Field Notes: It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s A Drone!

by VDOF Forest Health Specialist Katlin Mooneyham

The Virginia Department of Forestry is taking forest management to new heights! The agency has recently purchased three drones and certified three drone pilots (with three more taking the test soon!) thanks to a U.S.D.A. Forest Service Landscape Scale Restoration grant. The use of drones in forestry is a newer field and VDOF is investigating exactly how we can use these tools in forest management. So far, we have successfully used drones for the following purposes: water quality and logging inspections, forest health and fire.

Water Quality and Logging Inspections

For each timber harvest in Virginia, inspections are conducted to ensure water quality buffers are in place and stream crossings are up to code. Using the drone helps in this as it allows foresters to quickly see if things look good or helps to identify potential problem areas. In the picture below, the drone allowed our water quality specialist to see that the buffer meets the required criteria and that the bridge over the stream is correctly placed.

Logging inspection using drone imagery

Forest Health

The main way that drones have been used by the forest health program so far is to assess stand-wide issues from above. This “periscoping” technique is utilized when we suspect a problem within a stand and we want to see the full extent of affected tree crowns. We have gone to look at a stand where there was concern for a bark beetle outbreak and also mapped a study area at one of Virginia’s state forests where goats grazed to remove invasive species.

Forest Health Program Manager Lori Chamberlin all set for takeoff!


Prescribed burns are a key forest management tool and require constant supervision to ensure the fire stays within its boundary. Using a drone with an infrared (IR) camera can make sure that no ember ends up outside the fire line and can tell varying levels of heat within the fire. Using a traditional camera on the drone can also help monitor and show the burned area to any landowners or cooperators that also participate in this management practice.

Prescribed fire as it moves
Burned area once the fire was complete


The Future Use of Drones in Forestry

We are constantly exploring new ways to incorporate drones into forest management. VDOF’s Urban and Community Forestry program as well as our State Forest managers are also looking into how to enhance their work with drones. Technology like this provides the agency a valuable tool to better serve the Commonwealth and help with many aspects of forestry!


Field Notes: An Intern’s Day at Conway Robinson State Forest

By Intern Marissa Ardovino

As the summer comes to an end, I’ll recall one day I spent in Conway Robinson State Forest…

I walked quietly down the blue trail at Conway Robinson State Forest, rounding a bend in the path when suddenly a small branch shot backwards and retracted upon itself into the depths of a thorny blackberry bramble. I stopped and listened to soft rustling in the shadows of the leaves and quickly realized that the thin tree branch was actually a small reptile! The friendly little snake pictured below is none other than a rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus). Had he not moved at the moment I rounded the trail bend, there is no way I would’ve seen him hidden within the countless shades of green foliage that perfectly matched his shimmering scales.


Camouflage is a form of cryptic coloration that allows animals to blend in with their surroundings, usually in order to avoid predation or to sneak up on prey. Camouflage comes in many different forms including background matching, mimicry, aposematism and disruptive coloration. When combined with behavioral traits, camouflage is essential to the survival of thousands of animals across the globe.

Reptiles are not the only critters to take advantage of this safety measure, however. Walking farther through the forest, I came across a species of Eastern Shieldback Katydid trudging through the leaf litter.


Were you able to see him at first glance? It definitely took my camera a long time to focus on him, but luckily he proved to be a terrific model before continuing with his day.

I think it can be pretty easy to view the forest as being relatively dichromatic. Everywhere you look, green and brown, brown and green. In reality, the forest contains many more colors than what initially meets the eye. Members of the animal kingdom are very familiar with this.


Take the small bump on this twig for example. This is a gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor), commonly known for being a favorite snack of many birds and reptiles in the woods. If you’re like me, you may think that there is no place for a silvery gray amphibian to disguise itself in a brown and green forest, but clearly there is a proper location for them. Hopefully this little tree frog’s hiding place will protect him from all of the larger animals who would quickly make a meal out of his less-camouflaged neighbors.

Now imagine if all of these animals swapped locations. They would likely stand out like sore thumbs and risk predation from other forest-dwellers. Organisms are adapted to match patterns and textures of their exact niche in an ecosystem. If a certain species does not use cryptic coloration, or a genetic abnormality represses camouflage in an organism, it is much less likely that they will reach reproductive maturity and pass those traits on to the next generation. Through this process camouflage slowly evolves, becoming more and more advanced. Next time you’re out in the woods, be sure to keep an eye out for the near invisible creatures that could be right beneath your feet!


About the author…

I am a rising junior majoring in Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech. This summer, I have an internship through the Manassas branch of Virginia’s LEAF program. LEAF (Link to Education About Forests) is a partnership between Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Department of Forestry and the National Park Service that focuses on teaching the public about natural, cultural and historical resources through outreach initiatives. I work primarily at the Manassas National Battlefield Park and Conway Robinson State Forest where I am working with local organizations to develop lessons about forestry and land management. I keep a weekly blog about the rest of my internship adventures here:

Field Notes: What’s In The Woods Today? August 7, 2019

By Area Forester Lisa Deaton


August is spider month. If you have ever been the first person in line on a hiking trail, you have probably experienced the feeling of a spider web wrapping around your face. Just about the time you remove that web, another one lands in its place.

shell spider n web

By late summer, these “shell-backed” spiders (above), Micrathena gracilis, seem to have taken over the forest and cobwebs are everywhere (below).

spider webs 1

web stack

When morning dew falls, spider webs can be more visible (below).

web blankets

I once heard this described as “the spiders are hanging out their blankets to dry.”

On the eastern side of Virginia, some of those eye-level webs are made by spiders that resemble crabs, called spiny orb weavers, Gasteracantha cancriformis (below).

spider 2

A day camp student found this black widow spider (below) in a hay bale on the edge of a trail. Luckily, black widows dwell in dark places and are not commonly encountered out in the open. [For more information on black widow and brown recluse spiders, see Spiders of Medical Concern in Virginia.]

black widow

I am forever grateful to the coworker who showed me how to carry a “spider stick” in front of me to collect cobwebs. Just pick up a dead stick with branches that spread about as wide as your shoulders, like the one below.

spider stick (1)

The spiders will collect on the branch instead of your face (below). Yay!

spider on stick

Technically, spiders are arachnids, not insects, and are generally considered beneficial because they eat so many nuisance bugs. Even pest control company websites urge us not to kill harmless spiders.

Field Notes: What’s In The Woods Today? July 23, 2019

By Area Forester Lisa Deaton

Country Roads

The last few generations of trees have literally grown over top of numerous changes in our transportation network. Sometimes what looks like a wide trail or ditch is actually a road to an old homestead, as in the photo below.


Sometimes the old roads follow property line boundaries (below).

prop line road

Sometimes, we come across former logging roads (below). This can simplify preparations for the next timber harvest, because finding the best spot for a logging road can be time consuming.

Watkins bridge old road

Other times, we encounter former county roads. The road below used to be the main route across the Dragon Run from Gloucester County to Middlesex County, close to the present location of the Route 17 river crossing. The next antique photo shows the same location and bridge around 1910.

Dragon Bridge

Dragon Bridge 1910

The next photo is in Fairfax County, with a red dot at the present location of Falls Church High School.

FCHS 1937

Today, the same piece of land looks like this:

FCHS today

So, while trees grow over old roads in some areas of Virginia, other trees are cleared in our more populated areas to make way for new roads. Either way, there has been a considerable amount of change in just 80 years.

A year ago, Bloomberg published this synopsis of “How America Uses Its Land:”