In the Field

  • so very usefulOf all the county, regional, state, and national parks in the metro area, the best is Fairfax County’s Huntley Meadows Park. If you have only one morning to visit a natural area in the DMV, this is where you want to go. The park’s 1200-plus acres boast an extensive freshwater wetland, along with mixed hardwood/softwood bottomland forest and brushy fields. The wetland, initially formed by beaver activity and maintained by artificial means, is the largest freshwater hemi-marsh in the county; it is crossed by a boardwalk built to modern accessibility standards. An attractive visitors center has outdoor bird feeders, interpretive displays, and classrooms.

    King RailThe park’s bird list encompasses more than 200 species. Specialties include American Woodcock (Philohela minor); rails—King Rail (Rallus elegans) has been a local breeder, and Virginia Rail (R. limicola) and Sora (Porzana carolina) are seen in migration; and herons. Unfortunately, the park’s resident beavers have irregularly maintained the dam that kept the main wetland flooded, and the receding water levels have caused the rails to move elsewhere. Among the herons, the relative quantities vary from year to year with fluctuating water levels, but Great Egret (Casmerodius albus) is on the upswing. Successful nest box programs support Wood Duck (Aix sponsa), Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), and Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis).

    The land was once a plantation owned by colonial Virginia figure George Mason IV, and was occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War. Parcels were acquired early in this century by huckster Henry Woodhouse, who sought to build the George Washington Air Junction, an airport with plans for three runways and docking station for lighter-than-air ships. The property passed into the hands of the federal government after the Second World War, and hosted, in succession, a test area for asphalt, a Cold War anti-aircraft battery, and a hush-hush military radio antenna. Declared surplus, the acreage was acquired by Fairfax County in 1975.

    Huntley Meadows Park has a patron artist, of sorts, in Lyndia Terre, whose meticulously detailed prints feature the park’s wildlife. The Park Authority’s web page for the park is also useful. Species checklists for birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, wildflowers, and dragonflies and damselflies are available from Friends of Huntley Meadows Park.

    To find displaying woodcocks: Visit the park in March or early April, just before dusk. Use the entrance on South Kings Highway, rather than the main entrance on Lockheed Boulevard. Walk in on the paved hike-bike trail a mile or so, past the maintenance yard, to a cleared area.

    Huntley Meadows Park
    3701 Lockheed Boulevard
    Alexandria, VA
    Yellow Line: Huntington (about 3 miles away)

    Stop at the Richmond Highway Krispy Kreme on your way home!

  • Japanese Tea HouseOn the cultivated side, there is Montgomery County’s Brookside Gardens. A 50-acre complex of eleven specialty gardens and conservatories, it is part of Wheaton Regional Park, a complex that includes riding stables, playing fields, and a nature center. There is a garden dedicated to 40 varieties of viburnum, another to roses, and a third to seven acres of azaleas. For me, the highlight is the elegant Gude Garden, nine acres of artificial ponds, outdoor sculpture, and rolling hills featuring mature specimen trees. Adjacent is the Japanese Tea House, an exceedingly tranquil spot (that is, when it’s not overrun with children on a sunny weekend). A one-mile blacktop path makes a discreet circuit around the gardens.

    Brookside Gardens
    1500 Glenallan Avenue
    Wheaton, MD
    Red Line: Glenmont | Red Line: Forest Glen (a longer walk, via Sligo Creek Park)

  • This is the best place to talk about Nature Forward, the region’s premiere nature education and conservation organization. Recently renamed from Audubon Naturalist Society, NF is headquartered at the Woodend Sanctuary. The property is an island of biodiversity inside the Capital Beltway in heavily suburban Chevy Chase. In season, volunteers lead introductory birdwalks on the grounds, which include a pond, wildflower meadow, and woods. In the main building, you will find a snug bookstore/gift shop, with plenty of field guides, monographs, gizmos for the kids, bird feeders, and a modest selection of optics.

    Having recently celebrated its 125th anniversary, the organization runs an extensive calendar of educational programs—everything from parent-and-child outings, to lectures from national experts, to two-week sojourns in Costa Rica. NF continues to evolve within the world’s changing landscape.

    Nature Forward strives to be a model of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) in all ways feasible for us.

    Nature Forward

    Woodend Sanctuary
    8940 Jones Mill Road
    Chevy Chase, MD
    Red Line: Medical Center (about 2 miles away)

  • There are three excellent birdfinding guides for the area. First is Finding Birds in the National Capital Area, by Claudia Wilds (revised edition, 1992). The book focuses on Maryland, Delaware, the District, and the Northern Virginia suburbs, but ranges from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Highland County, Virginia. Going beyond the premium birding information, it’s the peripheral advice that makes Claudia’s book invaluable, like her warnings about speed traps in small-town Delaware.

    More recently published is the well-designed A Birder’s Guide to Virginia, compiled by David W. Johnston for the American Birding Association (1997). I have lightly field-tested this one; from the armchair, I can say that the maps by Cindy Lippincott and Eng-Li Green are models of clarity. On the downside, the lack of a unifying authorial voice is missed. The book includes more than fifteen sites in Northern Virginia, as well as full coverage of the rest of the state.

    Both books include appendices on pelagic trips and hawk watches. They may still available at the bookstore/gift shop at the NF Woodend Sanctuary—I have not checked recently.

    Also look for A Birder’s Guide to Montgomery County, Maryland, prepared by the county chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society in 2001. Thirty-two locations are described, evenly divided between “major sites” and “litte treasures.”

    See also my Goodreads shelf of D.C. guidebooks.

Last updated: Saturday, 4 November 2023 13:21