Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Bearing With More Trouble

On Sept. 27, six months to the day after the last incident, I was making supper. It was a Sunday early evening, people were enjoying their backyards with their children or taking a late afternoon walk in the sunshine.

I turned around to see if any cardinals were at the house feeder. I planned to take it in by 6:30 pm ET, 30 minutes from that moment, as I have been ever since a bear came into my yard overnight and destroyed one of my feeder poles trying to get to the sunflower seed.

Well, there was no feeder. I cursed, ran out into the backyard and on the next street, ambling northward, was a black bear, about as big as the one MH and I saw from our car on Old Mine Road in the ridges and forests of Sussex County, NJ.

Old Mine Road bear (RE Berg-Andersson)
This time, the bruin had ignored the sock and the cage-enclosed feeder that were filled with thistle put out for what had become a huge flock of goldfinches. It went for the old house feeder. In pulling it the bear had taken off the wrought-iron arm, too, and MH thinks when it fell it spooked the bear off. The house feeder, which hadn't had that much seed in it at the time, was on the ground but unscathed.

After the last attack, I had taken in the feeders for a while and then it was summer and I put a hanging basket on the remaining pole. Eventually, I had gotten a new feeder pole to replace the broken one. Around Labor Day I had started putting out seed. The dry weather conditions made it hard for birds to find food unless they found my feeder, which many of them did.

So did the bear.

Rosebreasted grosbeak on house feeder,
when the pole still had two arms (RE Berg-Andersson)
I have no idea if this was the same one because I didn't see the bear six months before. That attack was overnight. This one was during daylight, when there were lots of people outside, as I said. While I called 911 to alert the police, my neighbor was atop his grandchildren's playground setup, watching. He gave me a thumb's up. His son told me he had seen the bear rip off the feeder arm and then lope off through my backyard, my backyard neighbor's yard and then to the street. A squad SUV drove up that street after the bear but whether it was confronted or just followed into the next town, I do not know.

My brother-in-law the naturalist in rural NH told me he always waits until the snow falls and the bears go into their dens before he hangs feeders - even if that's in December. His feeders are always inside by April 1.

But he is in rural NH. The migrants have long left there. I was feeding a lot of cardinals, goldfinches and chickadees (along with more annoying house sparrows) because seeding plants were dying and there were no bugs because of the drought. Where I live, it might not snow until February. And my last attack had been before April 1.

What to do?

Predators have always been a problem. Accipiters -- Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks -- and redtailed hawks often haunt the yard. Lately, a cat has been loitering. (It is not feral because it is neat and has a flea collar, but it is not from my street and I have seen it run off through yards across the street and over to another side street, where its owner may live. It doesn't let me get close enough to see any ID tag. I do not understand the old adage about putting out the cat. You don't do that for dogs.)

Cooper's hawk atop feeder (Margo D. Beller)
But I can go outside and chase off a hawk or a cat. When I ran out and saw the bear I realized that had I turned around and run out sooner we'd have been face to face. What would I have done? Would I have been as stupid as the time I went out to chase off a buck in my yard and then quickly backed way when it put its head down intending to charge? In my anger, perhaps.

There are people who love bears so much they would like nothing better than for my neighbors and me to tear down our houses and let the bears roam free, unhunted. That isn't going to happen. Yes, there are houses in areas where they never should've been built, but people are in there now and bears are dangerous. I favor a bear hunt, as I do the annual deer hunt for the same reason - restoring something of a balance.

After a day or so inside, I put the house feeder on the remaining pole arm and put the thistle sock on the other pole. Not having seed outside plus a strong northerly wind seems to have decreased the number of sparrows and goldfinches dramatically to more manageable numbers, thus allowing more of the birds I like to get to the feeders. (We've also had a significant rainfall.)

Is putting out feeders foolishness or an act of faith? I want to feed birds. But I must now be extremely vigilant, at least until a hard winter cold comes. Fool me twice, shame on me. It may not be six months until the next bear encounter.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Eyes Like a Hawk

My late great-uncle Elly, in a letter -- yes, a real letter, not an email -- responding to my description of visiting a hawk platform that fall, said you have to have eyes like a hawk to find one. He was right.

