Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Snowed In

It was bound to happen. First, came the three inches of snow to shovel, then an arctic air mass that swept down and froze the snow into a slippery mess. Now, a major snow storm predicted to bring anywhere from five to 12 inches to my little town.

I hate winter.

My husband (MH) was glued to the Weather Channel for nearly a week before the snowstorm arrived. 

There was a time, believe it or not, when storms just happened. Now, with all the technology there are predictions, then refinements of predictions. When the meteorologists were monitoring the approach of Hurricane Sandy last year, it saved lives. With this snowstorm I am sick of all the information. Just let it snow and be done with it!

I see the bird population at my feeders triple in a day and they are in, literally, a feeding frenzy. That's how I know something bad is coming. I don't need the Weather Channel to tell me.

Cardinal pair (Margo D. Beller)
I am in a funk. After a spring, summer and autumn of running around to see birds or working in my garden, it is dark by 5 pm, it is winter and I am housebound. 

When I worked in an office that required me to take the train to get to it, I had to leave the house. I had to walk in the streets because they were better shoveled than the residential sidewalks, step around large piles of leaves if the snows came before the last scheduled leaf pickup, bundle up against single-digit wind chills and, at night, hope the oncoming traffic could see my little flashlight as I walked the streets home.

When I had a job requiring me to drive, I exchanged one group of winter weather dangers for another -- icy roads, drivers texting or talking on their phones, speed demons, and trucks or SUVs that hadn't cleared off the tops of their vehicles so the snow or ice came at me like projectiles.

I don't miss those days. 
Brown creeper (Margo D. Beller)

However, I do miss getting out of the house. Until the recent intense cold froze the snow from the first storm, I was walking every day for the paper, sometimes via the edges of Greystone. But in the last week, when I discovered a whole lot of people who had sidewalks "imposed" on them in the last year hadn't bothered to shovel -- does anybody get fined for not shoveling anymore? -- I have taken advantage of MH's kind offer to get the paper while he runs other errands with the car.

Ah, winter. I find it harder to deal with you with each passing year. Now that I work at home I have to balance keeping the place warm vs. the expected high cost of my gas bill. When the sun isn't shining into my office window, it never seems warm enough. The local growing season is over and I am dependent on produce grown in California or Mexico or points south, if I want to so indulge. 

But who wants a healthy salad on a cold day when a more fattening but warm bowl of soup tastes so much better?

Winter hiking (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
I can't open the windows to air out the house because of the cold, and the heat makes it -- and me -- too dry. I try to compensate with a humidifier, hand cream and a vanilla-scented candle, all of which will be put away when winter is finally over.

Were I more like the chipmunks that wreak havoc in my garden -- the only creatures not deterred by my deer netting -- I'd be under my warm quilts, curled up and asleep, working off my accumulated fat. I would let the world go by until it is warm and sunny again.

Alas, I am not a chipmunk but a human with bills to pay and obligations to keep, starting with keeping my feeders filled for the birds. They have it worse than I'll ever have. 

I know it eventually will warm up out there. It just seems to take longer to get to that point.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Home

I said last time I would write here first about my recent vacation in the "wilds" of Pennsylvania, and here it is.

MH in the snowy woods. (Photo by Margo D. Beller)
First, what is "wild" is the forest but most of what we went through were huge farm fields in small rural communities. Hunting and fishing are the reasons most "foreigners" come here, and since we do neither we spent our time hiking or driving long distances.

We picked the northeastern part of this region for its Grand Canyon. I have never been to the one out west but this one was pretty nice, too, despite the extreme cold (expected high that day was 31 degrees F) and the little bit of snow that fell overnight. We hiked one day around the rim on the west side of the Pine Creek gorge and then, two days later when the ice had melted, hiked around the eastern part. Each side is a state park.

The west one, Leonard Harrison, is obviously more set up for tourists - bathrooms, a ledge for observing. The east one, Colton Point, is at the end of a narrow, twisty road through Tioga State Forest. What few bathrooms were open were hard to find and the rim trail wasn't very well marked. Luckily, this was the day the temperature started to rise again to the low 40s so the ice had melted off the road.

Raven chasing the much larger bald eagle. (Margo D. Beller)
This was not a birding trip, per se. I had hoped we'd be far enough north to find something like a boreal chickadee or black-backed woodpecker, something you'd find in the North Country of New Hampshire. What we did find were bald eagle flying over the canyon being harried by ravens, and the smaller American crows harrying a redtail hawk. Of the smaller birds the chickadees and titmice were joined by gold-crowned kinglets, downy woodpeckers and juncos.

In fact, the most unusual birding was along a back road behind our hotel, where I walked our second cold morning (19 degrees F) before we made our way north to the Finger Lakes area so MH could finally see one. Along that road were goldfinches, large flocks of robins and, to my shock, a Lincoln sparrow that just sat there in the sun, allowing me to make sure it had the yellow on the front and the thin streaking.

Gold-crowned kinglet. (Margo D. Beller)
We also found ducks on various lakes - hooded mergansers, black ducks, common mergansers and mallards. Again, nothing we can't also see on Lake Parsippany now that the summer season is over and the boats are out of the water.

The biggest thing was we were away from home, raking leaves, losing eight hours to work. I, for one, needed the break and it was nice to have the radio on in the evenings, classical music playing as I read on the bed while MH did his own reading in the lounge chair.

Isn't that why one goes on vacation, to break the routine, to refresh the mind and body?

Using that definition, we had a very enjoyable vacation.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Musings

There are times I feel like the character in "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens, who runs around the country agitating on behalf of starving children in Africa while her own children are neglected at home.

I have been doing a lot of writing lately in other blogs, on a variety of subjects, at the expense of this one, my own.

One blog is that of the Scherman Hoffman sanctuary of New Jersey Audubon. One is run by a couple of women for those 50 and older, WriteSideof50. And then there are my more political observations in the Morris Plains Patch.

I am glad to be doing so much writing, even tho' I am not paid for this effort. It is forcing me to use my skills as a reporter, writer and editor for a larger public than this humble blog has received. It is forcing me to use my brain in a creative way, even as I am busily trying to keep the house running, work eight hours for a job that does pay me and rake off this week's blanket of black locust pods.

Just a few of the seeds found raking. (photo by Margo D. Beller)
The last time I wrote here, I discussed how I wanted to punch in the nose the person who decided black locusts made good shade trees. Now, several weeks and many passes with the rake later, I want to kill that person.

For WriteSide, I made raking sound rather pastoral, a metaphor for the teamwork of a long and successful marriage. MH and I go out, get in each other's way, but somehow we wordlessly figure out what we have to do to get the pods and the many, many leaves that have fallen to the curb. We work together as a team. When done, we celebrate by going out to lunch and then collapsing at home, aching.

