Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, May 19, 2019

What We Found After a Week Away

Time isn't the main thing, it's the only thing.
   -- Miles Davis

In the greater scheme of things, a week is a very small period of time. It comes and goes before you know it. But after a recent week away we returned to find major changes had taken place in the small bit of ecology I call my backyard and in the behavior of the birds that live in it.

Before we went away the first full week of May to chase the northbound migrants closer to their breeding grounds, I could go out early in the morning and hear or see a host of birds feeding on the strands of seeds hanging from the oak trees. The locust trees appeared bare. The forsythia, lilacs and quince were flowering. The grass was just starting to green and grow.

Blackpoll photo by jerryoldenettel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Where we traveled it was unusually cool and rainy most of the time. The one day of full sun and spring-like warmth, the weathercasters warned, "Don't get used to it." They were right - the cold returned. But while we were away our part of NJ got a lot of rain and a lot of heat.

So when we returned last Sunday we found our lawn had turned into a long, bushy meadow, complete with matted-down areas where the deer had rested unmolested. The forsythia, quince and lilac flowers were done. The apple tree lost its blossoms and was in full leaf. Same with the dogwood. I found the irises, azaleas and rhododendron flowering and the cannas had sprouted. And the weeds were, as usual, everywhere.

The front-yard locust tree leaves came out and the backyard oak and maple trees are now casting lush green shade. Several of the bushes, including the viburnum I planted three years ago, jumped in size. The wrongly named "dead area" was filled with overgrown wild onion, wild rose, garlic mustard, ragweed and plants I can't name. In another corner of the yard, the space was filled with wild strawberries.

All this happened in a week.

As for the birds, the white-throated sparrows left when the feeders were taken in. Others came back once I put the feeders back out but they have other concerns now. I hear young begging for food when a parent returns to the hidden nest. One nest must be cardinals, based on the activity of the adult pair. While the young will only be fed protein-rich insects, the parents are coming to the feeder for the quick energy they can get from the sunflower seeds.

Robin's nest, found on the stairs
leading to the observation platform,
Montezuma (NY) NWR (Margo D. Beller)
The male house wren that could be heard daily before dawn before we left is silent. When I go outside to look at the nest box a wren will scold me from a hedge nearby and then, when I back off, fly into the box but it does not immediately come out. This means the wren is an adult who must sit on a nest full of eggs. Is this bird a female or male? Wrens of both sexes look the same. A single parent will have to work that much harder to get food for the brood (and itself) plus protect the nest.

As for the migrants, in the last couple of days I have been hearing the squeaky-brake call of the blackpoll warbler, a call I associate with the end of migration. This little bird, which has a superficial resemblance to the black-capped chickadee, has a very long migratory route and is one of the last to pass through my area on its way north. So migration is basically over, as far as my yard is concerned.

This past week it was time to catch up on bills, groceries and the yards. MH and I mowed the long, seeding grass and I spent several cool, wet early mornings pulling weeds (far from all of them) and untangling some of the plants growing into the deer netting before they could open flowers that would get stuck. I potted the vegetable and herb seedlings bought before we left and put them behind fencing in a sunny part of the yard. You'd hardly know we'd been away, presuming anyone had noticed.

For the moment we can relax and enjoy our bit of property before summer's heat and humidity comes back with a vengeance and the yard will need attending to again.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Following New Jersey's Passaic River

This post is based on one that originally ran on August 5, 2015, on the blog of New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary. The NJA blog was significantly overhauled since then and the archives were deleted. However, I was able to keep a copy so this can again see the light of day.

Recently, MH and I went to the Great Swamp. It is spring, and I wanted to see what might've been hanging around. I also wanted to get MH out and walking. I took him to a 0.6 mile loop toward the back of the property where the education center named for Helen Fenske is located. (Fenske led the call to keep the area a swamp rather than turn it into the New York metro area's fourth major airport.) This trail was flat and cindered so he could walk it easily.
Passaic River, Bernardsville, NJ, not far from the source. (Margo D. Beller)
I have been on it before and usually take the left fork. With MH we went right, and almost immediately were on the banks of the Passaic River, the natural border between Morris County, where we stood, and Somerset County on the other side.

While I scanned the banks for birds, MH voiced his amazement. "I never knew this was so close to the Fenske Center," he said. "I've lived in New Jersey almost all my life and never knew this was here." MH's nickname is Mr. Map because he uses (and collects) maps and is rarely ever lost, so finding a river someplace unexpected really threw him.

