By Margo D. Beller
There is something both fascinating and disturbing about lists of unusual birds seen, reported and verified in New Jersey. The latest such list, for 2012, is in the NJ Audubon magazine issue for autumn-winter 2013-2014, with the annual report of the New Jersey Bird Records Committee. (I don’t know why it is a year behind in the magazine. The 2013 report is here.)
A lot of birds I’ve seen in the deep south are showing up in New Jersey. What was an anhinga doing in Cape May, in the southern part of the state? Or a white ibis at the Walkill National Wildlfe Refuge in Sussex County, in the northern part of the state? Or the wood stork in Blairstown in western Warren County?
Not to mention the reported (and accepted) sightings of swallow-tailed kite, black brant, rufous hummingbird and California gull?
Birders love rarities and will drive all over the state – or the country – if one is reported. I have sought out some of these rarities, too, when I don’t have to kill myself to get there. When a pink-footed goose showed up with a flock of larger Canada geese in a Bergen County park not far from my accountant’s office in March 2011, my husband and I saw and photographed it. This bird shows up in the 2012 report (there were also reports of others in 2013).
Why are unusual birds showing up in New Jersey? There are many theories. It could be climate change - the country is warming and the southern birds are spreading their territories. Perhaps human overdevelopment is forcing them north. Perhaps more severe storms are blowing them east. Perhaps a bit of all three.
I don’t know.
The Northern Cardinal - so common at my feeder - was once considered a southern bird. So were the mockingbird, Carolina wren and red-bellied woodpecker. Until this year, whenever another southern bird, the red-headed woodpecker, showed up in northern New Jersey it was a big deal. It’s a striking bird you can’t confuse with anything else, starting with that all-red head.
Now reports of sightings are on the increase in this state. In recent weeks, in Somerset County (where Scherman Hoffman is located), anywhere from six to 14 red-headed woodpeckers were seen and/or heard in Glenhurst Meadows, Warren Township. In nearby Morris County, 11 red-headeds were found in one day in Troy Meadows (Parsippany Township), with smaller numbers in other area parks. (All of these reports can be found at mocosobirds.com.)
In February 2012, I wrote here about the red-headed woodpecker that came to the Scherman Hoffman feeders. It was a big deal then, too, and I dragged my husband over so he could see one (I had seen a red-headed at the nearby Great Swamp years before). We struck out, as we seemed to do a lot seeking this bird.
But in November 2012 he finally saw his first, in Croatan National Forest, North Carolina, in a section set aside as a preserve for the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered bird because it needs a particular type of live pine in which to make its nest, and it is losing those pines to overdevelopment. We were lucky enough to see multiples of both types of woodpeckers, plus most of the others we can see in New Jersey such as the pileated.
The red-headed woodpecker also has a particular need – dead trees for nesting and foraging. So I have a theory on why there are so many being reported in New Jersey this year.
Last November’s Hurricane Sandy felled a ton of trees, and while that destroyed a lot of homes for many birds, it created a ton of habitat for the red-headed woodpecker.
One creature’s disaster is another’s roost hole.
But just because reports of red-headed woodpeckers are on the increase doesn’t mean the birds are.
Take the vesper sparrow. There have been many more reports of vespers this autumn, too, including near community gardens (Wagner Farm Arboretum near Glenhurst Meadows, Duke Farms) in Somerset County and at Morris County’s Troy Meadows. Two here, 14 there. Seems like a lot.
But in another article in the same NJ Audubon magazine issue, vespers are listed among the “desperate dozen” bird species whose existence is threatened in New Jersey. The others include American coot, ruffed grouse, red-shouldered hawk, American kestrel and the golden-winged and cerulean warblers – all birds I have seen in many places and at many times (and in the case of the coot, many birds).
Yet, as Pete Dunne writes in the magazine, the future of these “once-common” species as “breeders – without help – may not extend past the twenty-first century.”
“Help,” as in preserving their habitat.
