Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sunday on the Porch, With Junior

It is quiet on the porch this Sunday morning. Despite the rain I have windows open and it is cool enough to not need the fan to air things out. It is quiet except for the sound of the rain, the occasional call of a jay or cardinal or a car driving on the next street.

I am sitting with my coffee and trying to wake up after a long Saturday visiting with friends in the City. I turn my head and there is the immature ruby-throated hummingbird that has been visiting the feeder for the last couple of days. It is grayish green on the back with white on the front. Since this could be either a male or a female (and even be more than one bird) I have been calling this visitor Junior.

Juvenile ruby-throated hummingbird
(photo courtesy Birds of North America Online) 
This has been the wettest summer I can remember. Some of my plants have thrived - the tropical cannas, the peppers in their pots, the basil, the coleuses - while others have struggled. The joe-pye weed I grow near the hummingbird feeder has not produced many flowers or grown very tall, likely because of the nearly continual deluge of rain off the garage roof above it. The pink flowers of the coral bells and the perennial geranium are long gone. In a sea of green shrubs, the red feeder and the red ant moat above it stand out like a beacon.

And yet hummingbirds have been few in the backyard. Junior has only been coming the past few days. During the usual peak (for my yard) period of July I saw one. That might've been because of the heat. I can't sit long on the porch, even with the fan, when it feels like close to 100 degrees. Also, while the feeder is in the shade, the sugar water can still go bad if not changed after a week, and there were times I did not do that. (When a hummingbird hovered and then flew off, I knew it was time to clean the feeder.)

In July, the males, having mated and created the next generation, are gone or ready to leave. By August, the females have raised the young and shown them how to fend for themselves. Then the female adults leave. So by this time of the month the juveniles are what come to feed before instinct tells them it's time to head south for the winter. (When I say I have "peak" visitors in July it is females who need to fuel up as they seek protein food - insects - for their young.)

Canna flowers (Margo D. Beller)
What I need is a better garden of flowers attractive to hummingbirds and not attractive to deer. Right now the small yellow-orange flowers of jewelweed are blooming near streams, offering hummers a meal. Gardens with varieties of red - joe-pye, phlox, purple coneflowers, cardinal flower and zinnias -  I have visited in the last month have drawn anywhere from one to four hummingbirds at a time, fighting each other over the same flower despite all the food around them.

I do have more flowers that attract hummingbirds in the front yard. I just bought a purple coneflower, the light pink flowers of the Rose of Sharon are finally opening, the sedum are not yet ready to bloom but are close, there are the purple flowers of the butterfly bush and the bee balm and there are the red flowers of the cannas. Cannas are usually grown for their foliage but I like the flowers. One year I opened the front door and there, through the storm door, I could see a hummer at one of the flowers. It saw me, flew to the storm door, looked at me and then flew off. But I'm not always looking and most hummers are skittish and fly off at the slightest movement.

Soon summer will finally be over. I've already taken in my wooden wren house so it doesn't rot in the rain, and the house wren brood at the birdhouse next door are gone. (What I have seen is a lot of squirrel activity in the trees, gathering nuts. When one squirrel knocked the birdhouse, I knew the wrens must be gone because the parents would never have allowed a squirrel to get that close.) School resumes in a little over two weeks, and the daylight is noticeably shorter.

The leaves will fall, the flowers will be done and the hummers will be gone until next spring, when I hope for better weather conditions and more a more favorable environment to bring them to my feeder.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

A Perfect Little Nest

I am not one to seek out bird nests during the summer. Others do. My brother-in-law knows where many of the breeders have nests on his woodlot, and he makes sure to avoid them when he drives to his lean-to on top of his hill in his heavy machinery.

I do not seek out nests for several reasons. The obvious one is the nest is usually in use and I don't want to disturb the parent or the young. The only times I have found nests when they are in use is when a parent bird directs my attention to it, like the hummingbird that flew in front of me to her nest at the end of a branch hanging over a brook. I would not have seen the lichen-encrusted nest without her. She settled on her eggs.

2018 wren nest, on compost pile (Margo D. Beller)
One year I was watering a shrub against my house and a catbird flew out to the nearby spruce. That made me curious so I looked behind and, sure enough, there was the nest with its four blue eggs. I made sure to check first before watering the rest of that summer. In later summers catbirds have made nests in the tangle of shrubs on the border between my house and a neighbor.

