Natural Scenery

See nature along the Potomac River through seasoned eyes | Travel

Cedar waxwings

A pair of cedar waxwings prepares to share a berry from a viburnum bush along the C&O Canal. 

No sooner had I met Stephanie Mason than  she had me squinting up at a maze of  tree branches in search of a Carolina wren calling down to us. I imagine that many of her acquaintanceships begin this way.

For more than three decades, Mason has led field trips into nature just like the one I was about to embark on. As I soon learned, with Mason, there’s no wonder too small, no creature too insignificant. She celebrates them all.

In October, her nonprofit employer, the Washington, DC, region’s Nature Forward, bestowed upon her a Lifetime Achievement award. The environmental group, formerly known as the Audubon Naturalist Society, apparently doesn’t hand out such tributes lightly. She was the first recipient of the award in the organization’s 126-year history.

Nature walk along the Potomac River

Stephanie Mason of Nature Forward (center) leads a group of nature enthusiasts along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath near Swains Lock in Maryland. 

The ceremony came as Mason was preparing to retire as a full-time naturalist, which she did at the end of 2023. If you’re reading this and fretting that you might never get to experience one of her guided walks, rest assured — she plans to continue educating the public through Nature Forward.

I caught up with Mason for one of her tours a couple of weeks before she formally retired, but I found her anything but retiring.

The setting was a chilly morning on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. Here, about 15 miles northwest of downtown DC and 7 miles west of the Capital Beltway, the landscape is mostly suburban McMansions. I was mentally preparing myself during the drive for being underwhelmed by the roster of birds we would glimpse. (“Say, is that a northern cardinal?”)

I was wrong, of course. The directions led me down a steep decline into a gravel parking lot overlooking a grassy park. Bisecting this inviting-looking spot lay a damp gully that in normal times would be carrying much more water. This was the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. A few dozen yards beyond the canal and running parallel to it lay the much mightier Potomac.

To my relief, the only building in sight was the charmingly restored lock house. Built along with the canal in the 1830s, the simple structure was the home of the lock operator along this section of the canal. The site’s name, Swains Lock, is a reference to one of the longer-tenured lock keepers.

The audience grew to about a dozen of us. After a few introductory remarks by Mason, we were off.

Nature walk near C&O Canal lockhouse

Participants in a walk hosted by Nature Forward stroll past a historic lock house near Swains Lock on the C&O Canal. 

Well, we weren’t so much “off” as “off and on.” The event is part of a series of guided walks sponsored by Nature Forward titled, Midweek Meanders Along the Canal. But even “meander” probably gives too much credit to the pace. We would proceed a few dozen yards at a time, then halt for several minutes to give some bird or natural feature our full consideration.

“This is why you don’t come on this walk to get cardiovascular exercise,” Mason quipped.

Our trek, such as it was, followed the canal’s towpath. We only saw a small stretch of it, but the towpath extends along the entire 184-mile length of the canal. Originally, mules used it to pull the boats on their journey between the Georgetown section of DC and Cumberland, MD. Today, users tend to be of the two-legged or two-wheeled variety.

The canal itself has been closed to commercial boats since 1924, a victim of scant traffic and the Potomac’s damaging floods. It has enjoyed a much more successful second life as a national historical park operated by the National Park Service.

The Swains Lock area is a paradigmatic location for spotting birds, said Genevieve Wall, a fellow Nature Forward naturalist tagging along, like us, to glean some of Mason’s insights. “The whole canal area and Potomac Gorge are really well-presented,” she said. “It’s pretty remarkable with it being so close to a major metropolitan area.”


Mary Rieser looks over her binoculars at a blue bird during a Nature Forward walk along the C&O Canal in Maryland.

On the face of it, winter birding might sound like a fool’s errand. Some of the most popular birds have winged their way to warmer climes and won’t be back until spring.

Another knock against it: Birding typically involves spending lots of time outdoors, not moving enough to generate body heat. You can easily become uncomfortably cold if you don’t dress appropriately. (I took the rare precaution of slipping on long johns on this particular morning and was mighty glad I did.)

But as Mason sees it, winter is one of the best times of year to practice her craft. For one thing, birds are often easier to spot because of the lack of leaves to interfere with your sight line. Many species tend to be more active because they’re out feeding more. They do that, she said, to offset the energy lost to the winter chill.

During the cold season, people on the lookout for birds also don’t have to worry as much about false positives: spotting movement belonging to a creature other than a bird. Sorry, butterflies.

“In winter, ironically, there is more birding,” Mason said.

Birding journal

Genevieve Wall, a Nature Forward naturalist, shares pages of a journal where she has drawn and described a northern flicker. 

Not far from our starting point along the crushed gravel path, a flock of binoculars suddenly shifted skyward. The subject turned out to be an Eastern bluebird silhouetted against a silvery sky. But some among us hesitated at first to settle on an identification.

Mason wasn’t surprised. Birds with, for example, red or yellow feathers, get their colors from pigments contained in the foods they eat. But no bird is actually blue. The color doesn’t come from pigments. Instead, it comes from the way the microscopic, keratin-based structures on their wings scatter the light, much like a prism does. They only “look” blue, she explained.

So, with a weak winter sun serving as the only light source, these so-called “bluebirds” can appear more gray than blue, Mason said.

Towpath traffic is light on Wednesdays, which this happened to be. We encountered only a smattering of walkers and bicyclists. That left more nature for us to linger over and analyze.

Great blue heron

A great blue heron preens on a branch directly overhead walkers on the C&O Canal towpath near Swains Lock in Maryland.

The water in the canal was much lower than usual, she noted. Park Service officials had de-watered a segment, including our own, to complete a dredging project aimed at removing sediment and debris.

But it wasn’t completely dry. Enough water remained for a pack of mallards to perform flips onto their backs in search of meals. The canal’s shallows are ideally suited for such dabbling ducks, Mason said.

Beyond the canal, the trees along the path and the Potomac’s rustling waters gave us more reasons to stop. Sparrows, both the white-throated and song varieties, spun melodies at us from the brush. Buffleheads and hooded mergansers dove into the river, looking for some breakfast of their own.

Nature walk along C&O Canal

Stephanie Mason of Nature Forward, second from left, leads a group of nature enthusiasts on a nature walk along the C&O Canal in Maryland.

At one point, Mason and the rest of us stood in awe before one section of the gorge’s forested wall for what seemed like 30 minutes. I was too awed to mark the time. The scene was like a nature movie.

Everywhere you looked, life fluttered among the brown leaves and denuded limbs. The undisputed highlight was the appearance and subsequent stroll of a red fox, enveloped in fluff and without a care for our presence on the opposite side of the canal.

Before I left, I had a moment where I got to feel like I knew something. There was a bird we could hear but not see, emitting a high-pitched tweet. I recognized it immediately as one of my familiar backyard birds: a tufted titmouse.

Mason politely disagreed. The pitch was too high, she mused.

I reached for my iPhone and opened the Merlin Bird ID app. I’ve written about this mesmerizing app before, but in a nutshell: You press record, and it identifies the bird by the music it makes. I ran through the motions with Merlin, and it agreed with me. Not too shabby.

Now, I’m no Stephanie Mason. Those shoes are just too big to fill. But maybe I can tote her binoculars.

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