Rock Creek Park
5200 Glover Road NW, Washington, DC 20015
[This entry covers the main section of Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. For the adjoining park in Montgomery County, MD, see Rock Creek Regional Park – Meadowside Nature Center & Lake Frank and Rock Creek Regional Park – Lake Needwood.]
Rock Creek Park is a large urban park bisecting the Northwest quadrant of Washington, DC. With 1,748 acres, the main section of Rock Creek Park is the largest forested area in DC and is one of the largest urban parks in the nation. If you look at a satellite map of DC, the park clearly stands out as a swath of intense green running through the heart of DC, in contrast to the grid of city streets surrounding it. Rock Creek Park forms a major migration route of birds through the urban desert of Washington, and thus has become famous as a site to view warblers and other migrants in both fall and spring. Rock Creek Park is administered by the National Park Service and has many disjunct subsections; the main (and largest) section of the park is long and narrow, running from the MD/DC line on the north end, between Oregon Avenue and 16th Street, through the National Zoological Park, almost to the Potomac River on the south end. The park is about 4.3 miles long and 1.4 miles wide at its widest point, but there are some narrow sections that are barely a block wide.
The shape of Rock Creek Park contributes to its function as a migrant trap for birds heading north or south: the band of vegetation serves to concentrate birds in a relatively narrow area. Claudia Wilds, the author of Finding Bird in the National Capital Area (1992), called it the best migrant warbler trap in the area. In fall of 1998, a bird survey conducted for 27 days by two observers recorded over 10,000 individuals of over 60 neotropical migrant species passing along the West Ridge within the park. Over 180 species, including all the northeastern breeding warblers, flycatchers, vireos, and thrushes, have been reported here, including several species rare in the region.
Rock Creek Park is the most intensively birded area in DC. Although East Potomac Park – Hains Point is the #1 eBird hotspot in DC in terms of the number of species reported, Rock Creek Park far exceeds Hains Point in terms of the number of checklists submitted: in spring of 2020, there were over 9,000 checklists submitted for the Rock Creek Park collection of hotspots, more than double the 4,000 checklists at Hains Point. The place is thick with birders almost any day of the year.
The area of greatest interest to birders is the West Ridge, from Military Road south to Broad Branch Road, encompassing Military Field, the Nature Center, Maintenance Yard, Horse Center, and a number of adjacent picnic areas. This area is considered the most important for migrating land birds in the District of Columbia and more details are given below. Primary access to the West Ridge vicinity is along Glover and Ross Roads, which are generally free of the commuter traffic which plagues Beach Drive. Be aware, however, that during weekends Beach Drive is closed to vehicular traffic (see Hours at left) and that at times traffic can be heavier on Glover Road. When crossing the roads or walking the roadsides on foot , caution should always be used, as cars and bicycles may appear quickly, so bird from the grassy areas. Park in established lots or in one of the many picnic areas (see Parking below).
Timing. As noted above, the West Ridge area is best during migration, that is, in spring from mid-April to the end of May, and in fall from mid-August to mid-October. Visit early in the morning when migrants are concentrated along the high, forested ridge. Later in the day, the birds disperse to rest and feed in the surrounding forest and lower areas of the park, and can be harder to locate. The park can also be productive in the summer months. Winter birding is much slower. In general, migration birding is best on the days immediately following a front — a warm front in spring and a cool front in autumn. When early morning fog or rain follows an otherwise good night for migration, impressive classic fallouts can occur, when, as Claudia Wilds wrote, the trees are dripping warblers. On April 30, 1995, in such conditions, over 1,000 warblers of 15 species, including Golden-winged, were estimated in the trees from the Nature Center south to picnic areas #17 and #18! Even on slow days, a birder may be able to locate migrants off-passage; one hot day in late August 1998, only five individual warblers were seen, but one was a Connecticut and another a Golden-winged.
Specific locations. There are several areas to explore. The best sites are the trails behind the Nature/Visitor Center, the Horse Center/Stables and Maintenance Yard areas, and the “ridge,” otherwise known as picnic areas #17 and #18. The equestrian corral area by picnic area #25 and #26 can also be productive. Military Field, at the junction of Glover and Military Roads, is being restored as meadow habitat, and is especially good in fall when vegetation is thick. There is a mowed path running between the trees and the field edge which is worth careful attention.
