2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas


Today, we attended a workshop at Riverbend park sponsored by the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia that trained us on survey techniques for the Breeding Bird Atlas project.  The breeding bird survey is a 5 year “survey of all bird species breeding in the state. Data collected will help map the distribution and status of Virginia’s breeding bird community in order to better inform our natural resource and conservation decisions.”  A previous Virginia breeding atlas was done 25 years ago, so this new atlas will help us understand how birds’ behavior and their environment has changed in that time.

For citizen scientists it provides a fun and easy way to help study and conserve birds.  Birders often think of the spring and fall as the highlights of the years for birding – migration brings many more bird species temporarily into the area;  because of this birders often don’t spend as much time birding in the middle of the summer.  This project provides a great opportunity to focus on the birds in the heart of the summer.  For most birds, the middle of the summer, June and July, are the time when most breed and so therefore it is also the best time to visit the field.

at Morven Park

Eastern Kingbird on nest at Morven Park

Participation is super easy – get out and watch birds!  Watch them to see if they are exhibiting breeding behaviors and then report the results.  There are many more details to the protocol as shown on their website, but here are some useful things to know:

  • the state has been divided into blocks, so you need to pay attention to your location and report which block you observed the behavior in
  • there is a set of codes to describe the behaviors
  • the data is entered into a specialization of eBird website called the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas Portal
  • the goal is to upgrade as many birds to ‘Confirmed’ breeding in each block as possible, thus ‘completing’ a block
  • anyone can contribute to any block during breeding season in next 5 years.

During the workshop, we walked for a couple hours trying to find breeding behavior.  Riverbend (like several parks) is divided between two blocks – Seneca SE (a priority block) and Rockville SW.   During the walk, we spotted breeding behaviors on dozens of bird species (including the lovely Louisiana Waterthrush) and it gave participants a opportunity to learn more about some of the more subtle behaviors like counter-singing and territorial defense.  The survey coordinator (Ashley Peele) walked everyone through the data entry, useful tools on the website and encouraged us to spread the word and get others involved!

For anyone going to the 2016 Virginia Master Naturalist conference, they will be hosting another workshop at the conference.


Sunflowers Galore!


One of our favorite places to visit in the middle of the  summer is actually in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Just across the river, near Poolesville, is McKee Beshers WMA.  They have a wonderful set of fields of Sunflowers that they plant every year and we try and schedule a trip up to visit them in peak bloom.  This year, the expected peak bloom time is early to mid July.


The habitat with the sunflowers is mostly open field, but surrounded by woods and close to the Potomac River, so it can be a good place for a variety of wildlife.  American Goldfinches are abundant and chowing down on all the sunflower seeds.  When we go, we typically see a good selections of butterflies.  Along with the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus), Zebra Swallowtails (Eurytides marcellus) and various skippers, we almost always encounter one of my favorite butterflies, the Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis).  It comes across as a particular social butterfly because it often lands on people.  They land on people to drink the sweat for its minerals.  You’ll also seem them landing frequently on the ground for minerals from pools of water and from dung.

While in the Poolesville area, two other great places to visit are the Hughes Road Polo fields and Violettes Lock.  The Polo fields are a common place to spot birds that love fields.  The fields themselves are private, but the road is public and you’ll often see birders out there looking for the most recent rarity.  Over the winter (in February), a Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) was visiting for several weeks.  More recently a Dickcissel has been the bird to see.  While visiting recently, we also saw Indigo Buntings, Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Kingbirds and Bald Eagle.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Violette’s Lock is one of several locks along the C & O Canal’s towpath.  Because of its accessibility, it is a favorite with hikers, bikers and birders.  The most recent uncommon bird spotted along the path is a singing Kentucky Warbler (Geothlypis formosa).  While visiting to see the Kentucky Warbler recently, we saw several natural delights, including a dragonfly dogfight, a Great Blue Heron close flyby, several turtles, a Green Snake, and a baby Prothonatory Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) being fed by its parent.

To get to these lovely places in Montgomery county, we typically take 15 North to White’s Ferry and take the ferry across the river.  We’ll take White’s Ferry Road (which turns into Fisher Ave) into Poolesville and then turn right on Budd Rd which ends into Hughes Road.  The polo fields will be on your right on Hughes Road.  To get to McKee Besher, follow Hughes Road down to River Road and turn left; there will be a parking lot on your right.  To get to Violette’s Lock from McKee Besher, follow River Road further east until you take a right on Violette’s Lock Road.



Ichnology CE on Sat April 2nd at 1pm


Saturday afternoon beginning at 1pm, there will be a CE on Ichnology , the study of Ichs!!

It will last 1.5-2 hours and the entire chapter is invited.

For those that may not know what Ichnology is, here is the official definition:

Ichnology is the branch of geology and biology that deals with traces of organismal behavior, such as footprints and burrows. It is generally considered as a branch of paleontology; however, only one division of ichnology, paleoichnology, deals with trace fossils, while neoichnology is the study of modern traces.

Should be a great class! Hope to see you there.


Hayden Matthew BRNP Archaeological Presentation


Friends of Banshee Reeks is privileged to have an exceptional informed speaker accompanied by subject matter experts in archaeology with displays of pre-historic and colonial artifacts discovered at Banshee and surrounding areas. A portion of the presentation will be considered continuing education for VMN members. An RSVP is required as the venue is the Education Annex where there is a 40 person limit. The presentation will start promptly at 6:30 PM, March 23, 2016. If you will be coming, please register athttp://bansheereeksnp.org/event-2167188 by this Sunday Noon so we can get a good head count.


