Tag Archives: Hiking

The Shampoo Theory of Hiking

Fox Kits at Lake Mercer

Turn around. Look behind once in a while.

Did you ever see a squirrel or a deer cross a road in front of a car? Yeah, they do that. And you know what? They cross behind you, too.

The same thing happens when you hike in a park. Every once in a while you’ll see a deer, or a squirrel, or a fox jump out on the trail ahead of you. Every once in a while they do the same thing behind you. If you hike in an area often enough, you’ll learn that they cross those trails in the same places time and time again. It’s like the highway signs that warn of deer crossing. Those signs aren’t random. Deer repeatedly use those areas.

Animals, like people, are creatures of habit. Deer wander close to edges, where woods and meadows meet, so they often can be spotted near park entrances, along creeks, or along hiking paths. If you’re hiking along a maintained trail, keep an eye out on the forest floor for subtle pathways where plants appear to be pushed down or trampled. Sometimes those are trails blazed by people, but often they are animal trails. Remember those spots, because animals frequently use the same trails repeatedly.

Bass on a nest

It’s like fishing. If you catch a big fish, return to that spot in the future. There’s a reason that fish was there – maybe food, maybe shelter, maybe both. The same thing is going on in the woods. Animals return to the places that provide food, shelter and safe passage. If you like taking photos of wildlife, then remember where you see the animals and return to those places with camera in hand.

Study the weather when you hike. Meteorological conditions can impact wildlife. There are times on a walk in the woods you won’t hear a single bird singing or see any animal movement of any kind. There are other times when every bird in the neighborhood seems to be visiting your feeder, every animal in the woods is in motion, and every fish in the lake is feeding. Consider what the atmospheric conditions are when wildlife is active – sunlight, temperature, cloud cover, barometer, frontal passages, wind speed and direction, and even moon phase. Return when there are similar conditions, and there will be a good chance wildlife will be active again. For example, largemouth bass usually spawn on a new or full moon in spring on the north or northwest banks of a lake where the sun shines longest and when rising water temperatures reach the high 50s to mid 60s. Walk along shorelines under those conditions and look in the shallows for round, white circles where the fish have cleared their beds. Look closely and you’ll see bass circling those beds. Those same areas will draw bluegills in to spawn next when the water temperature rises a few more degrees. You can count on that happening year after year under the same meteorological conditions. Nature is like that. The more you observe, the more fascinating and predictable it becomes.

The best hiking/wildlife day I’ve had in Fairfax parks came during fall a couple of years ago. During an early morning, 45-minute walk at Lake Mercer I spied raptors, fox outside a den, antlered bucks giving their equivalent of high-fives along the water’s edge, a box turtle and countless serenading birds. It was a quiet, calm, cool morning after several consecutive days of steady, calm weather. Spring walks produce choruses of frogs and wildflowers in predictable places as wet, warming conditions repeat year after year.

Atmospheric conditions also can help you predict when wildlife is not active. Consider Washington summers, when temperatures boil into the 90s and days get so hot that not even the air wants to move. Not much wildlife in motion then, either.

So when you head out for a hike in a park this summer, take along this shampoo theory. Lather, rinse, repeat for consistent good hair. On your next hike, enjoy, look, listen and learn. Repeat for consistently good experiences. And increase your odds of seeing wildlife by occasionally turning around and looking back.

Author Dave Ochs is the manager of stewardship communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Hiking Amid Wetlands And Wildlife

Observant hikers may spot a river otter in the wetland. Photo by Ed Eider.

Observant hikers may spot a river otter in the wetland. Photo by Ed Eider.

One of the largest parks in the Fairfax County Park Authority system is not, generally speaking, a hiking or biking park. Oh, there are trails at Huntley Meadows Park, but it’s not the place to take off blazing new paths through a woods. There are only two short miles of trails, but they are a celebration of wildlife watching and nature photography.

