Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dum Spiro Sparrow

I was not surprised to draw back the kitchen curtains to find birds all over my four backyard feeders. We were having our first snowstorm of 2012 and the first since the freak Halloween storm in October.

January 2012

The birds were fighting each other as much as they were eating. Within sight were three pairs of cardinals jockeying for position at the house feeder; at least one redbelly, downy and hairy woodpecker each taking turns at the suet; and a host of house sparrows, whitethroats, house finches and juncos at these and the other two feeders, with mourning doves below and a quick hit occasionally by a family of jays.

When the house sparrows hogged the feeder and kept chickadees, nuthatches or titmice out for too long, I’d go on the porch to spook them off so the others could feed. Thanks to one neighbor no longer filling his feeder and another who is slow to refill when his empties, I get a lot of visitors in my yard. I don’t mind this - feeding birds is my way of saying thanks for all the pleasure I get seeing these and others in the wild.

But the birds could care less about my so-called generosity. They are just trying to survive.

When they chase each other or sit at the feeders and open their beaks and hiss or spread their wings in an attempt to look bigger, they are trying to get what they can before it‘s gone. The birds that can’t get to the seed directly will go down to the squirrel baffle or to the ground and peck at the bits of seed dropped by the sloppy ones above. Some have even started imitating the woodpeckers and hanging under the suet feeder, an unnatural feeding position for, say, a sparrow.

It is evolution in action. Those that can adapt will survive.

Birds have lived and died without human help for centuries. That I happen to put out feeders is a bit of luck for the birds that consider my yard their territory, or that have stopped briefly on the way to someplace else.

This storm is not very bad compared with last winter, when we had many more storms and so much snow that stayed unmelted for so long the birds were desperate and I could not keep the feeders filled fast enough. Cardinals, usually quite placid birds, were shrieking at others once they were on the house feeder, the one of the four that can accommodate them. If you don’t eat, you don’t live.

It is the same with people.

As I stand in my warm house after a hot breakfast I am more than aware there are people who do not have a roof over their heads and can only eat through the generosity of houses of worship or the community organizations, some to which I donate money, that feed them.

I am also more than aware that in this crazy world we are living in, I and my neighbors are only one disaster away from being homeless and hungry, too.

A rare moment of peace in a life of toil.
 Many of us who lost our jobs have been searching for months, trying to find anything that can use our talents, frequently losing out to those - usually younger and more mobile, without the same ties of house payments and kids in school - who are willing to work for far less in salary.

Some of us are lucky enough to get a job but it is only temporary, because many big employers have discovered it is cheaper to rent an employee through a staffing company and not pay benefits than it is to put someone on staff. There are always enough people searching for work to hire when the contracted worker is forced to leave.

Some of us work in jobs that are becoming more oppressive. We are being told that suddenly, after many years there, we don’t measure up, and if we don’t work harder and longer and change what we’re doing we will face disciplinary review. We are forced to have weekly meetings with supervisors monitoring our “progress,” and may be told if we don’t accept a buyout we will be fired and get nothing.

This was the reason why the message of that ragtag bunch of kids that became Occupy Wall Street resonated with so many of us in mainstream America.

We are told from birth to work hard and save and we will be wealthy and happy. So we work and we are then told we need this and must have that and so must spend and don’t save and don’t think about old age and retirement. We charge and get into debt. When our employers cut back benefits or end them altogether or fire us at a time of increasing prices for gas and basic foodstuffs like eggs and milk, we are on the edge of the precipice.

We think we were shafted because we followed the rules and the deck was stacked against us from the start.

The birds don’t care what goes on below them. As long as they can avoid predators and find a meal and a branch on which to roost through a cold night, they will live to fly another day and breed when spring comes.

Spring seems a long way off.

Today I learned something from my husband. Not only is the state bird of South Carolina one of my favorites - the carolina wren - but the state motto is Dum spiro spero - While I breathe, I hope. Spero is the root of the word despair - no hope.

Hope is the thing with feathers, wrote poet Emily Dickinson.

When MH told me this phrase I heard it as dum spiro sparrow.

That is another reason why I feed the birds - for a short time I can forget about this life of despair and concentrate on something with feathers.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Winter Birding

To everything there is a season, and that is true for birding.

Spring and autumn get all the press because that is when the warblers and other tropical migrants pass through on their way north to their breeding areas of choice, or south to the warmer and buggier areas when it is cold up here. Summer is when a lot of birders go to the shore for relief and shorebirds.

I happen to like winter birding when the leaves are off the trees, the cold is bracing and the crowds are sparse. (A lot of birders follow the birds to South America to enjoy summer there.) That doesn’t make the birding any less interesting, especially this year when the unnaturally warm winter weather prompted a lot of migrant birds to hang around a lot longer than usual.

There are lot of birds that show up in New Jersey when the cold comes on. They consider New Jersey warm enough for them, a funny concept to remember when we are shivering from what we consider arctic winds!

Some of these are regular winter visitors. The junco, for instance. This slate-gray and white little guy - and in New Jersey it is always a guy because the browner females fly farther south for the winter (perhaps the males stay farther north so they can get to the breeding areas quicker) - is a pretty reliable indicator winter is coming on.

The white-throated sparrow below is another winter regular. The male’s white “eyebrows” and the yellow spot on either side of the bill and above the eyes get brighter as the winter goes on. Unlike the junco, males and females winter together, and you will hear the high whistling “O Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” of the males as the territorial battles begin.

There are other winter birds not as common. The American tree sparrow, for instance, with its distinctive reddish cap and bi-colored bill, gray on top and yellow below.

The rough-legged hawk is a bird of the tundra, and when winter comes on it sometimes flies south to grassland areas, even urban landfills such as the one abutting the DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst, N.J., near the Meadowlands.

Snowy owl is another uncommon winter visitor and finding one is always a big occasion. This owl is, as the name implies, very white, hangs out in the open and hunts by day, unlike most other owls. This year, among the many recorded, a snowy has been at the Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County, NJ, for weeks.

Winter also means ducks. The common eider and the harlequin duck are standard winter ducks at the rocky jetty of Barnegat Light. If you look on a local pond before it freezes the chances are you will find all sorts of interesting ducks including one or more of the mergansers plus ruddy, canvasback and ring-necked duck.

But just about any waterfowl is likely to show up in any unfrozen water, even along the Hudson River shoreline between Hoboken and Manhattan, which is about as urban as it gets.

As I said, one big advantage of winter birding is the leaves are off the trees. Redtail hawks are easy to see from a great distance when they sit in a bare tree, and it makes it easier to find the white-breasted nuthatch calling from a limb over my head.

But perhaps the best thing about winter birding is you don’t have to even go outside if you don‘t feel like it. If you have a feeder out - better still, many feeders holding different types of seed and suet - the birds will come to YOU as you have your hot cup of coffee on a frosty morning.

Try it and you’ll be amazed by what you can see.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


There is no more graphic proof of global warming than the annual weather chart published in the New York Times every January. This year's edition was published today.

“New York City’s Weather in 2011,” which is compiled from Accuweather data, shows five record temperature highs for the year; record rainfall in May, June and August (the month of Hurricane Irene); record snowfall in January; the snowiest October and a tie for the least snowy December.

There were no record temperature lows.

This data, found only in the physical newspaper and not online, is for Central Park in New York City. My husband, the more scientifically inclined of the two of us, collects it. He showed me several years' worth of his collected annual charts, and we’ve been warming for some time. The last record low temperature was in January 2004.

Near the end of November 2011 it reached 70 degrees in New York City, a record, while one day in mid-December tied a record at 62 degrees. Between those points there were 15 days (not consecutive) of above-average temperatures. I saw a lot of people walking around in shorts enjoying the relative warmth during that time, telling TV news reporters how they hate snow, hate the cold and hope neither comes.

News flash: Winter in this region is supposed to be cold and snowy. I don't know about you but during those few below-average days during this period I heard a lot of bitching about having to deal with what seemed like extreme cold but was not when you look at the cumulative chart. It just felt that way after all that abnormal warmth.

Here’s another example: Bryant Park, one of the busiest parks in midtown New York City, has had some unusual birds hanging around including one or two of the largest warbler, the yellow-breasted chat. A lot of birds were also reported hanging around elsewhere in New York City as well as in central and southern New Jersey.

According to the New York Times chart, 2011 had the sixth-wettest September on record followed by the snowiest October, helped by the pre-Halloween storm (this picture is from the start of that storm) that destroyed still-leafy trees and left millions, including me, without power for anywhere from hours to weeks. Normally the birds that can’t migrate south at that time of year die because they can‘t get the food or the warmth they need this far north.

When the temperatures started rising late last year the birds in these warmer-than-usual areas found bugs, still-flowering plants plus the usual bird feeders to keep them alive. Birders were very happy about these unusual winter birds after complaining how all the rains and strong winds early in the year made for a mediocre spring migration - as in, there was little to see because the birds flew around the storms or got a helpful, strong push past this region.

This birder thinks we are in a world seriously out of balance, or koyaanisqatsi.

Extreme or lack of snowfall: My plants were buried under a mountain of plowed snow into February. Relatives in Minnesota and New Hampshire recently told me ski resorts were hurting in December because they didn't have any snow.

High winds and rain: Hurricane Irene hit New Jersey as a tropical storm. A tropical storm is one level below the lowest level of hurricane. So it wasn’t a big deal, right? Tell that to someone living along the Pompton, Passaic or Millstone rivers who is still trying to recover from water damage or having a house swept away.

Extreme heat: According to the Times’ chart, New York City had two consecutive record highs in July of 104 degrees and 100 degrees. The days leading up to and following those highs were also above normal, making July the fifth-warmest on record. When it is so hot, you need a lot of water. We did not run our sprinklers but as the grass went brown our lawn-worshiping neighbors did, usually in the middle of the day when it does the least good. Thanks to the unusually high amount of rain we had in March, April and May, we had no summer drought and the neighbors could get away with this wasteful behavior.

Meanwhile, many parts of the Midwest were hit with flooding from rain-swollen rivers. Many others were hit with a severe drought creating modern-day dust bowls. Texans were praying for some of Irene’s rains to put out wildfires destroying acres of land, to no avail. Crops were destroyed, cattle couldn‘t be fed. Prices of bread, fruit and dairy are going up.

There are people who believe there is no such thing as global warming. There are others who would do anything to sacrifice our air and water to cut dependence on OPEC oil during these hard economic times. They see hydraulic fracturing - fracking, for short - into rock for oil or gas as our savior, despite its potential to pollute vital groundwater.

They want to rip up the Earth to do this drilling, this century’s version of the clear-cutting that scarred the coal country of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. (Overdevelopment is another form of clear-cutting, for instance in New Jersey.) They also want to build more roads and factories and gut the regulatory power of the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming companies would be more productive and expand their workforce if they didn't have to think about emissions or safety requirements.

Sorry, but this American worker still wants clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.

This country is all about the short-term fix and no long-term planning or even thinking about the consequences of our actions as we consume, consume, consume.

You buy fuel-guzzlers and wonder why gas is so expensive, roads are in disrepair and there is so much traffic. You pave over the woods and wonder why there is damage from increasingly common "100-year floods" caused by runoff when the heavy rains hit. You put houses where none should ever have been built and pour more concrete that holds more heat, helping create this unnatural endless summer. You run inefficient, dirty factories, then blame the laws protecting citizens from your pollution for "forcing" you to leave the country and your workers behind.

It is frustrating. I do what I can - including trying to make you think with this blog - but I’m only a cog in this whirling machine, alarmed by how fast we’re going, how we are doing things to go faster rather than slowing down, wondering how we’ll keep going and when we’re going to break down.

The usual cliche to write at this point is that you reap what you sow.
I wanted to find where in the Bible that is written and found it in Galatians 6:7-8.

But I found something else in my research, in Genesis 8:22. It‘s supposed to be comforting, about the balance of life:

While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.

How much longer do we have?

Monday, January 2, 2012

How to Look like an Expert

As a birder I consider myself an enlighted intermediate rather than an expert. Compared with the pros - the David Sibleys, the Pete Dunnes, the Kenn Kaufmans and Roger Tory Petersons - I am a rank amateur. But compared with my nonbinding friends I am a genius, the go-to person for identifications.

I know better. I was not born with this expertise. Where I grew up in Brooklyn I remember exactly five birds: robin, cardinal, jay, pigeon and “sparrow,” the common House Sparrow (which technically isn’t a sparrow at all but an Old World weaverbird that might’ve stowed away on the Mayflower). Since moving to the suburbs with my husband my bird universe has expanded, as did my curiosity about what was coming to the feeders.

When I didn’t know something I looked it up. As I bought different types of guides I learned more. As with anything you WANT to learn more about, the information stuck.
Then I would go out into the field and apply that knowledge to what I'd read. The more I went out, the more I learned and the more that made me curious, which would send me back to the books, etc., etc.

The problem today seems to be a population - we who grew up with television as a nanny and sedative and our kids and grandkids after - that is passive and wants to be told rather than be active and get a book and look it up or actually go outside in the cold and explore.

The Internet has prompted more activity, yes, but when it comes to learning something the Internet has a lot of information that is not necessarily true but still gets taken at face value.

I encourage you to question everything you read, including me.

Anyway, when I am talking to someone and the subject of birding somehow comes up, I usually get this:

“You’re a bird watcher? I saw this bird…”

I don’t know how birding became such a big deal but I find a lot more people at least interested in what they are seeing, if not the actual practice of taking a camera or binoculars out into the field. Like television, it is easier if someone tells you.

But I’m no genius, and usually when they have described what they’ve seen my curiosity is piqued enough to ask the following questions - questions you, too, can ask if you ever are in such a situation.

How big is it? As big as a robin, sparrow or other bird you see a lot more often?

Where was it when you saw it? In a tree? Flying over you?

Where were YOU when you saw it? Standing on a beach? Walking through a forest? Crossing the street?

After determining size and location, I move on to color. Was it a solid color or were there wing bars or speckling or a different color on the bird’s breast than on its back and/or wings?

What color was its bill? Was it thin and sharp like a starling or large and wide like a cardinal?

Was it all by itself or was it with others of its kind? Or was it with others more familiar to you?

Was it calling? What did it sound like to you?

Sometimes you can get stumped. At a recent party the hostess described a bird a guy pointed out to her that to me sounded exactly like a starling except for one detail - a green breast.

In this part of the world, bright green is not that common a bird color although there are many birds with greenish backs or flycatchers that are olive green. Bright green is more common a color on birds like parrots from the jungles and rain forests, where they can easily blend into the canopy.

(Many areas of the greater New York metro area have colonies of monk parakeets, which are bright green. But even tho’ they likely started out as someone’s pet that got loose, bred and eventually went feral, parakeets are easy to identify.)

Starlings have no green in them, but they are iridescent and if the light hits the right way they can look greenish or purple. My friend later emailed me a picture the guy had sent her and, yes, it was a starling.

More typically, after I go through all the questions and provide my best guess I get either “Wow. Interesting” or “Oh, well thanks.”

Kind of a letdown sometimes. But that’s how reputations are made.