September 7, 2021 /
Jona Elwell

Piney Branch Parkway: Before and After

You know the famous sentiment, “it takes a village”? That saying came to mind when discussing our latest and greatest before and after – Piney Branch Park. We sat down and discussed the past, present, and future of this unassuming greenspace in Rock Creek Park with the project organizer and all-around awesome dude Steve Dryden. 

The Piney Branch stream is probably the most compromised of all the major tributaries to Rock Creek in the Washington, DC section of the waterway. The Piney Branch watershed covered approximately 2,500 acres – stretching from Mount Pleasant to Takoma – 95 percent of which is now impervious surface. After being paved over for houses, roads, and developments, there are only 60 acres or so left around 17th St NW and the aptly named Piney Branch Parkway NW. That remaining part was transformed into grassy parkway habitat with a large grassy area leading into sloped forested areas that led out of the park.

Enter Steve Dryden, familiar with Rock Creek Conservancy, the National Audobon Society, and a passionate songbird and landscape restorer. He helped created the Rock Creek Songbirds initiative to improve the Piney Branch section of the Park for nature and people. Since 2013, the initiative has restored the habitat to make it amenable to insects, birds, plants, trees, and people. The mission of Rock Creek Songbirds is to restore habitat for migratory birds in the Park and engage the nearby community. 

Up first in that mission? Habitat restoration! As we mentioned, the area that is now Piney Branch Park was at one time a lush floodplain, only to be reduced to a grass patch surrounded by steep, sloped forest embattled by invasive vines leading out of the park. Sounds like a welcome habitat for songbirds and a recreation space for people, right!? Not quite.

That’s where we come in. Thanks to a grant, we were able to partner with Steve for a Community Tree Planting in November 2013. Steve reminisced, “I’ll always remember that crisp November day. That was a great kickoff. Looking back now, it was small planting, but there were lots of volunteers and it gave me a better idea of how things are done at Casey Trees and I got to interact with folks on staff.” From that kick-off tree planting in 2013, Steve and his myriad partners, including us and the National Park Service, have planted over 500 trees to thicken the tree canopy and understory to make the habitat more attractive to birds. 

Steve elaborated that it’s, “been really great to see the native species that we’re trying to get out from under the blanket of invasives have been freed and are starting to flourish on their own. Everything was so overgrown before, there was no space for understory trees let alone native wildflowers or grasses to flourish. The last survey we did of the area found that there were close to 300 different species of native grasses, shrubs, and trees. This is extraordinary since this area has been trashed and mismanaged by deer and people for decades.” In fact, Steve shared that site evaluations of Piney Branch Park reiterate the need for controlling invasives and securing future habitat. It may be small, but Steve shared that, “the forest supports an impressive remnant of old age trees with a canopy dominated by oaks. In fact, much of the forest canopy contains native oak trees – an unmatched supporter of local birds, insects, and pollinators. Other native species reaching the canopy include beech, eastern cottonwood and tulip tree which are found growing on the moist lower slopes. Native trees of the under-story include red maple, black gum, sassafras, persimmon, white ash, American elm, flowering dogwood, American holly, mockernut hickory, post oak, red oak, white oak, and black cherry. Native trees found primarily along the forest edge include black locust, box elder, and black walnut. So long eroded asphalt basketball court, mown grass area, and overgrown, vine infested slope and hello songbird and people paradise!

Restoring the valley’s habitat with native grasses and flowers as well as understory trees was very important for heat island effects and the aesthetics of the nearby neighborhoods, but Steve explained that this space was a great parklike setting to focus on birds and pollinators. One bird in particular Steve and Rock Creek Songbirds is interested in creating habitat for? Neo-tropical migrant and DC’s official bird the Wood Thrush, whose numbers are unfortunately declining. Wood Thrushes are migrant birds from Central America that come up to the east coast each year and unlike robins and cardinals, they need deeply wooded areas to nest in. 

“The whole project is such a great connection between migratory songbirds and the communities around Piney Branch,” Steve shared, north that the “billions of birds going back and forth between Central American countries where folks are from is such a transcendent phenomenon. This gave us a great starting place for community involvement and is such a poetic, organic connection between the people and place.” Using the migratory story, presentations are made in local schools to students whose families often are from the many countries where the birds spend the winter months. We’ve also joined Rock Creek Songbirds to plant at numerous schools like Mundo Verde, Bancroft Elementary, and Sacred Heart, among others in the area to encourage community-based restoration and engagement too. 

So what’s the future for the wood thrush, Rock Creek Songbirds, and Piney Branch Park? Steve went on to say that the possibilities are truly endless since the magical thing about a landscape is it is always changing: the large, mature oak trees have aged and been lost and have cleared pockets in the canopy creating sunlight and additional space for understory trees; a paved bike trail is going in along Piney Branch Parkway as part of the Beach Drive restoration. This will hopefully help even more people discover Piney Branch park and make it more of a destination. Overall, work can continue indefinitely and Steve certainly has big goals, “If we’ve planted 500 trees, we could probably have 5,000 trees in Piney Branch Valley there is still so much space.” We’re ready, willing, and able to help!