Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Saturday, December 26, 2015

His Eye Is on the Sparrow (Mine, too)

I am only a sparrow amongst a great flock of sparrows.
When you put out feeders, as I do, you can't pick and choose which birds come to eat the food. (Or bear, for that matter.)

There are many birds I have enjoyed at the feeders, resident birds and colorful migrants such as the rose-breasted grosbeak.

Rosebreasted grosbeak (Margo D. Beller)
But there are many I do not enjoy. And this year my backyard has turned into an ecological disaster because of an overabundance of house sparrows. The unusually warm weather for December has not helped.

House sparrows are everywhere. They are common as dirt. You see them in the cities, frequently dull with soot. They make their nests in any opening they can find -- awnings, hinges, street lights, tiny spaces around window air conditions. They are just as active in the suburbs, breeding prodigiously.

House sparrows aren't even true sparrows. They are related to the weaverbird of Asia and Africa, not native to the United States. They likely hitched rides with vessels coming to the New World from the old and, like the starlings, found the new land to their liking and bred enough to take over.

These chunky, gray and brown birds have no song but you'd know their calls, the "cheep cheep" coming from bushes. They are very opportunistic eaters, grabbing bread if they can't find insects or seeds, preferably small seed such as millet. But if they find sunflower seeds -- such as what I put out -- they will sit and crunch it up in those large bills.

Or maybe I presume you know what a house sparrow looks like. They are so common as to be ignored by most people. When I try to remember what kinds of birds I saw growing up in Brooklyn, long before I became interested enough to go out in the field to really see birds, I could remember "sparrows" -- meaning house sparrows.

My old, open, house-shaped feeder -- the only one that will accommodate a big bird such as a cardinal or jay -- provides easy access to the seeds, which is why these pests prefer to eat there, only moving to a second feeder that is harder for them to get into -- a tube feeder surrounded by a cage -- when there are too many of them at the house feeder.

When I put out the feeders, the birds are hanging around in the bushes, giving the occasional "cheep," waiting for another bird -- a titmouse, a chickadee -- to come to the feeder first and take a seed. That's when the sparrows consider it safe and hit the feeder in such numbers they will spend as much time fighting each other as eating, blocking access to other birds and generally making such a mess the squirrels sit below and wait for the droppings.

This is the point when I come out on the enclosed porch and stand by the window. The birds retreat to the bushes. If I stand long enough they fly to bushes at the edge of the property. Even when I go outside and walk to the edge, the sparrows never go far. They are not going to leave a rare, easy food source.

Cardinal pair (Margo D. Beller)
Hence my problem.

I used to have a neighbor who had a feeder and filled it with cheap seed, mainly millet. She'd feed the birds all year long, even when she didn't have to because of the surfeit of insects. A few sparrows came and soon there was a large family. The neighbor moved elsewhere. The new homeowner used the feeder for a year but since it has been empty.

The house sparrows were happy to hang around and multiply. I ignored all this until I put out the feeders this fall.

Thanks to all the house sparrows now in attendance, the number of cardinals coming to the house feeder is way down. Cardinals are big birds but they are skittish. They will fly off when they feel threatened, unless conditions are so dire (or another cardinal is on the feeder) they fight to stay. The eastern blue jay is another big bird, but being of the same family as the American crow, it is feisty and doesn't care what is in the feeder when it flies in.

The chickadees, titmice and even the white-breasted nuthatch will fly to the caged feeder if the house feeder is besieged, or will wait for me to scare off the house sparrows, at which point they quickly fly in to grab seed and go. They don't mind my standing at the window. They have learned I mean them no harm. They are very smart.

But so are house sparrows, I'll give them that. The ones coming to my feeder have learned to grab and go like the other birds. They've learned when they sit and eat in the feeder I am going to come out on the porch. They've even learned the sound of the door opening, and they can see so well a mere movement sends them flying.

As I said, these are common birds, in all senses of the word. People have used house sparrows for metaphors because they are so lowly and common. The idea is, you can never be too lowly or common to be ignored. Here are some instances.

The old TV show "Baretta" had a theme song, "Eye on the Sparrow," sung by Sammy Davis, Jr.

A gospel hymn with the same title -- recorded by a number of people including, in her last movie role, Whitney Houston, says, "I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free/For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me."

Evita Peron -- the real-life "Evita," wife of Argentina's dictator Juan Peron and quoted at the top -- used the sparrow to downplay her great power and appeal to the masses as one of them, a lowly sparrow.

Meanwhile, the British scienctist, J.B.S. Haldane reportedly quipped, when asked to reflect on what science had taught him about the mind of God, that “God is incredibly fond of beetles.”

He could've said house sparrows, too.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Summer in December

The birds come to the seed feeder - titmice, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and the occasional cardinal. If I'm lucky, a hairy or downy woodpecker will appear at the suet feeder. My presence on the enclosed porch is keeping the house finches and the horde of house sparrows at bay - the way I like it.

Blackcapped chickadee (Margo D. Beller)
I am blaring Santana into my ears to block out the lawn service - on a Sunday! - blowing the bits of leaves it didn't get last week off a neighbor's lawn, and my next door neighbor, who is screaming as loudly with delight as her toddlers.

If it wasn't for the fact it's dark by 5 pm you'd think it was summer. As I write, in mid-December, it is over 70 degrees in my part of New Jersey.

If there is one word I've used in the past few years to describe the weather pattern, it is "unnatural." Last year at this time we had a Thanksgiving snow storm in New Hampshire and then came weeks of intense, unrelenting cold back home in New Jersey. We learned a new phrase - polar vortex.

