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Birding, Soil, and Water Conservation Workshop with Bobby Whitescarver

By Lindsay Dowd

On Wednesday June 17th the 2015 AMI Farm Fellows had the distinct pleasure of learning from Bobby Whitescarver in a workshop on birding, soil and water conservation.

Birding

During our time on the mountain, we have been serenaded by a variety of bird songs, and have enjoyed the beauty of their flight and behavior amid our daily activities. Along the way, we have identified many of the birds in the garden such as the chipping sparrow, robin, barn swallow, bluebird, red winged black bird, dark eyed junco, and some of our favorites: the woodpecker, painted bunting, chickadee, and hummingbird, to name a few.

The birds have served as entertainment on many occasions between garden tasks or on walks, and we have been very interested to learn more about them. Our curiosity was met with the years of passionate knowledge from Bobby Whitescarver who led us on a birding walk.

We began our workshop by setting out in the early morning fog hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the birds that we were vaguely familiar with.

We learned to identify the songs and distinct characteristics of over 10 birds on the mountain and learned first-hand how important it is to use a pair of binoculars quickly because the birds can disappear in an instant! The walk helped us be more attuned to the subtle variation of songs and increase our awareness of the bird population in the area.

During our birding walk, we also learned about some common cool season perennial grasses that serve as habitat for birds and other wildlife such as timothy grass, ryegrass, orchard grass, Kentucky bluegrass, and more. Our discussion provided a natural segue to soil and water conservation since perennial grasses provide protection from soil erosion.

Soil and Water Conservation

What is soil and why is it important? Soil is the result of weathering and decomposition of organic matter, clay, and rock material.

Soil functions:

  1. Supports growth of food, fiber, feed, fuel, fertilizer
  2. Provides a habitat for organisms
  3. Structure as an engineering medium for building
  4. Nutrient recycling
  5. Water cycle regulation

A soil sample can provide a snapshot of soil composition and health. If you are interested in learning more about your soil, check out the free web soil survey maps by the USDA.

A good way to measure soil health is to know the percentage of organic matter in the sample. Soil conservation is a remediation process that works to achieve 3% or more of organic matter. Organic matter decreases soil erosion by increasing water absorption. The top layer of soil is the most productive layer and if it is lost, a remediation process is more expensive and labor intensive than implementing physical methods of soil conservation (see below).

Erosion is a process of detachment, transport, and deposition that leads to sediment in waterways. Sediment is the largest pollutant by volume in water which clogs streams and damages entire ecosystems. The more polluted a water system, the higher the cost to remediate to drinkable water. Two simple ways to prevent soil erosion include fencing livestock out of streams and planting riparian buffers (planting trees to reinforce stream banks).

Physical methods of soil conservation:

  • Intercept raindrops by always having something covering the soil (cover crops, perennial plants, mulch, succession planting, etc.)
  • Increase organic matter in the soil to improve water absorption
  • Slow water movement downhill by planting on a contour line

A contour line is an imaginary line of even elevation used for slowing water flow when planting on a slope. Check out this picture showing Katie using a hand sight to find the contour.

About Bobby Whitescarver

Mr. Whitescarver teaches natural resources management at James Madison University, was a field conservationist for 31 years through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and is currently under contract with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation involved in education and ecosystem restoration. Independently, Mr. Whitescarver is a natural resources management consultant and maintains a blog on current conservation issues.

His knowledge and passionate enthusiasm for birding, soil, and water conservation was infectious! Along with the wealth of knowledge that we gained during our workshop, we are more connected to the mountain ecosystem and as Rachel Carson and Mr. Whitescarver said: “it is not half so important to know as it is to feel”

The 2015 AMI Farm Fellows have a new understanding of how to engage in conservation practices and hope that you will check out some of the resources listed above to get involved too. Thank you!

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