Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Saturday, December 24, 2011


We’re at that time of year when most of us resolve to do things better, differently or both.

I don’t make resolutions as a rule - I gave up “lose 30 pounds by my birthday” or “read ‘War and Peace’” years ago. But it is part of human nature to want what you don’t have if you think it will improve your life.

I find it comforting even established birders feel that way.

Don Freiday, for instance. I met Don once, long ago when he ran N.J. Audubon’s Scherman Hoffman sanctuary. He then moved on to run the Audubon sanctuary in Cape May and is now tending to the federal Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge not far (as the gull flies) from Atlantic City. He has also been writing a blog that features his musings, photography and tips on bird identification.

He recently posted how "I wish I had” been faster with his camera, been elsewhere when a rarity had been reported or been able to do more birding when he had to work. Since he works at one of New Jersey’s best birding spots, this wish is particularly sad.

The blogosphere being what it is, I wrote him a comment to commiserate. There are too many things “I wish I had” been able to do, too.
His response: Margo and all - it is indeed a universal desire. Maybe it's time to look forward - "I hope I do. . ."

Good advice.

It’s a waste of time and energy to fuss over the bird too far to clearly identify or the rarity you missed by an hour in your local hotspot or the more common bird that everyone sees regular as clockwork except for you (in my case a saw-whet owl).

Instead, we should all focus on the good things we have and look forward to what new things we can accomplish. Right now there are cardinals and chickadees at the feeders but come spring there could be more unusual birds passing through, maybe even something new.

Be thankful to have the stamina for long walks or whatever hobby you do to escape from the daily grind, and keep feeling the excitement of discovering something interesting that might be around the corner.

Stop wishing and start doing. That’s the best resolution.

Have a happy, healthy holiday.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Ugly Beauty

To paraphrase Casey Stengel on baseball, if you hang out in the great outdoors long enough you’re bound to see something you’ve never seen before.

That happened to me one early Saturday morning.

I usually walk up to Collins Road and into the Greystone - sorry, Central Park of Morris County - property. At the other end of the road, just beyond where Collins joins Central Ave., there is a large tree overlooking Thompson Pond.

Usually this tree is covered with turkey vultures.

The turkey vulture is a very ugly bird. It has a red, bare head, giving it only the slightest of resemblances to Ben Franklin’s choice for national symbol. The head is bare because the vulture eats dead meat and you don’t want to be messing up feathers sticking your head into a bloody, rotting carcass.

When the turkey vulture sits in a tree above you and spreads its wings you know it is a very big bird indeed. Usually you will see one or two hunting together but at dusk they form big roosting flocks, like the one at Greystone.

So when I took my walk the first surprise was the turkey vultures were not in the usual tree but in a number of big trees along Central Ave. The usual tree was filled with black vultures.

Black vultures are an interesting story. They used to be seen only south of the Mason-Dixon line but have been gradually heading north, perhaps as the Earth warms.

These vultures are smaller and have white “fingers” at the wing tips, unlike the border of white trailing feathers on the turkey vulture. They are also stockier and can be mistaken for redtails and other buteos in flight.

Unlike the turkey vulture it dips its wings while flying and usually travels in flocks. It is an ugly bird with a silver-gray head, also bare for eating dead meat. I was driving on a back road once and about 10 of these were on a dog carcass, a revolting sight.

Then again, if people are going to let their animals loose, what do they expect? Once it is hit by a speeding car, a vulture will make quick work of it.

And there is plenty of dead meat to go around, as the dead deer and squirrels and woodchucks and possums and cats and even bears on New Jersey’s roadsides can attest.

You might ask, what were these two types of vultures doing that cold morning of my walk?

They were drying their wings from the night’s dew and warming themselves as they waited for updrafts that would keep them aloft.

Ever feel stiff on a cold morning? Well, on cold, calm mornings vultures and other daytime raptors have to wait until their wings are light and buoyant enough to fly. You don’t want to be weighed down as you seek your breakfast.

Besides the surprise of finding two types of vultures within a block of each other, the next surprise was discovering many of the turkey vultures were also on a sandbank in the pond. Vultures don’t eat live fish and they don‘t swim. I can only guess all the other prime spots - the very large, strong trees or the nearby building roof to support their weight - were taken.

I walked on, but there was one last surprise in store.

I came home the way I went out, and when I got to the pond most of the vultures had left, or so I thought. But I found them on a sunny grass field up Central Ave., chasing each other around like Canada geese.

I’ve never seen this type of vulture behavior. Try to imagine a green field black with very large vultures spreading their wings to dry, chasing each other away, making grunt calls.

It was an ugly sight, but a natural one. After all, vultures have their place in the world. They are Nature‘s sanitation crew. As my husband says about critters that interfere with my bird feeders, they gotta eat, too.

We may not like what vultures represent - the end of life, disposal of the body, the subsequent decay - but that’s the balance of life and death.

By the time I got home some of the turkey vultures were already circling in the clear, blue sky, and for a moment even these ugliest of birds looked beautiful to this Earth-bound creature.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Six Woodpeckers

You’ll have to forgive my being a little cocky today but in all my years of birding I’ve never had a day like Saturday.

A six-woodpecker day.

I have been known to find six warblers in a day, which is a big deal to me. I have also seen six types of sparrows in one day. But there are many more than six of these seen in this state at any given time.

The six woodpeckers commonly found in my area of New Jersey aren’t all that easy to find, particularly on the same day.

(A seventh - the redheaded woodpecker - is a southern bird that needs specific habitat to survive, in this case stands of dead trees. With the suburban penchant for cutting down any inconvenient tree dead or alive, you have to seek it in a Known Redheaded Woodpecker Location such as the Great Swamp. I usually seem them in winter.)

I was lucky enough to be in the right places at the right times, and it is this combination of luck and surprise with just enough knowledge to make identification possible that makes birding such a joy.

Three of the woodpeckers were gimmes. In the afternoon my feeders brought the six-inch downy, which was chased off by the nine-inch hairy, which was chased off by the comparably sized redbellied woodpecker, like the one here. For more on these go to
Usually these three are all I see. But not yesterday.

I went walking early into the nearby Central Park of Morris County, once known as the Greystone property. (There is still a Greystone property but it is on the western edge and owned by the state. Where I was is now owned by the county.)

Besides the expected birds I heard the distinctive call of a flicker, a cackling “ahhhrrr.” Flickers are usually seen on the ground and are mostly brown to blend in. I couldn’t find it.

So that’s four woodpeckers.

As I headed home from this walk I stopped when I heard what sounded like the breathy “Wha-wha-wha” of the pileated woodpecker, the largest of the six. It is about the size of a crow and has a most distinctive red crest and black and white body.

These are great to see up close, like the female I saw on a neighbor’s tree, whacking away at it to scoop up the carpenter ants within.

No surprise, that tree rotted and fell over in a storm less than two years later.

If you are old enough to remember the Woody Woodpecker cartoon, his laugh and look were based on the pileated.

Anyway, I stopped and listened. It called, then it called again. I have found pileateds in Greystone before, one mere feet away. So I knew what it was.

That’s five woodpeckers.

Here is where luck morphed into transcendence.

Every winter my husband and I go through the marriage-testing experience of clearing the lower house gutters of fallen leaves. (We don’t do the higher gutters because we want to live to a comfortable old age, and any spillover comes into the lower gutters anyway.)

There I was, not long after the morning walk, holding the large, metal ladder on which MH, bad knees and all, was trying to pull out wet leaves.

Behind me I heard a whinny. Could it be? I heard it again. Yes it was! A yellow-bellied sapsucker!

“Pay attention to the ladder,” MH yelled, somehow sensing I wasn‘t giving 100 percent.

“But it’s a sapsucker!” I responded. “That’s my sixth woodpecker of the day.”

For some reason, perhaps being 15 feet above the ground, he wasn‘t as impressed. “No reckless birding! Concentrate,” he retorted.

At which point the calling bird flew from its tree next door and across the road, out of sight, allowing me to turn back and focus on not becoming a widow.

The sapsucker is a very different type of woodpecker. It has red on the top of its head, like some of the others, but distinctively on its “chin,” too. It drills small, shallow holes in trees, not to pull out insects but to draw the sap on which it feeds. This sap also draws a lot insects, which feeds all the birds. (The sap also feeds hummingbirds when they first arrive during spring migration.)

