Tag Archives: Alexandria

Toddlers Love Our Garden Oasis

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Are you looking for a garden oasis in the suburban jungle to explore with your toddler or little one? Go explore Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria , one of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s most popular sites. I am ashamed to admit that I have lived in Fairfax County for nearly 30 years and never knew that Green Spring Gardens existed until just a few years ago. Since then, Green Spring Gardens has become my “go to” get away to a not-so-secret garden paradise right in the heart of the community.

As a busy working mom and Park Authority Board member, free time with my three year old is precious to me and I am constantly trying to expose my little guy to nature and beautiful things. I was born without a green thumb but I am grateful to the hundreds of volunteers and staff who have transformed Green Spring Gardens into such an amazing place.

Green Spring is the perfect destination for a family with young children to explore. First of all it’s FREE! But more importantly, the paved pathways are stroller friendly and the surroundings are peaceful and gorgeous. If you are a new mom looking for a place to stroll safely and quietly with your newborn or if you have an active toddler that needs some space to run and explore, Green Spring is a wonderful place to visit for an hour or two any day of the week.

The great thing about Green Spring is that even on the hottest days of summer it seems a bit cooler in the park. There’s lots of open space to safely run and play and there are plenty of butterflies to chase.

My toddler is enchanted by the secret pathways that wind through the trees (Mommy Tip: one “Secret” pathway is directly to the right of the stairs from the parking lot – so you can begin your exploration adventure right from the start).

Another favorite draw for my toddler is the newly refurbished gazebo which he loves to run around and play in. We practice our stretches and “Simon Says” skills in the gazebo and he just lights up as he hops and jumps down the stairs.

As a bonus, Moms and Dads who are looking for ideas to renovate even the smallest of yards can explore the demonstration gardens. These are great examples of how to use native plants to transform a townhouse size yard into your own garden oasis. Little ones will love exploring these too!

Throughout the gardens there are small bridges to cross and hidden benches to climb. A stroll down to the ponds to look for frogs and lily pads is sure to delight any child. If your children are older, many of the plants and trees are labeled so you can begin to teach them the names of the species surrounding them.

Not only is Green Spring a beautiful and peaceful place but it’s the perfect environment to develop your child’s imagination and connect nature to the stories you are reading to them. Whenever we visit we always spot one or more of what I call the four B’s: butterflies, bumble bees, birds and bunnies! Is your toddler into getting their hands a little dirty? Then steer them to the recently renovated Children’s garden. Here children can dig in the dirt and practice their planting skills.

If it’s raining OUTside then head INside to explore the Glasshouse “jungle” to look for imaginary jungle animals. Little girls may dream of fairies and connect with fairy tales in patches in pretty flowers. Spend some quiet time in the library. There is a book corner with large and small chairs set aside just for children and their accompanying adults.

The Horticulture Center has a wonderful little gift shop that includes children’s gardening themed items. Net proceeds come back to the park to be used for programs. Even a few moments admiring the art on display will start your child on a lifelong appreciation of drawing and painting. Check out the program and events calendar. Garden Sprouts programs are targeted to the preschool set.

In this busy Mom’s opinion Green Spring Gardens offers a wonderful opportunity for you to find a place to clear your mind and for your little one to explore in an unstructured way and learn to delight in the natural world around them. As a parent I think one of the best lessons to teach our little ones in the early years is that beauty is everywhere and we need to protect and nurture it.

So bring your little one to Green Spring Garden to discover what a beautiful world it can be!

Here are some of my Mommy DO’s and DON’Ts for visiting Green Spring Gardens with your toddler or little one:

  • DON’T stress about parking. There’s plenty of parking with easy access to the gardens. If you have a stroller, park at either end of the parking lot (closer to the Historic House or Horticulture Center for the easiest access. No need to stress about long walks and you don’t have to haul a diaper bag along because the car is never far away.
  • DO bring bug spray and sunscreen.
  • DO bring a change of clothes. If your toddler has a little too much fun in the Children’s garden you’ve got a back-up plan.
  • DO explore the “secret pathways” which are marked with stepping stones.
  • DO explore the Children’s Garden.
  • DO encourage your children to stop and smell the flowers. Remember this is a no picking and collecting park, that includes flowers, leaves, sticks, rocks and insects.
  • DO take photos of the flowers. These are a great teaching tool for your kids when you get home.
  • DO bring a snack (there are lots of benches and plenty of grass to lay on – bring a blanket just in case).
  • DO bring nature themed books to read with your child while you have a snack in the Gardens.
  • DO visit the horticulture center and the glass house!
  • DON’T worry about changing diapers – the bathrooms in the horticulture center have a place for you to change your little one. There are even footstools to give your child a boost so that they can wash their hands at the sink. In a pinch, there are always quiet out of the way spots and garbage cans throughout the park if you can’t get to the restrooms for an emergency diaper change.
  • DO visit the garden store. After exploring the gardens take a few items home for your child to continue to develop their green thumb and bring a piece of the adventure home.

Written by Kala Leggett Quintana, Fairfax County Park Authority Board Member, At-large

Time: When People Were The Analog

Green Spring’s Demonstration Garden/Sun clock

Time.

Sun ClockIn our society, we live by time machines. The clock awakens us each morning, regulates our day, signals sleep when the day is done, and drives us crazy on NFL Sundays. Time for humans is an analog clock with a face and hands or an electronic device with digital numbers. Nature has a different system. In nature, there are no numbers. Time is dictated by the sun.

At Green Spring Gardens, the Master Gardeners, with help from Boy Scout Troop 1128 of Vienna, have created a garden for children that celebrates time and the sun. In the center of the garden is an interactive sun clock. It’s made of cement stepping stones with numbers outlined in mosaics and tiled stones that represent the months of the year.

Children visiting this garden learn about time from the sun as our ancestors did. They stand on the stone for the current month, raise a hand high to become the device’s analog and let their shadow fall on the correct time. Daylight savings and regular time are both displayed on this sun clock.

Children also can tell time by the flowers in this sun garden.  The Children’s Garden is planted with morning glories which open as the sun rises; sunflowers that look skyward and move as the sun arcs across the sky; multicolored four o’clocks that awaken in late afternoon to brighten up a dark corner; evening primrose that heralds day’s end with a bright yellow flower; and the moon vine, a flower that sleeps all day and unfolds into bright whiteness when the sun slips under the horizon.

In addition to the sun clock, the Children’s Garden has a teepee that will be covered in bean vines by summer and a sensory garden that excites touch, smell, sound, and sight. Imagination flies at the garden as children take off on new adventures while hidden under the vines of purple string beans and pretzel beans. Scented geraniums, fragrant thyme and chocolate mint add to the taste of the air, while strawberries and jelly bean blueberries add flashes of color.

Like any garden, it grows and changes with the passing of days, so it can be worth several visits. This summer, take some of that time we’ve been talking about and spend it in the children’s garden at Green Spring Gardens.

Come and enjoy an afternoon with your children and celebrate time, the sun and the beauty and fun that nature provides. The Children’s Garden is one of more than 20 thematic, demonstration gardens at Green Spring Gardens, 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, Va.

Author Pamela Smith is the Community Horticulture Program Coordinator at Green Spring Gardens.

Staff Manages Snakehead Threat At Huntley Meadows Park

Thirty-three Northern snakeheads were removed from the central wetland last fall.

Fifty Northern snakeheads were removed from the central wetland last summer.

One of the wildlife critters we’ll be keeping an eye on following the wetlands reconstruction at Huntley Meadows Park is the Northern snakehead. The exotic, predatory fish has been in the Dogue Creek portion of the Potomac River since at least 2004. They are well established in the Potomac River and have spread to other Chesapeake Bay tributaries. They were first seen in the Huntley Meadows central wetland in 2009.

Now, five years after the first sighting in the park and following the reconstruction that adds water depth to the central wetlands, there are new questions about the impact the snakehead will have at Huntley Meadows.

We sat down with the experts to get a better feel for the issue. Here are some questions and answers about snakeheads from that conversation with Huntley Meadows Park Manager Kevin Munroe, Huntley Meadows Resource Manager Dave Lawlor, and former Park Authority Resource Management and Protection Branch Manager Charles Smith:

Which species are most at risk from the introduction of snakeheads to the central wetland?

