Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Tick, Tick, Tick

I was probably the only person in the greater New York City area who was not happy to have May in March. I look all around me and see more evidence of a world out of ecological balance, and I wonder what will be coming.

While all the dry heat has kept the grass short, it went brown. That didn’t stop the lawn services from getting in, blowing out the debris and filling the air with their gas fumes. My crocuses bloomed and busted in what seemed like a day and a half, and now my daffodils have opened at once, weeks early for some, instead of at the more usual, gradual pace.

Forsythia was one of the many shrubs flowering early.
The trees and shrubs have started to flower, leaving my husband and me with watery, itchy eyes from the pollen. Allergists are saying this will be a long, bad allergy season and I feel sorry for those who have even worse problems than MH and I have.

What is this obsession people of all ages seem to have with endless summer? Why do they want to wear tank tops, shorts and flip-flops at any slight rise in temperature?

While they are lying on the grass working on their tans the water table beneath is going down. Without a significant rain, and soon, there will be drought restrictions before summer. I’ve been to several marshes recently that are bone dry, and that has a profound effect on the flora and fauna.

What a relief it wasn’t like last winter, someone told me recently. Well, all that snow, while a pain in the back to shovel, was providing a nice blanket for the lawn and, more important, was melting and keeping it watered. We had no water restrictions last year and many of my neighbors took advantage to run their sprinklers at all times of the day - including in the midday sun - in their lust for a green lawn that they encouraged to grow so they could have it cut every week, then water again to keep it green.

What are they going to do this year?

Even I got caught up in it. When the daffodils started coming up I had to fight through the netting and remove the winter debris I’d left when we had the Halloween snowstorm. After a winter of indolence suddenly I had the urge to put seeds into pots. Now I have five lettuce seedlings I have to put someplace outside behind netting. Luckily, lettuce likes cold weather. Not so the tomato and pepper seedlings slowly coming up that I can‘t put outside yet so they are crowding the window sill. The potted annuals I brought in to keep growing over the winter are now overgrowing. My canna started growing in its pot during the winter - when it should have been resting - despite not getting a bit of water from me. My rosemary is practically begging me to put it outside.

I’m not ready for this yet!

Delicate magnolia blossoms are already falling on the lawns.
Here’s another problem I have with this unnatural warming: By the time the tropical migrants get up here from Central and South America, all the trees will have leafed out and it will be nearly impossible to see the birds. Worse, how will the early summer affect their ability to find food? Many of the flowers and fruits may already be gone when they come north.

And some of the migrants coming from the U.S. south are already passing into this area even as the winter birds - the juncos and white-throated sparrows - continue to hang around the feeders.

I was at Great Swamp the other day, looking for early migrants. I was lucky enough to find some of them: pine warbler, field sparrow, phoebe. I also, despite my best efforts to prevent this, found a tick as I was getting ready to shower that night. (If I was a better journalist I’d have taken a picture to show you but the impulse to throw it in the sink and wash it down the drain was more immediate. So this picture will have to do.)

A birder I met at the Swamp said with all the warmth and dryness this will be a long, bad year for ticks, and he has already gone places elsewhere in New Jersey where he’s found 30 on his leg after hiking on a trail (rather than crashing into the woods as, unfortunately, a lot of birders do). Ticks are one of the many reasons I get the deer off my property as quickly as possible. But now I must worry that I could get one or more from any of the places where I go birding thanks to the mild winter and warm spring.


Well, to paraphrase Mark Twain, if you don’t like the weather in New Jersey, wait a few minutes.

Instead of coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb, March came in like May and is, according to the forecast, going out like February - windy and cold.

In the long run it may not mean much, but for now I can’t wait.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Soiled, but Saved

This is a story about an act of stupidity, an act of kindness and some harlequin ducks. To protect the identity of the stupid, we'll call the protagonist ME.

After a winter waiting for the snow that never arrived ME decided she had to go to Barnegat Light, the northernmost point of Long Beach Island, down the Jersey shore.

It is a long ride down from where ME lives, but the back roads she and her husband take goes through the Pinelands, and the bracing air and bright light off the ocean makes it an enjoyable trip.

Harlequin ducks. Even the plainer
females are striking.
ME and her husband had never been to Barnegat in March, usually breaking up winter's monotony in January or February. The aim is to see what winter ducks and shorebirds will be on the sides of the jetty or in the inlet between Long Beach Island and Island Beach state park. This trip was also the first where the tide was low, so low the barnacles on the rocks were exposed and thousands of gulls were attacking them or each other, in the water and in the air.

