I normally experience my beloved Sligo Creek Trail from Silver Spring, Maryland to Lake Artemesia in College Park on my bike: I cruise along at 12 to 15 miles per hour, my eyes focused on the pavement ahead and my ears filled with the constant whoosh of wind breaking across my face. The Friends of Sligo Creek introduced me to a whole new way of encountering the tail on May 6, 2017, when it organized a walk through the tree canopy.
That's what it felt like anyway.
The trip along Sligo Creek was actually a guided tour -- the first time that either myself or my girlfriend Won-ok Kim had ever formally gone "birding". We've admired a lot of birds in our day but never really taken the time to get to know much about them. We certainly didn't know much about the feathered friends in our own back yard trail, nor had we spent that much time looking up -- or listening. The sounds were what I found the most fascinating. It was like they had all been hidden from my ears until ornithologist David Blockstein and local birder Mary Singer pulled back some kind of magic curtain. The 25 of us who went traipsing through the woods spent as much time straining our ears as we did craning our necks. Had all of these sounds been up there the whole time, Won-ok and I wondered? We were dumbstruck.
Blockstein, an FOSC member who works as a senior scientist and director of education at the National Council for Science and the Environment, must see that kind of looks on newbies' faces all the time. He asked us why birds sing the way they do. I had never considered that, either. He told us that birds sing to mark their territory and that the males do so to attract the ladies. He said that female birds judge potential mates by the quality of their song. I whispered to Won-ok that I'd be a 48-year-old virgin if women judged me by my singing ability.
Blockstein and fellow volunteer Mary Singer would call out what bird had just landed overhead long before any of us could see it because they knew their songs so well. "Scarlet Tanager," Singer would say -- tilting her binoculars up to the tree tops and helping us all find it. "Yellow-rumped Warbler," Blockstein would usher, pulling out his dog-eared copy of "Finding Birds in the National Capital Area" by Claudia Wilds and teaching us more about the bird in question.
Won-ok captured brilliant bird photos as we walked, enabling our fellow birders to see birds they missed by looking at the screen on her trusty Canon camera. I shot photos of the people watching the birds and jotted a few notes in my trusty reporter's notebook, a habit from a career long ago. (View more FOSC birding photos.) I focused most of my time, though, just getting lost in the joy of the ambient sound. I couldn't believe how many different sounds there were. It had all been one big blur to me before that day. Much like the process of learning a foreign language, though, I eventually began to be able to distinguish one song from another. Perhaps with more time I'll be able to learn which songs come from which birds.
Blockstein and Singer pulled back the curtains ever-wider, sharing their passion with the group and teaching us more at every step. Blockstein pointed to one bird dart across the air in a peculiar manner. It seemed as if the bird was a plane whose engine kept stalling, causing the bird to drop down before the engine re-started and boosted it back up. He said that the flight pattern was no accident, that some birds fly that way to conserve energy -- flapping their wings, stopping and starting again. I had no idea.
The tour guides taught us about more birds than I can remember, including some that we were not lucky enough to see that day such as the Black-crowned Night Heron. Out on a morning bike ride today, I found myself looking up into the trees as I did down at the ground. I recognized that this was not a good idea for a guy who just spent a year recovering from a violent bike crash caused by mud I didn't spot in time but the Friends of Sligo Creek had inspired me to spend more time with my head in the trees above. I caught a black and white blur going across the top of my line of sight and pulled off the trail. I saw some polar-bear-white-bellied bird perched on a branch it looked too heavy to call home but I couldn't get a good look at it. A white-bearded man with a half dozen cameras dangling from his neck approached. I knew he would know what I was looking at. "It's a Black-crowned Night Heron," he said.
I didn't get a good look at him but luck improved dramatically on the way back. There he was again, sitting right in the middle of an Anacostia River tributary. It was lunch time and he was hungry. I crawled down the bank to get the best shot I could using just my phone and wished that Won-ok and her professional camera had been with me. I was able to shoot some neat videos of the big bird as he stared intently into the water but good still photos weren't happening. I gave up on the quest and simply sat on the rocks enjoying the view for as long as he let me. I probably sat there a good 10 minutes watching him hunt. I loved every second of it but had to pedal away to eat my own lunch. I gave thanks to the Friends of Sligo Creek the whole way home for the new gift it has given me to treasure.
Writer Christopher Lancette and photographer Won-ok Kim look forward to getting more involved with Friends of Sligo Creek. Contact them here.