Kevin Monroe is mid-sentence, describing how the “teenage,” swamp-like forest surrounding used to be a dairy farm with just a few shade trees, when something catches his eye.
At the edge of the gravel trail, a small, dark-brown salamander with mustard spots is limping off the footpath. It’s a spotted salamander, a member of the mole salamander family, and its tail looks as if a predator took a bite and didn’t like what it tasted (which, in this case, would be poisonous). The salamander is one symbol of the unique ecosystem that Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, VA, has helped preserve for the last 40 years.
Monroe, manager of the park, said the mole salamander spends almost all of its life underground. It emerges only to lay eggs in the vernal pools that form in the spring and dry up before fish can populate them — and snack on the salamander’s eggs.
“We believe we probably have one of the three largest vernal pool complexes in Northern Virginia,” Monroe said of the park, run by the Fairfax County Park Authority.
His team is mapping the pools that, among other habitat features, draw a variety of wildlife to this otherwise suburban area.
For most of the 200,000 visitors that come to this park each year, and for nearby residents who stop by weekly for nature-infused strolls, the wetland-meandering boardwalk is their destination.
A stroll down the boardwalk — its planks made out of recycled milk jugs from Chicago — brings into view an expanse of grasses and trees dotting the marshy landscape, which can also be seen from two observation towers at the park.
“This is a wetland park more than anything else,” Monroe said.
A mile-long trail that ends at the boardwalk winds from the parking lot into the woods which, because of their marshy makeup, feel about 10 degrees cooler than the pavement on a midsummer morning. Visitors hail from one of the many residential neighborhoods that surround the park, located not far from Alexandria’s bustling U.S. Route 1.
Though the 1,554-acre park is the second largest in Fairfax County, most visitors don’t venture far from the boardwalk and the views it offers.
“I’ve been coming for over 30 years, since the old boardwalk connected to this boardwalk,” Jeska Pfefferle said during a midmorning visit with her granddaughter.
She and her wildlife-watching companion, Jack Everett, launch into a long list of wildlife sightings at the park: A barn owl once was here for eight days. They saw an albino buck once. They used to see king rails, a rare freshwater marsh bird, here in the late ’90s, but it’s been awhile.
“We’re trying to hard to get them back,” Monroe said. “We just finished a wetland restoration project, and we have a long list of target species that we’re trying to get back from the ’80s and ’90s.”
Monroe recalls when the smallest rail in North America, the black rail, once appeared at the park for three days, drawing about 100 photographers to the site to capture its presence on film.
“We were considered a mid-Atlantic hotspot for birding. And, although we’re still considered a good birding spot, part of the reason we just spent $3 million to restore the wetland is to get that community of birds back,” Monroe said.
The wetland here is a hemi-marsh composed of about half water and half plants in a combination that the county decided was worth maintaining. In nature, these habitats are largely the work of beavers that dam up deeper portions of the wetland to provide a quick escape from predators, leaving more shallow sections for tall grasses and trees.
The park features an advanced monitoring station near the center of the wetland, an antennae-like apparatus that measures air temperature, water depth and flow, as well as evaporation. The information helps the park and organizers better manage the wetlands and answer questions like this one:
“Do you think the water’s too high?” Pfefferle asked during an impromptu strategizing session with Monroe about getting rare birds like least bitterns to reappear at the park.
Monroe told her that that’s one of the questions his team has been asking as well as they increased the water level this year to push some of the plants back and, it is hoped, create the ideal habitat for the bitterns and other species by next year.
To the birding novice or first-time visitor, the wetlands are teeming with a diversity of species, from rare turtles to common red-winged blackbirds.
Near the beginning of the boardwalk, a cache of turtle eggs laid in an abandoned beaver dam appeared to have been discovered by a raccoon that conspicuously scattered the blue-hued shells. Around the bend, a native swamp rose opened its pink blossoms to the sun not far from a milkweed plant that provides key habitat to butterflies. A green frog’s signature banjo-string call drowned out the buzz of dragonflies, until it, too, was overwhelmed by the throatier bellow of a bullfrog.
The dragonflies are seemingly everywhere. Monroe said that park officials identified two species of the insect that are new to the park this year, an indication of improving water quality.
“This is one of the last large wetland areas left, so it’s become sort of a biodiversity reservoir,” Monroe said. “Everything sort of goes here, because there’s nowhere else to go.”
Huntley Meadows’ wet lowlands were likely carved by an ancient meander of the Potomac River. Come mosquito season, it’s not hard to remember that this area surrounding Washington, DC, was mostly a swamp until early settlers began draining it for farmland and development — and to get rid of those disease-carrying mosquitoes.
The area that makes up the park today was drained and used as farmland up until the 1940s. The family of George Mason, a U.S. “founding father,” owned and farmed the land up until the mid-1800s. A few of the historic buildings from that era can still be toured.
Today, Huntley Meadows features one of the rarest habitats left Fairfax County and one that’s key to filtering and improving water quality in the region.
The park is home to communities of plants and animals that aren’t found in the deeper stormwater retention ponds that crop up alongside new construction. The shallow, sun-dappled wetlands draw species like the spotted turtle and Southern leopard frog.
For these species, and especially for those that migrate to find these habitats, Monroe says the park “really has become sort of an island.”
Article originally published in the Bay Journal on October 20, 2014.