Beyond the paved promenade was the jetty of huge, flattened rocks and several people were already walking on it toward the end where, in the past, eiders have hung out along with mergansers, longtailed ducks, purple sandpipers, ruddy turnstones and the ducks that make Barnegat famous, the harlequin.

The harlequin is, to me, the most beautiful duck around, particularly the male. But even the duller female is striking. (The only ducks that come close, in my view, are the male and female wood duck.) They are the reason why ME and her husband came.

So ME started to climb through the fence blocking the paved walkway from the jetty and her notebook fell out of her pocket, between two rocks.

What made this so incredibly stupid was ME's pockets could be snapped shut but she hadn't done it.

ME was very lucky. First, it was low tide - at high tide the notebook would've been soaked and useless. There was two years worth of data on its pages, which would mean little to anyone other than ME.

The jetty from the beach side. The ducks would be
on the other side.
Second, she was unable to think anything other than "I WILL get that notebook." Failure was not an option.

And so I - er, ME - shimmied down between the two rocks and managed to get the notebook between her feet. The problem was being able to pull up the legs enough to get the notebook. This was not easy.

Meanwhile, ME had drawn a crowd. Her husband was horrified. He was afraid ME would get stuck.

He was justified in that fear. Several years ago a man wrote a post on the NJ bird list detailing how he had been on the jetty rocks, heading toward the end, when he slipped and fell headfirst between the rocks, unable to get to his phone and call for help. It had been a particularly bad weather day and it took a long time for someone to happen along who could call for assistance.

So there was ME, remembering that story, trying to pull up that notebook.

Here's where the kindness comes in: A man asked if "a skinny guy like me" could help ME. ME hauled herself out from between the rocks - again, not easy - and he was able to get low enough to reach forward and pluck the notebook from the deep!

ME thanked him profusely, thanked his wife, thanked perfect strangers for their support.

Her husband handed ME her binoculars and camera - which she had smartly, for once, removed - and asked what they should do now. ME decided she'd had enough of the rocks, let's walk on the beach to the end and then try to get back up and find the harlequins.

ME secretly despaired of finding the pretty ducks with all the gulls attacking the side of the jetty. With each step on the sand her legs hurt, there was a stitch in her side, and the boots, camera and binoculars started to feel like 100 pounds each.

ME was thinking, the hell with it, let's go home.

There are many good things about birding including being outside, stimulating the mind to figure out what you're hearing or seeing and, if lucky, joining with others in mutual exploration.

But there are bad things about birding. One is that you quickly realize when you are out of shape, out of breath and aging rapidly. There is also a great feeling of inadequacy some of us feel when we are in the field and have no idea what we're seeing, or have seen nothing only to see from the bird lists that others have found 15 things, including something you've always wanted to see, at the same place that day.

Seal, pulled out with the tide.
Land birds are more my thing, warblers and tanagers and hawks and nightjars. At the shore I can't tell a second-year herring gull  from a first-year greater black-back gull. A semipalmated sandpiper and a least sandpiper would have to be standing still next to each other for me to tell them apart. I like ruddy turnstones, however, because their orange legs and breast coloring make them stand out, and I do like the ducks that come to Barnegat in winter and the two types of loons - common and redthroated - that visit as well.

So ME was walking with her husband down the beach, the enormity of what could've gone very wrong going after her notebook just hitting her, making her swear that was it, she was NEVER going birding again, when another woman with binoculars walked past them in the other direction. "See much?" ME asked. "Some harlequins, some turnstones," she said.

After thanking her ME caught up with her husband, who had kept going. "They're here, despite the gulls," ME said. So they carefully went back up on the rocks and almost immediately ME found an oystercatcher, its orange bill making it stand out amid the gulls. In the water were the loons, the longtailed ducks, some common mergansers and, on rocks that had no barnacles and so no gulls bothering them, the harlequins.
Soiled, but saved.

And something else. Something big and gray came up on the water and ME looked through her binoculars and shouted "Seal!" while somehow getting the camera up and shooting two pictures before the seal went under.

"Good eye, lady," a man on the beach yelled at ME.

