“Hey, have you ever seen a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker?” That’s a question we birders often get when you tell folks you’re a bird-watcher. Many people think this species of woodpecker is a mythical bird because its name is often used in jest. But it is one bird that truly lives up to its name: both males and females have yellow bellies and tree sap is their favorite diet. Males have red crowns and throats, while females have red crowns but white throats. Immature birds are pretty dull, lacking the red color and being brownish and non-descript, except for the white stripe on their sides that is their most visible identifying mark.
Sapsuckers have drilling techniques distinct from other woodpeckers; you can tell a sapsucker has visited a tree when you see rows of round or squarish holes drilled into the tree trunk. (The birds feed on the sap that oozes from the holes and also eat the insects that get trapped in the sap.) Hummingbirds will often visit sapsucker “wells” to feed, and sometimes a Ruby crowned Kinglet Hummingbird can be seen on Indian Ridge at Mount Auburn, feeding on the sap from the drillings of a sapsucker. (more…)
Yes, this accompanying photograph by Jeremiah Trimble really is a Purple Finch. Females and immature males are brown with a bold whitish eyebrow stripe which distinguishes them from the plain faced House Finch which is much more common here in Massachusetts. The name Purple is also misleading for the color of the adult male; it’s more the color of raspberry.
Roger Tory Peterson described the Purple Finch as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” Here in Massachusetts we tend to see more first year birds, like the photograph, than the adult males. The Purple Finch is an uncommon breeder in Massachusetts and as far as I know it has not been noted to nest in Mount Auburn since the days of William Brewster, who wrote in his Birds of the Cambridge Region (1906).” The juniper woods which once covered so much of the country lying between Mount Auburn and the Watertown Arsenal, used to attract Purple Finches at all seasons, and the birds bred there so commonly at times that on June 6, 1869, I found no less than six nests containing eggs or young within a space of half an acre.” (more…)
This article was written by Artist in Residence, Patrick Gabridge.
When I tell people I’m the artist-in-residence at Mount Auburn Cemetery, they are often shocked that such a thing exists and also very curious about what, as a playwright, I intend to do at a cemetery. Most folks assume I’ll be writing about the various people buried here. Which I will. But even from the very start of my residency this winter, I knew I wanted to write about the diverse and unique natural environment of Mount Auburn.
Since I started in January, I’ve been walking the grounds, toting binoculars with birders at dawn, looking for nighthawks at sunset on the tower, shining flashlights in Consecration Dell looking for spotted salamanders, and trying not to step on tiny toadlets by Halcyon Lake. And, more crucially for a playwright, I’ve been listening to the people who are deeply invested in protecting and improving the flora and fauna that make Mount Auburn such a special place.
The challenge for a writer tasked with creating plays about Mount Auburn is the embarrassment of riches when it comes to potential stories. A hundred thousand tales are wrapped around the people interred here, and they are surrounded by hundreds of species of birds and trees, and thousands upon thousands of plants, all of them tended by dedicated stewards.
In the end, I chose to create two series of short plays–one mostly about historical figures buried here and their role and relationship to the formation of American identity, and another set of nature plays. Some are already written and will be read on the grounds in September—like a short play called Hot Love in the Moonlight is about the mating habits of spotted salamanders. There will be a play about birds and birders (Cerulean Blue), and another about Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz. I’m still exploring play ideas around some of the secret mushroom spots that may or may not exist, and there will almost certainly be a play inspired by conversations with the grounds crew members who help Mount Auburn remain the gem that it is.
Beyond writing and research, the next step begins with reading and playing with the text with actors and audiences. This September, you will see me and Courtney O’Connor, my director, gathered with clumps of actors at Consecration Dell and near Auburn Lake, and other spots, with scripts in our hands, reading dialogue aloud. We’ll see if the structure and content of the work makes sense, if it has power, but also how it works in three-dimensions. How does it feel to have our voices and bodies in action on the actual grounds? It’s one thing for me to imagine how it all feels and sounds when I’m typing away in my office, but it’s entirely different when we have actors do it while standing on the edge of a pond.
