Tag Archives: Hemi-Marsh

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.

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