Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

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Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

This blog post will continually be updated and edited as needed.  

In a country growing in its urban population, it can be said that the idea of parks and trails has become less of a luxury or recreational entity and more of an apparatus for biodiversity protection and sustained economic vitality.  Not only is there more of a demand for parks and trails, but connectivity between different parks and different trails has become the goal of numerous land management agencies across the United States.  For example, the Greater Cleveland area of Ohio has a system of parks and trails known as the “Emerald Necklace” which consists of large nature parks connected by parkways and trails that meander in and out of the city and its suburbs.  These “greenway corridors” allow seamless hiking and biking opportunities for area residents.  They also create a continuous stretch of protected naturalized land for birds and wildlife.  Having a continuous stretch of protected natural resources…

View original post 2,361 more words

Norfolk’s Elizabeth River Trail, while off to a good start, needs revisioning

This blog post will continually be updated and edited as needed.  

In a country growing in its urban population, it can be said that the idea of parks and trails has become less of a luxury or recreational entity and more of an apparatus for biodiversity protection and sustained economic vitality.  Not only is there more of a demand for parks and trails, but connectivity between different parks and different trails has become the goal of numerous land management agencies across the United States.  For example, the Greater Cleveland area of Ohio has a system of parks and trails known as the “Emerald Necklace” which consists of large nature parks connected by parkways and trails that meander in and out of the city and its suburbs.  These “greenway corridors” allow seamless hiking and biking opportunities for area residents.  They also create a continuous stretch of protected naturalized land for birds and wildlife.  Having a continuous stretch of protected natural resources may potentially increase resistance to ecological decay as habitats that are connected are less vulnerable to degradation since there is a higher quality ecosystem in place by which plants and animals can move through and evolve.  While much controversy remains among scientists over whether a system of parks and designated natural areas will be effective in biodiversity conservation (as outlined by Akcaya et. al., 2007), one thing is becoming increasingly clear: A large complex of parks, trails, and passive recreational areas is good for people and good for local economies.

Cities all across the nation have caught on to these facts, and even major metropolitan areas, including  megapolises such as New York City, are enhancing and expanding the scope of their environmental areas and recreational amenities by creating and maintaining larger networks of trails, parks, and greenways with a natural feature (e.g. a river, meadow, forest, etc.) as the central figure of the facility ( see Figure 1 for a glance at an urban nature trail).

Figure 1: Even large metropolitan communities are developing trails and greenways that help protect a natural feature. This photo shows a segment of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh looking towards a downtown area. Urban trails like these help connect urbanites with the natural features of an otherwise fully developed area, and they help to protect native plants and animals along the way.

Yet the city of Norfolk, Virginia and other communities around Hampton Roads have yet to catch on to the need and importance of trails and greenways in urbanized areas.  Nearly 100% of the land in Norfolk is densely developed.  Open space in the region is limited to scattered “postage-stamp” parks, often less than 10 acres in size.  These small parks modestly frequently feature a few picnic shelters, some recreational fields, and sometimes a small playground, but are scant in trail space, natural areas, and other outdoor exploration opportunities (Figure 2).  In addition, their isolated location and small size make it unlikely that these parks provide enough open space for the high population density of the city.

Figure 2: While Norfolk does have some small parks with playgrounds and open lawns, the community severely lacks large, publicly accessible natural areas. This photo shows one of the few tracts of land along the Elizabeth River that can be accessed publicly. Notice the lack of natural buffers such as trees, marshes, and naturalized habitat.

The scarcity of large open spaces is problematic for wildlife.  The Hampton Roads region is on a vital migratory bird path, and various sensitive birds need not only adequate cover for protection from weather and predators, but also need diverse and well-structured natural habitats to retrieve from which to retrieve nourishment.  Large crumbling buildings and an enigma of concrete, rubble, and high-speed interstates provide little to no habitat where native plants and animals can establish themselves.  The resulting overdevelopment of the land  also impacts the quality of the aquatic habitats of Norfolk’s numerous tidal rivers, bays, and creeks via amplification of shoreline erosion and water pollution.  Subsequently there is a reduction of submerged aquatic plants and other marine life.

