Archive for May, 2010


Gardening is a way of showing that you believe in tomorrow.

- unknown

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Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) was one of the first native shrubs that I learned when I moved to Loudoun.  We have it in various places just growing wild through our back yard area and I was curious about their bright red berries.

It turns out, Spicebush is a wetland plant that often grows alongside Sassafras in moist soils, stream banks, floodplains and swamp forests (which we love for all their amphibian habitats!). When I read about this the first time, it helped me put together clues about the habitat that ran through our back yard.

The flowers come out very early in spring, even before the leaves. As the flowers are pollinated, green berries start to take shape and can be seen on the plant through the summer.  Then, just before the leave drop off, the berries take on their bright red color – a sure sign to the birds that food is here.

Spicebush is a really important wildlife plant. First, for the Spicebush and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies, it provides food for the caterpillars.  Spicebush is the host plant for this butterfly meaning that the caterpillar will eat this plant as it grows and transforms from caterpillar to chrysalis to beautiful butterfly. Learning this, I then understood why we had so many of this butterfly flying through our garden and forest area.

For mammals and birds, Spicebush provides cover and nesting sites. And then there are those beautiful red berries. They ripen in September and provide great nourishment to migrating and local birds.

Another interesting thing about this plant are that it is a member of the Laurel family and as such, it is remotely related to avocados, bay leafs, and cinnamon.

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Our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have returned and while it’s great fun to watch them come to the hummingbird feeder, it’s even cooler to watch them nectar from flowers!  It’s really easy to create a hummingbird garden that will have them (and other interesting visitors like sphynx moths) zipping through your yard.

The first thing to do is select the site – you’ll want to pick a sunny site that is a little sheltered from the wind. It’s also nice to have a tree nearby that your hummingbirds can use as a perch as they take breaks between patrols of your garden.

Next, select the plants – Wonderful native plants that the hummingbirds will love include Bee Balm, Cardinal Flower, Bergamot, Penstemon, Trumpet Vine, Columbine, and Jewelweed (aka Touch-me-not).

The bright red of the Bee Balm and Cardinal Flower will be immediate magnets drawing the hummers in.  In the fall, Jewelweed is a really important nectar source for hummers as they head south.

I sometimes buy annuals that are not native but still pretty and I put them in containers on our deck. Some of the plants that I select for that area are Salvia, Verbena, and Lantana – all in bright reds!

If you have a water source nearby, you can try setting up a mister that the hummingbirds can use to drink from and bath in. I haven’t tried this myself but once I do I’ll send out a blog post on how well it worked.

Some great books on gardening for wildlife that include hummingbird gardens include:

The Wildlife Gardener’s Guide to Hummingbirds, by Susan Day, et al

Attracting Butterflies and Hummingbirdsto Your Backyard, by Sally Roth

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Our next selection is On the Wing by Alan Tennant. Sign up via our website to be a part of the nature book club get together in the fall.  Here’s a bit about the book:  

From Publishers Weekly Naturalist Tennant (The Guadalupe Mountains of Texas) describes his efforts to trail peregrine falcons on their epic migratory flights from the Caribbean to the Arctic in a detailed, impassioned account that’s part nature study and part gonzo travelogue.

After radio-tagging a young peregrine off the coast of Texas, Tennant teams up with George Vose, a former WWII combat flight instructor, to follow the bird on its spring migration north. Plenty of excitement—run-ins with Canadian Mounties, trouble with Vose’s battered plane—follows as the men track their “guiding angel,” the bird they name Amelia.

After a trip to the peregrine’s Alaskan breeding grounds, Tennant and Vose follow three new peregrines on the fall migration down the coast of Mexico and Central America, where their adventures include going into a free-fall over the Caribbean Ocean and being mistaken for DEA agents.

Tennant pauses to consider nearly every creature he encounters along the way, from polar bear to insect, describing its connection to the land, and, in the inevitable bittersweet turn, revealing the environmental degradation that threatens its survival. With a nature-lover’s deep concern rather than an ideologue’s rhetoric, Tennant emphasizes the connection between man and beast, reflecting as well on his own need for migration and adventure.

