Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Monday, December 26, 2016

A Holiday Wish

As the year draws to a close, remember that each new year has the promise of being better than the one before.

Already the days are getting slightly longer because we've passed the first day of winter. Soon there will be more light, flowers and other plants will grow again and the birds will be on the move -- migrating, singing, coming to your feeder in beautiful arrays of breeding color.

2016 was not a good year for my health but I know from several tests and exams that 2017 is going to be a much better year for me. Soon I will be the same age my mother was when she died, and I am more than grateful to the Almighty for the time I've had and the time yet to come.

The future, particularly here in the United States, may look scary but I am hopeful humanity will win out over bellicosity and 140-character acts of cruelty.

May you and yours have a joyous new year filled with hope, light and the promise of a new day.

Sunrise over Appalachicola, Florida. (Margo D. Beller)

Monday, December 12, 2016

December in My Soul

Winter finally arrived in New Jersey, bringing with it arctic air, biting wind and even a bit of snow.

Winter is not one of my favorite times. Snow and ice make it harder to walk. Shorter days mean I can't do as much outdoor activities, such as birding, as I would like. Longer periods of darkness make it hard to get up at my usual early hour.

The journey begins, 12/10/16 (Margo D. Beller)
I've had health problems this year, and sometimes I don't feel like myself, which can be depressing. Winter makes that feel worse.

So this weekend, with the threat of more snow looming, I decided to go out and see what was flying around. I went to Great Swamp.

The Swamp is a large piece of land that is mainly run by the U.S. government although there are smaller parts run by Morris and Somerset counties.

My trip was to the federal area, which is in two parts - the "management" area where hunting is allowed in season and underbrush is burned or severely cut back (in short, managed) and the "wilderness" area where maintenance is minimal. The wilderness area is more of a challenge, but I didn't want a challenge when it was very cold. You get to be a certain age and you think of what happens if you're alone and fall and can't get up or, in the case of one unfortunate man I once worked with, you slip into the Passaic River and your body isn't found until winter is over.

My usual winter hiking attire. (RE Berg-Andersson)
It is scary getting older. You don't move as fast, even when driving a car. You forget things. Moving around seems harder and more painful. You feel weighed down. For that reason, I eschewed the frozen mud and rocky trails of the wilderness area and took the more wide-open trails of the managed area.

I started with one area of the Swamp where one trail is a boardwalked loop and thus is very popular with parents with children and those who want an easy stroll. At the time I visited it was super cold and relatively early so there were few people around. However, I wanted the second trail to the duck blind, which is partially boardwalked, partially frozen ground.

(As I was lacing up my boots a couple drove up in a powder blue Jaguar. They looked at me and moved to the boardwalked trail, which I expected. But they seemed perturbed by my orange hat, boots and walking stick because they kept stopping to look back at me. Maybe they thought I would try to steal their car. By the time I came back the car was gone, presumably with them.)

I was the only one in this area. I walked slowly and quietly to listen for calls. It was the first time in a while I felt like myself, completely in sync with all around me -- alive. I scanned the sky for hawks and was pleased when a redtailed hawk hovered over my head and then flew to the top of a tree, allowing me a long look.

Frozen - 12/10/16 (Margo D. Beller)
The waters were frozen solid enough for the juncos to skate on the surface as they picked at whatever infinitesimal things they could find to eat. The titmice were as much on the ground as they were in the trees.

The duck blind showed large water fowl way out in the swamp - Canada geese, mute swans, noisy mallards and a few black ducks that decided to fly in. I've been at this blind in many seasons. One year, a channel was open in the frozen water and down it swam pintails, green-winged teals and American wigeons in a sort of parade. Not now. If these smaller ducks were in the far distance with the big guys I couldn't see them.

Passing over the bridge on the way back, I thought of the time one spring when the thick ice started to melt, cracking like rifle shot. Then I looked up to see a flock of snow geese heading north. But now all was ice. A small flock of titmice and white-breasted nuthatch were hunting for food along with two gold-crowned kinglets. This is why I look at everything, because you never know who might be tagging along with the more familiar birds.

Redtail over parking lot. (12/10/16)
Back at my car, I drove to another part of the Swamp, the tour road created out of what used to be part of a mapped street, Pleasant Plains Rd. At other times I've seen harriers over the fields, yellow warblers building nests and bluebirds singing from their boxes. This time a winter visitor, a fox sparrow, popped up from the brush just long enough for me to admire its coloring. I found another one farther up the road in a flock with its cousins - song sparrows, white-throated sparrows and juncos.

It is tempting when it is cold out, especially after a serious medical condition, to stay holed up all winter like the bears in their dens. It can be depressing to do that, making you feel trapped, the furnace heat drying out your skin and making your eyes tear.

You might as well be dead.

So when the damp, drizzly November in my soul turns to cold, hard December, I account it high time to get out of the house and go birding as soon as I can.

Call me Crazy. But at least I'm happy.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Raking It In

“Thinking is learning all over again how to see, directing one's consciousness, making of every image a privileged place.” 
― Albert CamusThe Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

The other week we were driving home from a family gathering in New Hampshire. We made a stop at one of New Hampshire's waysides to use the bathroom and stretch our legs. The trees were full of colorful leaves, just past peak in this region of the U.S.

