I recently toured the grounds of the National Fish Heath Laboratory, a beautiful facility in Leetown (WV). There are numerous freshwater ponds, a natural wetland, and a woodland trail.

The Fish Health Lab belongs to the U.S. Geological Survey. Grounds are closed to the public except by appointment, and visitors must be accompanied by a member of USGS staff. My host was staff member Heather Walsh. I came to familiarize myself with the place so I could help lead a winter bird walk there later this month with the
Potomac Valley Audubon Society (PVAS). Heather has been leading nature activities with various organizations for the past year—part of an educational outreach program to the public.

It was cold and windy, yet the sun shone brightly and revealed a small flock of hooded mergansers on the furthermost pond behind the office building. “Hooded” refers to a fan-like crest both sexes have. Mergansers are fish-eating ducks with cylindrical, toothed bills. As they flew overhead, they folded their handsome crests back and shot through the air on narrow, fast-beating wings.

The trails are easy to walk—to give researchers access to the ponds—and the ducks took off before we approached too closely. Following the road behind the pond, we entered a wooded area with about an acre of wetland, where cattails grew and winter birds lurked. There were white-throated sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, bluebirds, and a group of migrating robins—as well as a flock of blackbirds, mostly common grackles and cowbirds, with a few red-winged blackbirds.

After we explored the trail through the woods, which promised wonderful spring-time bird watching, we drove to the property on the northeastern side of Leetown Road. Heather unlocked the gate and we drove up to another series of square ponds. An adult bald eagle sat in a tree overlooking the first pond—its dazzling white head and tail shining in the sun. I wanted to take a picture but decided to wait until later.

We drove around the other fish impoundments to a natural lake, partly surrounded by woods. A flock of about 60 Canada geese and assorted ducks were loafing and feeding there. An alarmed great blue heron lifted off on enormous wings. Despite the sun backlighting them, I could distinguish mallards, more hooded mergansers, and several gadwalls.

By the time we got back, the eagle had gone.

For a great chance to see winter birds, you can join me for a PVAS winter bird walk at the USGS Fish Health Lab property, 407 Reservoir Road (Leetown) on January 20 at 7:30am. The walk should take about two hours. It is free, but registration is recommended right here.


— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. He’s also the creator of the popular “As the Crow Flies” column. He also submitted the art for this piece—courtesy of the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission.

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