Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Hot Enough For Ya?

I have lost count of the number of extremely hot and humid days we have had in my part of northern New Jersey, part of the New York City metropolitan area, this week. Four? Five? Does it matter when the prediction is for more of the same?

I suppose temperatures 10 degrees above the normal for this time of August and humidity more likely in a tropical rain forest than the former temperate zone that is New Jersey is a good thing - compared with killing floods once again striking Louisiana a few short years after Hurricane Katrina.

How bad has it been? So bad that finally, after four years of working at home in an office that faces southwest, MH and I bought curtains and rods and he spotted and assisted me as I installed them all. Yes, I used a power drill. Yes, I stood atop a step ladder hoping I would not topple over. Yes, I used a level to make sure everything was straight.
Office curtains Aug. 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
It was only this morning I realized the patterns don't exactly match. However, the room is dark and helping the AC and fan make it cooler.

The heat and humidity have not stopped the goldfinches and chickadees from visiting the dwindling thistle seed in the sock feeder. I have not been able to stand on the enclosed porch for very long, even with a fan on, to see if the refreshed hummingbird feeder is drawing anything, although I notice the joe-pye weed is flowering and that has brought the bees.

Meanwhile, the same heat and humidity that makes me feel like the walking dead until I put the house AC on is doing wonderful things to the plants I have outside in the sun and on that enclosed porch.

The cannas, which are tropical plants, have grown large and their foliage is bigger than dinner plates. They are also sending up flower shoots, red trumpets that will be attractive to hummingbirds and others. The orchid I keep on the back porch has been loving the humidity and showing me its three white flowers all summer, and the Chinese evergreen is sprouting new leaves, something it doesn't do much when it is inside for the winter in a heat-dried house.

But it is the peppers that have really thrived.

I have one plant I planned to keep alive over the winter inside until I discovered it was infested with white flies. It got moved to the one sunny spot on the enclosed porch until it became too cold, at which point the worst foliage was removed and it was brought back inside and kept in a dim corner apart from the other plants until I could finally put it back in its usual sunny outside spot - at which point the temperature dropped. So this plant has been through a lot and I finally cut off the top of it and hoped for the best.

Italia peppers, Aug. 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
Well, below are two of the three fruits I have picked from this plant once the peppers turned red. (This is a sweet pepper and gets sweeter when redder.) The top pepper is what I usually get, most summers. The bottom is a monster that is the biggest I've ever grown.

Peppers, even sweet peppers like these, like it hot. I'm not sure if the humidity is helping them directly but the nightly thunderstorms we've been having during this period have kept down the white flies and the aphids that usually bother my other plants.

At the farm markets, the tomatoes have started coming in and I have several on the window sill to ripen. The zucchinis are huge and somehow, despite the heat, there is still lettuce and cucumbers and even rainbow chard to be had.

The people who don't believe in global warming say, "It's summer. Get over it." Those who see this tropical weather as unnatural hope it doesn't foretell a return of the polar vortex and above-average snow this winter, as some predict.

As usual, there is good and bad with everything. So as the plants thrive, I wilt.


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Three Types of Summer's Winged Wonders

Butterflies

This is the time of summer when I go out to the woods and if I see any movement in the trees it is usually a butterfly. The butterflies I see most commonly are tiger swallowtails, dark swallowtails and the occasional monarch butterfly.
Tiger swallowtail (Margo D. Beller)

August into September must be when the caterpillars break out of their cocoons as butterflies. Adult butterflies lay their eggs, the eggs hatch caterpillars, the caterpillars (after eating a lot of leaves, I think) crawl up trees or shrubs to become cocooned pupas and then they hatch as butterflies, which then head south for the winter.

The nice thing about butterflies, besides their many different colors and the way they seem to float in out of nowhere, is they aren't that picky about where they feed. Yes, they have special needs in terms of where they lay eggs, such as the monarch butterfly needing milkweed, but when they need food they will go to any flower, shrub or roadside weed. They will even come to puddles to drink.

