Early Birds & Night Owls
Could a trio of devoted birders break a Washington, D.C., bird-watching record set in 1989?
We started our day at 4:30 a.m. at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens along the Anacostia River on the east side of Washington, D.C. Though the area had at one time been a landfill, it looked wild enough to us in the darkness, with the moonlight casting a silver edge onto silhouetted rows of trees and long-grass fields. The park didn’t open officially until after dawn, so we parked outside the gate and took the pedestrian path, walking in silence so we could catch the slightest squawk or chirp. If we were going to set the record for finding the most birds in the District of Columbia in a single day, we couldn’t let one peep get by us.
In birder lingo, it’s called a Big Day. Small teams have from midnight to midnight to identify—by sight or by sound, using the honor system—as many bird species in a given area as possible.
Our capital makes for a unique Big Day venue—because it’s just 68 square miles, it’s possible to visit all the best birding sites in a single day. Most Big Days are done at the state level, where a large chunk of precious daylight might be spent racing from one important spot to another. In Texas, for example, birders had to drive more than five hours across the state’s southern peninsula to set the Big Day record of 294 species. The record-holders in Maine chartered a plane to fly between the state’s forested north and the beaches and marshes along the coast.
But the District’s convenient size comes at the expense of bird diversity. Despite containing more than 7,000 acres of parkland and 23 national park sites, the District simply does not have the variety of habitat needed to get Big Day numbers you’d find in states with, say, shorelines and grasslands. The number we had to beat, set by a team of five in 1989, was 136 species.
I put out a call for like-minded souls willing to take a day off from work to make a run at the record, and two birders accepted. Adam had been a hardcore birder in his teens but had drifted away from the hobby after college. Now in his early 30s, he had recently caught the bug again and was eager for a tough challenge. Gerry, a veteran birder from Virginia, couldn’t turn down a chance to set a record in the District, where he had worked for decades.
We chose to make our attempt on May 6th. Early May is the peak of spring migration in D.C., that glorious time when millions of birds make their way from their wintering grounds in Central or South America to their breeding grounds in the United States and Canada. When the birds stop during the day to rest and eat, local birders have a chance to see species that aren’t found at any other time during the year. If the weather hit in our favor—we hoped for rain overnight that would stop the northbound flight and drop tired birds into the District—early May was our best bet.
Not coincidentally, May 6th was also the same date that the 1989 record had been established. I exchanged emails with a couple members of the record-setting team, and they offered location advice and tips on where to find certain species (in birding, cooperation trumps competitiveness). Pray for rain, they said, and good luck. We planned our route, did a bit of scouting in the days before, and got some sleep.
And then there we were, in the pre-dawn darkness at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, part of the National Park System. Unfortunately, forecasted rains hadn’t materialized, but there were still scattered puddles tucked into dips in the grass. Right away, we were able to pick out a small group of calling least sandpipers, our first sighting. The din of bird song rose along with the sun, and within minutes, we were surrounded by the raucous symphony of hundreds of birds beginning their day. Moving quickly, we picked out several birds at home in the short grasslands of the park—Eastern bluebirds, American robin, and the rare blue grosbeak. We were off and running.
We had arranged to meet Robert Steele, a ranger and fellow birder, when he arrived at the park at 6 a.m., and he let us into the Aquatic Gardens. We immediately found a little blue heron, an infrequent visitor to the District, and scampering around the park, we also caught sight of solitary and spotted sandpipers, lots of singing blackpoll warblers, and a swamp sparrow.
The day was brightening now, and we needed to hustle to locate migrant songbirds, including warblers, vireos, thrushes, and flycatchers. The easiest way to locate these creatures is to hear them singing, and they sing most reliably in the morning. If we wanted big numbers, we needed to be in a dense forest, where they find food and shade after a night’s flight, no later than 8 a.m. Instead of trying to cross half the city to Rock Creek Park in the morning rush hour, we decided to try our luck at the nearby National Arboretum, and we showed up just as the gates were opening.