Now we've gone in the other direction. It is still not natural. It should not be 70 degrees now. I admit, it is a relief to not be shivering under several quilts and wearing four layers of clothes, keeping myself to my south-facing office. However, I get the feeling Mother Nature will say, "That's enough now, time for reality to return" and hit us with nor'easters, snow 6 inches deep and high temperatures in the single digits.

On the plus side, I can keep water out overnight for the birds. I can turn the dry and dusty heat off and keep a window open at night. But the bears are still out there seemingly unaffected by the longer bear hunt that started this year. I don't have to put the feeders out every day, but when I do they must still come in at night. If I take a walk in the woods I know I won't be finding any warblers or other summer birds because they left weeks ago.

December as I remember it - cardinal (Margo D. Beller)
I know winter is coming. It always comes. After much delaying I forced myself to winterize my gardens - extra deer netting over the fencing in the front garden and burlap on the back fencing. At some point it will get "seasonably" cold and hungry deer will be desperate. I don't want them interested in my evergreen shrubs.

At this point I could say something about global warming or climate change, and the new agreement hammered out by over 100 countries in Paris that likely won't be ratified by a Republican U.S. Congress in bed with industry and against any agreement worked out by our current Democrat in the White House.

But why bother - that would just solidify my image as a grouch, a Cassandra, some old woman who should play outside, grill a steak and wear shorts and flip-flops like my (younger) neighbors instead of fleece and enclosed shoes. Lighten up! You only live once!

Yeah, man. Don't I know it.

So bring on the 5 pm darkness that will send me, the lawn services and the parents and toddlers inside. Bring on the cold already. I'm ready for winter, if winter ever gets ready for me.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Nuclear Death Row

I wrote this after waking from a terrifying dream. It has little do with birding per se but a lot to do with the world, which is why I posted it on LinkedIn and am reprinting it here because, well, it's mine anyway.

Last night I had a strange dream. It was inspired by the recent massacre in Paris, the revelation a bomb strong enough to blow a passenger jet out of the sky could fit in a soda can, and what I read in a 20-year-old essay by evolutionary biologist and prolific columnist (for Natural History magazine and others) Stephen Jay Gould.

In my dream, my husband and I were vacationing on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts - as we were recently. Somewhere in the world terrorists (let’s call them the Islamic State, which goes under a variety of names but here I’ll call it ISIL) detonated an atomic bomb powerful enough to obliterate the target and thrown enough debris into the sky to blacken it.

This toxic cloud was pushed east quickly on the prevailing winds. In each nation the ensuing darkness and the chemicals started killing people in huge numbers.

Being on one of the easternmost parts of the United States, I watched the reports of the inevitable death coming and felt helpless, as though I was on Death Row.

Worse, as the news reports continued nonstop, mayhem ensued.

Who cares about deadlines when we’re all gonna die anyway? Who cares about rule of law? Who cares about money? Just smash a window, take what you want. You don’t like that black guy? Forget social media, get a gun and shoot him. Blow up the mosques. Hang the Jews. Who cares?

Americans rampaged in the streets. And there was nothing the President of the United States, the politicians agitating to replace him, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the New York City police department or anyone else could do about it. Death was coming. This is when I woke up.

Where does Stephen Jay Gould come in?

I am reading his 1995 collection of essays, “Dinosaur in a Haystack.” One includes a 1994 account of the comet that hit Jupiter ago, creating huge craters and throwing up thick clouds of the gases from within that quickly encircled the planet. Gould ties these events to the then-radical theory dinosaurs were obliterated from the face of the Earth by a huge asteroid that hit the planet, blackening the skies.

Gould even asked the main author of this theory, Luis Alvarez (who won a Nobel Prize for physics and worked on the atomic bomb), how that could happen. He was told, and I quote from the book, “a bolide six miles in diameter would strike the earth with ten thousand times the megatonnage of all the earth’s nuclear weapons combined.”

That must’ve been some comet. The comet fragment that exploded 28,000 feet above Siberia in 1908, known as the Tunguska event, flattened 1,000 square miles of forest, Gould wrote. Luckily, it was in an unpopulated area.

The A-bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 did hit populated areas, causing death and destruction. The bombs ended that part of World War II but started the Nuclear Age.  We’re still dealing with the fallout 70 years later.

Could a terrorist group create an mega-ton A-bomb in a can? Maybe not now. But what if the geniuses who shrunk a computer to fit in a wristwatch were paid enough to develop one?

Politicians in both U.S. parties have no problem screaming for nuclear devastation of ISIL. “Bomb them back into the Stone Age” is a common theme in social media. Bombing civilian women and children along with the terrorist cells doesn’t seem to be a problem. “Nuke them all!” one normally rational friend said of al-Queda and all Muslims after the 9/11 bombings in 2001.

Gould died of cancer in 2002. He lived to see the change of decade, millennium and the making of war that could put all of us on nuclear Death Row at a moment’s notice. Nations don’t make war anymore, people - with the ideology, followers and especially the money and technology - do. Can they be stopped? I don’t know but the prognosis isn’t good.

In 1950, the folk singer Ed McCurdy wrote “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” a pro-peace song in which the world’s leaders came together and agreed to “put an end to war.”

A nice sentiment, but my strange dream shows nothing has changed.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

On Leaves, Birds and Bears


Out here in the suburbs it is currently leaf blower season.

I am on my back porch, looking at a clear blue sky on an otherwise perfect autumn day in November. My next-door neighbor, in his shorts and blasting music through his headphones (as I am, if you can call harpsichord Bach "blasting") is using his blower to push the leaves off the grass, perfectly demarcing the edge of his property.

