- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Nature lovers may see January and February as a “dead time,” when there’s not much going on outdoors, but for Washingtonians bitten by the birding bug, the cold weather is hot. “Winter is actually a great time for birders,” says Rock Creek Park Ranger Bill Yeaman. Backyard bird feeders and feeding platforms set up at local nature centers, he says, are “a springboard for observing birds at close range.”

What’s more, he says, ducks and other species that breed and live in Canada fly south in the winter to Maryland, Virginia and points farther south — the better for us to see them.

Dedicated birders understand this, of course, and across the region they flock in winter to sites where they know they’ll spot new birds. At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Visitors Center in Beltsville, for example, volunteer naturalist Steve Noyes confirms for a group of birders what they already sense about winter’s advantages:

• Deciduous trees have dropped their foliage, allowing a better view of birds.

• The birds use simpler songs, such as chip notes, so it’s less distracting to listen for them.

• The insects birds normally eat are not active in winter, so birds are more likely to use feeders near buildings, where people can watch them.

• The birds’ most active time of day, dawn, breaks later in the morning. That allows late risers the luxury of birding between 8 and 10 a.m., rather than from 6 to 8 a.m.

• During winters in the Washington area, water-loving species such as ring-necked ducks, scaups, and canvasback ducks pass through on their way to the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s not just migrating water birds we see in these parts. Migrant songbirds come here too, Mr. Noyes says, ticking off a couple of handfuls of winter visitors: the red-headed woodpecker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the red-breasted nuthatch, the brown creeper, the winter wren, golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets, cedar waxwings, the American tree sparrow and white-throated sparrows.

That’s in addition to the bird species that live year-round in the District, Virginia and Maryland — among them northern cardinals, northern mockingbirds and blue jays.

And sure enough, as the National Wildlife Visitors Center birders train their binoculars on a clump of trees beside a marshland boardwalk, they spot white-throated sparrows stirring up leaves on the ground in search of food, and over there a yellow-bellied sapsucker (a small, yellowish-breasted woodpecker that pecks holes in trees and feeds on the sap that flows from them) drilling away at a tree.

The essential flight south

For all birders, the point is to see beauty on the wing. For experienced watchers it’s to add to their “life lists,” birds they’ve spotted in the wild and successfully identified throughout their birding careers.

That’s why the winter migration is so important to birders: It’s the best time to see species new to the area.

And as Mr. Noyes’ Beltsville birders peer through binoculars at birds clustered around a feeder overlooking Lake Redington behind the visitor center, he reminds them that they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

While most of the migrant birds have arrived in this area by mid-January from the northern states and Canada (with some stopping in Pennsylvania on their way south), he says, as it gets even colder this winter and snow covers berry bushes and other food sources north of the Mason-Dixon line, other migrants could straggle south.

“The Chesapeake Bay, in particular, draws a lot of birds because it almost never freezes,” he says, making it a suitable winter feeding place for diving ducks and gulls that eat fish and aquatic vegetation.

Learning to watch

Even youngsters catch on quickly to the mystery of the birds’ seasonal journey. At the Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale, where some 20 children and their parents have clustered for an afternoon of birding, 8-year-old Julia Malico of Annandale pipes up, “But why don’t the birds just stay in one place?”

“Birds migrate when there’s not enough food in their home territories,” answers Fairfax County Park Authority Assistant Naturalist Joan Martinez, who has been showing off stuffed models of some ducks. Food sources run short in the winter, because the weather has turned cold and the insects the birds normally eat die off, Ms. Martinez adds.

The session, called “S’More Bird-watching, Please,” features a supply of sticky chocolate-and-marshmallow treats and much basic birding lore. Life lists start early here.

Telling the youngsters that even if you can’t see birds you can identify them by their sounds, Ms. Martinez plays tapes of several bird songs, prompting shouted guesses: A duck? An owl?

