As Fall approaches

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By Anne Owen

As Fall approaches, many of us will be thinking about ‘tidying up’ the yard ready for Winter – and for most, that will mean cutting down dead flowers, raking up fallen leaves and piling up bags of yard waste at the curb for pick up. Then, we can settle back into our warm homes to wait things out until Spring.

But spare a thought for the many critters that live in our yards. Mostly, we won’t see them, but they are there and they too need safe habitat to survive the winter. The insects and arachnids that overwinter successfully will the ones that provide food for hungry fledgling birds in the Spring. They will pollinate the early flowers, providing fruit and seeds later in the season and some will even assist in keeping other destructive insects under control.

Many butterfly and moth species over-winter as pupae in leaf litter. When the caterpillars emerge in Spring, they provide critically important food for birds feeding their young. Ladybugs and Lacewings like to nest in dry, sheltered crowns of native grasses and spiders hide at the base of old stems. Different species of bees use hollow plant stems, or small holes just below or on the ground’s surface.

Swamp Sparrow foraging

Swamp Sparrow foraging

Even species that are active in the winter months, such as birds, need food and shelter. Birds will greatly appreciate the seed heads of grasses and forbs, especially Coneflower. Standing stems and grasses will also provide safe spaces for small birds to escape ever-present predators such as hawks. Visiting Juncos and White-throated Sparrows love the brush piles in my yard!

Here are some suggestions:

  • Let leaves lie where they fall (or just blow them off the lawn and onto beds). Natural leaf litter will provide shelter for many species and is a great natural mulch.
  • Leave perennial stem and seed heads standing through the winter months. If you are not comfortable to leave it all, consider cutting down only a half or two thirds and leave just a section standing. Stems left standing can protect the plants themselves in severe weather by collecting insulating snow.
  • If you do cut down some or even all of your perennials, think about leaving the cut stems in a loose stack on the ground, to form a small brush pile that can provide winter habitat.
  • When planning your garden, include plants that actually look great in winter, such as coneflower, yarrow and native grasses – then enjoy the artistry on frosty mornings when the leaves and seed heads are accented with halos of ice.

 

Because many of the critters that will benefit from this approach are very small, it may be hard to see the changes that are taking place in your garden, but you will be making a difference and those changes will happen!

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Book Review: Feathers, the Evolution of a Natural Miracle

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By Sheila Montalvan

Feathers, the Evolution of a Natural Miracle. By Thor Hanson. New York, NY: Basic Books. 2011, 336pp.

Recently I heard about an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York called Dinosaurs Among Us that features a 23-foot- long feathered tyrannosaur (Yutyrannus huali) and a small dromaeosaur with “four wings and vivid plumage.”

Information on the exhibit states that, “the boundary between the animals we call birds and the animals we traditionally called dinosaurs is now practically obsolete”, and that “many dinosaur species sported primitive feathers—precursors to those birds use to fly, court mates, and more.” This information would have astounded me, except that I happened to be reading Thor Hanson’s well-informed book, Feathers. Dr. Hanson, a biologist and author, won the American Museum of Natural History John Burroughs Medal for Feathers, and was nominated for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize in the UK.

According to Dr. Hanson, it all started in the German countryside in 1861. A quarryman, who “worked in a world of dust, the fine grit of limestone powdered by blasting, chisel work, and constant hammer blows”, had a very bad cough. Unable to afford a doctor, his “method of payment was a delicate, crow-size fossil he had found that would change science forever.” The fossil was Archaeopteryx lithographica –a fossil of a reptile with the feathers of a bird.

Archaeopteryx lithographica fossil

Archaeopteryx lithographica fossil

Fossils are known to be fairly common in limestone, and sometimes miners would smuggle out any interesting finds to trade for necessities, such as medical advice. The doctor knew he had something special, and the fossil eventually ended up in London where its origins and meaning were debated by scientists for years. The fossil is now in the Natural History Museum in London. I was fortunate enough to see the actual fossil while in London recently. It is kept in the “Treasures” section of the museum and is their “most valuable fossil” (see photo). It is larger than I thought it would be, and even to my untrained eye I could tell it was a bird by the shape and feather detail. Seeing the fossil certainly put the author’s enthusiasm on the subject into perspective.

