Anything and everything about all manner of bird watching.
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 @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
By the time you read this, the first major snowfall of the 2013 winter season will have blanketed New Jersey, and it isn’t even officially winter yet.
When I was a kid, there was a popular song sung to the melody of a John Phillip Sousa march that went:
Be kind to your webfooted friends/ for a duck might be somebody’s mother.
There are no ducks on my property but I have plenty of other feathered friends that have become mothers and fathers. So I’ve been busy feeding the cardinals, titmice, black-capped chickadees, house finches, juncos, white-throated sparrows, house sparrows, white-breasted nuthatches, mourning doves, several varieties of woodpeckers and occasional Carolina wren.
In the days before this snowstorm, when severe cold gripped the region and my husband (MH) was glued to the Weather Channel for the storm’s track, the birds were in a feeding frenzy. I was agitated, too. After starting the season with one feeder filled with sunflower seed, I’ve bumped that number to three with seed plus a suet feeder. Somehow it still doesn’t seem like enough. The closer we got to the storm, the more birds came. I’ve been making a lot of trips outside to refill feeders. It is a small price to pay.
I know people with many more feeders than I have, but even one feeder will help the bird population at times like these when the temperature plummets and the snows come deep.
The key, of course, is to keep that feeder filled. An empty feeder becomes just another lawn ornament.
One of my first posts for this blog was on the importance of keeping feeders filled. I noted that “you’d be surprised how many people put out a feeder and then don’t bother to refill it when it is empty.” That hasn’t changed in two years. I always know when my next-door neighbor’s feeder is empty by how many more birds suddenly appear at my feeders.
There are many feeders at Scherman Hoffman and people are good about keeping them filled. Sometimes those filled feeders bring unusual birds such as fox sparrows. Sometimes they bring birds that even the experts can’t identify.
At this time of year, when the southbound migration is finished, the hawk watches have closed and the lakes and ponds are frozen, watching the birds at the feeders is as good as it gets. The birds come to you – no slogging through muddy fields swatting away mosquitoes or shivering in snow-covered boots. At my kitchen window the visibility is pretty good and the crowd is down to me, myself and I, with an occasional visit from MH.
The same is true at Scherman Hoffman, where you can stand in the store, warm up from parking outside and watch the birds at the feeders through the window while you are putting in your order for the sunflower seed and suet you’ll need for your own feeders. Scherman Hoffman is where I get my seed, in 50-pound bags if possible, which I think provide more bang for the buck. I also stock up on blocks of plain suet for the downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers that like rendered fat.
Even if you’re not going for 50 pounds, Scherman Hoffman, like the other NJ Audubon centers, makes it very easy to stock up on what the birds need. Members even get a discount on sunflower seed during the first weekend of each month.
Birds have a hard enough life during the summer when food is plentiful -- dodging predators and the changes to their habitat and environment created by the ignorance, malice or plain old stupidity of mankind.
Add intense cold and a thick blanket of snow and a bird’s life becomes that much harder. When I watch a chickadee in one of my bushes puff itself up to keep warm or fly from branch to branch in the trees looking for what it can dislodge from a crevice, I am glad to have a feeder of sunflower seeds to help keep it going into the breeding season, where it will find a mate and make more chickadees.
Do your part. Feed the birds.
Pete Dunne is a big deal.
He helped create the annual World Series of Birding and had Roger Tory Peterson on his team.
He writes books - a lot of books (Google “Pete Dunne” and see how many) - alone and with others including his photographer wife Linda.
The second edition of one of them, “Hawks in Flight: The Field Identification of North American Migrant Raptors,” first written in 1988 with David Allen Sibley and Clay Sutton, recently came out, a mini-coffee table of a book filled with illustrations, photos and writing on how to identify a migrating raptor when you see one up in the blue.
“I wrote the first edition in two weeks,” he said during his Sept. 15 visit to Scherman Hoffman’s hawk platform. “It took me 15 years to revise it.”
That may be because he’s one busy man. Among the many things he does besides writing and revising his books is be Vice President of Natural History for New Jersey Audubon and Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory plus write columns for the NJ Audubon and BirdWatching magazines.
He says he’s “more of a bird watcher than a birder” nowadays. There is a difference. He spends a lot of time at a desk, staring into a computer. He will go out to find birds but he won’t do the gung-ho things a lot of people do in the field that has turned watching birds from a pastime into a blood sport. He spent a year with his wife traveling the globe for their 1992 book “The Feather Quest” and said that on the flight home he lost track of the exact number of how many different kinds of birds he saw, and didn’t care.
