Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Winter Birds, Part 2 - Personalities

Recently I wrote about the birds at my feeders during this 2014 winter season. Today I want to focus on their personalities.

It is never a good thing to put human characteristics to wild birds, just as it is never a good thing to consider the birds at your feeders to be "your" birds. I don't consider the visiting cardinals mine, for instance, although I've learned to tell the various males apart thanks to their frequent visits.
Cardinal pair (Margo D. Beller)

I gain great understanding of bird behavior watching the birds at my feeders, but I know if I had no feeders up they would not be in my yard - or at least where I can see them. That is why I put out feeders containing sunflower seed or suet, to feed them and draw them down where I can see them, particularly on days when I might not want to go out in the field.

It is impossible to include all the birds I've ever seen in the backyard. Many do not come to the feeders, but are drawn to the area by seeing all the other birds that do come. For instance, I've seen many robins in my backyard but they are on the ground, searching for worms and insects. Or they are in the bushes and trees, picking off the ripe fruits. But they do not come to seed feeders and I use plain suet rather than suet mixed with fruit, just to keep the squirrels away.

I am not an ornithologist. Nor am I a psychologist. That said, here is what I have observed at the three feeders usually up during the winter.

Titmice, chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches: These birds like to grab and go. Once in a while a titmouse, for instance, will stay on the feeder and use the perch for cracking open a seed. Usually, they grab a seed and fly off to the nearest tree or shrub to have its meal protected from predators such as sharp-shinned hawks.
Nuthatch (above) and titmouse (Margo D. Beller)
These birds don't mob the feeders or chase each other off, most of the time. There is a pecking order and the birds tend to take turns. For instance, one white-breasted nuthatch grabs a seed, takes off and then a second one shows up. These are the birds I prefer at the feeder, plus the cardinals.

House finches and house sparrows: I consider these and mourning doves to be real pests. The house finches and house sparrows will mob both feeders, chasing each other and other birds away. They sit in the feeders and just eat and eat, dropping bits of seed to the squirrels waiting below. If I didn't go outside every so often and chase them off, the other small birds would get nothing.

It is usually a smaller female mourning dove that will fly to the top of the house-shaped feeder and then, with great trepidation, figure out how to fly down to the perch, which it fills because of its bulk. It will then sit and pick through looking for broken seeds since its thin bill is not made for crunching seeds like the finches. Most of the seed she drops to other mourning doves and squirrels below. These, too, I chase off.
House finch and feeder, cardinal and junco wait. (Margo D. Beller)

Blue jays: When these big birds show up, everything else scatters. They dive-bomb the house feeder (they are too big to get through the cage of the second feeder and can't hang upside down to get to the suet), gulp a bunch of seeds and then fly off to either regurgitate them for caching or swallow them whole. Their movements are explosive but at least they don't hang around for too long.

Female purple finch (Margo D. Beller)
Cardinals: A large, sometimes skittish member of the finch family (see my post of Nov. 20, 2011). I find them starting at dawn and have seen them eating at dusk. (Only the robin tends to come out earlier and stay out later, based on the calls I've heard.) They hold their own against the smaller birds but larger birds will scare them off. If the feeder is mobbed by smaller finches the cardinal won't come to it, which is when I chase the pests off. Males will chase off females, even their own mates, during the winter when they come to eat, but in spring males will allow mates to feed with them, usually feeding her directly so that it looks like they are kissing.

Visitors: The smaller goldfinches (see my post of July 1, 2011) will come to the feeders at certain times of the year and are usually left alone by the more aggressive house finches but in winter a lone goldfinch must get to the seed early to beat the later-rising pests. The same is true for the rare purple finches. This year I had 3 females visit at one time. They were left alone. But when there was only 1 it was quickly chased off.
Male rose-breasted grosbeak (Margo D. Beller)

Bigger visitors tend to be left alone, such as the rose-breasted grosbeaks that usually show up in May during the spring migration northward. Like their smaller cousins the house finches, these, too, will sit and eat for long periods of time but they are so pretty and such rare visitors they are welcome to all the seed they can handle.

Carolina wren is another winter visitor, although these wrens are around all year long. Carolina wrens are small but they have a big song and are very aggressive. They are such rare visitors they are usually left alone but they will aggressively defend their right to eat against the pests. These wrens are also looking for broken pieces and don't seem to mind hanging upside down to eat suet. I am always pleased when a Carolina wren visits and then sings in my yard.
Carolina wren (Margo D. Beller)

Woodpeckers: The smallest type, the downy, is skittish when bigger birds, including other woodpeckers, fly in. Otherwise, they will hang upside down and eat suet no matter what kind of tumult is going on at the house feeder above it. The same is true of the largest of the 3 woodpecker types to visit, the red-bellied woodpecker. This one will whack at the suet or come to the house feeder. I've also seen it grab the cage, put its head through and use its long tongue to grab a seed.

Rarely, a hairy woodpecker visits. This one looks like a downy woodpecker on steroids but is not as big as the red-bellied. Most of the time it eats just suet but last year one female liked getting on the house feeder's perch and take seeds.
Downy woodpecker (Margo D. Beller)

Invasion: There are those times in late fall into winter into early spring when thousands of grackles with some red-winged blackbirds, starlings and cowbirds will show up in my yard. Most will be on the ground searching for food but many flock to the feeders, which is why at the first sight or sound of them I bring the house feeder inside. (The reason I bought the upside-down feeder was to keep the starlings and grackles off the suet.) These birds will eat until the feeder is empty and then fly down the road and repeat the process.