At the high point of Hickey Hill, we stepped out of the car into a swarm of singing birds. It was the kind of spring migration morning that birders dream of all winter. A Cape May warbler perched atop a pine tree, its orange cheek shining. American redstarts and black-throated blue warblers pecked around in the undergrowth. An eastern wood-pewee sang from the depths of the woods. We located the nest of an easy-to-miss brown thrasher. I followed the raucous sound of scolding crows to a major surprise: a young great horned owl. Invigorated, we left the arboretum with our species count in the upper 80s.
As we ticked species off our mental lists one by one, we grew more sharply aware of the birds we were missing. Despite our success at the arboretum, we hadn’t found a pine warbler, and our search for a bald eagle was fruitless, though we’d taken special care to look for the pair that famously nests in the park. Somehow, we were even missing the ubiquitous house finch, one of the most common birds in the city.
But we still had most of the day ahead of us, and with rush hour over, we headed to Rock Creek Park, a National Park Service site and the most popular birding destination in the city. It was much quieter by then. Most migrants had stopped singing and were feeding in the treetops, out of view, but we still expected to catch a handful of species nesting along the park’s wooded streams and in steep ravines. In short order, we found yellow-throated vireo, ovenbird, and Louisiana waterthrush, and then pushed on to our weirdest stop of the day: the National Zoo.
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For whatever reason, large numbers of black-crowned night-herons nest at the zoo’s aviary, along with a single pair of rare yellow-crowned night-herons. We ducked among dawdling tourists, feeling a bit absurd running through a zoo with binoculars and cameras jangling around our necks. We found the night-herons and a red-tailed hawk before diving back into the uncivilized wilds of D.C.
On to Fletcher’s Boathouse, part of the C&O Canal National Historical Park on the Potomac River. The low floodplain there is unique habitat in D.C., and we crossed a few more species off our list, including warbling vireos, orchard orioles, a northern waterthrush, and sun-bright prothonotary warblers. Good stop for sure—but still no house finches.
We were pressing now. The wide Potomac River at Hains Point is as close to ocean as D.C. gets, and, accordingly, we were looking for gulls. Adam had his huge spotting scope with him, and we quickly picked off herring and great black-backed gulls on buoys downriver. A common loon was our 100th species, and flyby Caspian tern and red-breasted merganser were bonuses. Adam called out that he had spotted our long-absent bald eagle, but after a second look through his scope, he sheepishly acknowledged that his eagle was in fact a rower in a distant crew boat wearing a brown shirt and a white helmet. It had been a long day.
We hiked around the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial on the National Mall, picking up overdue Savannah sparrows, and headed back across the Anacostia as twilight fell, to Poplar Point. We figured 105 was a nice, round number, but the reliable field sparrows failed to materialize. We found an early willow flycatcher for 104, and sped back across the river to The Yards Park for a last-ditch effort at house finches. Until that moment, none of us had ever wished an invasive species to be more abundant, but we were out of luck. Exhausted and in the dark, we called it a day.
We double-checked our lists and lingered around the car, laughing about the wild day we’d had and cursing the birds that had eluded us. We didn’t come close to the record, but none of us had ever seen 100 species in a single day in the District. Amid the frenetic searching, we watched the sun rise and set on the nation’s capital, visited nine different national park units, and experienced just about every bit of nature the city has to offer. We’d had fun.
As I was walking my dog early the next morning, the first birds I saw were a pair of singing house finches. Unbelievable. At least we’d know where to find them next year.
About the author
Nicholas Lund Former Senior Manager, Landscape Conservation Program
Nick is a conservationist and nature writer. He is the author of several forthcoming books, including the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Maine (2022) and “The Ultimate Biography of Earth” (2022). His writing on birds and nature has appeared in Audubon magazine, Slate.com, The Washington Post, The Maine Sportsman, The Portland Phoenix and Down East magazine, among others.