I really enjoy the amazing variety of different bird calls and songs. But of all
the birds calls I recognize, the one that brings a smile to my face the quickest is that
of the Amercian Woodcock (Scolopax minor). Peent! Peent!
And the wonder of the Woodcock certainly doesn’t stop there. They have a
bill that defies proportionality. They walk in a wonderful way – look up ‘Dancing
Woodcock’ – I’ll wait; it’s definitely worth it. One of the wonderful birding
traditions of spring, is to try and witness the American Woodcock performing its
mating dance. At dusk, the male takes off from a meadow and flies in spiraling
circles. And while it flies these circles higher and higher, the air rushing past its
wings makes a unique twittering sound.
If you want to see these wonderful creatures, there are a number of birding
groups that host walks to see the mating display. Northern Virginia Bird Club
(NVBC) hosts a walk at 6:30pm on March 6th, 2016 at Huntley Meadows Park (the
Hike/Bike trail). Fairfax county sponsors several more walks at Huntley Meadows
and a walk at 6pm on March 4th, 2016 at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly. At
the Institue Farm in Aldie on March 10th, 2016, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy will
host a Woodcock watch to see the wonderful display.
As spring starts, I look forward to the first butterflies of the year. In our area, butterflies typically start flying sometime in March. We can typically expect to start seeing Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa), Eastern Commas (Polygonia comma), Question Marks(Polygonia interrogationis), Summer Azures (Celastrina neglecta), and Cabbage Whites (Pieris rapae) starting in March.
The Mourning Cloak, the Question Mark and the Eastern Comma butterflies actually overwinter as adults. It’s amazing how these adults will live through the winter in this hibernation state. The adults will hide in tree bark cracks, rock crevices or under roof shingles on buildings. So if it gets warm during the winter, you may suddenly see a butterfly flying! When it gets warm enough, these butterflies will seek out a mate and lay eggs in the early spring. Look for them at the forest edge where they can get to the spring sunshine.
The Question Mark and Eastern Comma are part of what are commonly called the Angle-wings (the taxonomic genus is Polygonia). When you see them, it’s obvious why. Their wings are a cool looking scalloped shaped. They can be a little difficult to distinguish between one another – one of the keys to identification is to count the number of black dots on the forewing (3 for the comma and 4 for the question mark). You can also look for their namesake punctuation on their hindwings. These two butterflies get nourishment from puddles, scat, sap, and rotting fruit. Their host plants are commonly elms and hackberry trees. Mourning Cloaks are large butterflies with dark brown wings that bordered by beige edging and blue spots. Like the Polygonia, they like puddles, scat and sap. Their host plants are commonly willows and elms. Interestingly, Mourning Cloaks can also be found in Europe and Asia.
Summer Azures are a tiny blue butterfly. These tiny creatures overwinter as pupa that hatches early in the spring. They get nutrients from puddling, but they also take nectar from the early spring flowers like spring beauty, dogwood blooms and clovers.
The butterfly that is often easiest to spot in the spring is actually the Cabbage White. As its name says, it is white and it likes cabbage! It is believed to have been introduced to the US in the 1860s. The host plants are members of the mustard families – in particular broccoli and cabbage plants. Since their introduction, the Cabbage White has thrived and is generally considered invasive. Because of their numbers and their coloring, you’ll often notice Cabbage Whites more easily than other butterflies in our area.
When you see those white butterflies in March and April, start looking for one of my favorite butterflies – the Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea). Like the Cabbage White, this butterfly is mostly white, but this one lives up to its name too! It has beautiful orange tips on its forewings. There is really only one flight of these wonderful winged creatures. Sadly, unlike the Cabbage White, the Falcate Orangetip is believed to be in decline because of invasive plants, including garlic mustard. Look for the Falcate Orangetip in open swamps and wet woodlands. It likes to nectar on Virginia Bluebells and violets. Rock cress, winter cress and bitter cress are host plants in addition to members of the mustard family.