Sharp-shinned hawk feeding. (Margo D. Beller)
Finally, there are the raptors. These do not come to the feeder except to pick off the birds feeding. I've seen a juvenile Cooper's hawk slam into the caged feeder as an American tree sparrow fled the other way. MH once saw a broadwing hawk pick off a red-bellied woodpecker and I've seen redtails and even a northern goshawk in my trees. They are drawn to the feeders for the same reason as the smaller birds - the need to feed.

However, I try to make sure the raptors feed elsewhere, if possible.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Where Are the Vultures?

Gloomy days bring gloomy thoughts, especially around the time of the year-end holidays. Where did the months go?

In recent weeks many of my friends have lost loved ones. As I write the first day of winter officially begins around 6 pm ET. It's dark and cold at 5 pm. For a variety of reasons we can't visit our families for the holidays, although we will be dining with a good friend nearby. It has been weeks since we've had a day that started sunny and stayed that way. A huge mid-week storm is expected, which will test our new roof and deer fencing.

Holiday card montage by Margo D. Beller
Last year around this time I wrote a post for another blog about how many of my friends contact me, and I them, once a year through holiday cards. This year I notice we didn't get cards from some of those friends, and I wonder if all this time they've been sending us cards only because we sent them cards first. We only had 20 cards on hand to send out this year. One friend sent us an ecard and three sent us cards before we sent out ours. The vast majority have not bothered but we have sent the cards to them.

Why is that? Do they dislike us now? Are they too used to putting all their news on Facebook? Have they reached that age where they want to simplify, simplify? Or are they just waiting to hear from us to see if we are worth the effort to go out, buy a card, write a note, sign it, address an envelope, seal it and put on a stamp?

One gloomy thought among many.

Here's another: Where are the roosting vultures?

From 2012 into 2013, on my early morning walks, I would see them in a small, sunny meadow on the old Greystone property trying to warm up before flying off to seek a meal. Then came last winter's heavy and almost continual snows. It was hard and sometimes dangerous to walk from my house to this part of the property (thank goodness sidewalks have been put in along the main road within the last year) and so I avoided this area all winter.

Turkey vulture (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
Now I wonder if the vultures did, too.

When the grass grows long the vultures don't hang out in the field. They want to see what's coming. (Canada geese do that, too, which may be why the grass is not mowed.) I would find a few turkey or black vultures in trees along the road, soaking up the sun on a dewy, cool morning. I was expecting the vultures to come back to the field once the grass was mowed but that hasn't happened.

Why? I have my theories, all of which involve  distruction of habitat.

1. There are fewer dead deer to feed them.

2. The state of New Jersey (which holds this parcel while my home county holds most of the now-parkland around it) waited too long to mow.

3. Last year's snow forced the vultures to other areas they like better.

4. The many people using what was once a mental institution and is now a county park made it too noisy (there is a playground, ball fields and cross-country track) and uncomfortable for the raptors to hang around.

5. Nearby residents who didn't want vultures warming themselves on their roofs on cold mornings took measures - either on their own or with state help - to force them off.

Black vulture (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
Vultures are far from endangered and even at Greystone they aren't completely gone. Every so often a couple of black vultures or a turkey vulture will suddenly rise from the Greystone property beyond my neighbors' houses. It's possible they are just roosting in other sunny areas, rising from the still-green hemlocks where they sleep to get a little protection from the elements. Or I'm not looking around at the right times.

But I miss seeing all those vultures running around the field in the sun like chickens, or sitting in trees in groups, their wings spread to dry and warm in the rising sun. Vultures are ugly up close and their need for dead animals to eat and survive disgusts many.

But aloft these big birds soar majestically and I enjoy watching them. Their absence adds to my winter gloom.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Call Me Restless

(Margo D. Beller)

(Editor's note: This post was published several years ago, one of many posts where I stupidly removed the link allowing you, Dear Reader, to access it after publication. So I have republished it.) 

When the dark comes early; when the cold wind blows; when the furnace heat dries out everything, including me; when the lines on my face seem deeper; when I feel fat from indulging in too many office snacks; when the house closes in and my husband barricades himself behind a book; when December is in my soul as well as on the calendar, that is when I take myself, if not to sea like the unnamed narrator of Moby-Dick, then to the woods for a long walk.

I have been losing my connection to nature and it makes me feel unnatural. I used to walk all the time at my last job including going to and from the train. I’d hear birds in the morning and look at the stars at night. Not now.

Driving to work has made me slow and fat, my legs rubbery. Winter makes me feel achy and twice my age. I wanted to push myself, to walk and not eat and pretend I had no financial, property or spousal responsibilities.

I went to the Swamp.

The Great Swamp is in the heart of suburbia. Part is a Morris County park. Part is a Somerset County park. The huge part in between is federal territory split between a “wilderness” area and a “management” area.

In spring I take a particular trail into the wilderness area at dawn and find all sorts of migrant songbirds. I also find deep mud, slippery rocks and wild bushes that are cut back once in a very long while. I have to really want to go birding to come here, but it is usually worth it.

