Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Birding by Metro: Metrobus

Previous editions of my birding by Metro series covered sites along the major Metrorail lines. Metrorail, of course, is not the only way to get around Washington, even if it is what most people mean by the word "Metro." This week, we will look at birding sites that can be reached only or primarily by Metrobus. Unlike other posts in this series, which were arranged by route, this post is organized by location.

Riding Metrobus requires a $1.25 fare, which can be paid in exact change or with a SmarTrip card. Ask for a transfer, which can be used (even on the same route) for a free ride until the time indicated on the transfer paper. The downside, of course, is that riders on Metrobus are more likely than rail riders to become stuck in traffic. For most weekend birders this will not be a problem; weekday birders may need to consider their routes.


Rock Creek Park is the largest forested tract in the District, making it a classic migrant trap. The best birding areas are located on top of the park's western ridge, near the Nature Center. During spring and fall migration, the usual birders' route is to start at the Nature Center, walk south to visit picnic areas 17/18 at dawn, and then check the maintenance yard later in the morning. I prefer the maintenance yard for birding since most birds there will be at or below eye level. All northeastern species of warblers have been recorded in the park. On any given day during the peak period, one can expect to see 10-15 warblers, and more than that on really good days. In addition to the flood of warblers, attentive observers can expect to see both cuckoos, all eastern thrush species, tyrant flycatchers, orioles, and many sparrow species. Directions: Take the E2, E3, or E4 bus to the corner of Military Road and Glover Road, near the Nature Center. These routes run between the Friendship Heights and Fort Totten stations on the Red Line, and connect to many other bus routes along the way.

Georgetown Reservoir is one of several storage reservoirs maintained for the Washington Aqueduct. Water birds find the reservoir attractive. Though the reservoir is surrounded by a chain-link fence, birders may view the impoundments from the sidewalk. Ring-necked ducks, scaup, canvasback, coots, and grebes can be seen throughout the winter. This is a reliable spot for finding lesser black-backed gulls. Directions: The D3, D5, and D6 buses stop right at the reservoir on MacArthur Boulevard. These bus routes connect to the Red Line at Dupont Circle.

Fletcher's Boathouse is a favored access point and birding location on the C&O Canal. Check the trees around the boathouse for nesting orioles and warbling vireos. Prothonotary and yellow-throated warblers breed in swampy woods along the towpath east and west of the boathouse. In winter, mergansers and other diving ducks may be seen on the river. From Fletcher's Boathouse, you can walk a mile northwest to the Chain Bridge, which is a good location to find waterfowl, herons, and raptors around the pools in the rock formations. Directions: Take the D3, D5, or D6 bus to the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Reservoir Road. (These bus routes connect to the Red Line at Dupont Circle.) Walk down Reservoir Road and VERY carefully cross Canal Road to the entrance drive for Fletcher's Boathouse.

Glover-Archbold Park is a thin strip of forest that acts as another migrant trap in northwest Washington. The most interesting section for birders is just above Reservoir Road. The park is generally good for bird species that prefer forest and edge habitats. Go during spring and fall migration to look for warblers and thrushes, including the veeries that breed in the park. Directions: The D3 and D6 run along Reservoir Road and stop near the entrance to the park. (If you are coming from the east, it will be right after the French Embassy.) Both routes connect to the Red Line at Dupont Circle.

McMillan Reservoir, one of the Washington Aqueduct's water treatment plants, is an irregularly-shaped body of water across Michigan Avenue from the Washington Hospital Center and near Howard University. East of the reservoir there is a grasslands area where water was formerly filtered through sand tanks. Both areas are fenced and off-limits to the public, but birders can view birds from the sidewalk. The best viewing area for the reservoir is at the corner of Michigan Avenue and 4th Street. The reservoir is good for waterbirds in migration. Directions: The 80 bus stops at North Capitol and Michigan Avenues, next to the grasslands. The H1, H2, H3, and H4 buses stop at the reservoir.


The National Arboretum consists of 446 acres of fields, woods, and display gardens, with some of the largest stands of conifers in D.C. Some of the better birding spots are in the Azalea Gardens, the Asian Gardens, and a trail that runs parallel to the Anacostia River. In spring and fall, check the Azalea and Asian Gardens for migrating warblers, thrushes, and other songbirds. The Azalea Gardens in particular are very good for thrushes, including gray-cheeked and Swainson's thrushes. Any of the pine groves may hold a pine warbler or red-breasted nuthatch in late winter or early spring. In winter, check conifers for owls. Directions: Use the X6 from Union Station on weekends. On weekdays, the closest bus stop to the Arboretum is the B2 at R Street and Bladensburg Road. The B2 connects with the Blue and Orange lines at the Stadium-Armory station.

Kingman and Heritage Islands are artificial islands in the middle of the Anacostia River just south of Benning Road. Access to the islands is via a wooden bridge from the RFK stadium parking lot. Currently access to the islands is limited, but plans are in the works to create a nature center and walking trails. Waterfowl and herons use the river year-round. Gulls, terns, and shorebirds may be present on the mudflats around the islands during migration. Check brushy areas for songbirds. Directions: The X2 bus stops near Kingman Island on Benning Road. The Stadium-Armory station on the Blue and Orange lines is close by, but requires a longer walk.


Fort Dupont is an underbirded park despite its good habitat. It consists mainly of upland forest, with some edge and scrubby areas, and has a well-maintained trail system with easy public access. Ovenbird, pine warbler, and scarlet tanager breed in the woods here. Check the shrubs around the fort for white-eyed vireos, indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, and wild turkeys. Directions: The V7, V8, V9, and U2 buses run along the park on Minnesota Avenue on the west side of the park, and the A11 and M6 run near the park of Alabama Avenue on the east side of the park.

In addition to the sites listed here, many of the other sites listed in previous editions of Birding by Metro can be reached by Metrobus, which in some cases may be easier than rail. To find routes, use the "Trip Planner" on the WMATA website. If you know of good, Metro-accessible sites not listed here, please note them in the comments. I especially would appreciate learning about sites outside of Washington's borders. Any feedback is welcome.

Other posts in this series: Introduction, Green/Yellow, Blue/Orange, Red