Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

Depriving the Deer

(Margo D. Beller)
"Ouch! You're hurting me!" That's what I imagine the apple tree is telling me this morning. I am using my lopper to take off its low-hanging branches. This morning the house wrens were practically screaming in their alarm. When I turned from my seat on the porch to see why there was a doe, likely the one who has been doing the nibbling I've found around the yard, looking at me. 

I had not heard the doe approach as I tried to shake the early-rising fog from my head. But I sure heard the wrens.

I knew what I had to do next: put on lightweight and light colored clothes because of the expected summer heat, get the lopper and bring out two large baskets - one for the branches, one for the apples I'd be stripping off. But it is not a matter of just whacking away haphazardly. Like the woman who no doubt will be cutting back my long hair this week to make it short for the hot summer weather we're finally getting, you have to do things with style and make what's left look pretty, as though it had always been that way.

House wren (Margo D. Beller)
I had another consideration - the wrens. When MH had mowed the lawn last week Papa Wren actually went after him, his wings fluttering practically next to MH's ear when he mowed close to the tree, he said. He added that he had seen a doe - a pregnant doe - in the next yard. She was as perturbed by the noisy thing he was pushing as the wrens and so was taking a detour around my yard. I don't know if this was the same doe I have shooed out of the hedges over the last few weeks or the one I found this morning at the apple tree but I do know that unlike in some previous years, no fawns were dropped on my property.

The branches I cut were dumped from the basket into my fenced compost pile until the leaves turn brown and unappetizing, which should be in time for me to put them at the curb with other brush to be picked up.

Some may think me cruel for wanting to deprive the deer. It is not their fault my yard or those of the other houses in the sprawling New Jersey suburbs are set up perfectly in small patches with a variety of bite-size plants to try, or that the deer's nonhuman predators, such as the eastern coyote, are not encouraged to hang around. I have a friend who, unlike me, leaves feeders out for the birds all year long, and she goes all dewy-eyed when she sees a doe feeding on someone else's shrubs. Of course, she keeps the plants she cares about in pots on her deck, high above where any deer can get to them.

I've often said that had I known back in the mid-1990s what I know now, most of the plants I currently grow would never have been put in. I have become an expert on "deer-resistant" plants - a real growth industry - and deer fencing to protect the plants I now know deer will destroy.

One of last year's apples (Margo D. Beller)
Besides, there will be more than enough apples for the deer and me and even the squirrels that have already started going into the tree for a sweet, wet treat on a hot summer day. These critters climb much higher than I can get without an extension pole, and they drop lots of whole or partially eaten fruit. The apples I picked today are not quite big or ripe enough for pie and will need a lot of sugar (or mixing with other fruit) for anything else I make with them. I had hoped for more time before the morning "rush hour" ritual of grabbing apples before the deer get to them. But this year has been a wacky one in terms of climate and so this is par for the course. 

Meanwhile, there are cheeping young in the wren box, so small that both parents went in to feed them at the same time at one point while I worked. The adults weren't pleased by my being so close to the nest but they seem to be used to me and when I cut branches near the box it was only after they had fed the young and flown off for more food. I doubt wrens know the concept of "trust" but they somehow know I will not injure the next.

And as an added benefit or removing the lower branches, I have a better view of this year's wren show. It never gets old.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Taking a Different Path

When I moved to Morris County, NJ., over two decades ago, the first big park I discovered was the Frelingheuysen Arboretum, a county park on land donated by one of the area's illustrious families that goes all the way back to colonial New Jersey. I walked the unblazed paths, saw quite a lot of birds and bought many plants for my garden at the annual sale.

(Margo D. Beller)
Not far from there is the Jacob Ford Mansion, part of the Morristown National Historic Site, where George Washington stayed during the winter of 1779-80 while his army was in what is now Jockey Hollow, a prelude to the better-known winter encampment at Valley Forge. Jacob Ford's land stretched all the way to the Whippany River, and along the river he had a powder mill - gunpowder, not flour for baking. We learned this the other day when I read of a planned tour down Patriots Path to the site of the mill.

I realized that if I went to the arboretum I could get to Patriots Path and the site on my own and from the other direction instead of taking the planned tour and thus spare MH and his balky knees. The tour would have people walking down a steep hill in back of the county historical society. I'd hiked up that hill years ago and didn't like it. I didn't recall any historic markers of the site. I resolved to go again.

