Mourning Dove

Despite my being relatively new to the hobby of bird watching, you might say birding generally is in my blood. Before I was born, my grandfather bred and raced pigeons. Despite not experiencing the pigeons first-hand, I have heard many stories and learned many details about pigeons throughout my life. As a result, I am very fond of pigeons, a bird so often written off and sometimes even referred to as winged-rats. I haven’t had a pigeon in my yard yet, which I must admit makes me a bit sad because I know they are in the neighborhood.

Given my fondness for pigeons, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I also like the Mourning Doves that visit my yard. Doves may appear a bit large and awkward as they waddle around, but the understated modesty of their fawn color and their size match their gentle demeanor. They are in fact very graceful in flight. And if you watch them closely in the right light, their feathers display an iridescent quality, so subtle it feels like a whispered secret. They also have the slightest hint of blue outlining their eyes which seems to imply there is more to them than you think at first glance.

The husky size of a Mourning Dove seems to make all the more sense when you learn that they eat almost 20% of their body fat, daily. They only eat grains, which is why they are a common visitor to feeders, including mine. However, again due to their larger physic, they are typically ground feeders, scrounging up the discarded seeds. A few times a dove has tried to land on one of my feeders, but their size and center of balance just won’t allow it. My current feeder pole has a round flat tray on one tier and the Dove’s seem to have claimed it as their own perch (better them than the squirrels).

Mourning Doves typically visit my feeders in groups, which is always guaranteed to add to the fun because inevitably one of the males decides to get his flirt on. Puffing up his chest and neck feathers, he begins chasing around one of the lady Doves, bobbing his head forward and back as he walks, in a very exaggerated manner. Pigeons have a similar behavior. I am not sure if they just like to play hard to get, but nine times out of ten the females run away, fly away and generally seem unimpressed.

Despite the evasive maneuvers I have witnessed, this behavior must impress the ladies eventually because Doves are fairly broody as birds go. While they only lay two eggs per nesting, they reproduce about three or four times a season. You may sometimes find a couple with more than two babies (squabs). This is the result of another Dove laying parasite eggs for a fellow Dove to raise.

Both of the parents share the responsibility of incubating and feeding the young. The babies are fed crop-milk which is even a bit more gross than it sounds. If you are interested, google it.

Mourning Doves are so common in North America they are commonly hunted. About 20 million are hunted annually. But have no fear, the population is not at risk. Besides being very fruitful in a breeding season, Mourning Doves also live a relatively long time, the oldest known Dove being 30 years old at the time of his demise.

Mourning Doves have the rare ability among birds to drink without lifting their heads

Mill Creek Marsh (Secaucus)

One of my favorite places to take nature walks is Mill Creek Marsh. A one mile trail in a tidal wetland, Mill Creek Marsh offers both a chance to commune with nature and a stunning backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. Another feature of the marsh that makes a visit here more unusual are the stumps that populate the water. The remains of a prehistoric forest of white cedar trees, today the rot resistant stumps provide platforms on which many of the waterbirds hunt from and rest on.

And boy are there water birds. This trail is never boring. Besides a wide variety of ducks, Canada Geese and Sea Gulls, the water is often populated with Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Tree Swallows, Dragonflies and Painted Turtles.

To me the big treat of visiting Mill Creek Marsh is getting to watch the many Snowy Egrets that hang out there. Smaller than a Great Egret (they stand about 24 inches to a Great Egret’s 38 inches), what the Snowy Egrets lack in stature they make up for in personality. The bright yellow on their face, contrasted with their black bill, seems to emphasize their jet black pupils in a sea of yellow eyeball. Where their eyes are interesting, the Snowy Egret’s plumes are sassy. They use them to fend off other Egrets in territory disputes and often puff them up when hunting. The Snowy Egret’s plumes were once an object of fashion leading to their population being over-hunted.

Smaller birds can also be found while walking here, in the reeds and cattails, or resting in one of the many trees that line the trail. Red-Winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows and Marsh Wrens are common here, as are Northern Mockingbirds. The flashes of the Northern Mockingbirds wings can be seen with almost every rustle of leaves, but spotting them on a tree is also not difficult.

