Christmas Birding in the City


Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis


City sidewalks, busy sidewalks

Dressed in holiday style

In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.

Children laughing, people passing

Meeting smile after smile

And on every street corner you’ll hear

Silver bells.


Strings of streetlights, even stoplights

Blink of bright red and green

As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.

Hear the snow crunch, see the kids bunch

This is Santa’s big scene

And above all the bustle you’ll hear

Silver bells.

by Ray Evans & Jay Livingston


Boston Common

This was my Mother’s favorite Christmas song.  I remember her sitting at the old Chickering piano in the sunroom, belting out these lyrics as if it was yesterday.  I live in the country now, just outside a small town of a few thousand, with elbow room, trees, tidal wetlands, and only a rare passing car or visitor.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

In the past we’ve had a house full of extended family celebrating the holiday, but those times have passed.  Understandably children and the grand-child are making their own traditions in their homes and we are welcomed and eager to be part of “Santa’s big scene” in the heart of downtown Boston.

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Their high-rise apartment looks down on the city streets blinking red and green, the frozen Charles River, and a small sliver of the snow-covered Common.  Their tree is a real spruce and adorned with ornaments, many of which are familiar from Christmases past.  Outside soaring gulls fly by our windows while the urban House Sparrows stay much lower on the sidewalk among the shoppers and bunching kids. The skaters crowd the Frog Pond ice, while the Nutcracker is playing at the nearby Opera House.

Opera House

One cold dawn, two days before Christmas I broke away for birding at Mount Auburn Cemetery.  I’ve previously described this birding hotspot in several posts (2/4/2015, 11/11/2016, and 4/20/2018), but this is my first visit in the winter.  In spring and fall it is a migration trap for weary travelers; a welcomed oasis of green and water amidst the urban sprawl.  It’s also the home of year-round residents, including a Red-tailed Hawk perched atop the local food chain.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

A subway and bus ride took me to the north entrance of the cemetery.  The central “mountain” of Mount Auburn has shaded its northern side with crunching snow and ice covering the grave sites, pathways, and roads.  A sign cautioning to proceed at your own risk tried to warn me away, but to no avail.  It was a risk worth taking.

This birding site is one of my all-time favorite locations.  The birds were just the predictable, common species, and quite sparse on that cold morning, but sometimes birding is not just about the birds.

All the ponds were frozen solid.  I saw an adventurous squirrel skate across one, but there were no ducks or geese.  The deep dark glen, a sanctuary for countless birds in warmer weather was now cold and silent, except for the occasional raspy cry of a jay.

The cemetery compels one to quietly reflect on the years gone by and those still to come.  The stones mark many lives well-lived, and perhaps some, not so much.  I was happy to be there and see the nuthatches, robins, and sparrows, but also to leave the burying ground behind and rejoin the Christmas bustle.

Christmas Eve found us in a long line of revelers, waiting on cold Copely Square to enter the warmth of the magnificent Trinity Church.  Our seats, almost in the front row, gave us a great proud view of our grandson in the choir, as we all joined them in singing the Christmas favorites.  The soaring soprano descants brought us chills and the deep bass notes of the organ shook our seats and stirred our souls.  Music like this makes the sacred season for me.

Trinity Church

Christmas in the city with the family, great food, wine, and song–I think I can get used to this.

In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron; water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

In the bleak mid-winter, long ago.


What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can, I give Him–give Him my heart.

by Christina Rossetti

Birding Mount Auburn in Springtime

Mount Auburn Cemetery


I strolled by the old Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street in Boston on the way to the Park Street Station.  My final destination on this early spring morning was Mount Auburn Cemetery, but I couldn’t help comparing the two burial grounds.  The first, now surrounded by towering high rises, is a city block of ordered, simple stones arranged in precise symmetrical rows, typical characteristics of the Classical Era (1750 to 1820).  Burial then was as much for sanitation as it was for a memorial to the deceased.  You’ll find the graves of the patriots Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and John Hancock at the Granary site.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

American Robin, Turdus migratorius

Mount Auburn Cemetery, a short bus ride from Harvard Square in Cambridge, is quite different.  It is a quintessential creation of the Romantic Era, established in 1831.  The cemetery is 174 acres of beautiful free-form landscape in the rolling hills of suburban Boston.  Winding roads and meandering paths lead one among the graves, some simple, but other quite ornate reaching high toward the heavens in celebration of both life and death.  In this era imagination and emotion ruled; it was heart over head.  There are only a few defined rows of tombstones. Instead, most are loosely clustered in groves and glens throughout the spectacular arboretum.

Among the graves you will find Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, abolitionist Charles Sumner, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, Julia Ward Howe, and the 19th century champion of the mentally ill, Dorothea Dix.  Ornithologists William Brewster and Ludlow Griscom have appropriately been laid to rest here among their cherished birds.  I also visited the modest stones marking the burial sites of my parents and father’s family.  They were Cambridge natives and Dad always hoped to be interred in Mount Auburn with them.  It’s easy to understand why.

Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

I have no guilt from birding among the dead.  It’s not macabre, but rather the activity is natural and even encouraged.  The landscape architects have purposely created an avian haven which has attracted 220 species.  Birders are commonly seen on the hallowed grounds among the 100,000 graves and bird walks are frequently scheduled.  Previously I have always birded here in the fall and so was anxious to walk the paths in April.  It was clearly too early to see evidence of migration, but that particular day was mild and sunny, sandwiched between the weekly storms that have been ravaging New England all season.