In spring these shy birds announce their territory as loudly as any other woodpecker, an activity known as drumming.

It’s a simple process: hammer on a branch (or a wood-shingled house) with your sturdy bill to loudy announce “I am here and if you are another woodpecker stay away.”

Find the right sounding board and your message will go far.

And that was the sixth. Does it make me a better birder? No, but it reminds me why I enjoy birding.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Despite nearly 20 years in suburbia I still find the leaf blower to be at best a necessary evil and I try to use it as little as possible.

The first time I go out after the leaves start to drop I use the lawn mower to mulch them. The next time, after more leaves are down, I convert my electric leaf blower into a mulching vac and crunch up as many as I can stuff into the compost pile.

But after the pile gets filled I must use the blower to herd the leaves closer together to save some time and energy before I use my rake and tarp.

Unfortunately, I am in the minority. Most of my neighbors have lawn services that use leaf blowers, huge fans and tractors to shove the leaves into huge piles at the curb. The din is painfully loud and the gas smell pervasive. At least they finish quickly.

Those doing it themselves have their own blowers and fans that are just as bad and take longer to finish. My neighbors must work when they have free time and if that means going out as night is falling and working in the dark, so be it.

When I pull out the rake I am purposely slowing myself down. I can go out early and work quietly. I am not wasting energy but I am getting needed exercise. I can listen to the birds.

Also, I get time to think. Here are some things I have thought while raking:

1. I always know where my neighbor’s property ends and mine begins during leaf-blowing season because he will not go one inch further.

2. A pristine lawn won’t last more than a day before leaves come back on it, even if using a lawn service. So why fuss about it? “Let’s not finesse it,” my husband often tells me as we work.

3. Speaking of MH, raking is a nice way of bonding with your spouse. Every year MH and I start by getting in each other’s way but without saying anything we develop a pattern: he makes smaller piles, I sweep them into the tarp. Then we lug the tarp to the curb. The job goes faster and we rejoice in its completion together.

4. The birds aren’t happy when I work near the feeders but they are very happy when I clear the big leaves and uncover the bugs.

5. If you stop every so often you might find something interesting. One year it was a brown creeper heading up a tree. This year it has been a redtail hawk being harassed by crows and 15 black vultures circling over the house.

6. You can see how the lawn is doing up close, including where the mushrooms have come up, the ground ivy has taken over and the skunks have been digging for grubs.

7. Wind is the ultimate leaf blower. If I go out on a windy day I figure out the direction and rake accordingly. It amazes me how someone will try to fight the wind, wasting time and energy. Life is too short.

8. I would love to meet the person on the Shade Tree Commission who decided having locust trees on my street would be a great idea. Locust leaves are too small to be effectively blown or even raked, and the female trees usually have hundreds of hanging seed pods that fall and blacken the lawn. Luckily, this year was the one in three when the female tree on my property produced only a few pods. I would like to punch that commissioner in the nose.

9. Why don’t more towns require leaves be bagged? It’s hard enough driving on leaf-clogged streets, harder still to walk on streets without sidewalks where leaves on both sides make a two-way road into one lane. In the years I would walk home from the train every night I feared the oncoming car at my back that wouldn’t slow down. Luckily, I lived to tell the tale. When my town comes through the crew leaves almost as much behind as it picks up. I would think collecting ecologically approved brown bags of leaves would be more efficient and quicker.

10. You are going to see your neighbors and they are going to see you, whether you like it or not. So wave and be friendly. It might be the last time you see them until next fall.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Communing with the Cardinals

When my friends ask me which of the many birds I’ve seen is my favorite, I know exactly what to answer.

I have three.

The carolina wren: It sings its lovely songs - it knows a lot of them - all year, even in the coldest, snowiest winter. It flits around the edges of my yard, is wonderfully colored and easy to identify and I always feel honored when it makes an unexpected appearance at my seed and suet feeders.

The black-capped chickadee: This one will explore just about anything, isn’t afraid to hang upside down while gleaning for seeds and has a lovely song that starts up high and comes down. To me it sounds like “Hey, sweetie.” It will come to the feeder, grab a sunflower seed and fly to a nearby bush to eat. It is inquisitive and isn’t afraid to fly close. Even the “dee-dee-dee” call is calming.

But I have to admit the first among equals is the cardinal. The red of the male or the warm brown (red at the crest and bill and tail) of the female look pretty in a green bush or pine tree. The crested bird is big and easy to identify. It is monogamous (like the wren but unlike the chickadee) and when courting its mate he will give her a seed in a way that looks like a kiss. Both birds sing but the male is more obvious, loudly proclaiming from the top of a tree in spring.

What I like best about the cardinal is it is reliable, coming every day at dawn and at dusk.

We all know the phrase about the early bird getting the worm. I think it refers to the robin, which gets up in the dark to call and then to eat. But robins don’t come to seed feeders. When I am up at dawn I can look out at the feeder and know one of the cardinals will be the first bird to visit. If I am lucky enough to be home at dusk I know it will be the last bird to visit.

At these times I like to stand at the kitchen window and watch the cardinals, communing with them, if you will.

They seem so calm and comfortable with each other, like my husband and myself and other long-married couples I know. The gentle “kiss” could be MH greeting me when he first comes downstairs in the morning. The pair fly together, calling with hard “teeks” as if to say, “I am here, where are you?” “I’m right here, where are YOU?”
In winter I’ve had as many as four cardinal pairs jockeying for feeding position. Like all birds there is a pecking order, with the most inferior and his mate forced to wait off to the side until the others eat - these birds will sit at the feeder a long time cracking the seeds with their large finch bills - before they can have their meal. (I keep a lot of seed on hand.)

It is easy to put human traits to birds but cardinals aren’t people.

I keep four feeders going in winter but the cardinals, being bigger, can only come to the one that looks like a house. Last winter, when the snows were deep and the neighbors didn’t fill their feeders we had so many finches, sparrows and other birds at ours the cardinals would scream at them and attack. It was a horrifying reminder that Nature isn’t always placid and winter can be much harder on the birds.

Remember that the next time you complain about 4 inches of snow on a weekday morning. At least you know where you’ll get your next warm meal.

Winter aside, there are other hazards like cowbirds (which frequently drop their eggs in cardinal nests), hungry hawks and people who chop down a tree or bush with no thought as to what might be nesting inside.

Cardinals are in no danger of becoming extinct - at least not yet.

Give man the time to think of ways to jar Nature’s delicate balance and perhaps the cardinal, along with the rest of us, won’t be around much longer.

In the meantime I’ll watch for the cardinals to make their regular visits at dawn and dusk, a bit of certainty - for now - in an uncertain world.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Politics of Open Space

Friday morning I got an email from one of my neighbors.

We’ve won the fight. Governor Christie has dedicated himself to preserving the 160+ acres of vacated property at Greystone as open space. This means that it will only be used for parks and passive recreation – no housing or commercial development!! As for the historic buildings, we do not yet know their fate. What matters is that no matter [what] happens with the buildings, the land is protected as green open space!

I have written before about the good and bad of living near 600 acres of open space. The old mental hospital was closed in 2000 by another Republican Gov. Christie - Christie Whitman - after years of bad publicity involving abuse of patients. A smaller, more modern facility was built at one end of the state property. The rest of the land, about 400 acres, was sold by the legislature for $1 to Morris County in 2001.

When my husband and I first moved to Morris Plains in 1993 I walked up Central Avenue to the steps of the old administration office, a hulking stone building whose exterior has been used in movies and on TV, including an episode of “House.”

Along Central Ave. were other hulking stone buildings where the patients had been kept. Although empty, the whole area was eerie and I quickly left. Since the county took over many of the large buildings - although not the administration building - have been pulled down. Some of the resulting space is now used for athletic fields. I walk there and it is no longer eerie and I have found a lot of interesting birds.

But after the new hospital was built a lot of that 200 acres of state-owned land was left over.

The governor in power by then, a Democrat by the name of Jon Corzine - the same man who is now in trouble for some bad bets he made on Europe that sent his company, MF Global, into bankruptcy court - thought the land should be sold for housing or commercial use. A group was set up to study the possibility.

