Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

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.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Feeder Location, Location, Location

Backyard hummingbird from years ago. (Margo D. Beller)
One afternoon at dusk, after a long day trying to stay alive, the little bird perched on the edge of the red feeder, dipped her long, delicate bill into the liquid and had a long drink. She might have a nest nearby and young to feed, or she could be a juvenile, in which case she could be a he.

Suddenly, another little bird appeared. Despite the many portals allowing access to the sweet liquid within, the bird - an adult male - came at the female, who flew backwards and took off. The male then sat where she had been sitting, took his own long drink and then sat there, shaded, until he took off for the night.

The whole episode took a few minutes and I witnessed it by chance through my kitchen window.

The birds were ruby-throated hummingbirds, the ones you are 99% likely to see in the eastern U.S. (The rufous hummingbird, a western species, has been known to fly along the east coast as it heads south for the winter from its breeding ground in the far north. And there are always "accidentals" that get caught up in the wrong air current.)

John J. Audubon referred to ruby-throated hummingbirds as the "glittering fragment of a rainbow" because of the male's deep red throat, white belly and green head and back (the female lacks the red). These little birds weighing less than an ounce - more like a large insect than a bird - seem to just appear out of nowhere, making my encounters with them quite special.
First attempt to evade ants. (Margo D. Beller)
My feeder was in a shady place in my backyard (see above), an area surrounded by the pink flowers of perennial geranium, astilbe, hosta, columbine and joe-pye weed. The male bird I mentioned above had been coming to the feeder every day for months, although because of the feeder's location I would only be able to see it if I walked onto my enclosed porch.

Then we had a heat wave.

No rain for a very long time, and then weeks of rain in a single day. The lawn went brown, the water dishes I have out were empty each night. I looked at the hummer feeder - filled with one-quarter cup sugar per one cup water - one afternoon and saw something crawling on it. It turned out to be a large ant. I came out the next day and saw ants all over it and inside.

This was the first time my feeder had been so afflicted. Bees, yes, but not a thick cloud of ants. And it has continued hot and dry.

I wrote recently about the feeder pole I bought to replace one destroyed by a bear. I moved the hummingbird feeder there in the afternoon. The good news was I could see the feeder from my kitchen. The bad news was for most of the day it would be hanging in the sun, where the liquid would quickly go bad.

I left it there a day and then moved it back to its usual place in the evening. It was covered with ants the next morning.

So I cleaned it out, refilled it and moved it back to the sunny area. Then I thought of a way to mitigate the problem - an old umbrella stashed in my closet from a Thai restaurant, whose unfortunate logo showed what can only be described as a highly aroused mermaid that was unavoidable when the umbrella was open.

But duct-taped to the pole with the naughty bits covered, it worked just fine for the feeder. My only concern was whether a hummingbird would find it. That concern was answered within 10 minutes when the male showed up to investigate. Later that day, a female did the same.

This was the pair that had their encounter that night.
Back in the shade, with moat. (Margo D. Beller)

Male and female hummingbirds only get along for the short time when the male displays (in extravagant aerial loops), the female accepts and they mate. Once done, the male isn't involved in the building of nests or raising of young. In fact, males are usually gone by July, making the continuation of this male into August rather extraordinary. Hummingbirds will spend more time and energy chasing each other away, even with a surfeit of food, than actually feeding.
I could've let things be with my makeshift cover but I hadn't accounted for wind pulling the umbrella, in turn pulling the feeder pole and shaking the feeder. So I went to my closest New Jersey Audubon store to see if there was some way to either shade the feeder or block the ants. Turned out there was both.

So now, the feeder is back in its original location in the shade, the ants blocked by a moat, and the male has been coming to feed.

Sadly, the female came to the sunny feeder pole, found nothing and flew off. I can only hope she will find the feeder in the shade and manage to take another long drink before being chased off yet again.

What do we learn from all this? We learn that necessity is the mother of invention, and if there is a problem there are always ways to solve it (including finding a product at an affordable price).

Most important, you learn that when you put out food for birds, even tiny birds like hummingbirds, you will get a large thrill when they come to feed, and you will do whatever it takes to help them do so.

