Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, May 27, 2012

An apology about the formatting of some of my older posts

Hello, friends. When I was just starting this blog I was trying to understand the many functions Blogspot gave me. So as I finished each post I would delink the headlines since I thought it odd that when I clicked on the headline it just took me to the same post.

I now realize I had disabled your ability to look at each individual post.

I figured out what I had done today when I tried to access an older post as a link for "Nesting" (see below) by clicking on the headline. It sent me back to my most recent post.

This stupidity on my part affects most of the older posts up to and including December 2011's "Call Me Restless." I have yet to figure out a way to put the link back into the older headlines, and Blogspot seems to have taken the choice away from me. All suggestions appreciated.

In the meantime, you can still read the posts as you are scrolling through my accumulated work.

Sorry about that.


The other day I chased some deer off my property, a common activity now that the shrubbery is all leafed out and the grass grows long between mowings. 

House wren, from last year.

As the white-tails ran off into Greystone across the street, one of my neighbors came out of his house to chat. He pointed out to me something highly unusual - a duck on a nest in his yard.

I didn't see it at first because the duck, a mallard, was perfectly camoflaged with her speckled back and dull appearance. She had her bill tucked in and was within a thick, fenced-in stand of irises in a small area under a large shade tree. My neighbor told me his wife had accidentally scared up Mother Duck - which is how she found the nest - and there were 11 eggs.

My neighbor and his wife are being protective of the duck nest, as I would be, and I can only hope the ducklings will be able to safely follow their mother off the nest, through the backyards, into Greystone - my neighbors' backyard abuts the edge of the property - and into Thompson Brook where they can grow.

At this time of year there are already birds on nests in New Jersey. Were I still working in Englewood Cliffs I'd have seen redtails Harold and Maud feeding young by now on the nest I discovered. Same with the robin nest I found in the courtyard of my former office building.

Birds are not alone. I always associate Memorial Day weekend with the one year a doe decided to drop a fawn on the end of my lawn, out in the open, right at the curb. When I saw it all curled up I thought it was dead. It was not. I worried that someone's dog would get at it so I did what I've always done at such times - I called my brother-in-law in NH, the teaching naturalist.

Newborn fawns have no smell, he told me, so as far as a dog would be concerned, it would just be part of the scenery.

That wouldn't apply to humans, however, and Mother Doe must've known this because the next day the fawn was off the curb and in the long grass behind my house near the flood wall. Our mower was still in the shop and the backyard looked like a meadow. The fawn stayed there a day or two before its mother led it someplace else. That was the first and, so far, last time.

I've also found a rabbit nest when I was clearing leaves from around a shrub at the side of the house. I quickly put the leaves back on it and then checked with my brother-in-law. He said that as long as I hadn't touched the young they'd be OK.

I am sure if I wanted to do so I would find a lot of nests in the shrubs and in the weeds at the borders of my backyard. Some of my other neighbors whose backyards border Greystone have seen skunk, racoon and fox families, and I was once awakened in the wee hours of a mid-May morning by a surreal sound that turned out to be mob of owlettes - likely great horned owl at that time of year - begging their mother for food. When I came outside in a futile attempt to look for them, Mother Owl silently led them away, their calls receding.

House wren nest box
Cardinals, catbirds and robins are more likely nesters in my yard, as are sparrows and house finches, with more birds such as woodpeckers and chickadees in holes in the trees. 

You probably have nests, too. If you find them please leave them alone and do not move them to what you think is a safer or more convenient location. The birds usually know what they are doing and if you move the nests you are dooming the young.

There is one nest in my yard that I can easily see - the box I hang from my apple tree for the house wrens. Every year at least one pair usually makes a nest and raise young in that box. This year, however, like everything else - roses blooming in April, certain migrant birds arriving weeks early, summer weather in winter - something is off and the wrens have not nested in the box.

That doesn't mean they haven't found my backyard, however. For the last few mornings, at first light, a house wren has been singing vigorously, proclaiming to the world this is his territory and he's protecting it. He's more reliable than my alarm clock!

Once in a while, if I'm out on the porch at the right time, I've seen a second wren flying around the yard with him. So there must be a nest somewhere, perhaps in my big hedge.

I'm leaving them alone. Perhaps the next brood will be in the box where I can see them develop.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Birding in One Place

There are competitors who run marathons. Then there are those who sit to win.

