Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

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.