Warbler Tales

Protonotary Warbler

A unique park, a wildlife oasis, awaits discovery only a few miles from the heart of Washington, DC.  Located in the Virginia suburbs the park’s wildlife is not limited to the usual and not very interesting squirrels, deer and house sparrows.  At my first visit I found snapping turtles, an array of waterfowl, an exhibitionist beaver and muskrat at Huntley Meadows Park.  The park, whose name is a bit misleading as the meadows make up only a tiny fraction of the park, centers on a large wetland.   You walk through the park on flat, well-manicured trails.  Over the wetland the trail becomes slightly elevated allowing for easy wildlife viewing, plus it keeps your shoes dry.   Happily only a few joggers use Huntley Meadows, no bicycles are allowed, and with no ball fields or picnic areas it is truly dedicated to the plants and animals there.   You can really enjoy the park without constantly looking over your shoulder, and never feel cyclists bearing down on you calling out “on your left”.  In a word, it’s a pleasant place for a walk, an oasis in the development desert.

Getting to Huntley Meadows requires a quick drive off US Route 1.  Those few blocks off Route 1 are easily the fastest part of the trip.   US Route 1, for the unfamiliar, involves heavy traffic, too many stop lights for anybody’s liking and more than your fair share of strip malls.  It is the opposite of nature; it is as unnatural as it can be short of a trip to Disney World.  I don’t want to complain too loudly about Route 1, however.  In an odd way Route 1 adds to the beauty of Huntley Meadows because of the contrast between it and highway.  I am sure the park is fantastically beautiful, but juxtaposition with Route 1 magnifies the sensation.  The strip malls and 7-11’s accessorize the Park like bulky black plastic ugly eyeglasses; anybody looks better compared to those hideous things sitting atop a nose.  Oh thank heaven for 7-11.

A trip to the park reminded me of the tremendous genetic diversity and abundant wildlife that could be all round, if only they could afford the mortgage.   Housing is expensive in Washington DC, and the recession hasn’t totally ripped the guts out of the housing market.   So, houses keep being built and land taken for growth in the Metro area.  That leaves little behind for the animals.  Of course, the suburbs do attract their own particular wildlife, most notably the deer.   The aptly named Odocoileus virginianus is the scourge of drivers everywhere around Washington.  They stand on the road shoulder, glaring with a sort of “what do you want’ expression.  Virtually any time of day or night somewhere in the Metro area a deer stalks its prey, the unsuspecting motorist.  More often than not, the deer simply startles the driver.  Sometimes, however, the deer and driver collide, which usually ends badly for the deer.   A couple of years ago a very large buck lay dead in the road by our house.  It’s a busy two-lane road in Arlington, surrounded by trees and creeks.  It’s a perfect place for deer to set their trap.  This big  male, however, clearly mistimed his race across the road.  Being a large brute of an animal I knew I couldn’t move it alone, so I called the county animal warden.

Arlington county, like so many others, outsources animal control to a private vendor.  Happily, the one in Arlington is staffed by humane professionals, most of whom are young 20 something women.  After I called animal control an Arlington cop showed up and started to route traffic around the deer, enabling the animal control officers to do their job.  They were, to my way of thinking, very attractive animal control officers.  I watched from my kitchen window as they tried to lift and place the deer into the van.  They didn’t have any luck.  The young swaggering cop, directing traffic, looked on unhelpfully.

Age got the better of youth this time.  I was quick on my feet and swooped out the door.  My middle-aged legs took me out there faster than the cop could say “hands up”.  He sneered at me as I offered to help the young animal control officers.  They both smiled sweetly, throwing this middle-aged dog a bone.  Together, we lifted Bambi’s Dad into the back of the van and placed him carefully inside.  Gently, they guided the deer’s carcass, as if they were undertakers moving the newly departed into a hearse.  After loading the deer we chatted briefly, and one of the women smiled touching my arm, as if to reassure me in my time of grief.  I couldn’t resist temptation; I turned to the young cop and smiled broadly saying, “thanks”.  He glowered at me as only a policeman can.

