Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Through a Lens, Darkly

Common merganser male in flight (RE Berg-Andersson)
One of my good friends is a noted writer and photographer. He has gotten better as he has taken more pictures and improved his equipment. (I bought one of his digital cameras that I later gave to MH when I bought a more professional model with a telephoto lens.) Recently, he sent along an article from a photography website detailing techniques for photographing birds in flight.

It was an interesting article, if you want to learn about "continuous focus mode" and "drive mode" or f-stops and things like that. I do not have that kind of bent. I am of the "point and shoot and hope I'm in focus" school of bird photography.

Northern harrier (Margo D. Beller)
When I was a callow student back in journalism school I took a photography course and one of my assignments was to take a picture of something in motion. So I had one of my roommates ride by me on her bicycle over and over as I trained my camera on her and took her picture in such a way to show her clearly while the background was in blurred motion. I also tried pointing my camera at a particular spot and when my roommate rode by snapped the picture, usually with mixed results.

Although I never became a professional photographer, some of what I learned has stayed with me. With digital photography you can take literally hundreds of shots a second and sometimes catch what I want. This has been a boon to MH, too, who graduated from my friend's digital camera to a later model that had a faster shutter speed.

So if I am walking along a beach and suddenly a flock of purple sandpipers rears up, I point, hope the automatic shutter focuses on one of the birds and then keep shooting away for at least one good picture. If a black vulture flies over my head and soars in the wind, it is usually easy to get that picture - provided the lens doesn't go into infinity and then I can see nothing.

Purple sandpipers (Margo D. Beller)
Photographing birds is, for me, one of the hardest things I do. In fact, most times I just take the binoculars, find the bird, point it out to MH and then hope he can take a good picture. If we are visiting a place we're not likely to see again for a long time, I will take my camera. The long lens has helped me take pictures of everything from roosting long-earred owls to a pine warbler to a group of cedar waxwings chattering high in a treetop.

When the birds sit, even if they fidget, there is a good chance I can get that picture. If they suddenly take off, I can get a great shot or I can get a blur or I can get a picture with no bird at all. If there is a harrier flying close to the ground looking for a meal, I focus on it and follow along and squeeze the shutter again and again.

Black vulture (RE Berg-Andersson)
In the time before Roger Tory Peterson illustrated his field guides with pictures that plainly show a bird's identifying field marks, anyone who wanted to study or paint birds had to shoot them with a gun. J.J. Audubon writes of having to shoot several birds of one species in order to pin them in realistic poses and draw them before the bodies started decaying. He would often decry the waste when his crew would shoot hundreds of birds just for the sport.

It is for that reason why birds such as the passenger pigeon became extinct. It is why a rich woman had to buy what is now the Hawk Mountain sanctuary to stop local farmers and others from climbing to the top and shooting raptors out of the sky as they used the warm winds of autumn off the mountain ridges to migrate south.

Now you can identify a bird using your binoculars or telephoto lens, and everyone has a camera if they have a cellphone. You will see people out on the trails "shooting" everything including birds, flowers, themselves. The professional bird photographers are still out there with their big lenses and tripods wrapped in cammo as they patiently wait for just the right "shot."

There's money to be made from the right photograph: Calendars. Illustrating articles on how to take pictures of birds.
Pine warbler (Margo D. Beller)
I don't make money on my photos. They are strictly for me and this blog. I enjoy having a record of birds I have seen. I enjoy the challenge of even finding the bird and then trying to take its picture, if I care for one. It can be fun and it can be frustrating.

But no matter how good my pictures are, I know they will never be as good as the ones in my mind's camera lens.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Don't Take Your Guns to the Swamp (from April 16, 2011)

(This is another old column that got obliterated and I am now republishing. I've since learned how to put in more pictures as well as links.)

It has only been in the last couple of years that I have begun bringing a camera with me when I go birding. Until then I was content to have only my 10x50 Nikon binoculars and use the camera in my brain to record notable images.

With digital cameras suddenly everyone became a nature photographer. That's fine if you are trying to prove you saw something unusual such as this pinkfooted goose my husband, MH, photographed early in March in a private park in Washington Township (Bergen County), NJ.
But a lot of photographers are doing it for profit, either by selling those photographs as stock images to be used in calendars and the like or to put on their personal photography pages and garner the ensuing glowing comments.

If you want to do that, fine. But what I CAN NOT STAND is when someone takes his or her gun-like lens and aims it practically in the face of a bird, creating unnecessary stress and ruining it for other birders when the bird takes off.

