Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Searching for Our Rural Past

Back in late March, a hungry bear just out of its winter den came rambling through my yard and bent my aluminum feeder pole to the ground, then tried to get into the feeder, which happens to be within a cage. The bear went to the other, iron pole, almost bent it to the ground, grabbed that feeder and ate all the sunflower seeds. Then it ambled off.

I did not see the bear because this happened at night. I did, however, see the damage it left behind.

The old feeder pole, with squirrels. (Margo D. Beller)
After that the feeders were taken in at night until I stopped putting them out, in mid-May. So I wasn't in a rush to get a second feeder pole. However, I knew I would need one eventually and started looking around.

I had found the old aluminum one on the floor in the back of a small garden center. I can't remember what I paid for it. I do know it lasted a long time although it was never very stable. Now that I was looking for a new, sturdier feeder pole, I found the price ranged all over the place. Lots of poles to attach to decks, which I don't have, and lots of poles I can put together in expensive pieces.

Wal-Mart didn't help. Nor did Home Depot or Wild Birds Unlimited or my local New Jersey Audubon store. I was starting to get desperate until MH and I were on a drive and passing a Tractor Supply Company store and I suggested we look there.

Tractor Supply Company, as the name implies, tends to sell in the more rural areas. (We've also seen people in there I'm guessing want to make their home seem more rural. Certainly the stores are smaller and the employees friendlier than the local Home Depot.) There aren't many of them in my part of northern New Jersey, itself one of the most urbanized and congested states in the U.S. But here one was, in Flanders, Mt. Olive Township, about 11 miles away from my home.

And within the store was a two-crook feeder pole, topped by a medallion showing a cow, a pig and a chicken. Not a bird, as I'd seen on other poles, but farm animals.

"I've never seen a feeder pole topped with farm animals," I told the helpful employee who took it apart for me so it would fit in the station wagon.

"Yes, isn't it pretty?" he gushed.

New feeder pole, with farm animals. (Margo D. Beller)
It is, after a fashion. When the morning sun shines on it there is an almost stained-glass look about it. It is a 7-footer and it cost less than $30 - a bargain compared with what I'd been seeing. I made sure to put my old baffle in a suitable place on it so it isn't in the way of our longest bird feeder. It stands just to the right of where the old feeder pole - still in pieces in the garage - stood.

Looking at the farm animals made me think that New Jersey once was rural. My house stands on a former meadow. Mt. Olive was covered with farms. There are some still - we stopped at one on the way home, Ashley's, which has been in business since the mid 1940s. But Mt. Olive is not rural anymore. The International Trade Center brought people and people brought "development" - more homes and more shopping strips and malls and more taxes to pay for more children in schools and more services. Northern New Jersey is not very rural and neither is a good hunk of the rest of the state.

The same scenario is seen in other states. Where once were farms now stand housing developments. Sprawl. Of those farms left, many are run by corporations. Family farms struggle.

Many of these family farms have been sold to become housing developments of some sort - "luxury rental" townhomes, estates of varying acreage, "active adult" communities with age restrictions or even senior residences to house my increasingly elderly generation.

Many of the farms we go to have turned themselves into a sort of amusement park. In fact, there is a name for those of us who go to farms - agritourism. I used to work with several people living in built-up areas of New Jersey who would go to a particular Morris County farm to pick berries and see the farm animals with their kids in spring, and then come to pick apples, walk the corn mazes and buy corn threshes, mums and hay bales to decorate their houses come harvest time.

(RE Berg-Andersson)
I go to farms to buy fruits and vegetables that are grown there because they taste better for being local. So do many others. Community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) is big business now, a way for farms to stay alive because they are very popular in places where people can afford to buy food fresh off the farm and want to move beyond the local Whole Foods.

Why is it people feel a need to find some sort of agricultural past? Is it because we want to find something to help us overcome being overcrowded with technology, information blaring at us all the time, 140-character bursts of noise? I think so.

For every person whose face is glued to a phone or is binge-watching "Game of Thrones" is another person paying someone to teach them how to cook with heirloom vegetables, make cheese and grow and can vegetables the way their grandparents did. (If they are lucky, they have parents or grandparents to teach them. More likely they have to learn elsewhere. There are many places, including farms, earning good money teaching them. Of course, there's always the Internet.)