This is when the organization created by my neighbor and a lot of others, Preserve Greystone, came into being. New Jersey is already overbuilt. Go to central NJ and count the number of farms for sale or the number of McMansion developments that sprang up on former farm land to get an idea of what could've happened to the Greystone land.

Had Corzine been successful, the little borough of Morris Plains would’ve become a very different place and a lot of us would’ve moved. While Greystone is in Parsippany, most of the traffic, already bad, would’ve been coming though my town’s streets.

But Corzine lost his re-election bid and Chris Christie, whose previous political job before becoming U.S. Attorney under George W. Bush had been on the Morris County Board of Freeholders, was elected. Preserve Greystone waited to see what the new governor would do.

With a reputation for wanting to do as much as possible to bring business to the state, even if that means weakening a lot of the laws that protect our land, water and air, no one could be sure what that would be.

I was amused by his press release, which read in part:
"My Administration is committed to implementing a plan that finally provides a responsible resolution for the future of the shuttered facilities at Greystone Park and the property they sit on. By doing so, we are fulfilling the state’s obligation to clean up this dormant site in an environmentally and fiscally sound manner."

Of course, the man was elected in January 2009 and he waited a helluva long time to decide to be the Housekeeper-in-Chief. With state funding to towns and counties cut hard by his administration it‘s a wonder he found the $27 million to do this cleanup at all.

Or is it?

As I said, I got the email Friday. That day the Star-Ledger ran an article about the Greystone plan.

On Saturday morning I went to the Post Office early and got the mail from Thursday and Friday. In it I found the mailing pictured here.

I got a sick feeling looking at these two Republicans announcing how they and others had procured Greystone’s freedom from development, and urging me and others to vote for them and other Republican candidates.

Notice there is no mention of Preserve Greystone.

Was this all a coordinated plan to help the Republicans stay in power in Morris County - as if the Democrats were putting up much of an opposition?

I have no doubt as to the sincerity of my neighbor’s bipartisan organization and its hard work in giving Christie the push he needed to finally do something.

But I don’t think it is any coincidence the Republican governor should announce this plan the same day the Republican candidates for borough council sent me a mailing proclaiming their part in it.

Politics as usual.

I got the same sick feeling in 2002 when Democrat Jim McGreevey became governor, threatening to undo the legislature‘s approval of that $1 land sale.

He said it was a giveaway to the “rich people” of Morris County and the land should be used for low-income housing. McGreevey knew that while a mainly Republican county, the towns of Morristown, Dover and others tend to vote Democrat. They are not rich towns.

But he was playing to his more solidly Democrat urban base elsewhere in the state.

It was an insult to those of us middle-class Democrats who happen to live in Morris County.

By the way, McGreevey was mayor of Woodbridge Township in Middlesex County before running for governor. Woodbridge is one of the worst examples of overbuilt suburban sprawl in the state.

Politics as usual.

Just like Corzine and his plan for commercializing the remaining state land. Just like the Republicans running for council grabbing the coattails of movements like Preserve Greystone to proclaim their part in the victory.

It’s hard not to be cynical.

At least Greystone remains open, a shelter from suburban sprawl and a buffer against the kind of build-out a lot of other towns allowed, taxing their resources and changing their character.

In this case I guess we of Morris Plains are indeed rich, and very lucky.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Oh Snow!

Last week, when it was sunny and clear and autumnal, the little voice in my head said I should not go birding but stay home and attend to the last of the pre-winter chores.

Cutting back the overgrown rose of sharons. Pulling in the pots of cannas. Mowing the lawn. Weeding.

I don't usually listen to that voice but this time I did. Considering the snow that is falling at a December-like pace, I am glad I did.

The only problem was, I hadn't pulled in the pots of vegetables. I had hoped the remaining tomatoes and peppers, including some very small ones fooled into growing by the milder September weather, would redden - in particular the peppers, which get sweeter that way.

So I left the pots where they were, figuring I had time. Besides, by the time I finished the other chores I was sore and couldn't lift a thing, including my spirits.

Then came the weather report about today, Saturday, Oct. 29. Significant snow in Morris County before Halloween?

Out I went in the pre-dawn on Friday before work to pull in the tomato pots, beheading the plants and hanging them, fruit attached, in the basement. Out I went in the post-dusk after I got home to tear apart the cage I constructed to keep out the deer and squirrels and chipmunks and anything else, then take the huge pepper pots. Everything is now on my enclosed porch. The plants are not warm but they are dry and I can take the time to work on creating order from the resulting chaos, only a hint of which you see in this photo.

This year we have had the hottest month on record and the wettest month on record. We also had the most powerful Category 1 hurricane - Irene - to hit this area.

Now we have had the worst pre-November snow since the early 1950s. We got the power failure I feared from the snow weighing down the trees - which this morning were so colorful with the autumn leaves - and hitting the power lines.

(I was able to update this blog because we got the power back, at 2:45 a.m., after 12 1/2 hours.)

To all who don't believe in climate change I say there is something very, very wrong in our atmosphere to create abnormal weather like this. New Jersey is in the process of deciding whether to join a major lawsuit with other eastern states to defend the federal Environmental Protection Agency against challenges from coal producers, whose pollution blows east over us.

That our pro-business governor has to think about whether New Jersey should be involved shows just how much of phony he is when it comes to the environment.

We were lucky to get the power, and the heat, back. For now at least, it is literally cold comfort.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What's in a Name?

The other morning I was standing in my front yard, thinking of all the things left to do in the garden before winter comes, when a little bird flew to one of the locust trees and started climbing up the tree, its long, curved bill probing the bark.

A brown creeper. It is a common bird in New Jersey but I usually see them at this autumnal time of year either while hiking or raking leaves.

The brown creeper is aptly named because it is brown and creeps up the tree. Unlike the nuthatch, which walks up and down trees, the creeper only goes up. When done in one tree it flies to the bottom of the next and starts creeping up again.

Watching the creeper at its business I started thinking of the names of other birds I see regularly.

The chickadee, for instance, named for its chick-a-dee-dee-dee call. Or the cardinal, in its red robes. Or the towhee, so named because that is what it calls out when alarmed.

The phoebe calls its name, a thin fib-BIT. But the tufted titmouse also has a call where it sounds like it is calling phee-BEE, and another call where it says a rough dee-dee-dee like a chickadee. I knew I was getting somewhere as a birder when I learned to tell the raucous call of the titmouse from the calmer call of the chickadee.

Then there’s the redbellied woodpecker. The first time one of these came to my friend’s feeder she told me she had seen a redheaded woodpecker. If you saw the redbellied woodpecker you’d notice the fine red that runs along the head and down the back of the neck, too. But there already is a redheaded woodpecker whose entire head is red and whose body is solid black and white. Since the redbellied has a bit of pink on its belly, that became its name.

Black-throated blue, black-throated green and yellow warblers are aptly named for their plumage but warblers generally don’t warble. Palm warblers don’t live in palms, prairie warblers don’t stay in the prairie and the Cape May, Tennessee, Nashville and Kentucky warblers are more likely to be seen in New Hampshire than the states where they were allegedly first seen.

The harlequin duck is one of my favorites, unique in its clownlike coloring. But how did the duck now known as the longtailed duck get its first name of "old squaw?"

There’s the bluebird and louder and larger jay, which is also blue and usually called a blue jay. According to Diana Wells’ “100 Birds and How They Got Their Names,” jay comes from the old French word “jai” and likely refers to the bird’s “gay” plumage.

The catbird has a mewing call that can sound like a cat while its cousin the mockingbird uses the calls of other birds as though to mock them. (One can listen to a mockingbird and get an idea of what other birds are in the neighborhood.)

All very interesting, albeit confusing. The sad part is, most of the time a birder could care less about the bird‘s name and how it got there as long as he or she can put a check next to it on a life list.

It took a brown creeper to remind me to not only look at the bird but think about it, too.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

King (and Queen) of the Skies

On a boat headed north to the Maine shore several Septembers ago from Monhegan Island, about 10 miles from the mainland, a monarch butterfly passed us heading south. A butterfly over open water?

