Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Another Year, Another House Wren

Welcome back, troglodytes aedon.

Every spring there comes a time when I either read a report of returning house wrens or hear one in an area not far from where I live. That afternoon or the next day I get out the wren box I've written about many times before and hang it from the same carefully selected branch in the apple tree, so chosen so I can see the box opening while the leaves keep the box shaded from the late afternoon sun. (Several past posts on house wrens were written in June 2011, and you'll have to go back to find them rather than click on a link. Apologies.)

Wren box (Margo D. Beller)
Usually it takes a week to 10 days for a house wren to find the box. This year was no exception, although it took the wren a day or two of scoping out the yard first - it went to the seed feeder, although house wrens don't usually go to feeders, and the water utensils, then flew back to the bushes.

I know when the box has been chosen because this is when this tiny bird proclaims its territory loud and continuously with its bubbly song. I have seen it high in a tree or in a branch above my head that allows it to face the box. Once you learn its song, you don't forget it.

Also, I know when he has found a mate. The song is the same but it becomes softer, more like a reassuring "I'm here, I'm just nearby looking for food." One of its song takes on a rising pattern, almost like a warbler. And there is that harsh scolding noise it makes if I or anything else come too close to the nest box.

It is not long before the female, if she agrees this is the right spot for the young, places twigs in the box. Every year I look for the tell-tale bit of twig coming out of the bottom of the box, a sign that this place is in use so stay away. Considering five to eight eggs are laid, I am continually amazed a nest and brooding female can fit. When the eggs hatch, both parents take turns getting food and sitting on the nest.

As the chicks grow, the parents stay outside the nest box but in close proximity. One parent flies to the opening with an insect and the peeping begins. It only gets louder as the young birds get bigger.

It takes about two weeks for these eggs to hatch and another two weeks before the birds learn to fly and leave the nest. At that point the box goes silent but I hear the brood following one parent or another around the hedges at the edge of my yard.

House wren, back yard apple tree (Margo D. Beller)
I learn new things about house wrens every year. The rising song I mentioned before was new to me this year. In past years I've learned a house wren has no hesitation in destroying the nest of another bird to take over the spot, in that particular case a black-capped chickadee that got to the box first. I have also learned jays will eat house wren chicks if one has the misfortune to get too close to the opening at the wrong time, or falls out to the ground when attempting to fledge.

Most times, only one wren family uses the box each year. That may be because when the apples start growing the squirrels start climbing everywhere and I start picking or, if out of reach, batting at the apples to bring them down with an extension pole. At that point the house wren may decide this is not his neighborhood.

But once in a long while, when apple season is done, another house wren comes by and checks out the establishment. It may remove some of the twigs or it may just use what's there, like renting a furnished flat.

House wrens got their common name because they will build a nest in anything - a flower pot, the pocket of a shirt on a hook, a tiny space inside or next to your shed. As long as it provides shelter from bad weather and is hidden from predators, it can be used.

(The larger Carolina wren, which stays in my area all year, will also build nests in anything and will sing loud and long to proclaim territory, draw a mate and warn if danger is near, even if it is only me. But it is too big for my nest box. The tiny winter wren prefers a different type of habitat than what my yard can provide.)

My wren house offers a distinct advantage by its very wooden sturdiness and its hanging from a tensile wire strung from a branch. I've had to make some repairs to it over the years, but the pleasure my yearly tenants bring me is more than worth the effort. Then, when the house wrens head south for the winter, the box is cleaned and brought inside to await another year and another house wren.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

May weather has not been good. There have been hot days but they have been intermittent. Mostly the days have been cooler and wetter.

What has been good has been the birding. May is prime migration month in my part of the country, the time when the birds that have been wintering in South America, Central America and even the southern U.S. start heading north to their summer breeding grounds.

En route they stop to eat. When they do their internal systems tell them to sing loudly to proclaim their feeding territory and perhaps look for a mate. They are at their most colorful, but when they pass through, it is usually when the trees have finally begun to leaf out, making the search for these birds a pleasure and a challenge.

