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Beware the Bear

By Margo D. Beller
@MargoDBeller

Scherman Hoffman gets a lot of visitors all seasons of the year. Some want a quiet hike in the woods. Some look for migrant birds in the spring or migrating raptors in the fall. Some come to buy supplies - binoculars, feeders, books or bird food -- from the nature store. Some come for the educational programs  Starting last summer, visitors came for the growing sport of geocaching

Visitors have ranged from the famous to the more humble. But there is one visitor I'm sure Scherman Hoffman and the other New Jersey Audubon centers would rather do without - black bear

It may not seem like it after such a long spell of cold weather, but winter is over. I've already seen signs of spring in my yard, finally. Crocus and snowdrops are blooming and the daffodils and iris are coming up. I've also seen chipmunks, the bane of my garden because of their digging.

Bear, Old Mine Rd., June 2014

Chipmunks hibernate during the winter and come out when it is warm. So do bears. I put up with little chipmunks, begrudgingly. Bears scare me. 

Scherman Hoffman Director Mike Anderson remembers a bear that visited about 10 years ago.

"The bear took down the feeders. After everyone drove up the hill from [New Jersey Audubon headquarters] and got a look we made a lot of noise and it ran off," he said. "That was probably the first sighting in 50 years."

Times have changed. Mike said last summer alone there were nine separate bears seen in the area including a big male, a little male, a sow with two cubs and a sow with three cubs.

When those cubs get bigger they start wandering to find new territories, and that is why bears are now seen in all 21 counties of New Jersey. New Jersey is one of the most built-up states in America, and that means there is a greater chance you are going to come in contact with a bear at some point, if not at a park then in your backyard.

My first close bear encounter came last year when my husband and I were on Old Mine Road in Sussex County to do some birding. We were driving and suddenly there was a bruin (the one pictured) sauntering in the middle of a road where the speed limit is low but most people just blow through. Luckily, we were alone on the road and going slow.

We pulled to the side of the road and parked so my husband could take a picture from the car. He was not going to duplicate the stunt of the guy who so wanted his kid in a picture with a bear that he used a bagel to entice it closer. His kid was mauled.

As we sat in the car the bear casually looked at us, then ambled off the road and up a hill. My first bear, I thought. It was not a complete surprise because Sussex County has been bear country for decades.

This past March 27, the encounter hit home - literally. One of my feeder poles was bent to the ground and a feeder lay there empty and partially damaged. Who would do something like this in the middle of the night? I asked my husband. He knew immediately - a hungry bear just out of hibernation.

Since then I take the feeders inside at night. Mike Anderson says for the last five years Scherman Hoffman has done the same thing - taking them in at night once it starts to warm up. (The feeders are not out at all during summer camp, and I don't have feeders out after Memorial Day.)

feeders

I got off easy - it was only a bent feeder pole I can replace. Bears can destroy property, including livestock and small pets in the backyard. Get between a sow and her cubs and you have put yourself into great danger.

One of the most horrifying incidents involving bears in recent years was the killing of a Rutgers University student who was hiking with friends. This attack, the first recorded fatality in the state’s history, brought new calls for a longer bear hunt. New Jersey agreed and has decided to expand the hunt to twice a year. 

Like bear, deer were almost hunted to extinction. Then the pendulum swung the other way and the deer population got out of control. Deer destroy forest undergrowth with their browsing, which has a major effect on the rest of the forest population including birds.

A bear is more dangerous. The one I saw on Old Mine Road was several hundred pounds and not intimidated by my car. I wouldn't have wanted to mess with the one that took down my feeder pole either.

You can't hunt bear at Scherman Hoffman -- it's a wildlife sanctuary. But you can be prepared. There are a number of sites where you can find rules for avoiding a bear encounter. These happen to come from the National Parks Conservation Association site:

  • Keep your distance and allow the bear every opportunity to avoid you.

  • If the bear continues to approach you, it is most likely trying to identify what you are. Remain calm. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.

  • Identify yourself by talking in a normal voice.

  • Try to back away slowly at a diagonal angle. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground.

  • Don't run. Bears can reach speeds of 35 mph, and like dogs they will chase fleeing animals.

  • If the bear gets too close, wave your arms, raise your voice and be more aggressive. Never make high-pitched squeals or attempt to sound like a bear.

In short, don't be foolish. This is no bedside Teddy.

Beware the bear.

Off the Grid

What would you pay to get the utility companies - electricity, oil, gas - off your back and never pay them a dime again?

I don't know about you, but when I see my bills I want to pull the plug. For instance, the average house uses approximately 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per month .

We all know there are other options out there -- costly ones -- including windmills, solar panels and geothermal, or drilling into the earth to draw its heat to power your home. 

Mike Strizki has another option he claims will save you money, create no emissions and take you completely off the grid, preserving the earth for generations to come.

He uses hydrogen

Strizki with toysThe sun is over 70% hydrogen. Hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table -- colorless, odorless, literally lighter than air and, when combined with oxygen, creates your water. It is this basic chemistry, with more than a little help from the sun and the fuel cell system he created to transform hydrogen into power, that he uses in the 11-acre house in Hopewell, N.J., he completed retrofitting in 2006. That house is the nucleus of the educational Hydrogen House Project

"We have to educate the public that hydrogen is safe," he said at a recent program at N.J. Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary. "We can't keep going down the same path. It just doesn't work that way."

