Crow's Nest, Stafford County, Virginia
Crow's Nest is a large wilderness area located on the southern border of Stafford County, Virginia, on Potomac Creek. The greater portion of the Crow’s Nest Peninsula is approximately 3,800 acres (15 km2) and lies within the coastal plain of Virginia.
Virtually the entire Crow’s Nest Peninsula is forested with an impressive, mature stand of mixed hardwoods. Hardwood forests of this extent are becoming increasingly rare in the Virginia and Chesapeake Bay coastal plain due to prevalent forestry practices and fragmentation of natural areas for development and agriculture. The size and continuity of this hardwood stand enhance its viability and its value in providing a large, unfragmented natural area for diverse organisms. Within a relatively short time (50-100) years, this forest will also comprise a substantial occurrence of old-growth forest with inestimable scientific, biological, and aesthetic values. Currently, trees greater than 60 centimeters (2’) diameter at breast height (dbh) are common, and very large relict tree specimens are scattered throughout the site.
The entire Crow’s Nest Peninsula is undeveloped and is primarily forested with mature stands of hardwood trees such as oaks and hickories. This is especially true in the eastern half of the peninsula and the northern slopes facing Accokeek Creek. The coastal plain landscape in this region of Virginia was formed beginning in the late Triassic period, approximately 230 million years ago through the rise and fall of the sea. Crow’s Nest is approximately five miles in length from east to west, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) across and rises 160 feet (49 m) above the surrounding Accokeek and Potomac Creeks. The peninsula is also highly dissected on its north and south sides by steep ravines flowing into these two fresh-water tidal creeks. In contrast, most landscapes in the coastal plain of Virginia are relatively flat and/or gently rolling. Crow’s Nest’s dramatic rise to 160 feet (49 m) above Potomac and Accokeek Creeks is startling compared to the adjacent peninsulas in Stafford County such as Marlborough Point and Widewater Peninsula are relatively flat.
A large portion of Crow’s Nest is composed of calcareous, or calcium rich, soil layers from ocean or marine animals that once lived at the bottom of a vast inland sea. Most soils in the piedmont and coastal plain of Virginia are not calcareous or limey and thus tend to be acidic. This calcareous soil strata within Potomac Creek is referred to as the Aquia Formation, which is 60 million years old. The Aquia Formation is found within a larger outcrop belt known as the Pamunkey Group, a sequence of Lower Tertiary (Paleocene-Eocene) sands and clays that formed in shallow marine environments beneath the western margin of the Atlantic Ocean. The Aquia Formation is composed of marine sediments that are dark green to gray-green, argillaceous, highly glauconitic, well sorted fine-to medium grained sand with shell beds up to 100 feet (30 m) in depth.
Today, shell-marl/calcareous ravine forests such as those at Crow’s Nest are not common anywhere in the mid-Atlantic region. These plant communities are rare to this coastal plain ecosystem. There are two nutrient-rich plant communities associated with lime sands and localized shell concretions at Crow’s Nest. One can be broadly classified as Basic Mesic Forests (G2, globally imperiled). Another rare community found at Crow’s Nest that is typically associated with the shell-marl/calcareous environments, is the Basic Oak-Hickory Forest (G2, globally imperiled). These are found on two very steep slopes facing Potomac Creek and represent this plant community.
Much of the shell-marl/calcareous ravine forests that do still exist on the east coast of the United States have since been heavily logged. In assessing natural communities in need of protection, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation listed the state’s few remaining calcareous ravine forests to be conservation priorities. The Crow’s Nest site is perhaps Virginia’s best remaining example of this rare forest community.
Due to the unusual subsurface calcareous soil formations underlying most of the peninsula, the unusual soils are basic (alkaline) and give rise to rare plants and plant communities. This is due to the ability of the limey soils at Crow’s Nest to neutralize and buffer soil pH within the range 6.3 to 6.8. Elements such as calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) create conditions in the soil that raise the pH of the soil and increase nutrient availability for plants. This results in the establishment of more robust and diverse vegetation at Crow’s Nest. Additionally, disjunct plant communities at Crow’s Nest are found that are not common in the piedmont and coastal plain of Virginia as these areas generally have lower pH soils. These rare or “disjunct” plants and plant communities include small-flower baby-blue-eyes (Nemophila aphylla) and glade fern (Athyrium pycnocarpon).