So here’s the irony – at a time when many New Jersey birds are threatened because of overdevelopment and habitat destruction, birds from other regions are flocking to New Jersey, perhaps because of overdevelopment at home.
I find that extremely disturbing.
By Margo D. Beller
It’s funny how one can have all the media in the world at your fingertips and still miss important news.
I was looking up information before a recent trip to Cape May and found an off-hand reference to “Pete Dunne’s stroke.”
This was rather surprising because when I met him, around this time of year on the Scherman Hoffman hawk platform, he was hale and hearty and full of energy as he watched for and identified hawks with a large crowd, some of whom bought his most recent book.
From an article in NorthJersey.com, I learned the stroke occurred just before this year’s World Series of Birding, an event which he created 30 years ago. In the article he talked about how he was rehabbing hard so he could help his WSB teammates during the May event.
One comment he made interested me in particular:
I have a heightened appreciation for bird-watching, and how anchoring and affirming it is. I always knew that bird-watching would be an activity that I could do well into my dotage. What I failed to realize is that dotage is something that doesn't necessarily happen gradually. It can actually come on a person overnight.
Then he mentioned that he had 38 types of birds just looking out his window at the rehab center. As he said, emphatically, last year when I asked if he considered himself a birder or a bird watcher, the man is a bird watcher.
There is a difference. Like a lot of words nowadays, bird – a noun – has become a verb, as in “to bird.”
“Birder” has more of an active connotation. These are the people who go “birding.” They get up at dawn and hit their favorite patch as often as possible, then fly to birding hotspots the minute they read an email, get a text or are called about a rarity. In its most extreme form, it is an obsession, such as detailed in the book by Mark Obmascik made into a movie with Steve Martin, “The Big Year.”
A bird watcher, by contrast, is more passive. He or she goes out to watch the birds, whether it’s in a forest or from a hospital window. Dunne told me last year he no longer cares to rush around trying to see everything. He wants to enjoy what he finds along the way.
In my case, some days I am content to sit on the porch and see and hear what’s in the area. Other times, such as my recent Cape May trip, I try to see as much as possible.
People love Cape May, especially during migration. It’s the reason New Jersey Audubon holds festivals there every May and October, including theupcomming one scheduled for Oct. 25-27. It’s a big deal, with lots of field trips, and big names in the birding world. I hope Pete Dunne can make it.
However, I prefer September, when it is still warm but not as crowded as in high summer.
We only had one full day to spend in Cape May, and so I woke my husband (MH) at 5:30 a.m., got us to Wawa for coffee and then to Higbee beach for the "morning flight". I had heard all about this phenomenon and wanted to experience one myself. Birds flying south find themselves over Delaware Bay at sunrise, decide they don’t want to go any further and so turn and fly north to land and feed. Then, as dawn arrives, they rise en mass to continue migrating. Sometimes those counted are in the hundreds, sometimes in the thousands and on rare occasions hundreds of thousands.
At 6am, with the light coming on and mist rising from the Cape May canal on a cold morning, we were far from the first people there. Those who were already there had managed to walk up a very steep and well-worn trail to the top of the dike, where they set up their scopes and waited with their binoculars and clickers to count the birds.
I tried to get up there, but there comes a certain point where gravity overcomes inexperience. I managed to get only half-way before giving up and, thanks to grabbing some phrags, getting back down without killing myself. Wisely, MH didn’t try. Instead, we walked the steps to the top of the shorter platform across the road and waited.
No hundreds of birds zipping around. I could tell by the guys – and they were all guys, most of them younger than MH and me – who looked in my direction every so often, that they were not seeing much up there. However, I could see quite a lot from our lower perch including common yellow-throats, cedar waxwings, Carolina wrens and at least a half-dozen juvenile blue grosbeaks.
Looking at these guys up on the dike, I realized I didn’t want to do what they do, and I wasn’t going to try. Instead, after some breakfast, we were going to go to a few areas and see what we could see and not beat the bushes trying to find as many different birds as possible.
