Their small size and general lack of interest in seeds and feeders makes spotting a Wren in the garden more than your run of the mill day in the yard. Not that I wish to imply that Wrens are uncommon. They are pretty common in yards, or at least their songs are. If you don’t know where to look and who you are looking for, spotting a Wren could be a bit of a challenge. Following their song is always a good place to start.
One of six wrens common to the Northeastern United States, the Carolina Wren is easily the most distinct. They are the same size as their fellow Wrens and have a similar body type, including a brown body and down-curved beak. However, what sets them apart is their distinct white eyebrows. Their chest is also brighter than other Wrens, starting white toward their heads and fading into yellow halfway down their chests.
Carolina Wrens prefer good cover in bushes or shrubs, but these songbirds can’t help themselves, they keep bursting into song. Each male sings between twenty-seven and forty-one songs and the males and females have been known to sing duets. The pair will mate and remain monogamous for an entire breeding season, having two broods. Due to their need for cover, they tend to look for natural cavities in which to create a nest.
While they will occasionally eat fruit or seeds, this is rare. Their
primary diet is insects. This interest in bugs makes them a common
ground hunter. Look for them around leaf piles and tree roots, poking
around and searching for insects.
Occasionally we get bored with walking the same trails all the time and we seek a new adventure a bit outside our normal realm. One weekend we decided to check out Tourne County Park in Morris County New Jersey (https://www.morrisparks.net/index.php/parks/tourne-county-park/ ). Overall, I think it was a lovely park, nice trails and very well marked. We decided to hike to the top of Tourne, (in the process I was lapped by a group of seniors, literally walking up the hill with their canes….I don’t really like hiking uphill) where the overlook was completely blocked by vegetation.
After that minor hiccup, we took the Red trail which walked us around much of the perimeter of the park. It was all very nice and enjoyable (if a bit muggy) but the highlight was Birchwood Lake. We had stopped to admire the water lilies and the dragonflies. A juvenile Great Blue Heron came to do a bit of fishing, so we sat by the side of the pond for almost a half-hour, to see what he would catch. Great Blue Herons don’t need to see their prey. When they place their bills in the water, they just try to touch prey. Once they touch something they have a rapid reflex which snaps their bills closed. Unfortunately for this guy, he didn’t seem to be very successful.
“Oswego is where we go…” Most of the summers of my life have been spent, at least in part on the edge of Lake Ontario. Yet, considering all that time, I discovered the Derby Hill Observatory only a few years ago. I guess I needed the extra interest in birds to motivate me to turn down the dead end road and find the Observatory.
Operated by the Onondaga Audubon, Derby Hill Observatory has a strong
focus on watching birds of prey. Their website claims they count
about 40,000 raptors each spring, so I guess the focus is justified.
The observatory’s lands include a small strip of cliff at the
lake’s edge, a true novelty as the rest of the road is crammed with
homes along the water’s edge. This, especially given its height,
provides a great vantage point to observe fishing osprey and other
birds of prey. In fact, the first time I visited, we were meandering
over to the edge and there was a flash of Bald Eagle. By the time I
ran to the edge, it was out of sight. I haven’t seen another Bald
Eagle in any subsequent trips (I have only visited about 3 or 4
times), but I keep hoping!
Observatory is actually split up into about four or five sections,
but the main parking area provides you access to the lake overlook,
as well as four fields (with a mowed perimeter) and a woodland trail.
If you follow the meadows down the road, you can also cross over to
the marsh space, but it is a very small section, better for watching
There is no doubt that there are many birds residing in and around the Observatory. The trees just reverberate with bird calls and chirps. But I have never been very lucky at spotting many birds when I visit. The Scarlet Tanger manages to be particularly elusive, but I have seen a few other birds that are outside of my regular milieu. This included an Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebes (juvenile as well as adult) and a young Cedar Waxwing, chowing down on some berries.
Along with some birds I am more familiar with, including Robins, Red-Winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows.
The meadows do have another big perk… butterflies are everywhere! You also see some great frogs and other woodland creatures if you are lucky.
On my most recent visit, earlier this summer, I was disappointed by the obvious lack of trail maintenance of the woodland trail. Not only was vegetation overtaking the boardwalk, but the trail markers were all over the place. After tromping around in the woods with very little guidance, hoping the trail would become more clear, we made our way back, getting turned around more than once. Painted trail markers are far superior to the signs, which fall off trees, or get moved around. I know there has been a lot of rain and flooding in the area, but they should still try to maintain what they have, before it deteriorates further. Compare the difference between 2018 and 2019.
Another issue I have with the Onondaga Audubon is their website and that it lacks even a basic trail map for the Derby Hill Observatory. I know I did find one once, after some extensive googling, but it really shouldn’t be that hard. I don’t even think the map was on their website, but on another birder’s private site.
the disappointment of my last visit, I will doubtless give Derby Hill
another chance. It does provide a nice excuse for a stretch of the
legs, and statistically, if I go enough times, I will get another
view of my bald eagle.