The intense urbanization of Norfolk’s landscape also creates problems for people.  The natural features still present within the city are overshadowed by the rush of cars and trucks, the congestion of shopping malls and parking lots, and the unappealing substrate of broken glass and fractured concrete.  Land values in areas with urban blight as just described often suffer, and the overall look and feel of a neighborhood is often estranged and threatening.  Water quality in any nearby waterways is volatile, and land and buildings can quickly become damaged during rain events.  Toxic chemicals not only leach into the soil, but also into the air and water – need I say more?

Norfolk, however, has in fact begun creating and restoring parks and greenspace.  Perhaps one of the better projects has been the Elizabeth River Trail, an urban hike and bike path that passes through industrial shipyards, historic buildings, and a reclaimed tidal basin with reestablished native plants (Figure 3).  The trail also passes by a former sediment disposal site now managed as wildlife habitat and a historic point-of-interest (see Figures 4 and 5).  This trail and park also provides a refuge for birds and wildlife in an otherwise densely industrialized area.

Figure 3: The Elizabeth River Trail (Atlantic City Spur) as it passes by an office complex and shipyard in the Midtown area of Norfolk.

Figure 4: Plum point park is a reclaimed sediment disposal site along the Elizabeth River channel restored with native plants and naturalized habitats.

Figure 5: Plum Point Park also features historical-viewing areas.

The trail allows for safe passage of bicyclists and pedestrians (see Figure 6) and can make travel and recreation within the city more appealing and pleasant.

Figure 6: This photo of the Midtown Tunnel, a busy commuter traveler highway, was taken from the Elizabeth River Trail, which takes pedestrians over the busy right-of-way.

There are problems, though, holistically with the current state of the Elizabeth River Trail.  For one thing, the segment that passes through the Midtown area of Norfolk is only about 2 miles long.  The rest of the trail is primarily along roads it frequently follows busy and congested streets, or it is in the form of a slim asphalt bike path next to a major highway (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Most sections of the Elizabeth River Trail are along busy routes or on narrow sidewalks .

The fact that Elizabeth River Trail mostly follows busy and noisy areas of the city draws into question whether or not the city’s project is truly centered upon creating a recreational trail or just a random, approximated pedestrian travel route.  Conceps that seem city planners are missing from the project is a clear definition of a trail.  Generally speaking, a trail is a hiking or biking route that passes through a natural or cultural area.  Trails are meant to offer a gateway into a park, nature preserve, or some other natural or cultural complex.  Trails  along canals, former rail-roads, mor other narrow corridors of public land are often considered greenways or linear parks.  Greenways frequently connect larger parks and natural areas to other public and conservation lands.  Figure 8 shows a trail through an urban area and how the trail corridor provides a linear greenspace for passive recreation a natural habitat corridor.

Figure 8: A linear park/greenway provides a connection between different parks and natural areas for both people and wildlife. This trail passes through an urban area yet still provides a naturalized, park-like setting.

A trail or greenway differs from that of a bike path or a bike route.  A bike path is often nothing more than a modified sidewalk that is widened to accommodate bicycle traffic.  Bike paths most frequently provide a more convenient means of pedestrian transit, and they often parallel a major road or highway.  While nothing is inherently wrong with bike paths, they cannot truly be considered bike trails since environmental protection and access to open parkland is limited.  For example, bike paths do not usually feature a river or bay as its scenic component nor a culturally significant feature.

bike route is usually just a network of roads – some with designated bike lanes and some without, that although may pass through significant cultural or natural resources areas, cannot in itself be considered a trail.  Bike routes are not always located on low-traffic side streets, and bike routes do not provide safe means pedestrian travel nor adequate protection of natural and cultural resources (again, see Figure 7 versus Figure 8).  .

