May 7, 2018

A Beginner’s Guide To Bird-Watching Around D.C.

By Dayana Mustak

The Wood Thrush is the official bird of Washington, D.C.

The Wood Thrush is the official bird of Washington, D.C.

Every year, as the temperatures start to climb in the spring, our region plays host to over 200 species of birds that are moving north after spending winter in South America. While some species are only passing through on their way further north to Canada or even the Arctic, others will be building nests right here in the Washington region as they breed throughout the summer.

Migration season is an excellent time to pick up a pair of binoculars and try to spot a bluejay or two. If you have never been bird-watching but want to get started, Zachary Slavin, President of D.C.’s Audubon Society and avid bird-watcher, weighs in on how you can get started.

I want to go bird-watching. What do I need in order to start?

Binoculars or a camera with a good zoom can be a great asset for getting better and closer looks at birds. Field guides and apps are great tools for learning the identity and life history of various species you might see and hear. Plus, it can be great to get out with an experienced birder or even a group to learn from them. But all you really need to do is start paying attention to the birds that are all around us. No matter where you are–downtown, near the rivers or in the woods–just take some time to look for movement and listen and you should be able to start noticing and enjoying the birds around you.

Where are the best places to see birds in the D.C. region?

If you’re just getting started, one of the best places to go is Constitution Gardens, where you can get relatively close to a wide variety of songbirds and waterfowl that live in and around the ponds there. There is also Rock Creek Park near the Nature Center area, which sees a huge number of migrant songbirds passing through at this time of year, not to mention a huge concentration of bird-watchers who are often happy to share their latest sightings and point you in the direction of interesting birds.

The top 5 spots where the most number of bird species have been seen in D.C. are: Hains Point, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Theodore Roosevelt Island, Fletcher’s Cove and the National Arboretum.

We also have a list of places to bird-watch, and how to get there via Metro, on our website.

What birds should I be looking out for?

One of the wonderful things about bird-watching is that you never know what you’re going to see! Downtown, you can see Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Song Sparrows, House Finches, Northern Mockingbirds, Red-tailed Hawks, and even Peregrine Falcons in addition to the more common sparrows, starlings, and pigeons. Near water, you can almost always find Mallards (as well as many other duck species in the winter), Great Blue Herons, gulls, cormorants, and insect-eating birds like swifts and swallows in the spring and summer (and you always have a chance of seeing a Bald Eagle or an Osprey fishing). And you can find even more species in wooded yards and parks, including over 20 different species of brightly-colored warblers that migrate through at this time of year, a large variety of woodpeckers often foraging with Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and White-breasted Nuthatches, as well as sparrows, vireos, vultures, finches, blackbirds, wrens, and thrushes like American Robins and the official bird of the District, the Wood Thrush.

How can I attract birds in my yard?

Attracting birds to your yard is one of the best ways to get a better look at them. The best way to attract birds to your yard is by planting native plants. Native plants provide habitat as well as food in the form of fruits, seeds, buds, and even the insects that they host. You can find suggestions on which native plants are good for your area and where to find them here.

Feeders are also an excellent attractant. There are a wide variety of feeders and foods available to attract different species but black-oil sunflower seeds are a great place to start and hummingbird feeders filled with a simple mix of sugar and water are great in the summer. Finally, as anyone who has spent time outside in D.C. in the summer knows, it can get quite hot so providing water for birds to bathe and cool off in is a great way to bring birds into your yard, including those that might not usually visit feeders.

How can I help with research on birds?

There are a lot of community science programs that offer an opportunity for bird-watchers of all skill levels to contribute to our understanding of bird populations and distribution. Programs like the Great Backyard Bird Count, eBird, and the Christmas Bird Count ask volunteers to go out into their communities and collect data on their local birds and between these and other programs there are lots of options for spending a few minutes to a few weeks a year collecting data on birds to better inform conservation.

Are you a bird-watcher? What birds have you been seeing around the Washington region? Tell us on our show about bird migration season on Tuesday, May 8th at 12 p.m.