She splits the crowd of youngsters and their guardians into two groups, keeping one indoors — to watch the Carolina wrens, titmice, Carolina chickadees and downy woodpeckers that intermittently fly to feeders set up just outside a huge picture window at the Nature Center — and handing off the others to volunteer naturalist Carolyn Williams for a bird walk outdoors.

Later the two groups will switch places.

As Ms. Martinez’s group watches from the window, she explains that one of the feeders contains suet to attract woodpeckers — such as the downy woodpecker, a small white-and-black-patterned bird with a long black bill. Other feeders, with a mix of sunflower and other seeds, draw the chickadees, wrens and titmice.

Outdoors, Ms. Williams uses the walk among the trees at Hidden Oaks to explain a little birding etiquette. She tells the children to keep their voices low and not to make sudden movements. As the group approaches a holly tree laden with berries, Ms. Williams uses the natural prop to discuss sources of food for birds in winter.

“What do birds need to survive in winter?” she asks.

“They need food,” says Madison Browning, 10, of Annandale.

“They need water,” shouts Andrew Zack, 5, of Fairfax.

“That’s right,” Ms. Williams says. “They also need protection from predators, and spots to roost. And here is a holly tree that provides food, in the form of fruit, for birds that might normally eat insects during the summer months.”

Beginner’s primer

For those who have never “birded,” learning to identify the hundreds of species that live here year-round or fly through the area during winter migration may seem intimidating. Laurel resident Rod Burley, a fortysomething volunteer naturalist for the Patuxent Research Refuge, advises beginning birders to first be careful observers before grabbing their field guides for help.

“When you don’t recognize a species, soak up as much of the bird as you can — look at the shape of the bird, its size, its bill and its behavior,” Mr. Burley says.

If the novice brings along a notepad and pen or pencil into the field and writes down at least three distinguishing characteristics about the bird sighted, he says, identification will be that much easier later.

He recommends that novice birders buy or borrow binoculars with focusing rings and an inexpensive field guide, then take beginning bird classes to learn techniques.

One good source for finding books about birds is the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy Chase, says Audubon volunteer Lou DeMouy, 66, of Chevy Chase. Woodend has both a bookshop and a reading room, he says.

Other stores that carry guides include Wild Bird Center stores in this area, and the National Wildlife Visitors Center’s volunteer-run Wildlife Images Bookstore.

Habits and habitat

A good plan is to start early in the day when most birds are flying around and looking for food, and to think about the habitat being visited when trying to see birds and identify them.

For example, woodpeckers favor forests; wading birds and some songbirds such as swamp sparrows congregate in marshes; and diving ducks like deep water. The weather can also be a factor: Windy days bring out hawks, for example, but encourage songbirds to stay close to their roosts.

To identify birds flying overhead or at a distance, the novice should study the animal’s flight pattern. Black vultures, for example, hold their wings in a “V” pattern, and will teeter unsteadily as they soar around in circles, Mr. Burley says. Hawks, by contrast, fly with their wings held parallel to the ground.

Other species, such as the goldfinch, have an undulating flight pattern, alternately flapping and soaring.

Harry Glasgow, 66, a Lorton resident and a volunteer naturalist who leads bird walks at Huntley Meadows Park just south of Alexandria, advises fledgling birders to find a group that meets at local parks or wildlife refuges regularly, and to ask them about bird identification and places to go to find different species.

“Birders are very approachable and are delighted to answer beginners’ questions,” Mr. Glasgow says.

While Huntley Meadows is his favorite birding spot, he also visits Dyke Marsh on the George Washington Parkway south of Alexandria to see greater and lesser scaups, American coots, and bald eagles; or Meadowood Recreation Area, a Bureau of Land Management facility in the Mason Neck area for woodpeckers, raptors (birds that prey on other birds and animals), hawks, and sparrows.

Backyard birding

Many birders in the Washington area also put out bird feeders and provide habitat in their yards and on apartment balconies to encourage birds. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has even developed an online program in which families can get their yards recognized as Certified Wildlife Habitats for birds.