Other bird nests I've found have been titmice flying to and from a hole high up in a tree in a neighbor's front yard, the robin that built a nest in my pear tree but didn't stay long enough to incubate eggs and the redwing blackbird that flew from a bush surrounded by water at Great Swamp, leaving its young loudly begging for more food.

More often than not, I see the young birds once they leave the nest, loudly following their parents around the yard begging for food. I don't see the nests they've left until fall when the birds have taken off for the season and the leaves fall from the shrubs or the trees, revealing them.

The best nest I know, of course, is the one in the wooden box hanging from my apple tree.

A month ago the house wrens and their young took off. A week or so later, house wrens took over the box in the next yard, and I took advantage of my vacancy to bring down as many of the remaining apples as I could, no doubt to the tree's dismay. I had hoped the nest box would be used again. However, after what seemed like 200 days of rain and knowing the southbound migration period would come too soon for another brood to be created, I finally decided to bring in the wooden structure before the rain warped and rotted it, as I found it was starting to do.

After letting it dry on the enclosed porch, I took the next rainless day to walk the box over to the compost pile to clear it out.  It took some doing because it was packed full of twigs, which I expected. However, there were some unexpected items, such as a cardinal's red feather. I chuckled to imagine the little wren sneaking up on the much bigger cardinal to pull out its feather for the nest.

I turned over the mass of twigs I pulled and found a perfect little cup. According to the good people at Cornell University's ornithology school, "the cup itself is built into a depression in the twigs and lined with just a few grams (less than 0.25 oz) of feathers, grasses and other plant material, animal hair, spider egg sacs, string, snakeskin, and discarded plastic."

My picture of it is above. No snake skins, but you can see how well it would blend into the underbrush. 

The box is not very big, and I wondered at a four- to five-inch house wren sitting in there on several eggs (anywhere from three to 10, but in my box it is more to the lower end) and then those eggs hatching, the young eventually growing so big the parents must feed them through the box' small, round opening.

But they do get through it every year. It is tight quarters, but I'd like to think the hanging house is safer than a wren nest in the wild. And they must appreciate it, if such a thing can be said for a bird, because the wrens keep coming back as long as I put the house out.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Watching the Neighbors

On Thursday, June 28, we had an intense thunderstorm. I was up early and sitting on the porch before going to work. The house wren young were chattering, calling for food. They were big enough that I could see a bill or two coming out of the nest box opening. A parent would fly there, the chattering would intensify, the parent would fly off.

That afternoon, hours after the rain ended and the sun came out, they were gone.

It took a while to realize this because I was working, but later in the afternoon I came out and did not hear chattering. I stood under the apple tree, next to the box. No chattering. No scolding parent. Gone.

A week after this picture, the birds were gone. Note the tell-tale
twig showing the box is occupied. (Margo D. Beller)
I had expected this. The birds were not happy with all the squirrels and birds going after the apples in the tree. They were not happy with me picking them either. It had been over a week since the little peeps became an almost constant dry rattle, and I admit the sound was getting annoying. Any day they were going to fly from the box.

Once I realized these birds had flown, and knowing a heatwave was coming in the next day or so, I got my extension pole and knocked down close to 30 apples, adding them to my bucket filled with close to 100 more. There may have been one or two left in the highest part of the tree then but I can tell you that now all the apples are gone. Even the apples I had dumped around the yard were gone. (I used what I picked for sauce and a couple of cobblers.)

A couple of days later, as I was sitting on the porch in the early morning with my coffee, a house wren flew to the top of my feeder pole and sang. And sang. It sang all over that part of the yard. From my vantage point I saw it fly to the birdhouse in my neighbor's dogwood tree. Last year, when it looked like chickadees got to my nest box first, a house wren had gone to that birdhouse. (Another one later came to my nest box and evicted the chickadees.) This year a house wren took over my box just a day after I put it up. Now I saw the tell-tale sign of occupancy at my neighbor's - a plastic strip waving in the breeze from the box opening. 

Now there is wren song at dawn again, but from elsewhere as the bird stays relatively close to the nest. 

