Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Bearly There

On this last day of 2017 the air temperature is in the teens, some 20 degrees colder than the average for this time of year. When I wake at 6am it is dark and, because I have lowered the heat and it won't come on full until 7 am or so, it is cold. I am curled up under two quilts, a sheet, with one fleece blanket below me and a smaller one over me. MH snores by my side. I am not inclined to rise before 7am and so stay huddled up in a ball until forced to leave my warm bed.

Just like a bear.

(Director Mike Anderson took this picture in 2014 at New Jersey
Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary in Bernardsville)

Ever wonder why you feel more sluggish at this time of year or eat fewer cold salads in favor of mashed potatoes, squash or anything covered in thick gravy? It is our body telling us that, like the bear, it is time to fatten up before a harsh winter when there is less food to be had and less daylight to find it. When I had to rise at 6am to commute on the train I needed an alarm to jolt me awake. Not now. But even with daylight it is a struggle to leave my "den" for the outside world.

I put out the feeders. Many mornings it is my only reason for getting out of bed.

At this time of year the bears should be hibernating but this intense cold is only recent. It was relatively warm for November into early December and there was a 16-day bear hunt that lasted until Dec. 16, so I thought the bears might be on the move and would menace my feeders and feeder poles, as they have done at least four times that I know of (one of those times a bear nearly destroyed my pear tree as it tried to climb to the one small pear still on it). I have been taking the three feeders in every night. Now I don't have to although I know the deer may put their front hooves on a baffle and attempt to knock the seed feeders enough to drop seeds for them to eat. At least one baffle was destroyed that way.

And yet, the number of bear complaints is down. According to a Star-Ledger article quoting the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, as of Dec. 20, "the activity of 965 black bears has been reported to the DEP, a sharp drop from the 2116 of 2016, the department's bear activity report shows.

"In addition to 261 sightings where nothing happened, 695 bears caused 'damage or nuisance' in 2016, a more than 50 percent drop from the 1,394 problem bears last year.

"In 2016, 722 bear sightings resulted in the animals simply leaving the area without doing anything."

My only reason for rising most mornings
nowadays (Margo D. Beller)
It was in 2016 that the pear tree was damaged. It was in 2015, on a bright late September afternoon, that a bear ambled through my yard, snapped off an iron arm from a feeder pole, nearly destroyed my house feeder and then ambled off to the next street. I guess that is considered not doing anything.

Still, despite the "few" bear sightings and the lower number of bears killed 409 versus 2016's 636, during what might be the last hunt for a while (the incoming governor pledged to suspend the hunt, at least for now), the thought of even one bear foraging in my yard is enough.

No, better to brave the cold at night and in the morning.

The intense cold is as hard on me as the high heat and humidity of summer. Bears have a thick coat to withstand the cold while they hibernate. They have the right idea, which is why you'll find me huddled in my quilts and blankets and flannels on this winter's night.

It is expected to be 5 degrees when I put out the feeders on the first day of 2018. Happy new year. 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

'Interesting' Times

"May you live in interesting times."
  -- purported Chinese curse

As I write late in December 2017, the rain is falling and the temperature is expected to rise to 50 degrees. Not the type of White Christmas people in the New York area seem determined to have no matter how much trouble snow causes for travelers.

I sit on my porch, bundled against the damp coolness, trying to breathe it all in before re-entering my warmer, dryer house. Birds come to the feeder poles to find no seed outside today in the downpour, and their contact calls and the occasional cars driving by are the only sounds I hear. No leaf blowers. No lawn mowers. No shouting kids or barking dogs.

I think about this year. It started with a health crisis for me. On my birthday my main source of income dropped me and most of the rest of my co-workers. We lost two loved ones, a friend of 40 years' standing and MH's father, within three months of each other. 

Some would like to see a White Christmas. I do not. This is from several
years ago. (Margo D. Beller)
But there was also good. We got to New Hampshire to visit family more times this year, even though two of those visits were after, or because of, funerals. We celebrated our grandnephew's first birthday and learned that he will soon have a sibling. Our nieces, nephew and their spouses or boyfriend are gainfully employed, an increasing rarity for their generation.

