Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Birding by Tone

This morning a blackpoll warbler is singing from one of the trees in the backyard. Unlike most of the other birds called "warbler" in the northeastern U.S., the blackpoll has no yellow on it anywhere. In fact, it looks a lot like a blackcapped chickadee during spring migration. In fall, the male loses his black cap and becomes overall dull like the female. 

It has a very long travel route, one of the longest. It is usually one of the last warblers to pass through my area on its northbound flight in spring, and so I am usually a little sad when I hear one because it means the excitement of possibly finding "new" birds is over. (Usually. With climate change and strange weather patterns, some normally "early" birds have been arriving with mid- and late-migration ones in recent years.)

The first time I heard a blackpoll's call, which sounds like the kind of metallic, high-pitched he-he-he made by a truck when it is braking, I had no idea what it was. I just knew I'd never heard it before. I rushed from bed, threw on a robe, grabbed my binoculars and located the sound in one of my front trees. What IS that?

The bird appeared and I thought I was looking at a chickadee, until it sang. I watched it for a long time (blackpolls are slow, deliberate feeders) and then went inside to identify it.

That call was easy to learn and remember. Many others are much harder, especially if you only hear that bird call once a year. 

Baltimore oriole (Margo D. Beller)

I had a similar experience with a Baltimore oriole. I heard this high-pitched whistling in a particular pattern repeated again and again. What IS That? Again, I went out front but this time the bird had moved down the road. I dressed hurriedly and followed with my binoculars. 

You would think something black and orange would show up easily in a green tree, and it does - once you find it. Luckily, it kept calling and I knew what it was when I finally saw it (the oriole logo of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team helped, believe it or not).

This is how you learn bird calls - you hear something, you find the source, you try to remember. After over a decade of doing this, it becomes second nature especially if you don't have binoculars with you when you hear something. 

I now do 95% of my birding by ear. Even with high-powered binoculars my eyes aren't what they were and once I've seen a bird, I usually don't feel the need to actively search it out and see it again. (Back and neck aches from prolonged staring at treetops is one reason.) If it appears - like the Carolina wren or the chestnut-sided warbler - I look and am grateful to see it.

My friends think I am some kind of expert. But if you listen and actively learn, you remember. I can tell one friend's voice from another and the voices of my nieces and nephew from each other. It is no different with birds. The thief! thief! of a blue jay is different from the peterpeterpeter of a titmouse, which is different from the sweet sweet I'm so sweet of the yellow warbler -- if you listen and want to remember the differences.

I think of it more as birding by tone or pattern than "birding by ear." There is a difference in pattern between the calls of a mockingbird and a brown thrasher as well as tone of voice. Both birds are mimids, having no songs of their own but taking the calls of the birds they hear around them. 

Mockingbird (RE Berg-Andersson)
No matter what you call it, the most important part is memory. Unlike the kind of memorization we had to do in school, listening to and remembering bird calls is a pure pleasure for me, and anything that is enjoyed is easier to remember. Paying attention also helps. Even during the most mundane errand I listen to what's calling around me and then identify it.

When I was in Great Swamp during prime spring migration time this May, I was amazed I could identify almost all the birds I heard, including some I hadn't heard in a very long time such as the yellow-billed cuckoo and Tennessee warbler. But I know if I was in a northern pine forest I would hear other birds I couldn't identify and would have to learn those calls.

Then it's back to the books and the photos and the bird calls to match a name with a voice. Then work at remembering them. It's a pleasant challenge. Maybe it's even helping me stave off senility.

I'm still learning, you see.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Feast or Famine, Owls in Central Park

I am writing on the fifth day of the fifth month in the fifth year of this decade and the fifteenth year of the new century. May is not known for heat but today it is expected to be around 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's summer weather.

It was a very cold winter, 2014-2015, and when winter finally eased its grip in April, with temperatures nearly seasonable or slightly above, it felt great. Then it would get cold again and I'd look at my bare garden beds and brown grass and wonder if spring would ever come, and with it the migrating birds.

Well, I worry no more.

