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Top Ten Places for Spring Migration Birding in the District of Columbia

Spring is an exciting time of year for birding and wildlife. This is especially true in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, part of the Atlantic Flyway, which will experience a huge influx of neotropical migratory birds starting in late February to early March and extending through June, with peak migration occurring in late April through May. A neotropical migratory bird is one that spends winter in the south (frequently Central or South America) and breeds during the summer in more northerly latitudes. Many of these species will just pass through our region, such as a number of the colorful and vociferous warbler species like the black-throated green warbler and American redstart, among others. Still others will stick around for the entirety of summer, completing their breeding cycle right here in our backyards.  

People often think they need to travel to far off and remote places  to see exotic or colorful bird species, but there are actually numerous fantastic birding opportunities all within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. While walking down K Street will get you an abundance of starlings, house sparrows, and feral pigeons, there are a number of parks and habitats throughout the city that afford some pretty world-class birding, providing important habitat for breeding or foraging on the journey northwards.

So if you are looking to increase your DC birding field list, or just want to get out more locally, here are my top ten birding spots to check out this spring in DC:

Anacostia Park
Due to its proximity to the Anacostia River, this site offers some birds that you may not find at some of the other more forested locations, including great egrets and black-crowned night herons. Additionally, you may find some birds that are more commonly associated with tidal waters, including several tern species such as Caspian, Forster’s, and occasionally least terns.  Open areas of the park will almost certainly have an abundance of summer specialties including tree, barn, and northern rough-winged swallows, as well as eastern kingbirds and warbling vireos.

Fort Dupont
Fort Dupont offers additional birdwatching on the east side of the Anacostia, where vireos are abundant during migration, including white-eyed, yellow-throated, blue-headed and, of course, red-eyed vireos.  Wild turkeys have also been regularly spotted at this park, and it’s likely that if you make a trip during May or September you will catch the District’s official bird, the wood thrush, singing its flute-like ee-oh-lay song.

Kingman and Heritage Islands Park
Kingman Island is a great location to catch a glimpse of a bald eagle, or in the spring and summer some osprey.  Notably, this is one of the most reliable locations in the District to view a wild turkey, a difficult bird to sight within the bounds of the city proper. Other species will include both arboreal and more water-oriented species including blue-gray gnatcatcher and green heron.

National Mall and Memorial Parks
Great birding is not what immediately comes to most people’s minds when you mention the National Mall, but ask any of the local birders and they will tell you there are a number of habitats and patches that frequently attract some interesting migrants, particularly in spring. The combination of large open fields and patchy tree and shrub clusters across the entire mall make it perfect for species like killdeer and spotted sandpiper (especially in wetter parts of the field), while other species, like blue-gray gnatcatcher and common yellowthroat, can be found around the shrubs and canopy warbling and looking for inchworms and other insects.  

Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park covers a huge area and offers a number of birding spots, depending on what types of birds you want to see. Orioles and kingbirds are readily found in the equitation field, a horse ring that is used by the Rock Creek Park Horse Center, and is located south of the stables on Ridge Road NW. The Ridge Trail, which also runs along Ridge Road NW, offers the highest elevation in the park and attracts a large number of migrants including many species of warblers, vireos, buntings, kingbirds, and flycatchers.  The parking lot of the Nature Center  is also a birder’s paradise with dozens of warbler species being common throughout the migration period, with an equal number of birders present and willing to help you with identification. Rock Creek Park also offers a downloadable field list.

Theodore Roosevelt Island
Theodore Roosevelt Island offers some amazing birding, having both wetland and upland forest habitats all along one trail. Go early on weekdays to avoid the weekend warrior runners.  At this location you will regularly find hatchling wood ducks, prothonotary warblers, yellow-billed cuckoos and, if you are lucky, even catch an osprey dismembering its prey in one of the snags overhanging the central pond that is observable from the boardwalk.

Smithsonian’s National Zoo
While the avian house at the zoo certainly offers a look at some exotic birds, we are talking about the birds outside the cages that you can actually count on your list. Sitting at the base of Rock Creek Park, the zoo offers a continuation of the forested area where warblers and other migrants abound.  In areas of the zoo where tall grass dominates, look for indigo buntings feeding on the ripe seed heads of grasses, while in more open areas keep your eyes peeled for northern rough-winged and tree swallows bombing around overhead, gleaning insects from the air.   

