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Levin: Birding In Boston

(Host) For a wild and wondrous birding adventure, naturalist and commentator Ted Levin says to grab your binoculars and jacket - and head for Boston.

(Levin) A friend of mine lives in Boston's Arlington Heights, not far from Mass. Ave., in a house on a hill, with large oaks and hemlocks in the back yard and shrubs in the front yard. His neighborhood attracts songbirds and squirrels, including a few albinos. The birds and squirrels support a family of red-tailed hawks that also make their home in this canyon of houses. Joe says that one morning last summer, a redtail flew past his porch with a struggling crow in its talons.

But Joe's neighborhood is by no means unique. Birds are everywhere in and around Boston. And they're plentiful now, on the down side of winter. In fact, it's prime time there to see some otherwise elusive birds like Arctic-breeding owls and winter finches.

So here are a few of my favorite places to explore the surprisingly rich world of urban birds, the next time you're in Boston.

Ilike to begin at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge. I park on Harvard Hill by a stand of Japanese yew. While black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches busy themselves in the yew, I hear the call notes of pine siskins and white-winged crossbills as they pass high overhead. A great horned owl roosts across a wooded ravine, and in a tree above a small pond, blue jays hurl invective at a pair of redtails.

My next stop is The Arnold Arboretum, in Boston proper. In the sky, just beyond the South Gate Entrance, I spot a pair of red-tailed hawks; in a holly, a flock of robins; also fox sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and a cardinal. On a hill, off the main path, in a cluster of tall white pines laden with cones, red crossbills and white-winged crossbills gorge on pine seeds. As their name implies, crossbill mandibles overlap at the tip, the perfect adaptation for tweezering seeds from an evergreen cone.

Across the street from the entrance, there's a jubilee of birds, including golden- and ruby-crowned kinglets, red-bellied woodpeckers, and a hermit thrush.

My third and final stop is Belle Isle Marsh Reservation, East Boston, where there are more jets aloft than birds. But the marsh is a haven for sandpipers and plovers. They gather on the mudflats like so many disenfranchised sailors. And there are dunlins and greater yellowlegs, semi-palmated plovers and black-bellied plovers. The birds of the day, however, are not shorebirds. They're white-winged crossbills. Glowing in the late afternoon light, a pair perch at eye level in a gnarled pitch pine, plucking seeds from between the scales of pine cones. At one point, I'm on my knees watching, both crossbills barely a foot away.

Urban birds are where you find them, and Boston has parks and cemeteries to attract them. They impart a sense of wonder to the urban landscape, a sense we more often associate with the hills and valleys of Vermont.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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