Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Friday, October 26, 2012

Waiting for Sandy

Hurricane Sandy, or what the media call "Frankenstorm," is a few days away from hitting somewhere along the Midatlantic. There is a good chance it will strike the Jersey shore, but even if it is not a direct hit we will all be feeling the effects.

October 2011 snowstorm
Didn't we go through this around now, last year? Why yes, we did. Only last time we had a freak snowstorm that hit the leafy trees, pulled them down and disrupted power for a while.

This year the expected cold front won't make it here in time but the moon will be full and the tides would be higher than normal anyway. With the expected very high winds pushing high water there could be severe flooding along the coast, and that includes the tip of lower Manhattan.

Here in my part of New Jersey, my husband, with his scientific way of thinking, has been buying nonperishable groceries, restocking the battery case, refilling the flashlights. This morning I held the ladder as he climbed to the lower roof gutters to pull out debris.

At the same time, here is how many of those in my area were getting ready. They were blowing leaves to the curb.

I have lived in the suburbs for nearly two decades and I still can't understand this lawn lust, this need to water excessively, cut to literally within an inch of the grass's life and blow every last thing off to the street, heedless of whether it impedes a person's or a car's ability to travel down said street.

For me, it is a USELESS and WASTEFUL activity to blow several weeks's worth of leaves to the curb just ahead of a hurricane or tropical storm.

Best-case scenario - the leaves blow back on the homeowner's lawn, forcing him or her to do the job all over again, or pay someone else to do it all over again.

Worst-case scenario - the rivers expected will be blocked from going down the drains, creating ponds in the middle of the street. Already-treacherous travel will worsen. Water may even back up into homes.

The noise from the leaf blower-fans, which are much more power than the electric-powered blower I use only as a last resort, is deafening. As I sit in my home office, making plans for what to do to keep working and living should we lose power, the sound is as loud and as annoying as a continual car alarm or a siren.

Even as these lawn services or homeowners finish, the breeze brings down another handful of leaves. But hey, you've just paid for several big guys to do 10 minutes of work to give you 14 seconds of spiffy green lawn. Hurrah, I guess you're better than me.

I can barely see the grass in my backyard for all the elm, oak and maple leaves but there is no way I am going to go out when more leaves - and perhaps some tree limbs - come down in the storm. There are more important things.

These people will probably also freak out because they can't watch their flat-screen tvs, use their fancy big ovens and may lose what's in their fancy refrigerators.

Barnegat jetty. Will it be enough to protect the coast from Sandy?
Some do plan. There's my neighbor with the big gas-powered generator. Last year he ran his continually. It made a lot of noise and stunk of gasoline but at least he kept his refrigerator and other appliances going.

As these "freak" storms become more common, as even more of those who deny there is anything called global warning start wondering about all these extremes - too much rain, too much wind, too much heat, no snow, too much cold - we've been having, I am going to have to plan to buy a generator, too, for the next storm.

Even in my modest home, if I don't have power, I don't work, and if I don't work, I don't earn money. That is, literally and figuratively, the bottom line.

But at least I do not live near the water. All those people who built homes on barrier islands and those other people who tore down low-lying bungalows to put up high-profile behemoth beach houses should be ashamed of themselves. But they aren't. The builders got their permits and are long gone, and the homeowners will rebuild.

I don't want to wish this storm on anyone, especially anyone on the Delmarva, where I expect to be traveling in a few weeks, but I hope Sandy's blow isn't as hard in New Jersey as I fear it will be.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Faith in a Seed

Friends who used to own boats tell me the best days of a boater’s life is the day he buys it and the day he sells it.

I feel that way about my garden.

Female purple finch. Note the distinctive eyebrow.
Today I put cut down the last of the foliage that turned brown and tattered after this week’s extremely cold nights. The potted plants I took to my enclosed back porch. Moving the pots to the back porch and then inside the house is the last part of a long process that began when I got excited by the sight of the first daffodil and crocus poking their noses through the cold soil in spring.

It was a long, strange growing year - no winter snow, a spring too cold and wet, then a summer too hot and dry before the rains returned and the temperature turned seasonable. I try to keep plants I don’t have to fuss over but inevitably something has to be cut back.

Now, with satisfaction and some relief, I am seeing a light at the end of a long tunnel as I get the garden - and myself - ready for a long winter's rest. As I reset the fence posts I thought of the Robert Frost poem that talked about good fences making good neighbors. I don’t know about my neighbors but I need the fences to keep out the deer. In the back garden, dominated by yew plants, the deer netting will be augmented by burlap once November comes around. The netting makes gardening harder but at least I can enjoy my flowers and shrubs.

