Field Notes: Wandering the Winter Woods

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

A few weeks ago, on a cold but sunny day, I visited Paul State Forest in Rockingham County for the first time. It was a great place for a winter woods walk.

The Paul became a State Forest in 1962 – a gift to the state from a local judge, John Paul. The forest is included in the Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) list of Virginia Birding Trail sites. DWR describes it quite accurately as “an island of forest in a sea of farmland.” The Paul is located on Clover Hill Road near Dayton, just north of Ottobine (map). Look for the old-school wooden sign at the parking area!

The Paul’s 173 acres of mature hardwoods and scattered pines provide winter foraging and roosting habitat for many birds. The day I was there, the woods and edges revealed a typical winter bird crew: red-bellied and downy woodpecker, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, ruby-crowned kinglet, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, and northern cardinal. I hope to go back in late April, when the trees should be alive with migrating warblers.

Carolina chickadee

Stumps reveal that trees are sometimes harvested from this forest. Forest management is one key distinction between State Forests and State Parks, with which they are sometimes confused. State Forests are managed for multiple uses, or sometimes quite specific ones, depending on deed restrictions set forth by the donor. Many of our State Forests pay their own way as true “working” forests. In fact, no state general funds are used to maintain State Forests, and 25% of any timber sale revenue is returned to the county where the forest is located.  

Winter is the perfect time to study and appreciate tree bark in a hardwood forest like the Paul: the pale shagginess of white oak, diamond-patterned furrows of mockernut hickory, the “burnt cornflake” look of black cherry, and lots of other interesting textures. I found an unexpected species during my walk at the Paul: bigtooth aspen. I recognized its smooth, olive-tinged bark, then confirmed my identification with some nearby fallen leaves.

In winter, the understory of the Paul is quite open, in part because goats were posted there to eat invasive plants last summer. Thankfully, they didn’t do much damage to the native spicebush – perhaps because it tastes like lemon furniture polish? The spicebush flower buds were already showing yellow when I visited; if you visit now (mid-March), they should be in full bloom.

Like many of our State Forests, the Paul is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. It has a small parking area on a country road, and no facilities other than a few picnic tables. But the views from the parking lot and forest edges are lovely, and the forest roads are easy to hike, making it a perfect place for families with young children. Kids outdoors tend to find their own entertainment, and everybody can learn unexpected things from a walk in the woods. (For example, after pulling a large pine branch off the path during my walk, I discovered that hand sanitizer is great for removing pine sap from hands.)

Farm view from the edge of Paul State Forest

In these days of virtual instruction, why not create your own field trip with a visit to a State Forest? You can take along some of Virginia Department of Forestry’s activity ideas for kids to try outdoors. Bonus: They’re fun for adults too!

Fired Up about Camp

Did you know there’s a camp where teens get to fight fire? Not a scary western wildfire, but a well-behaved one that actually improves the environment?

Last summer, a group of teenagers at Camp Woods & Wildlife learned firsthand how to manage a prescribed fire. These intrepid campers donned fire-retardant gear and set about preparing for a small understory burn.

First, they raked a fire line down to bare soil to keep the fire contained. Then, under the watchful eyes of Virginia Department of Forestry personnel, they used a drip torch to light the forest duff. The June humidity kept the fire low, but campers were prepared with backpack tanks in case of any flare-ups.

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The campers learned that managed fire cuts down the amount of dry “fuel” on the forest floor, thus reducing the chances of an uncontrolled wildfire later. Many mature trees are tolerant of low-intensity prescribed fire, and they benefit from reduced competition when the fire kills smaller woody vegetation. Fire can even improve wildlife habitat by creating growing conditions for plants that provide food and cover.

Teens who want to experience real-world environmental practices like prescribed fire are invited to attend this year’s Camp Woods & Wildlife, scheduled for June 22-27, 2020 at Holiday Lake 4-H Center. The camp is open to any Virginia resident aged 13-16 with an interest in natural resources who has not attended before. Any non-related adult can nominate a camper.

Check out www.dof.virginia.gov/forestry/camp for more Information.