To that end New Jersey Audubon is partnering with Hydrogen House to be the state coordinators of the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Eco-Schools USA program providing free materials to schools to include "sustainability education" in their curriculums. That includes tours of Hydrogen House, learning the nuts and bolts of creating sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Hydrogen is safer than the crude oil that exploded in flames recently in W. Va.  as it was being hauled by railroad. It creates none of the unpleasant side effects of fracking. For those who know history, Strizki insists the only reason the Hindenburg airship blew up over Lakewood, N.J., in 1937 was because rocket fuel coated the shell, not the hydrogen inflating it.

Looking at his website you can see Strizki is no mere tinkerer. He spent 16 years at the state Department of Transportation's Office of Research and Technology, leaving it when funding for renewable energy was cut because, unlike oil and gas,  "you can't tax free," he said. Since then he has worked on renewable energy and clean water projects around the world. He’s also come up with fun stuff, like the hydrogen-powered toys pictured above and below that can be directed from his hydrogen-charged cellphone..

How does hydrogen power work? According to his site:

Hydrogen House operates by collecting solar energy from a 21-kilowatt array of solar panels mounted throughout Strizki's property. The energy from the 70 thin film and 80 polycrystalline panels passes through inverters where it is collected in a relatively small battery bank used to run a low-pressure electrolyzer.

The electrolyzer splits water molecules into the base elements hydrogen and oxygen. Strizki's system stores the hydrogen in 11 reused low-pressure propane tanks, similar to those found at a typical gas station.  The hydrogen can then be burned for cooking and heating similar to natural gas, and can be converted into electricity by way of a hydrogen fuel cell.  The only emissions from the system are medical grade oxygen and chemically pure water!

There are 10 used propane tanks in back of Hydrogen House to store the gas to get him through times when there isn't a lot of sun, such as the short days of winter. Those 10 tanks provide enough hydrogen to power his house for a year. And you can make more - put in purified water and you can split it into hydrogen and oxygen or, using another of his products, the joule, recombine it with oxygen to form water that can be split again. It is the ultimate in recycling.

But as with anything new, there are two daunting drawbacks to going hydrogen - the cost and the government bureaucracy. hydrogen-powered truck

It cost Strizki $500,000 - that's half a million - to retrofit his Hopewell home back in 2006. He said he put in $100,000 of his own money and got the rest from New Jersey Board of Public Utilities grants and donations, he said. He is now building a second home in Hopewell that will cost about a fifth of that, in part because he has developed more streamlined and simpler storage technology that doesn't require a tank farm.

He said it took 3 ½ years to get all the permits to retrofit his house because of those 10 old propane tanks. The local building inspector took one look and refused to do anything, he said. The process was moved to another agency that treated the home as an industrial facility, also because of those tanks. Even then the process sat in limbo until, he said, he got the New York Times involved. He got his permits.

Strizki said that now, with his smaller, more portable fuel-cell system - which uses flexible, lightweight solar panels rather than the heavier ones seen on roofs or in solar panel farms -- the only permit a homeowner has to get is for the connection to the house, just as someone must do to install an outside, permanent generator -- the kind that became very popular with homeowners after Hurricane Sandy.

Such generators "just sit there and cost you money,"  he scoffed, while his system saves money. As for the simpler permitting, the regulators are "not happy about it but there is nothing they can do about it."

That was certainly on the minds of those in the audience, who peppered him with questions. There is something very appealing about saving money and becoming self-sufficient. cellphone charger

For instance, Hydrogen House never lost power after Sandy, he says on his website, at a time when "New Jersey’s electric utility companies scrambled to fix downed power lines and busted transformers." As you can imagine, his house became very popular with the neighbors who were without electricity for over a week and needed to power up their phones using the charger he developed (pictured). This charger, the streamlined power system and other products he has developed are detailed on the site, too.

The cost of the technology will come down over time - as it has with computers that are smaller but have more power than the ones that used to take up a whole room, for instance - as will the retrofitting cost and the cost of your energy usage. But the initial outlay is high.

Scherman Hoffman director Mike Anderson said he'd love to have a renewable source of energy to power the education center and offices. Right now they are powered using propane. Most of the old oil tanks used in the former Hoffman estate were removed.

Sustainability is a wonderful idea but it's a costly reality.

To Strizki, it's all about self-sufficiency and not being "squeezed and controlled" by the government. It's also about removing your "carbon footprint" and saving the planet for our children and grandchildren.

How much is that worth to you?

Midwinter Thoughts

By Margo D. Beller

@MargoDBeller

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade. – Charles Dickens

cardinal According to the annual “year in weather” chart published each January by the New York Times, January 2014 was the eighth-snowiest on record because of the 11 inches that fell. A month later, when “polar vortex” became part of my vocabulary, we had a record eight inches of snow and 1.43 inches of rain that, on top of that January snow, created huge drifts of snow with inches of ice on top of it. I don’t think I saw my lawn before March.

This January is balmy by comparison.

Still, it has been cold, with below-normal temperatures in a world where “normal” is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

From my warm home I look at the four feeders – three with sunflower seeds, one with suet – and watch the huge flock of house sparrows, house finches, mourning doves and jays attacking them. Every so often I feel the need to go out on my enclosed porch and scare them off to allow the chickadees, titmice and white-breasted nuthatches access to the seed. The downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers have no competition at the suet thanks to tSAVE seedhe upside-down feeder I bought at Scherman Hoffman’s store (most birds don’t like hanging upside down, although a hungry Carolina wren has been known to take a few mouthfuls of suet and then stand on the baffle to eat them).