This December day I wanted a long, flat, easy road so I hiked in the management area along Pleasant Plains Road, between the Helen Fenske visitor center (named for the woman whose efforts 50+ years ago scuttled a planned airport) and the unpaved area several miles away where the old visitor center once stood.

Many interesting birds have been found along this road, but I wasn’t expecting a lot. Winter is generally a quiet season for birding at the Swamp.

I was there to walk. Yet, almost by accident I found a bluebird in a tree and then a harrier flew low over a mowed, flooded field. Had I been driving I’d likely have missed them.

Several hours later, when I finally turned around and headed back to my car the way I’d come, the walk went from pleasure to an endurance test.

Suddenly the cold wind was in my face. My stomach was rumbling. My leg muscles were twinging and the gravel was making my feet hurt. The thought of my car parked so many miles away made me momentarily panic.

There are times I want to walk and go without food for so long I feel cleansed.

Then there are times I selfishly consider pushing myself so hard I collapse and die on the road.

I felt a little of both on this walk.
(Margo D. Beller)

Luckily, the way back always seems to go faster than the way out. Despite the aches and the wind I was back at the Fenske center a few hours later and then headed home in my warm car.

I was tailgated as I tried to enjoy the ride on the winding Harding Township back roads. On one hill I was forced to pull over several times because behemoths - luxury and otherwise - would come barreling downhill taking a lane and a half, leaving not much room for me.

It was only a more scenic, lower-speed version of my workday commute on Route 80.

I would like to say this winter trip provided an epiphany about the beauty of staying alive, of being glad for what you have, of taking life one day at a time.

That would be a lie. It was more like, you can walk to the ends of the Earth and your problems will still be with you.

Deal with it.

At least I was cheered by MH’s warm smile and the picture he took of a Carolina wren at our suet feeder while I was gone.

For the moment, I am trying not to be Restless.

The Silver Lining of Brownfields and Golf Courses

I have mixed feelings about golf courses. I don't play golf, and most of the people I know who do tend toward the elitist in the way they deal with humanity. If there are birds around, they are just obstacles to a hole in one that must be eliminated.

On the last day of autumn, Dec. 20, 2014, my husband (MH) and I were scanning for birds next to the Bayonne Golf Club before attending a holiday party in nearby Jersey City. There was no wind but the cold was, literally, numbing. There were also no golfers. On a distant, high dune high next to the course's massive, lighthouse-styled clubhouse was a buteo scanning the fairways and sand traps for its next meal.

On the other side of the walkway where we stood the water was filled with waterfowl - gadwalls, blacks, mallards, red-breasted mergansers, buffleheads, American wigeon and a large raft of ruddys, among which was a horned grebe. A small flock of Brant geese were on the opposite shore while a much larger flock of Canada geese were standing on the lawn of the luxury apartment complex. I was surprised to find four killdeer on the exposed mudflats.

Killdeer (Margo D. Beller)
The walkway we were on was made possible by the golf course, which was opened in 2005. It sits atop a former waste disposal site. As part of the agreement to build an exclusive (the brochure doesn't list the membership fee but, as the saying goes, if you have to ask you can't afford it), Scottish-style course with sweeping views of the New York skyline and undulating, grass-covered dunes, the builders had to put in a public walkway to allow the citizens of Bayonne - 99.9% of whom were not going to be course members - access to the waterfront. I expect that was the same quid pro quo for the apartment complex across the water. 

The idea of using a former dump or hazardous waste site for a golf course or commercial strip - not residential housing - is known as brownfields, a program encouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency. It's a good idea, taking polluted property that would otherwise sit there useless or fixed at public expense and allow private people to spend the money to make it useful.

The government of Bayonne, which lobbied hard to get a cruise ship port, too, must've liked the idea of an exclusive course creating a more positive image for the gritty city (the brochure quotes restauranteur and member Mario Battali on the calming effect of playing in Bayonne). It is a striking landscape and the clubhouse dominates. Of course, there is no way to get on the course from the walkway - a high dune wall prevents that (although there is evidence some have made their way up anyway for a better look) and the only way to see some swatch of the landscape is from pedestrian bridges some distance away.

If the buteo we saw was the reported rough-legged hawk, it was in the right habitat. These hawks are sporadic winter visitors to airports and other tundra-like places such as beaches and golf courses. Just last month another winter visitor that favors tundra, snowy owl, was found at this course (last year many snowy owls were reported in the region as part of a major irruption). The first time we had walked near the golf course, in summer, we saw northern harriers, an endangered breeder in the state, and American kestrels, a threatened species, hunting over the dunes. There were marsh wrens, goldfinches and, somewhere in the reeds, rails.
Snowy owl at Island Beach State Park (Margo D. Beller)
I've been to plenty of parks that were created from millionaires' properties and opened to the public. I have also been to a county park, Natirar, that is at the base of a hill atop which is the former mansion of the King of Morocco, now an exclusive restaurant and spa. There's nature and there's the profit motive.

It's just not the same looking for birds from the edge of private property.

I don't know if Bayonne's is one of those courses now trying to create bird habitat by responsibly managing the environment at the same time they provide a luxury experience for members. Most golf courses don't have a good reputation and are considered by many toxic waste dumps. Too much water and chemicals to keep the lawns green. Sterile plantings that provide no benefits to birds or wildlife.

So it's a mixed bag. Useful property that draws birds where once were toxic chemicals - good. If there are raptors over the golf course, as was recently reported on the New Jersey bird list, that means there are rodents and other animals to feed them.