There have been many instances of this selfish and cruel behavior on the part of people who want a picture that badly. For instance, a few years ago the birding lists were full of angry birders screaming about a rare boreal owl in Central Park that had been there for a few weeks but finally left after a man set up a camera and used a bright flash (by day, yet) to take a picture practically in the face of the roosting owl.

I have witnessed several such instances, two of them at the Great Swamp in New Jersey.
An aside: Fifty years ago, the plan was to make this 7,500-acre gem straddling Morris and Somerset counties into an airport. Environmentalist Helen Fenske created a grassroots movement to stop that plan. Every time a plane flies over the swamp I shudder. The new visitor center is named for Helen Fenske.

Another birder and I were at the Heronry Overlook parking lot watching a mature bald eagle sitting in a tree close by. Suddenly, we saw a man with a rifle-like camera lens walking in an off-limits area closer and closer to the tree, snapping away, until the eagle flew off.

We started yelling at him and he was completely amazed and confused at our reaction. What was the big deal? He only wanted a picture of an eagle. (The eagle eventually returned after the idiot left, but to a tree much farther away and only identifiable thanks to its white head.)

The second example involved a couple of long-earred owls that decided one winter to roost in a cedar tree very close to Pleasant Plains Road, practically at eye level, not far from the Fenske office.
The swamp is not far from my home so my husband and I drove over and found the owls easily thanks to a couple of birders there. Most birders know to give owls some space during the day since they are resting for the night's hunting. Not the guy there with another gun-like lens, standing real close to the alarmed owls as he took his pictures.

This begs the question, why stand that close if you are using a telephoto lens?

I asked him that question, and told him to get the hell back across the road. MH and the man's wife were afraid we were going to get into a fight, and it was very close. But he moved back. MH and I took our own pictures from across the road. I thought I had gotten through to Mr. Photographer until I looked in the rear-view mirror as we drove off and there he was, up in the owls' faces again. I wasn't surprised to learn not long after that at least one of the two had flown off. I can only hope the second owl, when it left, hadn't been scared off by other inconsiderate birders lusting for that special photograph.

There hasn't been an extended stay by a long-earred owl along that part of Great Swamp since, as far as I know. Owls have long memories, too.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Watching the Woodpeckers

Downys will eat suet, seed or even sip from a hummingbird
feeder (both pictures Margo D. Beller)
Early the other morning I sat on the porch with my coffee, trying to wake up and hoping birds would be coming to my feeders, which I had just refilled. There was nothing for the longest time and then a male downy woodpecker suddenly appeared on the dogwood tree branch beyond the feeder pole where I keep the suet feeder and a long feeder full of sunflower seeds. Either food would appeal to it, but the bird just sat there.

Maybe was waiting for the breeze to die down so it could fly safely over without being blown off course. Maybe it saw a predator flying overhead. Maybe it saw the slight movement from me on my enclosed porch when I raised my coffee cup for a sip. Downys, the smallest of American woodpeckers, can be rather skittish.

Male red-bellied woodpecker (Margo D. Beller)
I enjoy sitting on my porch in the morning when the sun is here, especially in the aftermath of the recent powerful nor'easter that produced gale-force winds that prompted me to take all the feeders inside to protect them. I figured no intelligent bird would risk being blown into the side of the house, no matter how hungry it was.

It is too easy to ascribe human emotions to birds. So as I watched Mr. Downy - I could see the red spot on the back of its head, which the female does not have - I tried to understand the way his bird brain operates.

After sitting in the tree a long time, he flew to the suet feeder, took a few tentative pecks, then flew back to the tree. This suet feeder is made in a particular way to keep pests such as grackles and starlings off the block of fat - the bird must hang under the feeder. Woodpeckers do not mind that. This suet feeder has drawn downys, the larger but similar looking hairy woodpeckers and the larger-still red-bellied woodpeckers of both sexes to it.

I've seen eight types of woodpeckers, all but one of them in New Jersey. There are many more found in the American west, the desert southwest and in the higher elevations of New England. In my area, besides the three I have mentioned, the more common ones are the flicker, the pileated and the yellow-bellied sapsucker. In fact, one day in 2011 I saw all six.
Pileated woodpecker (Margo D. Beller)

There is also the redheaded woodpecker, of the same family as the red-bellied woodpecker and, like that bird, originally from the south but slowly finding suitable breeding grounds in New Jersey despite our tendency to cut down dead trees, which is where the redheaded builds its nests and feeds on bugs. It is too easy to call a red-bellied woodpecker a redheaded woodpecker because when you look at it you see the red on its head but not the bit of pink on its belly. However, when you see a redheaded woodpecker you can see why it got the name.

