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

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Avid birder Wallace Kornack in Rock Creek Park.
Emily Berman
Avid birder Wallace Kornack in Rock Creek Park.

Every morning, Wallace Kornack leaves his Georgetown home just after dawn, and drives north into Rock Creek Park. Ever since he retired from his job as a nuclear engineer, he's taken his passion for science in a new direction. Up.

Kornack is, in the words of his friend Bill Butler, "the most hard-core birder in Washington, D.C." He has been in the park nearly every day, rain or shine, for the past 13 years. Other birders come out frequently, but no one as much as Kornack; he's the unofficial president of D.C.'s birding scene.

"The thing about birding, is you have to have exceedingly great patience," Kornack says, "It's going to be quiet for quite a long while. It's not very stimulating, but it's what we do."

Kornack walks around, saying hello to everyone and making sure he has his or her names. He keeps a list every morning of which birds were seen, and who saw them. "I appreciate a good birder, I want to know who they are, and I'll write their names down. They know me, I know them."

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 as many as 50 people.

Many of those people come to look for a fairly small and vocal perching bird known as warbler. The warblers are making their way up from Mexico and heading toward Canada. They're here for just three or four weeks.

In the distance, Kornack spots Matthew Sileo, a 30-year-old University of Maryland graduate student. Kornack pulls out his pen to add Matthew's sightings to his list. "Two black throated greens... one yellow warbler... 10 yellow rumps... 3 red eyed Verios."

Kornack adds these to his list, which, as soon as he gets home, he types up and sends to an online database called e-bird. 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.

"Depends on the credibility of the birder, and most of the people here are very experienced birders," he says.

After two hours of birding, the group is now leaning against a fence, chatting and pointing their binoculars up into the trees for any final identification. Today was not a big day, Kornack says, but still there are dozens of birds on the list.

"There are disappointing days, but there are very exciting times, too. That's what brings you out every time... the unexpected appearing before your eyes."

[Music: "Little Birdie" by Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys from Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys 1971-1973 / "It Might As Well Be Spring" by Brad Mehldau from Introducing Brad Mehldau]

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