In our yard, we have a let it live policy for plants we can’t identify. It isn’t uncommon for the birds to leave a plant behind that we didn’t plant. So we let itgrow until we can figure out if it fits into our yard – native plants that are good for wildlife.
About 5 years ago, we noticed a single plant growing up in the corner of the backyard and it was growing fast. It must have liked its location a lot, because it kept growing. First, it grew higher than the fence and then it grew taller than me. And it started to show beautiful purple flowers.
We struggled to identify the plant, but on a well-timed trip to Meadowlark Gardens we found the plant and an identification sign! New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) is a wonderful native perennial from the Aster family. It blooms in late summer to fall. It loves full sun and significant water. It is a strong self seeder – our yard now contains very many New York Ironweed plants.
Butterflies love finding the late source of nectar and we love the color and variety it adds to our yard.
Sparrows are often given a bum rap. Many birders will call them ‘little brown
jobs’ because of how hard they can be to identify. But if you dive into the details on
sparrows, you’ll find some serious beauty. One of my favorite sparrows is the
American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea). It is a Loudoun county winter visitor; you
can see it here from November to March. According to eBird reports, it is rarely
spotted – there are only a half dozen reports for last year. There must be more to
be spotted, but perhaps too many birders are passing them by.
The American Tree Sparrow (ATSP is the banding code) sports a rusty cap,
bi-colored bill (black on top, yellow on the bottom), and two white wing bars. The
bird shown here was seen during the Seneca area CBC on the Trump National golf
course. As is common and despite its name, this bird was seen close to the ground
among some grasses and shrub thickets. Supposedly the American Tree Sparrow
was named after Eurasian Tree Sparrows based on their appearance by European
settlers, leading to a bird that habits the ground ending up with tree in its name.
The ATSP breeds in the far northern tundra of Alaska and the Northwest
Territories. Fortunately, this far north is relatively little impacted by human
behavior, so they are considered a species of least concern with a healthy
population. On their breeding grounds, insects are the food of choice for the protein
content, but when they are here, they mostly feed on sedges, grasses and seeds. In
fact, they are known to occasionally show up at home feeders. According to Project
FeederWatch, they like most of the common feeder foods, including sunflower
seeds, crackled corn, peanut hearts and Nyjer.
So next time you are out birding in the winter, look around for the beautiful
coloring of American Tree Sparrow in the fields amongst the Song and White-
One of the most delightful insect visitors to our
garden is the hummingbird moth. Several species
of the genus Hemaris deserve this name and for
very good reason. They fly and move just like
hummingbirds and are sometimes small enough
to look like large bumblebees. They can remain
suspended in the air in front of a flower while
they unfurl their long tongues and insert them in
flowers to sip their nectar. They even emit an
audible hum like hummingbirds. And just for our
enjoyment, unlike most moths, they fly around in
the middle of the day.
Hummingbird moths are rather plump; the tip of
their tail opens into a fan. They are usually of a
rich reddish brown color, at least in part. Like all
Lepidoptera their wings are covered by scales; some
species lose many of the scales on their wings, so
they are called clearwing hummingbird moths. Like
most moths, they have a very long tongue which
they carry rolled under their chins and that they use
to reach the nectar of long-necked flowers. These
day-flying moths are widespread in North
America. There are four species of hummingbird
moths in North America. The most familiar ones that
I have seen are the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris
diffinis) and the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris
thysbe). As a novice Hemaris sp. observer, the only
way I can distinguish the difference is the
Hummingbird Clearwing Hemaris Thysbe, has whitish
legs and a wingspan of 40-55mm while the
Snowberry Clearwing Hemaris diffinis, has black legs
and slightly smaller wingspan of 35-50mm.
Like the majority of moths and butterflies, the adult
hummingbird moths feed on nectar from a variety of
flowers, but their larvae need more specific food
plants, such as several species of honeysuckle,
dogbane, or some members of the rose family such
as hawthorn, cherries, and plums.
