Arlington, VA

If it seems like you’ve been seeing more reports of snakes around Arlington on local listservs, you’re not alone. Arlington County officials said there’s been a noticeable uptick in reported copperhead snake sightings.

Alonso Abugattas, the county’s natural resources manager, said there has been an increase in copperhead snake sightings but that the exact numbers are hard to track down because he, Arlington’s nature centers, and animal control all get and respond to calls about snakes.

“This past year I have gotten more,” Abugattas said, “but I expect there’s been more because more people are outside.”

Abugattas said with coronavirus keeping people at home rather than in their offices, the increase in calls may have something to do with people exploring their local parks during the day, when copperhead snakes are more active.

“Parks have had a 200% increased use because people are at home and bored,” Abugattas said. “I think more than anything else, people are more aware of them.”

The local emergency room is also seeing evidence of rising encounters between snakes and humans.

“We’ve had a few patients with copperhead bites recently,” Mike Silverman, head of the emergency department at Virginia Hospital Center, wrote last Friday. “As someone who trained and worked for a long time in Baltimore City, it’s seems so weird to see snake bites in what’s otherwise an urban area but they are definitely in Arlington.”

He encouraged anyone suffering from a snakebite to get a photo of the snake.

“Pictures of dead snakes are great,” Silverman wrote. “Please don’t feel the need to bring the snake into the ER, even if it’s dead, though it does add a little excitement to the shift.”

The copperhead is one of only three venomous snakes found in Virginia and the only one found in Arlington County. Ken Rosenthal, park naturalist at Gulf Branch Nature Center (3608 N. Military Road), said in a presentation last Thursday that they are most likely to be found in Gulf Branch and along the rocky, forested hillsides along the Potomac River.

Despite being venomous, Abugattas said there have only been one or two cases nationwide of copperheads killing humans, and even those had other factors. Neither of them, Abugattas said, were in Virginia.

“It is, for the most part, a very timid snake,” Abugattas said. “Even when they do bite, about one-third of the bites are dry bites — a warning.”

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(Updated at 9:25 a.m.) In addition to the official woodlands paths and trails through Arlington parks, a visitor is likely to find countless other well-worn paths that criss-cross the park built from decades of use.

As Arlingtonians venture into nature for a social-distanced outdoors experience, a local group is hoping to legalize the natural trails and make them sustainable.

An over 200-member Facebook page called Arlington Trails advocates for preserving and sustaining natural trails across Arlington — particularly for local mountain bikers.

“Arlington County is the only area that doesn’t allow mountain biking,” said Matthew Levine, who runs Arlington Trails. “It’s a great way of getting kids into nature. Right now, a lot of people need to be outside.”

Susan Kalish, a spokeswoman for the parks department, verified that natural trail use is restricted to walking humans and dogs on leashes, due to the damage caused by bicycles.

“Bikes are not allowed on a natural trail in Arlington,” Kalish said. “Wheels on trails compact the ground and have a greater impact on the flora and fauna that make up our natural trails. Wheeled transport on natural trails compacts the soil and can destroy plants and damage tree roots. Compacted soils and less vegetation lead to water runoff and degradation of our streams. There are also safety issues as these trails are narrow and the walkers and bikers can’t easily step to the side without harming more vegetation and possibly themselves on steep embankments.”

Kalish said those trails have been damaged in recent months by irresponsible users.

“We find rogue, bushwhacked trails where trees have been cut down and plants pulled out,” Kalish said. “We’ve also found places where bikers have built ramps, jumps and holes.”

For Levine, the recent damage shows that cyclists are still using these trails despite local ordinance, and legalizing that use while providing less destructive options for use.

“Part of it is making these trails legal, otherwise there are rogue trails being built with thrillseekers going straight down,” Levine said. “If they’re not sanctioned and following protocol — that’s why you have kids in the woods building jumps.”

Nora Palmatier, an Arlington resident and a member of Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria, said that the trails through the parks are currently unsafe for mountain biking.

“It is too dangerous for off-road biking in small parks,” Palmatier said. “Several of us have been hit getting off trails by speeding bikes. I discovered 13 holly saplings 6-10 feet tall chopped down for bike trails which is just wrong in Lacey Woods. I love to bike ride but not where it destroys wildflowers and trees or where it is too dangerous.”