With respect to the Elizabeth River Trail, many sections currently cannot be classified as a trail or greenway.   Besides lacking a streamlined park connection, the Elizabeth River Trail does not allow hikers and bikers to adequately navigate the trail route overall. For example, when going to a state park, there is often a kiosk  or information board that introduces visitors to the natural and cultural features of a park, as well what facilities are available and what trails they can access (Figure 9).  Perhaps a great way to enhance the consideration that the Elizabeth River Trail is a park in linear form is to post signs and kiosks along various intersections and trailheads (places to park and jump on to the trail)

Figure 9: The Elizabeth River Trail can - and should - have kiosks at trailheads that introduce visitors to the natural and cultural features of the trail corridor, as well as guidelines for trail usage. This sign is at the very start of the Chesapeake Beach Railway Trail in Maryland.

Besides the actual trail features itself needing improvement, many sections of the “trail” need rerouting in order to create an off-road bike and hike route (and preferably one that is not a narrow sidewalk next to a busy street like that shown in Figure 7).  This would be an especially challenging endeavor for the Elizabeth River Trail since there are few corridors or areas of open space as options for a trail corridor.  Hence, a high level of creativity will be needed in order to determine a location and proper construction design for a new trail or trail segment.

For example, the section of the trail near the Midtown area of Norfolk passes through a tight corridor of undeveloped land (Map 1).  It then dead ends at a street corner.  A look at that street corner (shown where the green line meets the red line in Map 1) shows that there is potential land to create a trail connection to another nearby park.

Map 1: The Elizabeth River Trail passes through a densely urbanized area, making trail enhancements challenging due to the lack of undeveloped land. That being said, a little creativity and careful planning could extend the current trail (outlined in green) over to another park and public area (red line), with bridges that cross over railroad tracks and other obstructions. Click this map to enlarge. Image Source: Google Maps

Map 1 shows just one possible example of the level of planning travel Improvements would involve:

  • acquiring new land and corridor space,
  • designing the trail so that it comfortably accommodates hikers and hikers, and
  • the creation of a park and neighborhood connection.

There are also some other consideration to take into account for this urban trail.  One of those is protection of exiting naturalized land (e.g. forest patches, shrubby areas, wetlands, sandy shorelines, etc).  While they may not be large in size, these habitat fragments are in need of protection and stewardship. In areas where there is some open space, such as a large unused lawn or a wide shoulder between the trail and a nearby building complex, the creation of naturalized habitats could be established where feasible.  (In fact, habitat restoration work has already begun along the Elizabeth River Trail, including the restoration of an oyster reef and salt marsh in an otherwise fully industrialized cove, as shown in Figure 10).  For smaller plots of land not used for recreation (such as for sports or lawn space), native plant displays, rain gardens, and bio retention ponds could be created depending upon the size and topography of the plot of land.  Rain gardens are native plant gardens that are designed to soak up water that runs off from nearby houses, gutters, and pavement  This helps slow surface runoff and filter pollutants(University of Wisconsin-Extension, 2002).  Bio-retention ponds are ponds that are designed to capture storm water and runoff from nearby parking lots and buildings, which is then allowed to sit (or be retained) for filtering by natural processes.  Both rain gardens and bio-retention ponds incorporate native landscaping, which creates urban wildlife habitat, particularly for birds and beneficial insects (University of Minnesota Extension, 2008).  These environmental restoration project ideas can easily be tailored to urban environments with limited open space or in areas with a scarcity of undeveloped land.  Figure 10 shows how an urban waterway along the Elizabeth River Trail is being enhanced with native plants to restore its ecological integrity, provide wildlife habitat, and improve the aesthetics of the area.

Figure 10: Restoration of salt marsh and oyster reef habitat in a small harbor near the Midtown Tunnel of Norfolk, Virginia, adjacent to the Elizabeth River Trail and Plum Point Park.

In areas where projects like these are unfeasible, or where there is a limited amount of funding, planting groves of native trees and shrubs that parallel the trail or that are in between the trail and a natural feature (such as a body of water or a forest patch) can be an acceptable alternative (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Native loblolly pines (Pinus taeda) line this segment of the Elizabeth River Trail as it passes between an industrial area and a residential neighborhood in West Ghent.

One segment of the Elizabeth River Trail in particular that should be considered an environmental restoration site is the section east of the Berkeley Bridge near the Harbor Park Stadium (Map 2).  The land between the trail and the river consists of former industrial land overgrown with weeds and toppled with debris. Despite the grim appearance of this stand of trail, there exists tremendous potential for a large environmental restoration project.

In fact, the city of Milwaukee, WI took a similar area of land – an industrial washout zone adjacent to an urban river – and constructed a trail and replanted the area with native plants/  They also recreated naturalized river bluffs and shoreline (see Figure 12).  Despite being only a 5 minute walk from downtown Milwaukee, trail users can see and hear birds and wildlife, and native plants help ensure clean air and water via natural ecosystem processes.

Figure 12: The Milwaukee River valley, as seen from the Oak Leaf Recreation Trail. Norfolk's urban riverfront near the Harbor Park Stadium (see Map 2) could incorporate a similar theme of "nature in the city."

Map 2: The orange-filled area of land along a section of the Elizabeth River Trail between the Berkeley Bridge and the Harbor Park Stadium could be revitalized by reestablishing habitats native to the Tiidewater region of Virginia.

What sort of “nature-in-the-city” should be created along the somewhat marginal land located along Harbor Park Stadium section of trail?  A full detail of what can be done is, of course, beyond the scope of this blog post.  Nevertheless, I will provide a list of native plants and plant communities that could be reestablished in this area.  The following list of plants that I selected out of Lippson and Lippson’s (2006) overview of vegetation communities in the Chesapeake Bay region are of the hardier variety that should be able to become established in the tract of land near the Harbor Park Stadium

Wet areas:

  • Saltmarsh Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora)
Areas that are occasionally flooded:
  • Black Needlerush (Juncus roemerianus)
  • Saltmarsh Aster (Aster tenufolius)
  • Saltmarsh Fleabane (Pluchea purpurascens)
  • Sea Oxeye (Borrichia frutescens)
  • Salt Meadow Hay (Spartina patens)
  • Salt Grass (Distichlis spicata)
  • Marsh elder (Iva frutescens)
  • Groundsel Tree (Baccharis halimfolia)
Areas that are seldom flooded:
  • Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera)
  • Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda)
In addition, a fishing pier extending from the trail could be constructed, as well as a restored oyster reef.  Interpretive signage could be placed along various points of this section of trail that overview the history of the restored land parcel and overview of the environmental restoration work that took place.  Next boxes for swallows, martins, and other cavity-nesting near-shore birds could be placed in open fields along the trail corridor.
A final consideration may be to alter the name of the trail itself.  Currently, the National Park Service in collaboration with Hampton Roads communities, is developing the Elizabeth River Water Trail as part of the newly established Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.  This trail will be entirely on water, and it would therefore help with publicity to modify the name of the Elizabeth River Trail so that it can be distinguished as a land trail.  I suggest considering titles such as the Elizabeth River Greenway Trail, the Elizabeth River Trail Park, the Elizabeth River Hike and Bike Trail, or the Elizabeth River Land Trail.
Some may wonder why all the effort would be needed to enhance and create new segments of the Elizabeth River bike trail.  Besides, Norfolk is an older city without much open space, and it would be challenging to establish a larger system of parks and greenways like other cities have done.
Perhaps, though, an improved trail could in fact offer many benefits to and old and industrialized city such as Norfolk. I have already mentioned that ample access to parks and recreation improves the quality of life and boosts local economies and land values.  In a time where obesity is on the rise, the convenience of a multiuse trail could encourage people to get outside more often and move!  The various natural areas along the trail would help protect wetlands and biodiversity, which time and time again have proven worthy for our protection for both aesthetic reasons and economic ones.  Additionally, we would help reconnect local citizens and visitors to the natural and cultural history of one of America’s first cities.


Akcakaya, H. R., Mills, G., & Doncaster, C. P. (2007). The role of metapopulations in conservation. In D. Macdonald & K. Service (Eds.), Key Topics in Conservation Biology (pp. 64-84).

Lippson, A. J., & Lippson, R. L. (2006). Life in the Chesapeake Bay.  Johns Hopkins University Press.

University of Minnesota Extension. Communication and Educational Training Services, University of Minnesota Extension. (2008). Native plants for sustainable landscapes: Establishment and management of lakeshores and gardens (BU-07447). Retrieved from website:

University of Wisconsin-Extension. Board Regents of the University of Wisconsin System , University of Wisconsin-Extension. (2002). Rain gardens: A household way to improve water quality in your community (GWQ 034 1-01-02-5M-5O-S). Madison, WI: UW-Extension Publications.

So that’s why people are here

Sometimes I just can’t figure out why people would want to live around the Hampton Roads area of Virginia (Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Norfolk, Hampton, Newport News, and Virginia Beach).  The region has a high unemployment rate, lots of crime, and is severely overdeveloped.  There really aren’t many areas with quality nightlife, music , or food, and there is a lot of noise and excess light coming from the dozens of military, navy, and airforce bases located within the region.

The reason why people are here though, and why they keep coming, is quickly revealed by the broad, sandy beaches along the Atlantic Coast and the Chesapeake Bay. We all use and abuse natural resources in different ways, but the idea is still the same:  We are here  because of the natural resources that surround us.

View of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay as seen from the beach at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach, VA. February 2012.

Using Google Earth To Estimate Shoreline Trash

About once a week, I do a routine trash pick-up along my parent’s shoreline, which is along a tidal basin of the Chesapeake Bay.  On average, I pick up one full 13 gallon trash bag’s worth of garbage.  I then wondered how much garbage was along the  shores of my neighborhood on any one day per week.  Knowing this information would provide me with a scope of how much trash needs to pick up along the shore in the urbanized, low-income section of town I am in.

I figured the best way to do this would be to measure the length of the shoreline of where i do my routine trash  pick-up, and then assuming that distance would equal one 13-gallon trash bag’s worth of trash.

Clearly, though, I would first need to measure the length of my routine trash-pickup route, and then I would need to find the total length of shoreline on the respective tidal basin.  How the heck am I going to do that?

Well, I could start by getting a looong tape measure, pickle myself on thorny vines, and trespass on people’s lawns.  Once I had that measurement, I could look at a street map of my neighborhood and try to match that distance I measured with the scale and projection on that map.

Or I could just use Google Earth.

Google Earth is a virtual globe software that can give details information about the surface of the Earth, including features (attributes) such as distance, land cover type, tourist locations, roads, etc.  Unlike a manual globe, Google Earth can zoom down to nearly any point on our planet…including my parents’ shoreline, and features can be measured (such as the length of my parent’s shoreline) or analyzed in some other fashion (e.g. proximity to grocery stores, national parks, etc.).  Best of all this program is available free of charge to anyone who has a desktop computer.  Figure 1 Shows a screenshot of the Google Earth globe as it would appear if you opened the program on your home or work computer.

Figure 1: The Google Earth software as it should appear on a person's home or work computer.

How to use this program and everything it can do is beyond the scope of this blog post, so for now let me show you how I am going to use this software to estimate how much trash is along the shoreline of my parent’s tidal basin so that I can know how much work needs to be done to clean things up!

First, let me zoom in to where the shoreline is:

Figure 2: Google Earth imagery of my parent's tidal basin, with the town home complex's shoreline outlined in red.

The truth is, I am only regularly picking up trash along a small segment of that red line shown in Figure 2, so I therefore plan to only measure the area of shoreline outlined in blue in Figure 3:

Figure 3: The blue line better represents the area of shoreline where I do my routine trash pick-up.

