Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

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.