This happened once before, when I wrote a post for the NJ Audubon blog on the Passaic River. One of the Scherman Hoffman sanctuary trails goes along the river. One autumn day, driving to the place, I saw the river through the trees. When I got home I pulled out one of MH's detailed maps and realized that when I passed Liddell's Pond, I was passing the source. I showed MH the map and he was amazed. "I never knew that was the source," he said.

We both learned a lot from the post, as you'll see below:

Every river, even the mighty Mississippi, starts small. Water bubbles to the surface from underground and gravity brings it downhill. As it rains, the waters rise, the flow increases and brooks and streams are created. They feed larger water forms that have become rivers.

Before highways took us from Point A to B, New Jersey and the other original 13 colonies were wooded wilderness. It was hard traveling over the land so people and their goods got from one town to the other via river. If you remove the highways from a map of New Jersey and look at where the state's original towns were located, the importance of rivers becomes more obvious.

For a small state, there are many rivers, among them the Delaware on the state's western coast, the Hudson on the east and, within, the Raritan and the Hackensack.

What these rivers have in common, besides their importance in trade and transportation, is they are natural borders between states and counties.

The border between New Jersey's Morris and Somerset counties is the Passaic River. "Passaic," if you believe Wikipedia, is from the Lenape word "pahsayèk," which has been variously attributed to mean "valley" or "place where the land splits." There are many sources where you can learn more about the river's history, starting with the formation about 11,000 years ago of the Ice Age's Glacial Lake Passaic.

At 80 to 90 miles (depending on which source you use), the Passaic is one of the the longest rivers in New Jersey, starting in Mendham, Morris County, and ending up the much larger river that drops in a giant waterfall at Paterson and flows by Newark before emptying into New York Bay.

The river is very noticeable if you are walking Scherman's yellow-blazed River trail. At this point the Passaic is about the size of a large brook and filled with rocks. Water draws bugs, and the Passaic is no exception. Birders put up with this because bugs draw the birds that feed on them. The movement of the river draws flycatching phoebes and the Louisiana waterthrush, which have nested at Scherman for years.

Passaic River plants (Margo D. Beller)
The river ecosystem encourages such plants as trout lily, Canada mayflower, cinnamon ferns and skunk cabbage, one of the first plants to grow in spring. Rivers are a source of life.

I've heard the distinctive rattling of a belted kingfisher flying back and forth along the river looking for fish. The river provides birds and other creatures a place to bathe and feed. Families come to Scherman's part of the Passaic to sit on the shore and cool off during a hot summer day.

The part of the Passaic at Scherman is clean water. But the part at the Newark end is not and its tortured industrial history reminds us rivers can be killed quickly.

Many of suburban New Jersey's rivers are threatened by too many suburban houses and homeowners who over-treat their lawns with chemicals that not only kill beneficial insects but run off in heavy rains into storm sewers and from there to rivers.

That's nothing compared to the lower Passaic. If the upper Passaic is Dr. Jekyll, the lower Passaic is Mr. Hyde.

It has been a major chemical dumping ground for decades, filled with toxins that have hurt people living downriver. Paterson, for instance, was once known as the Silk City because of its mills. That was a long time ago. More recently it has been a byword for crime, urban decay and, thanks to its many now-closed factories, the creator of the "toilet river" that was the Passaic.

As a 2009 New York Times article put it: "The Passaic begins in the clear trout streams of rural Morris County, provides drinking water to 3.5 million New Jersey residents, reaches a peak at the Great Falls of Paterson and then devolves at the end of 80 increasingly foul and dispiriting miles into a dark, malodorous industrial sink."

Six years later I wouldn't eat any fish caught in Paterson.

(Margo D. Beller)
If you go to Scherman Hoffman to hike the trails you are what has become known as an ecotourist. It is a big business in some parts of the world. Towns in New Jersey have been catching up to the concept. The people running the cities and towns along the Passaic, whose people got sick from the chemicals in their air and water, have been literally trying to clean up their act, promoting ecotourism opportunities such as fishing, kayaking, and in the case of Paterson visiting the Great Falls, which only recently became a federal park.