Lina Zack, 45, of Fairfax, had her yard certified to encourage her 5-year-old son, Andrew, to learn more about birds.

Participants need to provide food, water, shelter and nesting sites for birds, says Mrs. Zack, and if your yard meets the criteria, you pay NWF $15 and receive a certificate. Ms. Zack says that as part of the program, the family put up birdhouses in their quarter-acre wooded yard that attracted a chickadee family.

Mr. Noyes, the volunteer naturalist at the National Wildlife Visitors Center, lives in an apartment. He puts out a pan of water every day to attract birds, and then tends some of the feeders at the Visitors Center, adding raw unsalted peanuts and a variety of seeds.

Mr. Burley, the volunteer naturalist for the Patuxent Research Refuge, swears by black oil sunflower seeds to attract songbirds such as titmice and chickadees, and will hang out thistle feeders to draw mourning doves, house finches and goldfinches.

Of course, marauding squirrels can empty most feeders in a jiffy. Most local bird fans have devised strategies for defeating the rodents; they may hang cones on poles below the feeders or string slippery recycled plastic soda bottles on the wires from which the feeders are strung.

Some bird lovers do not mind if the squirrels filch a little bit of seed.

“Squirrels have to eat in winter, too, and they can be fun to watch” says nature lover Kit Ruseau, 51, of Silver Spring.

It’s all about getting through the winter, after all.

Guided walks, backyard watching

Guided walks are an easy, sociable way to get started in birding — but there are programs as well for those who want to begin in their own back yards. Here’s information on both:

Guided walks

• Audubon Naturalist Society: Woodend Sanctuary, 8940 Jones Mill Road, Chevy Chase. Beginner birdwalks, 8-9 a.m. Saturdays, September to June. Meet outside Audubon Sanctuary Shop. Free. No registration required. 301/652-9188, ext. 37, or audubonnaturalist.org

m Brookside Nature Center: 1400 Glenallen Ave., Wheaton. Winter Bird Walk (Program 25556) 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Feb. 4. Ages 3-adult, $3. Registration required at parkpass.org, or call 301/946-9071 for information.

• Hidden Oaks Nature Center: 7701 Royce St., Annandale. The center sponsors free Monday morning birdwalks at nearby Eakin Community Park, 7:30-9:30 a.m. Meet at Eakin Park’s Prosperity Avenue parking lot, off Prosperity Avenue (Route 699) between Arlington Boulevard and Little River Turnpike. 703/941-1065 or fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/hiddenoaks

• Huntley Meadows Visitors Center: 3701 Lockheed Blvd., Alexandria (at Harrison Lane). Morning birdwalks Mondays 7 a.m. Free. 703/768-2525 or fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/huntley

• Patuxent Research Refuge: North Tract, Route 198, Maryland City, between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 32. “Begin with Birds!” program 8:15 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Feb. 11. Free; registration required. 301/497-5580 or fws.gov/northeast/patuxent/ntedu.html

• Rock Creek Park Nature Center: 5200 Glover Road NW. Guided nature walks. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. 202/895-6070 or nps.gov/archive/rocr/naturecenter

Backyard birding

• The National Wildlife Federation: 11100 Wildlife Center Drive, Reston. The federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program lists six steps to certification and gives details on bird-attracting plants and the best ways to provide food, water and cover for native birds. 800/822-9919 or nwf.org/backyard

Where birds congregate

Looking for a good place to point your binoculars this winter? Area bird- ers say the following sites are where the wild birds are:

• The C&O Canal towpath: This storied path, particularly the portion from Georgetown to Potomac, yields daytime sightings of barred owls sleeping in trees. The lowland damp areas are favored by winter wrens. Great black-backed gulls and ring-necked ducks can be seen near the canal at the Georgetown Reservoir, accessible from MacArthur Boulevard.