Currently, many of those trails are desire paths — reflecting the most direct routes park users take from one place to another. Levine said those paths aren’t made with concerns about erosion and other issues in mind, which is why Levine and local organization Mid Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE) work to adapt those trails into sustainable paths. Emails Levine provided of his offers to do so in Arlington show park managers rebuffing those efforts.

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Arlington County announced this week that it has joined a group of localities “dedicated to improving the connection between residents and urban nature.”

Arlington was accepted as a partner in the Biophilic Cities Network, according to a press release, which noted that joining it means “Arlington County understands the importance of daily contact with nature to a meaningful and healthy urban life.”

“Research is providing so many good reasons for communities to better embrace nature,” said County Board Chair Libby Garvey, in a statement.  “Now is the time to develop better systems and practices so that future generations of Arlingtonians benefit.”

The county will now “strive to apply biophilic principles to its current and future policies and practices,” by taking measures like expanding natural elements in Arlington’s urban environments, conserving existing natural resources, and incorporating biophilic design into planning processes.

The full press release is below, after the jump.

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A small plot on Wilson Blvd bisected by a gravel trail will be reopening as a park with paved central walkway.

The Oakland Park project is centered around plans to bring the park in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and adding overall enhancements to the green space at 3705 Wilson Blvd.

“Design elements include all-new site furnishings, decorative paving, wood decking, native plantings and new park signage,” the county said on the project website. “A highlight in the park will be a public art piece created by Foon Sham.”

Earlier this week, workers were laying some of the final bricks in the walkway, though other work remains to be done across the park.

Construction at the park is on schedule, and Arlington Dept. of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Susan Kalish said the project should be open by the end of the year.

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Scientists are asking Arlingtonians to brave the great outdoors Friday night and listen to bugs.

The effort of part of the 7th annual “Cricket Crawl” to “crowdsource” data on the crickets and katydids that residents can hear on their streets and in their backyards.

“This is the census of our singing nighttime insects,” said Park Naturalist Jennifer Soles with the Gulf Branch Nature Center told ARLnow.

People interested in participating are asked to listen for the sounds of one of six species for one minute this Friday night, and write down what they hear. Participants can then text or and call leave a message at (240) 801-6878 with their observations, or email their notes to [email protected].

One of the six insects to listen for is the common true katydid, which Soles said can be found in the places with heavy tree cover and sounds like it’s saying “katydid, katydid, katydid.” Other species on the list — the regular field cricket, greater angler katydid, and jumping bush cricket — can generally be found throughout the county.

Soles said the field cricket makes a “chirp chirp chirp” noise familiar to most people and the greater angler katydid makes a “tick tick tick” similar to the sound an ignitor makes on a gas stove. The jumping bush cricket by comparison, makes a “little peeping trill” with long pauses in between peeps.

More pictures and audio clips of the all six insect types in the census can be found on the event website.

One of the species that scientists are hoping to learn more about from the data is the japanese burrowing cricket, which has a similar, but faster, call compared to the field cricket.

The non-native species of insect was first discovered in 1959 in D.C., Virginia, and other nearby states, according to research published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

She said the hope is that the Cricket Crawl could turn into the next Christmas Bird Count, and show trends of signing insects over time and indicate whether any of them is in danger of disappearing.

“When they started doing the Christmas Bird Count, maybe wasn’t the data wasn’t that good, or that strong, but after you start doing it for fifty years you saw we’re losing huge numbers of migratory birds,” said Solo.

She added that Friday’s census is an opportunity for the whole family to participate in the data collection.

“It’s about being aware of what’s in their environment, and what they could lose.,” she said.

Photo 1 via USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/Flickr, photo 2 via James St. John/Flickr

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The Ballston Beaver Pond is about to get a makeover, but a little later than originally anticipated.

In January, county officials re-initiated a public discussion on a redesign for the pond. The pond was originally built in 1980 to collect stormwater runoff from I-66. To the surprise of county officials, beavers moved in and made the pond their home. The beavers dammed up the drainage system and were joined in the habitat by muskrat, geese, ducks, heron, egrets, redwing blackbirds, fish, turtles.

The stormwater goals have since been further hampered by invasive vegetation and litter. But after some initial work 5-6 years ago, Arlington now hopes to transform the pond to something beyond its initial concept: it wants to turn the pond into a stormwater management facility and pedestrian-accessible wetlands.

