One chilly evening in March, my husband and I sat silently on the grass at Clifton Institute amidst other hopeful visitors, listening for the distinct call of the American Woodcock. After learning about this squat, long-billed bird that mates in the spring, we had walked up to fields curated to welcome dwindling populations of grassland birds in North America. Finally, as twilight approached, we heard the low, gravelly peeeent of a nearby male. We spotted the small bird, then watched as it took its spiral flight upwards, descending in a zigzag across the sky with the joyful, whipping sounds of its courtship display. Now every March, we listen for the woodcocks to welcome spring.
Such is the magic that Clifton Institute bestows on its community of nature lovers. Visitors to the 900-acre field station just north of Warrenton, Virginia leave with both an understanding and appreciation of the ecology of the Northern Piedmont. With a team of passionate biologists on staff, it provides every visitor with an opportunity for an authentic experience in nature.
At the helm of their operations sit Bert and Eleanor Harris, co-directors of the institute. Both have their doctorates in the field of biology, and to attend a bird walk with them is a rare treat. One winter morning, I drove the gravelly path to the lower pond at Clifton to join a small group watching for a variety of ducks that migrate south for the winter. Eleanor and Bert allowed visitors to look through their spotting scopes, excitedly pointing out the different species: canvasbacks, ring-necks, ruddys, and my personal favorite, the Hooded Merganser with its golden eyes and white-fanned head. Even as we wandered the grounds looking for other winter birds, the Harris’ natural enthusiasm for the local environment seeped through as they pointed out the other notable species of animals and plants that surrounded us.
More recently, I attended a nature yoga session, led by Clifton Institute’s other full-time staff member, education associate Alison Zak. On a warm afternoon, a small group of us laid out our mats on the lawn outside Clifton’s offices, overlooking the upper pond. We folded and stretched our bodies in the summer sun, stopping every once in a while to identify a songbird that twittered in the trees above us. It is a natural permeation that the surrounding environment effuses into every activity Clifton Institute provides, making each experience unique and memorable.
Before our yoga class, Alison sat down to talk with me about the work of the institute. She highlighted their three-fold mission: Education, research and restoration. It is a bold mission in scope, but they are largely succeeding in each area. Each month, a variety of activities are offered to the public. These include events like flower walks, pondside painting, book clubs, ecology-themed talks and nature-journaling workshops. Mindful Naturalists is another recent program that leads participants through activities such as hiking mediation, craft nights and the music of nature. In addition, every Saturday from January to October, the 900 acres are open to the Friends of Clifton Institute, a group of people who offer at least $40 per year in financial support to the non-profit organization. It is a rare gift of space in the otherwise crowded places of Northern Virginia.
Alison also manages a variety of programs for school-aged children, from frequent field trips by visiting science classes to activities designed for homeschool students. Piedmont Pollywogs is a free, monthly program for children ages two to five that includes a story time and nature walk. Clifton Institute also hosts several summer camps, including Young Explorers Camp and Young Scientists Research Experience, the latter of which immerses budding environmentalists into the exciting work of a field biologist.
While education is the most public-facing activity of Clifton Institute, its research and conservation goals hold equal weight in their mission. Research interns, local experts and many generous volunteers conduct activities to study and restore the native environment. Community science initiatives bring these groups together to identify and record the variety of plant and animal species on the land. One of their most popular events is their participation in Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count, a community initiative that involves volunteers recording the types and number of bird species they see in a single day.
A unique quality of Clifton Institute is how its research intertwines with its restoration goals. Their study of the natural Piedmont environment led the directors to identify the need to create and maintain shrub fields and native grasslands that are home to specific bird species, such as the American woodcock, that dwindle in number as their available habitat disappears. Now, willing volunteers help the institute cut down autumn olives and other invasive species, creating a welcoming habitat for the many creatures that depend upon it. The institute also offers workshops to educate local landowners on how they can do the same.
Whether volunteering to count butterflies or tasting your first paw paw fruit during one of their outdoor classes, Clifton Institute leaves every visitor with a special connection to our natural world. The knowledge and enthusiasm of those at the institute provide lasting memories for both young and old, making environmental stewards of us all.
For more information on the Clifton Institute, including upcoming events, visit its website at cliftoninstitute.org.
By Erin McCarty
Photos by Timeless Moments Photography