We saw many friends including others from college days and some who have been friends since we worked together at other jobs, sometimes many other jobs. MH and I celebrated another anniversary and we explored much of the far end of Long Island.

And we saw the underpinnings of democracy be weakened by a president determined to blow up the good, rational parts of what makes our country work and replace it with lunacy - hollowing out whole departments by forcing out the knowledgeable, longtime people and not replacing them, or bringing in the type of political or religious hack (often a mega-donating billionaire) with no experience except a stated preference for closing the department he or she now runs.

We do not live in the age of statesmen, particularly in our highly partisan Congress, where working with people from the other political party is worse than a serious affront, it can lose you any power you've worked to gain through consistent re-election. Thus a tax bill that will hurt people in my home state, which already pays out more in taxes than it receives in government aid, while benefiting GOP-leaning states (and income brackets) that pay out far less and get far more in return. A tax bill that may result in my health insurance becoming too expensive for me to afford at a time when I am too young for Medicare and too old to be hired in the workplace, age discrimination laws notwithstanding.

This is more like what we expect for Christmas 2017.
It adds a bit of prettiness. (Margo D. Beller)

What do you do in such times? You hope. You hope the midterm elections bring about more people to undo the damage. (For how we got to this point, read Kurt Andersen's "Fantasyland." It explains a lot and is an easy but disturbing read.) You hope your grandnephew and the rest of his generation grow up to make the world a better place. You hope you live long enough to see it.

This doesn't have much to do with birds, does it. Well, here's something: My new year's wish is to see more birds for the first time and thus add to my life as well as my Life List.

Happy holidays.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Birding for the Soul

The natural world is a gateway to the timeless and the infinite. We can never understand it completely, and so for us it serves as a bridge to the infinite.
 -- Thomas Moore, "Ageless Soul"

"These are the times that try men's souls," MH tells me as we slowly walk down a gentle incline, kicking through beech, red oak, white oak and tulip poplar leaves, trying to avoid the rocks and roots. He is not talking about what's going on in the world now. He is quoting Thomas Paine regarding George Washington and the War of Independence.

Looking back up from the hollow. (Margo D. Beller)
We are on a narrow trail through woods at the Morristown (NJ) National Historic Park known as Jockey Hollow. Washington and his army camped at Jockey Hollow twice, the first time for a few months in the winter of 1777 and then for a longer period starting in the winter of 1779 - much more time than the better-known winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pa.

I do not like winter, and since my last post on the subject, MH's father died. As we walk in the woods, past tall, century-old trees that sprang up after Washington's army left after clearing the original trees to build huts and cook their food, it is cold and quiet, only us except for the occasional dog walker.

There are a lot of hills and valleys in this park. This particular trail, named for the New York State Brigade, is leading to what may be THE hollow for which this park is named.

Our hike here was not planned. I stopped here because I like driving the paved tour road through Jockey Hollow when we are headed elsewhere, and then I had to make a stop to adjust something. MH suggested we hike the path near us. Our motivations were different. I was looking for a place for us to walk and maybe hear a few birds. He was thinking of our recent hike at Washington Crossing State Park, the area where, on Christmas 1776, Washington brought his army across the Delaware River into New Jersey to surprise the British at the Battle of Trenton. We hiked near the river after looking at the artifacts at the park's museum. I was not expecting to find any unusual birds but I was pleasantly surprised to find a yellow-bellied sapsucker - a woodpecker I rarely see in our backyard - and a brown creeper.

Brown creeper, front yard (Margo D. Beller)
So here we were at Jockey Hollow. We walked a long while before we heard the contact calls of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice and juncos, but MH heard something else - the scream of a red-tailed hawk. I did not hear it the first time but I did the second time, and so did the birds, which went quiet. I set about trying to find it with my binoculars. We slowly continued along the path.

Then, it flew from one tree to another.

I watched it watching me. It called several times. It must've been a juvenile - a male, judging by its size (female red-tails are larger) - because an adult would know that screaming would not get it any supper, winged or otherwise. Finally, it got tired of watching me and flew off. A minute or so later, the small birds started chattering again and MH said he wanted to start the hike back up the hill to our car.

