Wild Ideas: Avon Hall Pond Project officially ‘signed’ up

The pond naturalization project at Avon Hall, in the town of Washington, has a new sign, thanks to students at Rappahannock County High School. Last Wednesday (April 1), RappFLOW, which initiated and manages the project, had a small ceremony at the pond to celebrate the addition and to give an update on the project’s progress.

At a ceremony last week to mark the arrival of its new sign are Avon Hall project participants (from left) Mike McCormick, Marc Malik, Washington Mayor John Sullivan, Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy and RappFLOW founder Beverly Hunter. Courtesy photo
At a ceremony last week to mark the arrival of its new sign are Avon Hall project participants (from left) Mike McCormick, Marc Malik, Washington Mayor John Sullivan, Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy and RappFLOW founder Beverly Hunter.

Along with a description of the project and an illustration of the landscaping plan, the new sign has a photo of the pond before the naturalizing project began. It also has a photo of a lushly vegetated naturalized pond at the Farm at Sunnyside that is “the goal,” as RappFLOW president Bev Hunter put it. Marc Malik, RappFLOW vice president and designer of the landscaping plan, said the organization plans to install more interpretive signs to show how the vegetative buffers planted around the pond are working.

RappFLOW has been working on the Avon Hall Pond Project for eight years. The pond, which has about a 5-acre watershed that is mostly on public property, was far from healthy when they started. Most of the property (4.5 acres) was mowed turf, and a resident flock of 30-40 geese had taken up residence. Mowing provided the geese with a perfect grazing area and safe access to the pond, with no vegetative buffer to stop the runoff of their waste into the pond. E. coli count in the pond “was so high that it was almost uncountable,” Bev said.

To scare off the geese, RappFLOW hung shiny gold balloons around the pond this year. A month after the geese left, the E. coli count dropped to “almost none,” Bev said. Volunteers had monitored the number of geese on the pond for about a year, so RappFLOW can correlate the geese’s presence with that of E. coli. “There were debates about where that pollution may be coming from, but I think we’ve pretty conclusively demonstrated that it’s the geese,” Bev said.

When one of the two pairs of geese still remaining at the pond starting mating during the presentation, Bev wryly admitted that RappFLOW hasn’t yet “totally succeeded” in removing all the geese. One or two pairs “isn’t disastrous . . . as long as they don’t attract more,” Marc commented.

“Gradually, mostly with nature itself, and a little bit of town support, . . . about 30 different experts coming in here and trying to figure it out,” and a few grants and help with planting, “the ecosystem is changing,” Bev said.

The first plants were planted in 2013, and now at least two acres have been planted around the pond. With the buffer, geese will be less likely to stick around; they avoid vegetation that’s higher than their heads, which could provide cover for predators.

As Marc wrote in a follow-up email to me, to provide cover for local native wildlife, “hundreds of forbs” have been planted in the pond’s wetlands, and shrubs given by the Virginia Department of Forestry have been planted on the dam. “About an acre” has been left to grow naturally, providing “a diverse habitat of trees, cattails and rushes.”

Half of the pond buffer has been seeded with native wildflowers (more than 50 species) and grasses, with the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District providing a grant for the seed and overseeing the conversion from turf. Richard Jacob, from CSWCD, commended RappFLOW on the conversion. “We had some basic standards,” he said, but “they went above and beyond what we initially had.”

The naturalization project “changes a rather sterile environment of mowed turf to a healthy diverse habitat that will protect the watershed, improve the water quality of the pond and introduce the area to a diversity of wildlife for all to enjoy,” Marc wrote in his email.

The point of the project also goes beyond this one pond, Bev said. “The idea is that people can learn from this process . . . and help to manage their own little watersheds.” By summer, when many of the wildflowers are in bloom, RappFLOW plans to have educational field days.

“One of the things we hope to show,” she said, “is that it can be beautiful around a pond without mowing.” Native plants, along with the wildlife they attract, can offer more interest visually than the green desert of a lawn. Bev noted “lots of dragonflies” showed up last year after the wildflowers planted in the buffer started blooming.

RappFLOW is trying to work out “a good, healthy mix” of fish, too, Bev said. The pond is currently overpopulated with “fairly small sunfish,” Marc said, along with a few eels and bass. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has offered to stock the pond and maintain the fish in it, but then catch-and-release fishing would have to be allowed, Bev said. And Marc noted that “amphibians don’t do quite as well if you have fish in here, because fish do eat the eggs.” He added that RappFLOW has planted pickerel weed along the shore and hopes to add bulrushes and other native vegetation to help provide cover for the eggs.

Richard also acknowledged the challenge in “naturalizing” a pond in Virginia, which “isn’t native pond habitat.” Before humans came, most ponds in this area were ephemeral, caused by beavers, or weather or geologic events, and transitioned back to forest relatively quickly.

While I have yet to hear frogs calling in recent visits to the pond, Marc said he heard two bullfrogs calling near the new sign after the presentation, surprisingly early; bullfrogs don’t usually start calling until May during a normal spring, and this one got an especially slow start.

The RappFLOW website (rappflow.org) has a satellite photo of the pond on the home page. Clicking on that brings up the page for the pond project, with links to the original proposal to the town, reports, data, news stories, a plant list and more information on the project. Observational data are also available at CitSci.org (click on “Projects,” then search on “rappflow”). Bev says she hopes people will “get into the fun of citizen science” by visiting the pond and then recording their observations online. For more information on volunteering or donating to the project, go to the RappFLOW website or contact Bev at beverly@bevhunter.com.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Washington habitat restoration project needs volunteers

Volunteers are needed for the Town of Washington Natural Habitat Restoration Project, which includes the nature trail that starts at Leggett Avenue and does a loop through the water-treatment plant site and through the Avon Hall property. The trail includes native plant gardens and bluebird boxes, which yielded 22 bluebird fledglings last year. “We are looking for all kinds of volunteers to do all kinds of things this year at the ToW project,” says Jenny Fitzhugh, one of the project leaders for Old Rag Master Naturalists, which initiated the project. “Hard physical labor, creative thinking, financial support, PR work and advertising our mission — you name it, we would appreciate help with it!” The first project work party of the year is tomorrow (Friday, April 10), and everyone is welcome to volunteer, Jenny says. For more information, contact her at whistlepighill@hughes.net.

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