Smith: From our discussions about wetland management, the biggest concerns are the amphibians, particularly the frogs. Huntley Meadows has one of the only, and certainly the largest, breeding populations of southern leopard frogs in the region. There is concern that snakeheads could greatly reduce this population.

Lawlor: The native fish species will likely see the biggest impact from snakeheads.  However, after an electroshocking project last summer, the fish biomass and species abundance was very high and impressed everyone present, including the experts.  We do not know what kind of impact they are having on our amphibian populations.  The most significant impact would be the southern leopard frogs.  However, given the wetland project’s deep pool habitat created for fish and their predators (kingfishers, otters, bald eagle, grebes, etc.), all fish, including snakeheads, will probably experience more predation. This is a good thing, as it creates a more complete food web, and it may mean snakeheads experience more control from otters and eagles.

Staff use electro-fishing equipment to shock and count fish. Snakeheads are removed.

Staff use electro-fishing equipment to shock and count fish. Snakeheads are removed.

Is there any evidence that snakeheads are negatively impacting any species in the park?

Smith: There is no evidence yet.

At what age do snakeheads start having babies?

Lawlor: I believe they are sexually mature when they reach about 12 to 16 inches long.  We caught two here a couple of years ago, both around two to three pounds (17 to 20 inches), and they were both full of eggs.

Small schools of snakehead fry have been seen near the park.  Where would the adult female live?

Smith: In the same general environment – shallow water, often in vegetated areas.

Lawlor:  Females snakeheads of breeding age are living in the wetland complexes and likely in the central wetland along with many siblings and offspring.  Staff conducted an electroshock cull last summer while the wetland was drawn down for construction. Fifty snakeheads were removed from the wetland, including some large three to five-pound specimens.  Unfortunately, it appears snakeheads are here permanently, and we will have to continue to manage their populations.

Which animals eat snakeheads? Is it enough to control the snakehead population?

Smith: Wading birds, osprey, eagles, otter, snakes, and snapping turtles can all eat snakeheads depending on their size. It apparently is not enough to prevent snakeheads from breeding, but no one knows if there are enough predators to keep the snakeheads in check.

Lawlor: I would just add other fish, assuming other fish are able to survive in the wetland with them.  With the deeper pool habitat being created with the wetland project, other fish (crappie, perch, sunfish etc.) should have a chance to flourish in the wetland, too, and all of these fish eat other fish.

What should a person do if they spot a snakehead in Huntley Meadows? Is it ok to net and kill snakeheads on the boardwalk?

Lawlor: We ask people to notify us if they see a snakehead in the park.  We would prefer not to have the public randomly killing fish.  Not everyone knows how to ID a snakehead.

Is there a program in place to monitor snakeheads in the central wetland? 

Lawlor: I wouldn’t say we have a plan to monitor them, but they will be managed by removal whenever possible.  We are considering doing some removal this summer.

Are there any regularly scheduled culling dates?

Smith: Part of the design of the wetland restoration is to create deeper pools that can provide habitat for fish and other species during drought periods. During extremely low water, snakeheads should be confined to these pools. Park and county staff could then enter the pools with electrofishing equipment and remove all of the snakeheads in the pools while leaving the native species. This should provide the opportunity to greatly reduce the snakehead population every several years if not control them outright.

Lawlor:  We don’t have regularly scheduled culls, but we did a cull last summer and will continue to conduct culling operations when low water levels make it possible.

Is there a point at which we say, well, snakeheads are here, they may be non-native but they’re now a part of our local ecosystem?

Munroe:  We don’t know enough yet about the impact snakeheads have on our native ecosystems. They may turn out to be less of an issue than we originally thought, or they may be much worse. As we learn more, we can get a better handle on what our long-term approach and attitude should be.

Lawlor: I think that it is safe to say they are here to stay, after seeing the numbers of fish we removed from the wetland this past summer.  We have to accept that they are here, but we will do our best to manage the populations and keep their influence on our delicate ecosystem as small as possible.

What will deeper water in the wetland, one result of the reconstruction project, mean for the proliferation of snakeheads?

