By Margo D. Beller
Thirty years ago, in early May, Pete Dunne and his team – with a special guest appearance by Roger Tory Peterson – went out to find as many birds as possible in the state of New Jersey in one day. Pete, then as now, was based in Cape May and the contest was timed specifically to take advantage of the peak migration season for northbound birds.
Pete writes about that first World Series of Birding, as it came to be called, in this year’s Spring/Summer issue of New Jersey Audubon magazine. In 1983 there were only 11 teams. This year expect thousands of people to comb the state, showing just how much diversity a little, congested state such as New Jersey can contain. In the process these teams will raise money for conservation.
Once again, Scherman Hoffman will be fielding two WSB teams, but they won’t be rushing all over the state as will Dunne’s team or those from much further afield. Sanctuary Director Mike Anderson will be sitting on the hawk platform with his merry band from midnight May 11 (Saturday) to midnight May 12 (Sunday), tallying what they hear and see. There will be a second team led by Randy Little that will only bird for six hours starting early Saturday and keep their search to the Scherman Hoffman grounds and the nearby Cross Estate.
I wrote about my time on the hawk platform with Mike’s team last year. The group, shown at left, tallied 77 birds in 24 hours, coming in second in the “big stay” division. My favorites of the birds I saw were the barn swallow that kept zipping around and annoying the house sparrows trying to build a nest, and a lovely male Cape May warbler at eye level in the spruce just off to the right of the platform. Cape Mays have a thin call and usually stay high in the trees, making this one of my easiest warbler sightings ever.
There is still time to get involved in this year’s World Series of Birding on May 11 by making a pledge or sponsoring or joining a team. You can get more information here.
Meanwhile, as the birder-competitors get ready by scoping out prime locations and readying their routes, the birds are already making their way north as fast as the south winds will move them. They will have traveled thousands of miles from Central and South America. Most will stay a day or two in New Jersey to rest and feed before making the final push up to their breeding grounds. But some find good breeding habitat in New Jersey.
And so it was that on April 4, the first Louisiana waterthrush was recorded back on its territory at Scherman Hoffman. That territory is along the Passaic River where the River (yellow) trail runs. Along with the pine and palm, the Lousiana waterthrush is one of the first migrant warblers to arrive in New Jersey.
It is hard to believe this is a warbler. It has no yellow. It doesn’t have the striking color patterns of the magnolia warbler or common yellow-throat. It superficially resembles a thrush with stripes instead of dots. It is found along forest streams, which the Passaic is in this part of New Jersey. (It is hard to believe this gentle stream at Scherman Hoffman will become the wide river that runs through Newark.)
If you see a waterthrush on the river trail, as I have, you will likely see it on the ground, bobbing its tail as it walks along. It is brown on the back and has those stripes on a white breast. It also has bold, white “eyebrow.” There is a another bird, the northern waterthrush, that is similar in appearance and also found on the ground bobbing its tail. However, this bird prefers still water, such as a swamp or bog. It tends to have a yellow wash on the breast and eyebrow, although there are some that are white.
All of this makes telling the two waterthrushes apart even more challenging.
In his painting of the Lousiana waterthrush, John J. Audubon shows one grasping a stem of what looks like a sumac, looking up at the red berries. According to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, a typical waterthrush diet is insects, earthworms and the occasional frog or fish – not berries. Call it artistic license, I guess.
There have been several Louisiana waterthrushs sited along the Passaic in or near the sanctuary and, being a warbler, expect the crowds to be big for the Friday and Saturday morning bird walks around the sanctuary. There is something about a warbler, even a brown one, that makes birders want to get out early on a Saturday morning.
The waterthrush is among those prized by the WSB competitors. But for these migrants, just getting north is literally a life and death race. The winner gets to breed and go south again in the fall. With any luck it, or one of its descendants, will be back along the Passaic River at Scherman Hoffman next year, in time for the 31st World Series of Birding.
On Thursday, March 21, 2013, the first full day of spring, I took an early-morning walk not far from my home and found an Eastern phoebe, my first of the season.
It caught me off guard but shouldn’t have. The Eastern phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family like its cousins the black and the Say’s, is one of the earliest of spring migrant birds.
According to the Scherman Hoffman “Spring Migration Arrival Dates” handout you can get at the nature store, eastern phoebes show up between March 10-20. Nature writer Marie Winn, in her blog post of March 15, announced the first phoebe had been seen in New York’s Central Park.
So mine was more or less on time.
Yet, it did not feel like spring. The temperature at 8:30 that morning was in the upper 20s and it was cloudy with a breeze. I was wearing a thin scarf around my head and neck, a hat over that and a warm parka with the hood up.
The year before we’d had next to no snow and the temperature was unusually warm in March. But this year we’ve had the winter that won’t end. The 50 degree days -- normal temperature for late March -- have been few and far between and the weathercasters were predicting warmth returning in April, maybe.
So the phoebe and the calendar were telling me spring had arrived but my chilled senses weren’t convinced. I decided to search for other signs.
I’d recently visited New Jersey Audubon central NJ sanctuary, Plainsboro Preserve. There was a large flock of common mergansers on the lake and a lone tree swallow, an early migrant (not the one photographed). I also found a woodcock, by accident. I had been walking, stopped to look around and heard a slight crunching of leaves. There it was, quickly walking away.
Woodcocks are another early migrant. The last time I’d seen one was at Scherman Hoffman, where the river trail begins. Sanctuary director Mike Anderson told me you need a night of at least 40 degrees before the woodcocks do their spectacular mating dance.
So, with visions of phoebes and woodcocks, I took to the Scherman trails searching for signs of spring.
I found one sign almost immediately -- the whine of a leaf blower. Many of the sanctuary’s neighbors have large pieces of property and have contracts with landscapers. It didn’t matter that this was a cold, windy day. If the contract said spring “cleanup” would take place in a particular March weekend, it was done.
I find people too lawn-crazy. They go out with leaf blowrs on a windy day and mow every week whether the grass has grown or not. Then they water when the cropped grass burns brown in the sun. If they mowed every two to three weeks they’d save time and energy. But that would put the lawn services out of business.
At the foot of the driveway I’d seen the daffodils were up but not blooming. The sun was only providing enough warmth to slightly defrost some of the frozen mud. New Jersey’s mud season isn’t as epic as New England’s, but this year we’d had far more snow than the year before and there was a fair amount of damp still around.
I headed down the driveway and hung a left near the office, not far from where a pileated woodpecker had been seen for weeks. It was gone. Meanwhile, I found the lower field is now set up for parking and hiking. No climbing unless you want to go further into the sanctuary. Mike said this field would also be a good place for woodcock, and I walked slowly, hoping for tell-tale leaf crunching.
