Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve is the kind of place many people would like to have for a backyard - it provides habitat for wildlife and a refuge for all, young and old, who are mesmerized by water flowing through a muddy marsh or sunlight dappling the pine forest floor.
Anchored by the tidal creek that bears its name, the preserve offers a mix of marsh, meadow and forest habitats on 142 acres tucked between 1950s housing tracts and the busy Hampton Roads channel in Portsmouth, VA.
Home to numerous small mammals, deer and birds, Hoffler Creek is also a haven for people who are lucky to find their way to one of Portsmouth's best kept secrets.
Ashley Morgan, assistant director of the preserve who has been at Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve since the late 1990s, said there is something for every type of visitor to the preserve.
"We are part of the Star-Spangled Banner Geocaching Trail and the John Smith Water Trail. Some come for the history," Morgan said. At the entrance to the preserve, a Virginia historic marker tells the story of the battle of Craney Island, in which U.S. forces saved the port of Norfolk from British takeover in 1813.
"Some come for health and fitness. It's a great place to walk," she said. Morgan said that she has seen the powerful way this small slice of undeveloped land affects visitors. "People who come here often remark about how they feel - that they have been transported. They feel the peacefulness and the quiet, and they take it away with them."
Up until 1970, the land was owned by the Ballard family, who settled here in the 1850s and farmed the land for more than a century in the community called Churchland.
If not engaged in nearby shipbuilding or maritime endeavors, settlers could make a decent living "truck farming" the bottomlands, raising fresh produce for sale to markets up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Small, gasoline engine-powered craft called "truck boats" delivered the harvested food to waiting steamers across the river in Norfolk. Produce from the Ballard farm bore the label of Floral Point, where the family home graced the highest ground in the area amid colorful wildflowers.
Signs of the Ballard house and farm buildings are still evident in the woods today. The preserve's "Homestead Trail" guide tells the story of the farm family's endeavors, which eventually included planting loblolly pine saplings for harvest.
Hoffler Creek is run by the Hoffler Creek Preserve Foundation and a staff of three, and is open to the public 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Randi Strutton, executive director of the foundation, lives in an adjacent neighborhood and is often there to greet visitors. She's part of the story of this land now, having led the effort to save the land from development in the late 1990s.
On a Saturday morning in late winter, she told the group assembled for a bird walk, "I know you are going to have a great morning." More than 200 species of birds have been sighted at Hoffler Creek, which is on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail.
Beyond the headquarters, a grassy trail opens up to the 35-acre Lake Ballard, once a borrow pit for the Virginia Department of Transportation, which owned the land after the Ballard family sold it in 1970.
Between the lake and the pines is a wide and level trail that is open and easy walking for groups like these birders.
The preserve offers all of the amenities that spring and fall migrating birds need: food, water and shelter. That morning, they had already counted bufflehead, ring-necked, wood ducks, and mallard pairs. One birder recognized the familiar dip of the pie-billed grebe. A Cooper's hawk left a swift shadow on the trail in front of the group. From time to time, the "trwrupp" of a Carolina wren punctuated the group's quiet conversation.
Peering through the thicket of wax myrtle between the path and the lake shimmering in the early sun, Dave Brown of Portsmouth, a frequent visitor to Hoffler Creek, spotted a ruby-crowned kinglet.
Close to the open water of Hampton Roads, the group stopped behind one of the two bird blinds. With openings large enough for a pair of binoculars at various heights, the blinds provide good viewing of birds and other wildlife on the creek.
On the other side of the lake, the group walked the soft, pine-needle path through the forest, listening and watching for more birds - northern flicker or yellow-bellied sapsucker. "We might get lucky and see an owl, " Brown said quietly.
He told of walking through these woods one morning when something pulled his eyes upward to a branch where three owls sat sleeping shoulder to shoulder.
Where the trail opens up at the creek, a ramp descends to a float for launching small, hand-carried boats like kayaks.
Here, Jessica Thompson, an environmental science professor at Christopher Newport University, and two of her students, were preparing for a walk on the low-tide mud out to minnow traps she had set in Hoffler Creek. Over the last four years, Thompson has been studying how temperature and salinity affects mummichog, a type of killifish that is an important food source for wading birds like blue heron.
The relationships that Hoffler Creek has forged with area schools are important. Hoffler Creek works with area groups to grow oysters for release onto oyster sanctuary reefs. Students from neighboring schools come twice a month to collect water quality data and measure shell growth.
Plans are under way to turn the Kids Trail into an outdoor area for children to explore and experiment with natural materials. With so many options for soccer and other organized outdoor activities, the preserve is responding to the need for opportunities for kids to be outdoors in other creative and unstructured ways. The foundation plans to build simple climbing structures so kids can explore at different levels off the ground.
Several years ago, Julie MacKinlay, a descendant of the Ballard family, wrote about visiting her aunt during summers at Floral Point. "Floral Point was the enchanted time and place of my childhood that I will never forget, and I am so deeply grateful that this special place has been preserved to educate and enchant especially other lucky children."
Randi Strutton understood this back in 1995. When walking in the woods behind her house in what is now the preserve, she saw surveyor's tape signaling the demise of the last bit of undeveloped land in the Hoffler Creek watershed.
With determination and grit, Strutton and her team spent four years gathering enough support - locally and in Richmond - to have the land deeded to the City of Portsmouth for one dollar. The city in turn agreed to let the foundation manage the land.
More than a decade later, Strutton and her staff are still taking care of this little oasis of wildness in the middle of one of the largest urban centers on the East Coast. Locals and travelers who find their way here know they've stumbled on something special.
"I have to remind folks that this is not a park, but a preserve," Strutton said. "It's important, because everything that we do here is about preserving this place for wildlife. We may be small, but we can still have an impact."
After spending a few hours at this Hoffler Creek, a visitor will come away wishing that this kind of place were available in every neighborhood around the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Article originally published in the Bay Journal on April 30, 2012.