Boston Birding Bonanza

I recently had to visit Boston, USA, on business, and was very keen to do some mammal and bird watching on my day off. I had arranged to join a volunteer-led walk at one of Boston’s most productive birding sites, and was pumped for some lifers.

Unfortunately, LAX and my airline intervened: our 15-hr, trans-Pacific flight from Melbourne arrived at LAX an hour late, and mechanical faults plagued the baggage carousel. Thus, I missed my connecting flight to Boston. With the next direct flight out of LAX more than 24hrs away, the airline was kind enough to put me up in a nearby airport hotel, with the knock on effect being that I would miss the birding tour.

It was still only 10am on a cool, sunny Los Angeles morning, so I was determined to make the best of this unplanned turn of events. Despite epic jet lag, I booked a short tour of the city sights for that very afternoon.

I had never visited ‘LA’ before, so touring Beverley Hills, Hollywood Hills, Avenue of the Stars etc was an unexpected bonus of the work trip.

The famous Hollywood sign

A star for a star

‘Nakatomi Plaza’ of ‘Die Hard’ fame

In stark contrast to Melbourne, Los Angeles seemed remarkably devoid of bird life. There were no native parrots, seagulls, pigeons etc in the urban sprawl. In fact, the only species I did see was a gull at Venice Beach which my Merlin Bird ID app identified as a California Gull.

Venice Beach

California Gull

The Cornell Lab Merlin Bird ID app is a marvel of technology, as it constantly amazed my colleagues and I throughout my trip. Cornell University is a world leader in ornithology, and over a few years, amassed thousands of photos of American birds that were submitted by birders. The photos were taken of birds from all angles, profiles, lighting conditions etc, and using this database, they created an app that used machine learning and artificial intelligence to instantly and accurately identify a photo of any American bird.

Practically, I used the app as follows: when out in the field, I would take either a zoomed-in photo of a bird with my phone or take a photo off the back of my point and shoot camera with my phone. I would open the app, enlarge the bird to fill the screen, tap ‘identify’, and in a fraction of a second, the app (even offline) would identify the bird with 100% accuracy. I would then confirm that it correctly identified my bird, thereby teaching and refining the AI. It was a phenomenal tool to use, and I look forward to the Australian version being released soon.

Poor quality, zoomed-in photo using my mobile phone

App: welcome screen

App: zooming in

App: confirming date (season) and location

App: voilà!

On my first day in Boston, I spotted many Grey Squirrels on the Harvard and MIT campuses in Cambridge. Later in the week I was surprised to see an Eastern Cottontail at the base of a skyscraper in a very busy part of the city – two of three mammal ticks during the trip.

A very quick Grey Squirrel

Eastern Cottontail

Boston’s urban bird life was only slightly better than LA: for the first five days I only saw pigeons, starlings, and House Sparrows (all introduced to both Boston and Melbourne). Later in the week, American Robins became more prevalent, as did Canada Geese near the Charles River (two lifers).

Fortunately for me, another volunteer-led walk was scheduled for my penultimate day, which coincided with my off-day. The venue was Boston’s premiere birding spot: the Mount Auburn Cemetery. Just 20mins walk north-west of Harvard University, hundreds of birders congregate in late April and May for ‘warbler migration’, as it is a rest-stop for the birds, and rarities often pop up. At the crack of dawn I met the volunteer guide from the Brookline Birding Club, and along with a dozen other eager birders, I braved the cold, damp conditions to find some lifers.

Looking (unsuccessfully) for a Belted Kingfisher

Birders birding

The cemetery is a haven for birds because of the many man-made lakes and the large variety of trees from all over the world – at times it felt more like an arboretum and less of a cemetery.

I was very pleased with the hospitality shown by the locals to the Aussie birder – everyone was keen to point out the commonest of birds to me. Once it became clear that I had never seen a Chipmunk before, the group made an extra effort to find me one. This paid off in spades, as I got excellent views (but no good photos) of the tiny and skittish mammal – they are Über cute!

Chipmunk

Whilst the group was excited by the Palm, Pine, and Yellow-rumped Warbler, the colourful and charismatic birds (which coincidentally were the ‘common birds’) excited me, including:

Northern Cardinal (iconic red bird)

American Goldfinch (a very bright yellow and unmistakable bird)

Grackle (a blackish blue bird with the most stunning, iridescent feathers)

Wild Turkey (I understand that these are found in backyards, much like NSW’s and QLD’s Bush Turkey)

Blue Jay (their feathers were of about six different shades of blue)

Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers (when you haven’t seen a woodpecker before, any will amaze you – they really do peck the tree bark with their bills!)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (very quick, small bird, much like a pardalote)

Red-winged Blackbird (the red on its black wings really pops, like on a Redback Spider or Redback Fairywren)

Blue Jay

American Robin

Northern Cardinal

Wild Turkey

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

White-throated Sparrow

Downy Woodpecker

Grackle

Grackle

Song Sparrow

White-breasted Nuthatch

Red-winged Blackbird

Palm Warbler

The cemetery, with its many evergreen pine trees, is a known hotspot for roosting owls. We didn’t see any, but the volunteer tour guide gave me solid intel for the nearby location of an owl and fledgling – he even gave me a lift in his car to the spot!

As we approached the spot overlooking a pond, I could see the large silhouette of an owl high up in a pine tree: it was a magnificent Great Horned Owl – a species I only dreamed of seeing in the wild. The juvenile was out in the open on a leafless deciduous tree (it had snowed only a week earlier, so spring hadn’t sprung yet).

There were dozens of birdwatchers with very long lenses and binoculars, all pointed towards the owls. In the short time that I was there, hundreds of walkers and joggers stopped to have a look at the owls as they were a local treasure. What really impressed me though, was the fact that volunteers, with the endorsement of the local council, placed large “all dogs on leash” signs and “do not cross” yellow police tape to cordon off the area each morning, thereby limiting disruption of the owls by the public in the busy park. I wondered if this couldn’t be replicated in Australia as well – birders are very secretive and protective of owl (and other rare bird) sites, yet with some volunteer support and collaboration with the local council, owls and other rare roosting birds could become local celebrated treasures. Indeed, travel is at least an eye-opener, if nothing else, and an opportunity to observe best-practices and implement where feasible.

The juvenile is circled in red. Note yellow tape

Great Horned Owl (adult)

Great Horned Owl (juvenile)

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