A woman was standing nearby with her dog, which strained to come to me. I walked over and pet it. The woman and I talked. She was in awe of the colorful leaves because where she lives, in Arizona, you don't see fall foliage like that. "Someday I have to bring my grandchildren here so they can see this," she told me as MH walked back to the car. She bade me farewell and walked with her dog to her waiting husband sitting in their van.

(Margo D. Beller)
I thought of that woman as I was raking today. I'd like to have a backyard of cactus.

Autumn leaves are beautiful but they are dying. As the days shorten and the weather turns cold, the trees start sending precious life fluids down to their roots. The green leaves start to turn color and drop to the ground. Some days the leaves fall like rain.

Which is why today I was outside in the early morning cold with my rake, tarp and blower.

I find blowers to be a necessary evil. I have "earmuffs," which look like old headphones, to protect my ears when I use our blower, which is electric-powered and relatively quiet compared with the big leaf blowers and hurricane fans used by the lawn services. I wear them even when I rake, to block out the noise of the neighbors in our bit of suburbia, who in their lawn lust want every last speck of leaf removed.

This was the second Saturday this season I've gone out to rake. MH joined me an hour in last week and we kept banging into each other until we developed an unspoken plan involving raking (him) and blowing (me) and putting tarpfuls of leaves at the curb (both of us).

Less than 24 hours later, a storm blew through with wind and rain, bringing down more leaves and covering our lawn. You'd never know we'd been out there. Just like Sisyphus, we'd have to do it again.

Before the fall - 8 a.m., Nov. 6, 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
This time, after a bad night's sleep, I went out early. I used the rake to pull leaves away from edges and the patio, then pushed them on the tarp. I dragged the tarp around the house to fill it with leaves and then dump it at the curb. Across the road one of my neighbors' lawn guy was unloading his equipment. He looked at me and I half-feared and half-hoped he'd ask me if I needed any help. But he didn't. He went on with his work and I went back to fill another tarpful.

My neighbor with this lawn service used to do it himself, until he had a heart attack. I can understand his hiring someone. There will surely come a time when MH, with his aching knees, and I, with various back problems, won't be able to do this ourselves anymore. Our nephew and nephew-in-law are landscapers, but they live in other states. We have no children or grandchildren to help us. For now, we do it.

Whether I use the rake or the blower, the birds are not happy when I come close to the feeders or the water dishes. The chickadees, titmice and white-breasted nuthatch fly in, grab and go when they think I'm not looking or am far enough away. The house finches, jays and house sparrows stay away. They know I will come after them if they stay too long at the feeders. Left unchecked, they'll just sit and eat until there is no more seed, to the detriment of other birds.

White-breasted nuthatch above, titmouse below. (Margo D. Beller)

But once I get far enough away, they are right back at it.

Raking is a quiet activity. It is a thoughtful activity. Unlike sitting and staring into a computer, raking allows me to concentrate on doing something physical and tangible - getting leaves on a tarp - instead of worrying about the usual intangible things such as whether I still have a job or if I can pay the bills this month. In its way, it is as restful as meditating.

When my arms started to ache, I put on my earmuffs and used my blower to create piles. I do this to give me something of substance to put on the tarp. Blowing leaves to the curb is a waste of time, energy and electricity, although those with those gas-belching fans that roar like a jet engine don't share my concerns.

Sure, they were done in 20 minutes as opposed to the several hours I took. But little by little I filled and moved the tarp, then dumped it, until I had gotten the entire backyard done, by which time MH had come out and started raking the front. I felt very accomplished and rather energized, surprisingly so.

There are times I am depressed. This seems to happen a lot at this time of year. The end of the year is near and the November in my soul, triggered by the same lack of light and cold that bring down the leaves, prompts "what's the point" moments.

I sit and wonder:  What's the point of cleaning the house when it's only going to get dusty again? What's the point of getting dressed when I work at home and don't want to see anyone? What's the point of raking when more leaves are going to come down?

What's the point of living when you're going to die anyway?

When I get to that point, I have to take myself outside. As I rake in the cold, feeling the breeze and seeing the birds flitting about in the now-bare trees, I calm down. We live to push that boulder to the top of the hill, even when it falls down and we have to push it up again.

So I go out with my rake and tend to my little plot in the universe.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

November in My Soul

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul...then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Herman Melville, "Moby-Dick"

It is sad to think that when it comes to vacations, most Americans either don't take one or make it as short as possible. When they travel, they take their computers, check their phones several times a day for email, Facebook or maps to tell them where to go next.

As I get ready to change the calendar page, I am thinking about my coming vacation. I plan to leave the computer at home and keep the phone off as much as I can.

I did not take one week by choice. If I could afford it - for if I don't work I don't get paid in this freelance life - I'd take several weeks and drive down to check out Florida's birds and the migrants. This would be in April, when the birds are in their breeding plumage and heading north.
Male common merganser duck (RE Berg-Andersson)
But since this is November I am talking about, we are following the ducks and other birds south. Seashore areas in November are very quiet - almost too quiet because many restaurants are closed for the season. However, if you go far enough afield and are willing to eat where the locals do, you won't go hungry, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The ocean roars and the air is chilly on the Outer Banks. People walk on the beach, sometimes with their dogs, but I plan to take along our chairs so MH and I can sit and relax. We have both worked very hard this election year. There will also be some days driving around, looking at the birds of Pea Island and on the Delmarva Peninsula on the way home. 

