Tag Archives: Huntley Meadows

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.

How to Tame Your Dragonfly

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Fawns are cute. Flies are irritating. Bees and snakes are sometimes startling. Turtles are fun. Fish are slimy. Ants are busy. Dragonflies are…

“Awesome.”

That’s from Kevin Munroe, the site manager at Huntley Meadows Park. Dragonflies don’t stir the suburbanite’s emotions as some wildlife does, but if you haven’t looked closely at them then you’ve missed some of the most electric colors in nature. Some of these guys could shame a rainbow.

And other than the Tasmanian devil, is there an animal out there with a cooler name? Snap a sharp picture of one of these fliers, and you’ve tamed a dragon.

Munroe has looked closely at dragonflies and has the website to prove it. After 10 years of piecing it together and with help from his webmaster, Huntley Meadows Assistant Naturalist PJ Dunn, Munroe has produced Dragonflies of Northern Virginia at www.dragonfliesnva.com/. It’s a website designed “to encourage appreciation and sustainable conservation of Northern Virginia’s dragonflies and their habitats.”

Munroe’s put together a website that will hold your hand and guide you step-by-step through learning about dragonflies. There are photos, many taken by Munroe and Huntley Meadows volunteers, from Huntley Meadows Park, Riverbend, Lake Fairfax, Sully Woodlands, Clifton Road Park and other places where dragonflies can be seen. Huntley Meadows Visitor Services Manager Karen Sheffield and Audubon Society volunteer Jim Waggener both contributed to a chart of flight times and dates that helps you discover when certain species take to the air and can be spotted. There are tips on where to look, when to look, and how to look for dragonflies. There are conservation tips and lists of public programs about them. And, of course, it includes a list of best places to find dragonflies.

Push your personal limits a bit further by taking on the website’s identification challenge, and keep an eye on the site. In 2015 there will be a series of additions, including lists of the most common suburban dragonflies, quick ID thumbnail photos for the dragonfly novice, and several new species recently sighted in the area.

The next time you visit a park, stroll along a county sidewalk or venture into your yard, keep an eye out for dragonflies and try to note their differences. Maybe create a list to track the species you see.

Remember that they’re another valued natural resource of Fairfax County.

“Dragonflies are incredible teaching tools,” says Munroe. “Almost every ecological principal can be illustrated with these guys. They are such excellent ambassadors and springboards into environmental education and conservation.”

Author Dave Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Looks Nice Outside

Fall Colors

The temperature is 71 degrees outside right now. One of those to-die-for fall days, a blue sky with cloud puffs balanced on a bowl of Trix-colored trees – raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange.

I’m lucky. I have a window in my Herrity building office. It overlooks a patch of trees that sits between the Fairfax County Government Center and the Fairfax Corner shopping center. Probably doesn’t sound very exciting to a naturalist or volunteer who spends time at a place like Burke Lake or Huntley Meadows, but that patch of trees is important to me. There are times when it’s mine, and just mine. Nobody else around it.

I do a lot of writing, and those trees are often my inspiration, something to look at when I need to clear my mind. Often I look at them and words start bouncing through my keyboard. Like now.

I’m in my office, writing. One year ago, on a similar day, I wrote a first draft for an article in ResOURces newsletter. It was about trails at Riverbend Park and the Riverbend Park Tree Walk. The first draft of the article opened like this:

Remember sitting in your office and staring out a window, wishing you were outside because it was such a beautiful day?

See? It’s true. Writers write what they know. The article talked about remembering those days you wished you were outside, and then getting outside when you have the chance.

Or maybe, instead of waiting to see if we have a chance, maybe we should create that opportunity. Consciously decide to go take a walk in a park.

There are over 400 county parks with patches of trees like my little one outside my window and across the street. Every one of them is an opportunity for a moment of refreshment.

It is a nice day. Blue sky, autumn-drenched trees nearing their peak, perfect temperature. Those trees, like the ones in parks all over the county, aren’t very far away from me. Probably some not far from you, either.

I think I see an opportunity before I go home.
Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Natural Materials Used to Slow Stream Bank Erosion at Huntley Meadows

Fallen logs are used to create a stream blockage to slow the flow of water and prevent stream bank erosion.

Fallen logs are used to create a stream blockage to slow the flow of water and prevent stream bank erosion.

Grown women and men acting like beavers. There are some terrific outdoor tasks in the Park Authority when things have to get done.

East Barnyard Run is the stream that provides the lifeline of water to the Huntley Meadows wetland that is totally dependent on rainfall.  The stream drains about one square mile of suburbia, an area that includes significant acreage of impervious surfaces such as streets and parking lots.  So while bringing the wetland its liquid nourishment, the stream also delivers silt, nutrients and pollution that haven’t been filtered through nature’s normal processes. That creates a constant threat to the wetland ecosystem and all of the animals that call the wetland their home.   

