Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Other Winged Wonders

American toad (Margo D. Beller)
Over the years I have so trained myself to listen for songs and spot movement in trees for birds that I miss many other life forms.

Besides handling the camera while I spot things with my binoculars, MH is also very good at pointing out what he sees at eye level or on the ground while I'm busy scanning the skies.

So it is thanks to him I have learned about such dragonflies as twelve-spotted skimmers and common whitetails as well as the American and Woodhouse's toads.
Great spangled fritillary (RE Berg-Andersson)

I can't say I've been completely oblivious. When I look at pretty flowers I can't help but notice the various types of butterflies on them, even if I can't identify many of them. But just as I do with birds I can't identify, MH looks into one of his many references and usually can identify the creature.
Praying mantis (Margo D. Beller)

I also notice the praying mantis, which is a beneficial albeit scary-looking insect, especially when it is flying right at you. I can't say the same about the periodical cicadas that came out in huge swarms last year for the first time in 17 years, its usual cycle, and which have no benefit I can discern.

Periodical cicada (Margo D. Beller)
Kids are very good at finding snakes, frogs and bugs because they are closer to the ground, I think. Usually, these kinds of animals are more interesting to kids than a bird. Maybe it's the "ick" factor, or being able just to see (or photograph) them than a bird moving in a tree.

Wooly bear (R.E.Berg-Andersson)
When I go to the Great Swamp to look for birds, people along the boardwalks are looking down for bull frogs and snakes. On one morning bird hike at Scherman Hoffman, one of the younger members of our group looked down instead of up at the bird the rest of us were watching and found a female wood turtle, a threatened species in New Jersey.

So I have tried to look at more winged wonders at ground level.

Female widow skimmer (Margo D. Beller)
Just the other day I was looking at a wild rose bush that was overgrown with creeper vines and realized I was looking at a striking insect that I photographed and then showed MH, who got out his reference book and discovered it to be the female widow skimmer.

We have gone to the Pinelands and found frogs and insects we've seen nowhere else, and dragonflies and darners in brilliant shades of red, green and blue. We still don't know what that red one was but it was huge.
We also can't identify this scary-looking object, which I missed as we hiked and MH, as usual, noticed. It blended in very well with the tree it was on. Just after MH took its picture it came straight at him and then flew off. Perhaps it had a nest nearby.
Mystery insect (RE Berg-Andersson)

As well it should. Survival is key in any creature's life, winged or otherwise. It has to survive to create another generation to perpetuate the species. And the insect world has been enormously successful. As MH reminds me, dragonflies and other insects have been around as species longer than we have.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Summer Visitors

Summer is a time of heat, humidity and, if you have the time and money for it, travel. Unless you are a bird. If you are a migrating bird, you don't plan -- you just go north from April to early June to your specific breeding area to create the next generation. It is an automatic response keyed to the seasons.

Many birds breed in New Jersey. Along Old Mine Rd., the last exit off Route 80 west before you cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, you will find a vast tract of state and federal forest providing breeding space for many birds, including the cerulean warbler
House wren box (Margo D. Beller)
According to the Conserve Wildlife Federation of New Jersey, this sky-blue bird's status is of "special concernbecause "of some evidence of decline, inherent vulnerability to environmental deterioration, or habitat modification that would result in their becoming a Threatened species." This bird breeds in forests with tall deciduous trees and wet bottomlands and dry slopes.

Just the kind of land "developers" like to build McMansions and other homes.

But today I am not writing about warblers and the other birds that visit my backyard briefly and move on. I am writing about three birds in particular that visit for the summer before heading south in Autumn.

House wren (Margo D. Beller)
Unlike other years, I've kept my house feeder going this summer with only a minimum amount of seed. It has drawn cardinals, white-breasted nuthatches and titmice as well as birds I'm not crazy about but tolerate.

I also put up a bird house every year designed for a house wren, and every year a male house wren investigates it, brings by a female and, if she approves, they set up housekeeping and brood young.

This year was a little different. After a winter of seemingly endless snow and torrential rains, migration was delayed. It seemed to take forever for the birds to show up, and then many that would've come over weeks came all at once -- which made for some exciting birdwatching.

I put up the box in mid-April, as usual, but this time it did not draw house wrens, it drew one of the few birds small enough to get through the opening - a blackcapped chickadee. 'Dees are among my favorite birds so I wasn't that upset about this development.

However, although a pair had been busy in and out of the box, at one point I came home and saw a long plume of nesting material coming out of the nest. House wrens, I know from cleaning out the box every winter, tend to favor twigs for their nests, while 'dees use softer material such as animal hair, and this was what I was seeing. I left it alone. The next day it was gone.

Did the 'dee nest fail?  Was there a brood? I do not know. When I get summer visitors I leave them alone. What I do know is it wasn't long before I heard the familiar singing of a house wren, and now there is a pair using the box. I've yet to hear cheeping young when one of them flies to the nest, but I hope I do.

Catbird (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
Another reliable summer visitor is the catbird. This year these gray cousins of the robin were also delayed. Usually they show up after our winter visitor, the white-throated sparrow, departs. But we had white-throats for a much longer time than usual this year, no doubt delayed heading north by this spring's storms.

But the catbirds came. They are so named because of the cat-like mewing of their call. They don't have a song per se but warble bits of other birds' songs. They are all gray except for a black cap and some red under the tail. When I put out a water dish, these birds will drink and bathe. They will fly to a branch as I work in the garden and watch what I do, so they can swoop in when I leave and find any bugs or worms I've exposed.

When dawn light breaks around 5 am, I can be sure that, along with the robins and cardinals, one of the first songs I'll hear will be warbling of the catbird, followed by the house wren -- all guarding their breeding territories.

One last summer visitor, however, will not be singing, and is a less reliable visitor than the others -- the rubythroated hummingbird.