Nothing. The wetlands pond was frozen. I walked on what I thought was a trail and quickly found myself on frozen muck. But there I found my first real sign of spring -- skunk cabbage, so named because of the stink if you disturb it. I was in a sea of skunk cabbage, and I walked out as carefully as I would through a mine field.
Leaving the lower field, I was on the field loop (green trail) with the Passaic River to my right. I was looking for phoebes at the same time I was search the leaf litter for woodcock. As I got near the river (yellow) trail, up ran three young men, cross-country runners. Nothing flew up on their approach. I walked down to the river, listening. I could hear the chirrups of bluebirds very close, plus calling titmice and white-breasted nuthatch. No phoebe, however.
Two men came down the bridge, said hello, and continued along the river to their favorite fishing spots. You can fish at Scherman, in season and with a license. I don’t know if these guys were licensed but I was told at the office it is now fishing season. Even as I left the area a third man was showing up with his rod. That’s the problem with an unusually cold winter - the first decent day you want to get out, whether it’s to hike or fish.
Back on the field loop (green) trail, I stopped to listen to the bluebirds. Two women came bounding along the trail, the older one asking me where the birds were. I told her they were all around us but she wanted to see them, not hear them. They continued on. I counted to 10 and, like clockwork, here came the bluebirds flying across the field.
Jon Young, in his book “What the Robin Knows”, points out that when people just blunder along heedless of their surroundings the birds will hear them a mile away and take off. No wonder these women had seen nothing.
Bluebirds, like their cousins the robins, will stay in New Jersey over the winter but seeing one so bright on a winter day raises the spirits.
OK, then, onward.
I take a detour to the recently installed “fishless pond” where last spring a man leading a bird group pointed out a singing Wilson’s warbler. I didn’t see it but I did hear it. But it’s now too early for warblers. Most of the warblers hit Scherman in mid-April through the end of May. One of the earliest will be the Louisiana water thrush that comes to the river every year.
When most of the warblers arrive it should be warm - climate willing.
I climbed the hill to where the loop meets the dogwood (red) trail and rested. A white-breasted nuthatch sang its high-pitched song. Otherwise, the woods were silent. It is so rare in this plugged-in, automated, mindless world to find an area that is completely silent, where you can hear yourself think, where no one crowds you.
That is the value of the woods to me. But that isn‘t how others view the woods. To some, it‘s a place to jog. To some, a place to hide out (for whatever reason). To some, trees are something dangerous - Hurricane Sandy blew down a lot of trees on a lot of houses.
It can take several generations for a tree to rise to full maturity, but it only takes about a day to bring it down and pull the stump. Most then start building a housing development.
So I stood there enjoying the trees until an airplane flew over and brought me back to “real” life.
Up the hill to the vernal pool. Dry. I watched the brush pile behind me and found four types of sparrows - the junco, the white-throated, the song and the house (actually a weaver bird, but whatever).
This is a good spot because it is a straight line (give or take a tree) from the feeders just up the hill. So after the birds get food from the feeder they often come down here. I’ve seen Baltimore orioles at this spot in summer and purple finches in winter. But now, in what the calendar said was spring, I only found sparrows.
I had spooked them at my approach but once I’d stood a while they started moving around. One or two white-throats (such as the one photographed) started singing their territorial “Oh, Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” Soon these winter visitors will head north to their breeding grounds, as will the juncos. The house sparrows will stay wherever there are people putting out seed or dropping food on the ground.
A song sparrow also started to sing - chee-chee-CHUR, wheepwheepwheepwheep - it sounds to me. I always associate that song with spring because it, too, is a territorial call. Soon this sparrow will be finding a mate and making a nest, perhaps within this brush pile. (As I write this, Susan Garretson Friedman reported to the NJ bird list on March 27 that a flock of migrant pine siskins stopped at the Scherman feeders for a while and another visitor, a fox sparrow, was along the river trail. It figures.)
Back at my car I checked my mental score sheet. No phoebes and woodcocks but I’d found skunk cabbage, fresh bluebirds and singing song sparrows. In a year when winter just will not end, this will have to do.
As America’s first poet, Anne Bradstreet, wrote, “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”
By Margo D. Beller
Whether you are walking in a forest or park or sitting in your suburban backyard, there is nothing more distinctive than the sound of a pileated woodpecker whacking a hole in a tree, seeking the carpenter ants within.
Scherman Hoffman program director Stephanie Punnett heard that very loud sound on one of the trails and found this handsome fellow. You can tell it’s a male because he has a red “moustache” the female lacks. Otherwise, both look exactly alike, striking in their black and white and red.
Everything about the pileated is BIG. It is about the size of a crow, so when it flies over you in the woods it gets your attention. It has a large crest and a large bill that it uses to make large, rectangular holes in trees like the ones pictured. Sometimes the sound of one chopping into a tree reminds me of a woodsman with an ax.
Watch Jim O’Malley’s video of the Scherman Hoffman pileated woodpecker here.
Even its laugh is big. It carries far in the forest and in the backyard. In fact, most times it is the laugh that alerts me to the bird because it’s otherwise rather shy. I am sure the creator of the old “Woody Woodpecker” cartoon character had the pileated’s crest and laugh in mind.
I was once walking in my town to the morning train to work when I discovered a pileated, at eye level, whacking away at a tree. I was able to walk within five feet, so close I could see it was a female. She ignored me. There must’ve been a lot of ants in that tree. “That’ll be down in a year,” I thought. In fact, it took two.
A tree full of holes is a goner. The very fact the woodpecker is on it shows the tree is infested with carpenter ants, and that weakened tree will die.
But these holes also keep others, including smaller birds and even bats, alive because they create shelters. So even a dead tree has its uses.
The pileated Stephanie photographed on March 6 had been working on a sassafras tree (that can be seen from the Scherman Hoffman driveway) for the previous four days. At least one pileated, possibly this same one, has long hung around the education center. It may have been one of a pair I saw in the same area where this bird was photographed a few months ago.
And then there’s the name itself. I and several other birders I know pronounce it PILL-ee-ated. Others, including the narrators of several bird call CDs available for sale at the Scherman bookstore, pronounce it PILE-ee-ated. Either way, the word “pileated” means having a crest covering the pileum, which is the top of the head of a bird from the bill to the nape.
The pileated is the largest woodpecker we have in the U.S., unless you believe the ivory-billed woodpecker is still around. Back in 2004 it was believed one was found in an Arkansas swamp decades after it was presumed extinct. The effort to locate this woodpecker was the subject of the 2005 The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and other books. Birders were excited about this. Many wanted to head down and find it. Even David Allen Sibley created an addendum on the ivory-billed you could download and add to his bird guidebook.