Postscript: The morning after writing the above I went out to get the feeder. It had seemed the hummingbird was struggling to get enough liquid that evening and I wanted to top off the water level. I looked at the feeder and the moat - no ants. I took a small leaf out of the water (many leaves are falling in this heat), unhooked the feeder and brought it in.

I took off the lid and found an ant flailing about in the water! How could this have happened?

I fished the ant out, threw it back outside, topped the water level and was putting the lid back on when two things occurred to me.

First, the ant was probably on the underside of the lid, above the water (since, according to the makers of the moat, ants can't swim) and I had dislodged it either when I took the feeder in or took off the lid.

Second, and most important, the ant had crawled down to the leaf, used it as a bridge to the edge of the moat, crawled up over the side and resumed its quest for nirvana.

Once again proving that necessity is the mother of invention, even for an ant.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Do You Know Where Your "Jersey Fresh" Corn Comes From?

I have to say right away that I enjoy going to farm markets. I go to one of the few in my area in the winter, held monthly, where several bakers offer treats and farms bring their winter store of goods - grass-fed meats and such produce as apples and root vegetables and greens that like winter cold like spinach.

I go to another farmstand not far from where I live, where the goal is to teach the lower-income people in the neighborhood where food comes from (not "from the store"). A wide variety of herbs and vegetables is grown here and picked for you (with you showing what you want), all moderately priced. What isn't sold is used in the local schools or donated to a food pantry. You can walk around and pick flowers and people talk to each other and trade recipes. I find it extremely relaxing, especially watching the bees and hearing the birds.

Those are not the type of farm markets I mean.
(Margo D. Beller)
I know farms are trying to survive. When they are not bringing their goods to a network of weekly markets throughout the state, they offer visitors (mainly city dwellers trying to remember a simpler time) pick-your-own berries and fruit, hay rides, corn mazes and petting zoos. They are part of what has become agritourism, which sprang up as states worked to drum up interest in farms and help them survive rather than sell out to "developers" that build condos and housing all over them.

Before the farmstand I mentioned above came into being, I would go to the farm markets in my town and several other towns if they were held on a Saturday or Sunday, or at the ones located near wherever I happened to be working at the time. (One of the biggest, held all year, is in Union Square, New York City, where many of the local restaurants buy the goods in bulk as part of a drive toward "eating fresh and local.")

People are willing to pay a lot for local, especially if organically grown.

The problem is, not every fruit or vegetable is available when you want it. That is part of the reason you can find blueberries from halfway around the world at your supermarket in winter but not those from New Jersey, which have a limited season in the late spring/early summer.

Most people just presume fruits and vegetables are available when they want them. Farms know this.

So when the farm market in my town opened for business in June, I was surprised to see warm-weather crops (peppers and tomatoes, among others) along with the cold crops (spinach, garlic). I was not surprised to learn from one of the farm people that this north Jersey farm has an arrangement with a farm in North Carolina to get produce shipped north for those early market days.

You may think you are paying for local but you're not.

I've gone into New Jersey farmstands when the corn or other produce is marked "Jersey Fresh," the marketing slogan of the state agricultural department. That means it comes from a New Jersey farm, just not the one you might be buying from.

Again, I understand the farm's need to make a buck and survive. If Joan Jersey wants a "fresh" tomato off the farm in May, what are you going to do? You get her one. Otherwise, she goes to the local supermarket, which is also catering to the "farm fresh, buy local" craze by contracting with local farms for produce - in season. The rest of the time, those fruits and veggies can come from halfway around the world.

One of the beauties of buying off the farm is knowing where the stuff comes from. But do you really know where the stuff comes from when you see the farm staff opening boxes of tomatoes and offering them for sale, even when marked as "Jersey Fresh?" I don't think so.

Hazel St. farmstand, Morristown, N.J. (Margo D. Beller)
So I've gotten what's known as hyperlocal. I know what I can get in summer from my favorite local farmstand (greens, herbs, peppers and fresh tomatoes), where I can buy freshly cut asparagus in early spring and fruit grown in the fields, and where I can get corn I can see growing picked and put on a table for sale. That happens to be three different places, none of which is the farm offering goods in my town.

It means a bit more travel - and using fossil fuels to get there - but I know where the food really comes from.

