On Thursday we attempted to play tourist, and caught the antiquated-but-efficient MARC train into downtown Washington DC. We had timed our trip to coincide with predicted peak cherry blossom day. Since I was wearing my Yorkshire tweed flat cap I was feeling particularly miserly, so rather than buying a ticket for the Metro (DC’s underground system) on arrival we had decided to walk the five- or six-mile round trip from Union Station to the Jefferson Memorial near which the cherry blossom trees – a gift from Japan – woo crowds every spring. Alas, cherry blossom singular was an apt description, and the crowd that was present was wandering around wearing an expression that was part bemusement, part disappointed resignation. I would say roughly one tree was in bloom, on which one flower was fully opened, and the Yorkshire tourist* was destined to go home in the sort of gruff mood to which he is accustomed.
Never mind. It was a nice day for walking. Cold in the wind, but bright and clear; indeed, it would have been a good day for birding as well. Nevertheless, with many miles of pavement-pounding ahead of us and recklessly assuming that I wouldn’t see anything too interesting, I had reluctantly left my binoculars behind in the house. That’s a rare event nowadays: I feel naked without them! But it wouldn’t have done to look like a British spy by having them around my neck all day, and they do add weight to my ‘man-bag’. So for once I was out and about sans optics.
I felt the first twinge of regret outside the Capitol building, when I wished I could raise my bins for a closer look at a twisting, screaming flock of ring-billed gulls. It nagged at me again whilst I kept half an eye on scavenging starlings over lunch, lit up in purple and gold by the midday sun. Everything looks better through coated glass prisms, and I missed them terribly. My longing turned to need when Rebecca pointed out an interesting duck a fair way out on the Tidal Basin, and then a small grebe diving a little closer in. In my desperation, all I could do was zoom as close as possible with my camera and hope for the best. In the case of the duck, that was enough only to put it down as a probable red-breasted merganser, Mergus pixelella. Happily the grebe was in company with several of its kind and they drifted closer and closer until they were easily identifiable even with the naked eye. As I had guessed, they turned out to be horned grebes: Slavonian grebes to us British birders.
I hadn’t expected to be getting a year tick whilst out on the tourist trail. And I had forgotten, temporarily, that DC’s birds – not to mention squirrels – must be amongst the tamest in the world, probably because my fellow tourists from Yorkshire, Japan and beyond are feeding them: whether inadvertently by dropping delectable scraps of rubbish or deliberately by flinging them a potato chip or two. As we made our way back to the station – paying our respects to MLK and honest Abe en route – many more common feathered and furred denizens of the city hopped, flitted and scurried quite close to us, seemingly unafraid. I wonder if the migrants in Rock Creek Park are as confiding: I had also temporarily forgotten that a swathe of top-class birding territory runs right through the heart of the city. If I could get a few warblers in as close as this squirrel, I’d be in for a real treat. I must put a visit on the agenda for our next spring or fall trip!
It feels extra specially significant to see wild animals going about their lives in the shadows of the seat of American imperial power. Federal government budget cuts are falling disproportionately hard on nature conservation in the USA, just as the coalition’s cuts are in the UK. Especially, in both nations, when compared to environmentally damaging fossil fuel subsidies which remain untouched or even increased. So I hope that members of the 113th congress might glance out of their office windows often enough to put wildlife in sight and in mind. If they can get over their short-sightedness – a condition most politicians suffer from – there are plenty of critters in DC for them to look at.
*Whilst I do not have any Yorkshire blood that I know of, I not only possess the appropriate headgear for a Yorkshireman but was actually born in the county. So I like to claim it as my own from time to time, when it suits.
All photos taken by the author on April 4th in Washington DC. Above: The disappointed Yorkshire Tourist, cherry blossom, horned grebe, grey squirrel, downy woodpecker. Below: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, The Lincoln Memorial.