District's 'bird Man' Documents City's Winged Creatures (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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District's 'Bird Man' Documents City's Winged Creatures

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
So the folks at the Smithsonian have made careers out of identifying birds of all types. The guy we'll meet next has made more of a hobby out of it. But it's a pretty hard-core hobby. Every day, just after dawn, Wallace Kornack leaves his home in Georgetown and heads to Rock Creek Park to document migrant birds. He's been taking these daily trips ever since he retired from his nuclear engineering job more than a decade ago. On a recent Saturday morning, Emily Berman tagged along with the unofficial president of D.C.'s birding community, and brings us this story.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

00:00:38
The list making begins around 6:30 in the morning.

MR. BILL BUTLER

00:00:40
At the bridge, I heard Great Crested Flycatcher, wood thrush, ovenbird.

BERMAN

00:00:48
This is Kornack's friend, Bill Butler, he arrived early today and in the ten minutes he's been waiting, there's been a lot of bird activity to report.

BUTLER

00:00:55
Titmouse, chickadee, pileated woodpecker.

BERMAN

00:01:00
While Kornack takes down these first few sightings, Butler explains that Wallace Kornack is the most hard-core birder in Washington, D.C. He has been out here nearly every day, rain or shine, for the past 13 years, ever since the day he retired.

BUTLER

00:01:15
And so we do this basically with Wallace being the center point, and the rest of us radiate out from him and tell him what it is we see or hear.

BERMAN

00:01:28
We walk down Ross Road, and into an open clearing called the Equitation Field. Then we begin to listen.

MR. WALLACE KORNACK

00:01:36
The other thing about this birding is you have to have exceedingly great patience. It's going to be quiet for quite a long while.

BERMAN

00:01:43
So we wait. And after a few minutes, figures emerge in the distance, they're wearing rain boots, hats, and large binoculars. The birders are arriving.

KORNACK

00:01:53
This is Chip Chipley, and...

BERMAN

00:01:56
Chipley lives in Fairfax, but comes here during the migration season, he says because even though it's in the middle of the city, you just can't beat Rock Creek Park.

MR. CHIP CHIPLEY

00:02:04
This park is better than anything in Virginia. You can see more different species here in a shorter amount of time.

BERMAN

00:02:12
Kornack walks around, saying hello to everyone and making sure he has their names. In his list, he likes to give credit to the birders who first spotted each bird.

KORNACK

00:02:21
I appreciate a good birder, I want to know who they are. They know me, I know them.

BERMAN

00:02:27
There's no published meeting time for the group, it grows mainly through word of mouth. During the week, there are just a handful of birders, but on the weekends, especially during the spring and fall, there can be quite a flock.

MS. LISA SHANNON

00:02:39
This can be quite a scene. Sometimes there'll be 50 people here.

BERMAN

00:02:42
Lisa Shannon comes here every week. She got into birding in her 30s, and likes joining Kornack to learn from more advanced birders. Though, she jokes, a lifetime of birding can make someone so accurate, it's ridiculous.

SHANNON

00:02:54
I mean, these people who started when they were 10 or something are amazing. They say, oh, that chip note up there is obviously a female scarlet tanager that just came here from Mexico. I can smell the tacos on her breath.

BERMAN

00:03:07
Taco breath aside, the warblers everyone's looking for really are making their way up from Mexico. They're here in D.C. for just three or four weeks, as they head north toward Canada. But after an hour of looking, and very few warblers, Kornack migrates to his second location, the maintenance yard.

BERMAN

00:03:28
The group walks down a path to a place that looks like it should be off limits. There are heaps of sand and dirt, old fences and bulldozers. Wallace Kornack spots someone in the distance. It's Matthew Sileo, a grad student at the University of Maryland.

KORNACK

00:03:41
Matt, how is everything?

BERMAN

00:03:42
Matt's carrying a camera the size of a NASA telescope. He's been up here taking photos of birds all morning, and has seen a lot.

MR. MATTHEW SILEO

00:03:50
Two black throated greens, one yellow warbler, maybe 10 yellow rumps.

BERMAN

00:03:56
Kornack adds these to his list, which, as soon as he gets home, he types up and sends to an online database called eBird. It's run by Cornell University, and because birders use it all over the world to look at migration patterns, Kornack's pretty careful about which observations make the cut.

KORNACK

00:04:13
Sometimes I report it, sometimes I don't, depending on the credibility of the birder, the experience of the birder, I use my judgment, But most of these people right here are very experienced birders.

BERMAN

00:04:25
Paul Pisano joins Kornack on the weekends, and also happens to be the peer reviewer for the eBird entries from D.C.

MR. PAUL PISANO

00:04:33
For him to take the time every day to be out here and capture what's being seen, and then take the time to put it into the system, I think that's really an incredible quality.

BERMAN

00:04:43
The group is now leaning against a fence, chatting and pointing their binoculars up into the trees for any final identifications. Today was not a big day, Kornack says, but still, there are dozens of birds on the list.

KORNACK

00:04:56
There are disappointing days, a lot of those, but there are very exciting days, and that's what brings you out every time, it's the unexpected appearing before your eyes.

BERMAN

00:05:07
And that might happen today, or it might happen tomorrow. Maybe sometime next week. But no matter when it happens, Wallace Kornack will be there to jot it down. I'm Emily Berman.

SHEIR

00:05:58
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jacob Fenston, Emily Berman, Jonathan Wilson and Bryan Russo along with producer Phil Harrell. WAMU's managing editor of news is Meymo Lyons. "Metro Connection's" managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our brand new intern is Eva Harder. Welcome aboard, Eva. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.

SHEIR

00:06:24
Our theme song, ''Every Little Bit Hurts" is from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. All the music we use is listed on our website, metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song.

SHEIR

00:06:38
Also on metroconnection.org, you can read free transcripts of stories and if you missed part of today's show, you can hear the whole thing online anytime. You can also find us on iTunes, Stitcher and the NPR news app.

SHEIR

00:06:52
We hope you can join us next week when we'll search for the root of all happiness. We'll delve into the latest research on what brings us bliss, we'll cook the cuisine of the world's happiest nation, in our Eating in the Embassy series, and we'll meet people who find great joy in making the bells chime at D.C.'s National Cathedral.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN

00:07:09
I'm just a ringer, I'm a ding-a-ling, I'm a bell person.

SHEIR

00:07:13
I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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