If nothing else, Pete Dunne is a teacher. There was no way he was going to miss looking for broad wing hawks in mid-September during their annual migration south, and perhaps show some folks how to tell all those tiny specks apart.
Every year, generally in late August, the birds that thrilled us as they migrated north to their breeding grounds get that internal cue that it is time to head back to their winter homes in Central and South America.
Raptors are among them. Unlike the smaller perching birds like warblers that fly at night to avoid predators, the vultures, buteos, accipiters, falcons, harriers, ospreys and eagles fly by day, dependent on the warm updrafts of air known as thermals and a good strong wind from the north to give them a push from behind. They glide to conserve the energy they would otherwise have to use flapping their wings.
There is usually a point in September when the summer heat is broken by a cold front pushing through and the winds turn from the south and start coming from the north. Birders wait for that time eagerly because they know there are going to be birds on the move.
You would think seeing something big like an eagle would be easy but you’d be wrong. Broad wings, the smallest of the buteos, with the adults sporting a broad white stripe in their tail and a border of black along the edge of their wings, are even harder. But broad wings do two things that make them rather special:
They come through in the largest of numbers, like clockwork, in mid-September, and they use thermals of rising hot air to gain altitude. "Kettles" of broad Wing hawks are anything more that a half dozen birds swirling about as if they were pasta in a kettle of boiling water to 2 or three hundred Broad Wing Hawks using the same hot air thermal. And when there is no more altitude to be gained from the rising thermal of hot air; the kettle boils they switch from soaring mode to gliding mode and head south-southwest.
It is quite a show -- if you know where to look and know what you are seeing. You continually scan the sky, looking and hoping.
This is why Pete Dunne was in Bernardsville during Scherman Hoffman’s “Hawk Weekend,” a combination of watching and teaching, while informally hawking his newly revised hawk ID book. It was an easy sell. You don’t often get the chance to learn from a master and get an autographed edition.
“What’s the record here?” he asked sanctuary director Mike Anderson. About 1,500 broad wings. That’s in one day.
Dunne wore a name tag on his New Jersey Audubon shirt, but even if you didn’t know who he is you’d know he knows his stuff.
He talked continually. I don’t know how he managed to find so many hawks while talking and autographing and listening to people describe their birding experiences, answering their questions as to why hawks act as they do. But he did. Not once did his enthusiasm flag during the 3+ hours I and what soon became a large crowd were on the platform with him. Nor do I think he lost that enthusiasm as the afternoon wore on after I and others left.
“These swifts are amazing,” he said of the dozens, maybe hundreds, of chimney swifts overhead, swarming in large groups for the insects. They, too, are migrating. Once the insects are gone, they’ll be gone, he pointed out.
“Thousands of people would kill to have what we have right now,” he said of standing on the platform on a gorgeous day looking for hawks.
Thousands were also, no doubt, at other hawk watches waiting for the kettles. In NJ alone there are watches with such interesting names as Scott’s Mountain, Raccoon Ridge and Wildcat Ridge. Cape May, at the southernmost tip of New Jersey, has a hawk platform and so does Montclair, which has a reputation for having extraordinary mid-September broad wing flights.
Scherman Hoffman’s hawk watch isn’t as well known, and that’s unfortunate. The platform, on the third floor of the education center, is relatively recent. A few years ago a fine young birder named Ben would run the hawk count on the weekends and post the results on the NJ bird list. Since Ben went to college the watching and recording have been less regular, something Mike Anderson told me he wants to change.
When Dunne first came on the platform, at 9 am Saturday, the sky was a clear blue and it was cold, not the best conditions. But when the first wisp of cloud was seen he pointed it out.
“That’s the terminal stage of a rising thermal of air,” he said. The hawks would be watching for clouds because of the thermals, he said, so the key would be to watch the underside of clouds for the birds.
So we watched the clouds. As more clouds started blowing across, he started calling out the specks that turned into osprey, bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, turkey and black vulture, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawk, kestrel and northern harrier. There was even a great blue heron and many monarch butterflies. Monarchs migrate south, too.
Then the broad wings started coming, first in ones and twos, then in increasing numbers. Finally, the kettles started forming. Dunne started counting and Anderson started clicking them on the counter. Several kettles of 30 or so birds. People started desperately trying to find them.