First daffodil bouquet, 2015 (RE Berg-Andersson)
First, it got into the upper 60s and low 70s. My crocus, daffodils and grape hyacinths never looked so good. Every day I would come outside and find new signs that winter didn't kill off everything.

Then, for the last few days, it has felt like July, with warm and dry air. This was wonderful - winds from the south provide a tailwind for migrating birds heading north - until it got into the 80s. I am not a summer person. I do not rush for the shorts and flip-flops at the first sweat.

What I do is get my binoculars and start looking for birds. However, I am not finding them in the large numbers I usually would in early May.

I don't know why that is, exactly, but I have some guesses.

The same global warming-inspired atmospheric conditions that brought us much colder than normal temperatures for much of the winter delayed budding and bugs. Without plants and insects, birds won't stop to feed or breed. When the weather finally did warm, plants started to pop and insects started to swarm but the birds were miles away.

They made it north with great effort, flying at night when it is cooler and there are fewer predators, but in some cases strong southerly winds or a desire to make up for lost time caused these birds to overshoot my part of New Jersey. One day birds are reported in bulk in one area, the next they are gone or numbers are greatly reduced.

Black-throated green warbler (Margo D. Beller)
My backyard was a microcosm of that. I had at least one junco coming to my seed feeder. Juncos are winter birds and in my areas all the ones I see are males. They have to head north to claim territory for the female juncos, who winter farther south. I am still finding other winter birds on my morning walks, mainly white-throated sparrows and pine siskins. But I have yet to find warblers in great numbers - a northern parula here, a black-throated green there, a brief call of an ovenbird.

In short, feast or famine. We've had no rain since a massive storm that cut our rain deficit in half. So we have nothing, then a near-flood. The eastern U.S. gets too much rain, the west is in a continued drought. The temperature is either 20 degrees below the average or 20 degrees above. I can count on two hands the number of "normal" spring days we've had.

So I will blame climate change for this one and hope that somewhere along the line there is a cosmic re-balancing that will make spring feel like spring, summer take place in summer and winter cold that doesn't seem like forever.

Encounter With a Killer

In my search for this year's migrants birds I went to Central Park on May 2. Central Park is a huge urban park in the center of Manhattan island. It is impressive enough at ground level but for a tired and hungry bird heading north in spring it is an oasis in a desert.

The vast majority of people in Central Park could care less about birds. Central Park has been called "New York's backyard" and that is very true. Residents and tourists come to walk, jog, bike, sun themselves on the Sheep Meadow, use the ballfields or playgrounds. It is the reason most birders come to the park early in the morning, so they can hear the birds call above the din of humanity.

Harris' hawk (RE Berg-Andersson)
However, the day I was at the park I discovered  the annual "On a Wing" festival at Belvedere Castle hosted, in part, by the New York City chapter of the National Audubon Society and the Central Park Conservancy. Plenty of  bird tours and informational literature to be had as well as programs about plants and bats.

But what seemed to draw the biggest crowd was the exhibit called "Talons!" Master Falconer Lorrie Schumacher wowed the crowd when she opened a box and took out a female great horned owl.

There is something about owls. Perhaps it is because hunt from dusk to dawn and they aren't easily seen. The GHO's "whooooo" is distinctive and eerie. We speak of "Night Owls" and the GHO is one of the largest in this part of the world.

So when Schumacher pulled out "Big Mamma," the crowd went nuts, taking pictures as you would see at any celebrity sighting.

Great horned owl (RE Berg-Andersson)
Schumacher also pulled out a Saker falcon, which is found in Europe and Asia and is particularly popular with falconers, and a Harris' hawk, a buteo found in the desert southwest. But the owl, who swiveled her head almost completely around to look at everyone and at one point hunched into a defense posture and fluffed herself up when she spotted a leashed dog in the crowd, stole the show.

GHOs are beautiful killers, as this crowd of city residents and tourists learned up close and personal.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Bearing With It

“Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby.” 
― James Rollins, "Ice Hunt"

Here in the suburbs we have our neat lawns, our "park-like" and fenceless backyards, our bird feeders to attract cardinals, chickadees and titmice.

