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.
But 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.
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.
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.
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.
Another 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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.
There 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.
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.
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.