“See that part of the cloud that looks like a comma?” Dunne asked, trying to help them.
Which side? Which cloud? What comma? Many people started to get desperate. This is why they came, after all.
But Dunne talked them through, at one point standing behind a woman and literally raising her binoculars until she could see them.
Like watching fireworks, which in a sense is what we were doing. The birds would stream out of the kettle and you could see them whipping fast along the bottom of the clouds, just as he said they would.
He taught constantly. When a Cooper’s hawk flew over relatively low (see my picture), he noted that this accipiter went from being endangered to the second-most common raptor in NJ after the red tail.
“If you have a woodlot, you’ll have a Cooper’s,” he said. A Cooper’s, being bigger and with a longer tail, will do more soaring in the wind compared with its smaller cousin the sharp-shinned, which is more easily blown about and thus has to do more flapping.
What do you look at first when you see something? I asked him. “Shape before size,” he answered.
A broad wing has a streamlined shape, he said. The larger red tail is “lumpy” and “not a very elegant bird of prey.”
“You wouldn’t want your son or daughter going out with a red tail,” said Dunne. “Broad wings get good tables at restaurants. Red tails get seated near the scullery.”
That didn’t stop watchers from marveling at the Red tail (see below) that would flying into various trees near the platform, hunting. A resident bird, said Anderson. As long as it can find food at the sanctuary, it’ll stay around.
Not the broad wings, however. They were on the move but were getting higher in the sky and harder to see as the day wore on and the temperature rose. Later in the afternoon the air would cool and the birds would fly lower again, Dunne said. By dusk they’d roost for the night and start out again the next day, Sunday, when the good conditions were expected to continue.
I don’t know if the kettles ever grew to hundreds of birds. I was satisfied with the ones I saw. At the end of Saturday, Sept. 15, there were 832 broad wings recorded out of 888 raptors total, according to Anderson. The next day there were even more – 1,653 broad wings, a new sanctuary record, out of 1,708 raptors total. Location is everything. Having Pete Dunne on your hawk platform helps, too.
“Birding is whatever you bring to the table,” Dunne told someone. “You don’t change your skin. You’re just looking from a birding perspective.”
He has been looking from that perspective since he was a kid in Whippany, N.J. He is not obsessed with it. He doesn‘t care how big a “life list“ he gets or whether he has seen every bird on Earth. But he very much wants you to see what’s out there and marvel at the wonder of it all.
It would be great to be able to identify what you are seeing, too, of course. That’s what his books - and those of the many others who have made bird watching and identification into a major industry - are published to do.
But here’s where Pete Dunne is different: He’s out there to have fun, even after all these decades, and wants you to lighten up, too.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” he said with a smile at one point. “You misidentify a stupid bird. It’s a game.”
It’s not every day a visitor comes to the Scherman Hoffman feeders that can’t be identified by director Mike Anderson. But this one was a puzzler.
Take a look at this picture Steve Byland took as he looked below the feeders with Mike by his side.
Looked at from the back, it’s a sparrow, perhaps a white-throated sparrow. What makes me think that? The stripes on the head and the reddish brown feathers on the back.
You see white-throats every winter. Besides the distinctive white patch at the throat there are stripes on the head that come to a yellow tip next to the eyes. In spring you hear the high-pitched whistle that sounds like “Oh Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” Unlike common sparrows, there is no black bib or streaking on the white front.
Now look at this bird head-on, in Steve’s second picture. Now suddenly we have something completely different. It seems to have the gray head and pinkish bill of a junco, another common bird of winter you will see in your backyard. Male juncos are slate-gray above, white below, has white on either edge of its tail.
(The ones in New Jersey tend to be males, who stay farther north than the browner females in winter, presumably to get to prime northern breeding territory faster come spring.)
When Mike and Steve saw this bird beneath the feeders they saw more than an interesting bird. They saw a topic of discussion for the greater birding community.
If there’s anything birders like better than getting into the field and adding to their life lists it’s finding a rarity, something miles from where it’s supposed to be. And then they love to tell the world about it, drawing others to the scene.
We’ve had a lot of interesting visitors in the east this mild winter. A western broad-tailed hummingbird spent months at New York’s Museum of Natural History, allowing many people, myself included, to see this unusual visitor. There have been reports in upstate New York of a visiting gray-crowned rosy finch, another western bird and there have been reports of birds that didn’t go south for the winter such as the yellow-breasted chats in New York’s Bryant and Union Square parks (I saw the one at the latter). Even Scherman Hoffman’s feeders were recently visited by a redheaded woodpecker.
