Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Joys of Home Ownership

I grew up in a rowhouse in southern Brooklyn. When my husband and I got our first place it was the lower apartment in a two-family house in Queens, city of New York. We had a lovely landlady and lived in that place for 13 years despite the car horns, noise and cooking smells from the Greek neighbors and occasional gunshots. We were all jammed together.

We attempted to find a house we could afford several times but it was only after seeing a friend's condo that it occurred to us to find another apartment in an area less urban where we could keep a car. That led us to the small New Jersey town we live in now, another two-family house where we lived for 11 months and had the landlord from Hell.

Backyard, May 2015 (Margo D. Beller)
But we now also had a car and it was when MH decided to go down a small street he'd never traveled before that we found the house we wound up buying. We've lived here over 20 years.

I have yet to fully get used to the suburban lifestyle and mores after growing up in what geographically is considered "the city" but in reality was as much of a suburb as where I am now but with smaller plots. I do not understand paying someone to mow a lawn every week whether it needs it or not. (MH does our lawn every few weeks and it is greener than our neighbors', who get the dust on their lawns thrown up weekly.)

But what I liked immediately is that except for those times when neighbors had loud friends and families over to their backyard pools or patios, overused their leaf blowers or left their barking dogs out too long, this place is less trafficked, more quiet and, most important, my space.

The joys of home ownership.

Except when something goes wrong.

The picture above shows one such recent example. We went from a cold and damp winter in 2014 to a few days of spring in 2015 before a sudden jump into summer about a month early. Thanks to climate change, we have been dryer in this part of the country, although not nearly as bad as what is seen in the western U.S. But what I have noticed is we'll go weeks without rain and then there will either be a small, scattered shower in my area or a deluge, getting weeks of rain at once.

So the other week we got some rain for a few minutes for the first time in a long time. Then, during the night, there must've been another, stronger storm with high winds, and this hunk of maple was torn from the tree and deposited, luckily, in the corner of my yard, on the other side of the tree from my compost pile and my neighbor's swing set. With MH's help we got it to the curb and I used my lopper to cut it off smaller branches and make the pieces more manageable for our town to pick up.

It is a small price to pay for our space, as was discovering a problem with the foundation that needed fixing and having the roof fixed to stop the leak in the front room.

House wren box, 2015 (Margo D. Beller)
It is a snug, secure house unlike that of the house for the wren I put up every year. The first house, which was a decorative birdhouse I thought too small for any occupant, crumpled after five years. I bought the house above. After a few years of use I found it on the ground after the chain snapped, possibly because something bigger than a house wren was atop it. I repaired and rehung the house and it has been in use ever since.

Since house wrens will make a nest in anything, I think the house is more secure. But is it more secure than the usual bird nest, whether on the ground or in a tree? One year I discovered a pair of Cooper's hawks built a nest in a tree several streets away that I could see from a particular part of my back yard. But we had a storm that year and the nest came down.

I have come upon other nests by accident. There was the hummingbird nest, a tiny cup of grass, that was at the thin end of a tree branch hanging over Great Brook in the Great Swamp. There was the hole in a side of a large backyard tree that was used by a screech owl in winter but in summer was rented by a pair of redbellied woodpeckers. There was the catbird nest behind one of my shrubs - only my watering got Mamma Catbird to leave and I found the nest. (After that I watered far more carefully.)

More recently I have found a titmouse nest - a hole high up in a tree that was likely made by a woodpecker for a roost one year and then abandoned. As with the other examples, the nest was found because the bird directed me to it, inadvertently. But other nests do not become apparent until the tree and shrub leaves come down and the nest becomes visible.

Nests are basic structures. Their main purpose is to provide a place for a bird to lay eggs, brood them until young are born and then raise them to feed themselves before letting them go off and perpetuate the species. Those nests are temporary structures.

Our houses are too, but we forget this. They are built on land denuded of trees and so have nothing to shade or hold the soil of our lawns. Older homes are frequently expanded for "family entertainment centers" (in my house it is still a den). They are bought and sold with regularity, depending on the going price. They are the focus of zoning battles and fights over increasing property taxes, which in New Jersey are used to pay for schools.

