Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

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 weather.com 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.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Adapting to Winter

The female redbellied woodpecker flies to the house feeder, grabs a black-hulled sunflower seed, then flies the short distance to the pear tree. She climbs up the trunk with the seed in her long bill to the top of one section that has been sawed off flat. She puts the seed on it and pounds until she has broken off the hull and can then grab the seed with her long tongue.

She goes back and forth five or six times to do this as I watch from my enclosed back porch, not too close to the window or I'd scare her. Each time she flies to the feeder she dislodges a young, male cardinal who has been eying the feeder but hanging back while other birds, including two other male cardinals, fly over to get food. She has no interest in the suet feeder nearby. Today, she wants seed.

Finally, the redbelly flies off and the young cardinal flies over and grabs a seed, only to be chased off by a posse of house sparrows.

Female redbellied woodpecker (Margo D. Beller)
At this point I take on my position of omnipotent ruler and tap on the window, scaring the sparrows off and allowing the black-capped chickadees to fly in, grab seeds and fly off. A couple of them go into the upper branches of this same pear tree to grab the seed with their feet and then peck to break the hull and eat.

I've been witnessing this behavior in my backyard for the past 20 or so years every winter. Same routine, different generations of titmice, house finches, jays and white-throated sparrows.

We had a heavy snow last night, and this morning I added to the number of seed feeders because I know it is not going to be easy for the birds to find food. But if I didn't put out a feeder - and I seem to be the only one around in this part of the area hanging feeders - the birds would still find ways of surviving. They're used to it.

They do better than I do. When the snow falls, especially the heavy, wet type we had, my first reaction is to groan. I know I am going to find shrubs bent under the weight and I might find fence posts down because the snow has weighed upon the deer netting. I don't have to worry about feeding myself but I do have to worry about getting groceries in ahead of time or getting the snow plow guy over to clear the driveway before the temperatures fall again in the evening.

Cardinal pair (Margo D. Beller)
I walk around repairing the damage as the birds check for microscopic insects in the branches of the black locust trees over my head.  I hear the sparrows calling from the hedge and the local Canada geese flying overhead. I hear the cardinal pairs calling to one another. A few weeks ago when we had a smaller snow storm but colder temperatures there were six male cardinals in my backyard at once. Today there were three and at least two females. The pecking order - which one eats first, second, etc. - was very much in evidence because only one of the three seed feeders will allow a cardinal to comfortably sit and eat a seed.

As I get older I find myself liking everything about snow less and less. I don't like the shoveling -- it tires me and makes my back sore. I don't like knocking snow off tall hedges and getting it all over me. I don't like depending on the plow guy when there is more than 5 inches of white on the driveway. I do not like the cold at all, and that dislikes gets worse with every falling degree.

It is easy for me to complain because I am bundled in a warm coat and will be going inside a warm house momentarily and can eat when I choose to eat. The birds have to depend on the kindness of strangers - me. I can provide them seed and suet, hedges for roosting at night and, every so often, aid and protection by chasing off cats or raptors. But that's it. They are on their own in the cold and have to depend on puffing themselves up and creating a layer of warm air under their feathers. They will "sleep" in their way to conserve energy to fly and feed the next day in order to survive.

There will still be winter fatalities, just as there are always stories of humans who lose a finger clearing out a snowblower or have heart attacks lifting heavy loads of snow with their shovels.

Today, I'm not one of them. You could say I've learned to adapt, too.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Winter Thoughts

This has been a good week for me, and that fact is unusual enough for me to put my feet up, put on some music and note it here.

We've had a week of below-average temperatures and about an inch of snow that has been slowly melting each time the sun is out for more than 10 minutes. This cold has made it uncomfortable for being out on errands or looking for birds. But in my sunny office right now, life is good.

Compared with last January, the sixth-snowiest January on record, according to the "year in weather" chart the New York Times publishes the first Sunday of the year, I'll take it. We're not even at February yet. Last February was the second snowiest thanks to eight inches of the white stuff. I don't want that again.

Today I looked at all the birds at the four feeders I have out and realized I saw six male cardinals at once. That is a record for the backyard. Two were on the ground with the squirrels, grabbing the seed dropped by the house finches and house sparrows. Two were in the bushes, their red feathers easily seen on the bare branches. One was atop one feeder pole, the last at the house feeder on the other pole.

My yard is the only one within eyeshot offering seed this year, and in this cold the birds are taking full advantage of it.

Also today, I went to the monthly winter farmers market at the Fosterfields county park and bought an assortment of root vegetables (turnip, potatoes), greens (spinach and collard), onions, garlic and artisanal baked goods. It's not cheap to buy at the farmers market - you can get many more things and cheaper at the local grocery store. But they have been shipped in from the other side of the world, the side now in summer.
Male cardinal, winter 2014

What I buy tastes better and lasts longer because they come from farms in New Jersey, which I'd like to think I'm helping to survive when I make my purchases. From the looks of the crowd that got there five minutes after the market officially opened (I got there early for a reason), there are a lot of local residents who want to do the same.

I am lucky to not only have the money to buy these goods but to have parks such as Fosterfields - a working, teaching farm - a close drive from my house. These non-bakery purchases will allow me some variety from the usual frozen peas and dry pasta side dishes. Knowing this gives me the energy to consider what to make this week for supper.

It is such silly thoughts that keep me going in a life where it seems the harder you work the further behind you fall. I am enjoying this transient feeling of calm and semi-prosperity as the sun warms me and music plays as I write.

These are purely human concerns, of course.

I don't know if I'd want to be a bird fighting others to eat my sunflower seed or, if a woodpecker, the suet hanging upside down in the feeder. Then again, birds don't worry about things like paying bills, making the dinner menu more interesting or remaining employed for the paycheck as I do. Their needs are more basic at this time of year: finding food and avoiding predators such as the red-tailed hawk my husband saw in one of our trees this morning.
Backyard red-tail, 2013 (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
Since the birds don't wear name tags, I don't know how many of the ones now at the feeders are the same as the ones there a week ago. I do know today we've had a pair of goldfinches for the first time in a long time, plus a female hairy woodpecker. But those six male cardinals tell me that it's getting harder for these birds to find food.

I am very glad I do not have to depend only on the farmers market to keep me alive. As for the birds, I have a new, 40-pound bag of seed and four more suet cakes for when the current ones are done.

Because it's going to be a long winter.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

First Snow, 2015

As I write, the first snow is falling in this new year of 2015. It started as a few flakes as I went out for a walk and then quickly intensified as I made my way home using a shortcut I've seen people use, which brought me to my street.
Snow from another year (Margo D. Beller)

In a mere 20 minutes an inch has fallen, whitening everything. But this snow will not hang around long. The temperatures will be rising and it will become rain, heavy at times, removing the pretty white.

This is in marked contrast to the beginning of 2014 when we'd already been hit with several snowstorms. It would be a winter of a lot of snow, a lot of rain and a lot of ice on top of the snow, which made the deer, squirrels and birds desperate for food. The year ended with one snowstorm at Thanksgiving. That's been  it until now.

I get restless at this time of year and the cold and threat of snow don't help. It seems to take more effort to walk when it is biting cold - I need to wear warmer shoes and a long, bulky coat, a headscarf and a hat. I have to be especially careful in my early-morning walks on days when even the sun doesn't seem to help. I am not 20 anymore, and when I inhale too much cold air through my mouth the lungs burn and my heart seems to pound so hard I fear I'm about to expire.

Halfway through the 2014 snow season (Margo D. Beller)
(I do not understand those I see who wear shorts in winter or walk around without a hat or gloves. Do they drink anti-freeze? Do they keep their homes at 80 degrees, making a walk in 20-degree chill seem refreshing? Or am I just old and painfully creaky?)

Today it is not that cold, although it is raw. Despite the discomfort, I was driven by the need to get outside and look around before the snow so I could justify staying inside the rest of the day.

I remind myself that getting caught in a snowstorm isn't fun. I've been caught at the Great Swamp when a snow squall hit and only my familiarity with the roads kept me from panicking when I started driving unable to see far out my window. I don't want to worry MH, who has been obsessively watching every weather channel and radar.

Thanks to him I knew this storm was expected around noon. He wanted to stay home. So I kept today's walk short.

I do not like birding in rain and I find very little when birding in snow because most birds are smart enough to hunker down in bad weather, like MH. In my walk today I saw one flying turkey vulture and eight pairs of mallards swimming in the one part of the local pond that hadn't frozen after several days of below-normal temperatures. (That makes it hard to reconcile with the forecast of temperatures climbing to 60 degrees tomorrow and then dropping to the 20s a few days later, another sign of the wacky weather caused by global warming.)

(R.E. Berg-Andersson)
Winter cold, the end of the outdoor growing season and the longer nights make me gloomy and filled with depressing thoughts. So while I am outside I walk briskly to keep them at bay, listening for any bird calls or the sound of human activity in the "Deer Quality Management" area I skirt. (I now wear an orange hat. It is too easy to blend in with the woods otherwise.)

I pass the community garden and see frozen tomatoes on the shrunken vine and several stalks of brussel sprouts someone didn't bother to harvest. Why grow food when you're not going to use it or give it away? A garbage pail overflows. The pond is nearly frozen. The sky is gray and dreary. The snow is now coming down thick and I am not wearing boots. But I know where to go and if my neighbors don't assault me for cutting through the edges of their properties I can get safely home. This time.

I've been relatively lucky in my life but I know a time is coming when I might not be able to take these winter walks, or take care of my house or take care of MH and myself. I am hoping these brisk, restless walks keep that time at bay for as long as possible.