The book touches on a wide variety of feather trivia. Did you know that early humans probably used feathers to create paintings in caves?  Or that the metallic fins on the “massive rocket that launched Apollo 15 were direct technological descendants of the first feathers to stabilize the tail end of a dart”?  And that the “word pen is derived from the Latin penna, for feather.” Feathers were also used for dental hygiene purposes, back in the day.

The author informs us that there is a desert dwelling bird called the sandgrouse, who will fly to a water source and carry water back to its young in its breast feathers. The water source can often be 30 miles away. Sandgrouse feathers actually absorb the water – and “will hold two to four times as much water as the average dish sponge.” The sandgrouse chicks are able to get a sip of water since they are unable to fly to the water source yet.

Another section examines how feathers get their pigment, and how scientists determined that feathered dinosaurs were colorful. Did you know that the coloring in parrot feathers makes them resistant to bacteria? Perfect for life in a damp rain forest.

There is plenty of discussion on feather anatomy, too. The author provides a very detailed visual reference to various types of feathers, including their size and structure. Everything one needs to know (and more) about flight and contour feathers, bristles, follicles, filaments and filo plumes are here.

This insightful, easy to read book is consistent with Dr. Hanson’s engaging style and enthusiasm for the subject. Feathers contains a variety of biological, cultural, scientific, and religious information that would appeal to most readers. Any naturalist or bird watcher would benefit from reading this book, and you won’t want to miss a single part.

Link to Publisher’s page: http://www.basicbooks.com/full-details?isbn=9780465028788

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Stewardship: Where Science Meets the Heart

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By Leslie Ashman

“I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” (John Muir, 1896) 1

In this, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, it feels appropriate to quote one of its earliest advocates.2  And this quote feels particularly poignant as I’ve been ruminating on our collective human relationship with Nature, what it means to steward, and the emotional connection that drives us to do so.

In our Interpretation class, we were taught the process that takes us from Awareness through Understanding and Caring ultimately leading to Stewardship, and that, according to Freeman Tilden, “Any interpretation that does not somehow relate… to something within the personality or experience… will be sterile,” that is – in order to garner action and commitment, we need to reach beyond the intellectual to connect with people emotionally.  Otherwise, the message is ineffective in soliciting active response.

I would submit that even the Education and Citizen Science pillars of the Naturalist program are in themselves forms of Stewardship (our third pillar), for whether we’re birders, beekeepers, goat-tenders, tree-huggers or inveterate counters of the creepy-crawlers, we’re in action because we care for various aspects of Nature.  We have learned that that the warp and weft of Nature weaves an integrated whole that includes us as its participants and its stewards.

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) photo by Allison G

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) photo by Allison G

More and more, I’m looking at my own stewardship endeavors as finding ways to connect others with the personal experience of Nature.  Getting children, family and friends outdoors to see how they can touch and are in return touched by their surroundings.  Drawing parallels between the new and captivating perception with the old, known and familiar; and expressing those perceptions in terms of how they make us feel and memories they evoke.  By sharing a personal story; others will listen and be inspired.  It wasn’t until I realized that the Dutchman’s Breeches I was introduced to in Botany class reminded me of Dutch dolls I had as a child and walks in a nearby Nature Preserve with my mother back then, that I understood so clearly why those flowers instantly made me smile and want to plant my own next Spring.  Stewardship might work through our words and our hands, but it comes from the heart.  This Autumn, think about ways to share those connections, memories and experiences as ways of offering the gift of Stewardship – and the wonders of Nature — to others.

https://www.nps.gov/idp/interp/101/FoundationsCurriculum.pdf

http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/people/historical/muir/

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Newsletter article and Facebook submission guidelines

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By Leslie Ashman / Someone asked me recently about article submission guidelines.  I thought it might be helpful to share how the Communications Committee, VMN Banshee Reeks Chapter views its current three media outlets.