In other words, we stopped birding and started bird watching.
Too often nowadays it seems people, especially my fellow boomers, are pushing themselves to the limit. They are running marathons or power walking with their music on or driving too fast while on the phone or mountain biking up and down steep hillsides, perhaps trying to prove something to themselves.
I think you miss a lot by rushing around. Birds, for instance. When I look at the birds, whether in the forest, at Scherman Hoffman or the feeders in my own backyard, I feel more connected to the world around me and to nature.
I agree with Pete Dunne’s philosophy. I enjoy being a bird watcher. There are times when you just have to slow down.
By Margo D. Beller
If you go to the store at Scherman Hoffman, or at any New Jersey Audubon center, you will probably find a case filled with optics – binoculars, spotting scopes -- and assorted accessories.
Optics are part of the business of birdwatching, a business so big even the U.S. government has taken note of it. You can buy binoculars from a lot of retailers, of course. For Scherman Hoffman, these birding aids definitely help pay the bills.
Over 10 years ago, after I hung my first feeder in a tree and a downy woodpecker came to investigate, I needed binoculars to look from afar. I used a Swift “Sea Hawk” 6X30 binocular that had belonged to my husband’s grandfather. The story was, Grampa was involved in civil defense and needed spyglasses. While this story may or may not be true – Grampa was known to embellish – what is true is these binoculars are older than I am, which puts them back to the 1940s.
A word about what 6x30 means. According to one website I found, the first number indicates the strength of magnification, or how many times closer the subject is to you. So these binoculars brought things six times closer. The second number is the diameter of the objective lens measured in millimeters going across the lens. The diameter of the objective lens, divided by the magnification will determine how much light the binocular gives you to see by. For example a 7 power binocular with an objective lens 42 millimeters in diameter (42 divided by 7) equals 6. This number is called the exit pupil. A binocular with an exit pupil of five or six is very bright. Three or four is ok. Any binocular with an exit pupil of less than three will work in very bright light but it's going to be dark in anything less than bright light.
With the exception of very common bird calls or songs like the"caw, Caw, Caw of the American Crow, most beginning birders identify birds by sight as opposed sound. I look through my binoculars, take a mental note of particular field marks that stand out and then look the bird up in my field guides. To find more birds, I needed to be able to see them clearly and many birds were not going to make it easy for me.
This might seem obvious, but nowadays, when people seem to prefer seeing the world through their cellphone cameras, binoculars have become almost passe, unless they are made by fancy names like Swarovski, which some would say is the BMW of binoculars. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone actually using a Swarovski, but I am sure the pros swear by them.
When MH and I started going out to look at birds, we shared Grampa’s 6x30 binoculars. I quickly realized I needed my own pair. I was doing more birding and MH was concerned I’d break this souvenir of his grandfather.
So during a vacation in Maine, we drove to LL Bean (at the time there was only the one store, in Freeport) and I found a smaller pair of 6x30s with a case I could hang on my belt. When I put the feeder on a pole closer to my kitchen window I was amazed by the details I could see – the rufous underside of a titmouse, for instance.
The Celestron was far cheaper than the Bushnells in the display case but worked well for me for several years. (I still use them when I go to Central Park because they are lightweight and easy to keep in a jacket pocket or backpack.)
However, one spring I was in New Hampshire, trying to identify a singing warbler at the top of a pine tree. Back then, I relied more on my eyes for identifying birds and the Celestron was not helping me make out details at dawn. I needed something that would let in more light so I could see the field marks.
Thus, MH and I made another trip to LL Bean and again, bypassing the Bushnells, I went for a cheaper, but big pair - Nikon 10x50s.
My brother-in-law took one look at them and warned me, “You’ll get more light but they'll be too heavy to hold still and at 10 x any slight movement will make the image blurry like crazy.” He is right. If you go big and 10 x, the binocular weighs more and is more sensitive to movement. Any shaking will obscure the image. So I have learned how to be still, building up my arm strength. It has been worth the effort because thanks to the Nikon, which I call my “big gun,”; I’ve expanded my life list by dozens of birds in many states.
