By Margo D. Beller
“The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast. No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.” -- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac 1949
The sun goes down as a warm early-April Sunday that begins to chill thanks to a clear sky. We're on a damp path near a small pond - Esox Pond, to be exact, in Somerset County's 950-acre Lord Sterling Park - looking at a brushy field and waiting for an American Woodcock to start its mating call.
From late February to about May, these plump, Robin-sized, land-based shorebirds, whose brown, mottled covering helps them blend well in cover, do something very unusual as they attempt to perpetuate the species.
To eat they probe for earthworms with their long bills in brushy fields, near wetlands, which is why Lord Sterling naturalist Ben Barkley and Mike Anderson, director of New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary, have led a dozen of us to this spot, where Barkley knows some males like to congregate. According to Barkley, there could be as many as 30 Woodcocks at Lord Sterling, while Scherman Hoffman has about a dozen, including two males heard within the last few days from the fields by the Vernal Pool, according to Anderson.
As the sun goes down (see at left) and we wait, we see Great Blue Herons, a Cooper's Hawk and Wood Ducks, among others, fly over as they look for a good place for the night's roost. Robins are calling. As the darkness spreads, male frogs - Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers, at this time of year - begin a loud, continuous chorus as they try to attract mates.
In the middle of this cacophony, at around 7:30 p.m., we hear the first nasal peent of the Woodcock. We have been led here earlier to get the birds used to our presence, ahead of the hoped-for show.
One peent leads to another and then six more before there is silence. No one makes a sound as the sky gets darker. Then the peents begin again, this time from another direction. And then another. Soon there are four or five male Woodcocks calling.
But that is not what we are there to see.
When I have seen an American Woodcock, it is usually when it is almost literally underfoot. Because they blend into the leaf litter so well, you frequently don't see one until it flies up at your approach - as one did a few years ago near the entrance to the Scherman Hoffman yellow trail along the Passaic - or scurries away, its crunching of the underbrush the only way I could find it.
Sometimes these nocturnal birds will be along roadsides, which is how Mike Anderson got his picture (see below) of one near New Jersey’s Sparta Mountain a few years ago. I've never been able to photograph Scolopax minor, even on the very early morning a few springs ago when a Woodcock was peenting from the roof of my house!
At dawn or dusk during breeding season, the Woodcock shows why it got its other name of Timberdoodle.
Imagine a 9-inch elephant (as seen sitting from the back) sprouting small wings, taking a giant leap into the sky - 200 to 300 feet - and then coming back to earth in a zig-zag pattern while its three outer primary feathers make a twittering sound as it lands on or near its jumping-off point.
"There it goes," said Anderson. While I didn't hear the sound of the wings I did see the bird - once I realized it was not a particularly large bat flying where the little bit of remaining light allowed me to see it.
As with the calling, once one started flying, so did other males. One female flew in low to investigate. Once she and a male mates, she will build a nest on the ground and lay three to five eggs. She will sit on the nest for three weeks. The hatched young will leave the nest after two weeks.
According to Barkley, Woodcocks are considered a "resident" species in New Jersey, although individuals do migrate.
Woodcock is not an endangered bird but its life is not easy. According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, the Woodcock can be hunted during migratory duck season in Autumn. The state lumps Woodcock in with Rails, Snipes, Coots and Moorhens in its rules of what licensing is required.
According to Mike Anderson, overhunting is just one reason for the decline in the Woodcock population. Another is disappearing habitat. There are fewer brushy fields, and those that were around 40 years ago are becoming wooded areas that, in turn, are cut down for housing developments.
Places like Scherman Hoffman, Lord Sterling and the nearby federal Great Swamp, as well as other parts of the National Wildlife Refuge system, are managed to help the Woodcock population, Anderson said.
Meanwhile, in the darkness there are male Woodcocks flying around everywhere. One takes off in front of us and I follow it with binoculars as it rockets into the dim light and disappears, only to suddenly swoop down and buzz us about 10 feet away as it lands. Barkley puts on his flashlight and there he sits, the star of the show, the Timberdoodle, still as a statue, waiting for the light to be turned off.
But we don't want it off. We want to look at the mottling of its back and take a picture of this strange creature few of us see. Several of us grab our phones but we're too late and it silently takes off for the brush.
"Can't do much better than that," Barkley said. And so we leave to a mounting chorus of Woodcock, Wood Frog and Peepers calling in the cold darkness of a not-so-silent night.
By Margo D. Beller
Why are we so fascinated by owls?
Is it because some of them are very small and, with their round heads and big yellow eyes, look cute and cuddly?
Is it because we remember the Disney cartoon "The Sword in the Stone" where Merlin turns himself into a "wise, old owl" -- a Great Horned Owl -- to instruct the young, soon to be king Arthur?
Or perhaps we think of Hedwig, the Snowy Owl Harry Potter receives when he arrives at Hogwarts.
Or, maybe we are fascinated that these are birds of the darkness, which attracts and frightens us . After all, our human eyes lack the many additional rods owls have to see in the darkness and the asymmetrical hearing they use to hunt (depending on the species) mice, insects, rabbits, even other owls. (Great Horned Owls hunt Skunks because the owls have no sense of smell.) There are many superstitions about owls, according to "Owls: A Wildlife Handbook" by Kim Long. For instance, the hooting of an owl is seen as a sign of impending death in some cultures.
