Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Goodbye to Summer

I was recently re-reading one of my favorite books as a child, "The Wind in the Willows." In it, Kenneth Graham writes a conversation between one of the main characters, Rat, and several swallows getting ready to fly south for the winter. He wants them to stay.

'No, you don't understand, naturally,' said the second swallow. 'First, we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one, like homing pigeons. They flutter through our dreams at night, they fly with us in our wheelings and circlings by day. We hunger to inquire of each other, to compare notes and assure ourselves that it was all really true, as one by one the scents and sounds and names of long-forgotten places come gradually back and beckon to us.'

If I was a bird that saw the signs of summer's end, this is how I'd be thinking.

It has been unusually cool for mid-August, a "taste of autumn," as the weather people say on TV. I like this cooler, dryer weather and so do birds when the winds from the north can give them a boost on the trip south to the warmth of the Gulf coast and central and South America.

Tree swallow (Margo D. Beller)
I would love to pick up and move north or south to endless summer but unlike the swallows I can't. I am anchored where I am by house, spouse and job to pay the bills.

So I watch the birds as I work in the garden at this time of year deadheading the daisies, removing the grow-through rings and pulling weeds. As I work the bird families are actively feeding after weeks when the young were quiet and hidden until they could get around outside the nest. Those that don't leave New Jersey (or whose southbound travels bring them here for the winter) will visit my feeders when it starts getting cold in earnest.

So I can understand how the swallows and other birds feel. But I also know how Rat feels.

Considering the Alternative

Robin Williams' recent suicide had me thinking about my father.
My father, a doctor who died over 20 years ago, had Parkinson's for the last 20 or so years of his life. Every day he got up in the morning and left the modest, middle-class home he lived in and went to his medical office in the lower level of the modest, middle-class home where his parents lived a block away.
Unintentional sepia, at Shea Stadium (Margo D. Beller)
A child of immigrants and a striver. As far as I know, he never thought of killing himself.
Then again, my father was the type of man who would not let feelings like that be known to anyone in his family. He defined himself by being a respectable man in an honored profession.
But I am sure he felt terrified at what would be coming because soon after his diagnosis he contacted one of medical school classmates who was running the Parkinson's program at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NY and allowed himself to be used as a guinea pig to test what was then new and untested treatments. I'd have done the same thing.
There is no cure for Parkinson's, and while the drugs helped a lot, he got worse. Along the way his doctor-wife died, his children moved out, his parents died. He kept going to work until he was finally forced to retire. A few years later he died of complications from a stroke. He was 73.
Robin Williams was 63, a few years older than me. Like my father, Williams was, by all reports, comfortable financially and had people around him to care for him, family and those he could hire.
But I know he was terrified, too. Battling depression and addiction, a man known for manic, sometimes physical comedy, the thought of becoming rigid and debilitated must have put him over the edge.
A lot of us know that feeling. One of my friends, about Williams' age, told me if she ever gets too sick to take care of herself she wants to go out on a "sunset cruise" where she is sailed beyond U.S. waters, drinks poisoned champagne and her body tossed to the fishes. 

Some people just soldier on, like my father, until the end. Those who go to church trust in a happy hereafter for their souls. One of my friends smoked himself into an early grave and when he went it was sudden and he never saw it coming.
I'm not a church-goer and MH and I don't smoke or have children to care for us. At some point, one or the other of us won't be around to care for the other or this house and its considerable amount of stuff. I fear that day.
So do most Baby Boomers I know, the ones who believe the advertisers who tell us we can keep going (using their products) as though we are still 20-year-olds despite the increasing stiffness in the morning, the misplaced glasses, the names and dates we can't remember without notes.
Williams wasn't aging well, according to one news report. Neither am I.  As the joke goes, consider the alternative.
Many do.
I find it no coincidence that there is an increasing movement in many states for doctor-assisted suicide. After living a life of doing what we want and setting trends for generations to come (or so magazines like AARP's tell me), my generation is terrified of coming face to face with the inevitable.
"Hope I die before I get old," sang Roger Daltrey in 1965. Does he feel the same way now at 70? (Or does Pete Townsend, now 69, who wrote the song?)
When we didn't "die young and leave a beautiful corpse," we thought we'd live forever. Advertisers abet this -- like the guy in the vitamin ad I've seen who is told by the voiceover to "do what you've always done" and not let "age get in the way" of surfing that 50-foot wave despite being over 60.
But it's coming, whether you like it or not. I can't ignore the decay as I get closer to the age my mother was when she died, which is why I and others were shaken by Robin Williams' suicide. I own my comfortable, middle-class home thanks to my father, but I would not say I am financially secure. What is "secure" nowadays at our age when we are one medical catastrophe from financial disaster?
There are times when the dreariness of everyday life -- making the bed, folding the laundry, the prospect of shoveling the snow again and paying the bills on declining income - makes me want to end it. Like the man in the old song, "I'm tired of livin' and scared of dyin'."
But Ole Man River just keeps rollin' along.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