I once walked along a road in a strong wind. There was a tiger swallowtail on a Rose of Sharon flower, hanging on for dear life. You would think something so small and delicate would have a problem in wind but this is one strong little creature. 

Butterflies have a lot of fans, which is why you can do a simple search and find all sorts of butterfly clubs to learn more.

Hummingbirds 

When I last wrote about rubythroated hummingbirds, I mentioned the two that were coming regularly to my feeder. I named them Alpha and Beta. Alpha was the more dominant of the two, hence the name. Beta was rather dusky and very skittish at the feeder, hovering over the portal to drink rather than perch as Alpha did.

Much has happened since then.

First, I realized Alpha might have been a male. We had visited our niece in Connecticut and a male hummer had come to her feeder. The male had a dark head, just like Alpha. The next time Alpha visited I had binoculars with me and did not see a lot of red at the throat, although there was a pink tinge. That was the last time I saw Alpha.
A friend's juvenile hummer (Margo D. Beller)
Beta continued to visit much longer and was soon joined by a smaller, greener individual that was definitely a juvenile male. I named that one Delta. Beta would feed in her skitterish fashion and take off in one direction, Delta would feed and head in another direction.

With the heat and humidity I have not spent time on the enclosed porch, the only way I can see the hummingbird feeder, but it seems to me Beta has moved on and what I call Delta may be Epsilon, Gamma or any of a number of hummingbird visitors. Young are fledging and they have to eat. By now the adult males should've been heading south, and soon the adult females and the young birds will be doing the same.

All I know is, at least once a day a hummingbird comes to feed. I still have plenty of food for as long as they come.

Dragonflies 

One of the things that makes walking with MH so enjoyable is we usually look at different things. I will be looking up in the trees for any bird activity while he will be looking down for snakes, toads and other nonwinged creatures.

But one thing that interests him very much, and is now interesting me, are all the dragonflies.
Green dragonfly blending well into leaf. (RE Berg-Andersson)
You can be in a marsh, in a park, in your backyard and you will have a number of these insects buzzing around, picking off mosquitoes and gnats. If you have clean water, you have dragonflies and the smaller damselflies.

They come in a variety of colors. In the Great Marsh of Concord, Mass., we found a dragonfly that looked like it was red, white and blue. In the Franklin Parker Preserve in southern NJ, in the heart of the Pine Barrens, we found a very large dragonfly that was bright red. We're still trying to identify it.

Usually we find such exotically named creatures as 12-spotted skimmers, white-tailed skimmers, green darners and ebony jewel-wings. There is a state dragonfly association and several Internet sites devoted to field guides and identification. This one even tells you how many different types can be found in each county of New Jersey. In my home county of Morris there are 125!

Like the dragonfly I'm just skimming the surface here. But I am becoming as interested in their colors and diversity as I have been on birds for over a decade. Like the butterflies, these seasonal winged wonders can be easily overlooked, and that is unfortunate.

Monday, August 8, 2016

...and a Black Bear in a Pear Tree

It happened again, another visit by ursus americanus, better known as the black bear.

This now marks the fourth time I have looked out the kitchen window to discover major damage that could've only been caused by a 200- to 500-pound bear.

Once again, the reason was food.
Pear tree branches down, Aug. 5, 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
Ever since the first attack, either in the late hours of March 26 or the early hours of March 27, 2015, I have been taking bird feeders inside at night, even in the middle of winter when bears should be in dens. I don't put feeders out in summer until August, when I put out a thistle sock for the goldfinches. I take that in at night, too.

That's not what the bear wanted.

What was damaged this time was not a feeder pole but the pear tree just beyond our enclosed porch, on which I hang several water dishes. It has only been in the last several years, when I hadn't cut back some of the longer branches myself or hired someone else to do it, that the tree has flowered in the spring. Flowers mean fruit is coming. Many years the squirrels grab the pears.

This year I found only three pears. One blew down when we had a horrific, non-hurricane thunderstorm (similar to the one that took our power last week). I forgot about the other two.