But since the last time I've hiked the arboretum there have been many unfortunate changes. Storms, starting with Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and continuing through the nor'easters of this past March, damaged stately old trees where I'd see birds in spring. These trees have been removed, changing what had been shady areas into sun fields. The paths I've walked for years without problems are now blazed with yellow, green or red markers to make it easy on visitors, of which there are now a lot. The part of Patriots Path through the arboretum to the historical society along the Whippany River is blazed blue. When I last took this part of Patriots Path, you went through the woods. Now that is cut off and you have to use a different path around an open field. Several trails in the woods or along the Whippany River have been allowed to disappear in the grasses.

This was once a hiking trail (Margo D. Beller)
Even getting to this park has changed in recent years. Much of the woods along the multi-lane road have been torn down and replaced with shopping centers, creating more traffic and less of an incentive for me to travel the three miles here. (There are many other places for me to hike, including other parts of Patriots Path where I'm not risking my life among those hot to get to a mall or office park.)

When I got past the gate and started on Patriots Path I learned the condition of the path seems to be based on which property abuts it. The first section of the path, running behind an office park that has its own bricked walkway to it, is mowed grass. The next part, behind a garden apartment complex, was dirt, with branches down and roots to step over. Part of the path takes you along the edge of a parking lot, where the branches of trees and poison ivy hung low, forcing me on the hot asphalt. Then the path returned to the shady woods and down a hill where I discovered a giant downed tree I would have to somehow get over. I was too close to my destination to turn back so, with difficulty, I got over and continued along the difficult terrain. (I thought of MH back home and was glad he was not testing his knees here. How I'd be in the coming days would be another matter.)

Past the knotweed and other invasives, I got around another downed tree, carefully forded a dry culvert and then found two signs marking the powder mill site. One was obviously older and nailed to a tree. It must've been there when I'd last hiked this path. However, since then a newer sign had been put up by the historical society. Ahead of me was the steep hill leading to the historical society, whose part of Patriots Path had been cleared of debris, perhaps in anticipation of the coming tour. I took some pictures of the sign for MH, listened to the murmur of the river and a few birds, then went back the way I came. The path had been deserted during my travels because it was a weekday, and that had me slightly nervous. I could listen to the birds, including a calling yellow warbler, but many of the calls were hard to hear because of the din of continual traffic on nearby Route 287, one of New Jersey's major highways.

Whippany River (Margo D. Beller)
Back through the gate on the property of the arboretum, I was forced to travel along the edge of the woods and could only look with longing at where the old path once ran.

I am sure there were many reasons why the woody trail and the one along the river on the arboretum property were closed to hikers. Where the former river trail turns and heads back uphill are two major roads nearby, Route 287 and Hanover Ave. Perhaps in this terrorist-crazed world we live in someone determined a nutcase could do a lot of damage to these roads and thus ordered the path be erased. Or perhaps the arboretum didn't want to spend the money on mowing the path or other maintenance anymore.

I don't know. I do know that like a lot of the world I live in now, it is changing and not necessarily for the better.

Here are some of the other pictures from my travels:

This is the first, grassy part of Patriots Path leading away from the arboretum.

(Margo D. Beller)
This is the log I had to climb over. It is bigger than it looks.

(Margo D. Beller)
This is the historic marker for the mill, my destination on this hike.

(Margo D. Beller)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


Roseate spoonbill, Rte, 94 NJ (RE Berg-Andersson)

What you see here is a roseate spoonbill, a bird normally found in such places as the Florida Everglades. According to the bird people at Cornell, the spoonbill forages "in the shallows of fresh, brackish, and marine waters including bays, mangroves, forested swamps, and wetlands." 

You do not expect to see this bird on the property of a New Jersey stone company along Route 94 in western Warren County. 

And yet there it was, reported by many on the various online bird lists, using that large spoon-shaped bill to root out worms that had come to the surface after recent flooding rains created a large pond in the middle of the stone company's lawn. MH and I saw this bird on May 30 in the afternoon, after we had spent many hours driving along Old Mine Rd. in the northwestern part of the state, seeing or hearing 50 different types of breeding birds including 12 types of warblers.

It's fun to find birds you normally don't see, such as we do along Old Mine Rd. once a year, but when I see a bird that was somehow blown way out of its territory, it makes me sad. I wondered where the spoonbill would go once the water receded. Would it fly south and seek another spoonbill? Would it stay where it was and die? I don't know. Most winters someone reports a hummingbird in New Jersey. Hummingbirds need a lot of food to power their wings, which beat thousands of times a second. One year a hummingbird normally seen in the west was lucky enough to find its way to a nature center in western NJ. The staff quickly rigged up a heat lamp and a feeder for the bird, which survived into the spring when MH and I saw it.