At the public readings in September, we’ll start exploring what the plays feel like with an audience. (Plays are nothing without an audience.) When staging site-specific work there are additional concerns we don’t have in a traditional theatre, where the environment is controlled and well understood. We have to ask questions about where does the audience sit or stand, is there noise (traffic, neighbors) that will impact that site? How do the plants and topography affect where we can stand, how much sound reaches the audience, the visual palette? Entrances and exits are never simple when performing outdoors. How does the audience know when the show is over? And, in a cemetery, where do we perform such that we are respectful of the people who are buried here. How do we perform plays about nature, in nature, in ways that don’t harm the environment we’re talking about?
Having to answer all these questions, as we explore people and ideas in the text, is part of the challenge and fun of doing site-specific work. The other thing I truly love about this kind of theatre is that the barrier between the performers and audience is much more fluid and informal than in work created in a traditional spaces. The enormity and concreteness of the natural world around the very small play we’re creating helps unite the audience and performers.
In June of next year, we will fully stage the Nature Plays on the grounds, in a production that we hope will engage and delight audiences in all kinds of interesting ways. In the meantime, my team and I will be researching, writing, and playing, as we explore ways to illuminate the important natural elements of Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Roger Tory Peterson was the first to coin the phrase” Confusing Fall Warblers” in his Field Guide To the Birds first published in 1934 and devoted separate pages depicting those birds and pointing with arrows the significant points to look for during the fall migration.
John Dunn in his Field Guide to Warblers of North America (Peterson Field Guide Series-1997) states: “Despite the fearsome concept of “confusing fall warblers” the identification is generally straightforward given adequate views”. Before fall migration, many species of warblers lose their bright and distinctive spring plumage and molt into duller or drab colors for the winter months.
So how does the new birder identify warblers in the fall? First remember that there are basic features such as wing bars that help to identify the warbler in any plumage, then there is habitat preference, the Common Yellowthroat likes marsh and other wet habitats; the Wilson’s and Canada warblers tend to be found low in thick shrubbery and many others prefer the tops of trees- exactly like they do in the spring. Watch for distinctive behavior: the American Redstart always fans its tail, the Palm and Prairie warblers raise their tails. Warblers rarely sing in the fall so you need to familiarize the call notes or chips they make, this is a bit more difficult but it easy to start with the Yellow-rump’s fairly distinctive loud “check” call.
Here at Mount Auburn you won’t see the multitude of birders that “flock” to the Cemetery each spring. It is quite frustrating to see birds at this time of the year, remember they don’t sing, rarely make any noise, and are hard to detect in fully leafed out trees. Birders tend to look for fall migrants at coastal locations where trees are shorter and have been known as costal traps, as birds tend to follow the coast line in fall. The good thing is that fall migration is more leisurely, starting as early as July and continuing right up to the first days of December.
In the fall, birders at Mount Auburn should concentrate around the ponds, I’ve had the best results at Auburn Lake, lots of low shrubs, and easy access to get a drink- essential for the migrating warblers. Though most warblers are strictly insect eaters, some – especially the Yellow -rumped – will also eat seeds, and the black-eyed susans and cone flowers at Auburn Lake are ideal for them in late summer, as well as the Sweet Bay Magnolia which also attracts both warblers and other birds to its flowers.
During the fall migration the Mount Auburn birder has the opportunity to find a few species that are rarely encountered in the spring. The Connecticut Warbler is one of the most sought after species by birders in the fall, though not the most ideal location, look for it in the Cemetery around the ponds or up by the wildflower meadow at the Tower. The other bird that has appeared more often in the fall is the Yellow-breasted Chat- again look for it in similar locations. One rare fall warbler visitor to Mount Auburn was a Black-throated Gray Warbler which was present from September 27 through October 2, 2000, and brought back with it many of the spring birders.