Birders in the know start at dawn on the West Ridge, usually at picnic areas #17 and #18, although the area directly around the Nature Center parking lot can also prove exciting. Action can sometimes be hot and heavy, with scores or sometimes even hundreds of birds moving through the trees, which are just catching the rising sun. Usually by mid-morning, this first activity slows as birds begin to disperse to feed. Birders themselves disperse to other areas, looking and listening for feeding flocks. The blacktop path north of the Nature Center crosses a small meadow with a little pool which attracts migrants. It is wheelchair-accessible and there are also benches from which you can peer into the treetops in relative comfort. The Woodlands Trail behind the Nature Center is also worth exploring for feeding warbler flocks, and is especially good for migrating thrushes in mid-May. On hot days, the drip/birdbath directly behind the Nature Center attracts bathing birds of many species.
The edge habitat around the stable, the indoor riding ring, and the horse paddocks should also be investigated. From the Horse Center, follow the bridle trail which runs from the stable east along the fenced Maintenance Yard, cutting in by an obvious path into the open area beyond the fence. The stone blocks, columns and carved panels you see stacked here are from the original west front of the Capitol Building! The vegetated area, runoff pools, and secondary growth around the clearing form one of the best traps for migrants, especially in the autumn, and a number of rarities have been seen here.
The bridle trail continues down to Rock Creek, where Louisiana Waterthrush sometimes breeds. The woods edge near the equestrian corral by picnic sites #25 and #26 should also be investigated. This lower clearing often proves better for migrants than picnic sites #17 and #18 on windy days. In autumn, fruiting chokecherries are attractive to a wide range of species.
Other areas to check include: the bushes and areas along the Broad Branch creek west of the ridge; the thicket around the Art Barn by Pierce Mill; the Melvin Hazen Park area; the snags around Klingle House, the area around the barn, the woods and meadows around Klingle House. You can further explore the park via trails that lead north to Pierce Mill up a shaded ravine or west to Connecticut Avenue.
In total, over 180 species have been reported on eBird from Rock Creek Park. A large number of eBird hotspots have been established for Rock Creek Park. See also the official, printer-friendly checklist for Rock Creek Park published by the National Park Service, available at https://www.nps.gov/rocr/learn/nature/upload/birdchecklist.pdf, but be aware that the species names in this list do not conform to the most recent taxonomy (e.g., Blue-headed Vireo is listed by its older name of Solitary Vireo). For a more up-to-date list, see https://irma.nps.gov/NPSpecies/Reports/SpeciesList/Species%20Checklist/ROCR/2/true but be aware that this latter list is not ideally formatted for printing.
The following eBird hotspots cover locations mentioned in the description above. Species numbers are as of spring 2020; the total numbers at each spot are always growing — hence the plus signs.
Unusual species which are seen virtually every year in Rock Creek include Red-headed Woodpecker; Yellow-bellied and Olive-sided Flycatchers; Black-billed Cuckoo; Philadelphia Vireo; and Gray-cheeked Thrush. Rarities that have been recorded include Whip-poor-will; Clay-colored and Lark Sparrows; Lawrence’s Warbler; Evening Grosbeak; and Red Crossbill.
Migration: Rock Creek is most exciting in spring from about mid-April to the end of May, and in autumn from mid-August to mid-October. Migrating hawks and nighthawks can often be seen flying over, although the view can be somewhat limited by trees. Sometimes loons, geese, cormorants, and swans are also tallied as flyovers. The most common neotropical migrants include Red-eyed Vireo; Swainson’s Thrush; Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Black-and-White, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Bay-breasted and Canada Warblers; Northern Parula; American Redstart; Common Yellowthroat; Rose-breasted Grosbeak; and Scarlet Tanager. Twenty-plus species of warbler can be recorded on good days in both migration seasons. Trees and shrubs along the ridge are best for spring and fall migrant warblers, vireos and flycatchers, while thrushes seem to favor the wooded areas with good leaf litter and relatively sparse undergrowth. Field areas are generally most productive in autumn, when vegetation is mature and when fruiting Devil’s Walking Stick, Porcelain-berry and Chokecherry attract a surprising variety of migrants. Any overgrown lawn or roadside, as well as the larger fields at Military Road and the Maintenance Yard, should be checked for the abundant migrant sparrows, which can include Lincoln’s. Orange-crowned, Mourning and Connecticut (autumn only) Warblers can also be found in these habitats.