As with everything else, buyer beware.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Not-So-Lonely Ocean

One of the nice things about environmental preservation is that after being hunted nearly to extinction in American waters, whales are coming back in numbers and are an important source of tourist income in such former fishing locales as Gloucester, Boston and Cape Cod in Massachusetts and various coastal towns throughout New England and elsewhere.

Wilson's storm petrel (Margo D. Beller)
When my husband (MH) and I went on vacation to Massachusetts and New Hampshire this year, a whale watch was not uppermost in my mind for the itinerary. I did want to go to Gloucester again because since the last time many years ago I had read Mark Kurlansky's book about the town and another book about Clarence Birdseye, who lived in Gloucester for a time.

I had been looking at the Massachusetts bird report to see if anything would be at Great Meadows refuge near Concord, Mass., when I mentioned all the birds seen off Cape Cod and reported to the list. It was MH who then suggested the whale watch.

When we had last gone on a whale watch, out of Provincetown at the very end of Cape Cod, we never got out of the bay because there were so many whales - mainly humpbacks - hanging around, going after the fish they have to eat in bulk to survive. I, who had wanted to go far offshore to see the pelagic birds one doesn't see even off the coast, enjoyed the whales but was disappointed nonetheless. (Didn't help the so-called naturalist wouldn't confirm the kittiwakes I know I saw.)

Humpback whale and storm petrel (RE Berg-Andersson)
This time, however, we got 25 miles away from the coast to an area that was once a prime habitat for cod - the subject of another Kurlansky book I've read - called Stellwagen Bank. When overfishing threatened, the fishermen were over-regulated as to what to take, how much and how often. The fish population has been slowly coming back and, in the process, so have the bigger underwater predators such as whales.

2 sooty shearwaters with greater shearwaters (Margo D. Beller)

On a hot day in Gloucester we were soon refreshed by cold, damp breezes in the hour it took us to get out to the area where whales had been seen. I was not surprised to see double-crested cormorants off shore but I was surprised to see greater black-backed gulls much farther out into the open waters of the Gulf of Maine. About halfway out to Stellwagen, a minke whale - looking like a larger, black dolphin - came up and then swam back down. The captain said we don't follow these because they are easily spooked. Our time was limited.

As we continued on I scanned the waters and soon saw what looked like a black swallow with a white tail band. When I got a closer look it was what the naturalist later said was the most prolific bird in the world, the Wilson's storm petrel. This was a new bird for me. One of the crew had told the captain about my interest in birds and he was nice enough to confirm it, and also call out the assorted shearwaters - very large birds that look like duller-colored gulls but with larger, hooked bills - we saw: greaters, Cory's and, in lesser numbers, sootys.
Greater shearwater (RE Berg-Anderson)
These birds feed and rest on the open waters, rarely coming to land except for a very short period of mating, nesting and brooding young. Then it's back to the distant waters.

There are many other types of pelagic birds out there, but aside from a northern gannett and a pomarine jaeger called out by the captain (another new bird for me), the shearwaters and storm petrels dominated.

Until we got to the whales.

We found two humpbacked whales, the second largest in the world (after the blue), just lying there, a process known as "logging" (as in, lying there like a bump on a log). Humpbacks are naturally buoyant so when they want to dive, they pick up their heads, give themselves a push down and up come the tails - to the oohs and ahs of those watching.

Whale sighting boats (RE Berg-Andersson)
At this point there was a boat from another Gloucester company in radio contact with our captain, and they were also looking at humpbacks. After a long visit with our two - recognized by the naturalist by the distinctive markings on the underside of the tail - we switched places with the other crew and watched two more. (Eventually a boat from Gloucester's third company arrived.) All told we saw 7 humpbacks and 3 minkes, which is pretty good considering people I talked with later were lucky to have only seen one whale.

There's a lot of water out there and whales are still a protected species. In many areas outside the U.S., they are still hunted despite electricity taking the place of whale oil. In the U.S., whaling has been relegated to coastal museums catering to the tourists and the most famous account of whaling, "Moby-Dick."

We learned a lot about whales on this trip (this was a much better naturalist than the Cape Cod one) and even tho' I saw birds I've never seen before and will likely never see again, the whales were the stars of this show.