However, if an errant tree comes down or a Hurricane Sandy hits or flooding rains bring water up to the first floor ceiling or if "the big one" hits, even these "permanent" homes become temporary structures, too.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Birding by Tone

This morning a blackpoll warbler is singing from one of the trees in the backyard. Unlike most of the other birds called "warbler" in the northeastern U.S., the blackpoll has no yellow on it anywhere. In fact, it looks a lot like a blackcapped chickadee during spring migration. In fall, the male loses his black cap and becomes overall dull like the female. 

It has a very long travel route, one of the longest. It is usually one of the last warblers to pass through my area on its northbound flight in spring, and so I am usually a little sad when I hear one because it means the excitement of possibly finding "new" birds is over. (Usually. With climate change and strange weather patterns, some normally "early" birds have been arriving with mid- and late-migration ones in recent years.)

The first time I heard a blackpoll's call, which sounds like the kind of metallic, high-pitched he-he-he made by a truck when it is braking, I had no idea what it was. I just knew I'd never heard it before. I rushed from bed, threw on a robe, grabbed my binoculars and located the sound in one of my front trees. What IS that?

The bird appeared and I thought I was looking at a chickadee, until it sang. I watched it for a long time (blackpolls are slow, deliberate feeders) and then went inside to identify it.

That call was easy to learn and remember. Many others are much harder, especially if you only hear that bird call once a year. 

Baltimore oriole (Margo D. Beller)

I had a similar experience with a Baltimore oriole. I heard this high-pitched whistling in a particular pattern repeated again and again. What IS That? Again, I went out front but this time the bird had moved down the road. I dressed hurriedly and followed with my binoculars. 

You would think something black and orange would show up easily in a green tree, and it does - once you find it. Luckily, it kept calling and I knew what it was when I finally saw it (the oriole logo of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team helped, believe it or not).

This is how you learn bird calls - you hear something, you find the source, you try to remember. After over a decade of doing this, it becomes second nature especially if you don't have binoculars with you when you hear something. 

I now do 95% of my birding by ear. Even with high-powered binoculars my eyes aren't what they were and once I've seen a bird, I usually don't feel the need to actively search it out and see it again. (Back and neck aches from prolonged staring at treetops is one reason.) If it appears - like the Carolina wren or the chestnut-sided warbler - I look and am grateful to see it.

My friends think I am some kind of expert. But if you listen and actively learn, you remember. I can tell one friend's voice from another and the voices of my nieces and nephew from each other. It is no different with birds. The thief! thief! of a blue jay is different from the peterpeterpeter of a titmouse, which is different from the sweet sweet I'm so sweet of the yellow warbler -- if you listen and want to remember the differences.

I think of it more as birding by tone or pattern than "birding by ear." There is a difference in pattern between the calls of a mockingbird and a brown thrasher as well as tone of voice. Both birds are mimids, having no songs of their own but taking the calls of the birds they hear around them. 

Mockingbird (RE Berg-Andersson)
No matter what you call it, the most important part is memory. Unlike the kind of memorization we had to do in school, listening to and remembering bird calls is a pure pleasure for me, and anything that is enjoyed is easier to remember. Paying attention also helps. Even during the most mundane errand I listen to what's calling around me and then identify it.

When I was in Great Swamp during prime spring migration time this May, I was amazed I could identify almost all the birds I heard, including some I hadn't heard in a very long time such as the yellow-billed cuckoo and Tennessee warbler. But I know if I was in a northern pine forest I would hear other birds I couldn't identify and would have to learn those calls.

Then it's back to the books and the photos and the bird calls to match a name with a voice. Then work at remembering them. It's a pleasant challenge. Maybe it's even helping me stave off senility.

I'm still learning, you see.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Feast or Famine, Owls in Central Park

I am writing on the fifth day of the fifth month in the fifth year of this decade and the fifteenth year of the new century. May is not known for heat but today it is expected to be around 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's summer weather.