When he is finished, as sure as the sun's position will change, another neighbor will take up the challenge and blow his leaves around for a while. And so it will continue all day in the "quiet" suburb where I live. (At least it's not gunshots or a car alarm - yet.)

Pods and acorns found under the fallen leaves. (Margo D. Beller)
I did the same thing myself yesterday, using the blower to push the elm and maple leaves into piles that MH and I would then rake into blue tarps and dump at the curb for pickup by our town. Unlike the front yard, this is actually easy. In the front yard we have locust trees, one of which is a female tree that gets loaded with long, hard, smelly pods that must be raked down because they are too heavy for our blower. Unlike the previous week, there were few pods so I can pick them up rather than rake and strain my arms.

I was quite pleased with our effort, until I awoke this morning and saw that the wind had changed and it had brought down more pods as well as a lot of the remaining oak leaves. Being a Sunday, the infernal sound of my neighbor's and others' leaf blowers started a little later this morning, 9am instead of 7:30.

This is part of the suburban ritual. As the summer heat starts to fade it is time to pull up the annuals, mow the grass and put out mums. As Halloween nears it is time to put out pumpkins, corn threshes and take the kids to the nearest farm so they can experience something resembling rural life. Then the leaf blowers start. After Thanksgiving, start expecting snow and snowblowers clearing driveways, but sidewalks only begrudgingly.

I try to fight against this ritual as much as I can but I can't avoid the pods or the leaves that thickly mat the lawn and can do some damage if not removed. So every year we rake and every year, the day after we expose the deep green of the lawn, more leaves fall and remind us there is more work to be done and there is always more work to be done.

Like all of life's burdens that never end.


"Where are the juncos?" MH asked me the other afternoon as we were having our dessert on the porch before the light faded.
Junco (Margo D. Beller)
MH has a more scientific bent than I, and he tracks when the chipping sparrows and catbirds depart to be replaced by white-throated sparrows and juncos, which is a cousin of the sparrow. White-throats and juncos usually start showing up in October. I don't note the exact day but MH has a calendar embedded in his head and to him the juncos were overdue.

I had seen a couple of juncos one afternoon when I went to the feeders to chase off the horde of house sparrows mobbing it. The juncos flew off and I haven't seen or heard one in our backyard or at the feeders since then. I have been hearing the two-note call of the white-throat but have only seen one that took close to a week to get comfortable enough to come out of the bushes and stand on the flood wall. When I chase off the house sparrows it stays put because it is not of the house sparrow clan. (House sparrows are not really sparrows but old-world weaver birds that came along for the ride and proliferated in the new world over these many centuries.)

So I thought about it. Migration in my part of northern New Jersey had been very bad - "good" birds seen in much smaller numbers than usual, storms blowing many birds over New Jersey southward or eastward over oases such as Central Park in NYC. It could be that ever since the last bear attack I've been taking feeders in and so there is no seed available in the very early hours when I've found cardinals and white-throats and juncos like to feed.

White-throated sparrow (Margo D. Beller)
It could also be the horde of sparrows. Unlike the titmouse or the chickadee that grabs a seed and flies off, the sparrows crowd into the house feeder, fighting each other. I now have a second, caged feeder out for the other birds.

Like the unusual warmth we have had the last few weeks (when temperatures fall back to where they are supposed to be, the weather forecasters seem to treat it like some sort of calamity. "It will be 35 degrees colder tomorrow than it was today!!") that I attribute to the wacky weather patterns created by global warming, the sparrow explosion is man-made. A former neighbor kept a feeder going all year long, including the summer, and filled it with millet, a house sparrow's favorite food because it is small and easily cracked open. The abundance of food created a population explosion.

Unfortunately, that neighbor moved out and, after an initial attempt, the people who moved in use the feeder pole more for hanging plants than bird food. So this large sparrow population - which has made nests in trees, shrubs and the spaces next to window air conditions such as my neighbor's across the back yard - are coming to my sunflower seed feeders en masse.

I find myself coming out to refill the house feeder during the day or, if I am sick of the mess, taking the house feeder in, which deprives the cardinals of food because they can't fit into the caged feeder. Then I must go out just before dusk, after the other birds have tucked themselves in for the night, to allow the cardinals a last meal before dark.

So these bigger, more aggressive birds may be the reason the juncos are "late" in arriving. When the real cold comes and the snow falls and I can safely keep the feeders out all night without fearing another visit from a bear, perhaps the winter birds will finally show themselves. Desperation will make even the smallest bird fight a house sparrow.


In late October, in the middle of the day in the middle of the large county seat's large green, a large bear was spotted in a tree by a police officer. The lunch crowd was immediately ousted from the park and people started taking videos on their phones to post to YouTube. Snarky comments voiced more support for the bear than for the police officer, and comments regarding the color of the bear - black - were made both pro and con, as stupid comments will be made when you don't give your real name.

The bear, meanwhile, stayed put, and from the comments I've read most people were mighty pleased to see a bear in the middle of Morristown. It was a big story that made headlines in newspapers and on the evening news.

I heard this story and knew, just knew, that this bear was the same one that had walked into my yard on a sunny September afternoon on a Sunday when people were in their yards or strolling in the street and grabbed at my house feeder, ripping off an iron feeder pole arm, before ambling across the yard and along the next street, where I managed to see it heading north.

Black bear, 2014 (RE Berg-Andersson)
I also knew that if this 200+ pound bruin had been in the backyard of any of these people, threatening their feeders or, worse, their pets or small children, they wouldn't have been so happy to see a bear in the middle of the day in the middle of a heavily populated area.