Why? I think it is because doing something that uses your brain and your hands and not your ability to write in 140 characters or post on Facebook is a way to actively DO something instead of passively receive what others think you want to know. It is a way of feeling self-sufficient at a time when many, if not most, people feel powerless and/or apathetic.

It is a way of feeling human.

So I will look at my cow, pig and chicken on my feeder pole and think, yes, I guess it is pretty. Later in the year, when the feeders draw the goldfinches, titmice, chickadees and cardinals, it will get even prettier.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Going to Grasslands

 And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks .. Isaiah 2:4

Male bobolink 2015 (RE Berg-Andersson)
I wonder what old Isaiah would think of the movement to close military bases and turn them into grasslands

He would hope this demilitarization would mean less war, less fighting. But no, the downsizing of military bases has more to do with cost and the increasing technology of war than peace
Shawangunk Grasslands, 2009, runway
Why the focus on grasslands? Because farms are fighting to stay alive. Too many have sold out to developers who put up townhouses, large McMansions and other dwellings styled "estates," and that has left the birds and insects that would normally nest on farmland or unmowed grasses without a place to breed, and thus numbers are declining.

Grasshopper sparrows and bobolinks depend on grasslands, and because of the decline they are considered "threatened" birds by New Jersey.

There are a number of farms in New Jersey - active and preserved - that leave their meadows to the birds. Griggstown Grasslands and Negri-Nepote, both in Franklin Township, Somerset County, NJ, are among them. 

2012, snow and some changes (RE Berg-Andersson)
In New York, there is the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Walkill. This was the former Galeville Military Airport. When MH and I first came here, in March 2009, it was because I had read of a remarkable gathering of rough-legged hawks - birds of the tundra that had come south for the winter to this part of New York. When we visited they were gathering in good numbers, making ready for that moment their instincts told them it was time to head back north.

At that time, you parked in the lot off the road, then walked down a driveway to the old concrete runways, which provided an easy way to get across the field and close to the area where the hawks were congregating.

A trail takes shape 2013 (RE Berg-Andersson)
The next time we were there was in February 2012. The area had been closed for several years for the beginning of the work that would change the nature of the NWR from former airfield to grassland. 

When we came back for the the roughlegged hawks, we also saw a fair number of harriers and, to my delight, short-eared owls hunting in the afternoon. There was still snow on the fields but now the runways were gone in some areas and we had to make our way through the unexpectedly heavy snow.

2015 - no runways, only fields. (RE Berg-Andersson)
A year later, in August 2013, snow was long gone, as were the rough-legged hawks. The fields were brown in spots and very muddy in others. There was the beginning of a trail and we followed it as far as we could, until it turned deeply muddy. The runways to the far end of the field were gone. The only birds I remember clearly were harriers, song sparrows, redwing blackbirds and, before we turned back because of the mud, Eastern meadowlarks.

By the time we came back on our most recent visit, June 2015, there was no trace of the runways in the field and just one small bit left as a parking lot. (You could drive all the way down now, although the old lot is still off the road.)

Eastern meadowlark (RE Berg-Andersson)
Beyond, all you can see now are grasses and wildflowers. Trails were mowed and are not very wide. As MH and I walked I listened to all the chatter around us. 

There were song sparrows and redwinged blackbirds, as usual, but this time there were bobolinks. A lot of bobolinks. In one back field alone, still wet from recent rains, I counted more than 30 males and a few females. 

Congregation of bobolinks (RE Berg-Andersson)
There were also buzzy grasshopper sparrows, mainly secretive in the grass unless you stepped too close, at which point you had to be fast with the binoculars to catch them as they flew off. 
There were also more meadowlarks, some of them singing. There was at least one Savannah sparrow plus Eastern kingbirds. All were feasting on seed heads and insects. A harrier and barn swallows hunted the fields. I expected kestrel - another bird in decline - but instead found a hunting merlin!
All of these birds have found a breeding sanctuary at this place, as they are finding in other farms and air bases converted into grasslands. 
And it's not just birds. We also heard a bull frog and a tree frog in our travels, and who knows how many different kinds of insects were there around us. (Luckily, we weren't bothered by mosquitos the cool day we visited.) It gives one hope that people are recognizing we need biodiversity in this world. 