A record six male cardinals are in my backyard because mine seems to be the only one around offering seed, which is a shame. 

Scherman Hoffman’s feeders are also busy with birds, and the SAVE sunflower seed I buy to help encourage local farmers to create more sustainable habitat for the birds is completely sold out. That’s a lot of good people feeding a lot of hungry birds, and we’re not even halfway through winter yet. The few, hardy souls taking the very cold early-morning bird walks have turned up many of the same birds I’m seeing at the feeder. In fact, aside from the feeder birds I’ve not done much birding at all because of the cold.

At this point I am looking forward to my neighbor’s witch hazel shrub blooming. The flowers are not much – stringy yellow or orange, they are more petal than flower  – but they are often the first color of winter aside from the snow’s white and the gray or blue of the sky. The neighbor’s witch hazel usually blooms in February. This shrub was one of the native plants offered during Scherman Hoffman’s plant sale last June, and this year I think I’ll look for one to plant in my own yard.

Another early plant – skunk cabbage. It’s usually found in wet meadows and along stream banks so it’s along the Passaic at Scherman Hoffman and, as I discovered last winter, throughout the back of the Field loop extension field.

skunk cabbage

Even though each fall I am always glad when I have cut back my perennials and put my spent annuals into compost, I am looking forward to seeing my flowers again, starting with the crocus and the daffodils. The crocus show up in late February or early March, the daffodils from March into April. I put 50 more daffodils in before the ground froze because this plant is avoided by digging squirrels and chipmunks and the flowers won’t be eaten by deer because of the toxins throughout the plant – ideal! They are of different types to prolong the growing season as long as possible although last year, once the snow melted, they seemed to all come up at once. I wish they could bloom all summer.

Last year the red azaleas drew ruby-throated hummingbirds despite being behind netting to keep them from the deer. That would’ve been in April. I’d never seen hummingbirds in my yard so early in the year – I usually see more in June and July when I have my feeder out. But last winter, as noted, was a bad one and with the wacky weather the hummers likely wanted to return to their breeding grounds as fast as possible once they finally could. 

At the end of April and into May the northbound migration will begin. There will be fewer juncos and white-throated sparrows (but not house sparrows, alas) in my backyard. At some point I’ll be taking my early morning walk and hear a phoebe over the brook. The walkers at Scherman Hoffman will start finding more warblers and fewer fox sparrows. Last year the trees over the brook in my town were filled with warblers that, like the daffodils, all seemed to show up at once when the weather allowed them to fly.

When these migrants return the days will be longer and warmer. I’ll be doing less hibernating and rising earlier to find them on my walks, or will come to Scherman Hoffman and listen for them along the Dogwood or River trails.

But for now, these are just midwinter thoughts. There’s still a lot of winter to go.

Saving the Monarchs

By Margo D. Beller

@MargoDBeller

Why would citizens of a free state within a democratic republic care about saving a Monarch?

Because this Monarch is an indicator that our world is rapidly getting out of balance and we will all suffer as a result.

When it comes to butterflies, I can't tell the difference between the swallowtails or the skippers or the fritillaries. But when I see a Monarch butterfly, I have no doubts at all.

Monarchs are among the largest of butterflies, 3.5 to 4 inches big, and are distinctively patterned in orange and black. Look at any butterfly identification book – mine is the Stokes’ Beginner’s Guide to Butterflies – and you will see a Monarch on the cover. They like a wide variety of open habitats including fields, gardens and coasts.

monarch - Fenske center, September 13, 2014

Every year my butterfly bush and joe-pye weeds and other plants draw bees and butterflies, mainly swallowtails but usually a few Monarchs. Not this year. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen Monarch butterflies in New Jersey this year, all in gardens specifically set up in public or private state natural areas  to draw and feed butterflies, including Great Swamp and Scherman Hoffman.

So I was not surprised to receive a September press release from New Jersey Audubon warning the Monarch population has fallen by 90% in the past two years. September has always been a good time to see Monarchs because they are on the move to their southern homes in the mountains of northern Mexico. (It isn't just the birds that have favorite areas to which they return again and again.)

It was during one September afternoon years ago when we saw Monarchs heading south to Monhegan Island over Gulf of Maine as our boat headed north to the mainland. (I rescued several Monarchs from spider webs while on the island.) During another September trip, to Sandy Hook, NJ, my husband walked through a field of goldenrod and clouds of Monarchs rose as he passed. I regret I had no camera to record the magical scene as I walked behind. New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Observatory has been monitoring Monarch migration for 25 Septembers.

New Jersey Audubon supports several bills now in the New Jersey Legislature to help Monarchs survive.

Legislation? For butterflies?

Well, yes. “Butterfly population decline is an important indicator of ecosystem health,” said NJ Audubon’s press release quoting Assemblyman Timothy Eustace, D-Bergen and Passaic, sponsor of several of the bills. “Drastic reductions in certain species of bee and bat populations have demonstrated there are unforeseen consequences to a single species decline, and this legislation lends a helping hand to Monarchs.”bee

Unlike other butterflies, the Monarch has particular needs. Monarchs need milkweed, a perennial plant that grows in fields, creating pink flowers that, when pollinated, form large seed heads. Monarch adults feed on the flowers’ nectar while Monarch caterpillars eat the leaves. The seed heads pop open and each seed is attached to a silk thread that acts as a sort of parachute to carry the seed to an area where it will grow.

