Surveying the Bird Life at George Washington’s Ferry Farm

Recently, on a gray overcast March morning, four members of the Fredericksburg Birding Club bundled up against the unseasonable cold to trudge across the open fields and through the forests of George Washington’s Ferry Farm to conduct their latest bird survey. It was their fourth such survey in the past seven months.

During these surveys birding club members spotted a total of 41 species.  They recorded each species observed and compared their observations to “A Checklist of the Birds at Ferry Farm,” a pamphlet available to visitors at Washington’s boyhood home. Club members noted that they saw all of the species listed on the “Checklist” as abundant or common.  They saw 13 uncommon species defined by the “Checklist” as “present, but not certain to be seen” as well as three species listed as occasional, meaning “seen only a few times during a season.” They spotted three rare species.  Most excitingly, they sighted the American Pipit, a species not yet included on Ferry Farm’s “Checklist.”  The pipit’s habitat is shorter grasses so it was probably attracted to a freshly mown field on the grounds.

American Pipit

American Pipit. Credit: Becky Matsubara / Wikipedia

Club members also noted some early breeding activity as three tree swallows were inspecting some of the bluebird boxes in Ferry Farm’s wildflower meadow.

Ferry Farm’s abundance of bird life is due to the many favorable micro-habitats available on the 80-acre property.  This includes native grasses and a wildflower meadow, hardwood bottomlands, fallow areas, open lawn, and the adjacent waters of the Rappahannock River.

During the Fredericksburg Birding Club’s survey on March 27, club members spotted the species listed below in alphabetical order. The number following each species name represents the number of individuals seen.  This same data can also be found at ebird.org.

American Crow – 6
American Goldfinch – 6
American Kestrel – 1
American Pipit – 6
American Robin – 33
Bald Eagle – 2
Black Vulture – 1
Blue Jay – 3
Canada Goose – 20
Carolina Chickadee – 5
Carolina Wren (heard only) – 2
Cedar Waxwing – 9
Common Grackle – 8
Dark-eyed Junco – 14
Double-crested Cormorant – 3
Downy Woodpecker – 5
Eastern Bluebird – 7
Eastern Phoebe – 1
European Starling – 23
Hermit Thrush – 1
Mourning Dove – 7
Northern Cardinal – 20
Northern Flicker – 1
Northern Mockingbird – 2
Osprey – 3
Red-bellied Woodpecker – 3
Ring-billed Gull – 15
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) – 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 1
Song Sparrow – 3
Tree Swallow – 3
Tufted Titmouse – 4
Turkey Vulture – 6
White-throated Sparrow – 4
Yellow-rumped Warbler – 24

American Kestral

American Kestral with a freshly killed American Pipit. Credit: Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith / Wikipedia

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker. Credit: Mike’s Birds / Wikipedia

You can observe birds yourself at Ferry Farm during regular operating hours, which are from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Monday-Saturday and from Noon to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday.  Pay your admission inside the Visitors Center and ask for a copy of “A Checklist of the Birds at Ferry Farm.”

Furthermore, on Saturday, May 5, you can join members of the Fredericksburg Birding Club for a Birding Tour of Ferry Farm, a morning walk through the grounds during spring migration. Participants will see birds that are passing through, as well as those who have arrived at Ferry Farm for the summer.  Bring your own binoculars.  The cost is regular admission: $9.00 adults, $4.50 students.  Reservations required.  For more information and reservations, please call (540) 370-0732 ext. 24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Education Programs

Our Ever Evolving Relationship with Plants

Plants have played a critical role in human survival through the ages.  Although most people in the modern world do not rely on plants they gather themselves, we are surrounded by useful flora that Native Americans and later European colonists relied upon.  Today, some are labeled as ‘weeds’ while the more attractive ones are propagated as ornamentals, but little thought is given to their potential usefulness.  Some are native while many are introductions or ‘invasives’ brought over from Europe, Asia, or Africa.  Here are just a few plants you’ve likely encountered that played active roles in the lives of our colonial and Native American ancestors:

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus):

Not to be confused with Foxglove or Lamb’s ear, this delightfully fuzzy-leafed plant was an early introduction by Europeans.  It was considered a potent medicinal herb, the leaves of which were prized for treating a number of ailments including respiratory disorders and skin conditions, it having both anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties.  To alleviate coughs, the leaves were steeped in a tea or dried and smoked.  Painful or itchy skin maladies could be relieved with a poultice of leaves applied directly to the affected area.  It was also ingested as a diuretic.  In addition to being useful as a medicine, mullein’s long woody stalk could be dried and dipped in tallow or wax to create a candle or torch that would burn slowly.  Native Americans were quick to adopt mullein as a useful plant both as a medicine and as an expedient way to catch fish.  Turns out mullein seeds contain saponins, a compound that is poisonous to fish but safe for human consumption so a liberal amount added to a body of water resulted in stunned fish that would float to the surface to be easily collected.

