The Connecticut Avenue Bridge, also known as the Klingle Valley Bridge in upper Northwest Washington, served as a gateway to another world during the spring of 2020 – a world of soaring raptors, fledging hatchlings and the ongoing saga of a beloved hawk family.
In March of last year, two adult red-shouldered hawks, a male and a female, built a nest eye level to the Klingle Valley Bridge on the south side of the bridge next to the Kennedy-Warren Building, giving the public a rare and intimate look into the lives of a hawk family. (Hawks usually build their nests about three quarters of the way up a tree obscuring the view.)
During the early and late spring months of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic tightened its grip on the nation’s capital, small but diverse crowds gathered daily on the bridge’s south side, putting their troubles aside for a while as they watched – and in some cases documented – the activities of the hawks.
“When you think about March, April and May, those were very trying times for everybody,” said Cleveland Park resident Jennifer Packard, a renowned photographer who spoke during a Tuesday Talk webinar on Feb. 23. “We had a national pandemic going on. Black Lives Matter. A lot of important issues happening as well as the lead up to the election. So these were uncertain times.”
The hawk family, Packard said, gave people an opportunity “to pause and really reflect on nature — to see it before their eyes.”
“People would take a break from their zoom calls during their lunch and so forth and go outside when it was nice and watch these hawks,” said Packard, author of the highly-acclaimed book Enraptured by Raptors, The story of a hawk family that captured the heart of a community. “For a period of time, it felt like time was suspended on that bridge.”
Even the Swiss ambassador to the United States, a fine photographer in his own right, showed up on the bridge on a regular basis to take pictures of the hawks with his long-lens camera. Though the crowds were diverse, they shared a love of nature and the hawks, which became an enduring and unifying theme.
During the Feb. 23 Tuesday Talk, Packard described in rich and vivid detail her relentless efforts to capture the lives of the hawks. In her pursuit, she took arresting and spectacular photographs, which she showed to dramatic effect during the Tuesday Talk webinar.
Her efforts led to the book, Enraptured by Raptors, which encapsulates the daily lives of the hawks in words and pictures. (The book is on sale on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble and other book stores, including Politics and Prose and Cleveland Park’s own Transcendence-Perfection-Bliss of The Beyond. It had sold nearly 900 copies at the time of this writing. All proceeds from the book will be donated to the Owl Moon Raptor Center in Boyds, Maryland.)
Author Amy Henderson, historian emerita at the National Portrait Gallery, moderated and guided the talk, engaging Packard in discussion and asking her questions. Henderson and Packard lived in the same neighborhood for years, but they met for the first time on the bridge last spring while Packard was taking pictures of the raptors.
Henderson lives in the Kennedy-Warren Building, and like many of her neighbors, Henderson came out regularly to watch the hawks, making it possible for her to share her observations and insights.
“One of my favorite stories is the L-2 bus coming up Connecticut Avenue and stopping briefly on Connecticut Avenue so people could see the nest,” said Henderson, who wrote the forward for the book, Enraptured by Raptors.
Meeting the Hawks
Packard first noticed the hawk’s nest on a pleasant March day in 2020 while walking across the Klingle Valley Bridge. The nest was empty at the time, but Packard, a devoted naturalist, suspected the nest belonged to hawks.
She returned the next day with a camera in tow, and though the nest was still empty, there were two hawks nearby, confirming Packard’s suspicions. Packard was able to differentiate between the male and female red-shouldered hawks because the males are more slender than the females, who usually stay in the nest protecting the hatchlings while the males hunt for food.
Packard quickly named the male Walt in honor of her father, a devoted bird watcher and admirer who kept countless birds alive by feeding them during the harsh, snowy winters in upstate New York. She named the female Libby after one of her best friend’s mom, who raised three hatchlings.
Walt and Libby soon occupied the nest, drawing rapt crowds to the Klingle Valley Bridge. Klingle Valley served as an ideal environment for the carnivorous hawks, providing ample sources of water, foliage and food, including frogs, squirrels and small birds, said Packard, the official photographer for the Tregaron Conservancy in Northwest Washington.
Several weeks after Walt and Libby settled into the nest, two hatchlings appeared, much to the delight of the spectators on the bridge. Packard saw the hatchlings for the first time on April 10, naming one Covid after the times we are living in, and the other Cleveland after President Grover Cleveland, the namesake of Cleveland Park.
Later that day, a third hatchling suddenly materialized, adding to the excitement.
“We saw the third appear while we were standing on the bridge,” remembered Packard. “We got so excited.”
A woman came walking along the bridge at that moment, and she stopped, asking what all the excitement was about. Packard and others pointed to the nest, saying a third hatchling had just arrived.
