Editor’s Note: The following article by Simon Perkins about Ronnie Donovan’s remarkable back yard appeared in Mass Audubon’s Sanctuary magazine in the fall of 2004, and is reprinted here with permission.
For years a man named Ronnie Donovan had been calling me about some of the more extraordinary birds that he’d seen in his backyard—Long-eared Owl, Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, Dickcissel, Clay-colored Sparrow, Townsend’s Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, a Yellow Warbler in January (the first and still-only midwinter record for the state), and, the real jaw-dropper, a Boreal Owl, a very rare miniature visitor from the northern spruce forests of Canada.
What made the boreal owl transcendent was the fact that it was the second one Ronnie had found in less than a week. He found the first one while birding on Long Island in Boston Harbor during the No-name Storm (the “Perfect Storm”) in late October 1991. He first saw it on October 28, and he relocated it at the same daytime roost on each of the next two days. But, as though that weren’t enough, the following week he found another or the same individual in the only tree over his driveway!
Ronnie’s yard list is even more astonishing considering that virtually all these species have been seen from his kitchen window in an inner-city yard in South Boston and that the “habitat” in the yard itself contains more concrete than plants. So, what is it about Ronnie’s yard? First of all, Ronnie lives there. I’ve spent many hours trying to figure out what it is that makes a top-flight birder; and, as far as I can tell, like any vocation or avocation, it has more to do with concentration, intensity, passion, a sense of awareness, and a deep desire to learn than with physical attributes such as keen visual acuity. Ronnie probably has all of these because, wherever he is, he always finds birds, not only in his yard but also around his neighborhood. Some of Ronnie’s home turf includes Carson Beach in Southie, the harbor islands (especially Long Island), and the marshes along the Neponset River in Dorchester. His list of avian discoveries from these localities is nearly as impressive as his yard list: Bar-tailed Godwit, Yellow Rail, Mew Gull, and a pair of Manx Shearwaters apparently prospecting for nest sites within a hundred yards of Carson Beach.
But, as good as Ronnie is, as the saying goes, no one can squeeze blood out of a rock. Ronnie’s yard may be mostly concrete, but it’s much more than the proverbial rock. Clearly, something or some combination of things sets his yard apart. First of all, it’s coastally located: just up the hill from Carson Beach on Boston Harbor.
The ocean acts as a barrier to most land birds because, if they can, they do whatever it takes to avoid flying over open sea. Because the prevailing winds in most of the United States blow from the west, many species, especially those that migrate long distances, tend to be deflected eastward during the course of their flights, and many of those that pass through New England eventually bump up against the coast. This results in migrants becoming more concentrated along the shore than they would be farther inland.
Secondly, Ronnie’s yard backs up on a small but well-vegetated vacant lot, an exception in this highly residential neighborhood. From a bird’s perspective, a patch of green within a large expanse of buildings and pavement represents an island—an oasis in an otherwise inhospitable desert.
Thirdly, the lot is on a south-facing slope. This means that this tiny patch of green is not only protected from any cold winds that blow from the north but also angled toward the sun to receive more solar radiation. This exposure creates a relatively warm and attractive microclimate. Of course, the many pounds of birdseed that Ronnie casts into his yard play a part too, but that’s just the table setting.
There are other productive patches of habitat along the coast of Massachusetts that attract birds—for example, Plum Island in Newburyport, Eastern Point in Gloucester, Marblehead Neck in Marblehead, the Thicket in Nahant—but, per square foot, Ronnie’s yard beats them all.