The Potomac River Viewing Corridor
Birdwatching in the District of Columbia from the Virginia Shore
|Birding in this area can be a real challenge, if only to determine which local jurisdiction claims your sighting. District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia boundaries are very close at some points. Some basic rules apply. The Potomac River south to the Wilson Bridge up to the high tide line is within DC jurisdiction. Water below the bridge is in Maryland, with the exception of certain defined bays. In addition, all of Columbia Island is within the Nation’s Capital. Even seasoned birders will stop and think carefully before ticking off a species in any jurisdiction in questionable waters. In doubt, ask….and we’ll find out for you.In any event, there are times when areas on the other side of the Potomac — the Virginia side — offer better viewing possibilities. As an added bonus, many of these sites offer spectacular views of the Washington skyline.
The 88-acre island is in the Potomac River, generally across from the Kennedy Center in Washington and Rosslyn in Virginia. A footbridge connects it to the Virginia shore. The Island is open during daylight hours and there is no entrance fee. Primary time to visit is during migration, although there are interesting breeding species and gulls can be seen throughout the year. During winter after subfreezing temperatures the water around the island will likely be frozen.
A trail circles the Island. Begin by taking the paths south from the memorial. At the south end of the Island the path turns east on a footbridge, which crosses a marsh. Then follow the path north, past the marsh and into a wooded swamp. In both the marsh and the swamp you may find smaller paths leading off the main trail to shore points where you can obtain a different view. Back on the main path, continue north, returning to the memorial. The path is about 1.5 miles.
Then, from the parking lot follow the bike path (Mount Vernon Trail) south until you can see the tidal mud flats at the south end of the Island. South path: Warblers and thrushes during migration. Marsh: Swamp Sparrow, Marsh Wren, Common Snipe, both Yellowlegs, other shorebirds in season. Red-winged Blackbirds, Green Heron and Black-crowned Night-Heron can be seen. Bitterns, rails and Sora are rare, but have been seen. Great and Snowy Egret, and Little Blue Heron can be seen in late summer. Swamp: Wood Duck and maybe Prothonotary Warbler; Rusty Blackbirds in fall. Potomac River/Kennedy Center Roof/Mud Flats: Gulls, terns, Osprey, Bald Eagle, ducks. Bonaparte’s Gulls can be seen in April; Caspian and Forster’s Terns in Summer.
By car: You can reach the island by car from the northbound lane of the Virginia side of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, where it is located between the Memorial and Key Bridges. Follow the signs to the island’s parking lot. Note, however, that when you leave, you must proceed onto the northbound lanes of the Parkway once again. To go southbound drive about one-mile to the Spout Run exit on your left. About half a mile down Spout Run you can make a U-turn and return to the parkway entrance, where you can now proceed southbound.
By Metro: Go to the Rosslyn Station on the Blue or Orange Lines, exit left on North Moore Street and walk to the end of the street (about 1.5 blocks). Turn right and after one block cross to the far side of North Lynn Street. Turn left, cross the I-66 entrance and exit roads, then turn right into a maintenance yard. From here you should see the sign for the Island. The bridge from Rosslyn brings you to the far end of the parking lot. You can also walk to the Key Bridge and take the Mount Vernon Trail south until you reach the entrance to the Island. The walk via the Key Bridge takes about 20 minutes.
Parking is accessible. Restrooms and drinking water are available on-site, but the restrooms are not accessible. Note also, that the restrooms are often closed during the winter months. Gravel and dirt trails with occasional steep grades limit accessibility. Food is available in Rosslyn, Virginia.
Keys: Kennedy Center, Georgetown, Rosslyn (VA), Arlington National Cemetery.
LBJ Memorial Grove
The LBJ Grove is located on Columbia Island (otherwise known as Lady Bird Johnson Park), just south of the Memorial Bridge on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. It is across the Boundary Channel from the Pentagon. The entire island is within DC jurisdiction. The Grove itself is named after our 36th President.
During winter search for waterfowl on the Potomac River and winter landbirds. Might also be productive during migration for pine-loving species.