Environmental groups have used the river as a teaching aid. The Hackensack Riverkeeper, for instance, within the last few years has run an ecotour that takes people up the urban end of the Passaic. As with their trips up the Hackensack - another river trying to recover from nearly being killed by industrial pollutants dumped into the Meadowlands marshes - the idea is to show the importance of the river and and how fragile the river's health is still.

Things are slowly improving for the lower Passaic, despite the long time it takes to get a polluting company to pay for river cleanup and government inefficiency.

At the upper Passaic, along the Scherman Hoffman River Trail, we don't have that problem -- at least not yet. It is easy to forget the clean, Dr. Jekyll, suburban one and the polluted, Mr. Hyde, urban one are the same river. But it is connected. The upper Passaic is healthy because its headwaters are not in an industrial area. But it wouldn't take much - say a farm sold to developers who build a massive condo development in a watershed, as many would like to do in the New Jersey Highlands - to do a lot of harm.

Rivers are fragile and their health shouldn't be taken for granted.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Waiting for Rosie

When May comes, there are many things for me to expect. Mother's Day. Daylight extending to 8 pm and later in New Jersey. Our wedding anniversary.

In the bird world, early May is when we can expect to see a rose-breasted grosbeak (or five) at the house feeder.

Rose-breasted grosbeak pair, May 2013 (RE Berg-Andersson)
"Almost time," MH told me today. "The feeder is full? I hope they come while we're home."

MH is particularly eager to see these large birds because they are colorful, he knows what they are without my telling him and he likes to take their picture. The male is striking, with black and white wings and back, rose coloring on the breast and a large, pinkish bill for crunching seeds. The female is equally striking, despite the dull brown designed to hide her (and the nest) in foliage. However, she has distinct white eyebrows and brown streaking on the breast.

This grosbeak is a relative of the black-headed grosbeak, a western bird, and the evening grosbeak usually found in the north. The evening grosbeak looks like a goldfinch on steroids and that is the same feeling I get when I look at the female rose-breasted grosbeak because she looks like a much, much bigger version of a female purple finch, including the white eyebrow.

The first year I kept the house feeder filled into May, we had two females followed by five males. It was quite a sight to behold. Since then, I've found these birds usually arrive in our part of the country in early May, although occasionally in late April. (I've only just started seeing reports in the New Jersey bird lists today as I write this, the last day of April.)

2 males showing how they got their name. (RE Berg-Andersson)
There have been times when I have heard the grosbeak before seeing it. It has a sweeter, faster, slightly higher in pitch song than a robin. It usually catches me off-guard, particularly if I am hearing other birds in the woods. You have to pay attention. It will sit and sing for a long time, then fly off and you'll hear the song from another direction. If you're lucky, there will be two males "battling" in song, filling the woods with sweetness. They'll hang around the yard as long as the feeders are out, but can more reliably be found in my favorite hiking areas.

There are many other migrants passing through that are almost as colorful although many don't sing as well. Thrushes are passing through including the wood thrush, of which Henry David Thoreau said, "This is the only bird whose note affects me like music." One early morning in New Hampshire I walked in woods and heard five birds' flute-like songs, seemingly one per tree. In their midst was the higher, more ethereal sound of the hermit thrush. A thrush-like bird, the veery, has what sounds to me like an electronic song that can sound eerie in the woods. 

Three on the feeder, 2013 (RE Berg-Andersson)
And then there are the warblers, which don't really warble at all but buzz in unique patterns that can help you identify them, presuming you can see them high in trees or low in the brush. These birds don't hang around my yard but stop maybe a day to eat on their way north to more suitable habitat.

For now, we wait on the rosies. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Stakeout!

When I was a kid, I'd watch (in black and white) the daily 4:30 (pm) movie on over-the-air TV, the only kind we had back then. The movies would be cut up to fit into 90 minutes including commercials. One type of movie I enjoyed was the gangster film, usually with Jimmy Cagney or Humphrey Bogart in his pre-"Casablanca" days.

"Black-headed Grosbeak male" by K Schneider is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Usually, there would be one scene where the cops (or the feds) would be in a car or van outside where the gangsters were holing up, waiting for someone to arrive or depart. This would be the "stakeout" scene.

Recently, I was part of a stakeout. It didn't involve criminals but one particular bird.

The black-headed grosbeak is a bird of the west. Like its relatives the evening grosbeak and the rose-breasted grosbeak, this bird has a large, thick bill for crunching seeds. A male, like the bird seen above (not the bird of this stakeout), had been reported at the feeder of a house not that far from mine, as the crow flies.