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods? Cold Bullfrogs Don’t Jump 

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

For many of us who work in the natural resources arena, it is a joy to see school buses arrive for an outdoor field trip.

GLO school buses at Beaverdam
Throughout the state, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) staff partner with many school divisions and local, state and federal natural resource agencies to provide elements of meaningful watershed educational experiences, also called MWEEs, for students.

lunch in the woods

It is especially nice when schools are brave enough to chance a little bit of rain, as opposed to cancelling a field trip.  Sometimes overcast weather can provide better opportunities for viewing wildlife in action.

During a bit of early cold weather, Gloucester County students encountered a few frogs along a nature trail, and we watched them hop away.  However, when we came across an American Bullfrog close to the water’s edge, it refused to budge.  I don’t know if the frog was too cold to move or if it decided that staying frozen in place and camouflaged was the best strategy –  or a combination of both.  It was facing a line of 25 large predators, and all eyes were on the frog.  When I touched the bullfrog’s back with a fern, it surprised us by staying put and puffing its body up to be as large as it could.

When I returned to the same spot on the trail about 10 minutes later, the bullfrog had moved a few feet closer to the lake and seemed to be pressing its body against the warmer earth under the leaf litter.

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This bullfrog may have been caught out in the cold, but wintertime can be a great time for people to get out and explore the outdoors.  Just be sure to check the latest weather forecast and wear blaze orange during hunting season.  My family recently found winter hiding in the mountains (below).

Make the winter season more exciting by visiting a forest near you!

Field Notes: VDOF Supports Dominion Energy’s Project Plant It!

by Sara Hunt, Project Plant It!

Page Hutchinson, the VDOF’s forest education specialist, shared her knowledge of trees with students who were enrolled in Dominion Energy’s Project Plant It! program. During the month of April, she visited Meriwether Lewis Elementary in Albemarle County and Thomas Jefferson Elementary in Louisa County.

Her interactive presentations helped the students understand more about the products that come from trees and also about the important role that trees play in the ecosystem. Students especially enjoyed voting thumbs up or thumbs down on whether an item came from a tree or not. Also, they loved the “Tree Factory” activity where they acted out all the different parts of a tree to learn how complex trees really are. As you can tell from the photos, Page generated a lot of energy and excitement about trees for these lucky students.

The media team for Albemarle County Public Schools created a cool video featuring Page: https://youtu.be/bYoo93OZhb8

Project Plant It! was developed in 2007 by Dominion Energy to educate children about the benefits of trees and to improve the environment by planting trees. Each participating student received a redbud tree seedling to plant for Arbor Day. Dominion Energy partners with the Virginia Department of Forestry to enhance learning through these fun forester presentations to selected schools. For more information, visit projectplantit.com.

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Page Hutchinson at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.

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Page Hutchinson at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? July 26, 2018

Kids!

by Forester Lisa Deaton

Many localities and organizations offer great opportunities for kids to enjoy the outdoors at summer camps and day camps.  The Virginia Department of Forestry, in cooperation with natural resource conservation agencies and organizations, offers Holiday Lake Forestry Camp for 13-16 year olds every summer at the Holiday Lake 4-H Center near Appomattox, Virginia.

Our local day-campers all learn about Smokey Bear and his fire prevention rules.  When we began discussing wildfire last week, one camper stole the show by enthusiastically sharing the three types of wildfire with us: ground fires, surface fires, and canopy fires.

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Then we went outside to listen to the sounds of the outdoors while nestled in hammocks.

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The campers drew sound maps of everything they heard.

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We also listened to recordings of blue heron calls, fox calls, and the Smokey the Bear Song.

An older group of campers canoed across the lake and built survival shelters.

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It takes me about 30 minutes to hang up a dozen hammocks.  These three ducks patiently watched me hang hammocks this morning (below).

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VDOF Employee Earns 2018 National Smokey Bear Award

The 2018 National Smokey Bear Awards were recently announced and Fred Turck (wildfire prevention program manager), along with other prevention specialists from the Mid-Atlantic Forest Fire Compact, were awarded the highest honor, the Gold Smokey. This award program is sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the Ad Council.

