On Earth Day, Abundant Wildlife at Eagle Festival

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 23, 2006

It's a little unnerving for a kid the first time a live, twitching bird is in her hands.

Sometimes it pecks at fingers. But with the help of her mom, 6-year-old Aubrey Hutson clutched a red-bellied woodpecker yesterday, at the Elizabeth Hartwell Eagle Festival at Mason Neck State Park in Lorton.

Then Aubrey opened her hands, and the woodpecker shot to freedom. "It was scary," Aubrey said. "It hurt sometimes."

Bald eagles, dozens of which live in the woods around Mason Neck, were scarce in the damp, gray skies over the annual festival held to honor them, but plenty of other birds and reptiles enraptured the 100 or so people who ventured to the park on Earth Day. The festival's organizers also honored the late John F. "Jack" Herrity for his role in carving out the park and wildlife refuge during his years as chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Live bluegrass music echoed around the grounds that Elizabeth Hartwell, who died in 2000, took the lead in creating in the Mason Neck area of southeastern Fairfax. In addition to helping beat back repeated attempts to develop the peninsula on the Potomac River, Hartwell's efforts led to the establishment of the 1,814-acre state park, the 1,003-acre Pohick Bay Regional Park and the 2,277-acre Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, founded to protect nesting bald eagles.

As rain poured down, Hartwell's son, Rob, joked, "This'll be the first year that eagles haven't been seen at the eagle festival." But die-hard birders quickly told him they'd spotted some, and the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia brought out owls and hawks to satisfy the thirst for big birds.

At the bird-banding tent, volunteers from Friends of the Potomac River Refuges occasionally snagged smaller species in an invisible net strung in front of a tree line. The birds were carefully measured and weighed, and then a band was placed around one leg, while fascinated visitors were given an educational pep talk.

Birders are studying the types of birds that stop at Mason Neck, how long they stay and whether the habitat is serving its purpose of providing a safe place for migrating birds, said Suzanne Miller, a member of the organization. Volunteers have documented 83 species, including a thrush that had been banded in Puerto Rico. A sparrow banded in Mason Neck has since been caught near Rochester, N.Y., Miller said.

But eagles are what Mason Neck is known for. Park operators no longer band eagles, said Greg Weiler of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Mainly they ensure that the birds have a protected habitat where they can roost and reproduce. Operators will shut down trails or certain areas if eagles build their nests too close to heavily traveled sections, Weiler said.

At least six eagle nests have been spotted, either in the refuge or elsewhere on the Mason Neck peninsula, along with a well-used roost, Weiler said. The eagle population grows during the winter, when birds from colder climates migrate to the river and the nearby Belmont and Occoquan bays. "It's not uncommon to see 50 to 60 birds along the shoreline" in winter, Weiler said.

A tent that alternately hosted reptile, magic and raptor shows kept kids of all ages entertained as well as dry. Karina Escobar, 9, of Lanham was thrilled to be a magician's assistant. She watched as her white baseball cap was cut by scissors and covered with tape, then emerged unscathed.

Her brother Frank, 11, preferred the big birds. "It's cool," he said. "They had this big red-tailed hawk. It was so big, it had these long wings -- I think they were about five feet tall."

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