Report from June 2013 Nature Hike at Reston National Golf Course

Can a Golf Course Make a Good Neighbor, Ecologically Speaking?

Thirty-eight of us got to find out what a golf course means to the environment on a recent walking tour of the Reston National Golf Course (RNGC) co-sponsored by the Reston Historic Trust, Walker Nature Center and Reston Association. The tour was led by RA Naturalist Ken Rosenthal, with assistance from USGS scientist Bill Burton and Fairfax Master Naturalist Helaine Krob, both homeowners on the course.

First, let’s get the fertilizer issue out of the way.  I see lawns around Lake Audubon with greener, lusher turf than at this golf course.  So for this discussion, let’s please put aside all the talk of fertilizers, etc.  Let the wildlife tell their side of the story.

RNGC is a valuable hunting corridor for wildlife and a hot spot for raptors.
Far from being a problematic neighbor, Reston National shows how a golf course can be a valuable wildlife corridor in an urban setting.  Rather than the chopped-up and segmented areas created by individual backyards in a typical suburb, Reston concentrates housing and concentrates open space.

The course has an excellent example of Old Field Habitat with Hardwood Cover, the most endangered habitat in Fairfax County (less than .002%). One of the largest native Black Gum Trees in Fairfax County is here.  Old Field Habitat has to be actively maintained by bush hogging it annually.  The golf course maintenance folks do a good job of this.  The wild roses and berry bushes that grow up each year are home to all sorts of birds including Blue Jays, crows, Bluebirds, sparrows, and some years a fox den is occupied. 

The long rolling fairways bordered by the course’s trees and natural areas create what is called an “edge habitat,” a perfect place for deer, fox, rabbits, Robins and other birds.  This type of refuge is also highly endangered in Fairfax County. Wildlife needs corridors like this to live, hunt, and pass through.  

Standing on the RA path above the green at hole 5, taking the long view down toward hole 4, I suddenly saw exactly what Bob Simon describes in his foreword to Charles Veatch’s book The Nature of Reston: “What persuaded me to buy this piece of earth, however, was the serenity of the gently undulating land, half in woods, half in open fields, traversed by clear running streams.  On it was a thirty-acre lake . . ., deer, foxes – and solitude.”

Standing here, I personally had an “aha” moment.  If this property were anything other than a golf course (or maintained as pure Park land, which costs money to maintain, think of the annual bush hogging mentioned previously, grass cutting, etc.), the rolling fairways might be flattened.  Soccer fields are flat.  Wow.  I get it. 

Raptors need open space to hunt. The flyways between the golf course and the nearby lakes provide it. A golfer recently told me about bald eagles his foursome had seen flying overhead at the course.  One of our group said he has seen a Bald Eagle snatch a fish from Links Pond.

Near Links Pond, Helaine told of the 66 bird species plus other creatures that her family counted in 2012 from their deck that faces the pond.  While we talked, three Red Shouldered Hawks began circling overhead and we got to watch an incredible display of the preliminaries before mates are chosen and nests are occupied.  Later in the walk, Bill pointed out a nest used in past years by Red Shouldered Hawks, and a few days later he reported to me that he had seen occupancy!

We stopped along the stream while Ken explained much of the detail of the recent stream restoration project.  I had wondered about the black willow that is planted around the edge of the streams and now know this initial planting will keep the soil in place and maintain the edge of the stream until other plants take over.  I hate to think how much of the stream restoration project might have to be re-done if the golf course were to be developed and all this washed away with so much loss of permeable ground.

Let there be darkness among the city lights.
The golf course comes alive at night.  This is when the ground animals are most active, and fireflies are here in season.  Bill mentioned that it’s a great spot to watch meteor showers, having counted 17 one night during the Geminids.

Holes 12-15 are no doubt the ones most desired for development.  This is the part of RNGC that is east of Soapstone Drive.  Tucked behind the dental offices and dry cleaners, they must feel like a wounded elk surrounded by lions. 

These west to east facing fairways are in perfect line of sight to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia, 120 miles away as the eagle flies.  Want to inspire a young person’s career?  Follow @NASA_Wallops on Twitter to know when there will be a night time rocket launch by Dulles based Orbital Sciences Corp and make a plan to watch it live.

 RNGC – Not the most natural, but still a good buffer and a good neighbor.
The Reston National Golf Course management is doing a fairly good job of maintaining a park-like setting.  We have a “park” if you will that neither Reston Association dues nor Fairfax County taxes have to pay for.  The golfers pay for it!  Want to walk where you won’t need to watch for flying golf balls?  Northern Virginia is full of nearby options, including our own 55 miles of Reston pathways.  Is there any compelling reason to give up any of this long-time zoned permanent open space?  Not if you ask the eagles, hawks, foxes, fireflies, golfers, or me.

In 2008, U.S. News & World Report named Reston one of the 10 “Healthy Places to Retire.”  Help keep what’s special about Reston.  Put out Rescue Reston yard signs, which are available for purchase at Village Square Cleaners’ two locations:  Plaza America near Whole Foods and 11521 Sunrise Valley Drive.

Connie Hartke
Rescue Reston Vice President, Communications