Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Visit From Mr. Toad

I had an unexpected visitor today, Independence Day, and he showed up in an unexpected way.

As I wrote last time, once in a while it's a real education to look down instead of up when you are outdoors. There are snakes, dragonflies and, depending on the habitat, frogs and toads. As a birdwatcher, I usually ignore these creatures when I am out hiking, but thanks to MH's enthusiasm and pictures I have been making an effort to study other winged wonders and more terrestrial animals.

Today's lesson was literally in my own backyard.

Over the years MH and I have spooked American toads from the long grass in the backyard as we used the mower, so we know they are around -- at least in those lawns, like ours, where pesticides are not used and the grass is allowed to stay a little longer to protect the roots from summer's heat.

American toad, July 4, 2014 (R.E.Berg-Andersson)
Yes, there is a price to pay for that lush, uniform, green lawn. Chemicals don't discriminate between grubs and beneficial insects or the toads that feed on them. Lawn services, when not cutting the grass down to the nibs whether it needs it or not and disturbing the morning peace with their gas-powered equipment, dump chemicals to kill the weeds and grubs that could mar that uniform appearance. The homeowner then waters - and waters - the grass, only to have the lawn service whack it down again a few days later.

It gives the homeowner something to look at with pride, a vast sea of green -- or a kind of moat that, to some, separates you (at least psychologically) from your neighbors.

But we who keep the grass longer and who let the clippings fall where they may to decay and nourish the lawn, have greener grass and don't need chemicals aside from the occasional dose of grass food. That means bees at the clover, for instance, or the occasional toad in the grass.

And yet, my visitor was not found on the lawn but in my composter.

I'm guessing Mr. Toad -- the name of one of my favorite characters from one of my favorite books, "The Wind in the Willows" --  was looking for a cool, relatively dry place to get out of the heat, humidity and intense thunderstorms that have been plaguing New Jersey this week.

The weather has been so hot, so humid, so abnormal to me that when I could get outside to look at my garden (only early in the day) I discovered mid- and late-summer plants all getting ready to bloom at the same time! Same with my early- and mid-season peppers.

In a life that seems to be getting faster all the time these heightened conditions - this global warming, if you will - is speeding up summer, too.

So if you are a toad and you are faced with heat and too much water to survive, what do you do? You take shelter. And thanks to my having moved what had been in my composter to my corner compost pile for the summer, the composter was lighter than usual and Mr. Toad (I'm guessing) squeezed through the tiny space created by the composter not sitting completely flat on the patio tiles -- all the more remarkable because this was the largest toad I've ever seen, in my yard or in the wild.

So today, doing chores on my day off, I was moving things around on the patio, including the composter. And out popped Mr. Toad.

He was not happy. He hopped into a corner, where MH took his picture. He sat there a long time. Every so often I would come out and he'd be in the same place but had shifted his position. Finally, I came out and he was gone...but not too far. It looked like he was trying to get back under the composter!

I tried to pick him up with my shovel but he hopped away and finally went behind the deer netting and into my back shade garden. He'll be OK there although I doubt he'll stay long. No animal wants to be stuck behind deer netting. His instinct will be to hide beneath the composter again or move back to the yard and be further away from where I might find least until the next time MH or I mow the grass.

Come winter, when I stop walking across the yard to my corner compost pile and use the closer patio composter, I will lift it up first to make sure Mr. Toad has moved on.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Other Winged Wonders

American toad (Margo D. Beller)
Over the years I have so trained myself to listen for songs and spot movement in trees for birds that I miss many other life forms.

Besides handling the camera while I spot things with my binoculars, MH is also very good at pointing out what he sees at eye level or on the ground while I'm busy scanning the skies.

So it is thanks to him I have learned about such dragonflies as twelve-spotted skimmers and common whitetails as well as the American and Woodhouse's toads.
Great spangled fritillary (RE Berg-Andersson)

I can't say I've been completely oblivious. When I look at pretty flowers I can't help but notice the various types of butterflies on them, even if I can't identify many of them. But just as I do with birds I can't identify, MH looks into one of his many references and usually can identify the creature.
Praying mantis (Margo D. Beller)

I also notice the praying mantis, which is a beneficial albeit scary-looking insect, especially when it is flying right at you. I can't say the same about the periodical cicadas that came out in huge swarms last year for the first time in 17 years, its usual cycle, and which have no benefit I can discern.

Periodical cicada (Margo D. Beller)
Kids are very good at finding snakes, frogs and bugs because they are closer to the ground, I think. Usually, these kinds of animals are more interesting to kids than a bird. Maybe it's the "ick" factor, or being able just to see (or photograph) them than a bird moving in a tree.

