Flanked by Broad Run creek, the Wildlife Meadow is a vibrant native plant ecosystem. Many amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals depend on it for food, shelter and breeding ground. It also cleans and manages storm water runoff from nearby roads and farm operations, and is a wonderful spot to observe our rich native flora and fauna.
It was also designed to showcase some of our native perennials, shrubs and grasses and provide you with ideas for how gardening with native plants can be both beneficial and beautiful.
Breeding Grounds for Frogs and Salamanders
Vernal pools are temporary pools that contain water for a portion of the year and support wildlife and plants adapted for these habitats. Nearby Broad Run keeps our low-lying meadow moist during the fall and winter. Vernal pools typically dry up in the summer.
Despite their small size, they are very important. Many amphibians breed primarily in vernal pools because the pools are temporary and cannot support fish, the major predator to amphibian larvae. Some, such as the wood frog and the spotted salamander, are obligate species, meaning they will only breed in a vernal pool.
Occasionally, grassy fields dotted with blue and green plastic tubes can be spotted at Willowsford. These tubes contain the seedlings of native trees that are part of our riparian buffer plantings.
A riparian buffer is a vegetated area (a “buffer strip”) near a stream, pond or wetland. These strips of grass, shrubs and trees protect water quality and aquatic communities by intercepting sediment and pollution from agricultural fields, residential lawns, roads and other human land use. Buffers also form complex ecosystems that provide food, cover, water and breeding areas for many kinds of wildlife.
Natural riparian buffers have been lost in many places. Restoring them improves water quality in creeks and rivers, stabilizes streambanks, supports wildlife, and adds beautiful woodland habitat to our community.
The Willowsford Conservancy, with support from the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District, is currently restoring riparian buffers in The Grove and The Grange. More than 1,000 native plants have been planted, including canopy and understory trees and shrubs that are adapted to moist conditions and, over time, will form a woodland.
Riparian buffers catch and filter out sediment and debris from surface runoff. Depending on the width and complexity of the buffer, 50–100% of the sediments can settle out as buffer plants slow runoff water. Wider, forested buffers are more effective than narrow, grassy buffers.
Buffer plants help stabilize streambanks and reduce erosion. Roots hold bank soil together, and stems protect banks by deflecting the cutting action of waves and storm runoff.
Forested riparian buffers benefit aquatic habitat by improving the water quality through shading, filtering, cooling, and moderating stream flow. Cooler water holds more oxygen and reduces stress on aquatic creatures. Woody debris feeds the aquatic food web and provides cover for fish and their food supply while reducing erosion by slowing flow.
The distinctive habitat offered by riparian buffers is home to a multitude of plant and animal species. Continuous stretches of riparian buffer also serve as wildlife travel corridors.
Riparian buffers trap pollutants that otherwise wash into surface and groundwater. Phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizer and animal waste can become pollutants if more is applied to the land than plants can use. Because excess phosphorus bonds to soil particles, it can be captured when sediment is filtered out of surface water runoff by passing through the buffer.
Chemical and biological activity in the soil captures and transforms nitrogen and other pollutants into less harmful forms. Buffer plants also take up nutrients and excess water and store them as biomass.
By slowing the velocity of runoff, buffers allow water to infiltrate the soil and recharge the groundwater supply. Groundwater will reach a stream or pond much slower than if it had entered as surface runoff. This helps control flooding and maintain stream flow during drier times.
Forested buffers offer the greatest environmental benefits. Trees are not easily smothered by sediment and have greater root mass to resist erosion and capture pollutants. Above ground, they provide better visual screening, more shade, and better habitat for wildlife.
Crowd-sourcing science – that’s the concept behind citizen science, where members of the public conduct scientific research, typically in collaboration with professional scientists.
Willowsford Conservancy partners with Virginia Working Landscapes, a program of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in front Royal, VA, to survey native birds, mammals and pollinators on Conservancy land.
Surveys and inventories of plants and animals help us understand the biological condition of species and habitats, and the kinds of management and conservation they require. Regularly monitoring plant or animal populations over time also helps detect trends in their numbers, showing which species are doing well and which are in decline.
Conservancy employees and volunteers work with biologists to produce scientific data that helps the Smithsonian track regional and national trends in native bird, mammal and pollinator populations. The data also support the Conservancy’s land management efforts, helping us better understand which species thrive at Willowsford.
In 2017, we are surveying grasslands in the northwest corner of The Greens. Grasslands are a declining but vital habitat for many wildlife and plant species. Surveys of grassland birds in May and June identify and count local bird species by sight and sound.
Mammals are surveyed from May through August using camera-traps and custom eMammal software to determine the presence of a wide range of mammals on Conservancy land.
Cameras are set up and left to survey for 3 weeks at a time without scent or food lure. Every 3 weeks they are retrieved and placed in a new location. The pictures along with their metadata are then uploaded using eMammal, and evaluated.
A pollinator survey, conducted between June and August, identifies bumble bees and other insects using pollinator traps. Citizen scientists deliver the collected specimens to SCBI where they are counted, identified and recorded by trained para-taxonomists.
Check back this fall when we post the survey results!