Flower Power

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

As a botany enthusiast, I spend a lot of spring hikes looking down, seeking out flashes of white and pops of color from early spring wildflowers. Fortunately, when I get tired of staring at the forest floor, there are blooms to be seen at eye level and above, thanks to our spring-blooming native trees and shrubs.

I should first note that all of our broad-leaved trees and shrubs produce flowers, as any allergy sufferer knows all too well. Many plants’ blooms go unnoticed, being quite small or not very “flowerlike” to the human eye. For example, those crispy caterpillar-like strands you sweep off your deck this time of year are catkins, containing the male flowers of oak trees. Plants with these nondescript, unscented flowers often have wind-blown pollen. In contrast, the flowers that catch our attention are usually insect-pollinated. Spring blossoms provide a critical food source for insects that emerge early, and even for hummingbirds on their spring migration north.

One of our earliest-blooming native shrubs is spicebush (Lindera benzoin). This medium-sized shrub can be abundant in the understory of moist woodlands, often along streams and wetland edges. Appearing before the leaves, the flowers resemble tiny yellow pompoms along bare stems. To me, they stand out like fireflies when the woods are still drab gray and brown.

Spicebush blooms

The serviceberries (Amelanchier species) are among our first-blooming small trees. Their flowers look like dainty white stars caught in the leafless branches. In some areas, this tree is known as shadbush, so-named because it blooms when the shad begin their migration runs up Virginia rivers. 

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is another small tree that blooms before the leaves appear. If you notice clouds of purple hazing the highway edges in early April, that’s redbud. As a nice bonus, the tiny flowers are edible. Toss them in a salad for pretty color and extra vitamin C; they taste sort of like peas, but with a slight sour tang.

Everyone is familiar with Virginia’s state flower (and tree), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). But did you know that the four iconic white “petals” are not actually the flowers? Instead they are bracts, petal-like leaves that surround a cluster of small yellow flowers. So our state flower is really more of a state “cluster of tiny flowers surrounded by very showy bracts.” Cheer up, Virginia – North Carolina was fooled too!

About the time dogwood’s display lights up the woods, you may notice another small understory tree (or is it a shrub?) holding big lacy clusters of tiny white flowers above newly unfurled leaves. It’s blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), one of the larger and showier of Virginia’s viburnums.    

The blooms of yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) are striking, but you may never have seen them. That’s because yellow-poplar grows fast and tall, so the flowers tend to be high in the canopy. I often find fallen ones along trails in early May. They loosely resemble tulips, giving rise to one of the tree’s common names, tuliptree. Those big, showy flowers are also a good clue that this tree is in the magnolia family, not a poplar at all.  

Yellow-poplar flower detail

There are several species of wild azalea in Virginia, but the most common and widespread is pink azalea or pinxterflower (Rhododendron periclymenoides). Unlike the heavy-flowering imported azaleas so popular in the nursery trade, wild azalea is deciduous, with sparser flower clusters that stand out nevertheless. Pink azalea is one of the later shrubs to leaf out, with flowers appearing just before or with the leaves. The very long, curved pistil and stamens (female and male flower parts, respectively) give each flower a delicate, spidery look. If you’re lucky, you might see a hummingbird probing the tubular flowers.

Wild pink azalea

I can’t end this post without highlighting my favorite spring-blooming shrub – mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Pennsylvania and Connecticut had the right idea – THAT would make a great state flower! Despite having mountain in its name, this evergreen shrub is found all over the state. The masses of flowers vary from white to pink. Each one is a work of art, a case of form following function. The petals are fused into a cuplike structure that make a nice, secure landing place for a bee. The ten arched stamens have their anthers tucked into pockets, marked by dark pink dots inside the flower. When a bee jostles a stamen, the anther pops out of its pocket, spattering the bee with a puff of pollen. Ingenious! Mountain laurel is typically in bloom around Mother’s Day. That’s a great reason to take your mom, yourself, or really anyone you know, out on a hike this month.   

Field Notes: A Woodcock Encounter

By Scott Bachman, VDOF Senior Area Forester, Blackwater team

Now that it’s April I will declare that spring is officially here in southeastern Virginia! 

Earlier this month, I was traveling a back road in Southampton County when ahead I saw a line of small objects on the highway. As I got closer, I could see they were birds. The lead bird was larger than the four that followed. My first thought was that they were quail, and being a quail enthusiast, I thought it was unusual to see a family of quail this time of year. As I got closer, I realized these were not quail, but a family of American woodcock! The lead bird was the adult female, with four young of the year in tow.

