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I’m standing in a parking lot in Fairfax County at 7 on Monday morning with a dozen men and women, mostly seniors, but without exception all dressed in khaki nylon hiking pants or khaki vests or hats with flaps. We’re all staring at a point in a tree 100 feet overhead, where a slight flitting movement suggests there’s a bird. Tripod-mounted telescopes start to unfold into their standing positions; binoculars are raised; notebooks are opened.
My phone buzzes. The Pokemon Go app tells me there’s a Spearow nearby. In fact, there are several Pokemon apparently rustling around in augmented reality nearby, but I would be too ashamed to try to capture one at a nature preserve. Phone away.
“It’s a goldfinch.” Dixie Sommer, a board member of the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia and a member of the Northern Virginia Bird Club, is looking down at her phone, then back up to the treetop, then down at her phone again. She’s showing me an app she uses to track the species spotted on her regular bird-watching trips, like the one this group is about to embark on at Huntley Meadows Park. I notice her app does not require the user to hurl any imaginary red-and-white balls at the birds to log the encounter. Point, Dixie.
Depending on what metric you use, we may be in the golden age of birding. Birders (20 percent of Americans) spent $40 billion in 2011 on their pastime, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And the District is one of the best bird-watching cities in the country. As many species are spotted yearly at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens as at Maine’s Acadia National Park. Eagles and ospreys nest in D.C. and hunt the local fisheries. Ravens have nested in a local bridge, having followed the Potomac River gorge downstream to us. Year-round and migratory species are making a comeback in the area, in part thanks to the effects of the ban on DDT and decades of environmental legislation and cleanup.
Foam, out; otters and other fisheries-managing species, in.
“Let’s go see the ugliest young thing in D.C.!”
Dan Rauch and I have just pulled into a parking lot adjacent to an abandoned brick building. We’re checking up on a black vulture nest which contains a chick. Rauch is a wildlife biologist with the Department of Energy & Environment, and most days he’s out in the field, visiting nests and habitats, counting species, and logging his counts into some of the same databases local bird watchers use to track their sightings.
“It’s a fuzzy, hissing blob,” he says.
We peer around the sill of an unboarded window, and a chicken-sized bird, half fuzzed and half feathered with a bald, wrinkled face, is looking warily back at us. I now understand that Rauch described this bird so I wouldn’t shriek in horror when I saw it. Its rear end is dripping with smelly white shit. There’s a clear, viscous globule of something dangling from its beak. It has no tags on its legs because a tag would catch the chunky stomach contents it habitually vomits on its own feet, and the limb would rot off. Rauch and I haul ourselves onto the window sill (also dribbled with shit) and drop down into the small room (shit on every surface). The floor is strewn with roadkill leftovers, bones, feathers, and more shit. We keep our distance so as not to get vomited or shit upon.
Black vultures, it appears, have adapted to urban areas. Rauch tells me the other District nest is at 11th and K. I mentally thumb through my catalogue of lawyer jokes but leave it be.
They’re making an impressive comeback, but not everyone is impressed with eagles.
“Eagles are a dime a dozen, almost,” says George, a recently retired bird enthusiast on the Huntley Meadows walk, who shoulder-hefts a tripod-mounted telescope that looks like it’s designed to shoot Boeing planes out of the sky.
He has a point—those species that are the most adaptable have had the easiest time springing back. Eagles, when they can’t fish, can eat groundhogs. Black vultures find new nesting sites. Ravens and peregrines—cliff-dwelling species—make their nests under bridges. Some birds, to compete with the ambient noise of cities, have made their calls louder and shriller, which comes with a higher energy cost. Those who can afford to burn those extra calories survive.
But “generally speaking, birds are not having a good time,” laments Rob Young, co-founder of Birding DC and lifelong bird-watching enthusiast. Development and climate change continue to threaten delicate habitats and populations. Meadow and grassland species are particularly at risk because their ideal habitat is also the ideal habitat of strip malls and highway expansions. So, too, are migratory birds whose journeys take them to countries with poorer environmental stewardship. Species who can’t adapt their nesting habits are also running out of room.
Even seemingly minor climate events can have a devastating impact on birds. Biologists and birders like the Huntley Meadow group share data to track migration changes, noting when birds are arriving in the area off-schedule. DOEE’s Rauch tells me that a few years ago in May, the summer heat rolled in too hot and too early, and osprey chicks died off en masse. Parents stood over their young in the nest, their water-dampened feathers spread in a cooling canopy over chicks who died anyway, too young to regulate their own body temperatures. When West Nile virus hit bird populations hard a few years ago, crows suffered a 90-percent fatality rate.