Check for migrants later in the day in areas described above, including areas along Broad Branch. The Art Barn by Pierce Mill may have woodcock. In Melvin Hazen Park, look for migrants. Olive-sided Flycatcher is sometimes seen near Klingle House. Also around the house, you may find Alder Flycatchers or Mourning and Connecticut Warblers. The trail north from Pierce Mill is good for Black-throated Blue Warblers. Patches of giant ragweed should be checked especially thoroughly in fall for Connecticut and Mourning Warblers, Lincoln’s Sparrow and other goodies. Unfortunately, over the years, some of the best patches have become overgrown and sightings of Connecticut Warblers have diminished accordingly, although they are still reported annually. In the early 90s, 4 to 6 were reported each fall. However, both Connecticut and Mourning Warblers are still seen every year, the best locations being the Maintenance Yard and Military Field.
More about warblers: Although all the northeastern species have been reported, warblers more associated with riparian bottomlands, such as Yellow-throated or Prothonotary, are very rarely seen. Most abundant are the edge and forest species noted earlier. Birders visiting Rock Creek Park have often reported spectacular waves of warbler flights. On May 15, 1998, a birder reported Blackburnian, Brewster’s, Black-throated Blue, Ovenbird, Black-throated Green, Magnolia, Canada, American Redstart, Black-and-White, and Northern Parula Warblers. Similarly, on April 28, 1999, a typical spring day, the following warbler species were observed: Golden-winged, Cerulean, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Ovenbird, Hooded, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow, Palm, Worm-eating, Black-and-White, Nashville, and Louisiana Waterthrush.
Fall migration will sometimes produce results that are just as rich in warbler sightings. One year on August 16th, Blackburnian, Canada, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-White, Northern Parula, American Redstart, Worm-eating, and Yellow Warblers were sighted. Three days later: Black-and-White, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Ovenbird, Blue-winged, Redstart, Yellow, Tennessee, and Worm-eating were sighted. Warbler migration continued through September of that year, with 18 species seen on September 18, and 25 species seen during that week. Then from October 12-15, Orange-crowned, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Blackpoll were reported. The best time to catch the fall migration action is after a cold front.
Summer: Red-shouldered and Broad-winged Hawks, Barred and Great Horned Owls nest in small numbers. Pileated Woodpeckers are fairly common. Eastern Screech-Owls nest along the streams, but you are not likely to see them during the day, and the park is closed at night. Sometimes, though, you can be lucky and hear them around dawn or dusk. Songbirds that may nest include Acadian Flycatcher, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Wood Thrush, Veery, Ovenbird, Scarlet Tanager, and Louisiana Waterthrush. Check the trail down to Rock Creek from the Equestrian Corral for the waterthrushes. Sometimes Brown Creeper and Hooded, Kentucky, Worm-eating, and Cerulean Warblers can be found. Look for Wood Duck and Belted Kingfisher along the creek by Broad Branch. In the Melvin Hazen Park area, Broad-winged Hawks sometimes nest in the woods near Klingle House and House Wrens may nest around the barn. Look for resident Veeries on the trail north from the Pierce Mill parking lot.
Winter: Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadee, and kinglets are prominent. Accipiters overwinter and there may be Red-breasted Nuthatches and warblers such as Pine or Yellow-rumped in the pine trees. During irruption years, there may be Evening Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls at the Nature Center’s feeding station. Also during an irruption year, look for passing Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, and Evening Grosbeaks at the Ridge or at the Maintenance Yard. The Equestrian Corral area can produce many of the same species
Paved parking lot at the Nature Center; there are two fair-size lots around a circle with one-way traffic. There is also parking at the picnic groves. See Directions below.