Next meeting is TBD, probably in September after summer travels have wound down.

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There is something infinitely
healing in the repeated refrain of nature –
the assurance that dawn comes after night,
and spring after winter.
- Rachel Carson

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Last month our Nature Book Club got together to discuss Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Our book club coordinator, Donna Quinn sent over a wonderful summary of the get together and comments made by book club participants:

“The patterns of reciprocity, by which mosses bind together a forest community, offer us a vision of what could be.  They take only the little that they need and give back in abundance.  Their presence supports the lives of rivers and clouds, trees, birds, algae, and salamanders, while ours puts them at risk.   Human-designed systems are a far cry from this ongoing creation of ecosystem health, taking without giving back…  I hold tight to the vision that someday soon we will find the courage of self-restraint, the humility to live like mosses.  On that day, when we rise to give thanks to the forest, we may hear the echo in return, the forest giving thanks to the people.”  

As a soft spring rain fell and the peepers called, five book club members met at the Blackwell’s on April 8 to discuss Gathering Moss – a provocative collection of essays centered on mosses.  This collection  offers not only fascinating scientific facts about mosses but also rich spiritual guidance on how to live in  harmony with nature and respect the interconnectedness of all living  things.  Readers were awed by the astonishing capacity of mosses to flourish in places where little else can grow, to survive drought, to capitalize on opportunities created by the unpredictability of nature’s forces, and even to change its reproductive method depending on conditions to ensure greatest reproductive success.  We were drawn into a world filled with science and spiritual reverence for these amazing tiny plants from which we can learn so much.

Kimmerer guides us on an intimate journey with mosses – we feel the power of the rocks and logs the mosses cling to and can sense the water flowing through crevices and connecting all.  She welcomes us to an “entire realm which lies at our feet.”  Through her eyes, we are invited to ‘see’ mosses,  which she instructs is more like listening, “You can look at mosses the way  you listen deeply to water running over rocks.  The soothing stream has many voices…  Slowing down and coming close, we see patterns emerge and expand out of tangled tapestry threads.”  

 What is a moss?  We learn it is a bryophyte, a primitive land plant which lacks flowers, fruits, seeds and roots.  Because of what it doesn’t have, mosses are limited in size and live in the boundary layer, the quiet and still place where surface and atmosphere meet.  In this microenvironment, there is little air friction which is important for a plant with no roots.   Also, carbon dioxide from the decaying forest floor (required in photosynthesis) can be up to 10 times higher than in the atmosphere above.  Each one of the 22,000 moss species existing in virtually every ecosystem, even city side walks, is simply and elegantly designed for success in its tiny niche.

Kimmerer draws us close and we smile and sigh over the wonders of mosses, including her adventures studying mosses while bobbing up and down in a canoe, and her findings pertaining to the practical uses of mosses by mankind.  Intrigued by the lack of information available about moss use by humans,

Kimmerer’s search leads her to wonder if mosses were too small to be thought worthy of documentation.  In “The Web of Reciprocity” she finally discovers that it was women who took advantage of mosses’ absorption qualities including wrapping baby’s bottoms in mosses.  Mosses were also used as insulation in cabins and to dry wet boots.  In the forest, mosses nourish and sustain many plant and animal species by providing shelter, moisture, nesting material, and nurseries for seeds and saplings.  They are the thread that binds together the elements of the forest.  

As in every true love story, once mosses have stolen our hearts, our hearts are broken by the latter essays highlighting human acts of greed and lack of respect for nature.  We read about the utter devastation left behind a clear cut forest, the insanity of a rich estate owner who destroys an ancient moss stand in an attempt to create an artificial moss garden for personal pleasure, and the author’s horror at discovering 100 year old mosses in florist displays – mosses which grew together with their sapling host for 100 years and cannot ever regenerate on mature trees.  Kimmerer admits to her own attachment to the material world: her beloved books whose pages were once moss covered trees, the oak of her desk, the wood paneling in her study, the smell of a wood fire on a cold night.  While there is no resolution between these worlds, she shows us the way of the mosses – a lush, balanced and interconnected universe in which only what is needed is taken, and infinitely more is given back.