Rightfully so.
(Margo D. Beller)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

You Can Go Home Again

Osprey pair, Marine Park, Brooklyn (RE Berg-Andersson)

When I was growing up along the southern coast of Brooklyn, I knew Sheepshead Bay, which gave my neighborhood its name, but did not know my junior high school was named for Shell Bank Creek, which flows to the north of Plumb Island and east into where Gerritsen and Mill creeks merge, in turn flowing into Plumb Beach Channel and on to Rockaway Inlet and, eventually, to the Atlantic Ocean.

I knew there was a neighborhood called Mill Basin and one called Gerritsen Beach and the little beach off the Belt Parkway I could walk to from my house was Plumb Beach. But the waterways for which they are named meant nothing to me. My family didn't boat and didn't fish.

When we went to Plumb Beach or occasionally Gerritsen Beach, we had to watch for trash (or worse) in the sand and in the water when we walked to the edge. We never swam and no one ever kept the fish they caught in Sheepshead Bay.

Fast-forward over 40 years. The federal government took over the waterways and beaches stretching from New Jersey's Sandy Hook through Staten Island, hooking east to Brooklyn (including the former military base, Floyd Bennett Field), Queens' Jamaica Bay and the western-most parts of the Rockaway Peninsula to create the Gateway National Recreation Area in 1972. Gateway, according to its website, is a "complex urban park, preserving 27,000 acres of land and sea across two states and three New York City boroughs."

This is when the cleanup began as well as recognition that these inlets, bays and creeks are what make this area of New York City unique. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of environmental activism, when people worried about the effects of polluted air and water on their children, their communities and themselves.

The federal government stepped in it because it was expected to -- a far cry from today when the idea of any federal government program enacted for the public good draws outcry from some areas and is considered a foreign and dangerous concept akin to socialism.

I left Brooklyn for college in the early 1970s, and did not spend much time visiting the beaches when I would return for visits. It has only been in the last 15 years, when my husband and I, while living in New Jersey, became interested in watching birds, did we start visiting some of these areas, which had become prime birding sites thanks to cleaner beaches and water.

Marine Park salt marsh (RE Berg-Andersson)

For instance, I had been reading about a Marine Park Salt Marsh area and some of the interesting birds found there, but I was having a hard time visualizing it. I knew Marine Park - I would ride there, alone, no mobile phone or pager, no child-safety helmet - on my bike, go around the paved, circular drive a few times and then either come home or visit my grandmother in nearby Flatlands. The area across the road was dark, dense with trees and covered in garbage. You didn't go in there. How could this be a salt marsh?

Well, the area was opened up and there was the marsh, where it had been all along. An educational center was built to explain the marsh's importance. Best of all, a paved path takes you along the marsh itself, which is the end of Gerritsen Creek. At one point, we could see where the end of Mill Creek starts (at the back of the Marine Park golf course on Flatbush Ave.). In the distance one way is the  Gil Hodges Bridge to the Rockaway Peninsula. The other way stands the reminder of 9/11 known variously as the Freedom Tower, One World Trade Center or That Ugly Building Over There.

Thanks to federal spending on Gateway, I have learned about the forts that defended New York harbor, seen hundreds of different types of  birds and visited an airfield that is now a wildlife habitat.

Had I been a birder as a child, I would not have seen the osprey, green herons, black-crowned night-heron, great and snowy egrets and other marsh and shore birds I witnessed at the Marine Park Salt Marsh.

Great egret and smaller snowy egrets (RE Berg-Andersson)
It's too bad my parents weren't inclined to have a boat and ply the waters so near our home to such exotically named places as Dead Horse Bay, Island Channel and the Raunt. Then again, what would I have seen in those dark, unenlightened times?

We didn't know what we had back then. We do now.

At a time when the Obama administration wants to broaden environmental protection and cut back on the forces that promote global warming, opposition in Congress and some states wants to bring things back to the way things were, when water was polluted, the air was brown and bins of coal dust were out for the garbage men to dump. (I saw these bins because coal was used to heat my public school, across the street from my home.)

Those people who think any rules that impinge on their ability to deplete the land of birds, animals and fish or pollute the air we all breathe or do whatever the hell they want without "government on our backs" don't know what we have either.