From the parking lot, take the wooden foot bridge over to the grove and explore the Virginia Pines thoroughly. This limited habitat can be very productive at times. Also check out the canal area and the Columbia Island Marina.
Look for Orange-crowned Warblers, and other pine-lovers in the Virginia Pine trees. Search flocks of Golden-crowned Kinglets carefully for Pine Warblers. Carolina Chickadees, Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers, Hermit Thrushes, and White-throated, Chipping and Field Sparrows have been seen here. Winter and Carolina Wrens have been seen near the base of pine trees near ornamental underbrush. Keep your eyes open for raptors.
In the canal and marina areas you may find Black-crowned Night-Heron, Rough-winged Swallows, Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck, and, Great Black-backed, Herring, and Ring-billed Gulls. Tundra Swan and Bald Eagles were spotted overhead.
1998-2000 Recent and Notable Sightings: Orange-crowned Warbler (12/26/98-3/12/99), Pine Warbler (12/26/98-2/27/99), Red-breasted Nuthatch (12/26/98), Winter Wren (12/27-28/98), Northern Goshawk (1/6/99).
By car: Take the Memorial Bridge to the Virginia shore and drive south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway toward National Airport and Alexandria. This site is accessible from both the north- and south- bound lanes of the parkway. Watch for the exit to the LBJ Grove parking area on your left.
By Metro: The best Metro stop is Arlington Cemetery on the Blue Line. Then follow the bike path along the Potomac south till you find the Navy and Marine Memorial, the sculpture of the gulls. From here you can very, very carefully Then cross the GW Parkway.
There are restrooms here, as well as a snack bar.
Keys: Arlington Cemetery, National Airport.
The Mouth of Four Mile Run/Washington Sailing Marina/Daingerfield Island
Four mile run is a creek that flows into the Potomac River. It is located immediately south of National Airport on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The flats and the bay are within the District.
Best time to visit is during winter and and during shorebird migration. Visit within an hour of low tide and bring your scope. Morning viewings are best at the airport location; afternoon sightings are best from the Washington Sailing Marina on Daingerfield Island. The area is closed midnight to 6 am.
You may be able to scan the area in the morning from the north edge of the bay from within National (Reagan) Airport, but you can also access the area from the Washington Sailing Marina. In any event, if you visit in the afternoon proceed to the Washington Sailing Marina. Park your car and walk to the shoreline. From here you can scan the flats to the north. There is also a bicycle path that runs north to the stream and the boathouse. This overlooks the best area for shorebirds. You may be able to climb down the bank for a better view. Follow the bike path north to the mouth of Four Mile Run, birding the shore as you go.
Search the flats to the south for gulls and terns. The flats to the west, near the boathouse, are best for shorebirds in season. The river may host diving ducks and teal in winter.
Unusual species seen here are Parasitic Jaeger, Piping Plover, Willet, Sanderling, Baird’s Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper. In the winter, look for white-winged gulls. Egrets and Little Blue Heron are possible in late summer. 1998-2000 Recent and Notable Sightings: Lesser Yellowlegs (9/11 & 18/98), Dunlin (9/11 & 18/98), American Golden-Plover (9/13/98), Black-bellied Plover (9/13 & 18/98), Pectoral Sandpiper (9/13/98), Greater Yellowlegs (9/18/98), Sanderling (9/18/98), Stilt Sandpiper (9/18/98), Common Moorhen (10/11 & 24/98), Ruddy Duck, Canvasback, Lesser Scaup in large numbers (11/25/99), Tufted Duck (2/00).
By car: Take the Memorial Bridge to the Virginia shore and drive south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway toward National Airport and Alexandria. You can also reach the parkway from the 14th Street Bridge. Pass the bridge over Four Mile Run and after .75 mile turn left into the Daingerfield Sailing Marina.
By Metro: The best Metro stop is National Airport on the Blue or Yellow Lines. Then walk south through the airport complex until you come to the GW Parkway and the bike path. Follow this south to Daingerfield Island.