I have seen enough raptors in my time to be able to tell the differences between an osprey and an eagle, a black vulture from a turkey vulture and, perhaps most difficult, a sharpshinned from a Cooper's hawk and both from their larger accipiter relative, a northern goshawk.
One of many bald eagles on Scott's Mountain. (RE Berg-Andersson 2015)
That's when the birds are relatively close. When I go to a hawk platform, I might as well be a novice.

If you are on a hawk platform and you are counting the number of, say, broadwing hawks flying south to their winter grounds in order to give a complete count, you have to be able to see a speck in the sky, then be able to train your binoculars or scope on it and then identify it, all while the bird is hundreds of feet high and flying fast with a stiff tailwind.

For that is what raptors do, they wait for the wind to come hard out of the north and then allow themselves to be pushed along ridge lines where they can be kept aloft by warm air off those ridges. The Hawk Mountain platform in the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania is one such spot. So is the Chimney Rock Hawk Watch between the two Watchung Mountains of New Jersey and the Racoon Ridge Hawk Watch in the Kitanny Mountains.

I have been to many of these hawk platforms and a few others - the New Jersey Audubon Scherman Hoffman sancturary, the Sandy Hook platform, the Cape Henlopen platform in Delaware - including my own unofficial platform, back when I was working in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, atop the Palisades. (I'd come out on my break and watch eagles, ospreys and assorted hawks follow the Hudson River south.)
(RE Berg-Andersson 2015)

I enjoyed my time at these places, but my favorite hawk platform is atop Scott's Mountain over the Merrill Creek Reservoir in New Jersey, a short flight from the Delaware River.

We try to go at least once a year, and have become such irregular regulars that when we made our first 2015 visit in late September, several people thought we had been there earlier. Alas, no, we missed the big week when the broadwing hawk - the smallest of the buteo hawks of eastern North America - flew through in the thousands. These are early travelers. As autumn goes on, the number of broadwings will decrease and the number of eagles - bald and golden - and accipiters and redtailed and redshouldered hawks will rise.

We drive up to the top of the mountain, get our folding chairs from the trunk, then say hello and sit down, binoculars at the ready. Then I have to get back in practice picking fast-flying birds out of the sky. It isn't easy.

Unlike a lot of the other hawk platforms, where the counters are serious and those real regulars stick to themselves and ignore irregular visitors such as myself, the regulars at Scott's Mountain are very friendly, very helpful and very good spotters. Paul, the lead counter the day we showed up, was on birds no one else even saw coming. He usually is, even when he's not the official counter. At least for my old eyes, I couldn't even see the dot in the sky.
One of many sharpshinned hawks on Scott's Mtn. (RE Berg-Andersson 2015)
Standing at a hawk watch once with Pete Dunne, he told how to look for broadwings beneath clouds and how turkey vultures fly like a man walking a tightrope with his arms extended out and slightly up. I tried to apply this knowledge but when you can't even see a dot, you have to trust that the lead counter or his assistants (there are usually four, spread along the parking lot to see as much sky as possible) is right. Paul was always right, and he was always patient in directing me to find the bird.

It is nice to be able to sit, too. Most platforms are hard climbs to the top and when you get there at last you have to find a seat on rocks that are far from comfortable. Or, you carry your chairs with you (or a pillow) and then hope that if you can make it all the way up without falling you can find a big enough space to open the chair and sit down. Neither is a given. 

From my chair on Scott's Mountain a few of the birds stayed low enough for me to easily find: the two resident bald eagles taking off after another eagle passing through and too close to their nest; an American kestrel, the smallest of the falcons, looking so colorful against the deep blue sky; the skein of migrating Canada geese found as I was looking at some broadwings Paul had pointed out.

