Where to watch a skink slink, an eagle soar

Virginias: Guides list more than 140 sites in West Virginia and Virginia where visitors can view wildlife in natural settings

Short Hop

May 30, 1999|By Ric Bourie | Ric Bourie,Special to the Sun

You may have noticed small signs cropping up in recent years along the nation's roads, with a pair of binoculars in white against a brown background and an arrow. They lead the way to officially designated "wildlife viewing areas," places where you stand a very good chance of seeing a wild animal doing what comes naturally -- maybe feeding, possibly nesting or perhaps performing a mating ritual.

When you reach the site, you'll notice no cages, no fenced enclosures. The animals roam freely in their natural habitat.

All this is an opportunity presented under a cooperative effort by federal, state and local agencies, and Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group. More than 2,000 wildlife sites have been designated in more than 35 states.

Interest in watching wildlife has soared in the past decade. According to figures compiled by the Travel Industry Association, more than 24 million adults reported watching birds or wildlife on vacations or other leisure trips from 1992 to 1995. That's about 12 percent of the adult population of the U.S.

A study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that Americans spent $29.2 billion on wildlife watching in 1996, up from $18.7 billion in 1991. The money went to the purchase of lodging, binoculars and spotting scopes, and a variety of other goods and services.

To help facilitate this burgeoning interest, state guidebooks have been published to provide detailed information about designated wildlife viewing areas. Not only do they include directions to the sites and the wildlife that can be seen there, but other useful material such as maps, tips on wildlife viewing and color wildlife photographs.

The newest is "West Virginia Wildlife Viewing Guide," published last month. The "Virginia Wildlife Viewing Guide" has been available since 1994. Both books are by Mark Damian Duda, 96 pages long and cost $8.95. They are available at bookstores and from Falcon Publishing in Helena, Mont. (800-582-2665, www.falcon.com).

Plans are under way for a "Maryland Wildlife Viewing Guide," which is expected to be released next year, according to Defenders of Wildlife.

Included in the new West Virginia book are 63 wildlife sites; the Virginia book details 80. The diversity of species to be found at these is astonishing. Readers may find animals they've never heard of before.

Seen any broadhead skinks lately? If not, head to West Vir- ginia's New River Gorge, near Fayetteville, and look on the ground. This small lizard is one of a family of 1,275 species, most of which are found in the tropics.

When was the last time you spotted a blacknose dace? In Virginia, this minnow that's silver with a dark stripe on the side can be seen in the waters of Augusta Springs Watchable Wildlife Area, near Staunton.

Kids' favorites

Of course, the kids may prefer a spot where they can see larger, more familiar and exciting animals. In that case, there's a whale-watching trip from the Virginia Science Museum in Virginia Beach. Before or after the trip, you may get to show them great blue herons and great egrets from a boardwalk in Owls Creek Salt Marsh, right behind the museum. (Call the museum at 757-425-FISH for more information.)

Bald eagles can be seen at six sites in West Virginia. Across the state line from Cumberland, at Wappocomo Station, visitors can ride the Potomac Eagle Train. This three-hour ride through a narrow mountain valley is "one of the best and most dependable places to see bald eagles" in West Virginia, according to that state's guide.

The train operates on Saturdays from May through July, then on Saturdays and Sundays until October, when it runs daily. The last ride of the season takes place Oct. 24. (Call 800-223-2453 for directions, fares and departure times.)

Black bears inhabit 17 sites in West Virginia, including Short Mountain Wildlife Management Area, near Augusta. Of the West Virginia sites, it's one of the closest to Baltimore (about seven miles from the junction of U.S. Route 50 and Hampshire County Route 7).

Bears are also found at six sites in Virginia, including Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge near Suffolk. You have a better chance to see bears, though, in Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Sites closest to Baltimore

Within striking distance of Baltimore are several Virginia sites, including Great Falls Park (excellent for migrating songbirds); Riverbend Park, two miles up the Potomac River from Great Falls; and the gravel roads and farmland of the Lucketts area, east of U.S. 15 near Leesburg. Also close are seven sites near the Potomac, all downstream from Washington.

On the Eastern Shore, sites include the national wildlife ref- uges of Chincoteague Island, Fisherman Island and the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and Kiptopeke State Park.

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