Tag Archives: Green Heron

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.

The Wild Side of Frying Pan Farm Park

A Great Blue Heron stalks its prey at Frying Pan Farm Park.

A Great Blue Heron stalks its prey at Frying Pan Farm Park.

Among the parade of rolling strollers, excited kindergarteners and working farm staff, a patron visiting Frying Pan Farm Park could find themselves bombarded by truly “wild” animals. The culprits are acrobatic Aves, known far and wide as gymnasts of the air.

As a budding naturalist, I chased jobs and toured across the country. I naturalized in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Tennessee and now Virginia. It can be challenging to leave a lovely place and adjust to the next; however I never acquaint myself to new surroundings alone. When acclimating to unfamiliar areas, I simply look for old friends: northern cardinal, blue jay, or Carolina wren. At Frying Pan, I find familiarity in a new land. Each morning, before the bevies of elementary schoolchildren disembark from their buses, I take to the woods for a period of calm discovery amid the park’s wild inhabitants.

A tree swallow rests on a bluebird nesting box at Frying Pan Farm Park.

A tree swallow rests on a bluebird nesting box at Frying Pan Farm Park.

The wild side of Frying Pan is quite diverse for a relatively small natural area. Out in the grassy field, I often observe both tree and barn swallows carving the sky. It is fantastic to watch the way they veer swiftly and precisely. These daring creatures rely on their well-adapted wing and tail shapes to snatch unsuspecting insects out of the air. The field also offers opportunities to watch incoming turkey vultures glide on air pockets while they sniff out their next meal.

The forest provides habitat for a variety of birds and animals.

The forest provides habitat for a variety of birds and animals.

Past the fields lies a wide strip of forest dominated by hickory and oak. As I walk, I find trees of varying height and girth indicating a healthy and maturing second growth forest. The area includes larger grandfather trees, short saplings, and standing dead trees or snags. When left standing, the snags provide inviting opportunities for a variety of woodpeckers. As the trees decompose, insects begin to devour the nutrients in the wood. Woodpeckers drill their heads, bill first, into trees creating cavities to slurp out insects with their long, barbed tongues. Several types of warblers, flycatchers and thrushes also reside in the woods.

Most recently, I explored the wetlands to the east of the park. In an effort to compile a well-rounded list of birds, I knew I’d need to find some type of waterfowl. With hopeful anticipation, I headed out in search of some kind of duck. Instead, I was delighted to find a large great blue heron standing stiff-legged and motionless in the middle of the first pond. It is amazing how still and patient they can be while on the hunt. I think I can learn something from this great blue bird. In addition, I found a pair of green herons displaying similar behavior and throngs of red-winged blackbirds.

A green heron perches above the wetland.

A green heron perches above the wetland.

I encourage, even challenge, you to take a step away from the predictable bustling of farm enthusiasts and drift into the untamed.  Search for your neighbors, too: the sparrow, the mockingbirds. See what you can discover. There is so much to see.

Author Patrick McNamara is a staff interpreter at Frying Pan Farm Park.