I can't wait. For now, however, MH and I have been raking.

Weather has zigzagged from very hot to very cold and the trees have dropped their leaves. One day you see brilliant color. The next, it is "past peak" and falling. If my house was in the forest, I'd leave the leaves alone because they make good mulch, providing cover for insects, salamanders and other creatures. 

But I am in suburbia, and for the past few weeks there has been a near-constant droning of leaf blowers. During the week, it is the lawn services. On the weekend, it is the homeowner who is a do-it-yourselfer. MH and I are the latter. We spent several hours in the backyard, where the green grass was buried under oak, elm, apple, maple and pear leaves. We attacked with rakes, tarp and, yes, blower. Big piles are now at the curb. Some other time we will do the front yard, where the locust trees are already bare but the grass can still be seen. And then we'll likely repeat the process again.

Chipping sparrow in non-breeding colors (Margo D. Beller)
Hungry birds have been coming to the feeders. For the past week we've entertained winter visitors - purple finches, male and female, the state bird of New Hampshire. These birds of the north would only be in my backyard if their home regions don't have enough food for them. Will this be a year we also host red-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins? If so they will have to fight the resident house sparrows, cardinals, house finches, chickadees, titmice and white-breasted nuthatches. 

So far the purple finches - a threatened species - have been holding their own.

In the shrubs I hear the white-throated sparrows, which show up in the late summer into fall around the time the catbirds leave. I've also seen their cousins the juncos, which arrive around the time the chipping sparrows leave. When it snows and food becomes harder to find, they will be less skittish and go under the feeders to pick up what the other birds have dropped. The suet is eagerly eaten by woodpeckers - downy, redbelly and the occasional hairy.

My garden is done. What is spent has been cut back and I've done some neatening. All that remains is putting burlap over the deer netting to keep the evergreen shrubs from the deer.

I have three pots of peppers - two grown from seed this year and the one from last year - in the house, no white flies (thank goodness) and covered with flowers and/or growing peppers. I could not leave them outside to die.

White-throated sparrow (Margo D. Beller)
The cannas and other big plants in pots, including a gift dahlia, are on the enclosed porch, going dormant. Soon they'll be in a more sheltered place for the winter. The begonias I potted in the spring are in the house, somehow fit among the house plants I brought in from the back porch earlier. 

The farm market ended its season. After the hard freeze earlier this week, I was amazed to find some coneflowers and snapdragons I could cut to make a decent bouquet, my last of the season. Turnips, tomatoes, lettuce, chard, collards, green peppers and garlic will last for several weeks because they are locally grown minutes from my house, not shipped in from halfway around the world.

With November comes shorter days and longer nights. I can understand why Melville's Ishmael would get restless and go to sea. November is a hard month. When we turn back the clock it is dark at 5 pm. It take more of an effort to get up in the morning when it is dark and cold. I feel old and sad at this time of year, made worse because of recent health and work issues.

And so I await that week of vacation. I need to be restored, at least for a short while.

A sad postscript: the redtail hawk that was the subject of my last post did not survive, despite the best efforts of the people at The Raptor Trust.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hawk-Watching Season, Up Close and Personal

Of all the suburban front yards this Red-tail hawk had to fall on, it had to choose mine.

This morning - cool, foggy, humid - I was doing my usual chores around the house and beyond. Around 7:30, as I was bringing brush to the pile at the curb, I saw this creature watching me.
Red-tail Hawk, Sept. 20, 2016 (Margo D. Beller)

I have found Red-tails on the property, but usually up in the trees. This one should not have been on the ground.

We looked at each other, warily. I walked close  enough to see its tail was brownish red, so this was likely a juvenile. (I also took this picture, which MH cropped.) I could also see one of its legs in front of it, its sharp, killer talons gleaming in the dew.

This was now a very interesting problem for me.

One does not expect to see a wild animal on the lawn, much less an injured one. As suburbs build farther and deeper into the woods and former farms of my congested little New Jersey, animals and birds are going to get displaced, often with tragic consequences. We're going to see them, and they us. Sometimes what we see are big bears or deer. Other times it's an injured bird. Humans can do stupid things when confronted with a situation like this.

I don't know what higher power guided this raptor to the one house on the block that knew what to do next, but I do know that somehow this bird was injured in such a way that it was alive, alert, able to stand and flap its wings but not fly. And a raptor that can't fly is a raptor that starves, becomes dehydrated or is harassed (or worse) by a larger predator.

This is not the first time I've found an injured Red-tail either. Long ago, working in coastal Jersey City, a place where skyscrapers went up like weeds and weedy fields disappeared under the umbrella of "progress," I was walking near my office and found a Red-tail hunkered down in plantings next to one of the new, "luxury" apartment buildings that sprang up with the view of Manhattan across the Hudson River.
One of the times it attempted to fly. (RE Berg-Andersson)

My first call was to get the number of The Raptor Trust, one of the state's best-known bird rehabilitation centers. However, the Trust is located in Millington, in Somerset County, and could not send anyone out to where I was in Hudson County. Call the police, they said.

So I went inside the building. When you have a "luxury" tower, you have a concierge and this man didn't bat an eye - he called the local animal control people from a number in his files. Reassured, I left.

I have no concierge at my house, but I also knew that while closer to the Trust's office, it would not be open before 9am. The Trust is a private organization that depends on donations to continue doing its good work. Many birds of all types have been mended and released into the wild. Many have died. Some stay at the Trust to be used to show we humans what happens when we tear up trees, put up big buildings or drive too fast without see (or caring) about what is walking or flying in front of us.

Birds have so many ways to die in the wild. Nature is cruel. This bird could've been clipped by a speeding car while chasing prey, injuring its wing. It could've been attacked by a two- or four-legged creature bigger and perhaps armed. It could've gotten confused in the fog and banged into a tree or a house. To me there is nothing sadder than seeing a bird of prey dead on the side of the road after hitting one of the many high-profile vehicles on one of the many major highways that bisect one of the most crowded states in the U.S.

I called The Raptor Trust and, as expected, left a message. The Trust accepts birds 24 hours a day but we'd have had to find a large box, throw a blanket on the bird, put it in, tape it shut, drive to the Trust office and then pull the bird out and put it into a heated carrier for when the staff arrived.

No way MH and I would pick up a scared bird whose talons or beak are designed to rip through skin and which weighs several pounds and has a 54-inch wingspan.

So this time I called our local police. All they could do would be monitor the situation and call the Trust. What about Animal Control? I asked.

Connie from Animal Control cages the hawk. (Margo D. Beller)
Turns out they called that number, too, according to the detective who showed up to do that monitoring and keep any people (or their dogs) away from the hawk. I later learned that thanks to the many budget cuts, our town does not have its own animal control office but contracts with a service that handles two counties and is based many miles from us although is close to the Raptor Trust.

So we waited. The detective left, Connie from Animal Control called to say she was on the way. We stood and watched the hawk like a hawk, making sure it wasn't bothered. At one point a murder of American crows started squawking and this Red-tail surely knew crows will mob a hawk to get it away from its family group. The hawk became extremely agitated, got up and flapped furiously. But all it could do was hop off the lawn and to the shaded walkway where it was less noticeable.

Ninety minutes after I found the bird, Connie arrived. She let the bird see her and watch her fold a fitted sheet in such a way that she could throw it over the bird. Her first attempt failed but her second was successful. Once in the dark, the hawk calmed down. Connie put it in a cage that was big enough to keep it comfortable in its sheet but not so big where the bird would flap and possibly do more damage.

By 9:30am, she was gone, on the way to the Trust - which had called me back while Connie was putting the hawk into the cage.

I tried to imagine what the bird was "thinking" while it sat there, watching me and others hover around it. Do birds feel fear? Yes. That's why it was warily watching me and then trying to get away from what it perceived as danger.
How I prefer to see Red-tails. (Margo D. Beller)

Are they able to tell the difference between a helpful me and someone with a gun trying to shoot it out of the sky for sport, as locals used to do on what is now Hawk Mountain Sanctuary at this time of year, when the raptors used the warm winds to save energy flying south along ridge lines? No, it does not. Which is why you should go to The Raptor Trust's website and read the section on how to handle injured or orphaned birds of all sizes if you should find one.

Better yet, call your police or animal control people.

This is hawk-watching season, ironically, and I got a chance to see a Red-tail up close and personal. I can only hope this one can be mended, avoids future hazards and makes its way back into the wild, to be seen aloft and admired by those of us below.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Acting My Age

There is the bucket list, and there is the anti-bucket list.

The bucket list is what you want, need or have to do before you die. Usually it refers to places to go and things to see.

There are places I would like to visit, sooner rather than later, such as the interior mountain west, the Point Reyes Seashore, the forests of Oregon. There are places I have visited and want to see again - Seattle, New Orleans, San Francisco.

And there are places I have visited I have no desire to see again. That is the anti-bucket list, for lack of anything else to call it.

At the top of the anti-bucket list is the North Lookout at Hawk Mountain. Hawk Mountain is one of the finest places to go in the Autumn if you want to see migrating raptors. It was once where sportsmen and farmers would climb and shoot eagles, osprey, redtails, kestrels and other raptors out of the sky, just for the hell of it.
On the North Lookout at Hawk Mountain (RE Berg-Andersson)

That ended thanks to the courageous actions of a number of people and one rich woman who bought the mountain to create the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

There are number of areas where you can walk or climb and sit on the rocks to watch the hawks fly in, presuming the wind is out of the north and the air is warm enough to promote thermals, the air currents on which the birds coast, saving their energy for less-windy areas.

The top place, literally, is the North Lookout. To get there you climb over rocks large and small, up an incline. Over the years, there have been a lot of people walking up and down to the lookout and between the first time MH and I visited and the last time, it seems to me there was some significant erosion or rock shifting. Or maybe it was being older. Or all those people of different ages jostling us. Whatever, it was extremely difficult climbing up and more treacherous climbing down.

When we got back to the bottom I turned to MH and said, "This is the last time we go to the North Lookout."

There are other lookouts not so far up or treacherous to visit, and the South Lookout is accessible to those in wheelchairs or can't walk.
Higbee Beach, Cape May, NJ (Margo D. Beller)
Here is another example: I love Cape May. If you are a birder, this is mecca. Always something to see, but especially during the spring and fall migrations.

