John Kelly: Keeping an Eye on the Hill's Hawks and Doves (the Birds, That Is)

By John Kelly
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

In the eternal struggle on Capitol Hill between hawks and doves, the hawks just got some reinforcements.

Peter Vankevich heard about the birds a few weeks ago, a pair of red-tailed hawks that had made their nest in the pediment above the entrance to the Rayburn House Office Building, right under the watchful eye of a carved stone eagle. As the author of a monthly bird-watching column in the Hill Rag, he hustled over to see them.

On this particular weekday morning, Peter has his bazooka-like camera lens trained on the nest, only the edge of which is visible from Independence Avenue. He's not sure we'll see the hawks today.

"It's a bit like fishing," he says of birding. The fish aren't biting.

We take a walk, and I try to think of the Hill as Peter does: not as a habitat for politicians and lobbyists, but as a habitat for birds.

"What you do is, you're constantly surveying the air," he says as we amble toward the Mall. Peter translates the chatter around us.

"You're hearing a cardinal," he says, "and a mockingbird over there."

"There goes a chimney swift," he says as a small fork-tailed bird flits by. "That's just a pigeon there."

Yeah, that one I know.

At the National Museum of the American Indian's wetlands exhibit, Peter checks on a mallard family he's been watching. There's a flash of red and yellow in a bush.

"Now there goes a red-winged blackbird," he says. "I'm pretty sure they're nesting here too."

Peter, 55, works in the Library of Congress's copyright office and lives on the Hill. A trip to the Everglades years ago with a girlfriend got him hooked on birds: "Her parents were ornithologists. Just one trip to the Everglades, and that was it."

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