Citizen Science: Give it a Try!
By Ariel Firebaugh
Director of Scientific Engagement
Anyone, anywhere can help make scientific discoveries. Citizen science invites members of the public to participate in scientific research... no Ph.D. needed! If you are curious, concerned, or just have some extra time on your hands, you already have what it takes to address some of the most critical challenges facing our planet as a citizen scientist.
There are thousands of citizen science projects to out there to choose from. Topics range from classifying galaxies to monitoring water quality or mapping invasive species. Your involvement can be as casual as snapping the occasional picture, or as regimented as logging daily observations.
You may need to do a little digging to find projects that are the best fit for your interests and lifestyle. Check out SciStarter and Zooniverse — organizations that vet and compile citizen science projects — to whittle down your options.
Your time is valuable. A good citizen science project should be set up to help you collect the best data possible. Look for:
Clear instructions - Protocols should be easy-to-follow, like reading a recipe.
Help resources - Are there places to seek additional guidance if you need it? Look for FAQs, webinars, discussion forums, in-person trainings, or a “Help!” email address.
Incentives - You’ll probably be more motivated to work on a project if your efforts feel meaningful and productive. Maps, data dashboards, and reports can help you to visualize how your data contribute to the big picture. Some projects even allow you to “compete” with other citizen scientists by tallying how many observations you’ve made.
There’s nothing wrong with trying out a couple projects until you stumble across “The One” (or several) that you want to make part of your routine. Once you find your fit, stick to it. Regularly contributing to a project will help you build confidence and collect data more efficiently. Making observations faithfully over months and years may also increase the value of your data for the broader research community. Longer datasets are vital for some research topics, such as tracking the impact of climate change on flowering or migration.
Want to learn more about citizen science? These resources will help you get started:
“Citizen Science: Everybody Counts” Tedx Talk by Caren Cooper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7cQHSqfSzI
Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction by Mary Ellen Hannibal: https://www.maryellenhannibal.com/citizen-science
We are the Champions!
By Jared Manzo
Starting out as a 4-H and Future Farmers of America project in the 1970s, the Virginia Big Tree Program is a registry for the largest trees within any native, non-native or naturalized species present in the state. These are specimens of noteworthy size that are time-tested, nature-approved, and have certainly benefited from more than a dash of luck. The program is coordinated by the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech, and the beautiful thing is that anyone can participate. A property owner with just one special tree can measure and submit its nomination. An organization can coordinate community members to locate and measure trees in their neck-of-the-woods. Serious tree enthusiasts can tramp around forests or cruise rivers hunting for elusive giants. Or, in our particular case, grounds staff with a special knowledge of the arboretum’s collection can nominate trees as time allows.
Generally, Blandy Experimental Farm property does not register well for those top spots in the common native species category; think of your white oaks, red maples, black walnuts, yellow poplars, etc. What we do have, like so many public gardens and arboreta, is a diverse collection of unique native and non-native plants that few other places have in the state with sizable enough specimens worthy of nomination to the registry. Because of time and resources, Blandy’s contribution to the big tree program has been limited over the decades. A collection of 21 specimens comprised the initial nominations from the property in 2009 and 2011. Some of these trees include the Japanese umbrella pine along the conifer trail, the Arizona cypress west of the quarters, and the Miyabe maple in the maple section. The inaugural 13 trees were re-measured for their ten-year anniversary recertification in 2019, sparking an interest to see what else could be nominated.
In 2019, 11 specimens were nominated to the registry with 8 more submitted in 2020. Of those 19 trees, 16 were crowned state champions. Interestingly, two specimens were state champs at the time of nomination only to be topped within a few months by others in the state. The competitive spirit is alive in big tree hunting!