City Birding

Most city people are not birders. They run from one place to another, ear buds providing a soundtrack to their world. If they notice them, "birds" are sparrows and pigeons. That the sparrows might be song sparrows or white-throated sparrows and the pigeons mourning doves is lost on them. They are just birds you barely notice.
High Line (R.E. Berg-Andersson)

I grew up in New York, and until I moved to New Jersey and was given a feeder as a housewarming present I didn't notice the birds either.

I've learned that if you unplug, you will find birds. The key is to be alert and be in an area where there aren't a lot of people. That can be hard in many urban areas.

Until a few years ago I was commuting by train to jobs in Jersey City and midtown Manhattan. The train took me through New Jersey's Meadowlands -- once a dumping ground but now a marvel of shorebirds, ducks and the occasional hawk -- and Hoboken, on the west side of the Hudson River where in its harbor the cormorants would mass before heading south and the ruddy ducks would spend the winter.

Jersey City hadn't filled in all its open space when I worked there. The vacant, weedy lots drew parula, goldfinch and winter wren. The waterfront drew mergansers and ducks. Around the time my company moved a light rail line was completed and the vacant lots were being converted into large apartment buildings. A good hunk of one of my favorite birding spots was turned into a dog park. The birds were harder to find.

Gansevoort end (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
I guess this is the challenge of urban birding. The more people you have, the fewer birds you will find unless you are in an area of many trees. Central Park is where MH and I usually go when we want to see birds, especially in migration. That huge, green space in the middle of the concrete jungle is big enough to accommodate tired, hungry birds as well as people.

I've been working for over two years from my home in the New Jersey suburbs so going to New York City is more of a special occasion now. On this particular trip we decided to visit the High Line, the linear park that runs from Gansevoort Street to the south to 30th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues) to the north (for now; the line is being extended to the north and west).

The High Line is the former freight line built in 1933 to connect the old Penn Yards at 30th with the St. John's terminal on Clarkson St. and literally raise train traffic off the streets. New York was a city of elevated trains -- there were elevated lines on Third and Second avenues (it has taken generations but a Second Ave. subway is being built) and there is are still elevated "subway" lines in Brooklyn and Queens -- so this west side line just added to the noise.

Trains ran until 1980 and for the next 19 years the line stood silent, a home for wildflowers and birds. In 1999 a group was formed to protect and renovate the line into a lineal park rather than tear it down.

MH and I found the lower part of the line (it does not run to Clarkson St. but farther north at Ganesvoort, around which is the old meatpacking area, now very trendy, chic and expensive and a historic district) more interesting, in part because it incorporates the old Nabisco factory, now the "Chelsea market," an urban food court similar to Boston's Faneuil Hall. Farther north the line narrows while Manhattan island widens and you lose sight of the Hudson River.

We started at the northern end, and after a few blocks we detoured to the river, which was far more interesting and where we found a flock of herring gulls aloft, reminding me of growing up along the southern coast of Brooklyn where the resident gulls were herrings.

It is nice that city officials have realized the importance of connecting people with waterfronts. They provide space and light. This was the "beach" area for the city dwellers we passed sunning themselves as we looked at the piers with open restaurants and the old piers where the railroad companies -- Pennsylvania, Erie, Lehigh Valley -- would bring their goods from New Jersey by barge across the Hudson.
(R.E. Berg-Andersson)

Back on the High Line, we felt as tho' we were in a human highway, there were so many people in the sunshine. But around us, buildings are going up. Luxury buildings where once were warehouses and factories. I wonder -- if enough of these buildings go up will they blot out the sun from the ornamental grasses, coneflowers, sedums and other flowers (which I have in my yard)?

