Best time to go: 03/01 - 11/15
Whether you’re tracking seasonal migrations, working on your Big Year or just looking to add some color to a casual stroll, you can’t go wrong with these great birding spots in Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia. Before you go, though, don’t forget the essential equipment for every birding expedition: Binoculars, a Birding app on your phone (Cornell’s BirdNet and Merlin are excellent), a camera and tripod for taking stills, water and a snack.
Huntley Meadows Boardwalk
The ancestral home of the Mason family, Huntley Meadows is one of the area’s best wildlife sanctuaries to observe migrating waterfowl, and it is less than half an hour’s drive from most of the DC area. We visited during the October Big Day 2020 and earned 62 points! The observation tower above the boardwalk was where we had the most luck finding birds.
One of the most interesting parts of the park is where the Huntley Meadows Boardwalk Trail opens onto the marshland just beyond the visitor center. Bald Eagles and Ospreys receive the most attention, but the Friends of Huntley Meadows created this list of the birds to expand your horizons and track the likelihood of finding each based on the season. The more monomaniacal among us have also been known to print out the list to use as a scorecard on their birding adventures.
Huntley Meadows is open from 4a – 7p, 7 days a week. It opens before dawn because that is often the best time to view birds. The Huntley Meadows Mansion across the street, is only open for tours on Saturday morning, but you can walk the grounds anytime.
Potomac Heritage Trail
A river walk extends west of the city on both sides of the Potomac River. This is the storied Potomac Heritage Trail, which has 30 easy access points to the Potomac River within an hour’s drive of Washington, DC. Because the Potomac is a stopping off point for many birds on their way north in the Spring, you can’t go wrong with any of these spots, but three popular favorites are Great Falls National Park (on our list of the best DC hikes for kids), Fletcher’s Cove, and Roosevelt Island.
Along the Potomac, you’re likely to find sea birds like gulls and cormorants, many duck species (especially Mallards), Great Blue Herons (which often roost in pairs in the morning), swifts and swallows.
Dyke Marsh Wildlife Habitat
Naturalists and historians seem to disagree on whether DC was built on a swamp. When L’Enfant laid out the plan for Washington, DC, he complained that the land was “swampy” and so began the myth of Washington as a giant swamp in need of draining.  But DeToqueville would later write to his father that Washington was built on “an arid plain scorched by the sun.” 
So which is it? Swamp or arid plain? You can find the answer for yourself by touring one of the last pieces of the original landscape that predated the city. Just south of Old Town Alexandria is the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Habitat, nearly 500 acres of sodden land along the Potomac shore, among DC’s Best Hikes for Kids.
As one of the last freshwater tidal wetlands on the east coast, Dyke Marsh is an ideal place to catch a glimpse of migrating waterfowl. Begin in the lot just off the GW Parkway that leads to the small boat marina. From the marina, you can rent sailboats, canoes and paddleboards, which will allow you to explore parts of the marsh not accessible by foot, and also to escape the motorboats that otherwise plague this part of the Potomac but are not permitted in the marsh.
There is also an excellent 3/4 mile trail that leads out to a small promontory with sweeping views of the marsh and river. Along the way, you’ll find many examples of swamp fauna, as well as migratory birds who rest on the islands on their way to their vacation homes in Florida.
The trail also affords broad views of National Harbor, just across the river from the preserve. Paddleboards and sailboats race in the gentle currant of the Potomac as it opens out to the Chesapeake Bay.
When Jefferson drew an initial sketch of the city for L’Enfant’s study, he noted a swampy lowland river in front of the White House, which he fancifully named the Tiber. Where is the Tiber today? It still flows deep beneath the bustling traffic of Constitution Avenue.
The swamp (or marsh, if you prefer) is declining fast. Conservationists expect it to be completely gone by 2035, when it succumbs to the build-up of silt from the many construction projects of our growing city. Without a major conservation investment, it will likely share the fate of the mighty Tiber.
Kingman and Heritage Islands
This 50-acre, two island habitat in the middle of the Anacostia River is a best known for its annual Jazz Festival. Come at a quieter time to find more than 100 species of birds along the 1.5 mile river trail, including major birds of prey like Ospreys, Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons, and Egrets. Canoeing, Fishing and Biking are also all permitted in the park.
With its swamp walk and extensive riparian wildlife (including blue-tailed salamanders in late spring and summer) Jug Bay is the perfect spot to escape the city. Over time, birders have sighted and logged more than 250 distinct species, including Ospreys and Hummingbirds.
is another migrant trap. During spring and fall migration, look for warblers and thrushes, including Veeries that breed in the park. Directions: Take the D6 to the entrance of the park on Reservoir Road, near the French Embassy.
The National Arboretum
Migrating songbirds (especially thrushes) flock to the sweet nectar of the Azalea Gardens. Pine Warblers and Red-breasted Nuthatches can be found in the Pine Grove.
Rock Creek Park
We once lived in an apartment overlooking the park and were surprised to find how verdant the wildlife was in the upper canopy. Migrating warblers and songbirds are easiest to spot near the nature center.
Fort Dupont is an ideal spot for spotting wild turkeys in the winter.
Glover Archbold Park and McLean Gardens
A bit of a hidden gem known mostly by birders, Glover Archbold Park is maintained by the National Park Service as a year-round birding refuge. Warblers and Thrushes are easy to spot during the Spring and Fall migrations. Bikers are not allowed in the park or McLean Gardens (along the park’s western boundary), so your peeping is less likely to be disrupted by noise.
- Widmer, Ted. “Draining the Swamp.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 Jan. 2017. Accessed 5 Aug. 2020.
- De Tocqueville, Alexis Letters From America, edited and translated by Frederick Brown. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press. 2010.