Where are some of these trees you ask? Well, starting near the kiosk, you can quickly reach our state champion hawthorns: Crataegus marshallii (parsley hawthorn) and Crataegus spathulata (littlehip hawthorn). If you bop over to the oak grove, you can spend time under three champion oaks: Quercus georgiana (Georgia oak), Quercus aliena (oriental white oak), and Quercus chenii (xiao ye li). For those who enjoy the property on horseback, you quickly pass three state champs along the section of the bridle trail moving across the Lake Arnold dam: Pterostyrax corymbosus (little epaulette-tree), Kalopanax pictus (castor-aralia), and Franklinia alatamaha (Franklinia). At the conclusion of 2020, the State Arboretum of Virginia was home to 29 state champion trees with 8 more specimens in the top three for their respective species. Visitors can see our full list of champion trees and plan a tour by checking out our website’s “Find Our Trees” page and selecting the box reading “State Champions Only” for a listing.
The two state champion hawthorns mentioned above required an effort to rescue them from botanical obscurity. Stay tuned for our spring newsletter to get a glimpse of what that process looked like.
Spotted Lanternflies Reach Blandy
By T'ai Roulston
In 2020, the spotted lanternfly claimed its second county in Virginia: Clarke. First found in eastern Pennsylvania in 2014, it reached Frederick County, Virginia, just west of us, a couple of years ago; now it has claimed Berryville and Blandy Experimental Farm. We found four adults on a tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) in November.
Although the insect preferentially feeds on tree of heaven, a tree despised for its prolific seeds, foul-smelling foliage and hydra-headed regrowth after cutting, the spotted lanternfly is not a godsend curing us of a plague of weed trees; rather, it is a second plague nourished by the first. It spills from tree of heaven onto roses, grapes, fruit trees, walnuts, maples and many more, tapping into the plant's circulatory system and sending a constant stream of sticky liquid out its little insect butt. The liquid, euphemistically called 'honeydew,' coats everything beneath the tree, leaving car windshields glazed like jelly donuts and the roads sticky as a movie theater floor. So, despite the flash and dash of a new polka-dotted insect on the landscape, its popularity is quite fleeting.
At the arboretum, we are most concerned with potential damage to our maples, walnuts and ornamental fruit trees. We have 147 maple trees of 24 species and don't know which are most vulnerable. Locally, red maples and silver maples were preferentially targeted by the lanternfly in late summer, with hundreds and even thousands lined up along the stems to feed and lay eggs. Excessive feeding can cause the stems to flag and sometimes break. That, combined with the local emergence of the 17-year periodical cicadas this year could make it a tough year to be a small tree.
Combatting the spotted lanternfly is a big challenge, and we will be following scientific guidelines in order to save our own collection and to prevent ourselves from being a lanternfly nursery for our neighbors. Control is focused on reducing the population of tree of heaven on the property but leaving occasional large trees treated with insecticide that will attract the insect and kill it when it feeds, so it doesn't just switch to less preferred species nearby.
Removing tree of heaven is challenging, both because it is such a large part of the wild areas in our region and because it requires the use of herbicide after cutting to prevent regrowth; but we must undertake it. We will focus on the largest trees and densest patches first and work out from there as new trees are found. The large trees even include arboretum specimens, towering trees planted in 1939 before it became known as an invasive species. It is as a big task for us as it is for government agencies, public land managers, and private landowners, but we a coordinated effort will benefit us all.
2020 Wasn't So Bad if You're a Birder
By Dave Carr
Director, Blandy Experimental Farm
Public Relations Coordinator, Tim Farmer, asked me for some wildlife photos last month. One of the photos I offered was a Lark Sparrow. It was not my best photo, but I mentioned that it was maybe the rarest bird seen at Blandy in 2020. “I’m hearing a topic for an Arbor Vitae article.” He replied.
I discovered the Lark Sparrow on 11 November 2019. I was driving to the Blandy Farmhouse when it flew off the road in front of me. Lark Sparrows have a distinctive white pattern along the edge and tip of their tail that is unique among North American sparrows. Even though there should not have been a Lark Sparrow within hundreds of miles of Blandy, I slammed on my brakes, grabbed my binoculars, and looked at the bird as it perched in a tree about 20 feet off the road. Bold facial pattern, plain white breast with a single black spot – yes, no doubt about it, this was a Lark Sparrow, the first I had ever seen in Virginia, much less Blandy.
