Sunday, June 26, 2005

Birding Report: National Arboretum

The National Arboretum has remained as one of my favorite places to bird because of its nearness to me (only a 10-15 minute bus trip) and because a trip there combines a variety of birds with a good long walk. It is large enough (446 acres) that it is difficult to cover it all in one trip. (I usually only cover about 1/3 - 1/2 of the walking trails.) In some spots I find it easy to forget that I am in the middle of a city, even though U.S. Route 50 and the busy Northeast Corridor rail line pass right along one side of the Arboretum. The living exhibits and plant collections are managed in such a way to be a cross between showpieces and natural habitats. For example, the carefully tended Azalea Garden is situated on a wooded slope that has otherwise been allowed to go wild.

Recently the Arboretum began expanding its "no-mow" areas during breeding season. When I first started birding at the Arboretum two years ago, the only real "no-mow" areas were the fields around the Capitol Columns and the meadow area between the columns and Fern Valley. This summer, most of the fields that used to be mown during the summer have been allowed to grow, so that in most areas of the Arboretum there are meadows with grasses 2-3 feet tall. (These tall grasses are livened with butterfly weed and oxeye sunflowers, both of which could be found abundantly in any of the "no mow" areas.)

The program appears to be bearing fruit because field and edge loving species such as the indigo bunting could be found throughout the Arboretum. The real prize, though, was a yellow-breasted chat, a life bird for me. What a beautiful bird! It seemed a more intense yellow than its warbler cousins, and even the goldfinches with which it shared the meadow. There may have been a second chat, but I could not confirm it. The chat ducked in and out of the foliage, and it occasionally emerged on the top of a bush to sing its strange song. I cannot compare the gurgling and chattering song to any other bird vocalization that I have heard, except perhaps the gray catbird. While not an unusual bird in Maryland, it has been rare to find a chat in the District of Columbia, especially during breeding season. Yet this season there have already been several found: this one in the Arboretum, and more in several other locations where meadows have been allowed to form. We can hope that this will encourage more efforts to restore habitat where this is feasible.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers and Carolina wrens were plentiful throughout the Arboretum today. That is not particularly surprising. What is surprising was how many northern parulas I encountered. I had seen and heard parulas there last year, but only in the Azalea Garden. Today I heard them there, in Fern Valley, on the trail along the Anacostia River, and in the pine woods on Hickey Hill. I am glad there are so many of this lovely bird staying for the summer. Finally, I caught a glimpse of a white-eyed vireo foraging in the Asian Garden.


Green Heron (overflight)
Canada Goose
Red-shouldered Hawk
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Azalea Garden)

Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Azalea Garden)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee (Azalea Garden)

Acadian Flycatcher (Azalea Garden, Fern Valley)
Eastern Kingbird (meadow near Azalea Garden)
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (meadow near Hickey Hill)
Barn Swallow
Carolina Wren

House Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher (Azalea Garden)
Wood Thrush

American Robin
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (all over)
Carolina Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
American Crow

European Starling
White-eyed Vireo (Asian Garden)
Red-eyed Vireo (Azalea Garden)
American Goldfinch
Northern Parula (all over)

Common Yellowthroat (meadow near columns)
Yellow-breasted Chat (meadow near Fern Valley)
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow (riverbank, Asian Garden)
Song Sparrow

Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting (all over)
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird


Cabbage White
Clouded Sulphur
Eastern Comma