Halcyon Lake

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

I use to follow a map of the cemetery, but now I just wander, preferably along a shaded path away from the paved roads.  One can always find new areas to explore.  I even ran into a third large pond that I had somehow missed on multiple prior visits.

A Mt. Auburn Path

Early spring was not conducive to a long list of sightings.  I only saw 15 species on that day.  Juncos and Robins were the most common birds, found foraging among the crocuses and dead leaves.

Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo

You’ll probably run across some Wild Turkeys in the cemetery.  In my home state of Maryland the turkeys are shy, but at Mount Auburn they are brazen.  One was reported to chase an innocent walker through the gravestones and mausoleums.  Luckily, they kept their distance from me.

Brown Creeper, Certhia americana

The “bird-of-the-day” was a Brown Creeper, aka American Tree Creeper.  I consider myself lucky to see this small bird about once a year, usually blending unobtrusively with the bark as it spirals up, always up, the tree.  The long tail braces the bird against the trunk, similar to a woodpecker, and the long curved wren-like bill is perfect for picking at the bark in pursuit of bugs.  I suspect this bird was likely a year-round resident of the cemetery.  If you’re interested, I previously posted a description of a fall bird walk through Mount Auburn and a history of this famous cemetery on 2/4/2015.  You can find it in the index or by using the search device.

View from the summit

I always finish by climbing to the top of Mount Auburn to check out the view of the Charles River and Boston skyline to the south.  It’s a great place for reflection.  The gravestones in the quiet urban oasis, the gorgeous landscape, and wildlife allow one to put things into perspective.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

At the summit you are eye-level with the tops of surrounding trees.  While scanning the canopy with binoculars I found myself face to face with a large Red-tailed Hawk, apparently checking me out as I was studying him.  Was he also in a mode of reflection among the gravestones, just like me?  I doubt it, but who knows?  More likely he was planning his next attack and meal, or perhaps hoping to attract a mate, or satisfying a more immediate concern, and content to leave the deeper reflections to Homo sapiens.

Urban Birding in Delhi, India

Common Pigeon, Columba livia


We must have been quite a sight in all our birding garb on the rooftop of the Leela Palace Hotel in the heart of Delhi.  I wonder what the sunbathers and swimmers in the infinity pool were thinking while Andy, Krishna, and I took countless photographs of the swarming kites while the pool guards were waving flags trying to shoo away the feral pigeons and these very same raptors.  To us, in the U.S., a kite was a great bird and it was several days in India before we realized that these scavenger Black Kites were a-dime-a-dozen.

Black Kite, Milvus migrans

Delhi was our gateway city to India and we wisely arrived a day early before our guided tour to get acclimated and try some urban birding.  When you fly into Delhi your plane does not break through the low-lying smog and dust until 1000 feet and you therefore do not get a feel for this sprawling metropolis of 25 million souls.  My first impressions were of mayhem, color, heat, and traffic as we took the cab to the Leela Palace, a spectacular oasis of calm amidst the chaos of the capital city.

Humayun’s Tomb

Delhi is the site of an ancient Hindu city dating back 3000 years.  It has had numerous names and captors with the Mughal Emperors ruling it from 1526 to 1857 when they were ousted by the British.  The Brits moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.  Our formal tour took us to many impressive sites including the Red Fort, a massive sandstone edifice speaking to the prior authority and grandeur of the Mughal rulers.  The stately 16th century Humayun’s Tomb combined Mughal and Persian elements and was an architectural precursor of the Taj Mahal.

Streak-throated Swallow, Petrochelidon fluvicola

Tiring of the Kites and having already ID’ed the Prinia, Bulbuls, Parakeets, and Streak-throated Swallows on the hotel grounds it was time to move the birding show onward.  I’ve tried urban birding in many of the world’s largest cities, but clearly Delhi was different. It is not a “walking town”.  Sidewalks are rare and I don’t believe I ever saw a crosswalk or pedestrian “Walk / Don’t Walk” light in the entire country.  The map showed a small green space directly across the street from the hotel but getting there was an issue.

Prinia (Plain or Ashy? You tell me.)

The busy street was a wide river of flowing and honking motor scooters, small cars, colorful trucks, and the motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks, many of which stopped and tried to entice us onboard.  We later learned from a helpful Indian that the correct technique in crossing a street is to “walk like an elephant”, (get into a tight-packed group and move ahead slowly and purposely without stopping or wavering until you reach the other side).  It works.

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Treron phoenicopterus

The small several acre park proved to be a real gem.  Several guards and caretakers at the entrance gave us an inquisitive  stare until they realized we were foreign birders and therefore safe.  There was a loud, repetitive, bird call booming right inside the gate that we assumed was piped in for effect until the guard pointed out the source, a perching Brown-headed Barbet.  The Groucho Marx mustachioed bird is apparently known for its loud call, especially on a hot day like we were enduring.  We don’t speak Hindi and they knew no English, but our new friends were eager to point out several other new birds in the park.

Brown-headed Barbet, Megalaima zeylanica

Greater Coucal, Centropus sinensis

By the time our session was ended we had seen in addition to the Barbet, a Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Greater Coucal, Rufous Treepie, Jungle Babbler, Brahminy Starling, Common Myna, and more Prinias (were they Ashy or Plain?  I still can’t tell them apart).  It was a great start and introduction to Indian Birds. In one day we had added 16 birds to our life lists.