This "park," this tourist walkway, this elevated sidewalk, seems a poor excuse for "nature" when I compare it to my backyard. Would there be more birds than the barn swallow I saw around if there had been fewer people?

The barn swallow and the herring gulls were the best birds I saw. But sometimes you can see something common from an unusual perspective.

At Chelsea Market we were resting in the shade when I pointed out to MH a female house sparrow that had flown to the open part of  a pole holding street signs. Young were calling and she was feeding them. When done she flew off. Soon her mate came up and he fed the young. I have seen this many times in my travels, but not from above. 


When my mother was sick towards the end, she said she enjoyed hearing the birds "sing" in the open space that was created when the old air conditioner was removed from the bedroom wall and a smaller one put in. The birds she heard were house sparrows, which will make a nest in human-created cavities.

House sparrows don't sing - they aren't even really sparrows but weaver birds that stowed away on ships from Europe centuries ago -- but their cheeping cheered her.

What a pity the common house sparrow may be the best bird the people who will move to the luxury residences going up around this "park" will see, presuming they even notice.

The Concrete Jungle 4/4/11

Back on May 27, 2012, I rather stupidly deleted the links of many of my older posts -- not understanding why the headlines of the posts were hyperlinked. I've learned a lot since then, such as linking and spacing and captions. 

But when I was trying to find an older post for a newer one, I realized it was time to start republishing the lost posts, and restore the links.  I will be doing this over the next few days, but I am starting with some of the oldest ones.


I worked in Jersey City, NJ's third-largest city (some would say second-largest), from 1999 until my office moved to midtown New York in 2009. The office building was on the Hudson River and had once been a freight building for goods brought east by railroad. It was surrounded at one time by other freight buildings and railroad tracks. When it became an office building the tracks were paved over and taller buildings started going up.


The area continued to change in the 10 years I worked there. Tracks were put IN, this time for a light rail system. Larger office (and, later, residential) buildings went up. But for a time, within walking distance, you could still find large vacant lots and large plantings in residential yards and along commercial sidewalks. That's where the birds were.

I knew things were going to be interesting the first spring I walked along the Hudson and found a red-eyed vireo in a tree. It looked as surprised to be where it was as I was to find it.

At other times, in another weedy field a block from my office, I found more than just the usual sparrows, starlings and pigeons. In winter there were white-throated sparrows. In spring there were black-capped chickadees and American redstart. One summer I found a kestrel. In fall, a northern parula hung around for three days and I found four winter wrens. (I've seen more winter wrens in Jersey City than I've seen in the woods.)

Farther away I found a weedy field full of hungry American goldfinches. Van Vorst Park has had a lot of birds over the years I visited, including rubycrowned kinglet, Tennessee warbler, Blackburnian warbler, eastern peewee (calling from a tall tree) and, during a hot summer when sprinklers watered the gardens, a pair of mallards.

What was once New Jersey's tallest building, 101 Hudson, has hosted a nesting box for peregrine falcons, which have raised several generations thanks to Jersey City's generous pigeon supply. The screen shot below is from http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/peregrinecam/jcp-still.htm


Along the Hudson I'd find brant and canada geese, redbreasted merganser and other ducks. Landscaping at a waterfront apartment complex at the end of Warren Street during spring migration was very good for warblers - I had black-throated blue, yellow and common yellow-throat on one visit - and herons, including a little blue heron.

But it all changed after Sept. 11, 2001. Businesses displaced by the destruction of the World Trade Center started moving to Jersey City (temporarily, as it turned out). The high rents of New York drove people to the factory lofts and new apartment towers. The weedy fields, including the one a block from the office and those along the light rail tracks, were filled in. No fields, no birds. Even Van Vorst park lost half its garden space to a dog park. Those living closer to the canal park used that for a dog run, their unleashed mutts scaring the birds out of view.
Birding became impossible.
So I was not that upset when we learned the office would be moving to another concrete jungle, midtown Manhattan. Without the birds, Jersey City was just another big, ugly city.

The only thing I have missed is the mighty Hudson River out my window.

