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Approach
 

As stated in the "Purpose" section, the Nature Guide has been creat-

ed to assist visitors to Sky Meadows State Park with:
 

  • identifying some of the more common plants and animals they                       may encounter during their visit;

  • understanding the life histories of various Sky Meadows plants                        and animals;

  • appreciating the complex "web of life" that has existed (and still                  exists) between the land, plants, animals, and humans that com-                    prise Sky Meadows.


Approach to the identification of plants and animals

 

Identifying the plants and animals of Sky Meadows Park is a far more

complex and difficult task than most visitors to the Park imagine. Even

though a relatively small park, Sky Meadows is the home to thousands

of plants and animals, from large trees to barely visible insects. The di-

versity of life in Sky Meadows, and the technical expertise and logistics

necessary to collect, record and identify specimens, is formidable, requir-

ing considerable money and time. Like many of Virginia's state parks,

some research has been conducted at Sky Meadows; for several years

both birds and butterflies have been extensively studied and this inform-

ation has been available to Park visitors. More recently (2010-2011), two

separate surveys were conducted to identify the Parks' trees, shrubs, vines,

and forbs/herbs. However, further research is needed to confirm the initial herb/forb findings and most the Park's animals have yet to be adequately

identified.
 

Visitors to Sky Meadows often bring their own field guides to identify
plants and animals. For those visitors who are interested in only one
aspect of Sky Meadows, such as birds, using a Peterson's A Field Guide
to the Birds, East of the Rockies or the Smithsonian's Birds of North
America may be adequate. However, even these excellent works can be
a challenge - they cover large geographical areas and include many birds
that will not be found in Sky Meadows. Using the list of birds provided by
Sky Meadows personnel, however, can greatly reduce the time needed to
correctly identify a bird. Unfortunately, with the exception of birds and
butterflies, using field guides can be tedious, and, in many instances, not
very productive. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
provides information pertaining to fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals,
but the information is not convenient for use while visiting Sky Meadows,
and, as with the above Peterson and Smithsonian field guides, covers many
more plants and animals than occur in Sky Meadows. With no inventory of
plants, and few animals, to narrow the search, the visitor trying to identify
a snake or squirrel is likely to become frustrated. The Nature Guide can
help by providing not only an inventory of plants and animals, but also
information describing each species.

 

The most obvious approach to developing an inventory of Sky Meadow's
plants and animals is simply to observe different species and record their
presence. This approach, however, is not so simple as might first appear.
A variety of complications needs to be recognized.

 

  • The trees, shrubs, and vines found in Sky Meadows are, in general,        believed to be established, permanent residents of the Park. Their iden-   tification is expected to be completed the fastest and easiest. Most ferns        and wildflowers are anticipated to also be either established specimens,           or part of an established community of plants (in the case of annual           plants that reseed themselves). However,it is also expected that some    identified plants may not be established, making an appearance at one          time and location within the Park, but may not reappear the next grow-           ing season.

  • While plants tend to be permanent, animals are much more transitory.        While some animals may spend most of their lives inSky Meadows           Park, many incorporate Sky Meadows as only aportion of their hunt-             ing or mating range. Larger animals such as black bear or white-               tailed deer often inhabit large geographical areas, with their presence               at any give time within Sky Meadows being problematic. Observing           these animals within the Park on one occasion does not guarantee their       being observed at another occasion, or, possibly, ever again.
     

  • Many plants and animals have very specific environmental requirements, which, when altered, may have a dramatic effect on their ability to sur-        vive within Sky Meadows. A significant change in a fragile habitat can       cause a drastic reduction or even expiration of a plant or animal species.        For some of Sky Meadows' plants, and many animals, a stable, consis-          tent source of water is critical for survival - several amphibians and rep-       tiles spe-  cies that may exist for a time within the Park, could be elimi-       nated very quickly during a prolonged drought. In some cases, the hab-         itat range may be very small, covering only a few square feet. Because          Sky Meadows Park is a dynamic, ever changing environment, any inven-      tory of plants or animals can only present what was observed at a given       time under the unique circumstances of that time.
     

A three year identification process will begin in March 2010 and proceed through the end of the growing season in late 2012. Emphasis will be on recording trees, shrubs, vines, ferns and wildflowers (herbs and forbs) throughout the park, with special emphsis on hiking and riding trails. Animals, as observed, will also be recorded.