According to “The Grail Bird,” which I read, the kayaker who got a glimpse was asked if he really saw a “Lord God” bird. Wasn’t it more likely to be the more common pileated? He claimed it was not a pileated. If you look at John J. Audubon’s portrait of the ivory-billed and compare it to the photograph above, you can see the difference between the two woodpeckers.
However, Audubon, writing on the pileated in his journal, said its flight is “powerful, and, on occasion, greatly protracted, resembling in all respects that of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.”
Audubon has three ivory-billeds in his portrait. To get the birds he had to shoot them – with a gun. No digital cameras back then. We don’t know how many ivory-billeds were killed before he got the portrait he wanted but we do know from his journal that Audubon regretted killing any more birds than absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, others didn’t think the same way and the ivory-billed is likely extinct.
Not so the pileated, of which Audubon used four birds in his portrait. In his journal he wrote:
It would be difficult for me to say in what part of our extensive country I have not met with this hardy inhabitant of the forest. Even now, when several species of our birds are becoming rare, destroyed as they are, either to gratify the palate of the epicure, or to adorn the cabinet of the naturalist, the Pileated Woodpecker is every where to be found in the wild woods, although scarce and shy in the peopled districts.
Luckily for us in “the peopled districts” of New Jersey, these woodpeckers are still “every where to be found” today in places like Scherman Hoffman.
It is up to all of us who love birds and open spaces to keep it that way.
This morning, after watching the cardinals, chickadees, titmice, house sparrows, white-throated sparrows, juncos, house finches, downy woodpecker and mourning doves jostling over my various feeders, I went upstairs to my office, turned on my computer and found news from New Jersey Audubon.
February is National Bird-Feeding Month.
You don’t say. According to the NJ Audubon press release, “In 1994, Congress passed a thoughtful resolution recognizing this month as one of the most difficult months in the U.S. for wild birds.”
That’s because February is generally the coldest month of the North American winter, a time when those birds that don’t migrate south need the most help in finding food, water and shelter, preferably out of the icy wind. Although it is only a month before spring, when things start growing again, for a bird that wait can be a long time and a matter of life and death.
I somehow missed that resolution of 1994 – so last century – but I can say I’ve been feeding birds with my assorted feeders for years before then…and I didn’t need a congressional resolution!
Putting out feeders makes sense. If you like to go out in the field and look at birds or drive long distances to find a rarity to add to your Life List, you already have fond feelings for our feathered friends. So we should be trying to help as many birds as possible with feeders. Charity begins at home.
There is a minor character in Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” who travels the country in support of feeding starving children in foreign nations while she neglects her own children. Don’t be that character!
My bird-watching hobby began innocently enough when my husband and I moved into our New Jersey home and my sister-in-law gave us a feeder (pictured above) as a house-warming present. I put in seed – since I didn’t know any better it was likely millet, which was cheap at the grocery store – and hung it in a tree. Within a day it was visited by a downy woodpecker and a titmouse. It was also hit by the squirrels.
Thus began my fascination with birds and my long-running battle with sciurus carolinenis.
But you learn, quickly, that location is everything. Put your feeder on a freestanding pole, far enough away from trees and other places from which a squirrel can jump, and use a baffle – an old wok cover will do when altered properly – to keep it from climbing to the feeders. If you want to draw birds other than house sparrows, ditch the millet and shell out a little more for black sunflower seeds, which provide a lot of fat to a bird in winter.
You learn that different feeders draw different birds. If you want woodpeckers, put out suet – but use a feeder that hangs in such a way that a bird coming to eat must hang under a cover. Woodpeckers don’t mind hanging underneath but without that cover you’ll draw grackles and starlings, birds I’d rather not have since in winter they’ll arrive in bulk and keep eating until there’s nothing left for the other birds.
That house feeder is the only one I have that can accommodate cardinals since it provides a nice, big seating area instead of a small perch. It is enjoyable to watch a cardinal at the feeder at dusk or dawn. I have drawn as many as three pairs of cardinals during the winter. I’m happy to do my bit.
Sometimes this open feeder draws the pleasantly unexpected, such as a Carolina wren. But more often it draws other birds that don’t want to work at getting food by sitting on a perch or clinging to the side of a caged, squirrel-proof feeder. Others may like them but to me these lazy birds include house finches, house sparrows and a bird whose population has exploded in New Jersey, the mourning dove.
A few years ago I noticed one female dove sitting on the roof of the house feeder, trying to figure out a way down to the perch to eat. Eventually, through a lot of trial and error and fluttering wings, she did find a way down.Then she somehow imparted what she learned to her friends and offspring and now there is a large flock of mourning doves that fly between the feeder and the ground and between my feeders and those of my neighbors.
Scherman Hoffman’s feeders draw a lot of birds because the center has quite a lot of different kinds of feeders, as you can see at left. As I’ve said, different feeders with different food draw different birds. If you are part of New Jersey Audubon, that’s what you want to do.
The center’s feeders, like mine, are located near some shrubs, which provide the birds with cover. There is a good supply of water and the feeders are sheltered from strong winds. The feeders, in front of the education center, are also in a location where anyone standing either in the store or at a distance outside can watch the birds without spooking them away. What good is having bird feeders unless you can see what comes to feed?
The center conveniently sells different types of feeders and different types of bird food. I buy a 50-pound bag of black sunflower seed and some winters even that is not enough. The suet cakes have drawn red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers. Thistle seems to be preferred by juncos and goldfinches.
Of course, all this birding activity may also bring things that feed on the birds that come to your feeder: sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and the occasional red-tailed hawk.
You never know what else you might draw. I looked out one morning a few years ago to see what I thought was a very large Cooper’s sitting in one of my trees. With my binoculars I realized by its prominent “eyebrow” it was a juvenile northern goshawk!
When I see these raptors I tend to take pictures from my porch and then walk outside. Eventually, they leave. My husband reminds me they’ve got to eat, too, and I respect that.
Just not in my yard.
By Margo D. Beller
There’s luck, and there’s listening.
The average person walking down the street may be mildly curious why crows are in a tree cawing wildly, or flying around and making dives. That’s presuming that person isn’t plugged into music or on the phone.
A birder knows better. Those American crows are alerting you to the presence of something they don’t want around but you’ll likely want to see.
Most of the time, when they’re not chasing off a rival flock of crows, that something is a red-tailed hawk or other raptor taking a rest from flying and hunting. But sometimes it’s much more interesting.