In Autumn, many southbound migrants travel at night (to avoid diurnal raptors) and as the sun rises find themselves over Delaware Bay. At that point they turn around and fly north.

One of Cape May's best areas is Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. There are trails through fields, there is a path down to the beach and there is a dune - a very high dune.

There are some birders - all men - who go up there every year to count and note the birds passing through. One September, we visited Cape May and got up at dawn to visit Higbee. I attempted to climb to the viewing area. I got about halfway up and realized the trail was going straight up! I could not go up and going down was going to be extremely hazardous. I used the phragmites as a kind of bannister and resolved not to do that again. (There are more than enough other fine birding experiences in Cape May.)

Finally, in Dutchess County, N.Y., there is a preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy. It encompasses Thompson Pond and Stissing Mountain. I read about it from my old edition of the "New York Walk Book."

There are three trails and the first time we went there we took the longest of the three, the Yellow, which is nearly three miles long around the pond. It did not get as close to the pond as I would've liked and on the eastern side of pond it was wet, muddy, overgrown, uncomfortably close to the neighboring farm property where someone was using his ATV and his cattle crowded close to the fence to watch us as we made our sodden way along, slowly.

That was last year. This year, looking for something to do, I suggested we go back to Stissing Mountain and the pond, but use the other trails. The Blue trail is 0.2 miles and came much closer to the pond than the Yellow trail. We saw and heard a number of fine birds - three great blue herons, a singing yellow-throated vireo, a foraging black-throated green warbler, among them. The Blue trail brought us to the Yellow trail. We walked it until we met up with the third trail, the White, 0.8 miles. It took us into the woods, uphill, over rocks, around downed trees. Few birds.

By this time, several years on from our Hawk Mountain finale, MH's knees have gotten worse and my back isn't great. By the time we came down the Stissing Mountain ridge line we were extremely tired. It was obvious no one had bothered checking on this trail to clear the downed trees. MH and I agreed that unless we were in the area anyway there was no longer any reason to come to this spot.

The Baby Boomer generation does things. We rush out and run around and take pills to ignore the pain and pretend we are never going to age or get infirm or die. We do things our parents would not do, for whatever reason, and we refuse to think anything can stop us.

Until it does. Steep climbs, deep mud and water, downed trees to get around, lose rocks that can turn an ankle. And don't get me started about coming face to face with a bear or mountain lion or someone with bad intent. I've been lucky to avoid all three and I don't want to test my luck.

Sorry, my g-g-generation. I don't want to die before I get old.

Male downy woodpecker, Sept. 4, 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
An Update

What you see here is a male downy woodpecker. As I mentioned last time, the hummingbird feeder not only has drawn rubythroated hummers but downys, which are small enough to sit on the feeder and has a small enough bill and long enough tongue to enjoy the sugar water within.

The reason I am noting this is because after my last post I came out to find one male and one female downy sitting on the feeder.

Today I came out to find one downy on the feeder itself, one at the top of the feeder pole and one hovering around, trying to decide whether it wanted to fight the first male for access.

Three sugar-addicted downy woodpeckers?

Soon enough, the hummers will be gone and so will this feeder. Next year I may have to do something else to feed the hummers.

The downys, and the others, will have to make do with the seed and suet feeders.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Green, the Woods and the Woodpeckers

A New Leaf

A few weeks ago I wrote about my shock at opening the kitchen shade and looking out the window to see two big hunks of pear tree broken. I said at the time it was likely another bear visit, this time going after the one pear in the tree rather than a seed feeder. I still think it was a bear.

I worried about the pear tree, especially after I did some "pruning" that took off far more than I anticipated. I began to think about what kind of tree I'd get to replace the pear.

Today I went outside to refresh the water cooler and dish. I discovered that once again, Nature provides.

Below shows the growth coming from the snapped ends (once I sawed the broken part off).

New growth from broken pear branches (Margo D. Beller)

A Walk in the Woods

MH and I like to find new places to hike. If we find birds, so much the better. If there's no admission, better still.

So the other day we looked at a map of New York and found the Neversink River Unique Area. It's the word "unique" that interested me. All places are unique to me. However, the "uniqueness" comes from the deep gorge leading from the trail down to the river.

We did not hike that far in. We started uphill along the path from the parking lot among hemlock and pine in an easy grade (maybe not for MH's old knees) until we got to a level part of the path with a clearing. Oaks and maples with the pines. I heard the tittering of black-capped chickadees and titmice but when I saw movement and looked up, I saw something quite different - a male hooded warbler. Moments later, a Philadelphia vireo. A pileated woodpecker called loudly. Black and White warblers chased each other. All told we found five warblers (mourning warbler and ovenbird rounds out the list) in one small area.

This is why I go birding, the element of surprise, of one moment hearing nothing and then suddenly be surrounded by birds. This has happened to me a few times when seeing one bird led to seeing all sorts of "good" birds in a small area. It helps when it's migration, either spring or fall. I suspect the warblers and vireo were using the local knowledge of the local birds to find food.

The only problem was the shooting. Two guys were near the trailhead as we returned, one showing the other how to use a gun. Neither were young. One had the gun, the other a spotting scope, perhaps to make sure the other guy didn't kill anything. The guy with the gun was shooting low into the trees. The sound was loud and scary to me. I made sure they knew we were there as we hiked back to the car and they acknowledged. Eventually they left after other hikers showed up and as we were getting ready to drive off. Maybe we spooked them the way they spooked off the birds.

Hunting and trapping are part of the history of the Unique area, too. 

Woodpeckers With a Sweet Tooth

The law of unintended consequences bit me today.

We have had a lot of rain this summer but in the last week it has not rained much and gotten very hot again. I went outside to check the hummingbird feeder and found it filled with ants that drowned trying to get a drink. I dumped it and took out the cup that, filled with water, acts like a moat to keep them out.
Hummer feeder after downy flew off and before hummingbird arrived. (Margo D. Beller)
I came out today and found a male downy woodpecker on the feeder. I chased him off a couple of times. And then a female downy came to the feeder. I've had to chase her off a few times.

I realized that woodpeckers and hummingbirds have something in common - a long tongue.

So the downys - the smallest of our local woodpeckers - either sat on or perched on the feeder, dipped in their beaks, stuck out their tongues and drank, just like the hummers. It explains why the sugar water levels seemed to suddenly drop very low. I attributed it to the heat.
This would be a better picture if not for the screen but the dark object at the top center is a hummingbird. (Margo D. Beller)

Now I know the downys have a sweet tooth.

We are soon into bird-feeder time and the hummers should be heading south. This feeder will come inside for another year but the seed and suet will sustain the downys and other woodpeckers. I'll worry about a new breed of sugar-sucking woodpeckers next year.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Hot Enough For Ya?

I have lost count of the number of extremely hot and humid days we have had in my part of northern New Jersey, part of the New York City metropolitan area, this week. Four? Five? Does it matter when the prediction is for more of the same?

I suppose temperatures 10 degrees above the normal for this time of August and humidity more likely in a tropical rain forest than the former temperate zone that is New Jersey is a good thing - compared with killing floods once again striking Louisiana a few short years after Hurricane Katrina.

How bad has it been? So bad that finally, after four years of working at home in an office that faces southwest, MH and I bought curtains and rods and he spotted and assisted me as I installed them all. Yes, I used a power drill. Yes, I stood atop a step ladder hoping I would not topple over. Yes, I used a level to make sure everything was straight.
Office curtains Aug. 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
It was only this morning I realized the patterns don't exactly match. However, the room is dark and helping the AC and fan make it cooler.

The heat and humidity have not stopped the goldfinches and chickadees from visiting the dwindling thistle seed in the sock feeder. I have not been able to stand on the enclosed porch for very long, even with a fan on, to see if the refreshed hummingbird feeder is drawing anything, although I notice the joe-pye weed is flowering and that has brought the bees.

Meanwhile, the same heat and humidity that makes me feel like the walking dead until I put the house AC on is doing wonderful things to the plants I have outside in the sun and on that enclosed porch.

The cannas, which are tropical plants, have grown large and their foliage is bigger than dinner plates. They are also sending up flower shoots, red trumpets that will be attractive to hummingbirds and others. The orchid I keep on the back porch has been loving the humidity and showing me its three white flowers all summer, and the Chinese evergreen is sprouting new leaves, something it doesn't do much when it is inside for the winter in a heat-dried house.

But it is the peppers that have really thrived.

I have one plant I planned to keep alive over the winter inside until I discovered it was infested with white flies. It got moved to the one sunny spot on the enclosed porch until it became too cold, at which point the worst foliage was removed and it was brought back inside and kept in a dim corner apart from the other plants until I could finally put it back in its usual sunny outside spot - at which point the temperature dropped. So this plant has been through a lot and I finally cut off the top of it and hoped for the best.

Italia peppers, Aug. 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
Well, below are two of the three fruits I have picked from this plant once the peppers turned red. (This is a sweet pepper and gets sweeter when redder.) The top pepper is what I usually get, most summers. The bottom is a monster that is the biggest I've ever grown.

Peppers, even sweet peppers like these, like it hot. I'm not sure if the humidity is helping them directly but the nightly thunderstorms we've been having during this period have kept down the white flies and the aphids that usually bother my other plants.

At the farm markets, the tomatoes have started coming in and I have several on the window sill to ripen. The zucchinis are huge and somehow, despite the heat, there is still lettuce and cucumbers and even rainbow chard to be had.

The people who don't believe in global warming say, "It's summer. Get over it." Those who see this tropical weather as unnatural hope it doesn't foretell a return of the polar vortex and above-average snow this winter, as some predict.

As usual, there is good and bad with everything. So as the plants thrive, I wilt.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Three Types of Summer's Winged Wonders


This is the time of summer when I go out to the woods and if I see any movement in the trees it is usually a butterfly. The butterflies I see most commonly are tiger swallowtails, dark swallowtails and the occasional monarch butterfly.
Tiger swallowtail (Margo D. Beller)

August into September must be when the caterpillars break out of their cocoons as butterflies. Adult butterflies lay their eggs, the eggs hatch caterpillars, the caterpillars (after eating a lot of leaves, I think) crawl up trees or shrubs to become cocooned pupas and then they hatch as butterflies, which then head south for the winter.

The nice thing about butterflies, besides their many different colors and the way they seem to float in out of nowhere, is they aren't that picky about where they feed. Yes, they have special needs in terms of where they lay eggs, such as the monarch butterfly needing milkweed, but when they need food they will go to any flower, shrub or roadside weed. They will even come to puddles to drink.

