Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Monday, September 17, 2012


There comes a time every September when a cold front pushes through, the wind comes out of the north and the sky clears to a cloudless, brilliant blue.

Sept. 11, 2001 was one such day, unfortunately.

But so was this past Saturday, Sept. 15. It was a day many of us in the birding community were awaiting because it means many of the birds that migrate south to Central and South America in fall would be on the move, that north wind giving them a big push and allowing them to conserve their energy in flight.

Mid-September is when broadwing hawks, the smallest of the buteos (a group that include redtails), travel south in the greatest numbers. Having a cold front pass through in mid-September and on a Saturday made it ideal for people like me to travel to one of the many hawk platforms in New Jersey and hope for a good show.

Pete Dunne
It was by dumb luck that I found out Pete Dunne - NJ Audubon official, prolific author and hawk identification master - was going to be at Scherman Hoffman in Bernardsville, NJ, at the sanctuary’s platform to watch for hawks, and hawk his newly revised second edition of his 1988 book “Hawks in Flight: The Field Identification of North American Migrant Raptors,” written with David Allen Sibley and Clay Sutton.

Scherman Hoffman, a New Jersey Audubon sanctuary, has one of the easier hawk platforms to get to - you take an elevator to the third floor. No climbing unless you take the stairs.

Having Dunne up there was both fascinating and depressing. He knows his stuff and his enthusiasm is contagious. Somehow, he always saw the incoming raptors. He’d be autographing books, or talking to people about their birding experiences or imparting wisdom on the way to tell the difference between a turkey vulture and an eagle in flight (the vulture looks like a man walking a tightrope) and suddenly he’d call out, “There are birds by that comma to the left of the cloud, about to come into the blue!”

What? Which cloud? What comma? What birds?

You would think something big like an eagle would be easy to see high up on a clear day, but you’d be wrong. Broadwings, despite the distinctive white stripe in the tail and black border on the wings, are even harder to ID when they are way up there unless, like Dunne, you can tell it by its shape.

(Broadwings are compact and more elegant than the larger redtail, which Dunne considers “lumpy.” The fans of Pale Male would likely disagree.)

What we were waiting for here on terra firma are the kettles, those groups of anywhere from a few to a few hundred broadwings that circle in a group on a rising warm current of air and then circle around (as tho’ being stirred in a kettle) and use the centrifugal force to give them more speed when they stream out.

As we mere mortals started getting frustrated - where ARE they? - Dunne talked us through, at one point standing behind a woman and literally raising her binoculars until she could see them.


“Thousands of people would kill to have what we have right now,” he said of watching hawks in the sunshine, the birds more easily visible as the clouds increased.

A local "lumpy" redtail, hanging out watching the hawk watchers.
The hardest part was standing for hours, desperately looking for a speck (at one point looking straight up), straining eyes, neck and back - especially the back - while trying to figure out what kind of bird we were seeing. After all, that's why we were there. I envied the couple who not only brought chairs but lunch in a cooler bag. They were in for the long haul and they were going to be comfortable.

The birds, meanwhile, soar above you, untethered to the land, seemingly weightless. For the moments I watch them I forget I am heavy, earthbound, as “lumpy“ as one of those redtails Pete Dunne made fun of.

Everyone needs to look up once in a while. Too often we go about our daily lives, in a rut, moving from point A to point B, and fail to see what’s flying over as we drive the highway or sit in the house with a videogame.

People need to learn. They need to get a book - maybe one of Dunne’s or one of the thousands of books now out there to help you find, identify or bring to your garden just about every type of bird out there - and learn something about birds and, by extension, something of the world around us.

At one point on the increasingly crowded platform, a young man of 16 started peppering Dunne with questions about the redtails he’d been seeing in his yard. As Dunne patiently answered his questions, looked at his photos and made approving noises about his illustrations of birds, I asked the teenager’s father about him.

His son has been birding since he was very small. They are always traveling around, the father driving and the son taking pictures. The father travels a lot for work, he said, and it is not unusual for him to take the red-eye flight home, get his son and go birding.

“So one day I’m in Singapore and the next I’m in Great Swamp,” he said with a smile, watching his hyperactive son.

It is good to see someone young and interested. Too often my husband and I are among the younger people in a crowd of birders. Interested young people won't sit by and do nothing when stupid people try to "overdevelop" the land or pollute the water or air.

Older people, if they have grown children and are lucky enough to have the time and be comfortable financially so they can afford the books and cameras and binoculars, will likely make up the bulk of those attending the conference Dunne is spearheading for New Jersey Audubon out of Cape May Oct. 26-28, a major money maker.

