Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Adventures of Alpha and Beta

When John J. Audubon referred to the ruby-throated hummingbird as "the glittering fragment of the rainbow," he was referring to the male. The male's back and head are bright green, his throat a deep red that can look black in some lights and the breast and belly are white.

Audubon was not referring to the duller females. As with most other birds, the females are not as bright or colorful as the males so as to be inconspicuous on her nest, or getting food for her young.

Attempt at a hummingbird picture (Margo D. Beller)
In late May my New Hampshire brother-in-law hung two feeders and, as usual, two males battled over one of the feeders, leaving the other alone. Hummingbirds will do that - they don't play well with others.

However, one of the males already had a mate and every so often the shier female would come feed, also at the same feeder. She, too, is green but a duller shade and there is no ruby throat.

My brother-in-law, as well as a friend of mine who lives in a hillier part of New Jersey, draw hummingbirds almost from the moment they put a feeder out. I always know the first batch of liquid I make will likely be wasted as I watch for the bird - more insect than bird, wings moving over 50 times a second, able to back up (which no other bird can do) and take off at great speed.

Admittedly, I make it hard on myself. I have the feeder hanging in a shady part of the garden (so as to keep the liquid from going bad quickly in the sun) that I can't see unless I step out on the enclosed porch. I have flowers hummingbirds like in different parts of the garden - azaleas and rhodedendron in the front, for instance, and geraniums and columbine in the back - so the birds are not always where I can see them, unlike the winter where the seed feeders can be seen from the kitchen.

This year I saw a male on June 3, the earliest ever for my yard, and then another one 15 days later. Then nothing.

Until June 30 when the first female showed up.

For some reason, what draws the birds to the feeder are the sprays of tiny pink trumpets thrown up by the coral bells. As I sat on my porch having breakfast, I was aware of movements at the bells and saw the green back. Eventually it flew up and saw the red-topped feeder. It flew over and took a sip. It was very tentative. Its head was so dark I was sure it was a male, but getting my binoculars I saw the white breast and throat.

She came several times that day and has continued coming. This is the typical pattern. At this time of year - June into July - the male hummers have done their genetic duty and go off on their own, sometimes heading south as early as late July into August. That leaves the female with the task of creating a nest, laying eggs, brooding them and then feeding the young, all the while needing food to give her the energy for all that fast flying.

So once she found a reliable food source, she wasn't going to let it alone.

Hummingbird, Higbee Beach, Cape May, NJ (Margo D. Beller)
This is typical. What wasn't typical was when the second hummingbird showed up a couple of days later.

I didn't realize it at first. When the first one - I'll call her Alpha - would stop by, she would feed, then back up and take off to the north, toward a high hedge I keep as privacy from the neighbors. Then I noticed she would fly up to the nearby apple tree, or head east, past my yard and to the next street.

The other morning I took my folding chair outside to drink my coffee and watch the feeder. In came the hummer - and then in came a second one to chase her off. The chaser was Alpha, with the dark head. The one chased off came back about five minutes later. I noticed her head was much lighter green and when she flew off, it was to the apple tree. This one is Beta.

Several times now I have seen Alpha at the feeder and Beta feeding from the coral bells, or Beta at the feeder and Alpha chasing her off, then coming back to feed.

All of this is fun to watch but there are some serious issues under all the feeding and chasing.

These females are making the constant trip to the feeder so they have the energy to sit on their nest or catch food for their young. In my part of suburbia, homeowners leave it to the landscapers to put in their plants and they are usually dull shrubs that do not flower and are cheap to replace. If they have flowers, it is a hanging basket and the flowers are generally not the orange or red trumpets hummingbirds prefer. They don't even have scent, most of the time.

I do have flowers hummingbirds like - bee balm, butterfly bush, salvia, coral bells, columbine - but the deer eat most of them too, and these plants are behind netting as a result. That is the reason for the dull shrubs - easy to replace when eaten by deer and not so lovely as to be missed and thus easily replaced.

My feeder is hanging on that pole in the shade behind netting, too.

When overdevelopment tears up fields of wildflowers and suburban sprawl doesn't replace the lost plants, you don't give a hummingbird a lot of choices. It doesn't have unlimited time and energy to look around.

Hummer drawn by my friend's zinnias (Margo D. Beller)
A feeder, however, is another matter. You buy one at any store. It is usually red either in whole or in part. You boil one-quarter cup of sugar for every cup of water until the sugar is dissolved, wait for it to cool and put it in the feeder. Hang it outside.