Wooly bear (R.E.Berg-Andersson)
When I go to the Great Swamp to look for birds, people along the boardwalks are looking down for bull frogs and snakes. On one morning bird hike at Scherman Hoffman, one of the younger members of our group looked down instead of up at the bird the rest of us were watching and found a female wood turtle, a threatened species in New Jersey.

So I have tried to look at more winged wonders at ground level.

Female widow skimmer (Margo D. Beller)
Just the other day I was looking at a wild rose bush that was overgrown with creeper vines and realized I was looking at a striking insect that I photographed and then showed MH, who got out his reference book and discovered it to be the female widow skimmer.

We have gone to the Pinelands and found frogs and insects we've seen nowhere else, and dragonflies and darners in brilliant shades of red, green and blue. We still don't know what that red one was but it was huge.
We also can't identify this scary-looking object, which I missed as we hiked and MH, as usual, noticed. It blended in very well with the tree it was on. Just after MH took its picture it came straight at him and then flew off. Perhaps it had a nest nearby.
Mystery insect (RE Berg-Andersson)

As well it should. Survival is key in any creature's life, winged or otherwise. It has to survive to create another generation to perpetuate the species. And the insect world has been enormously successful. As MH reminds me, dragonflies and other insects have been around as species longer than we have.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Summer Visitors

Summer is a time of heat, humidity and, if you have the time and money for it, travel. Unless you are a bird. If you are a migrating bird, you don't plan -- you just go north from April to early June to your specific breeding area to create the next generation. It is an automatic response keyed to the seasons.

Many birds breed in New Jersey. Along Old Mine Rd., the last exit off Route 80 west before you cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, you will find a vast tract of state and federal forest providing breeding space for many birds, including the cerulean warbler
House wren box (Margo D. Beller)
According to the Conserve Wildlife Federation of New Jersey, this sky-blue bird's status is of "special concernbecause "of some evidence of decline, inherent vulnerability to environmental deterioration, or habitat modification that would result in their becoming a Threatened species." This bird breeds in forests with tall deciduous trees and wet bottomlands and dry slopes.

Just the kind of land "developers" like to build McMansions and other homes.

But today I am not writing about warblers and the other birds that visit my backyard briefly and move on. I am writing about three birds in particular that visit for the summer before heading south in Autumn.

House wren (Margo D. Beller)
Unlike other years, I've kept my house feeder going this summer with only a minimum amount of seed. It has drawn cardinals, white-breasted nuthatches and titmice as well as birds I'm not crazy about but tolerate.

I also put up a bird house every year designed for a house wren, and every year a male house wren investigates it, brings by a female and, if she approves, they set up housekeeping and brood young.

This year was a little different. After a winter of seemingly endless snow and torrential rains, migration was delayed. It seemed to take forever for the birds to show up, and then many that would've come over weeks came all at once -- which made for some exciting birdwatching.

I put up the box in mid-April, as usual, but this time it did not draw house wrens, it drew one of the few birds small enough to get through the opening - a blackcapped chickadee. 'Dees are among my favorite birds so I wasn't that upset about this development.

However, although a pair had been busy in and out of the box, at one point I came home and saw a long plume of nesting material coming out of the nest. House wrens, I know from cleaning out the box every winter, tend to favor twigs for their nests, while 'dees use softer material such as animal hair, and this was what I was seeing. I left it alone. The next day it was gone.

Did the 'dee nest fail?  Was there a brood? I do not know. When I get summer visitors I leave them alone. What I do know is it wasn't long before I heard the familiar singing of a house wren, and now there is a pair using the box. I've yet to hear cheeping young when one of them flies to the nest, but I hope I do.

Catbird (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
Another reliable summer visitor is the catbird. This year these gray cousins of the robin were also delayed. Usually they show up after our winter visitor, the white-throated sparrow, departs. But we had white-throats for a much longer time than usual this year, no doubt delayed heading north by this spring's storms.

But the catbirds came. They are so named because of the cat-like mewing of their call. They don't have a song per se but warble bits of other birds' songs. They are all gray except for a black cap and some red under the tail. When I put out a water dish, these birds will drink and bathe. They will fly to a branch as I work in the garden and watch what I do, so they can swoop in when I leave and find any bugs or worms I've exposed.

When dawn light breaks around 5 am, I can be sure that, along with the robins and cardinals, one of the first songs I'll hear will be warbling of the catbird, followed by the house wren -- all guarding their breeding territories.

