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.