Volume 26 Issue 2, Spring 2021
by Gerco Hoogeweg, JK Black Oak Wildlife Sanctuary Committee Chair
A little over one year ago the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy became a landowner for the first time. Learning how to manage a property is not an easy undertaking. To aid in this endeavor, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s JK Black Oak Wildlife Sanctuary Committee developed a comprehensive management plan for the property outlining our vision, priorities, and activities.
In 2020 and 2021, our focus is to establish a baseline of JK Black Oak’s existing biodiversity and determine which areas we need to prioritize to enhance biodiversity. We are conducting a series of surveys focusing on amphibians, reptiles, birds, butterflies, and plants throughout the year. Some of these surveys are part of Loudoun Wildlife’s established programs, such as amphibian monitoring or the annual Butterfly Count. The JK Black Oak Committee will manage other surveys.
The vernal pools at JK Black Oak are part of a type of globally rare wetland community endemic to just six counties in the Culpeper Basin of the Northern Virginia and Maryland Piedmont region. These vernal pools are part of the only known occurrence on karst features formed by dissolution of limestone conglomerate. Unfortunately, they have seen their share of neglect due to past agricultural use, access by cattle, and trash dumping. In recent years trees have fallen into the pools, and non-native vegetation encroaches on several. To increase the biodiversity in and around the pools, we will need to survey each and gain a better understanding of their water regime, local ecosystem, what creatures are present throughout the seasons, and what actions we should take.
One of the first steps in better understanding the life in and around the vernal pool is conducting amphibian surveys. Jenny Erickson, Loudoun Wildlife’s Amphibian Monitoring Program coordinator, did the first survey as part of the Virginia Herpetological Society count last August 22. This year, surveys began in February. Initial surveys found Springtime Fairy Shrimp, Spring Peepers, Jefferson Salamanders, and Wood Frogs, followed by the first egg masses a few days later. In conjunction with the surveys, we plan to host periodic evening walks with small groups so others can enjoy the chorus of frogs at JK Black Oak.
Bird surveys at JK Black Oak have been going on since 2019, but we have not hosted any bird walks since we took ownership because of COVID-19 concerns. We will start in May with our first bird walks as part of Celebrate Birds, Go Birding! and World Migratory Bird Day. This is a great time to see migrating birds at the property. We may be lucky enough to see a Northern Waterthrush or a Spotted Sandpiper foraging in the vernal pools. Additional bird walks will be scheduled when fall migration commences.
August and September are prime time for butterflies. Early August is the annual Butterfly Count, coordinated by Anne Ellis and Allison Gallo, and JK Black Oak is within the count circle. During the 2020 count, volunteers spent a few hours counting butterflies under windy conditions. We managed to find 12 species. However, when the goldenrods and other native plants are in full bloom in late August or early September, many more butterfly species can be found at the sanctuary. We plan to do walks then to explore the many wonderful butterflies and dragonflies.
Increasing the biodiversity at JK Black Oak is one of the main goals of our management plan. Therefore, reducing stress on the native vegetation due to overgrazing by deer and encroachment by invasive plants is paramount. Invasive plant species found on the property include Bradford Pear, Autumn Olive, Oriental Bittersweet, Multiflora Rose, and Japanese Honeysuckle. If we reduce these invasives, native vegetation has a chance to recover, and wildlife depending on these native plants will again flourish. Several volunteers are documenting the density and dominance of invasive plant species throughout JK Black Oak. Using this information, we will develop an invasives management plan and prioritize in which areas to focus our habitat restoration efforts
These restoration efforts will include removal of trash as well as invasives, taking down damaged trees, planting new native trees, and continued maintenance of the property. In October, we started to test the concept of workdays with a small group of volunteers on the first Saturday of each month. With COVID-19 cases decreasing, vaccinations increasing, and the weather improving, we hope to open the workdays to more people. These outings are a great way to reduce stress and enjoy nature at the same time. If you are interested in volunteering for workdays at JK Black Oak, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our long-term plans for the property include building a trail system that allows visitors to enjoy the different habitats at the property during guided walks, hosting educational programs for schools and the public, and reaching out to the local Lucketts community. Such endeavors require a good infrastructure onsite. We plan to build a couple of information kiosks and, more ambitiously, an educational pavilion at the west side of the property. We also will work on collecting historical and cultural information about the property, which at one time had been slated for development and prior to that was used mostly for rangeland.
JK Black Oak is not open to the public. Access is restricted to surveys and Loudoun Wildlife events. For more information, please visit the JK Black Oak section on the LWC website or email email@example.com.