In this program Hayden Mathews, current President of the Banshee Reeks Chapter of the Archeological Society of Virginia (BRASV) will present an overview of the archeological work that has been done at Banshee Reeks Preserve since its creation.  This program will discuss some of the representative archeological finds at Banshee and what they have revealed about the human presence here over the last 15,000 years and the soils, geology and topography of the Preserve and how they likely influenced human occupation on the land.  Representative artifacts from pre-colonial settlement by First Peoples as well as post-colonial European occupation will be shown in the program.


Fishers at Banshee Reeks?


Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve is beginning a project on fishers (Martes pennanti) with the assistance of two Master Naturalists (Kathy Neal and Mike Manning), Ashley Greer (an intern from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute), and biologists from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. There have been two unconfirmed sightings over the past two years by hunters in the area. Fishers are considered an extirpated species in Virginia. Ron Circé, BNRP Manager, states, “We will be conducting a camera trapping survey using 15 new cameras. Project plans have already begun and it is hoped that the preliminary site selections will be done within two weeks and cameras set in one to two weeks.”

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website, “habitat destruction, excessive trapping and shooting” have all but eliminated fishers from Virginia. “Wanderers from West Virginia are now appearing along Virginia border areas, (Highland, Rockingham, and Rappahannock counties), but there is no evidence of reproductive populations in Virginia.” The website also states that fishers were “probably formerly widespread in the mountains of Virginia”, and that “it survives best in extensiveforest and wilderness areas for its home range is large – 15 to 35 square km.” An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2007 states that the West Virginia Division of Wildlife Resources released 23 fishers from New Hampshire in 1969. In just three years, “the population had grown large enough to support a legal trapping season.” Currently, fishers are frequently seen in forested areas of the state. If verified that fishers are at BRNP, biologists from various state agencies, e.g., the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Department of Environmental Quality will be notified and sent copies of the data. Several federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, will also be notified and sent copies of the data. The confirmed presence of fishers here will rewrite the current natural history of fishers due to their range expansion and coming back as an extirpated species. The data will be published in a scientific journal. Evidently fishers are populous in other states: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Wisconsin even have a fisher trapping season in the late fall every year. David Cazenas and Ron Circé contributed to this report.


American Coot


The American Coot (Fulica Americana) or Mud Hen, is a fascinating and unique bird. A migratory bird inhabiting most of North America, the coot is a winter non-breeding resident to our area. This time of year, I always look for coots and usually spot them easily while they are walking chicken-like on the ice rather than waddling like a duck. Unlike web feet of ducks, coots have broad lobed scales on their lower legs and toes that fold back with each step. To me they look like oversized chicken feet which gives the coot a chicken-like gate and supports the bird on muddy ground. An awkward flier, they require long takeoff runs and look like they are trying to walk on water while flapping their wings furiously. The coot is seen in the company of ducks but doesn’t sound like a duck. Its call is a single reedy noted KRRRP. The coot is a plump dark bodied bird that is easily identified due to its sloping head with white wedge-shaped bill, red eyes and sometimes, a small red patch on its forehead. Their closest relatives are the Sandhill Crane and Rails.


Coots eat mainly aquatic plants including algae, duckweed, eelgrass, wild rice, sedges, hydrilla, wild celery, waterlilies, cattails, water milfoil; when on land they also pick at terrestrial plants. You may also see them eating insects (beetles, dragonflies, and others), crustaceans, snails, and small vertebrates such as tadpoles and salamanders. In our area, which is out of the breeding season, coots fall prey to great horned owls, northern harriers, bald eagles and bobcats. In fact, coots may locally comprise 80% of a bald eagle’s diet.

One aspect of coots I find interesting is that during the breeding season, they display “conspecific brood parasitism”. That is, it will lay eggs in other coots’ nests. Unlike the brown headed cow bird who will use the nests of any bird species for their eggs, coots stick to their own species. Brood parasitism is usually done by females that either do not have a territory (coots are monogomous) or whose clutch has been destroyed, and is most common among females trying to increase their total number of offspring. The American coot, unlike other parasitized species, has the ability to recognize and reject conspecific parasitic chicks from their brood. They learn to recognize their own chicks’ “ornamental plumage” by imprinting on cues from the first chick that hatches. The first evidence for parental selection of exaggerated, ornamental traits in offspring was found in American coots. American coot chicks have conspicuously orange-tipped ornamental plumes covering the front half of their body that are known as “chick ornaments”, which eventually bleach out after six days. This brightly colored, exaggerated trait allows coot chicks to be selected by parental choice.


American Coot are common and widespread, and populations appear to be stable, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Because they live in wetlands, coots can accumulate toxins from pollution sources including agricultural runoff, industrial waste and nuclear facilities. Because coots are so common and widespread, scientists sometimes monitor them as a way of evaluating these problems in the environment at large. Why is it called a “coot”? The American coot’s genus name, Fulica, is a direct borrowing of the Latin word for coot. Go figure. So if you see a duck that looks like a duck, but doesn’t walk or quack like a duck, it’s probably a coot.


American Woodcocks in the Spring


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.


Spring Butterflies


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.

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