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A FRIEND LIVES IN ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, not far from Mass. Ave., in a house on a hill, with large oaks and hemlocks in the backyard and shrubs in the front yard. His neighborhood attracts songbirds and gray squirrels, including a few albinos. The birds and squirrels support a family of red-tailed hawks that sling their voices down a canyon of houses reminiscent of a Hollywood movie set.
One morning last summer, a red-tail flew past Joe’s porch, a struggling crow in its talons. And an adult hawk was once spotted eviscerating a squirrel on the top of a telephone pole across the street. On a nearby rooftop, hungry fledglings stained the shingles like so many zebra stripes. Joe’s neighborhood is by no means unique. Birds are everywhere in and around Boston . . . everywhere. And they impart a sense of wonder to the urban landscape, a sense more often associated with remote North America. They’re plentiful in winter, too, the prime time to see otherwise elusive northern birds like Arctic-breeding owls and winter finches.
To expand my knowledge of local birds, I tour the city and beyond with Bob Stymeist, a lifelong urban birder who in 1973 founded the Boston Christmas Bird Count, one of more than 2,000 annual censuses of wild birds in the Western Hemisphere.
Thankfully, Bob is behind the wheel.
MOUNT AUBURN CEMETERY
580 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, 617-547-7105, mountauburn.org
We park on Harvard Hill by a stand of Japanese yew. While I fixate on curious black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches, Bob hears the call notes of white-winged crossbills and pine siskins as they pass high overhead.
Beyond the yew is the grave of Ludlow Griscom (1890-1959), the father of modern birding, who championed the idea of identifying birds by field marks and voice rather than by shooting them and studying their carcasses. There are other well-known ornithologists buried in Mount Auburn, among them William Brewster and Henry M. Spelman, and naturalist Thomas Barbour. We pause at the gravestone of Anne Appleton Clarke, which reads “Ornithologist and Potter.”
“She was a good potter,” says Bob, smiling.
Across a wooded ravine, a great horned owl roosts in a spruce, its bright yellow eyes resolute. For rodents, rabbits, stray cats, and raccoons, the bulky owl is the grim reaper. In a tree above a small pond, blue jays hurl invective at a pair of red-tailed hawks.
As we drive through the spacious cemetery, three common redpolls, finches visiting from the Arctic or sub-Arctic, tease seeds from a birch catkin.
TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES SPOTTED 12
COOLEST BIRD Great horned owl
FOREST HILLS CEMETERY
95 Forest Hills Avenue, Boston, 617-524-0128, foresthillscemetery.com
At Forest Hills, Bob drives directly to a pond where a double-crested cormorant poses on a shoreline boulder, while a flotilla of Canada geese and mallards drifts by. Four ducks called hooded mergansers, the males’ black and white crests fanning like card tricks, keep company with a bufflehead, a small puffy-headed duck with a steep forehead. The bufflehead, a brownish female from northern Canada, floats like a tub toy until she dives for aquatic insects; then, she’s more like a torpedo. The cemetery’s best headstone: e. e. cummings, with every letter of his name capitalized.
TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES SPOTTED 8
COOLEST BIRD Bufflehead
BOSTON NATURE CENTER
500 Walk Hill Street, Mattapan, 617-983-8500, massaudubon.org
A 67-acre inner-city refuge run by Mass Audubon, the Boston Nature Center features a mix of woods, meadows, wetlands, and community gardens . . . and the sound of traffic. We follow a trail through the sanctuary and spot a pair of hermit thrushes, song and white-throated sparrows, chickadees, jays, and a cardinal. Because the surrounding buildings and concrete hold heat, the center is one of the still frost-free areas in the city on this day. Birds (and Bob) like this. Back in the parking lot, two wild turkeys stand in front of an empty yellow school bus, admiring each other.
TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES SPOTTED 8
COOLEST BIRD Wild turkey
THE ARNOLD ARBORETUM
125 Arborway, Boston, 617-524-1718, arboretum.harvard.edu
From the Boston Nature Center, we drive to the South Street Gate of the Arnold Arboretum, the oldest public arboretum in North America. In the sky, we spot a pair of red-tailed hawks; in an American holly, a flock of robins, a fox sparrow, dark-eyed juncos, and a cardinal. On a hill, off the main path, in a cluster of tall cone-laden white pines, red crossbills and white-winged crossbills gorge on pine seeds. As their name implies, crossbill mandibles overlap at the end, the perfect adaptation for tweezing seeds from an evergreen cone. In years when the cone crop fails in the far north, they arrive in New England, unpredictably and magically. These are the first I’ve seen in more than 20 years. Continued...