If you've seen my work before, you know it's safe to say I like watching birds. Is that a polarizing statement, or what? Check out this guy liking birds. But I don't think it's safe for me to say I'm a bird-watcher. For me, the roadblock to calling myself a birder has always been identifying the bird. It raises an interesting question- Can you call yourself a bird-watcher without knowing what birds you're actually watching? I imagine there have to be more than a few other people who would agree with me. Sure, I can see the birds, and I'm happy to go out and look for them. But the number of bird species I can identify on sight is probably well below average. Especially those songbirds. The best I can say for certain is it's not a cardinal. Maybe a flying mouse?
So I appreciate when someone can tell me for certain what I'm out here looking for. It's kind of like fishing in that regards. Know what you're targeting before you go and you'll generally be more successful. You can appreciate Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge for that reason alone. While a national park is typically an area connected to specific geography or landscape, wildlife refuges are typically connected to a specifically designated species. At Mason Neck, that species is the bald eagle.
Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge was the first wildlife refuge designated specifically for eagle habitat. The entire Mason Neck area, and the tidal Potomac as a whole in fact, is a hot spot for eagles. You can get an appreciation for them here in the fact that there's a nationally protected bald eagle preserve 30 minutes from the US Capitol and the White House. It's almost like it was meant to be there. But it's not just a location symbolically connected to our seat of democracy.
There's also something special- and uniquely Chesapeake, I think- about a national wildlife refuge smack right in the most densely populated counties in the entire DMV region. For me, that's what really makes a place like Mason Neck resonate. I think of Northern Virginia as suburbs, business, and government contractors. But the endlessly winding shorelines of the Potomac can hide little unspoiled gems like Mason Neck just around the corner. Turn another corner and you're at a shipyard. a few more corners? Monuments. But Mason Neck is a place to go to find eagles.
Like I mentioned, bird identification is a skill I'm working on. It's admittedly one I wish I was better at. And the best way I've found to come about that is to recreate them in my paintings. In fact, it's one of the main reasons why I paint so many birds in the first place. The birds I can now identify are typically the birds I've painted in the past. Eagles are a rare exception to that fact. Oddly enough, eagles are a charismatic bird species in the Chesapeake which are almost universally identifiable, and they're a bird which I've never painted (and ospreys too, in fact).
I can spot an eagle though. We see them soaring and can't help but shout "eagle!". It's like seeing a horse while you're driving. I remember at Conowingo Dam, there's that vibe you may be familiar with; A bunch of people independently have made decisions to congregate in the same area for the same reason, and we're all saying the same thing in conversational tones just loud enough to acknowledge the fact that we're here for the same reasons, but we're not merging our circles. Like waiting for the baby panda at the zoo, or standing in a long line for a roller coaster. The eagles got people talking at Conowingo.
We weren't the only visitors at Mason Neck though, but there was very little conversation to be had there. We admittedly didn't see any eagles, but there's a hushed pristineness about the place regardless. I started to wonder if there's a difference in the setting which makes a difference in our aesthetic response to it. Conowingo is in no way a refuge. We're all there taking advantage of an unintended abundance of wildlife at a location which clearly draws a line in the sand between man vs nature. We typically think of development as a practice which drives wildlife away. Conowingo was built knowing that the change in habitat was going to be an extreme shift. But it's now one of the most reliable locations to spot eagles. Mason Neck on the other hand was single-mindedly founded on the opposite principle, and acts as a refuge to preserve the birds' habitat. Ironically enough, there were more eagles at Conowingo than at Mason Neck. I suspect this is the norm. But were there as many eagles at Conowingo 100 years ago? My intuition tells me probably not.
Maybe subconsciously, we approach Conowingo with the understanding that no matter what we do, there's no way we'll have as much impact as a freaking river dam. And we share in that symbolic energy. If the eagles aren't bothered by an immensely powerful roaring spectacle of human industry, they certainly won't be bothered by me no matter what I do (they certainly don't seem to be). It's like going to the zoo and tapping on the glass. But step foot into a refuge, and there's this understanding of sanctity. So we approach it as a silent observer. "Quiet, or you'll spook them!" "Spook WHO? There's nothing here?!!"
Late winter has been a perfect time to spot eagles in the region, and I've spotted a number of pairs at various shores on the journey. As a wildlife refuge, the somewhat fortunate and intended side effect of preservation at Mason Neck is the invitation for many other species to find homes there- even if you don't see eagles. Besides a large beaver lodge, my mind kept seeing a perfect snakehead habitat, bass fishing and the like. There were plenty of geese and ducks on the water too, but no eagles on that day. So my mind went back to Conowingo.
On the one hand, you have a shoreline that was radically changed in a relatively short period of time, and wildlife has slowly adapted to find a new home there. On the other hand, a shoreline which has been left intentionally unchanged, and again slowly inviting everyone in. Different means to an end in a strange way. Unfortunately at Mason Neck I missed them. They must have been out inspiring change in Washington.