Unfortunately, the more New Jersey paves over its fields for roads and housing, the less likely that seed will find a suitable place to grow. Milkweed  has declined thanks to overuse of herbicides in agriculture and loss of agricultural lands and open space - including roadsides - to development.

Homeowners compound the problem by their obsessions with their lawns, mowing whether they need it or not and hitting them with chemicals to kill the insects (beneficial as well as harmful) and "weeds" -- the wildflowers that, in some cases, are helpful to the survival of birds, bees and butterflies.

New Jersey is not known for its high standards of environmental protection. It has more people and more roads packed into a small space than any other state in this country. The prevailing wisdom is "I got mine, keep yours away from me." That extends to landscaping. In my town, for instance, disturbing the “park-like setting” of my front lawn in my neighborhood would get me fined.

That’s why there are times you have to legislate to encourage better human behavior. The Private Wildlife Habitat Certification bill (A3133) would provide homeowners with an "affirmative defense" against nuisance complaints and code violations arising from "providing habitat for wildlife by way of native vegetation that provides sources of nectar, seeds and berries," according to the press release.

monarch blownupOther bills would provide resources and coordination for planting milkweed on public lands and parks, and "focus efforts on drainage basins that could provide ideal growth opportunities for milkweed in otherwise unused areas," again according to New Jersey Audubon..

There is also a bill that would keep towns and the state from mowing down what open fields there are in this state before useful plants can flower (for the bees and butterflies) and go to seed (for the birds). To me this is akin to measures that encourage and protect more grasslands to boost the state populations of bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows and dickcissels, which have also lost habitat. It would also help greatly if we approved the state measure guaranteeing a funding source for the state's Open Space program before all the money runs out.

Unfortunately, the problem isn't confined to New Jersey, or even the United States. Monarch populations in Mexico have declined for the same reason as in New Jersey -- the burning down and clearing of forests and the overuse of herbacides. Climate change is another factor, with unusual freezing temperatures and heavier rain having an effect.

I know these butterflies are tough, but they are not that tough.

So let's you and I start with putting in more milkweed and other beneficial plants in the backyard, stop using herbacides and other harmful chemicals if we must have a lawn and appreciate the needs of the other creatures who share this world with us.

We all benefit in the long run.

The Perils of Travel

By Margo D. Beller (@MargoDBeller)

At this time of year, people go on vacation. If you have a family, you travel in summer before the kids have to go back to school and the daylight ends early. Whether it is by car, plane or train, travel can be exciting, a change in the routine, a way of clearing the cobwebs from your mind and giving your camera a workout.

The rubythroated hummingbird I see at the feeder just beyond the window from the store at Scherman Hoffman takes a long drink of the sugar water. The bird weighs less than an ounce. Mike Anderson hummer 2

It is fun to watch a hummingbird, which looks more like an insect than a bird. But this little creature is getting ready for a long trip, too, and it is certainly no vacation.

Although it is August, the birds (and the butterflies, for that matter) already know that it is getting time to go south again. Despite the heat, the days are getting shorter and the decrease in light is a cue that soon it will be cold and there will be no more insects. What young there were this year should have fledged and will be able to fend for themselves.

At my home feeder, the hummingbirds that visit at this time of year are usually adult females. By now the males, whose only role is to battle for territory and then mate with a chosen female, have already left. The females build the nest, brood the eggs and then feed the young. Once the young can get their own food, Mom will be going south.

Think about it: Something about the weight of a penny will be traveling hundreds of thousands of miles, battling bad weather, the Gulf of Mexico (where, if it’s lucky, it will find an oil rig for rest -- if it hasn’t been blown into it) and predators, all under its own power. No four-wheel drive here. Its instinct tells it it must go.

I can’t help but look at a visiting hummingbird with respect tinged with sadness at what it must face. Many will not survive.

These little birds are not alone, of course. The various sparrows, thrushes, tanagers, warblers and other passerines that birders will follow as they pass through southbound will be joined by shorebirds, ducks and raptors. Some will end their journey in New Jersey. Most will head to the southern U.S.. or beyond the gulf to central and South America.

The raptor flight is particularly impressive, whether you see what can be a parade of birds (if the north wind is strong) from the uppermost porch at Scherman Hoffman’s education center or the uppermost North Outlook at Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain.

I’ve seen raptors from both areas, surrounded by large crowds impressed by the vultures, the buteos (like the red-tailed hawk pictured) and accipiters and especially the bald eagles. There’s something about a soaring, mature bald eagle -- symbol of the U.S. and easily identified by the white head and tail -- that causes a stir and gets the cameras clicking.

Harold

But there was a time, decades ago, when my husband was told (as a Boy Scout) that he’d never see a bald eagle in the wild in his lifetime because of its near-destruction by, among other things, chemicals (DDT) and shooting (Hawk Mountain was once a favorite shooting spot for sportsmen  in the fall).

Every time you see a bird at your feeder, it is not there to entertain you but is trying to survive. Every visit to a water dish, or flight into a tree to escape a cat, or chase after a much bigger bird to protect its young is all about survival. The long, dangerous trip south is a real-life “Survival” you won’t see on TV.