Fairfax County has more than 500 miles of trails ranging from the paved and noisy biking path alongside the Fairfax County Parkway to the isolated, steep, rugged stretches of hillside climbs at Scott’s Run. There’s the lakeside jaunt around Burke Lake, the South Run Stream Valley mix of wide, paved paths and narrow twists of dirt. There are the horse trails of The Turner Farm and Laurel Hill. Among the others, of course, is the 40-mile Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail. Our mapping tool, Trail Buddy, will help you find an appropriate hiking, biking, equestrian or wildlife watching trail.

Then there’s Huntley Meadows. There’s nothing else quite like it in the county because it is home to the largest non-tidal marsh in Northern Virginia. The very sensitive ecosystem that comprises the park, especially its central wetland, is rare habitat in this area. The forests, wildflower-dotted meadows and cleansing wetlands of the park draw rich numbers of wildlife, and the half-mile boardwalk that traverses the wetlands is the reason for this area’s claim as the best place in Northern Virginia to watch wildlife.

The boardwalk at Huntley Meadows leads visitors into the heart of the wetland.

The boardwalk at Huntley Meadows leads visitors into the heart of the wetland.

That boardwalk is the key to hiking in Huntley Meadows. First, it is ADA accessible, which opens this world of wildlife to all comers. It runs right through the heart of the wetlands, which means when you visit, look up to the sky, down into the waters and mud, left and right across the fields and away into the woods. There’s wildlife large and small to be seen in the distance and, sometimes, right under your feet. It’s a wildlife photographer’s utopia.

The $3 million dollar wetland restoration project was recently completed at Huntley Meadows.

The $3 million dollar wetland restoration project was recently completed at Huntley Meadows.

It’s a pretty utopian place for wildlife, too. The wetland, part of an area once carved by the Potomac River, underwent a major restoration in the past two years, and the result is a prime wetland that is attracting an increasing number of wildlife and welcoming the return of species that had abandoned the park prior to the restoration. Huntley’s 1,500 acres now include the wetland, woodlands, a visitor center, and a historic house built by a grandson of George Mason that is located nearby.

Because of the sensitive ecosystem and the numerous animals, the park’s hiking options are both unique and restricted in order to protect natural resources. That means we ask visitors using the ADA accessible boardwalk and observing wildlife to leave bikes and dogs behind. The boardwalk doesn’t have safe space for cyclists and a dog in the wetland, even quiet and on a leash, scares the park’s locally rare bird species. Studies show that even silent dogs on a leash can reduce breeding bird populations by more than 40% because birds see them as predators. Just a few dogs in the wetland could convince the park’s rails, bitterns and grebes to move on and nest elsewhere. Dogs, litter and loud music on park viewing platforms threaten and disturb the wildlife and therefore should not be a part of any visit to this site.

One of the ways to approach the central wetland is via the park’s one-mile Hike-Bike Trail, an easy and flat path that is excellent for small children. It’s not an appropriate place for speed/racing bikes or for mountain biking, and we ask those who bike in the park to ride responsibly and stay on the trail. Leaving the trail could land you on fragile conservation areas among ground nesting birds and slow-growing woodland wildflowers, and the park’s salamanders and forest frogs can all be devastated by a few off-trail bike trips. That fragility is actually true for most of the park’s forest, meadow and stream trails, which is why park personnel ask that you stay on the established trails and blaze no new ones.

Huntley Meadows also differs from other parks in Fairfax County in that there are no large loop trails. It’s not a park designed for long-distance, cardio workouts. The park’s trails are relatively short and designed with two main goals in mind – getting you close to wildlife for observation and protecting sensitive conservation areas. When viewed and visited with that understanding, Huntley Meadows is indeed a special type of hiking/biking park.

Written by Dave Ochs, manager of Stewardship Communications for the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division, and based on notes from Huntley Meadows Park manager Kevin Munroe.

After 22 years of planning, 60 public meetings, and a cutting-edge design and construction process, the wetland at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Va., has been restored. The Fairfax County Park Authority invites the public to attend the grand opening Saturday, May 10, 2014 from 10 a.m. to noon.

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.