Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Grail Bird

These are not Wilson's warblers.
They are goldfinches.
There are people who want to see every bird on earth. There are people who want to find the ivory-billed woodpecker.

I would like to see a Wilson's warbler.

It is a peculiar truth that what is a common bird for some is far from common for me.

In Chicago once, my husband (MH) and I were standing on the shore of Lake Michigan in a downpour made worse by one of the Windy City's patented gales. Trying to hold up my umbrella in one hand while focusing my binoculars with the other, a man in his rain slicker, shorts and sandals came bounding up and asked, "Have you seen the loon?"

We're all loons here, brother, I remember thinking. But he was looking for a common loon that had been reported, which while common on placid Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire when we visit is not so common on choppy Lake Michigan.

In Playa del Rey in California I was able to add 10 birds to my life list within 15 minutes on Ballona Creek because they were "common" to that area and not to New Jersey.

In Florida I saw two types of kites, a limpkin, a woodstork and an anhinga, plus a lot of prothonotary warblers. When one of these warblers appears in the New York area it always causes a stir among birders.

Wilson's warblers, however, are common to my area. Every year when the warblers move through Central Park there are Wilson's. Every year they are reported in New Jersey.

A prothonotary warbler I photographed
near the NY Public Library. You can't
see the big crowd this little guy drew.
One year one was reported - and photographed singing - in Bee Meadow Park in nearby Hanover. The next day I rushed out there but couldn't find anything in the area except a kid on a motorbike going round and round and pretty much killing any chance of finding anything else.

My good luck in finding a gray-cheeked thrush, a life bird for me, in another part of the park didn't sink in for quite some time because of my disappointment over that missed Wilson's.

Once I thought - maybe - I heard a Wilson's singing in a brushy area near a part of the Great Swamp wilderness area in Harding Township. MH was sure a Wilson's came to our feeder several years ago while I was at work because, he swore, it did not look like a goldfinch. Wilson's are yellow below with a green back and the males have a black cap. Neither sex have wingbars, unlike the goldfinchs.

It is likely the reason I want to see a Wilson's is just because it is such a common bird. It is a point of pride.

I doubt I'll ever see an ivory-billed woodpecker, if one is still around in that Arkansas swamp where it was allegedly found. I doubt I'll ever see any of the Siberian birds that get blown across the Bering Strait to Alaska. There are thousands of species of birds around the world that don't come anywhere near North America, much less New Jersey. I can accept this. But the Wilson's is another matter.

MH has never seen a redheaded woodpecker, but it doesn't bother him. He's more laid back about birding than I would be in his position.

This is not a redheaded woodpecker.
It is a pileated woodpecker.
You may think you've seen a redheaded woodpecker but chances are it was the more common redbellied woodpecker (whose red only goes down the back of the head) or the pileated (whose red is on the crest) . The redheaded woodpecker has an entirely red head, white breast and belly and a back that is solid black and white.

It is a striking bird. The first time I saw one was after a report that it was in a tree along the driveway to the old Great Swamp visitor center - practically in my backyard. I had to go. I almost missed it, too, but for the kindness of another birder who practically walked me to the tree where the woodpecker was preening for another birder's camera.

Several times we've tried seeing a redheaded woodpecker. For MH's own good, of course.

But we keep missing it, at Great Swamp where there's usually one every year; at Lord Stirling Park, which is Somerset County's part of the Swamp; and even at the New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman center, where one was at the feeders for several days the other month. When we got there a crowd in the driveway was watching the distant trees.  Something moved and I pointed it out to MH. Then I realized it had a solid black back...a pileated.

A good bird, but not THE bird.

MH calls these wild bird chases my hunt for the Grail Bird, which was the title of a book about the hunt for that ivory-billed woodpecker mentioned before. We always want what we haven't had, and in my case not seeing a "common" bird others have seen as regular as clockwork sticks in my craw. It reflects badly on my abilities as a birder, even as others tell me I'm pretty good at it.

It is a fine line between enjoying a day in the field and obsession, and I walk it every day.

But spring is nearly upon us, and with it will come birds heading north. Maybe this will be the year I see the Wilson's warbler.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Geese on the Grass (Alas)

To paraphrase Paul Simon, the other day it was my birthday and I hung one more year on the line.

I got up that morning and went outside before getting ready for work. Two cardinals were battling it out musically. The songs signify “this is my territory” to other males and “I can sing louder and longer and be a better provider” to females. These songs should not be sung in mid-February but with this year’s unusual weather all bets are off.

