Tag Archives: Great Falls

Riverbend’s Bluebell Watch Has Begun

FINAL UPDATE: April 9, 2014

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Our phone has been ringing constantly this week and the main question is “How far along are the bluebells?” One caller said that she has a friend who visits every year around this time and that her two favorite things to do are see the cherry blossoms and come to Riverbend to experience the bluebells. Some of the flowers are blooming now, and for the next two weeks the bluebells will put on a spectacular show.

As I walked the river trail this morning I saw all the tightly packed pink blossoms that look like they are about to burst. Insects were flying around and crawling on the leaves. For me, I like to take in the whole forest floor covered with wildflowers and then kneel down for a close inspection of all the life on and near each plant.

“What could be better than sitting near a patch of Bluebells on sunny afternoon, watching a bumblebee foraging for nectar among the flowers.” Marijke Gate, naturalist, Riverbend Park

Don’t forget to join us this Saturday (April 12) at Riverbend Park from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. as we celebrate the bluebells at our second annual Bluebells at the Bend Festival. The event costs just  $5 person and features live music, wildflower walks, live animals, face painting, wagon rides, and other family fun activities. For more information, call Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018.

Written by John Callow, assistant manager, Riverbend Park

UPDATE: April 2, 2014

Bumblebees are big fans of bluebells, too.

Bumblebees are big fans of bluebells, too.

 

UPDATE: March 28, 2014

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Snow earlier this week and frigid nights can’t stop the progressing bluebells. Their leaves continue to push through snow, ice and whatever else the weather brings. These hardy plants are starting to take over the forest floor. The dark leaves have now taken on their familiar succulent green color and the deep purple flower buds are clustering.

Riverbend Park visitors Mona Enquist-Johnston and Gary Johnston describe the annual explosion of color this way: “Carpets of purple and blue ring in the spring.”

The coming weeks will offer visitors one of nature’s finest floral displays. Spring beauties, cut-leaved toothworts, trout lilies, and a host of other beautiful wildflowers will mix in and add texture to the bluebell palette. One of the earliest wildflowers, harbinger of spring, is already in bloom. This small member of the parsley family stands only two to three inches tall.

When the flowers are in bloom, take time to thank a pollinator. Pollination of spring wildflowers is completed by a host of insects. Bees and butterflies visit the colorful blooms spreading pollen. Some wild flowers like the sessile trillium do not rely on brightly colored blooms that attract visual pollinators. Their flowers produce a rotting smell which attracts beetles and flies to spread pollen. Stop at a cluster of wildflowers for five minutes and observe the wide variety of bees, butterflies, flies, and beetles hard at work.

Julie Gurnee, senior interpreter at Riverbend Park, said, “When the bluebells blanket the woods of Riverbend, it reminds me to take a closer look, for this is the time of year there are many more elusive treasures to be found.  This is the time to stop, look, and discover other spring ephemerals that may be tucked away in the woods.”

Don’t forget to join us at Riverbend Park on April 12 from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. as we celebrate the bluebells at our second annual Bluebells at the Bend Festival. The event costs just $5 per person and features live music, wildflower walks, live animals, face painting, wagon rides, and other family-fun activities. For more information, call Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018.

Written by John Callow, assistant manager, Riverbend Park

UPDATE: March 14, 2014

Virginia bluebells push through the floodplain at Riverbend Park.

Virginia bluebells push through the floodplain at Riverbend Park.

March has arrived with snow, sun, and temperatures that are bouncing around like a rubber ball.  Despite the dramatic weather, Virginia bluebells continue to push through the fallen leaves and soil as they progress toward their breathtaking explosion of color in April. Leaves are just starting to transition from deep purple to hints of delicate green.

The cherry blossoms are predicted to peak April 8 through12. At Riverbend Park, we expect the bluebells to peak between April 8 and April 15, just in time for the Bluebells at the Bend Festival slated for April 12, 2014. Unlike the cherry blossoms, which were a gift from Japan, the bluebells are a native gift to river floodplains and Riverbend Park provides the perfect garden.