Whenever an "accidental" bird shows up, it makes me wonder how that happened. Was it caught up in the recent strong winds and blown too far east? That is most likely. But who really knows? What is known is that once the bird was reported, birders came running to the house. The owner, who was kind enough to publicize the bird's sudden appearance at his feeder, allowed people to walk up his driveway and wait for the bird to appear. From what I gather from the number of the eBird reports I read, quite a number of people did in the first weekend.

I waited until mid-week, once I determined how to get to this particular house in the hills of Morris Township, NJ.

I arrived with one man as several people left. The bird was coming at 45-min. intervals and had left 10 minutes before, we were told. We walked up the driveway to find a couple sitting on folding chairs. They had seen the bird but were staying because they had driven all the way up from Forked River, about 35 miles away, and wanted to see more.

Roseate spoonbill, 2018 (Margo D. Beller)
This is the first thing I learned about a stakeout: bring a chair. Luckily, the woman wanted to stand and I wound up in her chair for the next hour and 10 minutes. Others showed up as we sat and tallied the other birds in the yard: purple finches, house finches, robins, titmice, among others. Two men had cameras on tripods supporting very large and long telephoto lenses. I can understand them wanting a record of a rare bird sighting. One man said he had come up from Metuchen, not as far as Forked River but not close by either.

I have mixed feelings about seeing these accidentals. While it is nice to see these birds close to home, I wonder what happens to them next. Usually it is only one bird that arrives and many times it is a juvenile. It is on its own in a strange place and won't be mating. One hopes that if it survives it will use the maps in its head to get back to its usual territory.

However, now I don't have to go west to see a black-headed grosbeak, just as I don't have to go south to see a roseate spoonbill or white pelican or to Europe to see a northern lapwing.

When the grosbeak arrived, it was high in an oak tree, eating seeds. When I saw it from below I thought it was a robin at first, until I saw the white on the wing, which a robin lacks. I pointed it out and everyone hurriedly trained their cameras or binoculars on it. Unfortunately for my neck and the photo people, the bird stayed high and did not come to the feeder where it would've provided a striking picture. I watched it for 10 minutes until I could take no more of the pain in my neck. I thanked the man for his chair and he thanked me for being first to see the bird.

I took my leave even as others were arriving. The bird was seen for the rest of that week and into the next weekend. Now, according to what I see on the bird lists today, it left as suddenly as it appeared. My hope is it flew to a more hospitable environment and will give other people a chance to see something wondrous.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

A Very High-Tech Treasure Hunt

This post is based on one that originally ran on March 22, 2015, on the blog of New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary. The NJA blog was significantly overhauled since then and the archives were deleted. However, I was able to keep a copy so this can again see the light of day.

The other week, MH and I went to a relatively close-by park that was once the estate of the billionaire Doris Duke. Since her passing her mansion has been torn down and other buildings have been made more ecologically friendly. In fact, the whole park is a model for eco-friendliness. For instance, we went looking for a newer trail map and discovered these are not printed anymore, to save on paper. (Luckily, we had brought our old paper map.) A tram that would take people to some of the more notable landmarks on the property had been discontinued to save on fuel and pollution (and the cost of maintenance, no doubt).

Duke mansion (Margo D. Beller)
I mention all this because one brochure that was available related to geocaching. What is that, you might ask? It is a form of treasure hunt except you use your mobile phone's GPS to locate the prizes at specific locations. According to one site I found, there are 4,422 geocaches in my area alone.

No thanks.

However, others love this stuff, not just in my area but all over the world. Since this is an activity that you do by getting off your couch, leaving your home and getting outside, preferably into nature (albeit with a phone in your face), there are some nature organizations that want to take advantage of the foot traffic and don't mind hosting some of these geocaches if it promotes their parks. Duke Farms, I now know, is one of them. At least in 2015, so was the Scherman Hoffman sanctuary of New Jersey Audubon.

Here is what I wrote about geocaching for the Scherman Hoffman blog. I took all the pictures:

The treasure hunt has gone high-tech.

The Northern New Jersey Cachers (NNJC) held a “meet and greet” at Scherman Hoffman on May 31, a unique partnership between a group dedicated to expanding interest in using satellite technology to find caches and a sanctuary that, as its website says, is “focused on nature.”