Yesterday morning, I got out later than I intended but still before 7 am to travel not very far from my home. My town is on the plains of a nearby mountain. Traveling a few minutes up the road takes you up the mountain. You pass through McMansions I remember going up 20 years ago, some for sale for the third or fourth time. At the top of the ridge is a playground and a parking lot, off which are several hiking trails.

However, I prefer to leave the lot, walk along the road to a power line cut, listening all the way.

Sometimes you get lucky. When I got out of the car I heard a ton of birds, most of them warblers, there in the parking lot. Now I had to use my memory because seeing the birds high up in the trees was not easy. Which bird sounds like this? Which bird sounds like that? I am not one of those birders who knows every single call for every single bird, although I wish I did at times like these.

Baltimore oriole (Margo D. Beller)
After noting what I thought I heard, I moved on to the cut, where the birding was easier. Yes, there was the prairie warbler I expected -- no wait, there are two singing at each other! Prairie warblers like shrubby, second-growth areas such as power line cuts, and I've heard at least one singing for years up here. It's call, once heard, is easily remember.

Now up pops a brown thrasher long enough for me to identify it before it dives into a shrub. What's this moving stealthily along? Why, it's the little yellow bandit known as the common yellow-throated warbler that acts more like a wren than the warblers I was hearing in the parking lot.

What's that flying into that treetop? An indigo bunting, shining deep blue in the green tree. It is doing an unintentional duet with the Baltimore oriole that flew across the road, allowing me to find this black and orange bird in the seeding oak.

Black-throated green warbler (Margo D. Beller)
Time flies fast when you are looking at and for birds. After what I realized was 30 minutes, I walked back to the lot. With the exception of the one bird I wanted to see because I see it is infrequently - a Nashville warbler - I was lucky enough to discover the birds I'd been hearing were now in closer trees. So there was the black and white warbler clinging to a tree branch. There was the American redstart flycatching in the treetop. There was the chestnut-sided warbler saying it was "pleased ta meet cha" with its song. There was the northern parula, a little bird with a very loud song.

And there, softly, from within the woods, I managed to hear the other bird I expected, the black-throated green warbler, singing its alternate song "zoo zee zoo zoo zee." 

A lot of birds in 60 minutes in an area hard by a residential area five minutes from my home. Only in May, the most wonderful time of the year.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Good, the Bad, the Birding in the Rain

April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.
-- T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

Well, what about May?
-- Margo D. Beller

Thanks to Omega Blocks and riding lows and the other technical jargon weather forecasters like to throw at us, it has seemed more like Seattle than New Jersey so far this May. Rain, clouds, drizzle, cold. We've had to put the heat on again and use two quilts on the bed some nights.

Lord knows we need the rain to fill a major deficit, but why May? Why not April, when the showers were supposed to bring May flowers?

Whippany River, Patriots Path, May 7, 2016 Note the raindrops. (Margo D. Beller)
So it has been raining. And that has slowed down the northbound migration of the birds. But migration hasn't stopped and I have been seeing too many reports of warblers, tanagers and other passerine (perching) birds making their way to the various regional hotspots - Central Park in New York, Garrett Mountain and Great Swamp in New Jersey, among many others.

It was making me miserable. My free time during the week has been taken up by a number of things - starting with WORK - and I have been unable to get out to find some of these wonders. Recently, the weekends have been busy.

Finally, free time opened up Saturday and out I went - later than I had planned and wetter than I wanted it to be.

I don't know of any birder who likes birding in the rain. For one thing, it is hard to use your binoculars to look for movement in treetops. When the rain isn't making a branch twitch as though a yellow warbler is on it, the water is blurring your vision. And let's not forget the mud under your feet depending on where you happen to go.

