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Nature Pages

"The place to study nature is at one's own home --
on the farm, in the mountains, by the sea --
wherever that may be."
John Burroughs

One of the roles of the Park Authority is to provide information on the environmental and cultural resources of Fairfax County. There is a selection of our favorite web resources available through Green Links.

The collection of pages here is a little bit different. The philosophy behind them is much like taking a walk in a park. Sometimes we ask you to participate in the stewardship of the park resources. Sometimes we give you some ideas about your own backyard. Sometimes you can hear from one of our naturalists. Click on all the links below – you won’t know what’s behind them until you open the door, and like in nature, sometimes, you’ll find an unexpected treasure. Happy Exploring.


Backyard fox Backyard Wildlife

If you have any question whether you may have a rabid or dangerous animal nearby, call either the police non-emergency phone number, 703-691-2131, or 911.

Don't approach animals you don't know. Any animal can react unpredictably. For safety, just let the animal move on, then take a look at your backyard and consider making it animal-proof.

Deer on road Deer Resistant Plants?

If they're hungry enough, deer will eat anything. And Fairfax County has hungry deer. Understanding that deer will eat most plants is one of the first and most important rules to learn about gardening in Fairfax County. There are many lists swearing that deer will avoid certain species, but we've planted them, and deer have eaten them. The best defense? Offense!

Trout Lily

A physical barrier, like an eight-to-ten foot fence, can be very effective at thwarting deer. Note that if deer know about the garden before the fence goes up, they'll try to get in again. Another possibility is a shorter, double fence, perhaps four feet high. That may confuse the deer enough to keep them out.

Not all home owners' associations in Fairfax allow fences, and not all budgets can hold one, so that brings us back to the question of which plants to use. Here's a list of some we like for both their garden attributes and because they are native species. You can find more choices in the library at Green Spring Gardens.


The trick with trees is to get them tall enough to avoid damage from grazing. Tree protectors can help. They're miniature fences that fit around individual trees.

Common Names: beech, birch, black locust, maples and oaks   (Scientific Names)

Fagus grandifolia (Beech), Betula Nigra (River Birch), Robinia pseudoacacia (Black Locust), Acer rubrum (Red Maple - beware, many cultivars are hybrids with non-native maples), Acer saccharinum (Silver Maple), Quercus alba (White Oak), Quercus phellos (Willow Oak).


Common Names: American Bayberry, Beautyberry, Sweet-bay Magnolia, Red Buckeye, Summersweet, and some viburnums (make sure they are a native, like Arrowood or Maple-leaf)    (Scientific Names)

Myrica cerifera (American Bayberry), Callicarpa americana (Beautyberry), Magnolia virginiana var. australis (Sweet-bay Magnolia), Aesculus parvia (Red Buckeye), Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet), and some viburnums (make sure they are a native, like Viburnum dentatum (Arrowood) or Viburnum acerfolium (Maple-leaf)).


Common Names: Anenome, Astilbe, Beardtounge, Bee balm, Big-root Geranium, Blazing Star, Blue Star, Celandine Poppy, Columbine, Orange Coneflower, False Indigo, Ferns, Foamflower, Goldenrod, Ironweed, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Joe-pye Weed, Lobelia, Obedient Plant, Partridgeberry, Phlox, Shooting Star, Skullcap, Tickseed, Trout Lily, Wild Ginger    (Scientific Names)

Thalictrum thalictroides (Rue Anemone), Astilbe biternata (Astilbe), Penstemon angustifolius (Beardtounge), Monarda didyma (Bee Balm), Geranium macrorrhizum (Big-root Geranium), Liatris spicata (Blazing Star), Amsonia ciliate (Blue Star), Stylophorum disphyllym (Celandine Poppy), Aquilegia canadensis (Columbine), Rudbeckia fulgida (Orange Coneflower), Baptisia australis (False Indigo), Pteridium aquilinum (Bracken Fern), Osmunda cinnamomea (Cinnamon Fern), Tiarella cordifolia (Foamflower), Solidago ssp. (Goldenrod), Vernonia noveboracensis (Ironweed), Arisaema triphyllum (Jack-in-the-pulpit), Eupatorium purpureum (Joe Pye Weed), Lobelia cardinalis (Lobelia), Physostegia virginiana (Obedient Plant), Mitchella repens (Partridgeberry), Phlox paniculata (Phlox), Dodecatheon meadia (Shooting Star), Scutellaria ovata ssp. virginiana (Skullcap), Coreopsis lanceolata (Tickseed), Erythronium americanum (Trout Lily), Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger)

dragonfly Dragonfly Diversity

As Naturalist Karen Sheffield can tell you, Fairfax County is home to an abundance of dragonflies. Karen has been leading volunteers in a survey of Riverbend Park's dragonfly populations - only to discover that Riverbend is home to over 10% of North America's dragonfly diversity.