I did not want to leave. A few winters ago I had to have surgery, and in the long recovery afterwards I only started to feel like myself again - well - when I went to the local park and started walking along the familiar trail and tried to find the birds I heard calling, something I enjoy doing.

Another red-tail in another tree
(Margo D. Beller)
In his new book, "Ageless Soul," Thomas Moore makes the point that there is a difference between aging well and getting old. As with the other book I recently read about global warming, this book has made me see another view of what I consider a negative experience. You can't change time. You can't make yourself younger, no matter how many pills you take or how much plastic surgery you have.

What you can do is enjoy the world around you, expand your horizons and make a difference.

"Work without play is a burden," he writes. "Play helps relieve some of the weight of labor."

For me, play is going outside for a walk and trying to find and identify birds, even if they are familiar ones I can see at the feeder from my kitchen. Birding is good for the soul and has been a way to help me heal through several winters of personal and professional changes.

The starkness of winter, Jockey Hollow (Margo D. Beller)
I think of all those Saturday mornings I felt compelled to get up and out of the house and go birding after a particularly hellish week when I was working in the city, away from home for 12 hours a day including work hours and the commute. Since working from home I sometimes feel a waning in my birding interest. "I've seen all these birds before. Why bother going outside?" I thought. That, I now know, is the wrong attitude.

As Moore writes, "[I]f you work without play, that soul work is neglected, and your work doesn't age you well. You get older as the years pass, but you don't get better as a person."

Like Scrooge on Christmas morning, I now know I can change my ways before it is too late.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Two Ways of Looking at Global Warming

The Carolina wren flies to the porch and pokes around the overhang, looking for bugs. But this wren has flown to a porch in central New Hampshire. According to the owner of the property, this is the first Carolina wren he's ever seen in the state.

 As the name implies, Carolina wrens were once primarily found in the southeastern U.S. However, they are a common sight at all times of the year in my home state of New Jersey, which is north of the Carolinas and south of New Hampshire. These wrens, unlike the marsh and house wrens I see every summer, don't fly south for the winter. As long as there are feeders to provide suet and seed when the snows cover any insects, these wrens will survive.

Carolina wren at feeder in winter (Margo D. Beller)
Northern cardinals, despite their name, is another species once only found in the south, as were the northern mockingbird and the redbellied woodpecker. They are common backyard birds in my part of the country now. They have come north along with their food sources, managing to survive in northern areas in winter. I also happen to think that as global warming continues, as we are told more months of the year are the warmest ever, the birds can push north and stay, migrants no more.

If you've read my posts you know I am no fan of "development" and of the continued warming of the Earth, a process some call global warming but now has been dubbed climate change. Either way it means that average temperatures have been rising, weather has been getting more extreme, more 100-year disasters have been taking place more frequently and more carbon monoxide and greenhouse gases are being created, to the detriment of the atmosphere.

That's my usual glass-half-empty view because of what I see reported on the news, such as when the current U.S. administration thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax, wants to subsidize coal mining over cheaper and cleaner natural gas and puts in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency someone who wants to dismantle it.

Professor Chris D. Thomas of the University of York (UK) has another, more positive view. You could say he takes a much longer view than the mainstream press - several millennia, in fact. He believes that thanks to warming and other changes there is more species diversity in many areas.

"The world is one in which the specific combination of species and genes in any one place is new but the fundamental biological processes that are in operating are the same as before," he writes in his new book "Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Evolution."

Northern cardinal (Margo D. Beller)
Thomas is a realist. He knows there are areas of the world where species have become extinct. But he also knows that while climate change and excess pollution are things to fight, the long-term view is this is evolution, right out of Charles Darwin. Nature adapts, like the Carolina wren in New Hampshire. The state now has an additional species, adding to its diversity.

And it's not just birds. Many trees and plants have moved to other areas and thrived.

"Accepting that ecological and evolutionary change is how nature works means that we must contemplate life as a never-ending sequence of events, not as a single fixed image of how it looks today," he writes. "This dynamic perspective of life on Earth allows us to put aside most of our doom-laden rhetoric and recognize that the changes we see around us, including those that have been directly or indirectly engineered by people, are not necessarily fundamentally better or worse than the ones that went before. They are just different."

