Family Fun Day at Patapsco Valley State Park!

SDCI board member Joe Kelly holds forth at SDCI's Family Fun Day display
The weather could not have been more ideal for Patapsco Valley State Park’s Family Fun Day event, staged again this year at PVSP’s “Hilton Area” in Catonsville. Launched several years ago on the fourth Sunday in April in an effort to entice more residents to volunteer, Family Fun Day is now heralded as a prime opportunity to showcase Patapsco Valley State Park’s diverse assortment of recreation areas, spread over four counties along 32 miles of the Patapsco River south and west of Baltimore City.

Each year, Soldiers Delight Conservation, Inc, the Friends group supporting Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area in Owings Mills, which is managed by Patapsco Valley State Park, is invited to put on a display at Family Fun Day so that we can recruit volunteers, show off the attributes of our unique wilderness habitat, and promote the methods we use to keep it that way. We were delighted to attend.

Our interactive display goes almost anywhere -- and we are only too happy to share with the public at every opportunity all the wonderful qualities of the unique and fragile ecosystem, known as the serpentine barrens, that snakes through Soldiers Delight NEA. Home to 39 species of rare and endangered plants and animals, and as the single most important biodiversity site in the state of Maryland, SDNEA is constantly threatened by encroachments, from commercial and residential development to deer browsing. Perhaps most pervasive is the persistent incursion of invasive vegetation, which chokes out our native flora and pushes some of the rarest plants ever closer to extirpation.

Events such as Patapsco Valley State Park’s Family Fun Day provide an ideal opportunity for SDCI to share our message that native plants should always be chosen over non-native ones when buying landscaping at your local nursery or big box store. We wouldn’t miss this chance to get our message out for anything!

Every plant displayed here is a non-native invasive, from English ivy to Japanese barberry and more.
Our small group of volunteers arrived about an hour before the start of the 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. festival and got right to work erecting our display. This year, PVSP management positioned our group in a shady spot next to the Hilton Area’s Nature Center, a tiny, one-room building that afforded us close proximity to an electrical outlet and a hose bib, both of which we would need throughout the afternoon. We set up our tables, draped them with tablecloths adorned with the SDCI logo, and arranged rocks and minerals, books and flyers and other accoutrements describing the hiking trails, nature programming and unique natural features of Soldiers Delight.

On one side of our table, SDCI board president Laura Van Scoyoc erected her favorite tableau: tubs full of greenery in front of a chalkboard sign inviting visitors to “guess what is wrong with these plants?” As children and adults took in the thorny branches of Japanese barberry, the early blossoms of autumn olive and the wispy fronds of miscanthus grass, Laura, SDCI vice president Lynell Tobler, Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service biologist Paula Becker, SDCI board member Joe Kelly and longtime volunteer Jesse Turner took turns describing the evils of invasive vegetation, many of which can be purchased at any garden center.

Quinten Colquhoun, 5, of Pasadena, Maryland, takes aim at the "flames" with help from Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist Paula Becker.
What so many people don’t realize is that the thorny prongs of Japanese barberry provide excellent protection from predators for the white-footed mouse, which builds its nests deep inside the barbed shrubbery. Unfortunately, the white-footed mouse is a major host for the ticks that carry Lyme disease. Together with deer, which bed down near barberry outcroppings and are likewise major hosts of the black-legged tick, Japanese barberry has been shown to be single-handedly responsible for a twelve-fold increase in the number of Lyme-infected ticks found per acre of forestation populated with the invasive shrub in its understory. Indeed, Japanese barberry has created an “ecological perfect storm for tick-borne diseases”, according to Dr. Scott Williams, one of the leading experts on Japanese barberry in North America. Six states have banned the sale of Japanese barberry or are phasing it out of their retailers’ inventories. Yet it can still be purchased at any Lowe’s or Home Depot store in Maryland. And that’s just one of the invasive menaces that the conservationists at Soldiers Delight must deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Freya Baker, 3, of Elkridge, Maryland, tries her hand at controlling the faux flames with water.
On the other side of our display table, Paula, Laura and Joe set up our “prescribed burn” activity for children. As part of our ongoing efforts to curb the spread of invasive plants within Soldiers Delight’s 1,900 acres, Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service ecologist, Dr. Wayne Tyndall, oversees twice yearly vegetation burns across the ecosystem’s serpentine barrens. In spring and fall, firefighters from Maryland’s Blackwater Wildlife Refuge dress in bright yellow, fire retardant Nomex suits and light fires under strict weather conditions, which they control by spraying water on the flames through hand-pumped nozzles connected to extremely heavy, water-filled backpacks.

