Birding Like its 1972 in Phoenix

Birding Like its 1972—Greenwood Cemetery, Phoenix, AZ, USA

Aside from a Chestnut-sided Warbler which has remained in a ten foot cottonwood tree in a parking lot on the Arizona State University campus for two months now, and a one-day wonder Violet-crowned Hummingbird seen only by the homeowners at a central Phoenix feeder, it’s been a slow bird winter here in central Arizona, which means hitting the urban spots harder than normal. For me lately, this begins and ends with the Greenwood Cemetery.

You can enjoy a multitude of sins for $5 on Van Buren St. in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, and $20 would probably buy you a few hours at a motel in which to enjoy them. The Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery lies at the heart of it all. The reputation of the neighborhood meant that I actively avoided birding here for my first eight years in Phoenix, even though every time I flew out the airport, I looked down at the big swath of green, and thought about it. I’ve now seen the light.

Maybe you’ve never heard of Greenwood Cemetery. Its no birding afterlife draw like Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, or San Diego’s Fort Rosencrans, but it’s still got some street cred. Pick up Kenn Kauffman’s Kingbird Highway, and you might be surprised to find several pages devoted to Greenwood’s birds. I can’t put it any better than Kenn, so I’ll quote him:

“The Greenwood Cemetery is an anomalous rectangle of green, heavily watered, planted with pines and other coniferous trees, a stark contrast to its arid surroundings. Most winters it was not a birdy place.”

I wasn’t alive in 1972 when Kenn Kauffman covered Greenwood for the Phoenix Christmas Bird Count, but I feel pretty confident that not much has changed within those cemetery walls in the last four decades. Greenwood Cemetery is still green, heavily watered, and planted with pines. It’s the sort of place that will normally reward careful observers with crippling views of a diversity and multitude of Rock Pigeons, European Starlings, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Mourning Doves.

On the 1972 CBC, Rufous-backed Robin, Red Crossbill, Cassin’s Finches, and Mountain Chickadee were all found in a single visit. They stopped running the Phoenix CBC at some point back in the 80s. ‘Too urban’ was the explanation I’ve heard from the old timers around here, which is a shame. I doubt anyone birded it for twenty-five years, and I pretty much guarantee at least one other Rufous-backed Robin, and who knows what else, has graced its grounds, undetected.

In an effort to rectify that situation, I’ve taken the Greenwood up as a regular birding stop and have birded it every few weeks for about two years now. It’s still not particularly birdy, unless you’re into large flocks of columbids, but it has managed to consistently surprise me. That’s the thing about urban birding, you really never know what is going to turn up. Even if nothing else is going on, it’s always nice to watch the resident family of Harris’s Hawks bombing through the massive flocks of pigeons.

So far in about 35 visits, I’ve found 75 species. That list includes totally out of place desert birds like Cactus Wren, Gambel’s Quail, and Black-throated Sparrow (all completely absent in the surrounding probably five-mile radius), and overshoots like White-throated Sparrow. My best bird, well two, is a pair of Greater-white Fronted Geese, flying over in a flock of Canadas. I’ve also had Hermit Warbler and Gray Flycatcher, and one particularly memorable day during fall migration, I had 17 Western Tanagers and a half dozen Black-headed Grosbeaks in a single back section by the mausoleum. Not bad for the middle of one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. This visit my friend Chris and I turned up 24 species, nothing out of the ordinary for here. Say’s Phoebe, Verdin, a ton of Yellow-rumped Warblers, which we spent a long time going through, hoping for something good.

Clearly, a far cry from the winter of 1972. By the way, Kenn Kauffman, if you’re reading this, you really ought to help us out and get the eBird list up. The Greenwood list is still missing Red Crossbill, Cassin’s Finches, and Mountain Chickadee. And Rufous-backed Robin, though hope springs eternal. I will find one of those in here one of these winters.


Magill Weber lives and birds in downtown Phoenix.

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