“This pond receives runoff from more than 300 acres of urban and suburban land and represents the most feasible opportunity within Arlington for a larger regional stormwater management facility,” the county said on the project page. “Retrofitting the pond so it provides more water quality treatment helps the County comply with the municipal separate storm sewer system permit and contributes to restoring the Chesapeake Bay.”

Plans for the project include a boardwalk with informative signs and benches along the eastern edge of the pond.

Initial projections for the project had construction starting sometime this winter, but stormwater outreach specialist Lily Whitesell said the project is currently still in the permitting phase with VDOT. Once construction of the project starts, it’s projected to last 9-12 months.

“Once [permitting] is completed, it will go to procurement, likely in early 2020,” Whitesell said. “Then we will likely go to construction in summer or fall 2020.”

The fundamental design of the project remains the same, and Whitesell said the intense storm in July showed the need for expanded capacity at the pond.

There will be some closures during the project. Whitesell said the trail on the east side of the pond will be closed during construction, but the trail adjacent to Fairfax Drive that leads to the Custis Trail will remain open.

When the trail reopens, the wetland will be designed to revive the native wetland plants and habitat, like turtles.

“We anticipate that turtles, a wide variety of migratory birds, pollinators, amphibians, and other valuable wildlife will use the pond,” Whitesell said. “We’ve heard from local birders and other wildlife enthusiasts that they are excited about the new habitat benefits of the project.”

But despite the namesake, the county are not planning to bring beavers back to the park, and in fact will actively do all they can to keep them away.

“Unfortunately, beavers would reshape the land and potentially compromise the water quality and habitat goals of the project and pond safety,” Whitesell said. “Beaver baffles will be installed to discourage beavers from the pond area.”

Photos 2, 3 courtesy Arlington County

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Families looking to enjoy the spectacle of bioluminescent beetles can check out the Firefly Festival next month at Fort C.F. Smith Park (2411 24th Street N.) in Arlington.

The annual event is being held Sunday, June 30 from 7:30-9:30 p.m. and will include games, bug hunts, crafts, nature walks and talks about fireflies.

Families with children ages 3 and up are encouraged to bring a blanket and dinner, as they wait for the fireflies to make their appearance at sunset. All children must be accompanied by an adult.

Registration is required and a $7 fee will be collected upon registration, according to the county’s website. Interested residents can contact Long Branch Nature Center or call 703-228-6535 for more information.

Photo by Bruce Marlin, via Wikimedia Commons

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On the heels of being named the fittest “city” in America, Arlington has also earned a fourth-place ranking in parks from the Trust for Public Land (TPL).

The national ranking has been fairly consistent for Arlington, while neighbor D.C. surpassed Minneapolis to take the first place spot. The “ParkScore” rankings rank the quality of the park system of the top 100 cities in the United States, including Arlington.

Arlington scored in the top percentiles for access, investment and amenities, though it scored fairly low in overall acreage.

The TPL noted in its report that 98 percent of Arlington residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park — exceeding the national average of 54 percent — and that park access was consistent across all income levels.

“Parks build community. Our mission is to promote wellness and vitality through dynamic programs and attractive public spaces. And it looks like we are right on track,” Jane Rudolph, Director of Arlington Dept. of Parks and Recreation, said in a statement. “Our public spaces, which include parks, playgrounds, trails, fields and nature and community centers, bestow a unique and irreplaceable benefit to everyone in Arlington. Our public spaces make us happier and healthier.”

The assessment noted that Arlington has a particularly high amount of basketball hoops — 7.8 per 10,000 people — and playgrounds — 4.4 per 10,000 people.

Arlington was commended for the amount the county spends on parks: $267.23 per resident.

But with 11 percent of Arlington’s land used for parks and recreation, the TPL noted this as being below the national median of 15 percent and D.C.’s 21 percent.

The TPL also pointed to locations across Arlington in need of a new park, mainly locations around the northwest periphery of the county.

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With summer around the corner, Arlington County has shared an update regarding four newly renovated parks.

The parks have either recently completed renovations or are planned to open soon.

The Fairlington Park playground opened in March. The project included a complete redesign and reconstruction of the playground, exercise equipment, park trail and more. The renovated play area offers options for different age groups and exercise equipment for all ages.

For a more subdued park experience, Glencarlyn Park has also recently opened a new picnic structure surrounded by forest. The shelter includes accessible picnic tables and power outlets with USB ports. The project page noted that renovations also brought the park into compliance with Americans With Disability Act standards.

While there has been no ribbon-cutting yet at McCoy Park, it is fully accessible to the public. Enhancements at the park, which is wedged between Lee Highway and I-66, include a realigned sidewalk and a seating deck with tables and chairs.

Dawson Terrace Park hasn’t reopened yet, but the Arlington County website says it will be “later this spring.” Plans are for the two small courts at the site to be replaced with a single, lighted court that can be used for basketball, volleyball or other court games. A separate playground area will cater to kids and the park will have have upgraded picnic areas and trail connections.

Images 1, 2, 3 via Arlington County

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Bird lovers of all feathers can head to Bluemont this weekend for a morning of avian education and exploration.

World Migratory Bird Day Festival” will feature bird walks, games, activities, and free coffee from 9-11 a.m. Saturday at Lacey Woods Park, organizers say. Attendees to the free event are asked to meet at the park’s basketball court near the intersection of Washington Blvd and N. George Mason Drive.

The Wildlife Rescue League will also showcase some of its live feathered friends, including a blue jay named “Snafu.”

Arlington County naturalists Jennifer Soles and Ken Rosenthal are organizing the weekend event. Rosenthal told ARLnow on Monday that festival attendees have a chance to spot interesting birds because several species often flock to Lacey Woods Park, which he described as a “green oasis that will get the birds in.”

Last year, Rosenthal said attendees spotted a blackpoll warbler. These songbirds typically weigh less than an ounce but migrate over 1,800 miles across North America, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and 88% of blackpoll populations have died out in the last half century.

Many other birds that can be spotted in Arlington migrate between North to Central America — such as hummingbirds and osprey.

Soles and Rosenthal say all the printed materials for the event are in English and Spanish, but they are seeking one to two volunteers who can help translate some of the discussions on Saturday into Spanish.

Soles said these migratory birds “live half their lives in Spanish-speaking countries” and hopes that Arlingtonians with roots in Central American countries like El Salvador and Guatemala will attend the event and get a chance to recognize some familiar species.

“We sort of share these birds between us,” said Soles.

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With many animals preparing to rear their young, the season of wildlife encounters is upon us, says the Animal Welfare League of Arlington.

Animal Control Chief Jennifer Toussaint told ARLnow that service calls to her department typically increase this time of year. She shared some tips on making sure the encounters are safe for both humans and animals.

The Arlington County Board banned residents from owning “wild and exotic” animals as pets in 2017, but residents have documented many wild encounters over the years: including feral cat colonies, a coyote on the move, a construction-site turkeybooming bunny populations, and trash truck raccoon as well as school drain raccoon.

Overall, Toussaint said animal control officers receive about 3,500 calls for service annually, and about half those calls involve wild animals. “That tells me that that is a huge need the community has for my department,” she said.

One way she’s trying to meet that need is with public education events, like the one she held on Tuesday. It’s an opportunity to talk about animal-proofing one’s homes, and about dispelling old myths about normal animal behavior.

“I think most of the calls we get are genuine concern. They find a bird on the ground and it looks like a baby. They don’t know that most songbirds fledge from the nest and spend a few days on the ground building up the shoulder strength to fly,” she said, joking, “Cartoons lied to us as children!”

And the rule about not touching baby animals lest their scent changes and their parents abandon them? Also a myth, she says.

As for homeowners who prefer enjoying wildlife from a distance?

“A lot of it is pretty simple,” Toussaint says, “one of the main things is ensuring your home is impenetrable.”

Her tips include capping chimneys, and inspecting attics, eaves, roof siding, and trim regularly for any signs of wildlife.

Ensuring trash barrels stay closed with bungee cords, and clearing debris from yards also helps discourage animals from making homes or meals at people’s homes.

One thing she doesn’t recommend?

“We’re all kind of on top of each other here in Arlington, so I don’t promote people putting chemicals out,” said Toussaint. There are a number of safe, alternative remedies people can use for the problems they most often call about, she said.

For more questions, Toussaint recommends Arlingtonians check out the Humane Society’s species-specific website, or call animal control any time at 703-931-9241. Some animal-specific advice is below, after the jump.

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