I slowed my vehicle and stopped before I reached the small family. The adult bird hopped off into the mature pine forest on the far side of the road. The hatchlings, however, simply squatted down in the middle of the road. I got out of the truck and, after taking a close up of one of the chicks, herded the young birds off the road in the direction of their mother. 

Woodcock chick

I have seen plenty of adult woodcock (Scolopax minor, also known as timberdoodle and several other names) in my work as a forester and as a quail hunter. They are a federally regulated migratory game bird common in Virginia during the winter months. The birds we see in the winter, I have assumed, migrated from more northern states in search of ice free habitat. During hunting season, I expect to see more woodcock when bad weather up north forces these long-range travelers south. Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I remember seeing woodcock in the fall. They were associated with swampy areas and known for making a funny chirping sound when flying.

Adult woodcock on nest (Photo by Ricky Layson, Ricky Layson Photography, bugwood.org)

I had never seen a young woodcock, so I decided to do a little reading. According to the Audubon Society’s website, these plump birds call many different habitats home, but prefer moist forest thickets and brush as well as open fields. To feed, they probe the moist soils with their very long bill, which has a flexible tip to allow grabbing worms and other organisms under the soil.

Still curious about their presence in the spring, I contacted Marc Puckett, a friend, hunting partner, and small game biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR). While Marc is best known for his work with quail, he also knows some about woodcock and enjoys hunting them. He told me that, while all woodcock migrate at some point, occurring from Canada all the way to Louisiana at varying times of year, we have some woodcock that act almost like local birds. They spend a great deal of time in Virginia, from fall until early summer in some cases. And woodcock do nest here, with some nests documented as early as late January, even with snow on the ground! They prefer to nest in thick cover, typically regenerating forest lands. Little is known about these woodcock that behave somewhat like residents. A study is currently being coordinated in Virginia by Dr. Gary Costanzo, the DWR migratory gamebird biologist. Stay tuned to the DWR website for information about results of the ongoing study.

Woodcock nest in cutover (Photo by David Powell)

While woodcock are fascinating birds in nearly every respect, particularly interesting is the male mating display that occurs prior to nesting. Males may gather in open areas and give “peent” calls prior to flying straight up in the air, then twisting back to the ground to attract females.  Males have special feathers on their wings that make them whistle during their flight, and the tips of their tail feathers on the underside are bright white to help the females see them during their ground display. (They strut much like a turkey gobbler!) Honestly, I don’t think I have ever seen this, and you may not have either. This interesting ritual takes place in February or March, beginning in the late evening and continuing until after dark. It also may be repeated in the early morning hours, concluding before full light.

It’s good to know that in the darkest, coldest days of winter in Virginia, the American woodcock and its unique mating flights are predicting the coming of spring and the renewal of life in the forest. Like many other forest dwelling animals, however, their population levels may be falling on the East Coast due to habitat degradation and loss. Forest management, therefore, is an important tool for woodcock habitat improvement. Your local Department of Forestry staff can connect you with a biologist that can help you if you are interested in woodcock management on your land.

Field Notes: Fighting the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid on State Forests

By Lori Chamberlin, VDOF Forest Health Manager

Hemlock trees have been under attack since the introduction of the hemlock woolly adelgid, an invasive insect that was first discovered in eastern North America in the 1950s. These small insects settle at the base of hemlock needles, feed on plant sap, and surround themselves in soft, white ovisacs that resemble cotton balls. They may look harmless, but the hemlock woolly adelgid has caused widespread hemlock mortality in eastern North America. To fight back, the VDOF forest health program has implemented a variety of control techniques to protect remaining hemlocks on State Forests in Virginia.

Hemlock woolly agelgid on hemlock branch

When applied correctly, chemical control is very effective and can protect a hemlock tree for many years. In April, VDOF forest health staff and Shenandoah work area staff treated over ninety hemlock trees at First Mountain State Forest and over thirty trees at Paul State Forest. The hemlocks at both forests are infested with the hemlock woolly adelgid, but are in relatively good condition. A systemic insecticide was applied as a soil drench around the base of each tree; it will be taken up by the roots and distributed throughout the tree to provide protection for up to seven years!