So when I found the two side trunks cracked and bent over, I realized the bear - for what else could it have been? - had tried to climb up to the remaining pears but had hit the ground when the branches gave way. For whatever reason, it didn't try again, thank goodness, and didn't leave any indentations or "calling cards" for us to find, as happened about 20 years ago when we had more apple trees and woke one morning to find a big branch down on one of them and said indentation and calling card below it. (The tree was one of those removed years ago, replaced with a garden containing ornamental grasses and plants not usually eaten by deer.)

I knocked down the two pears. One was already way past the point where it should've been picked. Here is the other one, which we'll eat at some point.
What the bear was after (Margo D. Beller)

One of the water dishes was still hanging in one of the broken hunks of tree. I estimate 1/3 of the tree had to be sawed off, which was unfortunate because I put in feeder poles based on where the tree is located. The poles are too far away for squirrels to jump to the feeders from the tree while allowing the birds a place to safely eat their seeds or enjoy a drink of water.

Making it worse, this was the same tree I had cut back from the top a few weeks ago, MH manfully holding the ladder against the house as I went up with my lopper to take down branches that were overhanging the enclosed porch and being used as a highway for chipmunks and squirrels.

So having cut off so much, why shouldn't I go out today, a hot and humid albeit cloudy day when I had nothing better to do, and cut off more hunks of this same tree to get the remaining upper branches? I didn't mean to take off hunks, I was merely bending down the branch to cut it better from the ground and the whole thing snapped.

The water dish had to be moved. (Margo D. Beller)


Apparently, pear trees are quite brittle. They can also grow 40 feet high. I did not plant this tree, just as I did not plant the apple trees that I had to cut down because I couldn't keep up with all the fruit on the ground that brought deer and their mess to my yard. Aside from the pear, only one apple tree remains, and thank goodness there was not much fruit this year or the bear might have caused more damage.

If the pear tree survives the summer and winter to bloom in the spring, I'll be amazed. If it goes, the replacement will be a non-fruit tree. As long as the birds get their shelter and water, they'll be fine.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Goldfinches

(Margo D. Beller)
When I was growing up, American goldfinches were not part of my world. They could've been flying around the yards of Brooklyn, N.Y., back in the 1970s but I didn't notice.

That does not mean they were not around the house. As you can see here, we had a goldfinch figurine on the table (a careless house cleaner broke off one wing and if you look closely you can see where I glued it back on).

We also had plates with birds on them - jays, cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks.

As with the rest of the birds, however, I didn't start noticing goldfinches until I moved to New Jersey. Goldfinches are the state bird of New Jersey, MH proudly told me.

There are three types of goldfinches in this country. In New Jersey it is the American. Lesser goldfinches are in the U.S. southwest. Lawrence's goldfinch is found only in Baja California.

Once I started feeding birds, I still didn't notice the goldfinches because in winter the males, normally bright yellow with a black cap, look like the females, who are usually greenish brown. Goldfinches hang around for the winter and sometimes are joined by their cousins the pine siskins.

However, pine siskins - which are strictly winter visitors and only come if they can't find food in their usual northern wintering grounds -  have streaked breasts and thin, pointy bills. The goldfinches have the thicker bills of other finches and are not streaked.

Through trial and error I discovered that a thistle sock, like the one above, would feed the goldfinches and a few other types of birds that don't mind hanging on something that soft and porous - house finches and black-capped chickadees mainly.

(Margo D. Beller)
Goldfinches, when they are finally in their breeding colors, mate and have families much later in the summer because that is timed to when the various thistle plants go to seed. So I wait until late July, when I hear the male doing his flight call and make great loops in the sky to impress the female, to put out the sock. It takes a while but eventually a pair comes.

However, as the picture above shows, at some times of the year huge flocks of goldfinches pass through. This gathering the other Spring was rather extraordinary. We had as many as 20 individuals at any one time. That is why I had to break out the cage feeder to go with the sock. Even then, it didn't seem to be enough.