There are 286 different types of owls around the world, from Iceland to the Falklands and across northern Europe and Russia down to Africa, but in the 950 acres that comprise the Somerset County (N.J.) Park Commission's Lord Sterling Park, which is adjacent to the federally run and much larger Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the most commonly seen owls are Great Horned (GHO), Barred and Eastern Screech owls.
And that was why 30 or so owl enthusiasts were standing in the dark, shivering on a subfreezing night, under a nearly full moon, listening to park naturalist Ben Barkley or Mike Anderson, director of the New Jersey Audubon Scherman Hoffman sanctuary (also located in Somerset County), try to fool a Screech Owl (see above) into calling to us by imitating it. We were a split squad and I was part of the 15 or so in Barkley's contingent.
"Why are we fascinated by owls? The darkness, and the cuteness factor," Anderson said before we headed out. An owl is cute, "unless you mess with it."
As he prepares us inside for the Owl Prowl outside, Barkley's enthusiasm is infectious. When he was a high school junior, in 2010, he and Mike Anderson identified raptors during the Scherman Hoffman hawk watch on the platform of its education center. Less than a year on this job now, he can watch and listen for birds as he walks to work. "I am very lucky," he told me. (Yes.)
Before leading us into the dark he tested our owl knowledge. Who knew the 25-inch GHO (one is pictured at left) is only 6 pounds? He showed amazing video of a Serbian Long-Earred Owl (LEO) roost where at dusk 140 birds flew out of one tree. He amused many in the crowd by showing how "cute" some owls -- such as the 11-inch Burrowing Owl and the 6-inch Elf Owl -- can be.
Don't be fooled, however. Just like the Turkey Vulture and the Redtailed Hawk that hunt by day, owls are raptors. They have sharp claws for killing and sharp bills. They will eat prey whole and then regurgitate the inedible parts in a hard pellet. Some owls hunt by day -- Snowy, Northern Hawk and Great Grey owls are birds of the northern tundra where they can hunt in many hours of daylight in summer. In winter, if food supplies are scarce, they will frequently fly south in what is known as an irruption. Many "night owls" hunt at dawn and at dusk, such as the Barn and Short-Earred owls.
But they are, in the main, creatures of the darkness, emitting eerie sounds ranging from the "Hoo-Hoo-Hoo" of the GHO to the weird barks and "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?" call of the Barred to the hissing of the ghostly white Barn to the whinnying and one-note tremolo of the 8-inch-long Eastern Screech Owl.
It was the Screech Owl Ben was trying to fool into calling, a process known as "pishing." But no owl was responding. Either it could see we were a group of humans (very possible with all those rods in its eyes) or the cold wind kept it at bay.
The West Observation Blind loomed over us. A pair of Canada Geese voiced their displeasure at our presence from nearby Branta Pond. Trails I've walked many times now looked ominous. Owls are very good at hiding themselves when they roost by day. They are even better hiding in plain sight at night. I had been lucky that a GHO, no doubt hunting to feed young at this time of year (mid-March), had flown over the road ahead of us as we'd driven to the Lord Sterling.
Despite the cold we had had fun learning about owls and had the thrill of walking after dark in an area that would normally be off-limits.
But you don't have to go to Lord Sterling or Great Swamp to find owls, such as the barred owl Mike Newton photographed at Lord Sterling above. They are in my backyard. I've seen and heard them many times when I've least expected it. You can, too.
By Margo D. Beller
One inch of rain pouring off the average suburban house roof -- 800 square feet -- means approximately 600 gallons of water, according to a fact sheet from the Rutgers University NJ Agricultural Experiment Station in New Brunswick. That's enough water for your garden and your lawn twice over.
Wasting water leads to drought restrictions, usually during the hottest part of summer. So this year, instead of over-using the sprinkler or hose, why not consider a way of collecting at least some of that runoff each time it rains -- a rain barrel.
New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary held its third annual program on how to build your own rain barrel, and it is easy to see why this is a popular program.
Not only did those attending learn something about making their gardens more sustainable while saving water, but they were able to use shop skills many might not have realized they had to create a 55-gallon blue plastic rain barrel (donated by Ocean Spray) at a fraction of the cost of what you'll find at your local Do-It-Yourself store..
Alexandra Cavagrotti, Americorp Watershed Ambassador for the region encompassing the Passaic, Rockaway and Whippany rivers in northern New Jersey, said most homes shed water through gutters and leaders down nonporous surfaces such as driveways, where the water picks up lawn chemicals, car substances and other pollutants and runs into street drains and thus down to streams, rivers and, ultimately, the ocean.
Rain barrels are a good way of cutting down on some that polluted, wasted water, said Cavagrotti (seen at right).
Sherman Hoffman program director Stephanie Punnett said the sanctuary has two rain barrels.. "When you have 275 acres, water is problematic," she said. The rain barrels "have been a great help with our native planting" program, that includes removal of invasive, non-native plants throughout the sanctuary.
Plus, rain barrels are fun to make.