Red-vented Bulbul, Pycnonotus cafer

Rufous Treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda

A Dehli highlight for me was the visit to the last abode of Mahatma Gandhi.  His quarters were a small spartan room with a mattress on the floor and low writing table.  He was brutally assassinated in a nearby garden by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948.  This quote was etched into a large boulder at the site:

“A leader of his people unsupported by any outward authority, a politician whose success rests not upon craft or the mastery of technical devices, but simply upon the convincing power of his personality.  A victorious fighter who has always scorned the use of force.  A man of wisdom and humility…who has devoted all his strength to the uplifting of his people…A man who has confronted brutality…with the dignity of a simple human being…Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”  Albert Einstein

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 to 1948)


London, Birding With An Ally

Guide Jack Fearnside at Chobham Commons


Was taxation without representation really that bad that we had to split from these good people?  I certainly felt right at home this March in the U.K., now our greatest ally.  They may talk a little funny and drive on the wrong side of the road, but otherwise this was a wonderful visit to the Motherland.

Chobham Commons

Birds and climate in Britain are influenced greatly by the warming currents of the Gulf Stream.  It may come as a surprise to many that temperate London sits at the same latitude as Newfoundland and Labrador in the western hemisphere, veritable ice boxes on our side of the pond.  Gulf Stream or not, our visit was too early for the Spring migration; most migrants arrive in the southern U.K. later in March or April.  I was content seeing the wintering birds in London alone but decided to seek the help of a guide to sample the surrounding countryside.  Good decision.

Red Kite, Milvus milvus                             click on photos to zoom

I booked a whole day with Birding in London, an English guide company,  They escort individuals or small groups to various sites in and around London.  Whenever you hire a guide you take some risks, however, I have never been disappointed and was not this time.  Jack Fearnside picked me up at 6:30AM sharp at my hotel in Kensington and we spent a productive day in the countryside to the west of London.

Reed Bunting, Emberiza schoeniclus

Our first stop was Chobham Commons, a picturesque 1400 acre preserve of lowland heath and blooming yellow gorse with scattered islands of birch and pine.  The area was initially cleared by paleolithic farmers eons ago and has remained unspoiled, even through military encampments during two world wars.  I realized that Jack knew his stuff when he started identifying birds by their songs, even in the carpark and despite the traffic noise from the nearby M3.  I was treated to seeing 20 species here including Woodlark, Goldcrest, Stonechat, and the unusual Dartford Warbler.

Stonechat, Saxicola rubicola

Even in early March the over-wintering British birds are pairing up and beginning nest-building, although most egg-laying commences in late March or April.  The Long-tailed Tit takes 3 weeks to build its intricate nest so it needs an early start, but  early nest-building and egg-laying is a mixed dilemma.  It’s great to stake out a territory and get an early start before the migrating hoards arrive.  This allows the possibility of multiple broods in a season but also raises the risk of cold temperatures and meagre food sources in early spring, just when parents and hatchlings need nourishment most.

Long-tailed Tit, Aegithalos caudatus

Our second stop was Windsor Great Park, a 4800 acre gem, first set aside in the 13th century.  The area was hunted by William the Conqueror one thousands years ago.  Victoria and Albert picnicked on the shore of its Virginia Water in the 19th century and I was lucky to traipse these same grounds this March.  You’ll find that European birds are more skittish than their New World cousins and usually don’t respond to phishing.  Many of my photos therefore are distant views taken at 400mm.  Even at great distance, however, Jack was able to point out the electric green of the Eurasian Kingfisher on the lake’s opposite shore.  We saw 28 species at this historic site including Great-crested Grebe, Red Kite, and Eurasian Siskin.

Caretaker cottage at Windsor Great Park

I sensed that Jack really wanted me to see and hear the Skylark for the first time.  We heard him high overhead during his peculiar hovering flight long before we saw him diving down into the green pasture, and then rising again, all the time singing his melodious and incessant song.  This was at our third stop, Woodoaks Farm, a quaint working dairy farm dating back to late Saxon times, 1000 years old.  The lanes and barnyard were muddy from recent rains but the stop was well worth it giving up 16 species including the Eurasian Kestrel, Mew Gull, and the memorable Skylark and song.  Here’s a verse from “To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

Higher still and higher

From the earth thou springest

Like a cloud of fire;

The blue deep thou wingest,

And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs

Our last stop was Stocker’s Lake in Hertfordshire, an old 90 acre gravel pit which has been flooded and now serves as a wintering ground for numerous waterfowl and springtime stopover site for migrating passerines.  The lake is surrounded by a hiking path and numerous “hides” (blinds, in American English) and narrow canals with colorful canal boats serving as residences.

Canal Locks at Stocker’s Lake

There is a large Heronry on the shore and several islands and floating rafts serving as nesting sites.  We added more 32 species at this site for a total of 59 for the day.  The sun was setting and light becoming problematic for photography when Jack called out a flock of Northern Lapwing landing on an nearby island, another life-bird for me and a fitting ending to a great day.

Tufted Duck and Eurasian Wigeon, Aythya fuligula and Anas penelope

Birding London also arranges guided tours to the Dorset coast to the south, the channel coast to the east, and other sites.  I highly recommend Jack and his company and plan to hire him again if I ever make a return visit to the U.K.  For you poem-loving birders here is the last stanza of “To a Skylark”:

Teach me half the gladness

That thy brain must know,

Such harmonious madness

From my lips would flow

The world should listen then, as I am listening now.