New Jersey's World Series of Birding was Saturday, May 12, and unlike the baseball series this only lasts one day.
The Big Stay Team
At 7am on this particular Saturday, Scherman Hoffman sanctuary director Mike Anderson and his team were at their perch on the hawk watch observation platform high in the Bernardsville, N.J., hills. As the sun rose over the trees they had already seen or heard over 50 types of birds, an impressive total made more so if you know they had spent the night in sleeping bags on this platform, tallying what was out there starting at midnight.

The World Series of Birding is a charitable competition that began in Cape May in 1984 with the aim being to find as many birds as possible in a day and collecting money based on how much is pledged per bird. The winnings go towards bird habitat conservation.

Within the competition are divisions. Some of the most competitive teams run all day, from midnight to midnight. You need a reliable car and lot of people to see or hear a lot of birds in very short periods of time because these folks must zip from High Point in the northwest corner of the state to Cape May at the southern tip and as many places as they can hit in between. Before the day of competition they’ve already scouted locations and worked out their route for maximum birding in minimum time. NJ Audubon’s Cape May Observatory has such a marathon team, as does the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY, and many others from farther away. Many have corporate sponsorship. One winning NJ team included the famed Roger Tory Peterson, who helped them find 201 species in 24 hours, and that put the competition on the map.

But there are also teams that, while competitive, are not quite as gung-ho about it. One category is to bird only Cape May, which makes sense because the area has so many types of birds, both resident and passing through.

Some don’t even spend the whole day at it. Another small team out of Scherman Hoffman, led by Randy Little, left the sanctuary at 7 am. Their route took them through the Scherman Hoffman trails and into the neighboring Cross Estate, which is part of the federal Jockey Hollow park several miles away. By the time they got back at noon they had 61 birds and still weren’t done, heading out in two cars (after a brief rest back at the sanctuary) to bird parts of the nearby Great Swamp. They planned to finish at 3pm.

Black-throated green warbler, Scherman
Hoffman, May 12, 2012
Mike’s team was part of the Big Stay division, which means recording what you see and hear from one place, in this case the platform on the third floor of the visitor center.

Sitting is harder than you might think. You need a strong constitution, a comfortable chair and at least two people with good hearing as well as binoculars and scopes because one must verify the other’s findings for the birds to count. (What you really need is at least three so one can go to the bathroom while the others listen.) A sense of humor helps, too. It was cold that Friday night into Saturday morning, the platform was hard for sleeping and then the sun came out in a cloudless sky and the day got pretty hot, dry and breezy.

But there are payoffs.

The first bird recorded on the platform after midnight was a screech owl, the second a booming great horned owl. As the sun came up, the hungry migrants who needed to eat and rest from their journey north started hitting the trees and singing. The scarlet tanagers were easily scene; the Baltimore orioles (like the one pictured), black-throated blue warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, ovenbirds and great-crested flycatchers among those easily heard.

Then came quieter ones like the Cape May warbler, its call weak but its face striking, that showed up on the spruce branch at eye level with the platform. Or the magnolia warbler in the tall holly, which was seen as those on the platform (which now included visitors drawn by the prospect of a good birding day) were joking about being fooled yet again by a house sparrow. It quickly became all business as binoculars were raised and the holly raked over until just the tiniest bit of movement revealed the bird, which showed for a millisecond before flying to a tree farther away. Still, it counted.

Common birds are counted, too - cardinal, titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, catbird, robin. This is probably one of the few times a house finch at the feeder or a flock of flying grackles or a lone starling are celebrated.

Baltimore oriole, Scherman
Hoffman, May 12, 2012
 Meanwhile, Randy’s team had made its way along the driveway and down to the river, finding a number of warblers including a rare (for the sanctuary) Wilson’s warbler plus other birds, some of whom will breed in the sanctuary. Up on the platform, the sitting team could not hear the calls of the Wilson’s warbler or the Louisiana waterthrush that shows up every year along the river trail because the leafed-out trees blocked the sound. But they could see the common loon and great blue heron that flew over.

It is like the blind men and the elephant. The perspective is different depending on where you are.