During the last week of January sanctuary director Mike Anderson was at the Scherman Hoffman education center when he heard those screaming crows. He started looking for the cause of their anger. He found this great horned owl.
GHOs, like most owls, sleep during the day and fly out at dusk to hunt through the night, going back to a tree to roost at dawn. Most of the time owls are very hard to see during the day unless you have a lot of luck or hear a mob of crows or other alarmed birds.
(I was once directed to an area where a barred owl had been seen at Great Swamp. I looked a good 10 minutes until it got tired of the staring contest and flew off. I had had no idea where it was - which was almost directly in front of me. That’s how good they can hide in plain sight.)
This GHO was in a tree 175 yards from the education center, Mike said, but was too far for him to take a good picture with his camera. Luckily, Joe Pescatore came over with his spotting scope and his camera and got the picture using a process called digiscoping that gave his camera the equivalent of a much longer lens.
“It's a method I have sort of perfected over the past few years but I still consider myself an amateur,” said Pescatore, whose photos will be on display at Scherman Hoffman in March.
GHOs are found in all 50 states. When someone thinks of a “hoot” owl it is, more likely than not, a great horned owl. It is one of the most common owls in New Jersey and can be found from High Point in the north to Cape May to the south. That wasn’t always the case.
According to the 1999 edition of New Jersey Audubon’s Birds of New Jersey, the most recent census of the state’s population of birds, GHOs “made a remarkable recovery” in the state during the 20th century after years of “persecution as a ‘pest’ species.”
I can’t imagine how a great horned owl can be considered a pest. According to a little book I have called Owls: A Wildlife Handbook (Johnson Books, 1998) by Kim Long, GHOs will eat rodents and other small animals. Thanks to having no sense of smell, it can hunt skunk. How is that a pest?
Mike said this GHO was the first he’s seen in daylight at the center although he’s seen them, he reckons,15 times and heard them much more often. (A GHO was one of the first birds the Big Stay team heard at Scherman Hoffman during the most recent World Series of Birding.)
It is part of birder etiquette not to disclose exactly where a roosting owl is found so it isn’t stressed by the dozens of people who will converge on it with cameras. So it is safe to say that by the time you read this, the owl will likely have moved on to a more secluded area. In January GHOs would have been calling to each other at night, setting up and defending territories, mating and then kicking redtails or squirrels or crows out of their nests to start their brood. (Owls don’t build nests but take over whatever’s around - another reason for crows to dislike them.)
Mike said he’s never seen a great horned owl nest on the property but that doesn‘t mean they aren‘t there. As the photographed GHO shows, owls can be nearly invisible when they want to be.
There are many places to learn about the cool things that make owls different from other raptors besides their night hunting, advanced hearing and ability to swivel their heads nearly 360 degrees.
For general information, including sound, there is the website of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, one of my favorite sites.
For more specific information on how to find an owl in the field -- and what to do when you find it – one of the best resources I’ve found is How to Spot an Owl by Patricia and Clay Sutton.
Or you can take your child to Scherman Hoffman for a program on owls taking place on Saturday, Feb. 9, from 2-3:30pm. Call the center for details.
So unplug the music, put down the phone and look carefully the next time you’re walking and a murder of crows starts screaming overhead. You might be amazed.
Keeping count has never been my strong point. I start and then lose track and have to start again.
This is a particular problem when it comes to birds.
Every time I can go out to Scherman Hoffman with my binoculars and see or hear birds, it’s a gift. If I find a bird I’ve never seen or heard before, it’s even better -- a blessing.
But if I have to count each one I see, it becomes a chore.
That is why I am usually not one for the Christmas Bird Count.
I’m not against the count. It has been around a long time and is worthy of your time and effort whether you are a hard-core birder or just like to walk in the woods with others.
Until this year, the count was a major way for the National Audubon Society to raise money through what it charged participants. (New Jersey Audubon, of which Scherman Hoffman is part, is a separate organization and not part of the national society.)
This year the count, which takes place in many locations across the country and runs into January, is free, although donations are appreciated. Was this in reaction to our troubled economic times or just a need for more citizen scientists to provide data?
Whatever the reason, you still have time to join a group, such as the one that covers Somerset County, N.J., where Scherman Hoffman is located.
The reason for the annual count is not that different from the reason Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania was created - to get people to stop hunting birds and start counting them as a way of keeping them alive.
Hawk Mountain was the peak where sport hunters would shoot raptors and whatever else they found as the birds followed the thermals south along the ridges during their southbound migration each fall.
In the case of the Christmas Count, Audubon official Frank Chapman wanted to stop the annual “side hunts” where teams would see how many birds they could kill each Christmas. He decided to hold a census instead, just around the time the conservation movement started to take off.
There were 27 birders in 25 locations when the count started in 1900. Both numbers have skyrocketed in the 112 years since then. Those first counters found 18,500 individual birds making up 89 species across the country. In 2008, the last year for which Audubon has data, there were 2,113 counts and nearly 60,000 participants.
That’s a lot of people counting birds.
I can understand why people would want to get out there and look for birds. Birds fascinate us. There are so many and they all look so different. On these counts you get together with like-minded people for a higher purpose. Plus it can be fun. One friend in Cape May goes in a group that might include New Jersey Audubon’s own Pete Dunne or Richard Crossley of the Crossley Guide. These are pros.
There are other counts during the year. Dunne helped create the World Series of Birding held every May to highlight the wonder of migrating birds, originally in Cape May, then throughout New Jersey. The money raised goes toward conservation efforts. Other states have similar competitions.
Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology works with the national Audubon and other partners to hold an annual Great Backyard Bird Count every Presidents Day weekend in February. (There are likely many more counts I don‘t know.)
I have done the Cornell count for many years for several reasons, mainly because this bird likes to fly alone.
I can do this count watching my feeders from the warmth of my home if I choose rather than travel with others in a predetermined “circle.” I can go where I want and at my own pace, as long as I keep a proper record of where I am. All the tools I need are online and there has never been a fee to participate.
As usual, my problem is with the counting.
I’m sure it’s the same with the Christmas Bird Count. How can you be sure the chickadee coming to the feeder now is not the one that just visited a minute ago?
After a while I stop seeing the birds and start seeing ticks on a sheet of paper. One titmouse, two-three-four titmouse. And is that a cardinal over there? How many? Is something up in the tree?
As I said earlier, It gets to be work after a while.
That is not why I come to Scherman Hoffman. I come to look and maybe find something that will halt me in my tracks in wonder.