If the bird gets to its winter spot and can stay alive for the next few months - no mean feat in areas where the forests are being destroyed - and then make its way north to our area next spring, its reward will be creating another generation of young to perpetuate the species.

So we who care about birds put out our feeders and water and try to keep the cats out of the yard to keep the birds alive. But when it’s time for them to go, they are on their own.

Travel can be exciting, a way to break up a routine. But that’s for people. For birds, travel is a matter of life and death.

Geocache Me If You Can

By Margo D.Beller (@MargoDBeller)

The treasure hunt has gone high-tech.

The Northern New Jersey Cachers (NNJC) held a “meet and greet” at Scherman Hoffman on May 31, a unique partnership between a group dedicated to expanding interest in using satellite technology to find caches and a sanctuary that, as its website says, is “focused on nature.”

If you see an inherent contradiction here, you’re right. signing in

For this treasure hunt, called geocaching, you need global positioning satellite, or GPS. Ever since the Clinton administration stopped scrambling government satellite data, the use of GPS has exploded.

According to NNJC President John Neale, once GPS took off it was just about inevitable some techy wonk would make a game with it. That happened in 2000, in Oregon, when a couple of hikers found an old bucket in the woods. Instead of passing it by and forgetting about it, they put the coordinates -- good old longitude and latitude -- on a website for others to find.

From those humble beginnings the movement has grown to 220 countries, 2.5 million active caches and over 6 million geocachers worldwide, according to geocaching.com. Neale said in New Jersey alone there are 16,000 caches. His group has over 500 members and there are separate organizations that cover central and south Jersey.

The cache can be anything, of any size. Some are big enough to fit into ammunition boxes. Some are “nano-caches” that can be easily concealed in big cities. Griggstown Grasslands has caches concealed in the false bottoms of a few bird boxes. Typically, it’s a plastic lock box that contains a pencil and pad of paper for signing your name. The cache can be anything from a toy Jeep (many are sponsored by Chrysler dealerships - it’s good publicity) to a manhole cover. If you take the cache you must leave something of equal or greater value.

 geocaches Then you log your finding in your logbook and log the experience at the geocaching.com website.

So on a lovely Saturday morning more than a dozen people chatted, ate cookies baked by one of the long-time cachers and waited for the coordinates of the 10 Scherman Hoffman caches to “go live” so the hunters could check their phones and then their GPS and start hunting. (The meet and greet would be lasting into the afternoon.)

The event was intended to bring newbies and more experienced geocachers together. Neale said that besides being a fun activity for people of all ages there is a competitive aspect. Case in point: one older man he pointed out who is ranked ninth in the world in finding geogaches. Like a lot of cachers, this man goes by an alias, IMSpider. Neale - whose own alias is Old Navy - told me IMSpider took up caching with a vengeance after his wife died years ago. Now he doesn’t even bother using the pencil when he finds the caches, he stamps his name. 

Anyone who has ever read The Big Year  or To See Every Bird on Earth knows that competitive aspect too well.

Bird watching has also become more technical and competitive. There are bird calls stored on mobile phones for checking in the field, GPS, high-tech cameras and sites such as New Jersey Audubon’s eBird, which allows you to check what has been found and where, including coordinates. There’s the annual World Series of Birding and other events.

We’ve come a long way from a walk in the woods.

Ironically, that’s how Neale got into geocaching. Neale loves to hike and gained a love of nature traveling with his mother when she worked at Watchung Reservation. She worked with Dorothy Smullen, now a teaching naturalist at Scherman Hoffman and the point person on the meet and greet. 

Smullen said the route of the caches runs along the Dogwood (Red) trail, crosses the driveway heading toward the vernal ponds near the NJ Audubon headquarters building at 9 Hardscrabble and then the River (Yellow) trail (seen here). Each cache has letter(s) inside the box tops. When unscrambled, the letters complete a phrase that cachers can use for a discount on some merchandise in the Scherman Hoffman store. Cachers could also buy a collectible "path tag" with the NJ Audubon logo to keep as a souvenir or drop at their next cache. the River trail

Smullen told me the hope is the cachers discover the sanctuary, see the beauty of the place and then come back. Many of the cachers I spoke with had never been to Scherman Hoffman before, much less Bernardsville, NJ, where it’s located.

Once the cache coordinates were published, I followed one small group (2 men, 1 woman and 2 boys) to the first location. “Third boulder from the trail,” one of the men read from his phone. (Warning: In the woods, you’re likely to lose your cellphone signal.)

The boys started counting and then turning over rocks somewhat off the path. By the time they had found the cache we were joined by a larger group, who now - one by one - signed their names in the cache notebook (such as the man I photographed). IM Spider used his stamp and then strode off to the next cache, up the steep hill, other cachers scrambling to keep up.

Among them were Carmine and Maria, of Jersey City and Mountainside, who have been geocaching for a year. “That guy is hardcore,” Carmine said of IMSpider with some awe as he puffed up the hill. Maria told me she’s a teacher. Trying to find some way of engaging her tech-literate students, she read about geocaching in a magazine and got them involved. That’s how she and Carmine got into it.