Exclusive clubs that cater to the few, rich and powerful at no benefit to the resident human population - not so good.

I am hoping this is one of the more enlightened golf courses. Of course, this place can afford to be enlightened and put up the chump change for that walkway we were standing on in the cold.

As long as the birds survive, they don't care either way.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Winter Birds

I don't know what it is but there has been something about the latter half of this year that has made me disinclined to write here, for which I am sorry for my few but patient readers. Aside from my recent visit to Gettysburg I have not been inspired by much, and those birds I see at the feeder are the ones I always see at the feeder.

So I will note them to the world.

According to the annual winter finch forecast, it will be a so-so winter. No major flights south for pine or evening grosbeaks or either type of crossbill, perhaps there will be some pine siskins and purple finches. All of them fly south when the seed crops in their more usual northern territories are poor. (MH and I saw a couple of female purple finches at our house feeder early in December, but none recently.)

Female cardinal, male house finch, junco. (Margo D. Beller)

Then again, if the red-breasted nuthatch did come to my feeder, it would find a lot of competition and likely go elsewhere.

At the moment I have 3 feeders up (a fourth will go up once it starts snowing in earnest because it holds more seed), 2 of which hold sunflower seed. In the dawn one of my favorite birds, the cardinal, comes to feed, soon followed by the black-capped chickadee family that roosts in my hedge and their cousins the titmice. A white-breasted nuthatch or two will fly in for a seed and red-bellied and downy woodpeckers will get some suet.

However, soon enough the seed eaters will be chased off by a flock of what I consider pest birds - house sparrows, house finches, jays and mourning doves.

There are people who enjoy feeding whatever bird comes to their feeders, no matter how much of a pig it makes of itself. I do not.

With the exception of the jay, which dive-bombs the feeder to stuff its crop with seed and then flies off, these pests will just sit in the feeder and eat, dropping seed bits down to the squirrels, fighting off the other small birds and the skittish cardinal. The mourning dove is a recent pest. Once it figured out how to jump off the feeder's roof and sit on the perch it hogs the space and just sits there, using its thin bill to find parts of seed already broken.

These are the times when I go on the porch and knock on the window to scare them all off.

The chickadees, titmice and nuthatch have learned they can then rush to the feeders, grab the seed and go.
Black-capped chickadee (Margo D. Beller)

Also at this time of year, grackles, starlings and blackbirds end their mating pairing and join together in huge flocks that wheel about in the sky. Several times during the colder months a flock that can be anywhere from 12 to 2000 will descend on a lawn, poke under leaves, in grass and in feeders for food and then take off, only to land a few lawns on and repeat the process, making a racket in the process.

If I am in my office (with the screen open for the sun's warmth) and see them across the road, I am quick to get downstairs and pull in the feeders. By that time there are usually a few hundred on my back lawn. One of my feeders is in a squirrel-proof cage and the suet feeder hangs upside down (not a natural position for a starling or grackle) but the house feeder is exposed. Once the feeders are safely inside I am fascinated to watch all this mass of black birds, and relieved when they decide to move on.

Other winter visitors are more benign. When the chipping sparrows have left, their cousins the juncos arrive. In New Jersey, the gray juncos are all males. Junco females, which are brown, fly farther south than the males, who presumably stay in places like NJ so they can get up to the far northern breeding territories faster come spring.

There was a time when I really wanted to see a junco, and the first one I did see was in New Hampshire. I laugh to think of that because there hasn't been a winter in the 20 or so I've been in this house when a junco didn't show up, trying to find seed bits on the ground before the squirrels get them.
White-throated sparrow (Margo D. Beller)

White-throated sparrows are the other winter migrant. They show up around the time the catbirds leave. Unlike the juncos, both sexes overwinter in my yard and throughout the region. They are big, like their cousin the song sparrow, but do not have the messy streaking or central spot. Instead, they have white or tan "eyebrows" and the tell-tale white throat. When breeding season approaches, the males' white gets very bright and you can see bright yellow at the end closest to the eye. The territorial song has been described as "oh, Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" or "oh sweet Canada, Canada Canada" depending on whether you are.

White-throats scratch around under the feeder, although sometimes I see them in the house feeder or in the caged feeder, pulling out seeds or seed bits. Decades ago, as it was going to dusk, I looked at the birds under the caged feeder and found a rare surprise - the larger, redder fox sparrow with the white-throats. Other years I've found white-crowned sparrows under there.

Finally, when you have so many birds - pest and otherwise - hanging around a feeder, you are going to find raptors.

Cooper's hawk (Margo D. Beller)
The other week I was watching the birds eating when the finches scattered and one chickadee seemed frozen in the caged feeder. This can't be good, I thought, and I walked outside just as a Cooper's hawk flew into the yard. It saw me, hung a U and took off for a nearby tree. By this point the chickadee had taken shelter in a bush and there was a lot of nervous calling. Finally, off flew the Coop.

We've also found the smaller sharp-shinned hawk munching on a mourning dove in the snow. MH has seen redtails dining on squirrel. One year we had several turkey vultures on the lawn after they found rabbit that had died under some hedges in the corner. In January, if I care to rise way before dawn, I might hear great-horned owl hooting its territorial call as mating season begins.