What is creating change is us, not just with more industry and suburban developments but by more subtle processes. The ships that brought Europeans to the new world brought with them diseases, and insects and vermin that stowed away. They brought plants and vegetables to remind them of home in this new world. Some of these plants thrived while others did not. Some had to "move" to other areas through mankind's movements to survive.

According to Thomas, those that do not evolve will die. At the same time, he disagrees with those who want to eradicate "foreign" species, such as the American trees brought over to Europe and now thriving. They want to bring things back to the way things were. Impossible, says Thomas.

Prothonotary warbler, increasingly found
in NYC, as this was
(Margo D. Beller)
"We are living in a fundamentally human-altered planet, and there is no longer any such thing as human-free nature," he says. "We cannot reverse time. Instead, we should appreciate changes that are positive as much as we regret any losses."

This is certainly a different way of looking at the changes we humans have created - inadvertently and intentionally - in this world. So in future I won't be overwhelmingly negative when another bird that normally lives farther south starts making regular appearances in my area, such as the southern yellow-throated and prothonotary warblers. It's evolution in action.

At the same time we must work hard to keep the losses of different birds and other species to a minimum and encourage the positive. Everyone can do something, however small. For instance, buy and put out feeders to keep the Carolina wrens and redbellied woodpeckers of the world thriving when they visit your yard this winter, wherever you might be.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

I Hate Winter!

Every year it seems I feel the need to express myself about how winter makes me feel. I feel down. Why?

Winter is cold.
Snowfall, New Jersey (Margo D. Beller)

It is often as dry outside as it is in my heat-filled home and my skin quickly turns to sand paper.

There is a good chance of snow and ice.

It is hard to get out of bed in the morning, much less take a long walk.

Just as I am finally feeling awake and alert the shadows get long at 3pm ET, so I know darkness is only two hours away. That means I have to take in the feeders at 5pm so they won't be attacked by bears overnight (until they go to their winter dens. But who knows if they will if our climate continues to warm?). If I have water dishes out for the birds, they must come in because the water will freeze when the temperature gets below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

When the weather is expected to be very bad, say a major drop in temperature after an unusual warm spell, the birds attack the feeders. Chickadees, titmice and white-breasted nuthatches grab and go while house sparrows and house finches sit on the perches and feed until I chase them off so the other birds can eat.

Winter days are short and that depresses me. It reminds me of my mortality.

Winter intensifies a feeling of loss. One friend is mourning the recent death of his sister, while another's wife succumbed to cancer in August. December reminds me of friends who are out of my life such as the one who stopped talking to us five years before his sudden death in 2012, just after his 56th birthday. We found out about it through the most accidental of circumstances. He went to his death with his secrets. I turned his age two months later.

I used to send real holiday cards in the mail. Each year my card list grows smaller because someone has died, stopped talking to me or, more often, greetings are received virtually, via email and Facebook. And even when I do send a card there is little to say aside from I'm still here and still alive despite the best efforts of mankind (cars, diseases, stress) to kill me, and that I hope for peace the next year.

Maybe that's enough.

I try to remember things that are good about this time of year. There is a starkness to the winter landscape that is striking. Hanukkah and Christmas and Kwanzaa bring colorful lights, clothing and food to cheer otherwise gloomy and dark nights.

Winter landscape - Great Swamp (Margo D. Beller)
And, as MH reminds me, the beginning of December is the time when the sunset is the earliest it will be. It will remain that way for about a week and then the sunset times will gradually get later. (However, sunrise times will continue to be later, too, so the days will continue to appear short until the winter solstice on Dec. 21. Then the sun will start rising earlier.)

My friends should know I am working to give myself a reason not to be depressed. Seeing some family for Thanksgiving helped. Seeing some friends over the holidays will help, too. So will filling out the few cards I'll be sending, hoping to receive some in return. There are still birds to be seen during the winter including those at the feeders and wild ducks on all types of waterways.

