The Twin Hawks

This past July I had an accidental encounter with a pair of young hawks, who I believe were siblings. I had just tucked all my camera equipment away when I noticed a very large fluffy lump on the grass. I was in the parking lot of Lambert Castle, which is terraced above the lawn, so it was a level below me. I crouched down to see what it was. That was when I realized it was a Red-Tailed Hawk, awkwardly strutting around on the ground. Cursing my luck for putting the camera away so nicely ten minutes earlier, I rushed to my trunk to put my lens back on the camera. The Hawk didn’t seem to notice my movement in the slightest. So far, so good. I got a few photos from where I was, still with the Hawk not even seeming to notice me. So I decided to test my luck and I made my way to the stairs for the lower level.

I approached the stairs slowly and took a few more photos. The Hawk still seemed completely oblivious to my existence. So I continued down the stairs. I used the fountain as a blind to get even closer to the Hawk undetected. It finally did seem to notice me, and hopped up on the wall. I decided to continue trying my luck, and I slowly approached the wall, staying far enough away not to really panic it. The Hawk decided to show off, turning around in slow circles, so we had ourselves a little photo-shoot. At this point I knew I had tons of photos, so with nothing to lose, I began to slowly walk closer.

That was when the Hawk decided it had had enough of me. Off he flew. I kept my eye on him, figuring he would head for the trees, way up on the mountain. Instead he headed for a tree at the other side of the lawn, so I decided to follow for some “Hawk in tree” photos. I approached the tree at a slow walk, keeping my eye out for him as he wandered around the branches. I noticed he had very quickly ended up on the opposite side of the tree. But nope… there he was on the lower branch he had flown too….oh my, two of them!

While they were in the tree I was able to get a very close look at their bodies and it was then that I determined they both had enough downy white belly fuzz that they were probably both juveniles, probably siblings, rather than parent and child.

Eventually I decided I had been bothering them enough and I walked off. I didn’t make it to my car before the two of them whistled at each other and then flew to a telephone pole in the parking lot. So I swung my camera around again and decided to take some photos of the two of them together. It was then that the most amazing thing happened. They were seated on two tiers of the same telephone pole. The lower bird turned its head, saw its companion’s tail feathers and chomped down! He held on for a few minutes before he finally decided to let go.

They then proceeded to turn toward the trees on the ledge above the parking lot, calling expectantly up. My guess is that they had been permitted a small excursion as a learning experience, but now they were done exploring and playing and expected their parents to fly down and collect them. Right now! When I finally got tired of waiting for something to happen and headed back to my car they were still sitting there, anxiously watching the treeline.

Chipmunks

In my bird watching pursuits I often encounter and observe other animals and insects. One mammal that I happen to have frequent encounters with is the chipmunk. Like squirrels, they are attracted to my feeders and they come from all around the block to collect seeds in my yard. Unlike squirrels they give off a series of chirps or chips that can be mistaken for birds. You can watch a video with several of these calls at, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/group/chipmunks/ scroll down to about halfway and look for WATCH: A Short Guide to Chipmunk Noises.

Despite encyclopedia Britannica’s description of them as “basically pygmy squirrels,”you will know a Chipmunk from a Squirrel instantly. Besides being much smaller in body than a squirrel and significantly less fluffy of tail, the chipmunk is chestnut brown, with two groups of stripes, black-white-black, down its back (left and right).

Unfortunately for squirrels, Chipmunks have been classified by society as the cute rodent. And I will say, they have been less disruptive to my feeders than the squirrels. Chipmunks in my yard tend to stick to the ground, gathering what seeds have fallen from the feeders. Only on occasion have I found a chipmunk actually up the feeder pole, which is surprising considering they are very good and quick climbers.

I think it is a combination of their large soulful and innocent black eyes, along with their pudgy overstuffed cheeks that make us associate them with all things cute and childlike. Like a greedy child at the candy store, if they feel safe, they will sit and rearrange the contents of their cheeks until they can maximize capacity. Perhaps we must also factor in the influence of Chip, Dale, Alvin and his brothers into our culture’s fondness for Chipmunks.

Most Chipmunks in the wild will live for about two or three years. There are twenty-four species of Chipmunk in North America, but if you live in the Northeast, at a lower altitude, you are probably coming face to face with the Eastern Chipmunk, the largest of the species. A daytime mammal, Chipmunks spend all of their time gathering and storing food for the winter months. They have a varied diet which includes not only nuts, berries, fruit and grain, but also insects, tender plants and fungi. They have gotten into my garden more than once and chewed up my young plants and I think, though I haven’t seen them in action, they sometimes take a bite out of my green cherry tomatoes.