You don't expect black bear out here.

But after years of warnings I believe I had an unwelcome visitor sometime the other night and I believe it was a bear.

I opened the shades in the morning and saw only one of two feeder poles and only one of three feeders. Cursing, in disbelief, I grabbed a parka against the dawn chill and ran outside to find one pole bent nearly to the ground (the feeder, where the seed tube is enclosed in a squirrel-proof cage, was still secured to the pole and in one piece). The house feeder - mentioned many a time in these posts - had been ripped from the other feeder pole, which had been bent back from the force of being pulled.

Female cardinal atop house feeder, pre-bear. (Margo D. Beller)
That feeder lay on the ground, empty. I was relieved to find it had not been smashed to bits.

Only the suet feeder - with its plain, unscented suet - was untouched.

My first thought was, WHO would do such a malicious thing. MH had no such thoughts - he immediately cursed and said the bears had finally gotten to our little town.

That wasn't quite true. Years ago, when we had more apple trees, I came out one morning to find a hunk of one tree on the ground and a large indentation (not to mention a lot of scat) and we conjectured a young bear went up in the tree for a snack and the branch gave way, bringing both down. We laughed about it and hadn't thought of bear since.

No more laughing.

This has been another strange winter. No, we weren't buried under the feet of snow seen last winter but it has been very cold for most of the last six weeks and even now, in late March, any warmish weather (which has caused the early flowers to bloom) has been countered by cold, very windy and wintry times.

Still, there comes a point when hibernating animals need to wake up and start eating. I was not surprised to find a chipmunk running around the backyard recently, the bane of my garden's existence because of its damned digging.

Black bear, June 2014, Old Mine Rd., Sussex County, N.J. (RE Berg-Andersson)
Bears are another matter. Bears have been found in most of wooded northern New Jersey for decades. As the population has increased, bears have spread south and east so that there are more bear encounters in urban areas and in parts of the state where a bear had never been seen. Bears have long been part of Morris County, but not my part of the county. Or so I thought.

The other year the mayor of our town had notices put in every mailbox warning people bears were waking up and would be active and hungry, and to take in feeders and keep your garbage secured and watch your pets. In researching this post I found that in 2010, for instance, a bear was seen in broad daylight on our train tracks. The bear problem has gotten so bad the state has reinstated a bear hunt, which has been popular with the deer hunting crowd but not so popular with the animal lovers.

One such animal lover accused me of causing the deer and bear problem by moving to my suburban development. I told the man my house had been built in the 1960s when the populations of both creatures were much lower and, besides, it wasn't my fault. I told him I supported the hunt and if looks could kill my head would be hanging over his mantel.

So now I take the feeders in at night and I have to either straighten the pole - it was bent at a 45 degree angle - or replace it. Since we are coming into spring I have cut back the number of feeders I put out to two, the house (which I repaired) and the suet. But I miss that second pole, not just for putting out more seed but for hanging flower baskets during the summer.

I guess I got off easy. In other areas property has been destroyed, pets and livestock killed and, in one gruesome case, a college student was mauled to death by a bear while hiking in northern New Jersey. As the human population moves into housing developments built where they have no business being (in the 1960s people didn't wonder about such things when my house was built on what had been meadows), there will be more interactions with wildlife.

There are already many reports of coyotes. I've seen foxes and racoons running down my street, as well as skunk and the occasional possum. Deer have been a nemesis almost from the day we moved into this house over 20 years ago.

But bear is different. Bear is big, strong, fast and dangerous. A bear that can bend a metal feeder pole to the ground can snap my spine. If I get between a sow and her cub, I'm dead. Bears have learned to appreciate fine dining from garbage pails and dumpsters as their natural habitat is destroyed.

Like the deer, they have lost their fear of people. It doesn't help when people are stupid enough to try to entice bear into pictures with their children, as one NJ idiot did using a bagel.

Years ago one of my nieces casually told me of the bear she'd seen just that morning at the end of the driveway during my visit to that very house. In rural New Hampshire bear are no big deal. They are respected but they are also hunted. Balance is maintained. Not in the suburbs where I live. Any threat to small children and pets or a genteel way of life where interaction with the natural world is unnatural if it can't be completely controlled must be eradicated, the faster the better.