Certainly the people making their own were enthusiastically having fun using a drill to create a hole for a faucet and one for draining overflow, then caulking the faucet and putting mesh over the donated screen to keep mosquitoes out (standing water is prime mosquito breeding territory in summer).
One woman, who happened to be Cavagrotti's mother, was wielding the drill like a pro, with the barrel steadied by her husband (as you can see here).
"I've built whole houses," she told me when I asked if this was her first rain barrel. I can believe it.
"You get such a feeling of satisfaction" from wielding a drill, said another woman. (Having used a drill I know the feeling.)
For those not power tool-inclined, Cavagrotti and several other Ambassadors helped drill the holes. Americorp is a public service program supported by the U.S. federal government, foundations, corporations and other donors. These Ambassadors teach the importance of water to schools and at programs such as Scherman Hoffman's.
When they finished, everyone put their barrels into their pickups, SUVs or sedans (with a little shifting around of seating), to take them home and position them under a downspout (or not -- Scherman Hoffman's barrels are not connected to the roof, said Punnett, because all of the Hoffman Center’s downspouts are connected directly to a groundwater recharge system. The rain barrels are connected to two other buildings on the property.). The more creative can even decorate their barrels for use this summer.
And that's one thing to keep in mind if you want to buy or build your own rain barrel.
Once it's November, no matter how unusually mild the weather, unhook your rain barrel, use up the remaining water, clean the barrel out and store it inside. You don't want a barrel full of ice that might expand and damage your handiwork. According to Cavagrotti, it's best to use your rain barrel from April through October.
Also, while rain water off a roof is all-natural it may not be all-edible. Some roofs are treated with chemicals to keep mold and moss off. Birds and squirrels have been known to leave their mess on roofs.
So while the water flowing from roof to rain barrel may be fine for your lawn or your flowers or even washing your car, don't put it on your vegetable garden or in your pet's water dish or into a bird bath.
You can get more information on rain barrels and wise water use from a number of online sources including the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program at www.water.rutgers.edu.
If you don't want to buy or build a rain barrel, there are other ways of using water wisely in your garden this summer.
Use soaker hoses (available at most garden supply stores) that provide an even, small drip to the roots of plants. Install native plants that are accustomed to your area and can survive dry conditions. (Every year, in early June, Scherman Hoffman has a native plant sale.) Plant more trees -- they will not only provide shade from summer heat but they will suck up rain water that would otherwise go down the sewer drain.
Or create a "rain garden," using trees and native plants, that features a depression in the ground for pooling water. There are many websites on how to design a rain garden including that of the Rain Garden Alliance at http://raingardenalliance.org/planting.
Call me Crazy, but when the damp, drizzly November in my soul becomes a hard, frozen December, I account it high time to go birding as soon as I can, even if that means watching what comes to my feeders.
Not all migrants leave New Jersey when the days shorten and cool.
Believe it or not, New Jersey's cold and snowy winter climate suits some birds just fine, compared with their usual home in the far north at this time of year.
Just look what comes to your feeders -- or come to Scherman Hoffman and look what comes to its many feeders.
One of the most common of the wintering birds in New Jersey is the White-throated Sparrow, such as the one I photographed here at Scherman Hoffman. Look at one and you can see where it gets its name. More often than not you will find them under your feeders, picking at the partial seeds dropped by other birds.
Another common visitor you'll see in or under your feeder is a cousin of the sparrow, the Dark-eyed Junco. In New Jersey you see the males, which are dark gray or, if a juvenile, a grayish brown. (The females, which are brown, winter farther south.)
Golden-crowned Kinglets, flitting around trees a mile a minute, gleaning infinitesimal insects, are another winter visitor I have seen while walking the Scherman Hoffman trails during the Saturday morning hikes. Larger, red Fox Sparrows are always a fine thing to see when they fly out of a bush to a branch and allow you a look. The same with the smaller American Tree Sparrow with its bi-colored bill. Both are regular visitors to New Jersey in winter.
There are also uncommon winter visitors. When a lot of these birds show up, you have what is known as an irruption. These birds include Red-breasted Nuthatch (smaller than the White-breasted Nuthatch more commonly seen), Purple Finches, Red and White-winged Crossbills and Pine Grosbeaks (which look like House Finches on steroids). I have seen Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Scherman pine trees and Purple Finches in the trees and on the feeders.
There is also the Pine Siskin, shown mobbing a Scherman Hoffman feeder below. It is a small bird with a needle-like bill that you could mistake for a winter-colored American Goldfinch except it is heavily striped. The male has a yellow wing bar. These birds will show up in large groups, eat and then disappear. I have seen them at Scherman Hoffman, in parks and at my feeders in winter. Also, there's the Bohemian Waxwing, larger than the more common Cedar Waxwing and with subtle differences in color.
Several types of raptors also come south -- Rough-legged Hawks and Snowy Owls. Both hunt by day and both like the areas that remind them of the boreal tundra such as beaches, farm fields and airports. Once in a long while there is a sighting of the largest of the owls, a Great Gray Owl, another diurnal hunter that prefers tundra-like territory.
All these birds come south for the same reason -- food. If the Snowy Owl, for instance, can't find its usual meal of lemmings because that population has crashed, the owl has to fly farther afield.