But for those who like to go in a flock to see every bird on Earth and record how many there are -- you know who you are -- the venerable Christmas Bird Count should be your Olympics. Go, sign up and have fun.
I won’t be out there.
Count on it.
By Margo D. Beller
Pete Dunne is a big deal.
He helped create the annual World Series of Birding and had Roger Tory Peterson on his team.
He writes books - a lot of books (Google “Pete Dunne” and see how many) - alone and with others including his photographer wife Linda.
The second edition of one of them, “Hawks in Flight: The Field Identification of North American Migrant Raptors,” first written in 1988 with David Allen Sibley and Clay Sutton, recently came out, a mini-coffee table of a book filled with illustrations, photos and writing on how to identify a migrating raptor when you see one up in the blue.
“I wrote the first edition in two weeks,” he said during his Sept. 15 visit to Scherman Hoffman’s hawk platform. “It took me 15 years to revise it.”
That may be because he’s one busy man. Among the many things he does besides writing and revising his books is be Vice President of Natural History for New Jersey Audubon and Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory plus write columns for the NJ Audubon and BirdWatching magazines.
He says he’s “more of a bird watcher than a birder” nowadays. There is a difference. He spends a lot of time at a desk, staring into a computer. He will go out to find birds but he won’t do the gung-ho things a lot of people do in the field that has turned watching birds from a pastime into a blood sport. He spent a year with his wife traveling the globe for their 1992 book “The Feather Quest” and said that on the flight home he lost track of the exact number of how many different kinds of birds he saw, and didn’t care.
If nothing else, Pete Dunne is a teacher. There was no way he was going to miss looking for broad wing hawks in mid-September during their annual migration south, and perhaps show some folks how to tell all those tiny specks apart.
Every year, generally in late August, the birds that thrilled us as they migrated north to their breeding grounds get that internal cue that it is time to head back to their winter homes in Central and South America.
Raptors are among them. Unlike the smaller perching birds like warblers that fly at night to avoid predators, the vultures, buteos, accipiters, falcons, harriers, ospreys and eagles fly by day, dependent on the warm updrafts of air known as thermals and a good strong wind from the north to give them a push from behind. They glide to conserve the energy they would otherwise have to use flapping their wings.
There is usually a point in September when the summer heat is broken by a cold front pushing through and the winds turn from the south and start coming from the north. Birders wait for that time eagerly because they know there are going to be birds on the move.
You would think seeing something big like an eagle would be easy but you’d be wrong. Broad wings, the smallest of the buteos, with the adults sporting a broad white stripe in their tail and a border of black along the edge of their wings, are even harder. But broad wings do two things that make them rather special:
They come through in the largest of numbers, like clockwork, in mid-September, and they use thermals of rising hot air to gain altitude. "Kettles" of broad Wing hawks are anything more that a half dozen birds swirling about as if they were pasta in a kettle of boiling water to 2 or three hundred Broad Wing Hawks using the same hot air thermal. And when there is no more altitude to be gained from the rising thermal of hot air; the kettle boils they switch from soaring mode to gliding mode and head south-southwest.
It is quite a show -- if you know where to look and know what you are seeing. You continually scan the sky, looking and hoping.
This is why Pete Dunne was in Bernardsville during Scherman Hoffman’s “Hawk Weekend,” a combination of watching and teaching, while informally hawking his newly revised hawk ID book. It was an easy sell. You don’t often get the chance to learn from a master and get an autographed edition.
“What’s the record here?” he asked sanctuary director Mike Anderson. About 1,500 broad wings. That’s in one day.
Dunne wore a name tag on his New Jersey Audubon shirt, but even if you didn’t know who he is you’d know he knows his stuff.
He talked continually. I don’t know how he managed to find so many hawks while talking and autographing and listening to people describe their birding experiences, answering their questions as to why hawks act as they do. But he did. Not once did his enthusiasm flag during the 3+ hours I and what soon became a large crowd were on the platform with him. Nor do I think he lost that enthusiasm as the afternoon wore on after I and others left.
“These swifts are amazing,” he said of the dozens, maybe hundreds, of chimney swifts overhead, swarming in large groups for the insects. They, too, are migrating. Once the insects are gone, they’ll be gone, he pointed out.
“Thousands of people would kill to have what we have right now,” he said of standing on the platform on a gorgeous day looking for hawks.
Thousands were also, no doubt, at other hawk watches waiting for the kettles. In NJ alone there are watches with such interesting names as Scott’s Mountain, Raccoon Ridge and Wildcat Ridge. Cape May, at the southernmost tip of New Jersey, has a hawk platform and so does Montclair, which has a reputation for having extraordinary mid-September broad wing flights.
Scherman Hoffman’s hawk watch isn’t as well known, and that’s unfortunate. The platform, on the third floor of the education center, is relatively recent. A few years ago a fine young birder named Ben would run the hawk count on the weekends and post the results on the NJ bird list. Since Ben went to college the watching and recording have been less regular, something Mike Anderson told me he wants to change.
When Dunne first came on the platform, at 9 am Saturday, the sky was a clear blue and it was cold, not the best conditions. But when the first wisp of cloud was seen he pointed it out.
“That’s the terminal stage of a rising thermal of air,” he said. The hawks would be watching for clouds because of the thermals, he said, so the key would be to watch the underside of clouds for the birds.
So we watched the clouds. As more clouds started blowing across, he started calling out the specks that turned into osprey, bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, turkey and black vulture, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawk, kestrel and northern harrier. There was even a great blue heron and many monarch butterflies. Monarchs migrate south, too.
Then the broad wings started coming, first in ones and twos, then in increasing numbers. Finally, the kettles started forming. Dunne started counting and Anderson started clicking them on the counter. Several kettles of 30 or so birds. People started desperately trying to find them.
“See that part of the cloud that looks like a comma?” Dunne asked, trying to help them.
Which side? Which cloud? What comma? Many people started to get desperate. This is why they came, after all.
But Dunne talked them through, at one point standing behind a woman and literally raising her binoculars until she could see them.
Like watching fireworks, which in a sense is what we were doing. The birds would stream out of the kettle and you could see them whipping fast along the bottom of the clouds, just as he said they would.
He taught constantly. When a Cooper’s hawk flew over relatively low (see my picture), he noted that this accipiter went from being endangered to the second-most common raptor in NJ after the red tail.
“If you have a woodlot, you’ll have a Cooper’s,” he said. A Cooper’s, being bigger and with a longer tail, will do more soaring in the wind compared with its smaller cousin the sharp-shinned, which is more easily blown about and thus has to do more flapping.
What do you look at first when you see something? I asked him. “Shape before size,” he answered.
