Wandering the Watershed with Eliza Cava – Part 1: Huntley Meadows

I’m one month into my new role as Director of Conservation at Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS), and now that the triple-digit days of the summer are coming to an end I’m getting out and about around the watersheds of the DC area. I’ll be posting short reflections on each of my visits in this mini-series. In late August, after spending a fantastic morning with Virginia Conservation Advocate Monica Billger and the Audubon Estates community at a Community Connection to Nature Day along Little Hunting Creek, I took a detour to Huntley Meadows Park on my way back to the office. It was my first time there and I can’t believe I had waited this long.
Light Falling through hardwoods

Light Falling through hardwoods

After leaving the Nature Center with its excellent displays (I’m a history buff—this place was a Cold War satellite dish listening station and a failed blimp-port, among other uses!), the trail system starts off by meandering through a beautiful hardwood forest. The light was falling just right and illuminating the leaves in a beautiful shade of summer green. Even though we were right in the heart of suburban Fairfax County, I could already feel myself transitioning into a more contemplative mood.
Boardwalk over the marsh

Boardwalk over the marsh

Soon enough the trail opened upon the jewel of the park: Huntley Meadows itself, a restored hemi-marsh (also known as an emergent wetland). After spending at least a century completely cleared as farms and pasture beginning in colonial times, the 1,557 acres that currently make up the Park went through several owners, including the Bureau of Roads, Virginia’s National Guard, and the Navy (and also the failed blimp-port operation). Beavers did the yeoman’s work of restoring the area back to a wetland: as trees were allowed to regrow, beavers arrived and dammed up the creeks, allowing the water to slow down, spread out, and get shallower until wetland plants could grow and thrive. The area became a birding paradise with a wide variety of habitats from forested upland, to floodplain trees, to marsh vegetation, and open water. Over time the beavers’ work slowed the water down so much that the central wetland was beginning to fill in, and so county managers installed water control structures to maintain the valuable hemi-marsh ecosystem. They also installed a beautiful boardwalk with observation towers that make the marsh an accessible treat to visit. Huntley Meadows Park is fed by several creeks: Little Hunting Creek, Dogue Run, and Barnyard Run. These are short creeks that before they get to the park traverse a mostly paved suburban landscape, bringing in sediment, excess nutrients, toxic chemicals like pesticides and oils, and garbage with every storm. Indeed, just upstream on Little Hunting Creek that same morning, we pulled out car parts, entire bicycles, and lots of plastic bottles. We used our Creek Critters app to identify the beetles, aquatic worms, planaria, and crayfish we found in the stream and got a stream health rating of Poor—these are critters that can tolerate low water quality. But as they arrive in the wetland at Huntley Meadows Park, these creeks get an opportunity to slow down and spread out, meaning that those pollutants can leave the water and be soaked up by plants and soil. The water leaves the park on its way to the Potomac River much, much cleaner than it was when it went in.
Marsh Mallow Flower

Marsh Mallow Flower

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

From the boardwalk I saw birds, beaver dams, and beautiful flowers. The transition from forested woods to brilliant blue sky reflected over the marsh and framed by plants of all shades of green was breathtaking.     If you haven’t yet been to Huntley Meadows, now’s the time to go! You might just see a Great Blue Heron just hanging out on the side of the boardwalk… All photo taken by: Eliza Cava

About Eliza Cava

Eliza Cava is the ANS Director of Conservation, where she leads our MD & DC policy, advocacy, and conservation outreach work, supervises our citizen science programs and VA advocacy work, and supports Woodend restoration as a demonstration landscape for the region.

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