For the Purple Finch or the crossbills the issue is whether it can find the seeds it needs to survive. That is why Purple Finches, along with Goldfinches and House Finches, will come to feeders such as Scherman Hoffman's. Every year a winter finch forecast is published, which I find helpful in knowing what might show up.
So when you put out your feeder you can find common and uncommon winter visitors. But you can also find the birds that come to your feeder every day. Somehow winter gives them a special glow. Perhaps it is the leaves being off the tree. I see a male Cardinal in a bush and he seems redder. I see a Tufted Titmouse on the feeder and the gray of his back and the reddish bits under his wings seem a richer color.
Even the noisy Blue Jay attacking the feeder and making it swing around seems to be a more vibrant shade of blue.
So when December turns gray and snowy, remember to get your birdseed -- Scherman Hoffman's store is a good source -- put out your feeders and keep your eyes open for common, uncommon and all-welcomed visitors.
By Margo D. Beller @MargoDBeller
I enjoy finding birds but sometimes birds find me.
This is hawk-watching season, when the southbound raptors head for their wintering grounds. Many fine hawk watches are to be found in New Jersey or along any ridge line. One of the more famous ones is Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania.
But there are hawk watches far easier to access than others such as the Observation Deck on the top floor of Scherman Hoffman’s education center. From there it is easy to see Osprey, Eagles, various buteos and accipiters as well as falcons and other birds including warblers. Even Pete Dunne has watched hawks from there.
My front lawn is not a hawk watch but it recently became an observation deck of sorts.
About 7:30 on a foggy morning I found this juvenile Red-tailed Hawk on my front lawn. We studied each other carefully. I walked a few steps towards it to see if it would rise and leave. Red-tails should not be sitting on the lawn. Perhaps it was having a meal? No, it stayed put and I noticed one of its legs was out in front of it.
Interesting problem. I know better than to get any closer to a wild bird with sharp talons and a beak that can pierce skin.
So I went inside to make breakfast. I looked out every so often to check on the bird. At one point a woman stopped to take a picture and I walked outside to reassure her something would be done for it. I came back inside and called The Raptor Trust. The office is not open until 9 a.m., although I learned from the website I could bring the bird down at any time and put it in a heated carrier outside the office until someone arrives.
The Raptor Trust is a wonderful organization but, like New Jersey Audubon, it is a private group that depends on donations to keep running, so its office hours (9am to 4pm) are limited.
I know from the Trust’s website there is a correct way to handle an injured bird, but the bird shown as an illustration is a much smaller creature than a Red-tailed Hawk, which can weigh several pounds and has a 52-inch wingspan. And, of course, there are those long, sharp talons and that bill.
So I wasn’t going to handle this hawk. Not knowing what else to do I called the local police, who contacted Animal Control and sent out a detective to survey the scene, making sure none of our neighbors (or their dogs) bothered the bird. But we learned our town does not have its own Animal Control department. It contracts with a private company in Bedminister, N.J., and it was going to be 30 minutes or so until someone arrived.
How did this hawk get injured? We wondered. The problem seemed to be with its wing. It could flap and stand up but it could not fly. Did it bang into the side of a tree or the house? Was it chasing a meal and got clipped by a speeding car? To me there is nothing sadder than seeing a dead Red-tail at the side of the road. Was it attacked by something larger?
There are so many hazards in a bird’s life, natural and man-made, including being eaten by larger birds. We’ll never know what brought it to my lawn.
Once the detective drove off, it was up to my husband and me to watch the hawk like, well, a hawk. It was a beautiful bird, its distinctive back pattern, its brownish-red tail (which is why I knew it to be a juvenile), its long talons for gripping and killing. Big eyes watching. Good hearing, too - when a murder of American Crows started calling from nearby the Red-tail got extremely agitated. Crows are notorious for mobbing raptors such as Red-tails to drive them away from family groups.
The hawk got up and started flapping its large, brown wings and we thought it was about to take off. But it only could hop off the now-sunny lawn and into the shade of the front walk, up against my deer netting. It flopped down and sat quietly. The Crows soon stopped cawing.
It was in this position when Connie, the Animal Control person, showed up. She approached the hawk, let it study her, let it watch as she folded a fitted sheet in such a way as to drop it on the bird and scoop it up. Her first attempt failed as the Red-tail tried to get farther away. But the second time she got it covered and tucked in, whereupon it calmed down. She carried it to her van and put it in a large cage where it would be comfortable in its sheet but wouldn’t be able to flap around so much it would further injure its wings.
Two hours after I found it, Connie was taking the Red-tail down to the Raptor Trust in Millington.
Nature is not kind. Injured animals die in the wild daily, killed by two- and four-footed (sometimes wheeled) predators. This bird was lucky, and not just because it showed up on my lawn or that I found it or that my husband and I work from home and so could attend to it.
It was lucky because once it was found, it was protected and then sent to a place where, I hope, it can be rehabilitated and sent back into the wild, perhaps to fly past Scherman Hoffman’s Observation Deck some future Autumn.
What should you do if YOU find a large, injured bird?
First, leave it alone. It might not be injured and it might fly off under its own power.
