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The Grail Bird (2-25-2012)

If you’re a birder, you always want to see what you’ve never seen before. Some people go to great lengths for a glimpse of a rarity. Some find these birds without even trying.

Scherman Hoffman had an unusual one the other week – a red-headed woodpecker at its feeders.

028 You may think you’ve seen one, but likely you haven’t, at least not in this part of New Jersey. The more commonly seen red-bellied woodpecker (shown here) has red going along only the back of its head. It is named for the pinkish area on its belly. Despite what you may see, it’s not a red-headed woodpecker.

Neither is the pileated woodpecker (shown below), which is crow-sized and has a red crest above a black and white head and a solid black back.

The red-headed woodpecker has an entirely red head, a snowy white breast and belly, and back and wings that are solid black over solid white.

It does not usually come to feeders. When I’ve seen them they’ve been in the Great Swamp in Morris County, not very far from Bernardsville, where Scherman Hoffman is located. Recently, several were seen in Lord Stirling Park. Every year at least one juvenile is reported in New York’s Central Park. I was surprised to find one along Patriot’s Path, not far from my house as the woodpecker flies.

My husband has never seen a red-headed woodpecker, although he isn’t particularly upset about this. He enjoys birding but is more laid back about it than I am. Years ago, when I heard an adult red-headed woodpecker was hanging around in a tree along the driveway to the old visitor center in the Swamp (now a parking lot) and practically begging people to photograph it, I HAD to go. It would be too easy and I could see something I’d never seen before.

pileated I almost missed this striking bird but for the kindness of another birder who pointed out the proper tree. It was very much worth seeing and I regret having no camera with me (even on my phone of the time).

MH has never seen one despite my many attempts to find one for him – for his own good, of course. When I heard of the one at the Scherman feeders – the FEEDERS, right out front – I had to drag MH over to see it.

We struck out.

We were heading up the driveway when we stopped because a small group was canning the distant trees. “It’s in there,” one said. A cold and windy day, I knew MH wasn’t particularly happy to be there, because I wasn’t happy either. But I was hoping, and when I saw a large woodpecker on a tree I pointed it out to MH.

It quickly disappeared but I realized the back was solid black, not black and white. When the pileated started calling my guess was confirmed. (Red-headeds make a call that sounds like “Queer!”)

Was there also a red-headed woodpecker out there or had the others misidentified the pileated? I’ll never know. It wasn’t at the feeders that day and it hasn’t been reported since.

My husband likes to call these wild bird chases my hunt for the Grail Bird, after the book written a few years ago about the search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, thought extinct but supposedly found in an Arkansas swamp. I have other grail birds, some of which are birds that are reliably reported every year during migration by other birders. The Wilson’s warbler, for instance. I’ve yet to get a clear view of one, preferably an easy-to-identify adult male, in all the times I’ve sought it.

On a trip to Florida a few years ago, despite seeing a host of new (to me) birds including an anhinga, two types of kites, a wood stork, limpkin, plus prothonotary warblers everywhere, I was upset at not finding a yellow-throated warbler (not to be confused with the common yellowthroat, which lives up to its name and even I can find). This is a southern bird that has been reported in the New York metro area with increasing regularity. I thought I had seen the one reported in central Jersey a few years ago but with the setting sun in my eyes – a common problem when I am looking for warblers – I can’t be sure. I figured finding it in Florida was a gimme. Wrong.

feeders

Perhaps it’s better to keep looking. It keeps me outside and looking around instead of indoors. I know there is a fine line between the urge to explore and expand my horizons and an obsession, and I walk it every day as I’m scanning the trees and ponds, wondering what I’ll see next.

Any bird is a good bird if you’ve never seen one before. If you just want to get out of the house and see birds, Scherman Hoffman is a great place to do it. There are bird walks every Friday and Saturday mornings at 8 am, which despite the early hour can draw big crowds of eager birders when the migrants are passing through.

And there are always the feeders drawing birds you can watch from inside the store. Who knows, maybe I’ll find that Wilson’s warbler there this spring.

By Margo D. Beller

As Margo mentioned, join us for a morning bird walk any Friday or Saturday morning at 8am. Meet at the new Hoffman lot (closest to the new store) and bring your binoculars! (But don't worry--a binocular can be loaned to you if you need one).

Birding With Disabilities (2/14/2012)

One takes so much for granted in this world. Walking, for example.

Towards the end of his life my father couldn’t get around very well because of Parkinson’s disease. He walked unsteadily but would use a wheelchair for longer distances or attending a family function. One day when I was visiting I decided I would wheel him over to the waterfront four long blocks away, to get him out of the house.

It was an eye-opener for me. The sidewalk cracks and ruts I could cross with nary a thought would get the wheels of the chair stuck, forcing me to strain to push the chair out and jostling him around in the process. Curbs - few were adjusted for wheelchairs as they are now - were another hurdle to be carefully surmounted.

SH path He never complained - we eventually did get to the bay and later I rolled him back home in the street, which was more dangerous but smoother - but I know he would’ve preferred being driven.

I thought of my father recently when one of my friends happened to mention going up to Scherman Hoffman to get something from the store - seed, a feeder, I can’t remember - and had taken her uncle. He is another man who doesn’t go very far on foot (although he doesn’t have Parkinson’s) and so uses a wheelchair. My friend wanted to get him out of the house and away from the television.  While she was inside shopping, she said, her uncle had stayed in the car.

If you enjoy birding or even just taking a long walk, anything that limits your independence can be terrible, and having a disability can be the worst thing to happen. But it can also be a challenge to spur you to overcome it - if you want to do so.

At Scherman Hoffman the handicapped have their own entrance to the education center, from the upper lot to the second floor. From there they go to a classroom or can take an elevator down to the store or up to the outside platform. My friend’s uncle could’ve gotten out of the car and gone, slowly, into the building but felt safer in the car.

I contrast him with a woman I’ve met in my birding travels who also can’t get around very well but has a completely different attitude - she birds from her car. She drives to an area and just sits with her binoculars and waits for the birds to come, sometimes for hours at a time. She told me she has seen quite a lot that way, and she is happy with that because otherwise she would not be able to go birding.

Considering the hills of Bernardsville where it is located, going down from the Scherman education center and into the woods is difficult for those who need wheels or are unsteady on their feet, although plenty of older, steadier people enjoy walking on the sanctuary’s trails. There are no boardwalked trails as can be found in state or federal nature areas such as the Great Swamp or Cape May State Park.

As those of us of the Baby Boom generation get older, we don’t want to be kept captive by our disabilities. If you go to a search engine such as Google and type in “birding tours for the handicapped”  you will find a host of websites providing tours for those in wheelchairs, the disabled or the elderly. There is even a group, “Birding for All,” with chapters in the UK and the US, that seeks to “improve access for people with disabilities to reserves, facilities and services for birding.”

This is a wonderful thing. Since we can’t make ourselves younger (at least physically; mentally is another thing), if you can’t take yourself out to the woods for a quiet stroll the next best thing, I think, is to go on a tour with others like you who have good (birding) and bad (the pain, etc.) in common and are equally focused on retaining their independence.

It is a scary thing to feel your mortality. There are times when images through my binoculars look fuzzy, even when the binoculars are in focus. There are times when I take a long walk and soon feel tired, although I usually get my second wind when something flies over. Still, I’d rather be tired on my feet walking a trail than stuck sitting inside.

Would my father have grown to share my interest in birds had I known more at the time and driven him to a suitably birdy location?  I’d like to think he’d have at least tried to learn something, as I did when I pushed his wheelchair so long ago.

Margo D. Beller