Pine siskin (top) and white-breasted nuthatch.
Meanwhile, the feeders are visited by the usual assortment of birds and I can hear others that prefer to stay in the bushes: Carolina wren, white-throated sparrows. Now that winter is coming on I am having some unusual visitors from the north, driven south when the drought hit the trees in Canada -- purple finch and pine siskins.

After the last cutting in my back garden I stood to admire my handiwork.

That's when I saw the weed coming from the seam in the vinyl siding overhead.

Wait. Not a weed. A seedling.

I have found seedlings before, usually oak or elm seedlings that grow when a chipmunk or squirrel buries the nut and then forgets it. I usually pull them up and sometimes plant them elsewhere.

But those are on the ground. Besides coming from an unexpected and inaccessible place, this one was not a tree. It took me a while to realize it was a sunflower, likely from a seed put there by a titmouse or chickadee as part of its winter cache. Who knows when this was “planted?” The week’s recent, excessive rain and milder temperatures sparked the growth.

I admit, my first thought was to pull it out. But I have decided to leave it alone.

This seedling has found a way to thrive despite the odds - winter is coming on, after all - and I figure if it can work so hard to live, the least I can do is leave it alone.

It is inspiring to see such perseverance.

The writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Whether it survives or not, this little guy is a reminder that life is too short, and we need all the wonders we can get.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

So Long Ago, and Yet Like Yesterday

Thirty-two years ago, on the night of Oct. 15, my mother died in a hospital in Brooklyn, NY, from the cancer that returned after five years, spread from her spine to her liver and then to her brain.

She was 60.

It is hard to believe that it has been 32 years when in many ways I remember the events of her death, my getting the news and the funeral as if it was yesterday.

But that's not why I am writing today.

I was thinking today about how the world has changed since she died in 1980.

What would my mother think of computers now? Around the time she died they were still big, clunky things that easiily filled a room.  Programmers needed keypunchers - one of my college jobs - to type keys that would put holes in a certain order for the computer to read the information and then do what it had to do.

Now, computers have gone from filling a room to filling your hand. In my own case I went from a personal computer tower and monitor that my husband and I had to take turns using to separate laptops that have more memory in each than those big computers.

What would my mother think of smartphones? When she died, you had a phone. It sat on a table or was attached to the wall. It rang and you answered. If you were expecting a call you waited by the phone. How many songs did we grow up with where someone lamented waiting by the telephone that never rang.

Now, we're always connected. You can put an answering machine (with caller ID, to screen out the spam calls) on your landline - presuming you even have one. A lot of people have been giving them up.

Instead, they carry around a phone that isn't used so much as a phone anymore as a way of getting directions, planning your day, googling information, sending email and taking pictures. The talking part is almost an after-thought.

What would she think of texting? Of driving and texting or driving and talking or people walking down a public street blithely shouting intimate details?

What would she think of the end of the space program? It was America's pride. She would've remembered the Soviet spacecraft and President Kennedy's determination to best them in space and get to the moon.

She died before the first space shuttle, Columbia, was launched, in 1981. And now the entire program is gone, Columbia with Discovery and Endeavor. If anyone is going into space it is either a private company or another country including, gasp, the Russians.

What would she think of buying music electronically, by the song? In that, she would see a lot that's familiar. Buying individual songs was what one did, first with 78s, then with 45s. You collected them and put them into an album - hence how the word got used for what we also called long-playing records, or LPs. The concept of buying them through a company like iTunes and the possibility of sharing songs electronically would've confused her, but the overall by-the-song concept would not.

She would also recognize some of today's best-selling musicians, starting with that bunch of geezers known as the Rolling Stones. They've been together 50 years. She would remember when they appeared on Ed Sullivan and Mick Jagger had to sing "Let's spend some time together" while the look in his eyes reminded you the line actually went "Let's spend the night together."

Perhaps she'd be shocked by how old they look now. But then she could look at the Beatles' Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and think they haven't aged a bit - unless someone reminded her George Harrison died of cancer in 2001 at age 58 and John Lennon was murdered.

In 1980, as it happened, two months after my mother died.

What would she think of having a black man as president? It would scare her. But what would scare her more would be the thought of losing Social Security and Medicare, as the other guy's plans might do. And she would worry about an anti-Semitic nation like Iran building a nuclear arsenal. Yet, the fighting in the Middle East would look all too familiar.

Same stuff, different millennium.

And what, in heaven's name, would she think of the destruction of the World Trade Center, Osama bin Laden, the invasion of privacy, picture IDs to vote, the torture that has become flying in an airplane, airline security, the state of the economy, the end of job security and the widening gulf between rich and poor?

Yes, the world has changed a lot since 1980.

However, I can't say all of that change has been for the better, especially for me since Oct. 15.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Flipping the Bird

When I’m out in the field birding, I run into a lot of nice people. They ask what I’m looking at. Sometimes they point out things I don’t see. We may talk shop, we may not.