The pileated (pronounced PIE-leated, although I tend to say PILL-eated) woodpecker is a crowsized bird athat got its name thanks to its striking red crest (which is what pileated means, having a crest). It has black feathers and white down the face and neck. When one flies over me in the woods I never fail to be stunned by its size and beauty. When you see one whacking at a tree you can be sure that tree is filled with carpenter ants, its preferred food, and that means the tree will likely be dead within two years. (I base this on seeing a female pileated whacking at a yard tree for several mornings running on my way to the train; the tree fell over and had to be removed within two years.)

The other woodpecker I have seen was in North Carolina, a bird that makes its nest in living, mature, long-leaf pine trees, which is why its existence is more precarious than even the redheaded woodpecker. In fact, we went to the Croatan National Forest specifically to find this bird, where it is protected.

Red-cocaded woodpecker (Margo D. Beller)
Between MH and me, I think we've photographed all the woodpeckers mentioned except for the brownish flicker, which forages for ants with its long bill and longer tongue on the ground and is easily spooked, and the yellow-bellied sapsucker, which gets its name because it drills holes in trees and drinks the sap or eats insects attracted by the sap. My apple tree is girdled with little holes from a sapsucker. One year I spent several days shooing a sapsucker from the tree before all the holes could kill it.

Meanwhile, back at the dogwood, the downy continued to sit. I finished my coffee and went back inside the house. After hanging my winter coat I went to the kitchen window. As expected, there he was, on the suet feeder, eating heartily until he flew off to a different, taller tree, out of my sight. But he'll be back.

Six Woodpeckers (from Dec. 4, 2011)

(This is another in a sporadic attempt to republish old blog posts where I foolishly eliminated the link to the actual post. I did this a lot when I started this blog until I figured out you are supposed to leave the link in the headline to read the indivudl post. Live and Learn.)

You’ll have to forgive my being a little cocky today but in all my years of birding I’ve never had a day like Saturday.

A six-woodpecker day.

I have been known to find six warblers in a day, which is a big deal to me. I have also seen six types of sparrows in one day. But there are many more than six of these seen in this state at any given time.

The six woodpeckers commonly found in my area of New Jersey aren’t all that easy to find, particularly on the same day.

(A seventh - the redheaded woodpecker - is a southern bird that needs specific habitat to survive, in this case stands of dead trees. With the suburban penchant for cutting down any inconvenient tree dead or alive, you have to seek it in a Known Redheaded Woodpecker Location such as the Great Swamp. I usually seem them in winter.)

I was lucky enough to be in the right places at the right times, and it is this combination of luck and surprise with just enough knowledge to make identification possible that makes birding such a joy.

Three of the woodpeckers were gimmes. In the afternoon my feeders brought the six-inch downy, which was chased off by the nine-inch hairy, which was chased off by the comparably sized redbellied woodpecker, like the one here. For more on these go to
Usually these three are all I see. But not yesterday.

I went walking early into the nearby Central Park of Morris County, once known as the Greystone property. (There is still a Greystone property but it is on the western edge and owned by the state. Where I was is now owned by the county.)

Besides the expected birds I heard the distinctive call of a flicker, a cackling “ahhhrrr.” Flickers are usually seen on the ground and are mostly brown to blend in. I couldn’t find it.

So that’s four woodpeckers.

As I headed home from this walk I stopped when I heard what sounded like the breathy “Wha-wha-wha” of the pileated woodpecker, the largest of the six. It is about the size of a crow and has a most distinctive red crest and black and white body.

These are great to see up close, like the female I saw on a neighbor’s tree, whacking away at it to scoop up the carpenter ants within.

No surprise, that tree rotted and fell over in a storm less than two years later.

If you are old enough to remember the Woody Woodpecker cartoon, his laugh and look were based on the pileated.

Anyway, I stopped and listened. It called, then it called again. I have found pileateds in Greystone before, one mere feet away. So I knew what it was.

That’s five woodpeckers.

Here is where luck morphed into transcendence.

Every winter my husband and I go through the marriage-testing experience of clearing the lower house gutters of fallen leaves. (We don’t do the higher gutters because we want to live to a comfortable old age, and any spillover comes into the lower gutters anyway.)

There I was, not long after the morning walk, holding the large, metal ladder on which MH, bad knees and all, was trying to pull out wet leaves.