Well, yes. When your internal clock says it's time to head home, that's what you do, even over open water, high over mountains or through local parks. You flap your little wings and push on.

Anytime in September into October, when the winds blow from the north, you are as likely to see a monarch butterfly flying overhead as you are a raptor.

There was the time one came so close to the field at a recent college football game I was afraid it was going to get tackled. Or the time my husband and I were looking at a tree in a Chicago park late one afternoon and realized what we thought were leaves were dozens of roosting monarchs. Or the time MH and I were hiking single file through a field of goldenrod at Sandy Hook, N.J., and a cloud of monarchs rose up and hovered over his head while he walked on oblivious.

I like monarchs. They are big and easy to identify, unlike a lot of other butterflies. Their orange wings contrast very nicely on purple aster or thistle or especially yellow goldenrod. For something so small they are amazingly tough. They have to be.

Monarchs migrate, as birds do. But they have a more interesting story. According to one website I found, once the monarch makes its way north from its winter home in Mexico (some winter in southern California) it goes through several generations - a butterfly goes from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult in six to eight weeks - before the fourth-generation adult butterfly heads south in September or October to winter and then starts the cycle anew.

As with migrating birds, you don't think about the hardship that something weighing mere ounces goes through traveling hundreds of miles. I'm sure the one I saw in Maine was heading to Monhegan to rest and fuel up for the next leg of its journey. But during the same Maine trip I rescued two monarchs from spiderwebs laid across the flowers the butterfly needs to feed on. I could only hope they made it the rest of the way.

Even if the monarch makes it to its winter home it isn't necessarily safe. According to a different website I found, the butterfly's winter home in central Mexico is endangered by logging and overdevelopment of agriculture. Those monarchs that winter in southern California are finding the area more built up. Climate change may also create wetter, warmer conditions that could mess up a monarch's life cycle.

That's tough for a delicate little butterfly. Luckily, the monarchs inspire humans.

In southern California there is a concerted movement to provide more roosting trees as well as milkweed plants for the female monarchs to lay their eggs in. The caterpillars need milkweed to survive.

In central Mexico, there are four monarch butterfly sanctuaries and people have figured out they can make green and be green showing the ecotourists around them rather than cutting down all the trees. Just do a Google search under "monarch butterfly migration mexico tours" and you'll see what I mean.

I don't feel the need to travel to Mexico to see monarch butterflies in winter when they can be seen so easily right now, but it is very nice to know there are efforts to protect them. When they land on my butterfly bush to feed I know I've made my small contribution to their continuation.

Long may they reign.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Up on the roof

I’d like to have a mansion on a steep hill, lots of woods around it, lots of hiking trails and plants and people to take care of them.

Since I don’t, the next best thing is to visit someone else’s.

So there I was, standing on the roof of the Hoffman part of New Jersey Audubon’s Scherman-Hoffman sanctuary in Bernardsville, looking for raptors last week.

There are many better-known places to look for hawks. Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania may be one of the most famous, and you can learn about some of the others through the website .

I like Scherman-Hoffman’s hawk platform because it is not well known and is very easy to get to - a good thing for someone who can’t or won't climb. Just take the elevator to the third floor and walk up the ramp and out the door. (There are no chairs up there, so for a long visit bring your own.)

Last year was the first for the hawk watch because it was the first year the expanded Hoffman education center was opened after years of construction. The watch was staffed by an intern named Ben who showed knowledge of birds' field marks and calls beyond his young years. He is now at Cornell so this year we are on our own.

On the roof, alone on a sunny day, I was keeping my own checklist. Turkey vultures? Check. Black vultures? Yep, a circling kettle of nine. Redtail, sharp shinned and cooper’s hawks? Got’em.

Ospreys? A lot of them.

This is an inland location, so it is always a thrill when the osprey, also known as the sea eagle, flies over. Many did while I stood on the roof.

I always thought the osprey should’ve been the national bird instead of the bald eagle. It only eats fish and is a very good hunter, hovering over the water before diving. If successful it comes up, seems to shrug its shoulders to shake off the excess water and then flies to a tree for a well-deserved meal.

By contrast, the bald eagle will eat just about anything, dead or alive, and isn‘t a very good hunter. It is not above taking a fish away from another bird, usually the osprey.

Besides, ospreys look so cool up there in the blue with that head and wing pattern.

After 30 minutes of standing on the roof, I took myself for a hike around the sanctuary to stretch my legs.

I have found all sorts of birds at the center’s new Field Loop Trail Spur, from the small gold-crowned kinglet to the redtailed hawk. I was not disappointed this time - an accipiter zipping across the trail, into the trees and to a branch just along enough for me to identify it as a juvenile cooper’s hawk. Thanks!

A hawk was expected. What was not expected was the pair of turkeys that crossed the path just before the cooper’s made its appearance.

Benjamin Franklin also thought the bald eagle was a bad choice for representing the fledgling United States, for much the same reasons I do. In a letter he said the eagle is a “bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly.”

By contrast he thought the wild turkey a “more respectable bird” and a “true original native of America” as well as a “bird of courage” that would “not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who would presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

I suspect Franklin might have been writing with tongue in cheek, although I have heard stories of turkeys attacking people and cars and I've read they are increasing in number, spreading out across New Jersey.

The two turkeys that crossed my path in Bernardsville saw me and rather than attack - perhaps because I was not wearing a red coat - ran into the woods and just stood there, thinking I couldn’t see them.

Turkeys are not known for being smart.

However, these were smart enough to be at Scherman-Hoffman. If they hang around on the sanctuary's property long enough they will avoid the fate of their forebears at Thanksgiving.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Life and life lists

There are times I want to drop everything - job, home, even husband - and go off somewhere to do nothing but look for birds. Then reality hits and I face whatever the problem is and go on with my life.

A lot of birders, however, seem to have the financial wherewithal or the time or the pliable boss to be able to just drop everything and go wherever a rare or unusual bird is reported.

Some travel very great distances indeed. Some of them even become the subject of books.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a lot of comment on various birding lists about a trailer for the movie “The Big Year.” It is based on the book by Mark Obmascik about three men of very different means who for very different reasons decide they want to see the most birds in a year.

The concept of the “big year” was popularized by, among others, Roger Tory Peterson, author of the famous Peterson guides that allowed anyone to be able to identify a bird through field markings (and binoculars) rather than shooting them down.

A lot of people like doing “big years” or “big days” or even “big sits” (you sit in one place for 24 hours and record what you see within a set radius). Many do it for charity, raising money for each bird they see. The World Series of Birding is one of the best-known examples, at least in New Jersey where I live.

I admit I’ve been known to take the car (with or without husband) every so often and drive to an area in the hopes of seeing something new.

But there are those who MUST see every bird on earth. In fact, there is a book, “To See Every Bird On Earth,” on that subject by Dan Koeppel. It was published in 2006, two years after “The Big Year.“ The two have a lot in common - each features a man so obsessed that birding becomes his life to the exclusion of everything else. In the Koeppel book, the author joins his father - the obsessed - on some of his travels as a way of trying to get close to him after years of estrangement. He is sympathetic to his father, even if he doesn’t exactly understand his obsession.

In the Obmascik book, there is one character so obsessed and so nasty about it you really, really hope he fails. In the movie, I discovered from the trailer, he will be played by Owen Wilson. I would’ve picked Dustin Hoffman, who reportedly was going to be in the film in a different role but left. He was replaced by Steve Martin, who will play the millionaire westerner who gets involved in the “Big Year” after he retires. (The third birder, a perpetual loser, will be played to type by Jack Black. There will be a lot of pratfalls in the film as a result.)

The obsessed character in “The Big Year” has the money and time to literally go great distances just for a few seconds to sight a bird. (It is a shock to realize you can no longer hop a plane, zip around and be back in a day in the world since Sept. 11, 2001.) His license plate reads “Skua,” apt because this is a nasty sea bird that lives by stealing fish from other birds.

These people in the book are real, I must emphasize. The character played by Owen Wilson was a featured speaker at the New Jersey Meadowlands Festival of Birding a few weekends ago, which shows he still knows how to make a buck.

