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.