Well, besides raking, another thing we did together today was remove leaves from the gutters - rather, he went up the ladder to remove leaves, I stood at the bottom and held the ladder to keep it secure.

One year as we were doing this and I heard a yellow-bellied sapsucker, my sixth woodpecker of the day.

This year, a flock of 13 black vultures (and one turkey vulture) suddenly appeared over our house, circling for over five minutes.
Black vulture ( photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson)

I know better - vultures eat carrion, not live men pushing leaves out of gutters - but I involuntarily shuddered. MH and I are in our 50s and not getting any younger. We are closer to the end than the beginning. I didn't want him falling and hurting himself, or worse. There will come a time when this and many of the other chores we do will have to be done by others, for a fee.

I was very happy when he was back on terra firma.

I am also happy to be traveling for the next week away from the pods, acorns, leaves, bills, job and neighbors. I am hoping to come back relaxed and refreshed, at least for a couple of days. If we see some unusual birds, so much the better.

I promise to write about them here first.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Good, Bad and Raking

Robert Frost wrote, with irony, in a poem that "good fences makes good neighbors."

In my part of town, where we are not supposed to fence the front of our properties to retain something of a "park-like setting," autumn creates an opportunity to remember just where one property starts and another ends.

The leaves fall and you will see one house with an immaculate lawn. The service has come through, many people with lawn blowers and hurricane fans putting leaves to the curb, more or less; or perhaps mowing the grass, mulching the leaves, sucking them into the bag, which is emptied at the curb. The service goes right up to the property line.

One side, pristine green. The other side, my lawn.
Good raking makes good neighbors.
My husband does one final lawn cut, crunching up the first round of fallen leaves to allow them to work into the lawn. After that, we'll be out with our rakes, blower and tarps for the next few weeks, until the town stops collecting what we put out front.

In the backyard we have the maples, elms, apple, pear and oaks shedding leaves. In the front, however, we have black locusts.

I don't know who decided many decades ago to line my street with black locusts. That man or woman could've picked the Bradford pears. These stately trees line my downtown street and perhaps yours. They bloom wonderfully in spring, the leaves turn red in fall and they produce ornamental fruit the birds eat.

Black locusts are not so nice. Their roots push up the curb and the street. The little yellow leaves fall early in autumn and get everywhere, at which point they are tracked into home and garage. The stems also fall and mat on the grass. There are male and female trees, and if you are one of those "lucky" enough to have a female tree, as I am, you have  LOTS of long black pods that must be swept off the lawn or you'll have a forest instead of a park-like setting.

So as I am raking the pods down to the curb every year, I wonder if the person who decided on locusts has a few in his or her front yard and is also raking pods. I would like to meet that person, ask, "Why locusts?" (which are no longer planted in my town because of the damage they cause) and, if I'm in the wrong mood, punch him or her in the nose.

It is literally and figuratively a pain to do this every year, but there is some good that comes from all this raking. I am out of the house, using my arms and legs in much more (to me) useful exercise than lifting weights or riding a stationary bicycle. I am reacquainting myself with my lawn - I can see where the ground ivy is taking over, where the skunks and squirrels have been digging, where MH is going to need to put down more grass seed. I prefer this to paying a lawn service that mows every week whether the lawn needs it or not.

brown creeper
Raking also allows me to hear the birds. As I work, I hear the Canada geese. I look up and see about 10 flying generally north. However, I know these are not migrants. They would be heading south at this time of year, would be in a much larger group and be much higher in the sky. Still, I enjoy watching geese as they fly.
 
One year, resting from my labors, I looked up to find a brown creeper making its way up one of the locust trees, probing the crevices of its bark with its long, thin bill. Unlike the nuthatch, which climbs up and down trees with abandon, the creeper only goes up. Once at the top, it flies to the bottom of the next tree and works its way up again.

This morning as I was raking there were bluebirds - a rare pleasure - and a Carolina wren singing nearby, reminding me that soon I must bring in my plants and put out my feeders.

Winter will be here soon enough. Even with the cold and the darkness at 5pm, I welcome the respite from the garden chores.

Especially the raking.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

In Praise of Carolina Wrens

Dawn, Cape May. As the first light appears at Higbee Beach, I am walking quickly up the road to where I know others will be awaiting the morning flight, that strange phenomenon when southbound birds find themselves over Delaware Bay at dawn and so turn and head north to land, in this case Higbee.

As I walk along I hear the pleasant song of the Carolina wren. In fact, I hear several.
Carolina wren, Cape May, NJ  (Margo D. Beller)

In fact, during the full day of birding my husband and I had in Cape May a couple of weeks ago, the bird we heard the most was the Carolina wren. Every single place we stopped had at least one singing, and the songs were usually different. These wrens are loud for such little birds, and after minutes of singing one song, they switch to another.

9 a.m., Morris Plains. I am walking along a street in my NJ town to the convenience store where I buy the morning paper. It is a cool morning, color beginning to appear in the maples, the first sign that summer is over and autumn is here. As I walk I listen for what birds might be around. I hear chips and cheeps and some of the familiar contact calls of the titmice and white-breasted nuthatches but the only song I hear is the Carolina wren's.

When people ask me what is my favorite bird, I always say the black-capped chickadee and the cardinal are tied for first, with the Carolina wren a close second.

The chickadee likes to poke around, isn't put off by people and has an appealing "Hey, sweetie" song. It is rambunctious and flies in small flocks, or in ones and twos. The cardinal, by contrast, is a much bigger bird, the male a bright red, the female brown with red in the crest, bill and tail. Once the young are gone you usually see pairs. They call to each other. They mate for life and in spring the male will feed the female a seed and it looks like they are kissing.

But the Carolina wren is a close second because no matter what season, it will sing. Unlike its smaller cousin the house wren, it does not leave when summer ends. Like a lot of birds formerly considered "southern" - the mockingbird, cardinal and redbellied woodpecker immediately come to mind - the Carolina wren is now a fixture of New Jersey, even northern New Jersey where I live. In fact, one year, in the west-central part of rural New Hampshire where my brother-in-law lives with his family, I found a Carolina wren investigating the overhang of his roof, perhaps looking for bugs or a possible nest site. These birds will nest just about anywhere.
Carolina wren at my feeder. (Margo D. Beller)
Other birds sing in the spring when they are asserting themselves, trying to draw a mate and setting up territories. But once nesting starts, the birds go silent and then it is soon autumn and most of them fly south for the winter. The Carolina wren also goes silent at nesting time, but once the young are out the singing resumes, and I've heard these little brown birds with the yellowish breast in the middle of winter.