If you see an inherent contradiction here, you’re right.

For this treasure hunt, called geocaching, you need global positioning satellite, or GPS. Ever since the Clinton administration stopped scrambling government satellite data, the use of GPS has exploded.

According to NNJC President John Neale, once GPS took off it was just about inevitable some techie wonk would make a game with it. That happened in 2000, in Oregon, when a couple of hikers found an old bucket in the woods. Instead of passing it by and forgetting about it, they put the coordinates -- good old longitude and latitude -- on a website for others to find.

From those humble beginnings the movement has grown to 220 countries, 2.5 million active caches and over 6 million geocachers worldwide, according to geocaching.com. Neale told me that in New Jersey alone there are 16,000 caches. His group has over 500 members and there are separate organizations that cover central and south Jersey.

The cache can be anything, of any size. Some are big enough to fit into ammunition boxes. Some are “nano-caches” that can be easily concealed in big cities. Griggstown Grasslands has caches concealed in the false bottoms of a few bird boxes. Typically, it’s a plastic lock box that contains a pencil and pad of paper for signing your name. The cache can be anything from a toy Jeep (many are sponsored by Chrysler dealerships - it’s good publicity) to a manhole cover. If you take the cache you must leave something of equal or greater value.


Then you log your finding in your logbook and log the experience at the geocaching.com website.

So on a lovely Saturday morning more than a dozen people chatted, ate cookies baked by one of the long-time cachers and waited for the coordinates of the 10 Scherman Hoffman caches to “go live” so the hunters could check their phones and then their GPS and start hunting. 

The event was intended to bring newbies and more experienced geocachers together. Neale said that besides being a fun activity for people of all ages there is a competitive aspect. Case in point: One older man he pointed out is ranked ninth in the world in finding geogaches. Like a lot of cachers, this man goes by an alias, IMSpider. Neale - whose own alias is Old Navy - told me IMSpider took up caching with a vengeance after his wife died years ago. Now he doesn’t even bother using the pencil when he finds the caches, he stamps his name.

Any birder who has been involved in the annual World Series of Birding or has read The Big Year or To See Every Bird on Earth knows that competitive aspect too well.

Bird watching has also become more high-tech. There are bird calls that can be stored on mobile phones for checking in the field as well as GPS, high-tech cameras and sites such as New Jersey Audubon’s eBird, which allows you to check what has been found and where, including coordinates.

We’ve come a long way from a walk in the woods.

Ironically, that’s how Neale got into geocaching. Neale loves to hike and gained a love of nature traveling with his mother when she worked at Watchung Reservation. She worked with Dorothy Smullen, now a teaching naturalist at Scherman Hoffman and the point person on the meet and greet.

Smullen said the route of the caches runs along the Dogwood (Red) trail, crosses the driveway heading toward the vernal ponds near the NJ Audubon headquarters building at 9 Hardscrabble and then along the River (Yellow) trail (see below). Each cache has letter(s) inside the box tops. When unscrambled, the letters complete a phrase that cachers can use for a discount on some merchandise in the Scherman Hoffman store. Cachers could also buy a collectible "path tag" with the NJ Audubon logo to keep as a souvenir or drop at their next cache.

The Passaic River running through the Scherman Hoffman sanctuary.
Smullen told me the hope is the cachers discover the sanctuary, see the beauty of the place and then come back. Many of the cachers I spoke with had never been to Scherman Hoffman before, much less Bernardsville, NJ, where it’s located.

Once the cache coordinates were published, I followed one small group (2 men, 1 woman and 2 boys) to the first location. “Third boulder from the trail,” one of the men read from his phone. (Warning: In the woods, you’re likely to lose your cellphone signal.)

The boys started counting and then turning over rocks somewhat off the path. By the time they had found the cache we were joined by a larger group, who now - one by one - signed their names in the cache notebook. IMSpider used his stamp and then strode off to the next cache, up the steep hill, other cachers scrambling to keep up.

Among them were Carmine and Maria, of Jersey City and Mountainside, who have been geocaching for a year. “That guy is hardcore,” Carmine said of IMSpider with some awe as he puffed up the hill. Maria told me she’s a teacher. Trying to find some way of engaging her tech-literate students, she read about geocaching in a magazine and got them involved. That’s how she and Carmine got into it.

I think I told Carmine and Maria as much about Scherman Hoffman as they told me about their geocaching.