Smith: They can go where the water is, so snakeheads would follow the expanding pool during deeper water periods.

Lawlor: Also they would be able to survive the most severe droughts that would normally kill off their population. So the deeper water will ultimately benefit their populations in the wetland. But as Charles mentioned, this will be an opportunity for staff to manage their number by catching or shocking them in the deep water pools as we did in summer of 2013.

How big can a snakehead grow in the central wetland?

Lawlor: This is still unknown in the wetland system.  A record snakehead was caught in the Potomac River in 2013, around 17 to 18 pounds.  I am not sure they will be able to get that big in the wetlands because they will not have nearly as much forage – if they stick to fish.  So far the biggest snakehead caught in the central wetland was about five pounds.

Bowfin, lamprey and American eel look a little like snakeheads. Are those fish seen in Huntley Meadows?

Munroe: American eels yes, but not the other two species. However, eel have uniformly brown backs and sides, while snakeheads are patterned with black blotches on a pale background, much like a python, hence the name.

Former Huntley Meadows Park staff member Danielle McCallum holds a 17” Northern snakehead caught while electro-fishing Dogue Creek in 2008.  This was the first snakehead caught in the park.

Former Huntley Meadows Park staff member Danielle McCallum holds a 17” Northern snakehead caught while electro-fishing Dogue Creek in 2008. This was the first snakehead caught in the park.

Lawlor:  American eels are common in the Dogue Creek and Barnyard Run watersheds.  The least brook lamprey is also found in the Dogue Creek Watershed, although none have been found in the wetland yet.  Least brook lampreys are typically less than six inches in length.  As Kevin mentioned, eels and lampreys are generally a solid brown or tan and do not have any patterns on their flanks making them easily distinguishable from snakehead fish.  I am not aware of any positive ID of a bowfin in Fairfax County, but they are found in some Virginia rivers.

Can people fish for snakeheads in Huntley Meadows?

Munroe: No. Fishing is not allowed at Huntley Meadows Park.

Is it safe to say that snakeheads are breeding in the central wetland?

Lawlor: Yes!  We will continue to manage their populations the best we can to reduce their influence on the wetlands ecosystem.

Prepared by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer; and Dave Ochs, stewardship communications manager.

Wetland Restoration Project Starts to Sing!

The wetland restoration project at Huntley Meadows Park is nearly complete.

The wetland restoration project at Huntley Meadows Park is nearly complete.

After 22 years of planning, three environmental engineering firms, numerous design drafts, and more than 60 public meetings, it’s hard to believe that the Huntley Meadows Wetland Restoration Project is just days from completion. As Fairfax County Park Authority  staff struggle with the challenges of directing contractors, managing finances, unpredictable weather and inevitable construction delays, the park’s wildlife have decided to ignore all these silly human issues and literally dive into the project.

First, a little context

Raising and then managing the wetland’s water levels in order to maintain a hemi-marsh full of biodiversity is the project’s primary goal. The wetland has been slowly, steadily losing depth for several decades because of silt and cattail spread. It lost almost a foot of depth since the 1980s. That’s one-third of its water, since it was never more than about three feet deep.

The restoration design has three main aspects — creating an earthen dam with a vinyl center to regain that lost foot of depth, installing pipes to create seasonally fluctuating water levels (essential for maintaining a healthy hemi-marsh), and excavating several deeper pools to create refuge for wetland wildlife during summer droughts and winter freezes. As an added plus, the project doubles the wetland’s boundaries, seasonally flooding surrounding forest to create additional swampland and vernal pools. Combined, those events restore a paradise for wildlife and wildlife watchers.

At least that was the idea. But would it work? Would 22 years of planning pay off? Would park wildlife agree with and adopt the design, or would we end up with a beautiful but empty wetland as animals high-tailed it for other parks not full of excavating bulldozers, 20-person construction crews and enough silt-fence to surround a small country? I’ve been telling people that three years was a good amount of time to wait until we saw real results. It turned out all the wetland needed was seven days of rain.

