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.

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!

Field Notes: Longleaf Pine Planting at Big Woods

By Jim Schroering, VDOF Longleaf Pine/Southern Pine Beetle Coordinator

On a cold but sunny Saturday in December, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) completed a longleaf pine planting project on their Big Woods State Forest (BWSF). Longleaf pine once covered more than 1,000,000 acres in Virginia, but it is now considered a diminished species. Until 25 years ago, only 200 mature longleaf pines were left in southeast Virginia. Longleaf pine now covers approximately 8,000 acres in the state, thanks to VDOF and the Longleaf Cooperators of Virginia, a cooperative group of state, local, and federal agencies, private landowners, and non-governmental organizations.

Planting crew at work

The 41-acre BWSF tract planted on December 19 was originally an industrial loblolly pine plantation. The timber was clearcut earlier in 2020, and the tract was burned in July to prepare the site for planting. Dennis Gaston, VDOF State Forest forester, managed the timber sale, burning, planting contract, and field supervision. Through a generous grant from the Arbor Day Foundation, 23,000 native longleaf pine containerized seedlings grown at VDOF’s Garland Gray Nursery were purchased and planted at BWSF. An experienced planting crew from South Carolina was hired to plant the trees. Dennis Gaston and the crew foreman supervised the planting operation to ensure the trees were planted properly and to the correct spacing.

Newly planted longleaf seedling

Southeastern Virginia is at the northern limit of the native range for longleaf pine. VDOF and the Longleaf Cooperators of Virginia have been working for more than 20 years to reestablish longleaf pine in its native Virginia habitat, thus providing a unique ecological niche which had been functionally eliminated. It is hoped that by adding longleaf pine to this site, both the plant and animal diversity on Big Woods State Forest will increase. An additional benefit will be the reintroduction of fire to the ecosystem in order to properly manage the new stand.

Special thanks for the successful completion of this project go to Jennifer Moon and Bradley Brandt at the Arbor Day Foundation, H and H Forestry, Elder and his seasoned crew of tree planters, the VDOF staff at Garland Gray Nursery, and Dennis Gaston.

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

On January 22, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) successfully conducted a burn on the first of two units (“the Field”) at Whitney State Forest scheduled for prescribed fire in the spring of 2020. (Read What’s Happening at Whitney State Forest? Part One for additional background information.)

“A prescribed fire is like a wildfire that happens backwards – meaning, the fire practitioners are able to assess the site, plan for weather, install firebreaks and assemble the necessary crew and equipment, all in advance, before any fire is on the ground. Once the burn plan has been written and the equipment is ready, there is nothing to do except wait for the right weather.” said area forester Sarah Parmelee.

Weather is critical to prescribed fire because it effects how the fuels will burn and where the smoke from the fire will go. Weather that’s best for conducting a prescribed burn consists of moderate humidity and surface winds that will allow the fuels to burn without getting out of hand.

Sarah said, “You need a certain atmosphere to support a safe, effective prescribed burn. During the day, weather should allow smoke to rise and dissipate. A cool, humid ‘recovery’ period during the night will reduce the risk of the fire rekindling. Days in late winter or early spring are typically ideal for prescribed burns because the days can be relatively warm and dry with favorable winds and atmosphere, while the nights are still quite cool and moist.”

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The Field the morning before the fire.

On January 22, VDOF staff determined that the weather was favorable to burn the Field but not the Shortleaf (pine) unit. Because the Field is composed largely of native warm season grasses, it could be burned on a day with higher relative humidity, lower winds and cooler temperatures than the Shortleaf stand, which has some grasses but more woody and brushy materials.

“VDOF has many prescribed burns planned this spring on private and state owned land, so even though the weather on the 22 was not appropriate for both units, the decision was made to burn the Field and return to burn the Shortleaf at a later date.” said Sarah.

The morning of the fire, the burn crew gathered at the Warrenton office to assemble materials, such as drip torch fuel (a mixture of diesel and gasoline), drip torches, flappers (a suppression tool that is like a mudflap on a mop handle), leaf blowers and water.

Two brush trucks with water and off-road capabilities would be on site during the fire, but due to the near-freezing temperatures, water was not the preferred method of control and suppression. The VDOF bulldozer was also prepared for the fire; the bulldozer is not always necessary to have on standby for prescribed fires, but there were several snags (dead standing trees) both in and adjacent to the Field that might catch fire and need to be pushed over. Because the bulldozer would be on site, the operator could also contain any escaped fire if the cold temperature did prevent the use of the water resources.

