It’s birding time in Rock Creek Park. Migrating flocks have begun to move up the east coast to northern nesting sites, and local birdwatchers are gathering on the ridge near the Rock Creek Nature Center, too. On a good weekend morning there will be 30 or 40 birders walking the trails in this part of Rock Creek.
You can join the group – just show up. The birders are friendly, and they will help you find and identify the birds.
This part of Rock Creek is a hotspot for warblers. It’s a great place to see other songbirds too, such as scarlet tanagers, rosebreasted grosbeaks, flycatchers. Some species come through in April, others arrive in early May. Black-throated green warblers, for example, are starting to show up, but the big wave will come in early May.
The early birder gets the…
You have to get up early. Local birders start the day at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning. That’s when small flocks of birds start coming down to feed. They have been flying all night, and they are looking for a rest stop that is quiet and offers a lot of newly-hatched insects.
Rock Creek has many oaks, beeches and other trees that attract birds. Experts say that oaks are home to more than 300 insect species – caterpillars, beetles, borers and others. All in all, our trees make great restaurants.
The morning route
Birders usually start at Picnic Area 18 on Glover Road, just south of the Nature Center. Sightings are shared – “There’s an oriole on the right side of the walnut tree.”
The next stop is the park’s maintenance yard. This unkempt spot – ringed by trees and wild vines – gets the 5-star Michelin award for number and variety of migrants. Birding ends around 9 a.m., when the birds disperse.
Dress for success
If you see someone in a baseball cap and an old jacket, you have most likely spotted a birder. You will a find that most birders tuck the bottom of their pants into their socks or wear boots, in order to discourage ticks. Occasionally you will see a well-dressed morning birder in a suit or skirt. They’re the unfortunates snatching an hour of birding before they have to go to work.
What are they looking for?
This area of Rock Creek is known all over the country as a hotspot for spring and fall migrations. From late April to the third week in May, a lucky birder might see 20 species of warbler, most of them moving on to New England or Canadian forests to nest.
The highest tally for a spring day in recent years is 66 species. That May 12, 2016 list included common birds like robins as well as the visitors.
Over the course of a year, a lucky Rock Creek birder might see all sorts of warblers (perhaps 30 species), five kinds of thrushes, as many as eleven kinds of sparrows, both orioles and many other bird families. Plus the hawks, owls, and woodpeckers, many of them nesters.
It looks easier than it isThe skill in birding is to get your binoculars up quickly, find the bird among the leaves before it moves, and focus fast. A few birds sit still, but many are high up in the trees, hopping from one twig to another. The best birders can find a bird in a few seconds.
Beyond binoculars, a good birder knows a multitude of details that help identify a bird. Does it flick its tail? Is it in the woods or an open field? Does it fly in a straight pattern or in a wavy one?
Expert birders will say, “The lower beak is yellow, and so it is a…” Or, “See the white spectacles around its eye? It is a…” They seldom refer to birding books or apps – it has to be in your head.
Good birders are good listeners
Birds songs are a wonderful clue IF you can learn them. These songs have no pattern, no key, no do-re-mi, so they are not as easy to remember as the latest popular song. A scarlet tanager, for example, is said to “sing like a hoarse robin.”
I have to relearn the warblers every spring, and even then I can only recognize the most common ones.
A beginning birder should start by learning the songs of our backyard birds – wrens, robins, cardinals, catbirds, song sparrows.
Then, you know that the song you do not recognize is coming from a new bird.
What’s the point of all this craziness?
Every day one of the Rock Creek birdwatching leaders makes a detailed list of the birds seen in the area, posts it on the internet, and sends it to eBird.org, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The list includes common birds like crows as well as the visiting songbirds. An ordinary spring day might have 25 species, but this rises as the weeks progress.
This is happening all over the United States. In the District of Columbia, for example, there are 93 designated hotspots. Whenever an birder visits one, he or she sends in a checklist. So far this year, 35,000 checklists have been sent for DC hotspots.
People all over the world contribute to eBird.org. The internet has made it possible to collect a wealth of data on bird distribution never available before. The data indicate when birds migrate, which birds seem to be in decline, which are moving to different habitat because of climate change, and other info useful to planners and conservationists worldwide.
Join the bird party!
Right now is a great time to try birding. Many groups, like the Audubon Society, organize walks. Or come up to Rock Creek Picnic area 18A. Just get there early!