U.S. National Arboretum
Keep your eyes and ears open at the arboretum for the trills of the chimney swifts high above, and make sure to look out for great crested flycatcher, eastern wood-pewee, and Baltimore and orchard orioles.  

C&O Canal
The C&O Canal extends well beyond the boundaries of the District, however there is plenty of worthy birding along the stretch that is still within the District’s boundaries.  Between the Arizona Avenue Trestle  and Fletcher’s Boat House lies a swath of woods between the canal and river that is abuzz with prothonotary warblers, green herons, common yellowthroat, and northern parula,  just to name a few!  Still a local fishing hotspot, there are also impressive amounts of fishermen on the water and banks as the shad run upstream – which also means an impressive number of double-crested cormorants can be seen at this time of year!

Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens
Whether you are going for the birds or the water gardens, Kenilworth is definitely worth a visit.  Its unique water gardens boast thousands of blooming lotus at its peak. In addition to the fabulous water garden, the birding is pretty spectacular, too. Sitting on the banks of the Anacostia River this site draws in a diversity of species, from warblers, including hooded warbler, Blackburnian warbler and bay-breasted warbler, to waterbirds, such as yellowlegs, spotted sandpiper, and several varieties of sandpipers collectively known as "peeps" because of their small stature and difficulty differentiating them in the field.

As you can see, you do not need to leave the confines of Washington, DC to find excellent spring migration birding opportunities! To learn additional information about birding in the District, visit the website of the DC Audubon Society.

Aerial View of Anacostia Park
Anacostia Park

Anacostia Park provides open space and recreation along 5 miles of the Anacostia River in the Nation's capital. It includes trails, boat launches, picnic areas, a swimming pool, a pavilion and Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal NHP
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park lets visitors explore history and the Potomac River along the 184 mile canal from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. There are a number of visitor centers and sites to visit all along the Potomac so take a look at them all.

Group of Children at Event at Fort Dupont Park
Fort Dupont Park

Fort Dupont is one of 68 forts that are collectively known as the Civil War Defenses of Washington. The park is linked to six surrounding forts by a 7-mile trail suitable for hiking or biking.

Turtle on rock in pond at Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens preserves rare waterlilies and lotuses in the cultivated ponds near the river. The park also contains the Kenilworth Marsh, the only remaining tidal marsh in Washington, D.C.

Kingman and Heritage Islands Park
Kingman and Heritage Islands Park

Kingman and Heritage Islands are natural parklands found on the Anacostia River in Northeast Washington, DC. There are over 50 acres of natural area to be explored on these two island habitats by water and land.

Cherry Blossoms in bloom at the National Mall
National Mall and Memorial Parks

Each year, millions visit the National Mall and Memorial Parks to recreate, to commemorate presidential legacies, to honor our nation's veterans, to make their voices heard, and to celebrate our nation's commitment to freedom and equality.

Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park

Rock Creek Park is truly a gem in our nation's capital. It offers visitors an opportunity to reflect and soothe their spirits through the beauty of nature along a tributary of the Potomac River, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

Smithsonian's National Zoo
Smithsonian’s National Zoo

One of the world’s best zoos and home to approximately 2,000 animals representing nearly 400 species, of which about a quarter are endangered; provides leadership in animal care, science, education, and sustainability.

Theodore Roosevelt Island
Theodore Roosevelt Island

Theodore Roosevelt Island features miles of trails through wooded uplands and swampy bottomlands that honor the legacy of a great outdoorsman and conservationist.

US Arboretum / Chesapeake Bay Program
U.S. National Arboretum

The US National Arboretum functions as a major center of botanical research. It conducts wide-ranging basic and developmental research on trees, shrubs, turf, and floral plants. It has a library with 10,000 volumes and approximately 90 publications concentrating in botanical literature.

Jessica Hammond

Jessica (Jessi) Hammond works on land protection in the Chesapeake Watershed for Chesapeake Conservancy, with a focus on the Middle Chesapeake Sentinel Landscape and Nanticoke River Conservation Corridor.  Jessi has an MS in Ecology from California State University, and over ten years of experience at the intersection of policy and practice of applied conservation and restoration.  In addition to her work experience, Jessi brings with her a profound enthusiasm for birds and outdoor recreation.

February 21, 2019

Main image: Heron spotted along Anacostia River, NPS photo
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