The woman, like other members of the crowd, was ecstatic.
“She had never seen a hawk before let alone a hatchling,” said Packard, who specializes in taking photos of nature, architecture, interiors and portraiture.
Packard asked the woman her name, and when the woman said Dorothy, Packard named the third and last hatchling, Dorothy.
Packard acknowledged that she did not know the gender of the hatchlings, requiring her to guess when naming the baby birds. As she explained, “you can’t really tell for the first two years what the gender is.”
Dorothy, the smallest and scrawniest, soon became everyone’s favorite.
“She was a feisty bird, and when the food would come, the bigger chicks would try and grab the food, but Dorothy was right there,” recalled Henderson. “Dorothy was a fighter and a survivor and so she became our favorite.”
Dorothy’s picture graces the front cover of Enraptured by Raptors.
Everything, it seemed, was going well for the hawk family as the spring days grew longer and warmer. Then one day, a neighbor of Henderson’s at the Kennedy-Warren, came to her with some distressing news, telling her a big bird was caught in a tree behind the apartment complex on the property of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, which borders the Kennedy-Warren.
Walt was the bird caught in the tree, one of his wings snagged by a fishing line. Henderson called one of her neighbors who works at the zoo for help, and before long 10 people were standing underneath the tree, some on the Kennedy-Warren side of the tree, others on the zoo side, trying to figure out how to free Walt.
A bird curator at the zoo called the Owl Moon Raptor Center, which contacted Bartlett Tree Experts, and Bartlett dispatched a tree expert who climbed one of the trees and freed Walt, putting him in a leather satchel for transport to the raptor center. This happened on a Friday afternoon, but by Sunday evening, Walt was released back into Klingle Valley Park, and he immediately flew back to the nest, resuming his responsibilities.
As it turned out, Walt wasn’t really hurt. During Walt’s absence, Libby had to protect and fed the three hatchlings, and she spent that entire weekend yelling for Walt, calling to him with a desperate “kee-yeeear.”
“Had Walt not been able to recover and return, there was a great possibility that the hatchlings would not have been able to survive,” said Packard. “It really takes two (parents) at these early stages when the hatchlings are so young.”
Washington Post columnist John Kelly wrote a column about the rescue and return of Walt.
“Even the Washington Post was interested in the hawks,” Henderson said proudly.
Putting a Book Together
Packard started a blog about the hawks last spring, uploading her field notes and pictures and thus turning the blog into a popular on-line site. Henderson, who has written numerous books and articles, knew Packard’s pictures and field notes would make a wonderful book. She urged Packard to put together a book about the hawk family.
Packard followed the advice, starting the book in May and publishing it last fall.
When chronicling the lives of the Hawks, Packard learned everything she could about the raptors, enabling her to capture the hawks at critical moments with her camera.
In one picture, Walt is flying into the nest with a frog in his talons to feed his family. In another, Libby is sopping wet from protecting her hatchlings from a drenching rainstorm.
One endearing shot shows Walt and Dorothy with their heads pressed together, father and child sharing a moment.
“The greatest piece of advice I can give anyone is to become a naturalist as much as possible,” said Packard. “Learn about what you are photographing. When I started photographing the hawks, I read everything I could about them to learn when they were going to hatch and what they hunted.”
She also advised webinar viewers to “keep the sun at your back,” when taking pictures.
Leaving the Nest
Some of Packard’s most dramatic photos involved the fledging of the three hatchlings, which typically fledge 35 to 45 days after hatching. Covid was the first to fledge on May 26, followed by Cleveland and finally Dorothy on June 2.
Packard, speaking for herself and others on the bridge, said, “We wished Dorothy could have stayed in the nest forever because it was just so fun to see her in there.”
“But eventually everyone has to fly the coop,” she added.
Before leaving the nest, the hatchlings walked out on a nearby branch, known as the runway branch, and started hopping up and down while spreading and flapping their wings. They then took flight, making a few practice runs. When Dorothy first flew, she made a perfect landing on a nearby tree, prompting cheers from the crowd below.
Although the hawks have long since left the nest, they are still in the area, soaring above Klingle Park and circling the Kennedy-Warren, said Packard.
“Look up, they are around,” Packard said.
Hawks don’t start breeding until they are two years old, meaning Covid, Cleveland and Dorothy will not start their own families for another year. But Walt and Libby could return to the old nest to start a new family this spring especially since the nest is still intact, Packard said.“It is quite common for them to use the same nest year after year if it worked out well the prior year,” said Packard. “They will add to it and make it stronger if they choose to come back to that one. We are crossing our fingers, hoping they come back to the nest.”