Boston Public Transportation Big Day

With final exams looming in the week ahead, two other Harvard birders, Harold Eyster and Eamon Corbett, and I decided to attempt big day in the Boston area. For the added challenge, the reduced environmental impact, and the fact that we didn’t have a car, we decided to do our big day by walking and using public transportation. With a little planning a few days before, the three of us set out at midnight on May 11 to see how many species we could find in the Greater Boston region. We set a goal of hundred species, a total that seemed achievable if we were lucky with migrants in the morning!

Shortly after midnight, we met in Harvard Yard near Widener Library. The buildings around the Yard block out much of the city noise, making this a decent spot to listen for nocturnal flight calls. We soon heard the heep of a Swainson’s Thrush, giving us our first species of the day. This was not the only thrush we would hear overhead: Veery, Hermit, and Wood also passed above us. As we stood listening to the hundreds of flight calls overhead, several friends stopped by to ask why we had our ears cupped towards the sky. Most just shook their heads and moved on, but a few stood around to chat and even listen a bit. Two and a half hours passed incredibly quickly, at which point we already had over 20 species, including a few warblers, sparrows, and shorebirds!

Our night listening spot

Satisfied with our count, we grabbed a quick breakfast from a 24-hour market, and started walking towards Alewife. As we passed through quiet neighborhoods, we heard many White-throated Sparrows calling overhead along with some warblers and thrushes. Once at Alewife, we climbed a parking garage in hopes of hearing more flight calls, but the noisy fans on a nearby building made it difficult to hear the calls. Instead, we sat for a few minutes as a little drizzle started. Although it was not even 4am, robins were singing in full-force and a single Yellow Warbler joined them for a bit. We left the parking garage and walked up the road, where we tried calling for Eastern Screech-Owl… nothing. No marsh birds called from the cattail and Phragmites wetland, but we heard two American Woodcocks displaying in the woods behind us. As we continued up the road, a coyote ran across in front of us and paused to look back before disappearing into the woods!

We headed back to the trailhead of the Alewife Brook Reservation just as the light rain stopped, but the trail was already sufficiently muddy. We headed all the way to the end of the path at Little Pond, were we found Great Blue, Black-crowned Night-, and Green Herons. Once it was light enough for common birds like Song Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats to start singing, we backtracked along the path. We picked out Wood Ducks and another Green Heron along the creek. Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Indigo Buntings sang around us, slowly building up our list. About halfway back to the trailhead, we heard and got a quick glimpse of a Wilson’s Warbler, an excellent bird to find on our big day!

Once out of Alewife Reservation, we headed along the bike path that followed the other side of the creek. We continued to pick up new birds, mostly common species like Carolina Wren (although this would be our only one of the day), Brown-headed Cowbird, and Northern Flicker. The White-eyed Vireo I had found at this location a few days earlier was nowhere to be found, so we hurried over the Fresh Pond, our second spot for migrants. While Fresh Pond itself held nothing more than a few Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, the trees around it were filled with birds. Yellow-rumped Warblers and Warbling Vireos were abundant, and White-throated Sparrows filled the undergrowth. At Lusitania Field, an open wet meadow area next to Fresh Pond, we found a Swamp Sparrow lurking in the reeds and several warbler species singing in the trees. We continued around the lake and heard Nashville and Pine Warblers singing from the treetops. Just as we left the Fresh Pond path, a bird flew up into a large oak in front of us—White-crowned Sparrow! This is a species that we knew was possible, but was unreliable since there were no stops on our route that consistently held this species. Score!

We then made the short walk to Mt. Auburn Cemetery, where we were met by the usual horde of birders at this birdy locale. We worked our way past the large groups as we searched for a few migrants not yet on our list. At Willow Pond within the cemetery, we found a gorgeous, cooperative male Bay-breasted Warbler and another singing Wilson’s Warbler. A little farther down the path, we discovered yet another Wilson’s Warbler, this one pretty high in a tree… odd. Then we spotted a sparrow hopping around in a nearby tree. It turned out to be a Swamp Sparrow, which was also weird to see fairly high in a tree.

We eventually found ourselves at the tower in the middle of the cemetery. We hoped this vantage point would allow us to see some raptors flying by, but all we saw was a Red-tailed Hawk cruising through the cemetery. After an unproductive fifteen minutes on the tower, we headed down to the “Dell” within the cemetery where a Hooded Warbler had been seen in previous days. Despite our careful searching, we were unable to find the bird, but we picked up Yellow-throated Vireo in the process. With that, we marched out of the cemetery at 9:30am and caught the bus back to Harvard Yard. Up until this point, our mode of transportation had only been walking! We had trekked over 11 miles since midnight, leaving us with a total of 91 species by the time we left the cemetery! Not too shabby… and awfully close to our goal of 100! In addition to seeing an incredible number of species overall, we also had found at least EIGHT Wilson’s Warblers—a very, very high count for this species!

