Monthly Archives: October 2015

Tales of the Super-natural In County Parks

Accotink Creek TresselLights that mysteriously flicker off and on, empty chairs rocking on their own, footsteps being heard on abandoned floors, and specters dressed in stovepipe hats — these are among the creepy tales from Park Authority staff to make your spine tingle on Halloween.

Hidden Pond Manager Mike McCaffrey is a master of the spooky campfire story, and the site has given him plenty of material over the years. In his first weekend on the job at Hidden Pond Nature Center, a family complained to him about a woman who had glared at them from the house. The complaints have continued over the years, and staff members have seen the woman in the window after the doors have been locked and the alarm set for the night.

Hidden PondMcCaffrey once contacted the former owner of the house that is now Hidden Pond’s administration building. She told him about a night when she thought she heard her ailing mother’s rocking chair. But when she went to check on her, she instead found a man in a stovepipe hat sitting comfortably in the chair. She quickly turned the lights on and the man faded away, but the rocker kept rocking.

During a Hidden Pond Halloween program, a group of students saw a man in the shadows watching them. As he moved toward them from the darkness, they noticed he wore a stovepipe hat. But when they shined their flashlight on him the beam went right through him. The sighting occurred on the exact same spot where a family had seen a similar man five years earlier.

Tawny Hammond has stories to tell about mysterious happenings during her 12 years at Lake Accotink Park. She says she was pretty good at dismissing or explaining away sudden shadows, glowing balls of light in the air, breezes on windless evenings, and doors that seemingly shut themselves, but there is one episode that defies her explanation.

As she was doing some research at the Library of Congress in 2003, she came across a Civil War era photo of the train trestle in the park. She thought it looked just like the photo hanging in her office back at the park, but this photo had a man in the foreground wearing a long black coat and stovepipe hat. She thought about purchasing a copy of the photo but wanted to make sure it was different from the one already hanging on her wall. So, she called the office and had staff check to make sure there was not a figure in a stovepipe hat in the park photo. After being assured the photo was different, she made her purchase. When Hammond got back to the office, she was surprised to see this same tall man hanging on her office wall. She called the staff together to ask why they misled her. Hammond says they stared at the photo in disbelief and thought she was playing a trick on them because the figure in the stovepipe hat had not been in the photo the last time they looked.

Years earlier, a watchman abruptly quit at Lake Accotink after being frightened by a man apparently walking with half his legs beneath the soil. He was tall, dressed in a long black coat and wore a stovepipe hat. Another past worker told a similar tale about the distinctly dressed man.

In 2001, Chrissy Mead thought she was working alone at Lewinsville House when she heard footsteps in the house. The parking lot was empty, but she looked around to see if someone had returned. She even called out to whoever it might be, but she didn’t see anyone or hear anything but the footfalls. When she later shared her story with her Cultural Resources coworkers, they weren’t surprised. Seems others had heard the footsteps in the past, too.

Over the years, many people have reported seeing a 1940s era limousine parked on Stoneybrooke Mansion’s front lawn. A police unit that was sent to investigate one such limo sighting claimed to have seen the car with a steaming exhaust pipe, but then it disappeared right before their eyes.

Closing managers at Hunter House in Nottoway Park have stories to tell about mysterious footsteps, and one night Park Specialist Matt Devor says that each time he locked the front door, the lights in the small front room would turn back on.

In Round Tree park, people have told stories about a lady who walks the creek bed looking for her kids.

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park sits on Walney Road in Chantilly, and Northern Virginia Magazine puts Walney Road on its list of “5 Best Places in NoVa to pick up…Ghosts.” The magazine reports that before the road was paved, a pedestrian out for a nighttime walk was hit and killed by a car. As the tale goes, if you now drive down the road around midnight, you’ll come across his ghost. If you drive past him twice without giving him a ride, he may cause an accident by materializing in your car.

So, keep your eyes and ears open this Halloween. You might be in for a spooky treat.

Story compiled by Carol Ochs.  Contributions from Matthew Kaiser.


The Value of Exhibit Animals at Nature Centers

OwlTouching a live turtle, smelling skunkweed, or seeing a beaver up close for the first time is a personal, memorable, and educational experience.

At Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) in Chantilly, Va., we have three live birds of prey that we use for programming, and standing a few feet from a raptor that most people only see circling in the sky or hear on a faraway tree branch can be an eye-popping experience. We want people to have these meaningful and memorable experiences, and housing exhibit animals is one way to do that.

Caring for a raptor is a little more complicated than providing a home for a parakeet. There are challenges, and chief among them is meeting the federal and commonwealth legal requirements for their care and use. We can’t just catch an animal and put it on display. By law, wildlife belongs to Virginia, and we must have permits from the commonwealth in order to care for and display animals. Jim Dewing, ECLP’s Resource Manager and Interpretive Naturalist, has the personal permits and permissions that are required to hold, house, and display these unique animals.