First, just want to note how we view the distinction between posts to our Facebook group and newsletter content, about half of which is drawn from submissions to our website.  We view Facebook, as the platform is intended, as sort of up-to-the minute grab-and-go content on nature news, volunteer activities, Continuing Education opportunities, personal pic sharing and other timely information pertinent to VMNers – a format to create community.  No one’s writing content and one can simply post an article from elsewhere without even commenting, if so inclined.  (And yes, it’s monitored. 🙂 )

For the website and the newsletter, we’re actually writing articles from various source materials that relate to Virginia and surrounding areas (e.g., the Piedmont or Chesapeake Bay watershed) and whose subjects can be generally categorized within the ‘three pillars’ of the VMN program – Education, Citizen Science and Stewardship.  Our latest edition is a great example of that – Sheila’s article about the Ovenbird is educational, Bryan’s about the Breeding Bird Atlas covers a great Citizen Science project, and his and his wife Allison’s Stream Buffer Planting is a wonderful example of Stewardship.  I include my own article on Nature and the brain as falling within the Stewardship category, since I believe that simply getting more people outdoors fosters a deeper sense of stewardship within them, hopefully moving them toward action.  If you’re interested in contributing an article to the website, please email Bryan Henson at bghenson23@gmail.com.  Bryan can set you up as a contributor and also includes those articles in each newsletter’s first draft, some of which may be cut or edited for length.

Each issue also contains a Member Spotlight, Committee Corner and President’s message, and we try to include topical info on what’s going on at Banshee Reeks, since it’s our home base; but articles on relevant activities at any local park are welcome.

We welcome content on any of the topics in the program, which run from geology and ecology to Interpretation skills and the full biological taxonomy.  If it helps, the topics in our Class Schedule are a great guideline, in addition to what the Commonwealth’s site provides.

We publish quarterly, trying to pull each edition’s first draft together in the first week of the first month of the quarter, targeting publication around the 15th.  Things like vacations and volunteers’ schedules can impact that.  Because the dates vary, we like using website contributions as a great way to funnel content to the newsletter.  People can post to the website as the inspiration strikes them…and certainly we can accept newsletter articles at any time.  As mentioned, email Bryan to get set up to contribute to the website; you can email newsletter contributions to me directly at speak4trees11@gmail.com.

And last, but not least, everything published must be within the volunteer program guidelines:

How May The [Certified Master Naturalist] Title Be Used?

…  The Virginia Master Naturalist program is a public service program operated by the State Program Sponsors to provide accurate, unbiased natural resources information.  The Virginia Master Naturalist title may not be identified with any particular political viewpoint and may not be used by groups or individuals as they participate in political advocacy.  The title is to be used only when doing unpaid volunteer work associated and approved by the program.  Any implied commercial endorsement resulting from use of the VMN title is improper. Therefore, the title may not be used for commercial publicity or private business. Participating in a commercial activity, association with commercial products, or giving implied VMN endorsements to any product or place of business is a violation of VMN policies. VMNs may only identify themselves as such while volunteering in conjunction with official/approved VMN programs or activities, NOT for business or personal gain.

For any new class members (and interested current ones), we’ll be making a pitch in the first class for interested individuals to join our committee, and offering an invitation to our monthly meetings to test the waters (meet us, see how we operate, etc.) without actually making a commitment.  (New recruits won’t officially be asked to choose a committee until December.)  Anyone is welcome to check us out.  We do more than these publications – as events are scheduled, we can provide press releases and promotional materials as well.

Remember…research and writing articles can be counted as volunteer hours!