A broad wing has a streamlined shape, he said. The larger red tail is “lumpy” and “not a very elegant bird of prey.”
“You wouldn’t want your son or daughter going out with a red tail,” said Dunne. “Broad wings get good tables at restaurants. Red tails get seated near the scullery.”
That didn’t stop watchers from marveling at the Red tail (see below) that would flying into various trees near the platform, hunting. A resident bird, said Anderson. As long as it can find food at the sanctuary, it’ll stay around.
Not the broad wings, however. They were on the move but were getting higher in the sky and harder to see as the day wore on and the temperature rose. Later in the afternoon the air would cool and the birds would fly lower again, Dunne said. By dusk they’d roost for the night and start out again the next day, Sunday, when the good conditions were expected to continue.
I don’t know if the kettles ever grew to hundreds of birds. I was satisfied with the ones I saw. At the end of Saturday, Sept. 15, there were 832 broad wings recorded out of 888 raptors total, according to Anderson. The next day there were even more – 1,653 broad wings, a new sanctuary record, out of 1,708 raptors total. Location is everything. Having Pete Dunne on your hawk platform helps, too.
“Birding is whatever you bring to the table,” Dunne told someone. “You don’t change your skin. You’re just looking from a birding perspective.”
He has been looking from that perspective since he was a kid in Whippany, N.J. He is not obsessed with it. He doesn‘t care how big a “life list“ he gets or whether he has seen every bird on Earth. But he very much wants you to see what’s out there and marvel at the wonder of it all.
It would be great to be able to identify what you are seeing, too, of course. That’s what his books - and those of the many others who have made bird watching and identification into a major industry - are published to do.
But here’s where Pete Dunne is different: He’s out there to have fun, even after all these decades, and wants you to lighten up, too.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” he said with a smile at one point. “You misidentify a stupid bird. It’s a game.”
I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. - Mr. Stackpole, in Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House”
When I used to work near the Jersey City waterfront, there were a lot of abandoned, weedy fields. When I first started working in the area, in a former warehouse converted to an office, many of the fields along the water were slowly being filled with small office buildings. But there were fields away from the waterfront, off the beaten track, that were open and ignored because weeds are usually not very interesting to most people.
I am not like most people. I like to look for birds and I discovered, in my walks around the area, that weeds suddenly became very interesting when they flowered and then went to seed.
When I would pass these open lots in Jersey City, there would be Queen Anne’s lace, thistle, goldenrod and a host of other wild plants. The flowers drew bees, wasps, yellow-jackets and butterflies. When the seeds came, so did the birds, many on their way south in the fall. Among those I’ve seen in weedy fields were goldfinches, northern parula, winter wren, song sparrows and white-throated sparrows.
But after September 11, 2001, things changed for Jersey City in a hurry. People were already moving there because the rents were lower than in Manhattan or Hoboken. Many companies wanted to get out of lower Manhattan. Larger office buildings started going up. Then those off-the-beaten track areas got tracks - a light rail. Even after many companies decided they wanted to stay in New York after all, other builders started putting in apartment towers. The fields were paved over. Most of these ugly glass boxes put up by such familiar names as Hovnanian and Trump were pretty sterile, including the dull plantings around them.
No more interesting birds or butterflies.
A lot of suburban areas are like this, too. It is hard work to plant and maintain flowers, even the perennials that come back every year. I know this firsthand. I find flowering plants interesting. My rose of sharons are now flowering and covered with bees. The butterfly bush I put in several years ago lives up to its name. Most people, I’ve found, prefer to put in shrubs that don’t need much care or water just to have something in front of the house. Rarely do I see these shrubs combined in such a way to contrast colors and heights and textures to make them interesting.
For color the “really creative” will have a hanging basket or pot of something or perhaps plant marigolds in the sun, impatiens in the shade.
Of course, there is another reason besides laziness or apathy why people may be avoiding bothering with flowers – the deer that have multiplied and overrun many suburban areas, something else I know firsthand. Why put something nice in when it’ll get eaten? The price I pay for my flowers is having to keep them behind deer netting for their own protection.
Open fields of native plants and weeds don’t seem to have this problem. The deer that typically destroy store-bought tulips in a suburban yard seem to leave a field of native goldenrod or joe-pye weed alone. I would love to have an area like this, free of fences, a place where wildflowers and weeds, even the unsightly ones, are allowed to grow.
This is not always easy for most people to see as more of these wild areas are built over for housing and offices or uprooted for power lines. Unless you create one yourself, you have to look hard for these natural areas or go to one of the places created with the intent of educating people and showing them how flora and fauna interact.
These educational nature centers or parks, I’ve found, sometimes will set aside special areas and label them “butterfly gardens.”
I thought Scherman Hoffman had such a garden. I’ve seen this area for years. You have too – it’s the hill above a stone retaining wall bordering the handicapped parking spots in the upper parking lot. (At one time this was the only parking lot, across from what is now the old education center and bookstore.)
When I asked teaching naturalist Dorothy Smullen about the “butterfly garden” she had no idea what I was talking about. “News to me,” is how she put it.
I quickly learned there is no official "butterfly garden," even though when I was recently there to take pictures the hill was full of butterfly bush, brown-eyed susans, Queen Anne’s lace, bee balm, purple coneflower, goldenrod and joe-pye weed, and these were covered with several types of butterflies, plus bees and smaller insects.
As noted, I have many of the same plants in my garden because they are native, they’re pretty and they don’t need a lot of water to survive New Jersey summers. The bees and butterflies are a bonus.
“We have been simply removing the non-native invasive plants and planting native plants within the deer fence to support all our native wildlife,” teaching naturalist Stephanie Punnett told me.
According to director Mike Anderson, the garden was planted years ago, around 1997, and like most flower gardens - I know this firsthand - the deer ate most of it within a year.
Then Scherman Hoffman put up its big deer fence, with the special obstacle on the driveway (a car can get over it but not a deer), in 1999. Wild plants started growing back, with help from volunteers until 2006. New seeds were planted in 2008.
I wish I could have this kind of fence around my property.
Even if those parking their cars below don’t look up the hill, the butterflies and bees appreciate the effort. These are the most visible visitors but there are others, according to Stephanie, including yellow crab spiders, plant bugs and wasps. (If you look closely you can see some of these small visitors on this Queen Anne’s lace, a common roadside plant that is a member of the carrot family.)
Some of the butterflies lately visiting the butterfly bush and wildflowers include tiger swallowtail, black swallowtail, painted lady, great spangled fritillary, silver spotted skipper and monarch, according to Stephanie.
There’s also been one of my favorites, the hummingbird moth, which flies by day (most moths fly at night) and whose coloring and appearance does make it look like a hummingbird.