Just before going inside I heard the honking of Canada geese. A small flock was taking off from the small stream behind my neighbors across the street on the county Greystone property.

How most people see Canada geese.
These were local geese, and they were heading someplace close such as one of the town ponds or the elementary school ballfield. They'd be back at dusk, like commuters.

We've all seen the long Vs of migratory geese heading north in spring and south before winter. Many times geese will fly south from the tundra to a lake in upstate New York or New Jersey, only to have to move on after that water freezes. You can tell they are migrants because the flock is very large and very high in the sky.

The local geese, despite being in New Jersey for generations, also get restless, that instinct that says “we must move” during migration times and “we must find more food” during the winter not quite extinguished.

All Canada geese look the same so when huge flocks gather in parks or office lawns, one can’t shoot them because they are protected by federal law. Some companies use dogs to scare the geese away, pushing the problem to another office park, or silhouettes of men or dogs on the lawns, the suburban equivalent of a scarecrow that works about as well when the geese realize nothing is moving.

Geese like short grass so they can see predators coming, making manicured lawns or decorative ponds perfect habitats.

There was a lot of screaming in New York City when scores of Canada geese were captured on a pond in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and killed. As they do with the rampant deer herds, these people seem to have a romantic notion of "nature" and prefer blaming mankind and leaving the creatures alone or controlling their numbers with “birth control.” For geese, that means finding a nest, somehow getting the parents away from it (no easy task - a well-aimed swat of a wing can break your arm and geese also bite) and shaking the eggs to keep them from forming chicks (thus the parents sit on eggs that never hatch).

There aren’t enough people in the world to do this, and that doesn’t get rid of the geese already around, eating the grass and leaving behind long, green, cigarette-shaped souvenirs. And then there's always next year.

I am for balance, and more than agree it was man  - with his unchecked expansion into hundreds of acres of woods to create suburban sprawl - who created this problem. But  leaving hundreds of Canada geese to flock on - and mess up - hiking trails, business “campuses” and “office parks” is extremely unbalanced, not to mention a health hazard.

In the Bergen County, N.J., town where I work the neighboring company did nothing to discourage the four geese hanging around its fake pond, cropping the lawn and leaving their droppings on the grass. Geese mate for life and have large families.The population grew and the lawn service worked around them. When summer ended and the lawn service put its mowers away for the season, the undisturbed geese had no reason to leave. In fact, others joined them. Sometimes they wander onto my employer's property. It hasn't helped there's been no snow for force them to leave.

There are more geese behind me and to the left that you can't see in my picture.
I enjoyed walking the paths between that office and mine, but the picture shows why that has ended. When the geese finished cropping the grass near the pond they moved on. They crossed the footpaths and driveways, leaving their many calling cards. What used to be a long, pleasurable hike became an obstacle course. If I wasn’t shooing 35 geese out of my way I was stepping carefully around droppings everywhere, including bordering public sidewalks. I now stick to the concrete parking lots.

I do not understand why this company and others that go to a lot of expensive trouble to keep the lawns mowed, fed and watered in summer allow geese to literally make a big mess everywhere when the weather gets cold. Maybe it's because no executives walk on the paths, or those employees who do figure the crap literally comes with the territory. Maybe no one wants to be known as anti-goose.

Maybe they shouldn't have sought a perfectly manicured lawn in the first place.

Geese are out of control in recreational parks and fields, too, which means a lot of people are walking or playing in goose droppings. Worse, some people believe it is their civic duty to feed the geese, which only encourages them to stay and make more of a mess.

Canada geese are not the only pests, of course. The populations of a lot of creatures have exploded thanks to man's incursion into what had been untouched lands, usually at the detriment of other species. The deer herd is huge in my area, for instance. In other areas of the country alligators are showing up in people's pools or coyotes snatch little dogs out of backyards. Bears are killing chickens or breaking into homes and bird feeders or feeding from Dumpsters. Skunks and racoons have also discovered people are rather sloppy when it comes their garbage.

Don’t get me wrong, I do like Canada geese. Seeing wave after wave fly in at dusk over the only unfrozen water of Schwartzwood Lake one winter a few years ago was thrilling. Watching a very long skein of geese way up and calling as they fly in migration always stops me in my tracks.

But those are migrants and the others are local pests. As my husband likes to say, in the suburbs we call our rats deer and our pigeons Canada geese.

