Below the Beltway

Roseate Spoonbills Find a Home Away From Home at Huntley Meadows Park

Huntley Meadows Park is a sprawling oasis and natural wetland habitat in Fairfax County. Read more about this park here.

The sun sets on a cool winter day at Huntley Meadows. (Susan Mulligan Fleischman)

Alexandria, VA – Huntley Meadows Park is a sprawling oasis and natural wetland habitat in Fairfax County. At just over 1,500 acres, it’s the largest property in the Fairfax County Park Authority. And its newest residents, roseate spoonbills, have visitors, birders, and photographers all abuzz.

Huntley Meadows Park Manager Karen Sheffield said, “The spoonbill has attracted a lot of attention. It’s a beautiful bird.” Friends of Huntley Meadows, the nonprofit organization that helps support the park, has operated a birders’ walk every Monday morning for some 30 years. They do not have any record of a spoonbill here before.

Huntley Meadows Park Manager Karen Sheffield on a side porch at Historic Huntley, with a glimpse of the sweeping views afforded at this hilltop villa. (Susan Mulligan Fleischman)

Two more spoonbills appeared on the scene just weeks after the first arrived, and Sheffield is thrilled. “It’s wonderful to see them stay so long,” she said. “It speaks to the quality of the wetland here. It’s very hospitable, and it feels like home.”

In 2014, Huntley Meadows completed a years-long massive rehabilitation and investment in restoring the wetland. The arrival and continued residence of the spoonbill, more commonly found in the southern climes of Texas and Florida, reinforces how effective those efforts were. The project’s primary goals focused on influencing the water levels, expanding the wetland, and developing pools and shelters to encourage year-round wildlife habitat. Sheffield said, “These man-made wetland improvements help ducklings survive, providing safer spaces and a better chance for nesting survival.”

Entrance to the park on a sunny fall afternoon. (Susan Mulligan Fleischman)

By all accounts, the restoration has been a resounding success. Park officials hoped to reverse the avian population decline within three years of completion, so you can imagine their delight when they noticed an increase after one rainy week. Huntley Meadows Park Natural Resource Manager Dave Lawlor published a summary review in May 2019, five years after the project’s completion. Lawlor noted that influencing and fluctuating the water levels has been key to providing such a hospitable habitat for wildlife.

Park management and visitors aren’t the only ones who noticed vast improvements. “The Wetland Restoration Project has received more than ten awards, including the prestigious Virginia Governor’s Gold Medal Environmental Excellence Award in 2017, and the American Council of Engineering Companies Engineering Excellence Award in 2014,” Lawlor detailed in his online summary. “We are seeing positive results in the vegetation and wildlife to date, and we anticipate the best is yet to come.”

Huntley Meadows Park is open every day, dawn to dusk. Due to COVID restrictions, the Visitor Center is open on weekends only. Please note that pets are welcome in the park on a leash, but they are not permitted on the boardwalk.

The Visitor Center is named for Norma Hoffman, who successfully led the citizens’ fight against a planned road through the park in the late 1970s. Hoffman founded what became the park’s nonprofit group and a model for groups in other county parks, Friends of Huntley Meadows Park. (Susan Mulligan Fleischman)

Camps and classes are underway, and there are numerous guided walks and events for interested visitors of all ages. Local artist and naturalist Margaret Wohler will lead “The Art of Sketch Noting” on Sunday, August 15, for ages 16 and up. Participants will learn how to use words and sketches to capture big moments during their hike at Huntley Meadows Park. Visit to learn more about this amazing wildlife oasis, and all of the programs and events available to you, right in our own backyard. Better yet, visit the park, especially while the spoonbills are still here.

Huntley Meadows Park’s main entrance is 3701 Lockheed Blvd in Alexandria. The Visitor Center is open only on weekends, but the park is open daily dawn to dusk. There is parking at the main entrance. There’s also a small parking area at 6901 South Kings Highway that leads to a paved, one-mile woodland hike-bike trail.

Tune into Z-TV LIVE Wednesday, August 4, at 7 pm, for a special episode featuring Huntley Meadows Park Manager Karen Sheffield, along with The Zebra’s Kelly MacConomy and some photographers who have captured stunning shots of the resident spoonbills, as well as all of the other animals living their best life in the park.

Historic Huntley

Built in 1825, Historic Huntley’s buildings earned their spot on the National Register of Historic Places. (Susan Mulligan Fleischman)

Just down the road from the park’s main entrance on Lockheed Boulevard is Historic Huntley, built in 1825 as the summer retreat for Thomson Francis Mason. While most of Mason’s estate is preserved as parkland at Huntley Meadows Park, this hilltop villa bridges the gap between past and present, with sweeping views of Huntley Meadows Park and beyond. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, the classic Federal-style compound includes the main house, outbuilding, necessary, and an ice well. Classes and camps are held at Historic Huntley. The unfurnished buildings are open for guided tours and programs for schools, scouts, and groups. Call 703-768-2525 for more information.

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