A butterfly floating on the breeze is fascinating to watch. It will light on a flower and hang on for dear life when the wind picks up. When it is time to head south for the winter it will fly over water, mountains and forests with single-minded purpose. One of the most amazing sights I’ve seen was the monarch butterfly heading south over the Gulf of Maine as my boat was heading north to the Maine coast one September trip after a visit to Monhegan Island. Monarchs winter in Mexico – that’s a long way from Maine.
As Scherman Hoffman proves, you don’t have to have a “butterfly garden” to host butterflies or bees. Any flowering plant will do. Put in the right flowers - or leave the right weeds alone - and you might have some colorful visitors, too.
Imagine you are a bird. You fly through the air almost continuously, picking off bugs for your meal, or for your offspring.
If you care to look in a mirror you’d find a dark face, cigar-shaped body, curved wings and nearly no tail. More important, you’d have such small feet as to make them useless for perching on a branch.
You’d be a chimney swift.
On a summer’s day the warm air is filled with insects, some so small or so high in the sky you can’t see them. That’s when the chimney swift, newly arrived from its winter home in Peru, flies over towns and fields in that jerky way it has, calling with rapid, hard chips. Sometimes they can be right over your head or be so high up you can’t see them. But you can hear them, calling to each other as they swarm and eat.
Swifts are not swallows, which also soar through the air or strafe a field or pond seeking bugs. In New Jersey there are many types of swallows -- Tree, Barn, Northern Rough-winged and Bank. There is also the Cliff Swallow that I have seen them going to man-made replicas of their mud nests placed to draw them beneath the bridge between Lambertville, NJ and New Hope, Pa., over the Delaware River. There are also purple martins, the largest swallows, which now nest primarily in man-made boxes.
There are four types of swifts in North America, but only the chimney swift is found in the eastern part of the US. Here is how Roger Tory Peterson described the chimney swift in the celebrated 1947 edition of the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds, his important field markings italicized:
The chimney swift has been called a cigar with wings. It is a blackish swallow-like bird with long slightly curved stiff wings and no apparent tail …Unlike most other birds it does not appear to beat its wings in unison but alternatively -- such is the illusion at least (slow-motion pictures to the contrary notwithstanding). The effect is quite batlike. Their narrow wings fairly twinkle as they fly and they frequently sail between spurts, holding the wings bowed like a crescent. Swallows have gliding wing beats, they frequently perch on wire and twigs. Swifts never do.
As its name implies, these swifts fly very fast and they nest in chimneys. But they can also nest in “air shafts, sometimes silos, barns, attics, old wells, garages,” according to the Peterson field guide to Eastern bird nests. Every year, on the first Saturday in May, my friends and I visit central New Jersey and wind up in Lambertville to dine. That is always when I hear my first familiar chittering of swifts overhead. Not long after I usually hear them in my town, where I've seen them use the train station chimney after heating season is over.
That is one of the biggest hazards a swift faces -- where to build a nest and raise young. In pre-colonial time Chimney Swifts nested in hollow trees. Today very few natural nesting sites are used. During migration they roost communally; it's not unusual to see 1,500 or more using one industrial size chimney. In fact, it's a sight everyone should see. Go out just before dusk to a local school the last couple of weeks of September to look for a big roost site.
I’ve never seen a nest but here is how the Field Guide to the Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds by Colin Harrison (which calls itself as “a book for bird-lovers, not for egg-collectors“) describes a chimney swift’s nest:
The nest is stuck to a vertical surface within a shaft, from just below the top aperture to 4-5 feet above the bottom. One or two additional adults may help a nesting pair. Shallow half-cup of short dead twigs broken off by the birds in flight and glued together and to the wall by saliva. There is no lining…
There is little security for a nest attached solely by saliva. Location is everything. Although swifts are one of the bird species that actually benefited from the intrusion of man into the forests, on unexpected cold May days -- we’ve had a few such days this year -- people have been known to use their fireplaces, which would ruin a nest. Birds building nests on walls could lose them in a heavy rain, like the many such rains we’ve had this spring.
Even though the chimney swift is not considered an endangered species, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there are people who want to help the swift because -- like the swallows or bats -- they are very good at controlling insects. They make a good alternative to man-made and harmful pesticides.
Maybe that’s what inspired Roy Hyzer of Eagle Scout Troop 351 of the Boy Scouts of America, of Basking Ridge in Bernards Township, to build a fake chimney on the grounds of its neighbor NJ Audubons' Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary. The Chimney Swift nesting tower, is a 14-foot tall structure and is a community service project: providing a structure or nest tower to hopefully restore a population of Chimney Swifts to the forest community. It took over 100 hours and many Scouts to dig the foundation, build a frame and put on the siding.
But when I first saw it, in early May during the World Series of Birding, standing at the edge of the education center parking area, I wondered, isn’t it too low? Why would a swift want to come here?
Obviously, I wasn’t thinking like a swift.
Scherman Hoffman is up in the Bernardsville hills, so even next to the education center the fake chimney is elevated.
And when you are provided with a tall, sturdy structure that stands on stilts and has a narrow opening (both to keep out predators) but a wide body suitable for a nest, why should you look for a chimney?
This was proved to me when, in early June, I came back to Scherman Hoffman and found several chimney swifts flying close to the visitor center, obviously drawn by this Trump Tower of nest boxes.
Swifts breed beginning in mid-May, laying three to six eggs over several days before beginning incubation, according to records by Peterson and Harrison. I could’ve been seeing fledged young, or it could’ve been helpers assisting the parents getting the food.
It is exciting to see a manmade structure be so successful in its task, helping swifts while educating humans. After all, manmade structures put up in parks and backyards have helped the populations of bats, swallows (particularly purple martins) and bluebirds to rebound. (You can see Scherman’s many bluebird boxes when you take the Field Loop trail.)
And there may be other such projects to come.
During the World Series of Birding, when sanctuary director Mike Anderson and his team were counting birds as part of the Big Stay team, I was on the hawk platform with them when a barn swallow flew in, zipping around and annoying the house sparrows nesting underneath.
“I wonder how we can get them to nest here?” Mike said of the swallow.
Another call to the Eagle Scouts might be in order.
There are competitors who run marathons. Then there are those who sit to win.
At 7 A.M. on Saturday, May 12, Scherman Hoffman sanctuary director Mike Anderson and his team were at their perch on the rooftop observation deck of the center. As the sun rose over the trees they had already seen or heard 58 species of birds, an impressive total made more so if you know they had spent the night in sleeping bags on this platform, tallying what was out there starting at midnight.