• Constitution Gardens and the Tidal Basin: Near the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials downtown, these are great sites for viewing gulls, American coots, pied-billed grebes and some ducks, says Audubon volunteer Lou DeMouy.

• Dyke Marsh: Off the east side of the George Washington Parkway, about one mile south of I-495. On the Potomac River south of Alexandria, this preserve is a magnet for scaups, coots, large ducks and bald eagles, says Harry Glasgow, a volunteer naturalist who leads bird walks at Huntley Meadows Park. “Actually, anywhere along the Potomac south of the Wilson Bridge is a good place to see bald eagles,” he says. See nps.gov/archive/gwmp/dyke-marsh.htm

• Greenbelt Lake: Buddy Attick Park, 599 Crescent Road, Greenbelt. This and Lake Artemesia, on Berwyn Road in College Park, are only four miles apart in southern Prince George’s County, and are excellent places to see bufflehead ducks, American coots, pied-billed grebes, ruddy ducks, Canada geese and common and red-breasted mergansers.

• Huntley Meadows Park: 3701 Lockheed Blvd. (at Harrison Lane), Alexandria. This preserve south of Alexandria, particularly where boardwalks cross the marshes, is a mecca for duck seekers with birding scopes. Mr. Glasgow says he and a group of birders counted 100 green-winged teals (a type of duck) there on a January morning during one of the Monday bird walks hosted by volunteers at the park.

• Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens: 1550 Anacostia Ave. NE. Good for finding mallards, ring-billed ducks, northern shovelers in the water, and rusty blackbirds and cedar waxwings in the woods and fields, says Mr. DeMouy.

• The McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area: Sycamore Landing Road (off River Road), Seneca, Md. Known for sightings of red-headed woodpeckers, a relatively rare bird in this area. It could also yield sightings of snipes, scaups, green-winged and blue-winged teals, says Mr. DeMouy.

• Meadowood Recreation Area: A Bureau of Land Management facility in the Mason Neck area for woodpeckers, raptors (birds that prey on other birds and animals), hawks, and sparrows. Meadowood is open to the public from sunrise to sundown, and its main office at 10406 Gunston Road can supply visitors with maps for its eight miles of trails.

• Patuxent Research Refuge: Especially the areas around Cash Lake and Lake Redington at the National Wildlife Visitors Center on Powder Mill Road in Beltsville, and the trails at North Tract on Route 198 near Laurel, are great for catching peeks of ruby-crowned and yellow-crowned kinglets, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, flocks of eastern bluebirds, American robins, and Carolina chickadees feeding together. Birders will also see two or three different types of sparrows, and downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, say Mr. Noyes and Mr. Burley. Ring-necked ducks and Canada geese routinely visit the lakes there.

• Rock Creek Park: Runs through Northwest. Heavily wooded, this is an excellent area for seeing downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, and mallards and wood ducks swimming in the creek itself, says Rock Creek Park Ranger Bill Yeaman. Hawks have been seen at the Rock Creek Golf Course, and four hermit thrushes were seen in the woods and “edge” areas between woods and fields. Check out the feeders behind Rock Creek Park’s Nature Center and look for sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks in the equitation field on Glover Road.

• Theodore Roosevelt Island: In the Potomac River between Memorial and Key bridges; can be reached only from the northbound lanes of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The entrance to the parking lot is located just north of the Roosevelt Bridge. Good for viewing gulls and ducks resting on the Potomac, and watching great blue herons and swamp sparrows in the boardwalk area. See nps.gov/this/ or nps.gov/archive/gwmp/tri.htm.

• The U.S. National Arboretum: Enter at 3501 New York Ave. NE or at 24th and R streets NE. The shoreline of the Anacostia River is a good site for red-breasted mergansers and common mergansers, says Mr. DeMouy. The arboretum’s open fields there are good for seeing bluebirds and several different species of sparrows.

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