Still, nothing is perfect. The 10x50s will only help by so much when I try to see a bird way out from the beach, or even across a big pond within a flock of snow geese. For that, I need a spotting scope.
However, as I got more experienced in my birdwatching, I started using my ears. I had to – I was hearing too many birds I couldn’t see to identify because they were in thick tree canopy. I finally bought a set of bird-call CDs (also available at Scherman Hoffman) to learn the calls. That helped a lot.
Still, when I am hiking through Scherman Hoffman and the birds are visible, I depend on the binoculars to identify what’s in the treetops, what is soaring over my head and what is on the ground that I would scare if I got too close.
Meanwhile, when I got the Nikon, MH took the 6x30 Celestron, leaving Grampa’s pair in honorable retirement at home. Soon he, too, was not getting enough detail to identify what he was seeing. So on one of our trips to Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, we went to that nearby “shrine” to all things hunting and fishing, Cabela’s. MH bought a pair of 10x50 Bushnells.
Are they better than my old Nikons? No.
By Margo D. Beller
They’ve been waiting for a long time to emerge. They’ve waited for the right conditions, when the soil is about 63 degrees in the northern U.S. Then they rise from the ground where they’ve hidden for 17 years.
What have they been doing all this time? Not much of anything, really, except evolving and waiting for the right time…to strike!
They come out of the ground. They crawl up your trees. They fly around your yard. Suddenly, they are everywhere – on your trees, in your shrubs, all over your car, your deck, your home.
They all want one thing, they want it now and to get it they are calling at incredibly loud volume.
It is…The Attack of the CICADAS!!
You might not know exactly what a cicada is but you know what they sound like – that whirring that seems to spread from tree to tree during the late part of every summer. They are part of the hot summer soundscape - cicadas by day, katydids by night. Both insects are moving some part of their bodies to create a sound to draw to it a member of the opposite sex for the purpose of mating and continuing the species.
The cicada is a reminder of the end of the summer and the approach of back-to-school and cooler weather.
This year, however, is a little different in New Jersey.
These are not annual cicadas you’ve been hearing every waking daylight moment since May. These are periodic cicadas that emerge once every 17 years. The ones afflicting or entertaining us (depending on your outlook) in New Jersey is called Brood II, one of 15 distinct broods that appear in the northeastern U.S.
These are larger and earlier than the annual cicadas and they’ve arrived to torment you with their whirring.
The coming of Brood II has been a big deal. There are people – scientists and laypeople who like bugs - who couldn’t wait for them to arrive. There have been articles in scientific journals, on the news and, of course, videos on YouTube. NPR was moved to provide commentary on how to live with these creatures. There are suddenly cicada recipes and restaurants that have begun serving them, if you have an appetite for such fare.
But to me the full horror – er, majesty – of Brood II is the sound. Loud and continual. If they are in your neighborhood, you know it. If you are listening for summer birds and these cicadas are out – forget about it. You can’t hear birds for the noise and you can’t see them for the swarming.
These critters also make a big mess. When they emerge from the ground, they are juveniles – cicada teenagers – and the first thing they do is shed their skins. The next thing they do is fly to a spot where they can call and call until they draw a mate. Then they continue the species. The male dies.
According to Wikipedia, “After mating, the female cuts V-shaped slits in the bark of young twigs and lays approximately 20 eggs in each, for a total of 600 or more eggs. After about six to ten weeks, the eggs hatch and the newborn nymphs drop to the ground, where they burrow and begin another 13 or 17-year cycle.”
Meanwhile, the female has died. That’s a whole lot of cicada exoskeletons underfoot.
I don’t happen to like having to strain to hear anything over the din of mating calls but there are many birders out there, at least in New Jersey, who are as fascinated by the cicadas as by the birds they find in the field. They’ve even reported their cicada findings to the New Jersey bird report list.
