2 historic Philadelphia-area cemeteries host citizen's science walk for birds

Molly Daly
February 13, 2020 - 7:42 pm
Great Horned Owl at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in the 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count.

Courtesy of Jason Weckstein

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — On Saturday morning, Laurel Hill and West Laurel Hill cemeteries will team up with birding experts for the Great Backyard Bird Count, a free citizen science event that anyone is invited to take part. 

Jason Weckstein, associate professor of ornithology at Drexel University and associate curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences, says the Great Backyard Bird Count gives researchers a real-time snapshot of bird populations.

"We use things like e-bird, which is a citizen science database, and input our information into that, and it's a lot of fun. It's just a good excuse to get out and see some birds," Weckstein said. 

And burial grounds can be very bird-y, especially 19th century "garden cemeteries," which were designed as much for the living as the dead.

Delaware Valley Ornithological Club vice president Gregg Gorton is leading the walk at West Laurel Hill.

"The cemetery owners, it's a not-for-profit company, actually wants it to be used in a variety of ways, and birdwatching is one of the ways that the cemetery can be enjoyed," Gorton said. 

And there's a lot to enjoy. 

"It looks down on the Schuylkill River, so we can see waterbirds down there. We can actually see all the way over to Manayunk," he added, "and with a telescope, we can see the Peregrine Falcons that nest on the St. John the Baptist Church."

"Last year, we found a Great Horned Owl roosting," said Weckstein, "and I went back and found it in the same tree multiple times over the winter, so maybe it'll be there again this year."

The two-hour walks at both cemeteries start at 9 a.m., and Weckstein says they'll have binoculars for the newbies.

"Every year, we have people that are beginners join us," he said. 

Weckstein says no matter your skill level, your observations count.

"Over time, that's gonna help us understand what we need to do to protect the wildlife that's important to us," he added.