Most "accidentals" aren't so lucky if they show up at the wrong place in the wrong season. Others discover things ain't so bad. For instance, for the last several years, including this year, a white pelican has shown up at DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst, NJ., hard by the NJ Turnpike. It is hanging out in a large pool with double-crested cormorants, great blue herons and other marsh birds. There is lots of food or these birds wouldn't be there. At the same time, brown pelicans has been reported as coming farther north, too. I've seen these stately birds in San Francisco Bay and the Chesapeake Bay, following the fish. On occasion they are sighted as far north as southern New Jersey.   

Why are formerly southern birds either showing up in the north more often or have now become year-round residents, such as the Carolina wren or the mockingbird? Strong winds can blow a migrating bird off course. Global warming could make a bird comfortable in a new region. Evolution could be helping a bird adapt to a new climate. Warm waters could force fish farther north, bringing those that eat them north, too. 

There are all sorts of explanations. Pick your own. Most birders, eager to tick off an unusual bird they don't need to travel far to see for their Life Lists, don't care.

Here's another oddity.

Witch hazel leaf (Margo D. Beller)

I was taking a walk the other morning when I walked into a branch of this sapling hanging over the road. I noticed what looked like horns on all the leaves. I'd never seen anything like this before.

I asked my brother-in-law, the naturalist. He said this was a witch hazel and that the "horn" was caused by an insect boring into the bottom side of the leaf to lay its eggs - so many eggs they had come through the other side to create the "horn" I was seeing.

Many people go into the woods to look for frogs, insects, animals, plants and butterflies. I prefer birds but MH has been known to show me something interesting, such as an American toad off the path or a wooly bear caterpillar.

Tulip poplar on the road. (Margo D. Beller)
I guess I have to broaden my horizons and look down more often. For instance, it was by looking down I found this tulip poplar flower a squirrel must've snapped off - I hadn't realized the tall poplars had put out flowers to attract pollinating insects. When I was growing up my parents' neighbor had a huge tree that eventually shaded out the sun-needing flowers in our backyard. However,  the tulip flowers were at my eye level from the back porch.

According to one source I found, the tulip poplar is one of the largest of the trees native to the eastern U.S. It can grow as high as 190 feet but is more typically 70 to 100 feed. The trunk can be 10 feet in diameter. 

When I see them in my town they are usually in so-called waste areas. Few keep this as a yard tree anymore, apparently. A couple of years ago one person a few streets away cut down his stately, old tree, thus creating his own waste area.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Season of the Young

On June 7, our older niece gave birth to her second son. He arrived two days after her birthday and 15 days before that of his older brother.

House wren (Margo D. Beller)
In the avian world, June is a good month for babies, too. The birds that have flown into their breeding territories in April or May have found a nest site and a mate and then the eggs were hatched. Now, whether I am hiking or just sitting on the porch, I have been hearing very young birds either calling from their nests or following their parents around begging to be fed.

Some of these birds nest in the shrubs that border my yard. I don't look for nests - it is hard enough for me to find adult birds darting around in the foliage -  although I've found a few by accident or later in the year when the leaves come down and I see where the nest had been hiding. 

Today, from my porch, I heard the buzzy chirps of young chipping sparrows following a parent around the yard. A few days earlier, at the Great Swamp, a female redwing blackbird flew out from a bush and I heard begging calls. With my binoculars I could see the wide-open mouths of three very hungry blackbird babies. Just off the parking lot a man with a giant telephoto lens pointed out the rubythroated hummingbird female sitting on her tiny, lichen-encrusted nest, which he saw after someone else happened to see the female fly in and then showed him where to look. I expect to start seeing females at my feeder who need food energy to spend long hours on their eggs. Females do all the work; once they've mated, the male hummingbirds are no longer involved and start migrating south as early as July.

Unlike my niece, who carried her growing son for nine months and will rear him for many years, the birds have a much shorter time frame to create the next generation and teach them to survive on their own.

Take the house wrens using the box I put up in my backyard apple tree every year. According to the Audubon Field Guide, once the female wren lays her eggs it can take anywhere from 12 to 15 days for them to hatch, and then it will be another 12 to 18 days before the young are big enough to fledge, at which point they will fly around after their parents while they learn to feed themselves.

Another year's hummingbird at my feeder (Margo D. Beller)
I can't see into the wooden nest box but recently I have seen the female flying in and out of the box, so I believe she is on eggs, leaving every so often to get a meal or let the eggs cool off if the day is too hot. The male sings gently from the apple tree, more forcefully when he perceives a threat. Once the young are hatched I will see a lot more activity as both male and female shuttle back and forth from the box to the lawn to feed them insects. As the young grow the parents won't be able to fit inside the box and so will hang on the outside as the two or three young crowd the entry hole, begging for food. The parents will try to feed all of them but those that fight hardest to be fed will be guaranteed to survive once they leave the nest.