Our use of the birds for interpretation requires care and a range of humane needs, and those needs may include issues related to an injury that may prevent a rehabilitated animal from being released back into its wild habitat. We have to consider the safety of the birds, the public, and the staff. These are, after all, predators. There are ethical concerns in keeping and confining live animals for interpretive purposes, and we address those with established policies and industry standards that guide how, when, and in what way we use the animals. Once again, there are state and county regulations governing these issues, and each of our staffed sites has procedures in place that can go beyond these requirements. In addition, our care of domestic animals, such as the cows, pigs and chickens at Frying Pan Farm Park, follow county Animal Control Services guidelines.

We use exhibit animals:

  • To support summer, spring break, and school holiday camps
  • To enrich animal club activities
  • To support traditional programming
  • For school and public outreach
  • To support agency summer camp staff training
  • At campfire and wagon ride programs
  • To support home school classes
  • For special community events such as Springfest
  • As tools for first aid and safe handling training of animals by Animal Control personnel.

In addition to the priorities of care and interpretation, we create a business model to ensure the animals help us earn enough revenue to pay for their care so that they are of value to each park’s overall mission and objectives. Before assuming responsibility for an animal, a park has to ensure hosting the animal meets the site’s objectives effectively, efficiently, and ethically.

One of those objectives is interpretation – personal, memorable, educational experiences that bring us closer to natural resources, makes us more comfortable outdoors, and helps everyone to become better stewards of the natural resources that keep us healthy and the cultural resources that help reveal who we are.


Author John Shafer is a Naturalist and the Manager of Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly. Call ECLP at 703-631-0013 for information about programs that include raptor interpretation. A version of this story was published in the NAI Region 2 publication Chesapeake Chat.


Jesse, Our Gentle Giant, Passes

JesseThe horse stalls at Kidwell Farm are empty for the first time in over 30 years. Jesse, a Percheron draft horse, passed away this past Sunday morning at the age of 35. Frying Pan Farm Park has been the home for draft horses for over three decades, until yesterday. The pastures, paddocks, and horse stalls were no longer filled with the gentle giants.

Michael and JessieJesse was a part of the beloved duo known by thousands as Jesse and Michael and could always be found pulling wagon rides and other antique farm equipment for demonstration purposes. When not working, they would be grazing in pastures with the other farm animals, or standing in their stalls waiting for the next child to be helped up by their parent to reach Jesse or Michael’s face and gently caress them.   Michael passed away two years ago, and Jesse remained one of the farm’s most popular attractions.

Jessie and friendsFrying Pan Farm Park’s Kidwell Farm is full of many other farm animals that are visited by hundreds of people daily, but the farm will look a bit vacant for right now without Jesse. Jesse was a wonderful part of Kidwell Farm and will be missed.


Author Todd Brown is the Operations Branch Manager in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division and a former site manager of Frying Pan Farm Park.


Into the Glop: A Tale of Eagle and Duck

If all goes well, you’ll see more of Hidden Pond next summer thanks to the work of an Eagle Scout candidate. Chad Denman of Boy Scout Troop 1140 recently was talking with staff at Hidden Pond Nature Center in Springfield, Va., when he saw the site’s namesake pond enveloped in duckweed. That sighting was all he needed.

On Saturday, September 26, Denman gathered friends, family, fellow scouts and classmates from the New School of Northern Virginia for some gloppy work in the muck and the mud at the pond. He tells the story:

The duckweed removed from the pond during the project is being recycled into a fertilizer test. Hidden Pond Nature Center Manager Mike McCaffrey and staff hauled the removed plants to a small area behind the park office, where the duckweed was placed into a clearing of about 100 square feet. McCaffrey plans to clear an identical area next to the duckweed station, but this second area will get no duckweed. His plan is to plant matching flowers and vegetables in each area next summer and compare the results.

If the duckweed area produces more or better flowers and vegetables than its neighbor, McCaffrey may invite residents to come to the pond and remove duckweed, which they could then take home and use as fertilizer or a planting material.



Fairfax County Park Authority parks welcome Eagle Scout and Girl Scout Bronze, Silver and Gold Award projects. Contact the manager at any staffed park for information. Learn more about scouting programs in parks on the Park Authority website. Visit Hidden Pond Nature Center at 8511 Greeley Blvd. in Springfield, Va.

Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Night Thief

Or What Happened to My Bird Seed?

The thief was not who we expected.

We have a bird feeder in our back yard – actually, several of them — just outside our kitchen window. They have brought us color, nature and joy along with cardinals, goldfinches, titmice, blue jays, wrens, juncos, finches, woodpeckers and hummingbirds.

For three straight recent mornings, the feeders were empty. On the first day, I thought we just hadn’t seen a raucous feeding of birds the prior evening. On day two, I thought it a bid odd. On day three, I knew something was amiss.