So Steve, with great trepidation, went to the New Jersey bird list and voiced the possibility that what he had photographed was a black-chinned sparrow, a bird of Mexico, the US southwest and part of California.
As the old punch line goes, could happen.
I and others were thus alerted to this strange bird. I couldn’t get to Scherman Hoffman to see the visitor but I am told a lot of people did visit and a lot more – including no less than Kenn Kaufman, of the Kaufman field guides and “Kingbird Highway” himself – gave their opinions via email.
The prevailing consensus is this is some sort of strange hybrid between a junco (likely male) and a white-throated sparrow based on a number of factors including field marks, where the bird was seen and how it was acting.
“I look for distinguishing characteristics or ‘field marks,’” Mike told me. “Because we all have experience watching birds, we expect to see some species in certain places at different times of year and recognize a general impression of size and shape. A gray-headed bird with a thin, ivory bill in the weeds under the feeders in March is probably going to be a junco. When it turned to the side and presented the field marks of a sparrow on the back and didn’t present the white outer tail feathers of a dark-eyed junco it suddenly became something new and intriguing.”
That’s when Mike considered the possibilities.
“Could it be a black-chinned Sparrow? No, probably not, they don’t really occur east of New Mexico,” Mike said. “Time to take some notes on the field marks that don’t fit what we’re used to seeing. I can either draw/write my own field notes or ask the professional photographer, Steve Byland, standing next to me to snap some pictures. Steve got some really good pictures that revealed the field marks we saw with the naked eye: dark head and brown streaked back. His photos also showed faint white on the throat and brown stripes going up the neck and onto the back of the head. Added to what we initially saw, these field marks don’t really fit with any birds in the field guides. After sending the pictures around the consensus is that this bird is a hybrid between a dark-eyed junco and a white-throated sparrow.”
“Also funny was the behavior was more sparrow-like for some reason that I can't quite put my finger on,” Steve Byland added, a common feeling when you are seeing something unusual out in the field. When he first saw it under the bushes he thought it might’ve been yet another type of sparrow, the white-crowned, which is of the same family as the white-throated but is a bit bigger and grayer in front, with a pinkish bill like the junco.
Also, he said, “it dug at the ground with both feet like a white-throated sparrow. I can't say that I've ever seen a junco do this, but I may just not have noticed.”
Mind you, if this is a hybrid it is an usual coupling. I would’ve preferred it to be the black-chinned sparrow, which to me is more likely than a hybrid of two different types of sparrows that don’t interbreed as a rule.
That I can even participate in this discussion shows I’ve learned something in my years as a birder.
As a child my mother pointed at a red bird and said, that is a cardinal. The blue one is a blue jay. The one picking worms off the lawn is a robin. The others were pigeons or sparrows. That’s all she knew and that’s all birds are to most people, a few familiar ones and everything else. Something big flying over you is a “hawk,” whether it is a red-tailed hawk, a turkey vulture or a bald eagle.
A new world opens if you take the time to learn just how many different types of birds are out there. There is always an identifying field mark, something unique to that bird. It is the basis of Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides (with acknowledgement to Ludlow Griscom) you can find in any bookstore, including Scherman Hoffman’s. Songs are another way to identify a bird. So is habit. You expect to see juncos and white-throats in the backyard in winter. You don’t expect to see a hummingbird whose wings beat at thousands of times a second and need a lot of pollen or insects to be able to do that.
Mind you, I still get stumped. This is a picture of a bird I saw in a central New Jersey grassland last year and I still don’t know what it is. Do you?
Whenever I see or hear something unusual my first thought is “what the heck is that?” or some variant. If I can find the bird I try to note where it is – tree (type and how high), ground, shore, grassland – color, any field marks, then mark down some way to remember the song and later check the guide I leave in the car or back at home. (If you bury your face in the field guide to identify one thing while outside you miss the chance of seeing and identifying more.)
With spring coming on you are likely to find a great variety of birds passing through Scherman Hoffman on their way north. Every year I have to relearn the field marks and songs of various warblers, for instance, so I can tell the difference between, say, a magnolia and a myrtle.
Years ago, at the lower Scherman lot early one morning, I thought I’d seen a Blackburnian warbler – a masked, orange-fronted bird – in one of the trees. I told Mike Anderson about it during our bird walk. When I later saw a black-throated green warbler with its masked face, light front, black throat and green on the back, I realized I’d misidentified the first bird, which had been sitting high in a tree with the sun full on it, making it look more orange than it was.
