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

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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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