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D.C.’s Wintering Birds Are Right Outside Your Door

A snowy owl perched on the Washington Post building last week, causing a 15th street commotion as locals and bird-enthusiasts scrambled for a sighting. The bird sighting, though unexpected, wasn’t all that rare this year. Snowy owls have been spotted across many southern states, and scientists aren’t totally sure why — but Harry Potter fans are delighted at the influx of Hedwig look-alikes.

But if you missed the snowy owl, have no fear! Even in winter, D.C. is rich with bird species — adorable snowy owl aside. Some of the city’s most exquisite ones might even be perched on the lamppost right above you.

Next time you take a stroll through Rock Creek Park, keep an eye out for some of D.C.’s loveliest winter birds:

Tufted Titmouse 

A  little gray bird with an even littler mohawk, the Tufted Titmouse is a has big black eyes, a small rounded bill, and an echoing voice.

If you miss the mohawk (also known as a bushy crest), you’ll be able to recognize it by its black patch right above the bill, surrounded by a silvery-gray back and a white front. They like to hang around chickadees and woodpeckers, and when it comes to birdfeeders, they dominate the smaller birds.  Titmice flutter when they fly, and can be found in backyards and parks.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

It’s probably easy to guess the defining characteristic of the yellow-rumped warbler: a stark patch of gold, smack dab on the tushie. The rest of the bird’s colors are subdued throughout winter, mostly a pale brown except for the rump. But in springtime, their molt brings an infusion of bright yellow, grey, and white to their feathers.

These warblers are larger than the songbirds mentioned above. They have a large head and a long, narrow tail. They like open woods and shrubby habitats, especially in parks and residential areas, and they whistle a sweet, even-pitched trill.

Golden Crowned Kinglet

The king of the songbirds (or perhaps, the kinglet), the Golden Crowned Kinglet is another tiny bird with a big voice. They have relatively large heads with very short, small bills, and skinny tails. You’ll spot them by their distinctive feather pattern: a bright lemon-yellow crest outlined bluntly in black, a pale olive body encasing a black-and-white striped face, and black and white wings edged in yellow.

The kinglet often keeps very high in the trees so it can be hard to find right away with the naked eye — better to listen for their thin, high-pitched song.

Hermit Thrush

The Hermit Thrush is a soft brown bird that sings a melancholy song.

You’ll be able to recognize it by its throat — with brown smudged spots that give way to soft white feathers — its chestnut head and back, and its warm reddish tail. The thrush is similar in stature to the American Robin, but slightly smaller. Its tail is fairly long, its head upright.

Hermit Thrushes hang around understories, so you don’t have to crick your neck to see it on your next bird-watching outing!

Downy Woodpecker

On the smaller side for a woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker is the most common of its subspecies in urban areas. A black-and-white striped forager, you’ll be able to spot a male by red patch on the back of its head. Males and females alike have black wings barred in white, giving a checkered impression, and a bold white stripe down its back.

The trick here is to determine betwen the Downy Woodpecker and its larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker. They look extremely similar (apart from their size), but the Downy likely has more white stripes on its wings, and a thicker white band on its neck. You’ll find these small woodpeckers on tiny branches or deciduous trees, or shrubby edges in city parks, backyards and vacant lots.

White Breasted Nuthatch

The White-Breasted Nuthatch has a black or gray cap framing its white face — it kind looks like it’s wearing a hoodie. You can spot this nuthatch by its black, gray, and white streakings on its wings and back, over a stark white underbelly. It has a very short tail and a long, narrow, slightly upturned beak. While foraging, they sometimes lurk sideways, or even upside down!

This nuthatch likes deciduous trees like maple, hickory or oak, and often hangs out (sorry) in similar areas as the Titmouse: near a feeder, or in a park.

Northern Cardinal

Some say the Northern Cardinal is the most responsible for getting people to open up a field guide for the first time — a gateway bird, of sorts, as the “perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off.” There’s no doubt about it, the cardinal is an iconic winter bird.

The male cardinal’s red makes for a beautiful contrast to the white snow, and the females also have an elegant color palette: brown accented with red. Both male’s and female’s plumage stays the same year-round, making cardinals perhaps the easiest to spot on a winter walk.

Starling


The starling is a quite possibly my favorite bird. From a distance, it looks like a plain black bird —  boring,  uneventful… and there are just so MANY of them. But with a closer look you may find that this is one of the most colorful birds in the city; in summer, streaks of iridescent purple and green scatter their plumage. In the midst of winter, their brown feathers are covered in stunning white spots.

The best part? A group of starlings is called a “murmuration,” and together, their coordinated flight patterns can make for a dazzling experience — if you’re lucky enough to catch it! (Watch this video and be blown away).

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Next time you take a lunch break, or a hike in the woods, make sure to look up and see the plethora of bird life around you. Think you can spot them all? Let us know in the comments!

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2 comments

  1. Bee
  2. Jen Croft

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