Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Spring Warblers Spark a Lifetime of Birding
May 13, 2017
By Steve Grinley
I have spent a few days birding Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge this May. In fact, we spent most of last Sunday afternoon there. The birding wasn’t particularly good, but there were enough warblers, scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore and orchard orioles to keep us interested. The flowering trees and shrubs of this beautiful cemetery are a photogenic backdrop for those colorful birds.
Spring birding in Mt. Auburn is special for me, as it stirs the memories of 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 than a half century ago when my sixth grade teach, 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 too scared to say no to the only male teacher in my elementary school!
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 streets and paths, some lifting their binoculars to the trees above.
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 (now called yellow-rumped.) It was a butterfly of a bird with sharp black and white patterns against soft blue-gray with splashes of yellow. I also saw my first male Baltimore oriole sporting its brilliant orange and black plumage, and watched a spotted sandpiper “teetering” along the edge of the pond.
It was the stop at Spectacle Pond (now called Auburn Lake) that left the indelible impression. Spectacle Pond is a small pond with a bridge across the middle, surrounded by rhododendron, birches, ash and beech trees. Since it was the peak of migration I remember that 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 species and explain what marking made it a magnolia or a palm warbler. I remember how I was amazed that some birders could hear a bird singing and tell me what it was without looking at it! Birders were a friendly lot for sure – or at least that was my first impression.
I recall the disappointment of not seeing certain birds called out by others. I remember even more disappointment when Mr. Beach announced that it was time to leave. Yes, I caught the birding bug – 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 just thought that it would be a passing interest. Not long after though, Mr. Beach gave me my first field guide. It was a Peterson Filed Guide to Birds. In it, Mr. Beach inscribed, “I hope this book helps to not only identify birds, but also to know them.” It took a few years for me to understand just what he meant.
Realizing that this was not going to be a passing phase, my mother bought me a pair of binoculars from Kay Jewelers, because she had a charge card there. We didn’t have much growing up, so I realized how special this was for her to spend money on binoculars for me.
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 older 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. So it was again last Sunday and, with no other commitments, caused me to stay all afternoon.
Perhaps this story might encourage you to venture out to observe the color and excitement of a May migration day. You might catch a wave of warblers locally on Plum Island, at the Oak Hill Cemetery, or, if you are lucky, in your own back yard. Though these areas might not carry the sweet fragrance of Mount Auburn, the vivid colors and song of those tiny butterflies of the bird world are sure to get you hooked.
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