One last summer visitor, however, will not be singing, and is a less reliable visitor than the others -- the rubythroated hummingbird.

I have a friend in Bernardsville, up in the hills of Somerset County, who gets hummers every year almost from the moment she puts out her red-topped feeder. These birds are drawn to red, and will use their long bills and longer tongues to draw liquid from trumpet-like flowers. Feeders contain 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. 
Hummingbird at backyard feeder (Margo D. Beller)

I am not as lucky as she is, but for the past few years I've been seeing visitors at my hummer feeder in July. Usually these are females. In the hummingbird world, the males mate and then they head south as early as July, leaving the females to build a nest, lay the eggs and then feed herself and the young. That's when I start seeing visitors. (It doesn't hurt that I have coral bells blooming at that time.)

But once again, things are different this year. When the deluge of migrating birds passed through, I spooked a hummingbird visiting my azaleas in May, prompting me to get the feeder out immediately. A hummer came to it the next day. There have since been sporadic visits but because I don't keep the feeder in an area where I can easily see it (I must come out on my enclosed porch) I don't know how successful the feeder has been.

My pink flowers have all bloomed at once, and my next-door neighbor has two hummer feeders out, so any visitors won't go hungry. I change the liquid every week and hope for the best.

A bird has a hard, short life. They were not put here for our amusement, although I've certainly been amused and entertained by birds for over a decade. But their lives are made harder by man-made factors that could've been avoided.

Like the cerulean warbler and other birds, their lives are put at risk by suburban sprawl -- too many farms sold for housing developments and golf courses, too many mountains denuded for housing or, in the case of New Jersey, huge power lines put up to take the every-increasing load people put on the electric grid with their computers, phones and appliances.

Snowpile, winter of 2013-2014 (Margo D. Beller)
There is also global warming. When the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency under Republican presidents say there is global warming, it shows there is a major problem. Global warming was responsible for New Jersey's above-normal snowfall last winter, just as it was responsible for its below-normal snowfall in previous years. We have had fewer but more intense rainstorms that, when there's wind, looks like a hurricane.

And there was Hurricane Sandy. We have had former hurricanes pass through our area, dumping rain and causing much damage. But Sandy was the first hurricane that passed through my part of northern New Jersey at hurricane strength, toppling trees and leaving people without power for over a week. Sandy was the first full hurricane I have lived through and it was a terrifying experience that, I fear, will likely repeat at some point.

One doesn't want to think about such things when on the back porch on a calm summer day, watching the flitting house wren, listening to the catbird or watching the feeder for a hummingbird.  

But how much longer will we have the birds and the calm?            

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Nature vs. Technology

On Saturday, May 31, I was at a "meet and greet" of the North New Jersey Geocachers, part of a world-wide movement of people who use GPS, or global positioning satellite, to follow coordinates to a "cache" in a particular place that could be anything from a toy truck to a manhole cover.

It was very strange for me to be at this because it was taking place at New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary, which advertises itself on its website as being "focused on nature."

Until I received the Scherman press release, I'd never heard of geocaching. But it makes sense - even the most Luddite of my friends now have cellphones and the Internet is a facet of everyday life. Geocaching was started in 2000 by two techie guys in Oregon who found a bucket in a park and published the coordinates (longitude and latitute) on a website for others to find it, the head of NNJC told me.

In short, it's a high-tech treasure hunt.

One of the Scherman Hoffman caches. (photo by Margo D. Beller)
These folks at the meet and greet were a fine bunch of people. They were friendly and not upset at all to have a reporter - even an unpaid one for the Scherman Hoffman blog - follow along as they walked the trail, stopped at the proper spot and started searching for the prize. One geocacher at the sign-in table, who had baked cookies, and told me he spent a lot of money each week filling his many bird feeders at home.

He also told me he makes it a point to put his caches not far off a park's trail and makes his online clues so clear you don't destroy the area looking for the cache.

I got the sense he is rather unusual in this.

When the first cache was found - "3 boulders from the trail" - people lined up and signed the pad of paper with the pencil found in the plastic lockbox. In this case the caches contain words you put together and bring to the Scherman Hoffman store for a discount on some merchandise.

This reminded me of the old Gene Shepherd routine, dramatized in "A Christmas Story," where the clues on the decoder ring spelled out "Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine."

Signing the cache log book. (Photo by Margo D. Beller)

I don't blame Scherman Hoffman for getting involved with geocaching thanks to the head of the NNJC knowing teaching naturalist Dorothy Smullen through his mother. It is a huge movement, I learned from Scherman Director Mike Anderson told me Kittanny Valley State Park was overrun by caches and people looking for them before New Jersey had any idea what was happening.