Bluebells, along with many other spring wildflowers including spring beauties and cut-leaved toothwort, are called spring ephemerals. They bloom early and then by May all that is left are withering leaves and seeds. Come mid-May, bluebells pull a vanishing act, leaving no visible trace of their existence. All of these hardy wildflowers take advantage of the sunlight reaching the forest floor before the towering trees re-grow their leaves and close the forest canopy. In March more than 50 percent of the available sunlight reaches the forest floor. By mid-April this drops to 30 percent and then to 10 percent come May.

The bluebells and other spring wildflowers produce a different experience for everyone. The experience is personal and cannot be duplicated by pictures or stories. I enjoy talking to visitors and staff about the bluebells and hearing their stories. Each experience is unique and private, but I am glad they decide to share it with me.

“When you’re standing at a certain point on the trail and you can see just a covering of this cheery blue color all over, it gives you this sense of peace and tranquility that couldn’t possibly be found in any other setting,” said Michelle Brannon, an interpretive naturalist at Riverbend Park. “My favorite part about walking through the bluebells is finding the odd ones; the random little bursts of pink or the rarer blooms of white are like the flowers are sending you on their own little scavenger hunt.”

February 24, 2014

Virginia bluebells resemble dark purple spinach leaves.

Virginia bluebells resemble dark purple spinach leaves.

Winter’s grip gradually relaxes with each passing day. Patches of snow cling to every bit of shade as the late winter sun shines through the leafless trees. Something stirs just under the surface that reminds us of nature’s yearly cycle and the interaction between ecosystems.

Spring wildflowers are taking in nutrients and available water and pressuring the soil as they prepare to erupt with an array of blooms that magnificently display the season. One wildflower in particular shows its colors like no other, the Virginia bluebell (Mertensia Virginica).

“The most important part of bluebell season is when the purplish green leaves start breaking the soil in late winter early spring. It gives one hope that spring is riding the longer days to arrive,” Fairfax County Park Authority Naturalist Jim Dewing said.

The scientific name honors the German botanist Franz Karl Mertens, a German botanist (1764-1831.) The species name refers to Virginia, where the plant was first identified. Thomas Jefferson grew Virginia bluebells at Monticello. The bluebells at Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Va., were not planted by anyone; the river, wildlife, and climate have all pitched in to create this native garden.

Bluebells thrive in rich floodplain soils that are replenished each year by floods. This time of year they superficially resemble dark purple spinach leaves slicing through the sand and silt. By mid-April their purplish blue blooms will adorn acres and acres of forest floor at Riverbend Park.

Bluebells spread like a carpet of blue at Riverbend Park.

Bluebells spread like a carpet of blue at Riverbend Park.

I invite you to come to Riverbend Park on Saturday, April 12, 2014 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as we celebrate spring at our Second Annual Bluebells at the Bend Festival with live music, wildflower walks, live animals, face painting, wagon rides, and other family fun activities. Admission to the event is $5 per person. For more information, call Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018.

This page will be updated weekly with photos of the blooming bluebells, so check back often.

Author John Callow is the assistant manager at Riverbend Park.

What’s Going On At The Mill?

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When the Colvin Run Mill Historic Site first opened to the public in 1972, it was the culmination of over four years of exhausting preservation, restoration and recreation efforts.  Thanks to the hard work and craftsmanship of many individuals, the mill proudly featured an operational pair of millstones capable of grinding grains. Now, some 42 years after that date, the rest of the mill is being restored.

Based on the designs of the mechanical genius Oliver Evans, the Colvin Run Mill Restoration Project will complete the work started during the Nixon administration. With functioning grain elevators, wooden line shafts, grain cleaners and product sifters, the fully restored mill will stand as living testament to America’s industrial infancy, all the while producing wheat flour and cornmeal as it did over 200 years ago. The massive oak timbers and hand-crafted gears of the mill will once again provide a working link between the past, present and future of Fairfax County.

Leading the team on this monumental project is Ben Hassett, America’s only classically trained millwright (mill restoration specialist). Together with our miller, Mason Maddox, and the rest of the mill’s professional and volunteer staff, this expert assemblage has but one common goal – to make Colvin Run Mill the finest working example of federal period technology anywhere.

Funded in part by a Partners in Preservation grant from American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this exciting work started in January and has an anticipated completion date of November 2014. During that time, special tours featuring not only the history of the mill but also the restoration work in progress will be given.

Author Mike Henry is the site administrator for Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. The mill is supported by the efforts of the Friends of Colvin Run Mill.

General Store Gets A General Makeover

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So you think things change as time goes by? Maybe not so much.

In 1902, the teddy bear was introduced. Teddy Roosevelt became the first president to ride in a car. Michigan beat Stanford 49-0 in the first Rose Bowl. The first movie theatre in the USA opened. And Mark Cockrill was running a general store near Colvin Run Mill in Great Falls, Virginia.

Today, 111 years later, teddy bears and movies are ubiquitous. Presidents still ride in cars.  Michigan is still beating Stanford in football (although Stanford did spoil an undefeated Wolverine season in the 1972 Rose Bowl). And Mark Cockrill’s store is still open at Colvin Run Mill.

Maybe the events haven’t changed, but the trappings around them have. Teddy bears come in innumerable styles, presidential cars are armored, football gear has adapted, and movie theatres are plusher. And so also there are changes coming to Mark Cockrill’s store.

The Colvin Run General Store is undergoing a bit of a makeover. There are preparations under way, formally called a furnishings plan, that will help us show you what a typical general store that might have been found in the Colvin Run community looked like. In order to do this, we had to pinpoint a time period so that we can focus on accurately furnishing and interpreting the store.

We picked 1902.

That’s when Mark Cockrill operated a general store in Colvin Run and a family named Millard owned Colvin Run Mill. Cockrill was the area’s postmaster, but five more years would pass before free mail delivery would be available to rural areas like those around the mill. Hard to picture, huh? That area just a stone’s throw from Tysons used to be rural.

There are post office boxes on display now at the store, and they will stay in place so that you can learn about the store’s role in mail delivery.

You also might soon see something that many people born this century haven’t seen – a telephone. We know that the store was a hub of communication, and we have discovered that telephone lines ran right in front of the store along the Alexandria Leesburg Pike in the late 1890s. We hope to find a 1900-era phone to put on display.

Other future display items will come from Mark Cockrill’s records. His letterhead from the 1890s and just past the turn of the century, the receipts for goods that he and his father acquired, possibly for resale. Neighbors would probably have come to the general store to shop for groceries, hardware, shoes, hats, and other things that they couldn’t make or trade on their farms. We hope to have new artifacts that match those on the receipts for you to see, and those items won’t be so far above your head that you can’t get a good look. Current artifacts are on display, but high on shelves and out of reach.

The changes also mean that we will scale back on the modern items sold in the store. If you are a regular visitor, you may notice that we are not restocking the shelves after current stock is sold. Once we furnish and rearrange the store, we are going to be more selective in what we offer for purchase. We will have items similar to what you might have purchased in a 1902 general store, like the “penny candy” Mark was famous for handing out to the youngsters in the community. We will continue to offer high quality Colvin Run Mill merchandise, such as the mugs and coasters that are made in the United States. We’ll also introduce our own label McCutchen’s jams and jellies to compliment the canning memorabilia on display.

So come see the changes and come see what was. We may be changing the trappings, but Mark Cockrill’s general store is still open and is still a place to touch history.

Author Kathryn Blackwell is a historian based at Colvin Run Mill.

Flood Watch 2013: Rising Waters At Riverbend Park

Everyone here at Riverbend Park has seen some form of the water rising at one point or another. Some of us have seen the raging overflow of whitewater pouring from the trails, others have seen the picnic areas flooded out and have chased picnic tables down the river. Others still have seen only small increases that close the boat ramp. This time, we’re not quite to raging whitewater, but this one is still pretty exciting.

We keep track of the rising waters through a couple of means. Our first one is just by looking. The longer you’re at the park, the more you recognize the different rocks and islands out there. What starts as this…

Riverbend Park

Riverbend Park in August 2012

…and turns into this…

Potomac River Flooding

Riverbend Park on May 10, 2013

…tends to be pretty easy to spot. Another way is to look at the caution levels painted on our boat ramp. When the boat ramp closes, you know it’s getting high.