He was described in the brochure I was sent as “bird chaser extraordinaire.” I call him a loser. I don’t plan on seeing the movie although I’ll be interested to read the thoughts of birders who do. (Birders will talk about anything on the bird lists until the list masters step in. The movie opens in mid-October.)

This man could’ve lost his life any number of times to break the “birds seen” record. His life must’ve meant very little to him compared to winning at any cost. This will be played to comedic effect in the movie, unfortunately.

But compare him to the person staring death in the face, such as one of my best friends. Her cancer has returned after 10 years of remission. It is the same type of cancer that killed my mother over 30 years ago. My friend has the advantage of better technology in fighting cancer, and the better attitude of “I went through it once, I can do it again” than my mother.

This is literally a matter of life and death and my friend values her life because she knows it's most important. The people who proudly boast how they travel halfway across the state - or the country, or the world - to record a bird on a "life list" doesn't know this and it shows the spirit of “The Big Year” is still very much with us.

These birders may have a big life list but, really, they have no life. I hope they get one before it’s too late.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A change of scenery

Nothing like a sudden autumnal chill to remind you how much there is left to do in the garden before winter.

I had a lot left to do.

The back, shade garden needed major plant trimming, the fence posts needed resetting and the deer netting had to be replaced. The posts holding up the compost fencing were falling every which way. The top of the pear tree would allow an enterprising squirrel access to the screened-porch roof. A scotch broom in the grass garden had to be pulled up, providing I got something to put in its place, which I hadn‘t done.

I looked at what I had to do and took my husband as far as I could from the house Saturday.

We went to central New Jersey, the town of Allentown, which has a lot of preserved sod farms on which American golden plover and a variety of sandpipers that prefer uplands to beaches had been reported.

When we were on vacation in Maryland the other week we had heard of sightings on a sod farm in the town where we stayed and met a couple there who said this is the time of year to seek out these plovers and “peeps” on sod farms as they head south. The couple, with spotting scopes, not only gave us fine views of the unfamiliar birds but identified them for us.

So, eager to improve our sod farm birding, on Saturday we headed south and at our first stop we found three killdeer - a more common land plover - and seven of its cousins, the American goldens.

We spent the rest of the day birding and going to bookstores and enjoyed ourselves. It was nice to have a change of scene.

Now it’s Sunday. I sit on my screened porch, watching the birds at the feeder, thinking of those autumn chores. I look at the joe-pyes, bent over, flowers spent. The sorry scotch broom. The compost pile. I get depressed.

As my neighbors ride their bikes with their kids or mow their lawns, I feel overwhelmed, unable to keep up with the little I do. MH doesn’t have this problem - despite the many things he is supposed to be doing in the yard his attitude is more relaxed, perhaps because he works at home and has more opportunity to do it when he feels like it than I.

I sit a long time. But after finally going in for coffee and breakfast I get dressed and get at it.

Pulling out netting is much easier than trying to carefully work around it. Once it was off and the posts pulled out, I could easily cut back the yews, joe-pyes and dead matter on the other plants, put compost down, weed and even help out MH by getting rid of the mildew on side of the house behind the plants.

It was nice being able to move freely and do away with over 15 years of experiments in putting up netting to hinder the deer. It was calming to cut back, neaten, rearrange, even dig up a plant - a bleeding heart - I realized would sit very well where the scotch broom sat and put it in the ground, pruning the broom and putting it in another area to see if it would thrive again.

It was even good putting the deer netting back. It may be a pain but it protects my plants.

I pruned the pear tree but the compost pile will have to await another day. So will all the other pre-winter chores. I may not be able to keep up but I can at least pace myself.

It is therapeutic to tackle problems rather than run from them and change the scenery for the better.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I was relieved to wake up Sunday morning, Sept. 11, 2011, to find a gloomy, cold day to go with my mood.

Even the birds, including a migrating Philadelphia vireo - a very uncommon backyard visitor - haven’t been able to lift my spirits. On the back porch I heard the first siren at 8:46 a.m. and the second at 9:03 a.m. and I remembered.

Ten years ago, on a cool, cloudless, sunny day, my husband and I were on our way to visit friends in the Boston area and then, a few days later, go on to join another friend who had taken a house on Cape Cod to celebrate her 40th birthday.

We were in the car after getting the mail from our PO box in town, at 9:03 a.m., when we heard the report of a plane hitting the second of the World Trade Center towers. “This was no accident,“ MH said. On the road, me driving and trying to comprehend it all, MH got a glimpse of the towers burning. Both would be down within an hour.

We arrived at our friends’ to find phone and email messages already coming in from people who feared I might have perished. I reassured them I had not.

I worked for many years in lower Manhattan, almost 10 of them at 2 World Trade Center, 27th floor. I went to lunch with a co-worker to a place across the street 18 minutes before the first bombing took place in February 1993.

I was lucky that day, and lucky in 2001 because I, that office and my remaining co-workers were long gone - the office to Newark, me to another job in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. Many of my new co-workers, especially those with window seats, were traumatized by what they saw.

Life has changed over the past 10 years, not always for the better.

You can’t walk into most buildings without going through a metal detector or using a “keycard” or other form of picture identification to get where you‘re going. I stopped flying because of the cumbersome, invasive security procedures. The economy has tanked. We’ve lost thousands of men and women fighting one war in Iraq and then another in Afghanistan to finally “get” the villain of 9/11, Osama bin Laden.

Unlike others, I felt no thrill at his death. We are still feeling the effects of the damage he caused 10 years ago. We can never go back.

MH and I did not go to the dedication of our town's new 9/11 memorial Sunday. We have been to many memorials in New York and New Jersey over the decade - Staten Island’s near the ferry terminal, the Morris County one on West Hanover Ave., the lookout at Eagle Rock Preserve in Essex County.

We will go to this new one soon, too, but not today. Today, remembering how luck played its part, we are trying to have a “normal” day while feeling anything but.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Gone hawking

Let's face it, August was lousy. New Jersey was hit with heat, humidity and then, for good measure, an earthquake and a major hurricane.

Put it behind us. September is here and things are looking up.

Literally: It’s hawk watching season.

From the largest Canada geese to the smallest hummingbirds, birds are moving south. If the wind is strong and out of the north they will fly as far as they can before having to stop and refuel.

With luck, the small landbirds will be in your backyard in the early morning, particularly in trees full of seeds or fruits and getting the first rays of sun. But they can be hard to see in the leaves because they don't need to wear gaudy mating colors and don't sing to protect territory.

Not so the larger daytime raptors: eagles, vultures, buteos, accipiters and falcons.

Wait for a warm, sunny day, preferably with some clouds and a strong wind out of the north. Go to a ridge or mountain top and look north. You’ll need your binoculars, lots of patience and maybe a camp stool. At some point you will see some specks that, with a lot of practice, you will be able to identify as one or more of those daytime raptors.

There is a wonderful website,, a compendium of data on hawk watches across the country. It allows you to see how many raptors are seen at a particular hawk watch in a given month (you can also check daily totals).

Not all the sites are kept current but here are two that started the 2011 season on Sept. 1: New Jersey’s Montclair Hawk Lookout in Montclair and Scott’s Mountain at Merrill Creek Reservoir in Harmony Township, Warren County. One of the oldest hawk watches, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pa., began fall migration counts in mid-August.

Montclair, built on a quarry on First Mountain, doesn’t have much parking and you have to walk up a long staircase and then pull yourself up a metal ladder screwed into the rock. But once you ascend the final slope you are on a flat platform that has chairs and several watchers. For sheer numbers, try here in mid-September when the broadwing hawks are flying in.

If you can follow directions to Merrill Creek Reservoir you can find the Tower parking lot and drive to the Scott’s Mountain hawk watch. Plenty of parking, a view over the reservoir and eagles, among others. A lot of friendly watchers here will offer you help in identifying the specks (and also offer whatever snacks they have).

Hawk Mountain is such an important place for birders because it offers a unique perspective - bird‘s-eye viewing. You park and then you start to climb. There is a lookout relatively low down and near the parking lot, and if you don’t like exerting yourself this is where you stop.

My husband and I went last September and there was no way I was going to stop on the lower level. Luckily, MH has many years of putting up with me on bird trips. We are not regular climbers but we went slowly and I am glad we did. We found many types of warblers and other landbirds in the early morning cool that were so concerned about eating they didn’t mind our presence. They were also lower in the trees or on the ground, which was a relief to our necks.