As Randy’s team kept moving, trying to find as many birds as their limited time allowed, Mike’s team had tallied 73 birds by 1:15 pm, including broad-winged and sharp-shinned hawks. The team had long ago shed their warm jackets and had switched from finding migrant songbirds to the daytime raptors taking advantage of perfect weather conditions to fly north.

Had Mike and his team - which won the Big Stay division last year with 80 - been out in the field, driving hither and yon, they might not have been as relaxed as they were (when birds weren’t sighted, of course) or as Randy’s small group were in their limited travels. To these people it was a competition but it was also an excuse to get out of the house and do something they enjoy.

Some people let the competition - ticking off the birds on a list - take over. Some people are nice, some can be jerks. Some will be helpful and point out a bird you might‘ve otherwise missed, others will ignore you when you ask what they’ve seen figuring they worked for it and so should you.

What can get lost, even in the World Series of Birding, is the birds themselves. Imagine, 73 different types of birds seen or heard just by sitting in one place. It could be you in your backyard if you were lucky and had the time or the inclination to just sit and listen.

Not many do.

The totals, as of 1:15 pm, May 12, 2012
We should be grateful there are events like the World Series of Birding to remind us that habitat, in New Jersey and elsewhere, is being obliterated by housing “developments,” utility lines and golf courses. The money earned by the Series winners will help preserve what land is left for the birds.

When the winners were announced the next day neither Mike’s nor Randy’s team won their divisions. The most birds seen in New Jersey in 24 hours were 207 - 207! - by a marathon group that included Pete Dunne, who was with that previous winning group featuring Roger Tory Peterson that had found 201 species.

The Big Stay division winner, with 80 species, was a N.J. Audubon team out of Atlantic County, on the ocean just north of Cape May County and where the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, otherwise known as Brigintine, is located. Mike’s team ended up with 77.

So it goes.

Meanwhile, the birds continue their marathons north. The winners of this World Series get to create another generation for us to enjoy.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Listen to the Mockingbird

If you want to know what kinds of birds are in a particular area, look for a mockingbird.

I say “look,” because you will recognize the gray thrush-like bird with the long tail with white edges and a white patch on each wing.

What you won’t recognize is its song. It doesn’t have one.

Found in all 50 US states, this bird takes the songs of other birds it hears, which is why it is a particularly good indicator of what’s around that particular patch. The mockingbird will repeat a call anywhere from two to 20 times before switching to another. It can literally sing for hours.

My father-in-law told me he was once entranced for 30 minutes by the repertoire of a gray bird on his roof, which I identified for him as a mockingbird. These birds make it easy for you to find them. They like to sit on a roof or high in a tree or on a structure next to something that will amplify his singing. I’ve seen them singing in a giant satellite dish and on a tall, bare tree that was close to a building, which provided an echo.

The bird is called the northern mockingbird but I can’t imagine why since all my associations with the bird are with the south. There’s the wonderful “To Kill a Mockingbird” - both the book and movie - which takes place in the south. It is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, all once part of the Confederacy.

I have heard as many as six mockingbirds singing at the same time, at an apartment complex near the water in Jersey City. I have heard as many as three widely scattered around a parking lot. Usually you’ll hear a hissing as the singer chases an interloper out of his territory. About the only time I don’t see mockingbirds chase other mockingbirds away is when a male needs to find a female.

Mockingbirds aren’t intimidated by size either - my husband and I have seen them chase American crows, grackles and even redtailed hawks away from a nest or, when chasing off a robin, a bush filled with berries. (Like its cousins the robins and bluebirds, mockingbirds don’t come to feeders unless you are providing them fruit. But since they are so possessive I don’t bother.)

They will sing early in the morning and late into the evening, for long periods of time. In New York City I have heard them imitate car alarms pretty effectively.

I recorded one once in an Englewood Cliffs, N.J., parking lot not far from the Palisades and among the calls that I recognized were a blue jay, great crested flycatcher, robin, titmouse, gull, cardinal, carolina wren, red-winged blackbird, redbellied woodpecker and a white-breasted nuthatch - and that was just in 2 minutes, 28 seconds.

(Here is another mockingbird someone else recorded and posted on YouTube.)

For a bird with no song it shows up in a lot of songs. There’s lyricist Johnny Mercer of Savannah, Ga., who put the mockingbird in many of his songs including “Blues in the Night.”