As long as there aren't too many freezing days or too much snow, or as long as I provide seed and suet in my feeders, this bird will survive to breed another day. I don't see them as often as I hear them, but it is always a treat when I do and I am always honored when they come to the feeders.




Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Legend of the Fall

It was with great shock and no small sense of accomplishment that I realized recently that I have managed to see or hear every eastern warbler except one.

I have seen the relatively common ones - black-throated green, black and white, myrtle - and the ones I see less often such as the magnolia, Blackburnian and cerulean. I've even had the really hard ones - the usually secretive mourning warbler that popped up on a fence to sing to its mate at Great Swamp, and a bright Wilson's warbler that suddenly flew in to forage over my head in Central Park. I've seen the worm-eating warbler and heard the song of the reclusive Kentucky warbler.
Black-throated green warbler (Margo D. Beller)
Most of these I saw or heard in the spring, when the trees were bare, the birds were brightly colored and they were singing to establish a territory, either for that day en route to someplace farther north or for the rest of the breeding season.

Looking for warblers during the southbound migration is much more difficult. The birds don't sing and the males become duller in color, more like the females. There are juveniles, too, and these may look even more different. And there are many, many leaves on the trees. If I see something move, it is as likely to be a falling leaf (or a butterfly) as a bird.

This is what has made it very difficult to find that final warbler, the Connnecticut.

It is large for a warbler, and has a nice big eye ring that stands out on a dark head. But it likes to skulk around in the underbrush. It is one of those birds - the rufous hummingbird is another - that often take a more easterly route south in the fall. So while there might be one report of a Connecticut warbler in New Jersey, where I live, in the spring, there are likely to be a lot more reports during the southbound migration.

The Connecticut is the only reason you will see me looking for warblers at this time of year, when the trees are leafed out and the dull birds are silent. At this time of year you are more likely to see me at a hawk watch - Hawk Mountain, Scott's Mountain, Cape May - looking into the sky for osprey, eagle or hawks.

Crowd at Hawk Mountain hawkwatch, September 2012 (Margo D. Beller)

You might even see me at the shore or a sod farm, looking for plovers, sandpipers and other unexpected migrants. At least on a sod field you can see the birds, and the ones at the shore are usually not moving around too much.

Shorebirds, Brigantine National Wildlife Sanctuary, August 2013 (Margo D. Beller)
The other day proved my point. Plus, just to make a hard job harder, I had been to the eye doctor that morning and had drops put in to dilate my pupils. Everything I saw in a sunny meadow had a corona of fuzziness, and everything I saw in the shady woods lacked detail and definition. I could still use my ears but I had to depend on MH for a description and my years of bird knowledge to figure out an identification based on size, shape and habit.

It wasn't easy.

We went to a park where a birder had reported seeing a Connecticut, and was even nice enough to give details as to where. We went there even tho' the report was two days old and the wind had come out of the north the previous night and the birds were pushing south. We went anyway because it was a sunny Saturday and, as usual, after a week of working in the house I needed to get out.

We got to the directed spot. We stood and listened. Silence. We walked up the stairs of a nearby bird blind and looked down for something skulking in the brush. Nothing.

I, a blind birder, was in a bird blind. Perfect. We did not find the Connecticut warbler that day although we saw a female black-throated blue and several black and whites.

There will be other reports of Connecticut warblers in the next few weeks, I am sure, and the experienced birders who seem to find everything at the drop of a hat no matter what the time of day or the season will see their fifth or 50th such bird. I may try once again or I may wait until next year.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Eyes to the Sky

When I was a child, I did not look forward to Labor Day. September in general and Labor Day in particular meant returning to school. This started to change when I went to college. The week or so before Labor Day meant heading back to Boston. I enjoyed being away from home.

Now that I am an adult, especially one who works from home in an office facing the street, I understand how my parents must've felt when it was time to send me back to school. I am greatly looking forward to having assorted children safely elsewhere during the day and then inside doing homework as the evening comes, earlier each day.

I only regret the usual Thursday after Labor Day this year is the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashana, new year's, and the children will have a few extra days of liberty before school starts the following Monday.

Migrating Cooper's hawk by Margo D. Beller
September 1 is the "new year" in another sense, too. It is when hawk watches, those areas where it is best to see raptors heading south take advantage of mountain ridges and rising warm air known as thermals, open for "business."

I've written before about the joy of standing on a mountain top and watching raptors - osprey, eagle, accipiters, buteos, falcons - flying over you. In the case of Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (one of the best-known hawk watches in this part of the country) you are up so high the hawks are practically at eye level.

But there's a price for this access. It is hard and in some places very rocky climbing up to the North lookout, the one at the very top. (There are others, with varying degree of view, along the way.) It is about as hard, if not worse, coming down. My husband and I have been up there twice. The first time, any discomfort we may have had was ignored as we found assorted warblers and others, including a life bird for us, a Bicknell's thrush.

The second time, however, we had no birds to distract us and we were a few years older. I nearly fell twice trying to balance myself on a rock as we were heading downhill. By the time we got back to the relatively easy bottom part of the trail, I had to admit we would never get up to North lookout again unless we grew our own wings.

Luckily, there are other hawk watches and not all of them require the same kind of strenuous climbing. In New Jersey the ones I have visited are Chimney Rock (a short, flat path from the parking lot), Montclair (a staircase until you get near the top, and then you use a ladder to get up the final rocks) and Wildcat Ridge, which has been counting since mid-August (you can climb this or cheat and use the road up to the cellphone tower, which is what the official counters do).
Redtailed hawk, 2013. Photo by RE Berg-Andersson

My favorite is Scott's Mountain, in Harmony Township, next to the Merrill Creek reservoir. You drive up, you park, you remove your folding chair and you watch the hawks with a great group of people eager to share tips, stories and snacks, led by Henry Kielblock.

The nice thing about this time of year - besides kids back in school - is you can see  hawks anywhere just by facing north on a day when the wind turns and comes from the north or northwest. When I was working in Englewood Cliffs, in an office across a highway from the top of the Palisades, the cliffs overlooking the Hudson River, I saw a parade of hawks just by coming out the office door during the warmest part of the day and looking north.

I have also found raptors in my backyard - Cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, redtail and, the most unusual one, an immature northern goshawk.

Other birds will be migrating, too, of course. If you keep your eyes open, once you get the kids off to school, you'll be amazed by what you see.

Me at the Scott's Mountain hawk watch, 2013



Sunday, August 18, 2013

It's That Time Again...

As I write, in mid-August, we had a break from the usual hot, humid weather with cool, dry air and bright sunshine. In the evenings, the wind died down and the skies were clear and cold.

Black-throated green warbler
During that time, some birds started heading south.

It doesn't seem like that long ago I was heading into my favorite birding areas to seek the migrants heading north to the breeding grounds. Now, suddenly, I am reading reports of black-throated green warblers and American redstarts passing by the hawk watches of Sandy Hook and Chimney Rock.