Understanding the mad dash for winter provisions makes the life of a Chipmunk all the more transparent. Chipmunks hibernate through the winter. However, they don’t always sleep straight through and, more importantly, unlike bears, they can’t store fat to live off of in their sleep. Instead they need to have ready food available in their winter hideaway for a mid-winter snack.

Chipmunks only stop collecting winter provisions long enough to procreate. The female Chipmunk is pregnant for about a month before she gives birth to anywhere between two and eight babies. The babies are only with the parents for two months before they are sent packing, so that they can gather their own winter cache. Chipmunks can have two broods a year, usually in the spring (April or May) and summer (July or August).

Besides mating and baby rearing, Chipmunks usually hang solo and they also tend to be fairly territorial. I will sometimes have two or three gather around my feeder at one time, but they avoid each other and once they have stuffed their pouches, off they go, beating the same path they took to the feeder. They like cover for their burrows and nests and you will often find them living near bushes, stumps, woodpiles, rock walls or, in more populated areas, under porches, plantings or ever sidewalks. In my yard, one definitely lives under the garage and another lives in the rock wall that represents the property line. At least one tunnels in my garden…I think he may be akin to Charles Bronson’s character in The Great Escape, because he has undermined almost my whole raised bed.

Websites sourced for this post are:

https://www.britannica.com/animal/chipmunk

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/group/chipmunks/

Northern Flicker

Common year round throughout most of the United States (with the exception of parts of Southern Texas, New Mexico and California), the Northern Flicker is not a regular visitor to my yard. Despite a limited number of sightings, I know Northern Flicker are in the neighborhood, as I can hear their distinctive, hyena like call: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/education/nasongkey.pl?bird=Northern+Flicker

As a result of their scarcity in my yard, I am very excited whenever one makes an appearance and I can get a good photo. When I have sighted a Northern Flicker, in my yard or out on various walks, I have noticed that they seem more shy and skittish than other species of woodpecker. If you are lucky enough to be sitting, with a camera nearby, as I was for some of these photos, then you are golden. Any major movements, and the Northern Flicker will bolt. Not necessarily very far, but you will inevitably lose it in the chase.

While technically a woodpecker, you often see the Northern Flicker on the ground or very low to the ground, on stumps etc. This is due to their great affinity to ants. They eat primarily insects, so don’t expect to see them at your suet or seed feeders like many other woodpeckers. In a pinch they will eat nuts or grain, so you might get lucky if food is scarce. Due to their shorter legs, they hop around rather than walk.

Compared to other woodpeckers with their black and white patterning, the Northern Flicker is a bit more subtly feathered, with a golden-brown back, which often blends in to the background more effectively. In my region, the Northeast, the yellow-shafted sub-species is most common. There is also a red-shafted Northern Flicker, the shaft in both cases referring to the flight feathers. If you are looking at the Northern Flicker from the side while stationary, the only hint of yellow can be detected at the very edges of the wings.

All of the photos on this page depict male Northern Flickers. The most distinct difference between the male and female is the male’s black markings on his cheeks. While one of my field guides calls it a mustache and another refers to it as “black malar stripe,” it always reminds me of eye black glare, like football players use.

Other aspects of the appearance that help to identify a Northern Flicker from other woodpeckers are the spotted belly, as I mentioned the golden-brown coloring, and a gray head with a distinctive red patch.

Canada Geese

I want to take the time in this post to talk about a less respected bird, the Canada Goose. Most people choose to write off the Canada Goose as a nuisance. They make a mess in parks and nature preserves. They don’t tend to be friendly, especially in the spring. They don’t have a nice song, and they aren’t pretty to look at. So what’s to like?

Perhaps one of the reasons they aren’t liked is that they are not native to many of the places they now call home. However, despite making the invasive species website- which was somewhat akin to America’s most wanted for our animal friends- being invasive was not really their idea. It is hard to believe today, but the geese population was actually failing in the 1950s. Because of this decline, they were moved to urban and suburban areas where they would not naturally have occurred. They have now thrived in those areas for generations, creating the overpopulation problem we are familiar with today.

Due to the abundance of Canada Geese in my area, I have had a lot of opportunity to photograph them and observe them closely. I think that they have a strength and an intelligence that I truly admire. They also have strong family ties. They are, and this is incredibly impressive, adaptable. One of the reasons we see so many Canada Geese is that they have learned to live in many different situations.

Apparently, Canada Goose identification can actually be more of a challenge than you would think. They are several subspecies, no doubt a result of that adaptability in their nature. All are basically the same to the untrained eye, with the black head and neck, a gray-brown body and white highlights on the chin and backside. Most measure about 36-46 inches, making them much bigger than most ducks but not quite the size of a swan.

