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Turn Left at the Ring-Billed Gull. . .

With Virginia's new trail guides, take a drive on the wild side.

By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2004; Page C02

It is a day when the seasons seem to switch as suddenly as frames in a slide show. The dawn comes earlier, the cold breeze has been muscled out by a hint of warmth, the birds that fed harmoniously side-by-side all winter are squabbling over nesting boxes, the squirrels madly chase one other around the garden. The calendar tells us winter isn't over, but it is taking a serious breather.

I look at our sleeping teenagers, the dog that needs walking, the laundry that needs doing, the endless weekend errands looming large. Hey kids, walk the dog and throw in a load of wash -- your dad and I are outta here.


(Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

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I had been waiting for just such a day since receiving copies of "Discover Our Wild Side: Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail." The two books -- one covers the coastal area east of Interstate 95 and the other the mountains west of U.S. Route 29 -- detail 550 sites where wildlife can be viewed. A third book -- the central Piedmont -- will cover 110 sites in the remainder of the state and will be published in September. Free for the asking, the spiral-bound books are arranged in driving-trail loops with directions to each site and descriptions of the areas.

Developed by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the birding and wildlife trail system is a takeoff on an idea first tried in Texas; now more than a half-dozen other states have developed or are developing their own wildlife trails. A 2001 survey by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service concluded that more than 2.4 million people spend nearly $788 million annually on wildlife-watching recreation in Virginia. Boosters hope the books will draw even more dollar-toting wildlife lovers. With at least 2,200 species of fish, reptiles, amphibians, mussels, crayfish, birds, mammals, butterflies and dragonflies, there's a lot of wildlife to see in Virginia.

David K. Whitehurst, director of the department's wildlife diversity division and the guiding force behind the wildlife trail, said development of the trail and the books cost $1.6 million, paid for mostly in federal transportation funds.

"We tried to design the trail for general wildlife enthusiasts, not the avid ones, because we knew they would be interested anyway," Whitehurst said. "We wanted to tie in history and culture to make it as effective as possible. It was easier to do that than I originally thought. We have so many historic and cultural sites that have good wildlife habitat."

On this pseudo-spring Sunday, my husband, Bud, and I decide to do the Fredericksburg Trail, which features historic sites as well as wildlife. With Bud in the driver's seat and me as navigator, we hit I-95, heading south to the first of eight sites on the trail.

8:45 a.m. Thirty minutes after leaving Fairfax Station, we follow the book's directions to get off on Exit 140. Aquia Landing on the Potomac River is just eight miles from I-95, but it might as well be 80 miles. With the entrance to the recreational area closed to cars, we park outside and hike in along a paved road where white-throated sparrows flit in the briars and fish crows nasally caw overhead. In a few minutes, we are on a sandy beach overlooking a two-mile-wide swath of river, watching great blue herons, ring-billed gulls and a mute swan pair.

9:40 a.m. Heading southeast on several two-lane roads toward Fredericksburg, we follow the detailed directions 14 miles to Belmont, the Gary Melchers Estate and Memorial Gallery. Situated on a ridge overlooking the Rappahannock River, the central portion of this historic house, which is open for tours on most days, dates to the 1790s and was the home of artist Gary Melchers in the early 1900s. The estate is closed, but we wander around the fields as a mockingbird scolds us for getting too close to its holly tree.

10:17 a.m. We drive for less than three miles to a length of River Road (Route 607), where frequent overlooks allow you to stop and view the flocks of gulls that sit placidly on the quiet Rappahannock. We stop for a few moments, watching the milky waters of the river drift peacefully by.


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