But if it is injured, getting too close to it or trying to pick it up with your bare hands will only add to its stress and could cause further injury -- especially to you. It is better to leave it to the professionals. If you don’t have an organization such as the Raptor Trust near you, call your local police. Most likely your town will have an arrangement with a company for animal control.
The Raptor Trust website has a section on the handling of all sizes of injured birds and how to get birds to its facility. Read it and familiarize yourself with what to do.
By Margo D. Beller @MargoDBeller
One of the nice things, among many, that makes it enjoyable to visit the Scherman Hoffman store - besides all the books, seed and feeders available for purchase - is looking out the window at the feeders. In winter the many types of thistle, sunflower seed and suet feeders draw an assortment of birds that depend on this bounty to survive the winter.
However, my favorite feeder is the one that comes out at the end of spring into early summer: the red-topped hummingbird feeder.
The feeder hangs where you can see it because that allows you to see the ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit for the “nectar” of sugar water. Of the world’s many types of hummingbirds, only the ruby-throated visits eastern U.S. feeders such as Scherman’s every year.
The ruby throat belongs to the male. His bright green back and wings contrast with the red throat (in some light it looks black) and the white belly. John J. Audubon called the ruby-throated hummingbird the “glittering fragment of the rainbow,” and it’s easy to understand why.
I hang a hummingbird feeder, too. I always envy Scherman Hoffman because the feeder there, at the top of the hilled driveway, seems to draw hummingbirds of both sexes sooner than my house down on the plain. I don’t see males at my feeders often, and when I do it is usually early in June when they are more interested in my flowers than my feeder.
More commonly, when I do see hummingbirds at my feeder, they are females. Females don’t have the ruby throat. Like other female birds, they are duller in color to better blend into the foliage when they are sitting on their nests. The females I see suddenly appear in earnest in mid-June into July.
When it comes to the nests, the females do all the work. Pairs are together only long enough for courtship and mating. Then the male flies off. Males tend to migrate south for the winter earlier than the females and juveniles, usually in late July or early August.
So that leaves the females to build a nest. As seen in Mike Anderson’s photo here, the nest is a small cup of moss tied together by spider webs or lichen secured to a tree branch. Here she will lay her eggs and then have to feed herself while incubating and, later, feeding the young.
So when a single parent female is looking for a food source, it’s nice to have a feeder hanging out there. Having plants she would like nearby, in my case the tiny pink trumpets of a coral bell, doesn’t hurt either. Other flowers a hummingbird favors include trumpet vine, bee balm, columbine, delphinium, butterfly bush, rose of Sharon and hollyhock. Later in the summer, juveniles will start coming to the feeder, too.
As I see it, the problem in parts of New Jersey is hungry deer. Most people don’t want to go to the time and trouble of growing flowers – including the ones where hummingbirds would feed - and protecting them from deer. These homeowners find it easier to allow their landscapers to fill the yard with the usual dull shrubs that don’t flower. It’s easier to put in another ilex if there’s deer damage. That’s a shame because hummingbirds like many of the native flowering plants, which are usually hardier, not liked as much by deer, and can take hot, dry, New Jersey summers.
Hummingbirds can survive without flowers. They catch insects out of the air or pull them out of spider webs. They’ll rid your yard of mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, small bees and even spiders. One particularly nice habit of theirs is picking aphids from leaves.
But even those yards with the dullest of plants will often have a hummingbird feeder hanging in front or back. Ruby-throats are fun to watch when they come feed, beating their wings at 50 or more times a second and looking more like an insect than a bird. (Here’s a fun fact: Hummingbirds are the only type of bird that can fly backwards.)
Feeding a hummingbird is simple: You buy a feeder, which will likely be red, the color that attracts the birds. Hummers don’t need special food – just boil one part sugar to four parts water. So is you use a cup of water, you use a quarter-cup of sugar. If you use two cups of water, you use a half-cup of sugar, and so on.
When the sugar has dissolved, let the liquid cool. Make sure the feeder is clean. Pour the cooled liquid in and hang the feeder on a pole or tree, preferably where you can see it. If the feeder is hanging in the sun, or if it has been very hot weather, make sure to change the liquid after three days.
Hanging a feeder doesn’t take much work, it helps a lovely species of bird and it allows you and your kids to do something that brings a bit of nature to your yard.
By Margo D. Beller
It's February, and that means snow lies heavy throughout New Jersey. At Scherman Hoffman’s Field Loop Extension trail, it covers the path and the roots of the grasses like a thick blanket. (The picture below is of another part of Scherman Hoffman, taken a few years ago.)
It's too early to expect the three-petaled flowers of April-blooming White Trillium, much less the later May-Apple, Jack-In-The-Pulpit or the Bunchberry.
No, for now about the best we can expect is the skunk cabbage (pictured below). This is the perennial leafy plant you see along stream banks and in boggy areas of the woods. It is the first plant to start growing, in March, helped in large part by its unusual internal chemistry that heats the ground around it and melts the snow.
Now you don't see it, now you do - in droves.
It's a good plant for holding soil that would otherwise erode because of the water flow, and it has even become a popular ornamental garden plant despite the odor that gives it its name. The plant is poisonous to mammals, including us, so planting it in gardens near other plants you want to protect is helpful. Its tiny flowers attracts bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects.