Local knowledge is extremely helpful. So when the light drizzle started getting much harder, I knew that where I was going - part of a linear park known as Patriots Path that is lined with gravel, minimizing water ponding and muck - was going to be ok to bird in my sneakers rather than putting on heavy boots.

I was extremely lucky that day. Many, many birds were calling even though it was many hours past dawn. Maybe birds like singing in the rain, or they didn't realize time was passing because the clouds obscured the sun. Whatever, they were singing and since I had to depend on my memory and my hearing I had a fine time noting the many birds out there.

Another benefit - I was alone. The exception was a woman who opened her car door and two giant yellow labs bounded out, barking, and ran to me. Don't get me started on how much of a pain it is to encounter an unleashed dog in a park as I am seeking birds. The dogs scared off the hooded warbler that had just started singing close enough for me to touch. I was trying to find it when they arrived. I yelled at the owner, who quickly leashed the dogs and took them up the trail and into the woods.

Patriots Path itself. One of the few really wet areas, despite the crushed stone below.
(Margo D. Beller)
I went the other way. The only person who passed me was a man, in full rain gear, on his mountain bike. I expect he ran into the woman with the dogs and can only hope she kept them on the leash once out of my sight so they didn't charge him.

Aside from that, it was me and the birds.

Birding in the rain can be tricky. Besides the discomfort of being soaked to the skin, looking up for land birds is difficult. There was the time we got caught in a downpour at Prime Hook in Delaware. Luckily we found a lean-to and waited for a letup that never happened. We might've heard a sparrow of some kind but otherwise, nothing.

Once we were in Chicago only for a very short time and wanted to bird some of the big areas near Montrose Beach on Lake Michigan. It rained our one day there and it kept up when we got off the closest El stop and only got harder as we walked to the lake, the famous wind making the rain hit us sideways, our umbrellas nearly useless. A birder in shorts and sandals (wisely, no umbrella) ran up and asked if we were looking for the common loon that had been reported. "We're all loons here, brother," I thought but did not say. (No, we did not see the loon, which is very common in New England, where we've seen it many times, but not in the midwest.)

Not only were we completely soaked, but so were the contents of my knapsack, despite my attempts at protection. That was the worst "birding in the rain" experience we've had. Thank you, Windy City.

Great Blue Heron (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
Not every rain experience is bad, however. We wanted to visit Pea Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I'd read a volunteer gave free tours on only one day. That day it poured. MH said, they won't hold this. We went into the office and there was the volunteer, ready to go, whether anyone showed up or not. We and one other couple went out with him but the other couple quickly bailed.

He set up his scope atop one of the dikes and we had a wonderful time observing water birds not disturbed at all by the rain - great blue herons, great and snowy egrets, white ibis and the usually reclusive American bittern among many. Looking straight out rather than up was a big help.

Rain doesn't bother water birds. And as I learned the other day, rain doesn't bother land birds singing without stop because they are intent on setting up territories and finding a mate to continue the species.

Still, I hope my next big bird outing is in sunshine.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Just Add Water

Back, way back, back into time, there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon with Marvin the Martian. At one point he needed reinforcements in his battle with the Bunny, and he turned to a bottle labeled "Instant Martians." Below, the simple instructions: Just add water.

After over a week of extremely sunny, warm and dry weather in my part of New Jersey - so dry at one point the humidity was the same as what you would normally see in the Arizona desert - we had a major rainstorm. This has been the pattern the last few years thanks to climate change-induced warming. The El Nino on the west coast managed to spawn what the weather gurus calls an Omega Block, which moved to the east coast and just sat there.

But then, finally, it moved, allowing the rain to come in Friday night.

I came outside Saturday morning to discover my dogwood tree, which last year only produced a couple of flowers, completely covered in blossoms. Friday morning the buds seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. Until that day it would get hot, they'd start to expand and then the temperature would drop and everything would stop.

It was the same with the azaleas, the lilacs and many of my other plants. Until it rained.

Just add water.