Once the preparations were made, the crew convoyed to the Whitney State Forest. The suppression equipment was staged where it could be readily used, but not at risk of being in the way of other equipment or the fire. Warrenton Fire Department provided an attack engine (a brush truck with additional equipment and water) to standby on scene. At 11:00 AM the weather was predicted to be ideal for the fire, so at 10:45, the crew gathered for a final briefing covering safety, weather, assignments and methods for conducting the fire. Per VDOF policy, all fire practitioners were wearing the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This includes nomex clothes, helmets, gloves, goggles or safety glasses and, most importantly, a fire shelter to use only in extreme emergencies.

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Lighters ignite the small test fire area at the start of the burn.

A small test fire was lit to see how the fuels (i.e. the grasses) would burn and help determine the strategy of the Ignitions Crew for the burn. The Ignitions Crew would be responsible for lighting the fire while the Holding Crew would be responsible for keeping the fire within the unit. The Incident Commander (IC – the person in charge of the whole operation) would float between the two teams and act as a lookout.

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Blacking out the downwind fire break.

The cooler weather meant that the ignitions boss could use three lighters (people with driptorches putting fire on the ground) at once in order to build enough heat for the fuels to burn. The ignitions boss and IC had determined that “strip-head fire” would be the appropriate ignitions pattern. Head fire is when fire runs with the wind and can be very hot, fast and difficult to control. In a strip-head patter, lighters light strips of head fire parallel to each other so that no one head fire can travel very far before reaching “the black” – a burnt area where the fuels have been consumed. The black is an important tool for fire practitioners because it acts as an additional fire break.

The crew started at the downwind side of the Field so that as they burned, they “blacked out” the most vulnerable (downwind) fire break, making it more secure. They were then able to strip fire back through the Field until all the fuels had been consumed.

The burn progressed without escape and was completed in roughly an hour. While the ignitions crew was lighting, the holding crew patrolled the fire breaks to make sure that the fire was not in danger of escaping. After ignitions were complete, the holding crew and IC patrolled the fire breaks and extinguished any smoking debris with dirt.

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The Field after the fire.

Following the burn, Sarah reported, “Even though fuel consumption was spotty in places, the overall effect of the fire was satisfactory. It is worth noting that some patchiness in fuel consumption is not bad and increases the diversity of the site. Patchiness in winter burns also provides habitat for wildlife until the grasses in the field grow back in the spring.”

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A bird’s eye view of the Field, post fire.

The Whitney State Forest remained closed for the rest of the afternoon and the Field was patrolled the next morning for any hotspots, of which there were none.

VDOF anticipates burning the Shortleaf unit in late winter or early spring, during which the Whitney State Forest will again be closed for the day until it is safe for the public to return.

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.

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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.

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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.

American Chestnut Harvest at Lesesne State Forest

Chestnut trees have all but disappeared from the landscape; the Virginia Department of Forestry recently had a rare opportunity to harvest pure American chestnut wood.


The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) maintains a chestnut research project at Lesesne State Forest in Nelson County, VA. American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once a common deciduous tree in many eastern North American forests and was valued for its nuts, lumber products and firewood. However, the chestnut blight fungus (Endothia parasitica) introduced in the early 20th century spread throughout the natural range of chestnut, killing virtually all chestnut trees by mid-century.

Research conducted at sites like Lesesne State Forest contributes to the development of chestnut tree varieties that are genetically resistant to the blight; these resistant trees are developed through a complex backcrossing program in which American chestnut trees are crossed with Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) which are resistant to the blight. Through backcrossing, research foresters are collectively developing chestnut trees that are 15/16th American in genetic makeup and also have high blight resistance. (Read more about American chestnut research from the American Chestnut Foundation.) Research shows promise, but success is still years away.

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Pictured: Bill Perry (area forester) and Charlie Becker (utilization and marketing manager)

On a portion of the research plots in the state forest, several small stands of pure American chestnut (Castanea dentata) exist; because of the blight that has impacted chestnut trees in North America, it is incredibly rare to find specimens that are 100% American chestnut and not a hybrid with Chinese chestnut. Other plots within the forest contain hybrid varieties of chestnut trees.

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Charlie Becker saws fallen chestnut logs. 

When several of the American chestnut trees started to die earlier this year, VDOF decided to harvest the lumber so as not to miss this rare opportunity to obtain pure chestnut wood. Charlie Becker (utilization & marketing manager) was motivated to ensure the trees will not go to waste. He said, “While some people may just see great firewood with these logs (which would be a fine use), we know there is a unique opportunity here for more research and special projects. You just don’t get the chance to harvest pure American chestnut now.”