The cabbage is a welcome sight when you are tired of snow and white and desperate to see anything growing. It signals we got through another winter.
There are other signs in this dead season that life is waiting to burst upon the scene.
My houseplants have started to flower because of the slowly lengthening days. Daffodils and other early-blooming plants I planted in the garden had poked their noses above the ground during the unusual – for that time of year – warmth of December and January. Then came the blizzard at the end of January, putting the plants under several feet of snow.
The blanket slowly melted over the next few days as above-normal temperatures returned; then came the heavy rain that dumped more than an inch of water and washed most of the rest of the snow away. When my plants reappeared, they seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. But these, too, are perennials and so will come back with the lengthening days and the warming temperatures.
Meanwhile, I've noticed the birds are in a state of anticipation. In my yard I’ve heard cardinal, titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch and house finch singing their spring territorial songs. At Scherman Hoffman, sanctuary director Mike Anderson recently reported hearing a singing hermit thrush. “I’ve never heard them sing here in winter,” he said of the one type of thrush – aside from its cousins the robin and mockingbird – that doesn’t migrate south for the winter from New Jersey.
At my feeders, and at Scherman Hoffman's too, the usually skittish cardinals have been muscling aside the smaller, more numerous house sparrows, juncos and house finches to get at the sunflower seed they need to survive the winter cold.
One recent dawn, a male cardinal sat on one side of my feeder, a female at the other. My suspicion that this was a mated pair was confirmed when a second male flew in and dislodged the female, only to be chased off by the first male.
The birds are singing territorial songs because they are preparing to start their broods. It is only a matter of time before the days are long enough and the temperatures warm enough for them to act.
Some birds are already sitting on eggs. The great horned owl hoots its territorial call in the dead of winter. The barred owls call “Who cooks for YOU? Who cooks for YOU-all?” Both these large birds need more time for their eggs to incubate, which is why the females are already sitting on eggs by February. It's no coincidence that these owlets hatch after squirrels, mice and other rodents have had their broods, providing plenty of food.
So even though there’s still plenty of snow on the ground I see signs this is only temporary. I await the birds and the flowers, including the skunk cabbage.
By Margo D. Beller
Around 3:30 on the morning of Friday, Aug. 14, one of my friends told me, she was rudely awakened by what she thought was an explosion. In that addled state between waking and sleeping, she thought it was construction work.
She wasn't alone, according to the reports I read on NJ.com. In fact, it was a 2.5-magnitude earthquake. Luckily, no one reported any damage.
The quake's epicenter, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, was two miles north-northeast of Bernardsville, where my friend lives and where the headquarters of New Jersey Audubon and its Scherman Hoffman sanctuary are located. According to one report I read, the earthquake was "centered two miles underground about three miles northwest of Olcott Square, near the banks of the Passaic River in the Hardscrabble section near the Scherman-Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary and the Morristown National Historical Park" informally known as Jockey Hollow.
Scherman Hoffman (seen at left) is in Somerset County, across the Passaic River from Morris County. According to local media, the Morris County Office of Emergency Management almost immediately started getting 911 calls from a number of towns, including some very close to mine.
The USGS said it received more than 200 reports from as far southwest as Philadelphia and as far north as Rochester, N.Y.
Who knew Scherman Hoffman could be Ground Zero of an earthquake?
As for me, I slept through it. It was, after all, "only" a minor earthquake.
Earthquakes were not part of my childhood in the east. Nor'easters, yes. Heavy snow, yes. Even the occasional hurricane.
However, I think we're going to hear more about damaging earthquakes in the U.S. thanks, in part, to a burgeoning population that has moved to housing put up on just about any land mass no matter how tiny or ecologically insecure.
One of the worst series of earthquakes to hit the eastern U.S. centered on the New Madrid Fault, named for the epicenter in New Madrid, Mo., between 1811 and 1812. The San Andreas fault, the cause of the San Francisco earthquakes of 1906 and 1989, is better known. It's even been the subject of a 2015 movie.
But the New Madrid, at 7.3 to 7.5 on the Richter scale, was the most devastating earthquake to hit the U.S. for its time.
There are faults and folds all over the U.S. and the world. New Jersey's fault is the Ramapo Fault System. What shook Bernardsville and beyond was described as an "offshoot" of the fault.
The Ramapo Fault is part of a system of faults that runs from southeastern New York to eastern Pennsylvania. According to a 2004 fact sheet I found from Columbia University, these faults were active "during the evolution of the Appalachians, especially in the Mesozoic when they served as border faults to the Newark Basin and other extensional basins formed by the opening of the Atlantic Ocean approximately 200 million years ago."
(If you want to learn more about the Ramapo Fault click here.)
So here we are in the New York City metropolitan area, which is now much more built up than New Madrid was in 1811.
My husband remembers a visit to his parents in N.J., in the late 1980s, when an earthquake struck and he was shaken awake by the sound of thunder with an edge. He called it "thunder on drugs."
I remember an August 2011 earthquake while at work when there was a violent shake and a crash, as though someone on the floor below me had dropped a heavy piece of equipment. This earthquake was centered not far from Washington, D.C., and was so strong it damaged the Washington Monument.
