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A snowy owl sighting in Manhattan’s Central Park nearly shut down New York City last month. Crowds of birders and onlookers showed up to see this avian rarity; the last time the fluffy bird was spotted in the park occurred 130 years ago.
Even without such newsy events, birding is having a moment, says Pete Gilmore, field trip coordinator for the Brookline Bird Club. “People are getting outdoors more, and if you add birding to the mix, you’re exercising the mind and the body,’’ he says. Looking for birds, “you get riveted to the sights and sounds.’’ As you get into the zone, it’s a mental escape.
Birding is a great activity for these social-distanced times, provided you take separate cars, stay 6 feet apart, wear a mask, and don’t share spotting scopes or binoculars. Winter is a great time to look for birds, Gilmore says, because you see the “irruptive’’ species; a sudden surge of nomadic birds that unexpectedly arrive from the far north in large numbers. “That gets birders really excited,’’ he notes. Plus, you get the marquee migrants. “Everybody loves snowy owls and bald eagles, and there are many more of them here in the winter.’’ Birder intel: Snowy owls have been spotted on Plum Island and at Salisbury Beach recently. For bald eagles, head to the Merrimack River. “We’ve seen many of them this winter,’’ Gilmore says.
To see what’s happening near you, Gilmore recommends an app called eBird. The free app offers a list of birds by county, with reports from people who’ve spotted the birds. “This will get you close to a hot spot,’’ he says. Or go on the Brookline Bird Club website and sign up for one of their local field trips; the limit is eight people and it costs $15 annually to join. “Or, just see where we’re going and go there yourself,’’ Gilmore offers.
Is this a good year for birds? “Every year is a good year!’’ Gilmore says, the sign of a true fanatic. Birders are good about sharing their sightings, he says, so he’ll dash down to Sagamore or up to Salisbury to see a bird on the fly, so to speak. In that spirit, he shared some of this winter’s hot spots with us.
Plum Island, Newbury The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is one of New England’s premier spots for birding in any season. “Look for a snowy owl on the marsh,’’ Gilmore says. “Some of the blobs of snow you see turn out to be snowy owls.’’ He’s personally seen them recently at Hellcat Dike.
Salisbury Beach, Salisbury Birders have spotted snowy owls at the campground here. Also look for common redpoll (“little finches with red on their forehead, and pink chests on the males,’’ according to Gilmore) that come from the Arctic tundra and boreal forests. Meanwhile, the pine trees are full of red crossbills, eating conifer seeds. The females are yellow, and the males are red with darker wings; listen for the call that sounds like “jip, jip, jip.’’
Cold Spring Park, Newton, and Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain These urban greenspaces are good spots to see red and white-winged Crossbills. White-winged crossbills have a white slash on their black wings; males are rosy pink and females are greenish.
Halibut Point and Andrews Point, Rockport Cape Ann is a great zone for Arctic seabirds, Gilmore says. You might see Atlantic puffins, razorbills, murres, black guillemot, and dovekies, “a little tiny seabird.’’ These small auks — described by some as looking like a billiard ball with wings — live so far north that most birders don’t get a chance to see them. (Lucky us!) Along Bass Rocks, look for great cormorants, common and red-throated loons, and horned and red-necked grebe.
Carson Beach and Pleasure Bay, South Boston This is a wonderland of ducks. Some species commonly sighted include common goldeneye, common eider, and three species of scoters: white-winged, black, and surf. Inside the loop at Pleasure Bay, look for buffleheads (a small sea duck) and red-breasted mergansers. Also, “there’s a small goose with a black head — very cool-looking — called a brant goose, often on the rocks at Pleasure Bay,’’ Gilmore says.
Charles River, Watertown “If you go up to Watertown dam and Watertown Square upriver, you can run into all sorts of cool birds,’’ Gilmore notes. Commonly seen species include the great blue heron, mergansers, common goldeneye, and ring-necked ducks.
You don’t need fancy spotting scopes to see these birds, he says, just patience and a set of binoculars if available. Raptors, including short-eared owls and rough-legged hawks, are fairly easy to see. To up the ante, Gilmore says, “if you get a birding app on your phone and go out into the woods at 5 a.m. or 8 p.m. and play owl calls, you’re going to get a response.’’
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.