It was a very cold winter, 2014-2015, and when winter finally eased its grip in April, with temperatures nearly seasonable or slightly above, it felt great. Then it would get cold again and I'd look at my bare garden beds and brown grass and wonder if spring would ever come, and with it the migrating birds.

Well, I worry no more.

First daffodil bouquet, 2015 (RE Berg-Andersson)
First, it got into the upper 60s and low 70s. My crocus, daffodils and grape hyacinths never looked so good. Every day I would come outside and find new signs that winter didn't kill off everything.

Then, for the last few days, it has felt like July, with warm and dry air. This was wonderful - winds from the south provide a tailwind for migrating birds heading north - until it got into the 80s. I am not a summer person. I do not rush for the shorts and flip-flops at the first sweat.

What I do is get my binoculars and start looking for birds. However, I am not finding them in the large numbers I usually would in early May.

I don't know why that is, exactly, but I have some guesses.

The same global warming-inspired atmospheric conditions that brought us much colder than normal temperatures for much of the winter delayed budding and bugs. Without plants and insects, birds won't stop to feed or breed. When the weather finally did warm, plants started to pop and insects started to swarm but the birds were miles away.

They made it north with great effort, flying at night when it is cooler and there are fewer predators, but in some cases strong southerly winds or a desire to make up for lost time caused these birds to overshoot my part of New Jersey. One day birds are reported in bulk in one area, the next they are gone or numbers are greatly reduced.

Black-throated green warbler (Margo D. Beller)
My backyard was a microcosm of that. I had at least one junco coming to my seed feeder. Juncos are winter birds and in my areas all the ones I see are males. They have to head north to claim territory for the female juncos, who winter farther south. I am still finding other winter birds on my morning walks, mainly white-throated sparrows and pine siskins. But I have yet to find warblers in great numbers - a northern parula here, a black-throated green there, a brief call of an ovenbird.

In short, feast or famine. We've had no rain since a massive storm that cut our rain deficit in half. So we have nothing, then a near-flood. The eastern U.S. gets too much rain, the west is in a continued drought. The temperature is either 20 degrees below the average or 20 degrees above. I can count on two hands the number of "normal" spring days we've had.

So I will blame climate change for this one and hope that somewhere along the line there is a cosmic re-balancing that will make spring feel like spring, summer take place in summer and winter cold that doesn't seem like forever.

Encounter With a Killer

In my search for this year's migrants birds I went to Central Park on May 2. Central Park is a huge urban park in the center of Manhattan island. It is impressive enough at ground level but for a tired and hungry bird heading north in spring it is an oasis in a desert.

The vast majority of people in Central Park could care less about birds. Central Park has been called "New York's backyard" and that is very true. Residents and tourists come to walk, jog, bike, sun themselves on the Sheep Meadow, use the ballfields or playgrounds. It is the reason most birders come to the park early in the morning, so they can hear the birds call above the din of humanity.

Harris' hawk (RE Berg-Andersson)
However, the day I was at the park I discovered  the annual "On a Wing" festival at Belvedere Castle hosted, in part, by the New York City chapter of the National Audubon Society and the Central Park Conservancy. Plenty of  bird tours and informational literature to be had as well as programs about plants and bats.

But what seemed to draw the biggest crowd was the exhibit called "Talons!" Master Falconer Lorrie Schumacher wowed the crowd when she opened a box and took out a female great horned owl.

There is something about owls. Perhaps it is because hunt from dusk to dawn and they aren't easily seen. The GHO's "whooooo" is distinctive and eerie. We speak of "Night Owls" and the GHO is one of the largest in this part of the world.

So when Schumacher pulled out "Big Mamma," the crowd went nuts, taking pictures as you would see at any celebrity sighting.

Great horned owl (RE Berg-Andersson)
Schumacher also pulled out a Saker falcon, which is found in Europe and Asia and is particularly popular with falconers, and a Harris' hawk, a buteo found in the desert southwest. But the owl, who swiveled her head almost completely around to look at everyone and at one point hunched into a defense posture and fluffed herself up when she spotted a leashed dog in the crowd, stole the show.

GHOs are beautiful killers, as this crowd of city residents and tourists learned up close and personal.