After assisting and conducting field surveys for rare plant species and plant communities, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage determined in 1999 that “Crow’s Nest is considered one of the finest, if not the finest example of mature forests remaining in the Coastal Plain of Virginia.” These forest communities on the peninsula consist of several distinct community types. The peninsula supports several regionally and globally rare plants and plant communities, two of which are ranked Globally Imperiled (G2) by the Nature Conservancy’s Natural Heritage Program.
Geologic History of Crow's Nest
The mid-Atlantic Ridge started to form in the early Jurassic period (175 million years ago), breaking apart the super continent Pangaea and beginning the expansion of the modern Atlantic Ocean. It has widened steadily to its present size. This rifting event separated North America from Africa and the area known today as Virginia became the trailing edge of the newly formed North American continent. The Jurassic Period is found in the Mesozoic Era, or the Age of the dinosaurs. The Mesozoic Era spanned a length of time from 251 million years ago to 65.5 million years ago.
In the early Eocene Epoch (55.8 million years ago) the Coastal Plain of Virginia was completely underwater. Sediment accumulating beneath this sea eventually would become the Crow's Nest of today. The Paleocene and the Eocene Epochs are found in the Cenozoic Era, or the age of the mammals. The Cenozoic Era spanned a length of time from 65.5 million years ago to the present.
During the Eocene, the Atlantic Ocean was considerably narrower than it is today, making migration relatively easy for marine animals. The climate of Virginia during this period was considerably warmer than it is today. According to extensive records, the Earth experienced its warmest interval of the past 65 million years during the early Eocene and Virginia was probably much warmer than central and southern Florida today. The remains of large alligators and turtles have been found at this latitude in Virginia.
The calcareous soil strata within Potomac Creek, the Aquia Formation, is 60 million years old. This formation is found within a larger outcrop belt known as the Pamunkey Group, a sequence of Lower Tertiary (Paleocene-Eocene, 55.8 million years ago) sands and clays that formed in shallow marine environments beneath the western margin of the Atlantic Ocean. The Aquia Formation is composed of marine sediments that are dark green to gray-green, argillaceous, highly glauconitic, well sorted, fine-to medium-grained sand with shell beds up to 100 feet (30 m) in depth.
Biology of Crow's Nest
Crow’s Nest is often referred to as a “biological gem.” What does this mean? What rare plant and animal species are found at Crow’s Nest?
Actually, there have only been a few formal surveys for rare plant and animal species. These surveys were conducted by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation in the late 1990s.
As stated earlier, virtually the entire 3,000 acres (12 km2) Crow’s Nest Peninsula is forested with mature stands of mixed hardwoods. During the growing season of 1999, Gary Fleming and his colleagues at the Natural Heritage Program, along with Rod Simmons, Mark Strong (U.S. Natural Herbarium), and Ted Bradley (George Mason University) conducted preliminary field work at Crow’s Nest. They found two state-listed species and the potential habitat for two other federal listed species and several state-listed species. Several Stafford County records for plants and two state-listed endangered species for plants were also found at Crow’s Nest at that time. State-listed species include ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) found in the rich ravines of the peninsula and river bulrush (Scirpus fluviatilis) found in the adjacent tidal marshes of Potomac Creek. Small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides) occurs in subacidic mixed hardwood forests at several nearby sites in Stafford County. Although this plant hasn’t been found at Crow’s Nest, the habitat for this plant is present and is likely to occur there. The nearby tidal freshwater marshes north of Crow’s Nest in the Potomac River support populations of the sensitive joint vetch (Aeschynomene virginica). More field work is necessary to complete a full inventory of plants and animals that make up the rich forest communities at Crow’s Nest. However, due to the large size and richness of forest-complex at Crow’s Nest, long-term data collection is required to fully archive this floristically diverse habitat. To date, a total of nineteen Stafford County plant records were found, twelve of which are considered by the Department of Conservation and recreation to be disjunct plant species!
Virtually the entire peninsula is forested with an impressive, relict population of huge trees scattered throughout the site. The relict tree stands on the eastern portion of Crow’s Nest grow very large; several large tree specimens have been found to be well over four feet in diameter. It is common to find trees throughout Crow’s Nest with a diameter at breast height (dbh) of five feet or greater such as chinkapin oak (Quercus muhlenbergii) and tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera).