Goldfinches, backyard, Sept. 27, 2015 (Margo D. Beller)
This is, without a doubt, the easiest birding I do except for what I see out my back porch.

(And there has been quite a lot. Thanks to an investment in a thistle sock and enough seed to put in a second feeder, we've had as many as 20 goldfinches feeding at the same time. Whether it be the weedy plants drying up or yanked out by homeowners or no one else having thistle feeders up, we have been reaping the benefits.)

MH was told decades ago he'd never see a bald eagle in the wild in his lifetime. That was after the overuse of DDT nearly decimated the eagles and the falcons. Luckily, that scoutmaster was wrong and we've seen many majestic eagles since then, and other birds, too.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Crossing Paths With Pete Dunne

“Some birds are not meant to be caged, that's all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure.”  -- Stephen King

Pete Dunne was scheduled to be at the New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary yesterday, Sept. 19. I wasn't able to attend, anxious to do a lot of walking in the woods after a homebound work week. I wanted to find warblers making the trip south for the winter, not stand on a concrete porch in the middle of hundreds of people broiling in the cloudless sun and watch migrating raptors high aloft, listening for some insight from this man, the co-author of the seminal "Hawks in Flight" and a number of other books. 

Pete Dunne in 2012 (Margo D. Beller)
I wasn't there, and there is a strong chance he didn't show up. However, I can still visualize the scene because I was there in 2012, and I saw the crowd and I saw his enjoyment in calling out what hawks were passing through and bestowing identification tips. I saw him patiently listen to all the birding stories and he even answered a question or two of mine, asked in my role as writer of the Scherman Hoffman blog.

However, in March 2013, Dunne had a stroke. In 2014, after much rehabilitation, he stepped down as head of the Cape May Bird Observatory, which he built from nothing to a major destination for anyone with a serious interest in finding and identifying birds. He has become NJ Audubon's "Birding Ambassador." 

He also stepped down as editor of New Jersey Audubon's magazine (in which I've had one article published and have another in production). In 2011, another time we crossed paths, I got his phone number and called the man, who cheerfully talked to me about what kind of articles they would publish, if I could come up with anything. He was encouraging but made no commitment.

I did not mention that phone call when I talked briefly to Dunne in 2012 on the Scherman hawk platform. He talks to a lot of people in the course of a given day. For the same reason, this past May I did not remind him of our previous conversations when MH and I spent a weekend in Cape May that happened to coincide with the day of the annual World Series of Birding -- an event Dunne helped create.

(I first crossed path with Dunne when a friend at work loaned me Dunne's 1986 book "Tales of a Low-Rent Birder." I had never heard of Dunne, and I was only starting to get interested in bird watching thanks to the feeder my brother-in-law and his wife had given us for a housewarming present in 1994.)

The Friday we drove to Cape May -- the southernmost point of New Jersey and a prime feeding spot for birds flying north after they cross Delaware Bay -- was our wedding anniversary. The next day was the WSB. That day we rose early (we had a lot of stops to make our one full day there) and went to Higbee Beach, a large piece of property, and arrived just as a tour bus was loading up with birders trudging out of the Higbee fields.

Pete Dunne, Scherman Hoffman hawk platform, 2012 (Margo D. Beller)
"Looks like there's a Carolina wren in your future," said the tour leader as the little bird sang. Pete Dunne, of course, looking as energetic as if he had risen from a refreshing nap. No cane. No sign of the weakness in his left side. Dunne used to travel the state during the WSB from midnight to midnight with a group - at one point including another bright light of the birding universe, Roger Tory Peterson - but now he was sticking closer to home in Cape May, with a large tour group in a larger white bus.

MH and I got to Higbee no later than 7 am and here's Dunne's group just finishing their visit, heading on to one of Cape May's many other birding locations. They had to have started right at dawn, which means Dunne had to have gotten them in the bus no later than 5 am.

Pretty impressive. 

