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Lazy summer day of watching nature on the Potomac

By Staff | Jun 28, 2019

Great Falls is a portion of the Potomac River, which is considered to be one of the most spectacular natural landmark in the Washington, D.C. area. Courtesy photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Our neighbor, the Potomac River, has made a remarkable recovery from the years it had to struggle with pollution that limited its viability as both a source of game fishing and water sports for people trying to enjoy swimming or picnicking on its shoreline.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, its waters were tainted by pollution sources all the way west to Cumberland and Luke where open sewage filtered into its waters and a paper mill dumped its waste by the ton.

Fishing was stunted and at times almost worthless. Swimming was a troubled bit of leisure at best.

But 60 years later, the river is healthier and pleasurable to be around.

Wildlife and fish have gradually returned to the once-fabled Potomac in larger numbers.

For a family or lounging adults alike, the Potomac now provides hours of no-time constraints or no-responsibility for anybody fortunate enough to get close to it. Or on it with fishing craft, inner tube, to water ski or to drift downstream to Shepherdstown from an upstream launching area in Maryland.

The river is a literal National Geographic special for watching the daily activities and the free-wheeling of birds.

At the boat landing on Princess Street where the hustling shallow waters of Town Run join the Potomac, there are a wide variety of songbirds known even to the youngest children.

Purple martins hover over the slow-moving water near the ghostly piers of previous bridges that were swallowed by the floods of 1936 and before. These sleek fliers take a toll on the insect population daring to disturb a boater’s day.

Other seekers of an insect lunch include gnatcatchers, swifts, swallows and flycatchers.

The water maples don’t have many songbird nests, but the area still has the lingering of songs sent out by wrens, finches, robins and the occasional thrushes and thrashers.

More to the west and on upstream the river has the close-by C&O Canal towpath on the Maryland side and mostly low hills and its abiding wild vegetation on the West Virginia side.

At one point not too distant from Shepherdstown, electric wires cross the river and give birds a place to observe the gentle water or just rest a while from their daily duties.

The bald eagles from the National Conservancy might be scooting along just above the water. Herons and bitterns stalk their prey from frozen stances in the shallow waters. A rail or coot up from nearer the Chesapeake Bay might drag out a snail or mussel. Snails and mussels were in very short supply in the late 1950’s.

A larger variety of trees is found along the C&O Canal path than back in Shepherdstown at the Princess Street landing.

And with the ash, walnut, hackberry, evergreens, sycamore and mulberry trees come a lengthy list of nuthatches, brown treecreepers, mocking birds, Virginia warblers and woodpeckers.

Open areas leading back away from the river and towpath might give the visitor access to orange-chested and people-friendly bluebirds. The raucous calls from bluejays rattle through the pastures. Larks range through the shorter grass. If a marshy area is close, the calming sounds made by red-winged blackbirds can be heard. Falcons and hawks soar overhead in search of prey found inland or over the river.

The Potomac no longer mocks the would-be vacationer with its pollution-infested water.

Nature has reclaimed the river. Making it as useful and fun for people as it is now for the waterfowl and wide variety of birds.