However, for now we have a pair and that is enough for me.
Goldfinch pair, Duke Farms, Hillsborough, NJ (Margo D. Beller)


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Mid-summer Morning Walk

Rocky's "office" (Margo D. Beller)
For a number of reasons, I have stopped taking daily walks in the early morning before work. Part of it is the heat. You have to get up early to walk when at midday it is 10 degrees hotter than it should be in suburban New Jersey, and there are some mornings it is all I can do to get to the bathroom in time, and then wrap a robe around me so I can put the thistle feeder out for the goldfinches.

But I have been trying to walk more, even though the birds I hear I can find as easily in my backyard - fish crows, Carolina wrens, cardinals, grackles, song sparrows.

As I walk, staying out of the way of the people running on the sidewalks or the people with dogs or the ones with the baby carriages, I think about other walks in other years.

That made me think of Rocky.

Tomatoes (Margo D. Beller)
Before MH and I moved to New Jersey, we lived in Queens, NY. Our landlady, who lived upstairs, had a big backyard where she grew tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini and had a huge fig tree. When she would visit her daughter's family in California, she would allow me to pick the vegetables, leaving most of them on her kitchen table and taking the rest. I have never been able to eat a fig or a tomato since then without thinking of Mary's garden. All the tomatoes I've bought, even from farm markets, just don't taste the same.

Then we moved to NJ. A few streets over, every summer, a handmade sign would be hammered into the grass at the corner. "Tomatoes" it would read, with an arrow pointing up the street.

It took me a few years to finally get the interest or the courage to investigate. I found a house on the corner where a huge hunk of property had been converted to growing tomatoes. I walked to the garage and looked in. A neighbor across the street called over that "he" might be in the house and to come back. It took weeks but I did.

I talked to Rocky, the man selling the tomatoes, who was in a wheelchair and hooked up to air because of emphysema. It did not stop him smoking or watching TV, usually westerns, with a small fan going.

Zucchini plants (Margo D. Beller)
He told me how he would put in a winter crop, plow it under, put down manure and then put in the various types of tomatoes. When he couldn't do it, neighbors would come over and do it. I picked a number of tomatoes and he threw in some basil he was growing. The tomatoes were delicious, the closest to Mary's I'd found.

For several years I would visit him every week, stocking up on tomatoes.

Then, two years ago, the sign did not go up. I later heard Rocky had died. His family has kept the garden going but now only half of it is tomatoes and they are not for sale. In the other half of the garden grow zucchinis and peppers. That house must have a lot of stewed tomatoes and sauce in the cellar.

I miss Rocky and I miss those tomatoes. I don't miss the walking, however. I'll have to make do with farm market tomatoes.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sit Down in Darkness

Mother Nature had a temper tantrum yesterday.

The heat and humidity that had been enveloping my part of New Jersey finally exploded, sending walls of water down the sides of the enclosed porch where we sat (after just getting back into the garage in time from our time out and about Saturday) and watched fierce winds nearly snap the dogwood tree in half.

We received three days worth of rain in 30 minutes. The globally warmed air masses that had sat over us and kept temperatures 10 or so degrees more than the norm, ran into some cooler air creating what the forecasters call "an unstable air mass." That has to be the understatement of the year.

What we saw was the kind of weather you would expect in a tropical rain forest, not suburban New Jersey. We later learned streets we had driven just a few hours earlier were closed because of downed trees, snapped power lines and flooding.

This kind of weather, we've been warned, will become more common now that ice caps are melting, waters are warming and air masses are stuck over us bringing too much cold or too much heat to what used to be called temperate zones.

Twenty minutes into watching this maelstrom in our backyard, I realized if one of our trees fell on the porch roof it would kill us. Ten minutes after the rain let up just a bit a hummingbird came to the feeder. It fed a long time and then went into the nearby apple tree to ride out the storm.

I walked inside and was not surprised to find the power out.

