fb-pixelBoston is for the birders. And for the first time, there’s a birding competition downtown. - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Boston is for the birders. And for the first time, there’s a birding competition downtown.

You don’t have to leave the bustling streets to spot rare types of birds, a local hobbyist says. He wants to prove it.

Adam Balsam, a local birder, photographed birds at Lewis Wharf.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

As you may have noticed, birding’s mainstream popularity has taken flight.

People are turning out on excursions in huge numbers, binoculars around their necks and field guides in tow, collectively setting new records for the niche hobby. As anyone in the birding community will tell you, a pastime that was once dominated by retirees is now being taken up by younger crowds of bird enthusiasts.

Most times, they’re heading out to nature preserves and wildlife sanctuaries, or lakes surrounded by lush forests, in search of their next find.

But Boston’s birding newbies don’t actually need to go far to spot an array of rare species of birds resting on branches. In fact, as North End resident Adam Balsam can tell you, they don’t have to go anywhere at all.


Even in the dense core of the city, where drivers honk their horns and people pack onto trains, an abundance of sought-after species can be found, photographed, and documented.

“It’s just a complete misconception that you need to go to the suburbs to bird,” said Balsam, 45. “You don’t even need a car.”

To prove it, Balsam will try to raise the city’s profile as a birding destination in May, by hosting what he believes is the first-ever daylong competition downtown and in surrounding areas. The bird-watching zone will include the Financial District, Chinatown, Beacon Hill, the West End, the North End, and Charlestown, spots people might not equate with premium bird encounters.

Sure, there are other birding competitions in the area. Mass Audubon‘s annual Bird-a-thon — also held in May — attracts hundreds of birders each year, but its participants can record results statewide. To Balsam’s knowledge, no other contests have been limited to such tight quarters within the city.

He got the idea for the competition after walking to and from work downtown last spring, and spotting both a palm warbler and an eastern towhee on the same day.


Balsam decided to challenge himself, and see how many other species he could spy in the area in a week. Seven days later, he’d seen 27 different types of birds in the heart of the city.

“I’m pretty sure this is a record,” he wrote in a tweet at the time, announcing his results. “But I’m also pretty sure I’m the only one playing.”

His tweet caught the attention of birders and non-birders alike. Mayor Michelle Wu even chimed in, writing in response that she loved “these beautiful birds of Boston,” and that she “could chip in some turkey videos too,” given their abundance.

So Balsam started thinking: What would happen if a whole flock of birders spread out around downtown all at once, and scanned the cityscape for rare breeds?

There’s only one way to find out.

The event is called “Big Day Boston,” which Balsam said is a play on “Big Year,” a term used to describe when birders spend a year dedicating themselves to identifying as many birds as possible, often by going on long and expensive trips to far-flung locales.

Competitors who register in advance for the May 6 event will be asked to meet in the morning at Copp’s Hill Terrace in the North End, then fan out into the city within the established perimeter. Nearly two dozen people have already said they plan to compete.


Participants will be given a checklist of the more than 100 bird species they might come across. Whoever sees the most of them by 4 p.m. will be crowned the winner.

It might be strange to imagine so many people going birding in such a dense, urban location full of people and cars. But that’s exactly the outlook Balsam hopes to correct.

In fact, he said, the city is an especially good place for bird-watching.

For one, parks in the area serve as a sort of magnet for migrating birds passing through the area, and show up in higher concentrations than in a large forest.

Plus, the city is surrounded by the harbor, meaning it’s a destination for bird species that prefer access to the ocean and also those seeking a safe place on land.

Even in the winter, with prime birding season still months away, all sorts of Arctic ducks can be seen along Boston’s shoreline.

Water birds gathered off of Lewis Wharf.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“People don’t think of Christopher Columbus Park as a birding hotspot,” Balsam said, referring to the waterfront green space along Atlantic Avenue that’s wedged between busy piers. “But I can rattle off all kinds of fairly exotic birds that I’ve seen there.”

That isn’t news to the city’s small but vibrant community of urban birders, among them 28-year-old Sarah Iwany. She said she plans to participate in the event come spring and is eager to spread the word about the variety of birds fluttering — mostly unnoticed — above Bostonians’ heads at any given moment.


“It’s honestly just a matter of paying attention,” Iwany said. “Before I knew what different birds were, I thought there were only sparrows and pigeons in the city, nothing else. But they’re here! You just have to know where to look and how to look.”

Adam Balsam, his camera around his neck, walked in the North End. He's hosting a spring birding competition in Boston.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Spencer Buell can be reached at spencer.buell@globe.com. Follow him @SpencerBuell.