There! You've just helped out a hummingbird.

I see many yards with hummingbird feeders, even those with dull shrubs. People like watching hummingbirds. They are fascinating creatures. One second there's a feeder and the next there is a tiny bird sitting and taking long drinks with her very long, thin tongue. Then she rises up and is gone.

They fly backwards. Their wings beat so fast you can hear the blur. Several times I have come face to face with a hummingbird. When it doesn't feel threatened, it wants to check you out. We look at each other, it gives me a small "chip" and takes off. Working in the garden, I've heard an angry squeak and knew I was working in an area where the hummingbird, easily annoyed, was going to check out the nearby plants.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are not considered to be endangered. More people are putting out feeders and, if global warming continues, hummers might be hanging around beyond late summer when they generally head south to Central America.

I enjoy watching the antics of Alpha and Beta, and if global warming keeps them around longer it might even be worth it. I have lots of sugar.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Apples and Unintended Consequences

“It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”
--Henry David Thoreau

There are several important annual events in my backyard. When will the first hummingbird show up at the feeder I put out? When will the ornamental grasses start to grow? When will the house wrens leave the nest box? When will I have enough apples to make apple sauce?

I got the answers to the last two questions on the same day. I discovered the house wren young had left the box and were following their parents around the yard, calling to be fed while being shown how to do it themselves.

That same morning I realized there was not one apple left in the tree. No apple sauce this year.

Apple tree leaves (Margo D. Beller)
This apple tree is peculiar. While most apple trees produce their fruits in the summer going into autumn, this one flowers in the spring and starts producing fruits in June. I don't spray the trees so when I pick these apples (either from the tree or whole ones that are dropped to the ground) I always have to cut them open and cut away the not-so-good stuff.

As a friend of mine once said, the only thing worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm is finding half a worm.

Like birds and people, trees want to survive and perpetuate the species. To do that, the trees fruit. The tree draws insects with flowers. When apples form from the pollinated flower, other insects burrow into them, which in turn draws the birds. In summer, squirrels will climb into the tree to take an apple for the sweet moisture. What they drop will be eaten by deer unless I get to them first.

The seeds from all this eaten fruit will be, to be polite, disseminated all over the place.

Many apple varieties aren't grown from seed but from grafts. That doesn't stop the plant from flowering and fruiting.
Apple from my tree (Margo D. Beller)

This particular apple tree's fruits are sweet and, if allowed to fully ripen, grow to be medium sized and red. I showed one to the head of a local farm market and he said it was a macintosh variety, although not like the type you can buy in grocers.

I rarely get apples fully sized and red because the squirrels start going after them when they are yellow and big enough for them to take a bite. 

When MH and I bought the property decades ago, there were five apple trees, a blueberry bush and a cherry tree.

The cherry tree died of rot and was removed. The blueberry bush had to be removed when we had foundation work done on the house. The smallest of the five apple trees was literally rubbed to death by bucks sharpening their antlers, scraping off all the protective bark. Of the remaining apples trees, we removed one because it got so big we could not get at the fruit until it hit the ground with a splat, at which time the deer would get it.

Two more trees, whose apples were yellow-green, hard and not particularly sweet, were removed because they were too prolific and there was no way I could deal with all those apples drawing the deer, which pooped all over the yard. The blue spruce and the dogwood we put in as replacements don't interest the deer but they do provide shelter for birds.

We now have the one apple and that is still a challenge. For one thing, there's the wren box hanging from one branch. The young growing too big to allow their parents inside to feed them seems to coincide with when the apples start getting large enough to interest the squirrels. The constant visits stress the parent wrens.

It is no surprise that the parents are very eager to get their brood out of the box and flying elsewhere just around the time I start picking apples. I rarely see a second wren family at the box because of all the activity.

Usually in late June or early July I go out in the early morning and pick up all the apples either dropped by the squirrels or by the tree. It takes a lot of energy to produce an apple so the sooner the tree can drop the fruit the better, particularly when hot summers and low rain can weaken the tree. Self-preservation rules.

I throw any chewed apples into a corner or the yard and take the whole ones inside for later processing into sauce. Squirrels and birds are messy eaters, and unless I clean up there would be much more deer mess under the tree than there already is.

