Birding Cemeteries and Other Lively Places
Three types of property, some more accessible than others that are close to almost any birder resident might be reached by walking or a short drive. The habitats they offer are not particularly natural, but frequently these man-made haunts offer some easy birding.
A frigid 20 something morning invitation for an easy visit to the local cemetery might have been unpleasant had the late morning sun found a cloud. Luckily, not a cloud was in sight, just blue sky, the color darker and more intense straight above and paler and washed out along the horizons. Air borne pollutants gathering in the windless valley contributed heavily to the pallor of the horizon. The temperature during the last several nights dipped into the teens of Fahrenheit. Reminding myself of the heat wave during of a recent trip to Alberta actually made me feel colder. Last night got down to 17 F.
Obviously, the journey up the hill to the town cemetery was not producing birds. A couple of humans coming down the lane form the grave sites looked cold and unhappy. Had the lane been one to a marsh or some other natural birding place, it would have been prudent to ask about bird sightings. Keeping in mind cemeteries are not just for birds, I vowed to keep quiet. My plan was not to upset anyone. The plan was for easy birding.
The narrow road up the hill, barely wide enough for two cars to meet and not tap their side view mirrors, eventually curved gently to the right. By now, my heavy winter coat was unzipped to let my almost sweating front catch the refrigerated air. A three-foot strip of frost remained painted thinly on the left side of the pavement, shaded by a slightly short rock wall. Something darted from a gangly oak to a scrubby ceanothus bush, and then flew out of sight. I had just passed the sign that read: “Narrow Road” and “No Dumping.” Being a cemetery, part of the sign about the road width should have been “Dead End.” Of course, I knew what the cemetery officials mean by “No Dumping.” How many birders have had to wade paste thoughtless illegally dumped refuse? Hopefully, no one has found a dumped body. That certainly would not be easy to take.
There wasn’t time to ask that bird why it was crossing the road. A person jogged past, huffing and puffing like a steam locomotive crossing a pass in the Rockies. My easier accent was just right for me, with a slow pace up all the while keeping a steady rhythm to my breathing. The procedure worked going up Mt. Shasta decades ago and more recently helped me ease up to a Colima Warbler in Big Bend. Not becoming overheated and concentrating on walking stride and breathing rhythm made the accent easy. Becoming too stressed from built up body heat and lack of sufficient oxygen could put anyone in the cemetery.
The bird crossing the road, I think, was what I call a crowned sparrow. I used to commonly name such a bird as a Zonotrichia sparrow and still do when around someone who probably has a handle on generic names. Of course, when birding in the western US., Zonotrichia sparrows are usually “crowned” sparrows. The other Zonotrichia sparrows don‘t have crown in their English name, meaning a required adjustment in definition, depending on which side of the divide you are. Announcing “Crowned” or “Zonotrichia” is easier than blurting “There goes a White-crowned or Golden-crowned Sparrow.” Today, near the bush where the steaming jogger must have scared the hell out of something, was, naturally, a Golden-crowned Sparrow. Naturally, because, not always wanting to make life easy, I was keeping a year list and White-crowned Sparrows were hiding from my view for almost two months.
Golden-crowned Sparrows may be easy birds during winter. They are not easy birds if you live in Missouri and impossible in most of eastern North America. If you live west of the Cascades in Washington, Oregon, and a good part of California, Golden-crowned Sparrows are easy winter birds. If you don’t, you may have to fight for air like the jogger coming up the hill. But you shouldn’t. Remember, don’t overheat and take in sufficient oxygen on the way up. Eventually, maybe, a Golden-crowned Sparrow will also visit your neighborhood cemetery. Or, if you live in or visit Alaska and British Columbia, finding a Golden-crowned Sparrow during summer could be easy.