We saw a lot of very good birds on our own that day, and it was the best birding we did this past spring. (Spring migration was not very good in northern New Jersey, and autumn migration is shaping up to be as bad thanks, in part, to the drought.) I wouldn't have minded Dunne pointing out a bird I usually can't identify rather than a Carolina wren, one of my favorite birds and one I can identify in my sleep.

Yesterday's walk, meanwhile, yielded very little in the way of interesting birds aside from catbirds, a blue-gray gnatcatcher and five types of woodpeckers (mainly heard, although the pileated was seen, just barely, flying overhead). While not at a hawk platform we did have plenty of turkey and black vultures taking advantage of the hot, dry air to swoop and soar. We even had a broadwing hawk, seen from the Griggstown Grasslands, which we visited before getting to the Delaware & Raritan Canal. After our walk around the grassland we walked along the canal and back, about 3 miles. 

We got back to our car exhausted.

I bet up on that hot, sunny platform Pete Dunne didn't even break a sweat.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Scenes From the Drought

Today, Labor Day, is the 60th day of temperatures of 80 degrees or higher, and while a drought has not been officially declared by my home state (thanks to a very wet June), we are at the point where you can tell who has been using a sprinkler (built in or otherwise) and who has not.

What had been lawn is now baked hay. My husband has not mowed the lawn since mid-July -- which, coincidentally is when we last had a day below 80 degrees. "Pop-up" storms have been few and far between.

Lawn - Sept. 7, 2015 (Margo D. Beller)
No one cared one to two months ago. Most people - not me - apparently prefer heat and humidity to cold and snow and have really enjoyed having sunny, dry days for going to the beach, the lake or the mountains, the ballpark or just for doing nothing around the house.

But now that summer is supposedly over and school is in session, these same people are ready to do their usual suburban fall activities - mow and fertilize the lawn, buy mums and corn threshes to decorate for autumn - and they suddenly realize, hey, what happened to my lawn? Why doesn't it feel like autumn?

Whether it is hot and dry or hot and humid, without rain you have plants drying up. Even plants that are "drought-tolerant" or have deep roots need water once in a while, which I provide early in the morning as needed. Many people don't, and their dried-out, dead plants show the results.

Despite my best efforts, burnt joe-pye weed. (Margo D. Beller)
Just as the birds fled the Indonesian coast before the Christmas 2004 tsunami, my backyard bird behavior is telling me how dangerous this situation has become.

Scene 1: I have had a hummingbird feeder out all summer. I've written before that recently I had to buy a cup to fill with water and keep out the ants - itself a sign of drought - and create a moat. A few days ago I came on the porch, looked at the feeder and instead of a hummingbird a downy woodpecker was attempting to get its long tongue through the portal as the smaller hummer does. Just today, a tufted titmouse grabbed hold of the rim, leaned forward and dipped its bill into the moat. I've never seen such activity from either bird.

Scene 2: I do not put seed feeders out during the summer because birds usually can eat insects (more protein). However, with this drought, there is a dearth of flowering plants. Even where there are flowers - such as the rose of sharon - I have seen very few bees or other insects partaking of the pollen. That isn't normal.

MH knows I put out feeders around Labor Day, but last week he kept asking when they'd be going out. Ever since the bear destroyed my feeder pole, requiring me to buy a new one, I've been reluctant to put them back out, knowing I'd have to take them in every night.

But I put them out, figuring it would take a few days for the birds to find them. I was wrong.

Titmouse at water cooler. (Margo D. Beller)
Within an hour I had titmice, chickadees and many, many house sparrows at the two feeders containing sunflower seeds. It took a couple of days before the thistle sock drew the attention of any goldfinches - six at one point. Until I  put the feeders out I didn't see very much backyard activity at all.

I am glad to see birds, lord knows, but it took me some time to realize that I am providing an easier way to get food than hunting long and hard for food that could be quite some distance away. That is why the female downy woodpecker has learned another unusual behavior - how to get between the bars of the caged feeder to get some seed.

