Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Monday, September 25, 2017

Autumn Colors

Goldenrod field 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
When I go hiking at this season, I usually look up, seeking movement in the trees that could be migrating birds. It is up to MH to look at things on the ground including caterpillars, toads and dog poo, and warn me not to step in or on it.

Lately, however, I've been looking at the flowers. What follows are pictures of flowers I've seen in my wandering. (Note: This was intended to be a slideshow but for some reason this template is not letting me put in page breaks.)

I used to confuse goldenrod with ragweed and would pull it out of my yard. I know better now. In fact, I have a small stand or goldenrod from a friend's garden, but you can see goldenrod in fields everywhere at this time of year, making even highways look pretty.

Virginia creeper in red, with blue berries 2017
(Margo D. Beller)
But there are even more flowers around and some weeds, such as Virginia creeper vine, that will turn color ahead of the trees it is climbing. This vine is not poisonous, unlike poison ivy. This one has blue berries for the birds rather than poison ivy's white berries.

Snakeroot (Margo D. Beller)

Speaking of white, one of the autumnal plants I enjoy seeing in my yard is a pretty cluster of flowers with the ugly name of snakeroot. As you can see, it can populate a whole field.

Another common white flower in Autumn, very low to the ground, is the ox-eye daisy.

(Margo D. Beller)

(Margo D. Beller)
The pink flowers of joe-pye weed are always a welcome sight in the woods and fields. This can be bought for home gardens, too. Some types have been bred small while some, such as the ones I bought, can grow over 10 feet. When the flowers bloom they are covered in bees and butterflies.

(Margo D. Beller)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Trench Warfare

It is the nature of Nature that when you have a mowed field, you have to keep it mowed or it will become overgrown. Then the trees will start growing and completely change the typography. There are people who want this. Second-growth forests, as this regrowth is called, are good for a variety of birds and animals.

Trench with sensitive ferns (Margo D. Beller)
But on a much smaller scale, in this case my yard, I need to get rid of a different type of forest.

I was out with the hose early one morning this week to water the plants and I could not help but notice that thanks to the September heat that has followed the unusually fall-like weather in August - a reversal of seasons - the weeds and grasses are growing by leaps and bounds, thinking it is spring. It is hard for one woman to keep up and it is times like these I wish I could clone my nieces and nephews.

One area around the side of the house was on the verge of being swallowed up by the ground ivy. Bad enough it is fighting the grass in front of the house for survival. It has also found some comfortable dwelling space under Spruce Bringsgreen, whose prickly foliage keeps me from going under it to yank out the mats of ivy anymore than once or twice a year.

A mat of ground ivy was removed, exposing the
sprinkler head. (Margo D. Beller)
But this side area has a number of sensitive ferns that have done very well this year for the first time in a very long while, and I did not want the ivy in it. So I had to dig a trench.

Specifically, I had to dig a trench border.  I had to go to the edge of the area where the big shrubs, called andromeda, were planted, put in the shovel (after loosening things with the garden fork) and pull up the dirt, angling it in such a way that the grass and ivy in the lawn could not cross. Plants won't grow in air, so the wider the trench, the better the chance of keeping unwanted plants, even lawn grass, out.

It should've been easy enough. I've dug these trenches before. The problem is, I last dug one 10 years or more ago, and unless you fix your handiwork every few years, rain and wind will inevitably fill in the trench and the weeds will cross back to where you don't want them.

My plan was to rise early and try to finish the work before the sun rose high enough to warm that particular area. However, several things went wrong. First, I could not get myself out of bed before dawn. Second, I forgot about the difficulties in putting a shovel into dirt that has rocks and miles of shrub and weed roots under it. Third, I forgot the hand-to-hand combat. It's not enough to dig the trench, you have to pull out the undesirables from the area you have "liberated." It is very much like war without the shooting. 

Good trenches make good neighbors.
(Margo D. Beller)
The finished product makes the garden bed look neat but my back and knees almost finished me off. My compost bucket was filled with huge mats of ground ivy, particularly from in front of the air conditioner platform. There were also crab grass, some wood sorrel and other plants I can't identify. I just hope I got it all and didn't harm the ferns or buried daffodils much from my labor.

My plan was to do another garden bed not complicated by deer netting but my aging body forced me to wait a day. I had to be content putting a month's worth of brush to the curb in several trips using a cart and a wheelbarrow. The next day it took another two hours to do this bed, which has even more roots and rocks to dig through. Somehow I survived.

And I'm still not done. No gardener ever is. There is one super-sized problem area in front of the house, bound by netting, poles and a small fence to keep deer and rabbits out of plants I never would've put in had I known better 20 years ago. It will take an hour just to take out all the netting and then there will be hours of work to dig the trench, pull the weeds and then, as long as I have the poles down, move around pots, cut back shrubs and put down mulch. My back aches at the thought.

The next frontier (Margo D. Beller)
Because this area is in the sun for most of the day I will need a cooler day, preferably cloudy, an October day that actually feels like October. I could do at least some of this with MH's help, even though doing anything in the yard aside from mowing the lawn fills him with apprehension. I don't blame him. Sometimes it is easier to just do things myself rather than bark orders to get things just so. 

I could hire someone but I like working in the garden, despite the pain. I can listen to a distant Carolina wren, one of my favorite birds. I can take care of everything at once and then, I hope, leave this area of the garden alone until spring starts things all over again. 

Mainly, doing this stuff allows me to check that I can still do it. As time has gone by I have been forced to give up many things, including long, rocky hikes up steep inclines. The garden, even digging a trench, is something I can still do. I garden, therefore I am. 

I am battling myself, too.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Coming Back to Life

I am still grieving the loss of one of my dear friends, and I still hate this time of year for the shorter days and dying leaves and pods that will soon have to be raked to the curb.

April, 2017 (RE Berg-Andersson)
But there are times I am reminded that with every loss comes rebirth.

My friend is gone but my grandnephew is nearly 15 months old and growing like a weed. The cardinals and their young are still flying around the backyard. The catbirds are leaving my yard but the white-throated sparrows will be here soon for the winter. I have taken in the hummingbird feeder and I will soon be putting out the seed feeders for those passing through or staying around.

I was at the Scherman Hoffman sanctuary, the closest New Jersey Audubon facility to my house, to watch for hawks on its observation deck with Birding Ambassador and author Pete Dunne and a small crowd of people hoping to see a large kettle of broad-winged hawks. The temperature and humidity made it feel more like mid-August than mid-September, which has followed the pattern of this wacky year when we had summer-like weather in spring and fall-like weather in late summer.
Same are, Sept. 16, 2017 (Margo D. Beller)

I left the platform after an hour to hike the hills and valleys. I saw little in the way of birds except for a young female common yellowthroat warbler I pished out of the weeds. Everything else were birds I could've seen or heard in my backyard, including several turkey vultures.

I was trying to walk off my internal agitation, trying to remember why I enjoy birding. I have cut back for a number of reasons, including health concerns. I need a reason to keep going.

Then I walked into a field that had been burned back in the spring to get rid of invasive plants and allow for the seeding and growing of more native plants.

So where there was once scorched, seemingly dead earth were fields of long, seeding grasses I believe are a type of fountain grass and brilliant yellow goldenrod, along the lovely white fall flower with the ugly name of White Snakeroot.

Life after death. The priest at my friend's funeral went on about her happy life now after death and I thought how in my particular religion there is no concept of heaven and hell, just the here and now.

(Margo D. Beller)
So I am going to try to concentrate on the here and now. I am going to stop and enjoy the wildflowers now blooming, including the goldenrod and New England asters you see above. I am going to take walks and listen for what might be passing through. I am going to live in the moment. You can call it selfishness or mindfulness or whatever you want. I just need to get through this down period and hope for better days soon.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Cardinal Rules

I have always thought the period from late August through October to be the saddest time of the year. If you are not already back in school, you will be. The sun sets long before 8 p.m. Leaves are beginning to turn color and/or fall, as is the case with my old apple tree. The regular baseball season ends in early October.

Cardinal pair (Margo D. Beller)
Many birds are migrating south. I haven't seen a hummingbird at the feeder in quite some time. My mother, who was born in late August, died in mid-October. A dear friend, who was born in mid-October, recently died after a long battle against cancer one day after my mother's birthday.

The somber Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur usually fall in September or October. The anniversary of the worst attack in U.S. history occurred on Sept. 11.

By the time November rolls around you are used to the long, cold, dark nights and can look ahead to Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. But now you realize that the cold nights are going to severely hurt or kill your plants and you start to wonder whether to protect them or let them go.

At the same time, there is life.

Cardinal (Margo D. Beller)
Some plants bloom at this time of year. In my yard are flowering Rose of Sharon and liriope, with the sedum "Autumn Joy" not far behind. Mums dot suburban doorways.

There are still birds in the yard. A catbird calls, white-breasted nuthatch and chickadees come to the thistle sock and the cardinals are calling to each other. And there are young cardinals, too, a late brood for these parents.

Cardinals are among my favorite birds. Their size and coloring makes them easy to pick out in bushes and trees. They come to feeders and sit a while to eat, allowing you to admire and photograph them. In spring the red male feeds his mate as part of the pair bonding. It looks like they are kissing. Unlike a lot of other birds, they mate for life. Audubon painted the pair. The adults call to each other constantly, and the male will sit atop a tree and sing lustily during the breeding season, announcing that THIS is HIS territory.

Audubon's portrait of cardinals
(Margo D. Beller)
Cowbirds will drop eggs into cardinal nests. The young cowbird is usually bigger than the cardinal chicks and either grabs all the food or pushes them from the nest. The adults will feed it anyway out of instinct. I have seen a cowbird chick harassing an adult male cardinal, begging for food, following it wherever it goes until the chick grows big enough to leave and rejoin the cowbird flocks.

And yet, the cardinal is far from endangered. Today I watch young cardinals follow their parents around the shrubs in my backyard. They are nearly fully grown. When young, cardinals are smaller and brown like their mothers, lacking the red crest and bill. That is for their protection. As they get older, the brown females get their red bills and crests, the males start to grow the more familiar red feathers.

Relatively soon after they can fend for themselves, the young cardinals will find mates. When winter comes I might have as many as four cardinal pairs visiting the feeder. It will keep them alive this winter until they can breed and keep the cycle going.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Too Much of a Good Thing

Where do the natives of Tahiti go on vacation?

Our dry, cool, sunny un-August weather in New Jersey is like paradise after our recent, normal heat and humidity, but it may be too much of a good thing and it has me concerned.

Gift tomatoes (Margo D. Beller)
At some point during the expected 10 days without rain, I will have to go out with the hose and the sprinkler so the plants and the lawn don't die. There are two water dishes out for the birds (and the squirrels), and they've been visited frequently.

The peppers prefer heat, not evenings that fall into the 50s, as we've been having out here, so I am not sure if the fruits will ever get big or change from green to their expected ripe colors. 

The people who like the beach had a fine weekend (until the traffic home) and those who stayed home and have a grill and/or an outdoor fireplace enjoyed stinking up the neighborthood using them, too.

We aren't beach people but we did visit friends near the Brooklyn waterfront the other day and the wife's small garden put me to shame. Various tomatoes, cucumbers, ginger root, melons, coneflowers, sunflowers, herbs, all in a space about the size of a postage stamp. 

Like other gardening friends when the harvest is coming in, I got gifts to take home because they had too much of a good thing. That happens this time of year. I've had garden plants foisted on me because they'd otherwise be thrown out. One friend claims he will put a zucchini in every unlocked car he finds in his neighborhood, and I've been given zucchinis that look like green logs. A relative complains she doesn't know what she is going to do with all the fruit and vegetables she's picking. (She is a good cook and canner so I am not worried.)

My produce, in pots rather than in the ground, have it a little tougher because the roots are limited in how far they can grow. Some friends are using the new type of mesh pot that supposedly allows for greater air circulation for the roots and creates happier, fruit-bearing plants.

Gift cucumber, nearly 14 inches long
(Margo D. Beller)
Will my peppers ever grow to the right size? One friend in Delaware complains that all the rain she got this summer created a terrible harvest for her cucumbers and tomatoes. The farmers I've talked to in New Jersey have said the same. Too much rain is as bad as to little.

And yet the farm markets are full of peaches, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other produce. Some people are obviously doing a lot of things better than I am.

Meanwhile, our good thing in the northeast is balanced by too much of a bad thing in the rest of the country.

In California. there are major forest fires. In Texas, Hurricane Harvey strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane thanks to the abnormal warmth of the Gulf of Mexico before slamming into the barrier islands, which should've limited the damage but there are people living on them, and so there is damage. The continued rain has devastated Houston. The rain in Texas is being measured in feet, not inches.

Too much dry, sunny weather in NJ, a mega-hurricane flooding Texas. Global warming? You tell me.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Here in New Jersey we have been given a gift this late August - cool, dry, breezy weather, more like September than late summer.

The cool air has inspired me to go outside and deadhead the spent flowers on the perennials in hopes there may be new bloom before winter. My peppers have started growing, at last. Leaves are falling off the apple and pear trees, and the dogwood has a hint of red in the leaves, even as its fruits are starting to form. The female locust tree in the front yard will have a bumper crop of seed pods this year, unfortunately, and when they fall they will have to be raked to the curb with the inevitable leaf piles.

Male Harlequin-you can hunt it in season.
(Margo D. Beller)
For now, however, I am thinking about migration.

There is still the occasional hummingbird visitor to the feeder. The adult males are long gone, the adult females are leaving and the juveniles are now big enough to feed and travel on their own. The rubythroated hummingbird I've been seeing of late seems to have a tinge of red on its "chin," making it a juvenile male. He perches and takes long drinks. With the accumulated fat he's building he'll soon be heading to the lush tropics for the winter. I hope he survives the trip.

Overhead, the clouds are moving from north to south. In the bird reports I see warblers and other migrating birds showing up in greater numbers on their way to their winter grounds. The north wind is a tail wind, and when September comes that means it will be time for me to look in the skies for southbound raptors.

Buteos such as redtail hawks, accipiters, falcons, harriers, vultures, eagles: When they fly south they use the warm air rising off mountains to help them stay aloft. So unlike the warm spring winds from the south, which don't seem to limit the hawks' flight patterns, in autumn the best place to see these birds is along mountain ridges. I enjoy the hawk watch from Scott's Mountain and have seen hawks from elsewhere in New Jersey, including New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary and from the front lawn of an office building in Englewood Cliffs, across the road from the Palisades and the Hudson River, which the hawks follow south.
Redtail hawk (Margo D. Beller)

The view of raptors from the top of Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain, an extremely rugged hike each way, is awesome. No platform here, just jagged rocks. This was one of the many places where sportsmen would see how many hawks they could shoot out of the sky.

That doesn't happen anymore, at least officially. The outcry over such slaughter as well as the killing of birds such as great egrets for their feathers led to the passage of the 1918 Migratory Bird Act. No more raptor target practice. Birds such as grouse, woodcock, ducks and geese can be hunted, but only during limited times of the year and with a strict limit on how many you can kill, just as with the deer and bear.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: For over a century, wildlife conservation laws and regulations have been enacted to keep our bird populations healthy. As part of our mandate to conserve birds and their habitats, we administer the Migratory Bird Treaty ActMigratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. These acts are at the foundation of the Migratory Bird Program.

Hawk feathers (Margo D. Beller)
Among the artifacts in my museum of collected oddities are three feathers. I see, but don't usually collect, feathers all over my yard and from all kinds of birds. But these three feathers (at left) were found while I was hiking and for some reason I took them. From the pattern, it looks like they came from a Cooper's or a sharp-shinned hawk, presuming these are tail feathers, but I can't be sure. They are fascinating to study.

But was my taking them illegal? Under the law what happens when you kill, say, a Canada goose during hunting season? Can you collect its feathers for sale?

According to this site, created by a person who sells feather art, some situations are legal, some are not. One of my friends, who is handy with crafts, recently found feathers from a great blue heron that was preening in one of her trees. She is angry at what she sees as hypocrisy -- that she can shoot a bird for supper but can't use its feathers for art and commerce.

So she won't be hawking her wares anytime soon. I, meanwhile, will be waiting for autumn to come for real and the north winds bringing the great raptor push southward. Feathers will be flying.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The 2017 Solar Eclipse

This week was one of the few times the United States came together as a nation. No matter who you are, your political party affiliation, your ethnic background and beliefs, you were watching a total solar eclipse in person, on the internet or on television Monday, Aug. 21.

The President stood on a White House balcony with his family to watch, at times without safety glasses. On hillsides across the country, especially in those small towns in the nation's midsection, crowds sat and looked up, like the audience at a 3-D movie, with their special glasses. It was the first coast to coast total eclipse in almost 100 years. The next solar eclipse to be seen from the U.S. will be in 2024.

Everyone had their cellphones and cameras ready to record the moment and put it on their social media pages. Television networks had crews and their main anchors reporting in case your local weather did not make for optimal viewing outside. Even NASA, the space agency, live-streamed the eclipse on the internet.

It was what we used to call in the 1960s a happening.

MH, with his scientific bent, was ready for it.

As the start of the eclipse neared, around 1:30pm ET in New Jersey, he pulled one of our small, white, plastic tables off our porch, put it on the top of the driveway where the sun wasn't blocked by trees and readied his grandfather's binoculars to shine the sun through. At just the right angle, two suns appeared on the table top, like something out of "Star Wars."

With one hand on his trusty phone and the other on the binoculars, he was able to document the transit of the new moon. Where we live the sun was about 75% covered, so it never really got that dark, more like dusk. His photos are shown here.

1:40pm ET (photos by RE Berg-Andersson)

1:52 pm

2:16 pm




Professional scientists were out watching and photographing the eclipse, too, studying the sun's corona, for instance, and the eclipse's effects on birds and animals.

This is not new. For instance, consider this report from the Kansas City Star:

In February 1998, [Elliot Tramer, a professor of biology and director of environmental sciences at the University of Toledo in Ohio] was in Venezuela for a total solar eclipse and, by happenstance, witnessed the unusual and collective behavior of sea birds such as gulls, terns, pelicans, cormorants and frigatebirds.
“As the eclipse approached and it began to get a dusk-like lighting, the sun was probably 70 to 80 percent occluded, these birds all got up and flew inland,” Tramer said, an observation that he later published. “The local people in Spanish were all saying, ‘The birds think it’s evening!’ 
Once the eclipse passed, the birds flew back to sea.
In my neighborhood, everything went quiet except my neighbor's two yappy dogs, which were barking as she tried to photograph the eclipse, before the clouds rolled in and covered the sun. Was it the eclipse affecting them or their owner's strange behavior? Only they know.