Alonso Abugattas found his days filled with meetings and paperwork after he started his job as natural resources manager for Arlington County Parks and Recreation nearly three years ago. The Arlington native, who had spent 22 years working in the field, discovered he missed the hands-on experience of another part of his lifelong vocation: educating the public about nature.
“I kind of miss being an environmental educator,” said Abugattas, the former Long Branch Nature Center director and naturalist. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and I really missed the education work I’ve done every day.”
So nine months ago, Abugattas started the Capital Naturalist blog and its corresponding Facebook group, posting regular updates and short essays about the area’s flora and fauna.
Recent posts have ranged from sand digger wasps showing up on local playgrounds this summer (most cannot or are unlikely to sting, and the wasps are beneficial, as they feed on stink bugs and other insects) to identifying typical Potomac River fossils (turtle bone, petrified wood or coprolite — a.k.a. fossilized feces?).
His posts are accompanied by photos, which Abugattas takes himself.
Fairfax County naturalist Mike McCaffrey, manager of Springfield’s Hidden Pond Nature Center, praises the blog and Facebook group (which has more than 400 members) for its highly interactive nature — members post questions and chime in frequently — and for the diversity of its posts.
McCaffrey, who has often consulted with Abugattas, called him “a treasure,” a gifted public educator with an accessible writing style and a naturalist’s naturalist, eager to learn and share information.
“The way a doctor might go to another doctor for advice? He’s the naturalist I go to for advice,” McCaffrey said.
“I love my job — I get a great kick out of it,” Abugattas said. “But more than anything, I miss the educational piece. The blog is my way of doing it.”
Abugattas’s Shirlington office sports a large aquarium teeming with guppies, cases of native seed pods and a shelf crammed with jars of spiders suspended in rubbing alcohol. It is a way to bring a bit of the outdoors into his work space.
“Instead of looking out onto the feeders and gardens, I get to see the parking lot and the snowplows,” Abugattas said. “I had to have something living in the place, [and] they’re not keen on snakes.”
Eventually, he plans to write a book about Arlington’s natural habitat based on his posts. Its themes, he said, will include cultivating an awareness of what is all around us.
“Here in the nation’s capital, we’ve got so much cool stuff because of where we are. It seems like we have a lot of city, but you’d be amazed what’s outside your back door.”
And there is no shortage of material.
Among the items of interest to area residents: The rabbit population boom is not permanent. “Bunnies will go down,” Abugattas said. “The foxes and hawk numbers are gonna catch up, and as they eat them down, well, that population’s gonna crash. For rabbits, it’s six- to nine-year cycles — there’s a boom and a bust.”
Deer, on the other hand, are an ongoing concern.
“Nothing controls those numbers,” Abugattas said. “Foxes can’t really eat deer, and a coyote might eat one or two fawns, but they don’t really. So as long as the deer is careful crossing the street, it’s probably going to make it.”
The growing deer population has, in turn, altered the native plant population of the area.
“The animals that depend on one plant will thrive, animals that depend on the other won’t thrive,” he said. “I’ve got to worry about all the animals, not just the charismatic ones — that’s my job as natural resources manager.”
This symbiosis is what Abugattas is committed to sharing, in hopes that the public will come to understand the importance of conserving the plants, animals and habitat native to the region.
“My view of the natural world is that it’s kind of like a puzzle,” he said. “I know that this plant depends on this pollinator, this insect has to feed on this plant — they all fit together. My whole job, my whole career, my whole life is going to be spent trying to put those pieces together.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.