Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

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.