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A curious sound echoed through the woods. I paused for a moment to try to place it, before I realized it was hundreds of honking noises all blending together in a riotous cacophony.
As I walked along the path through the trees, the sound grew louder. Where was it coming from? Finally, through a break in the trees, I spotted hundreds of birds flapping and settling into the water of a tidal marsh.
I came to Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Lorton, Virginia, expecting to find a quiet hiding place for bald eagles. Instead, I found a flock of migratory Canada geese seeking refuge in the water and calling to each other joyously, their voices rising in a chorus of honks, cackles and hisses. The water teemed with rustling feathers and bobbing beaks.
In fact, since the refuge was founded as a safe place for eagles, it has become home to many year-round and migratory birds and animals. More than 200 different kinds of birds, scores of reptiles and amphibians, and dozens of other animals find solace in the refuge. The 207-acre Great Marsh is one of the largest breeding areas for great blue herons in Virginia.
Yet the bald eagles are still a central attraction. The refuge hosts an Eagle Festival in May, which brings more than 3,000 people to see birds and learn about the refuge through family-friendly activities and local music.
Named for Elizabeth Hartwell, a local resident who fought to preserve the land from development, this was the first national refuge established to protect the bald eagle, which was newly protected by the precursor to the Endangered Species Act, in 1969.
The refuge rests on the banks of the Potomac, and the watershed that feeds the Great Marsh – and, in turn, all of the life relying on the marsh – empties into the Chesapeake Bay.
Three trails all center around the Great Marsh, the heart of the refuge. The Woodmarsh Trail, which I chose, winds for three miles through the woods and over small streams. The Great Marsh Trail is paved and runs for three-quarters of a mile to an observation deck over the tidal marsh. Lastly, the High Point Trail is accessible (ADA compliant) and open to cyclists as well as hikers.
People most often visit the refuge to “hike, bike and bird,” says Amanda Daisey, the refuge manager. As Northern Virginia continues to grow and develop, she says, the refuge is becoming ever more important.
“This is a suburban and urban area, so the contiguous habitats are becoming more important,” Daisey says. The refuge itself sprawls over more than 2,000 acres, but it is also joined by neighbors, like Mason Neck State Park and Pohick Bay Regional Park, to form about 5,000 acres on a peninsula. They’re also joined by nearby Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge across the water. All of this protected land offers a variety of different habitats.
“We've got a place for birds to stop when they're migrating north and south, and we're important for them in the winter,” Daisey says. And then there are the white-tailed deer, groundhogs, and other animals that take refuge in the woods from the increasingly urban areas around them. But the refuge isn’t just important for sustaining wildlife. It’s also a key place for suburban and urban residents to reconnect with nature – and to realize how closely they live to this wildlife.
When I emerged from the Woodmarsh Trail through the woods, I spotted a wooden structure with a permanent telescope installed along the railing. I gazed over the marsh, listening to the wild cacophonous honking from the geese and watching the birds flying and settling over the water.
I originally came to this park seeking a quiet trip, and perhaps a peaceful walk through the refuge, but instead I discovered something else altogether. What an incredible feeling to be surprised by nature still – to catch some of the birds’ unexpected joy, to feel the excitement of the great migration along with them. And to realize how all of these watersheds across the continent are connected, to know we are but one stop – albeit an important one – on the long journeys waterfowl must make every year.
The 2,276-acre Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge was specifically created to protect essential bald eagle nesting, feeding, and roosting habitats along the Potomac River.
Overlooking the Potomac River, the park is a haven for migrating bird species in spring and fall. It has hiking trails, 3 miles of paved multi-use trails, a large picnic area, a playground, a car-top canoe launch and a visitor center.
Pohick Bay is a water oriented park located on the Potomac River 25 miles south of the nation's capital. Pohick Bay offers canoes, kayaks, paddle boats and jon boats for rent on the weekends.