In this case, by getting involved at the start Scherman Hoffman gains some sort of control over the process on its land by working with NNJC, which maintains the caches.

My problem is with the technology.

Following a GPS to find a cache does not mean you are going to stop and look around you in the woods and be interested in that red bird over there. (It's called a veery.) When I attempted to follow the group I found myself falling behind as they raced up the steep incline and then continued, not along the official trail route on Scherman land but on another trail into part of the National Park System, the Cross Estate.

There are rules on where to put caches and notifying landowners but apparently no rules on following a shortcut your GPS finds for you.

I've seen it on the highway and so have you -- drivers who do not plan ahead, blindly follow their GPS and then, at the last second, veer across several lanes of traffic to exit, ignoring the hazards they create for other drivers.

Same with geocaching. You focus on the GPS and/or the cellphone (be aware, many woods don't have cell towers in them) to the exclusion of everything else. I would like to think, as the officials at Scherman Hoffman do, that once people discover the sanctuary they will come back and become more interested in nature, maybe even become NJ Audubon members.

Sorry, but I doubt it.

I was very glad when I lost the pack in the woods, reset my internal GPS and proceeded along familiar trails to find birds, my preferred sort of treasure.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A Reunion I Can Enjoy

This Saturday my old high school will hold its annual reunion. I will not be attending.

I have nothing against the old school. Being a private school I send a contribution every year. I learned a lot of good things there, including that there was life beyond my little enclave of southern Brooklyn. I learned how to make my way across the borough via subway, and how to get around the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood when I didn't have a class to attend.

That was 40 years ago.
I look forward to seeing this year's Baltimore orioles.
(Margo D. Beller)
Looking at the school website I saw that only 5 members of my class would be attending, and these are people I didn't particularly like, for the most part. Did I want them to see me, graying hair, even grayer husband, and then, in answer to the inevitable "What are you doing now?" and "Do you have children?" say "nothing of importance" and "no," respectively?


I have gone to some of the reunions a few times, the last time to see all the physical changes to the place both inside and out. But do I want to be reminded I am 40 years older than the time I graduated from there and went on to a different city for college life and where I met MH? Not really.

So I gave my regrets, which were not sincere.
I'm ready to start hiking now. (Margo D. Beller)

Instead, I will be having a different kind of reunion.

MH and I will be going to a park in another state and look for returning migrants. We've had wacky weather this year, and the cold and wind that returned after unusual warmth this April are gone now - for good, I hope. Birds that have been trying to get to their northern breeding grounds, including New Jersey where I live, have been delayed. But I think they are now on the way, if the reports I read are right.

The phoebe returned to the bridge over the brook, as usual. J.J. Audubon tied a string around the leg of a phoebe he found as a young bird and the next year the bird returned, one of the first instances of banding to track the migratory path.

And the chipping sparrow has returned, not long after its cousin the junco departed. For a little bird it has a big song and it will sit and sing it for hours. So will the house wren, another spring visitor. I am looking forward to hearing one in my yard again. Same with the Baltimore oriole and wood thrush. Goldfinches have been coming to the seed feeder.

The warblers are returning. These little bits of sunshine don't really warble much in their song and they are a challenge to find and identify since they tend to arrive just as the trees start leafing out. But that's the fun of them. We've already had a reunion with three of the earliest returnees - the pine, the palm and the myrtle (or yellow-rump, as some call it). We've even made the acquaintance of a usually southern warbler, the yellow-throated warbler.

Soon will come more -- the northern parulas, black-throated greens and the American redstart, and perhaps a yellow warbler or a common yellow-throat will grace our backyard again.

In my element. (RE Berg-Andersson)
We've already been greeted by the ruby-crowned and the gold-crowned kinglets, the field sparrows and the green heron in our travels. The other week we sat on Scott's Mountain with Henry Kielblock and his group and watched ospreys and broadwinged hawks head north.

These are the reunions I enjoy.

I'm not against family reunions. I've had some wonderful times with my maternal relatives, not with my father's side, unfortunately. MH and I have plenty of reunions with his family and our far-flung friends, either at their houses or at ours, as well.

But in this case, given the choice between sitting with people I haven't seen for 40 years and wandering the fields and parks with MH to once again see winged wonders, I'll take the wandering every time.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


One morning, when Margo awoke from troubled dreams, she found herself transformed into a reptile.

