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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