According to NJ.com, there have been a number of "minor" earthquakes in New Jersey since 2010 measuring anywhere from 1.2 to 2.1 on the Richter scale.
Should we be getting used to more frequent rumbling of terra not-so firma? And what will happen when the Big One strikes a major urban population such as New York?
Well, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 gave us a pretty good indication of what happens when a big city is hit by the Big One, and that was a case when reports of Sandy's strengths were known days in advance.
Now imagine a major earthquake, say a 6 ("noteworthy" on the Richter scale) or 7 ("high" - the 1989 San Francisco area quake was a 6.9). Like my friend's rude awakening, there are no warning signs. The earth starts shaking. It could be a tremor or more violent. It could last a few seconds, it could last minutes. There could be a pause and then, when you think it's over, aftershocks (which could come hours later and be worse than the original earthquake).
Your world, literally and figuratively, could come crashing down around you. It could happen at any time.
Scientists recently did tests to see what would happen if the New Madrid fault took place today.
Based on the simulations, were the 1811-1812 earthquakes to take today - and remember, these were over 7 in magnitude - more than 8 million people (emphasis mine) living and working near the New Madrid seismic zone "would experience potentially damaging ground shaking" at intensities ranging from strong to severe, according to the lead author of the paper that appears in the July 30, 2015, edition of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.
This is no movie where the world ends and then the house lights come up. What happened in Bernardsville could be looked at as a coming attraction..
By Margo D. Beller
Every river, even the mighty Mississippi, starts small. Water bubbles to the surface from underground and gravity brings it downhill. As it rains, the waters rise, the flow increases and brooks and streams are created. They feed larger water forms that have become rivers.
Before highways took us from Point A to B, New Jersey and the other original 13 colonies were wooded wilderness. It was hard traveling over the land so people and their goods got from one town to the other via river. If you remove the highways from a map of New Jersey and look at where the state's original towns were located, the importance of rivers becomes more obvious.
For a small state, there are many rivers, among them the Delaware on the state's western coast, the Hudson on the east and, within, the Raritan and the Hackensack.
What these rivers have in common, besides their importance in trade and transportation, is they are natural borders between states and counties.
The border between New Jersey's Morris and Somerset counties is the Passaic River. "Passaic," if you believe Wikipedia, is from the Lenape word "pahsayèk," which has been variously attributed to mean "valley" or "place where the land splits." There are many sources where you can learn more about the river's history, starting with the formation about 11,000 years ago of the Ice Age's Glacial Lake Passaic.
At 80 to 90 miles (depending on which source you use), the Passaic is one of the the longest rivers in New Jersey, starting in Mendham, Morris County, and ending up the much larger river that drops in a giant waterfall at Paterson and flows by Newark before emptying into New York Bay. The Passaic starts its run not far from Hardscrabble Rd., which is why when you head to New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary it isn't easy to see. Unless you know where to look for it, it is obscured by houses on the road or woods.
However, it is very noticeable if you are walking Scherman's yellow-blazed River trail. At this point the Passaic is about the size of a large brook and filled with rocks.
Water draws bugs, and the Passaic is no exception. Birders put up with this because bugs draw the birds that feed on them. The movement of the river draws flycatching phoebes and the Louisiana waterthrush, which have nested at Scherman for years.
I've heard the distinctive rattling of a belted kingfisher flying back and forth along the river looking for fish. The river provides birds and other creatures a place to bathe and feed. Families come to Scherman's part of the Passaic to sit on the shore and cool off during a hot summer day.
The river ecosystem encourages such plants as trout lily, Canada mayflower, cinnamon ferns (pictured) and skunk cabbage, one of the first plants to grow in spring. Rivers are a source of life.
The part of the Passaic at Scherman is clean water. But the part at the Newark end is not and its tortured industrial history reminds us rivers can be killed quickly.
Many of suburban New Jersey's rivers are threatened by too many suburban houses and homeowners who over-treat their lawns with chemicals that not only kill beneficial insects but run off in heavy rains into storm sewers and from there to rivers.
That's nothing compared to the lower Passaic. If the upper Passaic is Dr. Jekyll, the lower Passaic is Mr. Hyde.
It has been a major chemical dumping ground for decades, filled with toxins that have hurt people living downriver. Paterson, for instance, was once known as the Silk City because of its mills. That was a long time ago. More recently it has been a byword for crime, urban decay and, thanks to its many now-closed factories, the creator of the "toilet river" that was the Passaic.
As a 2009 New York Times article put it: "The Passaic begins in the clear trout streams of rural Morris County, provides drinking water to 3.5 million New Jersey residents, reaches a peak at the Great Falls of Paterson and then devolves at the end of 80 increasingly foul and dispiriting miles into a dark, malodorous industrial sink."
Six years later I wouldn't eat any fish caught in Paterson.
If you go to Scherman Hoffman to hike the trails you are what has become known as an ecotourist. It is a big business in some parts of the world. Towns in New Jersey have been catching up to the concept. The people running the cities and towns along the Passaic, whose people got sick from the chemicals in their air and water, have been literally trying to clean up their act, promoting ecotourism opportunities such as fishing, kayaking, and in the case of Paterson visiting the Great Falls, which only recently became a federal park.