The cold and the dry heat from the furnace had been making her skin scaly and pale all winter. Her balky back made her unable to stand upright so she pulled herself from bed and walked on all fours. She was terribly cold in the early morning so she made her way to her office, pulled herself into her chair and waited for the sun to stream through the shades and warm her.

Her husband would later find her asleep in the chair and scream.

But before then, she wondered how she had gotten into this predicament. After all, she had no desire to eat flies - although she'd never shied away from swatting them out of this life. She was not happy about walking through the dirt of the carpet. There was no way she would be using a vacuum cleaner now. Would her husband? No. She tried to chuckle at the thought.

Reptiles don't laugh, she discovered.

Perhaps she should have put on more cream on more areas of skin as this interminable winter has gone on.

One of the many reptiles of the world, a garter snake. (Margo D. Beller)
She kept hoping for spring but after some fits and starts it still hasn't come. Winter storms are predicted every other week. The flowers are weeks behind in blooming -- but that's ok because she has been weeks behind in getting the garden ready, removing the burlap, putting compost and mulch on the flower beds, cutting back the dried ornamental grasses.

It's been shocking to realize how late spring has been in arriving, even though the calendar says spring started on March 20. What does the calendar know? There is still some piled snow on part of the lawn!

Now, waiting for the sun's warmth. Margo the reptile realizes she won't be able to do any more garden chores.

Strangely, this doesn't upset her. In fact, it makes her feel rather happy. No more balky back, aching muscles in her arms, legs and shoulders.

Do reptiles eat chipmunks? That might be one way of keeping them out of the fenced-in garden plots. Same with the bad insects - not the ladybugs but the aphids that almost annihilated the butterfly weed last year.
Remembrance of springs past (Margo D. Beller)
A reptile won't care about barking dogs and screaming kids. In fact, a really fearsome reptile might scare a few kids out of the yard!

She had no mirror nearby to see how fearsome she looked.

Reptiles live a long time, too. If the world blew itself up tomorrow, she'd survive with the cockroaches. No need to be compelled to buy or pay for health insurance or federal and state taxes. No more bills! Take that utilities, credit cards and dentists! Free as a bird!

And reptiles are related to birds, too - or at least were at one time back in the dinosaur age. She won't be seeking them out in far-off places during spring and fall migration but at least she'll continue to feel a kinship with her winged cousins.

It just gets better and better!

She dozed. Her husband found her and screamed. She woke up.

She was no longer a reptile.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Coming Out of Hibernation

In the middle of August, a 45-degree day would have me running for my fleece jacket and the thermostat. In the middle of February, however, when we've been through extremely cold weather and still have a lot of snow everywhere, the recent spate of 45- to 50-degree days feels balmy.

For the first time in weeks I wanted to walk because the ice on the streets and sidewalks was gone. I threw open windows to let in fresh air. I could shovel away what was now slush (instead of a cement mixture of snow and ice) and liberate the last branches of the yew hedge before the deer destroyed it.

I am hearing birdsong now, too. As the days get longer (light after 6:30am until 5:30pm), I have been hearing all sorts of birds for the first time in months - pileated woodpecker, flicker, redbelly, mallards, Carolina wren, house finches and white-throated sparrows.

Driveway and snow wall, February 2014 (Margo D. Beller)
After ignoring my garden because of the snow drifts, I can now see just how much work I will have to do to repair what winter destroyed. With the snow down to more human levels, I discovered the deer have been back to their old habits - one found a weakness in my netting system, ripped it apart and ate a good hunk of two bushes. This happens at least once a year, and the bushes grow back. But it doesn't make me any less angry.

This year, however, I also see the bushes the deer couldn't reach are brown, and I fear they were done in by too much polar vortex.

And I saw a chipmunk this morning - joy. This is the one mammal that can easily get behind my netting and dig huge holes, knowing the larger predators aren't going to get at it. The little bugger reminds me how much work I will have to do if I really want to protect my garden from destruction above (deer) and below (chipmunks).

But that's later. Right now I see more of my roof and my neighbors'. I hear the crash of ice and snow falling to the ground. I see older people taking their walks again, shaming me for using the car of late to get the morning paper. For the first time in over six weeks, I can empty my compost containers into the large composter because what is already in there has defrosted enough to shove aside for this new/old stuff.

This taste of spring won't last, of course. It is, after all, February. More cold and possibly more snow are expected, and soon. For now, I am glad my muscles have finally recovered from all the shoveling (at one point we had three storms in one week dumping significant snow), the recent rains helped the melting along rather than turning my street into a raging river and I had some time to get the stale air out of my house.

But next week it will be March and that means spring is just around the corner.