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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.

What’s Going On Here?

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?   pinkfootcloseup

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.)

RH woodpeckerIn 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.

Birding vs. Bird Watching

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.”

Pete in his element 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.

dawn flight

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.

yellow warbler

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.

Margo - dawn in Cape May

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.

The Tools of Ignorance

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.  045

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.)

 052However, 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.

 Birder at work

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