Unlike the two trees that were prolific each year, with this tree I'm not always assured of a large crop. Several years ago we had the tree pruned. The following spring, it flowered prolifically and produced a bumper crop to make up for what it lost in the pruning. Quarts of apple sauce for the freezer to last me into the winter months.

House wren box in apple tree (Margo D. Beller)
This spring, however, either because of last year's bounty or the relatively mild winter or the lack of rain or the increase in mad-made pollution, there were few flowers. Few flowers = few fruit. I've managed to get a few apples here and there, not enough for sauce but enough to put into pancakes. I went outside on a Tuesday and picked one relatively large apple just so the squirrels didn't get it.

The next day, I discovered an empty wren box and an empty tree.

While the lack of apples means less work for me, it creates some unintended consequences.

Deer that were expecting apples look for other sources of food - such as what bits of flowers and plants they can get at through my deer netting. Squirrels that used apples as a source of moisture are now hitting the water dishes I have out for the birds. Birds that were using the apples for moisture or to pick off the insects now have to find another food source.

However, there is the chance a second house wren will discover the box, start singing his territorial song and draw a mate to create a second brood. That would more than make up for the loss of apples.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Summer Babies

When my first niece was born nearly three decades ago, we waited for the phone to ring. Back then it was a landline on a table in the hall. We were not alone in waiting. When we visited MH’s parents, each time the phone rang he’d yell, “The baby, the baby!” but it was usually someone else.

When the call finally came, I answered and MH yanked the phone from my hand. “I’m the blood relative,” he said. I’ve never forgotten that. Luckily, our niece loves me just the same as him.

(photo courtesy of Redmond family)
This niece has just had her first child. Everyone knew about it within seconds on Facebook and there were literally hundreds of congratulations and other comments on the many photos. It is a fast and technological world we live in now.

Meanwhile, out in the yard, birds are also having babies in the June heat. However, they aren’t tweeting out the news using Twitter or posting to Facebook, so you have to keep your eyes open and watch for the signs.

I knew when the babies were hatched in the house wren box when Papa Wren stopped his near-constant singing. Now, he was trying to protect the young by keeping the location of the nest hidden.

Another clue: Both parents started shuttling back and forth to the box with food. One would get something, bring it to the box, climb inside, then come out. The other would come seconds later to do the same thing.

Wren box (Margo D. Beller)
When the babies got too big, the parents stayed on the outside of the box to feed the young. It is up to each chick to push its way to the front to get fed. Mom or Dad won’t be coming inside anymore. Fight to feed or die.

Today I came into the backyard and the wrens were scolding their warnings to the young, as usual at my appearance. However, this time, they were in a bush at the other end of the yard. When I stood under the nest box, none came to hover over me as they were doing as recently as the day before.

The young had fledged.

It’s not just the wrens that are doing this. From my open window I can hear the raucous families of tufted titmice and black-capped chickadees. Taking a walk, I see small groups of starlings, the young a sandy brown color, not yet the black of their parents.

Once the quiet period of egg laying, brooding and fledging is over, the young noisily follow their parents around, begging to be fed, slowly learning how to do this for themselves. The birds are more active and are more easily found in the thick tree canopy.

I am hearing more bird song, too, cardinals, chipping sparrows and song sparrows singing territorial songs before starting a new brood. Most birds are not monogamous. Once the young have fledged, the parents go their separate ways and start over. Many birds have several broods each season before it is time to head south in the autumn. That means two birds can create 10 or more birds in one summer. They must do this for their species to survive. 

Tree swallow brood -- look carefully, there are 5 (Margo D. Beller)
Humans do things in a different order. You have nine months of great anticipation and frenzied nest building after conception, not before. Then, once the young are born, it can take decades of care and feeding to get the young ready to leave the nest, presuming they want to or can afford it.

Birds have it easier.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A River Walk Down Memory Lane

This morning I awoke thinking of Sheepshead Bay.

When I was growing up in this coastal area of southern Brooklyn, decades ago, it had the ambiance of a fishing village. This was long after the racetrack that first brought crowds to this area was demolished.

Walking east along the main commercial street, Emmons Avenue, you had the bay on your right. A small bridge over the bay (below) would take you to Manhattan Beach, through a neighborhood of stately mansions.

(Photo by Jim Henderson
courtesy of Wikipedia.)

There was a large fleet of fishing boats that went out before dawn and were back in the late afternoon with their catch, blowing their horns as they arrived so the housewives could hurry down and buy that night's supper. There were fishing boats for hire that, once three miles out, would open the liquor cabinets and turn into party boats.

