Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

May Warblers Can Be A “Hook” to Birding
May 04, 2019
By Steve Grinley

     There are varied reasons why, and how, folks get interest in watching birds. For some, they suddenly have extra time on their hands – usually new retirees or empty nesters. For others, at any age or time in their lives, it is one particular bird or birding experience that becomes their “wow” moment.

     I have spent many May mornings birding Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. There are usually lots of warblers, as well as scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore and orchard orioles and other colorful songbirds. All those brilliantly patterned birds are always framed in the flowering trees and shrubs of this beautiful cemetery.

     In addition to the birds, there are also the familiar faces of birding friends we might run into, some whom we hadn’t seen all winter. So it also becomes a social event as we catch up on each other’s lives and share birding stories. The whole experience is what makes it so special.

     Also special for me are the memories that it holds for how I began birding. For those of you who haven’t heard the story, I thought that I would share it again with you:

     It was about this time in May more then half a century ago when my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Beach, asked if I would like to go to Mt. Auburn Cemetery on a Saturday to do some bird watching. He singled me out of all the class. But to Mt. Auburn Cemetery? For Birds? I don’t know if I was flattered, or just too scared to say no!

     That Saturday morning in May was bright and crisp, and it warmed up quickly. The cemetery was like a giant botanical garden with all kinds of flowering trees, shrubs and flowers in full bloom. An unforgettable sweet aroma filled the air. People with binoculars were everywhere, walking along the roads and paths.

     We stopped first at a pond where the monument of Mary Baker Eddy graces its banks. There I was introduced to my first warbler, the myrtle wabler, now called yellow-rumped warbler. It was an eye-catching bird with sharp black and white patterns against soft blue-gray, with splashes of yellow. I also saw my first male Baltimore oriole there, and watched a spotted sandpiper “teetering” along the edge of the pond.

     It was the stop at Spectacle Pond, now called Auburn Lake, which left the indelible impression. It is a small pond with a bridge across the middle, surrounded by rhododendron, birches, ash and beech trees. It was the peak of migration and every bush and tree around the pond was “moving” with warblers. These tiny, brightly colored birds with flashes of bright yellows, reds, oranges, blues, white and ebony were the “hook”. Their spring plumages made each species distinct and relatively easy to identify, matching the pictures in Mr. Beach’s field guide. Their songs, as varied as the birds themselves, added to the fascination.

     There must have been fifteen or more different species of warblers that morning. I remember the kindness of total strangers helping to point out each species and explain what marking made it a magnolia warbler or a palm warbler. I remember the disappointment of not seeing certain birds called out by others. I remember more the disappointment when Mr. Beach announced that it was time to leave. Yes, I was hooked!

     As soon as I got home, I made my first list. I immediately started talking to my mother about binoculars and a field guide. She thought that it would be a passing interest. She used her Kay Jeweler charge card to buy me my first binoculars – which was very special since we didn’t have much money back then.

     Mr. Beach gave me my first Peterson Field Guide. In the front, he inscribed “I hope this books helps to not only identify birds, but also to know them.” It took me some years to realize exactly what Mr. Beach meant.

     Mount Auburn became one of my favorite places to visit during spring while I was growing up in Newton. During junior high school, I would awaken at 3:30am on May mornings and walk four to five miles to Watertown Square to catch the first trolley at 5:00 am. When I got to the cemetery, I would have to crawl under the gate because it wasn’t open yet, and I didn’t have a key like many birders. I would have to leave by 7:00 to get to school on time. Many mornings the birds were so plentiful that it was tough to leave at all. Yes, I was hooked!

     Perhaps this story might encourage you to venture out to observe the color and excitement of a May migration morning. The Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center conducts Friday morning “warbler walks” during May. The Center also has bird walks every Wednesday and Saturday mornings year ‘round and adds Wednesday evening bird walks during May. You may contact the Center at 978-462-9998 or check the Mass Audubon website for more information.

     Or you can venture out on your own. You might catch a wave of warblers or other colorful migrants on Plum Island, at the Oak Hill Cemetery, another local park or, if you are lucky, in your own back yard. Though some these areas might not carry the memorable fragrances of Mount Auburn, the vivid colors and songs of warblers and other songbirds are sure to get you hooked!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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