I’ve been lucky because Brood II has skipped my part of New Jersey. I have a hard enough time with the noise of daily suburban life. But my husband, who has always been fascinated by insects and snakes, wanted to hear Brood II. So we went to Scherman Hoffman.
We got there mid-afternoon on a dry, sunny Sunday – perfect conditions for hiking after Friday’s rain. The sun, however, brought out the cicadas and the deafening din. There are birds at Scherman Hoffman but they might as well have packed up and gone elsewhere. I only heard a couple of House Wrens close to the Field Loop trail and the chittering of Chimney Swifts overhead.
Cicadas are related to the locust, and Brood II cicadas are larger and uglier than the cicadas that come around each summer. Unlike locusts, these cicadas won’t eat your plants. They just want to use them to hang out on as they wait for a mate. At Scherman Hoffman they were everywhere – flying around the tops of trees in bee-like swarms, attaching themselves to the education center (see below), attaching themselves to every type of plant high and low and, occasionally, trying to land on a human being not quick enough to move out of its way.
Even tho’ they don’t bite, when something that large and so ugly comes straight at you, you run away, fast -- which I had to do, several times.
One can ask, aren’t all those cicadas good for the birds? I would guess they are, especially for those birds with hungry young back at the nest. However, Brood II is so huge there is only so much the hungry birds can eat. That may be why these broods are so large - to keep the vast majority alive long enough to lay their eggs.
My husband stayed back at the car, under a tree, as I attempted to get to the river trail and find the local Louisiana Waterthrush. I got some relief from the flying cicadas once I got under the trees, away from the open fields. But that sound… The din reminds me of the spaceship noises you hear in shlocky science fiction films.
The cicadas can almost make you forget about the other insects at Scherman Hoffman including dragonflies, damselflies, beetles and, unfortunately, black flies and mosquitos. While the cicadas were calling from the treetops along the river, the flies were thick below. I didn’t find the Waterthrush.
The lifespan of a cicada is short. All these creatures will do is mate and die. They are not particularly artful about either of these. The pair mating below were on the gravel of the upper parking lot by the education center. I didn’t check if they were alive but it doesn’t matter. When I got back to my husband he said he had cleared at least eight dead cicadas that had fallen onto the car. The bodies were everywhere.
We left Scherman Hoffman for the house of a friend in another part of Bernardsville. The din was less there but you could hear it in the distance. Still, some cicadas were flying between the trees, landing on the porch railing and falling the deck either alive or, more likely, dead. All were quickly nabbed by our friend’s greyhound. Pure protein, I’m told. They sure were crunchy.
Pass the pretzels.
As we sat on the deck I realized that, like the other type of cicadas, as the sun goes down the din subsides. By dark they are quiet, waiting to rise another day and go back on their relentless task of mating, laying eggs and dying.
But not much longer. By July they should be gone, for another 17 years.
By Margo D. Beller
It is dusk in New Hampshire. It is raining and unusually cold for late May and I am sitting on my brother-in-law’s wide, covered porch.
As it darkens, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird comes to one of the two feeders hung from a support line for the grape vines. It perches and takes a long drink of the sugar water that will help keep it alive over the expected cold night.
Suddenly, a second, slightly larger hummer arrives. Despite two feeders being out, this one chases the other away because this is what hummingbirds do, they battle each other for food and territory. These little birds are tough. The first one leaves and the second takes a long drink, then perches on the wire for a while until it gets almost too dark to see. Then it flies off to roost in a nearby sheltering willow.
The birds come back the next day and continue their jostling. They look like females but it is very likely they are first-year males with not much of the red that gives the bird its name, such as the one in this photo. Or they could be a male and a female.
I am always taken aback when a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, looking more like a bug than bird, flits by me. They are fascinating to watch, the only bird that can fly backwards, bright green back, long bill and, if a mature male, a deep, red throat. John J. Audubon referred to the ruby-throat as the “glittering fragment of the rainbow.”