Urban Birding in London

St. James Park


A New World birder recently visited London and for a short while became an English twitcher.  It’s with some fear and trepidation that I submit this posting as I was birding on historic grounds in a country filled with sophisticated twitchers.  But I’ll “keep a stiff upper lip” and press on.  Early March may not be the ideal time for birding in the U.K. but it’s when I visited with dear friends and spouse, primarily to sample the theater and dining options in this great city.

Greylag Goose, Anser anser

We were queuing up to visit Churchill’s War Rooms at Westminster when I noticed beautiful St. James Park and pond with obvious bird activity just across the street.  Even with no binoculars, a mere cell phone camera, and a wife more interested in Churchill than birds, this was too inviting to pass up.  My excitement grew when several of the ducks and geese, and also the giant White Pelicans were new birds for me and listed as rarities here by eBird.  But “something was rotten in Denmark”.  I later learned that these “rarities” were in fact pinioned birds, non-tickable, and transported here for the public’s enjoyment.

Great Tit, Parus major

St. James Park was set aside as a hunting ground for Henry VIII in 1536.  The White Pelicans, or more correctly their ancestors, were a gift from the Russian ambassador in 1664.  In 1834 the Ornithological Society of London erected a bird keeper’s cottage next to the pond, still standing today.  Apart from the pinioned birds I did see some tickable species including Red-crested and Common Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Golden-eye, Eurasian Wigeons and Coots, and Barnacle, Greylag, and Canada Geese. Unfortunately the cell phone shots don’t meet my photographic standards for public viewing.

Egyptian Goose, Alopochen aegyptiaca

Each morning in London started cool and damp, with a threat of rain.  “To bird or not to bird, that is the question.”  Blessed with a spouse that likes to sleep in, and a well-situated hotel in South Kensington, just a hop, skip, and jump from Kensington Gardens, that was an easy question to answer for this Hamlet.  This time I was ready with binoculars, a real camera and lens.

Mandarin Duck, Aix galericulata

You’re treading on history in this Royal Park.  It sits on the west side of Hyde Park, at the site of the Crystal Palace and Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World’s Fair.  Kensington Palace was the birthplace of Queen Victoria and a grand monument to her husband Albert stands just to the south.  Crisscrossing paths, ancient trees, and Serpentine Lake make for excellent urban twitching, even among these historic icons.

Common Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus

I learned that there were recent sightings of Tawny and Little Owls in the Gardens, apparently pairing off and preparing for nesting in the old tree cavities.  Owls always get my attention and were my primary goal that morning, however I was able to see and photograph numerous duck, geese, and passerines along the paths.  Day one produced no owl, but as a famous Brit once said about a time and situation much more serious than this, “never, never, never give up”, so I took his advice and returned to the Gardens several days later to renew the effort.

Song Thrush, Turdus philomelos

This morning I stumbled upon a fenced-off woodlot with the Gardens with several stocked feeders drawing in Great, Blue, and Long-tailed Tits, Nuthatches, Wrens, Chaffinches, Robins, and even a Great Spotted Woodpecker.  This was a bird photographer’s Mecca.  The chore was to catch the birds away from the feeder in the morning’s low light.  While working on that a young Brit walked up and asked the usual question, “seen anything good?”  He obviously knew his birds and the Garden and graciously escorted me to the very tree where he had seen a Little Owl earlier that day.  Thanking him I aimed my lens at the hole, checked out all the exposure settings and waited for the bugger to peek out. And waited, and waited, and waited.

Little Owl, Athene noctua

Tired of waiting and again resigned to a no-owl day I was preparing to press on when I noticed the eyes peering down at me from another tree, off to the right.  What a hoot; exhilaration that only another birder understands; it was the Little Owl, probably watching me for the last half hour.  A hundred pictures later I returned to the hotel satisfied.  In addition to the owl I saw six other life birds in St. James Park and Kensington Gardens, including the Barnacle, Egyptian, and Greylag Geese, Red-crested and Common Pochards, and Tufted Duck.

He’s still watching

The urban birding I did alone, but hired an excellent bird guide to take me to sites and additional new birds outside the ring road.  I plan to describe that in a later post.  In the meantime, “stay calm and bird on.”


Birding in Bean Town

Boston Commons

Boston Common


Urban birding is a whole new kettle of fish for me.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have its unique and satisfying aspects, however the rural birder needs to adapt, just as the birds have.  I visited my daughter’s family in Bean Town, aka Boston, this November.  They are hooked on the urban life style; no car, high-rise accommodations, small footprint, public transportation, walking, etc., and I see its healthy appeal.  New birding possibilities became apparent on day one when my grandson pointed out the window at the sunset “bird show”.  We were looking down from the 25th floor at a feeding flock of Ring-billed Gulls soaring far below.


House Sparrow (female), Passer domesticus

House Sparrows and Feral Pigeons are the low-hanging fruit in any city but if you look harder and are fortunate to be in a metropolis which has developed some green spaces, you will be rewarded.  The urban birds, residents and migrators, are seeking out and concentrated in those same green oases.  My first challenge was getting used to the loud traffic noise, sirens, screaming children and the general din of the city drowning out the birds.  Hustling pedestrians have little regard for a birder sneaking up on a rarity.  Despite it all I saw some good birds.


Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapilla

There were some pleasant surprises.  Cold, frosty morning–not a problem, there’s a Starbucks across the street.  Hungry–just visit the Panera Bread around the corner.  Right foot acting up–stop by the local CVS for Advil.  Want to check out another site–just hop on the subway for $2.25 and surface across town in just minutes.


