|Bob Martel in the courtyard of the Brickbottom building. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)|
As dusk falls, Bob Martel leads a band of friends through a Belmont meadow to a stand of trees. It's early April, and with the chill of evening comes the chatter of birds' whoops, caws, trills. In the distance, in short, buzz-like bursts, a woodcock commences his mating dance.
The gathering freezes as the bird suddenly corkscrews up over their heads, creating a wild whistling sound with his feathers, and then swoops back to the ground.
Martel has been fascinated by birds for more than 40 years, and, as one of the most avid amateur birdwatchers in Somerville, he leads expeditions around the city.
He knows that you don't have to travel to the suburbs or beyond to find the myriad species that make their way through this area each spring. April and May are prime birding months, with the middle two weeks of May being the height of migration, he says
"I've seen American kestrels," or sparrow hawks, over Somerville, says the 56-year-old Martel, property manager for the Brickbottom Artists Association building on Fitchburg Street. "The stinky transfer station down the street attracts one turkey vulture."
"Amazing things happen at this time of year," Martel adds. "We have red-tailed hawks in Boston, and an occasional peregrine falcon - there's a pair that nests on the Custom House."
Robert Petersen, Brookline Bird Club board member, notes that a second pair of falcons nests atop the Christian Science Mother Church offices, and some snowy owls migrate to Logan Airport.
Of course, these aren't garden-variety birds. According to Petersen, birds you're likely to see outside city windows are rock doves (pigeons), brought here by the English as domestic meat birds.
House sparrows - the little brown creatures that flock to bushes and make a cacophony of shrill tweets - are also plentiful. As are black birds with yellow mandibles; they're starlings, characterized by Martel as "glossy sharkskin-suit-wearing types."
Other landing areas for migrating birds include Fresh Pond in Cambridge; Forest Hills Cemetery and Jamaica Pond in Jamaica Plain; Hall's Pond in Brookline; the Public Garden and Boston Common; and the Audubon Society's Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Mattapan.
Look low among the leaves for thrushes. "They have some of the most beautiful songs in North America - melodic and a little haunting," says Martel. Many thrushes (and there are lots of varieties here, including the robin), he says, "may look nondescript at first but they're really lovely."
Warblers can be found in the oak trees making high, thin sounds. That reedy "konk-la-ree!" is a red-winged blackbird, the very first birds of spring.
"There are turkeys in streets in Newton," Martel says. "They're not hunted, so they don't show fear."
For the best birding, say veteran practitioners, go out just after dawn or before sundown during spring migration and nesting, as birds will be at their most vocal and males will display, trying to attract a mate. Scan for movement in the leaf litter, shrubs, treetops.
What you're after is this: surprising moments of beauty, all the more precious for being fleeting, sudden, and barely glimpsed.
"Every year we get something nice in our courtyard," Martel says of the Brickbottom building. "And once, on the night before Thanksgiving, I saw a hermit thrush on the cobblestones of Fitchburg Street in the dark. When you find a late or early bird, or a life bird," one spotted for the first time, he says, "it's kind of special."