Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Down the Shore

Thou little bird, thou dweller by the sea, Why takest thou its melancholy voice, And with that boding cry Along the waves dost thou fly? Oh! rather, bird, with me Through this fair land rejoice!
-- Richard Henry Dana

As I write, in June, the backyard is very quiet these warm, humid mornings. The house wren box next door I can see from my chair is active, with both parents shuttling back and forth to feed their young. In my longish grass that MH won't shave to the nub as our neighbors' lawn services do, there are chipping sparrows and their begging young. At the box in my apple tree, the house wren sings softly and then enters the box with food. This nest is a week or so behind the other one, so the young are still small enough for the parent to enter. Soon, the chicks will be much bigger and noisier when the parent arrives to feed them.

Skimmer (left) and laughing gull (RE Berg-Andersson)
The singing birds I heard just a month ago are either nesting and keeping quiet to protect young, or they have moved on from my area to their breeding territories farther north. If you want to find any birds during the summer, you have to get out early when the birds are most active. It will also help you to avoid the heat.

It is at this time of year I look at the various bird lists and see more reports coming from what we in New Jersey call "down the shore." This can mean the beaches from Sandy Hook to Island Beach State Park to Long Beach Island down to Cape May, or it can mean the Delaware Bay side of New Jersey, or it can mean river inlets in between. Where there's water, there are likely a lot of birds in summer.

It is times like this I miss Plumb Beach, a short walk from where I grew up. At that time it was a dump but now it and the rest of the Brooklyn shoreline is prime birding habitat and lots cooler than where I live now.

Unlike Plumb Beach or the rest of the southern Brooklyn, southern Queens and eastern Staten Island shoreline (which make up most of the Gateway National Recreational Area), in New Jersey it costs money to go to the shore and look for birds along the beaches. You need to pay for parking and/or a beach pass. The shore gets pretty crowded in summer, as you'd expect. Even at Sandy Hook, which is also part of Gateway, you have to get there very early to tell the guard you are a birder so you do not get charged for beach parking. But I don't go to Sandy Hook in summer. I can't get down there that early and I don't want the crowd and the traffic.

Redwing blackbird, Bombay Hook (RE Berg-Andersson)
When I go birding in beach areas it is to places where you only go to go birding. In New Jersey, that place is the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, not far from Atlantic City, where you pay your fee and can drive along the dikes, stopping if you see a bird or other creature that interests you. (There are also trails in some areas if you prefer hiking and land birds.)

In the hottest days of summer you can find yourself in slow traffic, just like the highway you took to get down here, and you have to be careful not to ram another car as you scan the impoundments. Besides other cars stopping suddenly, you have to deal with other hazards such as green bottle flies that will hit your eyes and enter your mouth or your car if either is open too far or for too long, more common house flies, ticks and mosquitoes.

But there are the birds, sometimes thousands of shorebirds.

Great egret, Bombay Hook (RE Berg-Andersson)
I am not the best person to ask about shorebirds. I can identify the ones I know best including various herons, egrets, the sanderlings that run down to the water line as the ocean waves pull back only to rush away when the waves come in, more distinctive shorebirds including skimmers, ruddy turnstones and willets. But don't ask me if I am seeing a western sandpiper, a semipalmated sandpiper or a least sandpiper in that large flock flying quickly away. I will have to check my guidebook really, really hard, and even then I won't be completely sure.

There are other birds, however. In Delaware there is a similar place to Brigantine where you can drive on the dikes and slowly scan the impoundments for waterfowl, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. MH and I have been here in November when there have been thousands of snow geese but it is rare we come down in summer. As it happens, we were there in early June. The thousands of shorebirds reported Memorial Day weekend were gone except for three distinctive shorebirds called avocets.

However, we had many bald eagles, osprey, indigo buntings, herons, egrets and two birds I rarely if ever see. One is the clapper rail, the other the marsh wren.

The clapper lives its life in secret, within the thick vegetation of salt marshes. I have only heard one once, in one of the murky areas of one of my favorite New Jersey birding sites, the Great Swamp, where clappers and other chicken-like marsh birds such as the sora and the Virginia rail have been known to show up in summer, when the vegetation fills the watery areas. In Delaware, however, it was on the sand in front of the vegetation. I was so startled to see it I thought at first it was the sora, which does not hide itself much. Reason soon returned - soras are darker and smaller - and I realized what it was.

Clapper rail, Bombay Hook (RE Berg-Andersson)
The marsh wren, meanwhile, I would expect in an area with reeds and other vegetation. In fact, if you hear or see one marsh wren it is likely you are going to hear many more because they continually call to remind each other that this is THEIR territory. If you are lucky, one of these feisty little guys, whose song is thinner and faster than its cousin the house wren, will pop up, clutch a reed in each foot and sing for a long time. Listen carefully and you'll hear more wrens singing as you drive along the road.

Back to Brigantine: For the hardcore New Jersey birder, this is where you go, no matter how far away you live. But when I wake in the mornings nowadays, sitting on my porch before it gets too hot and humid and listening to what few birds are around is enough, even if in my mind I'm scanning the beach shore with my binoculars from the comfort of my folding chair in the sand, no one except MH around.