In poker it is the tell or lack there of, in sports it may be the follow through, the just right wrist action, brute strength or size, but in birds, especially easy birds, it is being in the right place at the right time. How many times have we heard that? Probably enough to be tired of it, but who hasn’t missed a rare bird because they were a day late? My first chance to see wild Whooping Cranes, a relatively easy bird to see during winter, was foiled by one day. They had left Aransas, perhaps flying overhead the day before driving there from Austin.
Not all cemeteries sit on hills. Not all are to die for, that is, not all are good birding sites, especially those manicured right down to the nub of grass, those that look like golf greens and fairways without a rough. Many new cemeteries are not particularly lively birding places. They are just too tidy although American Robins like them, a good testament to what “they” say about worms. Such neat places usually offer little birding challenge unless you are into not much eye grabbing than robins and starlings.
The older cemeteries, slightly unkempt, or at least those that have a hedge or two, may offer some interesting and easy birding. These aged graveyards are not only interesting since there are so many great headstones, large and small, ornate and plain. The stones are great perches. Every year at an older cemetery, a Black Phoebe hops between centuries of life and death and a dripping water faucet. Lighting on a flat and blackened stone leaning slightly up to its meager two-foot apex, the phoebe called above a telling etching. The letters read, “Died of consumption, 1887.“ The Black Phoebe had left a faint white wash on the weather worn and pollutant ravaged marker. How ironic, the location of the particular cemetery was well north of the range of phoebe’s normal range in the late 1800’s. Now, in southern Oregon, the flycatcher ranges much north of the date of its stony perch.
Bird finding books sometimes include cemeteries. One particularly good one is in Kingsville, Texas. Technically, it is the Chamberlain Cemetery. It is a great place for some easy birding. No hills to huff up, it is an easy place to see Great Kiskadee and maybe even a Greater Roadrunner.
Cemeteries may be the only area around, often surrounded by concrete and houses that presents a location for migrants to forage and rest. Most cemeteries are open to the public and it is usually all right to walk or drive the property. You could be a mourner, someone admiring the dates on headstones, even a birder. It’s OK. Park and listen, better yet, walk and watch. As a habitat, sort of, cemeteries are scattered all over the country, constantly collecting more and more headstones and unintentionally welcoming birds and, depending on how commercial they are, intentionally welcoming deceased birders. Many cemetery landlords don’t mind the predeceased birder so long as their behavior isn’t too lively. Cemeteries are not all surrounded by living throngs of commerce and residency. Some of the burial grounds, aka graveyards, are out in the country. I know one south of Redding, California, that was an easy place to see a Lawrence’s Goldfinch. At least it was on the day I visited. Not a live human was in sight for miles, but Oak Titmouse and the goldfinch livened up an otherwise dead scene.
For those interested in cemetery watching, or what might be penned grave birding, ask the local birders which regional cemetery offers the best easy birding. If there’s no local birder to ask, many cemeteries are indicated on road maps. Since, usually even the most unkempt cemeteries, are manicured to some degree, the birds found there will be more interesting than robins and usually are easy to find. If too much pesky vegetation gets in the way, move to a different plot. Also, look for dripping faucets, which seem common in cemeteries and are great magnets for thirsty cemetery birds.
The large expansive hillside of Arlington Cemetery is heavily scarred with conspicuous white stone and little standing vegetation. It truly is a dead zone. Higher up, near the mansion once occupied by Robert E. Lee, is an old section of the cemetery. Bob must have liked trees, because this part of the cemetery, next to the relatively treed Ft. Meyer, where they keep the caisson horse and others, is a great place to see birds easily.
The larger and older the cemetery, the greater chance it will attract more birds. More acres means more continuous habitat, if we classify cemeteries as a kind of habitat. Doing so seems to recognize the fact that natural habitat is rapidly going away, and some of it may end up as a cemetery. Habitats evolve, such as grasslands becoming choked with brush and eventually growing trees, and some old cemetery vegetation has been allowed to change. Those stately trees in the old part of the Arlington Cemetery are just large enough to be a good resting place for migrants. Those tiny cemeteries, often sandwiched, so to speak, between fast food hamburger joints, usually are not even attractive to more than a couple of robins and a smattering of European Starlings.
