Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Warblers Can Be the Hook to Birding
May 14, 2011
By Steve Grinley

     I have spent a few mornings birding Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge this May. In fact, we spent all of last Sunday there, as the birding was particularly good. It was a sunny day and the birds were singing everywhere. There were lots of warblers, scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore and orchard orioles. All those brilliantly colored birds were framed in the flowering trees and shrubs of this beautiful cemetery.

     In addition to the birds, there were also the familiar faces of birding friends we would run into, some that 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 almost half a 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 too flattered or 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 streets 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 (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, and watched a spotted sandpiper “teetering” along the edge of the pond.

     It was the stop at Spectacle Pond (now called Auburn Lake), a small pond with a bridge across the middle, surrounded by rhododendron, birches, ash and beech trees that left the indelible impression. 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 or 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.

     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. So it was again last Sunday and, with no other commitments, caused me to stay all day.

     Perhaps this story might encourage you to venture out to observe the color and excitement of a May migration morning. I am conducting Friday morning warbler walks for Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center during May starting at 8:00 am. The Center also has walks every Wednesday morning and evening, as well as Saturday morning. You can contact the Center for more information.

     Or you can venture out on your own. 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.

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