Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

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.