Since 1957 this prestigious award program has recognized organizations and individuals for outstanding service of at least two years with significant program impact in wildfire prevention at the national level (Gold), multi-stale level (Silver) and statewide level (Bronze). These awards remind us of the hard work done to reduce the threat of unwanted human-caused wildfires.

“Our Virginia Wildfire Prevention Program has been a National Leader for most of Smokey’s 75 years, and I am truly proud to be part of this organization and the overall Smokey program,” stated Fred. “To now be part owner of a Team Gold Smokey makes me even more humble to have been recognized at the Gold level for the second time.” Fred and another VDOF employee, Ed Roger, are only two of three folks who ever received all three awards — Bronze, Silver and Gold. Now Fred is the first individual to have received two Gold Smokey Awards. The Ad Council as an agency received the Gold Award twice but Fred is the first individual to have been so recognized.

VDOF in the Spotlight at Project Plant It! Event

by Suyapa Marquez, Senior Community Affairs Representative for Dominion Energy

VDOF representatives visited Oak Grove Elementary  (Richmond Public Schools) on April 24 to support an interactive Arbor Day event with the third-graders. The students were culminating their study of Project Plant It!, the free environmental education program created by Dominion Energy to teach kids about the importance of trees and how to plant trees.

Barbara White at Oak Grove

The rainy day didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the students as they gathered indoors to learn interesting facts about trees from Barbara White, VDOF’s urban forestry coordinator. She shared her expertise about how trees grow and how to take care of them properly.

At the conclusion of her remarks she presented Hunter Woods, a Dominion Energy forester, with a Tree Line USA banner from the Arbor Day Foundation. The Tree Line USA program recognizes companies that engage in best practices in public and private utility arboriculture, demonstrating how trees and utilities can co-exist for the benefit of communities and citizens. Woods accepted the award on behalf of Dominion Energy.

Barbara White & Hunter Woods

The students then sang a special song called “Things That Grow,” which was followed by planting six redbud trees on the school grounds. Cynthia Scheuermann, urban & community forestry specialist with the VDOF, assisted with the tree plantings.

DOF Reps at Oak Grove

“It was so much fun to watch the students connect with nature in a fun and meaningful way,” said Barbara White. “When they visit the school in years to come, they’ll always remember planting the redbuds to celebrate Arbor Day.”

Petersburg Third-Graders Boost Science Skills With Project Plant It!

by Suyapa Marquez, Senior Community Affairs Representative for Dominion Energy

Page Hutchinson, VDOF’s forest education specialist, gave a special forestry presentation to all third-graders in Petersburg public schools on March 19. Students from the area’s four elementary schools came in two shifts to Walnut Hill Elementary School for an educational field trip that will help boost their science skills when the SOL testing period begins.

The field trip is part of a collaboration between the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and Dominion Energy’s Project Plant It! program, which helps students learn about the important role of trees in the ecosystem

During her fun and interactive presentation, Page led the students in a brain-building exercise where they looked at photos of commonly used items and voted thumbs up or thumbs down on whether the item came from a tree or not. Also, she engaged them in a high-energy “Tree Factory” exercise where the students acted out the different parts of a tree to better understand how complex trees really are.

Petersburg students voting (1)

As part of their involvement with Project Plant It!, the students will get a redbud tree seedling to plant at home for Arbor Day. Page shared a number of resources with the teachers and they also can download free lesson plans and instructional tools about trees from projectplantit.com.

Forester with tree cookie (1)

Johna Vazquez, an educator with Petersburg City Public Schools, thanked Page for sharing her expertise with the students. “Through the thought-provoking sessions, I believe our students grew in their depth of knowledge about the influence that trees have on our environment,” she said.

Project Plant It! is a free environmental education program developed by Dominion Energy to educate students and plant trees. The program began in Spring 2007, making Spring 2018 the 12th observance of this award-winning program. From 2007-2018, Dominion Energy has distributed about 500,000 free tree seedlings to students enrolled in the program in areas served by Dominion Energy. To learn more, visit projectplantit.com.