The bear problem in NJ reminds us you can't let things get out of balance. Our ancestors hunted bear - over-hunted them, in fact. That wasn't right either. Now that the population has been allowed to come back, it is time to start the hunt again, to get the numbers to a manageable point.

Yes, it would be fine to stop people from ripping up woods, damming streams and building mega-houses on multi-acre lots, forcing the clear-cutting of trees and the digging up of land to accommodate sewage, gas and power lines.

But it is unrealistic to think 2/3 of the population of New Jersey, myself included, is going to just go away, just as it's a fantasy to think allowing bears to spread out and breed unmolested is a good thing. At the same time, if you are going to put people in bear country, interactions are going to happen and someone - bear or human - is going to get hurt.

I got my warning. I'm heeding it.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Faith in a Tree

I write this on the first day of spring, according to the calendar. To meteorologists, "spring" started March 1. Today, March 20, at 7:45pm, will be the vernal equinox, when the sun is over the equator. After this, the Earth will tilt in such a way that the northern hemisphere will get more light and move into summer.

But as I write it is cold and cloudy and snow - a lot of snow - is expected. In fact, at this very moment it IS snowing.

It is a depressing thing. The early flowers - snowdrops and crocus - are open, the daffodils and iris are showing signs of life and I was able to unearth my brush pile when the last of the old snow melted. Even tho we got far less snow than last year, it was colder this winter and it made the snow hard and dreary to look at. I was glad to see it melt away. Now it is back.
MH and last year's snow (Margo D. Beller)

The birds, spurred by the increasing daylight, have been singing. A song sparrow nearby is particularly persistent, as are cardinals, titmice, chickadees and house finches. Woodpeckers have been drumming and calling. In a month, the winter birds - juncos and white-throated sparrows - will be leaving and the summer dwellers and migrants will be passing through New Jersey. I've already seen early birds including brown creeper and gold-crowned kinglet, and skeins of Canada geese have been flying north, sometimes in very stiff March winds.

Spring will come, but right now it is dreary and it is snowing.

I try to find things to lift my spirits. One was on a small hill along one of the roads heading into the Central Park of Morris County, which I still call by its old name, Greystone, from its time as state land surrounding a mental hospital.

The snow was piled heavy on this hillside and it was very cold. But the sun was rising and I saw this little conifer above the snow. Somehow, despite all the deer tracks up and down the hill, this conifer - I can't get close enough to determine what type - wasn't eaten to death. It struck me as a hopeful sign, that despite the long, cold winter, spring would come again and things would grow.

Conifer emerging (2015) Cellphone picture by Margo D. Beller

A few days ago I was walking the same road and now all the snow is gone. The tree is still there, still growing, still untouched by deer. It blended into the hillside so well it really doesn't show up in my cellphone picture, as the winter scene does. I hope the tree survives and becomes very tall, somehow elbowing the oaks and maples aside to get enough lift to reach its full height.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about seeds in a book compiled and published after his death called "Faith in a Seed." In the case of this small tree, something - a squirrel, chipmunk or bird, most likely - picked a seed out of a cone and either planted it or excreted it on this spot, which just happened to have favorable conditions for growing.

What makes this tree so interesting is there are no conifers anywhere around that area. The closest ones - hemlocks, a couple of white pines and larches - are farther along the street. Or perhaps a seed was blown in from the wooded areas on the other side of the road, beyond the brook? Somehow, that seed made it to the right spot and is fighting to stay alive.

So am I. At least, I hope this is the right spot and I hope to survive. It isn't easy in this life.

The Passaic River at Scherman Hoffman (2014), some distance from where David Bird was found. 
(Margo D. Beller)

Fourteen months ago, a man about my age and with whom I had a tangential connection through work, went out for a walk and didn't come back. He lived near the Great Swamp, and by a strange coincidence I was hiking through there the day after he went missing. A woman drove up and handed me a flyer about him. It was later I realized why the name - David Bird - seemed so familiar. How ironic, considering I was out birding.