This park, like many in this area, is maintained by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Learn more about Mill Creek Marsh and the other twenty parks the Authority manages at When driving to this park, beware your GPS navigation. The best way to make it to the trail head (and not the opposite side of the marsh, which has no entrance) is to navigate to Bob’s Discount Furniture in Secaucus. From there the trail parking and entrance is on the right of the store.

Red-Winged Blackbirds

If you have ever spent any time in a marsh or a meadow, chances are you have heard and seen a Red-Winged Blackbird. Besides having fairly bold personalities, Red-Winged Blackbirds are incredibly common year round in most of the continental United States. Seeing them is definitely a regular occurrence on my walks in many of the places I frequent, including the Celery Farms (Allendale), Mills Creek Marsh (Secaucus) and Richard W. DeKorte Park (Lyndhurst). Yet as common as they are in those places, I must live far enough from water that I have never seen one Red-Winged Blackbird at my feeder. In contrast, they do visit feeders (seed and suet) that I have the opportunity to view often in Upstate New York. The difference being that in New York, Lake Ontario is within full view and there are many farm fields and meadows in the vicinity.

The proximity to water is definitely key to the Red-Winged Blackbirds habitat. They usually build their nests near water and this habitat allows them a varied diet of bugs, seeds and very occasionally fruit. Their young are fed exclusively insects and, presumably due to the proximity of the nest to water, the young are able to swim short distances as young as 5-6 days old.

The Red-Winged Blackbird certainly has a presence. Strongly territorial, the males make themselves seen and heard by hanging to the top of tall marsh reeds or the exposed branches of trees. You can certainly not confuse a male Red-Winged Blackbird for anything else. As the name indicates, their totally black body is decorated with two stripes or epaulets on the wings. The higher stripe is red, with a thinner and more subtle stripe of yellow below the red. The females don’t resemble the males in any way, except their size and the shape of their beaks. The females have a brown-streaked body with a white line or “eyebrow” along their upper eye. Juveniles resemble their mother, but as they mature the males will begin to develop their red and yellow epaulets before their black feathers.

Their call, one part noise, one part music is synonymous with the marsh. You can listen for yourself,

My Feeder Set-up

The wide view of my backyard

Since many of the posts in this blog will focus on birds in my backyard, I thought that I should take a little time to familiarize you with my set-up. It has changed many times since my first bird pole was pushed into the soil in the spring of 2016, but the essence has remained.

Our yard is lined with trees on both the left and right, but we have an open rectangular plot of “grass” which you will notice as I post more and more photos is more like weeds in the sandy soil. My first bird-related feature was a feeder pole with two seed feeders. I have since added several houses, a bird bath and specialized feeders (finch and suet). Basically, I pander to my feathered friends in any way possible to get them to visit my yard, and I am not embarrassed to admit it! The most recent change is that as of Spring 2019 I have a new pole, which has four hooks. The extra hooks are great, but the four pronged support system is what makes this pole superior. Birds may be light as a feather, but bird seed isn’t and neither are some of the more heavy duty feeders. After a few years, my original pole began listing to one side from all the weight.

I have had several feeder fatalities in three years thanks to the squirrels who like to keep me on my toes. They are the primary reason why my favorite feeder, a wooden feeder with ledges and a suet section, is currently in my basement.

Northern Cardinals

Despite their ubiquity, the appearance of a Northern Cardinal, especially the male Cardinal, still manages to wow and excite. Perhaps this is because most people can identify them with ease. Or is it because they stand out in a yard or the forest? Any way you try to spin it, the attraction of Cardinals is all about the red. Think about it, there is a reason traffic signs and lights are red. They grab our attention. So does the male Cardinal, often stealing the show from his fellow feeder friends.

Cardinals are very common in my yard, visiting my feeders for long periods, or frequent trips depending on the season. They also brave the winters of New Jersey and do not migrate. This bravery has inspired many a holiday card and we often associate Cardinals with winter and the holiday season. The female Cardinals are often overlooked because they lack the male’s attention-grabbing coloring. Besides her golden brown color, her overall appearance is very similar to the male, and if you look closely, you will see she has red highlights on her wings, crest, tail and over her eyes.

Observing them in my own garden, I would say they are more aggressive than average, but not always unfriendly to birds of other species. I have seen both the males and females chase off sparrows and other birds, but they usually don’t interfere with birds on the opposite side of the feeder. It seems to me they have a very large personal bubble, which the sparrows, being sparrows, don’t seem to understand in the slightest. When they are feeling aggressive you can usually tell, both the male and the female will perk up the crest at the top of their head in warning.