 The boat ramp closes when water levels get too high to safely launch.


The boat ramp closes when water levels get too high to safely launch.

Finally, we also look online. We use information collected from our friends at NOAA to follow the changing water levels. You can do so as well here.

Nature doesn’t have the chance to look online or collect data. The animals at Riverbend Park deal with floods the best way they know how, which is to move! Snakes, geese, spiders, and dragonflies are just some of the animals heading for higher ground as the water rises and speeds up. Check out some of the neat ways these guys are keeping safe near home:

This Northern Water Snake hangs out on the bottom railing of the walkway as water levels rise.

This Northern Water Snake hangs out on the bottom railing of the walkway as water levels rise.

 This Northern Water Snake looks for a safe place away from curious school children and rising waters.


This Northern Water Snake looks for a safe place away from curious school children and rising waters.

Tracks of snakes in the mud show evidence of those that evacuated early.

Tracks of snakes in the mud show evidence of those that evacuated early.

Snake on a Fence

This Queen Snake has found an artistic way to avoid the rising waters.

This Queen Snake has found an artistic way to avoid the rising waters.

A Dark Fishing Spider spins a safety harness out of silk on a fence post.

A Dark Fishing Spider spins a safety harness out of silk on a fence post.

The Canada Geese hardly seem to mind the rising water in the picnic area near the kayak racks.

The Canada Geese hardly seem to mind the rising water in the picnic area near the kayak racks.

Dragonflies are emerging from the water and leaving behind their exoskeletons on fence posts.

Dragonflies are emerging from the water and leaving behind their exoskeletons on fence posts.

Be sure to check out the river this Mother’s Day weekend…though you might want to save the Potomac Heritage Trail for another weekend.

The water takes over the Potomac Heritage Trail.

The water takes over the Potomac Heritage Trail.

By Michelle Brannon, naturalist, Riverbend Park

Help Colvin Run Mill Win $100K!

Colvin Run Mill is competing to win $100,000 in restoration funding. Vote for the mill at www.partnersinpreservation.com.

Colvin Run Mill is competing to win $100,000 in restoration funding. Vote for the mill at http://www.partnersinpreservation.com.

The Fairfax County Park Authority is trying to win $100,000 for repairs at Colvin Run Mill. Receipt of this award would allow the Park Authority to reprogram voter-approved bond money set aside for that project.  It’s dollars we can save as good stewards of resources in Fairfax County.  

Of course, to make this happen, we need your help.  It won’t cost you anything, except a bit of time over the next two weeks.  

Colvin Run Mill is part of an online contest sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express. It’s very simple. The site that gets the most votes gets the most money. It works like American Idol or Dancing With The Stars. Participants vote online for the site of their choice.

Here’s what to do. Go to www.partnersinpreservation.com. Use your email address and a password to create an account.  The Trust will send you a single email with a link asking you to confirm that you’re you.  Click on that link and you’re registered to vote.

 Colvin Run MillThen vote for Colvin Run Mill.  One time, every day through May.  That’s the important part – every day. It takes about three minutes to register.  After that, it takes about 30 seconds of your day to log in and vote. Colvin Run gets more points if you take another 30 seconds and tweet #ColvinRunMill.

We’re asking the employees and residents of Fairfax County to pitch in for a few minutes over the coming 10 days to do something for the place we call home.

Protect resources.  Use taxpayer money wisely.  Improve the quality of life.

Simple concepts. They’re in mission statements, news releases and official statements. They’re in the everyday actions of county employees. Now, through May 10, we’re asking our employees and our county residents to take one of those simple daily actions that take so little time and could have such a big impact.

Here’s a chance to do one small thing that will make one of the county’s parks a better place.

Vote for Colvin Run Mill at www.partnersinpreservation.com. Thanks for your support!

The miller pours corn into the hopper to be ground.

The miller pours corn into the hopper to be ground.

