By Margo D. Beller
The year 2018 started much the way the year 2017 ended, with below-average cold in New Jersey.
As I put out my bird feeders on a cold winter's morning I wonder if the Black Bears are finally in their dens. I know I would be. It is dark and cold at the hour when I usually rise during the summer. The lack of natural light in the winter suppresses the release of melatonin, the hormone that tells your body it's time to go to bed. Circadian rhythms are disturbed and so is your sleep. That's why even if I wait for daylight to wake me nowadays I am still not inclined to rise from my warm bed unless I must.
Just like a bear.
Anyone who has had a feeder or feeder pole destroyed by a hungry bear - in my case at least three times - is either taking those feeders in at night or leaving them out and hoping the bears skip their yards or are in their winter dens. According to Director Mike Anderson of New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary, the many feeders outside the education center are usually brought in nightly "until it gets real cold, which is usually between Christmas and New Year's."
However, the extreme cold only came in late December in 2017, which is why the Scherman Hoffman feeders were taken in nightly until after Christmas. Even though the feeders are sheltered by shrubs from the driveway, they aren't protected if a bear comes calling.
What we consider "hibernation" for what a bear should be doing every winter may only be torpor, according to Bear Trust International in Montana. Compared to true hibernators such as a Chipmunk or other Ground Squirrels, "a bear’s metabolic rate is significantly less depressed and a bear’s body temperature is reduced only a little" when it's in its winter den. Bears "reduce their body temperatures by about only 10 degrees or so. Moreover, Ground Squirrels have to awaken about every week for about a day, eat stored food, pass waste and then return to hibernation. They continue this cycle all winter. Bears don’t do this. Bears can go for more than 100 days without eating, drinking, or passing waste."
Normally that would mean bears leaving their dens in March or April here in New Jersey. So you should be able to leave your feeders outside...unless, like me, you're still afraid of a bear passing through should the above-normal temperatures we saw in November and early December return in January or February.
Bears have been reported in all 21 New Jersey counties. According to naturalist Kenn Kaufman, bears "roam forests, swamps, tundra and even the edges of suburbia in the crowded northeast." He wrote that in the first edition of his guide to mammals in 2004. I think we've gone beyond the suburban edges by now considering even the more urbanized suburbs of New Jersey have reported bears roaming their streets. Black Bears, although smaller than Grizzlies, are seriously big. While they may be impressive to watch walking in the middle of a road in rural Sussex County, as I have seen along Old Mine Road, they are downright scary up close crossing your favorite local hiking trail, as I also learned firsthand.
According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, as reported by NJ.com, the number of "nuisance bear" reports is down. As of Dec. 20, 2017, 965 black bears were reported, a drop from the 2,116 of 2016. "In addition to 261 sightings where nothing happened, 695 bears caused 'damage or nuisance'” last year, a more than 50 percent drop from the 1,394 problem bears reported the previous year.
Is the number of bears down, as DEP says in touting its management activities, including the 16-day bear hunt in December, or are bears taking the hint and avoiding our backyards? I am no expert, but seeing the damage done by bears on my property I'd bet on the bears being smarter than average.
At Scherman Hoffman, Mike Anderson says, you wouldn't have seen a bear 30 years ago. Now, you're likely to find "at least five or six individuals" every year. He’s photographed several of them. One year a flyer was put up on the education center's door warning visitors that a bear had been seen in the area. It featured a picture. I've yet to run into one while hiking Scherman Hoffman, thankfully.
"I hope they don't continue to increase like the deer," says Anderson. Ditto.
By Margo D. Beller
At high noon, on a mid-September day that feels like mid-August, Pete Dunne sits in a chair on the Scherman Hoffman sanctuary hawk observation platform, calling out what he sees through his binoculars and providing a wealth of observation tips.
“That’s a Turkey Vulture. It holds its wings in a V. V for vulture.”
“There’s a Broad-wing flying just above a Red-tail in that cloud. You can see the Broad-wing is a little smaller and its wings look like a candle flame.”
“That’s a Sharp-shin passing over us. It looks like a flying mallet. A Cooper’s hawk looks like a flying crucifix.”
