage for one of Northern Virginia’s least common frogs and one of the species we had hoped to help with this project. “Build it and they will come” and sing.

Photo by Ed Eder

Southern leopard frogs, one of the least common frog species in Northern Virginia, are already benefitting from the expanded wetland.

The return of the birds

Wonderfully, and thankfully for an anxiously waiting park manager, southern leopard frogs were not the only wildlife that adopted and utilized the restored wetland. One morning as I joined Charles Smith, FCPA’s lead naturalist and resource protection manager, to inspect the project, we heard a warbled, bouncy bird call coming from the edge of a recently excavated habitat pool. “Purple finch? Goldfinch? No, I think it’s a winter wren!” A tiny, mouse-like bird that flits down from New England to spend its winters hiding in the moist thickets of the mid-Atlantic had its head thrown back and was singing its heart out from a wildlife brush shelter constructed only days before.

Unfortunately, a few hundred trees had to come down in order to create the new dam, pipes and pools. Our goal was to use all of those trees on-site as habitat enhancements (brush shelters, sunning logs for turtles, underwater breeding habitat for crayfish, etc.), and winter wrens were one of the species we were hoping to attract.

That same morning we heard several belted kingfishers throwing their rattling cries across the wetland, diving for fishy snacks in the newly excavated pools, and over the last few weeks numerous ducks have appeared to feed, court and mate in the expanded wetland. Northern shovelers, northern pintails, green-winged teal, and American black ducks are just a few of the winter waterfowl species now in the wetland, visiting from their summer homes in Canada and our upper Midwest.

None of the species I’ve mentioned so far, from frogs to ducks, are new to Huntley, but their numbers appear to have increased this fall/winter because of the larger wetland and historic water depth. Our goal was never to attract new species, but rather to return the marshland wildlife back to their 1980s numbers, and to convince rails, bitterns and grebes to nest here again as they did several decades ago. Will king rails and pied-billed grebes build nests and give birth again to new generations next spring and summer? We’ll see or, more accurately, we’ll listen.

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Mike Rollband, president and owner of Wetland Studies and Solutions Inc., discusses the wetland restoration project.

Author Kevin Munroe is the site manager at Huntley Meadows Park. See more photos of the project on Flickr.

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

Hidden Oaks Says Farewell To Darling The Eastern Rat Snake

Darling, an eastern rat snake, swallows a mouse.

Darling, an eastern rat snake, swallows a mouse.

His nickname among some of the staff was Darling. An odd name, perhaps, for a snake, but it did reflect a kind of fondness for him.

We don’t give our exhibit animals actual names because they aren’t pets. We’re naturalists, not purveyors of anthropomorphism. We don’t want to bestow human qualities on exhibit animals because our job is to interpret nature, not humanize it.

But after 20 years with an animal, some kind of relationship forms. And so we noted on March 6, 2013, the passing of the eastern rat snake that spent the past two decades at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale.

Hidden Oaks Assistant Manager Suzanne Holland tells the story:

We were given the snake in 1993 while it was still an egg along with a few others after a homeowner found a clutch in his mulch pile. Rarely do reptile eggs that are moved survive, for unlike bird eggs, the yolk is unstable in these eggs. But he made it. During the snake’s first year of life, he sported the blotchy gray and black pattern of a juvenile eastern rat snake. These snakes are notoriously aggressive as juveniles, and he bit the animal care staff at every opportunity. Being non-venomous and small, he left only pinprick punctures, and he was not a danger to anyone. As he matured, he got used to being handled and thrived as an exhibit animal. He was often used in school programs and for outreach. His laminated skin, six feet long and shed more than three years ago, is an awe-inspiring sight. Students and parents alike are stunned to learn that he was closer to seven feet long. Since snakes don’t stretch out the way mammals like to, his true size was often underestimated.

If you’ve been to Hidden Oaks sometime over the past 20 years, you’ve probably seen the snake. Although he will be missed, he also will be replaced. Hidden Oaks will remember him only with a photo, one that Holland calls “his glamour shot,” as the eastern rat snake finished a meal of mouse.

Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Nature in Your Own Backyard

Stewardship: Fairfax County’s Family Backyard Initiative

The plan was to dig a hole in the backyard to China. However, as soon as the first worm turned up, the adventure became a worm hunt. Until a butterfly flittered past. It begged to be caught, but kept teasing with its dips and darts over the flowers. Watch out for bees, they sting. Are there any bears here?

You can’t smell the flowers from the living room.

Backyards are a natural world of adventure to children. Backyards are ball fields, ships, mountains, jungles, the moon, or any other place you can imagine. And kids do imagine those places in their yards. They also learn about nature while they play in a backyard, and nature is the most, well, natural of teachers in the outdoors.

But kids aren’t getting outdoors to learn. A University of Michigan study says children spend only one percent of their time outdoors. A University of Rochester study reveals that being in nature reduces stress in kids and, in simple terms, makes them nicer people.

“What can we do with these logs?”

So you’re invited to be nicer and to come out to nature in your own backyard. If you don’t have a backyard, you probably have a park nearby where you can be part of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Family Backyard initiative. Its goal: go outside and play in nature.  Everything’s right there in your backyard, where you’ll find sticks, rocks, trees, dirt, flowers, mud, and water – all of the important necessities for fun.  Add kids, turn them loose without any formal goals, and watch the imaginations soar and the discoveries mount.  Nature play works best when the children are in charge and making the decisions. The more time they get outdoors, the more they grow and develop in healthy ways while fostering a love of nature.

Ahh, the simple joy of burying your feet in the sand.

Need some fresh ideas to get started? We’ve got some. Even if you’re a veteran of the outdoors and you know your backyard well, the Family Backyard initiative can suggest fun, effective ways to promote building wildlife and family-friendly backyards. By providing requirements such as water, shelter, food and stewardship, you can manage your backyard and make it more welcoming to wildlife and kids. To get some new ideas or to get started, click here.   Don’t spend a lot of time on that website, though. Remember, you’re supposed to be outside playing.

 

Written by Dave Ochs, stewardship communications manager