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Crow's Nest opens to the public briefly

November 9, 2009 12:36 am

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Crow's Nest expert Hal Wiggins (left) shows visitors how to identify a leaf from a chinquapin oak. The natural area in Stafford, which was open to visitors on Saturday, is one of the few places in Virginia where the trees grow. lo1109crowsnest1.jpg

Visitors walk an old hunting trail through the Crow's Nest uplands on Saturday.

BY JONAS BEALS

On Saturday, the Crow's Nest Natural Area Preserve in Stafford County was officially open to the public for the first time.

Under the supervision and direction of officials from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, approximately 120 people hiked the forested peninsula that has been recognized nationally as a unique and important ecosystem.

The roughly 2,900-acre peninsula is Virginia's 54th natural area preserve.

"I don't know where else I'd rather be today," announced Rick Myers, the natural heritage stewardship manager for DCR.

Hikers saw firsthand how beautiful the property can be as they crunched leaves underfoot and caught splinters of sunshine through the canopies of enormous oak and beech trees.

Even though visitors tramped through the woods on Saturday--listening for hawks and carefully maneuvering down steep ravines--Crow's Nest is technically still closed.

"This is what we'll be able to do for the foreseeable future," Myers said of the one-day visit. He explained that the state simply does not have the resources to properly staff Crow's Nest to keep it open on a regular basis. Until funds materialize, the gate will remain locked.

Threatened by development, the property was purchased with local, state and federal dollars in two phases over the past two years. Supporters would still like to see a third-phase purchase of property on the western end of the peninsula.

One of those supporters is Hal Wiggins. Wiggins, an environmental scientist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is often cited as the leading expert on Crow's Nest.

Wiggins led one of the hikes on Saturday, though he said, "I think the best way to see the property is from the water."

"Crow's Nest just goes right up. It's very, very steep," unlike other peninsulas in the area, Wiggins explained.

Once funding materializes, the DCR plans to install a canoe launch on Brooke Road to allow people to see the peninsula from the Potomac and Accokeek Creeks.

Stuck to walking the old hunting trails on Crow's Nest, Wiggins was still able to bring attention to some of the impressive features of the land and some inspiring views of Potomac Creek.

Perhaps because of the steep slopes, Crow's Nest was never timbered as extensively as most land in the region. Wiggins pointed out stands of mature oak forest and rare species such as the chinquapin oak--a tree that grows in calcareous soils that are rare in Virginia and the eastern United States.

"There are several unique ecological communities on Crow's Nest," Wiggins said. "It was never developed. It didn't become like everything else around us."

Paul Clarke, the district manager with the DCR natural heritage program, pointed out a number of invasive plant species, including tree of heaven, kudzu and Japanese honeysuckle. The DCR is working on plans to manage those species and ensure that the native wildlife will have a place to thrive.

"There are 60 to 65 species of Neotropical migratory birds that use Crow's Nest," Clarke said. "I'm impressed by that number. Birders I know go crazy over it."

Near the end of the hike, Clarke measured the circumference of a particularly large example of a shrub called devil's walking-stick. At 9 inches around, it was one of the largest any of the DCR officials had ever seen.

The nearly three-mile hike ended with the unveiling of a plaque dedicating the natural area preserve and a short recognition speech from Aquia Supervisor Paul Milde.

"We've made amazing progress," he said, acknowledging the support of Gov. Tim Kaine's outgoing administration. "We're not finished. There are several hundred acres more to preserve.

"Once again," Milde said, "we've made history at Crow's Nest."

Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036
Email: jbeals@freelancestar.com





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