Common Yellowthroat (female), Geothlypis trichas

Do you remember the “Big Dig”?  This was the largest and most costly highway project in our country’s history.  In the 1950’s the Boston developers built the “highway in the skies”, elevating the central artery through the heart of the city darkening the stores and streets below.  By the 1980’s planners sought to correct this by burying several miles of Interstate 93.  Construction woes persisted from 1991 through 2007 plagued by cost overruns, leaks, poor design, poor materials, criminal arrests, etc.  Tax payers were left holding the bag for a project which initially was supposed to cost $2.8 billion but ended up at $14.6 billion.


The Rose Kennedy Greenway

But there was and is light at the end of this tunnel.  What to do with the vacated space left by the buried highway was the question of the day.  It could have been developed commercially but greener heads prevailed and today there is an amazing linear park curving through the heart of Boston from Chinatown to the North End.  This “Rose Kennedy Greenway” was my first stop for several mornings of great urban birding.


This park has had several years to mature and is a creative mixture of trees, lower shrubs and ground cover traversed by winding gravel paths.  They’ve held the lawns and concrete portions to a minimum and have been rewarded with a vote of approval from the birds. During two morning visits I saw 13 species including a Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Ovenbird, and Common Yellowthroat.  The e-Bird Hot Spot indicates 102 species have been seen there.


Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

Christopher Columbus Park is near the northern end of the Greenway and perfectly suited for a lunch break at American Joe’s waterfront restaurant.  Near the entrance I saw a Red-tailed Hawk in an evergreen, also breaking for lunch with small feathers still hanging from its claws and beak.  While sampling some delicious clam chowder and watching a Ring-billed Gull perched just outside my window, I saw a Peregrine Falcon shoot by in pursuit of a Feral Pigeon–it doesn’t get any better than this.


Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

The staid, historic and central green space in Boston is the large Common and adjacent Public Gardens occupying 74 acres near the western edge of “Old Boston”.  The Common has the traditional landscape of urban parks with crisscrossing paths, hills, statues, and beautiful old trees.  Despite the obvious beauty, (see the opening photo in the post), the lack of understudy plantings makes the birding there somewhat meagre, at least during my visits.  The Public Gardens is a gorgeous manicured green space with a large central pond, walking bridge, swan boats, and the famous and growing family of mallards, the stars of the classic children’s book, “Make Way For Ducklings”, by Robert McCloskey.  Other birds, however, were scarce, at least in November.

Post Office Square

Post Office Square

Post Office Square, aka Norman B. Leventhal Park, is a small 1.7 acre green oasis in the heart of the financial district surrounded by towering buildings, old and new.  This space does have low bushes and grasses and attracted a large flock of foraging White-throated Sparrows, I suspect newly arrived from the north.  e-Bird Hot Spot reports 92 species have been seen in this small, charming space.


White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Mount Auburn Cemetery, though not actually within Boston, has to be included on any birders description of local sites.  It is located near the border of Watertown and Cambridge just north of Boston.  Take the Red Line to Harvard Square and Bus 71 or 73 to the cemetery and you will experience a birding and landscaping treat.  Countless winding roads and paths over hills and between tombstones create a reverential atmosphere. The autumn beauty is difficult to capture with words.  I published an earlier post just about this site on February 4, 2015.  My location life list at Mt. Auburn is 36 species but e-Bird Hot Spot reports 225 species seen over the years.  I always end my walk through the cemetery with a short visit to our family plot where both my parents are interred.  Mount Auburn will obviously remain a birding and personal destination for me, hopefully for years to come.

Mount Auburn Cemetery

Mount Auburn Cemetery

The Great Texas Parrot Chase


Picture a 90 degree, humid, late afternoon day in southeast Texas as sweaty birders cram into 4 vans with all their binoculars, cameras, scopes and tripods.  The vans scattered throughout Harlingen, Texas’s residential and commercial neighborhoods, each with a driver/guide, spotter and anxious birders hoping to find the target flocks of Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots.


Red-crowned Parrot, Amazona viridigenalis

These colorful, loud birds are widely scattered in the daytime, but as evening approaches this time of year they tend to flock to one or two varying locations around town creating a memorable spectacle of noise and color.  Throw in the barking dogs, excited birders, and gaping neighbors and children, and you have a unusual birding treat.

Green Parakeet

Green Parakeet (click on any picture to zoom)

This event was part of the annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.  It, along with countless other guided trips through numerous habitats in the valley, key note speakers, vendors, etc.  make it one of the top birder destinations.  And don’t forget the birds.  Texas as a whole and in particular the Rio Grande Valley has an impressive bird list of possible sightings with over 540 species seen in South Texas.


The Green Parakeet is a long-tailed, large-billed, non-migratory bird native to Mexico and northern Central America.  The Red-crowned Parrot is a stocky, large-headed and short-tailed bird, native to a shrinking area of northeast Mexico, and considered endangered.  There is some controversy whether these two birds of the Rio Grande Valley are feral or native in an enlarging range, but these birds found elsewhere in California and Florida are clearly escapees.