The black bear was later tranquilized and brought down by the fire department in a cherry-picker, then taken away. However, while in the past such bears were taken to the far corner of the state, this time it was taken to a Wildlife Management Area not that far (for a bear) from where it was found.

This has happened too many times, and that is why New Jersey has expanded the bear hunt. It has become expected bear will show up on wooded hiking trails or in farms or the backyards of some of the more rural parts of the heavily populated state of New Jersey, but when they start showing up in towns and cities you know the situation is getting out of control.

The "bear people" blame suburbanites such as myself for having bird feeders and garbage pails out. They say we need more "education." I can't speak for the education level of the people watching the Morristown bear but I was quite alarmed they didn't realize this was no TV show but a wild animal loose among them.

Perhaps the state thinks the bear they removed will hang around the WMA in time for the bear hunt. Perhaps they are hoping the bear will get tired of all that wandering and stay put for a while, maybe den in the woods for the winter. But why should a bear remain in a WMA scrounging around for dried berries when it can come into Morristown on a fine, sunny day and dumpster dive the town's many fine restaurants?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The End Has Come (Goodbye at last, Kirkbride)

October 16, 2015 (Margo D. Beller)
It was not long after MH and I moved to our home that I was curious enough to walk up Central Avenue to the front door of what had been the administration building of the Greystone Park pyschiatric hospital.

That Second Empire-style building where the road led was grand and imposing but, because it had been abandoned years before, it had a haunted look. So did the stone hulks of the old wards and the "cottages" for the patients who were considered getting better and so were removed from the general population to halfway houses.

I have been writing about Greystone and that administration building, known as Kirkbride, for some time since then, both on this blog and elsewhere. It has been an interesting time since the hospital was closed, the much-reduced patient base moved to a more modern and smaller building on property still owned by New Jersey and the 600-plus leftover acres sold to the county transformed into a park known as the Central Park of Morris County.

There were battles to keep Kirkbride standing, to turn it into, variously, housing, a mental health museum, office space, shops and all of the above. But the state of New Jersey, which allowed the buildings on its land to fall into ruin, finally decided it would cost too much to keep them up and so slowly but surely they have been demolished.

The last to go has been the central tower. MH and I had wondered if there was a deal being worked out to keep just this central portion - which would need significant renovation as well as new walls once the extensive wing system was removed. However, the head of Preserve Greystone finally said there was no use fighting anymore because the destruction was too far along.

And so the picture at the top shows what is left of the old tower. What it looked like is below.

Kirkbride before the wrecking ball. (Margo D. Beller)

I have mixed feelings about the whole business. As I've written many times, including this year, every plan put forth by developers - those sought by the state at first and then those brought in by the preservationists - included housing - apartments or condos - to pay for the cost of all the work that would be needed to make the place livable. Kirkbride was a sizable building, at one point with the largest continuous foundation in the world. It could've held hundreds of people, all of whom would need a place to park their cars, schools to send their children and roads for driving to jobs.

The effect on my little town, literally down the road, would've been catastrophic. Traffic on streets that have never seen a stop light would back up as it already does on the main drag, Route 202. Even the township where Greystone is located, Parsippany, NJ, came out against any residential plan because of the increased costs it would face in providing services, including schools.

I had said back in 2012 it would be better to tear the hulk down because the only things that could live in it were birds and ghosts. Now that it is almost down I am wondering what happens next once the debris is removed and the fences come down. Walking trails? Yet more ball fields? Untouched and left to overgrow?

In 2012, woods where I had seen several types of flycatchers, bluebirds and hawks were ripped up for soccer/lacrosse fields. When I step out my door in the evenings now I can hear the shouting from competitions. If there are low clouds or fog I can see the bright lights reflecting off them, adding more light pollution.

I can do without more soccer/lacrosse fields but this is a minority viewpoint. Most taxpayers will pay for a park only if they can use it for what they want -- so that means dog parks, soccer and lacrosse fields or a cross-country track. This park has all three, as well as a disc golf course.

What it doesn't have is a lot of quiet, open land for old-fashioned things like taking a walk.

By contrast there was another battle going on in Somerset County between the Duke Farms Foundation, which had been running the property since the death of heiress Doris Duke, and about 100 people who didn't want to see the mansion where she had lived be torn down. They said it had historic significance. The foundation said it had been added to so often over the years any historical features were long gone. It had sat empty since Duke's death in 1993 at age 80.

What I could see of the Duke mansion from a trail. (Margo D. Beller)
The Hillsborough Township Historic Preservation Commission agreed with the foundation and the mansion will be razed.

This is another case where I side with those who want to tear the building down. Right now, it is in a remote corner of a huge piece of property that is already used for hiking, biking and quiet contemplation of an astonishing number of birds, including nesting bald eagles. The foundation plans to open the area up to visitors and join it to the rest of the park.

This is a good use of land. But that is a private foundation that has an environmental plan running things. I have no idea what New Jersey or Morris County have in mind for the land once the Kirkbride debris is cleared beyond "open space," whatever that means.

I fear the worst.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Bearing With More Trouble

On Sept. 27, six months to the day after the last incident, I was making supper. It was a Sunday early evening, people were enjoying their backyards with their children or taking a late afternoon walk in the sunshine.

I turned around to see if any cardinals were at the house feeder. I planned to take it in by 6:30 pm ET, 30 minutes from that moment, as I have been ever since a bear came into my yard overnight and destroyed one of my feeder poles trying to get to the sunflower seed.

Well, there was no feeder. I cursed, ran out into the backyard and on the next street, ambling northward, was a black bear, about as big as the one MH and I saw from our car on Old Mine Road in the ridges and forests of Sussex County, NJ.