Hummingbirds are so small - they weigh the same as a penny - and so colorful. In the U.S. they have interesting names including Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, Anna’s, Allen’s, Calliope and Magnificent. But in New Jersey, the hummingbird you’ll see 99% of the time is the Ruby-throated. Go walk in the woods wearing a red hat or bandana and you might draw one to you, checking out what kind of flower you are.
People love to watch hummingbirds. They put out red feeders with sugar water (1 part sugar to 4 parts water) to feed them. They plant flowers for them – preferably those that are red and/or trumpet-shaped (yellow jewelweed is a favorite, if you happen to have a stream or river along your property). They make documentaries about them. There’s even a website to track the ruby-throat’s northbound migration.
One year I was in New Jersey’s Great Swamp, crossing a bridge over the Great Brook, when I was buzzed by a hummer. I walked to the end of the bridge to watch her. She was attending to young in a tiny nest made of lichen and spider webs at the tip of a branch over the water. Unlike other birds, once the male has done his part, he’s gone, frequently heading south as early as July, leaving the female to build the nest and raise the brood alone.
New Jersey Audubon’s Scherman Hoffman sanctuary has a feeder attached to the bookstore window so those inside get a close view of the feeding bird. It is nice to be inside, perhaps talking to sanctuary director Mike Anderson or one of the volunteers, and suddenly have a brilliantly colored male hummer appear out of nowhere. One of my friends lives not far from the center in Bernardsville and puts out a feeder on her deck near a pot of red bee balm. The birds come continually, even when she is sitting outside. Very little deters a hungry hummingbird, as the ones I saw in New Hampshire reminded me.
When I see a hummer at a feeder, its whirring wings beating thousands of times a second, I appreciate the great lengths it has gone - and the dangers it has faced - to make it here from central and South America.
In his book “The Big Year,” Mark Obmascik gives a harrowing account of northbound migration over the Gulf of Mexico, from the point of view of a female ruby-throat. Like all birds the hummer eats and eats and eats, then takes off and flies nonstop over the water, burning fat supplies as she goes until she can get to land to eat and rest. Many don’t make it. The one in the book does. Read it and I guarantee the next time you look at a hummingbird you will be awed.
If you want to attract hummingbirds you can create a garden with the right type of flower. Trumpet vine is a hummer favorite, and so are other native plants including Beard Tongue, Wild Bergamont and Bleeding Heart. If you have a wet garden, there’s Fire Pink and Cardinal Flower and its blue cousin Lobelia.
These and other native plants will be on sale Saturday, June 1, from 9am to 4pm at Scherman Hoffman. The nice thing about these flowers is that besides hummers you will also draw butterflies – another long-distance migrant that is tougher than it appears. These plants evolved along with native birds, insects and wildlife. Putting these in your garden is like buying heirloom tomatoes with their strange colors and textures and juicy taste instead of the bland orange tomatoes used for fast-food sandwiches. Natives are just more interesting, and so are the birds and insects they attract.
Here is Audubon again, on hummingbirds and the native flowers:
No sooner has the returning sun again introduced the vernal season, and caused millions of plants to expand their leaves and blossoms to his genial beams, than the little Humming-bird is seen advancing on fairy wings, carefully visiting every opening flower-cup, and, like a curious florist, removing from each the injurious insects that otherwise would ere long cause their beauteous petals to droop and decay... Its long delicate bill enters the cup of the flower, and the protruded double-tubed tongue, delicately sensible, and imbued with a glutinous saliva, touches each insect in succession, and draws it from its lurking place, to be instantly swallowed. All this is done in a moment, and the bird, as it leaves the flower, sips so small a portion of its liquid honey, that the theft, we may suppose, is looked upon with a grateful feeling by the flower, which is thus kindly relieved from the attacks of her destroyers.
Makes you want to go native and buy a few White Turtleheads, doesn’t it?
I get a grateful feeling about hummingbirds, too.
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.