It made me wonder, why not my nest box? House wrens can have two broods in one summer but I've never had two broods in the box. Are these new wrens next door or the ones I hosted that decided they didn't like having all those creatures around the nest? In past years the brood would fledge and the apples would need to be picked a few weeks later. Not this year when we had sudden heat and the squirrels didn't wait for the apples to fully ripen.

Were these new wrens put off by the twig sticking out of the box, thinking the box is occupied? I pulled out the twig but no wren has come. Meanwhile, the two wrens next door are shuttling to and from the birdhouse. Soon there will be eggs, then young, then fledglings. By then summer will just about be over and the wrens will fly south.

Here in the suburbs we watch our neighbors' yards to make sure there is nothing illicit going on. I mean more than Neighborhood Watch groups. I'm talking about the garden variety sort of looking at what's going on nearby. When I hear the sounds of mowing or drilling or sawing, I make it a point to see where this noise is coming from, to make sure my property won't be affected. I admit, I am rather territorial and sometimes my watchfulness isn't appreciated. Had my neighbor come out and seen me on my porch with my binoculars pointed at his house, he might have become concerned. He has small children to protect. 

Well, he also has a family of young house wrens as neighbors that he may or may not be aware are in his birdhouse. So in my own watchful way I am trying to protect them, too, from afar. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A Bird Walk of the Mind

I see again those myriad mornings rise
 when every living thing
 casts its shadow in eternity
-- Poem 19 from "A Coney Island of the Mind" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

It is hot as blazes outside today. The temperature is soaring to around 100 degrees F and the humidity makes it feel worse. The sun is not yet around to the part of the house where I am but I know it is coming and the AC will soon be have to be turned on.

I hate weather like this. It forces me to stay inside. The weather people say, those with breathing issues should stay where it is cool. And so I am. Early in the day I was on my porch listening to the cardinal, the catbird, chipping sparrow and distant Carolina wren. I would like to be walking but where? The bugs attacked my bare ankles just walking to and from the compost pile.

The Passaic River. Scherman Hoffman (Somerset Cty) on the right, Morris
Couny on the left. (Margo D. Beller0
It is depressing.

So I try to do other things to get out of this heat-induced funk. I imagine myself walking in a cool forest where there are no bugs, no people, just birds singing. Right now, I am imagining myself at the New Jersey Audubon center at Scherman Hoffman in Bernardsville.

Just about every Friday and Saturday morning, weather permitting, there is an 8 a.m. bird walk, and I've taken many of them back in the days when I would rise early on a Saturday and rush from my home to try and decompress from a week of stressful work in a city office. It is a peaceful walk that can have anywhere from two to two dozen people. One of the best things about this walk, besides all the birds I can find, is the walk is free.

I have been on the property enough times that I can sit on my back porch and visualize my own, ideal bird walk.

(Margo D. Beller)
I start at the education center. From inside the store I can see the Scherman feeders and a water source that attract the same birds I can see in my backyard, usually titmice, chickadees and chipping sparrows, perhaps a cardinal or a jay. There is a window feeder for the hummingbirds. (My feeder has drawn few of them this year.)

Next, I visit the observation platform. If this was autumn I'd be here watching for southbound hawks. In summer it's a good bet there will be chimney swifts flying about, looking like cigars with wings, hunting for insects in the heat. Below are the nest boxes for house wrens. A shadow passes and it is a red-tailed hawk.

I leave the building for the driveway, looking for slight movement in the leafed-out trees. Is that the breeze or a bird? It's a bird, in this case a black-throated green warbler just poking about for a meal. In the distance I can hear a Baltimore oriole with its melodious whistles.

Black-throated green warbler
(Margo D. Beller)
Where the Dogwood Trail (red blaze) meets the driveway I take a left and head down the hill to the open fields that were burned recently to get rid of the invasive plants and make room for natives. Along this hill I have found bluebirds, Carolina wrens and indigo buntings. At the bottom of the hill I have a choice: the Field Loop (green blaze) trail into an open field with its small pond and circular path, or head to the Passaic River (yellow blaze).

I take the left, letting the many dogwoods shade me. At any moment the silence can be broken by a number of birds such as American redstarts or ruby-crowned kinglets or catbirds. I keep moving to the river, the mighty Passaic.

