Robins and Tombstones

Three months ago, I spotted a solitary robin somewhere in the bare branches around Spy Pond. Ever since Stefanie confirmed in one of her comments that the American Robin is considered a harbinger of spring, I have been keeping an eye out for robins while walking to work. I take a short cut across a small lawn everyday, counting robins as I pass. In the past week alone, the number increased from 4 to 12 and then to 16. Today morning however, while birding at the Mount Auburn Cemetery, I found out just how paltry these numbers were.

There were robins everywhere, on the tombstones, near the (frozen) vernal pool, beside the lakes, in the trees and on the lawns. I didn’t count, but I think I might have seen 200 to 300 of them in two hours of walking there. Our Mass Audubon guide didn’t turn up, so the seven people who had assembled just started birding by themselves. Luckily for me, all the others had been to the cemetery before and came forth with all sorts of useful information – Where to look for warblers, where the hawks are likely to nest, which trees do the sapsuckers prefer, what to find in the vernal pools (fairy shrimp), how to distinguish a red oak from a white oak (red oak has more spiky leaves, white oak has rounded leaf edges) and so on.

There are tombstones of all shapes and sizes in Mt. Auburn, some with elaborate sculptures built over the prestigious dead. Some simply say “Mother” or “Father” or “Husband” or “Wife”, others are housed in little ornate stone rooms with stained glass windows. Even at 9:00 am, there were fresh flowers at some graves. I have never looked for birds in a cemetery before, and was advised to go there by J. H. of Newburyport, one of the most amazing birders I have met. Mt. Auburn is very large, and if it didn’t contain graves, it could have been an arboretum. There are willows and oaks and pines and sugar maples and empress trees and many other trees whose names I wish I knew.

The lack of foliage at this time of the year tells some stories; nests made by birds, which would otherwise be hidden in leaves, are now visible in plain sight. In the swaying, flimsy branches of the willows, there are intricately woven oriole nests from last year. It is a wonder, and a testament to the highly evolved weaving capabilities of the birds that the nests don’t topple or fall off altogether. Even the birds, now developing their striking spring plumages, are easier to see when they perch on the bare branches. Near the grave of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a cardinal sat in a bush posing for the prospective missus, apparently unafraid of seven binoculars trained at it from not very far away. Elsewhere, there were chickadees, blackbirds, titmice, woodpeckers and blue jays, their voices all joining in a disorderly symphony. There were nuthatches doing their weird upside-down descending acts on tree trunks. It was wonderful to see cedar waxwings again, brown and yellow, with their handsome hairdos and red accents. They are apparently extremely common here, though the last time I saw one was from my dorm apartment in California four years ago.

I got to see owl pellets for the first time, under a pine tree. From the looks of it, a great-horned owl had swallowed a vertebrate (most likely a mouse), and the bones were almost completely intact in the neat, dry pellet. We couldn’t locate the skull, but there were parts of a spine and intact femur bones tightly embedded in the hairy pellet, which was slightly larger than a flattened ping-pong ball. The bones were thin, white and not much longer than my thumbnail, and remarkably clean for something that had emerged from somebody’s posterior. 🙂 It is no surprise that pellets are considered useful diagnostic tools to determine the food habits of owls and estimate the population of prey in the owl’s habitat.

One of the birders had a small thermometer that indicated 28 F. Cold weather, wind chill, and freezing rain returned this last week, but the sight of so many robins is encouraging, as is the appearance of extremely tiny buds on some branches. It is not much use complaining about the weather, but I find myself wanting to leave this winter behind.

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4 thoughts on “Robins and Tombstones”

  1. I saw my first robin of the year today. I can’t say just how happy it made me to see one. I can’t imagine seeing a couple hundred! What a glorious day you had!

  2. Robins in the graveyard…what a wonderful juxtaposition. There’s something about seeing birds in a cemetery that sums up the entire life/death cycle.

  3. Stefanie and BL, it was wonderful, and I’ve gone there twice since. The robins are now being joined by wood-warblers of many kinds. These, though, are much more difficult for me to identify.

    Tai, your comment reminds me of a custom in India, where a departed soul is considered not to be at rest until a crow feeds on the ritual offerings after a cremation ceremony.

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