The combination of natural communities, some of them very rare, at the Potomac Gorge helps create the perfect habitat for so many dragonflies. Come see the Cobra Cubtail in June or the Illinois River Chaser in July.  Some neat Dragonfly facts:

  • They may spend up to 5 years (although most spend a lot less) as larvae in a pool or spring before they crawl out to land and begin to fly.
  • Some adults may only have 5 weeks above water in order to reproduce.
  • Dragonflies are predators not pollinators.
  • Dragonflies do not sting or bite people.
  • Dragonfly fossils have been found that are very large in comparison to today's largest dragonfly (6 inches). Fossil dragonflies had wingspans of over two feet!
Killdeer Killdeer

When you think of a shorebird, you think of the beach or a tidal area. But our most common shorebird is more likely to be found on ballfields, golf courses and even shopping malls. The Killdeer is a medium sized plover (wading birds of the family Charadriidae), about 10 inches long with a wingspan up to 24 inches. Often the first indication that a killdeer is nearby is its very distinct call which is a high-pitched: "dee, deeyee, tyeeee, deew, tewdew". They are usually found alone or sometimes in pairs. When killdeer have chicks nearby, they will often try to lead a predator (or unsuspecting human) away from the nest by pretending to have a broken wing. Such behavior is common in ground nesting birds.

The definition of the killdeer's scientific name says a great deal about this bird: "Charadrius vociferus: American plover of inland waters and fields having a distinctive cry."

Killdeer nest

Some neat Killdeer facts:

  • They eat mostly insects.
  • They lay their eggs (usually 4) on the bare, rocky ground.
  • Females are bigger than males (this is common in birds mostly because the females have to produce those large eggs).
  • They can live up to 10 years.
  • Their unusual name comes from their piercing call "kill-dee(r)".
  • The Killdeer call acts as a warning to other birds and animals.
  • They are active day and night.
  • Killdeer can be seen year-round in our region.
Monarch Butterfly Monarch Butterfly

Beauty in our gardens depends on pollinators. The population of one of those pollinators, the monarch butterfly, is declining. There are efforts under way to reverse that decline. And you can help.

Find organizations that are fighting to preserve the monarch butterfly, steps you can take to make a place for butterflies at your home, school and park programs about butterflies, and information about the distinctively-marked and colorful monarch.

Spotted Salamander Spotted Salamander

Naturalist Tony Bulmer can often be found picking up rocks and tipping logs looking for some of our more elusive wild animals. The natural areas of Ellanor C. Lawrence Park provide plenty of ground for him to cover. But in early spring, you'll find him looking for the spotted salamander. One of five species of salamander in Fairfax County, the spotted is commonly found in seasonally wet ponds within healthy stands of forest.

Some neat Spotted Salamander facts:

  • Some individuals can live to be over 20 years old.
  • Female salamanders often die after laying eggs, resulting in many more male salamanders than female salamanders.
  • Female salamanders may lay up to 200 eggs.
  • Salamander eggs are attached to sticks in the water, so if a sudden flood tries to wash the eggs downstream, they don't move.
  • Salamander skin is very sensitive to air pollution.
Beaver in pond Scientist Spotlight: The link between beaver and water quality

When you hear of new development going in next door, usually you think of a new house, or maybe an apartment building? When you live next door to a park, it might surprise you that new houses go up all the time - houses for wildlife that is! Some of the most interesting houses are built by beavers.

Beavers don't know the difference between a nice ornamental crape myrtle in your yard and a Virginia pine standing on park land - and that is often a source of disagreement as to how valuable beaver houses really are. However, U.S.G.S. ecologist Dan Kroes, just completed a three-year study studying exactly that - how valuable are beaver to Fairfax County streams?

His results may surprise you. Dams and lodges (as beaver houses are technically called) are important to water quality. Dams are able to trap sediment (as much as 2 feet) that would otherwise go downstream. Sediment in the water is what makes streams look cloudy or murky. Not only are sediment filled streams unpleasant to look at, they don't allow in sunlight for the aquatic food webs.