When it comes to their own species, it is a bit more complicated. During the breeding season (Spring and Summer) the males are territorial. I have often seen a pair of Cardinals (one male and one female) visit my yard and feeders together. Sometimes they are a bit more cautious, with one of the pair observing the yard while the other is at the feeder or on the ground. That being said, it isn’t uncommon for them to visit the feeders together. According to my field guides, in winter they live in larger flocks, but I have never seen more than a male and female pair in my yard at one time (not that I am outside observing in the winter nearly as much as the other three seasons).

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cardinals have at least sixteen different calls. I have observed at least two distinct calls. The more high- pitched version is usually what the male uses to attract a mate (in Spring) and they continue to use this call to communicate with each other throughout the summer. He has another call, which consists of an introductory call followed by short, quick whistles, often repeated with the shorter whistles increasing in number: one, then two, then three etc. This seems to be all about territory. Basically, “if you can hear this, you are way to close.” If you are good at whistling, you can imitate them, using the exact number of short whistles they use, right after them. Nothing like a good old whistle battle! Here are some examples of their songs and sounds:

Celery Farms

One of the places where I take frequent walks is the Celery Farms in Allendale, New Jersey. Doubtless I will mention it again. And again. There are many reasons I keep returning to this site, not the least of which is it is quick and easy to get to, and a fairly short loop. There are also, according to the website, 240 species of birds recorded. And that is only birds. Besides our feathered friends, there are countless deer, squirrels, chipmunks, painted turtles, and snapping turtles who make this wetland their home. On one occasion I even saw what I think was an otter. Butterflies can also be found, depending on the season. Considering that you can peek through the leaves on the trees and see into the backyards of suburban New Jersey, this place is pretty wild.

Formerly a farm, this space was flooded to create a lake and wetland habitat, with a stream running along the trail on one side of the loop. The trail is about a mile and is muddy eight times out of ten. Flat and easy to walk, but watch out for tree roots. It is a pretty popular trail for walkers, joggers and other bird watchers so don’t expect to feel like the only human left on earth. That being said, the Preserve doesn’t allow boats, dogs or fishing, so it can be more peaceful than similar spaces.

Besides some well placed benches, there are also several observation platforms where one can get a good vantage point over the lake from various angles. One of the platforms even has benches when you get to the top, so hanging around to bird watch is pretty easy.

As you would expect in a wetland habitat, you will likely see Red-Winged Blackbirds, Great Egrets, Great Blue Heron, Tree Swallows, Canada Geese, Mute Swans and a variety of duck species.

In the wooded areas turkeys, robins, cardinals and a variety of sparrows are common and you usually hear the turkeys, and woodpeckers.

The smaller birds are often a bit harder to spot among the vegetation, but finches and chickadees are frequent visits, as well as a variety of warblers, if you are lucky to catch sight of one!

To find out more about the Celery Farms and to see a map of the Preserve, visit


Bird watching is a great hobby as it is easy to do anywhere. In theory it’s free, unless you get addicted and begin bribing birds to your yard with numerous feeders like I do! It encourages us to take in nature more generally and often motivates us to walk in parks or on trails, getting much needed exercise and fresh air. However, the thing I like most about bird watching as a hobby is that you can dedicate as much or as little time as you have. There are whole days I have sat in my yard with a camera and a book. But I can also come home and sit outside for a few hours, unwinding after work and allowing myself to relax.

I have always liked nature, camping, hiking etc., but I didn’t really get into bird watching until we moved from the city into the suburbs…a heavily treed suburb. Sitting by the window with my warm drink, I would often see flashes of color fly past. Sometimes I knew it was a blue jay or a cardinal, but I wanted to know more about the other flashes I was seeing. I was given a bird identification book for Christmas 2015, along with my first feeder pole and feeder. Before I knew it, I was hooked! And bird watching turns out to be contagious. After seeing my photos, my parents purchased some bird feeders, their own field guide and we have all been bird watching ever since.

This blog is a way for me to share some of my bird photographs, but I also want to provide some facts and figures along the way, as well as some of my own observations. I want to be clear that I have no background or formal training in any science field, so most of the information I will share comes from field guides.