‘Wild’ Garlic (Allium vineale)

Most gardeners have dealt with this plant, called wild garlic or wild onion by some.  Stinky and hard to pull from the ground, wild garlic has all the makings of a grade A weed.  You can thank Europeans again for this invasive plant, however.  Colonists brought it over as a flavoring for food and used it in much the same way as we use cultivated garlic today.  In addition to being useful in cooking, wild garlic contains all the heart-healthy benefits of domesticated garlic.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Staghorn Sumac

Courtesy of Katya/Wikipedia

Sumac has gotten a bad reputation due to mistaken identity.  It is often confused with poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), which is actually only a distant relative that grows exclusively in extremely wet conditions (like bogs). The staghorn sumac is an upland plant that will grow pretty much anywhere poison sumac doesn’t grow.  Essentially every part of this plant was used in some way by Native Americans in what is now the eastern United States.  The roots and the bark were used in dying cloth, the leaves could be dried and mixed with tobacco for smoking, and the berries could be eaten in a number of different ways.  Whether soaked in cold water to make a lemonade or ‘sumac tea’, dried and added to cooked dishes, or eaten directly off the plant, sumac berries imparted a pleasant citrus flavor to foods and is rich in vitamin C in addition to other nutrients.  The tender young shoots of sumac trees were also cut, peeled of their bar, and eaten in the spring – that is if the deer didn’t find them first!  Although colonists did not always readily adopt plants that had been used for thousands of years by Native Americans (I’m looking at you, tomato!), the sumac was too good to ignore and was quickly incorporated into colonial life and diet.

Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana)

Eastern Red Cedar

Courtesy of Famartin/Wikipedia

The words ‘cedar’ and ‘juniper’ are often used interchangeably around here (And by around here, I mean Virginia, of course!).  But the tree most people in our area think of when they hear those words is the Eastern Red Cedar, which is actually in the Juniper family – confused yet?  Regardless of what you call it, the Eastern Red Cedar is a very handy local tree.  Colonists had equivalents in Europe and immediately recognized the utility of the tree.  Both Native Americans and colonials flavored food with the ‘berries’, which are actually cones, and the young shoots.  High in vitamin C, the berries were also used by Europeans to flavor gin and brewed into a medicinal tea by various indigenous tribes.  In addition, the bug-repellant properties of the cedar were well known and the wood itself excellent at resisting rot. It was fashioned into anything from fence posts to clothing chests.

Gradually our reliance on plants and trees immediately around us has waned and not many people nowadays realize the utility of the local flora.  Truthfully, there aren’t many plants in existence that don’t have some useful properties. Our colonial and Native American ancestors were aware of them and incorporated a multitude of ‘weeds’ into their everyday lives.

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist

Summer Greens from the Colonial Garden

Typically, when modern Americans think of summer barbecue food, they think of meat grilled over an open flame. While that would certainly appeal to an eighteenth century audience, it is not necessarily what they considered ‘typical’ summer fare. Large livestock like pigs and cattle were usually slaughtered and butchered in the late fall/early winter when the weather was far more conducive to task. This meant that large roasts (like mentioned in our earlier blog) were not the norm in the warmer months. Instead, people of the 18th century looked to the seasonality of ingredients to inspire their summer time fare.

Eighteenth century diets were very dependent on the growing seasons. Summer was a bounty of fruits, vegetables, greens, herbs, and anything else that could not be had in the dead of winter. Much like today, there were a variety of methods, styles, and recipes used to please the numerous palates.

Garden (1)

The demonstration garden at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

With today’s weekend farmers markets and roadside stands, a salad seems the ubiquitous summer option. But what would our forefathers have thought of raw vegetables tossed in oil and vinegar? They certainly had all of the elements available to them but their tastes were different than ours. After all, we still have oysters and ice cream but most of us no longer enjoy oyster ice cream.

While the oldest references to salad come from ancient Rome (usually referred to as sallet) it was not ubiquitous in English summer cuisine. While there are some references in cookbooks and menus of the time that called for ‘salad herbs’ like lettuce and spinach to be served raw, most of their English recipes called for cooking the vegetables in some way.