We continued the climb (there are several places to stop and look out) and it can be very rocky. No sneakers here! This is for birders like me on a mission. I was hoping for warblers - hence our early start - but as the day wears on the warming air rising off the cliffs provide the wind beneath a raptor’s wings. That is when many birders come up.

Be warned: No seats up here. The website - which you MUST read before visiting here - suggests what to bring to make yourself comfortable for a few hours and we had it - layers of clothing we could remove and sit on, backpacks with food and water, sun screen and, of course, our cameras and binoculars. (Bathrooms are a short way down from the summit.)

Raptors fly south at different times in autumn. September seems to be the preferred month for broadwings, the smallest of the eastern buteos. Later in the season you will get more diversity as the red-shouldered and redtailed hawks, the osprey, the bald and golden eagles, accipiters and other, nonraptor, birds head south.

We were there on a weekday morning and the place quickly got filled with people. I am told that in mid-October, especially on the weekends, the crowds are huge.

Some make the pilgrimage every year. I was glad to do it last year and will go again someday, legs willing.

But this is September, so I will continue to look up wherever I am and continue to be amazed by what I find.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The aftermath

Early today, the day after Hurricane Irene struck, I was on the screened-in back porch, listening to the rain, trying to wake myself. The rain was coming down hard but I heard the “thief!” call of a blue jay.

Jays are not my favorite bird. They are noisy and hit the feeder hard and often, scaring off everything else. They will attack the young of others - I have seen one snatch up a baby house wren that had fallen from the nest box and make off with it before I could get out of my porch chair.

Today I’d never heard a sweeter call.

We all remember the story of Noah sending out a dove that came back with an olive branch, giving him hope the water was receding. The next time the dove was sent it did not return because the worst was over.

Birds are wonderful indicators of both good and bad. Days before the great tsunami that hit Indonesia a few years ago, the birds were among those leaving the area. Closer to home, if you see a gull inland a storm may be brewing off the coast. (Of course, gulls are just as likely to be Dumpster-diving with the crows nowadays, so seeing one inland may not be a sign of anything.)

On the good end, as happened today, when the pair of cardinals called to each other it meant Irene's rain was ending, the water table would recede and the worst was over.

We were lucky. We came through relatively unscathed. The worst was dripping from the ceiling that came into the attic and then into a smoke detector, setting it off around 2 am and scaring me out of a deep, dreamless sleep. My husband (MH) was awake, and would ultimately be awake for 34 straight hours tracking the storm, checking the attic (once he’d plugged the leak and put in tarps and buckets to catch any water) and especially checking on the sump pump that ran regularly all night as the water table rose.

After noon today it was the wind that became a problem. One past hurricane, Floyd, didn’t hurt us as he blew through but the backlash winds blew over a tree that took out the power lines for several days, forcing us to bring perishables to MH‘s parents, then a few towns away.

I remembered they now live in New Hampshire when, around 2pm, the winds picked up and the power went off.

Mercifully, it quickly came back on and has stayed on.

After already making three trips taking brush to the curb for pickup I will be rising early tomorrow to get the last of it. I will put back outside the thistle feeder for the goldfinches and will add the house feeder with sunflower seeds for the cardinals, my way thanking them for reminding me there's always hope.

I won’t even mind the jay coming to call.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Waiting for Irene

I am waiting for a hurricane.

When I went out earlier to run some errands, the streets in my part of town were quiet. No one out or around. The closer I got to town, the more traffic increased. A lot of people were acting like it was just another humid, overcast day.

Perhaps I should be that way, denying that just days after a major earthquake hit the region, a Category 2 storm 600 miles across is making its windy way through areas I know well - the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Delmarva peninsula, Cape May - straight for the greater NY area.

The coastal part of Brooklyn where I was born and where my parents and paternal grandparents lived is under mandatory evacuation. The part of Far Rockaway, Queens, where my maternal grandmother died is under mandatory evacation.

My life is tied to the shore, and Irene will be at her worst tomorrow on what would have been my mother's 91st birthday.

As I sit in what I hope is a sturdy house 30 or so miles west of New York City, I wonder about the birds. They have begun heading south - I found three types of warblers in one little area of Flat Rock Brook Park in Englewood within 2 minutes Friday morning - and unless they make a wide turn toward Pennsylvania they are going to head into a hurricane. A lot of birds may just come down where they are and stay put.

Many will die.

The sea birds may ride out the storm far into the ocean although I am sure there is at least one person on a south-facing beach, watching for a shearwater or storm-petrel to be blown in. That is nuts. I have taken in my thistle feeder and I hope the pair of goldfinches that had been using it are not blown out of one of my trees.

Category 1 or 2 hurricanes don't hit New York City that often, certainly not in the same week as a major earthquake, just in time for the new moon and higher tides. Remember all the snow of last winter in New Jersey? The unusual cold? The heavy spring rains and the intense heat that made May feel like August? There is something unnatural going on in Nature, and I hope those people who don't believe in global warming realize the error of their ways.

In the meantime I have done as much as I can but feel helpless at what may come. My husband, the scientific type, is monitoring TV reports and plotting the hurricane on his maps. It is his way of feeling like he is accomplishing something.

This post is my attempt. Godspeed.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A few words about weeds

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but for the last few weeks, maybe even months, I have not been in the mood to work in the garden.

It has either been too hot, I’ve been too busy elsewhere or it has been raining buckets.

While I was making excuses, the weeds were taking over.

The ones at the edge of the front garden were bigger than the salvias, which were also in desperate need of deadheading. (So were the butterfly weed, the daisies, the Jupiter’s beard and the coreopsis.)

Thus today I was outside for several hours before the next deluge and before it got too hot, doing hand to hand combat with the weeds.

I must give them credit, they know how to survive. Some grow between the cracks of the paving stones where it‘s hard to get them out whole; others thrive hidden under other plants; still others grow in plain sight in the middle of the lawn, hogging whatever bit of sunlight they can get.

Some won't budge without a lot of effort. Some give easily - too easily, leaving behind a root or small tendril that allows the weed to continue growing.
Some are wonderful mimics. One looks like a mum before it flowers, one looks like the leaves of a daisy and others seem like grasses except they grow a little too tall, too fast.

A weed can be defined as a plant growing in the wrong place, but some of them can be useful. The stand of Queen Anne’s Lace in the far corner of the yard is pretty and I leave it alone. Wild rose can be invasive and you have to be careful pulling it up, but if allowed to flower it provides fruits for birds. Thistle seed heads feed goldfinch families. Orange trumpet vine flowers draw hummingbirds.

Catbirds love inkweed berries like the ones above, but the one time I found a small plant in the garden I pulled it out because if you let it dig its taproot in you won’t be able to get it out without a lot of hard labor.

Butter and egg is a nice little yellow wildflower that becomes a pervasive weed unless kept in check. There are a lot of nasty weeds, such as crabgrass and ground ivy, that have to be yanked out with extreme prejudice.

And the deer assuredly do NOT eat them.

Every year I take one or two days to pull up, dig out or mow down the weeds. But I know it is an exercise in futility.

MH sprays the ones between the driveway paving stones but they are soon back. I pull out plants, including the roots, but I know somewhere down deep is a section I have missed and it will grow again. I have smothered weeds with mulch only to have squirrels dig and provide enough space and light for the weeds to come back.

The irony is, the more you disturb the ground removing weeds, the greater the chance you’ll have new and/or different ones soon.

There certainly are enough varieties. I have a Reader’s Digest book that identifies the weeds and gives their good and bad points and how best to rid your yard of them. That’s how I learned some weeds are edible - purslaine and lamb’s quarters, smaller dandelion leaves and wild onion.

But most of the time I pull up the lot and throw it in the compost pile.

As I was yanking out the weeds and cutting back my tattered perennials today I thought of a scene in a movie I saw long ago.

I like Len Deighton’s novel “The Ipcress File” with his nameless spy. Parts of the book were changed when it was made into a movie with Michael Caine. The first and most important change was the spy got a name, Harry Palmer.

But at least one other scene I don’t remember from the book is when Palmer visits his boss at home and the boss is in his English garden. All the plants are weeds.