If I can wake up, see the sun shining and have the energy to make my daily trips outside to put up the feeders and the water dishes for the birds, I'll be satisfied. But I'll be happier when spring finally comes.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Getting Out to Sea

...(W)henever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul...I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 
-- From Herman Melville's "Moby Dick"

I am no sailor. After nearly drowning several times in my life, I stay away from water be it a placid lake or a raging surf. However, I have great respect for the power of the sea and those who work it for a living. When the wind howls and one wrong step can cost you your life, you are doing a job I know is important and I could not do.

Montauk sunset, Nov. 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
For some reason, despite my antipathy for water, I find myself drawn to it. That may come from my upbringing on the southern coast of Brooklyn, NY, in an area called Sheepshead Bay. Back in my youth the place had the atmosphere of a fishing village, especially along Emmons Ave., which parallels the bay. Farther along the road, there is Plumb Beach, which is now cleaned up quite a bit from the garbage dump it was, when you walked carefully along the sand to avoid used syringes and condoms.

My mother, who grew up on the flat plains of Alberta, liked to come to Plumb Beach to watch the waves. Listening to the water must have been a way to stay calm in an otherwise less-than-contented life. But my old neighborhood has changed and the fishing village has been replaced by high-end real estate, traffic and tall towers.

When MH and I started taking vacations in November around the time of the Veterans Day holiday, we chose shore areas because the tourists would not be there in the same numbers as in the summer. Our first November trip was to Stonington, Conn. We have since stayed along the Delmarva Peninsula; in Cape Cod and Cape Ann, both in Massachusetts; in New Jersey's own Cape May, and down along the North Carolina Outer Banks and on Atlantic Beach.

There are disadvantages to this. When the wind blows in the winter cold it can be numbing. Not as many restaurants are open and some areas of state or federal parks can be closed. If unexpected snow hits, it makes for treacherous travel.

Male (L) and female long-tailed ducks
(Margo D. Beller)
But still we go, because we can enter parks without a fee and, if we are lucky, we find a wealth of birds.

This year we decided to stay closer to home yet not in Cape May, and so ventured to Montauk, on the eastern end of New York's Long Island. We have visited the town on many day trips but wanted to do some exploring of the South Fork, where Montauk is at the very end, and the North Fork, where we had once visited Greenport and Orient, two of the towns where wineries have replaced the old potato farms.

The Long Island scenery is wonderful. We also saw some impressive birds including hundreds of them in the ocean off Camp Hero, an old military base now a state park. Winter is duck time. Among those in the ocean below a sheer drop were black, surf and white-winged scoters and common eiders. Gannets dove from on high for food while cormorants and common loons would pop up from the water before diving back down again. The ubiquitous herring gulls were joined by greater black-backed gulls and even a few ringbills.

In calmer waters we found more common eiders, a scoter or two as well as long-tailed ducks. All of these are usually seen in the ocean but when you are at Land's End and a storm is expected, shelter is a priority.

Double-crested cormorant
(Margo D. Beller)
We had one picture-perfect day, which we spent on the North Fork, an area that shares more with the salt-box, shingled, harbor people of New England than New York. In Orient Beach State Park, dozens of robins plus jays and the occasional house finch and myrtle warbler were hitting the red cedars, which were covered in blue berries. We saw the same feeding frenzy the next day at a county park we found after we left Sag Harbor (like New Bedford, Mass., a whaling center once) but this time it was dozens of cedar waxwings and goldfinches hitting the berries.

If only we could've spent more time with the birds and less time trying to find an affordable place to eat and drive roads where the people who service the rich were in a hurry to either get to their next job or get home and drove one-lane roads at a high rate of speed. Even those who own property and live out there full time drive behemoths that fill your rear-view mirror when they tailgate.

All of this part of Long Island is New York City East. While the North Fork seemed more artsy, I did not like the South Fork much at all. The Hamptons have always been rich but now they are Super-Rich, with obscenely expensive megamansions crowding each other along any available waterway, screened from lesser beings in the road by tall, thick hedges of privet. Privet is everywhere. Once in a while I saw huge hollies placed in front for the same reason, which at least is interesting. Privet is not, and when it flowers it stinks. The mansions were of recent vintage - salt boxes are an endangered species where land is worth more than your life - and likely very empty, their owners back in their city penthouses.