Seven days, not three years

Remember back in mid-October when it rained non-stop for a week? Well, the construction was far from complete, but the dam and pipes were finished. So we were able to raise the water level back to its 1986 levels plus an additional 10 inches. Wetland boundaries expanded, areas were submerged that had been dry for 30 years, and then we waited, watched, and listened. As park staff struggled with submerged trails and a small section of boardwalk that flirted with the idea of floating away, wildlife chose to ignore these mundane issues and had a ball.

Huntley’s resource manager, Dave Lawlor, and I were walking the trails to determine which sections to raise when we heard what sounded like the roar of a low plane moving towards us over the flooded wetland. The roar got louder, Dave and I had to shout to hear ourselves, but when we looked around — no plane in sight. Then we realized the deafening sound moving like a wave across the wetland was the largest chorus of southern leopard frogs we’d ever heard. One male frog starts to croak, cackle and gargle, his neighbor feels competitive and tries to outdo him, his neighbor does the same, and in seconds the sound wave rolls across 40 acres of wetland, echoing into the surrounding forest. The extreme volume was due to the increased wetland footprint. This was the largest the wetland had been in over 30 years, creating an enormous stage for one of Northern Virginia’s least common frogs and one of the species we had hoped to help with this project. “Build it and they will come” and sing.

Photo by Ed Eder

Southern leopard frogs, one of the least common frog species in Northern Virginia, are already benefitting from the expanded wetland.

The return of the birds

Wonderfully, and thankfully for an anxiously waiting park manager, southern leopard frogs were not the only wildlife that adopted and utilized the restored wetland. One morning as I joined Charles Smith, FCPA’s lead naturalist and resource protection manager, to inspect the project, we heard a warbled, bouncy bird call coming from the edge of a recently excavated habitat pool. “Purple finch? Goldfinch? No, I think it’s a winter wren!” A tiny, mouse-like bird that flits down from New England to spend its winters hiding in the moist thickets of the mid-Atlantic had its head thrown back and was singing its heart out from a wildlife brush shelter constructed only days before.

Unfortunately, a few hundred trees had to come down in order to create the new dam, pipes and pools. Our goal was to use all of those trees on-site as habitat enhancements (brush shelters, sunning logs for turtles, underwater breeding habitat for crayfish, etc.), and winter wrens were one of the species we were hoping to attract.

That same morning we heard several belted kingfishers throwing their rattling cries across the wetland, diving for fishy snacks in the newly excavated pools, and over the last few weeks numerous ducks have appeared to feed, court and mate in the expanded wetland. Northern shovelers, northern pintails, green-winged teal, and American black ducks are just a few of the winter waterfowl species now in the wetland, visiting from their summer homes in Canada and our upper Midwest.

None of the species I’ve mentioned so far, from frogs to ducks, are new to Huntley, but their numbers appear to have increased this fall/winter because of the larger wetland and historic water depth. Our goal was never to attract new species, but rather to return the marshland wildlife back to their 1980s numbers, and to convince rails, bitterns and grebes to nest here again as they did several decades ago. Will king rails and pied-billed grebes build nests and give birth again to new generations next spring and summer? We’ll see or, more accurately, we’ll listen.

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Mike Rollband, president and owner of Wetland Studies and Solutions Inc., discusses the wetland restoration project.

Author Kevin Munroe is the site manager at Huntley Meadows Park. See more photos of the project on Flickr.

The Gardener’s Bag of Tricks

Gardeners choose tools that work well and stick with them.

You never know what you will find in a gardener’s tool bag.

What do you carry in your garden tool bag?

I became intrigued by this question while working with Program Assistant Jean Hersey in the Green Spring Family Garden. We were doing some direct seed sowing in the garden, when Jean turned to me and said, “Here, take my fondue fork.  I never go to any garden job without a fondue fork.”  I was puzzled.  I have never heard of anyone using a fondue fork in the garden.  “Oh yes. I use it to make holes to sow seeds and use it to mark where a plant should go. It has all kinds of uses. Oh yeah. And duct tape.”  Fondue forks? Duct tape? 