So winter isn't a dead season, even if it feels like it to me, especially at times when there are many feet of snow on the ground as we had last year.

I'll have to remember the words of poet William Blake:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Birds of War

In my last post, I noted my thoughts on war, inspired by our vacation visiting the battle sites at Gettysburg (plus a day trip to Antietam and the preserved town of Harpers Ferry).

I noted that it was humbling to stand and look at a wide open field and hear absolutely nothing, while seeing monuments that look like they were placed haphazardly but in reality connote where a regiment - cavalry, battery, infantry - was placed in readiness for battle.

However, there was something else I discovered. Bluebirds like battlefields.
Bluebird on monument. (Margo D. Beller)

Ok, maybe not battlefields per se, but farm fields where there are lots of insects. I saw more bluebirds at the various areas of the three-day Pennsylvania battle than I have at my local Great Swamp.

And it wasn't just bluebirds. At the edges, in the brush near battle monuments, were white-throated sparrows and juncos. At the edges of forests were cardinals and tufted titmouse. In the trees over the tourists climbing over Little Round Top and looking down on the Devil's Den and the Slaughter Pen were white-breasted nuthatch and song sparrow. In the long shadows of late afternoon, two pairs of Carolina wrens had their own civil war in the trees near a monument to Gen. Slocum on Culp's Hill. A northern harrier flew over the Peach Orchard. In the pine trees of the military cemetery, where Lincoln made his famous address, Carolina chickadees chittered and fed. In a tree near another field, a Cooper's hawk allowed me to take its picture.

Most fittingly, squadrons of black and turkey vultures used the warm air rising off the field where Pickett's forces charged the Union position on the ridge on the other side. The Confederacy was repulsed on this, the final day of battle, July 3, 1863. Gen. Lee and his forces slipped away down the Hagerstown Road on July 4 - Independence Day - not followed by his opposite number, Gen. Meade. The war would last until April 1865.
Wooly bear (photo by Margo D. Beller)
The birds have adapted to the conditions of the farm field thanks to its preservation by the U.S. government. The town of Gettysburg, just beyond the battlefield, by comparison, is rife with house sparrows, starlings and pigeons.

There were more than birds. There was the whir of insects, the wooly bear in the road and, at the base of the statue to the 11th Pennsylvania regiment, its mascot Sallie. This dog protected the dead for several days until the bodies could be retrieved. I visualize the dog charging the vultures no doubt drawn by the blood and stench of human and horse bodies decaying in the July heat.

Sallie (photo by Margo D. Beller)
It is ironic that this bronze statue of Sallie - who was killed in the later battle of The Wilderness - placed at the bottom of a granite monument and facing the battlefield rather than the road should somehow humanize the battle, and the sacrifice of soldiers in this pivotal battle of the war to save the union. (My thanks to "Hallowed Ground" by James McPherson, who mentions Sallie and where to find her in his tour of Gettysburg.)

The birds and insects I'm hearing and seeing around me also send a message: Life goes on.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

How I Spent My Vacation Thinking About War

There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell. -- Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

We spent our vacation at Gettysburg this year. It wasn’t timed to the date of the 1863 battle that helped turn the tide for the Union during the Civil War - that would be July 1-3, when the crowds descend on this part of southern Pennsylvania for battle re-enactments such as last year’s 150th anniversary events. It wasn’t even timed to the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s address at the opening of the military cemetery - that would be a week after our visit, on Nov. 19.
One of the many regimental statues on the field where Pickett charged. (Margo D. Beller)
We came to see history, and left thinking about war.

We followed the auto tour road to the woods where a Confederate cavalry unit, heading south to rejoin Lee’s forces, ran into a northbound Union battalion near the McPherson farm. The battle was joined and expanded, spreading to Oak Ridge. At this place, on the 75th battle anniversary, Franklin Roosevelt came to light an eternal flame for peace. Some of the last surviving fighters from both sides shook hands across a low stone wall where once men died.

(photo: Margo D. Beller)
The tour takes you to all the scenes of the three days of battle - Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, the Peach Orchard, Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Hill and the large field where Pickett’s men charged on the final day and were repulsed.

You stand outside your car and, despite the presence of other drivers, school groups and tour buses, you are overwhelmed by two things - the silence of the huge, open field and the statuary put up to mark where individual state battalions fought. Men from Pennsylvania, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alabama, Maryland, Texas, Mississippi, Florida. The stones and statues are meant to tell a story of pride and remembrance, of battles fought and the men who died.

I tried to imagine the thunder of cannon, the screams of horses and men, many wounded and dying, littering the battlefield with their bodies and blood. But there is nothing around me but markers and silence.

As I said, it is overwhelming.

War is overwhelming. We don’t use hand to hand combat much anymore, not in in this age of bomber jets, Agent Orange and drones. We have antiseptic wars with surgical strikes. “Boots on the ground” is only used as the very last resort, and for good reason. The military “embeds” journalists to keep them under control. No pictures of blood and body bags and screaming wounded civilians that so fired up the American public during Vietnam.

In today’s age of media saturation we are less concerned by pictures of foreign civilians being taken away in ambulances or stacked like cords of wood as we are about Kim Kardashian’s butt. Unless the field of battle is your backyard, it is easy to say destruction of villages and mass movements of refugees are not your problem.