The crowd is a bit smaller than when I was last on the platform while Dunne was visiting five years ago, but it is no less avid. Up go the binoculars as sanctuary director Mike Anderson uses a clicker to count off the number of raptors seen while making sure everyone can see what Pete Dunne is seeing. Dunne visits this New Jersey Audubon sanctuary every September from his home near the Delaware Bay, close to Cape May at the state’s southern tip as the gull flies. He ran New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory for many years before a stroke in 2014 prompted him to step down.
Since then he has been New Jersey Audubon’s Birding Ambassador. His mission is to inspire your interest in birds and conservation. He comes north to Scherman Hoffman in mid-September because it is in the “Broad-wing belt” when these buteos can be seen flying south for the winter in the greatest numbers. There are more of them seen now in northern New Jersey than in Cape May, he said. Also, it gives him an excuse for the Morristown-born Dunne to visit family.
But today the weather is not cooperating, even for Pete Dunne. While the rising warm air, or thermal, will keep a flying hawk aloft, the wind is out of the south. Southbound migrants prefer a strong wind out of the north to push them along so they can conserve energy.
Shortly after I arrived at noon, two hours into his visit, five Broad-wings were counted among the raptors seen including a couple of Red-tails, some Turkey Vultures, a few Black Vultures and a Sharp-shin, the smallest of the accipiters. We waited. The small number does not bother Dunne. He remarks that the previous year on the platform there were no Broad-wings seen although there were plenty of other raptors, including Bald Eagle and Osprey. When no hawks are flying, he points out migrating Monarch butterflies and the occasional non-migrating Blue Jay. The binoculars come down and people break into small groups, sharing birding stories and other interests, including choral singing and politics.
At this point Dunne stands and asks if everyone has a pair of binoculars, and points out the ones in a box for a free loan. “Everyone knows what a loan means, right?” he says, smiling. If you don’t know how to use them, he’ll show you. He discusses differences in price and features, which can be substantial. He asks how many of those on the platform are first-time visitors. There are a few. The crowd is generally older and long-time birders and most have been to Scherman Hoffman’s platform. The platform is big enough to hold all these people and more but Mike Anderson told me Pete Dunne’s annual visit is easily the largest crowd up there. He’d love to have a daily hawk count but the usual two evils – lack of time and money – prevent that.
There are young people on the platform, too, searching for specks in the sky. Dunne encourages them because they are the future. He talks to them like a friendly uncle. After all, he was once a wunderkind birder, encouraged by his father. Dunne was so much into birding that he was devastated when the father of his primary birding companion – a girl – forbid her to travel with Dunne in the woods anymore when both achieved puberty. Dunne said he didn’t understand why he now had to bird alone.
He got over it and has birded alone or leading large groups for most of his 66 years. He is a hero of mine for being self-taught and not a trained ornithologist. He was one of the creators of the World Series of Birding, an annual competition where the idea is to find as many birds as possible, either throughout New Jersey or in a particular large or small area. The competition raises money for conservation. Dunne’s first team included Roger Tory Peterson. He knew David Sibley before Sibley became famous with his illustrated birding guides. Dunne has written a slew of books including “Tales of a Low-Rent Birder” in 1986 (which is how I first heard of him), “The Art of Bird Finding” in 2011 and books on raptor identification, including his newest, “Birds of Prey.”
We once crossed paths at Cape May’s Higbee Beach as he led a very large group to a larger tour bus as I was arriving just after 7 a.m.. You’d never know he’d had a stroke. He took a moment to point out to me a singing Carolina Wren. His enthusiasm is infectious, which is a good thing if you are on a mission to expose as many people as possible to the wonder of birds.
When I left the platform an hour later, he was still up there, still talking to the crowd and watching for Broadies. According to Mike Anderson, those who came after got to see about 20 Broad-wings, four Bald Eagles and an equal number of Ospreys, five American Kestrels, Northern Harriers, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned hawks. Oh, and a Mississippi Kite, not a sanctuary record but it must have been quite a sight.
You don’t need a Pete Dunne to see hawks from the observation platform. There’s still plenty of migration season left for you to come up and find them.
By Margo D. Beller
In September the days get shorter, the leaves start to turn color, the winds come from the north and the hawks start heading south.
