It was just before 7 a.m. Saturday, a crescent moon fading from sight, when bird enthusiast William Young grabbed his binoculars, camera and clipboard out of his hybrid Toyota Prius. Its Virginia tags read: “WARBLER.”
Young was one of numerous bird enthusiasts — or birders — who trekked around the Washington region as part of the annual Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900 to document the number of species nationwide. A half-hour into a six-hour trek along the Virginia shores of the Potomac River, Young became concerned when two of his fellow birders seemed to be missing.
When he found them at Gravelly Point Park in Arlington, they began shouting excitedly.
“We just saw a snowy owl,” said Will McPhail, 33, of Northwest Washington. “It was awesome.”
It’s official: The snowy owl is back.
The spotting, near the runways of Reagan National Airport, was the first time in recent memory that the bird counters saw the white owl during the annual event, said Daphne Gemmill, 70, whose first Washington area Christmas Bird Count was in 1978.
The rarely seen arctic bird has been making appearances in the region. In January, a snowy owl became an instant celebrity when it was seen in downtown Washington and became the subject of a media frenzy. That owl survived getting hit by a D.C. bus, but it later died in Minnesota after it apparently was released and later hit by a vehicle along a highway.
The owl sighting Saturday pumped up the eight birders who spread out from the airport to Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary and Roosevelt Island to document the number and types of birds that they saw.
As red-tailed Southwest Airlines Boeing 737s soared overhead, Young and his crew busily identified — by coloring, body size, or the bird’s unique call or song — the species as part of their bird census for the National Audubon Society.
Geoff LeBaron, director of the Christmas Bird Count for the Audubon Society, said that about 2,408 counters across the United States, Canada, parts of South America and the South Pacific participated in the count that stretches from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. The District’s count takes place on Dec. 20 each year, and hundreds of birders scattered throughout the District, Virginia and Maryland on Saturday to search Rock Creek Park, Anacostia, Fort Dupont and even the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory, the vice president’s home. The group could not get permission to count on the White House grounds this year.
The birders hope to spot which birds are returning to the District and to compare population and migration patterns with previous years. They also want to determine which species are not as represented as they have been in past years.
The most common reason for seeing fewer species, LeBaron said, is a result of warmer winters, which means birds migrate south to Washington later in the season than they did previously.
By the end of their day, Young and his birders catalogued about 57 species, down slightly from 61 last year. The most common: gulls, pigeons, mallards, Canada geese, white-throated sparrows, hawks, woodpeckers and herons.
When they saw a black-crowned night heron, an uncommon type of bird in the Washington area, the group whipped out their binoculars and telescopes.
“You can say we’re heron addicts,” joked Tom Hardman, 34, a Chantilly, Va., software salesman who says he became a bird enthusiast two years ago when he moved into a house with a back yard that had tons of birds.
They joked that most people ask whether they have seen a bald eagle. Decades ago, spotting a bald eagle in the Washington area was unusual, but they are now quite common. Almost as if on cue, a jogger stopped by, saw the group looking for birds and asked: “You guys counting? You see an eagle yet?” The group burst into laughter.
“See, everyone thinks eagles would be the highlight,” McPhail said. “But not anymore.”
Their counting is not the most scientific pursuit. At one point, Young spotted a flock of Canada geese on a patch of grass and estimated there to be about 600. Hardman guesstimated there to be about 300. They compromised, with Young recording 450.
McPhail became interested in bird watching when he was about 7 years old, when his father would take him hunting. His father told him to watch the birds when they were out in the woods to help them find their prey. As he got older, McPhail said, he “traded a shotgun for a camera.”
On Saturday, the group expected to see many birds flocking along the Potomac, but McPhail said it was pretty quiet.
At 62, Young is one of the more senior members of the group but remains one of the most energetic, walking briskly with his clipboard and jotting down each bird that he sees. While many of his counters use a software application called eBird to document their findings, Young sticks to his clipboard, pencil and spreadsheet. An author of books about birds, Young has served as a leader of a Washington-area Christmas Bird Count sector since 1991 and is preparing for a bird trip to Tanzania next year.
“Oops, there goes one,” he says, referring to a lesser scaup duck nearby.
Even though eagle sightings are not as unusual and exciting as in years past, the group members noted that toward the end of the day, the eagle was the one bird they had not yet seen.
“Hmm, that is interesting,” Young noted. Just then, with its wings extended, an eagle soared over Roaches Run. Young jotted it down. His day was complete.