I think I told Carmine and Maria as much about Scherman Hoffman as they told me about their geocaching.

signing the cache log book By this time we’d gotten to the top of the hill. But instead of veering left along the Red trail, the group continued on Patriots Path (the White trail) into the Cross Estate, which is not part of the private Scherman Hoffman but is part of the National Park Service -- specifically the Morristown National Historical Park (Jockey Hollow).

This brings up one of the problems I find with geocaching. The official route might’ve been along the Red trail but if the GPS says the quickest way is cutting through a federal park, you follow it. Neale told me people placing caches are supposed to get permission from landowners and at least warn states and the federal government there will be caches and people looking for them. But that does not stop people from using shortcuts.

One geocacher told me he does not believe in bushwhacking and puts all his caches within five feet of a trail. He also gives clear clues on the geocaching website so people don’t harm the environment looking for the cache.

I gather he is unusual.

Just as you will see birders putting themselves and the environment in danger by bushwhacking after a bird you will see people put caches in inappropriate places and searchers do quite a bit of harm -- despite the organization’s rules to the contrary.

It’s part of the “game’s” competitive spirit, I guess.

Scherman Hoffman Director Mike Anderson told me geocachers inundated New Jersey’s Kittatinny Valley State Park with caches. Before the state knew it, hundreds of people were overrunning the park.

That’s the main reason NJ Audubon got involved with the NNJC -- to have some sort of control and minimize that kind of damage, Anderson said. NNJC maintains the caches. NJ Audubon trail maps, program schedules and other flyers were there for the taking, to encourage NNJC members to come back again.

I’m not sure that will happen.

Stephanie and Box turtleThe cachers running up the hill were too busy following the leader -- IMSpider -- to stop and listen to the birds around them or even notice the beauty of the woods.

Not everyone is like this, of course. I later found a geocacher alone on the river trail - unlike others, he came from the area - who said he doesn’t like finding caches in packs because it takes the fun out of it when others find them first. However, he showed less interest in the nearby veery I pointed out than in his ringing cellphone.

As with everything else, it is too easy to forget technology is merely a tool. Too often I see people use an iPod - even in the car - to block out the world or stare at a game on their phone to avoid eye contact on the street. And don’t get me started on drivers blindly following GPS instructions to the exclusion of sense.

I do not use GPS, and I was glad when the cachers left me alone in the woods with the birds.

Earlier that morning I was on the bird walk with naturalist Stephanie Punnett. Our group stopped for long periods of time listening to and looking at all sorts of birds. At one point one of the younger group members looked down instead of up and found a wood turtle.

Wood turtles are threatened in NJ, and Punnett said this female was new to her because it hadn’t been marked. She put it in her bag so it could be marked and then returned to the same spot to get on with its life.

Now this was a cache worth finding.

Mud Season

By Margo D. Beller

It was with some surprise that I opened my email the other day and found an announcement from Scherman Hoffman inviting visitors to its “morning walks” every Friday and Saturday from 8 am to 9 am.

The walks weren’t the surprise. Particularly during March and April – spring migration - I’ve struggled out of bed on many a Saturday morning over the years to drive to Hardscrabble Road to take these walks.

BTGBut the last time I was at Scherman Hoffman, director Mike Anderson was demonstrating how he rakes snow off the roof. The driveways were clear but the trails were not. Snow was deep and, thanks to ice from an earlier storm, solid. Many areas are still frozen – Swartswood Lake, for instance, where a March 15 nature walk had to be cancelled.

Still, at least in my town, in the last week there have been warm days that have taken most of the snow off my lawn and all of it off my roof. So the Scherman email reminded me that, yes, winter is starting to let go and spring – and the birds – will be returning.

I am sure that at first the spring “walks” will consist looking out the education center’s’ window at the feeders and then a trudge along the main driveway. This is not a bad way to look for birds. The conifer outside the education center has drawn red-breasted nuthatch, gold-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets and, in season, warblers including the Cape May.

But later, whoever is leading the walks will lead us down to the Dogwood or Field Loop trail and that is likely when people will make the acquaintance of something my New England in-laws know well – Mud Season.

Ground that had been frozen and covered with several feet of snow becomes thawed, wet and spongy. Footing becomes treacherous, particularly on hills, and mud is everywhere. You’ll have it thick on your boots and kick it up on the back of your legs.

In New Jersey, Mud Season is usually relatively benign because we don’t get the amount of snow they get in some parts of New England. But this past winter has not been benign. In 20 years of living in New Jersey this winter has been the closest to what I have seen in my brother-in-law’s rural part of New Hampshire. Many of the roads there are packed dirt, and when Mud Season comes you have to learn a whole new way to drive.snake

I have only driven in New Hampshire’s March Mud Season once: What I learned was, when approaching a massive sea of mud you speed up, slam the car into first gear, hold the wheel tight and hope momentum carries you through the muck. My brother-in-law, the naturalist for one of the state’s leading nature organizations, extols Mud Season. It separates the men from the boys, the hardcore from the tenderfoot.

I don’t expect it to be that bad on the Scherman trails.

What I do expect is a slippery mess which I will try to ignore when, one Saturday morning, I see many early migrants – phoebes, black-throated green warblers (like the one pictured, which I photographed from the driveway), kinglets and perhaps a few bluebirds near the boxes and raptors soaring overhead. Insects will start swarming; tadpoles, snakes and amphibians will seemingly appear from nowhere; and flowers will begin to bud, then flower.