Once you become a bird watcher, you become aware that many facts you took for granted are not 100% accurate. For example, “call a spade a spade” or “call a sparrow a sparrow.” Not necessarily untrue. However, there are twenty-one different types of sparrows listed in my Eastern North America bird book. So “sparrow” is clearly not specific enough.
want to take some time in this post to point out of the differences
between some of the most common sparrows, so you can begin to notice
them yourselves. I am going to focus on four: House Sparrows,
Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows and White-Throated Sparrows.
The House Sparrow is the most obvious starting point. Ubiquitous, especially whenever food is out for the taking, you see them in yards, woods, parks and city streets. I have so many of the little guys in my yard at this point I think they may have started having extra broods just because of my feeders.
and female House Sparrows look different. The males have a
whitish-gray belly with a black bib on the upper chest, flanked by a
white patch on either side. The black from the bib carries up their
neck to under their eyes. A gray cap sits on top of their heads, with
two patches of brown running from the sides of their heads into their
brown wings, back and tail feathers. The brown on their wings, back
and tail is broken up with thin stripes of black.
The females are a bit more muted and boring, but if you look closely their feathers have a few secrets to share. The female’s feathers are mostly tan, with her underbelly being lighter than the feathers on her head and back. If you look closely you will notice she has a light stripe on both sides of her head which include her eyes. The wings of the female are similar to her male counterpart, being a darker brown, with stripes of white and black mixed in.
The House Sparrow is in fact not a sparrow at all. Introduced to North American from Europe in the 1850s, they are actually from the Weaver Finch family. Their populations thrived in their new home and today they can be seen throughout the United States all year long. They are also a common sight because they are not remotely scared of people. Much less skittish than other birds, they have the advantage for scavenging food in busy areas.
Food isn’t the only thing they scavenge. Their nests have been known to incorporate paper and even plastic into the weave. They usually have 4-6 eggs each nesting, with two or three broods in a season. They are at it like rabbits! They like cavities to nest in, so they are big fans of bird houses.
Chipping Sparrows are also fairly common to my yard in the summer. They visit feeders and they forage the ground around them, so you can easily spot them hopping about. One of the biggest physical differences between a Chipping Sparrow and the other three species I am discussing, is that the Chipping Sparrow is smaller. The Chipping Sparrow is five inches to the House Sparrow’s six inches and when you are that small, one inch does make a difference when it comes to aggressive behavior at the feeders.
Unlike the House Sparrow, all Chipping Sparrows look alike, regardless of gender. The Chipping Sparrow’s most defining feature is its light brown or chestnut cap. Its chest is gray and it has dark, streaked brown wings with hints of white. If you are able to see one of these little guys close enough (probably not with the naked eye) you will also notice a black stripe going across his face, in line with his beak and across his eye. This black stripe created a gray stripe above it on both sides, which separates the black from the edge of the brown cap.
Chipping Sparrows may be little, but don’t underestimate their toughness. They can survive without a drink for three weeks. They don’t try to brave a northern winter though. Instead they head to Mexico for the winter months.
Chipping Sparrows typically have about four eggs per nest and they usually have two broods each season. The female is the primary caregiver, incubating the eggs and feeding the new hatchlings. During the female’s incubation of the eggs, the male Chipping Sparrow will try to find additional mates.
Song Sparrows are a bit less common to my yard. But they do visit on occasion and I often see them and hear them on hikes. Not unlike the Red-Winged Blackbird, they are particularly partial to marshy areas and can often be found near water.
As you can image from its name, the Song Sparrow likes to sing a lot. Often their song is the best way to spot them. They are loners but they aren’t bashful. Often you will find them perched on a conspicuous branch or reed singing their hearts out. This is because they not only sing to attract a mate, but also to mark their territory. To hear the song of a Song Sparrow, click here: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/education/nasongkey.pl?bird=Song+Sparrow+%281%29
Though they will visit the vicinity of a feeder, Song Sparrows rarely go to the feeder directly. Instead you will see them hopping around beneath a feeder, gleaning seeds from the ground. You will recognize the Song Sparrow by the streaks on its chest. Song Sparrows are white or cream with random short, dark brown streaks running vertically along their chest. If you look closely, you will also see a larger spot, usually near the center of their chest. Their wings are similar to those of other sparrows, brown with stripes of white and lighter brown. There is also a brown stripe on each cheek, breaking up the white on the Song Sparrow’s face.
White-Throated Sparrows are my personal favorite. They usually come to the feeder alone, and glean around on the ground looking for food. They aren’t aggressive with other birds, but neither are they intimidated. They are about the same size as the House Sparrow, and they usually won’t be pushed around. Like the Chipping Sparrow, White-Throated Sparrows head to Mexico for the winter.
I think they are the coolest looking sparrows with race-car yellow-stripe eyebrows. Besides the yellow over its eyes, the White-Throated Sparrow has…you guessed it: white feathers on its throat. While both male and female White-Throated Sparrows look similar, across both sexes there are some which have white stripes and others that have tan stripes on their heads. Based on what I have read, birds with white stripes seem to prefer mating with birds with tan stripes, but I am not sure what the deal is with that.
