Cemeteries often make great local birding hotspots. Migrating birds, in particular, like these relatively undisturbed areas. To a tired flier, the big swath of open space amid a concrete landscape can be a godsend.
We were up on the eastern side of the ageless Allegheny Mountains, where tiny Pennsylvania streams
drop down from the mountain slopes then slowly meander to the Susquehanna River and on into the Chesapeake Bay.
This was the far western terminus of the Bay watershed. The rain a mile west of us would roll hundreds of miles before finding sea level in the Gulf of Mexico.
The cemetery dated back to western Pennsylvania’s earliest European settlers. Today it is a bucolic setting with conifers and hardwoods interspersed among the headstones.
Robins hopped about, searching for worms hidden below the freshly cut grass. Our eyes were elsewhere, searching for the source of a softly whistled “weeta, weeta, WEETA.”
We saw the tiny warbler dancing low among the spruce trees. He had a gray crown above a black mask and a thick white stripe trailing back from above his eye. A bright yellow chin and throat rested atop a black necklace. His lemony sides were heavily streaked with black. A pair of fat, white wingbars merged into an irregular patch on each wing.
We were close enough to see a large white block on his black-tipped tail even without the aid of binoculars. This was the handsome magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia).
These warblers have yellow rumps. The belly and vent are white. The female differs only slightly from the male. Her wingbars are narrower and distinct. She has a gray face and a white ring around each eye. Finally, her black side stripes are less pronounced.
Magnolia warblers were given their name in the early 1800s by the naturalist who first identified them. His specimen bird was taken from a magnolia tree in Mississippi. In spite of its name, this beautiful warbler prefers conifers, especially spruce trees in northern forests, not the eponymous trees common in Southern states.
After wintering in Central America or the Caribbean, magnolia warblers fly across the Gulf of Mexico to their breeding grounds in North America. It is an impressive flight for a creature with a scant 7-inch wingspan and a weight of about a third of an ounce.
Magnolias breed from British Columbia to the Canadian Maritimes. They are also commonly found in New England and parts of the mid-Atlantic, especially Pennsylvania and New York, and along the Appalachian ridge through West Virginia, Virginia and into North Carolina. They typically arrive in the Chesapeake region in late May and early June.
For breeding territory, magnolias have specific habitat requirements, favoring cooler temperatures and a forest of conifers or mixed conifers and hardwoods.
Back on their wintering ground, they are extreme generalists. Their range extends from 5,000-foot mountains down to sea level and virtually any natural landscape in between except open fields.
The male magnolia we watched was engaged in classic species behavior: foraging on a spruce tree near ground level. Magnolias are often easily visible because of this conspicuous feeding behavior. He gleaned insects and their larvae on spruce needles. He and his mate needed to fill up on these protein-rich foods, regaining weight lost during migration and in preparation for breeding.
Magnolias build open, cup nests of twigs and grass, lined with black rootlets. The nests are low in trees. The female lays four eggs, and both parents feed the hungry brood.
We had visited cemeteries in the past specifically to view warblers. Boston’s nearby Auburn Cemetery is a storied birding hot spot. We have visited that warbler haven with friends on beautiful spring mornings.
This trip was different, though, and the birding was incidental to our primary purpose.
We had come to visit my parents’ gravesite. It seemed impossible that we had buried my mother 25 years ago on this spot. She had raised her brood of five children on this mountaintop, and now her remains and dad’s rested near the crest of the cemetery’s rolling landscape.
The flashy magnolia warbler was here to start a new generation. As we slowly walked up to the gravesite, it was impossible not to reflect on the endless cycles of birth and death, the cascades of lives and families. These are the essential elements of
the natural order, for humans and birds alike.
Although brief by human standards, this magnolia warbler’s life would encompass arduous miles traveled, numerous landscapes explored, bursts of procreative energy and moments of joyful song. In a profound and personal way that seemed a fitting summary of a life well-lived.
The thought was a comforting prelude as we reached that final resting place on the side of these ancient mountains.