GREAT FALLS PARK
Critter Count Blends Family Fun With Science
Sunday, June 25, 2006
Piling out of their minivan at Great Falls Park yesterday, the White family of Arlington -- John, 43, Charise, 41, Jennifer, 14, and Amy, 9 -- prepared for their first outing together of the summer.
Sunscreen, check. Water, check. Bug repellent, extra clothes, check.
Then they grabbed their snake-handling hooks and plunged into the swamps.
The Whites are volunteers on the reptiles and amphibians team for Bioblitz, a 30-hour effort to count every critter in the Potomac River Gorge. With its combination of sunny prairie and rich forest, the 15-mile river corridor from Great Falls to Georgetown is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the East Coast.
By the time the blitz ends at 3 p.m. today, "we'll get a greatly increased understanding of the biodiversity of this area," said Sam Droege, a biologist with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, who organized the first Bioblitz in 1996.
Bioblitz volunteers survey a different part of the Washington region each time, and they have turned up 500 to 3,000 forms of life, depending on location, weather, even the phase of the moon. The total, Droege said, "is a fraction of the real number," but when combined with observations from the scores of world-class biologists and naturalists who volunteer, counts from the event provide information vital for conservation plans.
For the Whites, Bioblitz "keeps the kids occupied, and they have a good time," Charise White said.
The Whites are longtime members of the Virginia Herpetological Society, and they have taken their daughters on similar trips since they were in strollers, Charise said. "They'll pick up anything."
John White found a small copperhead. The reptiles and amphibians team gathered around it, admiring its dead-leaf markings and the powdery, orange sheen of its triangular head. "Who caught that?" asked team leader Jason Gibson, who leads the Virginia society. "Niiiice." Down it went on the tally sheet. One man said he hadn't seen a copperhead in these woods for 30 years. Then a team member found another one, two feet long, coiled just off the trail. Soon another turned up in a brush pile.
Amy White nabbed a pickerel frog, holding it with fingers still swollen from the three yellow jacket bites she suffered at the start of the hunt. She studied its striped back and pin-slender toes as the expedition photographer captured it, and then she let it go.
The family has been chased by bees, been followed by a bear and found countless natural wonders on their hunts.
The most exciting discovery, Jennifer White said, was "the mass emergence of the timber rattlesnakes." The snakes and their young leave winter dens each year in Loudoun County, but the family won't say exactly where, to foil reptile collectors.