Once back at Harvard, Eamon went to grab his spotting scope while Harold and I raided the dining hall for bagels and fruit. We met in Harvard Square, hopped on the subway, and headed towards Boston. As we sat down on the subway, we realized for the first time how tired we really were. We all dozed off a little, but managed to get off at the right stops and make the proper connections. We eventually got to the Blue Line, on which we headed up to Belle Isle Marsh Reservation. Once we were at the preserve, we promptly found a Greater Yellowlegs and a Common Tern along a muddy inlet. From the observation tower, we spotted a Snowy Egret in the pool in front of us and some Brant and Least Terns at the back of the marsh. Then, we noticed a heron flying north of us. I didn’t think much of it at first, until Eamon suggested we keep our eyes on it. As it got closer and the lighting improved, we realized it was a Little Blue Heron! This was a very unusual sighting for this area, and a bird we did not expect. In fact, it is apparently only one of about ten records for the Boston area.

Shortly after the heron flew past, a kestrel fluttered in from over the marsh—species 99 for the day! A group of four Black-bellied Plovers put us at the century mark, but the new birds didn’t stop there! A Bank Swallow flew past the tower, then I spotted a Great Egret sitting way out in the marsh. We climbed down the tower and finished the walking loop. We added Lesser Yellowlegs and Willet before we left Belle Isle.

We continued walking through the hot sun to the shoreline in hopes of finding some seabirds. Along Winthrop Parkway, we found Common Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers, and White-winged Scoters loafing offshore. Our scans of the horizon for gannets were entirely fruitless. We then walked along the parkway until we reached Revere Beach. From this vantage point, we spotted a few more Brant offshore, but found nothing else of note. We headed up the beach, and our thoughts wandered away from birding as we began scanning for a place to get lunch. We spotted a restaurant and made a beeline there. However, we didn’t completely stop birding along the way, as we found a single Piping Plover on the beach. With our 110th species in the bag, we sat down for some much needed food and break from the sun.

With our stomachs full and thirst quenched, we headed back out the beach and continued towards the Wonderland subway stop. From the beach across from the station, we scanned the ocean once more. A few more White-winged Scoters sat offshore and Eamon spotted a Sharp-shinned Hawk that was making its way towards land. Eamon also spotted a group of 11 Manx Shearwaters sitting not too far off the shore. This location is known for always having this species during the month of May. We have no idea why this spot and this spot alone is so good for Manx, but we weren’t complaining! We then got back on the subway and made our way back down to the Red Line and traveled south to North Quincy. Our next birding location was Squantum, an area with marshes where we hoped to build up the shorebird and duck portions of our checklist. Alas, the marshes were empty. We did manage to find a small group of Semipalmated Plovers, which was one of the species we hoped to get here. We had no luck finding an American Oystercatcher or Glossy Ibis, but we did clean up three common species that we had surprisingly missed earlier in the day: Turkey Vulture, Killdeer, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

By now it was after 5pm, and we had to make some decisions of which spots we wanted to cover before sunset. We ended up scratching our stop near Mission Hill, where we could potentially have seen White-eyed Vireo, Worm-eating Warbler, and Cape May Warbler. Instead, we headed strait to Chestnut Hill Reservoir, where we thought we’d have a better chance of finding new species. The Green Line was dreadfully slow, but within ten minutes of arriving at the reservoir, we added Ruddy Duck, Common Merganser, and Palm Warbler to our list. The sun was just above the treetops now, so we figured we had time for one more stop. We decided on the Fenway Gardens, which seemed like a fitting place to end a Boston big day. We walked through the gardens and found White-throated, Song, and Swamp Sparrows, a Hermit Thrush, and a few warblers. Nothing new, though. We wandered down towards the creek, and before long, we heard the distinctive calls of Cedar Waxwings! While another new bird was exciting, this put us at 119. A great total, but also a terribly frustrating number—we needed one more. By this point, however, it was getting dark. Bats were flying around us and strange people started showing up in the park. We discussed our plan of action, debating on whether it would be worth listening for flight calls later in hopes of getting a Gray-cheeked Thrush or cuckoo.

We decided to wait a few more minutes at the gardens, so we watched the sky hoping something would fly by. Some pigeons and a night-heron or two passed overhead. Then, I spotted a bird flying to our left. Mute Swan. We had missed (avoided?) this introduced species during the day, but here was one for #120. I’ll admit, it was an underwhelming last bird, but it brought us to 120 nonetheless. So with that, we got back on the T and rode to Harvard. Although we technically had three hours left, we figured our chances of adding anything else were slim, so we called it a day.

Harold, Eamon, and Corey waiting for Red Line late in the date

Harold, Eamon, and Corey waiting for the Red Line late in the day (Photo by Eamon Corbett)

We had set a goal of 100 species, figuring that this would be a respectable total for a public transportation big day in this urban area. Yet, we managed to find 120 species during 21 intense, sleep-depriving hours of birding! We had no major misses during our day, and we found several species that we did not expect! We had also walked a total of 20.4 miles through woods, marshes, beaches, neighborhoods, and city streets. In terms of public transportation, we rode on all four of Boston’s subway lines and passed through 32 different stations. It was an awesome day for us all, and hopefully we can do it again in the future!