A “habitat” that is just one-step from the graveyard are golf courses. Not only do they attract eventual users of cemeteries, some golf courses actually attract more birds. That is because most cemeteries lack large water traps that sometimes appeals to ducks and geese. Of course, the geese are not particularly welcome birds for reasons obvious to the cleated golfer shoes. Now, golfers have to worry about an extra species and there may be more to come, depending on how the present Canada Goose is drawn and quartered. No matter how they are divided taxonomically, they leave piles and piles of something rhyming with the goose being split. The water traps and their offal surroundings may offer some easy birding. It may be a great place to compare Cackling with Canada Geese, who knows. Of course, birding on a golf course may not be easy since golfers are so dangerous. Those small white balls, smacked hard with special ball smackers collectively named clubs, rocket over the orderly grass at blurring speeds. While watching those waterfowl, you may hear the word “fore” followed by “duck.” The “duck” does not mean an opportunity to see a Mallard, it’s a warning to hunker down or else.
If you think birding in the trees dotting the borders of the green alleys, think twice. You cannot assume the golfer’s ball is not going to slice into the trees. Generally, being hit by a golf ball, arrant or otherwise, or a speeding electric cart or golf clubs hurled under a salvo of four letter words is going to be a problem. Physical injury is not a ball and embarrassment from all that cursing will likely never happen, but it could be a life scaring moment. Keep in mind that birding down the fairway is rarely an option. Even though most golfers are great people and don’t want their balls to end up hurting someone, they would just as soon keep birders on the other side of the property. That’s understandable. We wouldn’t want them lofting golf balls into a group of birders waiting in line to look through a telescope. Even though a golf course, in a since, may protect habitat better than some cemeteries, and far better than a housing project or a shopping mall, birding on one of the courses could get you arrested. Always get permission before hitting the course.
City and other municipal parks sometimes offer sites for some easy birding. These are the relatively small parks where it usually is possible to count every individual bird occupying it. Bigger parks, the bigger state parks and reserves such as Bentsen Rio Grande Valley and even larger Big Bend Ranch State Parks in Texas, not to single out Texas, are not included here. National parks and reserves are likewise delegated to another chapter for your ease and convenience.
Birding from the car along the small park roads, or taking a winding trail to some easy birds may be better than cemeteries and most certainly is better than a golf course. As with cemeteries, easy birding will depend on the manicuring index of the park. Nothing but lawns offers any challenge. Such a place is too easy. A few trees help, and again, since the trees may have open space between them, it will be easy to spot a bird on a branch. If there are bushes, then there probably will be more species and individuals of birds, but depending on your birding level, too many birds may cause the site to be too difficult. Birders looking forward to easy park birding may benefit from the lack of bushes in parks that once had them. Park managers frequently remove bushes to alleviate fire danger and to avoid the use of bushes as human habitats. Bushes may be partial shelter for the homeless or hiding places for those who are more interested in each other than they are birds. Blushing cardinals, towhees and Fox Sparrows frequently are loosing habitat that would have otherwise been available to them. Birders may ponder the impending burning bush amid what, in many locations, is habitat depletion induced by failed economic and educational poverty.
There are many great parks to explore. Some of the well-known and birded ones include famed Central Park in New York and the parks forming the Emerald Chain in Cleveland. If transportation is a problem, go to the local park, take a cab or bus and enjoy. I still have fond memories of a few scattered greenways I found along the bus line leading from my boot camp, a place, incidentally, that was so birdless it might have been a sterile cemetery.
Dos and Don’ts in Cemeteries and Parks
There are some does and don’t when birding cemeteries, golf course and small parks. Since other people cohabit cemeteries, golf courses and parks, some of the rules specific to those types of birding places are sometimes necessary.
