Birders Flock to Swan Point Cemetery During Spring Migration

Your basic birder photo: Leslie Bostrom


Every May my friend, Miriam Locke, visits from California, and one of the places we go birding is in Swan Point Cemetery on Providence’s East Side.. A few years ago, we were standing in bright warm sunshine with our binoculars focused on a blue-headed vireo feeding about 40 feet up in nascent unfurling oak leaves, gobbling down caterpillars and insects as it moved among the branches. A blue-headed vireo is about 5” long, with a greenish back, a gray blue head, a wash of yellow underneath, and spectacles- bright white eye rings joined by a connecting stripe right over its bill, giving the bird the look of a scholarly child. This bird  had wintered in Florida or perhaps the Bahamas, and was on a journey to mixed conifer and deciduous forests in northern New England and New York to nest.

Blue-headed vireo

Binoculars create a magical circle of vision, blocking out everything except the small, magnified area, giving the birder a thrilling sensation of spying on a secret world. Suddenly, a Cooper’s hawk slammed into the branch, snatched up the vireo, and disappeared into the trees and out of sight.  The effect was like being the punched; the bird was there, alive and eating, and then it was snatched away, to be killed and eaten.

Swan Point Cemetery is a part of a green corridor of trees, open space, and marsh along the Seekonk River in Providence. It acts as a green island among an urban setting and attracts migrating birds who need to feed and rest. The Cemetery is listed in the National Geographic Guide to Birdwatching Sites in the Eastern US as “Providence’s most famous site for spring songbird migration”- one of four Rhode Island sites listed in the book.

Songbirds have a migrating schedule that is triggered by light. As the days get longer, they produce hormones that urge them to fly north. Scientists who band birds note that they often catch birds they have banded in previous year, meaning that birds often take the same routes, and rest and feed and nest in the same places year after year. Songbirds fly at night to avoid predators and, assuming they are not blown off course or brought down by fog or rain, alight to roost in green areas in the early morning hours, waking at dawn to sing and feed.

Baltimore Oriole

The majority of eastern wood warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles, and hummingbirds winter in South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and the Southeastern United States. In the spring they fly thousands of miles in a few weeks to get to their breeding spots in northern forests and fields, attract mates, build nests, and raise chicks. By mid- July, they are done, and ready to scatter, eat, and prepare for the flight back to the south. Fall migration lacks the urgency of spring migration and stretches out over several months.

In the spring, these birds are arrayed in their beautiful breeding plumage, sing constantly, and spend the mornings frantically eating. They are active and easy to find. On some May mornings Swan Point can be flooded with birds and bird song. It is the song you will notice first. Wood thrushes and veeries can be singing from the shadiest parts of the woods, and the ovenbird (a type of warbler) will be chanting its “Teacher Teacher Teacher!” song. House wrens will be singing a descending bubbling series of notes, and orioles will whistle their clear notes from tall trees in the more open parts of the cemetery. The App Merlin, which you can download for free on your phone, can help you identify songs and learn them. You can also download iBird Pro or Sibley’s for visual identification, but be aware that these apps are not free.  Personally, for visual ID I prefer a book, National Geographic Field Guide.  There are several paper field guides available and all are helpful.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Swan Point Cemetery is particularly welcoming to birders and maintains a list of the species that have been sighted there.  In May, the cemetery staff opens the gates at 7AM especially for birders.  Grab your  binoculars  and make your way to the cemetery main gate on Blackstone Boulevard at the end of Elmgrove Avenue. Park along Blackstone Boulevard (do not drive into the cemetery or park on the “apron”) and walk in the main entrance. Turn left towards the woods at the north edge of the cemetery grounds. Birders will cluster along the edge of the woods looking for birds in the trees, bushes, and on the ground. If you are a novice, join some of these groups and ask questions. Birders love to introduce new people to their passion.

There are birds feeding at all levels in the woods. Some prefer the treetops; those are the ones responsible for the ailment commonly known as “warbler neck”; aching muscles from looking up for long periods of time. Birds such as Northern Parula, American redstarts, black throated green warblers, blackburnian warblers and bay breasted warblers prefer treetops, as well as scarlet tanagers, vireos,  and rose breasted grosbeaks. Black and white warblers creep along branches looking for insects in the bark. Black throated blue warblers, chestnut sided warblers, and magnolia warblers prefer mid-level trees, or saplings. Thrushes, ovenbirds, white throated sparrows,  towhees, and wrens will be found on or near the ground.

A snoozing screech owl                                                          photo: Lindsay Neubeck

Work your way towards the river. Along the river is another larger patch of woods, and the river itself can be exciting. Look for a spotted sandpiper feeding along the bank, especially at low tide, and for egrets, great blue herons, ducks, and swans. You may hear the rattling call of a kingfisher. There can be swallows feeding over the river, especially tree and barn swallows. Ospreys and bald eagles have become more and more common over the past several years.

Map of Swan Point Cemetery

The south end of the cemetery, where there is another patch of woods between Swan Point and Laurelmead, can also be productive birding. This area is wetter, and attracts yellow warblers, northern waterthrush (a kind of warbler) and warbling vireo, which is a very plain bird with a very pretty song. There is an open field here, also, and indigo buntings are often singing from the trees along the edges. Just north of the field is another small patch of woods, weeds, and a little swamp, which is also a great place for songbirds.

In my 30 plus years of birding in Swan Point, I have seen changes. The number  and variety of songbirds has dropped as both summer and winter habitat is destroyed and climate change reduces the amount of food available. Concerned citizens have developed the Urban Bird Treaty, an agreement among cities to preserve habitat and plant native species of trees, making the cities more friendly to birds. Providence is one the of the cities in the agreement. Billions of migrants are also killed by house cats and from running into windows. You can help by keeping cats indoors and installing devices on your  large picture windows to make them more visible. (There are several inexpensive products sold that do this.) It is very important (not just for birds!) to support efforts to slow or stop climate change and vote for candidates that will work on laws to restrict greenhouse gasses.

However, on a sunny day in mid-May you can still expect to find 10-12 species of warblers, several species of vireos, wood and hermit thrushes, scarlet tanagers and Baltimore orioles, woodpeckers, nuthatches, flycatchers, and overhead, migrating hawks, in Swan Point Cemetery.

See you there!


Leslie Bostrom received her BA from the University of Maine, Orono, and her BFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design. Between undergraduate and graduate school, she worked as a master printer in San Francisco, specializing in intaglio.

Bostrom has taught drawing, painting, and printmaking at Brown University for 33 years.

She is interested in the interaction of words and images in painting and for most of her career she has been making works that engage political topics such as environmental degradation, human migration, feminism, and LGBQT issues.  Her most recent paintings feature birds that she has seen while pursuing one of her other passions- birding