This river is the border between Morris County across the way and Somerset County where Scherman Hoffman is located. It is nowhere near as wide as farther downstream when it becomes more polluted because of decades of abuse by chemical companies.

Ferns and dame's rockets, Scherman Hoffman (Margo D. Beller)
Flying to a low branch, bobbing its tail is a phoebe, one of the first migrants to arrive in spring. I see them often here along with Louisiana waterthrush and the occasional scarlet tanager. I have to walk carefully now because of the many exposed tree roots. Many plants I can't name but I do recognize ferns and dame's rocket. The monotonous "here I am, look at me, sitting here, in a tree" tells me a red-eyed vireo is nearby. In my mind there is no one walking a dog or fishing along the river, although I've seen both in visits here.

Eventually, I turn around and go back to the red trail, left on the green trail and then slowly up the hill to my car, listening to all the birds.

Time to put on the AC.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Because It Is Hard

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...

John F. Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962

I doubt President Kennedy was thinking of his garden when he announced the space race in his speech at Rice University. But a variant of those words, "because it is hard," kept sounding in my brain earlier this week as I was yanking miles of ground ivy out of areas of my garden I thought I had protected from encroachment with a trench.

Feeding time, June 2018 (Margo D. Beller)
I thought of those words again as I was standing beneath my apple tree this morning and a record-high six squirrels jumped out of it. The house wrens have been shuttling back and forth with food for their young, which must be growing fast. The adults must feed the young by clinging to the outside of the box. From inside, what had been little cheeps are now the same type of dry, rattling "scold" the adults call every time MH or a deer or I get too close to the nest box.

In fact, the wrens seem less perturbed by all the squirrels running around the tree than they are by me after I angrily pull off all the low-hanging ripe apples I can reach, just to have some instead of the squirrels.

Because it is hard.

Another thing I think of at this time of year is the myth of Sisyphus, the guy condemned to an eternity of pushing a large stone to the top of a hill, only to have it roll down to the bottom, forcing him to roll the stone up yet again. Sisyphus' story is used as an allegory for all sorts of things, in my case the uselessness of trying to control weeds when I know they are going to come back, or keep the squirrels from dropping partially eaten apples that will attract deer and other creatures, which will leave a big mess around the base of the apple tree. 

Ground ivy (Margo D. Beller)
And yet, there I was earlier this week outside with my shovel, trying to reinforce the trenches I put in last fall, which were subsequently eroded by recent very heavy rain. There I was struggling with the netting I put in so securely to keep out digging chipmunks that now I can't get in either without going to a great deal of planning and difficulty. 

There I was pulling out clump after clump of ground ivy that was growing over the trench and into the areas where I thought I had eradicated it. This ivy spreads through underground roots that regenerate even if you yank up the above-ground part that breaks very easily. (My weed reference says that if your lawn has ground ivy, dig up the lawn and start over.) There I was trying to push aside the foliage of the daffodils now that the flowers are long gone to allow me to see the other plants now growing. 

Why do I do all this? Because it's hard. You put in a garden, you take care of it. You have deer that will destroy plants you now know you should never have planted, you put up fences and netting. If you don't take care of the garden it will look like crap. If I don't get the apples I won't be able to make apple sauce or cobbler. It's just that simple. 

Last year's apples (Margo D. Beller)
But it is hard. Many times I think, why bother? Why push myself? What's the point? Lots of phrases come to mind: Tired of living and scared of dying. Dying is easy, comedy is hard. In the long run we are all dead. Someday someone else will be living in this house and might chop down the tree. Maybe even pull down the house and replace it with something grander. Pull out the garden I've tended for several decades. 

For now, I listen to the singing Carolina wren and do my work. This and other birds fly thousands of miles to breed in one favored area because the cycle of life must go on. Besides the house wrens there are chipping sparrows feeding in the yard with their parents. I see the yard catbird followed by a begging youngster. Birds don't sit and agonize. Even birds that find themselves feeding a cowbird chick instead of one of their own keep feeding it. They get on with it.  And so do I, even when it's hard.

Perhaps it is true that in the long run the pessimist may be proven right, but the optimist has a better time on the trip. I'd like to believe that.

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)