Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Warblers are a Hook to Birding
July 19, 2008
Steve Grinley

     In follow-up to my daughter’s columns the past two weeks, and because I often get inquiries when I lead walks, 
I thought I would share with you, again, my story of how I got interested in birds. I wrote this column back in 1996:

     It was about this time in May more than thirty years ago when my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Beach, asked to speak to me after class. Now Mr. Beach was the only male teacher in our elementary school and he was the authoritarian-handling most of the trouble-makers in the school. My trepidation waned somewhat when he said he needed to go to Boston University on Saturday and was thinking about stopping at Mt. Auburn Cemetery to do some bird watching and would I like to join him? He singled me out of the whole class to go with him on a Saturday! But to Mt. Auburn Cemetery? For birds? I don’t know if I was too scared or too flattered to say no.

     That Saturday morning was bright and crisp but warmed quickly. After a brief stop at B.U. we drove into Cambridge and into Mt. Auburn. The cemetery was like a giant garden with all varieties of 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 bank. Here I was introduced to my first warbler, the myrtle, a butterfly of a bird with sharp black and white patterns against soft gray with splashes of yellow. I also saw my first brilliant orange and black Baltimore oriole and watched a spotted sandpiper “teetering” as it walked along the edge of the pond. But it was the stop at Spectacle Pond, a small double 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 plumage’s 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 species or more of warblers that morning. I remember the kindness of total strangers helping to point out each one and to explain what markings made it a magnolia or a palm warbler. I remember the disappointment of not seeing certain birds called out by others. I remember the bigger disappointment when Mr. Beach said 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 field guides. She thought it would be a passing interest.

     Mt. Auburn became one of my favorite places to visit during spring while growing up in Newton. During junior high school, I would awaken at 3:30 on May mornings and walk 4-5 miles to Watertown Square to catch the first trolley to Mt. Auburn at 5 am. When I got there I would crawl under the gate because it wasn’t open yet. I would leave just after 7:00 to get to school on time. Many mornings the birds were so plentiful that it was tough to leave at all.

     Mt. Auburn is an oasis for the night migrating songbirds. Perhaps drawn to Boston and Cambridge by the lights, they discover this large patch of green amid the concrete and tall buildings and seem to drop in there in large numbers. So do the birders. On a May weekend morning Mt. Auburn probably has more birders per acre than anywhere else in New England.

     May is a great time to catch the “birding bug” and an early morning trip to Mt. Auburn should do the trick. Or you may catch a wave of warblers locally on Plum Island, at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Newburyport or, if your lucky, in your own backyard. Though these areas may not carry the sweet fragrance of Mt. Auburn, the vivid color 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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