Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

RIP, Old Friend


I found out today that an old friend died last week.

No, that’s a double misnomer.

He was not old. He only turned 56 at the beginning of December, eight weeks before I reach that age.

And while we knew him for well over 30 years, in the last five we’d become estranged. Not as much a friend. He blamed us for something but we don’t know what. “They should know what they did,” he told a well-meaning mutual friend when she asked why he’d gone silent.

So with the distance the shock was muted. A heart attack, very sudden.

We found out in a roundabout way because of the rupture. Not even his longtime girlfriend - a friend we’d introduced to him and so we lost both - contacted us. She contacted someone who contacted someone who contacted us. These other people, who knew our old friend through Facebook, were very shocked by the suddenness.

My husband, in turn, contacted other people and told them via Facebook. In the old days we would have taken turns on the phone.

As to the death itself, MH and I, however, were not surprised. Saddened, but not surprised. Our friend was a heavy smoker and had been for most of his life. The birth of his only child during his short marriage didn’t end the smoking, and neither did the woman with him when he died.

You never know what will happen, do you? My uncle is in his 90s but is silent with dementia. My father died at 73 with a sharp mind but a body incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease. MH’s parents are active in mind and body while almost at 80. My mother died at 60 of cancer. MH is a former smoker but heavier than he should be. He is the age now our old friend was when he died.


Tufted titmice - or titmouses, as our
late friend called them.

He was a complicated man who took his resentments to the grave. But there are a lot of funny stories we remember, many memories, many good times. Maybe it was some of those times our friend didn’t want to remember and he held it against us that we continued to laugh at some of his exploits.

Those memories became tinged with sadness when our friend stopped talking to us. Now that sadness has deepened.

What horrified me more than our friend dying was the thought of my finding MH on the kitchen floor one ordinary morning. Or him finding me. As the shootings in Newtown, Conn. - ironically, the news came out the day our old friend died - showed us, life is very precious and very easy to end.

You try to exercise and eat right, drink in moderation and not smoke and hope you are doing the right thing, that there isn’t a time bomb in you that will kill you. Our friend smoked and we heard something about heart problems earlier in the year, maybe a malfunctioning valve.

I doubt that stopped him smoking either. Smoking is one of our legal drugs. (So is alcohol. Cigarette ads are no longer broadcast on television but you can still see plenty of ads for liquor and beer.) We know it can kill. But our old friend did not want to stop. We have other friends who refuse to stop, too. They knew our late friend and MH notified them of his passing. Will it inspire them to perhaps cut back? I don’t know. That’s out of our control.

So is finding out what caused the rupture in the first place. We used our mutual friend as a go-between to send our condolences and she passed along our friend’s girlfriend’s thanks. Maybe there will be future communications. I hope so. But if there are I won’t ask her because at this point it really doesn’t matter.

The last time we saw the two of them we were in their house on Cape Cod for a few days. She had him smoke outside - did he resent that? - and we sat with him at one point. He pointed out the tufted titmice he insisted on calling titmouses. He was getting interested in the birds around him and was looking forward to the hummingbirds coming to the flowers of some vines his girlfriend had planted.

I hope he got to see them.


Rest in peace, Steven Mark Perry.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Our Children, Our Guns


It could’ve been your child.

You take his hand and go outside to the morning cold and wait in front of your house together for the bus. Or you take her down the street where other mothers and fathers are waiting for the bus with their children.

The bus rolls up and the door opens. You hug your child. “See you later,” you call. The bus drives off.

Your child never returns.

That didn’t happen. Not this time. But it did happen, in a town not that much bigger than Morris Plains. Newtown, Conn., has been described as “quaint” and a “typical New England town.”

It happened when a 20-year-old man in that town shot his mother, took her legally registered guns - including an assault rifle, the kind used in warfare - and went to an elementary school where he killed the principal, a school psychologist and then shot at close range children, 20 of whom died.

Why does someone need to have pistols, a rifle and an assault rifle in the house? Why does her son, described as having a “history of mental illness,” have access to that arsenal?

Imagine if this had happened in Morris Plains, at the Mountain Way school? Or at the Borough school? Or at Morristown high school? Colombine was a high school shooting, the Virginia Tech slaying a college campus.

What makes this killing horrific is it took place in a supposedly “safe” town,  involved very young children and the way the killer smashed his way into the school, walked into a classroom and start shooting.

It was deliberate, cold-blooded murder for a reason we can’t fathom.

We love our children, passionately. We are ready to lynch anyone accused of being a sex offender and sput their names on a list to protect our kids when they move to our towns. We fight to “choose life” and make sure there's “no child left behind.” We only want them to have the best, a better life than we had.


No matter how bad it gets, the sun rises each day, giving us new hope.

But there are times where we seem to love our guns more. We quote the second amendment of the Constitution in explaining why we have the “right” to have them. We don’t just need them for hunting. We need them for “protection.” We need them to look tough or to have the upper hand in a confrontation with “criminals.”

You watch enough violence on television or in movies or videogames and it makes stories of real murder seem almost routine. You watch the news and almost nightly hear about a young man or woman shot on a Newark street, or a child caught in the crossfire of a gang battle.

Then you hear about a young man walking into a school to blow away a room of first-graders after killing his mother in a “quaint” and “typical” New England town right out of Norman Rockwell.

That is when you realize this isn’t a gang problem or a Newark problem. It’s YOUR problem. It CAN happen here.

The dead mother was a “gun enthusiast” who felt she needed protection in this “quaint New England town” by having two handguns, a rifle and an assault weapon in the house. Did she consider she might someday need protection from her son?

When my husband and I were children in our respective schools we would settle arguments with fights or with an adult interceding and reasoning with us. Not guns. Now it seems we spend more face time with our computers than with each other, including our precious children (watch how many mothers push a baby carriage with one hand and talk on the other, or how many kids try to get their father’s attention while he’s on the phone).

When we get angry at strangers we rant online. When we get really angry with spouses, children or parents we use the gun in our house.

There should be limits on guns, but it’s unrealistic to just ban guns. These guns used in the massacre were legally bought, after all. Even President Obama, in his address to the nation last Saturday after the shooting, didn’t mention gun control. It’s a touchy subject.

But we also can’t put up metal detectors in front of every building. This is not Orwell‘s “1984.” Since 9/11 we have cameras everywhere and people making a living coming up with encrypted security and others paid to hack into emails and other supposedly private communications. We must now use “keycards” to go into the office, maybe even the bathroom.

And don’t get me started on airport security.

Do you want to go through a metal detector every time you go to the supermarket (remember Gabrielle Giffords?) or movie theater (remember Aurora, Colo.?) or a mall (remember Portland, Ore.?)?

Still, how many more shootings do we have to endure? How many more children have to die?

I don’t know the answers. Consider this post my frustrated screaming in the wilderness.

My older niece is a teacher in a private school in a “quaint” Connecticut town not far from Newtown, and she told MH that when she heard the details of the shootings in her car after school she drove home crying. She later called her mother, an art teacher of young children in New Hampshire, talking about “her kids” and how saying goodbye to them for the weekend seemed so inadequate. She wanted to hug them all extra hard.

Her kids. Our kids. We proclaim that life is precious, but every gun reminds us it is also very easy to cut short.

I am sure every parent in Morris Plains hugged their children of all ages in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting. Your children did come home. The school bus did arrive in the afternoon and your son or daughter hopped off and into your arms.

This time, they came home.

This time.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and the Birds

When Hurricane Sandy struck just days before Halloween it flooded the coast and took down hundreds, if not thousands, of trees with extraordinary strong winds inland, putting buildings and people in the dark.

NJ Audubon's Scherman Hoffman center, NJ Audubon's main office and the nearby Great Swamp were hit particularly hard by the felling or shredding of trees (such as this one on Pleasant Plains Rd. in the Swamp). A friend of mine who lives not far from Scherman Hoffman had no power for nine days and refused to leave her increasingly chilly home without her animals. Luckily, they all survived.

In open areas, the devastation from Sandy doesn't look like much. But
in the forests and suburban yards, it's worse.

During this time -- once I got my power back -- I sent a lot of emails to friends and family affected by the hurricane including relatives in eastern Canada, where the storm was headed next. As it turned out, my relatives were not affected.

One of them, a budding birder, asked me in his response what happens to birds, particularly migrating birds, in a hurricane. He was not the only one who asked me that question. I guessed that, presuming the birds weren’t slammed into a building or tree, those stopped by the wind either hunkered down at the closest safe forest or pond until it was safe to proceed or traveled west to fly around the storm.

As it happened, New Jersey Audubon soon put out a press release on that very subject.

It says, in part:

The good news is that there is little evidence that the storm had a serious, direct impact on breeding or wintering bird populations. Late October falls right between that time when summer residents have migrated and most winter residents arrive.

(Well, that’s a relief.)

But it is almost certain that the flooding tides caused mortality among rodent populations, thus reducing the prey base for wintering birds of prey. New Jersey’s Atlantic and Delaware Bay marshes rank among the planet’s greatest winter raptor strongholds. This year, many Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harrier, Short-eared and Long-eared Owls will be forced to move on and hope to find less affected areas to meet their food needs.

(So much for seeing Roughies or SEOs at the usual places this year.)

The storm also stripped much fruit and seed In woodlands, high winds stripped trees of fruit and seeds sending such wild bird staples as acorns, wild grape, poison ivy berries to for forest floor where snow or ice may put them out of reach. There may be an issue for cavity nesting species, like woodpeckers, if many of the dead standing trees went down in the storm. Importantly, if natural disasters become more frequent or are of greater magnitude, it may be beyond certain species ability to compensate and eventually recover.

I sent this press release to my relative, but I don’t know if it will comfort him all that much.

Sandy has upended everything. Weeks of leaves came down in a day. The irruption of winter finches from Canada that came over the border in search of food a month ago are now elsewhere in NJ, certainly not at my feeder, where the trees weren't felled and the seeds not destroyed. (Alot seem to be in center Jersey and points south, according to the reports.) Despite the NJ Audubon press release, I've had no problem finding raptors including redtails, harriers and accipiters, such as this Cooper's hawk that has been scaring birds away from my feeders.

This immature Cooper's hawk likes to scare the birds away
from the feeders but I've yet to see it catch anything.

The New York and New Jersey beaches where piping plovers, least terns and other endangered shorebirds nest are gone or vastly depleted. Like a shuffled deck of cards, birds normally found out at sea – scoters and pelagic birds, for instance – found temporary shelter in inland lakes and reservoirs – a delight for birders but a cause of concern for those of us who are noticing these “100-year storms” are becoming much more regular.

What is happening to the birds is dwarfed by what is happening to the people who live in New Jersey’s coastal communities, some of them for generations. I feel very sorry for these people (although not for those “summer people” who built their “cottages” on the dunes – an abomination in itself – and refused to allow protective dunes to block their view of the ocean. These towns, such as Holgate, were hit hardest.).

But as any sailor knows, the ocean giveth and the ocean taketh away. Towns are wondering how to rebuild in areas where no home should’ve been built in the first place. (There’s a reason they are called barrier islands.)

Will New Jersey heed Sandy’s warning? Will those who think they’ve “made it” by building a house with an ocean view understand that man is no match for Mother Nature? Will homes and roads on the overpopulated barrier islands be built to withstand the next Sandy?

Or will they be rebuilt the same as before in the name of expediency and getting things back to “normal”?

There’s always the option of not rebuilding and allowing nature to take its course. (That sound you just heard was the collective scream of every public official from Governor Christie on down.)

Won’t happen. Too much tourism and property tax money at stake.

But it will be a shame that the opportunity to rebuild smarter – or not at all – will likely be squandered. Until the next storm.

The birds don’t care. They never do. They will just go elsewhere to survive. New Jersey will be the poorer for it.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Seven-Woodpecker Day


During what was literally the darkest hours after Hurricane Sandy blacked out my neighborhood, my husband and I wondered if we would be traveling on our planned vacation to North Carolina.

Sandy was only about a month ago but it seems like yesterday. We had power in two days. Our neighbors just a block away were out over a week. The power grid works in mysterious ways.

Even after the power came back on, MH and I were paranoid. We feared losing power again after the nor’easter blew through. We bought few groceries that week because, we hoped, we’d be traveling and didn’t want to stock a freezer only to lose the goods in the next storm. Even though my neighbors without power were running generators (I don’t have one - yet) I was afraid someone would plug into my outside outlet. People without power could be capable of anything, we thought.

We would look hard at people walking along our quiet side street if we didn't recognize them, wondering if they were looking for an uninhabited house to rob. Even tho’ we could put our alarm on, I am ashamed to admit we were ready to cancel our vacation - the only week I could afford to take off this year - if the rest of the area was still in the dark. We would stay and protect our home.

Luckily, it never came to that. The neighbors got their power back, the noisy generators were shut off, the mowers and blowers and chainsaws did their jobs and we went off to a barrier island of North Carolina that, unlike the barrier islands of the Jersey Shore, was not damaged a bit by Sandy.

We’d never been in Atlantic Beach before. We wanted to try a different place than the Outer Banks, where we’ve been twice. Besides the ocean and the sound, what made me choose this area were the natural areas close to where we’d be staying.

The barrier island Atlantic Beach is on is very much built up. A Sandy hitting it would do the same damage seen in Holgate, N.J. But unlike New Jersey there was plenty of public beach access areas where we could walk (and, more important, use the bathroom) unimpeded and without paying a fee.

Each time we stopped at one we saw something different and surprising. Surfers. Surf casters. On the bird end we had pelicans, willets, sanderlings and ruddy turnstones plus terns, different gulls and skeins of black scoters and cormorants.

We went to a road near the aquarium to find the Theodore Roosevelt natural area but while we found parking there were no trails. It was literally a “wildlife viewing area." What you viewed was from the road. We saw a grand variety of birds including the brown thrasher pictured here that didn’t care we had parked next to it.


We were also told by our waitress at a diner one morning about a little trail she’d seen next to the Food Lion supermarket. It turned out to be a trail running next to a creek on which the Union Army traveled down to lay siege to nearby Fort Macon. We’d never have known had we not told her we were there to bird, not fish and she had seen the sign when she parked to get groceries.

But the best part of the four days we spent there was hiking Croatan National Forest. It is a huge chunk of land, many big pieces of which are given over to hunting. (There was a lot of hunting going on. We could hear the rifle shots at many of the places we stopped in our travels). Thanks to the Internet I had found a trail that was on a part of the mainland not far from us that was said to be good for birding.

I almost lost MH when he saw a sign at the entrance warning people to wear orange if they were going in.

I was not going to be stopped from going into this forest because I heard this was prime habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker.

This is a bird found only in the south. It builds nests in living pine trees, particularly mature long-leaf pine trees. You will not find this bird in suburban housing developments. In our two visits to the Outer Banks I had sought this bird in every pine forest. The red on this woodpecker, despite its name, is quite small (if it is there at all) but the bird has a large white cheek patch that distinguishes it from its more common cousin, the downy. I always admonished MH to “look for the white cheek!” if he saw a woodpecker in those North Carolina woods. We found none.

Now I was on the doorstep and I was going in, orange or no orange. He reluctantly followed.

It helped we were on a trail that led to several loop trails and we took the inner one, figuring any hunting would be in the forest at large and thus affect the outer loop. As it turned out, we heard no shots at all. In fact, two guys and their small hound came bounding onto the trail and walked on the outer loop without a care or an orange vest.

On our loop trail we saw a lot that we expected - brown-headed nuthatch (a southern cousin of the white-breasted nuthatch seen in NJ) and many myrtle warblers - and that we did not, including a solitary vireo, a pine warbler (pictured) and an osprey, all of which left my part of NJ long ago.

But at one point I heard a rattling that sounded vaguely familiar, and that is when I looked up and found a redheaded woodpecker.

This is a very striking bird, and I have seen it in New Jersey, in Great Swamp and, one spectacular February day after a heavy snow had melted, along the linear county park near me known as Patriots Path. But MH had never seen one and each time one was sighted in NJ or NY I would rush him out on a wild bird chase. We never found it. He didn’t care but I very much wanted him to see one.

Now he had, and he understood why I had bothered.


As you can see it has a deep red head and a body of solid black and white. I had forgotten this is a southern bird, only rarely sighted in the north, usually a juvenile and usually in winter. MH must’ve shot over 100 pictures of this adult bird from various angles while I took my own pictures, including this one. We later found others.

In the meantime, we had found a pileated woodpecker, flickers, redbelly, several yellow-bellied sapsuckers and a downy. So that’s a six-woodpecker day, something I hadn’t had since last December.

But it got better. Something caught my eye and I looked to my right and there, climbing a tree, was a little black and white woodpecker with a bright white cheek.

Somehow I managed to get MH’s attention without startling the bird. I think I just called out its name. MH came running and we started snapping pictures, one of which is this one.

A seven-woodpecker day. Our 335th new bird. By the time we’d finished the loop trail we’d seen four or five more of these woodpeckers.

Most people travel to refresh themselves. If they are smart they keep their eyes and ears open and their mouths shut and learn something about the area where they are traveling instead of trying to recreate or impose on it the culture of where they’ve come from. If you’re a birder, you also go to different areas where you can see new (to you) birds.

On this trip MH and I saw a lot that was good and lot of not so good. Too many people, too many chain restaurants you can find anywhere, little respect for wildlife beyond what you could kill, not as much regional flavor (in food and behavior) as we’d hoped. But we did see a new bird in a new (to us) area.

More important, besides spending time together away from work, MH and I were able to rid ourselves of our post-Sandy paranoia. We came back to a neighborhood that was back to “normal” (with both the good and the bad that implies). While saddened that many devastated areas of coastal New Jersey continue to suffer, we were glad to be back to normal, too.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thankful

Today is Thanksgiving. For the first time in six years my husband and I are not traveling to New Hampshire to visit his family. We will be visiting our friend in Bernardsville, NJ, instead.

There are many things for which we are thankful.

We are thankful our friend got power and heat back after Hurricane Sandy, albeit after nine days. We got ours back after two days but she refused to come to us or other friends and leave her animals behind. The day she thought she'd have to give in and go elsewhere the power came back.

We are thankful all our friends in the New York/New Jersey area who lost power for so long and had their lives disrupted are fine, and our hearts go out to those who still have no homes and/or no power nearly a month later.

MH's picure from North Carolina, November 2012. We are thankful we could get here.

We are thankful for today's sunshine, the lack of wind, the relatively warm temperature. We've had far colder Thanksgivings. We are thankful for the music of Teddy Wilson played over WKCR today. We are thankful to have a job, even if it is far from perfect, to pay the bills at a time when so many do not.

On a purely personal level, I am thankful to have MH, who among other things is a wonderful traveling companion. After a long marriage we know when to talk and when to stay silent, most of the time anyway. We make a good team in the field - he prefers his camera to the binoculars and I am the opposite, so I sight birds, call them out and he snaps pictures. Between the two of us we have lots of memories.

We are thankful we got to see many "good" birds on a week-long vacation in North Carolina we thought we'd have to cancel if the lack of power and the north Jersey gas lines continued for much longer. We are thankful we got away because in our darkest moment, literally, we weren't so sure.

On this trip MH finally saw a redheaded woodpecker, we both saw the rare red-cocaded woodpecker (I'll write more on this another time) and, most important, we had time together away from New Jersey and the trauma of the hurricane. We needed the break.

I have had a good life with a lot of good luck in it and I thank God for that. I hope it can continue for a long time.

I am also thankful I can put words together in a way that people enjoy reading, so thank you Readers.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Aftermath


I admit to feeling survivor’s guilt right now.

I’m lucky. Sandy’s damage to my house was one shutter that blew off, struck my office window (while I was working!) without breaking it and flew to the other side of my property.


Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012
No major tree damage. No holes in the roof, water in the basement or electric wires on the driveway. My husband (MH) even found the shutter in one piece. I put out my feeders and the birds returned, hungry as ever. Maybe hungrier.

My street lost power for about 44 hours. I don‘t play videogames or watch a lot of TV but I found it increasingly impossible during these cloudy, chilly days to function in continual darkness. Even when the power came back, thanks to the complexities of the grid system the corner house next door still has no power; nor does the next street.

But we got off easy. Compare that with Moonachie, where a levee broke and water deluged areas that have never had water after nor’easters and other hurricanes.

Or the Jersey shore. MH is very upset to see areas where his family summered now almost completely destroyed. Long Beach Island. Island Beach.

Or Breezy Point, Queens, just across the channel from where I grew up in Brooklyn. Breezy Point, a fine place to enjoy the beach and the birds, not only was submerged, 100 homes were destroyed by fire - fire in the middle of all that water - because fire fighters couldn’t get in to put the fire out.

Or lower Manhattan, where I worked for so many years, without power from 42nd Street south. A friend who lives in the East 20s says besides the loss of power she has no water and groceries are in short supply. The stock exchange is open and running on generators but it’s only a symbol since nothing else is open. Even the subways shut down for days.

I have read about the gas lines and the fights breaking out. It is why our filled car has not been used in this crisis except to act as my power source for my laptop and cellphone. There is no train service. It was a triumph when Quik-Chek reopened and we could buy a newspaper but there is no milk or sandwich meat to replenish our storm provisions.

If we’re lucky there will be deliveries of food and gasoline to area markets this weekend, which is around the time lower Manhattan and my friends there should - Con Ed willing - get their power back. They have no car. I offer them shelter but without trains running they can‘t easily get across the Hudson.

Another friend, in Bernardsville, is staying in her dark, cold house because she won’t leave without her many pets.

At times like these, what do you say? What do you do to cope? Yes, I am relieved to get the power back because I was able to turn the heat on in an increasingly cold house. I don’t have to sit in my car to work tonight. When things calm down I will do as many of my neighbors did after the freak Halloween 2011 snowstorm and buy a generator.

These “freak” storms are happening far too frequently, if you ask me.

How did Sandy become such a monster? Why didn’t it go out to sea as hurricanes usually do? What made it turn left and hit the Jersey shore?

These storms remind us that when everyone wants to live on the water they get the bad as well as the good. You get the view, you get the floods. I’ve complained before about building where no home should be, particularly on unprotected barrier islands.

Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012

But then you realize the devastation was as bad inland as it was at the shore. As you can see in MH’s photo, even towns like mine that are far from major waterways weren’t immune. 

Sandy was an equal opportunity destroyer.

When the only hope people have is to rebuild, I can only hope their next homes withstand the next monster storm.

Better yet, I hope there is no next monster storm.













Friday, October 26, 2012

Waiting for Sandy

Hurricane Sandy, or what the media call "Frankenstorm," is a few days away from hitting somewhere along the Midatlantic. There is a good chance it will strike the Jersey shore, but even if it is not a direct hit we will all be feeling the effects.

October 2011 snowstorm
Didn't we go through this around now, last year? Why yes, we did. Only last time we had a freak snowstorm that hit the leafy trees, pulled them down and disrupted power for a while.

This year the expected cold front won't make it here in time but the moon will be full and the tides would be higher than normal anyway. With the expected very high winds pushing high water there could be severe flooding along the coast, and that includes the tip of lower Manhattan.

Here in my part of New Jersey, my husband, with his scientific way of thinking, has been buying nonperishable groceries, restocking the battery case, refilling the flashlights. This morning I held the ladder as he climbed to the lower roof gutters to pull out debris.

At the same time, here is how many of those in my area were getting ready. They were blowing leaves to the curb.

I have lived in the suburbs for nearly two decades and I still can't understand this lawn lust, this need to water excessively, cut to literally within an inch of the grass's life and blow every last thing off to the street, heedless of whether it impedes a person's or a car's ability to travel down said street.

For me, it is a USELESS and WASTEFUL activity to blow several weeks's worth of leaves to the curb just ahead of a hurricane or tropical storm.

Best-case scenario - the leaves blow back on the homeowner's lawn, forcing him or her to do the job all over again, or pay someone else to do it all over again.

Worst-case scenario - the rivers expected will be blocked from going down the drains, creating ponds in the middle of the street. Already-treacherous travel will worsen. Water may even back up into homes.

The noise from the leaf blower-fans, which are much more power than the electric-powered blower I use only as a last resort, is deafening. As I sit in my home office, making plans for what to do to keep working and living should we lose power, the sound is as loud and as annoying as a continual car alarm or a siren.

Even as these lawn services or homeowners finish, the breeze brings down another handful of leaves. But hey, you've just paid for several big guys to do 10 minutes of work to give you 14 seconds of spiffy green lawn. Hurrah, I guess you're better than me.

I can barely see the grass in my backyard for all the elm, oak and maple leaves but there is no way I am going to go out when more leaves - and perhaps some tree limbs - come down in the storm. There are more important things.

These people will probably also freak out because they can't watch their flat-screen tvs, use their fancy big ovens and may lose what's in their fancy refrigerators.

Barnegat jetty. Will it be enough to protect the coast from Sandy?
Some do plan. There's my neighbor with the big gas-powered generator. Last year he ran his continually. It made a lot of noise and stunk of gasoline but at least he kept his refrigerator and other appliances going.

As these "freak" storms become more common, as even more of those who deny there is anything called global warning start wondering about all these extremes - too much rain, too much wind, too much heat, no snow, too much cold - we've been having, I am going to have to plan to buy a generator, too, for the next storm.

Even in my modest home, if I don't have power, I don't work, and if I don't work, I don't earn money. That is, literally and figuratively, the bottom line.

But at least I do not live near the water. All those people who built homes on barrier islands and those other people who tore down low-lying bungalows to put up high-profile behemoth beach houses should be ashamed of themselves. But they aren't. The builders got their permits and are long gone, and the homeowners will rebuild.

I don't want to wish this storm on anyone, especially anyone on the Delmarva, where I expect to be traveling in a few weeks, but I hope Sandy's blow isn't as hard in New Jersey as I fear it will be.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Faith in a Seed

Friends who used to own boats tell me the best days of a boater’s life is the day he buys it and the day he sells it.

I feel that way about my garden.

Female purple finch. Note the distinctive eyebrow.
Today I put cut down the last of the foliage that turned brown and tattered after this week’s extremely cold nights. The potted plants I took to my enclosed back porch. Moving the pots to the back porch and then inside the house is the last part of a long process that began when I got excited by the sight of the first daffodil and crocus poking their noses through the cold soil in spring.

It was a long, strange growing year - no winter snow, a spring too cold and wet, then a summer too hot and dry before the rains returned and the temperature turned seasonable. I try to keep plants I don’t have to fuss over but inevitably something has to be cut back.

Now, with satisfaction and some relief, I am seeing a light at the end of a long tunnel as I get the garden - and myself - ready for a long winter's rest. As I reset the fence posts I thought of the Robert Frost poem that talked about good fences making good neighbors. I don’t know about my neighbors but I need the fences to keep out the deer. In the back garden, dominated by yew plants, the deer netting will be augmented by burlap once November comes around. The netting makes gardening harder but at least I can enjoy my flowers and shrubs.

Pine siskin (top) and white-breasted nuthatch.
Meanwhile, the feeders are visited by the usual assortment of birds and I can hear others that prefer to stay in the bushes: Carolina wren, white-throated sparrows. Now that winter is coming on I am having some unusual visitors from the north, driven south when the drought hit the trees in Canada -- purple finch and pine siskins.

After the last cutting in my back garden I stood to admire my handiwork.

That's when I saw the weed coming from the seam in the vinyl siding overhead.

Wait. Not a weed. A seedling.

I have found seedlings before, usually oak or elm seedlings that grow when a chipmunk or squirrel buries the nut and then forgets it. I usually pull them up and sometimes plant them elsewhere.

But those are on the ground. Besides coming from an unexpected and inaccessible place, this one was not a tree. It took me a while to realize it was a sunflower, likely from a seed put there by a titmouse or chickadee as part of its winter cache. Who knows when this was “planted?” The week’s recent, excessive rain and milder temperatures sparked the growth.

I admit, my first thought was to pull it out. But I have decided to leave it alone.

This seedling has found a way to thrive despite the odds - winter is coming on, after all - and I figure if it can work so hard to live, the least I can do is leave it alone.

It is inspiring to see such perseverance.

The writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Whether it survives or not, this little guy is a reminder that life is too short, and we need all the wonders we can get.




Tuesday, October 16, 2012

So Long Ago, and Yet Like Yesterday

Thirty-two years ago, on the night of Oct. 15, my mother died in a hospital in Brooklyn, NY, from the cancer that returned after five years, spread from her spine to her liver and then to her brain.

She was 60.

It is hard to believe that it has been 32 years when in many ways I remember the events of her death, my getting the news and the funeral as if it was yesterday.

But that's not why I am writing today.

I was thinking today about how the world has changed since she died in 1980.

What would my mother think of computers now? Around the time she died they were still big, clunky things that easiily filled a room.  Programmers needed keypunchers - one of my college jobs - to type keys that would put holes in a certain order for the computer to read the information and then do what it had to do.

Now, computers have gone from filling a room to filling your hand. In my own case I went from a personal computer tower and monitor that my husband and I had to take turns using to separate laptops that have more memory in each than those big computers.

What would my mother think of smartphones? When she died, you had a phone. It sat on a table or was attached to the wall. It rang and you answered. If you were expecting a call you waited by the phone. How many songs did we grow up with where someone lamented waiting by the telephone that never rang.

Now, we're always connected. You can put an answering machine (with caller ID, to screen out the spam calls) on your landline - presuming you even have one. A lot of people have been giving them up.

Instead, they carry around a phone that isn't used so much as a phone anymore as a way of getting directions, planning your day, googling information, sending email and taking pictures. The talking part is almost an after-thought.

What would she think of texting? Of driving and texting or driving and talking or people walking down a public street blithely shouting intimate details?

What would she think of the end of the space program? It was America's pride. She would've remembered the Soviet spacecraft and President Kennedy's determination to best them in space and get to the moon.

She died before the first space shuttle, Columbia, was launched, in 1981. And now the entire program is gone, Columbia with Discovery and Endeavor. If anyone is going into space it is either a private company or another country including, gasp, the Russians.

What would she think of buying music electronically, by the song? In that, she would see a lot that's familiar. Buying individual songs was what one did, first with 78s, then with 45s. You collected them and put them into an album - hence how the word got used for what we also called long-playing records, or LPs. The concept of buying them through a company like iTunes and the possibility of sharing songs electronically would've confused her, but the overall by-the-song concept would not.

She would also recognize some of today's best-selling musicians, starting with that bunch of geezers known as the Rolling Stones. They've been together 50 years. She would remember when they appeared on Ed Sullivan and Mick Jagger had to sing "Let's spend some time together" while the look in his eyes reminded you the line actually went "Let's spend the night together."

Perhaps she'd be shocked by how old they look now. But then she could look at the Beatles' Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and think they haven't aged a bit - unless someone reminded her George Harrison died of cancer in 2001 at age 58 and John Lennon was murdered.

In 1980, as it happened, two months after my mother died.

What would she think of having a black man as president? It would scare her. But what would scare her more would be the thought of losing Social Security and Medicare, as the other guy's plans might do. And she would worry about an anti-Semitic nation like Iran building a nuclear arsenal. Yet, the fighting in the Middle East would look all too familiar.

Same stuff, different millennium.

And what, in heaven's name, would she think of the destruction of the World Trade Center, Osama bin Laden, the invasion of privacy, picture IDs to vote, the torture that has become flying in an airplane, airline security, the state of the economy, the end of job security and the widening gulf between rich and poor?

Yes, the world has changed a lot since 1980.

However, I can't say all of that change has been for the better, especially for me since Oct. 15.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Flipping the Bird

When I’m out in the field birding, I run into a lot of nice people. They ask what I’m looking at. Sometimes they point out things I don’t see. We may talk shop, we may not.

If they have a spotting scope, they offer to let me look through it. One couple - at an industrial area in Salisbury, Md., that was drawing a lot of grassland birds one recent September - not only let us look through the scope but identified the birds we were seeing (I’m as bad identifying grassland birds as I am shorebirds).

When we are standing and looking at birds - whether at Sandy Hook’s Spermacetti Cove or Scherman Hoffman’s hawk platform - there are people who are friendly and who enhance the birdwatching experience.

But as in real life, there are also jerks.

These are the stupid people out there in the field who do a lot of stupid things.

*They will leave the trail, like the lady in this photo taken a few years ago in Massachusetts.

I was on the trail when I photographed her. She was walking alongside some deep water, likely the Concord River or a tributary. She was walking over a lot of downed tree limbs. We watched her to see how far she’d go, and whether she’d fall into the water. Luckily, she didn’t fall in and ran into enough brush that she was forced back to the trail.

Recently, at Sandy Hook’s Plum Island, my husband and I saw two guys with cameras - huge, gunlike lenses - walking ahead of us. One of them left the trail and was walking in the long marsh grass, in the mud, looking for something to photograph.

I don’t know what he was looking for when he was trampling the marsh but he spooked two black ducks out of hiding into the water. That didn’t interest them enough to use their cameras. Maybe they didn't even see them.

I’m sure the ducks were relieved the peregrine falcon that had been flying over the area most of the afternoon wasn‘t around at the time.

*They use recorded devices.

If you play a recording of a singing male bird, there is a great likelihood a real bird of the same species will fly in to defend his territory. It will get stressed. It may even attack you. That’s bad enough when it’s something small, like a Bicknell’s thrush.

But if it’s an owl, watch out. In bird etiquette, you do not stress out a roosting owl during the day. In my book, you don’t use tapes to draw owls even at night.

*They will do anything for a picture.

Some people use their big lenses to stay in the background and get the picture, blowing it up in the editing. Some, however, will trample the ground like elephants, rush the bird, push you out of the way for that picture.

I’ve written before about the people who put their lenses practically in the faces of the roosting long-earred owls found by others a few years ago. When a rare boreal owl was found roosting near Tavern on the Green in New York City's Central Park during the 2004 Christmas Bird Count, many people came to photograph it. They stood a respectful distance from the base of the tree, used their long lenses and took their pictures.

But when a guy showed up early in 2005 with his camera, he wanted a perfect shot. Boreal owls are hard to see sometimes. So this guy used a bright flash for his pictures, despite the birders yelling at him to stop.

The next day, the owl was gone, either to another part of the park or another part of the state. Maybe it was coincidence. I hope it survived the trip. It left behind a lot of angry birders.

A lot of owls have been found in Central Park since then, but not boreal owls.

These jerks will also trespass. There are many stories. If you look on the birding lists you’ll frequently see the complaints from other birders as well as exhortations not to block roads, to respect private property, not to cross fences, etc.

There’s a reason for these exhortations. A lot of birders simply don’t respect private property. Maybe it’s because they consider themselves photographers rather than birders. With smartphone cameras and mini-SLR cameras, everyone think they're a world-class photographer, a paparazzi of birds.

The town of Piermont, NY, was overwhelmed by people coming from hundreds of miles around one winter when a juvenile snowy owl took up residence on a post in the town harbor. Same for the town of Montgomery, NY, when the grasses in a particular park field were trampled after a sedge wren was found.

If I was a homeowner and I had something extraordinary at my feeders, I would tell no one. My little lawn and my little street in my little town would be overwhelmed.

*They won’t tell you what they are seeing.

You see people with their binoculars focused on something. Birding etiquette says you walk up, focus your binoculars on the general area, try to see what they’re seeing, then ask.

Sometimes you see what they see, and you mention it for confirmation. Sometimes you can’t see what they see and when you ask they answer, even if they are thinking “I had to work for this. So should you.”

The jerks put down their binoculars and walk away.

That’s ok. It only makes me work harder to find what they saw, and more.

So when we meet in the field, let's be friendly. Let us bird in fellowship. Let us share stories and information and, most important, respect the birds and each other.

Otherwise, I'll be flipping you the bird and notifying the authorities.



Monday, October 1, 2012

A Study in Contrasts


Outside the town of Hamburg, Pa., sits a Cabela’s, part of a retail chain, on a hill overlooking a shopping mall, restaurants and the motel where my husband and I recently stayed.

Hamburg, Pa.
Cabela’s calls itself the world’s foremost outfitter, and if you need a tent or camoflage clothing or a fishing reel or a shotgun or subsidiary items, you can get it there.

A few miles north is a mountain top, part of the Blue Mountain chain, on which anywhere from 10 to 100 people can sit from late August through November. The way the mountain ridges are situated, raptors follow the warm thermals (rising air) down the ridges. If there is a north wind pushing them, so much the better.

This particular mountain, then and now known as Hawk Mountain, was where early in the last century farmers and sportsmen - who now might’ve gone to Cabela’s had it been around - lugged their guns and their gear and their liquid refreshments up the steep, rocky slope to the top to take advantage of those flying conditions to shoot the eagles, ospreys, buteos, accipiters, falcons and harriers out of the sky, just for the fun of it.

In the center of the Cabela’s in Hamburg there is a two-story pyramid. There are multiple ledges on this “mountain” on which stuffed animals are in various poses suggesting what they looked like before they were “bagged.” This was some prodigious hunter, and some of the animals include a card with his name and the date of the shooting. The animals range from the smallest hare to a polar bear, with plenty of elk, foxes and sheep in between.


Broadwing hawk, September, 2012
 In front of it, Cabela’s put a bronze plaque. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to photograph it. The gist of the message is to praise the “American sportsman” for his efforts in supporting conservation and bringing back several species from the brink, allowing birders and hikers like me to enjoy ourselves.

This may seem counterintuitive. Killing animals to save them?

But as Cabela’s points out, hunters have to pay for licenses. They buy duck stamps when they go after wild ducks. The money from these licenses and stamps help pay for state and federal conservation efforts, including enforcing hunting laws and buying land for wildlife refuges that prohibit hunting.

When the Hawk Mountain sportsmen were shooting the raptors for the hell of it, they had no licenses. They had no rules telling them what they could shoot, at what time of year and how many they could “bag.” It was just something they’d always done, and local guides could make money off it.

When some concerned citizens disgusted by the slaughter bought the mountain (and later much of the surrounding property), it took many years and quite a few confrontations before the hunting stopped. The passage and enforcement of federal law protecting all migratory birds - especially raptors - from being hunted helped a great deal - once it was enforced.

Now, you can argue that all these rules and regulations - the duck stamps, licenses, etc. - are an infringement on your “constitutional” (although it is nowhere stated in the U.S. Constitution) right to kill whatever the hell you want, wherever, etc. Too many rules! Too much government interference!

We all know there are still too many people who break the rules because no one is going to stop them from doing what they’ve always done.

These are not the people Cabela’s has in mind, I think. Those hunters are the ones who know when to quit, who enjoy the sport but don’t break the rules and get nonhunters pissed off at them. If you look at a map of Pennsylvania you’ll see Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is surrounded by state game lands, where a licensed hunter can legally hunt every day but Sunday. Hunting and fishing draw as many people to the state as Hawk Mountain does, perhaps more, and the state does its best to promote both.

Enjoying, not hunting, the raptors on Hawk Mountain.
I don’t mind responsible hunting. You need to hunt to provide food or clothing for your family? Go to it. Protecting your chickens- or even your pet poodle - from predators? Fine.

It’s already the season for cross-bow hunting of deer in New Jersey, and shooting with shotgun is not far away. Many of the hunters give the meat to local kitchens to feed the homeless, if they don't take it for themselves. Suburban yards aside, there are too many deer eating the understory plants in our forests, which has a very great effect on birds and other animals in those forests. A hunt is needed.

There will be another bear hunt this year n NJ. Like the deer, the bear population has gotten out of control in the most populated state in the nation thanks to rules prohibiting their shooting and suburban sprawl into areas where once were woods.

This is one case when the rules do not help. Unlike raptors, bears are increasingly unafraid of humans and will do a lot of damage to you, your pets and your property, unless it becomes a large piece of roadkill, which is becoming more common.

And while it isn’t the animals’ fault developers have put people in areas they had no business being in, no one is going to suggest the town of Morris Plains, for example, exile all people and let the animals go where they want.

(I know there are some people who would love this. These are the people who feed bear, or dismantle the traps the state puts out for them. At a recent Christmas party I met one person who went from meek little man to snarling, angry bear and threatened me for suggesting that a short bear hunt might be a good thing to minimize dangerous confrontations.)

The hunters on Hawk Mountain were not responsible people. Those who participate in New Jersey’s deer and bear hunts are responsible, if only because by buying those permits they are committed to following the rules. Those who don’t follow the rules should be caught and punished.

An all-too-common scene.
I watch the raptors flying over my yard and I’m thankful they were allowed to rebound in population when the hunting stopped. As Cabela's noted, alot of species have come back in recent years.

I can’t, unfortunately, say the same for the deer or the bear.

When I moved to my home nearly 20 years ago the deer would scatter when you came up the driveway. No longer, although I‘ve figured out some tactics to move them off my yard and I keep all my plants behind netting to minimize the damage I‘ve learned they inflict.

As far as I know I have never had a bear pass through my yard and go after my bird feeders. I can’t say it will never happen. I don’t want to come face to face with a black bear, and I hope this year’s hunt is successful.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Earthbound

There comes a time every September when a cold front pushes through, the wind comes out of the north and the sky clears to a cloudless, brilliant blue.

Sept. 11, 2001 was one such day, unfortunately.

But so was this past Saturday, Sept. 15. It was a day many of us in the birding community were awaiting because it means many of the birds that migrate south to Central and South America in fall would be on the move, that north wind giving them a big push and allowing them to conserve their energy in flight.

Mid-September is when broadwing hawks, the smallest of the buteos (a group that include redtails), travel south in the greatest numbers. Having a cold front pass through in mid-September and on a Saturday made it ideal for people like me to travel to one of the many hawk platforms in New Jersey and hope for a good show.

Pete Dunne
It was by dumb luck that I found out Pete Dunne - NJ Audubon official, prolific author and hawk identification master - was going to be at Scherman Hoffman in Bernardsville, NJ, at the sanctuary’s platform to watch for hawks, and hawk his newly revised second edition of his 1988 book “Hawks in Flight: The Field Identification of North American Migrant Raptors,” written with David Allen Sibley and Clay Sutton.

Scherman Hoffman, a New Jersey Audubon sanctuary, has one of the easier hawk platforms to get to - you take an elevator to the third floor. No climbing unless you take the stairs.

Having Dunne up there was both fascinating and depressing. He knows his stuff and his enthusiasm is contagious. Somehow, he always saw the incoming raptors. He’d be autographing books, or talking to people about their birding experiences or imparting wisdom on the way to tell the difference between a turkey vulture and an eagle in flight (the vulture looks like a man walking a tightrope) and suddenly he’d call out, “There are birds by that comma to the left of the cloud, about to come into the blue!”

What? Which cloud? What comma? What birds?

You would think something big like an eagle would be easy to see high up on a clear day, but you’d be wrong. Broadwings, despite the distinctive white stripe in the tail and black border on the wings, are even harder to ID when they are way up there unless, like Dunne, you can tell it by its shape.

(Broadwings are compact and more elegant than the larger redtail, which Dunne considers “lumpy.” The fans of Pale Male would likely disagree.)

What we were waiting for here on terra firma are the kettles, those groups of anywhere from a few to a few hundred broadwings that circle in a group on a rising warm current of air and then circle around (as tho’ being stirred in a kettle) and use the centrifugal force to give them more speed when they stream out.

As we mere mortals started getting frustrated - where ARE they? - Dunne talked us through, at one point standing behind a woman and literally raising her binoculars until she could see them.

OOOH.

“Thousands of people would kill to have what we have right now,” he said of watching hawks in the sunshine, the birds more easily visible as the clouds increased.


A local "lumpy" redtail, hanging out watching the hawk watchers.
The hardest part was standing for hours, desperately looking for a speck (at one point looking straight up), straining eyes, neck and back - especially the back - while trying to figure out what kind of bird we were seeing. After all, that's why we were there. I envied the couple who not only brought chairs but lunch in a cooler bag. They were in for the long haul and they were going to be comfortable.

The birds, meanwhile, soar above you, untethered to the land, seemingly weightless. For the moments I watch them I forget I am heavy, earthbound, as “lumpy“ as one of those redtails Pete Dunne made fun of.

Everyone needs to look up once in a while. Too often we go about our daily lives, in a rut, moving from point A to point B, and fail to see what’s flying over as we drive the highway or sit in the house with a videogame.

People need to learn. They need to get a book - maybe one of Dunne’s or one of the thousands of books now out there to help you find, identify or bring to your garden just about every type of bird out there - and learn something about birds and, by extension, something of the world around us.

At one point on the increasingly crowded platform, a young man of 16 started peppering Dunne with questions about the redtails he’d been seeing in his yard. As Dunne patiently answered his questions, looked at his photos and made approving noises about his illustrations of birds, I asked the teenager’s father about him.

His son has been birding since he was very small. They are always traveling around, the father driving and the son taking pictures. The father travels a lot for work, he said, and it is not unusual for him to take the red-eye flight home, get his son and go birding.

“So one day I’m in Singapore and the next I’m in Great Swamp,” he said with a smile, watching his hyperactive son.

It is good to see someone young and interested. Too often my husband and I are among the younger people in a crowd of birders. Interested young people won't sit by and do nothing when stupid people try to "overdevelop" the land or pollute the water or air.

Older people, if they have grown children and are lucky enough to have the time and be comfortable financially so they can afford the books and cameras and binoculars, will likely make up the bulk of those attending the conference Dunne is spearheading for New Jersey Audubon out of Cape May Oct. 26-28, a major money maker.

He’ll be charging people for the same tutorial he gave for free in Bernardsville.

Too often we are earthbound in our thinking. We are not the only species around. We are all interconnected.

That’s why we who are fascinated by birds stand or sit on the tops of mountains or man-made platforms and watch the hawks. We are all trying to survive. They are moving high above life’s constant turmoil from breeding grounds to below the equator where it will be summer while we have winter. We walk the Earth, also trying to get from point A to point B as well as we can.

While they face more danger, I think the birds do it with more style.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Seeing the Forest for the Tax-Ratables

I may be wrong, but I believe in the office of every New Jersey county, town or state person in charge of creating or maintaining a park there is a manual.

Its title is something like “How to Get State Funding.”

Somewhere in the first chapter it probably says the following:

“To be able to maximize the greatest number of limited resources, the park shall be created to have the broadest number of uses.”

That means, if you want a park it can’t just have trees and perhaps a path or two. It must have an area for ball fields or a playground or a basketball court or soccer area.

It must be a “multi-use facility.”

That brings me to the Central Park of Morris County, and the clear-cutting of the trees.

Ever since the county (for $1) bought the land New Jersey no longer needed when the state was forced (by bad publicity) to close the old, hulking Greystone mental hospital and build a smaller, modern facility at the western-most end of the property, the county has been making improvements. 

One of the first things the county did was take down the abandoned stone buildings that used to house the inmates on either side of Central Avenue.

That was good. Those hulking buildings were dark and creepy, ghosts watching from the barred windows of the upper floors.

The buildings down and with all this land at its disposal, and all the time, effort and money expended to prevent trespassing, Morris County couldn’t just leave fields full of trees.

It started with a dog park, or “canine center“ as the county parks commission website calls it. I understand -- when you have a townhouse or condo or even one of the McMansions that have sprung up in the 20 years I've lived out here and your dog doesn’t have a big, fenced yard, you want a place to bring it.

Here’s what else is there, according to the website:

Two lighted, regulation-size, in-line skating rinks (that can be converted in summer for other sports). A baseball field for wheelchair activities. A 5K cross-country course.

That’s a lot of noisy activity on the south side of Central Ave., or “multi-use facility,” as it would be called in my hypothetical book. Not exactly the advertised “passive recreation” -- or hiking, as I call it.

Now the trees are down on the north side of Central Ave.

The north side of Central Ave. seen from Cottage Rd. The old hospital can be seen at the back.
I had hoped, fool that I am, the land would be left alone. The long grasses and very old trees had drawn wild turkeys, redtailed hawks, chipping sparrows, bluebirds, goldfinches, Eastern kingbird and others. I know because I hiked through that land and found them.

Now the trees are gone. The county has been cutting the trees for weeks. I’ve heard the sawing. I’ve seen the mountain of mulch.

Why?

What could the county NOW possibly be putting on that land between Cottage Rd. (the one that runs in front of the old administration building, which is state land) and the old hospital (currently under development; you can see it in the back of my photo)?

Soccer fields? A swimming pool? Maybe a condo village?

Who knows? I saw no notice of the county’s intentions anywhere.

I get it -- money is tight. If Morris County, one of the most built up in the most congested state in America, is going to create a park, it wants to get more bang for its buck. I think it did so.

I also think it should’ve created more hiking trails and left the trees alone.

But trees don’t pay taxes. Neither do the birds that nest and feed in them. It’s the same thinking that allows Parsippany to approve Whole Foods tearing down woods for a new store when there are half-empty storefronts throughout Morris County. In Livingston (Essex County) there is a completely deserted mall where the Borders used to be. Whole Foods could’ve had the whole thing to itself. But it wouldn’t have been paying taxes in Parsippany.

Or take Hanover, which allowed a developer to clear-cut property along Hanover Ave. for a shopping center, even though the nearby Cedar Knolls Plaza (formerly the Morris County Mall) and the Pine Plaza Shopping Center along Route 10, both also in Hanover, are half-empty.

You get the idea. Leaving woods alone is considered a “waste” of resources. Even my small borough is allowing 70 town homes to go up where a school used to be, which will make the Route 202 rush-hour traffic even worse since no one put in a traffic light for the residents to get into or out of the site.

Those park planners think they are giving us breathing room, and I suppose they are if you look at the over-development going on around us.

For those of us who think trees are important, there are still places to go. Some of these places are called National Wildlife Refuges.

They were created by the federal government with your tax dollars to protect the birds and animals that would otherwise be hunted to extinction.

To my thinking, they are also protectorates for trees, which in Morris County are also an endangered species.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On the Move

After the better part of a month visiting my feeder, the ruby-throated hummingbird (or birds; at one point there were two) has not been by. I put out fresh sugar water and if there is no activity in the next day or two I will be forced to conclude she is on the move southward.

The nights have been cooler this month, for the most part, and many of the flowering perennials have that tired look, as if they know summer is coming to a close and they want to rest. For now the butterflies - swallowtails, viceroys, cabbage whites and the mighty monarch among others - are all over the butterfly bush and the bees love the rose of sharon, joe-pye weed and the late-blooming sage.

They know summer is ending, too, and they have to get moving.

There has been a lot of goldfinch activity. Goldfinches breed later than other birds, needing the late-summer seeds for their young to survive. Suddenly, there are flocks of young birds of all types noisily investigating the plants and the water dish in my backyard. Because the thistle plants are now seeding in those (increasingly fewer) areas where wildflowers and weeds are allowed to grow, I have put out two thistle feeders. Some goldfinches have come, joined by chickadees and titmice.

Tiger swallowtail, a late summer visitor to the butterfly bush.

At Duke Farms the other day, the compost pile at the community gardens was covered with over 100 cowbirds, another sign summer is ending. Cowbirds, starlings, grackles, blackbirds form large winter flocks once mating and young-rearing are over. It always amazes me that cowbirds can create such large groups considering female cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of others. Somehow these young, growing up with surrogate parents of a different species, know to leave the nest and meet up with other cowbirds.

My peppers are finally growing but are slow to go red. My tomatoes, once again, are a disaster - no more! Most of the tomatoes I’ve used have been from farm markets and that will continue. I can only hope the peppers ripen before it gets cold. A friend has shown me how to keep basil going and I look forward, I hope, to having more herbs in winter.

There will be a lot of outdoor plants that will be on the move indoors soon.

Birds are on the move. There have already been reports of warblers seen in Central Park, and the hawk watch at Hawk Mountain has been open since mid-August. As of Aug. 25, the month’s total is 333!

Some people I know are already taking their college kids back to school, and soon their younger children will be heading back to classes, too. Vacation time is over.

The June bugs are gone and the cicadas, crickets and katydids are becoming more fervent in their mating calls. They can sense the days are getting shorter and their time is short.

Trees also sense the days are shorter. The leaves have been falling from my apple tree and the locusts for weeks, The dogwood’s leaves have red mixed in with the green. Soon enough the yellow will come to the elms, the red to the maples and the brown to the oaks.

Unlike those who want to live forever in their shorts and flip-flops, I don’t mourn the passage of summer. I like my weather cooler. It keeps me alert. It is easier to walk farther when I'm not weighed down by heat and humidity. I like looking for birds but it sure is easier watching them at the feeders than stomping through hot, muddy swamps and bug-filled woods.

But I must admit it is a shock to suddenly see it getting dark at 8pm, to wake to a darker 6 a.m., to hear my husband announce he just has to get in one last barbeque before Labor Day, and to realize I haven’t seen a hummingbird at the feeder in days.

August has been comfortable after July’s intense heat. September will be cooler still, and the hawks will soon be riding the winds out of the north along the ridgelines. I look forward to seeing some of them during this year’s southbound migration.

But sitting still on my porch in the dusk, I am also enjoying today.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

If Only...

It took over 10 years of stopping, looking and listening; walking in federal, state and local parks, wildlife sanctuaries, wildlife management areas and swamps; listening to CDS of songs and thumbing through shelves of books, both my own and from libraries, to get myself even comfortably proficient with identifying land birds by sight and sound.

I learned by walking around, keeping my eyes open and not being afraid to stand very still (to the dismay of my husband) until what I was hearing popped into view so I could note a few field marks and then look them up later.

I am what I call an enlightened intermediate. There are birds that I don’t see often enough to be able to immediately identify, and I am still not good enough to be able to identify which little birds are flying overhead, tho’ I am better on the bigger birds.

But I am woefully bad when it comes to sea and shore birds, and it didn't have to be that way had I known what I had when I had it.

I grew up along the southern coast of Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island. Living in a coastal area is different from being inland, as I am now. The light is different. The summer temperatures are cooler. The thunderstorms are more intense.

At the time I was growing up in this part of Brooklyn, the only birds I knew were robins, jays, cardinals, pigeons and “sparrow,” most likely house sparrow.

At the same time, the areas along the coast were not exactly inviting.


Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. The Manhattan skyline is farther away than it looks.

What is now Gateway National Recreation Area was only in the planning stages. Plumb Beach, along what was once the Shore Parkway (now the Belt Parkway) was a small, dirty beach, a place my mother drove us to but warned us not to go into the water. Official signs had the same warning.

The area across the road from nearby Marine Park, where I‘d ride my bike, was a garbage dump. So was the area near the Kings Plaza Shopping Center off Flatbush Ave. The huge landfill across the Belt Parkway from the huge apartment complex known as Starrett City a few miles farther away stunk at all times of the year.

But when it stunk, gulls would hover looking for food. What kind? I couldn't tell you then. Gulls were gulls. NOW I could tell you but the landfill has been capped and is becoming a grassland. No more gulls. (It has only been with the help of a few photographs that I can say the predominant gull along the Sheepshead Bay waterfront when I was growing up was the herring gull.)

I left Brooklyn for college, marriage and a house in a New Jersey town far from the shore.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn waterfront was changing. Gateway, the national park, stretches from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to the eastern coast of Staten Island, to the Brooklyn south shore to Jamaica Bay in Queens. Plumb Beach is part of it and was cleaned as a result of my federal tax dollars at work. Even the dump across from Marine Park is now a protected salt marsh.

People started noticing all the interesting birds passing through or staying to breed. After years of not thinking about that part of Brooklyn I was suddenly seeing mentions of great birding in the New York bird list.

I went back to Plumb Beach a few years ago en route to the larger Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge farther east, and saw many least terns, an endangered species in New Jersey, hovering, seemingly not bothered by the people windsurfing or laying there.

Least terns? At Plumb Beach?

I am very glad people recognized the importance of a clean waterfront and worked to create habitats where birds can feed and breed. People need to get away from the harshness of urban life and should be able to enjoy a natural area where they can find other creatures than mankind.

But I also wish it could've been so clean when I was actually living in the area, and had more of an interest in birding. That way I'd now be as proficient on shore birds, gulls and sea birds as those I must now turn to for help when I see something I can't identify.

Live and learn.

Maybe in another decade of birding I'll be able to finally stop kicking myself. 



Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Plague of Locusts

I have several neighbors - you probably do, too - who can’t go a week without mowing the lawn. One in particular has a lawn service that comes every Tuesday morning.

As the summer heat has continued it has taken the lawn service less and less time to cut what must now be 1/100th of an inch of new growth each week.

What is it about the suburban man and lawn care? Another neighbor goes out with a small mower to do edges, then an edger to go around trees, then his big riding mower to get everything else. Each week he puts out two to five buckets of what I would use as compost for my pile for someone else to pick up, leaving behind stinking garbage cans.

I don’t see the point of watering to make grass grow and then mowing to make it so short the summer sun makes it go dormant - not dead - and brown.

Most of the rest of us on the street, whether we do the lawn ourselves or hire a service, have not been so fanatical. For instance, we do not go out every week but let the grass grow so it can protect its own roots from the summer heat.

There are a few of us with underground sprinklers, and you can tell who uses them even during a drought - especially during a drought - because their grass is thick and green while the rest of us have grass in various stages of brown crispiness.

This neighbor with the lawn service has a mainly brown lawn, too, with one significant exception.

A small forest of green locust trees.


The locust seedlings are the brighter green plants on this lawn.

Whoever thought the black locust would be a wonderful shade tree for my street 30+ years ago doesn’t have the misfortune of having a female tree, the one that grows the long seed pods that liberally litter the lawn nearly every year.

I have one such female tree. My neighbor does not. Even so, he has been agitating to have the two male locust trees cut down for years. Within the last year the town finally took them down. My neighbor was quick to seed the uprooted space and create a lawn. He even went out to water it.

Normally my town would’ve put in two replacement trees of a type whose roots don’t push up the pavement. It has not done so in this case, either because there were no funds or because at some point a sidewalk may go in and the trees would have to be uprooted anyway.

Or maybe my neighbor just paid a “fine” and made the problem go away.

Locust trees, however, are as tenacious as weeds. The town periodically goes through and trims back branches and within a year you can see little branches growing back. With the trees gone and the grass cut to within a millimeter of its life in summer, there are perfect conditions for tenacious things other than grass to spring up.

So now his lawn is covered with locust trees saplings.

The lawn service cuts them back but I don’t see my neighbor out with a spade to dig them up, as I do when I find one or two growing.

I expect there will be a point when he will have the lawn dug up and sod put down, likely over a sprinkler system that can keep the grass thick and green and surviving until the weekly decapitation by the lawn service. If he has the money to throw around on this, more power to him.

I, however, think it is a waste of time, energy and resources, and the only one who benefits is the lawn company.

Certainly not the lawn.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Stately Mansions

I’m not part of the wealthy class, the 1%, despite living in one of the richest counties in the U.S.

Luckily, when I want to leave my middle-class existence for a while, I can find a way to pretend.

There was a time when, like Fifth Ave. in Manhattan, roads in Morris County were lined with mansions. The area was considered country, where the titans of industry could flee the city with their families in summer for cooler, fresher air.

However, as with the most of the Fifth Ave. mansions south of East 60th Street, most of those in Morris County were converted to office buildings or torn down for something else. (For pictures of Morris mansions, some long gone, some still standing as private residences, click here.)

Many Morris mansions only live on as street names. The ones I know are Mayfair and Idlewild in Morris Plains. Danforth and James in Madison. Kahn Drive, the road that led to financier Otto Kahn’s “country” mansion in Morristown. (His NY town mansion is still standing, at 1 East 91st and is a Catholic school.)

Then there’s the Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge estate in Madison, Giralda Farms, where the mansion came down and the grounds were converted into an office park (with a sidewalk around the campus for walking - outside the fenced grounds, of course). Florence Vanderbuilt and Hamilton Twombley’s nearby Florham is now a campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University. The mansion is the administration building.

But some of the biggest estates were donated to public or private entities and became parks, for the enjoyment of all, and that‘s where I go.

The various members of the Freylingheusen family held wide swaths of land in Morris County. The mansion of Peter Freylingheusen is now the Morris Museum. Another one, George Freylingheusen and his wife Sara, an heir to the Ballantine Brewery (Newark's own) fortune, donated Whippany Farms, their summer home, to Morris County (and adjacent land to the Morristown-Beard school). It became the Freylingheusen Arboretum and the mansion is the headquarters of the Morris County Parks Commission.

This park  is one of my favorite places to walk, my go-to spot when I have to let off steam immediately.

Whippany Farms, from the back
I have been there at all times of the year - with boots and stick in 7 inches (or more) of snow, in spring when the many different birds pass through, summer with its resident nesters (including Baltimore and orchard orioles) and fall when the colors come. The garden plants around the parking lot are labeled and many garden courses and one big garden sale (always the first Saturday in May) are held there. You could drop me anyplace there and I’d find my way back.

Morris County isn’t alone, of course. Somerset County is lousy with estates, too. One that became a park is Natirar, whose last owner was the King of Morocco. It straddles the borders of Peapack-Gladstone, Far Hills and Bedminister.

After the king died his son, for some reason, wanted out of New Jersey. The estate was bought by a group that includes Richard Branson of Virgin Media. They donated the land down the hill from the mansion to the Somerset County park system. The mansion, which makes Whippany Farms look like a toolshed, is now an exclusive restaurant/spa.

(UPDATE: I have since learned that the land was NOT donated, it was bought by Somerset County for $22 million and the mansion leased to Branson and his group for 99 years. So much for charity.)

That’s fitting for this wealthy area, and the late King of Morocco would feel right at home, I’m sure.

I don’t find most of the park very interesting to look at, although if you want to just walk or bike or jog in a very large loop it will do you fine. The main path is wide open, with very little shade except for the area along the north branch of the Raritan River (Natirar is Raritan backwards). There is a second path, up a different hill, I’ve yet to try.

More interesting to me is Duke Farms. Like the Freylingheusen arboretum, this property is now set up to be a sort of teaching landscape with various habitats. But unlike the Freylingheusen Arboretum, everything is on a much larger and grander scale, as the Dukes were (Duke tobacco, Duke Energy) compared with the Freylingheusens (a colonial family, one of whose descendants is my congressman).

Duke Farms is so environmentally correct it’s almost scary. The paths are wide and walkable. Bicycling is encouraged. You can only park in one area across the road from the main park (a crossing guard stops traffic for you). Only one tram runs from the education center (the former stable) to three points in the park, every 30 minutes. Otherwise, you’re on your own.

After being there twice, I still feel I haven’t seen everything.

Duke mansion
But there is one path I took the second time where I could see the Duke mansion through the trees. This is where the reclusive Doris, only child of James Buchanan Duke, lived when she was in NJ., one of her four mansions. The mansion is still kept up but it is gated off.

That makes it rather sad. I doubt Doris as a child was allowed to explore the grounds. When JB was in town he was driven (first by horse, then by auto) to other parts of the farm to supervise whatever work had to be done. I can’t see him walking around for the hell of it either.

So much estate for one small family, just sitting there and not being enjoyed. It was a protective buffer for the Dukes, set up to be a self-sustaining farm and shut off from the world. I’m glad when Doris died the Duke Foundation decided to open up the land as an environmentally correct, self-sustaining park (growing its own seedlings, for instance) for the enjoyment of all.

But when I saw that mansion hiding in the distance and thought of the lonely woman who lived (at least part of the time) within, I’m reminded the rich are different, and not necessarily in a good way.