Deer encounter stories are not uncommon, though occasionally they take an odd turn.  Some years ago a pair of deer roaming through downtown Washington DC went looking for lunch.  They became decidedly confused and crashed through the plate-glass window of a McDonalds.  One, offended by the smell, left without ordering, while the other was injured and hospitalized (I’ll bet not the first time after visiting McDonalds).  Some years later another deer went through the window of a city library.  Clearly we have yet to work out the best way to serve busy deer on the go.  Perhaps better signs or a deer-only entrance is required.

These are precisely the sorts of things you don’t have to worry about when visiting Huntley Meadows.  As far as I am aware there haven’t been any deer related incidents at the park, even though the visitors’ center does have a large plate-glass window.  I’m not saying deer don’t frequent the park, but they seem willing to let bygones be bygones.  Visitors won’t encounter deer violence, but will discover hundreds of oddly clad bird watchers.  I say oddly clad because bird watchers have a particular look or style; combining combat photographer and LL Bean catalog.  On my last trip through Huntley Meadows I came across a man carrying a camouflaged telescope and tripod.  Tactical combat knee pads, flak jacket, and backpack completed his outfit.  As we passed on the footpath I nodded to him saying “ready for anything.”  An embarrassed “yes” as he looked away was his reply.

Huntley Meadows attracts as many birds as it does birdwatchers.  A great variety of species typically not seen in the Washington suburbs can be found there.  Every once in a while a rare species pops up, sending the birdwatchers atwitter.  During one visit my wife and I were with a group, and the ornithologist leading us heard a particular birdsong.  “Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet,” his excitement was palpable.  Binoculars raised he pronounced it a, “prothonotary warbler.” I dimly ask, “a what?”  I might as well have vomited at his wedding.  The guide hissed that this small yellow bird was very rare and that we were very lucky.   Everybody in our group raised their binoculars to get a closer look.  The prothonotary warbler is a spectacular bird.  Small, mostly bright yellow with dark grey wings and an olive-green back.  The striking looking bird did warrant our attention.  As if to underline the bird’s importance our guide added, “Haven’t’ you ever heard of Alger Hiss?”

Alger Hiss.  It’s not much of a name really, though certainly memorable.   There was a time when Alger Hiss was a household name.  His fame, more infamy really, came about after a career in the US State Department and being accused of being a communist.  Hiss fell afoul of an ambitious young Republican Congressman from California.  Richard Nixon used the hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee to launch himself on the national stage.  In just a few short years he would become Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate, and then Vice President.   The public spotlight fell on others too, most notably the prothonotary warbler.   Hiss’s accuser, Whitaker Chambers a self-confessed one-time communist, claimed that he knew Hiss and could attest to Hiss’s communist bona fides.   Hiss denied having ever known Chambers, so HUAC members like Nixon looked for ways in which they could substantiate that the two had known one another.  It turned out that both Chambers and Hiss shared an interest in ornithology.  In 1948 during Congressional testimony Chambers noted his interest in bird watching adding that he had not been very good at it.  Hiss, Chambers asserted, had better luck in birding; he had seen a prothonotary warbler.

The prothonotary warbler trap had been laid.  Chambers gave HUAC their ammunition.  If they could get Hiss to acknowledge that he had seen the rare warbler, then it followed that he and Chambers had known one another.  How else could Chambers have known that Hiss had seen such an unusual and rare bird?   Hiss admitted to having seen the rare warbler, unaware that he had been caught in the jaws of a well-laid, if not decidedly peculiar trap.  Later, convicted of perjury and jailed, Hiss’s interest in ornithology never diminished.

Alger Hiss likely never visited Huntley Meadows.  If he had, he would have found a wildlife oasis, surrounded by houses and highways, best enjoyed on foot.  To appreciate the animals you have to walk, ready to pause and investigate.  With few distractions you can use all your senses to enjoy what’s there.  Once I heard an odd squeaking, a sort of  ‘eek, eek.’  It turned out to be a frog in the midst of being eaten by a ribbon snake.  ‘Eek, eek’ by the way when roughly translated means, “don’t eat me!”  Don’t eat me indeed.  If Huntley Meadows could talk I’m sure it would express an identical sentiment.  And if Alger Hiss were alive today, and had seen a prothonotary warbler in Huntley Meadows he’d keep it to himself.

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