The 5MR Begins
After a thoroughly enjoyable Christmas and New Year's in Michigan, it was back to the DC area the first week of January to start my spring semester. I'd been back in the US for 5 months at that point, and the midwinter birding boredom was very much threatening to be a thing. Thankfully, there was a new craze in the birding community to distract me: the 5MR Challenge, thought up by Jen Sanford, one of my favorite birding bloggers. The goal of the 5MR challenge is to see as many birds as possible within a five-mile radius of one's house, which for me as a birder with no car and time constraints was the ideal sort of challenge.
My 5MR circle (seen here along with a list of what I've seen this year so far) probably holds the record for number of administrative regions covered, as it includes parts of Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church, and Fairfax Counties in Virginia, as well as about a third of Washington DC and a small part of Prince George's County in Maryland. What it doesn't include are some of the best birding spots in the area, like Dyke Marsh, Rock Creek Park, or Kenilworth Park. That's been surprisingly less of an issue than I'd expected, mainly since those places are far enough away that it's a pain to get to them anyway. Instead, it gives me a reason to explore parks closer to home I wouldn't go to otherwise, and to appreciate every new bird I see, even if it's something I've seen in a different place or time. An excellent way to focus my birding, in other words. I'd spotted 95 species there in 2018, a total I'm hoping to double in 2019 (I'm halfway there!), but more than numbers it's mostly been about appreciating the place where I live and getting fulfilling bird experiences.
My first outing of the new year was a simple one, just to Fort C.F. Smith Park in Arlington to clear out some of the easier year birds. The feeder was active when Nikki and I visited, with lots of Carolina Chickadees and a very cute female Downy Woodpecker coming in close to us.
|Female Downy Woodpecker|
The next day I did another short birding walk down the Four Mile Run Trail near my apartment, which proved to be better than expected. The best bird of the day was a Cooper's Hawk perched in the open in the sunset light which allowed me some of the better pictures I've ever gotten of that species. Further along the trail were some White-throated Sparrows and a Pileated Woodpecker, a rather uncommon bird for this area.
|Dark morph Grey Squirrel|
My first birding trip in DC was to the Constitution Gardens and Lincoln Memorial downtown. Despite being smack dab in the middle of the tourist circuit, the pool at Constitution Gardens is also one of the best spots for wintertime ducks, which sure enough were there in abundance, surprisingly amenable to photography. I managed to get lots of new 5MR birds, including American Wigeon, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, and Ruddy Duck. Also present were some other birds to tick off my year list, including Buffleheads, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Canada Geese, Great Blue Herons, Fish Crows, and Double-crested Cormorants.
|Gadwalls and a Ring-necked Duck|
A nice surprise by the Reflecting Pool was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker feeding in a tree, while we also had a Bald Eagle (Nikki's first ever!) fly overhead. I also stopped at the Lincon Memorial lawn to get some pictures of trash birds like American Robins and European Starlings, just for posterity's sake.
Determined to use my last week of break before classes resumed to its fullest, I took a walk down the C&O Canal (now a glorified drainage ditch with some nice marsh areas) next to the Potomac River down to Fletcher's Cove, a much longer walk than I expected. A surprise was an Orange-crowned Warbler, very uncommon for that time of year and still the only time I've seen one within my 5MR. There was also a noisy flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, a very inquisitive Carolina Wren, some Tufted Titmice, and a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos, all good additions to my 5MR year list.
|Great Blue Heron|
After Nikki's departure, I made one last weekend visit to Fort C.F. Smith before my classes began. This one proved much better for photography, with Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos perched nicely in the golden hour light. There were some bold Downy Woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches at the bird feeder that were also some fun photo subjects. Two surprises were a lone Field Sparrow in the middle of a flock of White-throated Sparrows and an unusually bold Eastern Towhee by the bird feeder, exhibiting very un-towhee-like behavior.
The good birding continued the next weekend, after a doozy of a first week of classes. I visited the LBJ Memorial Grove on the Virginia side of the Potomac River (still technically part of Washington thanks to the funny way of determining boundaries here) in search of a small flock of Pine Warblers that were staying the winter here instead of being further south where they're supposed to be. They took some finding, but sure enough I was able to get on three Pine Warblers flitting around a White Pine tree, the first rarity alert I triggered this year.
The good birds didn't stop there though: there were also a few Red-breasted Nuthatches in the pine trees (the only ones I've seen this year in my 5MR), a very noisy male Belted Kingfisher by the side of the river, a pair of Hooded Mergansers in the nearby marina, and an out-of-season Eastern Phoebe nearby the Pine Warblers. My favorite, however, was an extremely bold (and extremely cute) Winter Wren calling from a thick tangle of grape vines. After a bit of waiting it came out in the open, giving me my first-ever pictures of a skulker. And they were great pictures to boot!
The next weekend I made my first outing of the year to Hains Point Park, which has become one of my most trafficked birding spots within the 5MR. There were some good new 5MR birds to be had, including a colorful American Kestrel, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, and a new 5MR mammal- a Raccoon seen disappearing into some scrubby bushes.
In late January, a sighting of a Dickcissel at Fletcher's Cove on the Potomac River made waves in the DC birding community, as that's only an extremely rare visitor to this area. The damn thing had the nerve to show up in the middle of my workday when I didn't have time to twitch it, but it was a rarity, a personal lifer, and within my 5MR, so I really had no excuse to not search for it the next day. It was initially nowhere to be seen, raising fears among myself and the other birders present that it had already moved on as they like to do, but thankfully Evan, another birder, happened to spot it hanging out in the middle of a flock of House Sparrows in a very thick bush. This was my first lifer of 2019, plus a surprisingly beautiful sparrow (with a very fun name), so I left Fletcher's Cove that morning as a very happy birder.
My final birding trip of January was back at Hains Point, where I was hoping to find the extremely unseasonal Yellow-throated Warbler that had been reported sporadically since earlier in the month. Many people had searched for it and failed, so I wasn't terribly optimistic going in, and rather focused on seeing other things. The American Kestrel was still there, this time having its lunch, which looked like a young House Sparrow. There was initially no sign of the Yellow-throated Warbler however.
|American Kestrel and an unfortunate House Sparrow.|
Further down the road, I heard a faint chipping noise from a pine tree. I searched for the source, and lo and behold it was the elusive Yellow-throated Warbler, not elusive at all but actually flying within 5 feet of me to investigate, almost too close for my camera to focus on it. I'd only seen it once before, and only fleetingly, so it was a real treat witnessing its creeper-like behavior as it foraged for insects on the cherry trees. I'd never realized before how long the bill was- certainly a very distinctive warbler.
There were some other good birds that day too far to get pictures of- a flock of Canvasbacks that was a lifer for me, plus a lone Redhead in amongst a huge raft of Lesser Scaup, all of which were far too distant for pictures.
Overall my January started well and ended even better bird-wise- a tribute to how many cool things can be seen close to home. Cheers to the 5MR!