Dyke Marsh: Jack Abbott
I've been living here in New Alexandria since 1950. I've lived here in Waynewood since 1958.
I got interested in bird-watching when I was a little kid. My dad used to take me out for walks and sled rides and things like that. He was interested in animals and on our walks I used to see birds. One time a pheasant flushed up from under our feet practically and flew into a house and broke its neck. I went overand picked it up and saw all those beautiful feathers on it. It sort of hooked me right then. I was about six I guess.
I belong to the Audubon Naturalists Society here in Washington, the Virginia Society of Ornithology, The Maryland Society of Ornithology, The American Ornithologists Union, and two or three others affiliated with birding. The American Birding Association is the latest one, strictly for hot shot birders who want to travel around and keep a long life list.
I think perhaps one thing you might be interested in, is that I conduct a Bald Eagle nest survey on the Chesapeake Bay Region, which means that I go out in airplanes and look for Eagle nests. I find them and find out how many young they hatch out every year.
Around nesting season in this region, the abundance of Bald Eagles is about 80 pairs. This is down from about 250 pairs when they did the survey by the Audubon Society, back in 1936. We finally discovered that it was pesticides. Pollution of the water gets in the fish, eagles eat the fish, and it kills them off. It disturbs their calcium producing process. Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, I think more than anything else, got the states interested in curtailing the use of these very long life carbonated pesticides, which are extremely toxic. They kill the bugs but they also kill everything else they come in contact with. So now the Eagle population is doing a little better. The first year of an Eagle's life is the worst year as far as survivability. All the records we have of birds that are found dead, are in the first year. If they can survive that first year, they'll be all right.
In this area we have a resident population of about 50 species of birds that you can find all year round. In the summer we get an additional 60 to 65 species that nest here that aren't here any other time. Then there are migration periods, which are the spring and fall. We get an additional 100 or so that go through.
The birds I like best, are eagles and hawks of the Raptor family. I'd say we have 4 species of resident hawks, which include the turkey vulture, the red tail, red shoulder, and the little sparrow hawk or kestrel. We also have several migrant hawks.
An experience that was mighty frightening at the time, was during an Eagle survey. I was in an Army helicopter and we were going around an Eagle's nest. It was about 80 feet up in a pine tree in a little open area where there were not too many big trees right close, and I'm taking movies of it. All of a sudden the pilot taps me on the shoulder and says, "We're going down." And we sure were. We were going right down full power. We went right into the tree and the blades wrapped all around the tree and we turned upside down. Came to rest three feet off the ground upside down; gasoline pouring out all over the place. Luckily I had my map. We got out of the plane afraid it would catch fire but it didn't. We checked the map and found a way out on a dirt road and got out to a place where we could telephone. The Army took a very dim view of that. They said, "The next time we fly you on your Eagle mission, the pilot will stay at 200 feet altitude and keep up about 90 knots and none of this fooling around taking pictures."
One time we got chased by Eagles. An Eagle had a young bird in a nest when our helicopter came over it and that old bird took off and dive-bombed us about four times. The pilot was scared to death. The Eagles in this area are not as wild as the ones up in Alaska, where there are plenty of Eagles. Up there they attack anything that moves near the nest and several planes have crashed because of Eagles going through the Windshield. But most of our Eagles here just sit and watch us go by. Even if you climb the tree to band the young, the old Eagles take off and fly around in the air at a distance. But they won't come and chase you.
I'd say I've watched birds in all the states except in the Northwest. I've never been out in the Northwest. I've lived in California, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
I've seen quite a number of what I call rare birds. A rare bird nowadays, would be one that there may not be more than 100 left, like the California Condor, which lives only in the San Gabriel Mountains of Los Angeles County of California. This is the biggest bird in the United States and its got a wing spread of about 11 feet. Its a type of vulture really. I saw three of those when I lived out there. We went up into the canyon and found three of them circling around in the air. They made a sanctuary out of the mountain range now just for the Condor.
My favorite spots around here are Hunting Creek and Dyke Marsh, just below Hunting Creek; here you can get the marsh birds as well as the water birds. There's a wood edge there that's very good for migrating birds. The river itself is a great place to stop off every time you get a chance because there are ducks swimming up and down and gulls. The Mount Vernon Woods and Fort Hunt, are great spots. Fort Belvoir is also a good spot. But those are the places I go most often.
We participate in all the big bird counts. At Christmas time, the big thing among birdwatchers is the Christmas Bird Count. This is where you go out before dawn and stay out till dark and you count every bird you can find in an area that you're assigned. Over the years the amount of information you get from that is quite interesting. Developments change things, the birds change. Some species get more common and others get rare.
I bird a little bit everyday if I can. Just going to Fort Belvoir from here, I stop along the river and look sometimes. At lunch if it's a nice day, I usually take a walk out in the woods.