I once walked along a road in a strong wind. There was a tiger swallowtail on a Rose of Sharon flower, hanging on for dear life. You would think something so small and delicate would have a problem in wind but this is one strong little creature. 

Butterflies have a lot of fans, which is why you can do a simple search and find all sorts of butterfly clubs to learn more.


When I last wrote about rubythroated hummingbirds, I mentioned the two that were coming regularly to my feeder. I named them Alpha and Beta. Alpha was the more dominant of the two, hence the name. Beta was rather dusky and very skittish at the feeder, hovering over the portal to drink rather than perch as Alpha did.

Much has happened since then.

First, I realized Alpha might have been a male. We had visited our niece in Connecticut and a male hummer had come to her feeder. The male had a dark head, just like Alpha. The next time Alpha visited I had binoculars with me and did not see a lot of red at the throat, although there was a pink tinge. That was the last time I saw Alpha.
A friend's juvenile hummer (Margo D. Beller)
Beta continued to visit much longer and was soon joined by a smaller, greener individual that was definitely a juvenile male. I named that one Delta. Beta would feed in her skitterish fashion and take off in one direction, Delta would feed and head in another direction.

With the heat and humidity I have not spent time on the enclosed porch, the only way I can see the hummingbird feeder, but it seems to me Beta has moved on and what I call Delta may be Epsilon, Gamma or any of a number of hummingbird visitors. Young are fledging and they have to eat. By now the adult males should've been heading south, and soon the adult females and the young birds will be doing the same.

All I know is, at least once a day a hummingbird comes to feed. I still have plenty of food for as long as they come.


One of the things that makes walking with MH so enjoyable is we usually look at different things. I will be looking up in the trees for any bird activity while he will be looking down for snakes, toads and other nonwinged creatures.

But one thing that interests him very much, and is now interesting me, are all the dragonflies.
Green dragonfly blending well into leaf. (RE Berg-Andersson)
You can be in a marsh, in a park, in your backyard and you will have a number of these insects buzzing around, picking off mosquitoes and gnats. If you have clean water, you have dragonflies and the smaller damselflies.

They come in a variety of colors. In the Great Marsh of Concord, Mass., we found a dragonfly that looked like it was red, white and blue. In the Franklin Parker Preserve in southern NJ, in the heart of the Pine Barrens, we found a very large dragonfly that was bright red. We're still trying to identify it.

Usually we find such exotically named creatures as 12-spotted skimmers, white-tailed skimmers, green darners and ebony jewel-wings. There is a state dragonfly association and several Internet sites devoted to field guides and identification. This one even tells you how many different types can be found in each county of New Jersey. In my home county of Morris there are 125!

Like the dragonfly I'm just skimming the surface here. But I am becoming as interested in their colors and diversity as I have been on birds for over a decade. Like the butterflies, these seasonal winged wonders can be easily overlooked, and that is unfortunate.

Monday, August 8, 2016

...and a Black Bear in a Pear Tree

It happened again, another visit by ursus americanus, better known as the black bear.

This now marks the fourth time I have looked out the kitchen window to discover major damage that could've only been caused by a 200- to 500-pound bear.

Once again, the reason was food.
Pear tree branches down, Aug. 5, 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
Ever since the first attack, either in the late hours of March 26 or the early hours of March 27, 2015, I have been taking bird feeders inside at night, even in the middle of winter when bears should be in dens. I don't put feeders out in summer until August, when I put out a thistle sock for the goldfinches. I take that in at night, too.

That's not what the bear wanted.

What was damaged this time was not a feeder pole but the pear tree just beyond our enclosed porch, on which I hang several water dishes. It has only been in the last several years, when I hadn't cut back some of the longer branches myself or hired someone else to do it, that the tree has flowered in the spring. Flowers mean fruit is coming. Many years the squirrels grab the pears.

This year I found only three pears. One blew down when we had a horrific, non-hurricane thunderstorm (similar to the one that took our power last week). I forgot about the other two.

So when I found the two side trunks cracked and bent over, I realized the bear - for what else could it have been? - had tried to climb up to the remaining pears but had hit the ground when the branches gave way. For whatever reason, it didn't try again, thank goodness, and didn't leave any indentations or "calling cards" for us to find, as happened about 20 years ago when we had more apple trees and woke one morning to find a big branch down on one of them and said indentation and calling card below it. (The tree was one of those removed years ago, replaced with a garden containing ornamental grasses and plants not usually eaten by deer.)

I knocked down the two pears. One was already way past the point where it should've been picked. Here is the other one, which we'll eat at some point.
What the bear was after (Margo D. Beller)

One of the water dishes was still hanging in one of the broken hunks of tree. I estimate 1/3 of the tree had to be sawed off, which was unfortunate because I put in feeder poles based on where the tree is located. The poles are too far away for squirrels to jump to the feeders from the tree while allowing the birds a place to safely eat their seeds or enjoy a drink of water.

Making it worse, this was the same tree I had cut back from the top a few weeks ago, MH manfully holding the ladder against the house as I went up with my lopper to take down branches that were overhanging the enclosed porch and being used as a highway for chipmunks and squirrels.