Katlin DeWitt, VDOF forest health specialist, applying insecticide as a soil drench at First Mountain State Forest

Biological control is another method with the potential to provide long-term protection. All biological control agents are studied at quarantine facilities before they are approved for release, to ensure that they will not affect non-target hosts. Predator beetles (Laricobius spp.) have been released on public lands for many years, but this year VDOF participated in the release of a new biocontrol agent- silver flies. The larvae of Leucopis argenticollis silver flies prey on the eggs of hemlock woolly adelgid. In March, 435 adult Leucopis argenticollis flies from the NYS Hemlock Initiative’s HWA Bio-Control research lab at Cornell University were released at Sandy Point State Forest. We hope that these flies will establish a population and help control the hemlock woolly adelgid at Sandy Point for many years.

Reforestation of Timberlands Program – 50 Years Strong!

By Todd Groh, VDOF Forest Resource Management Program Manager

The Reforestation of Timberlands (RT) Program is turning fifty years old this year. This program, managed by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF), is a good example of what can be done when people come together for a common goal. 

More than fifty years ago, Virginia looked a lot different than it does today. Although forests were still prevalent across the state, many more trees – especially pines – were being harvested to meet the great need for wood and wood products. Trees were being cut quicker than they could grow back. Timber industry leaders came together with Virginia’s General Assembly to revise the forest products tax paid by forest industry, with a goal of developing a funding source that could encourage landowners to plant pines on their recently harvested forestlands. The General Assembly agreed to match the industry’s taxes, and the Reforestation of Timberlands Program was born.

After fifty years, the RT Program is still going strong, assisting landowners with a portion of their pine reforestation costs. Practices covered by the program include site preparation, planting fast-growing pine seedlings, and “releasing” pine plantations from weed competition. The RT incentive rates for landowners have varied over the years, but on average, RT has reimbursed between thirty and forty percent of a landowner’s reforestation costs. 

Virginia’s forest industry and state government have provided over 94 million dollars in taxes and matching funds, all aimed at keeping Virginia green and growing healthy forests. Since the program began, Virginia forest landowners have answered the challenge, spending over 144 million dollars of their own funds for replanting and growing pine forests.

You may wonder how our state is doing after fifty years of the RT Program. Does Virginia still have a deficit in tree growth as compared to harvest? The answer, happily, is no. On average, Virginia is growing nearly twice as much timber as is being harvested each year, and those trees grow faster and have better quality than ever before. In doing so, they capture and store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, protect and improve water quality, and provide important wildlife habitat. This model of success will soon be used in designing an incentive program to help landowners improve their hardwood forests too.

VDOF seed orchards like this one at New Kent Forestry Center produce fast-growing, high-quality pine seedlings for planting.

To learn more about Virginia’s Reforestation of Timberlands Program and how you might apply for the incentive funding for your own land, contact your local VDOF forester.

Field Notes: Partnerships at Pleasant Grove

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

Pleasant Grove Park in Fluvanna County offers a nature-rich experience for visitors and a variety of habitats for wildlife. Behind the scenes, it’s also a model for collaboration between county government and a plethora of partners.

VDOF has been a part of several education and stewardship projects at the park, including establishment of a tree identification trail, providing trees for planting, and most recently, maintenance burning of fields to improve habitat.

On an April morning, members of VDOF’s Jefferson work team performed a prescribed burn of some grass fields at the park. The park plans to maintain these fields as early successional wildlife habitat, potentially establishing warm season grasses in the future. Forester Chuck Wright made all the preliminary arrangements for the burn, including meeting with the county Board of Supervisors to get approval to burn in the park. Although it was fire season, VDOF obtained a spring 4PM Burning Law exemption, which can be used for wildlife habitat maintenance and improvement if conditions allow. 

Conducting the burn were senior area forester David Powell, forester Jonah Fielding, and forest technicians Zach Long and Matthew Hutchins. Fluvanna Parks and Recreation Director Aaron Spitzer came out to observe, as did Master Naturalist volunteers Walter Hussey and Doug Rogers. Doug used his camera drone to photograph the burn from the air.

As with any prescribed fire, safety came first. The fields were near Fluvanna High School and a main road, so many factors had to align for a safe and successful burn. Weather forecasts were checked in the days leading up to the burn. Fire lines that had been plowed around the area weeks earlier were refreshed with the bulldozer. The morning of the burn, the county closed most of the park, and VDOT put up a road sign warning motorists of a burn in progress. Burn boss David Powell checked the temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction before sending his team out with drip torches to light the first field. He continued to monitor the weather periodically, and an afternoon drop in humidity meant ending early, even though part of one field didn’t get burned.   