Our feeders are spring loaded. If a large bird or a mammal steps on the perch, a door closes the feed area. That’s led to some acrobatic innovation in the general squirrel population throughout the woods and creek behind our house, but no particular problems. Since our common, local birdfeeder visitors are not night feeders, we started wondering who was visiting in the dark. We considered a flying squirrel, lighter in weight than our daytime gray squirrels, and a Park Authority naturalist suggested a deer. At Hidden Oaks Nature Center, deer have been seen nosing bird feeders sideways and emptying them in a matter of seconds.

The thought of seeing a deer nose its way to a meal was attractive, so we decided to set up a video camera on a tripod inside the kitchen window to catch the burglary as it happened. That very first night, just as I was unleashing our dog following an evening walk, it struck.

It was not a squirrel.

It was not a deer.

It was not the neighbor down the street who also has a bird feeder.

We caught the culprit on camera:


Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Big Changes Coming This Winter: Get in the Know About Snow Closures

Red mulberry at sunsetDealing with snow used to be so easy. The kids would rejoice over an unexpected respite from homework, the shelves at the market would be empty, hardware stores were out of sleds and workout clothes lay unused on the chair. In the past, if Fairfax County Public Schools closed, Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) facilities were closed, too.

But no more! We heard your concerns loud and clear. We’ve listened to our customers, and we’re changing our ways. Beginning November 1, 2015 new procedures will be in place to deal with weather-related cancelations and closures this winter. Unless Fairfax County closes all county facilities, RECenters and other park facilities will remain open for general use. Classes, team practices, parties and even weddings will go on as planned at Park Authority facilities, unless canceled by the customer or FCPA.

The school system has a tough call to make. It’s a big county, and while your road might be clear, others may be slipping and sliding on roadways the snow plows have yet to find. Some days, the schools may struggle with arctic temperatures that are just too darn cold for kids to be standing at bus stops or for buses to start.

Getting in your workout or taking your kids to a tumbling class is not worth the risk if you live on a treacherous road. Our refund policy will remain flexible as we all figure out the best way to make this change. But if you’re lucky enough to see pavement and want to crank up the heat in your car, the Park Authority will be there for you with drop in fitness classes, warm pools and programs at as many park venues as practicable. Sure, there may be some glitches, some troubles getting the word out or cancelations beyond our control. We will deal them and work hard to improve those situations in the future.

Here’s what you need to know:

If Fairfax County Government is closed all day, Fairfax County Park Authority facilities are closed all day, too. Simple, right? That means FCPA classes, camps and events held at RECenters or other Park Authority facilities are canceled.

If Fairfax County Government opens late, things gets a little more complicated. The FCPA will announce opening times for its RECenters and other facilities on its website at and on the Inclement Weather Line at 703-324-8661. If you’re into social media, you can find out through Facebook and Twitter – and you can always give the facility itself a call. If you’re part of a swim team or other group that rents space from the FCPA, check with that organization to see what they’ve decided to do. There are lots of ways to get in the know about the snow!

When the county opens late, FCPA classes, camps and events held at RECenters or other FCPA facilities that begin before 11 a.m. will be canceled. Events that begin at 11 a.m. or later will operate as scheduled, unless announced otherwise. We have to allow to some leeway for special circumstances.

Let your youngsters dawdle over breakfast. When the county opens late, the morning preschool programs at Lee District and Spring Hill will operate from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Afternoon preschool will run from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., unless announced otherwise.

If storms move in during the day and Fairfax County Government closes early, FCPA facilities will close for the rest of the day, beginning at the announced time. That means everything grinds to a halt – classes, camps, evening activities and anything else planned for a RECenter or other FCPA facility starting at the announced time. Morning preschool at Lee District and Spring Hill won’t be affected, but afternoon preschool may be canceled, at the announced time.

Do you take Park Authority classes such as dance or martial arts at a studio? Now, what happens if you’re enrolled in an FCPA program that is held at a private business location? In that case, the best thing to do is to call that site directly or get in touch with your instructor.

If you signed up for a day trip or tour, you might still be in luck. FCPA-sponsored bus tours will operate as scheduled, unless you get a phone call telling you the trip is off. You also can check for weather cancelations or changes on the Trips and Tours Hotline at 703-324-TOUR (8687).

However, if you’ve registered for an FCPA class or event that takes place in a Fairfax County Public School building, you may need to spend more time with the family. Obviously, if a school is closed, we can’t let you in. Any event scheduled during a time that schools will be closed will be canceled. If schools open late, FCPA classes will resume at the school when it reopens.

You spoke up last year about your frustration with all the closures and cancelations, and we listened. We hope the new changes will allow more FCPA classes and events to take place as scheduled during the area’s fickle winter weather.

So this winter, keep a weather eye on the barometer, take a deep breath and join us as we make the changes that you – our valued customers asked for. And remember you can find out all the details at or 703-324-8661.