Hopefully after this little introduction you will start to spot the differences in Sparrows yourself!
Another visit to Mills Creek Marsh in Secaucus, New Jersey. A warm day but not too hot, so we walked the whole loop. We were rewarded for our efforts, and I am not just talking about the treat we had at Panera afterward.
The dominant sensory experience throughout our walk was the Marsh Wrens calling to each other from every patch of tall reeds or bushes. There must have been hundreds of them. Spotting them however, presented a challenge. I did manage to spot a few, but they mostly eluded me. This soundtrack of the wetlands was interrupted occasionally with the call of the Red-Winged Blackbirds, not wanting to be left out or overshadowed.
As you might expect, we spotted Robins, Grey Catbirds, Swallows (probably tree), Mallards, a Tern (not sure which variety), a few House Sparrows and a Song Sparrow. There were many Canada Geese, some with goslings, and we saw several Mockingbirds, including a juvenile whose adult feathers hadn’t fully come in yet.
Snowy Egrets were the only stilted birds present. At 24 inches tall, they are much shorter than Great Egrets or Great Blue Herons. They also have longer feathers around their chests and the back of their heads, which, when added with their bright yellow beak and often weird postures, gives them a deranged almost Igor-like quality.
Besides our feathered friends, we saw a few butterflies fluttering and some dragonflies hovering. There were a pair of Painted Turtles on a log in the water. We also saw a Diamondback Terrapin Turtle, a first for us. She was backed over a small hole and I think she might have been laying eggs, or she was planning to until we came and stood over her. After a few photos at a safe distance we left her to it. I only hope our fellow walkers did the same. Diamondback Terrapins are listed as endangered or species of concern in many states, including New Jersey.
We also saw a very fat groundhog, who, despite his size was a quick runner.
It is almost impossible for me to express in words how happy I was
when a pair of House Wrens decided to take up residence in my goose
gourd house this summer. After a few years with no permanent
residents I was becoming a bit discouraged with this DIY project.
Generally speaking, I am extra excited about any birds in my yard
that are not regular patrons to my feeders. Wrens, being insect
eaters, definitely fall into that category. Add to that their lovely
song and their quick and tiny bodies, they are both a pleasure to
have around and a bit of a challenge to spot and photograph.
Considering how happy I was that they moved in, I am sure it will not come as a surprise that I was absolutely over the moon ecstatic when their nestlings hatched. I know that eggs and nestlings are the inevitable product of a nest, but the whole thing was still magical.
From a safe distance I peeked into the gourd a few times, and got a glimpse of one beak, then two. However, in late June I decided to sit in the yard from a position where I would have a good view of the mouth of the house. It turns out they had quadruplets! Very, very loud and hungry quadruplets.
If you are interested in making a gourd bird house, there is tons of information out there. Here is a website with some basic instructions: https://www.diynetwork.com/how-to/outdoors/structures/how-to-make-a-gourd-bird-house Be warned, this is not a quick project. The gourd needs to totally dry out before you can make the house. I purchased my gourd in early Autumn and didn’t drill the hole until the following February/March.
A leisurely weekend morning spent in the garden with a book, a cup of
tea and my trusty camera, ready for action. Many of my usual
customers stopped by, including a pair of Cardinals, several Mourning
Doves, House Finches and Goldfinches of both genders and a Catbird. A
Brown-Headed Cowbird grabbed a quick snack at my feeder and a
Northern Flicker rested on a branch for about a minute, but I wasn’t
quick enough with my camera. A young Grackle even took a few drinks
from the bird bath.
It is amazing that in just the span of a day or two the baby birds
sticking their beaks through the hole of their birdhouse are suddenly
up and out. The frantic and awkward flapping which at first glance
appears to indicate an injury, is really the international bird body
language for “I’m hungry.”
Today the baby House Sparrows that have been living in one of the
birdhouses in our yard ventured out into the world. They didn’t
venture very far, just a few branches above their home, hopping more
than flying from branch to branch. They are still being fed directly
by their parents, the adults’ beaks going right into the eager open
mouths of the chicks. Their coloring is such that they could almost
pass for an adult, if a bit smaller in stature when you have mom or
dad right next to them for comparison. But when you look closely, the
fluffy, downy feathers are still there.
The quiet, still morning air was constantly pierced with the shrills of much larger babies, the Blue Jays now have their babies out of the nest. I believe their cries rank among my least favorite sounds of the summer. As gawky as the most awkward teenage you can think of, Steve Urkel comes to mind, you could almost think they are so ugly that they are cute, but then they open their mouths and shrill again. The adult Blue Jays had all they could do to satisfy their bottomless-pit children. They came to my feeder, gulped down the food, shoved it down the babies’ throats, repeat. Suddenly breast feeding doesn’t seem that bad.