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8 great spots for urban birding in Boston and beyond

Grab your jacket and your binoculars. Even as temperatures drop, cities are rife with great spots to see some fascinating avian species.

Elizabeth Graeber

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.

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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.

Stop 1

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.

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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

Stop 2

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

Stop 3

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

Stop 4

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.

Across the street from the entrance, Bob mimics a screech owl (this is a real treat) and chums up a jubilee of birds, including tiny golden- and ruby-crowned kinglets, red-bellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, and a jaunty Carolina wren.

TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES SPOTTED 21

COOLEST BIRD Kinglet

Stop 5

MILLENNIUM PARK

300 Gardner Street, West Roxbury, 617-635-4505, newtonconservators.org

Millennium Park, the old Boston landfill, flanks the Charles River and offers a mosaic of wetland habitat — riverine, marsh, swamp — as well as forest and field. Beavers have modified the landscape and the birds approve. A cormorant stands stone still along the river, while inland sparrows, including fox and American tree, harvest weed seeds. At one point, we see eight fox sparrows — buxom, rufus-tailed birds of the north; and then, more cryptic, a swamp sparrow. The voice of a raven rains down from the sky, while that of a Virginia rail rises up from the reeds: a downward run of grunts. On a beaver pond behind the reeds, a female pintail (duck) preens.

TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES SPOTTED 11

COOLEST BIRD HEARD Virginia rail

Stop 6

FRANKLIN PARK

Blue Hill Avenue at Circuit Drive, Dorchester, 617-635-4505, franklinparkcoalition.org

On our way to South Boston, Bob stops at Franklin Park for a brisk walk around Scarborough Pond to check for waterfowl. Black ducks, hooded mergansers, and a lone ruddy duck, its stiff tail pointed skyward like the mast of a sailboat, float amid a congestion of mallards and Canada geese.

TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES SPOTTED 7

COOLEST BIRD Ruddy duck

Stop 7

CASTLE ISLAND

Day Boulevard, South Boston, 617-727-5290, mass.gov/dcr/listing.htm

As we drive to our next destination, we see fish crows perched on streetlights in Mattapan, and in Dorchester a spirited Cooper’s hawk, a major threat for all birds smaller than a crow.

Near the John F. Kennedy Library, close to the shore, a flock of brant grazes the lawn. Several pair of common eiders ride the swells on Dorchester Bay, and beyond them, gulls — ring-billed, great black-backed, and the ubiquitous herring gull. A single black scooter, a chunky sea duck, lumbers over the surface before becoming airborne.

While enjoying a late lunch of one-dollar hot dogs at Sullivan’s (which has since closed for the season) on Castle Island, we watch the urban reprobates — English sparrow, rock dove, and European starling — squabble over french fries. Two red-breasted mergansers swim past the dock, their swept-back, rakish crown feathers giving them the appearance of punk rockers. After lunch, we walk to grass-topped Fort Independence along Pleasure Bay, and then Bob points out a grassy rise across the water at Logan International Airport. Both the roof of the fort and the grassy rise are the city’s premier destinations for snowy owls, Boston’s most eye-catching winter bird. Logan had 48 last winter, but today we don’t see any.

TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES SPOTTED 13

COOLEST BIRD NOT SEEN Snowy owl

Stop 8

BELLE ISLE MARSH RESERVATION

Bennington Street, East Boston, 617-727-5350, mass.gov/dcr/listing.htm

En route to the eastern end of Boston Harbor, we drive past the Customs House, a traditional peregrine falcon nest site, and along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, where tired migrant birds pitch out of the gloaming into a nourishing ribbon of green. In East Boston, where there are more jets than birds in the sky, we enter Belle Isle Marsh Reservation, which was once the home of a drive-in theater but is now public land managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Belle Isle supports the largest patch of salt marsh in Boston, a tidal oasis for migratory shorebirds. The bird species of the day, however, is not the sandpiper or plover; it’s the white-winged crossbill. Glowing in late afternoon light, a pair tweeze seeds from between the scales of pine cones, at eye level in a gnarled pitch pine. At one point, I’m on my knees watching, both crossbills barely a foot away.

“I’m a big urban birder,” Bob tells me on the way back to Arlington. “I promote that birds are everywhere [in Boston]. You don’t need to go to Plum Island or Cape Cod to see them.”

TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES SPOTTED 4

COOLEST BIRD White-winged crossbill

***

THE CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT

Want to participate in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count? Visit birds.audubon.org/get-involved-christmas-bird-count to sign up for one of 33 separate counting efforts taking place in Massachusetts between Friday and January 5. All are part of an annual event begun in 1900 to challenge the nation’s traditional holiday “side hunt,” a bloody woodlands shooting competition. The Boston count takes place next Sunday.

Ted Levin lives in Vermont and is the author of, most recently, Liquid Land. He is at work on America’s Snake, about the timber rattlesnake. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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