Old Mine Road bear (RE Berg-Andersson)
This time, the bruin had ignored the sock and the cage-enclosed feeder that were filled with thistle put out for what had become a huge flock of goldfinches. It went for the old house feeder. In pulling it the bear had taken off the wrought-iron arm, too, and MH thinks when it fell it spooked the bear off. The house feeder, which hadn't had that much seed in it at the time, was on the ground but unscathed.

After the last attack, I had taken in the feeders for a while and then it was summer and I put a hanging basket on the remaining pole. Eventually, I had gotten a new feeder pole to replace the broken one. Around Labor Day I had started putting out seed. The dry weather conditions made it hard for birds to find food unless they found my feeder, which many of them did.

So did the bear.

Rosebreasted grosbeak on house feeder,
when the pole still had two arms (RE Berg-Andersson)
I have no idea if this was the same one because I didn't see the bear six months before. That attack was overnight. This one was during daylight, when there were lots of people outside, as I said. While I called 911 to alert the police, my neighbor was atop his grandchildren's playground setup, watching. He gave me a thumb's up. His son told me he had seen the bear rip off the feeder arm and then lope off through my backyard, my backyard neighbor's yard and then to the street. A squad SUV drove up that street after the bear but whether it was confronted or just followed into the next town, I do not know.

My brother-in-law the naturalist in rural NH told me he always waits until the snow falls and the bears go into their dens before he hangs feeders - even if that's in December. His feeders are always inside by April 1.

But he is in rural NH. The migrants have long left there. I was feeding a lot of cardinals, goldfinches and chickadees (along with more annoying house sparrows) because seeding plants were dying and there were no bugs because of the drought. Where I live, it might not snow until February. And my last attack had been before April 1.

What to do?

Predators have always been a problem. Accipiters -- Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks -- and redtailed hawks often haunt the yard. Lately, a cat has been loitering. (It is not feral because it is neat and has a flea collar, but it is not from my street and I have seen it run off through yards across the street and over to another side street, where its owner may live. It doesn't let me get close enough to see any ID tag. I do not understand the old adage about putting out the cat. You don't do that for dogs.)

Cooper's hawk atop feeder (Margo D. Beller)
But I can go outside and chase off a hawk or a cat. When I ran out and saw the bear I realized that had I turned around and run out sooner we'd have been face to face. What would I have done? Would I have been as stupid as the time I went out to chase off a buck in my yard and then quickly backed way when it put its head down intending to charge? In my anger, perhaps.

There are people who love bears so much they would like nothing better than for my neighbors and me to tear down our houses and let the bears roam free, unhunted. That isn't going to happen. Yes, there are houses in areas where they never should've been built, but people are in there now and bears are dangerous. I favor a bear hunt, as I do the annual deer hunt for the same reason - restoring something of a balance.

After a day or so inside, I put the house feeder on the remaining pole arm and put the thistle sock on the other pole. Not having seed outside plus a strong northerly wind seems to have decreased the number of sparrows and goldfinches dramatically to more manageable numbers, thus allowing more of the birds I like to get to the feeders. (We've also had a significant rainfall.)

Is putting out feeders foolishness or an act of faith? I want to feed birds. But I must now be extremely vigilant, at least until a hard winter cold comes. Fool me twice, shame on me. It may not be six months until the next bear encounter.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Eyes Like a Hawk

My late great-uncle Elly, in a letter -- yes, a real letter, not an email -- responding to my description of visiting a hawk platform that fall, said you have to have eyes like a hawk to find one. He was right.

I have seen enough raptors in my time to be able to tell the differences between an osprey and an eagle, a black vulture from a turkey vulture and, perhaps most difficult, a sharpshinned from a Cooper's hawk and both from their larger accipiter relative, a northern goshawk.
One of many bald eagles on Scott's Mountain. (RE Berg-Andersson 2015)
That's when the birds are relatively close. When I go to a hawk platform, I might as well be a novice.

If you are on a hawk platform and you are counting the number of, say, broadwing hawks flying south to their winter grounds in order to give a complete count, you have to be able to see a speck in the sky, then be able to train your binoculars or scope on it and then identify it, all while the bird is hundreds of feet high and flying fast with a stiff tailwind.

For that is what raptors do, they wait for the wind to come hard out of the north and then allow themselves to be pushed along ridge lines where they can be kept aloft by warm air off those ridges. The Hawk Mountain platform in the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania is one such spot. So is the Chimney Rock Hawk Watch between the two Watchung Mountains of New Jersey and the Racoon Ridge Hawk Watch in the Kitanny Mountains.

I have been to many of these hawk platforms and a few others - the New Jersey Audubon Scherman Hoffman sancturary, the Sandy Hook platform, the Cape Henlopen platform in Delaware - including my own unofficial platform, back when I was working in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, atop the Palisades. (I'd come out on my break and watch eagles, ospreys and assorted hawks follow the Hudson River south.)
(RE Berg-Andersson 2015)

I enjoyed my time at these places, but my favorite hawk platform is atop Scott's Mountain over the Merrill Creek Reservoir in New Jersey, a short flight from the Delaware River.

We try to go at least once a year, and have become such irregular regulars that when we made our first 2015 visit in late September, several people thought we had been there earlier. Alas, no, we missed the big week when the broadwing hawk - the smallest of the buteo hawks of eastern North America - flew through in the thousands. These are early travelers. As autumn goes on, the number of broadwings will decrease and the number of eagles - bald and golden - and accipiters and redtailed and redshouldered hawks will rise.

We drive up to the top of the mountain, get our folding chairs from the trunk, then say hello and sit down, binoculars at the ready. Then I have to get back in practice picking fast-flying birds out of the sky. It isn't easy.

Unlike a lot of the other hawk platforms, where the counters are serious and those real regulars stick to themselves and ignore irregular visitors such as myself, the regulars at Scott's Mountain are very friendly, very helpful and very good spotters. Paul, the lead counter the day we showed up, was on birds no one else even saw coming. He usually is, even when he's not the official counter. At least for my old eyes, I couldn't even see the dot in the sky.
One of many sharpshinned hawks on Scott's Mtn. (RE Berg-Andersson 2015)
Standing at a hawk watch once with Pete Dunne, he told how to look for broadwings beneath clouds and how turkey vultures fly like a man walking a tightrope with his arms extended out and slightly up. I tried to apply this knowledge but when you can't even see a dot, you have to trust that the lead counter or his assistants (there are usually four, spread along the parking lot to see as much sky as possible) is right. Paul was always right, and he was always patient in directing me to find the bird.

It is nice to be able to sit, too. Most platforms are hard climbs to the top and when you get there at last you have to find a seat on rocks that are far from comfortable. Or, you carry your chairs with you (or a pillow) and then hope that if you can make it all the way up without falling you can find a big enough space to open the chair and sit down. Neither is a given. 

From my chair on Scott's Mountain a few of the birds stayed low enough for me to easily find: the two resident bald eagles taking off after another eagle passing through and too close to their nest; an American kestrel, the smallest of the falcons, looking so colorful against the deep blue sky; the skein of migrating Canada geese found as I was looking at some broadwings Paul had pointed out.

Goldfinches, backyard, Sept. 27, 2015 (Margo D. Beller)
This is, without a doubt, the easiest birding I do except for what I see out my back porch.

(And there has been quite a lot. Thanks to an investment in a thistle sock and enough seed to put in a second feeder, we've had as many as 20 goldfinches feeding at the same time. Whether it be the weedy plants drying up or yanked out by homeowners or no one else having thistle feeders up, we have been reaping the benefits.)

MH was told decades ago he'd never see a bald eagle in the wild in his lifetime. That was after the overuse of DDT nearly decimated the eagles and the falcons. Luckily, that scoutmaster was wrong and we've seen many majestic eagles since then, and other birds, too.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Crossing Paths With Pete Dunne

“Some birds are not meant to be caged, that's all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure.”  -- Stephen King

Pete Dunne was scheduled to be at the New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary yesterday, Sept. 19. I wasn't able to attend, anxious to do a lot of walking in the woods after a homebound work week. I wanted to find warblers making the trip south for the winter, not stand on a concrete porch in the middle of hundreds of people broiling in the cloudless sun and watch migrating raptors high aloft, listening for some insight from this man, the co-author of the seminal "Hawks in Flight" and a number of other books. 

Pete Dunne in 2012 (Margo D. Beller)
I wasn't there, and there is a strong chance he didn't show up. However, I can still visualize the scene because I was there in 2012, and I saw the crowd and I saw his enjoyment in calling out what hawks were passing through and bestowing identification tips. I saw him patiently listen to all the birding stories and he even answered a question or two of mine, asked in my role as writer of the Scherman Hoffman blog.

However, in March 2013, Dunne had a stroke. In 2014, after much rehabilitation, he stepped down as head of the Cape May Bird Observatory, which he built from nothing to a major destination for anyone with a serious interest in finding and identifying birds. He has become NJ Audubon's "Birding Ambassador." 

He also stepped down as editor of New Jersey Audubon's magazine (in which I've had one article published and have another in production). In 2011, another time we crossed paths, I got his phone number and called the man, who cheerfully talked to me about what kind of articles they would publish, if I could come up with anything. He was encouraging but made no commitment.

I did not mention that phone call when I talked briefly to Dunne in 2012 on the Scherman hawk platform. He talks to a lot of people in the course of a given day. For the same reason, this past May I did not remind him of our previous conversations when MH and I spent a weekend in Cape May that happened to coincide with the day of the annual World Series of Birding -- an event Dunne helped create.

(I first crossed path with Dunne when a friend at work loaned me Dunne's 1986 book "Tales of a Low-Rent Birder." I had never heard of Dunne, and I was only starting to get interested in bird watching thanks to the feeder my brother-in-law and his wife had given us for a housewarming present in 1994.)

The Friday we drove to Cape May -- the southernmost point of New Jersey and a prime feeding spot for birds flying north after they cross Delaware Bay -- was our wedding anniversary. The next day was the WSB. That day we rose early (we had a lot of stops to make our one full day there) and went to Higbee Beach, a large piece of property, and arrived just as a tour bus was loading up with birders trudging out of the Higbee fields.

Pete Dunne, Scherman Hoffman hawk platform, 2012 (Margo D. Beller)
"Looks like there's a Carolina wren in your future," said the tour leader as the little bird sang. Pete Dunne, of course, looking as energetic as if he had risen from a refreshing nap. No cane. No sign of the weakness in his left side. Dunne used to travel the state during the WSB from midnight to midnight with a group - at one point including another bright light of the birding universe, Roger Tory Peterson - but now he was sticking closer to home in Cape May, with a large tour group in a larger white bus.

MH and I got to Higbee no later than 7 am and here's Dunne's group just finishing their visit, heading on to one of Cape May's many other birding locations. They had to have started right at dawn, which means Dunne had to have gotten them in the bus no later than 5 am.

Pretty impressive. 

We saw a lot of very good birds on our own that day, and it was the best birding we did this past spring. (Spring migration was not very good in northern New Jersey, and autumn migration is shaping up to be as bad thanks, in part, to the drought.) I wouldn't have minded Dunne pointing out a bird I usually can't identify rather than a Carolina wren, one of my favorite birds and one I can identify in my sleep.