Myrtle warbler
(Margo D. Beller)
A long time ago my family spent our summer vacation not far from the Hamptons, in a little town called Center Moriches. On this trip, MH and I drove through. I expected change and was not disappointed.

When I was a child I remember my family walking along the road from the old hotel - which later was bought by Imelda Marcos, the wife of the Philippine dictator - past a duck farm. Hundreds of white ducks, bred to become part of the famous Long Island duckling dinner. My sister and I weren't told that, of course.

The duck farm was gone, the land cut up into luxury housing. The old hotel I remembered had been fenced in (likely by Marcos) and re-sided (likely by the people who bought it from Marcos) in a thoroughly ugly way. I expected this but it was still sad to see. I doubt we'll be coming back to the South Fork ever again. Aside from the sea, it is not our kind of place.

You've got to walk and don't look back, as Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger once sang.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Sweating the Small Stuff

Something wonderful begins to happen with the simple realization that life, like an automobile, is driven from the inside out, not the other way around. As you focus more on becoming more peaceful with where you are, rather than focusing on where you would rather be, you begin to find peace right now, in the present. Then, as you move around, try new things, and meet new people, you carry that sense of inner peace with you. It's absolutely true that, "Wherever you go, there you are.” 
― Richard CarlsonDon't Sweat the Small Stuff ... and it's all small stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking Over Your Life

My friends know I have a Type A personality. They may not know it was created from a household where my mother couldn't keep house, my father couldn't screw in a light bulb and my sister tried to make herself disappear whenever she could. So, I felt, I had to keep things running. I still do.

Pods on the grass, the type of "small stuff"
that keeps me going. (Margo D. Beller)
I was watching TV the other day and saw one of those commercials for the new Real Estate Trap, aka, an "active adult" community. In that one the single woman, who looks to be in her 70s, says she couldn't believe she could be happy in her new environment. We see her with age-appropriate friends, multi-racial and of both sexes, and she's reading and making cookies and "can't want to see what tomorrow brings!"

The line that really gets my blood boiling is when she says how glad she is she no longer has to "sweat the small stuff."

What would that be, ma'am?

Would that be cleaning up your little room? Would that be cooking a meal for yourself? Would that be walking the dog, raking the leaves, working in the garden, running to the library?

No, of course not. You have everything you need right there and if you do want to go somewhere, the complex will put you in a van and take you there.

For those older, more infirm folks, I can see the appeal of this. My in-laws are in their 80s and very glad to sell their suburban home for a NH condo closer to their grandchildren, where there are lots of activities, a hospital is down the road and they don't have to shovel the snow or work on the greenery outside. I bless my father-in-law every time I use the tools he left behind.

But this morning, as I raked yet more pods to the curb ahead of my town's leaf vac coming by, I wondered what I would do if I no longer had to "sweat the small stuff."

My way of not sweating the small stuff.
(RE Berg-Andersson)
I'd never survive.

I have the type of personality that has to work against something. For many years it was a job away from home, where if I wanted to do anything I wanted to do, I had to either do it before my two-hour commute or once I got home from work 12 hours or so later or wait for the weekend. Even after I started working from home I'd have to work around my various shifts.

At the moment it's getting those damned pods off my lawn.

One of my friends envies me my now semi-retired status, semi-retired because I still do some freelance work, I just don't get as much of it or get paid as well as I was before my biggest client decided to go without my editing services. I have a lot of time to fill. Sure, I can read all day but how will that pay the bills?  I tell her that every day seems the same to me now, weekends and holidays are just another day. Most days I wake up and have to remind myself what day it is.

But at least I still wake up. I still put out the bird feeders in the cold dawn, refill the water dish, watch the Canada geese fly overhead (even if these are local geese flying north instead of south for the winter). I still make supper for MH and myself, and when I don't feel like it we go out. I even clean my own house every so often. I don't feel compelled to mingle with people if I don't feel like it, and I can still afford to pay the taxes on this property. The idea of an "active adult community" fills me with horror, mainly because I know I'd have to be in really bad condition physically, financially or both, to force me from my home.

As a couple without children, whose friends live some distance away and who are aging every day, the small stuff of what happens in future is a problem for another day.