The Nature Center is wheelchair-accessible, including the restrooms, the planetarium, exhibit hall, and auditorium. The first floor of the Old Stone House, the exercise course at 16th and Kennedy streets, the Carter Barron Amphitheater and Picnic Groves #1, #6, #23, and #24 are wheelchair-accessible. A one-half mile self-guiding interpretive trail, the Woodland Trail, begins behind the Nature Center, while a one-fourth mile wheelchair-accessible Edge of the Woods trail begins right out the front door. ◾ The Rock Creek Park Nature Center serves as the park’s visitor center and offers hiking information, brochures and maps, a bookstore, exhibits on area plants and animals, and has the only planetarium in the National Park Service. Many of the park’s ranger-led programs start or take place at the Nature Center. The facility includes a children’s Discovery Room offering environmental education books and games and a “Discover Rock Creek” bilingual (Spanish and English) exhibit geared for middle school audiences. The Nature Center also includes live animals, a bird observation deck, and “water-wise” garden. ◾ Rock Creek Park provides a full-range of organized programs and activities, as well as opportunities for hiking, bicycling, picnicking, tennis, golf, paddling (canoe & kayak rentals available), and horseback riding, and also has a planetarium, amphitheatre offering a summer concert series, ballfields and playgrounds, and many historical features. See https://www.nps.gov/rocr/planyourvisit/things2do.htm. ◾ The National Park Service provides a downloadable self-guided walking tour of a historic black community near the park. ◾ The Piney Branch area of Rock Creek Park is undergoing a special habitat restoration effort to benefit songbirds, under the leadership of the Rock Creek Conservancy, which assists the National Park Service with stewardship of the park. ◾ There are no MOS chapters in DC, but Montgomery Bird Club & Patuxent Bird Club are in the neighboring suburbs. Two organizations, the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Audubon Society of DC, hold field trips to birding spots in the District and the Greater Metropolitan DC region.
The National Park Service provides a cell phone tour of the park with a printable tour map.
There are several entry points to the park. Check National Park Service website for instructions to each Rock Creek Park entry point.
Getting to and around the park by car:
- Take Connecticut Avenue, NW northbound to Military Road NW. Turn right onto Military Road and proceed to Glover Road on the right (The street to the left is named Oregon Avenue). Turn right on Glover and follow the signs to the Nature Center, officially at 5200 Glover Road.
- Alternatively, you can also reach the park by traveling north on 16th Street NW until you reach Military Road, where you will turn left. Again, follow the signs to the Nature Center.
Inside the park:
- When you are done birding around the Nature Center, return to your car. As you leave the parking lot proceed to the stop sign by the main road and turn left to go south. Notice the picnic areas along the road. Each has a number. Don’t attempt to bird these areas from your car; speeding cars abound. Park at a picnic area and walk.
- Park first in picnic areas #17 or #18. This site is just before Ross Drive.
- Proceed to picnic areas #25 and #26 near the equestrian corral. This site is just after Ross Drive.
- Return to Ridge Road and continue south. Turn left on Broad Branch Road and and an immediate right into the parking lot. Visit the creek and walk down the bicycle path to Pierce Mill. This area becomes extremely congested in the mid-morning on weekends and you may find it impossible to park.
- To reach Melvin Hazen Park, leave the Broad Branch Road lot and turn right, then right again onto Beach Drive. Follow Beach Drive south until you reach Porter Street. Make another right on Porter and a final right onto Williamsburg Lane. This is a steep hill which turns to gravel. You can park in the dirt lot at the top.
- These are the most popular routes. However, there are many more areas to explore. Search out the wider areas of the park north of Military Road where there are large blocks of forest where you can look for breeding species.
By Metro and Bus:
The Friendship Heights (Red Line) or Fort Totten (Green Line and Red Line) Metro Stations are the closest to the Nature Center. From either station, take the E-4 bus to the Nature Center.
- If taking the bus from the Friendship Heights Metro Station, you will get off of the bus at the Military & Glover stop. Once off of the bus, look to your left and follow the trail up the small hill to the Nature Center.
- If taking the bus from the Fort Totten Metro Station, you will get off of the bus at the Military & Oregon stop. Once off of the bus, look to your left and follow the trail up the small hill to the Nature Center.
Then follow directions within the park as above. You could take a bike on the Metro and bus and use your bike inside the park.
Washington, DC: Anacostia Park, Battery Kemble Park, C&O Canal – Fletcher’s Cove and Boathouse, Constitution Gardens, Dumbarton Oaks Park, East Potomac Park (Hains Point) and the Tidal Basin, Georgetown Reservoir & Palisades Trolley Trail, Glover-Archbold Park, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, National Arboretum, National Zoo, Theodore Roosevelt Island
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