Soon enough it will cool again, nesting will be over and the birds will be on the move southward. 

Marsh wren, 2017, Bombay Hook (RE Berg-Andersson)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Chatting With the Apple Tree

Apple tree (Margo D. Beller)
We have passed the point on the calendar marked "First day of summer" although from a meteorological standpoint, summer began on June 1. There are two hummingbirds at the feeder. I know this because frequently they show up at the same time and one chases the other off. Because they look alike, I can't tell which is the Alpha and which is the Beta. However, one does tend to squeek when it flies off or is disturbed. I heard it from the tree this morning as I was picking apples.

Most apples grow in late summer into autumn. I have one tree that blooms in late April or early May and puts out fruit a few weeks later. Some years, such as last year, drought conditions prompted few flowers and thus fewer apples for me to pick. This year, with all the rain, there was an overabundance of flowers and now you can see the apples growing.

Last year I brought one to a farmer I know and he identified the apple as a sort of Mcintosh, although these are usually ready to be picked in the fall, too. But my apples are usually ready in late June into July. I know this when I see squirrels climbing up, grabbing one and running off with it.

Thus begins an annual routine. I go out with a bucket, pick up whatever the squirrel has dropped and then pick whatever apples look big enough to cook - ideally I'd like them redder but I am in a race against time here - before the deer can come and eat them. The other morning I had just done that when a big doe arrived and started browsing. I chased her off but she did not go willingly.

House wren in apple tree. (Margo D. Beller)
This is suburban life now. At one time deer were afraid of people. No longer.

I do this picking (or picking up) twice a day, in the early morning and at dusk. But judging by all the deer excrement under the tree, I can't get everything.

When we bought the house over 20 years ago, it had been standing at that point 30 years or so. The previous owner must've fancied himself a gardener because he put in five apple trees, a pear and a cherry. He also built up a small, terraced garden with railroad ties. However, he stopped taking care of it, then moved out ahead of a divorce and the ties rotted. Chipmunks nested beneath it. When we had work done on the house and surrounding property, the ties were removed.

However, the trees stayed. The cherry eventually rotted and I had three of the five apples taken down because the fruit was not usable to me but made a big mess in the yard thanks to the squirrels and deer. The fourth, a small tree and the same type as the one that remains, was killed by too much rubbing of antlers against it by young bucks.

Where one tree was removed is now a garden of ornamental grasses and other plants deer tend to leave alone. Where two others were are now planted a dogwood tree and my friend Spruce Bringsgreen. But I kept the last tree because the apples make good sauce or pies. It holds up the house wren box, where the adults are now shuttling back and forth to feed peeping young. It provides some shade. It is a place for birds to perch such as the hummingbird. During the flowering season, I discovered 14 cedar waxwings going after the bugs, or perhaps eating the petals.

But those apples do draw the squirrels and the deer.

Recently I sat outside on my patio, admiring this tree with its growing fruits. I had it trimmed a few years ago but now it is bushier than ever.

I am an old tree, she told me. I have to do much to protect myself and to protect my young. When I have too many, as this year, I must abort many of them while they are still small and hard. It can't be helped. I have to be able to bear more fruit next year and beyond. As you can see I have a gall on my trunk and an opening big enough for a chipmunk to sit in, but I keep going.

I had noticed all those little apples underfoot, I said. I guess a lot of trees do that. I notice the elm over there has dropped a lot of green seeds. I hope the squirrels and chipmunks will get to them later, when they have to be stored for winter.

I do not mind the birds in my upper branches, she continued. I do not mind the nest box you hang on my lower branch so you can watch the birds. I did not mind the yellow-bellied sapsucker that drilled little holes in a ring around my trunk for the sap last spring, the one you kept chasing off. It was trying to survive, too. I have withstood all that. 

I survived a hurricane, the one called Sandy. I have stood in deep snow and in fog and in heavy rain and in such heat that my leaves have turned brown and fallen before their time. I do what I must to survive.

I can understand that, I said. So do I.

What I do not like is you whacking me with a big stick every year, breaking off my branches and making the apples rain down before their time, she said.

I am sorry, I told her, but I am now past the age where I can climb trees or even stand on the upper part of a ladder to gently pick the ripe fruit. The squirrels are not so choosy, especially in those years where we have had high heat for days on end. The squirrels want a sweet drink and will ignore my water dishes for your apples.

I will remove the core and rot before using (Margo D. Beller)
And when they drop partially eaten apples, the chipmunks grab them, which is fine, but then the deer come, which is not. One deer is bad enough but the time I came out to find five of them was a horror. I once used an umbrella to hook your branches and pull them closer. Now, I admit, ever since I got the extension pole for another project, it has come in handy to bring down as many apples as possible at once.

But it is not as if your fruit goes to waste. I put the partially eaten ones into the corner of the yard, where I prefer the deer to poop than in the lawn under you. I throw out the really small or bad ones. I put the rest in the cellar and then, when I have the time, energy and inclination, I make pints and quarts of sauce I can freeze and use for months. I would love to compost the parts I don't use but I don't want a forest of apple trees to grow there.

You took down my child, she said.

Your child was small and destroyed by deer, I said. I would've loved to have had two of you for the apples and the shade, but what else could I do? I am trying to balance having something natural and pretty in my backyard with the new realities of suburban life, where wildlife I never would've imagined are showing up in the yard.

You know a bear was once in the neighboring tree, the one you took down, she said.

Yes, I do. That was the first time a bear visited, to my knowledge, many years before the visit that destroyed my bird feeder pole. I came out and found a large indentation in the ground, a lot of scat and broken branches. It is one of the reasons I later had that tree removed and put in my ornamental grass garden. You saw what a bear did to the pear tree over there.
Damaged pear tree (Margo D. Beller)

Yes, she said, I did, and I appreciated all the work you did to save it. It looks very healthy now. I hope a bear does not decide to climb me for my fruit. A 200-pound bear does a lot of damage to apple tree branches. But if it does, there is nothing much I can do about it. I am a tree. If I am struck down, I can only hope one of my seeds grows to keep my line going.

Do not worry, old tree, I said. As long as I can still get up in the morning and bend down to pick up dropped fruit and pull off apples before anything else can get to them, no bear will destroy you.

But we both know that in this life there are no guarantees, to anything.

No, she replied. There aren't.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Living With Wildlife

I feel a responsibility to my backyard. I want it to be taken care of and protected.
--photographer Annie Liebowitz

When I was growing up in southern Brooklyn, I was aware of some birds - pigeons, sparrows, the occasional robin, cardinal or jay plus "seagulls" (I now know they were herring gulls) - and even less aware of other types of wildlife aside from squirrels and feral cats.

When I moved to the suburbs I learned otherwise. The longer I have been here the more troubled I become by how many different types of wildlife have been through my backyard. The more housing developments are built, the better the chance an animal you do not expect is going to be in the backyard.

Squirrel on caged feeder (Margo D. Beller)
Aside from squirrels, which I quickly learned will take over a feeder and keep the birds from the seed unless I put some sort of protective device either on or under the feeder, I can now say that my yard has had visits from chipmunks, rabbits, groundhogs, possum, an injured red-tailed hawk, racoon, other neighbors' dogs and cats, a garter snake, bear and even a coyote. One winter we had the tracks of a least weasel in the snow, but that was the only time.
(RE Berg-Andersson)

I have come outside in the early morning to chase off mallard ducks, Canada geese and turkeys, and I'm not even in the most rural or exurban of suburbs.

When we bought the house there were five apple trees, one pear, one cherry and a blueberry bush. Atop the bush was rusted metal fencing that I removed. Let the birds get the fruit, I thought. (I was still thinking like a city person at this point. Now, I'd have protected the bush and harvested the beneficial fruit.) When we were forced to have foundation work done, that and other plants were dug up. I now greatly regret not trying to save at least some of these plants.

When new plants were put in I included asters because these late-summer, early-autumn perennials were flowering at the time. I came out to go to work one morning and found a rabbit was eating heartily. This happened over the course of a week. Then I put in a small fence at the border of this plot.

That stopped the rabbits. But when I discovered the bushes in the back were being eaten from the top, I discovered deer. I've been living with the damage, and the deer fencing I put in in 1995 and have adapted over the years, ever since. (It is effective except against chipmunks, which can get behind or under it and do a lot of damage digging.)

Old Mine Rd. bear (RE Berg-Andersson)
The bear is a relatively recent phenomenon, as I've written before. Bears have damaged both of my feeder poles - one completely - and I've had to bring the feeders in at night in the spring, when the bears are coming out of their dens hungry. (I don't put feeders out between Memorial Day and Labor Day.) I have only one apple tree remaining but it is loaded with slowly ripening fruit. Despite bear damage last year, the pear tree also has a couple of fruits growing. All of this will draw squirrels above, deer below and possibly another bear visit.

Bear visits can be deadly to pets, livestock, property. People who feed wildlife, be it an alligator or a bear, are mighty surprised when this wild animal comes back for more - and does not distinguish between your handout and your child, as one family learned tragically last year. Search "man arrested for feeding bear" and you'll find all sorts of articles. There is a reason this is a crime. These are wild animals, not pets. When I put out bird seed in winter it is to help birds that might not find a food source. I don't consider them pets. Bears are in their dens and the deer are hitting my neighbors' plantings.
Sure, it looks cute now... (Margo D. Beller)

Many people enjoy wildlife. They want to see the baby rabbits, the squirrels, the large waterfowl that come up on shore and into their yards. I am not among them because of the damage they can do, even the newborn fawn its mother left in the long grass under the apple tree. (MH had to mow around it.) I came out one day to find it had been placed behind my deer netting around my back plot. When it saw me it took out half the fencing trying to get away. I now block access with a wheelbarrow.

One winter I looked out front to see over 100 Canada geese on my snow-covered lawn, the street and the yards across the street. In the snow, all the area looked the same to the geese so they had traveled beyond their usual field behind my neighbors' houses. I got them to move off my lawn and when one of the neighbors came out across the street, the flock took off, their green droppings raining down. Since then the field has been cleared for our community garden and my neighbors put up fences and shrubs to keep the geese away.
...but it becomes this. (Margo D. Beller)

The pro-bear people blame homeowners in bear-prone areas for living there. My house was built in 1964 in a former meadow.

Is that my fault? I was a child in 1964, and as an adult I came out here to have my part of the American Dream - a house, some space, something I can call mine.

Garden plot with fencing. (Margo D. Beller)

I now know after 20 years or so that I have to share.

I feel a responsibility to my backyard. I want it to be taken care of and protected. Annie Leibovitz
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Sunday, May 28, 2017

My Corner Office

A good back porch beats a big corner office.
--from a side panel tacked to my wall that was once on a box that held a sixpack of Mike's Hard Lemonade

From my comfortable chair in the corner of my enclosed porch, a chair that should not even be out here but I had no place to put it after we got some new recliners, I can see the bird house next door where a pair of house wrens are now feeding young. Looking the other way, I can see the hummingbird feeder that has so far drawn one bird to feed.

Backporch dining area, with plants (Margo D. Beller)
If I turn my head even further to the right, I can see my wren box where another house wren took over after a pair of black-capped chickadees apparently abandoned their nest. Another female wren put in a few twigs and now the male sings every morning, hunting for food to bring to the box. Since I hear no chatter of young, I am presuming the female is sitting on eggs.

Some early mornings when I sit out here with my first mug of coffee, I can hear both male wrens "battle" each other in song. I watch the catbirds in summer just as I watched the white-throated sparrows in winter, looking for breakfast from the vantage point of atop the flood wall. I watch the flowering plants in succession: forsythia, quince, dogwood, lilacs, the wild rose.

I am out here most mornings, taking advantage of having a more flexible schedule, no longer killing myself to make the train or drive a major highway, enjoying the quiet as other people head to work and school or run or walk their dogs. I enjoy my solitude as MH sleeps upstairs. This enclosed porch was one of the reasons we bought this house almost 25 years ago.

When we bought it, the porch had a roof and was "walled" with floor to ceiling screens. The first winter we lived here a couple of inches of snow blew in. The company that re-sided the house put in kick plates to block the snow, outside carpeting over the bricks and window panels we could raise and lower, making the porch usable in every season, including summer thanks to our fan, except on the coldest of days (although I have been known to sit out here in winter coat, hood up and blanket on my legs).

It is the best of both worlds, outside the main house but not completely exposed to the elements. "This is outside?" a visiting friend once asked. For me, yes. I can be seen or not seen. I can write, as I am doing out here now, or read or get away from MH or the sound of the washer or dryer and, with headphones, avoid the sound of suburban lawn mowers.
Plants, May 2017 (Margo D. Beller)

This is where I store soil, pots and other plant supplies. It is where I put rooted cuttings into small pots or plants into bigger pots. It is from where I put seed into feeders and take them outside in the mornings, then bring in the feeders to protect them from bears every evening until around Memorial Day.

Now the feeders are put away and many of my front room plants can sit out here all summer, getting a shot of sunlight in the early morning and the late afternoon because of the configuration of the house. If there are two things I'd have changed about this porch they would be to have it facing south instead of north (so my plants can stay out here all year long) and cranks to open and close windows instead of my having to lift them with my balky back.

This porch has hosted large cookouts and MH and me eating our ice cream side by side. It has allowed me to sit in my chair and watch an assortment of common and migrant birds eat seed and suet, the ultimate bird blind.

It is my sanctuary from the stresses of everyday life, although not always from insects. Let others enjoy their outdoor patios or their street-facing front porches. There is something to be said for sitting outside in the breeze, and I enjoy it when I take a folding chair outside in the morning shade to better hear the birds. I can even understand the need to sit out in public and wave at passersby.

My mornings. May 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
But from the comfort of my chair here on my enclosed porch, this is all the society I want as I watch the birds, my jungle of houseplants and the trees' green leaves unfold and later turn color. From here the world looks swell.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The World According to Spruce

Hello, there! Spruce Bringsgreen here. The lady of the house said she needed a breather and asked me to fill in. Honestly, I have never written anything before, writing not being one of the traits one needs in a spruce tree. But I'll give it a go.

Here I am, relaxing at home, May 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
I've been here since 2007 when Margo and MH decided to spend their annual November vacation at home and ordered a number of big plants, including me! That was real good of her because it gets kinda nerve-wracking standing in a garden center far from my native state - Colorado - not knowing where I'm gonna end up, if my new home will be a good fit for my deep roots and height. I come from a family that can grow to 100 feet high back home in Colorado. Right now I'm just a kid.  

Also, who knows if the homeowner even wanted a blue spruce. We blue up as we mature; otherwise, we can be pretty green. We can be a lot to handle for the wrong person.

Luckily for me, Margo picked me and thanks to her good sense in where I should go and good planting by the garden center guys - two guys took a big device to dig a deep hole for me and another to put me and then the soil back in - careful watering by her and mowing by MH, I have been growing like a weed for the past 10 years. 

10 years. Man, how they fly by.

So Margo bought me to replace some apple trees she had cut down. I should be upset some of my tree brothers were removed but if that is the reason I'm here, so be it. Apples can be messy. Apples drop their fruit and squirrels grab them. So do those big, four-legged creatures that come through at night. I don't drop anything and those creatures don't come over and eat me as I've seen them do to some of the shrubs at the houses I can see. Maybe once one took a nibble. But with my sharp, short, hard needles, I'm not very appetizing! A good thing!

Here's how I grow (Margo D. Beller)
I will say, however, I am not happy with things right now in this place. It's not Margo's fault. I mean, I like it cool here rather than be hot and sweaty but the air has sure stayed cold longer than usual! Based on what I see of the sun, and it's always in my face (that's why I'm planted where I am and not stuck under an oak tree in the back), it should be way warmer now and there should be more flowers planted in the garden by the lady of the house. Last year at this time she was putting out pots of all sorts of things. Pretty colors too. 

But this year I haven't seen a lot of her, not since that recent warm spell before the cold and the rain. 

I am not jealous of those things in the pots. They fade or have to come inside when it gets cold. I am tall and sturdy and can take the cold real well. I also take dry periods well thanks to Margo's care in my early years. I feel loved and wanted.

MH gave me this name, Spruce Bringsgreen, for some reason. No one in my family has ever had a name. Not that we called each other anything. Sometimes, around the time of the shortest stretch of daylight I see, he starts calling me Tannenbaum. I don't really care either way. He takes care of me, she takes care of me and I take care of them. I don't shed, I look good on the lawn, I provide shelter for a lot of little birds. 

Me and the lady of the house
 (RE Berg-Andersson)
The other day I had a robin build a nest in a little gap that showed up near the top. It was going back and forth, back and forth. I was sure it would lay eggs. But no. Next thing I know, a big old sharp-shinned hawk got up there and was picking at whatever might have been in there. I guess that robin was some smart. Boy did those hawk talons sting my upper branches! 

I know sharpies, as they are called. They hang around in Colorado all year. I saw them all the time when I was a kid, before I was brought east.

Anyway, I much prefer the smaller birds. One little guy I used to see back home, a junco, was in my branches all the time it was cold this past season. Now he and the others have gone away, although it really isn't as warm as it should be. Guess there was something in them that said it was time to go. Other types of birds come and go but that robin's nest was my first in this location. Maybe one of the other small birds will use it, as long as Margo and MH keep the hawks away.

I guess you can say I've seen quite a lot in my 10 years here. I live straight, I know my place, I don't cause any problems for Margo and MH and I remember my roots. I'm glad to be alive and growing. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

5 Ways of Looking at a Catbird

The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying.   

Every spring day brings a new surprise. One day the perennial salvia looks dead from too much cold and rain, the next it's showing this year's leaves. Soon it will grow and have big spikes of purple flowers the bees love.

Birds have a way of surprising, too. Suddenly, there is a lot of birdsong in the mornings. There is still one white-throated sparrow from the winter in my yard, the nest box I thought would have a pair of house wrens as usual has been taken by a pair of chickadees (I can tell because the nest materials I see poking out at the seams are soft arborvitae leaves and animal fir, not the twigs used by house wrens) and such migrants as rose-breasted grosbeaks and black and white warblers have passed through the yard where I can see them.

But to me, it isn't spring until the catbird shows up.  One day you are wondering why you haven't seen or heard any yet this year, the next they are everywhere in the yard, in your neighbor's yard, in the local park. Come one, come all.

Catbird-2012 (Margo D. Beller)

Here are five ways of looking at a catbird, with apologies to Wallace Stevens.

    1. What is that black bird?

Actually, it is gray and its full name is the Gray Catbird. It has, as you can see above, a black eye, black atop its head and at the end of its tail. What you can't see is the distinctive red under the tail. This bird, Dumetella carolinensis, is a cousin to the robin but is not a thrush. Cornell's ornithology lab calls the catbird "secretive but energetic" and every morning I can depend on it to be singing in the dawn chorus with the house wren, chipping sparrow, cardinal and occasionally that remaining white-throated sparrow.

2. Why that name?

Catbirds have a mewing call that can sound like a cat. Its warbling song is actually an amalgam of other bird songs, similar to the mimicry of the mockingbird - another cousin - although the songs used are rarely that clear, at least to me. To me the catbird sounds like it is chattering with no set pattern, unlike the mockingbird.

3. Why would someone be in the catbird's seat?

The "catbird seat," according to Merriam-Webster, is a position of great prominence or advantage. It is a southern expression, one famously used by the sports announcer Red Barber while he was calling games for, among others, the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. In James Thurber's 1942 story "The Catbird Seat" he notes one of the characters uses that phrase a lot, probably from listening to Red Barber.

In my experience you are just as likely to find a catbird calling from within a bush or poking for food on the ground as you are to see one in a tree, rarely as high up as the mockingbird that doesn't care a bit if you hear its complicated mimicry and can see where it is.

However, it is true that many are the times I've been weeding the back garden or digging a hole to put in a plant or moving things around in the compost pile and found a catbird sitting over my head, waiting for me to walk away so it can swoop down and see what worms or other food I've inadvertently provided it.

4. Cold-blooded killer

Birds gotta eat, be they hawks swooping down to snatch a mourning dove picking at dropped seed under my feeder or a robin tugging at a worm struggling to stay in the ground after MH has cut the lawn.

When I think of catbirds I remember the time when a sphinx moth graced my property. I did not realize it was a moth at first because it was large, dark and hovered like a hummingbird as it fed from flowers with a long, thin, hummer-like bill.

It was flying among my flowering plants one day when out jumped a catbird to snatch a meal. I was amazed and upset. Who knew catbirds (or any bird for that matter) ate hummingbirds? 

However, I had wondered about that "hummer's" coloring. The only hummingbird we usually get in my area is the rubythroat, and this didn't have the right coloring, being more brownish than greenish. That was when I looked in MH's various insect books and learned about the sphinx moth. Still, I was sad to see it go and have held it against the catbird ever since.

5. Now you see it, now you don't.

One year I was watering shrubs at the side of the house and suddenly a catbird flew out to a nearby tree. Something made me look behind and there was a nest with two or three eggs in it. I left it alone. The next time I watered I shut off the hose and looked first and there she was, on her eggs. Not long after, all were gone.

Same with the end of the summer. One moment the catbirds have descended en masse in your yard, the next they have disappeared. It seems that when the summer is over, nearly all are out of here, heading to their wintering grounds in the U.S. south, Cuba and central America.

But I know they'll be back next spring. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Love Song of H. Wren

The house wren singing at first light is looking for love.

Mating turkey vultures (RE Berg-Andersson)
From the smallest wren to the largest turkey vulture, this time of year in New Jersey - late April into May - is when males use particular tactics to attract a mate so they can follow their internal instincts and perpetuate the species.

The house wren uses song, a cascading series of notes repeated again and again, sometimes for hours, from the tallest trees. The song will bring over curious females while warning off any challenging males.

We humans can put words to some bird songs -- "Drink your TEA" (eastern towhee), "Who cooks for you?" (barred owl), "teakettle, teakettle, teakettle" (Carolina wren) come to mind. The mockingbird and brown thrasher mimic the songs of other birds - they are fine indicators of what can be heard in a particular patch.

Some birds use "song" that doesn't sound like song to us. The white-breasted nuthatch's high-pitched nasal "hee-hee-hee-hee-heh" is song, at least to another nuthatch. The hoots of a great horned owl are song.

The wren in my yard has discovered the nest box I hang every year in my apple tree, now in glorious bloom. So the wren is not only trying to draw a mate with its "Look at me!" song, it is also trying to protect prime breeding territory from another male. So the song is also saying, "This is mine!"

Many birds go to extremes to attract a mate. The American woodcock - an otherwise not very showy bird that spends its life skulking in the brush, almost invisible because of its mottled brown coloring that blends in with the fallen leaves, probing mud for earthworms with its long bill - attracts mates by calling out a nasal peent at dawn or at dusk, and then hurling itself high in the air, sometimes 20 or 30 feet up, before returning to the launching pad. The male that can jump the highest wins. Females will fly in to investigate and ultimately there will be a pairing, mating, young.

White-throated sparrow, not in breeding colors yet
(Margo D. Beller)
At dawn in my yard lately, I have been hearing the love/territorial songs of robins, cardinals, titmice, the house wren and chipping sparrows, which make a long, dry trill. Sometimes I'll hear the grunts of fish crows, and the "old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" of one of the few remaining white-throated sparrows. These winter birds get a bright white throat and "eyebrow" at breeding time with a bright yellow spot near their eyes, but there will come a point when they will fly north to nest. The one (or two) still in my yard remains for the feeders but usually these birds take off when the catbirds arrive.

Like the woodcock, many birds use aerial display. Hummingbirds fly huge loop-de-loops to show a potential mate that his genes will make bigger, stronger young - very important in a species where, after the mating, the male takes off and the female does the nest building, child rearing and feeding alone.

Sounds like some humans, doesn't it?

People and birds are similar in that way, the males dressing their best, showing a potential mate he is bigger, stronger, richer than the other guy. If he attracts a female's attention and they "date" he will offer her gifts to solidify the bond - and get him what he wants. He offers, she accepts.

The main difference between birds and humans is a bird's mating season is only for a limited time each year (and doesn't take place online or in a bar). While pairs of some birds are monogamous until one dies - mute swans, cardinals and Canada geese come to mind - most birds stay "monogamous" only during the breeding and nesting seasons. Once the young are large enough to fly and feed themselves, the adult pair separates, going south to their winter territories in the late summer or early autumn.

However, like the hummingbird, many the males of many species mate and move on, trying to mate with as many females as possible. In the case of the redwing blackbird, they may have multiple mates at once. The object here is continuing the species, making more blackbirds, hummingbirds, turkey vultures and house wrens.

This morning I sat on the patio to listen to the wren sing. He flew from the apple tree to a high branch of an oak to a higher branch of an elm. But then I saw something interesting - the male called from my right and another wren, the female, flew into the nest box on my left. So the male was successful with his song and now the singing is to fight off potential rivals!

This year's house wren, singing (Margo D. Beller)
As the female adds sticks to the box for her nest and lays her eggs, the male's song will become a little softer and won't last as long, at least around her. He'll still do his "Stay away, guys" warning but the softer song will be a song of reassurance to his mate that he is nearby, watching, protecting. When the young are born the song will go very soft, so as not to alert potential predators there are vulnerable young for the taking. But he'll still sing, to reassure her he's still around, at least for now.

Different birds sing for different reasons, if you consider the hoots and howls of an owl or the grunts of a turkey vulture or double-crested cormorant to be singing.

Same with people. When I call or text MH while I am away from home, such as hiking in the woods listening to birds, I am reassuring him. I don't sing all that well, so it's the next best thing.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Here Comes Trouble

It is a universal truth that April showers bring May flowers. This year, when February felt like April and March felt like January, we have had a long, dreary, rainy period in April.

Bleeding heart, April 22,2017 (Margo D. Beller)
So it should be no surprise the rain has brought the May flowers early including the bleeding heart, the lilac, the growth spurt of the Lenten rose and the dogwood blossoms. The coral bells are sprouting flower stalks, which means the hummingbirds that enjoy the little pink bells can't be far behind.

However, some surprises are not so delightful - the purple flowers of the ground ivy in the lawn look nice, but the ivy supporting them will get everywhere in the lawn and my flower gardens. I will have to yank out what I can but it never really goes away.

There is also the garlic mustard. My book on weeds and their uses says you can cook the leaves of the plant when it is small, but I'd rather not.

Lenten rose (Margo D. Beller)
Ground ivy flowers in front lawn (Margo D. Beller)

Probably the most troublesome plant, however, is not a plant at all. It is my apple tree.

I enjoy the flowers on this tree, the last of five apple trees that were on the property when we bought it and the one with the best apples, which is why it was not cut down when the sour apples of the other trees drew too many squirrels and deer not particularly neat in their habits.

Last year, weather circumstances were such that we did not have many apple blossoms. Each flower represents a fruit. This year, however, we have lots of blossoms and that means I will be making lots of apple sauce - if I can get to the apples ahead of the squirrels, the birds, the deer and a new nemesis, the bear.

Last August, a bear nearly destroyed my pear tree while trying to get the one pear hanging from it. It was not successful. That was the last (so far) in a string of bear attacks going back to March 2015 after more than 20 years of my living in this house.

This year, despite cutting down two parts of the trunk and then my botching the pruning of the upper branches last summer, there is not only growth but the most flowers I've ever seen on this tree.

Oh boy, more pears, too.

I remember being very happy after I picked last year's pear that the few apples on the tree were gone by June. This year, however, I can expect the bulk of the apples to be ready to pick, or drop from the trees, in late June or early July unless we have a particularly hot May or June that brings out the thirsty squirrels. In the past if they happened to drop a usable apple, I'd save it. If they took a bite and dropped it, which is often the case, I would either throw it out or into another part of the yard for any creature to find.

Now, I have to factor bears into the equation.I won't be throwing apples into the corner of my yard this year.

Apple blossoms (Margo D. Beller)
I could just take down the tree but where's the fun in that typical suburban solution?

The blossoms and apples draw insects and the insects draw birds, including migrating visitors such as the Baltimore oriole, ruby-crowned kinglet and warblers of various types. The regulars - cardinals, titmice, house finches, jays, chickadees - are always around in it, too.

And then there is my special visitor, the house wren.

Every year, when I read reports of house wrens appearing in areas close to mine, the wren box comes out. Then I wait.

Wren house, 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
A week after I put out the box I was coming back from delivering items to the compost pile when I spied a house wren pulling out some debris I hadn't completely removed last winter. Would we have a tenant this year?

I got my answer this morning as I was photographing the apple tree and heard the house wren's gurgling song.

It is hard to describe the song of the house wren. It's not like the "tea kettle, tea kettle" and other repeating calls of its cousin, the Carolina wren. The house wren is a very plain little brown bird, but it will build a nest in just about anything, and the wooden house I provide in the shelter of the apple tree must look very appealing.

2017 house wren (Margo D. Beller)
Usually, by the time the apples are ready to be harvested, the wren brood has flown with their parents to the nearby bushes before eventually dispersing. Too many squirrels in the tree and me knocking apples down with a long rod would be enough to drive any new parent mad, especially one with three to five young looking to be fed at the same time.
So when the wrens fly off and the apples ripen I must hope no bears will do to the apple tree what last year's did to the pear tree, which was not pretty.

Yes, I know, the apples are just sitting there and if I didn't use them they would feed all sorts of animals, and the bear is just doing what bears do when presented with a meal in inhabited areas like my small town, be it in a Dumpster, garbage pail or a fruit tree.

The roar of the spring blower. (Margo D. Beller)
There are a lot of aggravations in suburbia - the inevitable "Spring cleanup" when the lawn services come through and use their noisy, gas-belching blowers to take out all the fallen leaves they didn't get last autumn, then put down the weed killer chemicals and the lawn fertilizer and then, of course, comes the mowing and putting down of mulch to cover where the leaves they removed had been. (I don't understand this. The leaves make a perfectly good mulch on their own.)

Now, there's bear.

My city friends think I am nuts - yes, car alarms and gun shots at 3 a.m. are far worse than the drone of any early-morning lawn mower - and my rural friends already contend with bears as well as bobcats, coyotes and many more wild animals, all coming to a wooded area near me soon enough thanks to shrinking habitat and encroaching housing developments.

I'll just have to be faster to the apple tree this year and hope for the best.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Scorched Earth, Rebirth

Scherman Hoffman, 4/12/2017 (RE Berg-Andersson)
I write during the Easter period. Easter is the time of spiritual renewal and rebirth. It coincides, most years, with the full arrival of spring.

April finally feels like April here in NJ after a February that felt like May and a March that felt like January. The early-blooming daffodils are finally at peak beauty after starting to grow too early and then stopping when it turned cold.

The furnace is off and I keep the window open a bit at night, so in the morning I hear the white-throated sparrows calling for "old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody;" the titmice calling for "Peter, Peter;" and the chickadees greeting me with "hey, Sweetie." The downy woodpeckers are drumming against a nearby tree, proclaiming this is their breeding territory now. The male goldfinches are in their more-familiar bright yellow breeding color. The male juncos that winter in NJ have taken off north to claim their breeding patches, waiting for their potential mates to join them. 
(RE Berg-Andersson)

Birds are at the feeders, getting the fuel they need to sing, defend territories and live to sing another day.

These are the expected signs of spring. But there is another, less familiar sign - the controlled, or prescribed, burn.

Earlier this month I attended a nature program with, among others, Mike Anderson, the director of NJ Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary in Bernardsville. Someone asked him about his "burn" and he replied that he had the permit but it gives only a short time to do the burning and time was running out. If it couldn't be done soon, before his planned Easter week vacation, it would have to be put off another year.

As the pictures here, taken at Scherman Hoffman this week, show, he got his burn. Conditions have to be right. It can't be too windy and hot, the ground can't be too wet or dry. That was why the burn had to be delayed until nearly the last minute.

Scherman Hoffman is not alone. The managed area of the federal Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was burned on April 13 but, according to one volunteer, the burn turned out to be less extensive than planned.

It may seem like a contradiction to use a scorched earth policy - we have to torch this forest to save it - to promote growth in a sanctuary or refuge area, but fire is a natural part of the eco-system. Some seeds, such as those of the pitch pine, won't open unless burned. Burning dead wood allows sun to break in and new trees to sprout and grow. In the case of Scherman Hoffman, Mike Anderson said the idea is to burn the ground and when the inevitable invasive plants - the barberry, the knotweed and the like - take advantage to grow ahead of the native plants, go in and pull them out so the natives can thrive. 
(R.E. Berg-Andersson)

In the case of the Great Swamp, the idea was to get rid of the overgrowth around the various impoundments and make it attractive to migrating waterfowl. According to the press release put out by Morris County, where this part of the federally run Swamp is located:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regularly conducts prescribed burns on refuge lands to maintain and restore habitat for wildlife. The goal of these prescribed burns is to increase the amount of open water available to waterfowl by reducing the amount of standing dead vegetation and invading woody vegetation in three of the impoundments.

Once restored, these impoundments will provide better feeding, nesting, brood rearing, and resting habitat for all waterbird species that use the refuge. In addition to improved habitat, visitors to the refuge also benefit from prescribed burns because fire promotes native species and habitats, thus increasing wildlife observation opportunities.''

Other parks use controlled burns to improve the overall health of the forest. As the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky explains:
Due to our successful prevention and suppression efforts, fire patterns were markedly altered during the past century. In the absence of fire, massive insect and disease epidemics and various other forest health problems have proliferated.
(RE Berg-Andersson)
That's why:
The historic suppression of fire has resulted in a lack of periodic, natural fire in our forest. The absence of these low intensity fires has increased the risk of large fire events and has negatively impacted the health of our forests.
Why were burns suppressed? Because if done improperly, when the conditions are too dry and/or too windy, they can go horribly wrong. And in NJ, one of the most population-dense states in the US, if not THE most population dense because of its small size and proximity to New York City and Philadelphia - a barrel tapped at both ends, as Benjamin Franklin once said - more and more housing developments are very close to parks and woods. 

And when you have continued heat and dry weather, you have a greater danger of fire. Many burns take place specifically to take out dead wood and invasives to try to forestall the risk of a more destructive forest fire.

In the case of the NJ Pinelands, where combustible pitch pines and sandy soil predominate, there have always been small towns within. Fires were expected. However, now there are these big, nearby housing developments - many of them nursing homes and "active adult" communities - which are threatened whenever there is a fire, even a planned one.

Consider what can go wrong. In 2015 the Colorado  State Forest Service set fire to an overgrown forest near the Lower North Fork of the Platte River, about 40 miles outside Denver.  But, according to, apparently no one looked at the weather patterns and so warm temperatures and high winds fanned a fire that burned 1,400 acres, destroyed 23 homes and killed three people.
(RE Berg-Andersson)

Also, when you burn something, you have to make sure the fire is out completely. As MH and I walked around Scherman Hoffman, a breeze blew charged, black, paper-thin particles around us. These particles were cold but sometimes embers start new fires if they are not completely extinguished.

“The only reason that anybody gives for doing [burns] is that it’s ‘natural,’” a homeowner who lost his home to that 2015 Colorado fire told OutsideOnline. com. “But it isn’t natural anymore. It’s where humans live.”  

And that, of course, is the problem. Too many people living in areas where they could get burned, literally, as part of nature's cycle of renewal and rebirth.

Fire, like death, is a fact of life.

Updated 5pm, Friday, April 14.