A power failure is not the time to discover many of your flashlights don't have working batteries. Luckily, we had quite a few that were working, and radios with batteries. It is also not the time to realize your neighbors - the ones you wave at and rarely speak to - would have no idea if you died during this storm and could care less.

Calling friends from our hot car, where I had the phone plugged in to charge, produced no results either. No one was taking my call. One friend later told me she heard my message and was surprised because she thought I was so self-sufficient.

MH and I can take care of ourselves but there are times, I've now learned, that is not enough.

And then there was the power company.

Mine is owned by a conglomerate in Ohio. The first time I called, at 3:30pm, 15 min. after the outage, I got an automated voice, gave my information and was told the power would return at 6pm. At 7pm, still in the dark, I called again. This time the automated voice shunted me to a customer center, likely in Ohio, where the woman was completely in the dark, so to speak.

Three times she told me if the problem was my fuse box, it would cost $85 for a service call. Three times I told her the entire street was out. Then she told me I was the first to report the problem. I exploded. What the hell have you been doing for 3 1/2 hours? No doubt she used my phone number to gain access to my records - I did not care to look for the last bill with the account number on it - to see I had indeed called and assure me crews would be out soon.

Would I want a call telling me the power was back? (This "service" from the utility always annoys and amuses. Why would I want you to tell me something I can see?)

Sure, I said, and then hung up.

For the next 3 hours I tried not to go insane as the den, which was the coolest room in the house (we had been out all day and had not put the AC on), slowly warmed. I tried not to worry about whether the basement would flood because the sump pump has no backup battery. I tried not to worry about the food in the refrigerator. I got out my portable WiFi and my laptop with its long battery life. I could see sites but not send messages.

I discovered that while it is nice to have that real keyboard on my old BlackBerry, not a lot of websites are set up for old BlackBerrys anymore. MH's Samsung allowed him access to the utility's site - a site put up after Hurricane Sandy kept much of the state without power for over a week - and we learned that at one point only 11 people in my town had no power. That number corresponded to the number of houses on my street! That was the nadir.

To see lights on a block away while I was reading by flashlight depressed me. That I was reading the essays of William Styron - author of "Lie Down in Darkness" and "Darkness Visible" - provided a bit of macabre humor.

It was almost nice to see those houses on the next block lose power, too.

We went upstairs to lie down, wondering how we'd sleep. I had one window open a crack for air as the rain continued to fall. We heard the utility trucks.

At 10:15 p.m., seven hours after it started, it was over. The lights and the fan went on. We waited to see if it would last. It has.

At 10:30 p.m., the utility called to say power wasn't expected to be back on until 12:30 a.m.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Adventures of Alpha and Beta

When John J. Audubon referred to the ruby-throated hummingbird as "the glittering fragment of the rainbow," he was referring to the male. The male's back and head are bright green, his throat a deep red that can look black in some lights and the breast and belly are white.

Audubon was not referring to the duller females. As with most other birds, the females are not as bright or colorful as the males so as to be inconspicuous on her nest, or getting food for her young.

Attempt at a hummingbird picture (Margo D. Beller)
In late May my New Hampshire brother-in-law hung two feeders and, as usual, two males battled over one of the feeders, leaving the other alone. Hummingbirds will do that - they don't play well with others.

However, one of the males already had a mate and every so often the shier female would come feed, also at the same feeder. She, too, is green but a duller shade and there is no ruby throat.

My brother-in-law, as well as a friend of mine who lives in a hillier part of New Jersey, draw hummingbirds almost from the moment they put a feeder out. I always know the first batch of liquid I make will likely be wasted as I watch for the bird - more insect than bird, wings moving over 50 times a second, able to back up (which no other bird can do) and take off at great speed.

Admittedly, I make it hard on myself. I have the feeder hanging in a shady part of the garden (so as to keep the liquid from going bad quickly in the sun) that I can't see unless I step out on the enclosed porch. I have flowers hummingbirds like in different parts of the garden - azaleas and rhodedendron in the front, for instance, and geraniums and columbine in the back - so the birds are not always where I can see them, unlike the winter where the seed feeders can be seen from the kitchen.