Yesterday's walk, meanwhile, yielded very little in the way of interesting birds aside from catbirds, a blue-gray gnatcatcher and five types of woodpeckers (mainly heard, although the pileated was seen, just barely, flying overhead). While not at a hawk platform we did have plenty of turkey and black vultures taking advantage of the hot, dry air to swoop and soar. We even had a broadwing hawk, seen from the Griggstown Grasslands, which we visited before getting to the Delaware & Raritan Canal. After our walk around the grassland we walked along the canal and back, about 3 miles. 

We got back to our car exhausted.

I bet up on that hot, sunny platform Pete Dunne didn't even break a sweat.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Scenes From the Drought

Today, Labor Day, is the 60th day of temperatures of 80 degrees or higher, and while a drought has not been officially declared by my home state (thanks to a very wet June), we are at the point where you can tell who has been using a sprinkler (built in or otherwise) and who has not.

What had been lawn is now baked hay. My husband has not mowed the lawn since mid-July -- which, coincidentally is when we last had a day below 80 degrees. "Pop-up" storms have been few and far between.

Lawn - Sept. 7, 2015 (Margo D. Beller)
No one cared one to two months ago. Most people - not me - apparently prefer heat and humidity to cold and snow and have really enjoyed having sunny, dry days for going to the beach, the lake or the mountains, the ballpark or just for doing nothing around the house.

But now that summer is supposedly over and school is in session, these same people are ready to do their usual suburban fall activities - mow and fertilize the lawn, buy mums and corn threshes to decorate for autumn - and they suddenly realize, hey, what happened to my lawn? Why doesn't it feel like autumn?

Whether it is hot and dry or hot and humid, without rain you have plants drying up. Even plants that are "drought-tolerant" or have deep roots need water once in a while, which I provide early in the morning as needed. Many people don't, and their dried-out, dead plants show the results.

Despite my best efforts, burnt joe-pye weed. (Margo D. Beller)
Just as the birds fled the Indonesian coast before the Christmas 2004 tsunami, my backyard bird behavior is telling me how dangerous this situation has become.

Scene 1: I have had a hummingbird feeder out all summer. I've written before that recently I had to buy a cup to fill with water and keep out the ants - itself a sign of drought - and create a moat. A few days ago I came on the porch, looked at the feeder and instead of a hummingbird a downy woodpecker was attempting to get its long tongue through the portal as the smaller hummer does. Just today, a tufted titmouse grabbed hold of the rim, leaned forward and dipped its bill into the moat. I've never seen such activity from either bird.

Scene 2: I do not put seed feeders out during the summer because birds usually can eat insects (more protein). However, with this drought, there is a dearth of flowering plants. Even where there are flowers - such as the rose of sharon - I have seen very few bees or other insects partaking of the pollen. That isn't normal.

MH knows I put out feeders around Labor Day, but last week he kept asking when they'd be going out. Ever since the bear destroyed my feeder pole, requiring me to buy a new one, I've been reluctant to put them back out, knowing I'd have to take them in every night.

But I put them out, figuring it would take a few days for the birds to find them. I was wrong.

Titmouse at water cooler. (Margo D. Beller)
Within an hour I had titmice, chickadees and many, many house sparrows at the two feeders containing sunflower seeds. It took a couple of days before the thistle sock drew the attention of any goldfinches - six at one point. Until I  put the feeders out I didn't see very much backyard activity at all.

I am glad to see birds, lord knows, but it took me some time to realize that I am providing an easier way to get food than hunting long and hard for food that could be quite some distance away. That is why the female downy woodpecker has learned another unusual behavior - how to get between the bars of the caged feeder to get some seed.

I also provide water - a water cooler for smaller birds, a water dish for larger birds. In summers, even those with plentiful rain, these are invaluable. Both smaller and larger birds have come to the water cooler, the larger birds contorting themselves from a nearby branch while the smaller ones are on an attached perch. The water dish has also brought an assortment of birds as well as squirrels and chipmunks.

Scene 3: Just as there are birds crowding into and atop the feeders - particularly the huge family of house sparrows, which blocks other birds from getting food unless I chase them off - there is a large flock of birds feeding on the leavings because it is easier than fighting the crowd above. These include mourning doves, cardinals, other sparrows and even titmice and chickadees, along with squirrels and chipmunks.

With so many birds pecking at what the goldfinches and other birds have dropped, it is surprising to me that no sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawks have swooped in to catch a meal. Maybe they are sticking to the shady forest, where some areas are still green. I know I would.

Chickadee with seed. (Margo D. Beller)
There is no water, there are no flowers, there are no insects. There is only drought and what water and food I (and, I hope, others) provide. It is wrong to waste my time, energy, water and money using sprinklers in a battle to make the lawn green and long, which would mean going out (or hiring someone) to mow it and cause further heat damage to the grass, which is - after all - a plant, too.

Is this global warming, this strange dipping of the Jet Stream that has us in a high-pressure system that keeps the rain north or south of the New York metropolitan area? Is this the "new normal?" I fear it is.

I know, California has been suffering years of drought. But take a look at this list of record temperatures.
Nuthatch at caged feeder behind thistle sock. (Margo D. Beller)

According to, the record hottest summers are:
  • Eugene, Oregon: Average temperature 69.5 degrees (old record 68.5 degrees in 1967)
  • Lewiston, Idaho: Average temperature 76.9 degrees (old record 76.3 degrees in 1940)
  • Phoenix, Arizona (tie): Average temperature 95.1 degrees (ties 95.1 degrees in 2014)
  • Portland, Oregon: Average temperature 72.2 degrees (old record 69.8 degrees in 2009)
  • Medford, Oregon: Average temperature 76.4 degrees (old record 74.9 degrees in 2014)
  • Salem, Oregon: Average temperature 71.3 degrees (old record 69.4 degrees in 2014)
  • Seattle, Washington: Average temperature 69.2 degrees (old record 67.4 degrees in 2013)
  • Spokane, Washington: Average temperature 72.7 degrees (old record 71.7 degrees in 1922)
  • Wenatchee, Washington: Average temperature 76.9 degrees (old record 75.6 degrees in 1958)
Pear tree showing effect of drought. (Margo D. Beller)
Other Notables: Anchorage, Alaska (3rd hottest); Boise, Idaho (2nd hottest); Tucson, Arizona (2nd hottest); Columbia, South Carolina (3rd hottest); New Orleans (5th hottest); Baton Rouge, Louisiana (4th hottest)

Even Canada's Edmonton, Alberta went through its second-hottest August in 20 years.

Of course, not everyone is so affected. For every yin there's a yang. Again according to
  • Fort Wayne, Indiana: 21.52 inches of rain (old record 18.70 inches in 1986)
  • Rapid City, South Dakota (airport): 14.54 inches of rain (old record 11.90 inches in 1968)
Nuthatch, goldfinch, titmouse at feeder (Margo D. Beller)
Other Notables: St. Louis (2nd wettest), Indianapolis (2nd wettest), San Diego (2nd wettest), Tampa (5th wettest)
And as bad as August has been, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July was worse - the hottest month since records have been kept.

President Obama recently traveled to Alaska, to focus on climate change and its effects in the short term on the indigenous population and in the long term on the rest of the world. He is the first U.S. president to travel north of the Arctic Circle.

We've seen some lovely pictures - melting glaciers and the like - but he could've made the point just as well had he come to my backyard, watched the grass and trees and plants dry up and the birds fighting each other desperately for what food and water I provide.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

In the Mists

Circumstances have changed for me. Once again I must get up in near-darkness, just before dawn, if I want to get out for a walk before work.

I am a creature of habit, and when a habit or routine changes I feel upended until I establish a new routine.

Early rising wouldn't be a problem when the prospect of finding all sorts of northbound migrant birds would've had me up early anyway, walking slowly and listening, peering in the bad light for any movement in trees only just leafing out.

Fog (Margo D. Beller)
But in late summer the days are already getting shorter. The southbound birds are passing through quietly because they have no need to show off for potential mates or claim territory. The sun is low on the horizon and it is wonderfully cool before the three Hs - hazy, hot and humid - make their appearance.

What I have found on these walks have been local breeding birds -- chipping sparrows, cardinals, titmice -- flying around with their young. Or I find goldfinches, who are late breeders because they only eat the weed seeds that appear at this time of year. The bright yellow males perform high loop-de-loops as they impress females and protect territories.

I know that soon I won't even see that because it will still be dark before 7 am, especially when we go back to standard time.

And then, once in a while, Mother Nature throws a curve.

Orb web over plantings. (Margo D. Beller)
This particular morning I am writing about, I rose before the alarm buzzer -- I used to wake with the daylight but at the time I must rise it is still dark -- and was out the door by 6:15 am into a thick, unexpected fog.

Humidity, cooling temperatures overnight, I don't know what caused it but visibility was low and I knew it would be thicker where I was headed, to the fields of the former Greystone Park mental hospital, now the Central Park of Morris County.

It is always cooler in there, even in summer. There are no houses or sidewalks, only tall, shady trees and plants. It is only when my route takes me along town streets lined with houses and filled with anxious commuters zipping by in their cars that things seem to warm up quickly.

With the thick fog, my only concern was whether I'd be seen by one of those early-morning commuters, but at the hour I was walking there were few cars, outnumbered by walkers who were as startled to see me coming out of the fog as I was of them.

Ground web (Margo D. Beller)
The birds were not active, and their contact calls seemed tentative, for want of a better word. The white-breasted nuthatches I heard sounded more aggrieved, their nasal "hank, hank, hank" louder than usual. You can't fly very high or far in thick fog.

So while I wasn't seeing much in the way of birds, I discovered the spiders had been very busy.

On sunny summer days I don't notice webs unless they are spectacularly big or right in front of me. I've probably passed hundreds of webs hung out to catch a meal.

However, on this foggy, damp day, the condensation on the silk highlighted the intricate designs and you couldn't help but notice them.

Some were strung up high between trees. Others were over patches of lawn. I found a few draped over shrubs and other plants. When I see them in my garden they tell me there are a lot of insects hanging around. If I find a web over a particularly enticing flower I know bees will visit, I take down the web. The spider scampers away. The next day I find a new web in a nearby area.

Look carefully for the suspended web. (Margo D. Beller)
Spiders rebuild their webs all the time, so I don't feel particularly cruel about doing this.

Years ago, around this time of year, I was on Monhegan Island in Maine for a short visit. In our travels I rescued several monarch butterflies from spider webs draped over the sweet-scented dune roses. Monarchs have a hard enough time trying to make it south to Mexico for the winter without becoming a spider's supper.

Of course, spiders have to eat, too. They are very good at taking out the silverfish and other annoying house insects and we give the spiders free rein -- if they are small.

The largest spider we ever had in the house was the wolf spider. How it got into the house I don't know but spiders have a way of squeezing themselves through window screens.

My husband, who grew up sleeping in a basement where he'd find spiders, millipedes and centipedes, took the wolf spider and put it in our basement. I haven't seen it since, which is just as well.

We're both happier this way.