Strange paradise 4/1/11

Back on May 27, 2012, I rather stupidly deleted the links of many of my older posts -- not understanding why the headlines of the posts were hyperlinked. I've learned a lot since then, such as linking and spacing and captions. 

But when I was trying to find an older post for a newer one, I realized it was time to start republishing the lost posts, and restore the links.  I will be doing this over the next few days, but I am starting with some of the oldest ones.


I took a commuter train to work at jobs in New York City and then Jersey City almost every weekday for 10 years before I noticed the Meadowlands.


Unlike Central Park, this is no man-made wilderness but until the last decade or so it was a man-made disaster. Towns dumped their garbage. Industrial complexes dumped toxic chemicals in the Hacksensack River and the many small creeks. The tallest point, known by some as Snake Hill, was shaved down, as you can see in this photo my husband took. It was a mess.

New Jersey Transit tracks plow through a section of it once it leaves Newark. When I took the train in I read the newspaper. Coming home I read a book or slept.
One afternoon when we passed through the Meadowlands I happened to put down my book and looked out the window to my right. In a tree over a canal was a redtailed hawk. I was stunned. A redtail? Here?

What had I been missing all this time?

Quite a lot, I learned. Since then I always put the paper or book down when we go through this little slice of the Meadowlands and have been rewarded by seeing, among many others, greenwinged teals, shoveler ducks, great and snowy egrets, great blue herons, redtails, assorted sandpipers, osprey and, thanks to the train going very slowly, a least bittern.

You haven't lived until a harrier is flying parallel to your train at the same speed, at eye level.


Robert Sullivan published an excellent book in 1998, "The Meadowlands," about the area's history and the fight to clean it up, bringing back the fish and frogs that in turn drew the birds. Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, and his group (www.hackensackriverkeeper.org/) have been working hard to keep the area from further abuse - suing companies found dumping, running eco-tours to highlight the area's beauty. (I've taken one; they're great.)
In Lyndhurst, the Richard W. DeKorte park, part of the NJ Meadowlands Commission, was carved out of several dumping sites, It provides a large, liquid rest stop for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds next to a gas pipeline while raptors, including roughlegged hawks and bald eagles, cruise over the aptly-named Disposal Road. (You can check sightings on the park blog, http://meadowblog.typepad.com/.)

Sometimes it pays to put down the newspaper (or the BlackBerry) and connect with the world around you.

A bird in the bush 3/24/11

Back on May 27, 2012, I rather stupidly deleted the links of many of my older posts -- not understanding why the headlines of the posts were hyperlinked. I've learned a lot since then, such as linking and spacing and captions. 

But when I was trying to find an older post for a newer one, I realized it was time to start republishing the lost posts, and restore the links.  I will be doing this over the next few days, but I am starting with some of the oldest ones.


When Marie Winn wrote about the redtailed hawk nicknamed Pale Male in "Red-Tails In Love" she showcased birding in Central Park, a place that was coming through bad times along with the City of New York.


Central Park couldn't have had better press agents than Marie Winn and Pale Male.


When I got her book from the library I discovered almanac data in the back - what birds have been reported at particular times of year, for instance - and maps of the park. Maps were the key to getting me, and particularly my husband (MH, for short), into the park. I bought the book in paperback and one day MH and I came in from NJ to bird Central Park.


It is a big park, stretching from 59th Street north to 110th Street and from Fifth Ave. on the east to Eighth Ave. on the west. You can walk in anywhere and immediately get lost unless you can keep the tops of the old apartment towers in sight (and sometimes you get lost anyway).
Despite its natural beauty, every single thing in the park - the trees, the rocks, the flowers - were trucked in and placed as per the design of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux.

About the only things not placed there by man are the birds passing through, drawn by an island of green in the middle of the concrete city after a long flight. Most of those flights are by night, but some birds fly by day. One time MH and I were walking south on 6th Ave. as night was coming on and a black-crowned night-heron was flying north on 6th Ave., obviously headed for some body of water within the park.

We've also found oddities, such as this male wood duck I photographed swimming with the mallards at the Pond in the southern end of the park. Two males spent this past winter here, even when much of the water was iced over.

Marie's book also identified the places where warblers could be found within the wooded area known as the Ramble.

