A Farewell or My Swan Song

Spotted on the Hill

Author Peter Vankevich

All things must pass.  Back in March 0f 2006, I wrote a modest article for the Hill Rag. It consisted of a photograph of a Northern Mockingbird I had taken on Capitol Hill and a long paragraph about it.  In that paragraph I included a bit of its natural history, i.e. a description,  distribution range but also the fact that it was the official state bird for Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas and gained cultural prominence from  the 1960 Southern Gothic novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Encouraged by my editor, Andrew Lightman I continued the column the following month with a photo of a small flock of Cedar Waxwings perched in a cedar tree in Congressional Cemetery and  again with an American Robin for the May issue.  At that point I decided to upgrade my modest zoom digital camera for something better and so began in earnest the Spotted on the Hill column.

Over this period I have featured about 65 species of birds. I set a personal rule that the bird presented would be one that I had photographed in the Capitol Hill area which my parameters included the Anacostia River in the east and south to that wonderful little wetlands area of the Smithsonian's National  Museum of the American Indian. Writing a column like this brought me out and about in the early weekend mornings. My hotspots have included the Historical Congressional Cemetery, RFK Stadium/Kingman Island, the Capitol grounds and its reflection pool, the Botanical Gardens as well as routine jaunts to Eastern Market and other places with my camera. The Capitol Hill area, I was pleased to learn from my outings, contained a sufficient amount of varied habitats to host a variety of species to write a monthly column that could last several years. 

In my writings here, I have tried to provide interesting and whenever possible little known information about a bird species and any cultural and historical references especially regarding local observations. We are very fortunate to have the Library of Congress in our neighborhood which provides incredible online and hard copy resources.  Another valuable resource is the National Audubon Society which maintains a database for all of the Christmas Birds Counts and I used it extensively to look for trends that could be of interest. The DC count is one of the oldest with the first one taking place in 1912.

Speaking of the Library of Congress, there was even a time when a Capitol Hill bird made national news when a Cooper’s Hawk found its way into its venerable Main Reading Room and eluded capture for two weeks.

So why am I ending the column? In the “all things must pass” reality, after 30-plus career years, last November I left my job at the Library of Congress and moved to Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. After a year of living off the Hill, I am running out of decent photographs for new species.

Regarding Ocracoke, it is truly a special place and I had long planned on moving there to pursue full-time writing. In one of life’s little surprises, the public librarian position became available and perhaps in the spirit of downsizing I accepted it thus going from the world’s largest library to what was once categorized as the smallest library in the country.  It is, in fact, a tough place to write –too many distractions.  In addition to librarianship, I host a radio show called Theme Tunes on Ocracoke’s Village Voice (90.1 FM and WOVV.org) that you can hear online on Tuesdays 8:00-10:00 PM, serve as a support volunteer fireman, lead a weekly bird walk, am active on the planning committee for the Ocrafolk Music Festival that takes place every June and not surprising, writing a nature column for the Ocracoke Observer.

In addition to Andrew Lightman, I want to thank the Hill Rag’s Executive Editor Melissa Ashabranner for providing me the opportunity to write this column which was a fun opportunity to learn more about the birds in our daily lives.  I also want to pass on my best regards to the many interesting people I have met from writing this column and many more whom I have corresponded with over the years. Living away for a year, I appreciate how Capitol Hill is a very special place to live.

Of course, you can continue to send bird questions and observation and if and when you find yourself heading to Ocracoke and are up for some birding, please contact me and hopefully we can get together.  Ocracoke is particularly pleasant in the fall and spring and if you are seeking some solitude come down and walk the winter beach. You’ll find yourself alone amidst the Sanderlings on the beach and the dolphins off the breakers.   petevankevich@gmail.com


If you are interested in knowing what birds can be spotted on the Hill, here is the list and the date that they appeared in the Hill Rag.

American Goldfinch (Aug 2008)

American Robin (May 2006)

Bald Eagle (July 2007)

Barn Swallow (Sept 2007)

Blackburnian Warbler (May 2011)

Black-crowned Night Heron (Aug 2011)

Black-headed Gull (Nov 2009)

Blue Jay (Feb 2010)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (June 2008)

Brown Creeper (Feb 2011)

Brown Thrasher (May 2008)

Brown-headed Cowbird (April 2010)

Canada Goose (Nov 2007)

CarolinaChickadee (Dec 2009)

CarolinaWren (Oct 2009)

Caspian Tern (Sept 2010)

Cedar Waxwing (April 2006)

Chipping Sparrow (Aug 2007)

Common Grackle (April 2008)

Common Merganser (April 2007)

Cooper's Hawk (March 2009)

Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco (Feb 2007)

Double-crested Cormorant (Nov 2008)

Downy Woodpecker (March 2012)

Eastern Kingbird (Aug 2010)

Eastern Phoebe (May 2007)

Eastern Towhee (Jul 2010)

European Starling (Nov 2006)

Fish Crow (July 2009)

Forster's Tern (Sept 2009)

Golden-crowned Kinglet (Dec 2006)

Gray Catbird (July 2006)

Great Black-backed Gull (Feb 2009)

Great Blue Heron (Dec 2007)

Great Egret (Oct 2006)

Green Heron (May 2010)

Hooded Merganser (Jan 2010)

House Finch (March 2008)

House Sparrow (Nov 2012)

House Wren (July 2012)

Killdeer (Aug 2006)

Laughing Gull (Sept 2006)

Least Sandpiper (Aug 2008)

Magnolia Warbler (Oct 2007)

Mallard (Jan 2011)

Mourning Dove (Jan 2009)

Northern Cardinal (Sept 2009)

Northern Mockingbird (March 2006)

Osprey (July 2008)

Peregrine Falcon (March 2007)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Dec 2010)

Red-tailed Hawk (June 2009)

Red-winged Blackbird (April 2009)

Ring-billed Gull (Jan 2007)

Rock Pigeon (Jan 2008)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Dec 2008)

Song Sparrow (Sep 2012)

Spotted Sandpiper (June 2007)

Turkey Vulture (Nov 2010)

White-crowned Sparrow (April 2012)

White-throated Sparrow (Oct 2008)

Wood Duck (Oct 2010)

Yellow Warbler (May 2009)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Feb 2007)

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler (June 2006)


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