House wrens have two broods a year but in my yard the box is generally only used once because by the time the first brood leaves the apples are ready to be picked, either by the squirrels climbing up the tree or me using an extension pole to bring the fruit down. The skittish wrens go elsewhere. Then, as the summer ends it is time for these little birds to fly south for the winter.

When this winter comes around my newest grand-nephew may be just starting to sit up by himself but it will be a long time before he is able to move around, feed himself and leave the nest.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Of Apples and Wren, Again

Early June. It is cloudy, cool and breezy on the porch this morning, a relief after the heat and humidity of yesterday when I was walking in a fog all day and had trouble breathing. Today, though damp, the coolness gives me more energy.

Not MH, however. It is the season of the long grass and it has been too wet for him to use the mower. He is waiting for the grass dry out a bit but in doing so we have the beginnings of a deer meadow. I am watching for deer dropping any newborn fawns in the grass, or eating the foliage of the shrubs that have enjoyed all the rain and humidity. The trees have leafed out and everything in the backyard looks very lush.

The porch window is open and the apple tree says, "Come see me. I am fertile and magnificent."

Apples in the making, 2018 (Margo D. Beller)
And she is! All the flowers of a few weeks ago have disappeared and in their place are tiny, growing apples, hard to see among all the leaves until you get close enough. The squirrels are already going into the tree, as they do every year, looking for an apple to provide moisture on a hot day, even a hard, small one. They go into the tree and, in the process of moving around, knock small apples to the ground for the deer to find. I don't feel like searching in the long grass. It will be enough of a struggle to pick up larger, partially eaten fruit and toss them into the corner for the deer while picking what apples I can for this year's sauce and pies.

This year's house wren sees me near the nest box that hangs from this tree and starts singing insistently from a nearby oak. The song is his territorial song and must also be a warning because soon his mate flies nearby. The singer is a plain little bird, brown except for the tan of his breast and belly. He looks strangely green in this cloudy morning light when surrounded by all the leaves. He sees me looking at him and flies to a higher branch of another tree. I wonder if there are eggs in the box and, if so, when they will hatch.

I take another step closer to the tree and the wren flies nearby to scold. "Go inside. You're disrupting things," the tree tells me. I step away and sit inside. I watch the wren fly to several places around the yard to sing or find food.

Apple tree with wren box at the bottom, summer 2018 (Margo D. Beller) 
Aside from the cardinal pair that still comes to the empty feeder pole looking for seed, the call of a distant chipping sparrow and the chattering catbird flying from its nest in one bush to another bush across the yard and back, the house wrens are once again the extent of my summer birding unless I see something in passing during my travels. At this time of year, I must take advantage of these cooler days to keep the ground ivy and other weeds in check and have no time or, on hot days, energy for birds. On hot, muggy days, I stay where it is cool. The birds can't do that. They must hatch and feed their young and teach them how to fend for themselves and maybe even have a second brood with another mate before the days shorten and instinct tells them it's time to fly south.

Meanwhile, also as usual, the apples will get bigger on the tree. This tree is rather odd, putting out a Mcintosh-like apple in June and July rather than in the fall, as other apple trees do. But the fruit is sweet, and that is why I will be racing the squirrels (and perhaps bear?) to pick as many as I can for approximately three weeks once the apples start to ripen.

I am hoping the house wrens will have had their brood and flown off before the squirrels and I disturb the tree too much with our picking. It works out that way each year and, barring a catastrophe I can't foresee, should happen yet again.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

See You in September

It is always with mixed feelings of sadness and relief that I take the seed feeders inside for the summer.

Carolina wren at feeder, from another year.
(Margo D. Beller)
The signs were there. Few of the birds I like - chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatch - were visiting but there were plenty of birds I don't like:  A grackle hogging the house feeder. A jay swooping in again and again, swatting away any bird, including a big cardinal, that dared come to the feeder between swoops. A family of house finches - a brood already? - swarming the caged tube feeder, eating more than half the seeds in a day.

With the feeders inside for the next few months the downys and redbellied woodpeckers will have to work a bit harder prying bugs from tree bark as they walk along the side of a tree trunk. The cardinal pair that would be sitting on the feeder pole waiting for me to bring out the feeders in the morning will have to spend more time searching the trees and the grass for insects to feed themselves and their young.