After Gettysburg, the Civil War turned into a war of attrition. It was just a matter of when the south would accept the inevitable. The problem was, the south didn’t want to accept it.
Sallie, the 11th Pennsylvania mascot (Margo D. Beller)

To speed that acceptance, Lincoln - the same statesman we remember for his simple address at the consecration of the military cemetery  - ordered mass southern destruction. William Tecumseh Sherman’s “march to the sea,” from Nov. 15 until Dec. 21, 1864, sent over 60,000 Union soldiers 285 miles from Atlanta to Savannah, destroying everything in their path to destroy the economy and frighten Georgia's civilian population into abandoning the cause. Even then it took another four months before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

At Gettysburg, only 1 civilian died, a woman in her kitchen in town, not far from the battlefield. Soldier casualties totalled over 23,000 for the Union and over 28,000 for the Confederates. The military cemetery contains graves with names and as many graves with numbers because the names are not known.

Soldier monument, Gettysburg military cemetery (Margo D. Beller)

The cemetery is the last stop on the auto tour for a reason - it is a reminder that no matter how righteous or glorious the cause, men are going to die. But the two times we visited we found no school groups and few adult visitors. No one wants to be reminded of the ultimate cost.

After all, you don’t see cemeteries in video war games.

The Civil War saved this country. I can’t say what we are saving nowadays aside from our own economic interests. Did the U.S. have to drop Little Boy and usher in the nuclear age to end World War II? What did we “win” after all those years in Vietnam? Are we “winning” with “surgical strikes” against insurgent groups fired by religious fanaticism?

My trip to Gettysburg prompted questions but I have no answers. I do know Sherman was right. War is still all hell. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Birding Without Trying

I admit it, I am getting to the age where I have stopped caring about a lot of things. For the purpose of this post I will restrict those things to birding.

There was a point when I didn't think twice - ok, maybe I thought once or twice - about getting up before dawn, eating just enough to keep the stomach growling down and then taking my gear and myself out to one of my favorite spots to look for migrant birds. Usually this was in the spring when the gaily colored warblers and others would be flitting around in trees starting to bud or leaf out and singing territorial songs that would make them a bit easier to find.

In autumn, when the birds are in duller colors and flying south, my bird watching would be less in the forests than at a hawk platform, where you don't have to get up as early and, if you are lucky, you can get to a good spot with a minimum of hard climbing.

Atop rocky Hawk Mtn. (RE Berg-Andersson)
This autumn was the first when I did not have a great desire to go to Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain, one of the best places in the east to watch migrating raptors, but one of the harder places to climb to the top. Our first time there was magical - warblers in the forests lower in elevation, almost no crowds for a long time once we joined the counters at the top of the North lookout. Even the trip down the mountain allowed us to find a new bird for us, a Bicknell's thrush.

The second time, a few years later, was harder. No birds of note in the woods on the way up or down, but even if there were the rocky path was treacherous, and I nearly fell several times. I fear falling. People my age who fall break bones and mentally go into a tailspin, as my vibrant 90+ year old friend did after falling and breaking his ankle.

So this year I've restricted my hawk watching to New Jersey's Scott's Mountain, where one drives to the top of the mountain, pulls out her lawn chair and sits with a convivial group of people who have a fine view to the north.

I've also had no desire to rise early and go to the woods. My wood walking has been in the afternoons. Sometimes you get lucky late in the day and the birds are flying about trying to get a last meal before dark, when they will either bed down or take off to the south.

Still, for me to not go outside on the weekend after a week indoors working is anathema. So this past Saturday, MH and I went down the Jersey Shore.

We specifically timed the trip to avoid the "season," when the traffic is horrendous on the highways and on the beach. Unlike a lot of coastal areas in other states, almost all of New Jersey's beaches are regulated to make the towns money, and you can't sit on a beach and look at the water unless you pay for a beach pass, or are staying in a motel. That doesn't include the cost of parking.

We also specifically looked for an area not made famous, or infamous, by Snooki and her cohorts.

There was one more requirement: It had to be close enough to an area where we could do some birding later in the day or if we got restless. But our primary purpose was to sit on the beach and just relax for at least as many hours as it took to drive down.
My chair awaits. Strathmere beach, Sept. 21, 2014 (Margo D. Beller)
It has been a long time since MH and I just sat on a beach -- it was the year after we got married, when we stayed on Cape Cod and discovered the hard way the lotion we'd brought was old and useless. We've sat for short periods on town benches looking at beaches - Mexico Beach on the Florida panhandle comes immediately to mind, as do many areas along the coast of North Carolina - but not in NJ. We either bird or avoid.

I won't keep you in suspense any longer - we found that place in the northern part of Cape May County, about 20 miles from Cape May itself and all its birding temptations. The town is Strathmere, the beach requires no pass and the parking is free. The town is just north of the busier Sea Isle City, which that day was having a huge Irish heritage festival (who knew?), the kind of noisy, booze-fueled thing shore towns throw to draw visitors and just what we wanted to avoid.

We sat on the beach for over three hours. While the rest of the area beyond the dunes was warming to the upper 70s, we sat with a strong wind in our faces and clouds overhead keeping us cool enough where a fleece jacket was not out of place.