The adults may start flying in early spring, when the
bluebells (Mertensia) are still blooming, but you will
have a better chance to see them when they are
most active, in the summer, when the bee balms are
in bloom. If you have phlox (Phlox), beebalm
(Monarda), honeysuckle (Lonicera), or verbena
(Verbena) you are also likely to see these wonderful
insects visiting these flowers.
The females entice the males with an aroma or
pheromone that they produce from glands at the tip
of the abdomen. After mating, they lay their tiny,
round, green eggs on their larval food plants, usually
on the underside of the leaves. The caterpillars have
a horn at the rear end and are commonly green, well
camouflaged among the leaves. When they are fully-
grown they drop to the ground, spin a loose cocoon
and pupate, partially protected by leaf litter. That
leaf litter provides a shelter to this beautiful
pollinator. In the north, where the season is short
there is only one generation per year; the pupa
spends the whole winter well-hidden and the adult
does not emerge until the next spring. In the
south, there is usually more than one generation
each summer. Although they only live several
months, during the summer, they are beautiful
and fascinating creatures, whose quick speed
and short flower visit time make them hard to
spot but definitely worth looking for.
For further information check out;
For further information check out;
www.butterfliesandmoths butterfliesandmoths butterfliesandmoths.org
Snowberry Clearwing Hemaris diffinis
Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington,
D.C. By Howard Youth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press. 2014, 393pp.
By Sheila Montalvan
This compact guide to Washington, D.C. parks and natural areas identifies many common plants, trees, birds, insects, mammals, etc., which are also found in Loudoun County. The beautifully illustrated guide is for those of us who may appreciate the urban environment of the capital city, but are also fond of nature-based recreation.
The book is written by Howard Youth, a local the Washington area in that its west side runs along the Fall Line, “where rolling Piedmont cedes to a gradually leveling Coastal Plain.” And, with the merging of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, the city is a “floral and faunal melting pot.”
In D. C., one can take a hike through a forest, canoe down a river, or see an endangered bird. This book is a handy guide to natural recreation activities, parks of various sizes, and the living things that are part of them.
The book is divided into four sections Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast, and includes such parks as Rock Creek Park, the National Arboretum (a personal favorite), Roosevelt Island, and Glover Archbold Park.
At 1,754 acres, Rock Creek Park is twice as large as New York’s Central Park, and is the oldest urban National Park in the U. S. Rock Creek Park has the largest density of raccoons in the United States, and coyotes have been inhabitants since at least 2004. Peirce Mill dam is in the park, and is “A place to watch for night-herons, wood ducks, and migrating herring along the ladder-like “fishway” installed there” in 2006. The guide is great for identifying natural areas in Washington that may not be as well-known as Rock Creek Park. For instance, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, with over 19,000 acres, is comprised of over 80% floodplain forest, and “more than 2,000 species of plant and animal have been identified in the park.” Also, Fort Dupont Park, located on F Street, S.E., is “one of the largest protected forests in the city.” According to Youth, the oak trees provide acorns for the many wild turkeys spotted in the park, and “is an important nesting habitat for D.C.’s official bird, the wood thrush.”
My only gripe with this book is that the parks are only listed in the Contents section by area: Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast. So, if you were looking for a particular park or site, it might be more difficult to locate in the book. However, each plant, animal, tree, insect, etc., etc. is listed in the Contents. The guide would be perfect for those making the trek with family and friends into the city to see the monuments, but may also want to visit a less urban area.
1 – How long have you been involved with the Virginia Master Naturalist Program, and what is your
capacity (title?) now? How did you hear about the program? What projects have you worked on, i.e.,
guides, training, etc., etc.
I saw the advertisement about the Banshee Reeks VMN program in the local newspaper and was very excited to hop on board, especially since the nature preserve is less than two miles from where I live. I graduated with the class of 2010. I currently serve on the Training Committee and was a former Co-chair. I have also previously served on the Board for 3 years. As a member of the Host Committee, I have also been involved in organizing the annual VMN picnic raffle over the last few years.