While birding cemeteries, bird quietly, check for a dripping faucet and enjoy yourself. Don’t yell, “Oh my god, look at that lively thing” or “It’s a Black-throated Blue Warbler, I swear on my mother’s grave.” The latter axiom is not a particularly wise maxim if your mother happens to be birding with you. It makes her feel bad and miss the easy warbler sighting. Don’t walk across graves, especially fresh ones. Don’t pick the flower; chances are they are artificial anyway. If a somber gathering of people is huddled around a casket, bird on the other side of the cemetery or, if it’s a small cemetery, leave. If the group is wearing colors, as in a gang, look like they are packing guns or are being watched by distant police, it might be a good idea to depart. If any of those conditions are met and you are a note taker, before you leave, definitely don’t write anything down or take pictures. Avoiding being a permanent resident is important. Don’t be alarmed by an occasional whirligig, perhaps the deceased favorite lawn décor. Maybe it’s a plastic duck flapping its wings in the wind. More common and tasteful decorations poked into the same ground as a loved one are spinners and pinwheels. These are the same toys I recall sticking out the window of a moving car or running as fast as short kiddy legs could go and giggling from the sight and sound of the propeller. Don’t be alarmed by the movements of those whirring wheels. In fact, if up to wiring codes, those millions of plastic windmills have a potential of producing electricity to help ease some of the burdens of global warming. Finally, don’t sit on the headstones and enjoy some easy birding.
Don’ts at golf courses usually include one primary rule. Don’t trespass unless you are golfing. That pretty much takes care of birder behavior at a golf course. Mostly, it is a case of us looking in from the outside. One golf course I pass on my way to a reservoir has a nice little pond that puddle ducks like. The rafts of American Widgeon and others are visible by parking along a wide shoulder of a state highway.
City parks present a slightly different set of don’ts. For example, don’t wander into bushy places. It might give the wrong impression to anyone in the bushes or anyone seeing you in the bushes. Don’t leave the main trails unless you are already have a strong inkling that the area doesn’t conceal one of the bush people, a would-be mugger or worse. Although binocs might be a good weapon when swinging from the strap, chances are the strap will be around your neck at an inopportune time. If you hide about the area, either don’t go there or travel in at least in twos. Chances are, the worst that will happen is that absolutely nothing bad will occur. If you are a what-if type, anything goes. Maybe someone dropped a raisin on the trail; it dried into a hard pointed piece of blacked morsel that accidentally flipped into your shoe or boot. At first, unnoticed, the dastardly raisin wedged between your toes, thus causing an incurable sore. You will never walk again. However, what if nothing happened, no wayward sour grapes, no creeping creeps, just some easy birding?
County parks may offer more birds, but especially parks that people drive to or drive through require some other don’ts. For example, there are plenty of people who would rather drive than walk. They don’t care if there’s a road or not. They ignore signs stating no motorized vehicles. Somewhere, it’s in the constitution, they believe, it is OK to drive their vehicles across the purple mountains and green plains. Flattened vegetation and deep muddy ruts is their badge. Now, here is the don’t. Do not confront these people. If you are able, surreptitiously get the field marks of the perpetrator, especially try for a license number, and, without being notices, call the authorities. Sometimes that helps, but most of the time it does not.
Whether witnessing the mud rutting evil canevals, may depend on operating budgets. State parks are usually funded enough to avoid suffering from human abuse, especially off-road rutting rage. On the other hand, too frequently, county parks are struggling just to pave the potholes.
Parks may present some easy opportunities for birders. Whether in Central Park in New York, during daylight hours, naturally, the town park about the size of a typical residential lot, or a serene trail winding across acres and acres of a county or state park, some easy birding is waiting. It is something too easy to pass up.
Easy birders need not limit themselves to the places outlined here. Most locations where all natural vestiges are whipped out are likewise birdless unless you count fast food birds. Even those may be interesting for a while, but there are many other places to see birds.