Dogwood flowers (Margo D. Beller)
Suddenly, the bare trees were covered in leaves and flowers; the dogwood, lilac and azaleas bloomed or are about to bloom, the drooping perennial geranium stood up happy and the hostas and hellebore doubled in size. Not only was there columbine growing where I planted it, there was columbine growing where I didn't expect it. I am leaving it alone. When I collect the seeds later this year I'll spread them to more areas in the garden.

It is amazing what a deep, drenching rain will do.

However, I have several concerns. The last few years we've gone long stretches with no rain only to be doused with several weeks of rain in one day. My other concern is with suburban sprawl. There are constant battles with people who want to tear up farms and put up housing, which stresses land and water, adding to traffic and town costs.
Columbine between the paving stones (Margo D. Beller)
In northern New Jersey, to protect the important watersheds, the state passed the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act in 2004 to keep development under control. Some people in the area are OK with protecting the environment but there are always others upset they now can't sell their increasingly valuable land to the highest bidder, split for (already overdeveloped) Florida and leave the mess behind for the rest of us to absorb.

 As James Brown once sang, I got mine, don't worry about his.

I try to use as little water as possible. Most of my plants are perennials and can take dryness. But my neighbors have already started with their lawn sprinklers. Lawns are sacrosanct in the suburbs, and not mowing them every week whether they need it or not and watering them every day even when rain is forecast is like a religion to many people. Those of us who THINK are looked at like pariahs. (My neighbors appear to be more concerned about their grass, based on the money they waste on lawn services, than the nondescript shrubs they put in front of their houses. Flowers are just too much work, especially in Deer Country.)

Luckily, it isn't too hot yet. While my daffodils and other early flowers are now done, the irises are getting ready to rise. And the forecasters say more rain is expected later in the week. It is, after all, only April, where the showers bring May flowers.

Just add water and amazing things happen.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Return to Life and My Stand Against the Disposable Society

Every spring, when the worst of the cold is over and the snow has finally melted, I am amazed at what survives in my garden and saddened by what does not.

Despite neglect or doing something wrong out of ignorance, the perennials come back and I am both humbled and thankful.

The same is true for house plants. When I accept a house plant as a gift from a friend or rescue a plant someone has cruelly ripped from a planter and then thrown on the sidewalk - the bulk of my house plants are one or the other - I have to think long and hard about where to put it so it can get the most (or the least) amount of light. I have to hope the plant doesn't mind being watered only once a week or that in winter there will be a lot of dry heat and not a lot of moisture.

One of those plants is an orchid I thought I had killed because I uprooted it when it didn't have to be uprooted, cut back what I later realized was a lot of its root system and then fed it at the wrong time. Somehow that plant has survived, and this year is the second straight it will flower.

Last week, I wrote about the mistreatment of my peppers and my cannas. The cannas saddened me in particular because I knew better. I knew that if you took a tropical plant and put it on a porch where it can get down to the single digits overnight, it is not going to be happy. What I didn't realize was putting a plastic sheet or two and a blanket over the pot would keep in moisture on a plant that was supposed to be allowed to dry out.

I moved the pots indoors, into a sunny part of the one room where I can place all my house plants, and hoped for the best.

Two of the five pieces of growing canna, April 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
Well, when I wrote about them last week I thought they were dead. And then one evening I looked into one of the pots and saw two signs of life! Two little bits of green poking out of the pot, which was solidly packed with roots and corms. A few days later, I pulled the pots onto a tarp on my enclosed porch and started poking around -- which meant dumping the solid clump from the pot, using a saw to cut into it and then a spade to pull the sections apart.

I found five growing pieces of canna. I had planned to divide what was in the pot this spring anyway and so filled the pot with soil and put in the five pieces so they would have plenty of room to stretch out and grow. Cannas can get pretty big and after a few years they grow into each other to create a solid mass.

I looked very carefully at what I turned out of the other pot but saw nothing growing.

