On a scorching summer day at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the white hibiscus flowers hovering above the marsh appear to glow in the heat.
Although the day is inhospitable to humans, the refuge ripples with life. Songbirds and dragonflies dart through towering stalks of grass. A painted turtle meanders across a gravel path. Great blue herons burst from the Occoquan River shoreline and from nearly invisible posts deep in the marsh. Osprey, silhouetted in trees against the hazy sky, make calculated dives toward the water.
A series of bald eagles glide over Marty McClevey as he inspects the refuge by van.
McClevey, a park ranger at the Occoquan refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is not surprised.
“They do this all the time. The eagles are plentiful along the river. Rarely does a day go by that I don’t see at least one flying over the site or sitting along the shorelines,” he said.
And the scenes on this searing day are nothing compared to the bird life McClevey encounters during spring and fall migration seasons. The refuge is a magnet for more than 220 species of songbirds, raptors and waterfowl.
Eastern meadowlark, snipe, tern, woodcock, bluebirds, warblers, and wild turkey only begin to flesh out the list.
“You never know what’s around the corner,” he said.
Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, is home to one of the largest remaining stands of open grassland habitat in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Located about 20 miles south of the District of Columbia, the refuge is also nestled along the Occoquan River where it converges with the Potomac.
“Occoquan not only gives you an opportunity to walk the grasslands, but to walk the tidal wetlands and connect it all with the river. It’s fantastic to see from an environmental standpoint,” McClevey said.
Bird life thrives in this setting, reinforced by the presence of two additional refuges—Mason Neck and Featherstone—that together make up the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Occoquan is one of the newer additions to the National Wildlife Refuge System. After more than 40 years as a military communications and research center, the U.S. Army transferred the 580-acre tract to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998. The land was combined with the existing Marumsco National Wildlife Refuge for a total refuge area of nearly one square mile.
“We spent the first few years transitioning from an Army base to a refuge that is safe and open to the public. Now we are turning the corner to more specialized management—controlling invasive species, using management techniques like burning, and expanding public outreach and environmental education,” McClevey said.
Occoquan Bay and the surrounding area have long attracted both humans and wildlife, largely because of the waterways. Colonial explorer John Smith sailed to the Occoquan River in 1608 and found a well-established Native American village at its mouth. The Dogue tribe, who lived there, plied the river and the land for deer, sturgeon, eels, striped bass and shad. The marshes and meadows were filled with waterfowl and flocks of migrating birds.
The Dogue farmed the rich riverside soil, as did the colonial men who assumed ownership of the land approximately 50 years after Smith’s arrival. They used the land to raise tobacco, grain and cattle.
Martin Scarlet, a county representative in the House of Burgesses, held title to the refuge area from the mid to late 1600s. Scarlet dubbed the tract “Deep Hole Estate” and lived there until his death in 1695. His gravestone and that of his son, discarded in the river more than a century ago and later used as boundary markers, were recently moved to Prince William County’s historic Rippon Lodge for safekeeping.
“Through the 1800s, this site was also important for fisheries. Shad and herring were trapped and held in impoundments and then sold to plantation owners as a source of protein for their slaves,” McClevey said.
Dried and salted fish were also packed away to supplement the family’s winter diet or to sell elsewhere if the catch was plentiful. In the early 20th century, the last private owners of the land shipped fresh shad, rockfish and perch to buyers in the District of Columbia.
In 1950, the U.S. Army purchased the tract that would become the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It served first as a communications station and then as a site for classified electronics testing. Ironically, these high-tech functions preserved the open landscape that was a much needed respite for migratory birds traveling through the metropolitan D.C. area.
“The electronics and radio communications functions on the site required a relatively treeless landscape,” McClevey said. “So the Army mowed the fields every year. The result was a large expanse of grasslands and tidal marshes. When the site became available, the Fish and Wildlife Service saw the significance of acquiring prime grassland and wetland habitat for its National Wildlife Refuge System.”
The refuge’s comprehensive plan emphasizes the management of the site as grassland for migratory birds.
“Occoquan fills a niche for specific bird species that really benefit from grasslands and early successional habitat. This might be the largest stand of Eastern gamma grass in Virginia,” McClevey said.
By August, the Eastern gamma grass commands the fields with large leafy clumps at its base and tall seed stalks wavering up to 6 feet from the ground. The grasses provide tremendous shelter for wildlife. Their cornsize seeds are a popular food source.
In the fall, the grassy jungle dies back to a matted landscape of thatch. Without management, the thick cover will accumulate and discourage the growth of new grasses. Trees and shrubs would press through and dominate.
To preserve the Occoquan grasslands, the refuge staff uses a combination of mowing and controlled burns.
Burning is a means of recycling the nutrients in dead thatch and providing a seed bed for regeneration. While controlled burns can be highly effective at maintaining grassland habitat, the technique can only be used under a strict set of conditions, including the proper wind, temperature and precipitation. If burns are withheld for as little as two years, encroaching trees make it difficult to preserve the fields—so mowing continues as the more reliable and preferred management tool at Occoquan.
Both burned and mowed fields recover quickly and retain their appeal both to wildlife and humans.
“At other parks, you tend to have more trails with tree cover, with some views mixed in. Here, with these vast native grasslands, you have the ‘wow’ factor. Every turn is another view where you take the whole sight in,” McClevey said.
Old gravel patrol roads offer four miles of easy hiking through the grasslands and tidal marshes along the Occoquan—although the sun can be intense. Cars and bicycles may travel a two-mile route called Wildlife Drive.
Birders throughout the region have made Occoquan a regular stop in their travels, and wide open spaces have made the site popular with photographers. Local families have discovered the refuge, too. Overall, Occoquan draws up to 20,000 visitors a year, which is light traffic for a refuge this size.
“People like it because you can go out on a trail and not see anyone else,” McClevey said.
But visitors are occasionally disappointed.
“Some people are turned off. We don’t allow pets or jogging, and there are no amenities like shops or restaurants or even picnic tables,” McClevey said. “Here, you just walk and view wildlife.”
But McClevey makes no apologies.
“There are a lot of places with amenities like that. And far fewer like this.”
Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Hours: The refuge is open 7 am. to 7 p.m. April through September and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through March.
Fees: $1/person; $2/car; $20–30/bus. Annual pass: $10. Permits to photograph wildlife in closed areas of the refuge are available for a fee. Contact the refuge for information.
Getting there: From Route 1 in Woodbridge, VA, travel east on Dawson Beach Road for .75 mile to refuge entrance and visitors station at the end of the road.
Information: Visit http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=51611 or call 703-491-6869.
Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge’s Annual Fall Festival will take place 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 14. Activities include an orientation, photography workshop, bird banding demonstration, live reptile and raptor stations and conservation information. Fees are waived for this event.
The refuge also sponsors a spring fishing event for youth at Painted Turtle Pond, a fall deer hunt through special permits and a hunting day for youth co-sponsored by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
For information, call the refuge at 703-491-6869.