- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

On any day, visitors to Huntley Meadows Park might find herons and ducks, beavers and turtles. Or they might just enjoy the trails and the quiet of the wetlands, meadows and woods.

Huntley Meadows, the largest park operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority, is a 1,425-acre oasis located minutes from the bustle of Route 1 in the Hybla Valley area, south of Alexandria. The park attracts all types, from senior citizens out for autumn fitness walks to school groups on field trips.

The park is best-known for its bird-watching opportunities. More than 200 species of birds have been sighted at Huntley Meadows. A journal at the visitors center tracks the dozens of types seen each day. Experienced watchers, wearing binoculars and carrying bird guidebooks, are found all over the trails particularly near the observation deck overlooking the wetlands.

Terry and Gary Haag, visitors from Northern California, say they make a trip to Huntley Meadows every time they are in the Washington area visiting family. They were bird-watching on a recent weekday morning, noting the species they can find around here.

"We saw red-bellied woodpeckers and flickers," Mrs. Haag says. "We enjoy seeing birds we don't ordinarily see in California."

The park features a large visitors center, which contains interactive exhibits about the park's history, the value of wetlands, and the animals that can be found there. Books, animal skins and "please touch" boxes as well as a few live snakes in cages are provided for youngsters to enjoy. The park hosts dozens of programs in the center, from preschool story time to birding for beginners.

The park also has strong support from Friends of Huntley Meadows Park. The 400-member organization (dues are a mere $5 annually) organizes many events at the park, from environmental lectures to an open-mike coffeehouse.

Outside the visitors center, one can quickly pick up one of the trails. One, 1.2 miles long, is available for both hiking and biking. The other trails are about a half-mile each, but because they feed into one another, a loop through them all makes for a healthy walk of more than two miles.

The Cedar, Heron and Deer trails take visitors through the woods and on a wooden boardwalk over and through the wetlands, where beavers, frogs and ducks can be spotted. All trails lead to the two observation decks, where visitors can observe the wetlands with a bird's-eye view.

Huntley Meadows was formed more than 10,000 years ago, when the Potomac River used to flood the area, creating the wetlands. The area was later the site of settlements of American Indians, who farmed the rich soil, fished the waters and made jewelry and pottery from the abundant clay.

In the mid-1700s, the land was part of a parcel purchased by Colonial statesman George Mason. By the early 1900s, the surrounding land was home to a number of dairy farms. The land eventually was purchased by the federal government. In 1975, President Ford authorized the donation of 1,261 acres to Fairfax County for exclusive use as a park or recreation facility. The county paid $1 for the purchase and later acquired the additional acreage, says visitors center volunteer Norma Hoffman.

Mrs. Hoffman has been a volunteer at the park since 1975. Among other duties, she helps keep the running log of the birds that visit the feeders outside the center.

"This park is unique because it is in such a developed area," she says.

When plans called for building a major thoroughfare through the preserve, Mrs. Hoffman founded Citizen's Alliance to Save Huntley.

"We fought for 15 years to keep it a wetland," she says. "Finally, in 1990, we won. We really fought hard."

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