At that point the snow will seem like a distant, bad dream.

Shovel We Must

By Margo D. Beller

According to the weather people, March 1 is the beginning of meteorological spring.

Anyone living in northern or central New Jersey this year has another opinion.

My area of North Jersey has been hit with 13 or so storms this winter season, including a period in February where we had three major snowstorms in 10 days. Even with recent thaws, I still have snow mountains at the end of my driveway. What I can see of my garden looks devastated. Another major snowstorm predicted to put 6 inches of powder down did not appear, but there is still plenty of a cement-like mix of ice and snow on the ground.

This continued cold and white, plus the ice on some of my favorite areas to walk and look for birds, depresses me. It is a major case of “winter blues” that lengthening days and even watching the birds busily getting seeds from my feeder can’t lift.

But if you are a business owner or a homeowner or the director of a New Jersey Audubon wildlife sanctuary, you can’t indulge in the winter blues for long. Whether it’s my half-acre or Scherman Hoffman’s 276 acres, you must get out there and clear the snow.Scherman snow field

So when the snow started falling this winter, Scherman Hoffman director Mike Anderson got into his “new-used” Ford F-350 pickup with the new, bigger plow and started clearing.

There’s the long, curving driveway from Hardscrabble Road up to the education center and the lower and upper parking lots. There’s the lower lot next to the house where New Jersey Audubon CEO and President Eric Stiles lives with his family. There’s the lot next to the headquarters building at 9 Hardscrabble and the long driveway up to the education center.

It’s a lot of plowing. And when the next storm hit, and the one after that, Mike was back at it with the plow again until it was done. Because when you start plowing you want to get it all over with at once. That means long hours and a lot of time spent away from what you are supposed to be doing for your job.

This plowing does not include the sanctuary trails, by the way. Good luck taking some of those downhill unless you are wearing ice cleats or cross-country skis.

I don’t have a plow, although there is a man with a similarly big pickup truck and plow who does our much shorter driveway and turnaround. He also works until he’s done and so do my husband and I in clearing the front and back walkways and the path to our feeders. So I have a limited sense of what Mike has to do to keep Scherman Hoffman operating.

Mike and rakeAnother thing I don’t have: a roof rake. But Scherman Hoffman does, and Mike demonstrated it for me the other week when I came to to the education center store on a sunny, relatively mild (after the polar vortex, 30 degrees is mild) Saturday to buy another 50 lb. sack of sunflower seeds.

Roof cave-ins have been another severe problem this winter as snow, sleet and more snow have accumulated, particularly on flat roofs. You can hire someone to climb up and push the snow off, you could go up there and try it yourself, or you can stand on terra firma and use a long-poled (plus extension) metal rake like the one Mike has to clear some of the snow off the education center’s roof.

It is extremely effective, but you have to have strong arms and back for this, as I know from using an extension branch lopper. The longer the extension, the more work you have to do to control and use the heavy implement at the other end.

Mike seemed to handle it with ease, no doubt from extended experience. But he also handled it because he must. A caved-in roof is an expense New Jersey Audubon can’t afford. Unplowed driveways mean no access to the offices -- no one can get to work, handle membership renewals, fill the bird feeders or sell birdhouses to a willing public.

And it is why I shovel my paths even when I know I’m not going anywhere that day – I may not be able to control the weather but it is how I fight its effect. Plus if I don’t do it, it only gets worse the next day.

So I will indulge in these blues for a short time today. Tomorrow I’ll be out with the shovel, yet again, clearing the paths, refilling the bird feeders for my feathered friends.

So will Mike Anderson. So will you.

Snowy Owls

By Margo D. Beller

This has been a particularly good year for seeing Snowy Owls in New Jersey. Island Beach State Park, Brigantine and Sandy Hook have had lots of Snowy Owls.

A few days before my husband and I saw a Snowy Owl at Island Beach late last year, Pete Bacinski, who directs the All Things Bird site for New Jersey Audubon with Scott Barnes, had written in his blog that over two dozen have been seen in New Jersey in 2013, and Snowy Owls were also seen as far south as Virginia and North Carolina and one on Bermuda this winter. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, one was also seen as far south as Jacksonville, Florida!

Every few years there is an “irruption” of birds normally only found in the far north, which are forced south to find food. Thanks to past irruption years I have been able to see both types of Crossbills (in Long Branch, N.J.), Common Redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks (in New Hampshire) and a pair of Bohemian Waxwings (at Sandy Hook.)

In 2011 a Snowy Owl caused a sensation within the birding community when it hung out near the dam at the Merrill Creek Reservoir. In 2007, a Snowy Owl showed up in Piermont, N.Y., hanging out on a pier in the harbor. MH and I were among the crowd who went to see it. It seemed rather bored and the photographers with their gun-like, long lenses were getting frustrated the owl was just sitting there and not doing something dramatic, such as snagging one of the Ruddy Ducks swimming below it.

Finding a Snowy Owl on the beach this past December was about as different an experience as we could get, and much better.

snowy.owl.at.jersey_shore (Rich)

These owls are usually found on open country – beachs and airports, which are the closest things to their native tundra. When several were killed at one New York airport because of fear they’d fly into airplanes, there was a great hue and cry against it (including from me), The airport stopped the shooting and started trapping and releasing elsewhere, the way it’s been done at Boston’s Logan Airport for years.