The modern stereotype of English cooking insists that greens be boiled until no real flavor or texture remains. And while many of 18th century recipes for vegetables include boiling (and some for quite some time) there is also this warning in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.

GardenThings2

Hannah Glasse cautions her readers not to “over-boil” fresh garden greens.

There was a clear appreciation for fresh vegetables even if they were prepared in some manner.  An appreciation that extended into George Washington’s own household. One recipe included in Martha Washington’s cookbook was for a ‘Lettis Tart’ which called for ‘cabbage lettis’ and prunes to be put in a crust with cinnamon and ginger and then baked like a pie.

In addition to recipes calling for fresh fruits and vegetables, early Americans were very familiar with numerous preservation methods in order to enjoy vegetables and fruit out of season. In the summer they would pickle vegetables, dry herbs, and make preserves with fruits so they could enjoy them all year long.

In September 1784, George Washington traveled west of the Allegany Mountains. He recorded some of his supplies in his diary and includeed a canteen filled with ‘Chery Bounce’. This was a drink made from cherries preserved in brandy and was a way for Washington to take the taste of Virginia summer with him on his travels.

Cherries on the cherry trees in the Demonstration Garden.

Cherries on the cherry trees in the Ferry Farm’s demonstration garden.

This summer when you are contemplating your patriotic picnic options for your July Fourth festivities, don’t pass up the greener options. They have far more in common with the summer options of our founding fathers than you may have originally believed.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Apple Cedar Rust: What on Earth is It and Why Does It Matter?

Apple Cedar Rust (2).JPG

Sometimes nature can be stranger than fiction.  At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we are currently experiencing such a phenomenon:  Apple Cedar Rust.  Hideous in appearance, yet strangely fascinating, this fungus erupts on our cedar trees every few years when temperature and moisture are just right. It’s a monstrous growth with bright orange tentacles.  Like some bizarre alien fruit, they hang from the cedars after which they shrivel up and disappear until the conditions are just right for the fungus to become active again.

But what are these odd gooey orbs, called ‘galls’, on the cedars and what do they mean in a greater context?  Well, what we are seeing at Ferry Farm and all around the Fredericksburg, Virginia area is actually only one stage in the life of the Apple Cedar Rust.  This fungus requires two trees to complete its two year life-cycle, as is evidenced by its name.  The gall on the cedar erupts with orange protrusions, called ‘horns’, during the spring and release millions of spores that will float on the wind for several miles trying to find an unsuspecting apple or crabapple tree in bloom.  At this point, the spores infect the leaves and blossoms of the poor tree, causing unappealing blemishes on the fruit and, occasionally, a total loss of the apple crop.  At the end of the summer, the fungus that developed on the underside of the apple leaves also releases spores that travel back to the cedars, where they lay dormant for over a year before eventually sprouting the orange jelly-like grows and starting the cycle again.

Apple Cedar Rust (1)This disease had the potential to devastate colonial-era apple crops.  Although wild crabapple varieties were native to the Americas, European immigrants quickly introduced domesticated apples to the New World and widely cultivated the fruit.  Baked into pies and puddings, dried, turned into preserves, and even added to savory dishes, apples were very popular.  Not just prized as a food, the delicious fruit was also commonly converted into hard cider, which could be stored much longer than fresh apples and rivaled beer in popularity with colonials.  In years of abundant crops, excess apples could even be used to finish livestock prior to butchering.  As such, most colonial households grew at least a few apple trees. The loss of some or all of this fruit would have been tragic.  Native Americans also suffered the loss of indigenous crabapples, which provided food for them and for animals they hunted and relied on.

It is unclear if the complex phenomenon of Apple Cedar Rust was understood by European settlers and Native Americans. Did they know that the strange orange masses on cedar trees signaled a drop in apple yields?  It is a question to ponder. Lacking the fungicides of today, early Americans’ only recourse would have been to destroy all the cedars within a few miles of their trees – not a very practical solution.  Most of us today do not grow our own food so Apple Cedar Rust is merely a gross curiosity, but to colonial farmers and past inhabitants of the early North American landscape, the ugly fungus may have caused real problems.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist

Photos: Night in Washington’s Day at Historic Kenmore

This past Friday, November 13, visitors enjoyed “Night in Washington’s Day,” a special evening event at Historic Kenmore that explored the history of nighttime in the 18th century.  Night was an active time 200 years ago. People cleaned, cooked, plowed, prayed, and visited neighbors at night. Darkness inspired scientists to make incredible discoveries that led to centuries of exploration and different cultures composed epic narratives inspired by the stars.  You can read information similar to that presented during “Night in Washington’s Day” here and here.

