It's not often you find a wide variety of animal habitats in a relatively concentrated area, and it's even rarer that such a pristine spot is open to the public. But that's exactly what you'll find at the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship in the northwest corner of Loudoun County.
The nearly 900-acre site, which is owned by the Robert and Dee Leggett Foundation, offers explorers nine mi les of trails meandering th rough deep woods and open fields, abutting streams, ponds and vernal pools.
One of the best ways to see what the site has to offer is to join avid birder Joe Coleman of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy. Coleman frequently leads the group's bird walk here on the fourth Saturday of each month. On a sunny, cold morning in January, my teenage son and I were surprised that more than 20 people had gathered in the Neersville fire station parking lot. After deciding we wanted to stay together as a large group, we caravanned to the Blue Ridge Center just down the road.
With the sun at our backs and the Blue Ridge Mountains ahead, we started our search near a dilapidated house on the property. Parts of the house date to the 18th century, Coleman told us as we tried to tread softly. Less than a minute later, a fellow birder called out. He had spotted a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which is listed as uncommon on the site's birding list, in a tree ahead. I had never seen one and was excited when the bird cooperated long enough for Coleman to set up his spotting scope so we could get a good look at the handsome woodpecker, its yellowish feathers puffed up to keep warm.
"Flying!" another birder called as we looked up to see a red-shouldered hawk sail overhead.
With the resident rooster crowing in the background -- the site has an organic farm that sells eggs -- we headed toward an open field, the perfect habitat for sparrows. Several in the group were seasoned birders, so the whispered discussion focused on identifying the types of sparrows (Savannah, white-throated, field or song) we were seeing.
Coleman let the group know that this was also "tremendous bluebird country. We had the highest number ever for the Christmas count. The bluebirds have really come back in the last few years." (The Christmas event is an annual nationwide count sponsored by the National Audubon Society.)
Across the way another birder spotted two red-shouldered hawks perched near each other in low trees. The large birds seemed to be resting in the cold, so we got a good look at the tweed-like pattern of brown-and-white markings on the chests of what was probably a mated pair. Coleman said many hawks follow the Short Hill Mountain ridge, which rose to our east, in their migration south. Later, he stopped and shushed our chattiness in a field that looked promising.
"Who here does a good screech owl?" he asked. Germaine Connolly, an avid birder, stepped out from the crowd to do her owl imitation, which sounded a little like a horse whinnying, in the hopes of scaring up birds from their hiding places in the winter vegetation. Later in the day, Coleman made a sound that was a cross between a hiss and a whistle, an imitation of sounds birds use to warn each other of danger. Making such noises designed to spook the birds into sight is called "pishing."
The sun warmed our backs and shone golden on the grasses on either side of our path as we headed toward a more wooded area. On our walk through the hilly woods, we spotted or heard several species of woodpecker, including hairy and downy. In the 19th century, the land was home to a farming community, and we passed several old log cabins that will be studied and restored. Winter visitors also might spot wild turkeys and grouse, although Coleman thought the size and volume of our group would probably spook them before we came near.
Our trail led to the ice-kissed banks of Piney Run, a stream that flows to the Potomac River, where we saw a charming little Carolina wren and a nuthatch. Coleman and Connolly made their pishing noises as we strained our eyes across the water to a wetlands area. Along our path, another birder spotted a patch of skunk cabbage in bloom. The low-growing plant with pod-like blooms and purplish spots was surprisingly lovely, especially in the absence of competition.
Coming up to a berm near a frozen pond was like stepping up to a smorgasbord of birds. Junkos, mockingbirds, wrens, sparrows and cardinals all vied for our attention. As we walked uphill again, a field opened up before us.
"You all hear the bluebirds?" Coleman asked.
Two hours after we had set out, we arrived back at the parking lot to tally our count: 32 species for the morning. Several die-hard birders headed to another site for more scoping, but my son and I walked to the nature center headquarters. The building is open to the public, although the center is still building its collection of books, magazines and nature activities for families.
In early spring, one trail will become even friendlier for birders, especially novices and young children. The center is waiting for the ground to thaw before setting up an interpretive bird trail, a less than one-mile loop that will feature colorful signs identifying habitats and likely species to be viewed. Children can rent a "birding backpack" of high-powered binoculars, a bird guide, a sketch pad and pencils, and a first-aid kit. All in all, 130 bird species, including eagles, cuckoos and a variety of warblers, have been sighted here. In warmer months, visitors might also admire some of the 60 species of butterflies that cavort in the wildflower fields.
"We want people to be able to come here and study the land and interpret it and have an experience with open spaces and history," said Shawna DeWitt, the center's operations manager.
Historians and archaeologists have identified 35 historic sites on the property, many of which date to the 19th century. The land is also home to several threatened species, including wood turtles and marbled salamanders, and you might see bears, coyotes or signs of bobcats. It's a rare and welcoming place in any season.
THE LOUDOUN WILDLIFE CONSERVANCY Sponsors a free three- to four-hour bird walk at the Blue Ridge Center on the fourth Saturday of each month at 8 a.m. Next walk is Saturday; bring binoculars. Meet at the Neersville Volunteer Fire Station parking lot, 11762 Harpers Ferry Rd. For more information, call Joe Coleman at 540-554-2542 or e-mail