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Adventures of a First Time Beekeeper: Part 1 – Getting Started

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By Liz Dennison

Queen Bee with Blue Mark

Queen Bee with Blue Mark

When my husband and I moved to Philomont, we knew we wanted to do something useful with our property. We considered raising goats that could be leased to clear brush but the cost and effort of fencing, shelter, food, transportation and veterinary care were more than we wanted to take on. We considered raising chickens but most of our neighbors have chickens. The supply of eggs exceeds the demand and I think our two big dogs might like the chickens a little too much. So we considered raising honey bees.

 

We knew that pollinators need our support and that pollinators in turn support our local gardens, farms, vineyards, and orchards. We also knew that keeping two hives would allow us to put our 10 acres in land use and save on property taxes. We could sell our honey and look into other products like beeswax candles. But we didn’t know anything about keeping bees. To get started we joined the Loudoun Beekeepers Association. This wonderful organization holds monthly meetings on a wide variety of interesting topics from environmental concerns to how to keep bees in an urban setting. The meetings are also a great way to meet other beekeepers and share information.

The next step was to take the beekeeping class offered by the association each year beginning in late February. The class meets once a week for 8 weeks and covers everything a new beekeeper needs to get started. We learned about bee biology, colony activities, managing the hives throughout the seasons, pathogens, parasites, and pests, hive products and beekeeping equipment. We weren’t experts after the class but we had the basics and access to the club’s resources. Best of all, we were assigned an experienced beekeeper as our mentor.

Along with the class, the club brought local beekeepers together to demonstrate beekeeping equipment. This hands-on opportunity helped us choose the equipment options that were right for us. It was also a chance to talk with beekeepers about their successes, failures, and lessons learned. I left the event with one valuable insight. Regardless of the equipment, placement of the hives, or beekeeping philosophy, sometimes “Bees are gonna do what bees are gonna do”. I’ve heard this phrase over and over from experienced beekeepers. Often a hive will succeed or fail in spite of what we do to support it or any mistakes we make. The bees themselves are best at managing the colony. Sometimes it’s best to leave them alone to do what bees do.

Hive Body with Frames and Tools

Hive Body with Frames and Tools

There are many options for the hives, accessories and protective clothing. The hive boxes can be homemade, built from kits, purchased complete but unpainted, or purchased complete and ready for setup. For convenience, we ordered the latter. Hive boxes come in various depths (deep, medium or shallow) and widths (8 or 10 frames). All have pros and cons. For us, weight was the deciding factor. A deep frame with honey weighs 10 pounds, so a 10 frame super (box with 10 frames) would weigh 100 pounds! That’s more than I can lift easily when inspecting the hive so we decided on medium boxes with 8 frames. There are just as many options for protective clothing. The helmet, veil and gloves are essential so we bought a set for each of us. We’re comfortable wearing our own light colored, loose fitting clothing around the bees but if you’re very sensitive to bee stings or uneasy around the bees, you can choose from a wide assortment of jackets and coveralls that provide excellent protection.

Protective Clothing & Smoker

Protective Clothing & Smoker

The training ends at about the time new beekeepers receive their bees so we worked backward from that date to be sure we would have the hives and all accessories in place and ready. We decided we would start with two hives to improve our chance of success and qualify to put our property in land use. We ordered enough hive equipment to build 3 complete hives. The extra equipment could be used if we had the opportunity to capture a wild swarm or to split one of our hives if necessary.

 

In March, for each of the 3 hives we ordered:

  • 3 medium 8 frame boxes (brood chamber and two supers)
  • 24 sheets of beeswax foundation (this is where the bees will build their honeycomb)
  • 24 frames to hold the foundation
  • 48 pins to stabilize the foundation in the frames
  • 1 inner cover
  • 1 outer cover
  • 1 screened bottom board
  • 1 entrance reducer
  • 1 front feeder bottle
  • Apivar (treatment for Varroa Mites)
  • Shim wood to level the hive
  • 5 cinder blocks (4 to raise the hive off the ground and one on top to keep predators out)

We also ordered some accessories and protective clothing:

  • 1 bee brush
  • 2 hive tools (to separate boxes and frames when bees “glue” them together)
  • 1 smoker and smoker fuel
  • 1 frame hanger (to hold frames temporarily removed from the hive during inspections)
  • 2 helmets
  • 2 veils
  • 2 pairs of beekeeping gloves
  • 1 extra helmet and veil for guests who want to see the hives

Our total equipment cost for this first year was about $800. Costs can be reduced by building or painting the hives yourself. But this doesn’t include any equipment for harvesting, storing or selling honey because the goal of the first year of any bee colony is simply to grow bees.

