A little known fact about Hidden Pond Nature Center: We're a living library. People bring us all manner of unusual insects and plants for identification - lots of strange caterpillars, weird looking beetles and spiders - they always want to know if the spider is a black widow!
What's the oddest critter presented? The Hickory Horned Devil - a green caterpillar with red and black horns. They're five or six inches long and spend most of their time up in the trees. But when they're ready to cocoon, they drop down, and that's when people find them.
Your favorite among the scores of programs that you lead? I like to focus on snakes, spiders and the other creepy crawlies that most people don't care for. Once people learn more about them, they feel more comfortable. For example, I had a lady call after she'd been to our Slug Fest. It was winter, and she'd found a slug in her houseplants. She was worried that it was too cold to put the slug outside and she wanted to know what she should do with it!
How do you help your audiences get over an aversion, say, to snakes? I cuddle the snakes and cradle them like babies. People see that the snakes are gentle and that I'm not afraid as I let them crawl anywhere they want to go. With spiders, I give a slide show, and then we use flashlights to see what we can find. I have people look under the benches and see what they've been sitting on -- spiders are everywhere! When people realize how they share space with spiders without being bothered by them, then they're not so worried. They can respect them and admire them . . . from a distance.
The most important stewardship lesson you teach? Everything we do even in our own backyards, affects so much. Things like trash, oil and pesticides that flow from the storm drains into Pohick Creek are carried to the Potomac River to the Chesapeake Bay Everything we do even in our own backyards, affects so much. Things like trash, oil and pesticides that flow from the storm drains into Pohick Creek are carried to the Potomac River to the Chesapeake Bay and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. Everything in nature is connected so we must treat it carefully.
The most rewarding part of your job? Sharing what I know and working with people of all ages to help them learn more about what's here all around them in Fairfax County. With learning comes respect . . . and stewardship. I especially love it when I've done a school program and then on the weekend, the kids bring their parents back and show them around. Sometimes you think that the children aren't getting anything out of what you're saying, and then you hear them repeating to their parents exactly what you told them. That's the best!
With a father who was head of wildlife management for the U.S. Forest Service and an avid hunter and fisherman plus a mother who was a botanist with a great love for wildflowers, Clara Ailes laughingly maintains that she had little latitude in career choice. It was either botany or zoology, and she picked the latter. But married to a naval officer and moving 21 times, she had limited opportunity to use her zoology degree except as a scout leader at duty posts around the U.S. During her husband's assignment here in 1972 when the Park Authority opened its first nature center, Ailes joined the original corps of volunteers at Hidden Oaks. Then the family moved again, and when they returned to Northern Virginia a decade later and settled in Springfield, there was Hidden Pond Nature Center nearby. Naturally, she became a volunteer. That was 20 years ago. Today, Ailes is a full-time naturalist at the park, leading wild flower walks, pond studies and a host of other programs.