The chase did not yield immediate fruit.  Our aggressive driver carreened around corners and zig-zagged through the neighborhoods with one eye on the road and the other on the treetops, using the cell phone (hands-free) to coordinate with the other vans–all initially also coming up dry.  I gathered there was a badge of honor given to the first van to find the target birds.  Several curious elders on their front porch waved as our van passed down their street for the 4th or 5th time.  As dusk approached I was beginning to worry, but then we heard them before seeing them.  25 or 30 Green Parakeets were devouring berries on a small tree on a side street.  We called in our location and all the vans and happy birders converged for pictures.


As if on cue the parakeets took off and the birders tumbled back  into the vans, now to find the parrots in the waning light.  Lucky again, we heard and found a large flock of 50 or 60 in the trees and wires.  These green and red birds, seemingly in Christmas attire made an impressive sight.  I saw one of my fellow birders set up his scope for some local children who were wondering about this invasion of birds and birders into their neighborhood.  Their squeals of delight at seeing these birds, up close, with great optics made me think we probably just created some new birders in south Texas. With the light now too low for photography, we left the birds and neighbors alone, content with our success in this unique Great Parrot Chase.

Birding in Dinan, France

Dinan; the intial settlement was along the river valley

The intial settlement was along the river valley

The year is 1112 and a young adventurous knight named Rivallon le Roux, a member of the family of the Lords of Dinan, feels the call to join fellow Crusaders and make the long trek to Palestine.  He leaves his homeland and small town of Dinan, founded in 1000, in the Brittany region of France.  In Palestine, in the midst of violent religious strife, he vows that if he is delivered  safely home he would pay for the building of a new church, named Saint Sauveur.  His prayers were answered and by 1120 he was building the magnificent cathedral, high on the hilltop of Dinan, overlooking the valley and River Rance.

Saint Sauveur

Saint Sauveur

900 years later, I was awake at dawn in the small garden of that same Saint Sauveur, watching the sunrise over the valley and ancient city ramparts, waiting for birds.  The sun rises late along the northwestern coast of France in October and there is no possibility of seeing or photographing birds until 8:30AM.  I had sporadically been looking for the shy French birds in Paris, Giverny, and Normandy, but this was my first dedicated session for birding since arriving in France.

La Place Anglais

La Place Anglais, in the shadows of Saint Sauveur

For resident birders or frequent visitors to Europe, forgive my enthusiasm in seeing many of your common birds for the first time.  Even the Carrion Crows and Jackdaws defacing the Gothic spires of Saint Sauveur were photographed.  The Wood Pigeons are like feral “pigeons on steroids”, according to my co-traveler.  I had three good shots at photographing the Short-toed Treecreeper on the trunk of an ancient tree, but was foiled each time by either low-light or the bad timing of a Frenchman walking his dog.  A Winter Wren and both the Eurasian Blue and Great Tits showed up along the garden wall.  Black-headed Gulls patrolled the river and Eurasian Blackbirds and loud Magpies flew in and out of the large oaks, probably dating back to the early days of the cathedral.  I spent the entire session in that garden.


Jackdaw, Corvus monedula


Great Tit, Parus major

The morning calm was interrupted by a small group of Brittany students entering the churchyard and carrying clipboards, clearly on assignment.  I tried to ignore them but they came right up and started asking me questions in their language.  My “Je ne parle pas francais” response just tweaked their interest more.  They were excited to learn I was from near Washington DC, USA.  It turned out to be a fun time with them practicing their rudimentary English skills and me resurrecting some French from multiple years of training decades ago.

Magpie, despite being large & loud, I had a difficult time getting a good shot of this bird

Magpie, Pica pica, despite being large & loud, I had a difficult time getting a good shot of this bird

Dinan is one of the few entirely walled towns in Europe.  It initially started in the valley along the riverbank, but for security it moved up the hill and grew behind the impressive ramparts.  It is just far enough off the tourist mainline to maintain its historic charm with narrow cobbled streets, overhanging half-timbered houses, and many small shops and restaurants.  The food has a decided Breton flavor with seafood, galettes, and hard cider on every menu.  It is just a short hop to Mount Saint Michel and the seaside port of Saint Malo.  We stayed at the Hotel Arvor, about 3 blocks from Saint Sauveur and I give it my highest recommendation.

Dinan's walls; click on any photot for zoom

Dinan’s ramparts; click on any photo for zoom

Hotel Arvor

Hotel Arvor

Half-timbered houses

Half-timbered houses

Rivallon le Roux’s ancient church has evolved since its construction in the 12th century.  The initial Romanesque appearance is still visible in the three entrance arches and the south half of the nave.  It has a unique Persian influence reflecting the experiences brought back from the Crusades.  During the 15th century and Dinan’s golden age, a distinct Gothic expansion was undertaken adding the chapels along the north side and a towering spire and bell tower.  During the French Revolution the church became the “Temple of the Supreme Being”, and then was a hayloft, before returning to its pure ecclesiastic function in 1800.

Wood Pigeon,

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus “on steroids”

The quiet, slow motion birding in this garden, along these ancient ramparts, in the shadow of the church spire, and in a land where English is a foreign tongue, made for an unforgettable morning.

Birding Buenos Aires


Those crazy European explorers of the 15th and 16th century, thinking they could find the spice islands and land of Marco Polo by sailing west.  The pesky New World continents kept getting in the way and all the probing of the promising bays and rivers failed to reveal a passage to the East.  In the north they tried the St. Lawrence and Hudson Rivers and the Hudson and the Chesapeake Bays, and further south the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean, all of which had only deceiving potential.