Beaver dams and lodges also slow down the speed of water traveling downstream. This is very important in minimizing the erosion of the stream banks that can undercut the bank and fell trees. Slowing down streams has the added benefit of improving our drinking water, increasing the amount of stream life and decreasing the amount of flooding.

Wildlife Brochure Wildlife Brochure

Wildlife Brochure Wildlife Conflicts Brochure


native plants Native Plants for Yards

Green Spring Gardens has developed a number of gardens designed to demonstrate a wide range of gardening styles as well as feature plants available to local residents. Rock garden, shade garden, blue garden, mixed border, manor house garden, rose garden, herb garden, fruit garden, vegetable garden, backyard wildlife habitat, water-wise garden, and townhouse garden are just a selection of the many different types of horticultural displays featured within the park. Through its gardens and educational programming Green Spring Gardens advances the awareness and practice of gardening, including a list of recommended plants for the Washington, D.C. area.

mile-a-minute Invasive Management Area Volunteer Program

Climbing vines a problem? Shrubs with thorns keeping you from exploring the woods? Many invasive plants are preventing us from enjoying our forests and are degrading our natural ecosystems.

Tree with English Ivy Invasive Species Spotlight: English Ivy

Winter is the time of year that Hedera helix, or English ivy, makes its presence known in the natural areas of Fairfax County. Widely planted (probably since ornamentals were first imported to the US), it is often described as "a lovely, evergreen groundcover." It is also described as "an invasive species." English ivy has been linked to loss of diversity because of its growth habitat - a vine that smothers the understory.

Tree with Ivy

English ivy is especially dangerous to trees. Once the vine has reached the branches, the extra weight can cause branches to break, injuring the tree and allowing access for pathogens or fungus infections.

English ivy has also grown into the tree canopy, weighing down trees, shading out the leaves and damaging tree health. Vines in general become especially aesthetically unpleasant and can make a high quality natural area look to be in bad shape.

Invasive species are widely considered to be the second worst cause of ecosystem function degradation (the first is habitat loss). Healthy ecosystems provide better air quality, better water quality, more opportunities for wildlife and plant diversity, and more opportunities to discover something new. In Fairfax County, with less than 10% of the land protected in natural areas, it is even more important that our natural areas are able to function as best they can.

If not you, who? Take the time to assess the area around your house - can you spot English ivy creeping up the trees? Now is a great time of year to remove it.

Replant in the spring with a mix of native ground covers like ferns, spring beauty, Dutchman's breeches and trillium - guaranteed to be a much more interesting (and less invasive) bunch!

Spring Beauty
Spring Beauty blooms in early spring in colors ranging from white to red.
Red Trillium
The Red Trillium can spread out as clones, slowly creating a carpet of native wildflowers.
Dutchman's Breeches
Dutchman's breeches, and its close relative, Squirrel Corn, have multiple white flowers held high above delicately dissected leaves.
Fall Trees Marie Butler Leven Preserve - A Native Arboretum

Arboretums are gardens that focus on trees, and the Park Authority's arboretum focus' on native trees! With the assistance of Earth Sangha, a local, not-for profit organization that is interested in restoring practical environmentalism to Fairfax County, an arboretum is being grown on the Marie Butler Leven property.

Mary Butler Levin Preserve volumnteersBegun in April 2004, the 20-acre Marie Butler Leven Preserve in McLean, Virginia is currently being transformed into an extensive native plant collection, organized to form a living field guide for the plants of Fairfax County.

Some projects that are planned for the Preserve include:

Earth Sangha Earth Sangha - The Native Arboretum

The Native Arboretum project is transforming the Marie Butler Leven Preserve, a 20-acre park in McLean, Virginia, into an extensive collection of plants native to the greater Washington, DC, region.

The objective is to create a botanical library. A broad range of native trees, shrubs, vines, and nonwoody plants will be available for viewing, accompanied by labels keyed to major field guides. The Native Arboretum will be a public resource for building ecological literacy, and for creating a stronger mandate for conservation.

Invasive Backyard PlantsInvasive Backyard Plants Brochure

Invasive Forest PlantsInvasive Forest Plants Brochure


Virginia State Fossil
Chesapecten jeffersonius, the official Virginia state fossil
Dinosaurs in Virginia?

You bet'cha!

In March of 1993 a local Centreville man found the fossil footprint of an Archosaur. This 240 million-year-old track came from a 10-15 foot long ancestor of the modern-day crocodile. Duck-billed dinosaurs are actually the most abundant dinosaur fossil on the East Coast. These are found in the rocks of the Upper Cretaceous (65 to 99 million years ago). The first was discovered in 1858. Hadrosaurus foulkii was the first known duck-billed dinosaur. Fossils are everywhere. Virginia even has a state fossil, the Chesapecten jeffersonius; this bivalve scallop has been the official fossil of Virginia since 1993.