We were nearly alone. We had parked along the road, near the temporary toilet - another consideration for when I go birding now - and walked on the stairs up and over the dune to sit just at the high tide line. We had just passed the low tide point and ahead of us was a large flock of sanderlings running to and from the surf, feeding. I put my binoculars in my lap and every so often would pick them up to look at these shorebirds. At one point I looked more closely and realized there were other, smaller birds mixed in with them - semipalmated plovers, semipalmated sandpipers and one least sandpiper.There may have been others but, as I said, I wasn't there to look for birds.

Around us flew herring and Franklin gulls, several types of terns and two ospreys hovering over the same area as human surfcasters and for the same reason - fishing for supper.
After leaving for a late lunch we drove down to Stone Harbor's Wetlands Institute and found tricolored and little blue herons, black-crowned night-herons, great and snowy egrets and a variety of shorebirds in the impoundments. We were looking for birds and were not disappointed.

But sitting on the beach was for me. The birds came without my seeking them. I had a day of few people and the aggravations they cause (aside from having to drive on New Jersey's notorious highways for a few hours each way), with little noise aside from the roar of the wind and surf in my ears.

Is this anti-social behavior a good thing? Maybe not. But for one day I got as close to heaven as I am likely to get while maintaining a pulse.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Goodbye to Summer

I was recently re-reading one of my favorite books as a child, "The Wind in the Willows." In it, Kenneth Graham writes a conversation between one of the main characters, Rat, and several swallows getting ready to fly south for the winter. He wants them to stay.

'No, you don't understand, naturally,' said the second swallow. 'First, we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one, like homing pigeons. They flutter through our dreams at night, they fly with us in our wheelings and circlings by day. We hunger to inquire of each other, to compare notes and assure ourselves that it was all really true, as one by one the scents and sounds and names of long-forgotten places come gradually back and beckon to us.'

If I was a bird that saw the signs of summer's end, this is how I'd be thinking.

It has been unusually cool for mid-August, a "taste of autumn," as the weather people say on TV. I like this cooler, dryer weather and so do birds when the winds from the north can give them a boost on the trip south to the warmth of the Gulf coast and central and South America.

Tree swallow (Margo D. Beller)
I would love to pick up and move north or south to endless summer but unlike the swallows I can't. I am anchored where I am by house, spouse and job to pay the bills.

So I watch the birds as I work in the garden at this time of year deadheading the daisies, removing the grow-through rings and pulling weeds. As I work the bird families are actively feeding after weeks when the young were quiet and hidden until they could get around outside the nest. Those that don't leave New Jersey (or whose southbound travels bring them here for the winter) will visit my feeders when it starts getting cold in earnest.

So I can understand how the swallows and other birds feel. But I also know how Rat feels.

Considering the Alternative

Robin Williams' recent suicide had me thinking about my father.
My father, a doctor who died over 20 years ago, had Parkinson's for the last 20 or so years of his life. Every day he got up in the morning and left the modest, middle-class home he lived in and went to his medical office in the lower level of the modest, middle-class home where his parents lived a block away.
Unintentional sepia, at Shea Stadium (Margo D. Beller)
A child of immigrants and a striver. As far as I know, he never thought of killing himself.
Then again, my father was the type of man who would not let feelings like that be known to anyone in his family. He defined himself by being a respectable man in an honored profession.
But I am sure he felt terrified at what would be coming because soon after his diagnosis he contacted one of medical school classmates who was running the Parkinson's program at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NY and allowed himself to be used as a guinea pig to test what was then new and untested treatments. I'd have done the same thing.
There is no cure for Parkinson's, and while the drugs helped a lot, he got worse. Along the way his doctor-wife died, his children moved out, his parents died. He kept going to work until he was finally forced to retire. A few years later he died of complications from a stroke. He was 73.
Robin Williams was 63, a few years older than me. Like my father, Williams was, by all reports, comfortable financially and had people around him to care for him, family and those he could hire.
But I know he was terrified, too. Battling depression and addiction, a man known for manic, sometimes physical comedy, the thought of becoming rigid and debilitated must have put him over the edge.
A lot of us know that feeling. One of my friends, about Williams' age, told me if she ever gets too sick to take care of herself she wants to go out on a "sunset cruise" where she is sailed beyond U.S. waters, drinks poisoned champagne and her body tossed to the fishes. 

Some people just soldier on, like my father, until the end. Those who go to church trust in a happy hereafter for their souls. One of my friends smoked himself into an early grave and when he went it was sudden and he never saw it coming.
I'm not a church-goer and MH and I don't smoke or have children to care for us. At some point, one or the other of us won't be around to care for the other or this house and its considerable amount of stuff. I fear that day.
So do most Baby Boomers I know, the ones who believe the advertisers who tell us we can keep going (using their products) as though we are still 20-year-olds despite the increasing stiffness in the morning, the misplaced glasses, the names and dates we can't remember without notes.
Williams wasn't aging well, according to one news report. Neither am I.  As the joke goes, consider the alternative.
Many do.
I find it no coincidence that there is an increasing movement in many states for doctor-assisted suicide. After living a life of doing what we want and setting trends for generations to come (or so magazines like AARP's tell me), my generation is terrified of coming face to face with the inevitable.
"Hope I die before I get old," sang Roger Daltrey in 1965. Does he feel the same way now at 70? (Or does Pete Townsend, now 69, who wrote the song?)
When we didn't "die young and leave a beautiful corpse," we thought we'd live forever. Advertisers abet this -- like the guy in the vitamin ad I've seen who is told by the voiceover to "do what you've always done" and not let "age get in the way" of surfing that 50-foot wave despite being over 60.
But it's coming, whether you like it or not. I can't ignore the decay as I get closer to the age my mother was when she died, which is why I and others were shaken by Robin Williams' suicide. I own my comfortable, middle-class home thanks to my father, but I would not say I am financially secure. What is "secure" nowadays at our age when we are one medical catastrophe from financial disaster?
There are times when the dreariness of everyday life -- making the bed, folding the laundry, the prospect of shoveling the snow again and paying the bills on declining income - makes me want to end it. Like the man in the old song, "I'm tired of livin' and scared of dyin'."
But Ole Man River just keeps rollin' along.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