Written by Dave Ochs, editor, ResOURces Newsletter

A Walk On A Winter Day At Riverbend Park

Winter leaves

Recently the high temperature at Riverbend Park was 20 degrees. The frigid air and breeze as I walk along the banks of the Potomac remind me that we are still in the grip of winter, and a look around at the dead leaves and barren trees seems to confirm this. All looks withered and frozen and life appears to be on hold. But a closer inspection reveals that much is still going on in the natural world. A winter wren tosses dead leaves under the roots of an old sycamore tree leaning out over the water. A flock of tiny golden-crowned kinglets flits through the branches over my head, seemingly oblivious to my presence as they search for food to sustain their active metabolisms. A brown creeper scours the bark of the sycamore, his feathers ruffled against the cold.

Canada geese on the Potomac RiverOn the river the ever present Canada geese, apparently impervious to the cold water, duck their heads under the surface to scoop up underwater plants, their white rumps providing some relief from the monochromatic winter landscape. The honks and cackles of the geese constantly remind me that I am not the only one braving the cold today. The ring-necked ducks, and coots are grouped together on the far side of the river, and the brilliant white and black male buffleheads whizz by on the current before taking wing and flying back to the flock. A lone black duck paddles towards a small island and two mallards are swept along on the fast moving water. The river is alive with waterfowl and three common mergansers skid to a halt on the water to take their places in the flock, the female’s red head contrasting with the brilliant green of the males.

And what of the plants? A casual glance reveals only dead or frozen vegetation, but look closer and there are the chickweed seedlings, the garlic mustard leaves, and the tiny yellow flower buds of the spicebush, primed to burst forth as soon as spring arrives. The tiny furnaces that are the spikes of the skunk cabbage make their own heat and will even break through the snow to be one of our earliest flowering plants. Underground the spring ephemerals are primed to emerge as soon as the weather turns warmer; the corms of the spring beauty and the trout lily are packed with food to feed the growing leaves and flowers.

Potomac RiverOver this wintry scene the white skeletal shapes of the sycamores form a stunning backdrop to the fast flowing river, most beautiful when viewed at sunset. The branches hanging low over the water are adorned with little bundles of ice, like transparent stalactites. Under the seemingly lifeless branches the gray squirrel hops and digs, constantly searching for those nuts it buried in the fall, and the sentry call of the carolina wren breaks the silence as I make my way towards the visitor center in search of warmth. Finally, an eastern bluebird flits by in search of food. Hopefully he will choose one of our nest boxes in the spring.

Written by Marijke Gate, naturalist, Riverbend Park

Riverbend Park: Truly A Winter Wonderland

The view from the deck at Riverbend Park is always beautiful, especially in winter.

The view from the deck at Riverbend Park is always beautiful, particularly in winter.

As much as I detest the snow, I must admit it’s truly beautiful. In the two winters I have worked at Riverbend, I haven’t yet had the privilege of seeing it snow-covered. Today changed that.

Riverbend is a natural beauty all its own that shines like a diamond in the rough. However, when the added element of snow is mixed into the equation, it’s truly breathtaking. The sun shimmers off the rippling surface of the gently-flowing river and makes the ground sparkle. I can see the snow reflecting light from the far bank and I feel as though it’s added a depth to a wall of trees. 

The birds are enjoying the weather as well. They’re frolicking in the snow below the bird feeders while munching away on the provided seed. Backyard birds love bird feeders and will come to one all seasons of the year if it’s kept filled. Try setting up one of your own to see what you can spot. Here are a few pictures of this morning’s visitors.

A Northern Cardinal perches near the bird feeders at Riverbend Park.

A Northern Cardinal perches near the bird feeders.

A Tufted Titmouse is joined by two Carolina Chickadees at the feeders.

A Tufted Titmouse is joined by two Carolina Chickadees at the feeders.

A Black-Eyed Junco takes a break on the snow-covered bench outside the visitor’s center.

A Black-Eyed Junco takes a break on the snow-covered bench outside the visitor’s center.

A Red-Bellied Woodpecker clings to the smallest feeder, scaring the smaller birds away.

A Red-Bellied Woodpecker clings to the smallest feeder, scaring the smaller birds away.

Riverbend truly has a view to remember. Brave the snow and come visit your own backyard winter wonderland.

Written by Michelle Brannon, naturalist, Riverbend Park