Only a healthy habitat can sustain our resident swallows, chickadees and (as the old song puts it) every little bird in the tall oak tree.
To experience one of the park's natural wonders, take a walk through the woods just after dawn in late April and early May. Dozens of species of songbirds are arriving during their spring migration, dressed in their most brilliant plumage and trilling their sweetest songs. As Rock Creek rambles for more than 32 miles from upper Montgomery County to the Potomac River, the green parkland along its banks marks the path of the Atlantic Flyway for these birds that winter in the tropics.
Binoculars in hand, birders seeking good vantage points can often be found along the Western Ridge trail between Broad Branch and Military Road, especially near the Nature Center and maintenance yard. Later in the day, the warblers, vireos, tanagers and thrushes scatter through the forest to feed and rest, making them harder to spot.
Dozens of migrating species make the park their summer home. The list includes many LBBs (little brown birds), who often make up for their drab colors with lovely calls. But the roster is also enlivened by richly hued wood ducks, ruby-throated hummingbirds, yellow-breasted chats and purple martins. During breeding season, some males — like scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings — practically scream with color. Dozens more migratory species wing their way further north to breeding grounds as distant as the Arctic. Park visitors celebrate all of these avian travelers each May during Migratory Bird Day festivities.
Later in the year, these bird populations reassemble along Rock Creek during the fall migration. But, since they no longer have to impress potential mates, they may appear with more muted melodies and duller or molting feathers.
The National Zoo is transforming the area around its historic 1928 Bird House into "Experience Migration," a collection of aviaries and research areas focusing on the migratory birds of the Americas. In addition to its collection of captive birds, the Zoo attracts many wild species, including a notable warm-weather colony of black-crowned night herons.
Rock Creek Park's rich landscape also sustains many year-round populations that take advantage of the resources of the forests, meadows, floodplains and the creek itself. In any season, the park can echo with the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker, the hoot of an owl or the chatter of a kingfisher. Some of these resident birds are so common that Washingtonians may take their distinctive shades for granted: from blue jays and red-breasted robins to the vivid hues of male cardinals, mallards and goldfinches.
Winters are also brightened by red-tailed hawks, dark-eyed juncos, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and other species that arrive in the fall and depart in the spring. One of the most common cold-weather visitors, the white-throated sparrow, has a distinctive call sometimes described as "Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody."
Birds in peril
In the space of a half-century, about 70 percent fewer migratory songbirds are coming to breed in Rock Creek Park. Some of the decline can be traced to deforestation and other ecological problems in their Latin American wintering grounds. But the Rock Creek environment provides its own challenges. Predators like raccoons, possums and other birds keep many species from nesting. Large numbers of deer eat away the understory plants that provide homes, food and cover for many birds — and, as they browse on tree seedlings, they are altering the composition of the forest.
The National Audubon Society has identified climate change as the number one threat to birds. Their 2014 study took data from decades of winter and summer bird counts across America and correlated those numbers with detailed temperature and precipitation readings. The result was a series of maps revealing how predicted changes in climate might modify the summer and winter ranges of nearly 600 kinds of birds. According to the models, one in five species would lose more than half their current range by 2050.
The maps indicate that some of Rock Creek Park's iconic birds are at risk. Future summers may lack the flash of red from the scarlet tanager, the bright orange of the Baltimore oriole and the flute-like song of DC's official bird, the wood thrush. The common mallard may show up in the winter, but not summer. Hairy woodpeckers may become uncommon all year, especially in summer.
There are steps area residents can take to help the park's bird species to thrive. Expand bird-friendly habitats by landscaping yards and community spaces with native plants in place of exotic ornamentals and a monoculture carpet of grass. Encourage building owners to turn off excess lighting that can disorient migrating birds. Support programs like DC Audubon's "Rock Creek Songbirds" initiative, which plants trees and shrubs that sustain bird populations. Participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count each December.
Together we can ensure that our native birds continue to rock in the treetops all day long.