City Birding

Most city people are not birders. They run from one place to another, ear buds providing a soundtrack to their world. If they notice them, "birds" are sparrows and pigeons. That the sparrows might be song sparrows or white-throated sparrows and the pigeons mourning doves is lost on them. They are just birds you barely notice.
High Line (R.E. Berg-Andersson)

I grew up in New York, and until I moved to New Jersey and was given a feeder as a housewarming present I didn't notice the birds either.

I've learned that if you unplug, you will find birds. The key is to be alert and be in an area where there aren't a lot of people. That can be hard in many urban areas.

Until a few years ago I was commuting by train to jobs in Jersey City and midtown Manhattan. The train took me through New Jersey's Meadowlands -- once a dumping ground but now a marvel of shorebirds, ducks and the occasional hawk -- and Hoboken, on the west side of the Hudson River where in its harbor the cormorants would mass before heading south and the ruddy ducks would spend the winter.

Jersey City hadn't filled in all its open space when I worked there. The vacant, weedy lots drew parula, goldfinch and winter wren. The waterfront drew mergansers and ducks. Around the time my company moved a light rail line was completed and the vacant lots were being converted into large apartment buildings. A good hunk of one of my favorite birding spots was turned into a dog park. The birds were harder to find.

Gansevoort end (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
I guess this is the challenge of urban birding. The more people you have, the fewer birds you will find unless you are in an area of many trees. Central Park is where MH and I usually go when we want to see birds, especially in migration. That huge, green space in the middle of the concrete jungle is big enough to accommodate tired, hungry birds as well as people.

I've been working for over two years from my home in the New Jersey suburbs so going to New York City is more of a special occasion now. On this particular trip we decided to visit the High Line, the linear park that runs from Gansevoort Street to the south to 30th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues) to the north (for now; the line is being extended to the north and west).

The High Line is the former freight line built in 1933 to connect the old Penn Yards at 30th with the St. John's terminal on Clarkson St. and literally raise train traffic off the streets. New York was a city of elevated trains -- there were elevated lines on Third and Second avenues (it has taken generations but a Second Ave. subway is being built) and there is are still elevated "subway" lines in Brooklyn and Queens -- so this west side line just added to the noise.

Trains ran until 1980 and for the next 19 years the line stood silent, a home for wildflowers and birds. In 1999 a group was formed to protect and renovate the line into a lineal park rather than tear it down.

MH and I found the lower part of the line (it does not run to Clarkson St. but farther north at Ganesvoort, around which is the old meatpacking area, now very trendy, chic and expensive and a historic district) more interesting, in part because it incorporates the old Nabisco factory, now the "Chelsea market," an urban food court similar to Boston's Faneuil Hall. Farther north the line narrows while Manhattan island widens and you lose sight of the Hudson River.

We started at the northern end, and after a few blocks we detoured to the river, which was far more interesting and where we found a flock of herring gulls aloft, reminding me of growing up along the southern coast of Brooklyn where the resident gulls were herrings.

It is nice that city officials have realized the importance of connecting people with waterfronts. They provide space and light. This was the "beach" area for the city dwellers we passed sunning themselves as we looked at the piers with open restaurants and the old piers where the railroad companies -- Pennsylvania, Erie, Lehigh Valley -- would bring their goods from New Jersey by barge across the Hudson.
(R.E. Berg-Andersson)

Back on the High Line, we felt as tho' we were in a human highway, there were so many people in the sunshine. But around us, buildings are going up. Luxury buildings where once were warehouses and factories. I wonder -- if enough of these buildings go up will they blot out the sun from the ornamental grasses, coneflowers, sedums and other flowers (which I have in my yard)?

This "park," this tourist walkway, this elevated sidewalk, seems a poor excuse for "nature" when I compare it to my backyard. Would there be more birds than the barn swallow I saw around if there had been fewer people?

The barn swallow and the herring gulls were the best birds I saw. But sometimes you can see something common from an unusual perspective.

At Chelsea Market we were resting in the shade when I pointed out to MH a female house sparrow that had flown to the open part of  a pole holding street signs. Young were calling and she was feeding them. When done she flew off. Soon her mate came up and he fed the young. I have seen this many times in my travels, but not from above. 

When my mother was sick towards the end, she said she enjoyed hearing the birds "sing" in the open space that was created when the old air conditioner was removed from the bedroom wall and a smaller one put in. The birds she heard were house sparrows, which will make a nest in human-created cavities.

House sparrows don't sing - they aren't even really sparrows but weaver birds that stowed away on ships from Europe centuries ago -- but their cheeping cheered her.

What a pity the common house sparrow may be the best bird the people who will move to the luxury residences going up around this "park" will see, presuming they even notice.