Well, yes. Thank you. It is sometimes better to be lucky than good.
And this day proved there was nobody luckier than ME.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

(Early) Spring Cleaning

Meet the reason I have to
put up with fencing.
I don’t know about you but I am neither mentally or physically ready to start gardening.

Last year at this time, according to the garden diary I keep, we had just gotten rid of the last of the heavy pile of snow that had blanketed the yard all winter. I was newly unemployed and eager to get out and get the garden ready, to welcome spring and the warmth and pretend the snow had never happened, like a bad dream.

This year we haven’t had any sizable snow since Halloween. This has been good and bad. Good for me driving to work, bad for my plow guy having nothing to do. Good that I haven’t had to shovel. Bad that the lawn and yard plants did not get the moisture from any melting snow, just a few heavy rainstorms.

And yet, here are my crocuses in full bloom, several weeks early. Here are my daffodils coming up, a few even flowering, and here are the tulips and iris coming above ground. All were surrounded by last year's tree leaves and debris.

When I went outside this March morning, only planning on putting a now-spent snowdrop plant a friend had given me into the ground, I wound up, as usual, doing three more things I didn’t expect to do. The liriope, which blooms in the fall, had to be cut back or no one would be able to see the daffodils just coming up. There were swirls of early weeds that had to be removed so the snowdrop wouldn’t be overwhelmed. There were leaves to scoop up and put into compost.

And, of course, to get to these things I had to pull down the deer netting.

There is an art to gardening with deer netting, and someday I must think about what I have learned to do and not do and write it all down. I am sure I am not the only person who has had to garden this way in the suburbs. Had I known 15 years ago when I was putting in my garden what I know now, the garden would look very different. No azaleas. No tulips. No euonymous bushes. All are behind deer netting now as are the small yew bushes in back.

Little by little I put in “deer-resistant” plants but have learned from long and painful experience a hungry deer will take a bite out of just about anything. So almost everything is behind a net, except the large ornamental grasses, onions and daffodils that are unfenced in a plot in the back where I once had an apple tree.

The thin plastic poles I put in to hold up the doubled netting (because a deer can easily chew or put a hoof through one layer) have worked better than metal poles the deer could use to support its weight as it tried to get to the plants. But the plastic poles shred easily, catching the netting in the breaks. I discovered quite a few poles with this problem this particular morning, making a hard job harder.

Luckily, I was able to work in relative quiet. No dogs in the dog park at what was once Greystone. No neighbors’ dogs chained in the backyard barking to be let in or defending a territory five times bigger than you or I may think it should be. I could listen to the birds already singing their territorial songs including cardinals and chickadees and titmice.

I’m sorry but after a week in a noisy, crowded newsroom I enjoy quiet on the weekends. It is why I moved to the suburbs. (My husband likes to remind me the noise level in our old city apartment was far worse than anything the neighbor’s dog can do, and he‘s right. Car alarms and bullets are worse.)

Once I was done I felt a sense of accomplishment, as well as the pain in my knees and shoulders.

But I also saw there is so much more to do now that the mild winter has prompted premature growth.

My butterfly bush,
as it will look later
in Spring.
Soon the grow-through rings will have to be put around the plants that would otherwise flop over. Soon the butterfly bush will have to be cut back (half of it was already cut back in November after the Halloween storm when I anticipated another snowy winter - which didn’t happen this snow-free winter). Soon I’ll be fighting squirrels for the apples, putting up the house for the visiting wren and taking in the seed feeders.

There will be more daylight, more noise, more chores to do.

This is as it should be. I would rather be achy and active than one of those people whose idea of spending a weekend is in front of a videogame, or playing virtual sports rather than real ones. I also prefer landscaping that is creative and pretty and not just the same old ilex or barberry that can keep its shape and requires the homeowner to do nothing.

I see lots of that kind of landscaping in my town and when I drive through the streets of much wealthier Englewood Cliffs to get to work. The huge homes now there (where once there were smaller dwellings) take up almost all the lot and the front “yard” is cut through with a circular driveway, the better to park your Mercedes or Lexus or BMW and show everyone how well-off you are. The yard services show up every week, whether the little bits of lawn need it or not. Plants are replaced with the season and deer netting is not necessary.

Thus I can have a “care-free” and sterile garden where I never have to come outside or I can continue to plant my vegetables and different types of annuals and perennials, even if that means having to do so above, below or behind deer netting.

I guess you’ll be seeing me outside, achy knees and all.