- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2008

A winter visit to Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Northeast helps revitalize the senses and provides fresh opportunity for studying the wildlife that abounds in this offbeat urban oasis.

The winter season certainly is best for birders, many of whom arrive at the gardens’ 7 a.m. opening, hoping to see winged creatures in their element. With the tree canopy absent, birders have clear sightlines unless fog or rain is dominant. If there is a coating of snow or frost, the many ponds and grasses glow under the light and turn the site into a kind of magic kingdom.

Walkers, too, like the quiet and seclusion of this unusual nature preserve as they take advantage of the sturdy boardwalks that cross the fertile wetlands and allow for an ambulatory outing of up to five miles.

The aquatic gardens contain more than 45 ponds surrounded by 70 acres of freshwater tidal marsh where wildflowers may be found blooming in early spring. The park and gardens are part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, making them a perfect laboratory for understanding the importance of wetland protection and restoration.

When cold, wet rain pelts down, however, walking and wildlife spotting can be difficult. Such inclement weather doesn’t diminish the enthusiasm of site manager Sue Bennett, an employee of the National Park Service, which oversees the 700-acre retreat on the east bank of the Anacostia River.



“Look up there,” she says, pointing to a red-tailed hawk perched on the upper limbs of a tree not far from the modest visitors center.

Other species around this time of year include the great blue heron and the bald eagle as well as a good-size contingent of Canada geese strutting about the grounds. Beavers and muskrat are busy, and even fox, coyote and mink have been sighted, according to park ranger and public interpreter Kathleen Bucco, a plant specialist who is no less energetic and appreciative than Ms. Bennett about her domain.

The best time to appreciate Kenilworth’s famously beautiful blooming water plants is late May through early August. Many tropical lilies are taken indoors for protection from winter’s cold, but some hardy waterlilies hibernate in the ponds in winter. Selected public programs also remain on the calendar. At 1 p.m. Feb. 17, for instance, a program about beavers is scheduled, weather permitting. Programs on winter tree identification are possible by request.

Frogs are counted beginning late in February, an event open even to people with disabilities who use motorized wheelchairs. Volunteers always are welcome to lead bird walks and help at cleanup sessions that take place the third Saturday of each month.

Bird-watchers prefer early morning hours because then they are more likely to see their favorite warm-blooded vertebrates in action.

“Birds typically sleep on one leg and get up with the dawn, when they are programmed to sing,” Ms. Bennett says. “They sing to give notice of their space, to look for love and, later on, to mate. Typically, too, they feed in the morning. Birds do amazing things before your very eyes.”

Foggy and overcast conditions are not ideal for feeding because insects are more difficult to see, but on the other hand, Ms. Bennett points out, birds feel more protected and less wary of intruders on sunless days. The park is a popular stopover for migrating birds, some of which, like the robin, now stay on.

The annual Christmas bird count, done this past Dec. 15 in the entire area of Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens by the D.C. chapter of the National Audubon Society, showed a total of 59 bird species.

“You might not see them, but you can hear them, and a lot of us like that,” says Stephen Syphax, chief of resource management for the National Park Service’s National Capital Parks-East. “Low tide and high tide, summer and winter, they all are different and all worth experiencing.”

Gulls, mourning doves, woodpeckers, northern flickers, bluebirds, blackbirds and mockingbirds also might be heard or sighted, according to a checklist published by National Capital Parks-East. A total of 257 bird species are listed for all four seasons.

Among free materials available to the public is a trail guide explaining life in the wetlands before ponds were made to hold the cultivated waterlilies and lotus that draw a majority of the park’s visitors in summer.

Wetland plants such as wild rice and the all-season cattail are feeding stations for migratory and resident wildlife. The common cattail found there has some uncommon and frequently unappreciated characteristics. American Indians used the jelly excreted by its young leaves for medicine, while the leaves themselves were good for making thatched roofs, baskets, mats and chairs. The roots of the plant are a food source as well as an important filter for runoff flowing into bodies of water such as the Anacostia River.

WHEN YOU GO:

Location: Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens comprises 700 acres on and around the banks of the Anacostia River in Northeast Washington, just south of the intersection of Route 50, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Kenilworth Avenue. The entrance to the park is located at the intersection of Kenilworth and Nannie Helen Boroughs avenues; the entrance to the gardens is at 1550 Anacostia Ave. between Douglas and Quarles streets.

Hours: The park is open from 8 a.m. to dusk; the gardens are open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.

Admission: Free.

Parking: Available on-site.

More information: Call 202/426-6905 or visit www.nps.gov/keag

Notes:

• Because construction in the area is a constant, it is advised to call ahead for recommended routes, depending on the day and the direction from which a visitor is coming. The Web site also gives directions using Metro rail and bus.

• Pets are allowed but must be leashed.

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