Chesapeake Insider

Alonso Abugattas


Alonso Abugattas is a well-known local naturalist, environmental educator and storyteller in the Washington, DC area. He is currently the Natural Resources Manager for Arlington County Parks, Virginia and is the long-time co-chair for the Chesapeake Region 2 (Mid-Atlantic region) of the National Association for Interpretation, the professional organization for naturalists, environmental educators, historians and other professionals who interpret cultural/natural resources.

Alonso has been trained as a master gardener, was made an honorary Virginia Master Naturalist for his role in starting two chapters, and serves as an instructor for multiple chapters for both groups in Maryland and Virginia in a variety of topics. He is a co-founder of the Washington Area Butterfly Club and has held several offices, including president of the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. He invites you to check out his various social media outlets under the title of the “Capital Naturalist” in Facebook, his blog and YouTube channels under the same name, or on Twitter @CapNaturalist, where he  posts regular nature notes using his own photography.

I follow your Facebook group "Capital Naturalist," and I almost feel like I'm meeting a celebrity. You have quite a following in the DC area. How did this all begin?

I started the Capital Naturalist Facebook Group in October of 2013 followed closely by my blog. It came about due to a couple of things. One was that I had been “promoted” into a more managerial job after over 20 years as a naturalist and environmental educator conducting walks and talks almost daily and running a nature center for five of those years. As Arlington’s natural resources manager, my opportunities at teaching were to become less available (though I still try to keep busy) and I became more of a paper-pusher. This is, of course, not what any naturalist wants to do. As a way to keep letting people know about the wonderful natural resources we have in the area, I decided to start the Capital Naturalist Facebook Group and then the blog. It was my way of still trying to keep my ties as an environmental educator. I had also for quite a while been toying with the idea of writing a book about being a naturalist in the DC area called the “Capital Naturalist." By forcing myself to post things regularly, I thought this would help me collect info for my book. Out of all this, the Capital Naturalist in all its forms was born.

What are people most surprised to learn about the animals and plants who call the Capital region home?

I think a lot of people are surprised at the incredible diversity we have in the DC region. For example, tiny Arlington County, one of the smallest counties in the USA, once had 28% of all the known, naturally-occurring plants found in Virginia. Fairfax has over 1,300 plant species recorded as surviving in it. For a naturalist, this is an incredible place to study and enjoy wildlife and plants. DC is at the southern limit of many northern species, and at the northern limits of many southern species. We’re close enough to the coast to have many of those species, but species range down from the mountains, particularly along our rivers, to also live around here. We’re along some major migratory routes as well. All this contributes to a wonderful variety of organisms that call DC home. And while we may be fairly urbanized, much has still survived and is ready to be discovered, making this area a hotbed for diversity and a great place to be a naturalist.

What species has the area lost due to human population and development? What species have survived that you might not have expected to?

Well, as previously stated, we have lost a lot due to urbanization. Those organisms needing specialized habitats and host plants were the most at risk, but many suffered. Gone are wolves, mountain lions, and many lesser-known creatures such as the Allegheny wood rat and most of our American ginseng. But there are a few holdouts and hopes for some to return. Bears make it to the DC area more often than you’d think, bobcats stay hidden in our suburbs, river otters play in our rivers, and American ginseng and hidden colonies of native orchids manage to hang on.

Some rare habitats also survived. I’m lucky enough to be able to steward one such habitat, one of less than two dozen Magnolia bogs to survive worldwide. This globally rare site, Barcroft Park, manages to survive surrounded by development and recreational activities in Arlington, and we, of course, do our best to protect it. As efforts to conserve and recover habitats have improved, plants and the wildlife who depend on them have also recovered.

The latest Potomac River health report is a good example of steps in the right direction. The bald eagles, osprey, and peregrine falcons who have recovered and nest in our area are encouraging proof of species not just surviving, but starting to thrive. We recently released a wild turkey from the Rosslyn Metro construction site to a more appropriate location. Another one was seen in Arlington behind a fire station. We are finding more and more of what used to be considered unusual wildlife living in close proximity to people, learning to survive alongside of us.

What's the strangest phone call you've ever received (work-related, of course)?

While working at nature centers and at parks’ headquarters, you receive some strange phone calls and, of course, lots of strange (and sometimes illegal) things happen in parks. I’ve had to deal with all sorts of unusual issues from animal sacrifices to the Robert Hanssen spy investigation, so choosing one particular thing is tough to do. Last year I was asked to identify a large snake found in a toilet in an apartment complex by an Animal Control officer. Yes, that does occasionally happen. Everyone was quite surprised when I identified it as a yellow anaconda. They don’t grow as big as the fabled green anacondas, but it was still quite a surprise for the people who found it.

Where do you like to play in the Chesapeake when you're not working?

There are so many places I like to visit, often seasonally. But if I had to choose one place, it would be Huntley Meadows Park in the Alexandria section of Fairfax. I live very close by (particularly to the less frequented back entrance) and so I regularly make short visits after work or while running errands. It’s the biggest Fairfax County park and the mix of meadows, woods, and popular boardwalk wetland make for tons of interesting sightings and rewarding visits. So while I visit lots of places and have favorites for different times of year, Huntley is my most visited and go-to park.

Huntley Meadows Park

Huntley Meadows Park is a rich, natural island in the suburban sea of Northern Virginia. Its 1,557 acres harbor majestic forests, wildflower-speckled meadows and vast wetlands bursting with life.

Jody Couser

Jody is the senior vice president of communications with the Chesapeake Conservancy. She has a public relations background and served as spokeswoman for Anne Arundel County, MD. 

May 9, 2018

Main image: Alonso Abugattas is a well-known local naturalist, environmental educator and storyteller in the Washington, DC area.
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