So how long is this line, then?  Using Google Earth, I can measure the true length (distance) of any location on the earth’s surface by using the “ruler” button on the toolbar above the satellite image.  I can also choose any measurement units I want.  In this case, I’ll choose feet.  Here we go:

Figure 4: I used the "ruler" tool (circled in red) to measure the distance of my parent's shoreline (outlined in yellow), which resulted in a length of about 584 feet.

The total length of the shoreline that I do a routine trash-pickup on is about 384 feet, as shown in Figure 4.

Now let’s measure the total length of the shoreline of the tidal basin.

Figure 5: The total length of the shoreline of the tidal basin that parent's live along is about 5,296 feet, as measured using the "ruler" tool in Google Earth.

The result is that the total length of the tidal basin that my parents live along is about 5,296 feet.

Since I’m assuming that 584 feet of shoreline accumulates 1 thirteen-gallon trash bag’s worth of garbage, then I can assume that the shoreline along the tidal basin outlined in Figure 5 produces about 9 bags of garbage per week:

5,296 feet/584 feet ~ 9 thirteen-gallon trash bags per week

Yikes!  There’s work to be done!  I can thank Google Earth for providing me a quick and ready tool to plan what work needs to be done, where, and how much.

See you along the shore!

Oh waaaay up there: The northern breeding range of the Brown Pelican

People generally know Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) as large shore birds distinctive of the humid subtropical Gulf of Mexico Coast or of palm-lined California beaches.  In fact, however, there are active nesting colonies as far north as Virginia, and pelicans have been found breeding now close to the Maryland-Delaware border.  These large fish-eating birds can be seen skimming the shoreline for fish and prominently displaying their  incredible 8 foot wingspan.  The photo below is of two Brown Pelicans flying low along the Oceanview Beach in Norfolk, Virginia on a sunny and unusually warm January afternoon.

House-hold cleaners: My not-as-authoritative-as-you-would-think recommendations

When I tell friends and family members that I work in the environmental field, they sometimes start asking me questions about solar panels, or what is the latest fuel-efficient car, or which bath products are the best.  While I do know a lot about these subjects, I am by no means an expert in this department.  Yes, I consider myself an environmentalist, but my interests fall in line much more with natural history and ecology than green consumerism and energy.

That being said, I’d like to offer my recommendations for one area of day-to-day living:  household cleaning.

You may hear about or notice yuppies and overly liberal college students brag about buying expensive organic soap from the co-op, or by well-intentioned shoppers buying the latest Wal-Mart brand “green” dish detergent made with “natural, plant-based” products.  Perhaps you’ve seen the laundry isle in the grocery store packed with new “ecofriendly” soaps in a fancy new bottle that use”15% less plastic,” or whatever new product seems to come at you with dazzling colors and sentimental statements.

While these new and innovative products are well…new and innovative, I would rather you just stick with the good old-fashioned American household cleaning products.  The following list is of cleaning products that are tried and true, and most of them are even biodegradable:

  • Dawn dishwashing liquid.  Free of phosphates (which can harm aquatic ecosystems), this is by far the best dishwashing liquid out there.  Be sure to only use a small drop or two.  A little goes a long way, and you also don’t want to waste anything!
  • Dr. Bronner’s Soap.  Made with mostly organic and fair trade ingredients,  this highly versatile castile soap can be used as a shampoo, body wash, dishwashing liquid (a good eco-friendly alternative to Dawn), laundry detergent, and hand soap.  It is also gentle on the skin and has a universally agreeable fragrance of either peppermint oil or lavender oil.  Again, only use a small drop or two, as this product is VERY concentrated.  It also has a very nice lather, despite the fact that it appears thin and watery when pouring it out of the bottle.  Dr. Bronner’s soap is also great for taking on camping trips, as it is fully biodegradable within a year.
  • Windex.  You should not need any other cleaning solution for your windows.  End of story.  Store brands are an acceptable alternative.
  • Vinegar.  It might sound better in salad dressing and smell better mixed with Italian herbs, but pure distilled vinegar is perhaps one of the best household cleaning solutions out there…and it is of course one of the most ecofriendly.  If you have polished wood floors or other sensitive surfaces, use vinegar to clean them.
  • Tide laundry detergent.  It works the best, but use it sparingly!  This product contains a lot of chemicals.  There is, however, a “clear and free” variety out now that works just as well but forgoes many of the harsh dyes and fragrances that can harm people’s skin and pollute the environment.
  • Murphy’s Oil Soap.  A classic for cleaning floors, this product is mostly plant-based (rather than petroleum-based), and is even biodegradable within a few short years.