So I started asking gardeners: What do you carry in your garden tool bag?  The unanimous tool favorites among Green Spring staff were the Japanese Hori Hori soil knife for digging into tough clay soil and cutting through root balls (hori is Japanese for “dig”), the Japanese angle-necked weeder for working up shallow-rooted weeds, a good pair of pruners for keeping plants trimmed up, a pointed trowel, and a tip bag or trug to collect weeds.

I agree.  These are tools every gardener should have and the reason why the Green Spring Garden gift shop keeps them in stock.  I started giving angled weeders away as gifts because people were loath to return mine once they tried it. I also love the Hori Hori knife except for one design flaw: The natural wood handle blends in with the garden surroundings and I have all too often misplaced it.  I lose it in the fall and find it in the garden sometime in early spring, somewhat the worse for wear.  Needless to say, I own lots of replacement Hori Hori knives. Gardener James Van Meter says he sticks his Hori Hori knife straight into the ground instead of laying it down flat so chances are better for finding it again.  Another solution would be to wrap the handle in bright tennis racket grip tape (or Jean’s colored duct tape) so the knife is easier to spot.  As I relocate them, I’ll be sure to do that.

Propagation specialists Judy Zatsick and Mary Frogale both named the root knife as a multi-purpose tool of choice.  This knife has a serrated edge and curved tip and is designed to cut through root systems to divide plants. It is also great for opening containers. Along the same line as the fondue fork, gardener Carol Miranda carries chop sticks to sow seeds, mark plant locations and to stake small plants that flop over.  A little twine or a twist tie, and your plant is once again standing proud. My sister-in-law gave me a spool of cut-to-length twist tie that she purchased at a hardware store for just this sort of purpose.  Very useful. 

Local horticulturalist Karen Rexrode carries an inexpensive camera in her tool bag so she can document changes in the garden.  Great idea. This is especially handy in noting where your flowering bulbs are buried.  Heaven knows we have all mistakenly unearthed a few bulbs.

Green Spring Manager Mary Olien says she always has flower scissors in her bag to help with deadheading annuals and perennials.  The scissors make for quick, precise cuts with little damage to the plant.  But, sometimes you want the flowers to set seed and horticulturalist Nancy Olney is prepared. She always carries coin envelopes and a pencil in her tool bucket to collect seed from prized plants to sow for the next gardening season.  She even offers envelopes of seed to her garden volunteers.

 So what do I carry in my tool bag?

 In addition to  the must-haves (Hori Hori knife, angled weeder, pruners, trowel, and trug),  I carry a small spray bottle of rubbing alcohol to immediately disinfect my tools before putting them away.  A light spray on my pruners and I can reduce the spread of plant viruses and fungus. The alcohol doesn’t promote rust and evaporates quickly. I also carry tongue depressors and a sharpie in case I need to label something, like the location of my hostas before they go dormant for the winter.

So what have I learned? Gardeners should, and do, think outside of the traditional tool bag and we should always keep our minds open to new uses for nontraditional tools.  One thing that I already knew: Gardeners are happy to share their ideas and knowledge if you just ask. Thanks to everyone for sharing their favorite tools with me.

Written by Susan Eggerton, Green Spring Gardens program coordinator

View From The Tower

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“That’s Awesome!”

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard these words on the viewing tower at Huntley Meadows Park. Usually they come from a pre-teen, but many adults have exclaimed it when they get their first close look in a spotting scope at a great blue heron or a hooded merganser with 10 ducklings. 

It’s what I said when I made my first visit to the park almost 20 years ago.

I was with a friend who decided to take a hike in a neighborhood park in Alexandria.  I thought it was a woodland trail leading to a creek.  Not far down the path the trees opened, surrendering to a large wetland stuffed with life and crossed by a boardwalk allowing close observation. Echoing sounds of red-winged blackbirds filled the air.  I saw at least a dozen egrets as well as birds I had never seen before — king rails and green herons, and more reptiles and amphibians than I had ever witnessed at one time, all within a hand’s reach of the boardwalk.  I didn’t think an environment like this existed in this area, especially within five miles of the beltway.  Needless to say, I was fascinated. 