His jacket was sighted by two men in canoes on the Passaic River, the same Passaic that separates Morris and Somerset counties and runs through another of my favorite birding locales, New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary. Bird's remains were found later and identified through dental records.

A long time ago, in Boston, I interviewed a man from what used to be the Metropolitan District Commission, which, among other things, policed the Charles River. The Charles has been known to freeze hard in winter, and people walk across it. But ice is hard to judge and when it thins people drown. The man told me that every spring his people would go out to find "floaters" - drowned bodies that float to the surface after the ice melts and they lose weight through decomposition.

It took 14 months for Bird's body to float to the surface, more time than usual. If not for his red jacket he might never have been found.

MH worries something like that will happen to me when I go birding alone. I reassure him that when I go alone I go to familiar places and stay on the trail.

But really, how safe are we nowadays in this world? We are all like that little tree, placed by chance upon this Earth, our existence dependent on outside factors beyond our control.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winter Blues

There is nothing scarier, for me, than seeing a man who tends to stay up into early hours of the morning holed up in bed, huddling under the quilts shivering, at 9pm.

But that was because MH was reacting to this intense period of sub-normal cold that has been afflicting New Jersey and the rest of the eastern half of the country.

(photo by Margo D. Beller)
When you hear of people dying in Tennessee from hypothermia or getting into accidents because they are driving fast on ice-covered roads, you know something is not normal.

When it is warmer in Anchorage, Alaska, than it is in Morris County, New Jersey, something is not normal.

When the New York Times devotes space to an article in its science section on what to call people who do not believe we have climate change or global warming or whatever it's hip to call it at the moment, something is not normal.

We know about the winter blues, that depressed feeling you get because it seems to be so dark for so much of the day. SAD is the acroynm, and it is appropriate. But this is beyond SAD.

Here we are at the end of February, two months on from the shortest day of the year, the first day of winter. There is more light during the day, starting earlier in the morning. Cardinals, titmice and other birds are singing, calling or drumming out territorial warnings based on the length of daylight, not the temperature.

(photo by Margo D. Beller)

We humans also sense that maybe spring is just around the corner. But for the last month, it has rarely been above freezing and my area is still blanketed by the snow from several storms that fell earlier in February. I can't keep up with the birds (and squirrels) hitting the feeders for food. I have to bundle up and put on my boots to refill feeders on the coldest mornings, and handling metal feeders is no fun even with gloves on.

It is hard just to take a walk - how warm should I dress? Should I wear boots or can I get away with shoes? Is the neighbors' sidewalks shoveled out? What is the windchill? I am sure got a lot of traffic over the past month.

Back to MH. Today he told me he just couldn't handle the cold - not the fact we keep thermostat at 66 degrees or so to save money but the cold in general. He said he felt the need to go upstairs, lie down and pull up the covers.

In effect, he went into temporary hibernation, just like the bears, chipmunks and many other woodland creatures.
We humans still have that instinct, to sleep through those times of intense cold and long darkness. We tend to eat more and exercise less and eat more "warm" meals with starches than "cold" meals of leafy salad greens. We eat too much, get lethargic and, at least in my case, sit in a chair near the heat register and let the sun shine through my windows to warm me.

So while MH's behavior was unusual for him, it actually makes some form of sense.

(photo by Margo D. Beller)
So does the reason for the sub-normal cold afflicting us this year as it did last year. Last year we learned about the "polar vortex" and how the air that normally flows over the north pole got bent out of shape, if you will, because of shifting wind patterns.

Now we are learning about melting polar seas and how that warming - that global warming - has pushed down the jet stream over the eastern half of this country while the western half has gotten next to no snow and is warmer than usual, which means another summer of drought. Cold comfort to my friends in New England buried under feet of snow right now.

Global warming, climate change - call it what you will, it is there and it is real. It is creating extreme weather. It is putting ice in the deep south and creating hurricane-force winds in deep winter. It created several feet of snow in one Buffalo snowstorm this winter and has created dangerous windchills over New Jersey four times in the last two weeks.