Now, it is always possible there will be growth in what I'm composting. My keeping it in the deep freeze might've put the plant into a deeper hybernation than I realized. If that is the case, when I put it all in the compost pile I won't be surprised if I see a mass of large, green canna leaves growing, which I can then either pull up and plant elsewhere or leave alone, a kind of zombie canna graveyard.

Why do I mention all this?

First, because I am relieved I am not a plant killer.  Second, because once again, Nature will take care of itself if Man (or me) doesn't mess around with it.

Most times people buy plants, keep them for a while and then throw them in the trash. This is a waste of your money, the plant grower's time and the compostable material in the plant.

When I take care of my plants, when I keep them going far beyond what the label says (and that includes "annuals" I've kept going for years), I am taking my stand against being part of a disposable society that doesn't think twice about putting in the garbage furniture, bicycles, plants or other things that can be donated to others for repair and resale or gifting.

My front room is full of life, and it is another thing that gives me a reason to live.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Owning Up to My Mistakes (Garden Division)

When something goes wrong, I'm the first to admit it/The first to admit it, and the last one to know
-- Paul Simon, "Something So Right"

Throughout my career I have always owned up to my mistakes. If through arrogance or misunderstanding I cause an error, I admit it.

That is why in this post I am going to own up to a couple of major garden mistakes that have resulted in the death of all but two plants. That is also why I am not going to show any pictures. I don't see anything interesting in showing a pot of dead plant.

There garden fatalities involve two types of plants that need warmth to survive: canna and pepper.

I'll start with the pepper.

For years I've ignored conventional wisdom that says you grow your pepper plants, you harvest the peppers and when winter comes you pull up the plant, put it in compost and either start new seeds or buy a seedling the next year.

I have always grown peppers in pots. I have not cared to endure the rigors of digging and fencing a vegetable garden, although I always envy those neighbors with the time, energy and strength to do so. Putting a plant in a pot and putting that pot behind deer netting is much easier, plus I can keep it in the sunny front of my house and it looks like just another plant to those neighbors who are anal about "keeping up appearances."

When winter has come, I have brought those pepper pots indoors and put them in my sunny front room. The plants usually do better the next year when I put them back out front. One year I was foolish enough to bring in five different types of peppers. No more. I play God. If it is a plant whose peppers I enjoyed, it will get saved.

This past winter I had inside one plant I was hoping to keep going for the third year and another I had grown from seed.

Unfortunately, last year I bought a basil from a grocery store and either the plant itself or the weather conditions created a major whitefly infestation. The flies themselves are annoying but when they are busy sucking on the leaves and laying eggs they create a "honeydew" that will eventually kill the host's leaves and thus the plant.

As I dealt with the basil, the flies took flight and infested the tomato I had growing. As I later found out, they also were all over the two peppers I had in the house.

During the worst of the winter the flies were either dead or dormant. However, as the days turned warmer and longer, the flies made themselves known all over the plants (which were still producing small peppers). When they started flying to my other house plants, I knew it was time to act.

I put garbage bags over the peppers and got them outside and behind the netting. I took out the plants where flies were going - they like the underside of big, soft leaves - and made sure to inspect and clean out the plants before bringing them indoors. I sprayed the peppers and left them in what at the time was a pretty warm day.

Unfortunately, the weather turned windy and cold and despite my best efforts at protection, the older one died. Peppers need overnight temperatures of at least 50 degrees to survive. They weren't getting them. So I put the pots on the enclosed back porch, where there was sunlight for about 6 hours in the morning, composted the dead plant and left the other one - until yesterday, when I saw the forecast called for daytime and evening temperatures way below 50 degrees.

So that plant is in the kitchen, where the natural light is dim and defuse but at least the plant is warm. The flies are dead and gone but the few leaves I didn't rip off look terrible, and I don't know if this plant will survive until, say, May. So I have three seeds of this type of pepper (I save seeds for this reason) in a pot on the sunny window sill as a hedge.

And now the canna.