 

By this time we’d gotten to the top of the hill. But instead of veering left along the Red trail, the group continued on Patriots Path (the White trail) into the Cross Estate, which is not part of the private Scherman Hoffman but is part of the federal National Park Service's Morristown National Historical Park (Jockey Hollow).

This brings up one of the problems I find with geocaching. The official route might’ve been along the Red trail but if the GPS says the quickest way is cutting through a federal park, you follow it. Neale told me people placing caches are supposed to get permission from landowners and at least warn states and the federal government there will be caches and people looking for them. But that does not stop people from using shortcuts.

One geocacher told me he does not believe in bushwhacking and puts all his caches within five feet of a trail. He also gives clear clues on the geocaching website so people don’t harm the environment looking for the cache.

I gather he is unusual.

Just as you will see birders putting themselves and the environment in danger by bushwhacking after a bird, you will see people put caches in inappropriate places and searchers do quite a bit of harm -- despite the organization’s rules to the contrary.

It’s part of the “game’s” competitive spirit, I guess.

Scherman Hoffman Director Mike Anderson told me geocachers inundated New Jersey’s Kittatinny Valley State Park with caches. Before the state knew it, hundreds of people were overrunning the park.

That’s the main reason NJ Audubon got involved with the NNJC -- to have some sort of control and minimize that kind of damage, Anderson said. NNJC maintains the caches. NJ Audubon trail maps, program schedules and other flyers were there for the taking, to encourage NNJC members to come back again.

I’m not sure that will happen.

Leader with box turtle
The cachers running up the hill were too busy following the leader -- IMSpider -- to stop and listen to the birds around them or even notice the beauty of the woods.

Not everyone is like this, of course. I later found a geocacher alone on the river trail - unlike others, he came from the area - who said he doesn’t like finding caches in packs because it takes the fun out of it when others find them first. However, he showed less interest in the nearby veery I pointed out than in his ringing cellphone.

As with everything else, it is too easy to forget technology is merely a tool. Too often I see people use an iPod - even in the car - to block out the world, or stare at a game on their phone to avoid eye contact on the street. And don’t get me started on drivers blindly following GPS instructions to the exclusion of sense.

I do not use GPS (MH is my GPS) and I was glad when the cachers left me alone in the woods with the birds.

Earlier that morning I had been on the weekly bird walk with naturalist Stephanie Punnett. Our group stopped for long periods of time listening to and looking at all sorts of birds. At one point one of the younger group members looked down instead of up and found a wood turtle.

Wood turtles are threatened in NJ, and Punnett said this female was new to her because it hadn’t been marked for tracking. She put it in her bag so it could be marked and then returned to the same spot to get on with its life.

Now this was a cache worth finding.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Fish Hawk

The habits of this famed bird differ so materially from those of almost all others of its genus, that an accurate description of them cannot fail to be highly interesting to the student of nature. 

-- John James Audubon


Osprey with menhaden, Cattus island, April 13, 2019 (Margo D. Beller)
There are times you must leave your home territory if you are going to spread your wings, as it were, and broaden your horizons. Now that the spring northbound migration is in full swing, I have been following a pattern of going myself to local bird spots and then traveling farther afield with MH. But with his knees, I am limited in where we can go. 

So it was I consulted one of my hiking books and found a reference to Cattus Island, which hasn't been an island for a very long time but a peninsula that juts into Barnegat Bay in Tom's River, NJ.

Osprey by John James Audubon
The land was originally nearly 500-acre tract granted to Gawen Drummond, a Scotsman, in 1690. It changed hands over the years and was bought by county officials in 1973 for a bit under $3 million. Apparently there were plans to put in campsites, but there was so much vandalism to some of the original buildings on the property that this plan was shelved. Perhaps ballfields and other recreational sites? Luckily, that didn't happen either.

Instead, the land was left for "passive" recreation - aka walking. An environmental center was built and trails were blazed. 

Those trails are flat and travel through different types of habitat, making it perfect for MH's knees and my desire to see birds in an area, Ocean County, that is some distance south from my home area and thus closer to northbound birds. Also, the types of birds I would see would be shore birds such as herons, egrets and ducks. 

As it turns out, we saw far more than that because Cattus Island is known for its many successful osprey nests. There are 10 nests on the property and each was occupied by a pair. 