Warblers are a post unto themselves. In spring they flit in the highest parts of the leafing trees or skulk under bushes. Many are brightly colored, having yellow somewhere, and the males look distinctly different from females (not the case in the fall, which presents its own identification challenges).

Warblers bring out the birders in droves, particularly in Central Park. When an unusual warbler shows up in the park, that number goes up exponentially.
A few years ago one of those vistors was a bright yellow bird with a big dark eye and solid gray wings, a prothonotary warbler. When we were in Florida we saw them in the swamps as often as we see white-breasted nuthatches in the backyard. In Central Park it was a big deal.

I don't fly across the country when a rarity is seen but if I am in the area anyway, I'll check it out. A warm spring weekend day was my excuse for the prothonotary.
This one had been seen along the western shore of a body of water known as the Lake, which one passes on the way to one of the entrances to the Ramble. The prothonotary was seen. It was sorta seen. It had just been missed, according to the birding lists. A little golden needle in a big green haystack.

So we weren't expecting much, being new birders. We walked along the water's edge and down to one of the rustic benches. We looked to the north and suddenly the bird flew out of the bushes on the shoreline and onto a rock jutting into the water, almost daring us to take a picture. Of course we had no cameras with us (or even a cellphone with a camera).

Wow, that was easy, MH said. Are they all that easy?

As we now know, no way. But I admit to some pleasure that day when another birder rushed up while we were birding in the Ramble and asked if we'd seen the prothonotary, rushing away when we said we had, and where. He'd sought it for hours. We saw it in minutes.

Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

I have a little list 3/20/11

Back on May 27, 2012, I rather stupidly deleted the links of many of my older posts -- not understanding why the headlines of the posts were hyperlinked. I've learned a lot since then, such as linking and spacing and captions. 

But when I was trying to find an older post for a newer one, I realized it was time to start republishing the lost posts, and restore the links.  I will be doing this over the next few days, but I am starting with some of the oldest ones.

When I was growing up in Brooklyn and then living in Queens with my husband, New York's Central Park did not have a good reputation - muggers behind every tree, bicyclists and wallets stolen at gunpoint, homeless men and women sleeping (and doing lord knows what else) on park benches.
That was particularly bad in the 1980s when the city had devastating fiscal problems and police couldn't keep up with simple crime like graffiti on subway cars, much less murder.

Things changed as the economy improved and, for better or worse, Rudy Giuliani became mayor in the early 1990s on a platform of, among other things, fighting crime and encouraging tourism. More police were hired and hit the streets as well as Central Park and, slowly, more people started to feel safe going in there.

In the late 1990s, a Wall Street Journal reporter named Marie Winn collected her writings about a particularly light redtailed hawk who'd improbably made a nest on an upper 5th Avenue building facade facing Central Park. The book was "Red-Tails In Love." It not only put the focus on the redtail nicknamed Pale Male (inspiring two movies and at least one song, by Steve Earle) but on Central Park in general and the birders who'd never stopped going there even during the bad times in particular.

I have never met Marie Winn but she is a wonderful email correspondent. Thanks to her website, http://mariewin.server304.com/index.htm, you can find Central Park nature notes and information about Pale Male's story and her other books.

But what I found most valuable about her site when I first went to it was her publicizing the New York City Bird Report. Unfortunately, the site no longer posts active sightings and is now a historical database. But between 2003 and 2007 it told you what visiting birds were in different New York City parks every day. 

A correspondent to this list was Tom Fiore, also featured in Marie's book, whose detailed reports were a major reason I (and no doubt others) started birding Central Park more often.
When nycbirdreport.com ended active reporting, Marie mentioned other interesting sites including ebirdsnyc (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ebirdsnyc/) and the NY Birding List, part of www.birdingonthe.net, a service that provides lists of bird sightings by state and by rarity.

One recent mention on the New Jersey list, for instance, sent hundreds of birders from across the state and beyond to a small private lake in Washington Township (Bergen County), NJ, for a sight of a rare pinkfooted goose. Based on subsequent list comments, township residents didn't know what hit them when the birders flew into town. Such is the power of the list.

I enjoy reading the lists, and those who wish to subscribe can post their own sightings and comments. These list services are great when you want to bird beyond your backyard, so check them out.