I had already completed school with a communications degree, and I had a small knowledge of biology.  Biology classes gave me nightmares during school, but my knowledge of nature grew through the purchase of used books containing basic information and photographs of the birds and reptiles I was seeing on my continuing visits to the park.  I would still struggle if I took a biology class today, but I have learned quite a bit since that time.  For example, I thought egrets were only in Florida and eagles were only in Alaska. They’re both at Huntley Meadows.

My fascination with the park led me to a small volunteer role in an activity called, “View from the Tower.”  I take the spotting scope from the Huntley Meadows Nature Center and stand on the wetlands tower for a couple hours giving visitors a closer view of the wetland inhabitants.  I feel bad for the other volunteers stuck inside the visitor center while I’m out witnessing the action. Sometimes I lose track of time and struggle getting back to the nature center before it closes. 

I am still only an average birder.  The birds I know best are those I’ve captured in photography.  The only bird log I keep is Lightroom.  To help me with my birding skills, I never volunteer on the tower without my worn copy of “The National Geographic Guide to Birds of North America.”  The visitors I try to make the biggest impression upon are people who are somewhat naive to wetlands the way I was on my first visit.  I hope to spark their interest in nature the way mine was ignited when I first visited the park. 

I have met, learned and shared with many wonderful people over the years on the tower, and some are close friends.  I have also witnessed many incredible things with visitors, whether it is an osprey hovering in the air and then diving straight into the water and coming back up with a fish, or someone seeing a bald eagle for the first time.  Even on slow days, I enjoy my time on the tower in the wetland surroundings.

I have always had a strong interest in photography, however due to a lack of specific subjects of interest, it was not in focus. My visits to Huntley Meadows Park quickly provided that subject of interest, and merging these two passions brought my photography into focus. Now I am a serious wildlife and nature photographer — not a professional by any means, because I spend money instead of make money.  But living my passions is rewarding in my life.

Author Curtis Gibbens is a volunteer at Huntley Meadows Park. His first photography exhibit is on display in the Norma Hoffman Visitor Center during July and August. The exhibit consists mostly of wildlife on the East Coast.  The photographs were taken at Huntley Meadows, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Shenandoah National Park, and in the Carolinas. Curtis will be at the park for a meet and greet on Saturday, July 6 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon. Or, you can catch him on some weekends at the tower.

Construction Begins On The Huntley Meadows Wetlands Restoration Project

UPDATE: July 17, 2013 

It really hasn’t been so bad, those bulldozers and big yellow machines out in the wetlands. There’s still a lot for you to see. There’s still a lot to do, but the potential rewards are big.The remodeling of the Huntley Meadows wetlands continues this summer.  There’s a major step in the project coming soon.  Construction of the berm in the wetlands is expected to begin in late July or early August. The earthen and vinyl sheet piling berm will allow park staff to raise the water levels in the wetland approximately two feet. That will reclaim water depth that has been lost to silt. The silt comes from erosion and construction associated with upstream suburban development.

The berm is part of a restoration of the park’s central wetland, a restoration that has brought construction equipment to the area. That equipment will be visible in the park’s natural areas for a few more months, however the reconstruction means that in the long term the park will continue to have a functioning, healthy and diverse wetland capable of supporting locally rare plants and animals. In short, you’ll see more cool stuff.

The berm will work hand-in-hand with a water control structure comprised of pipes and slide gates. Staff can use those gates to raise and lower water levels as the seasons pass. The fluctuating water levels will help maintain a healthy wetland for decades and will return biodiversity to Huntley Meadow’s wetlands.

This part of the project was planned for mid-summer to limit the pestering of animals during their reproductive seasons. That keeps the babies safe. In addition, staff and volunteers have removed hundreds of reptiles, amphibians and native plants from areas where digging will take place and shuttled them to other, safer spots in the park.

We expect the water control structure to be completed by September. The project as a whole is on track for completion in November or December. Some cleanup tasks may last until March 2014.

There will be temporary trail closures in parts of the park until the project’s completion. The hike-bike trail off the South Kings Highway entrance is closed. However, the boardwalk and the observation tower are open, so come on out to Huntley Meadows park and watch the changes as the wetlands gets healthier over the coming months.

Got questions? A lot of answers are on the Wetland Restoration Project web page.  Or, give the park a call at 703-768-2525 and speak with Kevin Munroe or Kathleen Lowe.

