To get the most out of your birding expedition, you need two pieces of gear. Firstly, good binoculars – preferably with 8x or 10x magnification – from well-known brands such as Swarovski Optik, Zeiss or Leica. Next, a guide to help you identify the species you see. If books are your thing, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America are highly regarded among birders. However, beginners may be best served by downloading the Merlin app, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which allows users to identify birds by taking a picture or recording a sample of their birdsong. An optional addition to your birding backpack is a camera with a powerful telephoto lens, at least 500mm, to document your sightings.
Once you’ve prepared, here are eight spots spread across the region that are known for their birdlife.
You don’t have to travel out of town to see migratory birds. The large field dominating the corner of Military Road NW and Glover Road NW in the heart of the park is a popular pit stop along the flyway. Expect to see a variety of warblers – such as yellow-rumped warblers and black-throated warblers – as well as an assortment of vireos, including roach vireos and blue-headed vireos. Seth Horstmeyer, a DC bird photographer who posts many of his images to his Instagram account @horstmeyerseth, likes the contrast between the grassy area and the surrounding forest. “There are birds everywhere in the forest, so the open tree line makes it easier to spot them,” he says.
Open daily, sunrise to sunset. Field in Rock Creek Park is at the intersection of Military Road NW and Glover Road NW. 202-895-6000. Free.
Confessions of a Reluctant Bird Watcher
Turkey Point in Elk Neck State Park, Maryland
This peninsula sits at the head of the Chesapeake Bay and juts out between the North East and Elk Rivers. More than 220 bird species have been recorded there, but bird geeks often go just to see birds of prey. Common sightings include bald eagles, ospreys, and a variety of hawks, such as hawks. B. Sharp-legged hawks, coopers and red-shouldered falcons. If you’re lucky you might see a golden eagle, northern goshawk, peregrine falcon or merlin. “People refer to Merlins as the Jimmy Cagneys of the hawk world because they are very quarrelsome and fly very fast,” says Marcia Watson, webmaster and editor of the Maryland Ornithological Society’s online bird guide for Maryland & DC. “You’re never sure if you’ve seen one because it just shoots through your field of view.”
Open daily, sunrise to sunset. 4395 Turkey Point Rd., North East, Md. 410-287-5333. Free.
Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia
A verdant mix of wetlands, forests and grasslands, this former military research facility stretches over 1,500 acres and is perched at the confluence of the Potomac and Occoquan rivers. It is a popular resting place and habitat for an abundance of birds. (More than 220 species have been recorded there.) Bill Williams, president of the Virginia Society of Ornithology, recommends it for waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as various warblers and vireos. Keep your head on one axis for a flash of color and you might spot a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Green Heron or Red-headed Woodpecker.
Open daily from 7am to 7pm until September 30th; Open daily, 7am to 5pm, Oct 1st to Mar 31st. 14050 Dawson Beach Rd., Woodbridge, Va. 703-490-4979. Free.
Purple Lock (Lock 23) on the C&O Canal, Maryland
With more than 270 documented species, this scenic stretch of the canal is one of Montgomery County’s premier birding spots. Horstmeyer loves it because the waterway is complimented by the wooded shores, giving winged commuters plenty of sleeping options. In the autumn there is a chance to see various wood warblers – including green-winged warblers, blue-winged warblers and chestnut-sided warblers and warbling vireos, in addition to waterfowl such as wood ducks and Canada geese and a variety of vireos such as white-eyed warblers.
Open daily, sunrise to sunset. Violet Lock Rd., Darnestown, Md. 301-739-4200. Free.
Pelicans’ Paradise on Smith Island, Md.
Huntley Meadow Park, Virginia
The 1,500-acre park with extensive wetlands is one of William’s favorites. From the boardwalks that meander across the swampy terrain and a lookout tower, bird watchers can spot vireos, sparrows and warblers, as well as birds of prey such as red-shouldered hawks and bald eagles. Herons and egrets also come through, so keep an eye out for green herons, little blue herons, great egrets, and snow egrets.
The site is open daily from morning to evening. Visitor center open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 9am to 5pm; Saturday and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. 3701 Lockheed Blvd., Alexandria. 703-768-2525. Free.
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pa
Bird watchers, including Horstmeyer, consider this one of the best destinations on the east coast to spot birds of prey (hawks, eagles, hawks and vultures) following the mountain ridges on their way south. Around 18,000 of the majestic birds migrate through the sanctuary each fall, with up to 3,000 visitors in a single day. Depending on when you go, you can expect to see bald eagles, northern harriers, black vultures, or American kestrels. Fingers crossed for a blustery day as birds ride the winds from dawn to dusk, giving visitors plenty of opportunities to marvel.
Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 1700 Hawk Mountain Rd., Kempton, Pa. 610-756-6961. adults, $10; seniors 65 and older $7; ages 6 to 12, $5; 5 and under, free.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia
“You go there to see the ponies, but the birds are incredible,” says Williams, who recommends traveling to the barrier island to catch a glimpse of a range of species — raptors, egrets, egrets, songbirds and shorebirds — Scattered throughout are its sandy beaches, swampy swamps, sprawling grasslands and verdant forests. Along with all your bird-watching gear, don’t forget to pack an impressive bug repellent as the mosquitoes are even more prevalent here than the birds.
Open daily from 5am to 10pm until September; 6am to 8pm in April and October; and from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. from November to March. 8231 Beach Rd., Chincoteague, Va. 757-336-6122. $10 per car.
Kippopeke State Park, Virginia
If birds of prey get your heart pumping, Watson recommends this 1,200-acre East Coast park. It is located just a few miles from the north end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge tunnel and opens onto the bay. It features an elevated wooden viewing deck that offers unobstructed views over the treetops. Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Broad-winged Hawks are commonly seen during the migration season. If you’re lucky, you might catch a rare sighting of a swallow-tailed kite, zone-tailed hawk or gyrfalcon.
Open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. 3540 Kitopeke Dr., Cape Charles, Virginia 757-331-2267. $7 per car.
Martell is a writer from Silver Spring, Md. His website is nevinmartell.com. Keep finding him Twitter and Instagram: @nevinmartell.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning a trip. For travel health advice information, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interactive map of travel advice by destination and the CDC’s travel health advice website.