In contrast to the early successional fields, some areas of the park are being converted to forest. Walter Hussey is one of Pleasant Grove’s most active volunteers, and he has been involved with tree planting in many areas of the park. On a recent drizzly day, he and seven other members of the Rivanna chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists planted American chestnuts near the community gardens at Pleasant Grove. Jerre Creighton, research forester with VDOF, provided seedlings and nuts – a mix of pure American chestnut and hybrids that are 15/16 American. The hybrid trees are the result of years of backcross breeding with Chinese chestnut. Researchers hope the trees’ Chinese heritage brings along genes for long-term resistance to chestnut blight.

Master Naturalists are just one of the groups who collaborate with the county on stewardship and education at Pleasant Grove. There are also local Master Gardeners and Tree Stewards working to improve the park environment. And, as one volunteer at the planting put it, “Some of us wear more than one hat.”

County school students are also stewards of Pleasant Grove. In fact, the chestnuts joined a field of other wildlife-friendly hardwoods, including white oak, red mulberry, dogwood, black cherry, and American plum, that were planted on Earth Day two years ago by county first and second graders.

Tree shelters protect chestnuts and other young trees

It’s not often you find a local park with over twenty miles of hiking trails, river access, a dog park, pollinator garden, a historic home and museum, and more. Pleasant Grove Park is already a fabulous spot to visit, and thanks to the work of many partners, it just keeps getting better.

Field Notes: Buffer Benefits for River and Trail

By Deya Ramsden, VDOF Middle James River Forest Watershed Project Coordinator

A newly expanded riparian forest buffer in Nelson County is not only protecting the Rockfish River, but also enhancing wildlife habitat and beautifying a local trail.

Last winter, Rockfish Valley Foundation President Peter Agelasto met with Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) staff to discuss improving the Rockfish Valley Trail. His idea was to expand the existing buffer, to better shade the river and protect it from sediment and pollutants, while also diversifying the plant species composition within the buffer. James River Buffer Program Coordinator Deya Ramsden, and area foresters Martha Warring and B.J. Butler, worked together to create a plan that included planting 570 native shrubs and trees, managing invasive species, and recommending future maintenance. The project was funded through the James River Buffer Program, with matching funds from the Virginia Trees for Clean Program.

Conservation Services Incorporated (CSI) was contracted to install and maintain the planting. On March 23, CSI planted seedlings, complete with tree shelters, in a 1 ¾-acre area along the trail. The shrub species were chosen for multiple reasons: flowers that attract pollinators, fruits or seeds for birds, ability to form colonies from the roots and thus discourage invasive species, and ability to thrive in the partial shade of a forest understory. The species planted were buttonbush, hazel-alder, red osier and silky dogwoods, false indigo and southern arrowwood. The tree species selected included persimmon, pawpaw, and red mulberry, which have fruits favored by wildlife (and people); sycamore, river birch, and yellow-poplar, which are fast growing pioneer species that frequently colonize streambanks; redbud, with early spring flowers valued by people and pollinators; and pin oak, a long-lived, slow grower that adapts well to wet conditions.

The shelters, or “tubes,” installed by CSI protect the one-year-old seedlings from trampling, deer browse, and vole damage, and they aid in maintenance. The shelters provide a favorable growing environment, free from wind and drastic temperature changes, giving the seedlings time to focus on getting tall. Shelters are removed once the tree extends three inches out of the top of the tube. VDOF recommends using bird netting to cover the top of tree tubes to prevent songbirds from entering and becoming trapped in the tubes. Tree planters should leave a quarter-sized opening in the net for the tree shoot to emerge and remove the nets when the tree begins emerging from the tube to prevent the stem from becoming entangled as it grows.

Tree shelters protect new seedlings.

CSI will return in late spring to apply herbicide, in order to reduce weed competition around the seedlings and target invasive species along the trail. The first three years is a crucial time period for young seedlings, and maintenance is required to allow seedlings to gain growth and outcompete the weeds. Not many people realize that fescue, the most common pasture grass, is a non-native, aggressive species that competes with seedlings for moisture and nutrients. If grass is not controlled around the seedlings, the buffer may not survive at a level that results in a future forest. During planting, a small area is scalped to remove the grass, but follow-up maintenance with herbicide, mowing or weed-whacking is needed to control grass as the seedlings get established. Foresters will inspect the buffer annually to assess its progress and adjust maintenance requirements over the next three years.

Future plans for the trail include addressing areas where compaction is causing concentrated flow of sediment to reach the river. Several best management practices (BMPs) can mitigate these conditions, including temporarily blocking some access points to give them time to “rest.” In the meantime, consider a visit to the lovely Rockfish Valley, where you can walk the trail and envision those young trees grown into a future forest.

About the James River Buffer Program

The James River Buffer Program began in 2019 and is funded through a grant from the Virginia Environmental Endowment. The program is carried out through partnering organizations, VDOF and the James River Association (JRA), who draw on their expertise and community connections to help landowners install buffers. The program is turn-key, not a cost-share, offering installation of seedlings, materials, and three years of follow-up maintenance and guidance at no cost. This flexible program is open to any landowner in need of a buffer. Through VDOF, rural, residential, commercial, and county or city owned lands are eligible for enrollment, while JRA focuses on rural lands with the highest priority of buffer need. The application process is simple. Learn more and request a consultation, or reach out to your local VDOF forester for more information.

About the Virginia Trees for Clean Water Program (VTCW)

VDOF’s Virginia Trees for Clean Water (VTCW) program is funded by the USDA Forest Service Chesapeake Bay Watershed Forestry Program, Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund, and Department of Environmental Quality’s Chesapeake Bay Regulatory and Accountability Program. VTCW is designed to improve water quality across the Commonwealth through on-the-ground efforts to plant trees where they are needed most. Goals are to expand tree canopy, positively impact water quality, increase energy conservation practices, advance community health, and grow recreation and educational opportunities. VTCW provides matching funds to the James River Buffer Program for projects that meet the program criteria. In a typical year, the program awards grants of up to $14,000 per proposal, with an aim of a 50/50 match for the project. Contact Lara Johnson for more information.

Field Notes: Restoration Planting at the Mariners’ Museum and Park

By Meghan Mulroy-Goldman, VDOF Community Forester

Photography by Amanda Shields, The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Right in the heart of Newport News, you will soon be able to see a shortleaf pine forest. On a perfectly sunny March day, 700 shortleaf seedlings from the Virginia Department of Forestry’s (VDOF) nursery found a new home at the Mariners’ Museum and Park.

Volunteers planting shortleaf seedlings

With an historic range covering parts of twenty-two states and 282 million acres, shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) is one of four pine species that were once prevalent in the Hampton Roads area. The species was found in a variety of forest types including pure stands, loblolly-shortleaf, and shortleaf pine-oak. However, thanks to fire suppression, land use changes, and a preference for the faster growing loblolly pine, shortleaf is now found in just a fraction of its original range. It is now considered a diminished species throughout much of the Southeast.

The planting project was the result of a partnership developed between VDOF and the Mariners’ Museum and Park that began last year. The park approached VDOF to create an updated management plan for their approximately 300 acres of forested land—a beloved escape from the urban setting of Newport News. While completing the plan, I noted that the park contained stands of pine, mixed pine and hardwood, and mixed hardwood. Interestingly, all four of the native pines – loblolly, shortleaf, Virginia and some young planted longleaf pines – were present. I also found several areas where invasive species had overtaken the native vegetation, as is common in urban parks. One such area had also been damaged during Hurricane Isabelle in 2003 and had a sparse overstory. My advice was to clear the invasive species and do a restoration planting in these areas.

Given the decline of shortleaf pine in Virginia, the park staff chose it as the species to plant. The sparse overstory made the species a good choice for the site. The park received a Virginia Trees for Clean Water Grant to assist with the planting. To prepare the site beforehand, Dave Kennedy and Graham King from the Mariners’ Museum and Park set to work with volunteers, clearing out the Callery pear, Japanese privet, English ivy, and other invasive species.

Invasives were cleared from the understory before planting day

On the day of the planting, volunteers from the Peninsula Master Gardeners and Newport News Master Gardeners, led by Dave Kennedy, Graham King, and Erica Deale from the Mariners’ Museum and Park, worked diligently to get the bareroot seedlings into the ground. VDOF staff Scott Bachman, Kendall Topping, Stephen Jasenak and I all came out to assist with the planting as well.

Who are those masked crusaders? The planting crew, of course!

The VDOF Blackwater team looks forward to seeing the seedlings grow and continuing to build this partnership with the Mariners’ Museum and Park.