Houdini the black rat snake earned his name from his ability to escape his old cage. He’s quit his escape act in recent years, content to roam this terrarium home at Locust Grove Nature Center.
Local lovers of the outdoors will praise the attractions the Potomac River offers just several miles away from a major city. In a similar way, Locust Grove Nature Center is an outpost of the outdoors and nature, just a half-mile up Democracy Boulevard from Montgomery Mall and Interstate 270. Drivers can see some of Locust Grove’s bird feeders along Democracy just north of the mall, and for those who pull in and park at Cabin John Regional Park by the tennis facility, a walk across a footbridge brings them to the Locust Grove center, where a range of events and natural attractions await visitors of all ages.
“Drop-ins are welcome at the center,” said Leslie Sturges, a naturalist at Locust Grove. The main room features a model oak tree and log reading room, nature activities and puzzles. A gallery featuring local nature photography by Mary Chlan is on display in the main room, where the walls were repainted this month. Many of the live creatures — among them Houdini the black rat snake and Cornelius the congenial cornsnake — have lived there for years. Local amphibians and freshwater fish live in the room’s aquariums.
Locust Grove hosts activities for all ages of students throughout the year, but they become more frequent at this time of year. From tots to teenagers, children can pick from events ranging from storytime about ravens to a pumpkin-growing series where students plant seed and tend the pumpkins as they grow through the year.
“PEOPLE HAVE a tendency to think nature centers are for children, but we do try to reach out to adults too,” Sturges said.
Each month, Locust Grove hosts adult programs, some of which are for parents with children, others for adults only. Many provide transportation to sites ranging from the Baltimore Aquarium to the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center near the Bay Bridge in Grasonville.
Surrounding the center and meandering through Cabin John Regional Park are eight miles of trails. Some of the trails are interpreted, with numbered signposts explained by pamphlets available at the center. On weekends, the trails are popular with birdwatchers. The trails wind through diverse terrain — dry/wet meadows, woodland edge and thickets, and upland and floodplain forest.
Feeders by the center reliably attract a flurry of birds from cardinals to redwinged blackbirds to pileated woodpeckers. Last week, Locust Grove naturalists saw a fox sparrow at the feeders. Bluebird houses along trails near the center will likely have tenants soon — Sturges has seen some sitting on the boxes already.
At this time of year, the meadow at Locust Grove is the perfect site to observe red bats — a favorite of Sturges, a bat rehabilitator. When the sun is low on the horizon, the bats are visible in the waning daylight.
Earlier this month, Sturges received a call from a Bethesda resident who believed she’d seen a coyote outside her home. The naturalists at Locust Grove welcome calls with questions about local wildlife. “We field phone calls all the time,” Sturges said. “We are the local resources for wildlife information and nature information.”
JUST UPHILL from the center is Locust Grove’s Naturalist Garden, which is currently undergoing a renovation. The original garden attracted butterflies, hummingbirds and pollinating insects during spring months. It worked well, but “after nine years, it had gotten overgrown,” said Geri Drymalski, a naturalist at Locust Grove.
A team of gardeners coordinated by Len Friedman drew up new plans for a Naturalist Garden that includes sparkleberry and Maryland’s state flower, the black-eyed Susan. There will also be an herb garden. “A lot of herbs are host plants to butterflies and caterpillars,” Drymalski said. The requirements for the garden is designed to be low-maintenance, contain as many native plants as possible and be deer resistant.
Volunteer opportunities at Locust Grove are not limited to the ones listed below. Volunteers help many of Locust Grove’s studies and projects, ranging from bird monitors to Eagle Scout projects. “We’re pretty happy to entertain volunteer inquiries,” said Leslie Sturges, Locust Grove naturalist. “So much that gets done here is because of volunteers.”
* Potomac Watershed Cleanup on Saturday, April 8. Locust Grove is a cleanup site. Visit www.parksvolunteers.org or call 301-495-2504.
* Garden Renovation. Locust Grove seeks volunteers to help with basic maintenance tasks like weeding, pruning, cultivating and planting in its new Naturalist Garden. Call Naturalist Geri Drymalski at 301-299-1990. Drymalski reminds potential volunteers that they will be working outside in the summer, but describes it as an opportunity to learn some basics about horticulture.