This is not something we can get under the covers to avoid. But I fear it may already be too late to repair the damage.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Backyard Feeder Drama

This weekend has not only been Presidents Day weekend and Valentine's Day weekend but the weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count run by, among others, the Audubon Society and Cornell. These counts are useful as a way of getting the average person as well as the avid birdwatcher involved in reporting what they see and how many, which helps the scientists get an idea of what species are increasing and which are on the decline.

Adult sharp-shinned hawk with prey in hole (Margo D. Beller)
This particular day, Sunday, Feb. 15, the wind has been howling and I've had to go out twice to re-set a feeder in danger of being blown off the pole. I came downstairs at 7:30 a.m. and the birds were already all over the 4 feeders I left out despite the risk of wind. It is wicked cold out, wind chills in the minus numbers and even the enclosed porch's thermometer is showing me 10 degrees.

In short, it's cold and the birds gotta eat to survive.

The early risers are there - cardinals, chickadees, titmice - and a few surprises including a pair of American goldfinches and a Carolina wren that nestled inside the house feeder as the wind rocked it like a cradle. When things calmed it flew to the suet feeder and took advantage of the pounding a larger hairy woodpecker had given the near-frozen fat to take a few nibbles before flying off. I like Carolina wrens and if I had been outside I am sure I'd have heard it singing from somewhere nearby.

But I did not go outside. And at 8am, just as a cloud of house sparrows and house finches descended to push off the birds I do like, there was a gust of wind and a sudden large bird in the yard I just knew to be an accipiter and all the birds scattered. The bird flew to a low branch, giving me a perfect view of it. I saw it was an adult (gray feathers, red breast), male (smaller than the female) sharp-shinned hawk with its rounded head and square tail.

Juvenile Cooper's hawk (Margo D. Beller)
Accipiters are the most feared birds in this area. The sharpy and its larger cousin, the Cooper's hawk, are lightning fast and agile enough to fly between trees in a forest, going after birds, squirrels and other smaller animals. I have seen sharpys fly out of a bush. They seem to come from nowhere (unlike the larger red-tailed hawk, a buteo, which either hovers in the air or sits atop a pole or tree before dropping down to grab prey in an open area like a highway).

The sharpy sat for 10 minutes before catching another gust of wind out of my backyard. It took another 20 minutes for any birds to return to the feeders, and I was not surprised they were the intrepid chickadees and their cousins the titmice.

When I told MH about the sharpy he reminded me what it says in one of my reference guides, "Birds at Your Feeder," when it comes to sharp-shins and Cooper's - they like birds at your feeder.

We have hawks fly through at all times of the year, going after birds, squirrels and chipmunks. We've had a small flock of turkey vultures that somehow found a frozen rabbit carcass in a corner of my yard. We've had broadwing hawks, red-tails and even a juvenile northern goshawk, the largest of the accipiters, that somehow found its way to a low branch in my backyard for a day.

I find the accipiters most interesting. When they are young they are brown, streaky and not very good at catching prey. We've seen several near-misses over the years including the time an American tree sparrow flew out of our caged feeder just as a juvenile Cooper's hit it from the other side. It sat atop the feeder stunned, and I took a picture. I've seen juvenile Coopers on a branch on one side of a tree trunk trying to grab at a squirrel on the other side. It would be funny to watch if it wasn't a life and death struggle. The hawk wants to eat, the squirrel wants to live.
Juvenile Cooper's hawk (R.E. Berg-Andersson)

But accipiters have to learn fast if they want to survive and by the time the streaked breast goes red and the brown feathers turn gray they know how to hunt very well - unfortunately for the junco and the chickadee and the mourning doves I've seen picked off in the yard over the years.

The only thing that kept today's sharp-shinned hawk from catching any of the many birds at my feeders was that sharp wind blowing it off course. Today, the little birds got away. Tomorrow?

I've no doubt that sharpy found something in another yard to fill its crop and allow it to live to hunt another day.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Chickadee Winter

Winter morning, about 12 degrees F. As usual one of the first things I do in the morning is to refill feeders and put them back on the poles. I take the feeders off one of the pole at night because, until I got a new baffle, the deer would stand on the old one and knock at the longer feeder to get the seed to fall. (In the process, the deer knocked out several large holes, prompting the replacement.)