This really, from an environmental perspective, is all the average American needs to clean their house.  That being said, the next time you go to Walgreens or wherever else you are going to see a plethora of soaps, detergents, and other household cleaning solutions.  Avoid buying them altogether…and hold on to your wallet before you buy $20 organic laundry detergent that works almost as well as water from the creek behind your house.  The options I have provided are low-cost and if used carefully, will not damage the environment on any meaningful scale.

Oak Dork

Ever since moving to the Mid Atlantic (see Figure 1), I have taken on a recent fascination with oak trees.  True oak trees are in the genus Quercus, and are most easily recognized by the presence of acorns when in season.  If a tree has acorns at some point in its life, chances are it is an oak tree.

The Mid Atlantic region of the United States (shown below) has some of the best diversity of oaks in the country.  This is likely due to the fact that the Mid Atlantic has a moderate climate and sandy soils.

Figure 1: The Mid Atlantic region of the United States (dark red shaded area). Image from the Wikimedia Commons.

The moderate climate provides reasonable growing conditions for both northern species of oaks and southern species of oaks.  Oaks typically are early colonizers.  That means they like to grow in areas where trees were recently cleared (Figure 2) or where a wildlife has moved through.  This stands in stark contrast to our mythological view as oaks being trees of mature forests  such as ones envisioned in fairy tales like Robin Hood.

Figure 2: Most oak species actually thrive in recent forest clearings such as the meadow in this photo, or in areas where a wildfire has recently swept through.

Sandy soils and disturbed sites, combined with a moderate climate, allows for some stately oak trees in my parent’s neighborhood in the urbanized town of Norfolk, Virginia.   Perhaps the best representative in my parent’s region is the Southern Live Oak (Q. virginiana).  Typically associated with the deep south (e.g. New Orleans, LA), this remarkable tree reaches its northern range in the Hampton Roads area of Southeast Virginia.  It’s sprawling branches filled with evergreen leaves (hence the name “live” oak since it does not shed its leaves in the fall) provides the perfect summertime shade and adds a touch of lush warmth to parks and neighborhoods (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The sprawling branches of the southern live oak.

Another oak growing near my parent’s house doesn’t really look like much of an oak at first.  The leaves are long and lacy, much like a willow.   The stately posture, however, and the occasional presence of acorns immediately gives it away as the infamous Willow Oak (Q. phellos):

Figure 4: The stately posture of the willow oak is evident in this picture of a residential neighborhood in eastern Maryland.

Sometimes seen growing along roadsides and in parks and yards is the southern red oak (Q. falcata) which looks similar to other red oaks in that the leaves have sharp points (Figure 5), but this oak is usually smaller in size and more “branchy” in posture (Figure 6).

Figure 5: Leaves of the southern red oak.

Figure 6: A mature southern red oak with a showy display of branches hovering over a residential front lawn.

Besides being pleasing to the eye, oaks provide a valuable food source for a wide variety of wildlife.  Familiar animals that oaks are essential for include but are not limited to squirrels, chipmunks, voles, moles, field mice, and even some songbirds.  Oaks are also a part of our natural ecosystem diversity, and they provide important ecological services such as genetic diversity, nutrient cycling, erosion control, and lumber.

So hopefully you, the reader, can understand why spending time in the Mid Atlantic has made me an “oak dork.”

A Web of Moss

Spanish moss drapes cypress trees and pine trees in the maritime forests of First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach, VA. Photo taken in January 2012.

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