There is a restaurant with a rest room and snack bar on the premises. There is also a separate restroom. The snack bar and the restroom may be closed out of season. There may be a Porta-potty on the grounds when the restroom is closed. To follow some portions of the shoreline you must walk on the grass behind the restaurant, however, the bike bath is accessible.
Keys: Arlington National Cemetery, Alexandria, Mount Vernon.
Gravelly Point is just north of National Airport on the George Washington Memorial Parkway at Roaches Run. On the other side of the parkway is the Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary. Please note that although the waters of the Potomac River are in the District of Columbia, the Sanctuary is in Virginia.
Visit during winter for waterfowl and during migration for shorebirds. The area is closed from 10 PM to 6 am.
Park your car and scope the River and Roaches Run (not the sanctuary unless you are looking for VA birds).
1998-2000 Recent and Notable Sightings: Pacific Loon (6/10/98), Common Loon (12/12/98).
By car: Take the Memorial Bridge to the Virginia shore and drive south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway toward National Airport and Alexandria. You can also reach the parkway from the 14th Street Bridge. The Gravelly Point parking lot is accessible only from the northbound lanes of the parkway. Southbound travel must turn around at Daingerfield Island on the other side of the airport. (Note: Entrance to the sanctuary — if you would like to visit — is from southbound lanes only. You can turn around at I-395 South.)
By Metro: The best Metro stop is National Airport on the Blue or Yellow Lines, then walk north through the airport complex until you come to the GW Parkway and the bike path. Follow the path to Roaches Run and Gravelly Point.
There are no restrooms or eating facilities at this location. You can find both at LBJ Grove just north of Gravelly Point.
Keys: Arlington National Cemetery, National Airport.
Alexandria is an incorporated City in Virginia located south of the city via the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which becomes North and South Washington Street as it transverses the city.
This area of the Virginia viewing corridor has been all the more attractive to birds since the 1980s when the improving ecology of the Potomac River led to the development of large hydrilla flats in the river between the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant and the Wilson Bridge. These floating batches of aquatic vegetation attract water birds from August to November, if not a bit later. The mats apparently increase or decrease according to rainfall and water clarity. The mats are best seen from locations in Alexandria and support some of the best habitat for terns, shorebirds, ducks, gulls, cormorants and Ospreys in the District of Columbia.
As with other Virginia corridor viewing areas, this site is best during winter and shorebird migration. Afternoon light is best and be sure to bring your scope. At Jones Point morning light is best, and as with the rest of this area, bring your scope.
There are three major areas to check. Each provides a different vantage point: the bluff at 3rd and Fairfax Streets, a cove at Madison Street, Oronoco Street, and Jones Point.
The bluff is three block east of Washington Street and just south of the VEPCO plant. Find an access point on North Fairfax Street between 3rd Street and Canal Center Plaza. Walk to the bluff, which is above the Potomac, and check the river. Walk the bicycle path from the Canal Street Plaza area to the VEPCO plant, searching the river all the way. Birds tend to congregate near the plant’s outlet. Be sure to look across to the DC shore. When you return to Canal Center, walk a couple of blocks down to the waterfront along Madison Street, which is also worth scanning.
The wooden deck at Oronoco Street near Founder’s Park is a favorite viewing site for many birders in the area. From here you have a good view of the hydrilla mat. Visit at low tide for shorebirds in season. High-powered scopes and optimal viewing conditions are necessary for accurately identifying peeps.
The next stops are in the vicinity of the Wilson Bridge. Here the DC/MD lines run diagonally from Jones Point to a spot in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The Virginia border into Alexandria City and Fairfax County are also close at hand. You will need to consult a boundary map to accurately determine the locale of your sightings.
At Jones Point you can check the hydrilla mats and check under or on the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge for raptors. From Jones Point the mats are viewed to the west.
The Bluff/Madison Street: Watch the river for ducks. You may find cormorants and terns on the pilings. Ospreys may nest on any large platform in the area. In the area along the bike path, check for ducks in the winter, gulls and terns the rest of the year.