I also provide water - a water cooler for smaller birds, a water dish for larger birds. In summers, even those with plentiful rain, these are invaluable. Both smaller and larger birds have come to the water cooler, the larger birds contorting themselves from a nearby branch while the smaller ones are on an attached perch. The water dish has also brought an assortment of birds as well as squirrels and chipmunks.

Scene 3: Just as there are birds crowding into and atop the feeders - particularly the huge family of house sparrows, which blocks other birds from getting food unless I chase them off - there is a large flock of birds feeding on the leavings because it is easier than fighting the crowd above. These include mourning doves, cardinals, other sparrows and even titmice and chickadees, along with squirrels and chipmunks.

With so many birds pecking at what the goldfinches and other birds have dropped, it is surprising to me that no sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawks have swooped in to catch a meal. Maybe they are sticking to the shady forest, where some areas are still green. I know I would.

Chickadee with seed. (Margo D. Beller)
There is no water, there are no flowers, there are no insects. There is only drought and what water and food I (and, I hope, others) provide. It is wrong to waste my time, energy, water and money using sprinklers in a battle to make the lawn green and long, which would mean going out (or hiring someone) to mow it and cause further heat damage to the grass, which is - after all - a plant, too.

Is this global warming, this strange dipping of the Jet Stream that has us in a high-pressure system that keeps the rain north or south of the New York metropolitan area? Is this the "new normal?" I fear it is.

I know, California has been suffering years of drought. But take a look at this list of record temperatures.
Nuthatch at caged feeder behind thistle sock. (Margo D. Beller)

According to, the record hottest summers are:
  • Eugene, Oregon: Average temperature 69.5 degrees (old record 68.5 degrees in 1967)
  • Lewiston, Idaho: Average temperature 76.9 degrees (old record 76.3 degrees in 1940)
  • Phoenix, Arizona (tie): Average temperature 95.1 degrees (ties 95.1 degrees in 2014)
  • Portland, Oregon: Average temperature 72.2 degrees (old record 69.8 degrees in 2009)
  • Medford, Oregon: Average temperature 76.4 degrees (old record 74.9 degrees in 2014)
  • Salem, Oregon: Average temperature 71.3 degrees (old record 69.4 degrees in 2014)
  • Seattle, Washington: Average temperature 69.2 degrees (old record 67.4 degrees in 2013)
  • Spokane, Washington: Average temperature 72.7 degrees (old record 71.7 degrees in 1922)
  • Wenatchee, Washington: Average temperature 76.9 degrees (old record 75.6 degrees in 1958)
Pear tree showing effect of drought. (Margo D. Beller)
Other Notables: Anchorage, Alaska (3rd hottest); Boise, Idaho (2nd hottest); Tucson, Arizona (2nd hottest); Columbia, South Carolina (3rd hottest); New Orleans (5th hottest); Baton Rouge, Louisiana (4th hottest)

Even Canada's Edmonton, Alberta went through its second-hottest August in 20 years.

Of course, not everyone is so affected. For every yin there's a yang. Again according to
  • Fort Wayne, Indiana: 21.52 inches of rain (old record 18.70 inches in 1986)
  • Rapid City, South Dakota (airport): 14.54 inches of rain (old record 11.90 inches in 1968)
Nuthatch, goldfinch, titmouse at feeder (Margo D. Beller)
Other Notables: St. Louis (2nd wettest), Indianapolis (2nd wettest), San Diego (2nd wettest), Tampa (5th wettest)
And as bad as August has been, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July was worse - the hottest month since records have been kept.

President Obama recently traveled to Alaska, to focus on climate change and its effects in the short term on the indigenous population and in the long term on the rest of the world. He is the first U.S. president to travel north of the Arctic Circle.

We've seen some lovely pictures - melting glaciers and the like - but he could've made the point just as well had he come to my backyard, watched the grass and trees and plants dry up and the birds fighting each other desperately for what food and water I provide.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

In the Mists

Circumstances have changed for me. Once again I must get up in near-darkness, just before dawn, if I want to get out for a walk before work.

I am a creature of habit, and when a habit or routine changes I feel upended until I establish a new routine.