"Hawks" covers a lot of different types of raptors. There are Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures. There are the Buteos - Red-tailed, Red-shouldered and Broad-winged hawks - and Accipiters including Sharp-shinned, Cooper's and Northern Goshawks. There are Bald Eagles and the much less common Golden Eagles. There are also the birds in a class by themselves - Ospreys and Northern Harriers.
So there will be people standing on the Scherman Hoffman hawk observation platform to await these raptors, including Pete Dunne, New Jersey Audubon’s Birding Ambassador, who will be there from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. this coming Saturday, Sept. 16. He will also be signing his newest book, “Birds Of Prey.”
Others will be at viewing areas all over New Jersey, looking up and to the north to see these raptors. Different types of raptors travel at different times. Some travel rather late in the season, which is generally from September through November.
Hawks need warm winds, called thermals, that rise off mountains and help keep them aloft as they travel. So many hawk watches are on mountains or ridges such as the hawk platforms at Racoon Ridge, Chimney Rock, Scott's Mountain and in Montclair.
Experienced hawk watchers will be able to see specks in the sky and know what they are seeing. How will mere mortals such as you and me know these birds?
When you can't see field marks, even with binoculars, you look for distinct habits. When Pete Dunne was at the Scherman Hoffman platform a few years ago he said a Turkey Vulture looks like a man walking a tightrope, his arms wide. Accipiters, particularly Sharp-shinned hawks, tend to flap several times and then soar on the wind. He said to look beneath clouds to see Broad-wingeds, which are bulky like the more familiar and larger Red-tails. Clouds are a hawk watcher's best friend. A clear, blue sky may make for a great beach day but it makes it that much harder to see those specks heading south.
Most hawk watches have fliers with information about the birds and show their silhouettes, since this will most likely be what you see unless you are lucky enough to see a mature Bald Eagle with the sun shining off its white head. Take the flyer.
Every mid-September, New Jersey Audubon hosts a field trip to the Montclair Hawk Watch's open house. That is when the Broad-winged hawks can be expected to fly through in large numbers. (This year’s Montclair visit is on Thursday, Sept. 21, from 9 a.m. to noon.) These raptors will swirl on the mourtain's warm winds in circles to gain speed and altitude, known as kettling, before streaming off. It is not impossible to see over 1,000 hawks on the right day. It is quite a sight seeing even a dozen of these raptors floating on the wind.
What if you see a raptor? How will you tell others what you are seeing? The hawk watcher's other best friend is landmarks. It makes it easier for you to call out the location of the speck you are seeing so others with average eyesight can hope to find them. At the Scott's Mountain hawk watch , for instance, there are such landmarks as Notch 1, 2, 3 and 4, the "Fat Christmas Tree" and the "Vee Notch."
Many raptors follow New Jersey's Palisades down the Hudson River, then hug the coastline. The hawk platforms at Sandy Hook and Cape May in New Jersey and the Cape Henlopen platform across Delaware Bay in Delaware are prime spots for southbound migrants and very easy to access, just up a small flight of steps. Some areas are more difficult to access, such as the rugged climb to the top of Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, where you sit on rocks but the hawks seem closer to view.
At Montclair, you walk up a very tall flight of wooden stairs to a metal ladder drilled into the rocks. Once you hoist yourself up and get up the last, stone incline, the platform is large, flat and there are chairs. These go fast, but if you are like me you'll be on your feet most of the time, looking every which way at all the birds.
Hawks won't be the only birds flying south, of course. All the warblers you saw in their bright, colorful, breeding plumage heading north will be much duller in color heading south. In New Jersey and across this country, birds head south to find food - insects, seeds, fruits. So they must leave.
Not all will travel far, however. The Rough-legged Hawk will stay in the northern tundra unless there is a crash in the population of its main food source, Lemmings. Then these hawks come south to places like New Jersey in the winter, hunting rodents at airports and over fields that mimic the tundra.
There are hawk platforms all over this country and there are many more types of raptors and other, smaller birds I have yet to see. There are plenty of places to see these majestic birds closer to home in New Jersey. Keep your eyes to the skies.
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.