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On October 29, a team of VDOF staff performed a harvest of three American chestnut trees and two different hybrid chestnut specimens and recovered several fallen logs of unknown hybridity. The harvest team consisted of Charlie Becker, Bill Perry (area forester) on the chainsaw and bulldozer, Joe Lehnen (utilization and marketing specialist) and Chris Cox (utilization project developer). Together, the team fell the trees, cut them into logs and labeled each specimen according to its plot of origin.

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Bill Perry saws the harvested logs. 

Bill Perry mused on the advancements in technology in the decades since American chestnuts had been regularly harvested. While the harvest crew this October relied on chainsaws and heavy equipment to harvest and sort the timber, harvest technology would likely have been more primitive the last time a substantial pure chestnut stand was harvested.

There are several chestnut restoration projects underway in Virginia; the October harvest contributes to research into viable markets for chestnut wood products, which may, in turn, support restoration efforts.

For one purpose, the harvest will contribute to ongoing, informal research about chestnut wood properties, durability and market viability; for example, it is useful to know if hybrid chestnut wood has similar decay resistance to pure American chestnut, such that it may be used for fence posts – a once important market for American chestnut wood product. The wood harvested may also be used in more formal research to identify and compare the structural and mechanical differences in the wood of pure versus hybrid chestnuts.

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Pictured: (left) Bill Perry, Charlie Becker and Joe Lehnen (utilization and marketing specialist); (right) Joe Lehnen and Chris Cox (utilization project developer)

Additionally, the harvest provided a source of wood for an upcoming workshop about log grading, lumber and wood drying, hosted at VDOF James W. Garner building in Charlottesville on November 7. Pre-registered workshop attendees will have the unique opportunity to participate in the milling of pure chestnut wood. Once the wood is milled into usable planks, Charlie Becker and the marketing and utilization team will identify appropriate uses or projects for the wood (in addition to research initiatives). Such projects may include educational demonstrations, wood type displays at the VDOF Headquarters or possibly even furniture built by local artisans.

Related Media:
NBC29: Virginia Sawyers Cutting American Chestnut Trees for First Time in Decades, November 11, 2019

 

First Mountain State Forest Dedication

On the afternoon of October 7, a crowd of more than 70 people gathered in Rockingham County for the dedication of Virginia’s newest state forest, First Mountain. First Mountain is the 25th state forest in Virginia and contributes more than 570 beautiful acres of forestland, open fields, and stream frontage to the state lands system.

Gary Heiser, State Forests Manager, selected an idyllic location on the property as a ceremony site. Near the heart of the property, the ceremony took place amid the fields of pine tree saplings, looking out to expansive views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Photo 1_FM Ceremony Site

Speakers during the ceremony were state forester Rob Farrell, secretary of agriculture and forestry Bettina Ring, delegate Tony Wilt, and Governor Ralph Northam. Todd Dofflemyer, grandson of Alfred and Virginia Dofflemyer, spoke as a representative of the family from whom the property was purchased.

Attendees included family members, property neighbors, Department of Forestry personnel, and state representatives. Following the series of speakers, photo ops, and interviews, attendees enjoyed refreshments and delicious green-tinted cupcakes.


First Mountain History

Originally part of Boone’s Run Farm, the property had been in the Dofflemyer family for multiple generations spanning more than 100 years. Alfred and Virginia Dofflemyer of Albemarle County were the most recent owners of the property and managed the property as a working tree farm until 2007.

During the ceremony, Todd Dofflemyer recalled memories of his grandparents and time spent on “the farm,” as the family simply called it. Todd shared a funny story about his grandfather Alfred’s attempt to begin specifically farming Christmas trees, only to have his efforts thwarted by his brother who mistakenly mowed down all of the newly planted trees in a bid to be helpful around the farm.

Vintage Tree Farm Sign at FM

Todd became emotional during the ceremony and indicated how pleased his grandparents would be to know that the land would be conserved and well-used in perpetuity.

After the ceremony, Alfred and Virginia’s daughter Martha Dofflemyer Baugh Clarke and niece Naomi Meadows discussed the family legacy of the land; in their memory, stewardship of the land extended as far back as their Uncle Dewey, who owned the land for decades before Alfred purchased the property from his brother. It’s possible the land was in the family even longer.

Martha said that the transfer of the property to the Department of Forestry’s care was important to her because it fulfills her father’s dream for the property. Naomi reminisced about summers on the farm as a child, when the family cut hay and she was allowed to ride her cousins’ horses around the property. She, too, is pleased that Boone’s Run is now First Mountain State Forest, because, “there is just too much cement asphalt in this world … and this is too beautiful to have that happen to it.”

