Gone to the birders: Annual ritual enlivens Evergreen Cemetery in Portland

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PORTLAND — Priscilla Doucette got the text message around 7:30 a.m. last Friday.

“They want to know if I am birding,” she said. “I’m going to answer ‘duh.'”

She stood near the bank of a pond in Evergreen Cemetery with her husband, Dale Doucette. Both held binoculars, and Doucette’s cell phone was at the ready to text any news of unusual sightings.

In the next four weeks, the sightings in the woods behind the cemetery should be abundant during the annual return of migratory warblers to about 100 acres of woods and wetlands.

The Doucettes are among birders who make a walk by the ponds a morning ritual. But novices can join Doug Hitchcox of Maine Audubon at 7 a.m. Monday through Thursday from May 5 to May 15 for free walking tours to learn the basics of birding.

Warblers, small songbirds coming from as far away as Central and South America, find the woods in Evergreen Cemetery very appealing as a stop-off point or nesting ground. The ones that nest make May a month of colorful mating rituals.

In turn, birders find the cemetery an appealing spot to fill out their “year” or “life” lists of species seen and heard in the budding trees.

Cumberland resident Rob Spiers arrived at Evergreen around 7 a.m. with a camera, binoculars and smartphone. Within 10 minutes he had spotted almost a dozen yellow palm warblers and a ruby-crowned kinglet while walking about 50 feet from his Jeep.

“The other day, it was just dripping with birds here,” Spiers said before texting a message about his sightings to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. The lab compiles sighting data contributed by more than 200,000 people, according to its website.

When the season peaks, the woods get noisy and colorful. Hitchcox estimates 20 species can be seen in a walk through the woods, and Portland resident Michelle Gregoire said he is just the person to show a novice where to look.

“Doug seems to enjoy helping people understand what they’re seeing and hearing when they join a field trip,” she said. “You learn much more about the bird than going out by yourself. And it’s usually more fun.”

As she peered into pine branches at a Magnolia warbler’s yellow breast, Gregiore said she “birds by ear,” hearing calls before making visual contact with birds that can flit and flutter from tree to tree.

She tells friend “I’m going out chasing birds,” a hobby that can be pursued at levels from casual to obsessive. Some birders spend hundreds of dollars on binoculars; others lure birds with recorded calls stored on a phone or mp3 player.

Gregoire said she would also be visiting Capisic Park; news a Virginia rail had been sighted had twittered around the Internet and was the reason Spiers stopped there first.

A sighting could prove difficult: the Cornell University website calls the waterbird “a secretive bird of freshwater marshes, (it) most often remains hidden in dense vegetation.”

Good binoculars make a good start, said Bill Bunn, a Portland resident whose photography drew raves from Spiers. So does a well-illustrated guidebook, whether the traditional Roger Tory Peterson editions or Sibley Birds Guide, both of which can be toted in a pocket or backpack.

“All you need is a pair of binoculars and an interest,” Spiers said.

Linda Woodard, who directs the Maine Audubon visitor center on Scarborough Marsh, said those joining the walks should dress in layers, because the weather warms through the morning, and be aware some trails could be muddy.

“Warblers are really amazing, and you can go on several walks because they come through in waves,” she said.

Woodard said novices need not worry about birding by ear, which will come as they take to the hobby. The same digital technology allowing Doucette and Spiers to alert birders about sightings also comes with apps of bird calls, which Woodard said are affordable.

“You can’t get serious until you retire,” Priscilla Doucette joked, but Woodard said Evergreen is often filled with birders who drop in on their way to work.

Woodard said some species may favor certain spots in Evergreen Cemetery, and Bunn said he knows some birders prefer to stay in one spot and observe.

“I just like to walk around,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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With the reflection from a pond in the background, a robin basks in early morning sunlight Friday in Evergreen Cemetary. The cemetery is a favored spot for migratory warblers, ducks and other birds, as well as the birders who make morning walks a routine.

Bill Bunn and Rob Spiers go birding in Evergreen Cemetery on Friday morning. Both photograph and record their sightings, but the underlying passion may be just to get outdoors. “I just like to walk around,” Bunn said.

A Magnolia warbler lights in a tree Friday in Evergreen Cemetery. At the peak of warbler season in May, Doug Hitchcox of Maine Audubon said it is possible to see as many as 20 different species of the migratory songbirds. Hitchcox will lead 7 a.m. birding walks at the cemetery Monday through Thursday from May 1-15.

The pond area in Evergreen Cemetery can be accessed by vehicle, or by walking from Brentwood Street. Doug Hitchcox of Maine Audubon will lead “Warbler Walks” at 7 a.m. Monday through Thursday from May 1-15.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.