We had waited, no one more anxiously than me. I checked the weather reports, scoured the newspapers for photos, and asked anyone and everyone I knew if they had seen them yet. Still, the cold weather and winter-like conditions forced us to wait still longer, the trees barren and brown. Then, finally, the sun seemed suddenly hot and the air was warm and they came! The Washington DC cherry blossoms burst forth in an explosion of pink and white color, rimming the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial down on the National Mall. No one, and I mean no one, could have been more excited yours truly (seriously, ask my co-workers).
For anyone who has not been to Washington, the Tidal Basin sits next to the National Mall, a small reservoir off the Potomac and Washington Channel, surrounded by cherry trees that line the path along the water. The trees were given as a gift from Tokyo at the beginning of the 20th century. Best. Gift. Ever.
I’m not alone in obsessing over the cherry blossoms, but I wanted to visit them with a different perspective in mind. I wanted to bird among the blossoms. Despite all the people, the birds were incredibly active, rarely shy, and a reminder that natural wonders like the cherry blossoms interact with more than just us humans. To really see the birds and the basin, I visited the blossoms at three different times of day, early morning, early afternoon, and evening.
Morning was absolutely the best time to go. Unfortunately for me and my future birding adventures, this amateur birder still struggles with the early morning wake-up. My alarm went off at 5:30 a.m., and with a heave and a groan I managed to throw myself out of bed, making it to the Tidal Basin as the sun came up over the Capital Building. Waking up may have been painful, but the early morning was wonderful! There were people at the basin, and the most popular species of the day, the semi-professional photographer, was already plentiful that morning.
Heading towards the Jefferson Memorial just as the sky began to brighten, my first birds of the day were the ever present European Starlings and Common Grackles, chasing each other on the sidewalks and through the trees. Looking over the water, a Mallard slowly swam near the unused blue paddleboats, refusing to come quite close enough for me to snap a photo.
I’ll admit, that morning I was camera-crazy. The blossoms were in full bloom, thick and weighing down the branches with their petals. Stretching over the water, big boughs dangled their flowers below, so a passerby literally had to duck their heads to avoid the bloom. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the scenery, the water, the sunrise, the flowers, more flowers, and, did I mention, the cherry blossom flowers? If my camera could have rolled its eyes at me, it would have after I had been at the Basin for less than five minutes.
Through my trigger-happy photo frenzy, I made sure to keep my eyes on the trees and in the water. Near the bridge to reach the Jefferson Memorial, a Double-crested Cormorant seemed to sit still upon the water. I have never seen a Cormorant in DC, and in my subsequent visits to the park never saw another one. Across the bridge, my eyes wandered from the white marble columns of the Memorial to a pair of ducks twenty or thirty feet from the edge of the path.
I assumed, as nearly ever duck-shaped creature I encounter in DC turns out to be a Mallard. As I approached however, weaving among the people, the ducks began to look different. Smaller for one, and with different coloring than any Mallard I had ever seen. The female was a pale, light grey, and the male had patches of a deeper reddish color. When I had finally reached them, I realized they were not Mallards at all, they were Grebes! A pair of Horned Grebes, the first in my life, were casually swimming not ten yards from DC’s famous cherry blossoms! The face of the male really was spectacular, with yellow feathers swooshed back like giant eyebrows, and bright red eyes completing the almost exotic look. A life bird for me, all in the first 30 minutes of my morning excursion. Just another reason to completely fall in love with the cherry blossoms.
I continued on. Past the Jefferson Memorial the path once again crosses a bridge, and a sign that read “Road Ices Before Bridge” was literally smothered in pink flowers. I was not missing winter, not even a little bit.
I don’t know much about European Starling behavior, but it must be nest building time, for in every group of Starlings I spy at least one with a long twig or blade of grass in its beak. The cherry trees however, offer a whole different type of material. One Starling flew right past me, with, surprise surprise, a cherry blossom in its beak! Though you know, I was surprised. I’ve seen birds with odd objects in their beaks, especially in the city, but until that morning I had never seen one holding a flower. I hope it was a male, to complete the imagery for me!
The afternoon had a completely different feel than the morning. The paths, which had been peaceful, were now crowded. I have never seen more cameras in my life. The air was hot and becoming humid, mocking my gloves and hat sitting in my desk at work from barely four days before. Weather is weird.
The Grebes were gone, but present were the ever ubiquitous Canada Geese. Some people, one or two of my family members included, hate Canada Geese with a passion that rivals their hatred for mosquitoes (if you’re from Maine, or New England at all, you know that hatred runs deep). I’ve never minded them however, and I have to say almost any bird looks majestic against a cherry blossom backdrop. This pair was swimming back and forth among the same set of trees; others flew across the vista, rapidly beating their wings and landing with a splash in the Basin beyond.
More impressive in flight than the geese however, was a lone Osprey, dangling a fish from its talons! Make that the third species, along with the Cormorant and the Grebes, that I had never seen in Washington before. Yet, there it was, the fish still wiggling, flying across the water and disappearing again over the Jefferson Memorial. Gulls were everywhere as well, but I have never been able to separate Gull species. That whole section of my bird book makes my head spin, minute differences separating one Gull from another. As an amateur birder, I leave them in one, muddled category of “gulls,” at least for now!
Gulls really dominated the Basin at night. As the sun set, the European Starlings and Grackles became harder to see, though as always they made their presence known by their constant noise. Gulls, on the other hand, swooped over the water, perfectly framed by the Washington Monument and the setting sun. I am sure that every photographer inwardly cursed whichever local official had decided that the spring cherry blossom season was the best time to erect huge scaffolding on the Washington Monument, interrupting the scenery with its latticed construction.
Still, the entire Basin, including the hordes of people, were beautiful in the dimming light. Couples here and there were taking their wedding photos at sunset. I took a family photo that they then told me was destined for their Christmas card that year. My friend who had accompanied me post-office hours and I sat beneath the trees, my camera stilled and taking time to just look.
As I walked back towards the metro, the Basin rewarded me with two final species, a pair of Blue Jays, also with twigs in their beaks, and a Northern Mockingbird, serenading the locals and tourists alike as they strode beneath the trees.
I’ve found that hyped up events or things are sometimes disappointing, but the cherry blossoms were absolutely unbelievable. Though I joke about the great number of people, I liked that everyone was making the effort to see the same amazing sight that I was, and if I had a dollar for every time someone sighed and breathed, “It’s so beautiful,” I would be a rich woman.
Though the trees were shipped to Washington and planted by man, and though the Tidal Basin is man-made, paying special attention to the birds among the cherry blossoms enhanced the entire experience for me. The cherry blossoms were more beautiful, and the birds more vibrant, by their interactions with each other. Every minute there was a minute perfectly spent!
Mallard in a lovely place