Rio de la Plata

Rio de la Plata

In 1516 Spaniard Juan Diaz de Solis was the first European to sail into the Rio de la Plata, a 150 mile wide bay pointing to the west, but it too eventually narrowed to a river and the water rapidly became less salty and more silty–wrong again. Early settlements were repulsed by the understandably cautious natives, but the first permanent settlement was finally established by Juan de Garay in 1580.

Guira Cockoo

Guira Cockoo, Guira guira

Today Buenos Aires, “Good Winds”, the “Paris of South America”, is a teeming subtropical metropolis on the shore of Rio de la Plata, with 15.5 million inhabitants. It’s the most visited city on the continent.  Having a few days off and faced with losing my LAN airfare from a previously cancelled trip to Patagonia, I chose this city for my first trip to South America.  Mind you, this was not a birding trip, although one is always birding, but rather a hastily arranged spring respite, (fall by their calendar) in a new continent for us.  Buenos Aires was a leading destination for European immigrants from 1880 to 1930, mainly Italian, German, and Spanish, and that is very apparent in the architecture visible between the gigantic billboards.  The passions of its people are football and Tango, with reminders of both on all the street corners and in the parks.

Turquoise-front Parrot and Monk Parakeet

Turquoise-fronted Parrot and Monk Parakeet, Amazona aestiva and Myiopsitta monachus

We took several opportunities to rest our tired sight-seer legs, get a cold drink, and watch Tango up close.  Apparently there are multiple styles.  What I saw was a slow, sensual dance, arms held high, head back, and legs wrapping and un-wraping around your partner.  To a birder it looked like the dance of a Reddish Egret, strutting and fishing in the shallows, but the bird is all alone.  I did not observe any solo Tango.

Ruffescent Tiger-heron

Ruffescent Tiger-heron, Tigrisoma lineatum

Our hotel was a small affair in the Recoleta neighborhood, described in tour books as upscale, with abundant parks, museums, embassies, shopping, and restaurants.  What’s not to like.  Heading to a new world as a birder and photographer there are important choices to make.  “What’s in your bag?” is the common inquiry among birders.

Green-barred Woodpecker, Colaptes melanochloros

Green-barred Woodpecker, Colaptes melanochloros

For this trip I decided to travel light and leave the Canon 400mm F5.6L birding lens home, trying out the newly purchased, more versatile, and smaller Canon 70-300 F1:4-5.6L zoom.  The theory being to have the 70mm end for everyday walk-around sight-seeing, but also be constantly vigilant and ready to zoom to 300mm when that unexpected bird lands on the Tango dancer’s shoulder.  Remember, when on a continent for the first time, almost everything, including the birds are brand new.

Red Gartered Coot

Red Gartered Coot, Fulica armillata

This compromise lens is sturdy, well constructed, and sharp, but the operative word is compromise.  When birding I really missed the extra length, and when sightseeing I wished I had more field-of-view to capture the wonderful urban landscapes of Buenos Aires.

Chalked-brown Mockingbird

Chalked-browed Mockingbird, Mimus saturninus

One good decision I made was to hire a birding guide for a day.  I’ve urban birded alone in Tokyo and in stateside cities, but you just see much more with an expert guide.  I found Diego Gallegos from his website,, and convinced my non-birder wife to dust off her rarely used binoculars and join us.  It was a success.  He picked us up at the hotel and we visited three urban/suburban sites, a wetlands near Universidad de Buenos Aires, a golf course park and pond called Lago del Golf, and a park on the shore of the Rio de la Plata, Reserva Municipal de Vincente Lopez. Diego was pleasant and patient.  In addition to birding, and to the relief of my wife, he taught us much about his culture and life in Argentina.

Diego Gallegos

Diego Gallegos

Additional early morning strolls through the various parks in Recoleta, including the beautiful Jardin Japones yielded more new birds and by the end of the trip I had added 40 life birds, but who’s counting.  This is a relatively meagre list, given the phenomenal avian diversity of South and Central America, but served to stimulate me to plan future excursions below the equator.  Heading south, rather than east and west, also has the great advantage of avoiding jet-lag since you are crossing few or no time zones.  The Galapagos, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and the Amazon all beckon.

Canary-winged and Monk Parakeets

Canary-winged and Monk Parakeets, Brotogeris versicolurus

Birding San Diego


Old Lighthouse at Point Loma

The mariner warily approached the coast, scanning the horizon with a hand-held telescope. He first saw the promontory rising 422 feet above sea level and the brown sandstone cliffs extending to the north.  As the 200 ton galleon, San Salvador, drew closer to land he could make out the low sandspit and island to the south and the tempting narrow channel between the two.  Proceeding carefully he could make out the waves crashing onto the base of the cliffs forming countless tidal pools teeming with seabirds and gulls.  The sandy beaches to the south were also populated with shorebirds.  Once through the narrows the esturary opened into a glorious protected harbor with a narrow plain at waters edge, but with hills and low mountains visible a short distance inland to the east. The year was 1542 and the mariner was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer on a mission for Spain to explore the coast north of Mexico.  He was the first European to see what would later be named California.  The promontory would be named Point Loma and years later would display his statue near its peak.  The low sandy island would be called Coronado, and the harbor would become San Diego.

Cabrillo Monument

Cabrillo Monument

Almost 300 years later another sailor, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., made a similar landing at Point Loma in 1835 aboard the Pilgrim, out of Boston, Massachusetts. He chronicled his adventures in the classic memoir Two Years Before the Mast.  Their mission was to retrieve the cattle hides accumulated by sailors who were previously left encamped on the beach and sustained by hunting in the hills.  At the time San Diego was still a small Mexican town.

