Special to the Mirror by Jane McKinley
My first impression was that of the embracing canopy of trees that lead the way into the Brownsville Preserve. Then, as I approached The Nature Conservancy’s office and Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR) headquarters, I admired the wide ramp leading up to the building. Not only providing easy handicap access and an attractive entranceway, I subsequently learned that it was designed after the ramps at the US Coast Guard stations that used to stand on the barrier islands, providing the way for lifesaving boats to move into and out of the building.
Seeing my arrival, Margaret Van Clief, Outreach and Education Coordinator, greeted me with a hearty welcome reflective of the office’s overall hospitality. After hearing her recently speak as part of the Lemon Tree Gallery’s “Interconnected” series, I was inspired to learn more about the mission of The Nature Conservancy and experience the Brownsville Preserve’s protected habitat.
I have always thought that the primary mission of The Nature Conservancy was to acquire land for protection against development. And this is true, but it is so much more. Their broad mission to “conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends” includes a multi-faceted approach which provides opportunities for everyone to contribute, not just the wealthy with large land holdings. And through preserves such as Brownsville, there are also opportunities for enjoyment and education.
Specific to the Conservancy’s work at VCR, their goal, among others, is to protect the nesting habitat of several endangered species of birds on 14 of Virginia’s undeveloped marsh and barrier islands. Their scientists implement state-of-the-art techniques to restore oyster and eelgrass beds and have monitored the productivity of beach nesting birds for over 40 years. They work to minimize the negative impacts of invasive, non-native species. And they engage in education and outreach, an example of which are the field experiences for local students given on their properties to reinforce the SOL science requirements. In fact, Margaret and education coordinator, Jennifer Davis, had just hosted a group of fifth graders, guiding them in their lessons on the importance of bio-diversity and the value of natural habitats.
Armed with a brochure that provided a map and a description of areas surrounding numbered markers along the trail, my tour of the Brownsville Birding and Wildlife Trail, a roundtrip total of 3 miles, began with a trek across a suspended walkway over a low, marshy area. At the entrance, there is a journal where visitors may record their findings and, if one is lucky, a spray bottle of insect repellent. However, it is recommended that you bring your own repellent since, as part of any nature hike, there is a chance that one could pick up an insect or two.
The trail is wide and easily navigated as it takes you through lovely coastal Virginia scenery including wooded uplands, expansive marsh views and a wide variety of native flora and fauna. An encounter with a box turtle on the trail peaked my dog’s curiosity (leashed dogs are allowed in the Preserve), and I was delighted to witness a flock of white ibis roosting in the pines at the edge of a pond. All along the trail, I was serenaded by the sound of songbirds, including that of the common yellowthroats with their distinctive “wichity-wichity-wichity” call. I’m hopeful that, on my next visit, I will get to see some of the other resident wildlife such as wild turkeys, pileated woodpeckers, deer and egrets.
And, of course, the trees, grasses and wildflowers, all of which change with the season, can be seen in abundance. Pines and hardwoods dominate the forest along with wax myrtle, eastern red cedar and sweet pepperbush. I was very proud of myself for identifying a spring patch of milkweed which is a critical food source for the migrating Monarch butterfly. The Conservancy is actively supporting meadows of native wildflowers to sustain the birds and pollinators that live in and migrate through our area.
Before doubling back to the beginning, the trail ends with a view overlooking Phillips Creek and its associated tidal marsh. Three zones are visible from this point: the high marsh dotted with shrubs, the low marsh with its mud flats and saltmarsh cordgrass and open water. The ecology of these marshes is being researched by graduate students and scientists from a variety of universities to better understand how they respond to changes in climate and sea levels.
If you enjoy the solitude of a beautiful landscape, want to experience an outing to stretch your legs and get a bit of exercise, look for a way to expose your children to the wonder of nature or are just curious to learn more about how The Nature Conservancy works to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth, a visit to the Brownsville Preserve should be on your bucket list. You might even get inspired to offer your time and resources to help maintain this and other natural legacies like Brownsville.
To learn more, contact The Virginia Coast Reserve at (757) 442-3049 or visit nature.org/vcr on the web. You can also sign up for their quarterly e-newsletter by contacting email@example.com!