Birders Flock To Cambridge's Mount Auburn Cemetery

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Bird watchers gather at Mount Auburn Cemetery. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)
Bird watchers gather at Mount Auburn Cemetery. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

Call this week “the peak of the beak.” It's prime time for the migratory birds winging it over eastern Massachusetts and for the people who watch them.

And one of the very best places they flock together is Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

A Haven For Birds, Heaven For Birders

They gather on Indian Ridge Path, a mound of grass, surrounded by stately granite tombstones and mausoleums built into the hillside.

A female Baltimore Oriole. (Courtesy of David Baake)
A female Baltimore Oriole. (Courtesy of David Baake)

This spot, overlooking Halcyon Lake, is hallowed ground: a haven for birds and heaven for birders.

Eyes skyward, staring through binoculars, they point into the trees at birds and new blossoms on magnolia, maple, mighty oak.

It's not even 8 a.m. and some, like Chris Floyd, have already been at the cemetery for hours.

Floyd lets out a bird call.

“That was a Black-billed Cuckoo — a Black-billed Cuckoo imitation,” he says. “It’s a rhythmic in little triplets. A little lower pitch would be better.”

The forecast for the day calls for “a monster fallout," the conditions a perfect mix of temperature and humidity, time and place.

There are northern flickers and blue-gray gnatcatchers, hermit thrush and warblers galore, songbirds with colorful feathers and fanciful names — yellow-rump, and chestnut sided.

'An Added Value'

Floyd says birders too come in all sorts of hues, shapes and sizes.

“You'll find plenty of interesting people to talk to here,” he says. “Yes. I've known birders who’ve had every kind of profession you can think of.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says birding is the No. 1 sport in the country. Steve Mossberg, who teaches at Cambridge Upper School, is one of 50 million American birders.

Up before 6 a.m., he's an early bird who catches the most frequent and exotic fliers.

“People are talking about how today might be the best day of the year, but there’s another couple weeks probably, weather depending,” he says.

“How often do you come here?” I ask.

“Right in this season, as many mornings as I can,” he says. “Five a week.”

“What is it about birds?"

“It's sort of like it's a thing that's everywhere that you don't notice if you’re not necessarily looking for it. It's kind of an added value to life,” he says. “As you hear them, as you see the colors, it just makes walking down a little bit more fun because there’s that little added thing that you can do and learn about and enjoy.”

An Urban Oasis

Mount Auburn, consecrated in 1831, is the nation's first garden-cemetery. Here are Brahmins in abundance: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Buckminster Fuller and Isabella Stewart Gardner are among the 93,000 permanent residents of the park that serves as an urban oasis for the seasonally transient.

“Oh, it's an amazing place,” says birder Lois Hetland, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “The birds are flying over, and they look for green spaces in the city. So they're way up there and then they just dive down. They fly all night. But all these trees have the food that they need. I mean when they’re flying all that time they need to really eat.”

“It's kind of paradoxical: a place of the dead attract so much living,” I say.

“Yeah, you know, it’s funny, I’ve walked here for years and sometimes I think about the fact that there are gravestones here but mostly I see it as an arboretum and as a bird sanctuary,” she says. “There’s a hawk right now, and there’s been a blue heron over in Willow Pond, and there’s been a green heron. They’re all over the place.”

“Brilliant orange, Baltimore Oriole — they're florescent orange and black, right up there," says birder Lisa Ahrens, pointing skyward. “They often sit in the top of the tree, and the sun illuminates their brilliant orange breast. And it's just glorious, that’s all. You don't even need binoculars for that one. It's an easy one.”

Just look in the direction of the spring soundscape at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

This segment aired on May 13, 2014.

Bruce Gellerman Senior Reporter
Bruce Gellerman was a journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.



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