Cemeteries are wonderful locations for birdwatching

Published Feb 3rd 2013 in Geology & Activities

Birdwatchers like cemeteries. If there is a place with a little bit of water, a graveyard can be a birdy place to enjoy lunch. The vegetation in the compound determines the wildlife. Old cemeteries, with old trees, and old electrical lines, often sport wintering woodpeckers not normally seen on the Llano Estacado. Graveyards with some trees, but also plenty of open space often attract all three species of bluebirds, plus waxwings, and robins, especially if berries are on old eastern red cedars planted years ago. In red crossbill irruption winters like this year, cemeteries with pines and cypress are visited by this unusual species.

Folks should see if they can see the crossbill flock (or flocks). Small groups of these birds (up to 30 or so) have been roaming all over West Texas and Central Texas this year. Normally they remain in the Rocky Mountains and their foothills in the winter, but something like drought, fire, or beetle damage must have stressed their normal winter seed crops this year. Further north, between Lubbock and Borger, avid birdwatchers have found a dozen or more northern shrikes, a species that rarely makes it to Texas. Beginners may find it hard to tell the difference between our native Loggerhead shrikes, and the visiting species.

I like cemeteries for other reasons. Small rural cemeteries are often full of native plants, even in heavily farmed areas, such as those around Lubbock, and give me some ideas about what lived in the original buffalo prairie. Often old passalong plants will adorn the graves, giving an indication to what plants the earliest settlers brought with them in the late 1800s. I also enjoy examining the gravestones, for tidbits of history. Sometimes I meet interesting folks – folks that take care of the smaller cemeteries can often tell stories about the people interred there, and have helped us find graves of distant relatives.

Out at Resthaven Cemetery here in Midland, a photographer recently made a grisly discovery. A dead great horned owl was lodged about 12 feet up in an evergreen. It could have been accident, true, but I worry that it might have been killed by humans because of superstition. A surprising number of people believe owls are omens of death, or are familiars of evil-doers like witches and skinwalkers. The owl may have been killed and tossed into the tree as a warning; “witches killed – leave the graves alone.”

Cemeteries are parks. No loud music or sporting activities are allowed, but quiet restful reflection is permitted, along with birdwatching. I have never been asked to leave a cemetery if I am there with camera, binoculars, or notepad in hand. On Audubon Christmas Bird Counts I have found huge intraspecific flocks of birds. In Howard County, at a cemetery south of Coahoma, I once had 25 species of birds and more than 5000 individuals that came to a water leak caused by bitterly cold temperatures freezing a waterline a week before, where it was oozing out of a joint just underground that had not been patched, even as the days had finally warmed.

Birds came out of a field full of grasses and sunflowers, and from along nearby fenceline thickets of hackberries laden with fruit, and even from a draw over a mile away, a steady stream in mid-afternoon, during the peak of the warmth of the day. I spent over an hour, enthralled by the almost frantic jostling for the little puddle of water. The activity was abruptly halted when predators appeared – three species of hawk, (a falcon, an accipter, and a harrier) and a fox. The excited noises of the birds had convinced the predators that it was worth passing my truck to investigate.

Cemeteries were one of the first places where both Eurasian Collared Doves and Great Tailed Grackles were first seen in West Texas. As mostly forgotten places, they are visited by only a handful of people on most days. They are places with some increased plantings, along with some sort of water feature, even if just a leaky irrigation pipe – so cemeteries are yet another location where wildness creeps in and makes itself at home. Even the fanciest cemeteries have weeds growing in the cracks of the walls and wild birds and animals looking after the place.