There’s the folksong “Listen to the Mocking Bird.” (An alternate spelling. The song is from the mid-nineteenth century.)

There’s the familiar children’s lullaby that begins, "Hush, little baby, don't say a word, Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird" - a song sampled by Eminem, of all people, in his sad song about the breakup of his family.

The lullaby was updated by Inez and Charlie Foxx in 1963 for their hit “Mockingbird,“ later covered by a lot of people including (as seen on YouTube) Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, the cast of “Dumb and Dumber” and Carly Simon and her then-husband James Taylor.

There’s also another song of loss, by Rob Thomas, that goes: You and me tried everything/But still that mockingbird won't sing.

Must be pretty bad for Rob because the mockingbirds I’ve found have had no trouble singing.

What is it about the mockingbird that brings out the melancholy in some people? Perhaps it’s the constant melodic singing that makes people think of another constant that might be gone, like love?

Thankfully, the mockingbird’s song doesn’t have that effect on me.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Saying Goodby

By the time you read this I will have worked my last day for a media company in Bergen County. It was a freelance writing and editing job, and I had hoped my boss would get me hired on staff. He had thought that too, but instead the job has been eliminated. Or so I’m told. This place is consistent in its inconsistency.

Harold aloft,  April 30, 9:40 am

What I will miss most, besides the obvious paycheck and a lot of fine people, will be the birds.

On the morning of my last day at work, I went to Flat Rock Brook in Englewood, N.J., and had the best birding in years. I will miss this place, one of the last remaining areas of Palisades forest, high above the overdeveloped streets and ostentatious homes. There had been a thunderstorm overnight and the migrating birds were forced to interrupt their flight north to rest and feed at Flat Rock until conditions improved.

I walked my usual route and heard towhee and scared up a black-throated blue warbler with a grub in its beak. I continued up the hill to a meadow and was surrounded by birdsong, so much I had to listen hard to distinguish the myrtles, the black-throated green warbler and the parula. In the trees, with my binoculars, I found magnolia warbler, scarlet tanager, warbling vireo,common yellow-throat, black and white warbler. Thanks to this fallout I was seeing two weeks of birds in an hour. Magic. I was late to work but I didn't care.

I will miss the robins that decided the rhododendron in the enclosed courtyard of my now-former office was a fine place to put a nest. I found it by accident when I took a break and watched as a male robin chased a female and mated with her, then she - holding nest material in her beak all the while - went behind that particular plant. I went inside and, sure enough, from behind the glass I could see her snug in her nest. 

Maud on the nest, April. 30, 9:40am

The other morning I looked out and the female was picking up scraps dropped by sloppy diners. In the nest were four blue eggs, robin’s egg blue eggs. Unless you see these jewels you don’t appreciate why the color was given that name. I am sorry I won’t be able to watch the eggs hatch and see the parents take care of them.

I will also miss the fall migration when almost every day one or more raptors used the warm, thermal winds off the Palisades to stay aloft and used the Hudson River as a highway pointing south. Accipiters, falcons, vultures, buteos. When I left my previous job in midtown Manhattan one guy I know told me I’d enjoy birding the Palisades, and he was right.

I will even miss the noisy, silly killdeers that call as they fly over the parking lot of my office. Last year the pair raised two chicks but this year they have been faced with several calamities - one chick fell down into a sewer, too far for me to reach it even if I could lift up the heavy metal grate. (I only know this happened because the adults and a second chick were noisily fluttering around the grate and I came over and looked down. I felt helpless.)

Killdeer on the parking lot.
A few days later the adults were flying over the lot, alarmed, and I did not see the other chick. Did it fall down the sewer, too? Or was it hit by a car? Or was it snatched up by a predator?

Which leads me to Harold and Maud. I’ll miss them the most. It was a thrill finding the redtail hawk nest and I was enjoying watching one flying around hunting while the other sat on the eggs, which must've hatched by now.

As time has gone on the trees have leafed out and it has gotten harder to find the nest, even for me. This is as it should be. This hawk nest should not be disturbed. But I did want to see the young, see Harold and Maud taking turns going out to catch some food and feed them.

Well, being an optimist at heart, I know the nice thing about birding is you can always find something good anywhere, and I will have more time - when I'm not job hunting - to explore areas closer to home or to drive to new areas and see what’s in the trees.