Things like that always happen out in the field and Mike knows bird identification is not an exact science. Besides, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility a Blackburnian could’ve been passing through that day, which is why he was kind enough to believe me.
After all, stranger things have happened – as the latest feeder visitor can attest.
(My thanks to Mike Anderson for sharing his thoughts and Steve Byland for permission to reproduce his photos.)
Margo D. Beller
Scherman Hoffman has one-hour bird walks on the Sanctuary grounds every Friday & Saturday morning starting at 8am. Meet in the parking lot right outside the Nature Store.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
To everything there is a season, and that is true for birding.
Spring and autumn get all the press because that is when the warblers and other tropical migrants pass through on their way north to their breeding areas of choice, or south to the warmer and buggier areas when it is cold up here. Summer is when a lot of birders go to the cooler shore for shorebirds or brave the bugs for the mountains.
I happen to like winter birding when the leaves are off the trees, the cold is bracing and the crowds are sparse. That‘s one reason I like to go to Scherman Hoffman.
Don‘t go expecting to find warblers or the other birds that sing in spring. They won‘t be there. That doesn’t make the birding any less interesting.
There are lot of birds that fly south to the rest of the Lower 48 when the cold comes on. Imagine, they consider New Jersey warm enough for them - a funny concept to remember when we are shivering from what we consider arctic winds!
Some of these winter visitors are rather common, especially at the Scherman Hoffman feeders. The junco, for instance. This slate-gray and white little guy - and in New Jersey it is always a guy because the browner females fly farther south for the winter (perhaps the males stay farther north so they can get to the breeding areas quicker) - is a pretty reliable indicator that winter is coming on.
This white-throated sparrow is another. The male’s white “eyebrows” and the yellow spots on either side of the bill near the eye get brighter as the winter goes on. Unlike the junco, males and females winter together, and you will hear the high whistling heard as “Oh Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” as the territorial battles begin.
Others are not as common, like the American tree sparrow with its distinctive reddish cap and a bi-colored bill, gray on top and yellow below.
I have never seen a rough-legged hawk at Scherman Hoffman - redtails and red-shouldered hawks or either type of accipiter are more the norm - but roughies are a bird of the tundra and sometimes in winter it will come down to a similar grassy habitat, even a landfill like the one abutting the DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst, near the Meadowlands (Got rats?), which draws a lot of different raptors every winter.
Short-eared owls usually show up in birding reports in winter, such as the one Mike Anderson unexpectedly found at the Scherman one morning during his Friday bird walk, but a less-common visitor is the snowy owl, which as the name implies is very white, as befitting a big owl that hunts by day in the arctic. The number of snowy owls making it into the lower 48 depends on how good the food supply has been up north. This year a lot of snowy owls have been reported, such as the one that’s been at Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County, NJ., for the past few weeks.
No leaves makes it easier to see the yellow-bellied sapsucker drilling holes in a tree, or to locate its more raucous cousin the redbellied woodpecker when it calls. I’ve seen purple finches and cedar waxwings come in for the seed or fruit provided by the trees.
It’s too bad there are no big ponds at the center because winter also means ducks. The common eider and the harlequin duck are standard winter ducks at the rocky jetty of Barnegat Light. If you look on a local pond before it freezes chances are you will find one or more of the three types of mergansers (common, hooded and redbreasted), ruddy duck or ring-necked duck. When I was last at Scherman I didn’t find any wood ducks on the Passaic River but at Great Swamp were hooded mergansers, black ducks and the more common mallard in those waters that had not been frozen by the recent cold.
As I said, one advantage of winter birding is the leaves are off the trees. Redtailed hawks are easy to see from a great distance when they sit in a bare tree, and it makes it easier to find the white-breasted nuthatch or chickadee calling from a limb over my head.
But perhaps the best thing about winter birding is you don’t have to even go outside. If you have a feeder out - better still, many feeders holding different types of seed or suet as the sanctuary has - the birds will come to you. Try it and you’ll be amazed by what you can see.
Margo D. Beller
Join the Great Backyard Bird Count at Scherman Hoffman--Saturday February 18 from 8am to 10am. Join us as we spend some time outside counting birds, then we'll head indoors and continue "window" counting while enjoying refreshments. This program will be combined with our regularly scheduled Saturday morning bird walk, and it's free. Join us!