 

Two major decisions will guide the approach taken to assist in the identi-      fication process: first, existing information sources that help narrow the            focus of identication will be used, and second, limiting the identification       process to those plants and animals most likely to be encountered by visit-           ors to Sky Meadows Park. With the exception of birds and butterflies, there        are no reliable sources of information identifying those plants and animals

believed to currently inhabit Sky Meadows Park. However, there is exten-

sive information concerning the plants of Fauquier County. Under the  aus-

picus of the Virginia Botanical Associates' The Flora of Virginia Project , a detailed inventory (titled the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora) of Virginia

plants and their distribution by county is available, including those plants

known to occur in Fauquier County. It is anticipated that nearly all the

plants of Sky Meadows State Park are included within the Fauquier County inventory. In addition, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisher-

ies has collected information pertaining to the fish, amphibians, reptiles,

and mammals that are most likely to be encountered throughout Virginia,

including those of Fauquier County. Using information for Fauquier County,

the Nature Guide can substantially narrow the scope of plants and animals

that are likely to be found in Sky Meadows Park. As species are confirmed

to exist within the Park, the Nature Guide inventory of plants and animals

can be "winnowed down" for more precision in identification.

 

The second major decision concerns the scope of plants and animals includ-

ed in the Nature Guide. While identifying and describing all plants and ani-

mals is an enviable goal, it is not feasible at this time. The magnitude of re-

cording all insects, for example, far exceeds the capabilities of even the

most dedicated nature enthusiast. Therefore, the guiding principle for the

Nature Guide is to record those plants and animals most likely to be en-

countered during a visit to Sky Meadows.

 

Approach to the understanding of plants and animals

 

Once the plants and animals of Sky Meadows have been identified, des-

criptive information will be provided for each species. Specific informata-

tion pertaining to physical characteristics and life histories allows for bet-

ter understanding of the unique qualities associated with each plant or

animal. Providing descriptive information for each plant and animal spe-

cies is, unfortunately, like the identification process, not as easy as might

be presumed. Scientists have spent hundreds of years developing and per-

fecting terminology applicable for use in the process of identifying and

describing plants and animals. Most of this terminology is unfamiliar to

Sky Meadows visitors, and without it, many species of plants and animals

are virtually impossible to describe, or even to identify. While most visit-

ors to the Park are familiar with such terms as root, trunk, limb, or leaf,

they are probably not familiar with coleoptile, node, auricles, or ligule,

all terms necessary to understand the structure of "true grasses". With the

"true grasses" being one of the most obvious and important groups of

plants in Sky Meadows, the use of unfamiliar technical terminology be-

comes a serious impediment for visitors to the Park. Whenever feasible,

all descriptions are written in as non-technical
language adequate for the description of each plant or animal. A glossary

of potentially unfamiliar terms is provided at the end of each plant and

animal section of the Nature Guide. However, in some cases such as the

"true grasses", there is no substitute for the technical terms.

 

Appreciating the "web of life"

 

Identifying and describing the life histories of the plants and animals of

Sky Meadows Park constitutes only the fist steps in appreciating the more

complex and intriguing interactive relationships that comprise the "web

of life". No aspect of the Nature Guide is more important than making the

visitor to Sky Meadows aware that all components of the natural world are inextricably linked together. No plant or animal observed in the Park is an

isolated entity; each and every living organism dynamically interacts with

the land, air, and water, and with other plants and animals. Any changes in

the Sky Meadows' environment has the potential to dramataically influence

the living organisms of that environment. Even seemly "insignificant"

events can have profound effects - the introduction of a non-native inva-

sive plant species on the boots of hikers, the altering of mowing patterns

in the pasture habitats, or the hiking off designated trails - all can alter the environment just enough to require significant adaptations by the plants

and animals. And whatever adaptations are made may or may not be ben-

eficial to long-term survival. Almost any change in the environment can

have a positive or negative influence - even changes persumed to have

long-term benefits to some species, may have dramatic and detrimental

effects on others. For example, if park authorities allow pasture and mead-

ow habitats to return to forest, this would benefit many trees, but would

also eventually eliminate many wildflower species that require full sun,

while bluebirds, still a common sight in Sky Meadows, would seek out

more open terrain outside the park. By understanding the "web of life"

that comprises Sky Meadows State Park, the full effects of human inter-

vention and the long-term subsequent consequences on plants and animals

can better be appreciated.

 

 

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Plants

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Fungi

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