Homing In on the Bald Eagle

Streams and Pohick and Belmont bays contribute to Mason Neck's natural diversity. The state park and federal wildlife refuge protect more than 4,000 acres.
Streams and Pohick and Belmont bays contribute to Mason Neck's natural diversity. The state park and federal wildlife refuge protect more than 4,000 acres. (Jahi Chikwendiu)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mason Neck State Park has bike trails, a boat launch, canoe and kayak rentals, picnic tables and a playground with kid-size tunnels and slides. It's also close to the largest rookery of great blue herons in the mid-Atlantic region and Virginia's biggest freshwater marsh.

But mostly, people come for the eagles.

The U.S. Interior Department's decision last month to remove the bald eagle from the list of endangered and threatened species after 40 years has refocused attention on the majestic birds. One of the more popular sites in the Washington region to observe them is Mason Neck in southeast Fairfax County.

"A very large majority of people who come here, the first thing they ask is, 'Where are the bald eagles?' " said Bryan Galloway, a naturalist at the park. He said there are eight known nests and at least 20, perhaps 40, eagles on the peninsula, which lies between Pohick and Belmont bays.

The peninsula, which juts into the Potomac River near Lorton, features side-by-side federal and state nature preserves, including the first national wildlife refuge dedicated to protecting the bald eagle.

At the southernmost tip of the peninsula, near the mouth of the Occoquan River, is the state park, which opened in 1985. Next door to its 1,814 acres is the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. The federal refuge, established in 1969, has 2,227 acres.

"Basically, I come down for the eagles," said John McTarnaghan, 62, of Warrenton. McTarnaghan, who works at a Lowe's home improvement store in Manassas, got swept up in photographing the birds last fall.

For a while, he was on a quest to snap a picture of a bald eagle in flight, hoping to present it to his eldest grandson, Bryan Moris, who lives in North Carolina, in honor of the youth's reaching Eagle Scout. McTarnaghan said he's not sure why he loves the birds so much, but he does.

"They're just such a majestic species. I hated to see them taken off the protected species list," McTarnaghan said last week while visiting the park with granddaughters Sarah, 13, and Emily, 11. "I just hope they take care of them."

The birds are most visible in the winter, when the trees are stripped of foliage and the Jet Skis and motorboats have disappeared. They perch atop snags, waiting to snatch fish out of the water.

Both preserves owe their existence to Hartwell, who died in December 2000. Hartwell, known as the "Eagle Lady," was an ardent advocate for the eagles and organized groups to fight off many schemes for development, including plans for a deep-sea port on Belmont Bay, an outer beltway that would run through the nearby Gunston Hall colonial estate of George Mason, an Army aerosol-spraying experimental tower, a military airport, a landfill for garbage from the District, a natural gas pipeline, a sewer line construction project and a resort island in Belmont Bay.

Developers sometimes mocked her passion for eagles. But efforts by people like her have helped to transform a rare sight into something almost commonplace.

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