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Forest Lawn is ideal spot for spring bird watching

For several reasons, I have not been able to get out and take advantage of this quite remarkable spring. But finally Chris Hollister and I spent a pleasant hour in Forest Lawn on May 3. Bird watching in a cemetery? That seems like a strange idea. But Forest Lawn is different from many cemeteries. Founded in 1849, it was designed to balance nature and art. And indeed it does. Of course it is filled with stone grave markers and mausoleums, but it is a beautiful site with rolling hills, a meandering creek and the lovely Mirror Lake. That lake is surrounded by fruit trees, many in full bloom on that morning.

What is so special about Forest Lawn for spring bird watching? As the saying goes: location, location, location. Consider a map of Western New York. Forest Lawn and Delaware Park serve as an island of green in the middle of an industrial city otherwise almost completely filled in with lifeless buildings and streets.

Now look at that map from a larger perspective and consider the movement of birds as they migrate northward. Many birds find Lake Erie a barrier to their trip to the northern forests of Canada. They follow the lake to the northeast and a number of them stop at Tifft Nature Preserve and Times Beach, the last green spots before they reach the Buffalo metropolitan area. But they are driven to continue farther north, and some of them find a first attractive resting spot in Forest Lawn.

And so, bird watchers also migrate to Forest Lawn. On that warm May morning, I met a dozen old friends and made several new ones.

Before we even got out of my car, I could hear an ovenbird's loud teacher-teacher-teacher song. That was warbler one, for the ovenbird belongs to that family. Chris would later see this bird which, unlike most other warblers, is a bird of the forest floor.

As we walked up to the ridge above Mirror Lake, we could hear the similar songs of yellow warbler and Nashville warbler. Chris heard a magnolia warbler, as well. So far we had not seen one of these beautiful little jewels. There was a good reason for this. Despite our cold April, that record-setting March had set trees leafing out early and the resulting dense foliage was making sight records much more difficult.

Knowing the songs of the various species is a requirement under these conditions. Once you know the particular species is singing, you can then try to see it among those leaves. Warblers are so active that I have real trouble keeping them in sight through my binoculars.

We went on to record more species. At ridge-top, Chris pointed out a black-and-white warbler, a parula, a black-throated blue warbler, several myrtle warblers, a chestnut-sided warbler, a tail-wagging palm warbler and a bright orange-marked blackburnian warbler.

Most interesting was a hooded warbler. A half-dozen of us spent five minutes trying to find it at the base of a bush. Despite sharing sightlines, those who saw the bird had difficulty pointing it out. But finally it flew to another perch, giving us all a wonderful view of a striking bird. Peter Yoerg later reported 16 warbler species there on that delightful morning.