If they have a spotting scope, they offer to let me look through it. One couple - at an industrial area in Salisbury, Md., that was drawing a lot of grassland birds one recent September - not only let us look through the scope but identified the birds we were seeing (I’m as bad identifying grassland birds as I am shorebirds).

When we are standing and looking at birds - whether at Sandy Hook’s Spermacetti Cove or Scherman Hoffman’s hawk platform - there are people who are friendly and who enhance the birdwatching experience.

But as in real life, there are also jerks.

These are the stupid people out there in the field who do a lot of stupid things.

*They will leave the trail, like the lady in this photo taken a few years ago in Massachusetts.

I was on the trail when I photographed her. She was walking alongside some deep water, likely the Concord River or a tributary. She was walking over a lot of downed tree limbs. We watched her to see how far she’d go, and whether she’d fall into the water. Luckily, she didn’t fall in and ran into enough brush that she was forced back to the trail.

Recently, at Sandy Hook’s Plum Island, my husband and I saw two guys with cameras - huge, gunlike lenses - walking ahead of us. One of them left the trail and was walking in the long marsh grass, in the mud, looking for something to photograph.

I don’t know what he was looking for when he was trampling the marsh but he spooked two black ducks out of hiding into the water. That didn’t interest them enough to use their cameras. Maybe they didn't even see them.

I’m sure the ducks were relieved the peregrine falcon that had been flying over the area most of the afternoon wasn‘t around at the time.

*They use recorded devices.

If you play a recording of a singing male bird, there is a great likelihood a real bird of the same species will fly in to defend his territory. It will get stressed. It may even attack you. That’s bad enough when it’s something small, like a Bicknell’s thrush.

But if it’s an owl, watch out. In bird etiquette, you do not stress out a roosting owl during the day. In my book, you don’t use tapes to draw owls even at night.

*They will do anything for a picture.

Some people use their big lenses to stay in the background and get the picture, blowing it up in the editing. Some, however, will trample the ground like elephants, rush the bird, push you out of the way for that picture.

I’ve written before about the people who put their lenses practically in the faces of the roosting long-earred owls found by others a few years ago. When a rare boreal owl was found roosting near Tavern on the Green in New York City's Central Park during the 2004 Christmas Bird Count, many people came to photograph it. They stood a respectful distance from the base of the tree, used their long lenses and took their pictures.

But when a guy showed up early in 2005 with his camera, he wanted a perfect shot. Boreal owls are hard to see sometimes. So this guy used a bright flash for his pictures, despite the birders yelling at him to stop.

The next day, the owl was gone, either to another part of the park or another part of the state. Maybe it was coincidence. I hope it survived the trip. It left behind a lot of angry birders.

A lot of owls have been found in Central Park since then, but not boreal owls.

These jerks will also trespass. There are many stories. If you look on the birding lists you’ll frequently see the complaints from other birders as well as exhortations not to block roads, to respect private property, not to cross fences, etc.

There’s a reason for these exhortations. A lot of birders simply don’t respect private property. Maybe it’s because they consider themselves photographers rather than birders. With smartphone cameras and mini-SLR cameras, everyone think they're a world-class photographer, a paparazzi of birds.

The town of Piermont, NY, was overwhelmed by people coming from hundreds of miles around one winter when a juvenile snowy owl took up residence on a post in the town harbor. Same for the town of Montgomery, NY, when the grasses in a particular park field were trampled after a sedge wren was found.

If I was a homeowner and I had something extraordinary at my feeders, I would tell no one. My little lawn and my little street in my little town would be overwhelmed.

*They won’t tell you what they are seeing.

You see people with their binoculars focused on something. Birding etiquette says you walk up, focus your binoculars on the general area, try to see what they’re seeing, then ask.

Sometimes you see what they see, and you mention it for confirmation. Sometimes you can’t see what they see and when you ask they answer, even if they are thinking “I had to work for this. So should you.”

The jerks put down their binoculars and walk away.

That’s ok. It only makes me work harder to find what they saw, and more.

So when we meet in the field, let's be friendly. Let us bird in fellowship. Let us share stories and information and, most important, respect the birds and each other.

Otherwise, I'll be flipping you the bird and notifying the authorities.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Study in Contrasts

Outside the town of Hamburg, Pa., sits a Cabela’s, part of a retail chain, on a hill overlooking a shopping mall, restaurants and the motel where my husband and I recently stayed.

Hamburg, Pa.
Cabela’s calls itself the world’s foremost outfitter, and if you need a tent or camoflage clothing or a fishing reel or a shotgun or subsidiary items, you can get it there.

A few miles north is a mountain top, part of the Blue Mountain chain, on which anywhere from 10 to 100 people can sit from late August through November. The way the mountain ridges are situated, raptors follow the warm thermals (rising air) down the ridges. If there is a north wind pushing them, so much the better.

This particular mountain, then and now known as Hawk Mountain, was where early in the last century farmers and sportsmen - who now might’ve gone to Cabela’s had it been around - lugged their guns and their gear and their liquid refreshments up the steep, rocky slope to the top to take advantage of those flying conditions to shoot the eagles, ospreys, buteos, accipiters, falcons and harriers out of the sky, just for the fun of it.

In the center of the Cabela’s in Hamburg there is a two-story pyramid. There are multiple ledges on this “mountain” on which stuffed animals are in various poses suggesting what they looked like before they were “bagged.” This was some prodigious hunter, and some of the animals include a card with his name and the date of the shooting. The animals range from the smallest hare to a polar bear, with plenty of elk, foxes and sheep in between.

Broadwing hawk, September, 2012
 In front of it, Cabela’s put a bronze plaque. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to photograph it. The gist of the message is to praise the “American sportsman” for his efforts in supporting conservation and bringing back several species from the brink, allowing birders and hikers like me to enjoy ourselves.

This may seem counterintuitive. Killing animals to save them?

But as Cabela’s points out, hunters have to pay for licenses. They buy duck stamps when they go after wild ducks. The money from these licenses and stamps help pay for state and federal conservation efforts, including enforcing hunting laws and buying land for wildlife refuges that prohibit hunting.

When the Hawk Mountain sportsmen were shooting the raptors for the hell of it, they had no licenses. They had no rules telling them what they could shoot, at what time of year and how many they could “bag.” It was just something they’d always done, and local guides could make money off it.

When some concerned citizens disgusted by the slaughter bought the mountain (and later much of the surrounding property), it took many years and quite a few confrontations before the hunting stopped. The passage and enforcement of federal law protecting all migratory birds - especially raptors - from being hunted helped a great deal - once it was enforced.

Now, you can argue that all these rules and regulations - the duck stamps, licenses, etc. - are an infringement on your “constitutional” (although it is nowhere stated in the U.S. Constitution) right to kill whatever the hell you want, wherever, etc. Too many rules! Too much government interference!

We all know there are still too many people who break the rules because no one is going to stop them from doing what they’ve always done.

These are not the people Cabela’s has in mind, I think. Those hunters are the ones who know when to quit, who enjoy the sport but don’t break the rules and get nonhunters pissed off at them. If you look at a map of Pennsylvania you’ll see Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is surrounded by state game lands, where a licensed hunter can legally hunt every day but Sunday. Hunting and fishing draw as many people to the state as Hawk Mountain does, perhaps more, and the state does its best to promote both.

Enjoying, not hunting, the raptors on Hawk Mountain.
I don’t mind responsible hunting. You need to hunt to provide food or clothing for your family? Go to it. Protecting your chickens- or even your pet poodle - from predators? Fine.

It’s already the season for cross-bow hunting of deer in New Jersey, and shooting with shotgun is not far away. Many of the hunters give the meat to local kitchens to feed the homeless, if they don't take it for themselves. Suburban yards aside, there are too many deer eating the understory plants in our forests, which has a very great effect on birds and other animals in those forests. A hunt is needed.

There will be another bear hunt this year n NJ. Like the deer, the bear population has gotten out of control in the most populated state in the nation thanks to rules prohibiting their shooting and suburban sprawl into areas where once were woods.

This is one case when the rules do not help. Unlike raptors, bears are increasingly unafraid of humans and will do a lot of damage to you, your pets and your property, unless it becomes a large piece of roadkill, which is becoming more common.

And while it isn’t the animals’ fault developers have put people in areas they had no business being in, no one is going to suggest the town of Morris Plains, for example, exile all people and let the animals go where they want.

(I know there are some people who would love this. These are the people who feed bear, or dismantle the traps the state puts out for them. At a recent Christmas party I met one person who went from meek little man to snarling, angry bear and threatened me for suggesting that a short bear hunt might be a good thing to minimize dangerous confrontations.)

The hunters on Hawk Mountain were not responsible people. Those who participate in New Jersey’s deer and bear hunts are responsible, if only because by buying those permits they are committed to following the rules. Those who don’t follow the rules should be caught and punished.

An all-too-common scene.
I watch the raptors flying over my yard and I’m thankful they were allowed to rebound in population when the hunting stopped. As Cabela's noted, alot of species have come back in recent years.

I can’t, unfortunately, say the same for the deer or the bear.

When I moved to my home nearly 20 years ago the deer would scatter when you came up the driveway. No longer, although I‘ve figured out some tactics to move them off my yard and I keep all my plants behind netting to minimize the damage I‘ve learned they inflict.

As far as I know I have never had a bear pass through my yard and go after my bird feeders. I can’t say it will never happen. I don’t want to come face to face with a black bear, and I hope this year’s hunt is successful.