For the most part, Lark Sparrows are birds of the prairie and western grasslands, but a few show up on the east coast almost every year. This bird ended up hanging out at Blandy into March 2020. It was never easy to find, and I talked to many birders who searched for it in vain. Missing it on the 2019 Christmas Bird Count was especially painful to me. But to those who persisted, a Blandy Lark Sparrow sighting was a special thrill. However, it was not the only rare bird to show up at Blandy in the past year or so.
On Christmas Eve, a female Painted Bunting was discovered in the vicinity of Rattlesnake Spring. The male of this species is perhaps the gaudiest of all North American songbirds – a red-breasted, blue-headed, green-backed sparrow-sized neotropical migrant. A male that showed up at Great Falls in Maryland this winter is getting a lot of press. The yellowish-green females are less flashy. Painted Buntings breed in the states along the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic Coast. In Virginia, a few turn up at feeders, usually in the coastal counties, each year, but this was a first for Blandy and Clarke County. Needless to say, when I heard about it (word of a rare bird can get around quickly in the digital age), I interrupted my last-minute Christmas shopping to search for it. No luck for me, but a more fortunate birder relocated the bunting on Christmas day. That was the last sighting, though.
One of the more surprising Blandy sightings of 2020 was a male Ring-necked Pheasant. Members of the Arboretum crew started hearing the pheasant’s rasping crow in February, and soon thereafter our buildings staff was texting me photos of the bird. I did not get lucky until June, but when I did, the bird gave me an unusually up-close-and-personal view. Ring-necked Pheasants are native to Europe, but they were introduced as gamebirds to North America. They were once common throughout the mid-Atlantic, including the Shenandoah Valley, but a variety of factors has caused them to disappear from most of our area. Presumably, this pheasant was a recent release by hunters somewhere in our vicinity, but this gorgeous bird was an exciting find, nonetheless, and persisted at Blandy through the summer.
Back in October I found a species that I had seen at Blandy only once before (22 years ago!). Each year, American Golden Plovers undergo one of the longest migrations in the Americas, a 20,000-mile round-trip from the grasslands of South America to the arctic tundra and back again. Their main migration route takes them through the midwestern U.S., but migrating flocks show up along the Atlantic coast in spring and fall each year. They do not often show up in Clarke County, though. A couple of birding friends and I found at least three American Golden Plovers that hanging out with a large flock of Killdeer (the only commonly occurring plover in Clarke County) in a recently harvested cornfield at Blandy. They did not stay long, but when you are bound for Argentina, it is best not to linger in Virginia.
I am happy to say that 2020 was not finished with bird surprises. In November, I was leading a small birding tour at Blandy, something I had been offering each month that fall. We were searching for wintering sparrows in one of our meadows when the unmistakable rattling call of Sandhill Cranes spun my head around. Sure enough, flying low over a cornfield was a line of eight cranes winging their way southward. I have seen Sandhill Cranes only three times in the Shenandoah Valley, but all in the past four years. Sandhill Cranes are a major conservation success story, and they seem to be expanding their range. I am optimistic that they may soon become an annual visitor through Blandy.
So, 2020 wasn’t all bad, I guess. It had its moments. Then again, I am looking forward to seeing what 2021 has to offer. Finches have been on the move this winter, so maybe Evening Grosbeaks or crossbills will make an appearance. One thing for certain is that despite being at Blandy for over 23 years, 2021 will provide some things I have never seen before.
Education Program Success is Team Driven
By Candace Lutzow-Felling
Director of Education
The success of the Education Team is based on our collaboration with the various departments and staff at the Arboretum. The Grounds & Gardens staff create wonderful, safe learning spaces for our students & teachers. Building Maintenance staff keep our facilities in tip-top shape, and they improve those spaces when we identify a need. We share ideas with Scientific Engagement/Public Program staff and collaborate in creating activities for families visiting the Arboretum. Administrative staff make sure we manage our budget wisely and provide us with up-to-date office equipment. Research Faculty help us identify plants and animals new to us and they are always s willing to discuss ideas for new school programs. The Foundation of the State Arboretum assists us in finding external support to fund innovative programs and helps us meet the special needs of some schools.
We couldn’t provide exciting outdoor learning experiences for our student community and professional development programs for educators without the support of all the staff at the Arboretum and Blandy Experimental Farm. Thank you all!!!!