Hives

Hives in Fenced Area

Once everything was ordered, we had to pick a location for the hives. The site should be fairly level and sheltered from strong winds (i.e. not on a hilltop). There should be a water source nearby (we have a small creek) and some shade during the hottest part of the summer days is helpful. We visited our mentor’s hives to see an example of a good site and he helped us select a place along our driveway that was good for the bees and convenient for keeping an eye on the hives. We installed the hives and found that the ground wasn’t quite as level as it appeared but some shimming fixed that. We installed a coated wire mesh fence to form a 12 by 12-foot area around the hives to keep pests (both four legged and two legged) away from the hives. We were ready for our bees.

Honeybees in a "Package"

Honeybees in a “Package”

 

Beekeepers get bees in three ways, packages, nucs, and capture of wild swarms. Since capture of wild swarms is unpredictable, new beekeepers order packages or nucs. A package is simply a screened box containing 5 pounds of bees and a newly mated queen in her own cage that are released into a new hive. It also contains sugar water to feed the bees on their journey. A nucleus, usually called a nuc, is a small established colony of bees, already on frames that are inserted into the center of the brood box for the new hive. To learn as much as we could, we ordered one of each through the club.

 

 

Opening Package of Bees

Opening Package of Bees

The package arrived first and our mentor helped us move the bees into our hive. It was actually very easy. The bees moved right in and made themselves at home. When the nuc arrived several weeks later, we put the frames into the hive and those bees settled in as well. To give them a good start, we used a Boardman feeder to provide sugar water to both hives and treated them with Apivar to avoid an infestation of Varroa Mites, a common cause of hive failure. With the bees safely in their hives, we were officially beekeepers.

 

Releasing Bees into Hive

Releasing Bees into Hive

 

Bees in Hive with Feeder

Bees in Hive with Feeder

 

Check back soon for Part 2 – Raising Bees

 

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2016 VMN Banshee Reeks picnic!

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On August 14, 2016, VMN Banshee Reeks chapter held its annual picnic.  This picnic was special because it was the 10th anniversary of the program.

IMG_20160814_144016IMG_20160814_144016

Frank cut the birthday cake with chapter president Brian looking on.

We also held a raffle giving away lots of fantastic prizes from bluebird boxes to native plants, books of all kinds and even homemade items from Ron.

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Red-footed Cannibalfly

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I’ve been taking a lot of pictures of dragonflies recently;  Not only are they beautiful, but it really helps to have a picture when trying to ID them.   Recently, I was a Horsepen Run, when I came across what I thought was one dragonfly eating another one;  I had heard that it is not uncommon, but I hadn’t seen it in person before.  I just got a quick look before the eater flew off and the ‘dragonfly’ doing the eating didn’t look right.  I snapped a picture and figured I would try and ID it when I got home.   Here’s the picture:

Red-footed Cannibalfly

Red-footed Cannibalfly

As you can tell from the caption, it wasn’t a dragonfly, but is actually was a very large robber fly called the Red-footed Cannibalfly (Promachus rufipes).  That’s one heck of a fly!  The genus Promachus‘s greek translation is ‘who leads in battle’ – it certainly seems appropriate for such a giant fly that can take on dragonflies.  Robberflies get their common name because of their aggressive nature and tactics – they generally wait for their prey to fly by and then stick them up – well, they stick the prey with their proboscis.  Through their proboscis they inject a neurotoxin (to paralyze) and digestive enzymes.  There have even been reports of them trying to eat hummingbirds!

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