Oronoco Street: A wide variety of shorebirds have been reported from this area. Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, Dunlin are fairly common. American Golden Plover, Avocet, Hudsonian Godwit, Wilson’s Phalarope, Sanderling, dowitchers and Stilt Sandpiper have also been seen. The area is attractive to terns as well, and large numbers of Forster’s Terns are reported in late summer and fall. Caspian and Black Terns may be found. However, you may be very lucky to find a rare Common, Royal or Gull-billed Tern, or a Black Skimmer. Herons and egrets can be found here, and an occasional Tri-colored Heron may appear. A frigatebird species and a Parasitic Jaeger have been found, indicating that the site has the potential to attract some very rare species. In the winter search for ducks, both diving and dabbling, and Tundra Swans on the remaining mats. Watch the flats or trees on the DC side for Bald Eagles. During the fall, Great Cormorants are possible.
Jones Point: Waterfowl in winter, shorebirds during migration. Peregrine Falcons have been found by the Bridge. There have been reports of Bald Eagles on the DC shore. 1998-2000 Recent and Notable Sightings: Black Tern (8/22-23/98), Redhead (1/10/99), American White Pelican (8/17/99), Black Tern (8/19 and 27/99), Possible Brant (11/1/99–located near PG Co/DC border), Ruddy Turnstone (Fall 1998), Long-billed Dowitcher (Fall 1998), Tufted Duck (2/00).
By car: Take the Memorial Bridge to the Virginia shore and drive south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway toward National Airport and Alexandria.You can also reach the parkway from the 14th Street Bridge. The main road, is also known as Route 1 and becomes Washington Street in Old Town, Alexandria City. King Street marks the border for North and South Washington Street.
For the first stop, just after the Washington Marina/Daingerfield Island stay your on right and watch for the exit for Bashford Lane, since you cannot make a left from the parkway. Bashford Lane will take to Royal street where you will make a right and then a left onto 3rd Street. At the end of 3rd Street, go right onto North Fairfax Street. From here to Canal Center Plaza you can park and find access to the bluff and the bicycle path behind the buildings.
The second stop is a couple of blocks farther down North Fairfax at Madison Street. If you have moved your car, park again and proceed to the waterfront.
Continue south down North Fairfax Street to Oronoco Street and turn left, proceed to the end of Oronoco.
Return to North Fairfax Street and continue south. At King Street, the road becomes South Fairfax. Turn left at Green Street and right on South Lee Street. Another left at the end of South Lee will bring you into the Jones Point. You can park at various points under the bridge and may also proceed to lot at the end by the river. You can also reach Jones Point directly from South Washington Street, but the left turn must be made from the right side of the road and you must watch carefully for the turn.
By Metro: The closest Metro Stations are at Braddock Road and at King Street on the Yellow Line, but they are at least a dozen blocks away from the waterfront area. Local buses run crosstown.
At the bluff, there are carry outs in some of the buildings around the Canal Center and hotels nearby on South or North Fairfax that have restaurants. There is meter parking and public paid parking. In other areas, food is available throughout Alexandria on the major streets. The bike path is generally accessible, although there are some steep inclines. Restrooms are available in hotels and restaurants.
Keys: National Airport, Mount Vernon.
George Washington Parkway
The parkway is on the Virginia side of the Potomac and can be reached via the Memorial, Key, and 14th Street Bridges.
Go in Winter for ducks; September/October migration.
The parkway has several overlooks north of the Key Bridge. Stop at these and scan the water and environs. In this region, the District includes the waters of the Potomac up to the high tide line on the Virginia shore, so scoping from the overlooks can give you a good view of DC waters.
In and around the river: ducks and gulls. In the air: migrating swifts, swallows, nighthawks, accipiters and buteos. 1998-2000 Recent and Notable Sightings: None reported.
By car: Cross the bridges via 14th Street or Constitution Avenue and follow the signs for the George Washington Memorial Parkway northbound.
By Metro: To be determined, but not likely accessible.
The overlooks have small concrete parking areas. No food is available from the parkway; you will need to return to Rosslyn or DC to obtain food, and where you will also likely find the nearest rest rooms.
Keys: Rosslyn, Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Memorial.