Several environmental factors exert important influences on vegetation on the Crow’s Nest Peninsula. First, the steep terrain made most of the site unsuitable for agriculture: as a result, today the Crow’s Nest peninsula contains one of the largest unfragmented patches of hardwood forests in the Virginia’s coastal plain. The steepness of the terrain has also limited logging to a substantial degree. Secondly, the proximity of freshwater tidal wetlands, ravine bottoms, steep slopes of various aspect, and high ridgecrests fosters an impressive diversity of vegetation, floristics, wildlife habitat, and opportunity of neotropical bird migration and nesting exist within a relatively restricted area. Lastly, the Lower Tertiary deposits in this part of the mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain consist largely of glauconitic sand, shelly clay-silt, and some sandy limestone and limey sand-calcium-rich materials. These contribute to the development of relatively basic, nutrient rich soils. Basic or calcareous soil environments are uncommon to rare on the Virginia coastal plain and almost always support vegetation unusual for the region ().
Crow’s Nest is surrounded on three sides by a freshwater-tidal estuary and a multitude of resident and spawning fish thrive in these waters. In 2002 local watermen in Potomac Creek adjacent to Crow’s Nest had on two occasions captured the shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) a federally listed endangered fish by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1990s. These captured fish were reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service under their reward program on two occasions, 1996, and 2002. Sturgeons are considered to be among the most primitive bony fishes, with origins dating back 120 million years. Sturgeons are characterized by five rows of bony plates or scutes along the back rather than scales and have prominent barbels under their snout used as sensory organs.
There are several different varieties of marine fossils are found along the shores of Crow’s Nest. These include Paleocene-epoch shark teeth, as well as ancient parts of rays, turtles, and numerous mollusks known as Turritella. Turritella is a genus of gastropod in the family of Turritellidae that originated in the Paleocene epic approximately 60 million years ago right up until the current era. They are common in muddy marine environments. Turritella has an elongated, highly coiled corkscrew shape. The internal molds and casts of these gastropods can be found in these waters and are especially plentiful at nearby Bull Bluff on Potomac Creek.
As stated previously, many of the calcareous ravine forests on the east coast of the United States have since been heavily logged. In assessing natural communities in need of protection, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation listed the state’s few remaining calcareous ravine forests as conservation priorities. The Crow’s Nest site is one of Virginia’s best remaining examples of this rare habitat and associated vegetation types. Virtually the entire peninsula is covered by an impressive, mature forest, with very large relict trees of greater age scattered throughout the site. It is not uncommon to find trees throughout Crow’s Nest with a diameter of 60 inches (1,500 mm) or greater. Today, calcareous ravine forests are not common anywhere in the mid-Atlantic region. These communities are rare to the coastal plain ecosystem. The principal rich forest associated with ravines down-cutting into lime sands and localized shell concretions is currently classified as the Northern Coastal Plain/Piedmont Basic Mesic Hardwood Forest (G1, globally imperiled) is found on two dry, very steep slopes facing Potomac Creek.
Our understanding of environmental factors, natural communities, and biota at Crow’s Nest is far from complete. Based on the findings by the Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage Report, October 1999, Spring Migrant Bird Surveys, and the Final Environmental Assessment for Proposed Accokeek Creek National Wildlife Refuge, December 2000, “the Crow’s Nest Peninsula is an important site for acquisition and protection.”  In the larger context of biodiversity protection in Virginia and the mid-Atlantic region, the factors which contribute to the exceptional character of this property and its exceptional neotropical migrant populations include its size, large-patch community dynamics, its diversity of habitats, and the known or potential occurrence of rare ecosystems and biota.
The information below was taken from the Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage Report, October 1999. The largest tree individuals of some species include:
Species and dbh
Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip poplar) 120 cm (47” or 3.92’)
Carya cordiformis (bitternut hickory) 120 cm (47” or 3.92’)
Juglans nigra (black walnut) 95 cm (37” or 3.08’)
Carya glabra (pignut hickory) 82 cm (32” or 2.70’)
Robinia pseudoacacia (black locust) 68 cm (26” or 2.20’)
In the words of Gary Fleming, Natural Heritage Program ecologist: “Overall, Crow’s Nest supports one of the finest—if not the finest—upland hardwood forests remaining in the Virginia Coastal Plain” 
In addition to the exceptionally high quality forests found at Crow’s Nest, there are approximately 700 acres (2.8 km2) of freshwater tidal marshes surrounding the peninsula that account for 60% of all marshes in Stafford County. The marshes are in pristine conditions and represent some of the best examples found in the state.
Native Americans at Crow's Nest
Crow’s Nest peninsula is steeped in important local, state and national history. Important events happened here and important people lived extraordinary lives at Crow’s Nest. Evidence of significant Native American, colonial, Civil War and modern history are found at Crow’s Nest and the adjoining lands within the estuary of Potomac and Accokeek Creeks.
