Photo: Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis, left, and Bob Dolgan in Graceland Cemetery

By Bob Dolgan

Birding takes us to some quirky places. Dumps, sewage treatment plants and warm water discharges to name a few. But cemeteries, particularly in urban areas, are among the most underrated.

That’s what brought me to historic Graceland Cemetery on Chicago’s North Side for a walk with Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis earlier this month. Larry is a COS Board Member and formerly lived just a block from the cemetery. He is perhaps the dean of Chicago’s cemetery birders and has 174 species on his Graceland list.

“There’s a robin,” said Larry, as we looked out at tiny Lake Willowmere from the tomb of business titan Potter Palmer. “And I’ve seen a screech owl in the hole in that tree.”

Graceland is one of the few green spaces on the North Side away from the lake and oft-crowded Montrose Point. There’s enough cover to serve as a migrant trap and there’s a restored prairie beside the CTA’s Red Line on the eastern edge of the site. Several coyotes were present on the day we visited. Indigo Bunting, Eastern Bluebird and Yellow Warbler are among the birds that have nested there. A natural ridge in the center of the property is a viable spot for hawk watching.

“When I come here I don’t have a set path,” said Larry, whose ever-present nickname stems from a long-ago birding misadventure. “I just wander. Sometimes my German side comes out and I want to walk in straight lines.”

Graceland management is open to birders visiting though large groups are discouraged. There’s a guide to the cemetery’s 100-plus shrubs and trees available in the visitor center. On our trip, we found Red-Breasted Nuthatches, White-Breasted Nuthatches and Black-Capped Chickadees in a towering Cockspur Hawthorn Tree.

Larry’s work as a chef and full-time dad limits his visits to the cemetery these days. But he still gets out as much as he can. The question burning on my mind was, had he ever been birding at Graceland during a burial?

“I have. I came around a corner once and was pishing,” the Philadelphia native said. “I didn’t see the service and I was horrified. Now they let me know when the services are.”

In a cemetery, birding can be a life-and-death experience. Yet another peculiarity of our beloved pastime.