Fast forward to 2015.  Another mariner approached these same shores as the fog suddenly rolled in, making the passage something more than routine. They started sounding their fog horn, primarily to warn the day sailors that crowded the narrow channel. This ship was the USS Anchorage (LPD-23), a 684 foot amphibious transport dock, capable of delivering 800 marines and their equipment wherever they are called. This mariner and Officer of the Deck was my son.

Our cross-country trip was to see him and the return of his ship to the home port after several weeks at sea, reenacting an age-old tradition of anxiously and expectantly watching for the return of a loved one from the sea.  We arrived at the peak of Pt. Loma hours before the ship entered the channel giving me a chance to practice exposure settings and sun angles on several other ships departing the harbor.  I even had the telephoto lens available in case the Lieutenant JG was visible on the bridge.  It was a glorious clear day giving breath-taking views of San Diego and the waterfront.  But a birder is always birding and on the lookout for new species, especially on a first trip to a new part of the world, as this was for me.  With everything ready my wife took the time to visit the old lighthouse and visitor’s center, while I headed down the seaside sandstone cliff trails looking for birds. IMG_5146

IMG_5181 The soft sandstone of the west-facing cliffs is being eroded by continuous wind and wave action, revealing dinosaur fossils from the Late Cretaceous Period 75 million years ago.  Near the base of the cliffs around the tidal pools I found Brown Pelicans, Great Blue Heron, Great Egrets, Double-crested Cormorants, Heermann’s Gull, and the ubiquitous Western Gull.  I finally learned the reason for the “double-crested” modifier for the cormorant.  The western sub-species has paired white head tufts in breeding season, lacking on the eastern variety familiar to me.  The Heermann’s Gull is a beautiful red-billed, black-legged west coast bird, breeding in Mexico but seen northward along the California coast in non-breeding season.

Heermann's Gulls

Heermann’s Gulls

Near the top of the cliffs there are dense aromatic sages, low-growing succulent shrubs, flowers, and grasses, giving refuge to numerous passerines.  It was difficult to get a good look or photo of these, but with some patience I was rewarded with a beautiful Orange-crowned Warbler, Rock Wren, and California Towhee, all life birds.  White-crowned Sparrows and Western Scrub Jays were also abundant.

Vast fields at Pt. Loma

Vast fields at Pt. Loma

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

California Towhee

California Towhee

Rock Wren

Rock Wren

Enough birding.  It was time to return to the Cabrillo Monument and stake out the perfect position to see the return of the USS Anchorage.  Do you believe in Murphy’s Law?  Fifteen minutes before the anticipated arrival, a dense fog bank rolled over us obscuring the channel and all of Pt. Loma. Visibility zero. Right on cue we heard the Anchorage’s deep fog horns but could barely see to the edge of the cliff.

Old Lighthouse, Point Loma

Old Lighthouse, Point Loma

Disappointment.  Plan B:  Run to the car and make haste to downtown San Diego and public dock at the USS Midway museum, without getting a speeding ticket.  Only 20 minutes to spare, but with a little luck it was still possible to see the ship underway. We arrived at the park just as the Anchorage was clearing the bend in the river and passing by.  The sun was wrong, the lighting was poor, and the photos borderline, but that did not keep a lump from my throat and some understandable parental pride and patriotism as that great ship passed by, under the Coronado Bridge and into its berth.

USS Anchorage (LPD 23)

USS Anchorage (LPD 23)

While in home port our son lives in an apartment attached to a charming neo-Victorian home on Golden Hill, recently and carefully renovated by its owners.  Fortunately for me it is located on the southern border of Balboa Park, a 1200 acre urban park, one of our country’s oldest, established in 1835. This greenway is quite different than the well known Central Park and Boston Common of the east coast.  This is a “California style” park bisected by a canyon, two freeways and crisscrossed by walking paths.  It also features museums, gardens, several theaters, a golf course and the famous San Diego Zoo.  For me the attraction was the birds.  An early morning walk here gave up 14 species including a life bird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker. It seemed like Anna’s Hummingbirds were everywhere.  I was initially confused by the warblers, but finally decided they were all Yellow-rumped with varying intensities of plumage.

Nutall's Woodpecker

Nutall’s Woodpecker

A later tour of the coastline including San Diego Harbor, Coronado Island and a northern trek to La Jolla Shores revealed many more birds among the coconut-oiled sunbathers, surfers, and seaside mansions.  These included a Pacific Loon (a life bird), Royal Terns, Willets, Surf Scoters, Greater Scaup, and mucho gulls.

Pacific Loon

Pacific Loon

La Jolla Shores

La Jolla Shores

However, the highlight of the weekend was a personal tour of the USS Anchorage by our son, who proudly showed us the warship, his home-away-from-home and workplace since last July.

USS Anchorage (LPD 23)

USS Anchorage (LPD 23)

The 4-day weekend was much too short. As the plane took off for home and circled over Pt. Loma and San Diego Harbor I was treated to one last panoramic view of the Pacific Fleet, lined up at their docks. I was once again reminded of the daily dedication and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, witnessed first hand, each doing their small part to project strength and keep us safe.  The rows of white gravestones, visible even by plane, at Rosecrans National Cemetery again reminded me that for some the sacrifice was ultimate.  It was a good birding weekend, but also so much more.