Environmental groups have used the river as a teaching aid. The Hackensack Riverkeeper, for instance, within the last few years has run an ecotour that takes people up the urban end of the Passaic. As with their trips up the Hackensack - another river trying to recover from nearly being killed by industrial pollutants dumped into the Meadowlands marshes - the idea is to show the importance of the river and and how fragile the river's health is still.
Things are slowly improving for the lower Passaic, despite the long time it takes to get a polluting company to pay for river cleanup and government inefficiency.
At the upper Passaic, along the Scherman Hoffman River trail, we don't have that problem -- at least not yet. It is easy to forget the clean, Dr. Jekyll, suburban one and the polluted, Mr. Hyde, urban one are the same river. But it is connected. The upper Passaic is healthy because its headwaters are not in an industrial area. But it wouldn't take much - say a farm sold to developers who build a massive condo development in a watershed, as many would like to do in the New Jersey Highlands - to do a lot of harm.
Rivers are fragile and their health shouldn't be taken for granted.
By Margo D. Beller
Scherman Hoffman gets a lot of visitors all seasons of the year. Some want a quiet hike in the woods. Some look for migrant birds in the spring or migrating raptors in the fall. Some come to buy supplies - binoculars, feeders, books or bird food -- from the nature store. Some come for the educational programs Starting last summer, visitors came for the growing sport of geocaching.
Visitors have ranged from the famous to the more humble. But there is one visitor I'm sure Scherman Hoffman and the other New Jersey Audubon centers would rather do without - black bear.
It may not seem like it after such a long spell of cold weather, but winter is over. I've already seen signs of spring in my yard, finally. Crocus and snowdrops are blooming and the daffodils and iris are coming up. I've also seen chipmunks, the bane of my garden because of their digging.
Chipmunks hibernate during the winter and come out when it is warm. So do bears. I put up with little chipmunks, begrudgingly. Bears scare me.
Scherman Hoffman Director Mike Anderson remembers a bear that visited about 10 years ago.
"The bear took down the feeders. After everyone drove up the hill from [New Jersey Audubon headquarters] and got a look we made a lot of noise and it ran off," he said. "That was probably the first sighting in 50 years."
Times have changed. Mike said last summer alone there were nine separate bears seen in the area including a big male, a little male, a sow with two cubs and a sow with three cubs.
When those cubs get bigger they start wandering to find new territories, and that is why bears are now seen in all 21 counties of New Jersey. New Jersey is one of the most built-up states in America, and that means there is a greater chance you are going to come in contact with a bear at some point, if not at a park then in your backyard.
My first close bear encounter came last year when my husband and I were on Old Mine Road in Sussex County to do some birding. We were driving and suddenly there was a bruin (the one pictured) sauntering in the middle of a road where the speed limit is low but most people just blow through. Luckily, we were alone on the road and going slow.
We pulled to the side of the road and parked so my husband could take a picture from the car. He was not going to duplicate the stunt of the guy who so wanted his kid in a picture with a bear that he used a bagel to entice it closer. His kid was mauled.
As we sat in the car the bear casually looked at us, then ambled off the road and up a hill. My first bear, I thought. It was not a complete surprise because Sussex County has been bear country for decades.
This past March 27, the encounter hit home - literally. One of my feeder poles was bent to the ground and a feeder lay there empty and partially damaged. Who would do something like this in the middle of the night? I asked my husband. He knew immediately - a hungry bear just out of hibernation.
Since then I take the feeders inside at night. Mike Anderson says for the last five years Scherman Hoffman has done the same thing - taking them in at night once it starts to warm up. (The feeders are not out at all during summer camp, and I don't have feeders out after Memorial Day.)
I got off easy - it was only a bent feeder pole I can replace. Bears can destroy property, including livestock and small pets in the backyard. Get between a sow and her cubs and you have put yourself into great danger.
One of the most horrifying incidents involving bears in recent years was the killing of a Rutgers University student who was hiking with friends. This attack, the first recorded fatality in the state’s history, brought new calls for a longer bear hunt. New Jersey agreed and has decided to expand the hunt to twice a year.
Like bear, deer were almost hunted to extinction. Then the pendulum swung the other way and the deer population got out of control. Deer destroy forest undergrowth with their browsing, which has a major effect on the rest of the forest population including birds.
A bear is more dangerous. The one I saw on Old Mine Road was several hundred pounds and not intimidated by my car. I wouldn't have wanted to mess with the one that took down my feeder pole either.
You can't hunt bear at Scherman Hoffman -- it's a wildlife sanctuary. But you can be prepared. There are a number of sites where you can find rules for avoiding a bear encounter. These happen to come from the National Parks Conservation Association site:
Keep your distance and allow the bear every opportunity to avoid you.
If the bear continues to approach you, it is most likely trying to identify what you are. Remain calm. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
Identify yourself by talking in a normal voice.
Try to back away slowly at a diagonal angle. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground.
Don't run. Bears can reach speeds of 35 mph, and like dogs they will chase fleeing animals.
If the bear gets too close, wave your arms, raise your voice and be more aggressive. Never make high-pitched squeals or attempt to sound like a bear.
In short, don't be foolish. This is no bedside Teddy.
Beware the bear.