So having cut off so much, why shouldn't I go out today, a hot and humid albeit cloudy day when I had nothing better to do, and cut off more hunks of this same tree to get the remaining upper branches? I didn't mean to take off hunks, I was merely bending down the branch to cut it better from the ground and the whole thing snapped.

The water dish had to be moved. (Margo D. Beller)

Apparently, pear trees are quite brittle. They can also grow 40 feet high. I did not plant this tree, just as I did not plant the apple trees that I had to cut down because I couldn't keep up with all the fruit on the ground that brought deer and their mess to my yard. Aside from the pear, only one apple tree remains, and thank goodness there was not much fruit this year or the bear might have caused more damage.

If the pear tree survives the summer and winter to bloom in the spring, I'll be amazed. If it goes, the replacement will be a non-fruit tree. As long as the birds get their shelter and water, they'll be fine.

Saturday, August 6, 2016


(Margo D. Beller)
When I was growing up, American goldfinches were not part of my world. They could've been flying around the yards of Brooklyn, N.Y., back in the 1970s but I didn't notice.

That does not mean they were not around the house. As you can see here, we had a goldfinch figurine on the table (a careless house cleaner broke off one wing and if you look closely you can see where I glued it back on).

We also had plates with birds on them - jays, cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks.

As with the rest of the birds, however, I didn't start noticing goldfinches until I moved to New Jersey. Goldfinches are the state bird of New Jersey, MH proudly told me.

There are three types of goldfinches in this country. In New Jersey it is the American. Lesser goldfinches are in the U.S. southwest. Lawrence's goldfinch is found only in Baja California.

Once I started feeding birds, I still didn't notice the goldfinches because in winter the males, normally bright yellow with a black cap, look like the females, who are usually greenish brown. Goldfinches hang around for the winter and sometimes are joined by their cousins the pine siskins.

However, pine siskins - which are strictly winter visitors and only come if they can't find food in their usual northern wintering grounds -  have streaked breasts and thin, pointy bills. The goldfinches have the thicker bills of other finches and are not streaked.

Through trial and error I discovered that a thistle sock, like the one above, would feed the goldfinches and a few other types of birds that don't mind hanging on something that soft and porous - house finches and black-capped chickadees mainly.

(Margo D. Beller)
Goldfinches, when they are finally in their breeding colors, mate and have families much later in the summer because that is timed to when the various thistle plants go to seed. So I wait until late July, when I hear the male doing his flight call and make great loops in the sky to impress the female, to put out the sock. It takes a while but eventually a pair comes.

However, as the picture above shows, at some times of the year huge flocks of goldfinches pass through. This gathering the other Spring was rather extraordinary. We had as many as 20 individuals at any one time. That is why I had to break out the cage feeder to go with the sock. Even then, it didn't seem to be enough.

However, for now we have a pair and that is enough for me.
Goldfinch pair, Duke Farms, Hillsborough, NJ (Margo D. Beller)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Mid-summer Morning Walk

Rocky's "office" (Margo D. Beller)
For a number of reasons, I have stopped taking daily walks in the early morning before work. Part of it is the heat. You have to get up early to walk when at midday it is 10 degrees hotter than it should be in suburban New Jersey, and there are some mornings it is all I can do to get to the bathroom in time, and then wrap a robe around me so I can put the thistle feeder out for the goldfinches.

But I have been trying to walk more, even though the birds I hear I can find as easily in my backyard - fish crows, Carolina wrens, cardinals, grackles, song sparrows.

As I walk, staying out of the way of the people running on the sidewalks or the people with dogs or the ones with the baby carriages, I think about other walks in other years.

That made me think of Rocky.

Tomatoes (Margo D. Beller)
Before MH and I moved to New Jersey, we lived in Queens, NY. Our landlady, who lived upstairs, had a big backyard where she grew tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini and had a huge fig tree. When she would visit her daughter's family in California, she would allow me to pick the vegetables, leaving most of them on her kitchen table and taking the rest. I have never been able to eat a fig or a tomato since then without thinking of Mary's garden. All the tomatoes I've bought, even from farm markets, just don't taste the same.

Then we moved to NJ. A few streets over, every summer, a handmade sign would be hammered into the grass at the corner. "Tomatoes" it would read, with an arrow pointing up the street.

It took me a few years to finally get the interest or the courage to investigate. I found a house on the corner where a huge hunk of property had been converted to growing tomatoes. I walked to the garage and looked in. A neighbor across the street called over that "he" might be in the house and to come back. It took weeks but I did.

I talked to Rocky, the man selling the tomatoes, who was in a wheelchair and hooked up to air because of emphysema. It did not stop him smoking or watching TV, usually westerns, with a small fan going.

Zucchini plants (Margo D. Beller)
He told me how he would put in a winter crop, plow it under, put down manure and then put in the various types of tomatoes. When he couldn't do it, neighbors would come over and do it. I picked a number of tomatoes and he threw in some basil he was growing. The tomatoes were delicious, the closest to Mary's I'd found.

For several years I would visit him every week, stocking up on tomatoes.

Then, two years ago, the sign did not go up. I later heard Rocky had died. His family has kept the garden going but now only half of it is tomatoes and they are not for sale. In the other half of the garden grow zucchinis and peppers. That house must have a lot of stewed tomatoes and sauce in the cellar.

I miss Rocky and I miss those tomatoes. I don't miss the walking, however. I'll have to make do with farm market tomatoes.