Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Don't take your guns to the swamp

It has only been in the last couple of years that I have begun bringing a camera with me when I go birding. Until then I was content to have only my 10x50 Nikon binoculars and use the camera in my brain to record notable images.

With digital cameras suddenly everyone became a nature photographer. That's fine if you are trying to prove you saw something unusual such as this pinkfooted goose my husband, MH, photographed early in March in a private park in Washington Township (Bergen County), NJ.

But a lot of photographers are doing it for profit, either by selling those photographs as stock images to be used in calendars and the like or to put on their personal photography pages and garner the ensuing glowing comments.

If you want to do that, fine. But what I CAN NOT STAND is when someone takes his or her gun-like lens and aims it practically in the face of a bird, creating unnecessary stress and ruining it for other birders when the bird takes off.

There have been many instances of this selfish and cruel behavior on the part of people who want a picture that badly. For instance, a few years ago the birding lists were full of angry birders screaming about a rare boreal owl in Central Park that had been there for a few weeks but finally left after a man set up a camera and used a bright flash (by day, yet) to take a picture practically in the face of the roosting owl.

I have witnessed several such instances, two of them at the Great Swamp in New Jersey.

An aside: Fifty years ago, the plan was to make this 7,500-acre gem straddling Morris and Somerset counties into an airport. Environmentalist Helen Fenske created a grassroots movement to stop that plan. Every time a plane flies over the swamp I shudder. The new visitor center is named for Helen Fenske.

Another birder and I were at the Heronry Overlook parking lot watching a mature bald eagle sitting in a tree close by. Suddenly, we saw a man with a rifle-like camera lens walking in an off-limits area closer and closer to the tree, snapping away, until the eagle flew off.

We started yelling at him and he was completely amazed and confused at our reaction. What was the big deal? He only wanted a picture of an eagle. (The eagle eventually returned after the idiot left, but to a tree much farther away and only identifiable thanks to its white head.)

The second example involved a couple of long-earred owls that decided one winter to roost in a cedar tree very close to Pleasant Plains Road, practically at eye level, not far from the Fenske office.

The swamp is not far from my home so my husband and I drove over and found the owls easily thanks to a couple of birders there. Most birders know to give owls some space during the day since they are resting for the night's hunting. Not the guy there with another gun-like lens, standing real close to the alarmed owls as he took his pictures.

This begs the question, why stand that close if you are using a telephoto lens?

I asked him that question, and told him to get the hell back across the road. MH and the man's wife were afraid we were going to get into a fight, and it was very close. But he moved back. MH and I took our own pictures from across the road. I thought I had gotten through to Mr. Photographer until I looked in the rear-view mirror as we drove off and there he was, up in the owls' faces again. I wasn't surprised to learn not long after that at least one of the two had flown off. I can only hope the second owl, when it left, hadn't been scared off by other inconsiderate birders lusting for that special photograph.

There hasn't been an extended stay by a long-earred owl along that part of Great Swamp since, as far as I know. Owls have long memories, too.

What's the worst birding transgression you've ever seen? Tell me at

Monday, April 4, 2011

The concrete jungle

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

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

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

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

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

What was once New Jersey's tallest building, 101 Hudson, has hosted a nesting box for peregrine falcons, which have raised several generations thanks to Jersey City's generous pigeon supply. The screen shot below is from

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

But it all changed after Sept. 11, 2001. Businesses displaced by the destruction of the World Trade Center started moving to Jersey City (temporarily, as it turned out). The high rents of New York drove people to the factory lofts and new apartment towers. The weedy fields, including the one a block from the office and those along the light rail tracks, were filled in. No fields, no birds. Even Van Vorst park lost half its garden space to a dog park. Those living closer to the canal park used that for a dog run, their unleashed mutts scaring the birds out of view.

Birding became impossible. So I was not that upset when we learned the office would be moving to another concrete jungle, midtown Manhattan. Without the birds, Jersey City was just another big, ugly city.

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

Friday, April 1, 2011

Strange paradise

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

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

New Jersey Transit tracks plow through a section of it once it leaves Newark. When I took the train in I read the newspaper. Coming home I read a book or slept.

One afternoon when we passed through the Meadowlands I happened to put down my book and looked out the window to my right. In a tree over a canal was a redtailed hawk. I was stunned. A redtail? Here?

What had I been missing all this time?

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

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

Robert Sullivan published an excellent book in 1998, "The Meadowlands," about the area's history and the fight to clean it up, bringing back the fish and frogs that in turn drew the birds. Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, and his group ( have been working hard to keep the area from further abuse - suing companies found dumping, running eco-tours to highlight the area's beauty. (I've taken one; they're great.)

In Lyndhurst, the Richard W. DeKorte park, part of the NJ Meadowlands Commission, was carved out of several dumping sites, It provides a large, liquid rest stop for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds next to a gas pipeline while raptors, including roughlegged hawks and bald eagles, cruise over the aptly-named Disposal Road. (You can check sightings on the park blog,

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

Do you have a favorite unlikely birding spot? Let me know at