A Walk in Forest Lawn


(This 1103rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 13, 2012.)


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 Cemetery on the morning of May 3.


Birds 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. Although originally it was over two miles from what was then the City of Buffalo, it would bring rural values to what was soon to become an urban area.


And indeed Forest Lawn does balance nature and art. 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.


But there are other cemeteries with at least some of those amenities here. The question remains: what is so special for spring bird watching about Forest Lawn?


As the saying goes: location, location. Consider a map of western New York. Forest Lawn Cemetery together with 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. Lake Erie is aligned southwest to northeast. Many birds find that lake 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 further and some of them, instead of following the Niagara River north or even turning to the northwest around the end of the lake, continue to fly northeast. The ones that do so find a first attractive resting spot in Forest Lawn.


And so, knowing that, bird watchers also migrate to Forest Lawn. On that warm May morning there were almost as many birders there as birds. I met a dozen old friends and made several new ones and there were even about fifteen Canisius College ornithology students there on a field trip.


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 that 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. And Chris heard a magnolia warbler as well.


You will notice that 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.


Chris is great at that; I'm not. And I have another problem. Warblers are so active that I have real trouble keeping them in sight through my binoculars. (Suggestion: for warbler watching 7x or 8x binoculars are much better than my 10x. You have a wider field of view.)


We went on to record more species. At ridgetop 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. They were all around us.


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 sixteen warbler species there on that delightful morning.-- Gerry Rising