Early rising wouldn't be a problem when the prospect of finding all sorts of northbound migrant birds would've had me up early anyway, walking slowly and listening, peering in the bad light for any movement in trees only just leafing out.

Fog (Margo D. Beller)
But in late summer the days are already getting shorter. The southbound birds are passing through quietly because they have no need to show off for potential mates or claim territory. The sun is low on the horizon and it is wonderfully cool before the three Hs - hazy, hot and humid - make their appearance.

What I have found on these walks have been local breeding birds -- chipping sparrows, cardinals, titmice -- flying around with their young. Or I find goldfinches, who are late breeders because they only eat the weed seeds that appear at this time of year. The bright yellow males perform high loop-de-loops as they impress females and protect territories.

I know that soon I won't even see that because it will still be dark before 7 am, especially when we go back to standard time.

And then, once in a while, Mother Nature throws a curve.

Orb web over plantings. (Margo D. Beller)
This particular morning I am writing about, I rose before the alarm buzzer -- I used to wake with the daylight but at the time I must rise it is still dark -- and was out the door by 6:15 am into a thick, unexpected fog.

Humidity, cooling temperatures overnight, I don't know what caused it but visibility was low and I knew it would be thicker where I was headed, to the fields of the former Greystone Park mental hospital, now the Central Park of Morris County.

It is always cooler in there, even in summer. There are no houses or sidewalks, only tall, shady trees and plants. It is only when my route takes me along town streets lined with houses and filled with anxious commuters zipping by in their cars that things seem to warm up quickly.

With the thick fog, my only concern was whether I'd be seen by one of those early-morning commuters, but at the hour I was walking there were few cars, outnumbered by walkers who were as startled to see me coming out of the fog as I was of them.

Ground web (Margo D. Beller)
The birds were not active, and their contact calls seemed tentative, for want of a better word. The white-breasted nuthatches I heard sounded more aggrieved, their nasal "hank, hank, hank" louder than usual. You can't fly very high or far in thick fog.

So while I wasn't seeing much in the way of birds, I discovered the spiders had been very busy.

On sunny summer days I don't notice webs unless they are spectacularly big or right in front of me. I've probably passed hundreds of webs hung out to catch a meal.

However, on this foggy, damp day, the condensation on the silk highlighted the intricate designs and you couldn't help but notice them.

Some were strung up high between trees. Others were over patches of lawn. I found a few draped over shrubs and other plants. When I see them in my garden they tell me there are a lot of insects hanging around. If I find a web over a particularly enticing flower I know bees will visit, I take down the web. The spider scampers away. The next day I find a new web in a nearby area.

Look carefully for the suspended web. (Margo D. Beller)
Spiders rebuild their webs all the time, so I don't feel particularly cruel about doing this.

Years ago, around this time of year, I was on Monhegan Island in Maine for a short visit. In our travels I rescued several monarch butterflies from spider webs draped over the sweet-scented dune roses. Monarchs have a hard enough time trying to make it south to Mexico for the winter without becoming a spider's supper.

Of course, spiders have to eat, too. They are very good at taking out the silverfish and other annoying house insects and we give the spiders free rein -- if they are small.

The largest spider we ever had in the house was the wolf spider. How it got into the house I don't know but spiders have a way of squeezing themselves through window screens.

My husband, who grew up sleeping in a basement where he'd find spiders, millipedes and centipedes, took the wolf spider and put it in our basement. I haven't seen it since, which is just as well.

We're both happier this way.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Feeder Location, Location, Location

Backyard hummingbird from years ago. (Margo D. Beller)
One afternoon at dusk, after a long day trying to stay alive, the little bird perched on the edge of the red feeder, dipped her long, delicate bill into the liquid and had a long drink. She might have a nest nearby and young to feed, or she could be a juvenile, in which case she could be a he.

Suddenly, another little bird appeared. Despite the many portals allowing access to the sweet liquid within, the bird - an adult male - came at the female, who flew backwards and took off. The male then sat where she had been sitting, took his own long drink and then sat there, shaded, until he took off for the night.