That was in December. When I read the news report, I wrote to Pete Bacinski, who has always been kind enough to tolerate my outbursts. We “talked” via email about Snowy Owls and he told me something extraordinary.

Maybe perhaps thanks to “Harry Potter,” people think of Snowy Owls as “Hedwig,” Harry’s owl. That’s fine for spurring people to want to protect them but Pete told me many people believe Snowys “have mystical powers” and have tried to hug them!

These aren’t plush toys, people, they’re sharp-taloned killers.

Those who aren’t trying to hug them want to take their picture, the more up close and personal the better. One photographer even told the New Jersey bird list that it is the owl’s responsibility to fly off it it’s bothered, Pete told me.

There is such a thing as owl etiquette. Since most owls are nocturnal, they roost by day. People finding them by day should keep their distance and, when reporting the owls, should not broadly report the exact location in order to keep the birds from being harassed and stressed out. Even the Snowy Owl, which hunts by day, will get stressed if you get in its face with your camera.

R Screech Owl prime hook

Imagine how you’d feel if someone kept waking you up every 15 minutes, sometimes taking your picture. Like your worst hospital experience times 10.

Some people are not wise when it comes to owls. Several years ago some Long-Eared Owls were found at the Great Swamp. I went there and personally witnessed a photographer take his big lens and get in the owls’ faces – until I yelled at him to back off. That lasted until I drove off – I saw him in the rear-view mirror crossing the road again. I was not surprised the owls soon left.

There have been no Snowy Owls seen at Scherman Hoffman – yet. Screech and Great-Horned Owls are in residence, breeding at the sanctuary or nearby every year. Saw-Whet is on the checklist – seen once by Rich Kane. Barred Owl and Long-Eared Owl are on the sanctuary “wish list,” according to director Mike Anderson. These are common owls in New Jersey in the right habitat at the right time of year. Short-Eared Owl, which, according to one of Pete’s more recent blogs, is now the “hot” owl to find, was seen migrating over the sanctuary a few years ago.

Whatever owl you might happen find, please treat it with respect and save the hugs for your friends and family.

Snow Birds, Large and Small

By Margo D. Beller

By the time you read this, the first major snowfall of the 2013 winter season will have blanketed New Jersey, and it isn’t even officially winter yet.

When I was a kid, there was a popular song sung to the melody of a John Phillip Sousa march that went:

Be kind to your webfooted friends/ for a duck might be somebody’s mother.

cardinal pairThere are no ducks on my property but I have plenty of other feathered friends that have become mothers and fathers. So I’ve been busy feeding the cardinals, titmice, black-capped chickadees, house finches, juncos, white-throated sparrows, house sparrows, white-breasted nuthatches, mourning doves, several varieties of woodpeckers and occasional Carolina wren.

In the days before this snowstorm, when severe cold gripped the region and my husband (MH) was glued to the Weather Channel for the storm’s track, the birds were in a feeding frenzy. I was agitated, too. After starting the season with one feeder filled with sunflower seed, I’ve bumped that number to three with seed plus a suet feeder. Somehow it still doesn’t seem like enough. The closer we got to the storm, the more birds came. I’ve been making a lot of trips outside to refill feeders. It is a small price to pay.

I know people with many more feeders than I have, but even one feeder will help the bird population at times like these when the temperature plummets and the snows come deep.

The key, of course, is to keep that feeder filled. An empty feeder becomes just another lawn ornament.

One of my first posts for this blog was on the importance of keeping feeders filled. I noted that “you’d be surprised how many people put out a feeder and then don’t bother to refill it when it is empty.” That hasn’t changed in two years. I always know when my next-door neighbor’s feeder is empty by how many more birds suddenly appear at my feeders.

feedersThere are many feeders at Scherman Hoffman and people are good about keeping them filled. Sometimes those filled feeders bring unusual birds such as fox sparrows. Sometimes they bring birds that even the experts can’t identify.

At this time of year, when the southbound migration is finished, the hawk watches have closed and the lakes and ponds are frozen, watching the birds at the feeders is as good as it gets. The birds come to you – no slogging through muddy fields swatting away mosquitoes or shivering in snow-covered boots. At my kitchen window the visibility is pretty good and the crowd is down to me, myself and I, with an occasional visit from MH.

The same is true at Scherman Hoffman, where you can stand in the store, warm up from parking outside and watch the birds at the feeders through the window while you are putting in your order for the sunflower seed and suet you’ll need for your own feeders. Scherman Hoffman is where I get my seed, in 50-pound bags if possible, which I think provide more bang for the buck. I also stock up on blocks of plain suet for the downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers that like rendered fat.dee

Even if you’re not going for 50 pounds, Scherman Hoffman, like the other NJ Audubon centers, makes it very easy to stock up on what the birds need. Members even get a discount on sunflower seed during the first weekend of each month.

Birds have a hard enough life during the summer when food is plentiful -- dodging predators and the changes to their habitat and environment created by the ignorance, malice or plain old stupidity of mankind.

Add intense cold and a thick blanket of snow and a bird’s life becomes that much harder. When I watch a chickadee in one of my bushes puff itself up to keep warm or fly from branch to branch in the trees looking for what it can dislodge from a crevice, I am glad to have a feeder of sunflower seeds to help keep it going into the breeding season, where it will find a mate and make more chickadees.

Do your part. Feed the birds.

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