What’s Happening at Whitney State Forest?: Part One

Edited from a December 2019 notice from Whitney State Forest.

You may have noticed that the trail along the Shortleaf stand (see map) has been reopened and the trail around the Meadow (see map) has been widened.


This is in preparation for prescribed fire that the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) hopes to accomplish this winter or early spring.  (Note: The first portion of the prescribed burn took place on January 22, 2020.) Please use caution on these trails because they are not yet packed and the footing may be loose.


If a piece of open land in Virginia is left undisturbed, the vegetation will naturally transition from grasses to shrubs to trees, eventually resulting in a closed-canopy forest. Mature forest is very important habitat, but native grasslands and meadows are equally important and have been in serious decline for decades. When land stewards apply prescribed fire to young forests and open spaces, we set back that natural transition towards closed-canopy forest; this is to the benefit of many insects, plants, birds and other animals.

Shortleaf pine is a diminished native species that has been established at Whitney State Forest with the goal of creating a pine savannah ecosystem. A pine savannah will provide structure from widely spaced trees, as well as grasses and herbaceous plants for native wildlife. Our goal in burning the Shortleaf stand is to encourage native grasses and reduce briars, invasive species and some deciduous tree encroachment. Shortleaf pine is fire adapted, meaning that the prescribed fire will not be harmful to most of the trees.

When the Meadow at Whitney State Forest was burned in 2017, we saw an explosion of growth from native warm season grasses and a decrease in invasive presence. We hope to continue that trend with the reapplication of fire this spring. Native grasslands adjacent to mature forest are particularly beneficial because of the diversity they offer to the landscape.

VDOF is dedicated to the safe and effective application of prescribed fire and will take all necessary precautions for safety during the event. The forest will be closed on the days the prescribed burns take place and the fire will be lit in such a way that it will not escape to other properties. The first portion of the prescribed burn has been completed, and a second parcel will be burned in late winter. An effective fire administered with this timing will allow for grasses and herbaceous plants to regrow for the nesting season of native bird species.

VDOF plans to share follow-up information as the burns are completed.

For more information, please contact VDOF’s Warrenton Office at 540-347-6358.


Field Notes: Looking Down on Tree of Heaven

By Katlin Mooneyham and Lori Chamberlin

The City of Winchester and Frederick County are in the midst of an invasion. The spotted lanternfly, a non-native invasive insect, was first discovered in Winchester in January 2018. This pest feeds on more than 70 host plants worldwide and poses a significant threat to multiple Virginian industries. There is still much to learn about the spotted lanternfly, and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) has been working hard to control it within the infested areas.

One method of slowing the spread is treatment of a preferred host, Ailanthus altissima, otherwise known as “tree of heaven”. Smaller trees are killed with herbicide and larger trees are treated with insecticide to kill spotted lanternfly that feed on them. Tree of heaven itself is an invasive species and is widespread throughout Virginia, especially along roads or other disturbed sites.

Knowing the precise location of tree of heaven would greatly facilitate treatment, so Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) partnered with VDACS to map tree of heaven in Frederick County and the City of Winchester. The project is supported by Farm Bill funds awarded to VDACS and accomplished with U.S. Forest Service software (Digital Mobile Sketch Mapper). Protocol was based on a 2015 Forest Science paper entitled “Aerial Detection of Seed-Bearing Female Ailanthus altissima: A Cost-Effective Method to Map an Invasive Tree in Forested Landscapes”, and personal communication with forest health professionals from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. This type of survey requires a helicopter in December/January after leaf drop. Female tree of heaven hold onto their seed pods and are visible from above during these winter months.

Female tree of heaven trees from above (identified by attached brown seed pods).

In January 2020, VDOF forest health staff went up in a helicopter to map tree of heaven. The survey followed pre-determined flight lines spaced at 2,000 feet (1,000 feet of visibility from either side of the helicopter) and flew at an average altitude of 400 feet above ground at a speed of approximately 80 knots. Individual female trees were marked as points, and clusters of trees were marked as polygons. Three VDOF employees conducted the survey — two spotters and a sketch mapper — with minimal Dramamine needed for motion sickness!

Photos: VDOF staff Meredith Bean (emerald ash borer coordinator) and Katlin Mooneyham (forest health specialist) (left) and Jim Pugh (GIS technician) (right) ready for take off!

It will take some time to analyze the data and quantify the results, but general observations fit with our knowledge of this invasive tree species. Tree of heaven is most commonly found along disturbed sites and the highest numbers of trees were observed along train tracks, roadsides, field edges and a quarry in the southern end of the county.

Mapping female trees only gives us data for half of the population, but this winter survey is a quick and easy method to identify tree of heaven clusters to get a better idea of overall distribution. This data will be used by both VDOF and VDACS personnel to identify priority treatment areas and locate areas where the spotted lanternfly may continue to spread.

Paper Citation:
Rebbeck, Joanne, et al. “Aerial detection of seed-bearing female Ailanthus altissima: A cost-effective method to map an invasive tree in forested landscapes.” Forest Science 61.6 (2015): 1068-1078.