The whole episode took a few minutes and I witnessed it by chance through my kitchen window.

The birds were ruby-throated hummingbirds, the ones you are 99% likely to see in the eastern U.S. (The rufous hummingbird, a western species, has been known to fly along the east coast as it heads south for the winter from its breeding ground in the far north. And there are always "accidentals" that get caught up in the wrong air current.)

John J. Audubon referred to ruby-throated hummingbirds as the "glittering fragment of a rainbow" because of the male's deep red throat, white belly and green head and back (the female lacks the red). These little birds weighing less than an ounce - more like a large insect than a bird - seem to just appear out of nowhere, making my encounters with them quite special.
First attempt to evade ants. (Margo D. Beller)
My feeder was in a shady place in my backyard (see above), an area surrounded by the pink flowers of perennial geranium, astilbe, hosta, columbine and joe-pye weed. The male bird I mentioned above had been coming to the feeder every day for months, although because of the feeder's location I would only be able to see it if I walked onto my enclosed porch.

Then we had a heat wave.

No rain for a very long time, and then weeks of rain in a single day. The lawn went brown, the water dishes I have out were empty each night. I looked at the hummer feeder - filled with one-quarter cup sugar per one cup water - one afternoon and saw something crawling on it. It turned out to be a large ant. I came out the next day and saw ants all over it and inside.

This was the first time my feeder had been so afflicted. Bees, yes, but not a thick cloud of ants. And it has continued hot and dry.

I wrote recently about the feeder pole I bought to replace one destroyed by a bear. I moved the hummingbird feeder there in the afternoon. The good news was I could see the feeder from my kitchen. The bad news was for most of the day it would be hanging in the sun, where the liquid would quickly go bad.

I left it there a day and then moved it back to its usual place in the evening. It was covered with ants the next morning.

So I cleaned it out, refilled it and moved it back to the sunny area. Then I thought of a way to mitigate the problem - an old umbrella stashed in my closet from a Thai restaurant, whose unfortunate logo showed what can only be described as a highly aroused mermaid that was unavoidable when the umbrella was open.

But duct-taped to the pole with the naughty bits covered, it worked just fine for the feeder. My only concern was whether a hummingbird would find it. That concern was answered within 10 minutes when the male showed up to investigate. Later that day, a female did the same.

This was the pair that had their encounter that night.
Back in the shade, with moat. (Margo D. Beller)

Male and female hummingbirds only get along for the short time when the male displays (in extravagant aerial loops), the female accepts and they mate. Once done, the male isn't involved in the building of nests or raising of young. In fact, males are usually gone by July, making the continuation of this male into August rather extraordinary. Hummingbirds will spend more time and energy chasing each other away, even with a surfeit of food, than actually feeding.
I could've let things be with my makeshift cover but I hadn't accounted for wind pulling the umbrella, in turn pulling the feeder pole and shaking the feeder. So I went to my closest New Jersey Audubon store to see if there was some way to either shade the feeder or block the ants. Turned out there was both.

So now, the feeder is back in its original location in the shade, the ants blocked by a moat, and the male has been coming to feed.

Sadly, the female came to the sunny feeder pole, found nothing and flew off. I can only hope she will find the feeder in the shade and manage to take another long drink before being chased off yet again.

What do we learn from all this? We learn that necessity is the mother of invention, and if there is a problem there are always ways to solve it (including finding a product at an affordable price).

Most important, you learn that when you put out food for birds, even tiny birds like hummingbirds, you will get a large thrill when they come to feed, and you will do whatever it takes to help them do so.

Postscript: The morning after writing the above I went out to get the feeder. It had seemed the hummingbird was struggling to get enough liquid that evening and I wanted to top off the water level. I looked at the feeder and the moat - no ants. I took a small leaf out of the water (many leaves are falling in this heat), unhooked the feeder and brought it in.