This year I saw a male on June 3, the earliest ever for my yard, and then another one 15 days later. Then nothing.

Until June 30 when the first female showed up.

For some reason, what draws the birds to the feeder are the sprays of tiny pink trumpets thrown up by the coral bells. As I sat on my porch having breakfast, I was aware of movements at the bells and saw the green back. Eventually it flew up and saw the red-topped feeder. It flew over and took a sip. It was very tentative. Its head was so dark I was sure it was a male, but getting my binoculars I saw the white breast and throat.

She came several times that day and has continued coming. This is the typical pattern. At this time of year - June into July - the male hummers have done their genetic duty and go off on their own, sometimes heading south as early as late July into August. That leaves the female with the task of creating a nest, laying eggs, brooding them and then feeding the young, all the while needing food to give her the energy for all that fast flying.

So once she found a reliable food source, she wasn't going to let it alone.

Hummingbird, Higbee Beach, Cape May, NJ (Margo D. Beller)
This is typical. What wasn't typical was when the second hummingbird showed up a couple of days later.

I didn't realize it at first. When the first one - I'll call her Alpha - would stop by, she would feed, then back up and take off to the north, toward a high hedge I keep as privacy from the neighbors. Then I noticed she would fly up to the nearby apple tree, or head east, past my yard and to the next street.

The other morning I took my folding chair outside to drink my coffee and watch the feeder. In came the hummer - and then in came a second one to chase her off. The chaser was Alpha, with the dark head. The one chased off came back about five minutes later. I noticed her head was much lighter green and when she flew off, it was to the apple tree. This one is Beta.

Several times now I have seen Alpha at the feeder and Beta feeding from the coral bells, or Beta at the feeder and Alpha chasing her off, then coming back to feed.

All of this is fun to watch but there are some serious issues under all the feeding and chasing.

These females are making the constant trip to the feeder so they have the energy to sit on their nest or catch food for their young. In my part of suburbia, homeowners leave it to the landscapers to put in their plants and they are usually dull shrubs that do not flower and are cheap to replace. If they have flowers, it is a hanging basket and the flowers are generally not the orange or red trumpets hummingbirds prefer. They don't even have scent, most of the time.

I do have flowers hummingbirds like - bee balm, butterfly bush, salvia, coral bells, columbine - but the deer eat most of them too, and these plants are behind netting as a result. That is the reason for the dull shrubs - easy to replace when eaten by deer and not so lovely as to be missed and thus easily replaced.

My feeder is hanging on that pole in the shade behind netting, too.

When overdevelopment tears up fields of wildflowers and suburban sprawl doesn't replace the lost plants, you don't give a hummingbird a lot of choices. It doesn't have unlimited time and energy to look around.

Hummer drawn by my friend's zinnias (Margo D. Beller)
A feeder, however, is another matter. You buy one at any store. It is usually red either in whole or in part. You boil one-quarter cup of sugar for every cup of water until the sugar is dissolved, wait for it to cool and put it in the feeder. Hang it outside.

There! You've just helped out a hummingbird.

I see many yards with hummingbird feeders, even those with dull shrubs. People like watching hummingbirds. They are fascinating creatures. One second there's a feeder and the next there is a tiny bird sitting and taking long drinks with her very long, thin tongue. Then she rises up and is gone.

They fly backwards. Their wings beat so fast you can hear the blur. Several times I have come face to face with a hummingbird. When it doesn't feel threatened, it wants to check you out. We look at each other, it gives me a small "chip" and takes off. Working in the garden, I've heard an angry squeak and knew I was working in an area where the hummingbird, easily annoyed, was going to check out the nearby plants.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are not considered to be endangered. More people are putting out feeders and, if global warming continues, hummers might be hanging around beyond late summer when they generally head south to Central America.

I enjoy watching the antics of Alpha and Beta, and if global warming keeps them around longer it might even be worth it. I have lots of sugar.