I guess it had to happen – one day when it just was really difficult. From the start I had struggled with Virginia unsure where it would fit in my schedule and thus where I would bird. As other plans solidified I decided to bird in the Alexandria area in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I researched the area and made plans accordingly. This would allow me to leave Philadelphia early and make a stop in Baltimore, Maryland where I wanted to drive by St. Frances Academy, where I had taught for a year almost 50 years ago between college and Law School. An amazing place, it was an all girls, all Catholic, all Black school in the Baltimore ghetto, founded by free Haitians before the Civil War and run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence an order of black nuns. Quite a year, but not a story for this post.
St. Frances Academy – and Its Neighborhood – 2019
It still should have been easy but some pieces were missing. I would arrive there on a Sunday. No field trips were scheduled for that day but there was one the next. Rain was predicted and it had been raining the previous day as well. My one contact, a great source of information, had commitments that would not let him join me until late afternoon on Monday. It was too late to rearrange my schedule so I carried on following the leads from my contact and indications from EBird that suggested 50 species should be very doable. I would see how Sunday went and then try again Monday if necessary.
On Sunday I arrived at 9:30 a.m. much later than I would normally want to start for the 50 species day and although it wasn’t a hard rain, it was enough to make a difference. I first went to Belle Haven Park – along the Chesapeake River. As I got out of my car I saw another birder getting ready to get into his. I later learned he was one of the top birders in the area who had just finished a walk with some friends. Other commitments meant he could not continue with me in tow, but he had seen a Prothonotary Warbler (always a treat) earlier and he took me to the spot in the Marina, shared some stories and supported my choices of other spots to go later. Unfortunately we did not find the Warbler. In fact it was very slow, wet and windy. He took off and I contemplated “next”.
Five minutes later I heard the Prothonotary Warbler and was able to get a brief view and a poor photo in poor light. Maybe things would improve.
It was hard to tell where or whether Belle Haven Park turned into Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve – one of the areas that was part of my pre-trip planning. I hiked on for over a mile and did find some birds – nothing of note but one of these and one of those and a couple of something else. The rain continued lightly but I am sure it dampened the activity – literally. Nonetheless, after a couple of hours I had 34 species. My main birding spot was to be Huntley Meadows, where the walk would be on Monday and highly recommended by online source, my acquaintance of the morning and by Ebird. But the former two had also recommended Monticello Park. A Golden Winged Warbler had been seen there a few days earlier and Blackburnian Warbler was also a possibility and both were much desired by me. Unfortunately in the continuing gloomy weather, bird activity was almost nil, visibility was poor and there was so much water on the paths that walking was a challenge. Thirty minutes added only two new species for the day – neither a warbler.
It was now one o’clock. I did not doubt I would eventually find the 50 species I sought, but for the first time, I really was not having fun. I saw my first Rock Pigeons of the day – not exciting but at this point a new species was a new species. It went on the list. I made it to Huntley Meadows around 1:30 and spent just over an hour there. The rain had slowed but it remained gray and gloomy, kind of like my home area just north of Seattle in March (and often in 6 or 7 other months of the year as well). There were birds but only 11 were new for the day and I had expected twice that many. It was still not even 3 o’clock and I had another good place to go, but were it not for the “need” to find my 50 species, I might have hung it up for the day. It simply was not a day for photos and the best I could come up with was of an Eastern Kingbird – at least you can see the white terminal band on the tail.
Now I needed – just two more – Please! This is where my local resource helped big time even if he was not physically present. He had recommended the Occoquan Bay NWR in neighboring Prince William County. Again nothing real exciting but in an hour I added 10 new species and then was at 58 for the day. Relief…
I was back at Huntley Meadows the next morning to join the walk at 7:00 a.m. Maybe it was them. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was the rain that continued even if lightly. Maybe I was just tired and thinking of “next” but there was no chemistry on the walk – no connection – and no local flavor. But then there was one really good bird – a Red Headed Woodpecker – and the gloom disappeared.
Red Headed Woodpecker
Even in the rain – visible in one of the photos, these were ok photos of a wonderful bird and were definitely the highlight of the trip. I had 37 species in just over 2 hours but no new photos and only a handful of new species for the trip. Since I had seen my 50 species on Sunday, I decided to forego returns to Occoquan and head to Manassas, Virginia and visit the Manassas National Battlefield Park. I birded along the way and in the area around the Battlefield as well as at the Battlefield Park itself. Altogether I had 52 species for the day – fewer than the day before but there had been a local intersection on the morning walk and now I would add an historical element at the Manassas National Battlefield Park.
Manassas National Battlefield Park
The description of the First Battle of Manassas also known as the First Battle of Bull Run below is borrowed from History.com. Visit that site for more information about this battle and the Second Battle of Manassas (Second Bull Run) and other battles of the American Civil War.
Prelude to the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas)
By July 1861, two months after Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War, the northern press and public were eager for the Union Army to make an advance on Richmond ahead of the planned meeting of the Confederate Congress there on July 20. Encouraged by early victories by Union troops in western Virginia, and by the war fever spreading through the North, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Brigadier General Irvin McDowell to mount an offensive that would hit quickly and decisively at the enemy and open the way to Richmond, thus bringing the war to a mercifully quick end. The offensive would begin with an attack on more than 20,000 Confederate troops under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard camped near Manassas Junction, Virginia (25 miles from Washington, D.C.) along a little river known as Bull Run.
On July 21, 1861, Union and Confederate armies clashed near Manassas Junction, Virginia, in the first major land battle of the American Civil War. Known as the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), the engagement began when about 35,000 Union troops marched from the federal capital in Washington, D.C. to strike a Confederate force of 20,000 along a small river known as Bull Run. After fighting on the defensive for most of the day, the rebels rallied and were able to break the Union right flank, sending the Federals into a chaotic retreat towards Washington. The Confederate victory gave the South a surge of confidence and shocked many in the North, who realized the war would not be won as easily as they had hoped.
The area was beautiful belying the carnage that had taken place. Only a few buildings, some cannons and the wooden fences remain. It felt peaceful – hardly like a place of bloodshed and war, but I guess that is how it is with all battlefields and they eventually return to nature and we forget…and make the same mistakes again.
Virginia was not the high point of my trip and I felt bad that I had not gotten more from the experience, maybe had not invested sufficiently in making it better. I wish I had birded on the coast – maybe at Chincoteague, but that was the trade-off on my tight schedule. I had to move on – west to West Virginia. But in other respects this part of the trip worked well – giving me the chance to revisit St. Frances Academy and to see an important part of American history – and still find my birds.