If I remember correctly the gist of the explanation is that since they take over anyway, he might as well grow them.

Now there’s an idea for a sale pitch: Weeds, the ultimate in deer-proof plants! They take care of themselves no matter what the weather! Buy one, get a yardful in two years or less!

Well, maybe not.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Two mysteries

I am known as a birding expert among my city friends. When they travel and see birds they think, “Margo would know what that is.” Then they get home and ask me what that “big white bird” could be.

This is when my journalism training comes in handy. Where were you when you saw the bird? A beach? A forest? Was in in a tree or on the ground? Was there any other color besides the white? Was it bigger than a robin (or a more common bird they’d recognize)?

Eventually we work it out and my reputation is secure.

However, I know the only reason I can identify the birds and they can’t is because I took the time to learn, to observe, to read the birding books, to follow a call until I found the caller and note the field marks.

I was not born with this innate knowledge, although I am now at that point of being an enlightened intermediate who can recognize birds in my area without effort. It took a long time and a lot of practice.

But there are times when I don't know the answer.

Here are two examples, both seen on the same day, yesterday, at a grasslands in Franklin Township, Somerset County, in central New Jersey.

I am very, very bad on shorebirds. They generally all look the same to me. But I know from previous sightings the tall bird to the right is a solitary sandpiper, and not just because it was all alone at the edge of a small pond in the middle of the grassland. It has that eye ring and a white breast and is largish.

The other, smaller birds are the mystery. Because of the body shape I am guessing they are sandpipers rather than the stockier plovers such as the killdeer. But what types of sandpipers? Least sandpiper or the slightly larger semipalmated sandpiper? Something else?

The other mystery bird was seen in the tree bordering the grasslands. It is a remarkably dull brown bird, about robin size, with that slight mottling in the whitish breast. It had some barring in the back toward the tail that made me think it was a large house wren. But this was no house wren.

I saw a male indigo bunting in the area so I thought this might have been the duller, browner female but the bill is wrong - buntings, like finches, have stout bills for cracking seeds. This one is thinner, pointed and looks like the bill on a blackbird, which includes members of the meadowlark and oriole families. The big eye and eyebrow made me think it was a thrush, but it doesn’t have the spotting of the wood or hermit thrush and it doesn’t have the reddish color of the veery.

Both have me stumped.

I continue to look through my books and have asked at least one more experienced birder what he thinks.

Can you identify these mystery birds? Let me know at

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The good and bad at Greystone

There are a lot of good things about living across the street from a large piece of undeveloped land.

There is quiet during early morning walks. There are the many birds that enliven the area and come to my feeders.

And then there are the deer, which isn't so good.

I recently read a blog post elsewhere complaining about deer and the resulting comments ran to the "stop whining, they were here first" camp. That is true, they were here before I moved here, before my 1960s-era house was even built.

Tough. I live here now and discovering what one deer can do in damage has changed the way I garden. Had I known when I was landscaping in 1993 what I know now, everything would be different.

No way would I have taken my friend's hostas when she had to break up her garden. Nor would I have planted hydrangea - since deceased - to remind me of those in my mother's backyard. Nor would I have put in six yellow and green euonymous bushes, although they do bounce back whenever a deer has gotten past the netting.

Ah, yes, the netting. There is no such thing as just going outside and picking a flower or two when you have to get behind deer netting. The planning is reminiscent of battle. I've restrung my netting many times over the years as I refine the process of allowing access to me while blocking it to the deer.

But most of the flowers I now grow would not be here, starting with the azaleas I thought were so pretty in the garden shop.

The same garden shop that NOW so proudly trumpets "We have deer-resistant plants!"

There are no such things, by the way. A hungry deer will try anything once. Many of my "deer-resistant" plants have been nibbled including the canna, the monarda and the maidenhair grasses I put in a plot where there was once an apple tree, another casualty.

The previous homeowner had a lot of apple trees, which are very pretty for about a week when they blossom but become a royal pain when the apples come out, the squirrels drop them and the deer poop all over the yard while visiting to pick up the leavings.

One tree succumbed to illness, another to having young bucks rub against it to lose the velvet off their antlers. Two others I took down because the apples weren't very tasty to me but they did draw the deer. I replaced them with a dogwood (currently behind netting so it isn't rubbed into oblivion) and a blue spruce (that has hidden some juncos in winter).

For two weeks a year I must go out to pick apples for my cooking from the one remaining tree or dispose of half-eaten ones to minimize the attraction for deer. Judging by what I find in the grass, I am only partly successful.

More of my neighbors are either putting netting around their plants or putting out "deer-resistant" plants that are mainly spiny shrubs that hurt to eat. If any have flowers they are in hanging baskets.

We don't keep a dog so the other obvious answer would be to surround the yard with a tall fence, at least 8 feet high. (I have seen deer casually jump over a 6-foot fence. They have powerful hind legs.) There are two problems: in my part of town the requirement is for a "park-like setting" and so no fencing in the front yard. In the back, my husband likes being able to look beyond the yards to the streets and see who is driving or walking around and says he would feel shut in.

I don't see the difficulty in this. But since MH works in our home and I do not, I must net the two gardens in front and one in the back that is dominated by yews, another deer favorite, and what is left of the hostas.

I have learned to think like a deer. I know to stay to the side and behind the group so they keep going forward - a deer that goes back the way it came will likely be back as soon as you go into the house. I know that if a horned buck looks you in the eye and puts its head down, back away slowly because otherwise it will charge you (particularly in rutting season). I have learned that if you try to chase off a doe and she just stands there, there is usually at least one spotted fawn somewhere nearby - the sooner mother and child are reunited, the sooner they both leave.

I know, they are only animals. It is not their fault that large tracts of meadowland were cut into suburban yards with just enough space to feed them and not enough space to allow humans to hunt them.

In rural New Hampshire, my sister-in-law doesn't have to worry about deer eating her flowers. The properties are not close together and the woods are full of wolves, coyotes and, in season, hunters.

In short, they are afraid of people. Not like the deer in New Jersey. New Jersey deer have attitude to spare.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The law of unintended consequences

I have a friend who lives in Somerset County up a steep hill. Her property slopes and her deck is above the yard. Every summer she gets hummingbirds at her feeder.

I don't know if it's the altitude or the red monarda or zinnias she keeps in a pot near the feeder but when I visit in summer a rubythroat will almost always stop by while we're on the deck. They are very fast, as you can see from my attempt to photograph one.

I envy her because I rarely get hummers. I finally saw my first of the season this very morning, although it could've been coming while I was at work. My town is built on a plateau 400 feet above sea level but my yard is flat.

The feeder is hanging on a pole behind deer netting because I have put plants around it that bloom pink or red flowers to draw the hummers and I don't want deer to destroy the plants. The netting doesn't impede a hummer getting to the sugar water.

Also this very morning a male goldfinch came to feed. This may be the one that has been coming for a while with its mate, or one I have heard doing his swooping mating flight. The same friend with the hummers is envious of ME because I get many more goldfinches in winter, such as those below, than she does. It might be the very flatness of my property, or being located close to the Greystone woods or not having neighbors close by that have cats roaming the yards, as she does.

We always want what we can't have. I always envied those people who live within close walking distance of Central Park in Manhattan when MH and I lived in Queens. When we moved to New Jersey, I envied those who live in or near Cape May, one of the state's premier birding sites. How nice to get up at dawn, walk 10 minutes and see all sorts of birds!

Then my new eye doctor told me he grew up down there and was very happy he was now in Morris County because he had always wanted to bird Great Swamp, 20 minutes by car from my house when there is no traffic at dawn.

Yes, it would be nice to live near one of the Somerset County grasslands so I could go over and hear grasshopper sparrows or dickcissels, both life birds for me, singing at dawn. But then they wouldn't be life birds. They'd be common.

So I enjoy the singing cardinals and the carolina wren and watch the thistle feeder that I've discovered not only draws a pair of goldfinch but chickadees and titmice.

This was not planned but I should've realized chickadees and titmice have no qualms about hanging upside down if it gets them a meal, and are far less skittish about being exposed to predators in an upside-down position than the goldfinch I intended to help during breeding season.