But when you consider global warming and the continued militarization of this world, a grassland such as Shawangunk is but a small and fragile part of this planet. 

As is mankind.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Birds I Don't Like

Every year, after the winter birds have left for their summer homes, catbirds arrive to make nests in my shrubs. My trees are filled with little birds that have found old woodpecker roosts  or other natural crevices to make their nests. The box I put out for the house wren every year gets a tenant.

These are summer visitors I welcome. Others are not.

This year I've discovered common grackles nesting in my large, unshorn juniper hedge that acts as a screen between me and my neighbor. Deer have decimated the bottom of this hedge, which is why I leave the top part alone. Black-capped chickadees and other birds roost there for the winter and I know cardinals nest there during the New Jersey breeding season.

Delmarva female Boat-tailed Grackle (RE Berg-Andersson)
So to have grackles does not please me. They are large birds that, when not paired for breeding, congregate in huge flocks that are frequently augmented by blackbirds, cowbirds and starlings. They descend like a black cloud on my lawn several times each fall and spring. If left out the house feeder would be completely covered. I have also seen grackles attempting to get at seed from my encaged feeders. 

There are people who like grackles. Their black feathers show blue and brown highlights in the sun because of the luminescence. Jack Kerouac's mother, Memere, loved feeding the "black birds" after Jack dragged her down to Florida during one of those times he wanted to get away from the notoriety of writing "On the Road."

It doesn't take much for a grackle pair in a tree to turn into a huge flock in that and surrounding trees, crowding out other nesters. Grackles are opportunists, and like starlings and house sparrows - other birds I do not like for a variety of reasons - they will eat garbage left on the street as well as the worms they can pull out of the ground.

So I am not happy to see the three grackles (a pair and a helper?) walking along my lawn or pulling insects out of the crevices of my trees. 

These grackles, as I said, are common grackles. Along the eastern coast there are boat-tailed grackles, which are bigger and whose tails look like hulls. Unlike the common grackle female, which is the same color as the male but smaller, the boat-tail female is brown, such as the one above. That is usually how I know what kind I am seeing. The third type of grackle is the great-tailed grackle, a bird of the southwestern U.S.

It might seem strange that someone who enjoys walking around and looking at birds would have an antipathy to some species. My husband says all birds are God's creatures and have to feed where they can (although he does run out to grab the house and suet feeders when grackle "invasions" take place). 

I see no contradiction. After all, there are people I dislike but I don't hate the species.

The only bird I dislike more than the grackle is the cowbird. There are three types -- the brown-headed that I see in New Jersey; the bronzed I've seen once, in North Carolina; and the shiny cowbird. My comments pertain to the brown-headed.

Male Brown-headed Cowbirds, Cape May, NJ 2015 (RE Berg-Andersson)
I've written of my dislike of this parasitic bird before (please see my post of June 12, 2011; unfortunately, the link doesn't work). Besides hogging feeders, the female lays her eggs in the nests of other birds, usually one per nest. The cowbird chick usually hatches earlier and is much larger. It usually throws the other eggs out of the nest and dominates the attention of the parents. Then, somehow, it leaves the nest and knows to join up with other cowbirds, starting the cycle anew.

There is nothing sadder than seeing a cardinal being chased around the yard by a screaming, hungry cowbird chick. I usually see this every year. Actually, there is something sadder -- the Carolina wren pair I saw in another backyard one year, feverishly trying to feed the screaming "baby" chasing them that was twice their size.

Like the grackle, starling and blackbirds, the birds don't "sing" so much as croak out strange noises. The male cowbird is black with a brown head, the female a dull brown. They frequently pick at things in large flocks on roadsides, either with other cowbirds or alongside grackles and starlings.

About the only thing grackles and cowbirds are good for is diversifying the species. But these birds are tough and crowd out the smaller and weaker. Like other bullies, they are in no danger of disappearing anytime soon.

Prejudiced? Guilty.