One of the many Cattus Island osprey nests (Margo D. Beller)
Among raptors, osprey are unique. They only eat fish, hence their nickname of "fish hawk," and will dive into the water to catch their prey. They are such good hunters, lazier hunters such as the bald eagle will frequently harass it into giving up the meal. That didn't happen on our trip because we saw no eagles. In fact, aside from an American kestrel, the smallest of the falcons, osprey were the only raptors we saw over the property.

The other shore birds found included great and snowy egrets plus some we hadn't seen in years: little blue heron, green heron, Louisiana (tricolored) heron (ironically, the more commonly seen great blue heron was apparently not around.) There was a huge raft of bufflehead ducks (with some greater scaup) on the calm waters of Silver Bay but out in the choppier waters of Barnegat Bay were long-tailed ducks and two types of scoters, black and surf. We didn't lack for land birds either: the woods provided us with bluebirds, brown creeper, blue-gray gnatcatchers, Carolina wren, four types of woodpeckers and a towhee. There were also warblers: pine and myrtle, which I expected, and an orange-crowned, which I did not.

Osprey hovering before diving for supper (Margo D. Beller)
But the fish hawks were the biggest thrill. They were everywhere. When not on their nests they flew over our heads or sat in trees just about begging for us to take their pictures, which we did. They hovered, constantly flapping their large wings, as they sought a suitable fish and then dove to grab it and bring it back to its mate. They were constantly calling to each other or to warn off other ospreys or to show their displeasure when I stood too long relatively close by and took their pictures with my long lens.

About the only downside to this place is I wanted to walk everywhere. MH and I took the main trail to the end, and then I walked on a side trail to see the ducks on Barnegat Bay. By day's end, when we'd seen 43 types of birds, I was footsore but happy.

Now, to find another region to explore for next time...

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Up for the Birds

“If you are pining for youth I think it produces a stereotypical old man because you only live in memory, you live in a place that doesn’t exist."
 -- David Bowie

I have found there are those who feel the weight of advancing age and those who do everything they possibly can to ignore or avoid it. I find myself somewhere in the middle.

At this time of year, when daylight comes before 6 am and the southerly winds are blowing in warmer temperature and northbound migrants, I put out the feeders and stand and listen to the chorus. Then I sit on the porch and watch which birds come. When I am restless and not tired, I think of my Old Self who would rise in the dark, dress, get in the car and rush out to Great Swamp to hike in the dawn's early light to find the birds that like that type of habitat such as yellow warblers. 

Wren nest box, awaiting the next tenant. (Margo D. Beller)
My Old Self, or my Crazy Self as MH calls it, felt compelled to do this because I worked five days a week a long way from home and weekend mornings were the only time I could do any birding. That hasn't been the case since I started working from home. 

Now I have plenty of time. What I don't have is plenty of energy. There are some mornings the only thing that pulls me out of bed is putting out the feeders for the birds. 

My New Self feels aches and pains every morning. While my mind is restless and eager to get out there and see (and hear) what I can find, my body doesn't always want to accommodate. So I stick to my house in the early morning and, after all those car commuters who must get to work have gone, I either walk in the area or take the car to a birding spot hours after the dawn chorus has ended.

It is a hard thing to acknowledge to yourself that you are aging and can no longer do the things you once did without a moment's hesitation. Nowadays, My New Self feels that hesitation all too often. What if I fall again? What if I get lost? What if I have a medical problem? What if I run into a predator - two- or four-legged? I usually travel alone because MH is not an early riser, but when we do travel together he is limited by his own physical ailments. I worry when we are out because if he is attacked, I'll be the one who will do the defending. Will I be able to keep us safe?

Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Cattus Island, April 13, 2019
(Margo D. Beller)
You can't live that way, MH tells me. And he is right about that. But right now I am compromising, doing my birdwatching from my property.

And what nice birdwatching it is. Today, a day after bird reports prompted me to put out the nest box, a house wren was singing in the backyard, soon to bring a female over to check out the accommodations. A Carolina wren was singing down the street. The male cardinal sang until it saw the feeder was out, at which point it flew down. Robins sang or ran across the yard. All told, I heard 22 different types of birds singing or calling, including four types of woodpeckers, all before 7 am. I even heard a blue-gray gnatcatcher, the first in my yard this season.

So it's not that bad, I tell myself. You make your accommodations and enjoy what you have.

But then, as I sit in my chair, I can't help but wonder, what am I missing out there?