Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

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?