I took off the lid and found an ant flailing about in the water! How could this have happened?

I fished the ant out, threw it back outside, topped the water level and was putting the lid back on when two things occurred to me.

First, the ant was probably on the underside of the lid, above the water (since, according to the makers of the moat, ants can't swim) and I had dislodged it either when I took the feeder in or took off the lid.

Second, and most important, the ant had crawled down to the leaf, used it as a bridge to the edge of the moat, crawled up over the side and resumed its quest for nirvana.

Once again proving that necessity is the mother of invention, even for an ant.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Do You Know Where Your "Jersey Fresh" Corn Comes From?

I have to say right away that I enjoy going to farm markets. I go to one of the few in my area in the winter, held monthly, where several bakers offer treats and farms bring their winter store of goods - grass-fed meats and such produce as apples and root vegetables and greens that like winter cold like spinach.

I go to another farmstand not far from where I live, where the goal is to teach the lower-income people in the neighborhood where food comes from (not "from the store"). A wide variety of herbs and vegetables is grown here and picked for you (with you showing what you want), all moderately priced. What isn't sold is used in the local schools or donated to a food pantry. You can walk around and pick flowers and people talk to each other and trade recipes. I find it extremely relaxing, especially watching the bees and hearing the birds.

Those are not the type of farm markets I mean.
(Margo D. Beller)
I know farms are trying to survive. When they are not bringing their goods to a network of weekly markets throughout the state, they offer visitors (mainly city dwellers trying to remember a simpler time) pick-your-own berries and fruit, hay rides, corn mazes and petting zoos. They are part of what has become agritourism, which sprang up as states worked to drum up interest in farms and help them survive rather than sell out to "developers" that build condos and housing all over them.

Before the farmstand I mentioned above came into being, I would go to the farm markets in my town and several other towns if they were held on a Saturday or Sunday, or at the ones located near wherever I happened to be working at the time. (One of the biggest, held all year, is in Union Square, New York City, where many of the local restaurants buy the goods in bulk as part of a drive toward "eating fresh and local.")

People are willing to pay a lot for local, especially if organically grown.

The problem is, not every fruit or vegetable is available when you want it. That is part of the reason you can find blueberries from halfway around the world at your supermarket in winter but not those from New Jersey, which have a limited season in the late spring/early summer.

Most people just presume fruits and vegetables are available when they want them. Farms know this.

So when the farm market in my town opened for business in June, I was surprised to see warm-weather crops (peppers and tomatoes, among others) along with the cold crops (spinach, garlic). I was not surprised to learn from one of the farm people that this north Jersey farm has an arrangement with a farm in North Carolina to get produce shipped north for those early market days.

You may think you are paying for local but you're not.

I've gone into New Jersey farmstands when the corn or other produce is marked "Jersey Fresh," the marketing slogan of the state agricultural department. That means it comes from a New Jersey farm, just not the one you might be buying from.

Again, I understand the farm's need to make a buck and survive. If Joan Jersey wants a "fresh" tomato off the farm in May, what are you going to do? You get her one. Otherwise, she goes to the local supermarket, which is also catering to the "farm fresh, buy local" craze by contracting with local farms for produce - in season. The rest of the time, those fruits and veggies can come from halfway around the world.

One of the beauties of buying off the farm is knowing where the stuff comes from. But do you really know where the stuff comes from when you see the farm staff opening boxes of tomatoes and offering them for sale, even when marked as "Jersey Fresh?" I don't think so.

Hazel St. farmstand, Morristown, N.J. (Margo D. Beller)
So I've gotten what's known as hyperlocal. I know what I can get in summer from my favorite local farmstand (greens, herbs, peppers and fresh tomatoes), where I can buy freshly cut asparagus in early spring and fruit grown in the fields, and where I can get corn I can see growing picked and put on a table for sale. That happens to be three different places, none of which is the farm offering goods in my town.

It means a bit more travel - and using fossil fuels to get there - but I know where the food really comes from.

As with everything else, buyer beware.