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods? Best of Summer 2019

By Area Forester Lisa Deaton

A Round-up of Interesting Moments & Encounters in the Woods from Summer 2019

When a local deadline for forest land use reports passed in late fall, I had time to share photos from the past few months. Note:  Land Use Assessment is available in many Virginia counties (but not all) for property owners with 20 or more acres of woods.  You can check with your local Commissioner of the Revenue to see if it is an option for your property.



lichenhopper 1

While walking with a landowner through a 23-year old loblolly pine stand to see if the stand could be commercially thinned, we encountered this grasshopper “shell” which appeared to be growing lichens.  Our forest health staff explained that this grasshopper died from an entomopathogenic fungus, sometimes referred to as zombie fungi.  A fungal spore infected this grasshopper, then consumed its body to grow a new fruiting body to release more spores.  So, what appeared to be lichen is actually the “mushroom” formed by the fungus.  The many species of “zombie” fungi are host specific, and serve as a natural control for many insect populations, such as our invasive gypsy moth.


IMG_3791 histerid ZOOMWhen we experience hot, drought-y periods, pine bark beetles can kill their host pine trees by girdling the trees with their tunnels.  The lack of soil moisture prevents the pines from being able to drown out the invading insects with tree sap.  While trying to identify which type of beetle had killed a yard tree in Middlesex County, we found a histeridae beetle (genus Platysoma) that was infested with mites.  Keep in mind that the total length of the host beetle in the microscope photograph above is 2 mm.  Platysoma beetles are predators that eat ips beetles, so while we did not find an ips beetle, it is a sign that an ips species helped kill this particular loblolly pine tree.


It is common in July and August for foresters to leave the woods covered with “seed” ticks, or clusters of the larval stage of various tick species that are as small as seeds. Each of the tiny dots on the pant leg in this photois a tick larva.

seed ticks

I am always glad to say “¡Hasta la vista!” to them at the end of the summer.  There is much more to the tick story but I will save it for next summer.





While the ticks are no fun, seeing wildflowers and shrubs in their natural setting is one of the joys of working in the woods.  This shrub is Viburnum nudum, also called possumhaw.  The berries start out pink and turn deep blue, and are eaten by songbirds, wild turkey, and squirrels.





flying saucer in woods


Summertime in Virginia provides the heat and moisture needed by all sorts of fungi in order to flourish. This appears to be a type of shelf fungi, possibly Oxyporus populinus. The mushrooms in the photo below had a fairy tale look on a particularly sweaty day.  A local expert identifies them as silky rosegill.

hollow tree mushrooms ZOOM


While many mushrooms thrive in the heat, these black vultures gathered around a sunken bathtub on an 80-degree morning.  After weeks of 90-degree temperatures, they were not bashful about seeking relief from the heat near a house.


While preparing for a talk on Forests and Climate Change, I ventured out to photograph a clearcut (below) on the water’s edge that has grown back in an invasive species, phragmites, or common reed.


I was surprised to encounter a covey of bobwhite quail in such dense vegetation.  According to the landowner, quail have inhabited this tidal area for several years.  I heard the young quail peeping in the reeds, then two adult quail leapt into the road — one acted like it had a broken wing for several seconds (a defensive mechanism meant to distract predators away from their more vulnerable young), then both adults charged towards me.

NASF Centennial Challenge


The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) is excited to participate in the Centennial Challenge put forth by the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) in 2020. Below is the campaign announcement from NASF:

“The National Association of State Foresters is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020 with a Centennial Challenge campaign, honoring both the work of the association in providing a unified voice for state and private forestry in the United States since 1920, as well as the tremendous social, environmental, and economic contributions state forestry agencies have made nationwide for over a century’s time.

NASF will be spotlighting state forestry agencies and their work to complete 100-themed challenges regularly throughout the year-long campaign. Keep an eye out for your state’s Centennial Challenge celebration on social media with the hashtags #CentennialChallenge and #NASF100​ or by following the handle @stateforesters on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Come January 2020, you’ll start to see the nation’s 59 state and territorial forestry agencies’ challenges appearing on a Centennial Challenge interactive map online. In the meantime, for more information about state foresters and their work to conserve, protect, and enhance America’s forests, visit www.stateforesters.org.​”

For the challenge, VDOF has committed to treating 100 ash trees to protect them against emerald ash borer (EAB) — an invasive wood-boring beetle that’s pushing most native species of ash (Fraxinus) trees in Virginia to the brink of extinction. Learn more about EAB in these Storymaps.

VDOF’s EAB coordinator Meredith Bean says, “Treating ash trees to protect them from EAB is not always easy, particularly because they tend to grow naturally in wet environments. Our preferred method of chemical treatment is trunk injection of a systemic insecticide product with emamectin benzoate as the active ingredient. Direct injections into the trunk avoids effects on non-target species, unlike bark spray or soil drench treatments with neonicotinoid products. We will continue to treat high-value ash on an individual-tree basis and support landowners and organizations treating on private property through our cost-share program, with the goal to sustain the environmental, economic, and social benefits these trees provide.”

In 2020, we’ll share updates (on social media and here on the blog) about our progress toward our goal of treating 100 ash trees, and we’ll highlight several ash tree stories from across the state. Be sure to follow @stateforesters and @ForestryVA on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and check out #CentennialChallenge and #NASF100​ throughout the year to see how other agencies are responding to the challenge!