Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

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.