I enjoy participating in nature education programs for children and have assisted high school and middle school nature field trips including stream monitoring, as well as children’s nature camps. I was instrumental in heading up the Audubon Naturalist GreenKids project, whose focus is to provide support for environmental education and to assist schools in obtaining the Virginia Naturally School Award, the environmental school recognition program for the Commonwealth. Specifically I was involved in Potowmack Elementary School’s courtyard pond habitat project and installing a native pollinator garden at Guilford Elementary.
2- Family: do you have a spouse and children, grand-children? Pets? What is your background, besides the VMN program? When did your interest in nature begin?
My family includes my husband John, 16-year old son Alex and 12-year old daughter Isabella and our 2 dogs. I’ve lived in the Northern Virginia/D.C. area for the last 25 years. My hobbies include travel, hiking, gardening and sewing.
I have a degree in Biochemistry from McGill University, Canada. I have worked as a pharmacological laboratory research assistant at the Rockefeller University in NYC, as well as an environmental consultant with a Navy Contractor in Arlington, VA. I changed careers and obtained my Masters in Education at Marymount University and taught middle school life science for 5 years in Loudoun County. Taking a graduate environmental education course really got me excited about teaching nature education to children. That led to a position as a Naturalist for the Audubon Naturalist Society. I currently work at Simpson Middle School as a teacher assistant.
I grew up in RI loving nature and spent a lot of my childhood exploring the nearby woods and meadows riding my pony. We lived only a few miles from the ocean and I enjoyed collecting shells, driftwood and skate cases, and was always enthralled watching the crabs and seabirds scurrying about. This fascination with nature is still with me today.
3- What aspects of being a naturalist are your favorite? Is there a particular area that you enjoy (or are more knowledgeable about) than another; i.e., geology, birds, insects, etc ?
I have particular interests in Invertebrates and Botany. I am trying to increase my knowledge of both – I have recently completed an online college course in invertebrate zoology. I love to garden and have made it a point to include many native plants in my backyard. My yard is a certified “Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary”.
4- Feel free to philosophize about a favorite aspect of being a naturalist if you like.
I truly believe in a reverence for nature and inspiring others, especially children. I am a big proponent of Richard Louv and his case for “saving our children from nature-deficit disorder”. I feel that every school should have an outdoor classroom.
I am always inquisitive and nature provides the opportunities for exploration, whether I’m kayaking in the Pacific Northwest and learning about the shore and ocean ecosystems, or piddling around in my own garden finding a tomato hornworm covered in parasitic wasp eggs. Any words of encouragement for the new VMN students enrolled in this years’ class?
The VMN program will provide a great foundation of understanding, but it will only just whet your appetite. Absorb and soak in as much as you can, but don’t let the content overwhelm you. Keep up the nature journaling. Be inspired and be willing to pass on the inspiration through your volunteer efforts.
|Sept 12||9am-3pm||Orientation, Journaling, History of VA Naturalists|
|Sept 26||9am-3pm||Taxonomy & Ecology|
|Oct 17||9am-3pm||Dendrology & Forest Ecology (class rescheduled from Oct 3)|
|Nov 7||9am-3pm||Invertebrate Zoology|
|Dec 5||9am-3pm||Geology and Soils • Handout Midterm & Committee choice|
|Jan 9||9am-3pm||Weather, Climatology & Biogeography • Midterm & Committee choice due|
|Jan 23||9am-3pm||Natural Resources Management & Urban Ecology|
|Feb 6||9am-3pm||Mammalogy, Risk Management, VMS Lab|
|Mar 5||9am-3pm||Wetlands Ecology|
|Apr 2||9am-3pm Botany||• Hand Out Final Exam|
|Apr 16||9am-3pm||Make-Up Class if needed OR Lab Practicum/Graduation • Journals & Final Exams Due|
|Apr 30||9am-3pm||(Only if Make-up Class Used) Lab Practicum/Graduation • Journals & Final Exams Due|
The Banshee Reeks annual picnic was held on August 23.
Thank you to Suzanne DeSaix for the photos!
At the picnic, we also presented a number of certificates to new members!