As a kid I would get restless in August because I knew I would soon have to go back to school in September. As an adult, if I haven't taken a vacation - and nowadays as a contractor it costs me a day's pay to take a day off, including holidays - I get restless in August, remembering my family's annual vacation.

In August, the birds get restless to fly south. As noted, many birds are already on the move when the right conditions permit. Sept. 1 is when many of the hawkwatches, including the one at Scott's Mountain abutting the Merrill Creek Reservoir in Harmony Township, NJ, set up shop to count all the southbound raptors.

Is my desire to "fly away" in August because, after 10 years of following them, I am in sync with the birds as much as to have some time off from a stressful job? I think so.

Scott's Mountain Hawk Watch, 2012
I read a study recently, "No-Vacation Nation Revisited" by the Center for Economy and Policy Research, that found the U.S. was dead last of the 19 "rich" nations that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in terms of providing guaranteed vacation days and holidays.

This makes perfect sense if you consider we are a nation where you start a business, work hard and then expect your employees to work just as hard and be happy to be employed to keep the operation going. The Horatio Alger myth of picking oneself up by the bootstraps says nothing about a vacation once successful. Cheap labor working every day but Sunday was once the rule until unions were created and grew. Now, with unions on the wane, we seem to be backsliding.

Remember, the U.S. government has passed no law ordering private companies to provide vacation. It's not the American Way.

At one job we only got holidays off because the U.S. Mail wasn't delivered anyway. That was back when newspapers and other businesses needed the mail to get the product out. Now, with the Internet, that isn't necessary. You also need fewer employees. So my current, Web-based employer cuts back on staff - to which it would have to pay benefits - and bulks up on "contractors," to which it does not. 
House wren, 2013

  

And if you don't want to do it, there are lots of people looking for work who can replace you.

Birds don't have to worry about that. They just need to worry about mating, breeding, raising young and then getting back to an area where they can continue eating until it is time to go north once again.

In August they sense the days are getting shorter. In my part of New Jersey it is now dark before 8pm EDT. At the time of the solstice two months ago, it got dark 40 minutes later. It is also now darker in the morning, with the cardinals waking me at first light around 6 rather than 5:30am.

So the birds in the north know it is getting time to leave. When it gets cold there are also fewer bugs to eat. The young are flying and able to feed themselves on the seeds of spent flowers and weeds and shrubs. When the wind comes from the north, a small bird - such as the house wren that spent some time at the nest box I provided - instinctively will take advantage of that push southward. Every little bit helps on a long, perilous journey.

So here I sit, earthbound in August. I wish I could drop everything and fly south to where it will be warm and sunny and filled with good food and so enjoy myself for a few months before I have to head back north and return to my responsibilities.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

At Mid-Summer


As expected, the Brood II cicadas are gone, leaving behind green maple and oak trees loaded with brown leaves from where the females cut into the bark to drop their eggs, thereby killing that part of the branches. It would look autumnal if it wasn't for the fact the leaves are brown and the weather is extremely hot and humid.

Brood II cicada (photo by RE Berg-Andersson)
The annual cicadas started calling a bit early but are now, in mid-July, in full voice, creating that strange effect as the calls seem to move from tree to tree. They were likely spurred by the first summer heatwave, in early July, actually the second of the year (we had one in late spring).

The migrant birds are long gone and those that stayed to breed are either feeding young or leading young around the yard. I've heard families of chickadees and titmice and soon the male goldfinches (which breed later in the summer) will be doing their swooping overhead to draw the attention of females. Less-common birds are harder to find.

July also brought ruby-throated hummingbirds to my feeder. I don't know why feeders in other places - my brother-in-law's porch in New Hampshire, my friend's back deck in Bernardsville, N.J. - draw them as early as May while the hummers don't discover mine until after the pink flowers of the geranium and the coral bells have faded but before the joe-pye weeds have bloomed. Still, they are reliably, fashionably late and if it's July, there must be hummers at the sugar water. I saw the first one on July 3 and have seen one just about every day since.

At this point in the year I can finally rejoice in locally grown fruit and vegetables. Reading Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" about farming, agricultural conglomerates and the hidden costs of getting food to the supermarket was an eye-opener. It inspired me to time my eating to the season and shop local rather than go to the market for peppers in the middle of winter grown halfway around the world. (I do a lot of cooking and freezing to tide me over.)

At this time of year the asparagus is gone (except for the soup I made and froze) as are the strawberries and peas, but cherries and blueberries and lettuce are in abundance and the cucumbers are coming in. I also go to a cooperative in the next town from me. It grows flowers and vegetables picked for you with more to come, including potatoes and tomatoes.
House wren

When the first summer heatwave struck in early July, the house wren young finally left the box. Their parents had been traveling back and forth with food and on the last morning they were in the box, there was a lot of activity. The temperature was over 90 degrees, and I was not surprised to hear no chittering when I walked near the box later in the day. I was surprised, however, to hear the chittering coming from a nearby hedge. Probably a lot cooler for the young being hidden in a hedge than inside the box.

Each year I hang that box in the one apple tree I kept on my property because it provides sweet fruit I use for pies and apple sauce. July is when I must start collecting apples. Last year was a very poor crop, so poor I had to go outside with my long walking stick and beat the tree to bring down the few apples there before the squirrels could get them (and, by extension, the deer). This year I have the opposite problem - lots of apples.
House wren box hanging in my apple tree.

However, with our long, cool and wet spring the squirrels weren't interested in the apples and I had several weeks to pick them. But with the early July heatwave the squirrels were back. Still, I have plenty of apples and have spent plenty of weekend hours on my feet peeling, chopping and separating the apple flesh I can use from the stuff that must be thrown out. (I don't spray my tree.) My freezer is filling with the fruits of my labor, mainly in the form of apple sauce.

It is a long time between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and around now I start wishing I could quit the job, leave the house and do a lot of traveling. But out there it is hot and humid, and when I am not inside where the fan and/or the AC keep me cool, I have a hard time functioning and thinking.

We have had a few days of cooler (but still humid) weather, and that has allowed me to feel more like myself again. But there's another heatwave coming and it will last longer. I do not like heat and I like humidity even less, but my husband likes to remind me it is summer, and summer is hot and humid where we live.

So the AC will be on during the day. Any walking I do will be early after a night where I won't sleep very well. My brain will again turn to mush and I'll feel trapped.

Winter seems a long way away.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Birds, Bees and Cicadas

I have been thinking alot about insects because of the emergence of the Brood II cicadas.

I write for several blogs and when describing these large, ugly members of the locust family I tended toward the science-fiction type of invasion angle -- THEY CAME FROM BROOD II!! -- and the like. This is how most people look at these insects.

Cicadas are out in the late-summer heat every year. MH hears these annual cicadas and is reminded of how he felt with summer ending and the return to school looming.

These cicadas, however, have spent most of the past 17 years evolving from eggs to nymphs until the 17th year when, after the soil has reached 63 degrees F, they climb out of the ground, shed their skins and then fly to a tree and begin calling. Even though we are seeing them for the first time, it is really near the end of their lives. The males will mate and die. The females will mate, cut a slit in a tree, lay their eggs in it and then die. The eggs will hatch and the young will drop to the ground and go below for another 17 years.

Cicadas mating, June 2013 by Margo D. Beller
Pretty mundane stuff. These cicadas don't sting like wasps, they don't eat your plants like locusts and they don't bite you like a mosquito. They are ugly, but a lot of insects are ugly. Unlike a lot of ugly insects like the praying mantis, it's not going to pick off bad bugs in your garden. It will just mate and die and leave its crunchy carcass on the ground for you to brush off or your dog to eat, as I saw the dog of a friend do as a few of the cicadas fell on her deck. There are even recipes and restaurants serving cicadas, if you are into that.

What had alarmed me at first was the noise. All those thousands, millions of cicadas making their call, sounding like one of those cheesy sci-fi sound effects for a spaceship. Not too far away from my town, in Morris Township, NJ, I had gone to one of my favorite birding places and barely heard the birds for the din. In my town there were none of these cicadas calling until only the last week, and the noise was certainly less than that of the lawn service mowers or the dogs barking from their backyards.

I wondered about that. Why weren't there more of these cicadas closer to my home? MH pointed out that 18 years ago - it seems like yesterday - a single crack in a bearing wall led to 10 months of contracted workmen inside and outside the house. These workmen at one point had ripped up the entire lawn to do work on the house foundation and then, since it would need new grass anyway, put in an underground sprinkler system.
June 2013, by RE Berg-Andersson

MH thought that disruption 18 years ago wiped out the eggs of that brood of Brood II cicadas. OK, I said, but that doesn't explain the area around our house.

But perhaps it does. I live in a part of suburbia that does not tear down the old houses, as is the case in other towns, but builds on. Building on, making a house two or three times the size, requires digging out the land and putting in a new foundation. If enough people did that, perhaps they, too, inadvertently wiped out the cicadas.

Or maybe it was Hurricane Sandy. In my part of the state it wasn't the flooding but the winds that uprooted trees by the thousands. Doing so might have wiped out the eggs.

When I hear the noise of a few cicadas, it is from the area of the old Greystone that is now the Central Park of Morris County. Around the time I was having work done on the house, the state was forced to build a smaller, more modern mental hospital because of well-publicized abuses that embarrassed then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. The bulk of the Greystone land was sold to Morris County, for $1, to create a park. In the process of doing so a lot of stone buildings were taken down, trees were uprooted and ground was dug up for playgrounds, ballfields and the like.

So that may be why I hear little in the way of Brood II when I walk around.

However, there are many more of them and they are much louder in the areas where I hike, which are county parks or land owned by New Jersey Audubon or the federal government. There is no "development" on this land except that of the natural cycle of birds, bees and insects. 

June 2013, by Margo D. Beller
While I worry about the overdevelopment of New Jersey, building huge houses where there once were farms, or expanding to create huge houses so each kid could have a room and each parent a mancave or restaurant-quality kitchen for eating take-out, I am not worried about Brood II.

Part of Nature's plan is the brood is so large that even if every bird caught a cicada (and since this is the time of year when young at the nest need to be fed, that means a lot of hungry birds) there would still be more than enough for most of the females to lay eggs for the next generation of Brood II.

The joke, if you can call it that, has always been that the cockroaches will survive after a nuclear holocaust wipes out humanity. I've no doubt cicadas will survive, too. In the meantime, this "invasion" should be over by July.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Fawn on the Lawn

At the end of May 1999, not long after we saw the Mets’ slugger Mo Vaughn hit a prodigious home run at Shea Stadium, I came out of my house to take a walk and found a newborn fawn curled up at the end of my front lawn. There was nothing between it and the street but the curb stones.

I thought it was dead. I prodded it with my foot and it stirred. I went back into the house to tell my husband.

I was between jobs at that point, so I was at home and had the time to focus on this unexpected delivery. Throughout the day I watched adults, kids and dogs walk by. No one noticed the fawn. However, its mother must’ve noticed because the next day the fawn had been moved to the long grass in our backyard near the flood wall, an area so secluded I almost missed it, too. The lawn had not been mowed in some time because our mower was being repaired.

We christened our visitor Mo Fawn.

I mention all this because for the first time since then I was puttering around the backyard the other morning and found another sleeping newborn fawn under our apple tree. Once again my reaction was to make sure it was alive. Unlike last time, I got my camera and took a picture of this cute, little baby.

Mo Fawn II, June 2013

It had been placed well. Once again, the grass was longer than it should’ve been (the mower we use now was not at fault; MH had wanted the grass long during a heatwave and had not gotten around to mowing once the wave ended) and the tree shaded Mo Fawn II as it slept.

I had learned from my brother-in-law the naturalist the last time that newborn fawns have no scent, which explains why dogs ignored it. However, people could still see it. This second time I was concerned kids from next door or cutting through the yard to retrieve an errant ball would touch it. If that happened its mother would abandon it.

MH mowed the lawn but left Mo within a wide swath of long grass.

I was sure its mother would take it away once it saw the grass had been cut. I was wrong.

The last time, after Mo had been there a couple of days, a doe and another fawn had come into our yard. I thought it was Mo’s mother. She left with her fawn. Mo, left behind, started the most piteous bleating, which tore at my heart and had me searching through my tears for an animal control number since I was sure it had been abandoned.

Just in time, MH called me to the back porch. There was the biggest doe I’ve ever seen feeding Mo. I almost fainted from relief. Once he was fed she led him away, as nature intended.

However, when it comes to deer, this is not a given. This is the New Jersey suburbs, where the leading cause of deer death is not human hunting or animal predators but collisions with cars. Every year there are many young animals that lose their mothers in accidents. There is a reason why hunting season is in November and not May into June when does give birth.

So I had an uneasy feeling when I awoke to find Mo II still with us. Had Mom been hit by a car? Did someone decide to go into the woods with a bow and arrow and poach a deer? Did someone come into my yard, bother the fawn and leave a scent, thus assuring abandonment?

Hope for the best, MH said, as he usually does. Wait another day before calling someone.

As it happened, Mo II was gone by day’s end. I work at home now, and when I came downstairs on a break I looked out the kitchen window at a large doe cleaning the fawn. It is the only time I’ll ever be happy to see a deer in my backyard.

She heard me come out on the porch and jumped over the low flood wall. She stayed in the bushes close by. I went back into the house and watched from the kitchen.

Soon she came out of the bushes and walked along the flood wall. Mo followed her from the other side. When she got him to an area where it wasn’t as high, he tried to jump the wall and couldn’t. He got very agitated and tried again. This time he made it. Mom turned and carefully led Mo to the next street and then across, up through the yards and into one last bit of woods not cut down for a street or housing development in my town.

The fawn on the lawn was gone, for now. I’ve no doubt once Mo is weaned he will be eating shrubbery and then he won’t be such a cute little thing to me.

A few things to remember from this episode. The more houses we build, the more we shrink the available woods that are home to deer, birds and other wild creatures, and the greater the chance these wild creatures come into contact with us. There are people who passionately want to ban all deer hunts, even tho’ the deer population has increased since our first encounter with Mo Fawn because we‘ve created such wonderful conditions for them.

The usual way I see deer in the backyard.
I'm not going to comment on hunting but I will say
I’ve learned over the course of two decades that if a deer is in the yard, see which way it is headed and then get behind it to encourage it off the property. If you make the deer run the way it came you have wasted your time because once you go inside it will only come back and head where it planned to go anyway.

I have learned why many of my neighbors don’t grow flowers or certain other plants -- there are no “deer-resistant” plants. Strong scents may deter them but I’ve found a hungry deer will nibble just about anything, which could kill your plant if enough of them try it..

I’ve also learned deer netting, ugly and cumbersome as it is, is the only real deterrent. But even here if a deer finds a weakness, something not fastened tight enough or too tight, it will strike. I’ve come outside to find netting slit down the middle because it had been strung too tight, and the plants behind eaten within an inch of their lives. One of those doing the eating might’ve been the original Mo Fawn. I’ve learned and adjusted.

All animals have it tough in this human world. MH and I did our small part. I don’t begrudge Mo II his life, even tho’ I will be sure to chase him, his mother and any other deer off my property the next time.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Nature's Bad and Good Sides

I was recently in New Hampshire, visiting MH's family over Memorial Day weekend, and I had planned to put here some notes from that visit.

But for the moment I am ticked off and want to concentrate on the not-so-good part of nature, specifically something that happened this morning while sitting on my screened-in porch, an area that I had considered a refuge from the mess in the house and my favorite place from which to view the birds.

Specifically, I was drinking coffee when I felt something on my right leg. It was a tick.

I have written before about ticks. They wait in long grass until they find something to jump on. Many times it is an animal - deer or dog, for instance. But changing global conditions are making the life of a tick easier.

I've found them on me before after hiking on trails at Great Swamp or in New Hampshire's Audubon sanctuary outside Concord. In the case of the latter I had checked my clothes but found the tick on my torso as I was about to take a shower.

In today's case, the tick was on the enclosed porch. I had been puttering around, pulling an extension cord out of the corner to plug in the fan, checking on my plants. I was in pajamas and hadn't gone outside. Somehow it had found me. MH said it could've been on the porch for days. It must've been mighty hungry.

I probably should've used the match trick I learned from a former sister-in-law: Light a match, blow it out, apply the hot match head to the tick. It will stop biting and start moving. You don't want to pull out a ticker and leave the head and those teeth behind.

But I grabbed and pulled and it looks like since it had only just jumped on it hadn't gotten its bite in too deep. It was brought inside and flushed to meet its Maker.

Now, however, every itch has me checking for ticks. I am leery of going out on the porch in my pajamas with my coffee as I do most summer mornings. With all the deer that pass through our yard I've often warned MH to be extra careful when he mows our long grass, and tuck his pants into his socks and then check himself before coming into the house. Now I must do the same just to sit outside.

I know, it's only a tick and only one bite, It is not a home invasion or a burglary when you come home and feel violated. But the porch is my refuge and now I'll have to be watchful.

A Change of Scene

Every time we go to New Hampshire - and MH and I have been going for more than two decades - I see something I've never seen before.

Most of the time it is something bad - another swatch of trees cut down and a large house put up, for instance - but this time it was a wondrous sight.

We stopped at a bookstore across the road from one of central New Hampshire's many nice lakes, Massasecum. We've come here for years. I park and the owner lets me bird out in back of her property while MH helps pay for her groceries.

This time I parked and in front of the car, slightly up a hill, was a pink lady's slipper orchid.

May 27, 2013, Bradford, NH, by Margo D. Beller
When I have seen orchids they've either been the "moth" type (allegedly easy to grow but mine hasn't flowered since the original blooms fell off) or the exotic ones that are seen in hothouses such as the one at the former estate of heiress Doris Duke. But orchids are found in the woods. There are some in the New Jersey Pinelands that are unique to there. Some people have such an obsessive desire they steal orchids. Sue Orleans wrote a book about one such person.

According to my Audubon guide to New England, the pink lady's slipper blooms in April into May and is partial to bog and to hillsides, particularly under conifers. This one was growing in the shade of many hemlocks.

The owner of the bookstore came out as I was photographing the orchid. She pointed out two more plants that were growing but had not yet flowered. She said the orchid had only flowered in the last two days, probably delayed by this spring's wacky weather conditions.

When she first moved to the property there were many more of these orchids, but when land was cleared for the house and the adjacent bookstore there were no more orchids. It was only this year when the conditions were just right for this orchid and her sisters to grow. The owner hopes there will be more this year and next, and I do, too.

But this orchid teaches a lesson. Development creates and it destroys. The beauty that draws us to an area is fragile and mankind can too easily destroy it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Return of the Wren, Again

I have written over the years about house wrens, and this year will be no exception.

Usually, the nest box goes out in late April and it doesn't take long before one of the little, brown wrens comes to investigate.

This year has been different. We had a warm spell in early April and I put the box out early, after reading reports of house wrens arriving in areas of the state south of my town. But it seemed a day or so later the winds turned and started blowing from the northeast, blocking the northbound migrants (and making the area colder than normal).

House wren
A few weeks ago I took my usual morning walk for the newspaper and heard a house wren in a yard across and down the street. House wrens have a small territory of which they are fiercely possessive, so I knew this one wasn't going to be coming to my backyard. As the weeks went on, I would hear a house wren here and there but not in the backyard.

That changed on Friday, May 10, when the winds finally turned again and brought warm weather out of the south. That morning, I awoke to the bubbly call of a house wren in the backyard. I came downstairs and found it investigating the box. When I went on my walk, I took the long way home and managed to find - no lie - seven different types of warblers: myrtle, several parulas, a couple of black and whites, a couple of American redstarts, a yellow, a common yellow-throat and my first-of-season black-throated blue.

If you swap the blue for a palm warbler, these are the same birds I managed to find over many hours and much traveling over parts of Great Swamp a couple of weeks ago, when migrants were few and far between. This day, they were all within a half-mile of each other.

With a good tailwind, the birds came and the birders of New Jersey rejoiced.

Wren nestbox
But the house wren's arrival was weeks late, part of the wacky weather we've been having this spring. Winters that are snowier or colder than usual. Rainy Marchs. Cold Aprils. May winds out of the northeast. And then a sudden spurt of south winds and hot temperatures.

Today, the house wren was bringing sticks to the box, getting on a branch every so often to sing his heart out. Males put a few twigs into the box and then brings the female around. If she likes it, she brings more twigs to build a full nest and then the laying and brooding begin.

The house wren sings one song and it sings it all day to claim his territory.

Meanwhile, I was looking out the kitchen window and saw what I first thought were three dingy goldfinches. No, I thought, that isn't right. At this time of year, the males are bright yellow with a black cap and the females are green-yellow. I looked closer and realized I was looking at three pine siskins, the first I've ever seen during spring migration rather than in winter.

They were quickly chased off by a sparrow. In turn, this bird was chased off by a more welcome visitor - a rosebreasted grosbeak.

Male rosebreasted grosbeak
Specifically, 2 male and 1 female grosbeak.

This is a well-named bird, as you can see in my picture. The male's bill is prominent, made more so by the contrast with the black head. And there is that rosy triangle on the breast, contrasted with the white.

The female, tho' brown rather than colorful (to better blend into the woods when breeding) is also striking, with her large, light bill and a distinctive white "eyebrow," which is how I can easily identify her.

Usually, these large birds show up in early May - when they show up. It is not a given. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes we have been traveling when they do. This is the first time in several years that we have been at home and they have been at the feeder at the same time.

As I said, I saw 3 of these. I had to take care of something and MH told me that we ultimately had 5 grosbeaks - 3 males and 2 females, an impressive total.

I don't know how long these grosbeaks will hang around. At some point I want to bring in the feeders, put out a hanging basket of flowers and put my houseplants on my screened-in porch. (Every time I plan on doing this it suddenly gets cold and I leave things where they are.) That is my summer ritual.

I don't have such doubts about the house wren. If he finds a mate and if she accepts the box, they will have a brood and in a few weeks I'll hear almost continual singing and see almost continual movement as the parents hunt for food for their young. Then, one day, they'll fledge and disappear from the box. Summer will be over. 

Life will go on. 


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

On Hearing the First Ovenbird of Spring*

*with apologies to Frederick Delius.


This has been a wacky migration season. We have had a spring in New Jersey that was first too wet, then too warm, then very cold. Just as the birds started heading north, the winds started coming from the northeast.

Thanks to this weather, many of the birds that would have come through New Jersey were pushed to the west, a bonanza for birders in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Until I read the recent reports of more experienced birders, including Don Freiday, who runs the birding paradise known as Brigantine, I had wondered if I had finally lost my ability to find birds. Here it was late April and I had yet to find any of the early migrants, including such warblers as the pine, palm or even the myrtle, which can be found in southern New Jersey over the winter.

It was making me rather depressed, to be honest. Age has finally caught up to you, I thought. You aren't willing to get up before dawn and seek out the birds.

So I rose early several times and walked from my house to the Central Park of Morris County, aka the old Greystone mental hospital property, now a county park. I found some migrants - phoebes, redwinged blackbirds, chipping sparrows - and noticed the winter juncos and white-throated sparrows were either much reduced in number or gone altogether, replaced by chattering goldfinches.

No warblers. My bad luck continued.

Or so I thought. Never underestimate a determined bird. I rose one morning before dawn a few weeks ago and drove to part of the wilderness area of Great Swamp. In the past I have had many magical mornings here, such as the time I drove up and, without leaving the car, heard and saw a pair of mourning warblers, not the easiest warbler to find, sitting on the fence post in front of me.

This is where experience counts as much as luck. In the first place I went, a wet area not too muddy for once, I knew I'd find yellow warblers and common yellow-throats because they breed in such areas. I found them, but only one of each, which was unusual. I was compensated, however, by a hunting redshouldered hawk, a very vocal pileated woodpecker and a singing brown thrasher.

The next area I visited was muddy, as usual, made worse by the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy six months before. This area had been closed for months after, and those who had come through did the very minimum to make the trail passable although in two places I was glad to have my stick to help me get over two downed trees. (This is, after all, a wilderness area - as opposed to the management area across the road.) With trees uprooted, the flooding from subsequent rain was not sucked up and became big, stagnant ponds - prime mosquito habitat this summer.

It was in here that I was able to finally find a pine warbler, palm warbler, many blue-gray gnatcatchers and, most unexpected, an American redstart, a warbler I ususally find much later in the season.

Ultimately, I found seven types of warblers. This satisfied me for a while. Then I started to wonder about one warbler I usually hear relatively early on, the ovenbird.

Ovenbird on the left, pine warbler on the right, drinking from a
Pinelands puddle, 2011
This picture from two years ago is the best I have of this bird, unfortunately. It is a rather unusual shot because like many birds, this one prefers to skulk in shrubbery. The only reason this one was in the open was it was drinking from a puddle created by recent rain during a very hot summer in the New Jersey Pinelands.

This warbler prefers the ground to the trees and has nary a bit of yellow in it.

Ovenbirds could be mistaken for thrushes but for three things: They are olive in color rather than brownish or rufous, they are striped rather than spotted and they have a wide orange stripe on their head. When I used to pass Bryant Park in NYC on the way to work I would often find an ovenbird skulking under the hedges at the park's edges, which happened to be elevated above street level.

But the ovenbird more than makes up for its secretive behavior by its loud and familiar song, which sounds to me like Tea-CHUR, Tea-CHUR, Tea-CHUR although the books give it as "teacher, teacher, teacher" with the stress on the first syllable.

This is one of the most common birds in the forest, but when I went into my favorite forests I didn't find it.

Until yesterday.

One of the other nice things about spring is asparagus. Sure, you can buy asparagus all year round in the market but it is not local and the taste isn't as good as getting a bunch just picked from the closest farm.

Every May I go to one to buy many bunches of asparagus to use fresh and also make into soup. I went there yesterday to buy a couple more bunches and decided to drive home through Jockey Hollow, which was a Revolutionary War winter encampment that didn't get the press of Valley Forge. It is now a federal park.

It has a paved tour road and on weekends I frequently have to pull over to let those exceeding the 20 mph speed limit by. Yesterday, a weekday, there was only one car during my entire trip and so I could drive 15 mph. That allowed me to hear a number of Eastern towhees doing their "drink your TEA!" song or variants (David Sibley says the song is "highly variable" and he's right) plus a wood thrush.

It was then, as I stopped to listen to my first Baltimore oriole of the season - another bird I should've heard by now - that I heard the ovenbird.

I was relieved. Finally.

My husband likes to remind me the birds are not waiting around for me. Nor do they follow a road map. At some point the winds are going to come out of the right direction and I will get up early on another morning and travel to my favorite spots and find the birds I should've found by now, including scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak and worm-eating warbler.

I will put aside concerns about global warming, unusually cold and wet springs and winds from the wrong direction. I will trust that I will find the migrants, maybe even some new birds, and be happy once again.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Saving the Land

I was standing on a mountain top the other day, looking for hawks in the haze. It's not something I do every day because I don't like hard climbs. But the Land Conservancy of New Jersey had invited members of 10 years standing or more on this hike as a thank you for our membership and I couldn't say no.

We got to the top, greeted the men who come here every day during spring and autumn migration to count raptors, and rested. While up there the Land Conservancy's head guy, Executive Director Dave Epstein, pointed out the acres of trees leafing out below us.

This would have all been houses. The reason it isn't is due to a public-private partnership involving the state of New Jersey and several groups, including the Land Conservancy.

Wildcat Ridge. Now imagine the trees replaced by houses.

Where we were standing was Wildcat Ridge in Rockaway Township in Morris County, NJ, not all that far from where I live. Back when I became a member the group was called the Land Conservancy of Morris County. But there are many areas of the state threatened by overdevelopment, and so the name was changed to reflect the broadened mission of the Land Conservancy.

Standing on the mountain and trying to imagine a housing development below, I got the same feeling I get every time I go to Great Swamp (also in Morris County) and a plane flies over - I shudder. It was citizen action that stopped the plan for an airport to pave over this prime spot for God's creatures, particularly birds. The Helen Fenske visitor center is named for the head of the effort to save the Swamp.

These battles never end. They continue in Morris County.

Morris Plains is in a battle with the developer of the old Pfizer buildings on Route 53. The developer bought the land with plans to put in 500 apartments, condominiums and townhouses plus about 100,000 square feet of retail space, according to the borough website. The borough asked for changes The developer is suing, claiming the borough is shirking its affordable housing requirement.

Nearby Parsippany once approved what I call the Scar on Watnong Mountain, but is officially called Powder Mill Heights. It a multi-story apartment building atop a multi-story parking garage. It is an eyesore you can see for miles around, degrading the mountain it sits upon. I could see it from Wildcat Ridge.

Parsippany, the largest township in Morris County, more recently approved a developer's plan to put a Whole Foods, another retailer and 72 upscale townhouses on 26 acres of the undeveloped land currently zoned for office space. Nearby residents complained. Parsippany started to reconsider. The developer threatened to change the proposal to 530 rental apartments, designating 20% of them as affordable housing, which the developer said would force the zoning board to approve the plan because of its "beneficial nature."

That pissed off Parsippany and its residents, particularly the ones closest to the proposed development, who have already been raising money to fight the developer.

The developer wants to take down woods. Meanwhile, throughout Morris County there are vacant office parks. Hanover Township has allowed developers to clear-cut woods for a shopping center that has yet to be built, and which is located less than a mile from another shopping center that has struggled to keep tenants for years.

There is something about New Jersey that smells like money to be made, I guess.

The Kirkbride building.

At the border of my town and Parsippany is the Central Park of Morris County, which I will always refer to as Greystone. This land used to be a state mental hospital of that name. Morris County bought it for $1 when Gov. Christie Whitman ordered the old hospital closed down and a modern one built in a smaller parcel of land at the property’s western edge.

Whitman was a Republican, the same party that dominates Morris County politics. Subsequent governors who were Democrats said it was a land giveaway and the public would be better served if public housing went up.

That would've changed the entire character of the area and sent more traffic through my town.

That idea never took hold. However, the current governor, another Republican named Christie - as in Chris Christie - authorized the state to do a study of what could be done with the remaining property, in particular the hulking stone administrative building known as the Kirkbride Building.

Kirkbride was a wonder in its day, the biggest stone building of its type in terms of land mass until the Pentagon was built. While the county was busily demolishing the deserted stone wards to create a park, Kirkbride stood decaying, its bottom-floor windows boarded to deter vandals and squatters.

The state did a study of what it would cost and it would be $110 million to $125 million. The cheapest alternative was the $11 million to clean the building up and seal it. The study concluded there was no “economically feasible” way to save the building.

But in New Jersey, there is always room to make a buck.

The state solicited proposals, which made the group Preserve Greystone happy because it wants the building to stand and be used for a variety of things including a mental health museum, shops, condominiums and government offices, according to an article in the Star-Ledger daily newspaper.

According to an April 15 article in the Star-Ledger, the state put out its 108-page report on the different scenarios for the future of Kirkbride. Here they are:

Historic rehabilitation for 315 apartments, with rents of $1,500 to $2,500 a month.

Historic rehabilitation for 199 larger apartments that could be converted to condominiums, which would each lose an estimated $11.9 million.

Historic rehabilitation for a mixed-use facility including assisted living, office space and a bed-and-breakfast, which would lose an estimated $25.75 million.

Subsequently, the lead consultant on the study the state used for its estimates heard there was “'some interest" by developers in upscale apartments, "based on 'the magnitude of the project' and its historic aspect," according to the Star-Ledger.

Let’s get real here.

This place is in the middle of nowhere. The closest train station is in Morris Plains and there is already a fight for parking spaces. Only one bus line runs to Kirkbride.

That means cars - a lot of cars. Where do you put them? Perhaps you rip up the old farm fields behind Kirkbride and put in a garage or parking deck.

Also, this is a former office building that has had no one in it for close to a decade, located at the edge of a large park Morris County spent a lot of money to create. Right now there are ballfields with large lights being put in. Would you want to spend $2,500 a month for a place with lights coming into your windows and the roar of the crowd during a sporting event every summer night?

If it was me, I’d be complaining. If enough of us complain, the landlord takes notice - and that means the developers start “discussing” things with Morris County to put restrictions on a public park for which we have paid and are already using.


Central Park of Morris County.

Of course there is “some interest” in buying up some of the last remaining open spaces in a congested and overpopulated New Jersey in general, and Morris County in particular, for "luxury" residences. The developers don't care that drawing more people to an area means kids who need to go to school, drivers who will need improved roads and traffic lights to get on and off adjacent streets and appliances and phones that need to sap power off an already overloaded grid.

I'd rather the state either pulls down the building or pays the $11 million to seal it up and leave the remaining residents - ghosts and birds - in peace. But I'm readying my letter to the Land Conservancy just in case. Hey, it worked once in Rockaway Township.