“It’s time to go to work,” Dixie Sommer tells the Huntley Meadow group, as they finish up breakfast at a local Denny’s. She’s holding a sheet of paper, and something like an auction takes places. “Wood ducks? Mallards?” “Four. Five.” Watchers who have seen the highest number of a species call out their count to Sommer, who marks their numbers down. “Any turkeys?” “Just the ones at the table.” “Sapsuckers? Flickers?” “Any phoebes?” “One dramatic one!” Tufted titmice, nuthatches, Carolina wrens, kinglets, gnatcatchers, starlings, pipits, and waxwings. Someone calls into question whether a tanager was really heard. “Are you sure you heard it? I didn’t hear it.” “No, I was very sure! Robin with a sore throat. A two on the lozenge scale.” “Rose-breasted grosbeak? Anybody get lucky?” “A pair of orchard orioles? Wow, cool. Where did you see that?”
The birds this group spots today—48 distinct species in a couple of hours—will be logged via app interface into an online database, reported to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, shared to one or more online listservs, and added to the “lists” individual birders are keeping. There are lifetime lists. There are yearly lists. There are rank-orderings of list keepers. There is also a list on my phone, now in my backpack, of completely made-up animals requiring my capture and documentation, and it keeps tugging at my attention.
Later that day, as I walk north on Georgia Avenue NW from my bus stop to my house, my phone buzzes. Another Spearow. I stop in the shade of a tree to hurl a small, virtual ball at an imaginary animal, congratulating myself on achieving level 9.
Something beans me on the top of my head, raking sharply across my scalp. I look around and see a blue jay on a branch above me, getting ready to make another bombing sortie to drive me away from its nest. I pocket the phone and hurry away. If I were so inclined, I could use another app to tell Cornell and nearby birders that I’ve spotted a nesting blue jay trying to peck my eyes out in front of Colony Club.
“How’s your balance?” Rauch asks me. We’re looking at a creek crossing that involves tightroping across a seven-foot stretch of dead branch. He’s says something reassuring about how he’s used this very log to cross a number of times before, and if I had been listening, here’s where I would insert that quote. But I’m not listening. I’m thinking of my phone and the rare and exotic Pokemon it could reveal to me in these woods.
“It’s great,” I lie confidently. My phone is in the car, so it’s just my pride that will be terminally waterlogged if I fall.
We’re bushwhacking to a wetlands site in Northeast that’s under management and restoration for a year. Park management and city workers are in the process of periodically clearing out invasive plant species like Phragmites to allow native plants to come back to provide nesting sites. Depending on the result of the restoration, the wetland could be made into a park, or kept secreted away to give birds sanctuary.
Rauch’s phone rings—an owl at the National Arboretum has fallen out of a tree and into a creek. We sprint back to the car (I hurl myself across the wobbly branch) and zip over to the site. We both wish there were a bird siren on top of this government-issue Impala. A raptor is in danger!
To get to the owl, we have to wade through a field of wild grasses as high as my waist. It’s this type of meadow that’s an essential habitat—the nourishing seeds, the concealment from predators, the thick cover for ground nesting—and yet most likely to be mowed or developed outside of protected land. I’ve seen this type of meadow behind the fence at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, but it’s scheduled to be sold off to developers. It’s the type of wild meadow you can see at parts of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site, also in developers’ sights. It looks like an unkempt, overgrown lawn or an abandoned field. It looks like if you built a strip mall or a parking lot or a grocery store or a brewery over top of it, no one would ever remember what was here before the concrete was poured.
Rauch wades into the creek to extract a recently fledged barred owl, a common species in the area. He says its stomach looks empty—it’s new to the world, and if a poor hunter misses a few meals, it can become too weak to fly. City Wildlife will feed and monitor it until it’s recovered enough to return to the Arboretum.
This morning, I ran my own battery down to nothing while unsuccessfully hunting a Pokemon. My phone is now on its last legs. I have enough juice to take a picture of a biologist, drenched to his knees, using his phone to call up someone to feed a young owl as the bird angrily cracks its beak a few inches from his face. In the treetops above us, a chorus of birds chatters to alert the forest to the threats below.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery