Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Searching for Color

You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.  
― Ernest Hemingway, "A Moveable Feast"

I don't know when this ritual of looking for trees filled with dying, colorful leaves began. Doubtless, the good people of Vermont knew a good thing when they saw it, drawing those of us in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere up to New England to drive around, stay at a hotel, help the local economy and watch leaves color, die and fall without our having to sweep them up.

Ashokan Reservoir, Catskills, NY, Oct. 2017
(Margo D. Beller)
Watch a weather forecast and there's someone telling you which areas are "peak" or close to it. Look online and google "fall foliage" and see what you find. Regional websites, weather websites, tourist websites all trying to draw you to their regions to look at the colorful, albeit dying leaves.

This week I've swept dozens of long, hard, black pods from the black locust tree to the curb to allow MH to cut our lawn one last time before the raking begins. Plenty of leaves and pods to come. I can put some leaves into my compost pile but my pile is only so big and there is always too many leaves.

Rondout Reservoir during a brief moment of sunshine.
This and Ashokan are among the reservoirs that supply New
York City with water. (Margo D. Beller)
In my part of NJ this year the color isn't all that good. Yes, the dogwoods, Virginia creeper vine and some maples are showing red, some of the elms are starting to go yellow and some of the white oaks are going brown. But the overall picture is one of rain-starved trees trying to drop dully, tattered leaves as fast as they can to save energy and thus themselves for next year.

Yards with yellow and red maples are already covered with leaves so thick you can't see the grass. The whine of the leaf blower is heard throughout the land.

And yet, here was MH and me on a recent Sunday driving north to the Catskill Mountains, looking for color. Any excuse to get out of the house. Most of the day was cloudy and breezy and far from the expected 80 degrees, thankfully. At Rondout Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains of NY, a source of NYC's water, there suddenly appeared cormorants, common loons and ringbilled gulls in the water, and a shrieking redtailed hawk over my head.

Below, in the still-blooming daisies and goldenrod were Monarch butterflies. These delicate creatures were holding fast to the flowers in the breeze. They are flying south to Mexico for the winter, an amazingly hard journey for these little fliers.
(Margo D. Beller)
Rondout was our birdiest stop. The other reservoir we visited, Ashokan, had a great blue heron but not much else. As MH persisted in telling me, this was a leaf-peeping trip, not a birding trip. I watched the scenery go by and every so often got a surprise, such as the mature Bald Eagle sitting in a tree over the Neversink River or the female Common Mergansers in a pond near where we stopped to stretch our legs.

But color? Not so much.

Meanwhile, back at home, we've had a spate of clear, sunny, warm days and cool nights. More leaves are turning color. But is MH satisfied? Of course not, and when you read this we will be on the road again, this time in another state, looking for that mystical "peak."

Friday, October 20, 2017

Preparing for Winter

The love of gardening is a seed once sewn that never dies.
   -- Gertrude Jekyll

There are skeins of Canada geese flying in large Vs to the south at dawn and at dusk. Local Canada geese know there is something they should be doing but don't know what it is. So they fly up and circle and land on another field or playground or office park lawn, as in my photo below.

Winter is coming. It is inevitable as sunrise. If you have a garden of flowers, vegetables or both, you have to prepare it for those cold nights that will yield a killing frost, whether you like it or not.

Those who have plants they can ignore and pay someone else to take care of do not have this problem. Most of the shrubs and small ornamental trees in this area can withstand cold without being wrapped or otherwise protected. I, however, have always enjoyed growing flowering plants, and many of these have special needs.

So the first thing I had to do was to cut back all the perennials in the front and back yards that had flowered and then gone dormant. Then, after weeks of preparing myself mentally, I finally went down to our NJ county's mulch pile to fill five big buckets of free wood chips for a project in my front yard garden bed in front of the bay window. (Henceforth known as the Bay Garden.) I was forced to act by the weather forecast. After weeks of unusually warm weather in NJ during September and October, we were about to get overnight temperatures in the 30s. Many of the plants I keep outside are annuals that would die in the cold, especially if below the freezing mark, 32 degrees Fahrenheit. I persist in trying to keep these going for as long as I can rather than tossing living plants into compost just because the "experts" tell me to do so.

So I knew I'd have to bring my pots of annuals to the enclosed back porch to get them ready for being brought into my house. Same with my house plants already on this porch. But the Bay Garden was overgrown with ground ivy and Rose of Sharon seedlings and the shrubs needed pruning. This garden plot had, to be frank, gone to hell. It needed new fence posts, deer netting and a trench to keep the lawn grass and weeds from filling the area. I needed to dig this trench, pull out the weeds, cut the shrubs and then put down the mulch. Even with MH's great help the process took over eight hours and I just finished securing the netting before sundown.

The hardest part turned out to be pulling out the rabbit fencing, which was held down by garden staples I could not find and the grass and weeds that had grown through. It took MH and me all our combined strength to pull this out and we have been feeling the effects of our labor on our muscles for days now.

When you dig a trench, as I did in another area back in September, you have to attend to it every few years or the ground will fill and the problem will return. I did not do this on the Bay Garden. It had been at least 10 years, and it showed. As you will see below, the grass grew so high into the rabbit fencing you could not see the plants behind it.

I can tell you now that the job is done and I am happy. Later in the fall I will put a second, temporary layer of netting on to keep the deer thwarted over the winter, when there won't be much growing. I've learned the hard way a hungry deer determined to get to my leafy shrubs will split through one layer of netting quite easily.

My grandfather did not have this problem. I don't know if Pop gardened back in the Old Country but when he came to the U.S. thanks to his older brother he lived on the Lower East Side, which was far from a garden spot. When he and my grandmother moved to Brooklyn, he must've started planting things in the yard. When they moved to the house where I knew them, they had a big corner lot. Besides shrubs Pop grew vegetables and flowers. I do not remember them having house plants. He came to our house and planted roses, snowball bushes and a peach tree. I don't know who inspired him but my having any inclination towards gardening in a family of brown thumbs must've come from him.

This is my garden story. (All pictures are by me and the caption is beneath the picture.)

Above is a "before" picture. You can see that the grass has grown into the low rabbit fencing and the ground ivy is thick. From the street it was very hard to see the plants.

 Another "before" picture, this time from an angle.

The fence posts were removed, the netting taken down and the rabbit fencing removed, with great difficulty, by MH and me. He used the pitchfork to soften things up and I used the spade to start a trench between plants and the rest of the lawn.

A better view. After the trench was dug I had to go into the garden plot to pull out the weeds, hand to hand combat. The ground ivy was everywhere, even in the middle of the liriope, which is the plant in the lower right. Normally it would not have to be cut back until spring but I don't think the early haircut will hurt it.

One of the many ways in which MH helped me was shoveling the mulch I'd brought home (and dumped into a tarp in a corner of the driveway until I needed it) into the wheelbarrow and bringing it over to me. This was harder than you may think. Mulch in bulk is extremely heavy, and I had to bring home enough to cover the Bay Garden. Luckily, I guessed right and didn't need to go back for more. He wound up making three trips to and from the tarp and then we both dragged the tarp over - still heavy - to put the rest down.

Here we are after the mulch has been put down on the weeded garden. It was a shame to have to put the new fence posts in and the netting back up but that very afternoon a doe was grazing in the backyard grass, reminding me why I go through this nonsense.

The nearly finished product, done as the sun was setting. I realized after the fact that I'd have to put the rabbit fence along this netting, if only to keep larger critters such as the squirrels and rabbits out from where the fencing ends, under the bay window overhang you can see behind the shrubs.

This picture was taken the next day. Unlike before, the rabbit fence is not held down by stakes. It just sits next to the tacked down netting. From the street you can't see it. MH mowed recently and, for once, was able to get right up to the edge with out fear of tangling the mower in netting.

Gertrude Jekyll had the advantage of a large staff of men to help her in the massive effort of getting her estate's many garden beds ready for winter. If you read her books, you'll see what kind of effort that was. Makes what MH and I did look like nothing.

Still, we sure could've used that staff for our one problem bed.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Autumn Colors

Goldenrod field 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
When I go hiking at this season, I usually look up, seeking movement in the trees that could be migrating birds. It is up to MH to look at things on the ground including caterpillars, toads and dog poo, and warn me not to step in or on it.

Lately, however, I've been looking at the flowers. What follows are pictures of flowers I've seen in my wandering. (Note: This was intended to be a slideshow but for some reason this template is not letting me put in page breaks.)

I used to confuse goldenrod with ragweed and would pull it out of my yard. I know better now. In fact, I have a small stand or goldenrod from a friend's garden, but you can see goldenrod in fields everywhere at this time of year, making even highways look pretty.

Virginia creeper in red, with blue berries 2017
(Margo D. Beller)
But there are even more flowers around and some weeds, such as Virginia creeper vine, that will turn color ahead of the trees it is climbing. This vine is not poisonous, unlike poison ivy. This one has blue berries for the birds rather than poison ivy's white berries.

Snakeroot (Margo D. Beller)

Speaking of white, one of the autumnal plants I enjoy seeing in my yard is a pretty cluster of flowers with the ugly name of snakeroot. As you can see, it can populate a whole field.

Another common white flower in Autumn, very low to the ground, is the ox-eye daisy.

(Margo D. Beller)

(Margo D. Beller)
The pink flowers of joe-pye weed are always a welcome sight in the woods and fields. This can be bought for home gardens, too. Some types have been bred small while some, such as the ones I bought, can grow over 10 feet. When the flowers bloom they are covered in bees and butterflies.

(Margo D. Beller)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Trench Warfare

It is the nature of Nature that when you have a mowed field, you have to keep it mowed or it will become overgrown. Then the trees will start growing and completely change the typography. There are people who want this. Second-growth forests, as this regrowth is called, are good for a variety of birds and animals.

Trench with sensitive ferns (Margo D. Beller)
But on a much smaller scale, in this case my yard, I need to get rid of a different type of forest.

I was out with the hose early one morning this week to water the plants and I could not help but notice that thanks to the September heat that has followed the unusually fall-like weather in August - a reversal of seasons - the weeds and grasses are growing by leaps and bounds, thinking it is spring. It is hard for one woman to keep up and it is times like these I wish I could clone my nieces and nephews.

One area around the side of the house was on the verge of being swallowed up by the ground ivy. Bad enough it is fighting the grass in front of the house for survival. It has also found some comfortable dwelling space under Spruce Bringsgreen, whose prickly foliage keeps me from going under it to yank out the mats of ivy anymore than once or twice a year.

A mat of ground ivy was removed, exposing the
sprinkler head. (Margo D. Beller)
But this side area has a number of sensitive ferns that have done very well this year for the first time in a very long while, and I did not want the ivy in it. So I had to dig a trench.

Specifically, I had to dig a trench border.  I had to go to the edge of the area where the big shrubs, called andromeda, were planted, put in the shovel (after loosening things with the garden fork) and pull up the dirt, angling it in such a way that the grass and ivy in the lawn could not cross. Plants won't grow in air, so the wider the trench, the better the chance of keeping unwanted plants, even lawn grass, out.

It should've been easy enough. I've dug these trenches before. The problem is, I last dug one 10 years or more ago, and unless you fix your handiwork every few years, rain and wind will inevitably fill in the trench and the weeds will cross back to where you don't want them.

My plan was to rise early and try to finish the work before the sun rose high enough to warm that particular area. However, several things went wrong. First, I could not get myself out of bed before dawn. Second, I forgot about the difficulties in putting a shovel into dirt that has rocks and miles of shrub and weed roots under it. Third, I forgot the hand-to-hand combat. It's not enough to dig the trench, you have to pull out the undesirables from the area you have "liberated." It is very much like war without the shooting. 

Good trenches make good neighbors.
(Margo D. Beller)
The finished product makes the garden bed look neat but my back and knees almost finished me off. My compost bucket was filled with huge mats of ground ivy, particularly from in front of the air conditioner platform. There were also crab grass, some wood sorrel and other plants I can't identify. I just hope I got it all and didn't harm the ferns or buried daffodils much from my labor.

My plan was to do another garden bed not complicated by deer netting but my aging body forced me to wait a day. I had to be content putting a month's worth of brush to the curb in several trips using a cart and a wheelbarrow. The next day it took another two hours to do this bed, which has even more roots and rocks to dig through. Somehow I survived.

And I'm still not done. No gardener ever is. There is one super-sized problem area in front of the house, bound by netting, poles and a small fence to keep deer and rabbits out of plants I never would've put in had I known better 20 years ago. It will take an hour just to take out all the netting and then there will be hours of work to dig the trench, pull the weeds and then, as long as I have the poles down, move around pots, cut back shrubs and put down mulch. My back aches at the thought.

The next frontier (Margo D. Beller)
Because this area is in the sun for most of the day I will need a cooler day, preferably cloudy, an October day that actually feels like October. I could do at least some of this with MH's help, even though doing anything in the yard aside from mowing the lawn fills him with apprehension. I don't blame him. Sometimes it is easier to just do things myself rather than bark orders to get things just so. 

I could hire someone but I like working in the garden, despite the pain. I can listen to a distant Carolina wren, one of my favorite birds. I can take care of everything at once and then, I hope, leave this area of the garden alone until spring starts things all over again. 

Mainly, doing this stuff allows me to check that I can still do it. As time has gone by I have been forced to give up many things, including long, rocky hikes up steep inclines. The garden, even digging a trench, is something I can still do. I garden, therefore I am. 

I am battling myself, too.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Coming Back to Life

I am still grieving the loss of one of my dear friends, and I still hate this time of year for the shorter days and dying leaves and pods that will soon have to be raked to the curb.

April, 2017 (RE Berg-Andersson)
But there are times I am reminded that with every loss comes rebirth.

My friend is gone but my grandnephew is nearly 15 months old and growing like a weed. The cardinals and their young are still flying around the backyard. The catbirds are leaving my yard but the white-throated sparrows will be here soon for the winter. I have taken in the hummingbird feeder and I will soon be putting out the seed feeders for those passing through or staying around.

I was at the Scherman Hoffman sanctuary, the closest New Jersey Audubon facility to my house, to watch for hawks on its observation deck with Birding Ambassador and author Pete Dunne and a small crowd of people hoping to see a large kettle of broad-winged hawks. The temperature and humidity made it feel more like mid-August than mid-September, which has followed the pattern of this wacky year when we had summer-like weather in spring and fall-like weather in late summer.
Same are, Sept. 16, 2017 (Margo D. Beller)

I left the platform after an hour to hike the hills and valleys. I saw little in the way of birds except for a young female common yellowthroat warbler I pished out of the weeds. Everything else were birds I could've seen or heard in my backyard, including several turkey vultures.

I was trying to walk off my internal agitation, trying to remember why I enjoy birding. I have cut back for a number of reasons, including health concerns. I need a reason to keep going.

Then I walked into a field that had been burned back in the spring to get rid of invasive plants and allow for the seeding and growing of more native plants.

So where there was once scorched, seemingly dead earth were fields of long, seeding grasses I believe are a type of fountain grass and brilliant yellow goldenrod, along the lovely white fall flower with the ugly name of White Snakeroot.

Life after death. The priest at my friend's funeral went on about her happy life now after death and I thought how in my particular religion there is no concept of heaven and hell, just the here and now.

(Margo D. Beller)
So I am going to try to concentrate on the here and now. I am going to stop and enjoy the wildflowers now blooming, including the goldenrod and New England asters you see above. I am going to take walks and listen for what might be passing through. I am going to live in the moment. You can call it selfishness or mindfulness or whatever you want. I just need to get through this down period and hope for better days soon.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Cardinal Rules

I have always thought the period from late August through October to be the saddest time of the year. If you are not already back in school, you will be. The sun sets long before 8 p.m. Leaves are beginning to turn color and/or fall, as is the case with my old apple tree. The regular baseball season ends in early October.

Cardinal pair (Margo D. Beller)
Many birds are migrating south. I haven't seen a hummingbird at the feeder in quite some time. My mother, who was born in late August, died in mid-October. A dear friend, who was born in mid-October, recently died after a long battle against cancer one day after my mother's birthday.

The somber Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur usually fall in September or October. The anniversary of the worst attack in U.S. history occurred on Sept. 11.

By the time November rolls around you are used to the long, cold, dark nights and can look ahead to Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. But now you realize that the cold nights are going to severely hurt or kill your plants and you start to wonder whether to protect them or let them go.

At the same time, there is life.

Cardinal (Margo D. Beller)
Some plants bloom at this time of year. In my yard are flowering Rose of Sharon and liriope, with the sedum "Autumn Joy" not far behind. Mums dot suburban doorways.

There are still birds in the yard. A catbird calls, white-breasted nuthatch and chickadees come to the thistle sock and the cardinals are calling to each other. And there are young cardinals, too, a late brood for these parents.

Cardinals are among my favorite birds. Their size and coloring makes them easy to pick out in bushes and trees. They come to feeders and sit a while to eat, allowing you to admire and photograph them. In spring the red male feeds his mate as part of the pair bonding. It looks like they are kissing. Unlike a lot of other birds, they mate for life. Audubon painted the pair. The adults call to each other constantly, and the male will sit atop a tree and sing lustily during the breeding season, announcing that THIS is HIS territory.

Audubon's portrait of cardinals
(Margo D. Beller)
Cowbirds will drop eggs into cardinal nests. The young cowbird is usually bigger than the cardinal chicks and either grabs all the food or pushes them from the nest. The adults will feed it anyway out of instinct. I have seen a cowbird chick harassing an adult male cardinal, begging for food, following it wherever it goes until the chick grows big enough to leave and rejoin the cowbird flocks.

And yet, the cardinal is far from endangered. Today I watch young cardinals follow their parents around the shrubs in my backyard. They are nearly fully grown. When young, cardinals are smaller and brown like their mothers, lacking the red crest and bill. That is for their protection. As they get older, the brown females get their red bills and crests, the males start to grow the more familiar red feathers.

Relatively soon after they can fend for themselves, the young cardinals will find mates. When winter comes I might have as many as four cardinal pairs visiting the feeder. It will keep them alive this winter until they can breed and keep the cycle going.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Too Much of a Good Thing

Where do the natives of Tahiti go on vacation?

Our dry, cool, sunny un-August weather in New Jersey is like paradise after our recent, normal heat and humidity, but it may be too much of a good thing and it has me concerned.

Gift tomatoes (Margo D. Beller)
At some point during the expected 10 days without rain, I will have to go out with the hose and the sprinkler so the plants and the lawn don't die. There are two water dishes out for the birds (and the squirrels), and they've been visited frequently.

The peppers prefer heat, not evenings that fall into the 50s, as we've been having out here, so I am not sure if the fruits will ever get big or change from green to their expected ripe colors. 

The people who like the beach had a fine weekend (until the traffic home) and those who stayed home and have a grill and/or an outdoor fireplace enjoyed stinking up the neighborthood using them, too.

We aren't beach people but we did visit friends near the Brooklyn waterfront the other day and the wife's small garden put me to shame. Various tomatoes, cucumbers, ginger root, melons, coneflowers, sunflowers, herbs, all in a space about the size of a postage stamp. 

Like other gardening friends when the harvest is coming in, I got gifts to take home because they had too much of a good thing. That happens this time of year. I've had garden plants foisted on me because they'd otherwise be thrown out. One friend claims he will put a zucchini in every unlocked car he finds in his neighborhood, and I've been given zucchinis that look like green logs. A relative complains she doesn't know what she is going to do with all the fruit and vegetables she's picking. (She is a good cook and canner so I am not worried.)

My produce, in pots rather than in the ground, have it a little tougher because the roots are limited in how far they can grow. Some friends are using the new type of mesh pot that supposedly allows for greater air circulation for the roots and creates happier, fruit-bearing plants.

Gift cucumber, nearly 14 inches long
(Margo D. Beller)
Will my peppers ever grow to the right size? One friend in Delaware complains that all the rain she got this summer created a terrible harvest for her cucumbers and tomatoes. The farmers I've talked to in New Jersey have said the same. Too much rain is as bad as to little.

And yet the farm markets are full of peaches, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other produce. Some people are obviously doing a lot of things better than I am.

Meanwhile, our good thing in the northeast is balanced by too much of a bad thing in the rest of the country.

In California. there are major forest fires. In Texas, Hurricane Harvey strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane thanks to the abnormal warmth of the Gulf of Mexico before slamming into the barrier islands, which should've limited the damage but there are people living on them, and so there is damage. The continued rain has devastated Houston. The rain in Texas is being measured in feet, not inches.

Too much dry, sunny weather in NJ, a mega-hurricane flooding Texas. Global warming? You tell me.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Here in New Jersey we have been given a gift this late August - cool, dry, breezy weather, more like September than late summer.

The cool air has inspired me to go outside and deadhead the spent flowers on the perennials in hopes there may be new bloom before winter. My peppers have started growing, at last. Leaves are falling off the apple and pear trees, and the dogwood has a hint of red in the leaves, even as its fruits are starting to form. The female locust tree in the front yard will have a bumper crop of seed pods this year, unfortunately, and when they fall they will have to be raked to the curb with the inevitable leaf piles.

Male Harlequin-you can hunt it in season.
(Margo D. Beller)
For now, however, I am thinking about migration.

There is still the occasional hummingbird visitor to the feeder. The adult males are long gone, the adult females are leaving and the juveniles are now big enough to feed and travel on their own. The rubythroated hummingbird I've been seeing of late seems to have a tinge of red on its "chin," making it a juvenile male. He perches and takes long drinks. With the accumulated fat he's building he'll soon be heading to the lush tropics for the winter. I hope he survives the trip.

Overhead, the clouds are moving from north to south. In the bird reports I see warblers and other migrating birds showing up in greater numbers on their way to their winter grounds. The north wind is a tail wind, and when September comes that means it will be time for me to look in the skies for southbound raptors.

Buteos such as redtail hawks, accipiters, falcons, harriers, vultures, eagles: When they fly south they use the warm air rising off mountains to help them stay aloft. So unlike the warm spring winds from the south, which don't seem to limit the hawks' flight patterns, in autumn the best place to see these birds is along mountain ridges. I enjoy the hawk watch from Scott's Mountain and have seen hawks from elsewhere in New Jersey, including New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary and from the front lawn of an office building in Englewood Cliffs, across the road from the Palisades and the Hudson River, which the hawks follow south.
Redtail hawk (Margo D. Beller)

The view of raptors from the top of Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain, an extremely rugged hike each way, is awesome. No platform here, just jagged rocks. This was one of the many places where sportsmen would see how many hawks they could shoot out of the sky.

That doesn't happen anymore, at least officially. The outcry over such slaughter as well as the killing of birds such as great egrets for their feathers led to the passage of the 1918 Migratory Bird Act. No more raptor target practice. Birds such as grouse, woodcock, ducks and geese can be hunted, but only during limited times of the year and with a strict limit on how many you can kill, just as with the deer and bear.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: For over a century, wildlife conservation laws and regulations have been enacted to keep our bird populations healthy. As part of our mandate to conserve birds and their habitats, we administer the Migratory Bird Treaty ActMigratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. These acts are at the foundation of the Migratory Bird Program.

Hawk feathers (Margo D. Beller)
Among the artifacts in my museum of collected oddities are three feathers. I see, but don't usually collect, feathers all over my yard and from all kinds of birds. But these three feathers (at left) were found while I was hiking and for some reason I took them. From the pattern, it looks like they came from a Cooper's or a sharp-shinned hawk, presuming these are tail feathers, but I can't be sure. They are fascinating to study.

But was my taking them illegal? Under the law what happens when you kill, say, a Canada goose during hunting season? Can you collect its feathers for sale?

According to this site, created by a person who sells feather art, some situations are legal, some are not. One of my friends, who is handy with crafts, recently found feathers from a great blue heron that was preening in one of her trees. She is angry at what she sees as hypocrisy -- that she can shoot a bird for supper but can't use its feathers for art and commerce.

So she won't be hawking her wares anytime soon. I, meanwhile, will be waiting for autumn to come for real and the north winds bringing the great raptor push southward. Feathers will be flying.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The 2017 Solar Eclipse

This week was one of the few times the United States came together as a nation. No matter who you are, your political party affiliation, your ethnic background and beliefs, you were watching a total solar eclipse in person, on the internet or on television Monday, Aug. 21.

The President stood on a White House balcony with his family to watch, at times without safety glasses. On hillsides across the country, especially in those small towns in the nation's midsection, crowds sat and looked up, like the audience at a 3-D movie, with their special glasses. It was the first coast to coast total eclipse in almost 100 years. The next solar eclipse to be seen from the U.S. will be in 2024.

Everyone had their cellphones and cameras ready to record the moment and put it on their social media pages. Television networks had crews and their main anchors reporting in case your local weather did not make for optimal viewing outside. Even NASA, the space agency, live-streamed the eclipse on the internet.

It was what we used to call in the 1960s a happening.

MH, with his scientific bent, was ready for it.

As the start of the eclipse neared, around 1:30pm ET in New Jersey, he pulled one of our small, white, plastic tables off our porch, put it on the top of the driveway where the sun wasn't blocked by trees and readied his grandfather's binoculars to shine the sun through. At just the right angle, two suns appeared on the table top, like something out of "Star Wars."

With one hand on his trusty phone and the other on the binoculars, he was able to document the transit of the new moon. Where we live the sun was about 75% covered, so it never really got that dark, more like dusk. His photos are shown here.

1:40pm ET (photos by RE Berg-Andersson)

1:52 pm

2:16 pm




Professional scientists were out watching and photographing the eclipse, too, studying the sun's corona, for instance, and the eclipse's effects on birds and animals.

This is not new. For instance, consider this report from the Kansas City Star:

In February 1998, [Elliot Tramer, a professor of biology and director of environmental sciences at the University of Toledo in Ohio] was in Venezuela for a total solar eclipse and, by happenstance, witnessed the unusual and collective behavior of sea birds such as gulls, terns, pelicans, cormorants and frigatebirds.
“As the eclipse approached and it began to get a dusk-like lighting, the sun was probably 70 to 80 percent occluded, these birds all got up and flew inland,” Tramer said, an observation that he later published. “The local people in Spanish were all saying, ‘The birds think it’s evening!’ 
Once the eclipse passed, the birds flew back to sea.
In my neighborhood, everything went quiet except my neighbor's two yappy dogs, which were barking as she tried to photograph the eclipse, before the clouds rolled in and covered the sun. Was it the eclipse affecting them or their owner's strange behavior? Only they know.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Leaves of Grass in a Sea of Green

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.
- Walt Whitman

It is once more Sunday morning and I am in my "corner office." There have been chickadees rather than goldfinches at the thistle sock and the light plays prettily on the medallion atop my feeder pole.

At close to 9 am, I hear, once more, the drone of a lawn mower, likely that of a homeowner rather than the big mowers used by a lawn service.

Backyard lawn, Aug, 13, 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
By our town's laws, 9 am is when mower and blower noise is deemed ok on a Sunday and so, once more, I am hearing one of the most recognizable sounds of summer along with slammed screen doors and the whirring of cicadas.

Lawns are the cornerstone of suburbia. Mowing the lawn is mentioned as a suburban rite in the song "Pleasant Valley Sunday" co-written by Carole King and her husband at the time. A neat and tidy sea of green, the lawn shows the world you know how to take care of your property and you are a person of substance. An untidy lawn brings you stares from the neighbors, comments from passersby and visits from deer that think you have provided a nice little meadow in which it can bed down.

And yet, nothing is abused more than a lawn.

It is watered, by rain and sprinkler, sometimes daily. Then the mower - whether homeowner or service - cuts it down weekly, whether it needs cutting or not, to within an inch of its life. Then the mowed, cropped grass goes brown in the summer heat, prompting the homeowner to use the sprinkler, sometimes daily, prompting the grass to go green and grow, which brings the mower, etc., etc.