Black-capped chickadee (Margo D. Beller)
Now, refilled, I am outside hanging them on the pole. A black-capped chickadee is in the nearby dogwood tree and it flies to the top of the feeder pole over my head. We look at each other and it takes off for the tree again until I finish attaching the feeders and walk away. Then it comes to feed.

Had I been wearing a bowl of seed on my head it would've flown to it and taken one.

Another morning I put one of the feeders down on the lawn to go inside and get something. I came out and found a chickadee had flown down to grab a seed, taking advantage of my absence.

I have lots of chickadee stories.

My three favorite birds are the cardinal, the Carolina wren and the black-capped "dee." They are my favorites for different reasons. The cardinals are big, red and travel in pairs. When the male feeds the female a seed during mating season they look like they are kissing. You could call them the marriage birds.

Carolina wrens sing all year long and are not common visitors to my yard, making their appearance this year at the seed and suet feeders a sign of just how cold it is. I used to think the wrens sang only to defend territory but they also sing warning. They are a reliable alarm for the other birds.

Carolina wren (Margo D. Beller)
The dee, however, is a favorite because it is not put off by people. They have learned that when I come out on my enclosed porch and rap on the glass to disperse the horde of house sparrows and house finches from the house-shaped feeder, they can zip in and get seed before the horde returns. (The dee's cousin, the tufted titmouse, also does this).

They will eat from your hand if you stand there with arm outstretched long enough. They can be made tame that way, as I have seen at several parks where people put a seed in their hands and the birds readily come and feed. In fact, if you don't do that they will literally fly in your face and call, as if to say, "See me, feed me." This has happened to me many times.

They make all sorts of cute sounds from the gurgling and "dee-dee-dee" calls that give them their name to the song that starts at a very high note and then falls, sounding like "hey, sweetie." I was on a hawk watch once, my first one. It was a hard climb and, to my horror, there was no place to sit, not even a boulder. Hawks were specks in the sky and as counters called out "sharpy" or "broadwing," I couldn't keep up. However, at eye level, close to me, was that gurgling and a flock of about 15 chickadees were feeding right up on the mountain.

I have seen dees exploring an outdoor telephone booth back in the pre-cellphone days. They are the most reliable visitors to my brother-in-law's feeders in New Hampshire, where it is far colder than where I live. Like other birds dees find shelter wherever they can get out of the cold and wind and puff up to trap air under their downy feathers.

(Margo D. Beller)
I like them because they take a seed and fly off to crack it open, holding the seed in their feed and pecking at it. They don't sit there and block the feeders as those sparrows and finches do. A dee I saw this morning had a seed, flew to the pear tree in front of me (standing on the other side of the glass) and pecked at it. When the wind blew it turned its back. At one point it continued pecking hanging nearly upside down like an acrobat before righting itself and finishing its meal. Then it flew back for another seed.

I've seen them take mouthfuls of snow for moisture, too. Unfortunately, I've also seen them picked off by hungry sharp-shinned hawks, an unpleasant side effect of putting out feeders.

There are many different types of chickadees. The ones I've seen from southern New Jersey on south are Carolina chickadees. They look virtually the same except they are a little more pale, a tiny bit smaller and their calls are faster. Another one I would love to see is the boreal chickadee, which I could find if I go up into the higher elevations of northern New York State or New England.

According to Cornell University's Ornithology Lab, which runs the annual Great Backyard Birdcount every February in conjunction with the national Audubon Society, last year the black-capped chickadee was reported on 16 checklists in my home county of Morris, the 23rd most seen bird behind the robin, starling and Canada goose, among others.

There were years when I was lucky to see one dee in my backyard. This year I've discovered a family of them roosting in my yew hedge, which I don't trim at the top because the deer eat at it from the bottom. That thick part at the top hides a lot of birds.

I'm happy to have them there. And when this year's bird count takes place Feb. 13-16, I look forward to counting them.