For our prescribed-burn activity at family Fun Day, Paula, Laura, Joe and Jesse gave children an opportunity to don the Nomex shirts and protective helmets worn by our burn crews and shoot water at a board of brightly painted flames about twenty feet away. They set up orange traffic cones, small boundary flags and authentic metal signs to realistically portray a prescribed-burn site. Always a popular activity, children stopped by all afternoon for a chance to shoot water at the faux flames and other targets, while we regaled their parents with information about the importance of prescribed burns to keep invasives in check and stimulate the germination of grasses which are native to the shallow-soiled site.

Volunteer Ralph Massella entertained visitors with song and guitar music 
Elsewhere throughout the Family Fun Day festival, park staff and volunteer groups staged displays to show off their various causes. A longtime member of the Jerusalem Mill Blacksmith Guild fired up a portable furnace and helped eager children fabricate hand-wrought nails. Their fascinating display included wrought-iron candlesticks, a giant anvil and other accoutrements of blacksmithing from the 1800s. Down the lane from SDCI’s display, naturalists from our Soldiers Delight aviary displayed a variety of raptors, while on the other side of the venue the Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park handed out free ice cream.

One dedicated PVSP volunteer, Ralph Massella, who lends his carpentry and painting skills to the Soldiers Delight visitor center on a regular basis and also leads hikes and conducts music-oriented nature programs for children, entertained onlookers on his acoustic guitar and sang,

Patapsco Heritage Greenway Program Manager Hannah Zinnert, left, and intern Jen Duvall staff the PHG table at Family Fun Day
while nearby, volunteers from the Patapsco Heritage Greenway group, whose members are dedicated to the eradication of invasive plants throughout the Patapsco Valley State Park system, spent the day extracting stubborn Japanese barberry from the surrounding understory with a nifty root-pulling contraption called a “Pullerbear uprooter”, which they’d recently ordered from Canada.
Pete McCallum (holding sign) with volunteers from Patapsco Heritage Greenway show off the heavy bags of invasive Japanese barberry they extracted during Family Fun Day
Volunteer Peter McCallum declared the Pullerbear a “significant improvement” over yanking the deeply entrenched root systems using only a shovel and brute strength. Peter proudly recounted after the event that his group filled eight enormous contractor bags that day, eradicating more than 120 pounds of the evil invasive plant.

One of the most popular attractions at Family Fun Day this year was Karen Druffel’s face-painting booth. Children lined up all day to take advantage of Ms. Druffel’s considerable talents. At another table, longtime Volunteer Ranger Ed Johnson showed off the newly published book he co-wrote with author Betsy McMillion for Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, this one titled, appropriately enough: Patapsco Valley State Park.

Betsy McMillion, left, Jonathan Posner, center, and Ed Johnson display a poster of their new book about this history of Patapsco Valley State Park

We could not have asked for better weather, which was spectacular all afternoon. All in all, more than 200 people explored the many opportunities for hiking, nature programming and wild animal viewing, bringing to 25 the number of separate displays scattered throughout the picturesque Hilton Area on this gorgeous afternoon.

And most importantly, we at Soldiers Delight Conservation, Inc. had a great time getting the word out to the public about the fabulous and unusual native plants and butterflies that call Soldiers Delight NEA home. It was a wonderful day.

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