Behind me I heard a whinny. Could it be? I heard it again. Yes it was! A yellow-bellied sapsucker!

“Pay attention to the ladder,” MH yelled, somehow sensing I wasn‘t giving 100 percent.

“But it’s a sapsucker!” I responded. “That’s my sixth woodpecker of the day.”

For some reason, perhaps being 15 feet above the ground, he wasn‘t as impressed. “No reckless birding! Concentrate,” he retorted.

At which point the calling bird flew from its tree next door and across the road, out of sight, allowing me to turn back and focus on not becoming a widow.

The sapsucker is a very different type of woodpecker. It has red on the top of its head, like some of the others, but distinctively on its “chin,” too. It drills small, shallow holes in trees, not to pull out insects but to draw the sap on which it feeds. This sap also draws a lot insects, which feeds all the birds. (The sap also feeds hummingbirds when they first arrive during spring migration.)

In spring these shy birds announce their territory as loudly as any other woodpecker, an activity known as drumming.

It’s a simple process: hammer on a branch (or a wood-shingled house) with your sturdy bill to loudy announce “I am here and if you are another woodpecker stay away.”

Find the right sounding board and your message will go far.

And that was the sixth. Does it make me a better birder? No, but it reminds me why I enjoy birding.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Old Reliable

I was sitting on my back porch today, watching the continued rain, thinking of how I tend to keep things around for a long time as long as they are in working order. My car is 12 years old. One of my winter hats I've had since I was 10 years old. I can't remember how long ago I bought some of the shirts or coats in my closets. (Some would say I keep MH around for the same reason.)

House feeder with Velcro and duct tape, Feb. 25, 2018 (Margo D. Beller)
Then there is this house feeder.

This simple wood feeder has been attracting birds of all sizes since we received it as a housewarming present well over a decade ago. The first bird it attracted, according to my records, was a "woodpecker," likely a downy but I didn't know its name at the time. The second bird was a tufted titmouse, I learned from my field guide, and using my binoculars I could see the bit of red under its wings and the texture of its feathers.

Seeing these birds prompted me to start studying them in my yard and in the field. After a decade of running around watching and listening I think of myself as an intermediate birder, at least when it comes to the birds I see regularly in my part of New Jersey.

House feeder in better days, with female purple finch (Margo D. Beller)
Like everything else I have kept for many, many years there is fraying around the edges, signs of weathering and a weakening of bonds. I've added other feeders to my collection over the years but I use this one because it does what I want, attract birds. Unfortunately, not all the birds are those I want to attract and this is the only feeder I use that has no protection from squirrels, which I also learned fairly quickly. That is when I put in a feeder pole and a baffle to keep the critters out.

But over time, after many winters in rain, snow and wind, the string has frayed and is now reinforced with Velcro strips and more twine so it doesn't break under the weight of sunflower seeds or the birds that come in ones and twos or more to eat it.

Feeder with curious black-capped chickadee (Margo D. Beller)

Bears have attacked this feeder but have never been able to destroy it, although they have come close. The last such attack, when the bear took down the cast-iron pole's arm as it tried to rip the feeder off, put a hairline crack in the lid. That didn't impede my being able to refill the feeder -- until the freezing rain came a few weeks ago. I tried to open the lid and half of it came off in my hand. But that is why duct tape was invented. The lid is attached again and the feeder can continue to be used.

Those are easy fixes. Fixing the car when parts break down is not so easy and can be expensive. Fixing me when parts broke down over the last couple of years, forcing me to see doctors and go to the hospital, were even harder and more expensive. Just as I do what I can to keep this feeder in one piece - such as taking it in at night when the bears are out of hibernation, as they will be soon - I do what I can to keep MH and me in working order.

But I know we are not young, indestructible or immortal, and that's a hard thing for me to accept. Still, like my feeder we go on, sometimes with duct tape.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Our Day on the Beach

Barnegat Light (Margo D. Beller)
One of the advantages of being semi-retired is being able to travel someplace on a nice weekday when most others are at work. So last Wednesday MH and I traveled to Barnegat Lighthouse, at the northern end of New Jersey's Long Beach Island.

Rock jetty toward harbor light with the cormorant. (Margo D. Beller)
It is a very long drive for us, which is why we come down here only once a year in the winter offseason to find sea ducks and, with luck, some of the land birds that like the dunes such as horned larks, Ipswich sparrows and snow buntings. While we've seen all three in the past we did not see them this time.

