Friday, June 24, 2005

Birding at the National Zoo

Among the many options available for birdwatching in Washington, D.C., Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Rock Creek Park, and the National Arboretum have proven the most consistently satisfying, with East Potomac Park and Roosevelt Island not far behind. However, the District contains a number of other places to watch birds. One such place is the National Zoo. That is where I took a short walk early this morning.

A zoo is not the first place that comes to mind when one wants to go birding. Certainly the captive waterfowl, cranes, pelicans, and eagles with shorn primaries are not "countable." But because of the heavy vegetation and easily available food sources, quite a lot of wild birds can be found among the cages in all seasons.

In summer, the main draw for birders at the National Zoo is a colony of black-crowned night herons that nest around the bird house. Some nests are placed on top of the old flight cage for captive eagles, while others can be found in the trees. The night-herons that roost here are quite tame. Juveniles will sometimes come down and stand in the ponds not five feet from the path; today I had a close look through my binoculars at two youngsters sitting on top of the flight cage as they peered down at me. Further along the trail, adult night-herons foraged in the crane enclosures. The adults, too, showed little fear of me. One flew out of the enclosure into a tree almost above my head, so that I got a close look at its red eye and the long white plumes that trail from the back of its head. This bird kept an eye on me as I took in the details of its plumage through binoculars. About a dozen more adults could be seen in the trees around the bird house.

The second reason to bird at the zoo is for a section of Rock Creek that passes along one side of the zoo. Because the road that parallels the creek for most of its length goes into a tunnel, the path here is much quieter than it is beyond the zoo in either direction. This section of the creek tends to be better for birding during the winter than during the summer. In the winter the creek remains open while other bodies of water in the area freeze, so that large numbers of mallards and wood ducks, joined by smaller numbers of other waterfowl, concentrate here. Today those crowds were not present, but I did see one wood duck family - a male and female with eight ducklings. Along the path I also encountered tufted titmice, an eastern wood-pewee, and an acadian flycatcher. The latter was detectable only by its wee-seet! call, which I imagine as a sort of sung checkmark. It was a pleasant birding session on a cool morning.

Good birding.