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Winged Victories

A flock of Canada geese flies above the wetlands at the park, which is home to the ubiquitous red-winged blackbird, far left. Mike Ready of Arlington, below, prepares to catch the action with his spotting scope.
A flock of Canada geese flies above the wetlands at the park, which is home to the ubiquitous red-winged blackbird, far left. Mike Ready of Arlington, below, prepares to catch the action with his spotting scope. (Dayna Smith - Dayna Smith/ftwp)

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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lovesick pintails bob their heads. Up and down they go, the poor fellows almost incapable of watching where they're swimming as they paddle after females, hoping to impress. The shovelers and the green-winged teal are at it, too, madly.

Love is in the air at Huntley Meadows Park, and it's not just the ducks. In an affair of the heart that has gone on for 22 years, a group of bird-watchers meets every Monday morning to search for more than 200 species in a Fairfax County park recently cited by Birder's World magazine as one of the best bird-watching places in the area. They meet winter, spring, summer and fall. Of course, spring is best.

"The time to come out here is dawn in May," said Harrison A. Glasgow, a member of the Fairfax County Park Authority Board who leads the groups. "It's spiritual."

Last week, Glasgow and about a dozen other birders arrived just before dawn. The air was cold, and the moon was like a wedge of silver fruit. They straggled down a path, dragging tripods, spotting scopes and $1,600 Swarovski binoculars. A far-off timpani solo brought them to a stop in a stand of hardwoods, but no one could see the pileated woodpecker that was making a racket somewhere out of sight.

Then they spread even farther apart along a low footbridge zigzagging over a swamp. They pointed out birds to one another, debating whether this one was a fox sparrow or that one was a thrush. They reminisced about ouzels and eagles sighted long ago and about birds spied just a day before. They debated whether familiarity breeds contempt for such once-rare but now thoroughly common species as the bald eagle.

"They're practically trash birds," sniffed John Perry, 75, of Belle Haven. He also had few kind words for sparrows. "There are more sparrows than strictly necessary."

This being a workday, most of the folks were retirees who also welcomed the chance to catch up with one another.

"This little group is about half social," said Glasgow, 66. "Every once in a while, you get a little annoyed because you want to hear something, and you're hearing about someone's grandchildren."

Years ago the park's land belonged to George Mason IV, who wrote Virginia's Declaration of Rights and helped frame the U.S. Constitution. His descendants held on to the land until the 20th century, when the federal government purchased much of it for testing highway asphalt, setting up antiaircraft guns during World War II and conducting classified research on radio communications.

The park's 1,425 acres contain several distinct ecological systems, including a freshwater marsh and woodlands. The December issue of Birder's World magazine listed Huntley Meadows as one of the hot spots in the Washington region, noting that more than 200 species can be found in what is the largest non-tidal freshwater marsh in the area.

Not so long ago, the park's stewards worried the marsh was being drained. Then beavers got busy, damming up the stream and restoring its wetlands. Glasgow said there is still concern that silting could cause the marsh to disappear, threatening its wildlife. He said the Park Authority is contemplating asking voters for funds to restore the park when the agency issues 2008 bonds.

"It's a huge wilderness in some of the densest development in the county," said Glasgow, a former intelligence analyst in the Pentagon.

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