These hearty souls were participating in one of the birding world’s biggest competitions, New Jersey Audubons' World Series of Birding. It is a charitable competition, begun in 1984, the aim being to find as many species of birds as possible in a day, with money collected based on how much is pledged per bird. The winnings go towards Societies mission: conservation, education, research and stewardship.
Within the competition are divisions. Some of the statewide level I competitive teams run all day, from midnight to midnight. You need a reliable car and team of people to see or hear a lot of birds in very short period of time because these folks must zip from High Point in the northwest corner of the state to Cape May at the southern tip and as many places as they can hit in between. Before the day of competition they’ve already scouted locations and worked out their route for maximum bird count in minimum time. NJ Audubon’s Cape May Observatory has such a marathon team, as does the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY, and many others from farther away. Many have corporate sponsorship. One winning NJ team included the famed Roger Tory Peterson, who helped them find 201 species in 24 hours, and that put the competition on the map.
But there are also teams that, while competitive, are not quite as gung-ho about it. Some teams look in one place, such as bird-rich Cape May or the Great Swamp in Morris County: limidetd geographic areas (LGA). Some do just one or two New Jersey counties.
Some don’t even spend the whole day at it. Another small team out of Scherman Hoffman, led by Randy Little, left the sanctuary at 7 am. Their route took them down the driveway to the Field Loop trail, down to the River trail (and the nesting Louisiana waterthrush), up to the Dogwood trail and eventually as far as the Cross Estate, part of the federal Jockey Hollow park - quite a bit of hiking. They had 61 birds by noon and still weren’t done, heading out in two cars (after a brief rest back at the sanctuary) to bird the Great Swamp’s Pleasant Plains Road and two other parts not normally open to the public except for competitions like this one. They planned to finish at 3pm.
Mike’s team was part of the Big Stay division, which means recording what you see and hear from a 17' diamater circle, in this case the observation deck on the third floor of the visitor center.
Sitting is harder than you might think. You need a strong constitution, a comfortable chair and a team of people with good hearing as well as binoculars and scopes because one must verify the other’s findings for the birds to count. (What you really need is at least three or four so one can go to the bathroom while the others listen.) A sense of humor helps, too. It was cold that Friday night into Saturday morning, the platform was hard for sleeping and then the sun came out in a cloudless sky and the day got pretty hot, dry and breezy.
But there are payoffs.
The first bird recorded on the platform after midnight was a screech owl, the second a booming great horned owl. As the sun came up, the hungry migrants who needed to eat and rest from their journey north started hitting the trees and singing. The scarlet tanagers were easily seen; the Baltimore orioles (like the one pictured), black-throated blue warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, ovenbirds and great-crested flycatchers among those easily heard.
Then came quieter ones like the Cape May warbler, its call weak but its face striking, that showed up on the spruce branch at eye level with the platform. Or the magnolia warbler in the tall holly, which was seen as those on the platform (which now included visitors drawn by the prospect of a good birding day) were joking about being fooled yet again by a house sparrow. It quickly became all business as binoculars were raised and the holly raked over until just the tiniest bit of movement revealed the bird, which showed for a millisecond before flying to a tree farther away. Still, it counted.
Common birds are counted, too - cardinal, titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, catbird, robin. This is probably one of the few times a house finch at the feeder or a flock of flying grackles or a lone starling are celebrated.
Meanwhile, Randy’s team had made its way along the driveway and down to the river, finding a number of warblers including a rare (for the sanctuary) Wilson’s warbler (a migrant, passing through) plus other birds, some of whom will breed in the sanctuary. Up on the platform, the sitting team could not hear the calls of the Wilson’s warbler or the Louisiana waterthrush Randy’s team had because the leafed-out trees blocked the sound. But the sitting team could see the common loon and great blue heron that flew over.
It is like the blind men and the elephant. The perspective is different depending on where you are.
As Randy’s team kept moving, trying to find as many birds as their limited time allowed, Mike’s team was joined by visitors on the platform. A cloudless, sunny day might be great for lying on a lounge chair but it is not as great for looking into the sky for birds.
Still, by 1:15 pm the sitting team’s tally had grown to 73 including broad-winged and sharp-shinned hawks. The team had long ago shed their warm jackets. Sleeves were rolled up, hats were few and not a bottle of sunscreen was to be seen. The migrants of earlier in the day were now very quiet or had moved on, but the daytime raptors were flying.
“You’ve got to keep scanning the skies,“ Mike said, and while I was on the platform two red-tailed hawks were spotted, one of them harassing a smaller red-shouldered hawk. A pair of black vultures were found in the distance. Later, turkey vultures and osprey would join the list, as would ducks including flying wood duck and common merganser.
A barn swallow amused the group by buzzing the house sparrows nesting under the platform. A pair of house wrens hunted for food near their nest, as did a phoebe. There was even a ruby-throated hummingbird, which flew over the platform (bypassing the feeder below) to take a swipe at the sparrows.
Had Mike and his team - which won the Big Stay division last year with 80 - been out in the field, driving hither and yon, they might not have been as laid-back and relaxed as they were (when birds weren’t sighted, of course) or as Randy’s small group were in their limited travels. To these people it was a competition but it was also an excuse to get out of the house and do something they enjoy.
Some people let the competition - ticking off the birds on a list - take over. Some people are nice, some can be jerks. Some will be helpful and point out a bird you might‘ve otherwise missed, others will ignore you when you ask what they’ve seen figuring they worked for it and so should you.
What can get lost, even in the World Series of Birding, is the birds themselves.
I find it impressive 73 birds were seen or heard from one platform in 13 hours. That shows the diversity of the species and how grateful we should be that areas like Scherman Hoffman or the Great Swamp or the other fine habitats of New Jersey not obliterated by housing “developments,” utility lines and golf courses can draw these winged wonders. We as well as the birds are all better for these places being here, and the money earned by the Series winners will help preserve them.
While Randy’s team ended its travels at 3pm, Mike’s stayed on the platform until midnight. Mike later sent in the final totals.
Sunday, the winners were announced, and neither Mike’s nor Randy’s team won their divisions. The most birds seen in New Jersey in 24 hours were 207 in a marathon group that included Pete Dunne (founder of the World Series of Birding), who was with that previous winning group featuring Roger Tory Peterson that had found 201 species. The Big Stay division winner, with 80 species, was an Audubon team out of Atlantic County, on the ocean just north of Cape May County and where the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is located. Mike’s team ended up with 77.
So it goes.
Meanwhile, the birds continue their marathons north. The winners of this World Series get to create another generation for us to enjoy.