Native Peoples in the Region of Crow’s Nest
The archaeological record reveals that native peoples have been in this area of the coastal plain of Virginia since the Early Archaic period, around 9,000 bc It was thought that due to the steep topography at Crow’s Nest the Patawomecks may not have lived in permanent villages adjacent to the surrounding water, though they definitely hunted and camped there. In October 2005, Cultural Resources Inc. (CRI conducted a Phase I Archaeological resource inventory of Crow’s Nest and found archaeological evidence of several Late Woodland domestic occupations associated with hamlets or villages. In one area of Crow’s Nest, a large number of unfinished stone points were found, indicating that Indians had once used the property as a stone-tool-making workshop.
Directly across the mouth of Accokeek Creek from Crow’s Nest Point there are the archaeological remains of a Patawomeck Indian town at Indian Point on the Marlborough Point Peninsula’s western tip. “Patawomeke Town” was a community of the Patawomeck tribe for which the Potomac River is named. There are several different spellings for the native people who inhabited this area. (Patawomeck will be used in this article). The original pronunciation may never be known. This area of Potomac Creek and the Potomac River is a boundary between three major late Woodland Indian groups, Iroquoian-speaking people to the north, Siouan-speaking people to the western Piedmont, and Algonquian-speaking people on Potomac Creek. It is interesting to note that the name Patawomeck name may mean “trading place.” It is certainly true that Potomac Creek Ware is iconic to the region and has a wide distribution, found hundreds of miles from its place of origin.
One of the most endangered archaeological sites in Virginia, the remains of a large 13th century ad 13-ringed palisaded Indian community was found next to Indian Point, nationally catalogued as 44ST2. Today, small pieces of cord-impressed Potomac Creek Ware pottery continue to be found along the shoreline. Radiocarbon dates on carbonized wood at this site have established that the town was occupied between 1300 AD and 1550 AD. The latter dates suggest that this particular town was not inhabited by the post-contact period in the 17th century, and that a neighboring village site (44ST1) at Indian Point had replaced it by then. John Smith encountered the Patawomecks in 1608. Indian Point is believed to be where Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter, was captured by Captain Samuel Argyll in 1613. Relatively peaceful relations between the English and Patawomecks continued from 1608 to 1619. Captain Samuel Argall with his ship Discovery sailed into Potomac Creek and gained nearly 400 bushels of corn, peas and beans and many furs in 1610. It is believed that trade with Patawomecks increased the chances of Jamestown Colony surviving the first ten years. It is interesting to note that the Patawomecks did not fight against the English in the first Indian war led by Opechancanough against the English in March 1622. By the summer of 1622 documentation exists that a Captain Madyson tragically turned on the Patawomeck tribe, killing 30-40 and burning a village.
By the 1670s English homesteads dotted the Potomac River shores far past Potomac Creek. There was a gradual abandonment of the Patawomeck homelands, with the people primarily going to live among other Algonquian-speakers, including the Potopacos (Portobago Bay on the Rappahannock River to the south. The Potomac Neck area was patented to John Rookwood and later to Giles Brent in 1651. The last chief of the Patawomecks, Wahanganoche was alleged to be murdered in Caroline County, Virginia in 1664. Historical records show that the Patawomecks ceased to exist as an organized society after the late 17th century. In her book Pocahontas’s People by Helen Roundtree, “No patent mentions the site of the Patawomeck town and no documents mention the Patawomecks at all after 1665.”
Frank Speck, author of “Chapters on the Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes of Virginia” believed that a small group of families, whose names are mostly Newton and Green represent what may be the residue of the Indians who are recorded to have inhabited Potomac Creek. Speck estimates their number back in the 1920s to be about 150.
The records of the people who were descendants to the Patawomecks were largely destroyed during the Civil War. Additionally, it may not have been popular in the 18th and 19th centuries to claim Indian ancestry due to the racial strive that existed then. This may be one of the reasons that state recognition of the Patawomecks as an Indian tribe is difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, the descendant community of the native peoples of Potomac Creek has formed the “Patawomeck Band” and conducts regular tribal events and powwows in Stafford County. At the time of publication, the “Patawomeck Band” has not received federal or state recognition.
- ^ Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage Report, October 1999
- ^ Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage Report, October 1999, Spring Migrant Bird Surveys, and the Final Environmental Assessment for Proposed Accokeek Creek National Wildlife Refuge, December 2000
- ^ Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage Report, October 1999
- ^ Gary Fleming, Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage Report, October 1999.
- ^ Final Environmental Assessment for Proposed Accokeek Creek National Wildlife Refuge, December 2000
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