He’ll be charging people for the same tutorial he gave for free in Bernardsville.

Too often we are earthbound in our thinking. We are not the only species around. We are all interconnected.

That’s why we who are fascinated by birds stand or sit on the tops of mountains or man-made platforms and watch the hawks. We are all trying to survive. They are moving high above life’s constant turmoil from breeding grounds to below the equator where it will be summer while we have winter. We walk the Earth, also trying to get from point A to point B as well as we can.

While they face more danger, I think the birds do it with more style.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Seeing the Forest for the Tax-Ratables

I may be wrong, but I believe in the office of every New Jersey county, town or state person in charge of creating or maintaining a park there is a manual.

Its title is something like “How to Get State Funding.”

Somewhere in the first chapter it probably says the following:

“To be able to maximize the greatest number of limited resources, the park shall be created to have the broadest number of uses.”

That means, if you want a park it can’t just have trees and perhaps a path or two. It must have an area for ball fields or a playground or a basketball court or soccer area.

It must be a “multi-use facility.”

That brings me to the Central Park of Morris County, and the clear-cutting of the trees.

Ever since the county (for $1) bought the land New Jersey no longer needed when the state was forced (by bad publicity) to close the old, hulking Greystone mental hospital and build a smaller, modern facility at the western-most end of the property, the county has been making improvements. 

One of the first things the county did was take down the abandoned stone buildings that used to house the inmates on either side of Central Avenue.

That was good. Those hulking buildings were dark and creepy, ghosts watching from the barred windows of the upper floors.

The buildings down and with all this land at its disposal, and all the time, effort and money expended to prevent trespassing, Morris County couldn’t just leave fields full of trees.

It started with a dog park, or “canine center“ as the county parks commission website calls it. I understand -- when you have a townhouse or condo or even one of the McMansions that have sprung up in the 20 years I've lived out here and your dog doesn’t have a big, fenced yard, you want a place to bring it.

Here’s what else is there, according to the website:

Two lighted, regulation-size, in-line skating rinks (that can be converted in summer for other sports). A baseball field for wheelchair activities. A 5K cross-country course.

That’s a lot of noisy activity on the south side of Central Ave., or “multi-use facility,” as it would be called in my hypothetical book. Not exactly the advertised “passive recreation” -- or hiking, as I call it.

Now the trees are down on the north side of Central Ave.

The north side of Central Ave. seen from Cottage Rd. The old hospital can be seen at the back.
I had hoped, fool that I am, the land would be left alone. The long grasses and very old trees had drawn wild turkeys, redtailed hawks, chipping sparrows, bluebirds, goldfinches, Eastern kingbird and others. I know because I hiked through that land and found them.

Now the trees are gone. The county has been cutting the trees for weeks. I’ve heard the sawing. I’ve seen the mountain of mulch.


What could the county NOW possibly be putting on that land between Cottage Rd. (the one that runs in front of the old administration building, which is state land) and the old hospital (currently under development; you can see it in the back of my photo)?

Soccer fields? A swimming pool? Maybe a condo village?

Who knows? I saw no notice of the county’s intentions anywhere.

I get it -- money is tight. If Morris County, one of the most built up in the most congested state in America, is going to create a park, it wants to get more bang for its buck. I think it did so.

I also think it should’ve created more hiking trails and left the trees alone.

But trees don’t pay taxes. Neither do the birds that nest and feed in them. It’s the same thinking that allows Parsippany to approve Whole Foods tearing down woods for a new store when there are half-empty storefronts throughout Morris County. In Livingston (Essex County) there is a completely deserted mall where the Borders used to be. Whole Foods could’ve had the whole thing to itself. But it wouldn’t have been paying taxes in Parsippany.

Or take Hanover, which allowed a developer to clear-cut property along Hanover Ave. for a shopping center, even though the nearby Cedar Knolls Plaza (formerly the Morris County Mall) and the Pine Plaza Shopping Center along Route 10, both also in Hanover, are half-empty.

You get the idea. Leaving woods alone is considered a “waste” of resources. Even my small borough is allowing 70 town homes to go up where a school used to be, which will make the Route 202 rush-hour traffic even worse since no one put in a traffic light for the residents to get into or out of the site.

Those park planners think they are giving us breathing room, and I suppose they are if you look at the over-development going on around us.

For those of us who think trees are important, there are still places to go. Some of these places are called National Wildlife Refuges.

They were created by the federal government with your tax dollars to protect the birds and animals that would otherwise be hunted to extinction.

To my thinking, they are also protectorates for trees, which in Morris County are also an endangered species.