Nor did we see the lovely harlequin ducks, to my mind one of the prettiest ducks in this part of the country, although others told us they were in the channel in good numbers. But to see them we'd have had to climb atop the rock jetty, which is uneven and dangerous, as I found out years ago. MH and I have gotten unsteady as we've gotten older.

Instead, we saw what we could from the paved seawall and then walked down to the beach and out as far as we could in the wind. Back home it was nearly 80 degrees this February day but here it felt much cooler and I was glad to be wearing gloves.

Purple Sandpipers (Margo D. Beller)

While I did not see the harlequins, there was compensation. This picture above is of purple sandpipers that decided, for some reason, to fly from where they were on the rock jetty into the air where I could see them from the beach and quickly take their picture. There was the great cormorant, a winter visitor, showing its distinctive white side patch as it perched on a harbor light.

Harbor seal (Margo D. Beller)

There was the harbor seal that bobbed up for a moment before diving. There were those birds I expected: long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers, black scoters, myrtle warblers in the trees next to the parking lot.

Finally, as we were leaving for our car, there were boat-tailed grackles serenading us as the sun dipped to the western horizon. It was a good day and since then we've had nothing but cold rain, making us glad we could go when we did.

Male boat-tails are dark, females are brown (Margo D. Beller)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Robin

“The robin flew from his swinging spray of ivy on to the top of the wall and he opened his beak and sang a loud, lovely trill, merely to show off. Nothing in the world is quite as adorably lovely as a robin when he shows off - and they are nearly always doing it.”
Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden 

One afternoon last week, when the temperature was unusually mild for mid-February and allowed me to wear a light coat instead of a parka, I was walking down my street and heard the "chuckle" of a robin overhead. I looked up. First a couple flew over, heading southeast. Then another few, then more. I started counting. I stopped at 25. Altogether it must've been 100 or so flying in small groups from the edge of the Central Park of Morris County.

November 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
Robins are considered a harbinger of spring, even though there are robins that will remain in the snowy, colder north as long as there are fruiting shrubs or the ground has thawed enough for them to pick at worms and insects.

The American robin is a thrush, like the hermit thrush, wood thrush and bluebird. Its cousins are the catbird and the mockingbird. Despite having the same name it is different from the European robin, which is more of a songbird. (The English colonists likely saw one and were reminded of the robins back home.)
I continued my walk and turned eastward. As I approached a large white pine girdled with English ivy (not poison ivy) several robins flew in and started thrashing around in what I guess was a feeding frenzy. What could they be finding, I wondered. I took a right and started southward toward my home and more robins, likely from the same flock that had passed over me earlier, were now heading back north, stopping at every holly or cedar they could find. Unlike the pines and spruces, ivy, holly and cedar have softer leaves. So these robins were going after - what? Likely seeds, fruits or insects that came out in the milder weather. 

Why the large flock? Safety in numbers. Grackles form large flocks in winter before pairing off to mate in the spring. Sometimes the large flocks include starlings, redwinged blackbirds and cowbirds. I never know when the flocks will invade my yard but when they come down it is to look under the leaf litter for insects or probe the soft ground or mob the bird feeders. Sometimes there are robins following along. Like the grackles, the robin's bill is more suited to pecking into soft ground than cracking a sunflower seed. Unlike the grackles they stay out of the feeders, which is why I don't mind seeing large flocks of this particular bird.

Robin in fruiting red cedar tree (Margo D. Beller)
Lately I've been seeing robins on my front lawn and those of my neighbors, with some grackles and starlings. On the day before our most recent snowstorm I drove down the driveway and found at least a dozen pecking into the grass.

In his book, "What the Robin Knows," author Jon Young says the robin is a "sentry" that can tell us about the health of our environment -- if we choose to slow down, listen and observe. When a human is respectful, the robin doesn't fly away (even if it does watch warily). So when I see several dozen robins feeding while walking down a street named for our first U.S. president, I stay away a respectful distance and watch and then, when I must move, I move slowly and make no threatening movements.

You can learn a lot watching a robin. Watching these robins I learned which fruiting shrubs I should consider for my yard to draw robins and other birds. I learned that owners of even the most manicured suburban lawn can't kill off all the bugs or poison the grass since otherwise the robins wouldn't be feeding. I've also learned that when you see a large flock of robins eating like there's no tomorrow, they might know more than you do about changing weather. Luckily for the robins there are shrubs where the fruits aren't palatable until after a few frosts.

The most important thing I've learned from the robin is that no matter how bad winter can be, spring is always around the corner.

Long Island, NY, November 2017 (Margo D. Beller)