First 2017 mowing - note the ground ivy flowers
(Margo D. Beller)
There comes a point each summer when MH and I watch the service working on the lawn across the street and one or the other will mutter, "He's mowing dust."

MH, for assorted reasons, likes to go out every other week to mow, or he may leave it a tad longer. When he does mow the lawn, it is a higher cut than mowers on the neighbors' lawns. The grass cuttings are not put in a pail for the town to turn into compost for sale but left to nourish the lawn. The longer cut protects the grass' roots from the summer heat. So our lawn looks a bit greener.

Yes, that has brought deer but deer pass through anyway. We find evidence that they have visited, including the areas where they have bedded down. Without a high fence, that will continue.

Another thing we do not do is spray chemicals on the lawn to keep it green and perfect. We feed the grass in spring and fall because, after all, lawn grass is a plant as much as anything in a pot. But our lawn is not perfect. In the front yard it is fighting an invasion of ground ivy, one of my least favorite weeds. In back I sometimes find trees and wild rose growing where the seeds have landed and taken root.

There are also bugs, and that brings ground birds that eat them: flickers, robins, grackles, catbirds, Carolina and house wrens, chipping sparrows and, just today, an infrequent visitor, a phoebe diving for insects from my apple tree. There is no reason to use chemicals when the birds are just as effective.

We are not perfect either. When there has been no rain for a while and the grass becomes crunchy, MH will look at me and ask about putting on the sprinkler system. At which point it is programmed to go on during the wee hours of the morning, when the water will be absorbed and not dried away by the sun.

You would think this is a no-brainer. And yet I see plenty of my neighbors, even the ones who mow their own lawns and do not bag their clippings, using their sprinklers in the middle of the day when the grass is getting the full effect of the sun. Waste of water and their money.

Lawn care is a big business. There are plenty of books and websites on the topic such as this one. Much of the information is put out there by people who want you to hire their lawn service or buy their chemicals and other products. There are even scientific studies on lawns. According to a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, mowed grass is the nation's largest irrigated crop. Between the lawns and the sod farms I can believe it.

American toad, backyard, July 2014 (RE Berg-Andersson)
Those times I mow our lawn I re-acquaint myself with its quirks. I pay attention to which areas get more sun than others, which are wetter. I have spooked up American toads with the mower and once, unfortunately, gave a young rabbit a scar on its ear when I went over a nest in a lawn depression. In spring, the lawn in front is filled with the tall purple flowers of the ground ivy, the only time it looks pretty. Then comes the yellow dandelions, which we try to dig out before the uglier seed heads rise.

As a former neighbor once said, as long as it's green I don't care.

It is unfortunate that more towns like mine do not encourage creating small grasslands where manicured lawns now sit. Grasslands bring different types of plants, insects and birds to an area. They are more interesting, less sterile. Certain birds -- grasshopper sparrows, for instance -- and insects such as monarch butterflies are endangered because more farms and their grasslands are being "developed" into suburban housing developments with, of course, a huge ocean of lawn.

Monarch butterfly, Griggstown Grasslands, Aug. 2011 (Margo D. Beller)
So I can look at a long, sweeping, immaculately mowed, green, unweedy lawn and envy the homeowner his or her money paying the lawn service that would spare MH and me a lot of physical pain if we used it. But I do not covet that lawn.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Chance and Habit

It is my habit to take my first cup of coffee outside. I enjoy doing this on a Sunday morning, especially if I can get up early when it is cool, there is little chance of a lawn service or homeowner abusing the quiet, there are few cars about and the birds are singing.

Carolina wren, Cape May (Margo D. Beller)
I expect the cardinal to be singing in the morning. Having it joined by a Carolina wren is an unexpected but not total surprise. Carolina wrens are the only wrens that stay in my state all year, so even with the departure of the resident house wren some weeks ago, just before the last of the apple harvest, hearing a Carolina wren sing in the yard in August is a joy.

However, standing up, going to the screen door to find this wren and seeing a rubythroated hummingbird fly to the feeder for the first time in days is pure chance.

Chance is why birdwatchers go out into the field and look for birds in even the worst weather. We may go to a specific place we know or have read about, but when we get there we have little idea of what we will find.

How not to do a park - undeveloped area of Central Park
of Morris County (Margo D. Beller)
Here is an example. The other day I went to a new (2015) park we passed on the road that turned out, like Greystone near me, to have been a state hospital that was allowed to fall into disrepair, so much so that, after much controversy, the buildings were condemned and removed to create this tranquil 256-acre park.