Park Authority staff has been doing a lot to protect the wetland from further damage. There’s been a stream restoration project along one tributary of East Barnyard Run, and there have been planting projects along the run’s two main tributaries over the past several years. The goal of these projects is to stabilize the stream banks to reduce erosion and the resulting silt deposits in the wetland.  

This brings us to our crew of beavers. Their job was to help stabilize East Barnyard Run and reduce the silt and pollution flowing into the wetland. They created a natural material blockage, which is the fancy, formal way of saying they took what nature made and used it to slow the flow of the water. Asad Rouhi of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District obtained a $3,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant to build the blockages that would slow the water flow, reduce the amount of silt moving downstream, increase deposition upstream of the wetland and reduce erosion.  Rouhi, Fairfax County Park Authority staff and park volunteers created four blockages using trees that had been toppled in recent storms. Large sections of tree trunks and large branches were systematically laid into the stream.  Logs were then laid downstream of the blockage to protect the stream bed from erosion during storm events.  A tractor helped move and lower the logs into the stream, however many of the heavy and cumbersome logs had to be moved by hand once they were in the stream.  Cable and duck bill anchors driven into the stream banks and bed secured the blockages.

A tractor moves heavy logs into place.

A tractor moves heavy logs into place.

The team moves heavy logs into place by hand.

The team places logs in the stream by hand.

In order to determine the effectiveness of the blockages, longitudinal profiles of the stream in the vicinity around the blockages were recorded and cross sections of the stream were taken above and below each blockage.  Data will be collected from these areas in coming years and compared to previous years.    

Although the blockages seem like a great fix for any stream, Rouhi warns “these BMP’s (best management practices) do not apply to any location.  The location needs to be selected carefully.  We hope that long term monitoring of our project will help us come up with detailed information regarding the site selection, design specifications and intervals where these structures are located from each other.”

Park Authority staff members Jim Dewing and Dave Lawlor lash logs together.

Park Authority staff members Jim Dewing and Dave Lawlor lash logs together.

Huntley Meadows Park is an oasis in the middle of an urban and suburban conglomerate.  The Fairfax County Park Authority owns and operates the Alexandria park, which has a wonderful mix of natural resource communities including forests, meadows and wetlands.  The 40-acre central wetland is the largest freshwater wetland in the region and is the heart of the park.  A 0.6 mile boardwalk traverses the wetland and allows people to get close to the wetland and its inhabitants, including dozens of species of birds, frogs, turtles, snakes and mammals.  

Author Dave Lawlor is the resource manager at Huntley Meadows Park.

Learn about the upcoming wetland restoration project, a large-scale effort to improve biodiversity in the park’s central wetland, here.

Get Wild In The Parks This Summer!

Each July, the National Recreation and Park Association invites park and recreation agencies from across the country to join them in celebrating Park and Recreation Month. In support of this year’s theme, GET WILD, we will share our ideas for ways you can get wild in the parks this summer. Throughout the month, you’ll find new ideas posted on Facebook, Twitter, and on this blog, and we hope that you will share your ideas with us, too.

From sending your child to summer camp during Wild About Water Week to taking a wild ride down the twin waterslides at the Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole, there are many ways to get wild in the parks. For thrill-seeking naturalists, the new Extreme Adventures program at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park is your chance to explore the park’s wild outback for stream monsters such as Hellgrammites, water scorpions, and water snakes, as well as poisonous plants and lethal predators in the forest.

An elephant from the Reston Zoo bathed in Lake Fairfax in 1986.

Speaking of wild animal sightings, did you know that elephants from the Reston Zoo used to cool off in Lake Fairfax, or that black bears have been seen in Riverbend Park? While not quite as wild as elephant and bear sightings, keep an eye out for photos of Buddy the Wolf, Rec-PAC’s wild mascot, as he visits camp sites with his anti-bullying message.

Getting wild can be joining a fast-paced Zumba class at a RECenter, hiking the Cross-County Trail, or riding the mountain bike trails at Laurel Hill. To get wild on the water, head to Riverbend Park or our lakefront parks to launch a kayak, canoe, or paddle boat. Getting wild doesn’t always require working up a sweat. Take a stroll along the newly refurbished boardwalk at Huntley Meadows Park to look for an amazing array of dragonflies, or wander the manicured paths at Green Spring Gardens to see what’s in bloom. If music drives you wild, find your favorite venue to enjoy free concerts from our Summer Entertainment Series

The point is to get off the couch, get out of the office, and get wild in Fairfax County parks. It’s summer, so make the most of it!

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer.