Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Farewell, Kirkbride

The end has come.

For years there have been battles over the fate of the Kirkbride administration building at what used to be the Greystone Park psychiatric hospital. When N.J. Gov. Christie Whitman, after a number of scandals involving the century-old hospital and its outdated facilities and leaky security, had the hospital closed down and a newer, smaller hospital built on the western-most end of the property, the bulk of the land was sold to Morris County for $1 and became a park.

The stone wards built to stand the test of time came down. The space is open and green. There are ball fields, playgrounds and, late in coming, hiking trails. But Kirkbride stood, a decaying hulk, on state-owned land. Nearby stood two "cottages" and the old train station.

Many plans were circulated to "save" the historic old building, the wonder of its age with the largest continuous foundation in the world until the Pentagon was built in Virginia. But each plan included residential housing and commercial space and many, including me, were worried about the effect on the park and the populations of Parsippany, where the hospital was located, and Morris Plains, literally just down Central Ave., which leads to Kirkbride's doors.

Legislation was introduced to tear the structure down and turn the state land over to the county to add to the park. Morris County is one of the more congested counties in the most congested state in the U.S., so opening more parkland to the community rather than putting up hundreds of townhouses - creating hundreds more cars and people with their traffic and demand on local services - is a better idea.

The people who wanted to preserve the Greystone building as an example of fine architecture claimed a deal had been rammed through the legislature to pull the building down without due process or public input. Had more people complained, it wouldn't have happened, they claimed.

I am not so sure.

I've written about this battle many times before and I maintain my opposition to anything that would have added more people to the area. That this proposed development - shops and luxury apartments plus a museum of mental health was in the latest plan - would've taken place in an already established county park made the whole thing seem ludicrous. The park is crowded enough when there are soccer or lacrosse or cross-country events but where do you put the parking for the stores and the apartments?

The issue went to court and there were rallies, but the court did not stop the demolition.

So bit by bit, the building has come down. First the back buildings and "cottages" that flanked Kirkbride, then the back part of the building. Each day, more comes down. About the only thing standing was the main entrance. I wondered if the preserver people were going to get their wish - toward the end they harped on that museum of mental health more than shops or apartments.

But the other week, the newspaper reported the head of Preserve Greystone had thrown in the towel, saying too much had been taken down for the building to be of use. Last week, the ornamentation around the windows and doors was removed, and I hope they aren't dumped in the meadowlands as part of the old, beloved Pennsylvania Station were discovered to be.

So it will be only a matter of time before the last of it comes down, the debris removed and the fencing. At some point, the land will be taken over by the county and the old farm buildings in the back, from the days when Greystone was built to allow inmates to work in the country air, will be removed and perhaps trails put in for hiking. Before then, people have been coming by to take pictures of the building, as I have here.

There is a lot about the Central Park of Morris County I do not like. I did not like seeing forests taken down for the soccer/lacrosse field. I did not like the long wait before something resembling a trail was put in. I am not crazy about the disc golf course put in across the road, which means I must be even more aware of my surroundings when I am walking around the old ice pond or hiking up the hill than usual.

But I agree with the removal of Kirkbride. If the state wanted to preserve it, it should have done so when the building was newly abandoned and the park not yet created. It could've done a lot with the old stone building but instead it left it to rot, and then said it was too expensive to rehabilitate it. I wouldn't have wanted my county or state taxes going to pay for that.

So I say farewell to you, Kirkbride, and hope your ghosts find another resting place.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Searching for Our Rural Past

Back in late March, a hungry bear just out of its winter den came rambling through my yard and bent my aluminum feeder pole to the ground, then tried to get into the feeder, which happens to be within a cage. The bear went to the other, iron pole, almost bent it to the ground, grabbed that feeder and ate all the sunflower seeds. Then it ambled off.

I did not see the bear because this happened at night. I did, however, see the damage it left behind.

The old feeder pole, with squirrels. (Margo D. Beller)
After that the feeders were taken in at night until I stopped putting them out, in mid-May. So I wasn't in a rush to get a second feeder pole. However, I knew I would need one eventually and started looking around.

I had found the old aluminum one on the floor in the back of a small garden center. I can't remember what I paid for it. I do know it lasted a long time although it was never very stable. Now that I was looking for a new, sturdier feeder pole, I found the price ranged all over the place. Lots of poles to attach to decks, which I don't have, and lots of poles I can put together in expensive pieces.

Wal-Mart didn't help. Nor did Home Depot or Wild Birds Unlimited or my local New Jersey Audubon store. I was starting to get desperate until MH and I were on a drive and passing a Tractor Supply Company store and I suggested we look there.

Tractor Supply Company, as the name implies, tends to sell in the more rural areas. (We've also seen people in there I'm guessing want to make their home seem more rural. Certainly the stores are smaller and the employees friendlier than the local Home Depot.) There aren't many of them in my part of northern New Jersey, itself one of the most urbanized and congested states in the U.S. But here one was, in Flanders, Mt. Olive Township, about 11 miles away from my home.

And within the store was a two-crook feeder pole, topped by a medallion showing a cow, a pig and a chicken. Not a bird, as I'd seen on other poles, but farm animals.

"I've never seen a feeder pole topped with farm animals," I told the helpful employee who took it apart for me so it would fit in the station wagon.

"Yes, isn't it pretty?" he gushed.

New feeder pole, with farm animals. (Margo D. Beller)
It is, after a fashion. When the morning sun shines on it there is an almost stained-glass look about it. It is a 7-footer and it cost less than $30 - a bargain compared with what I'd been seeing. I made sure to put my old baffle in a suitable place on it so it isn't in the way of our longest bird feeder. It stands just to the right of where the old feeder pole - still in pieces in the garage - stood.

Looking at the farm animals made me think that New Jersey once was rural. My house stands on a former meadow. Mt. Olive was covered with farms. There are some still - we stopped at one on the way home, Ashley's, which has been in business since the mid 1940s. But Mt. Olive is not rural anymore. The International Trade Center brought people and people brought "development" - more homes and more shopping strips and malls and more taxes to pay for more children in schools and more services. Northern New Jersey is not very rural and neither is a good hunk of the rest of the state.

The same scenario is seen in other states. Where once were farms now stand housing developments. Sprawl. Of those farms left, many are run by corporations. Family farms struggle.

Many of these family farms have been sold to become housing developments of some sort - "luxury rental" townhomes, estates of varying acreage, "active adult" communities with age restrictions or even senior residences to house my increasingly elderly generation.

Many of the farms we go to have turned themselves into a sort of amusement park. In fact, there is a name for those of us who go to farms - agritourism. I used to work with several people living in built-up areas of New Jersey who would go to a particular Morris County farm to pick berries and see the farm animals with their kids in spring, and then come to pick apples, walk the corn mazes and buy corn threshes, mums and hay bales to decorate their houses come harvest time.

(RE Berg-Andersson)
I go to farms to buy fruits and vegetables that are grown there because they taste better for being local. So do many others. Community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) is big business now, a way for farms to stay alive because they are very popular in places where people can afford to buy food fresh off the farm and want to move beyond the local Whole Foods.

Why is it people feel a need to find some sort of agricultural past? Is it because we want to find something to help us overcome being overcrowded with technology, information blaring at us all the time, 140-character bursts of noise? I think so.

For every person whose face is glued to a phone or is binge-watching "Game of Thrones" is another person paying someone to teach them how to cook with heirloom vegetables, make cheese and grow and can vegetables the way their grandparents did. (If they are lucky, they have parents or grandparents to teach them. More likely they have to learn elsewhere. There are many places, including farms, earning good money teaching them. Of course, there's always the Internet.)

Why? I think it is because doing something that uses your brain and your hands and not your ability to write in 140 characters or post on Facebook is a way to actively DO something instead of passively receive what others think you want to know. It is a way of feeling self-sufficient at a time when many, if not most, people feel powerless and/or apathetic.

It is a way of feeling human.

So I will look at my cow, pig and chicken on my feeder pole and think, yes, I guess it is pretty. Later in the year, when the feeders draw the goldfinches, titmice, chickadees and cardinals, it will get even prettier.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Going to Grasslands

 And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks .. Isaiah 2:4

Male bobolink 2015 (RE Berg-Andersson)
I wonder what old Isaiah would think of the movement to close military bases and turn them into grasslands

He would hope this demilitarization would mean less war, less fighting. But no, the downsizing of military bases has more to do with cost and the increasing technology of war than peace
Shawangunk Grasslands, 2009, runway
Why the focus on grasslands? Because farms are fighting to stay alive. Too many have sold out to developers who put up townhouses, large McMansions and other dwellings styled "estates," and that has left the birds and insects that would normally nest on farmland or unmowed grasses without a place to breed, and thus numbers are declining.

Grasshopper sparrows and bobolinks depend on grasslands, and because of the decline they are considered "threatened" birds by New Jersey.

There are a number of farms in New Jersey - active and preserved - that leave their meadows to the birds. Griggstown Grasslands and Negri-Nepote, both in Franklin Township, Somerset County, NJ, are among them. 

2012, snow and some changes (RE Berg-Andersson)
In New York, there is the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Walkill. This was the former Galeville Military Airport. When MH and I first came here, in March 2009, it was because I had read of a remarkable gathering of rough-legged hawks - birds of the tundra that had come south for the winter to this part of New York. When we visited they were gathering in good numbers, making ready for that moment their instincts told them it was time to head back north.

At that time, you parked in the lot off the road, then walked down a driveway to the old concrete runways, which provided an easy way to get across the field and close to the area where the hawks were congregating.

A trail takes shape 2013 (RE Berg-Andersson)
The next time we were there was in February 2012. The area had been closed for several years for the beginning of the work that would change the nature of the NWR from former airfield to grassland. 

When we came back for the the roughlegged hawks, we also saw a fair number of harriers and, to my delight, short-eared owls hunting in the afternoon. There was still snow on the fields but now the runways were gone in some areas and we had to make our way through the unexpectedly heavy snow.

2015 - no runways, only fields. (RE Berg-Andersson)
A year later, in August 2013, snow was long gone, as were the rough-legged hawks. The fields were brown in spots and very muddy in others. There was the beginning of a trail and we followed it as far as we could, until it turned deeply muddy. The runways to the far end of the field were gone. The only birds I remember clearly were harriers, song sparrows, redwing blackbirds and, before we turned back because of the mud, Eastern meadowlarks.

By the time we came back on our most recent visit, June 2015, there was no trace of the runways in the field and just one small bit left as a parking lot. (You could drive all the way down now, although the old lot is still off the road.)

Eastern meadowlark (RE Berg-Andersson)
Beyond, all you can see now are grasses and wildflowers. Trails were mowed and are not very wide. As MH and I walked I listened to all the chatter around us. 

There were song sparrows and redwinged blackbirds, as usual, but this time there were bobolinks. A lot of bobolinks. In one back field alone, still wet from recent rains, I counted more than 30 males and a few females. 

Congregation of bobolinks (RE Berg-Andersson)
There were also buzzy grasshopper sparrows, mainly secretive in the grass unless you stepped too close, at which point you had to be fast with the binoculars to catch them as they flew off. 
There were also more meadowlarks, some of them singing. There was at least one Savannah sparrow plus Eastern kingbirds. All were feasting on seed heads and insects. A harrier and barn swallows hunted the fields. I expected kestrel - another bird in decline - but instead found a hunting merlin!
All of these birds have found a breeding sanctuary at this place, as they are finding in other farms and air bases converted into grasslands. 
And it's not just birds. We also heard a bull frog and a tree frog in our travels, and who knows how many different kinds of insects were there around us. (Luckily, we weren't bothered by mosquitos the cool day we visited.) It gives one hope that people are recognizing we need biodiversity in this world. 

But when you consider global warming and the continued militarization of this world, a grassland such as Shawangunk is but a small and fragile part of this planet. 

As is mankind.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Birds I Don't Like

Every year, after the winter birds have left for their summer homes, catbirds arrive to make nests in my shrubs. My trees are filled with little birds that have found old woodpecker roosts  or other natural crevices to make their nests. The box I put out for the house wren every year gets a tenant.

These are summer visitors I welcome. Others are not.

This year I've discovered common grackles nesting in my large, unshorn juniper hedge that acts as a screen between me and my neighbor. Deer have decimated the bottom of this hedge, which is why I leave the top part alone. Black-capped chickadees and other birds roost there for the winter and I know cardinals nest there during the New Jersey breeding season.

Delmarva female Boat-tailed Grackle (RE Berg-Andersson)
So to have grackles does not please me. They are large birds that, when not paired for breeding, congregate in huge flocks that are frequently augmented by blackbirds, cowbirds and starlings. They descend like a black cloud on my lawn several times each fall and spring. If left out the house feeder would be completely covered. I have also seen grackles attempting to get at seed from my encaged feeders. 

There are people who like grackles. Their black feathers show blue and brown highlights in the sun because of the luminescence. Jack Kerouac's mother, Memere, loved feeding the "black birds" after Jack dragged her down to Florida during one of those times he wanted to get away from the notoriety of writing "On the Road."

It doesn't take much for a grackle pair in a tree to turn into a huge flock in that and surrounding trees, crowding out other nesters. Grackles are opportunists, and like starlings and house sparrows - other birds I do not like for a variety of reasons - they will eat garbage left on the street as well as the worms they can pull out of the ground.

So I am not happy to see the three grackles (a pair and a helper?) walking along my lawn or pulling insects out of the crevices of my trees. 

These grackles, as I said, are common grackles. Along the eastern coast there are boat-tailed grackles, which are bigger and whose tails look like hulls. Unlike the common grackle female, which is the same color as the male but smaller, the boat-tail female is brown, such as the one above. That is usually how I know what kind I am seeing. The third type of grackle is the great-tailed grackle, a bird of the southwestern U.S.

It might seem strange that someone who enjoys walking around and looking at birds would have an antipathy to some species. My husband says all birds are God's creatures and have to feed where they can (although he does run out to grab the house and suet feeders when grackle "invasions" take place). 

I see no contradiction. After all, there are people I dislike but I don't hate the species.

The only bird I dislike more than the grackle is the cowbird. There are three types -- the brown-headed that I see in New Jersey; the bronzed I've seen once, in North Carolina; and the shiny cowbird. My comments pertain to the brown-headed.

Male Brown-headed Cowbirds, Cape May, NJ 2015 (RE Berg-Andersson)
I've written of my dislike of this parasitic bird before (please see my post of June 12, 2011; unfortunately, the link doesn't work). Besides hogging feeders, the female lays her eggs in the nests of other birds, usually one per nest. The cowbird chick usually hatches earlier and is much larger. It usually throws the other eggs out of the nest and dominates the attention of the parents. Then, somehow, it leaves the nest and knows to join up with other cowbirds, starting the cycle anew.

There is nothing sadder than seeing a cardinal being chased around the yard by a screaming, hungry cowbird chick. I usually see this every year. Actually, there is something sadder -- the Carolina wren pair I saw in another backyard one year, feverishly trying to feed the screaming "baby" chasing them that was twice their size.

Like the grackle, starling and blackbirds, the birds don't "sing" so much as croak out strange noises. The male cowbird is black with a brown head, the female a dull brown. They frequently pick at things in large flocks on roadsides, either with other cowbirds or alongside grackles and starlings.

About the only thing grackles and cowbirds are good for is diversifying the species. But these birds are tough and crowd out the smaller and weaker. Like other bullies, they are in no danger of disappearing anytime soon.

Prejudiced? Guilty.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Joys of Home Ownership

I grew up in a rowhouse in southern Brooklyn. When my husband and I got our first place it was the lower apartment in a two-family house in Queens, city of New York. We had a lovely landlady and lived in that place for 13 years despite the car horns, noise and cooking smells from the Greek neighbors and occasional gunshots. We were all jammed together.

We attempted to find a house we could afford several times but it was only after seeing a friend's condo that it occurred to us to find another apartment in an area less urban where we could keep a car. That led us to the small New Jersey town we live in now, another two-family house where we lived for 11 months and had the landlord from Hell.

Backyard, May 2015 (Margo D. Beller)
But we now also had a car and it was when MH decided to go down a small street he'd never traveled before that we found the house we wound up buying. We've lived here over 20 years.

I have yet to fully get used to the suburban lifestyle and mores after growing up in what geographically is considered "the city" but in reality was as much of a suburb as where I am now but with smaller plots. I do not understand paying someone to mow a lawn every week whether it needs it or not. (MH does our lawn every few weeks and it is greener than our neighbors', who get the dust on their lawns thrown up weekly.)

But what I liked immediately is that except for those times when neighbors had loud friends and families over to their backyard pools or patios, overused their leaf blowers or left their barking dogs out too long, this place is less trafficked, more quiet and, most important, my space.

The joys of home ownership.

Except when something goes wrong.

The picture above shows one such recent example. We went from a cold and damp winter in 2014 to a few days of spring in 2015 before a sudden jump into summer about a month early. Thanks to climate change, we have been dryer in this part of the country, although not nearly as bad as what is seen in the western U.S. But what I have noticed is we'll go weeks without rain and then there will either be a small, scattered shower in my area or a deluge, getting weeks of rain at once.

So the other week we got some rain for a few minutes for the first time in a long time. Then, during the night, there must've been another, stronger storm with high winds, and this hunk of maple was torn from the tree and deposited, luckily, in the corner of my yard, on the other side of the tree from my compost pile and my neighbor's swing set. With MH's help we got it to the curb and I used my lopper to cut it off smaller branches and make the pieces more manageable for our town to pick up.

It is a small price to pay for our space, as was discovering a problem with the foundation that needed fixing and having the roof fixed to stop the leak in the front room.

House wren box, 2015 (Margo D. Beller)
It is a snug, secure house unlike that of the house for the wren I put up every year. The first house, which was a decorative birdhouse I thought too small for any occupant, crumpled after five years. I bought the house above. After a few years of use I found it on the ground after the chain snapped, possibly because something bigger than a house wren was atop it. I repaired and rehung the house and it has been in use ever since.

Since house wrens will make a nest in anything, I think the house is more secure. But is it more secure than the usual bird nest, whether on the ground or in a tree? One year I discovered a pair of Cooper's hawks built a nest in a tree several streets away that I could see from a particular part of my back yard. But we had a storm that year and the nest came down.

I have come upon other nests by accident. There was the hummingbird nest, a tiny cup of grass, that was at the thin end of a tree branch hanging over Great Brook in the Great Swamp. There was the hole in a side of a large backyard tree that was used by a screech owl in winter but in summer was rented by a pair of redbellied woodpeckers. There was the catbird nest behind one of my shrubs - only my watering got Mamma Catbird to leave and I found the nest. (After that I watered far more carefully.)

More recently I have found a titmouse nest - a hole high up in a tree that was likely made by a woodpecker for a roost one year and then abandoned. As with the other examples, the nest was found because the bird directed me to it, inadvertently. But other nests do not become apparent until the tree and shrub leaves come down and the nest becomes visible.

Nests are basic structures. Their main purpose is to provide a place for a bird to lay eggs, brood them until young are born and then raise them to feed themselves before letting them go off and perpetuate the species. Those nests are temporary structures.

Our houses are too, but we forget this. They are built on land denuded of trees and so have nothing to shade or hold the soil of our lawns. Older homes are frequently expanded for "family entertainment centers" (in my house it is still a den). They are bought and sold with regularity, depending on the going price. They are the focus of zoning battles and fights over increasing property taxes, which in New Jersey are used to pay for schools.

However, if an errant tree comes down or a Hurricane Sandy hits or flooding rains bring water up to the first floor ceiling or if "the big one" hits, even these "permanent" homes become temporary structures, too.

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.