We created this situation. There aren't enough natural predators to make a dent in this population. We must do something to put nature back in balance, even if that means rounding the geese up and “harvesting“ (oh, the euphemisms!) the meat for homeless shelters. Alot of people are as emotionally - sometimes dangerously - against hunting geese, as they are against hunting deer or bear. But I see no other way around the issue.

In the meantime, watch where you walk.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Birding With Disabilities

One takes so much for granted in this world. Walking, for example.

Towards the end of his life my father couldn’t get around very well because of Parkinson’s disease. He walked unsteadily but would use a wheelchair for longer distances or attending a family function. One day when I was visiting I decided I would wheel him over to the waterfront four long blocks away, to get him out of the house.

It was an eye-opener for me. The sidewalk cracks and ruts I could cross with nary a thought would get the wheels of the chair stuck, forcing me to strain to push the chair out and jostling him around in the process. Curbs - few were adjusted for wheelchairs as they are now - were another hurdle to be carefully surmounted.

He never complained - we eventually did get to Sheepshed Bay and later I rolled him back home in the street, which was more dangerous but smoother - but I know he would’ve preferred being driven. Even when he could walk better he preferred driving to walking, including to his medical office a block away.

I thought of my father recently when one of my friends happened to mention going up to New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman refuge in Bernardsville to get something from the store - seed, a feeder, I can’t remember - and had taken her uncle. He is another man who won’t go very far on foot (although he doesn’t have Parkinson’s) and so uses a wheelchair. My friend wanted to get him out of the house and away from the television. While she was inside shopping, she said, her uncle had stayed in the car.

If you enjoy birding or even just taking a long walk, anything that limits your independence can be terrible, and having a disability can be the worst thing to happen. But it can also be a challenge to spur you to overcome it - if you want to do so.

At Scherman Hoffman the handicapped have their own entrance to the education center, from the upper lot to the second floor. From there they go to a classroom or can take an elevator down to the store or up to the outside platform. My friend’s uncle could’ve gotten out of the car and gone, slowly, into the building. But he felt safer in the car.

I contrast him with a woman I’ve met in my birding travels who also can’t get around very well but has a completely different attitude - she birds from her car. She drives to an area and just sits with her binoculars and waits for the birds to come, sometimes for hours at a time. She told me she has seen quite a lot that way, and she is happy with that because otherwise she would not be able to go birding.

Considering the hilly area where it is located, going down the Scherman trails and into the woods is impossible for those who need wheels or are unsteady on their feet. There are no boardwalked trails as can be found in state or federal nature areas such as the Great Swamp or Cape May Point State Park. The older people I see using the trails at Scherman are steady on their feet and not in wheelchairs.

Luckily, a lot of organizations know that as those of us of the Baby Boom generation get older, we don’t want to be kept captive by our disabilities. If you go to a search engine such as Google and type in “birding tours for the handicapped” you will find a host of websites providing tours for those in wheelchairs, the disabled or the elderly. There is even a group, “Birding for All,” with chapters in the UK and the US, that seeks to “improve access for people with disabilities to reserves, facilities and services for birding.”

This is a wonderful thing. Since we can’t make ourselves younger (at least physically; mentally is another matter), if you can’t take yourself out to the woods for a quiet stroll the next best thing, I think, is to go on a tour with others like you who have good (birding) and bad (the pain, etc.) in common and are equally focused on retaining their independence.

I haven’t tried these services linked below, but I might have to once I get too old to get around much anymore. I put them out there for what you can learn from them.


It is a scary thing to lose one’s independence and mobility. I guess that’s one reason people like to look at birds soaring aloft, defying gravity and so free. Icarus wanted to fly so he built wings held together by wax but got too close to the sun, the wax melted and he plummeted to Earth and died. The Wright brothers wanted to fly and created what has become a big silver bird that is such a hassle to get to and ride in that I’d rather drive or take the train.

There are times, like the other day, when I take a long hike with my binoculars and long-lensed camera around my neck and after a while feel very tired. Then something flies over - is that a redtail? - and I get my second wind.

I’d rather be tired on my feet walking than sitting inside at my desk staring into a computer.

Would my father have grown to share my interest in birds had I been a birder back then and driven him to the Bay and sat with him and my binoculars, pointing out gulls and other birds? I’d like to think he’d have at least tried to see and expand his horizons through learning something new, as I did when I pushed his wheelchair so long ago.