Cannas are tropical plants grown more for their foliage than their flowers, which tend to show up in spikes during the hottest, most humid part of the summer. When I was first given them by a now-former friend, she told me that after frost killed the foliage to dig the plants up and wrap them in newspaper and put them in a cool, dry place.  I did that and lost about half of them.

The next year I put the cannas in a big pot. They did almost too well -- soon they were so crowded together I had to divide them. Now I had two big pots. I would give them away or compost them. Composting them created what I called "zombie" cannas - they were growing in the compost pile. So I would dig them out and put them in the ground and just leave them there over the winter. They would die, but I would still have my pots because I would bring them into my sunny front room and put them in a corner out of the sun. Inevitably, they'd start growing anyway.

Well, this year I didn't want them taking up space in the sunny front room. I had no room in my overjunked garage and my small basement is quite warm because of the furnace. So to my shame, I put them in the warmest part of my enclosed porch and covered them with plastic sheets and then a blanket. This was the absolute worst thing I could've done.

First, the temperature on the porch, even in the warm area against the kitchen where I put the pots, got down to the teens at one point. Second, the plastic sheets kept in the moisture rather than letting the plants dry out, as they would've done wrapped in newspaper. By the time I pulled them into the house and put them in the sun in the front room, they were dead. I have watered them to see if there is life but there has been nothing. By the end of the week, they'll be composted.

Ironically, I did one other wrong thing that has kept one canna alive. This was a zombie I pulled out of the compost at the end of last summer, potted and then brought into the house and kept going over the winter. It got no "rest" in its pot, which is the reason why you dig them up and let them dry out in the first place. It seems to be growing just fine.

No one is every going to confuse me with a master gardener. But I do learn from my mistakes -- once I realize them.

Monday, March 28, 2016

My Cathedral of the Pines

I wish I could make you hear the quiet I heard the other Saturday when I was standing in the middle of this pine grove at Rancocas Nature Center. I wish you could smell the fresh piney air.

The only thing that would've made this grove better would have been a few pine warblers calling their sweet trills, as there were the first time we came to Rancocas and stood in this grove six years before.

Pine grove, Rancocas, NJ (R.E.Berg-Andersson)

Rancocas is in Westhampton, N.J., abutting the much larger Rancocas State Forest. The nature center was once part of New Jersey Audubon but NJ Audubon went through one of its frequent financial shudders and closed down or gave up several of its nature centers, claiming not enough people were visiting. Rancocas is in central Jersey, so compared with the north Jersey location of NJ Audubon headquarters, it must've seemed on the other side of the Earth.

(Another center NJ Audubon shut down - the one on Sandy Hook, one of the best areas for birding in the state but rather elongated, so perhaps not as many folk got to the northern part where the office was located.)

This pine grove is interesting because the trees were planted in straight rows. However, the saplings were never thinned and so all the trees grew straight and tall, competing with each other for the light. "Forestry management" is what the pros call thinning out the trees. So if you look at the trees at eye level you can walk from one end to the other and not run into a tree. (You can't see it as well in this picture looking up at the sky.)

MH and I drove here one other time before Saturday, years ago, and found the placed gated shut. It was after NJ Audubon left. However, it didn't sit shut long - the site is now run by Burlington County and several groups, including the Friends of Rancocas Nature Center, which runs the visitor/education center.

Owls are here, and warblers and robins and woodpeckers of various types. There are trails through woods, marshes and uplands. But what I like about Rancocas is what made NJ Audubon give it up -- not many people were around. Hence the quiet.

In our travels MH and I were once driving in NH, near Rindge to be exact, and there was a sign for "Cathedral of the Pines." I made him take the exit to investigate. It turned out to be an actual, ecumenical church, open to the skies in some areas, enclosed buildings elsewhere.  

We did not stop but I remember being disappointed that it wasn't just a large grove for silent contemplation.

I am glad to say that many years later I found my Cathedral of the Pines in central New Jersey, at Rancocas.