George Washington Slept Here… Twice!

Watching the Fire

The black darkness of night — before electric lights – is hard for us to imagine today. We assume life simply stopped as our ancestors awaited day’s return, though historical research suggests it did not.  People cleaned, cooked, plowed, prayed, and even visited neighbors in the dead of night. In one instance, George Washington wrote John Hancock, saying “From the hours allotted to Sleep, I will borrow a few moments to convey my thoughts on sundry important matters to Congress.”  Night did not necessarily mean sleep for early Americans.

Historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech has found substantial documentary evidence that, before the Industrial Revolution, people “experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness.”  This ‘segmented sleep’ was referred to as first sleep, watch or watching, and second or morning sleep.[1]  It seems that people of the 18th century did not immediately go to bed with the onset of darkness.  They waited until about two hours after dusk.  Once they went to bed, they slept for four hours but, not long after midnight, they awoke and remained awake for an hour or two. Eventually, they fell back asleep, slept for about four more hours, and awoke around dawn.

The idea of segmented sleep has been supported by some scientific studies, the most famous of which was conducted by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr. In the study, Wehr removed electric light from people’s lives.  After a four-week adjustment period, the study’s subjects moved away from sleeping for eight uninterrupted hours and actually reverted to sleeping for four hours, being awake for one or two, and then sleeping for four more hours. How many of us who suffer with ‘insomnia’ might simply be hanging on to an older sleeping pattern altered by the relatively new technology of electric light?

Segmented sleep, however, may not even be the oldest human sleeping pattern. Brand new research published last month in Current Biology raises the possibility that, in actuality, eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is an even older sleeping pattern than segmented sleep.  Scientists studied some of Earth’s last remaining groups of hunter-gatherers and found that all three groups slept for 7 to 8.5 hours per night without a period of wakefulness.  The study’s primary author, Jerome Siegel of UCLA, “doesn’t dispute Ekirch’s analysis; he just thinks that the old two-block pattern was preceded by an even older single-block one.” Siegel speculates that segmented sleep arose when humans moved away from the equator into latitudes with longer periods of darkness.

So during the many centuries of that humans followed the segmented sleep pattern, what did people do during watch, that time in the middle of the night between first and second sleeps?  The short answer is almost anything!  Most people seem to have simply remained quietly in bed, perhaps pondering their dreams or even praying.  They may have talked with their bedmate, who was not just a spouse but could have have been another servant in the household or another traveler overnighting at the tavern. Beds were often used to full capacity, even if that meant sleeping with a stranger.

If people rose from bed during watch, it might have been to use the chamber pot or privy.

Work took place too, since fires might need tending or the next day’s baking started.  The ancient Roman poet Virgil even mentions women servants spinning yarn during watch.

On farms, a full moon could practically turn night into day. Work schedules changed to take advantage of the light.  “For several nights every September,” writes Ekirch, “light from the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox is more prolonged than usual because of the small angle of the moon’s orbit.  Well known in England as the ‘harvest moon’ . . . farmers on both sides of the Atlantic benefited from the moonlight to gather crops. ‘Sometimes,’ Jasper Charlton wrote in 1735, ‘the harvest people work all night at their hay or corn.’  Nearly as useful was the ‘hunter’s moon’ in October, when a full moon next appeared. ‘The moon of September,’ declared a writer, ‘shortens the night. The moon of October is hunter’s delight.’”[2]

If there was no moon or work to do, night brought a respite from the hard routine and strict rules of the workday for laborers, tradesmen, servants and slaves.  Enslaved people especially relished night as a time to run away, to sneak away and visit family on other plantations, to gather together for celebrations, to earn money through extra work, or simply to do whatever personal chores had piled up while working for master or mistress.

Hogarth's Night

“Night” by William Hograth, one painting from his Four Times of the Day series completed in 1736, depicts “disorderly activities under the cover of night” on Charing Cross Road in London. For the fascinating details about what is happening in the painting, visit Four Times of the Day on Wikipedia. Public domain.

The darkness of watch afford ne’er-do-wells opportunity to steal and poach.  Even Washington noted how night was a time for thieving when he complained about slaves using dogs to “aid them in their night robberies” of his sheep.

Because of segmented sleep, night, at least in George Washington’s day, seems to have been a surprisingly active time.  People were awake for a couple of hours each night and during that time did almost anything imaginable from personal errands and household chores to farm labor and crime to prayer and meditation.  The 18th century may have literally been a darker time but it was not necessarily a time for more sleep.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton, 2005: 300-1.

[2] Ekirch, 171.