 First Mountain as a State Forest

First Mountain lies on the southeast slopes of First Mountain (for which it was named) in the southern portion of the Massanutten range, and encompasses 573 acres of hardwood and pine stands, as well as open fields and more than 21,700 feet of stream frontage.

The property is also adjacent to 583 contiguous acres of the George Washington National Forest, meaning that the conservation of this land contributes to the overall conservation of large-scale, contiguous forest habitat in Virginia.

As a state forest, First Mountain will be protected from future development and will be open to multiple uses for Virginia residents and visitors. The property will continue on, in part, as a tree farm, but will also be open to hiking and mountain biking, and will be selectively opened to timber harvest and hunting in the future.

State Forests in Virginia

In addition to dedicating the newest state forest, the event served as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the state forest system in Virginia.

Secretary Ring mused on the importance that forestland has played in her life, from childhood memories with her father through her career as a forester. Secretary Ring was pleased that the dedication of First Mountain State Forest was serving as our opportunity to celebrate the anniversary, because First Mountain has “a great name and a great story.”  “There’s no better way to celebrate the 100th anniversary than the dedication of a new one.”

During his remarks, Governor Northam called on the well-known children’s book, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, to serve as an example for mindful stewardship of our forestland. Following the ceremony, Governor Northam further explained how the State Forest system contributes to his vision for conservation in Virginia.

In addition to protecting forestland, state forests like First Mountain play an important role in improving water quality from the mountains to the Chesapeake Bay. State Forester Rob Farrell previously said of First Mountain, “Water is what makes this place special. With more than 21,000 feet of stream frontage and 43,422 feet of vegetated buffers, First Mountain plays an important role in improving water quality, recreation and tourism opportunities and ultimately the health of the Chesapeake Bay.”

State Forest Meme2

Field Notes: Goodness Gracious Goats!

by VDOF Forest Health Specialist Katlin Mooneyham

Our VDOF Forest Health Program staff are often asked how to control certain invasive plant species. Most recommendations involve spraying or applying chemicals since that is often the easiest and most practical way for people to remove these plants. However, there are times when landowners and citizens are not interested in herbicides and ask for other recommendations.

One alternative option that is gaining in popularity is the use of goats to graze invasive species down to a more manageable scale. Goats are well suited to grazing plants not typically eaten by other animals because they have the ability to consume woody plants and weeds. They are also able to eat plants toxic to other animals due to the ability to detoxify absorbed anti-nutritional factors (https://articles.extension.org/pages/19363/goat-nutrition-gi-tract).

The VDOF Forest Health Program decided to test this invasive plant removal method and identified Lesesne State Forest as the perfect location due to the amount of problematic plants on the forest. A four-acre section of woods within the forest was selected to be a test area where it could fully be grazed by goats.

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VDOF Forest Health Program Manager Lori Chamberlin next to a large multiflora rose bush at Lesesne State Forest.

The company GoatBusters, based in Afton, VA, was available and ready to help VDOF with this project. The father/son duo, Jace and Clark Goodling, have a herd of Kiko goats that they utilize on a variety of landscapes to remove invasive species. A grand total of 90 goats went out in mid-May for 13 days!  Accompanying the goats were two Anatolian shepherds that acted as guard dogs to prevent other animals from making a snack out of the workers! The goats were kept in one small (~ an acre) subsection at a time so that there would always be high grazing pressure. Once a section was grazed down, the fencing and goats would move to the next spot and grazing would continue. After the goats were well fed and done with the four-acre study area, they were removed. The area looked completely different! Many of the invasive plants in the study area were stripped of their foliage and some were completely consumed all the way to the ground! It is important to note that while the goats had an impressive immediate effect, there will need to be some sort of secondary treatment on the land as these invasive plants are prolific and re-sprout easily. Various follow-up treatments were conducted and a more comprehensive report with those results will be available on the VDOF website soon!

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Goats arrive.

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Goats depart. Quite the difference!

To summarize, there is no silver bullet that can be used against invasive plant species. Whatever treatment is utilized will require follow-up of some sort. The goats are an amazing resource to start fresh in areas that are completely inundated with invasive plants and may not even be accessible for chemical treatment. By allowing these animals to graze an area down, follow-up chemical treatments are easier and more targeted. The ability to start with a “clean slate” is not only more aesthetically pleasing, but also enables invasive plant control with less overall herbicide.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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: https://manaleaf.weebly.com/branching-out