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.