They will do alright without me.

Hanging baskets 2018 (Margo D. Beller)
To give myself something to look at from my corner porch chair, I've hung two plants that usually spend the summer sitting on the sunny window ledge in my front room. This is an experiment to see if these plants can do well outside where they'll be rained on, baked in the sun and visited by insects. Who knows, the pink geranium might even draw a curious hummingbird.

There is one feeder still outside. The hummingbird feeder is out, hanging above the pink flowers of the perennial geranium and the coral bells, and I am hoping a hummer or two come by this year. The only other bird that concerns me now is this year's house wren, which has been singing continually to protect his territory. When the bird first claimed the box there was a second one, presumably a female that accepted the offered lodging. But lately I've only seen the one wren, singing from a tree, the feeder pole, on top of the nest box.

Apples in the making, 2018 (Margo D. Beller)
If there is a brood this year I should be able to hear it soon enough and I hope all will have fledged before the apples need to be knocked off the tree for me to use before the squirrels can ruin them. Based on all the flowers this year we'll be having another bumper crop.

So with apples and summer's heat and humidity on the horizon, it is a relief to not have to worry about taking the feeders in each night to avoid any bear, or put them out early each morning when my back is stiff. I do have water out for the birds and that is really all they need from me as long as there are insects to provide the protein. They won't need the fat from my sunflower seeds until it starts to get cooler and the days grow shorter after Labor Day.

And that is when the feeders will go back out. I'll miss the cardinals but I've no doubt they'll be back again.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Rainy Day Musings

The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain.
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We have had rain for much of the last week. I sit on my back porch and listen to the rain fall, knowing human-made activity and noise will be at a minimum this Saturday morning and I'll have some unusual suburban peace and quiet.

Rain-swollen Whippany River, Morris County, New Jersey 2018
(Margo D. Beller)
In "Walden" Henry David Thoreau wrote that a "single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener." This rain has done that, and also made it many inches longer. Weeds have sprung up and MH is going to have an interesting time using the mower, whenever things dry out.

There is little in the way of bird activity. A male cardinal looks for the seed feeder I did not put outside because I didn't want the seeds to get so wet they'd sprout. I can see the flowers from the forsythia, quince, apple and pear have already disappeared while the fading dogwood flowers are becoming overwhelmed by the leaves. The daffodils are finished but the azaleas, rhododendron, perennial geranium and coral bell flowers are opening. Out of nowhere purple columbine flowers have appeared.

There's always activity in the garden and in the woods but northbound bird migration may be slowly ending. I have been hearing a blackpoll warbler calling for the past four mornings. This bird, which looks like a black-capped chickadee, has one of the longest migratory routes of all the birds -- nearly 1,800 miles. Most years this would be one of the last warblers I'd hear in the spring, but the way the weather had been the birds were delayed, bunched together and passing through in a big rush, including the blackpoll. Still, when I hear its thin call I know migration is soon to end even though I still hear plenty of bird calls from those that will breed in my suburban part of New Jersey.

Friends south of where I live complain their gardens are becoming seas of mud and fear their plants will drown. Where I live we had a day off from the rain yesterday so MH and I could go out. As we took a walk around what used to be known as Greystone we sidestepped mud on the paths and saw lakes in the depressed areas of open fields. However, we also saw plenty of birds including hungry barn swallows flying over those fields that weren't inundated, hunting for insects.

2018 peppers, so far (Margo D. Beller
Rain is a necessary evil. It keeps you indoors when you have things you'd rather be doing outside, like looking for migratory birds or working in the garden (or doing more mundane but necessary chores like getting groceries). It forces ants, spiders and all sorts of creatures that live outdoors to come indoors - usually into the cellar but sometimes into the house, too. As long as we maintain power and the sump pump can keep running, I am not that concerned about rain.

That's because the rain has also woken plants from their winter slumber. Tree leaves have popped out and spread. Plants I knew I had but worried had died are growing. Plants I did not know I had make a surprise appearance. I have picked small but ripe peppers from one of the plants infested with white flies. This plant had to be put outside much too early, when it was still cool, to limit the damage to my other house plants. That these peppers, stunted but still edible, grew at all is amazing and no doubt helped by all the water. The other pepper plants I'm growing are flowering or showing fruits, the basil is growing nicely and the cannas have responded to the rain by sending up this year's shoots.

I can put up with the rain. When life is hectic it is good to sit and stare out and let your mind go blank. Is that "mindfulness?" Is that "meditation?" Call it what you will, I call it a necessary, good rest. And at some point, the rain will end. It always does.