Comments from our readers – Gathering Moss

    *   Steve and Pati:  Gathering  Moss. Gathering experience.  I often take for granted the smaller, less complex parts of our surrounding whole.  The book was a great reminder that there is so much going on literally beneath our feet.  The essays brought forth a world of plant life that I rarely thought about and definitely never appreciated.  This book reinforced the age old axiom  confirmed by any reader, that books always open a window to new experiences  and expansion of our minds.  From mosses that lay dormant and dry for 40 years only to “reanimate” within minutes, to their remarkable ability to establish an existence where others have failed, these essays provided enjoyable and sobering insight into the ecology of a plant that is far more than just a “carpet in the forest”. 

    *   Joe commented on “Kickapoo” in which Kimmmerer describes her studies of the effects of disturbance and its important role in diversity as she bobs up and down in her canoe while collecting data from the cliffs of the Kickapoo River, and reminded us of how disturbance, such as the recent great snow storm of 2009, is an important natural element which ultimately provides some species with opportunity.  He also commented on “The Owner” which concludes with the vision of a crazy quilt of mosses created by Roundup which was used to kill all vegetation.  Since mosses have such primitive systems, they are immune to many pesticides. 

    *   Ann:  An eye opening book about mosses and their role in the ecological process.  Robin Kimmerer is a wonderful writer who makes her stories on mosses come alive through associations with our everyday lives. Just knowing I was reading the book for book club has made me so much more aware of the mosses that surround us on a certain level.  

*   Ellie Daley:  Everyone should try this at home!  Take a dried up moss and pour water over it.  Grab a magnifying glass and observe for about 20 minutes – watch for yourself as the moss revives.  (Described in the essay, “An Affinity for Water’)

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If you plan to drive from Loudoun into Fairfax or DC on May 20, it’d be a great day to use the Dulles Greenway. On May 20, 100% of tolls collected will be given to local charities and Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy will be one of those recipients.

Funds received by Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy through this charity drive will be used for habitat restoration projects, environmental educational programs, and scholarships for children to go to nature camp. You can learn more about the Drive for Charity on the Dulles Greenway’s information page.

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I had a great time monitoring two of our bluebird nestbox trails yesterday morning and thought it’d be fun to share some of what I saw and experienced.

The two trails that I monitor are Banshee Reeks and the Dulles Wetlands.  While both trails are not too large (10-11 boxes each), I took a good while doing it, and meandered my way through each trail, checking out other birds flying around, spotting butterflies in the grasses and along the forest edges, and just generally enjoying the day, oh yea, and doing frequent checks for ticks – since I didn’t want to take home too many hitch hikers.

I started my morning of monitoring at Banshee Reeks at about 8:30 and after picking up the monitoring log book and perusing the sightings from last week, I went off along the trail.  It’s always exciting to peek inside the nest boxes because, while we have an idea of what we’ll see based on the previous week’s observations, stories play out over the course of the week as birds pair up, eggs are laid, boxes are fought over, and so on.

At both Banshee and the Dulles Wetlands, we have a healthy number of both Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, although the Tree Swallows seem to make up the majority of nesters.

Tree Swallows can be a pretty aggressive bird when it comes to defending the nestbox, dive bombing and chittering at our heads.  All monitors are given training prior to monitoring at a trail and we always warn new monitors about the Tree Swallow behavior. Our protocol – in general – is to get in, take a peek to gather the data, and then get a good distance way from the box so to put the Tree Swallows (and Bluebirds) back at ease. 

At the trail at Banshee, as of May 16, we have 23 Tree Swallow eggs, 10 Bluebird eggs and 9 Bluebird babies. At the Dulles Wetlands, we have 32 Tree Swallow eggs, 5 Bluebird eggs, 4 Bluebird babies and 5 House Wren eggs. 