MARCH 20, 2013

This is going to be great when it’s done, and well worth the wait.

A project has begun to restore the central wetland at Huntley Meadows Park.

A project has begun to restore the central wetland at Huntley Meadows Park.

To be honest, you might be surprised when you see a bulldozer sitting in the Huntley Meadows wetlands. Park staff understands, yet we know there is a rewarding and bigger surprise in the near future. You’re going to see a renewed and healthy wetland with a wider variety of wildlife. Consider the remodeling of a room or front yard. It’s a shock and can be distressing during the process, but the end results make it worthwhile.

That’s what we have in Huntley Meadows Park. There’s a problem, and we’re going to fix it so that the area retains its healthy wetland. We’ve got to go through some discomfort to get to those rewarding results.

Over the past couple of decades, silt and debris have been slowly, steadily filling the central wetland at Huntley Meadows Park. Some of that is natural, and some of it is suburban living. If we let this combination of natural and suburban run-off have its way, pretty soon the wetland will become woodland or meadow. Normally that would be okay, and the Park Authority’s naturalists would be all in favor of letting the park evolve into a forest or grassland. However, there’s another issue.

Huntley Meadows Park has the largest non-tidal wetland in Northern Virginia. There’s nothing else like it in Fairfax County, and it’s incredibly valuable as a wetland to wildlife, to water quality and to visiting county residents, including students, scientists and nature-lovers. So after more than 20 years of tracking the changes, wide-ranging discussions about ethics, beliefs, goals, missions, values and options, and more than 60 meetings, the Park Authority Board considered all comments and decided to restore the wetlands to the condition of its prime years in the 1970s and 1980s.

A healthy hemi-marsh provides habitat for a diverse variety of wildlife.

A healthy hemi-marsh provides habitat for a diverse variety of wildlife.

That’s where the bulldozer comes in. It’s going to take heavy equipment to get the job done. We’re going to do several things that will bring excellent results to the wetland. First, our construction team, supervised by park staff and environmental engineers, will get their beaver on and construct a berm that will hold back water. They’ll install pipes as part of a water control structure that will rest out of sight under water and be used to manage the water levels. Lastly, they’ll provide numerous brush shelters and logs as habitat for wildlife and create five deeper pools. As a result, the wetland will spread into parts of the surrounding forest, and hemi-marsh plant communities will be managed by changing water levels as needed and by varying the water depths. The end result will be diverse year-round wildlife habitat.

A water control system will allow park staff to maintain a consistent water depth.

A water control system will allow park staff to maintain the seasonally fluctuating water levels of a healthy hemi-marsh.

And one more result. Fairfax County residents will get to see the Huntley Meadows wetland return to the regionally significant area that was one of the most productive and diverse non-tidal wetlands in the mid-Atlantic area. It will hopefully again be an attractive home for species that are rare in this region; species such as American Bittern, Least Bittern, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, King Rail, Pied-billed Grebe, Common Moorhen and a long list of reptiles and amphibians.

A healthy hemi-marsh is perfect habitat or the King Rail and other waterfowl.

A healthy hemi-marsh is perfect habitat or the King Rail and other species of waterfowl.

If you’ve only seen the Huntley Meadows wetland of the past decade, you’re in for a surprise. Once it returns to its hemi-marsh, or emergent marsh, condition there will be more water and more wildlife in the wetland. We think you’ll like it a lot, and it will create unique and exemplary education opportunities.

We’re taking these steps and managing the wetland to ensure that Huntley Meadows Park continues to host a functioning, healthy and diverse wetland that will be home to locally rare plants and animals on a consistent, long-term basis.

Construction starts in April, and the project is scheduled for completion in December. Although the visitor center, surrounding trails, boardwalk and observation tower will all remain open, the Hike-Bike Trail (off South Kings Hwy) will be closed for months at a time. This three million dollar project is funded by park bonds and grants.

Got questions? A lot of answers are on the Wetland Restoration Project web page.  Or, give the park a call at 703-768-2525 and speak with Kevin Munroe or Kathleen Lowe.

Written by Dave Ochs, manager, Stewardship Communications, Resource Management Division