By:  S. Wendt

I ’ve lived in Annandale and now in Mc Lean since I was two years old.  As a kid I spent much of my time safely wandering what we called “the woods”. Living next to a 50-acre forest and later an 80-acre wood in the 1950s and 60s taught me about Nature. So how have our woods changed over the last six decades?

It was a different time and ecosystem-- for some species a haven, for others, not so kind, or non-existent.  I bet you don’t know there were no deer in Annandale for decades. I saw my first deer in the 1970s; today controlled deer reduction hunts are routine. Much the same applies to the Canada Goose which were mostly migrating fowl just stopping for rest, and a bite to eat with only spotty resident populations living on the Potomac River and lakes, but certainly not the nuisance flocks everywhere today.

In the 1950s to 70s we had many more reptiles, amphibians, forest birds, fish, crawfish, benthic life, butterflies, moths and beetles, especially lightning bugs. I recall easily finding 2 to 5 box turtles after summer rains, marveling at their bright orange, lemon yellow, red, or sienna legs. It was easy to catch a few toads any night to feed them live cicadas before returning them to the wild. Back then, turning over a log could easily reveal salamanders (spotted, red-backed, two-lined, etc.), snakes (ringneck, garter, beautiful rough and smooth green, rat, corn, hognose and ribbon), and bugs (e.g., large, shiny, black patent leather beetles named for their resemblance to shoes that squeaked when picked up). Today, we are lucky to find anything under a log.

Birds, forest and edge birds!  My favorites were the wood thrushes, brown thrashers, towhees, and bobwhite quail. All fed by flipping leaf litter with their bills or backward scratching/ jumping. The wood thrush behaved like its cousin, the robin, but stayed in the forest.

The large 12-inch rich, reddish thrasher with its long tail and curved beak is North America’s most vocal bird with a repertoire of over 3,000 song types and mimicry! The 8-inch towhee with its distinct rusty sides, white belly, black body, red eyes, and “drink your tea” and “tow hee” calls was a beauty. And who could forget the coveys of bobwhite quail with their unique round shape, quickness on their feet, and bursts into short explosive flight.

So what changed the species diversity?  Deforestation, clearing of brush/fence lines, dissecting large land tracks into crowded neighborhoods, erosion, and maybe the worst--excessive chemical/pesticide lawn maintenance. Destroy the habitat and the base of the food chain and there go the insects, then amphibians and many birds, then most reptiles and apex species (e.g., praying mantises, hawks, minks, bobcats).

They’re not all gone, but more isolated with less cover and food, facing traffic risks and competition with over-browsing deer and polluting geese. Add coyotes like the ones behind my house and much is different than my childhood days. But at least, thank goodness, for Fairfax County’s efforts to restore, preserve and educate where possible.         

This story can be read in full along with other history stories in the ENDEAVOR News Magazine at  

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