This is the first brood of the year for all of these species.  We expect at least 1 more brood as we go through the season and then at the end of the year we’ll tally how many young were fledged from the trails across Loudoun.

Along the trails, I saw some nests that were complete and ready for eggs and some nests where there may have been disputes over box ownership, like the one in this photo which has 2 Tree Swallow eggs and 1 Bluebird egg.

Other boxes show signs of possible predation such as where I saw Tree Swallow eggs ejected from the nestbox and cracked on the ground.

We learn a lot by monitoring, not only about population trends but also about bird behaviors and the whole cycle of life. It’s quite fascinating.

For some additional views inside the nestboxes, I’ve posted a few photos from yesterday in our Facebook album.

Learn more about Bluebird Nestbox Monitoring.

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It was great seeing so many of you yesterday afternoon.  What a great day we had to get together, enjoy some good food, listen to the wonderful music played by Karen Strick, and catch up together. 

Spring Ligi did a great job talking about our Loudoun County Bird Atlas project, some of the findings to date and the importance of this project for bird conservation here locally.  And, it was wonderful to talk with our Science Fair winners and see their projects.

As for the business part of the meeting, our slate of officers was presented by our nominating committee (I had the honor of reading the report) and was voted on by the membership.  Our Officers for this 2 year team are: President: Joe Coleman, Vice President: Nicole Hamilton, Treasurer: Linda Sieh, and Secretary: Rockie Fera.

Congratulations to Paul Miller for being named LWC’s Volunteer of the Year.  Paul has made significant contributions to Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy with all his hard work in building our Environmental Education program for children, helping out at every habitat restoration project , being involved in our Programs committee as we plan field trips and speaker programs, and always being on hand to help out.

I’ve posted a few photos from the meeting to our Facebook album – feel free to check them out.  Many thanks to everyone who helped pull together the Annual Meeting – 15 years is a great milestone!

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This past Wednesday, eight people came out for our mid-week walk as we explored the great habitat around Foxcroft School near Middleburg. We investigated the rich hedgerows, walked through the woods and down to Goose Creek. 

The highlight was seeing a Belted Kingfisher going into its nest burrow.  This fascinating bird actually digs a burrow into the banks of rivers and streams for its nest site. 

Joe wrote: “Seeing the Belted Kingfisher duck into its nest hole under the think hanging vegetation was fantastic (something I have looked for for years).  It was also nice to see the Rough-winged Swallows duck in & out of their holes and to hear the woods full of spring sounds.  And we had great looks at Scarlet Tanagers (male & female) almost at eye level.”  

Overcast conditions turned to sunshine during the morning.  Many thanks to Christine Perdue for leading this field trip for us! Here’s her summary of sightings:

The group had 48 species during the walk:  Belted kingfisher (nesting) (1); Prairie warbler (1); Chestnut-sided warbler (1); Northern parula (2); Black-throated blue warbler (1); Black and white warbler (1); Common yellowthroat (1); Blackpoll warblers (6); La. waterthrush (2); Scarlet tanager (5); Red-eyed vireo (4); White-eyed vireo (1); Eastern wood pewee (2); Great crested flycatcher (1); Yellow-billed cuckoo (1); Northern flicker (1); Red-bellied woodpecker (2); Blue-grey gnatcatcher (4); Indigo bunting (5); Carolina wren (1); Spotted sandpiper (2); Solitary sandpiper (4); Cedar waxwings (6); Purple martin (2); Northern rough-wingedswallow (6) (nesting); Barn swallows (2); Mourning dove (2); American goldfinch (3); American robin (2); Bluebird (2); Chipping sparrow (1); House sparrow (6); Turkey vulture (3); Black vulture (2); American crow (4); Common raven (1); Blue jay (1); Northern cardinal (6); Catbirds (10); Northern mockingbird (2); Rock pigeon (2); Red-shouldered hawk (1); Carolina chickadee (1); Tufted titmouse (7), Red-headed Woopeckers (2), Brown Thrasher (1), and Chimney Swifts overhead.

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