I do not mind them coming because I like chickadees and titmice. Seeing the occasional house sparrow that has learned to hang upside down for a meal pleases me much less.

This is where the law of unintended consequences comes into play. Most people don't realize that changing one thing in the yard can have a profound behavioral effect.

Take my friend with the hummer feeder. She had her yard guys "clean things up" early in the growing season. Not only did they cut back shrubs and kill assorted weeds, they cut down a blackberry bush that had grown to tree size. We used to sit on the deck and watch the birds and the squirrels eat the berries.

The birds can still come to the seed feeders she keeps going all year. But when it got hot and the squirrels couldn't get berries, one of them discovered a sweet substitute - the hummer feeder.

Unfortunately, my kindhearted friend puts out corn for the squirrels in winter and they have gotten used to coming to her deck and finding food. So one must've come up a few weeks ago looking for a snack and was drawn to the red saucer-type feeder. It then pulled off the lid and drank the sugar water!

The experts say this just does not happen. But in this case the experts are wrong.

My friend bought a more vertical type of feeder and came home to discover the squirrels had pulled off the yellow decorative flowers and drank from the open ports. She is now using her saucer feeder again, taped shut. To refill she must use a screwdriver to rip the tape open.

On this I don't envy her at all.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


I did something radical this morning. I walked. In the suburbs. Yes.

Until the end of March I walked almost every day, most of the time to the train station in town. This was the reason we moved to this little town, the ease of walking to public transportation to my job, first in Jersey City and then in midtown Manhattan.

When that job ended in February I started taking daily walks very early in the morning through what has now become a county park, Central Park of Morris County, but used to be the nether regions of the state Greystone Park psychiatric hospital. I heard and saw a lot of birds in those early March trips.

Then I got a new job and it required me to drive to a city on the Hudson River, 35 or so miles away as Route 80 flies.

Things become a blur from the car because you have to concentrate on the road, on your driving, on other cars. The brain isn't stimulated, at least not in what I think is the right way, and the legs aren't being exercised. You get where you are going faster, but you don't enjoy the trip as much.

So this morning I decided that rather than grab the car to do all my local errands I would walk.

It was a real eye-opener, starting with my own yard. How did that butterfuly bush get so tall? Seems like just yesterday I was cutting it back the way you're supposed to in spring to generate new growth.

When did that house on the next block go up for sale? It always has a nice garden, put in with an eye to saving time and water while using plants that deter deer without netting. Will the new owner keep the garden, or will it be removed in favor of just grass or, worse, paved over?

When did that other house rip out its old, tall hedges and put in a sprinkler system that waters the public curb about as much as it waters the small, nondescript replacement shrubs? I used to hear a lot of sparrows chattering to each other from their nests in those hedges. When did that house a few streets away double in size? It's on a lot that hasn't gotten any bigger. I guess people prefer the climate-controlled, soundproofed, technology-driven great indoors and have less yard they'd only have to pay someone to take care of anyway.

I walked along the Greystone road, past the dog park that had only a couple of people letting their pets run at that hour, and found all the deer I chase out of my yard and then some - many had fawns hiding in the long meadow grass. I heard bluebirds, carolina wrens, cardinals. Once I leave my house I rarely hear birds on my drive through town and never on Route 80, where the posted speed is 65 but that is more a floor than a ceiling.

I said good morning to other walkers and waved at neighbors getting their newspapers from the curb. I felt the welcome ache of muscles being used in my legs. I felt the breeze in my hair and the sun, not amplified by the greenhouse effect of my metal car, on my neck.

I enjoyed myself greatly, and I even got my chores done.

Alot of people spend a ton of money to go to exotic locales where they can walk through a rain forest or along a beach or tour museums and historic sites.

Today I was reminded that sometimes you don't have to go far, or do more than put on a pair of sneakers, to get away from it all while reconnecting with the world around you.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

This brood has flown

It was bound to happen sometime.

Things were getting loud and rambunctious at the wren box. The parents were shuttling back and forth so fast and so often I doubt they ate anything themselves. The young got so big the parents had stopped going into the box to feed them unless it was to feed one in the back, crowded out by more dominant siblings.

And the parents would not stop scolding me. All I had to do was walk out the back door and one or the other would be chittering. Much of that was to tell the young to be quiet so they wouldn't give away their position. That's instinct, although considering they were in a box I had put up in an apple tree, rather silly.

But I put up with it.

The apples in the tree where the feeder is hung were getting riper with the hot weather, and the squirrels were increasing their visits and dropping more chewed apples. This required me to go out more often to pick up the remains or pick apples I could reach before the deer came along...although based on what is under the tree my actions are also pretty silly.

Then MH and I went away for the July 4 weekend.

We came back on the 4th, a Monday this year. There were no apples on the ground when we came home but there were the next morning. The wren scolded me as usual. But on Wednesday there was silence as I picked up the apples. I reached up and shifted the box and it was as light in weight as the day I put it up.

But while out of the box the wrens have not left my yard. The male house wren will sing in the morning, particularly if the carolina wren on the next block is singing - which he does quite loudly for a small bird, to my delight.

Lately I have heard the brood but not seen them as they move among the dense shrubery. Momma wren chitters when I first come out, as if to say to her family "Be careful." But she does not come to the tree as I work. (This was a good thing because I wanted to come out and pick as many apples as I could reach or knock down with a stick, which I wouldn't do if the box was in use.)

And who knows, the male may start a second brood in the house. Wrens are not monogamous - when the young can take care of themselves, the party's over.

Whether there's one brood or two, at some point the young will start feeding themselves and will, at the right time, feel the need to head south as the air cools. With any luck one of them will remember my yard and come back.

When he returns and starts singing he will find the box - clean and empty - waiting for that year's brood.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Timing is everything

The American goldfinch is the state bird of New Jersey, so it is a particular pleasure when I see or hear them in my Morris Plains backyard.

In winter both male and female are a dull brown with large black and white wingbars. When they’ve come to my feeders they are usually in a large group.

But as spring approaches, things start to change. The female’s feathers become yellow-green to better blend into the foliage when the trees leaf out and she’s sitting on a nest.

The male makes a more dramatic change – he becomes bright yellow and takes on a black forecap. When it is time to breed, he soars, dips and rises again, a dizzying loop-de-loop, calling as he flies.

The goldfinch has a late breeding season that is directly linked to thistle seeds. What you might see as a bunch of purple weeds in an overgrown field is breakfast, lunch and supper for a goldfinch – and a reason to breed. Without seeds there is no next generation.

Consider Jersey City, the second or third largest city in New Jersey. When I started working there in 1999, there were large, weedy fields in the areas near the Hudson River that had once held factories. With the fields were large hungry flocks of goldfinches eating the seeds.

By the time I stopped working in Jersey City over 10 years later, many of those weedy fields were gone, paved over for large hotel and apartment complexes. The population of birds passing through dropped dramatically.

Some would call it progress or a boost to tax ratables. Considering none of these buildings feature any useful seeding plants in their landscaping, I would say it is a terrible way to treat your state’s bird.

This is why when I start to see the males doing the loop-de-loop, I put out a special feeder for goldfinches. To get a thistle seed the bird has to hang upside-down from the perch. Most birds, such as the larger, aggressive house finch, don’t like to do it. So it gives goldfinches a fighting chance.

Goldfinches are considered a common species by the Cornell College of Ornithology, and its breeding and migration range is within the United States.

(Here’s a fun fact about goldfinches I learned from the Cornell website, if a cowbird lays an egg in a goldfinch nest the chick will die after three days because it can’t survive on a seed-only diet. See my June 12 post "Love is blind" for more of my feelings about cowbirds.)

The suburbs being what they are, I can’t have a vast expanse of weedy field. Nor can I plant drifts of coneflowers, asters and butterfly bush to provide seeds. My neighbors would have me kicked out of town for the former, and the deer eat most of the latter.

So I pick my spots. I leave weeds in corner areas to go to seed. I grow coneflower and butterfly bush behind deer netting. And, of course, there's the feeder.

If I and the rest of the New Jersey population are lucky, the skittish goldfinches will eat the seeds provided, continue their loop-de-loops and raise another brood.

That's my reward for being a good neighbor.