Unlike what is now the Central Park of Morris County, this park, run by neighboring Somerset County, features a paved hiking trail. There is also a scenic overlook of a brook featuring a paved platform and two benches. It is very well done (unlike the Morris County park where the land where the Kirkbride building once stood is empty, overgrown and just sits there, useless unless you like off-trail bushwhacking, which MH and I do not).

We walked the trail and the environment suits the habits of many of the birds I'd expect to find in a park - chipping sparrows, field sparrows, goldfinches, bluebirds, robins, catbirds, Carolina wren, cedar waxwings. At the overlook I found, a great egret, a great blue heron and redwinged blackbird.

Marsh wren, Bombay Hook, 2017
(RE Berg-Andersson)
I was at that overlook twice, on our way in and on our way out. As I was leaving to catch up with MH, a redtailed hawk flew out of the wood, chased by the much smaller blue jays rightly viewing it as a threat. But right after that, when I was a short distance away, I heard the distinctive reedy chatter of a marsh wren! I had been looking at the cattails wondering if one could be there. These are secretive birds usually found along the seashore, not in a county park. They usually sing for territorial reasons, not because a redtail is being chased off.

Pure chance it was there or that I had heard it.

This is why we go out, searching for the chance to find a bird where we may or may not expect it.

The "rare" or unusual reported bird could be migrating north in spring or south in autumn, which may be why the marsh wren was in the park. Or perhaps an unusual bird got blown off course and now it is in an area completely foreign to it, at least until global warming brings the ocean to my back door. A storm forces ocean birds to an inland lake. A western bird or even one from Europe shows up on the wrong coast.

An Allen's hummingbird showed up in NJ a few years ago and the quick-thinking people running the natural area where it was sighted rushed out with a heat lamp and feeder to keep it alive through the winter. From this misfortune came the chance for this and other easterners to see an unusual, western bird.

Waiting for the chance to see a bird
at the thistle sock (Margo D. Beller)
I walk one spring morning in my town and down by the brook I hear the distinctive call of a Blackburnian warbler male, black and orange. This bird will soon fly north to pine forests but right now, it happened to stop at the maples over the brook. Pure chance I happened to be at the right place at the right time.

This is why I can't understand why people who have the habit of a daily walk do so with so little enjoyment, their ears covered, or are so gung-ho to walk 1,258 steps they can't stop a few minutes to take in the world around them. Those walking on a lunch hour are particularly bad, so eager are they to fit in as much of the "outdoors" as they can in an hour.

But is it really outdoors if you are not looking at the world around you, scaring up the ground birds as you trudge on? Is the sound of a titmouse singing "Peter Peter" so distracting to your habit that you can't listen to it?

Out of habit you are ignoring the chance of seeing the world around you.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Matters of Life and Death

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” 
― Thornton WilderOur Town

In the past 18 months I have been in the hospital three times, twice by design and once in an emergency. For the two scheduled times, surgery was required and I was home that same day, but I had to be put under anesthesia.

Each time, in the days running up to that appointment, I prayed I would wake up afterwards.

It made me wonder, do we ever appreciate life while we have it? That made me think of "Our Town," where the entire last act is conversations among dead people and that very topic comes up.

I'd like to think there is a place where we can all sit around and have these types of discussions but I just do not know.

In the days leading up to this second surgery, I spent a lot of time cleaning the house, writing out instructions for MH "in case something goes wrong" and getting stuff done. Much of it was not important stuff, but the little things I knew I would not be able to do in the days afterwards...should I live.

Life and death were on my mind a lot in the days leading up to the second visit. They still are, and have been since the trauma that put me in the ER could've killed me.

The day of the second surgery, in the cool early morning, I watched the stained-glass window effect of my feeder intensely. I sat outside to watch the hummingbirds. I listened to the jays, cardinals, goldfinches and watched the chimney swifts catch insects aloft. I thought of my grand-nephew and the house his parents just bought. I'd like to see both it and him.

I thought of people condemned to die. They sit in cells and, when the appeals are exhausted, learn when exactly their lives will end. How do they feel? I thought I had an inkling.

Would you rather go quick and unexpectedly or spend weeks lingering on? There is a reason the "ideal" is to die in your sleep. But what if you left things undone the day before? I kept thinking of the "day after" should things go wrong.

I have not been very forthcoming about the state of my health with most of my friends and family. That reflects more on me than them. The ones I've told have cheered me greatly, but they have their own lives and families and troubles and live some distance away. After all is said and done, we're all really on our own.

I am lucky. There is much that has gone wrong in my life but much that has gone right. Am I neurotic in dwelling on the End? Perhaps. While I was in the hospital this last time I was reminded that catastrophic illness can be an equal opportunity killer. John McCain and brain cancer. The guy in the pre-op bed across from me telling the nurse he was in for an extensive hernia repair, much worse than the reason I was there. Children with leukemia.

Live each day as if it is your last. It's not just a cliche.