Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

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.