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Birding at the Zoo

Some of the most colorful animals you can see at the Zoo aren't part of the collection.

By Howard Youth

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is a birder’s delight. Spanning 163 rolling acres of mature hardwood forest, creek shore, artificial wetlands, flower-filled gardens, and grassy open space, it offers a generous sampling of Washington, D.C.’s impressive avifauna, available year-round to anyone who cares to look and listen.

Northern cardinal. (Ann Batdorf/NZP)

Greg Gough, an avian ecologist at the Zoo’s Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, keeps a tally of wild birds seen in the park. It currently includes 159 species. “What I most enjoy is listening for the warblers in the old oaks in May,” he says. The Zoo’s bird list contains 33 warbler species, virtually all of which were observed during migration.

You will always see some wild birds during any Zoo visit. But if you bring binoculars, a field guide, and a notebook, you will find far more. Also, to get the most birds for the buck during your visit (and this shouldn’t be hard, given the Zoo’s free admission), it pays to employ some key birding tactics. Try to visit as many different habitats as possible. Keep your ears alert, as well as your eyes. Experienced birders “watch” with their ears. If you’re not yet a song expert, you can start by writing down some phonetic notes on songs, the way you hear them. From fall through spring, for instance, the Zoo rings with the sound of wintering white-throated sparrows. Birders know this song as “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada,” or “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” You might reach pariah status if you share such information at parties, but sound cues are valuable birding tools.

Gray catbird. (Ann Batdorf/NZP)

Another key to Zoo birding is time of year. Each distinct season in Washington, D.C., offers different birding opportunities. Winter begins with few birds singing. By February, this begins to change, as days grow longer and warmer. Spring brings migration and breeding. Young birds leave their nests from late spring into summer, when rabbles of young starlings, house sparrows, and grackles appear along Olmsted Walk. Fall migration begins mid- August and continues into early December. Unlike spring migration, birds aren’t singing, but there are more migrants due to the year’s crop of young birds.

Walking the Walk

Olmsted Walk, the wide, wavy main path up and down the Zoo’s impressive hill, is home to wild birds year-round. Some are hard to miss. For example, from April to October, you will see gray catbirds close by. These slate-gray birds with black caps often skulk around in shadowy tangles. But at the Zoo, they hop around on the pavement as they look for insects and other food. Common grackles, shiny and longtailed with piercing yellow eyes, also loiter around Olmsted Walk starting in February or early March. Mourning doves, house sparrows, and European starlings put in appearances year-round. Watch for American goldfinches in the flower beds.

American goldfinch. (John Rappole/NZP)

Olmsted Walk passes many open areas, so keep your eyes to the skies. During hawk migration, in spring and fall, one or two red-tailed, red-shouldered, Cooper’s, or sharp-shinned hawks may pass overhead. If you’re really lucky, you might spot a passing bald eagle or a sleek American kestrel.

From late August into early September, common nighthawks may pass over, particularly close to dusk. Not really hawks, they resemble a cross between a small falcon and a very large swallow, with dipping flight and white wing patches. Swallows also pass through in small numbers, particularly barn swallows, which may be around in summer.

Here’s some inside information on hidden birding hot spots along Olmsted Walk. “The scrubby area by the Reptile Discovery Center and the Think Tank is a nice spot to run into a ruby-crowned kinglet in winter, or robins, or white-throated sparrows, or even a thrasher,” says Gough, who knows all corners of the Zoo property. From the Great Ape House down to Lemur Island, Olmsted Walk leads you close to forested ridges where you can watch for migrating warblers, flycatchers, and thrushes.

Lower down on the walk, sycamores line the way, from just below Great Cats down to Parking Lot D. Baltimore orioles and orchard orioles, along with eastern kingbirds, have nested in this area as well as around Lemur Island. The orioles’ rich songs will lead you to these colorful treetop birds. The noisy, chattering kingbirds are often airborne and so should be easier to spot. Enjoy these birds in spring, while they are boisterous. By August, they will be drifting southward.

The Zoo’s parking lots sit next to Rock Creek Park, which protects some of the region’s tallest and oldest remaining hardwood forest. The edges of these lots are among the best places to find six local woodpecker species. From winter to early spring, woodpeckers will be easiest to see on the bare-branched trees. The largest is the crow-size pileated. This red-crested giant, inspiration for the famed cartoon character, is present year-round in small numbers. Listen for its loud, piping call. The smallest, the sparrow-size downy woodpecker, may be seen anywhere in the Zoo.

The Bird House and Beyond

North American wood duck. (Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Birds live not only in the Bird House, but all around it. The artificial ponds in front and behind provide one of the few reliable wintering places for wild wood ducks in the city. Perhaps North America’s most dazzling duck, the drake wood duck is the gaudy circus clown of waterfowl. It has a hammer-like head and a face that seems to be painted in white, green, black, and redorange. Wild mallards are also around. On occasion, a few other wild ducks appear, such as an American black duck or a greenwinged teal. This is also a fine spot to check the thick shrubbery for winter wrens and white-throated sparrows in winter and brown thrashers in early spring. Migrating warblers often appear in the river birch and other trees that fringe the ponds and along the wooded slope behind the Bird House.

From April to October, the main avian draw around the Bird House is the night-heron rookery. This is the only place where black-crowned night-herons nest in the nation’s capital. A few of these squat, whitebellied, black-backed birds first appear between mid-February and mid-March. This advance party soon vanishes. Then, in early April, the herons arrive en masse. In the treetops, dozens of pairs vie for space and compete for nesting materials. The following months bring lots of action too. Brown, white-spotted young birds appear in the stick nests, then loiter around the ponds or yards. By October, the night-herons are gone, likely headed to southern states or even the Caribbean.

The lower valley best matches the undulating forest habitat of adjacent Rock Creek Park, so it is another good place to watch for migrating thrushes, pileated woodpeckers, and other woodland species. A pair of red-shouldered hawks often nests nearby. In late fall and winter, American hollies growing in the woods may draw such berry-eaters as American robins and cedar waxwings and perhaps a shy hermit thrush.

Magnolia warbler. (John Rappole/NZP)

Asia Trail is lavishly landscaped and accented by some large, mature trees. You may see ruby-throated hummingbirds at the flowers (as you may also along Olmsted Walk). During migration, the woodsy sloth bear exhibit at the top of the hill attracts migrating thrushes and wintering and migrating sparrows—including, on occasion, the white-crowned sparrow. You will likely see wild birds both in and alongside the exhibits here.

As Elephant Trails develops and other parts of the Zoo evolve, each change will bring new opportunities for the Zoo’s wild birds. Just as the seasons always change, so does the tableau of feathered visitors. So keep your binoculars handy when you visit the Zoo. The more you visit, the more birds you will see. It just goes to show that the Zoo is not only popular with large numbers of human visitors but feathered ones as well.

—Howard Youth, former associate editor of this magazine, is writing a book on Washington, D.C.’s natural areas and wildlife.

 

More: "A Birder's Almanac"

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Smithsonian Zoogoer 39(1) 2010. Copyright 2010 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.