Even though born in DC, Robin considers herself a lifelong Virginian, albeit one who loves to travel. “Traveling is similar to being out in nature, it’s just another type of discovery,” she explained. She spent two years in France after high school, where she lived with her aunt and uncle and attended the Alliance Francaise and the Sorbonne. A third year aboard was spent in art school in Florence where she worked in sculpture. “Living aboard was very reasonable back then and the dollar went far, particularly with student credentials,” she noted. She returned to the States and obtained her degree from the University of Maryland in anthropology and comparative literature in 1969. “And one of my goals was to make enough money to make the next trip to Europe and later to get to more parts of the world,” she stated, “and I have seen a great deal of it, all wonderfully fascinating.”
Robin has lived in a number of places in Virginia, including Alexandria, where she was a travel agent as well as worked with antiques. She also lived in in Fairfax, Marshall, and Luray. She and her husband settled in Rappahannock in 2004. She became a certified Master Naturalist in 2009. When asked why she initially applied for the class, she said “I saw the ad for the class and it sounded like fun to me!” She has been having fun ever since, as her over 1,900 hours of volunteer service attest.
When and how did you become interested in nature and the natural world? While Robin spent a lot of time during her childhood in nature, it was with horses. She also taught horseback riding for many years. “You see a lot of nature when you’re riding a horse,” she explained. Since becoming a Master Naturalist, she has found her niche – invasive plant removal. She has long been interested in native plants and became concerned about how invasive plants such as garlic mustard and autumn olive were affecting Virginia’s native flora. “The more I learned about invasives, the more I saw them as I drove around Virginia. It depressed me seeing trees along roads being killed by nonnative vines.”
Describe what you do on your property to support a healthy ecosystem.
Robin and her husband Bill have 25 acres in Rappahannock. Their neighbors raise cows and also cut hay on Robin’s land. While her husband “loves to mow grass” she insisted on a big pollinator garden where she plants a large variety of native plants, including native host plants for butterflies and native nectar sources for butterflies and bees. Trees on her property include oaks, elms, hollies, and nut trees; shrubs include dogwoods, viburnums, spicebush and wafer ash; flowering plants include mountain mints, common violets, asters, mallow, indigo and wild senna. She encourages using locally native plants, if possible. “In doing this” she says, “you will enjoy most of our native wildlife. They are adapted to the native flora.” She recommends Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants as an excellent source for good plants to use.
Robin doesn’t cut down the plants in her pollinator garden when they are finished flowering. Instead, she leaves the seed heads and debris in the garden to provide food for birds during the winter, which also provides cover and haven for toads, skinks and other wildlife. “The birds own my garden, not me,” she stated. An example of “birds rule”: Robin planted pussytoes (Antennaria) in her pollinator garden specifically because it is host plant for the American Lady butterfly. She was delighted to see multiple caterpillars on her pussytoe plants that season. “Then a family of catbirds found them – and those little assassins ate every single one!”
Robin and her husband have spent a great deal of time removing invasive plants from the wooded edge to their hay field. “When we take out the invasive plants, native shrubs and then trees come up. It is fun to see and learn from what grows naturally.” They now have hickories and oaks and many other species that had been previously crowded out by invasives.
What is the most amazing thing you have experienced in nature?
“I had always wanted to see a Giant Swallowtail butterfly”, Robin shared, “as they are the largest butterfly in North America.” [Note: Giant Swallowtails are 4 – 6 inches in size.] “While these butterflies are most commonly seen in Florida, where they are considered a serious pest by citrus farmers,” she continued, “they are occasionally seen further north including here in Virginia.”
To entice this butterfly to her farm, Robin included one of the Giant Swallowtail’s favorite food – wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliate) – in her pollinator garden. While walking her dog one morning “a Giant Swallowtail flapped by my head and set down on my wafer ash, where it laid eggs on top of the leaves.” Robin explained that most butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of host plant leaves to hide the emerging caterpillars from hungry predators. Giant Swallowtails, however, have evolved a different way to deter predators. Their caterpillars look unappetizingly like bird droppings. Robin had her husband build a cage around the plant where the Giant Swallowtail had laid her eggs, in recognition that the mortality rate of butterfly larvae is enormous. “This was in July,” she said. “Three caterpillars survived and pupated in late summer. We took them into our garage, where they were dormant until the following May, when they emerged and flew away. I got to watch the whole process from egg-laying to mature butterfly.”
Adult giant swallowtail and young larva (illustrating bird dropping mimicry),
photograph by Donald Hall, Entomology and nematology Department, University of Florida
Tell us about the projects where you have volunteered and what made the biggest impression on you.
One of her first volunteer efforts was ORMN’s multi-year project to clear out invasive plants the from the alluvial forest area along the Thornton River. The project started at the Buck Hollow Trail Head in coordination with Shenandoah National Park. Targeted invasives included Oriental bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose, garlic mustard, Oriental lady’s thumb, Ailanthus altissima (tree of heaven), and Japanese stilt grass. Robin takes a lot of pride in the team effort and the visible progress they have made. “It’s starting to look like the forest is supposed to look,” she declared. She is also impressed with the other ORMN volunteers who participate in this effort. “It is back-breaking work and involves 2-3 hours a week throughout the year as individuals are able to participate” she noted. “Most people don’t enjoy pulling weeds in their own garden, let alone somewhere else!”
The first year Robin served on the ORMN Board, she mentioned at a meeting that the chapter should consider participating in the butterfly count that was sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). “’Good idea – you’re in charge’ was the response,” she said. She helped organize the first butterfly count in 2011, in coordination with the Washington/Virginia Butterfly Association. ORMN conducted its first annual count within a 15-mile diameter circle in Rappahannock County on private properties after securing permission from the landowners. Robin explained that the count here takes place on the next to the last Saturday in July. Butterfly counts are done all over North America (and worldwide), most occurring in July or August. There are also spring and fall counts in some areas, as butterflies do not appear in just the summer months.
“It’s not a ‘make-work’ project but rather provides data that are entered into a national data base managed by NABA,” Robin noted. These data from around the country are then used by scientists who are studying whether the number of specific butterfly species is constant or in decline. She has learned much from this project, including what contributes to butterfly decline.
Her final words of advice: “Go native when you plant: the birds, bees and mammals all seem to benefit from my natives.”
Interviewed by Charlene Uhl, December 2020