On the other side of Emmons from the Bay were large homes that would be rented out for the summer, and groups of bungalows crammed together in an area separated by "courts" rather than streets. There were seafood restaurants of all sizes including the famous Lundy's, the less famous Randazzo's and the Kips comedy club where many now-famous people got their start.

Continuing east, past the bars where fights would send the wounded to my father the doctor to patch up, were the two big beach clubs, the Deauville and the Palms Shore. Here, you paid your dues and rented a cabana for the summer, bringing out your chairs to sit around the large pool to work on your tan or swim. The older ladies would sit under their beach umbrellas in their bright bathing suits and coverups, dripping with jewelry and bronzed, sagging skin.

Beyond was Plumb Beach, a dirty stretch of sand where you did not play because of the garbage strewn around. You never knew what you might step on. People would drive down here at night to make out, or "submarine race watching." Instead, if you didn't want to join the beach clubs or walk into Manhattan Beach, you would go west on Emmons to where it became Neptune Ave.,  under the elevated train tracks (where the track sign pointed you to "the city"), toward the beaches of  Brighton Beach and Coney Island.

North of Emmons Ave., you had to travel up Sheepshead Bay Rd., Ocean or Bedford or Nostrand avenues to get past the elevated Belt Parkway. Here, you had apartment buildings, schools, commercial shopping strips and rows of identical houses. This is the area where we lived, not on the water but close enough to walk over and enjoy it.

I woke up thinking of Sheepshead Bay because like other waterfront communities, what made it unique has disappeared.

The beach was rediscovered and cleaned up. It is now a destination for sunbathers and bird watchers who want to see endangered least terns and assorted shorebirds including the occasional rarity. That's a good thing.

(Plumb Beach now, courtesy of Wikipedia)
But the waterfront also drew profit-seeking developers. The old beach houses are gone. The diners where we ate are gone. The tiny summer bungalows have been winterized and people live there year around. Many of the small businesses were expanded or torn down for larger ones. The seafood places became chains or large restaurants. The big barn that was Lundy's was divided up to create two restaurants and an indoor mall.

You can still walk along the water near the small bridge to Manhattan Beach and there are still fishing boats, but there are fewer of them and the bait and tackle shops are mainly gone. LIke the party boats, the gambling boats wait until they have sailed out three miles before the real action starts.

The old beach clubs are gone. In their place are tall apartment buildings that block the view of the bay to anyone except those paying for "ocean views." Emmons Ave. is now crowded all year, not just when beach seekers from other New York City neighborhoods come off the Elevated to walk into Manhattan Beach over the foot bridge.

The same thing has happened elsewhere. Industrial areas that dumped their chemical byproducts into adjacent waterways are closing, many torn down to make way for waterfront parks to allow people access to the water again, even if that water is still slowly recovering from decades of pollution.

I can still walk along the Charles River, as I did when I went to college in Boston, but looking across to Cambridge and Charlestown you now see more huge "waterfront" apartments. On the Boston side, the removal of the elevated highway known as the Central Artery brought light to an area near the Boston Garden that I remember from my college days as being perpetually dark. Once down, however, huge apartment buildings and offices went up. This "development" has spread into the old North End, along the waterfront and down into less-scenic neighborhoods of Boston.

All because of those water views.

The first towns were built on rivers. Roads were slow going, if there were roads at all. Rivers moved you from one place to another and took your goods to market. New York City was founded on a natural port sheltered from the Atlantic, with a mighty river, the Hudson, that allowed for transport inland. Even where I live, far from the ocean, there are several rivers on which many towns were founded.

You wouldn't realize that now unless you were told. No one notices rivers. "Developments" are placed anywhere because they can get highway access. Forests are cut down. Old farms suddenly sprout "luxury townhouses" and multi-acre estates. All of them look alike.

After all that tearing down, it seems inevitable that anywhere with some water running through it would be seen as an attractive, "natural" alternative. The more built-up this world becomes, the more yearning there is to go back to a simpler time -- as long as you still have all the modern conveniences. If you are a developer, you can cash in on that.

You may not have a forest anymore but the river just keeps flowing along, at least for now.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Another Year, Another House Wren

Welcome back, troglodytes aedon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Good, the Bad, the Birding in the Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aside from that, it was me and the birds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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