Did you know you live in the Culpepper Basin?

The Culpepper basin is a big swath of Triassic aged rocks (248 to 206 million years old), located between Madison Mills, Virginia, and Frederick, Maryland. In the past, people have found dinosaur and reptile tracks, gastroliths (stones used in digestion), fish fossils, fresh-water invertebrates and plant material.

Why aren't there more fossils?

We don't have vast plains of open ground and scrub land like that of the arid west where dinosaur finds are legendary. The lush green that gives our state such beauty slows or halts the erosion that makes fossil discovery easy. Erosion strips off the top layers of rock and soil and exposes fossils. When we find a fossil around here, it is usually because we've excavated for tunnels, road cuts, quarries, bridge foundations, water wells or a canal. Many of the fossils buried here will remain hidden due to the vast carpet of concrete and asphalt that increasingly paves the Commonwealth, especially in our area. By Tammy Schwab

ober pond Soil and Water Conservation

Working for clean streams and protected natural resources in Fairfax County

The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District's goal is to promote clean streams and protected natural resources. Therefore, our mission is to lessen the impact of urban/suburban activities on our land and water resources in Fairfax County—vital components of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. We achieve this through effective leadership, technical assistance and outreach programs in collaboration with government, industry and the public.

worms Worms!

Truly the unrecognized heroes of the Fairfax County forest, earthworms spend the daytime underground and come out at night. These nocturnal wanderings help earthworms stay moist (which helps them breathe) and avoid heat and light which can hurt their sensitive skin. Even though we don't usually see them, earthworms are very important in the cycles of forest health.

By eating dead leaves and leaving their droppings in the soil, they recycle the nutrients from old plants into new. Castings, or earthworm droppings, are full of nutrient rich organic material that helps plants grow. Little openings in over 100 segments of each earthworm's body excrete a small, steady stream of nitrogen-rich waste fluid as the worm crawls underground. Earthworms also move throughout the soil bringing nutrients to the surface and providing tunnels for the air and rain to reach the plants' roots.

Earthworm Facts:

  • A medium-sized yard has about 20,000 earthworms!
  • Earthworms have 5 hearts!
  • Each earthworm is both male and female, so every earthworm can lay eggs!
  • Earthworms have bristles, or setae, to help them hold on to the tunnel in a tug-of-war with a hungry bird.
  • Find out more about earthworms and underground life at the Park Authority Nature Centers like Hidden Oaks Nature Center.


what is a watershed diagram What is a Watershed?

A watershed is an area of land that drains all of its water to a specific lake or river. As rainwater and melting snow run downhill, they carry sediment and other materials into our streams, lakes, wetlands and groundwater.

burke lake What are we doing to protect stream quality?

Riparian buffer restoration is the process of restoring natural function to the land. In Fairfax County, riparian buffer restoration refers to restoring the land next to streams and rivers by planting native vegetation in these areas. Riparian buffer restoration is a complex process which draws on a huge toolbox from engineering and biology that includes invasive plant removal, native plantings, stream realignment, the selected use of stone or biologs and much more.

huntley meadows wetland Habitat Focus on Wetlands

A wetland is not always a person's favorite place to be, what with the mosquitoes, mud and snakes, its no wonder wetlands were considered wastelands by the earliest settlers. However, as early as the mid 1850's, the importance of wetlands was beginning to be recognized. Today, wetlands are recognized as important ecosystems for ...

Water Fowl
Boardwalk at Huntley Meadows
Wetlands are habitat for over one-third of all our endangered species.
Wetlands purify water, filtering harmful chemicals, wastes and sediment.
Wetland plants growing along rivers, lakes and shorelines hold the soil, reducing loss from storm waves and flooding.
Wetlands temporarily hold floodwaters, releasing them slowly to reduce loss of life and property.
Wetlands are enjoyed for wildlife observation, photography, fishing, hunting, crabbing, hiking and boating.
Wetlands support a $10 billion per year industry. Oysters, shrimp and game fish need coastal and inland marshes to survive.

Many Park Authority sites have wetlands, but our largest wetland is at Huntley Meadows Park in Hybla Valley. Come take a walk on the boardwalk and see all the reasons why wetlands are such amazing places!

Have a question about natural resources?

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