I have a friend in Bernardsville, up in the hills of Somerset County, who gets hummers every year almost from the moment she puts out her red-topped feeder. These birds are drawn to red, and will use their long bills and longer tongues to draw liquid from trumpet-like flowers. Feeders contain 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. 
Hummingbird at backyard feeder (Margo D. Beller)

I am not as lucky as she is, but for the past few years I've been seeing visitors at my hummer feeder in July. Usually these are females. In the hummingbird world, the males mate and then they head south as early as July, leaving the females to build a nest, lay the eggs and then feed herself and the young. That's when I start seeing visitors. (It doesn't hurt that I have coral bells blooming at that time.)

But once again, things are different this year. When the deluge of migrating birds passed through, I spooked a hummingbird visiting my azaleas in May, prompting me to get the feeder out immediately. A hummer came to it the next day. There have since been sporadic visits but because I don't keep the feeder in an area where I can easily see it (I must come out on my enclosed porch) I don't know how successful the feeder has been.

My pink flowers have all bloomed at once, and my next-door neighbor has two hummer feeders out, so any visitors won't go hungry. I change the liquid every week and hope for the best.

A bird has a hard, short life. They were not put here for our amusement, although I've certainly been amused and entertained by birds for over a decade. But their lives are made harder by man-made factors that could've been avoided.

Like the cerulean warbler and other birds, their lives are put at risk by suburban sprawl -- too many farms sold for housing developments and golf courses, too many mountains denuded for housing or, in the case of New Jersey, huge power lines put up to take the every-increasing load people put on the electric grid with their computers, phones and appliances.

Snowpile, winter of 2013-2014 (Margo D. Beller)
There is also global warming. When the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency under Republican presidents say there is global warming, it shows there is a major problem. Global warming was responsible for New Jersey's above-normal snowfall last winter, just as it was responsible for its below-normal snowfall in previous years. We have had fewer but more intense rainstorms that, when there's wind, looks like a hurricane.

And there was Hurricane Sandy. We have had former hurricanes pass through our area, dumping rain and causing much damage. But Sandy was the first hurricane that passed through my part of northern New Jersey at hurricane strength, toppling trees and leaving people without power for over a week. Sandy was the first full hurricane I have lived through and it was a terrifying experience that, I fear, will likely repeat at some point.

One doesn't want to think about such things when on the back porch on a calm summer day, watching the flitting house wren, listening to the catbird or watching the feeder for a hummingbird.  

But how much longer will we have the birds and the calm?            

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Nature vs. Technology

On Saturday, May 31, I was at a "meet and greet" of the North New Jersey Geocachers, part of a world-wide movement of people who use GPS, or global positioning satellite, to follow coordinates to a "cache" in a particular place that could be anything from a toy truck to a manhole cover.

It was very strange for me to be at this because it was taking place at New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary, which advertises itself on its website as being "focused on nature."

Until I received the Scherman press release, I'd never heard of geocaching. But it makes sense - even the most Luddite of my friends now have cellphones and the Internet is a facet of everyday life. Geocaching was started in 2000 by two techie guys in Oregon who found a bucket in a park and published the coordinates (longitude and latitute) on a website for others to find it, the head of NNJC told me.

In short, it's a high-tech treasure hunt.

One of the Scherman Hoffman caches. (photo by Margo D. Beller)
These folks at the meet and greet were a fine bunch of people. They were friendly and not upset at all to have a reporter - even an unpaid one for the Scherman Hoffman blog - follow along as they walked the trail, stopped at the proper spot and started searching for the prize. One geocacher at the sign-in table, who had baked cookies, and told me he spent a lot of money each week filling his many bird feeders at home.

He also told me he makes it a point to put his caches not far off a park's trail and makes his online clues so clear you don't destroy the area looking for the cache.

I got the sense he is rather unusual in this.

When the first cache was found - "3 boulders from the trail" - people lined up and signed the pad of paper with the pencil found in the plastic lockbox. In this case the caches contain words you put together and bring to the Scherman Hoffman store for a discount on some merchandise.

This reminded me of the old Gene Shepherd routine, dramatized in "A Christmas Story," where the clues on the decoder ring spelled out "Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine."

Signing the cache log book. (Photo by Margo D. Beller)

I don't blame Scherman Hoffman for getting involved with geocaching thanks to the head of the NNJC knowing teaching naturalist Dorothy Smullen through his mother. It is a huge movement, I learned from Scherman Director Mike Anderson told me Kittanny Valley State Park was overrun by caches and people looking for them before New Jersey had any idea what was happening.

In this case, by getting involved at the start Scherman Hoffman gains some sort of control over the process on its land by working with NNJC, which maintains the caches.

My problem is with the technology.

Following a GPS to find a cache does not mean you are going to stop and look around you in the woods and be interested in that red bird over there. (It's called a veery.) When I attempted to follow the group I found myself falling behind as they raced up the steep incline and then continued, not along the official trail route on Scherman land but on another trail into part of the National Park System, the Cross Estate.

There are rules on where to put caches and notifying landowners but apparently no rules on following a shortcut your GPS finds for you.

I've seen it on the highway and so have you -- drivers who do not plan ahead, blindly follow their GPS and then, at the last second, veer across several lanes of traffic to exit, ignoring the hazards they create for other drivers.

Same with geocaching. You focus on the GPS and/or the cellphone (be aware, many woods don't have cell towers in them) to the exclusion of everything else. I would like to think, as the officials at Scherman Hoffman do, that once people discover the sanctuary they will come back and become more interested in nature, maybe even become NJ Audubon members.

Sorry, but I doubt it.

I was very glad when I lost the pack in the woods, reset my internal GPS and proceeded along familiar trails to find birds, my preferred sort of treasure.