One of nature’s first signs of Autumn, the Canada Goose’s V- formation is iconic. The V is also symbolic of the strong family and group ties these geese have. Like Muted Swans and several other waterfowl, Canada Geese mate for life. They also have strong attachment to their nesting locations, and return or remain in the same territory every year. A pair will only have one brood a year, in a nest located near the water. They can have anywhere from five to ten eggs, which incubate for about a month. According to PETA, parent geese can communicate with goslings while they are still in the egg, but I didn’t find any other reference to this in my research. Both parents watch and teach their young for about two months.

In the non-breeding months, Canada Geese join a larger flock or community. They are very protective and territorial all year round, but this is particularly true when they have young or eggs. While other members of the flock search for the aquatic plants, insects, seeds, crustaceans, or berries which make up a goose’s diet, one member of the flock stands guard. The sentinel is easy to spot, usually the only one with its head up, searching the area like the periscope on a submarine. Upon the approach of danger, he or she will honk a warning to the others. The protective nature of Canada Geese extends to the sick or injured birds within a flock, whom the Geese will protect until death or recovery. Suffice it to say, community spirit runs strong in the Canada Goose. And they are very orderly. They always cross the street in a straight, line. A few times I could have sworn the leader looked both ways before starting across!

That is not to say that their overpopulation is not a problem. Human feeding, among other factors, has encouraged too many geese to reside in parks and other recreational areas. In these places they lack many natural predators and can have an impact on the water and vegetation through both their presence and microbes in their feces. An overabundance of Canada Geese has had a negative impact on many wetland habitats in particular.

One human attempt to control the rampant numbers of Canada Geese is through licensed hunting. In New Jersey geese can be hunted in the Fall. And yes, you can eat Canada goose. If you are interested in recipes, this might be a good website to check: https://honest-food.net/cooking-my-goose/ But even hunting Canada geese is more complicated that it first appears. New Jersey lies in the flight path of several different groups of Canada Geese. The New Jersey DEP Fish and Wildlife have identified three separate populations of Canada Geese: Atlantic Population, North Atlantic Population and Resident Population (no-migratory). Of these three, the Resident population is the group that has fewer natural predators however, hunting birds that live in suburban and urban areas creates problems. Hunting regulations have been designed to target the groups with highest populations. Bag and time limits are determined based on the variable populations of the migratory groups.

Outside of hunting seasons, some communities, including Greenwood Lake, have conducted culls against the geese populations in the past. In 2019 they canceled their cull for alternative, humane measures including noise, lasers and dogs. Egg addling, or stopping the grown of embryos younger than fourteen days is another method employed to keep the population down. I don’t envy those who undertake these measures, especially as the Humane Society’s Canada Goose addling guide warns “addling active nests is not a solo activity.”

So there you have it, the Canada Goose. Far to complex to fit into a nutshell. Tenacious creatures with endearing family instincts that happen to be overpopulating our parks due in part to first human intervention and human encouragement.

Additional Sources for this post include:

http://www.iucngisd.org/gisd/species.php?sc=1427

https://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/artgoose19.htm

https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/passaic/west-milford/2019/06/14/greenwood-lake-commission-cancels-controversial-canada-geese-cull/1448330001/

https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/wild-good-egg-protocol.pdf

Richard W. DeKorte Park, Lyndhurst, NJ

Another of the twenty parks managed by New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, Richard W. DeKorte Park (https://www.njsea.com/parks-and-trails/ ) was one of the first locations I ventured to when I started birding. It probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this park inspired me to become a bird watcher. We would pass it on the train and I kept wondering what this amazing place was, and how could I get there. One day I finally tried it, and it didn’t disappoint. I still go there regularly, and it never fails to amaze. In the heart of New Jersey’s Meadowlands, this wetland habitat is visited by over 285 different species. The 3.5 miles of trails include a boardwalk through the wetland area itself, as well as some grassy, treed areas. The Manhattan skyline is visible in the background with the highway and train line. Nature truly co-exists with man in this spot.

I always start by heading out on the Marsh Discovery trail with its boardwalk and bird blinds. There are many birds that you are sure to see here in the summer months. Top of the list is tree swallows. They truly dominate the area. Little wonder really. The whole habitat has been populated with tree swallow sized nest boxes, out in the middle of the marsh. They are constantly gliding overhead and chirping to each other in their hyper-active way. They do settle on banisters, nest boxes and vegetation if you are patience enough to wait. I can never get enough of photographing them. The sheen of their feathers in the direct sunlight is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

After the tree swallows, it is Great Egrets and Great Blue Heron you should expect to see. Sometimes, especially in spring and summer, there will be dozens of them, slowly making their way across the marsh, with their steady, exacting steps, heads down watching for anything tasty they might flush out of the mud. It is actually the Great Egrets that first attracted me to this place.

Being a marsh, Seagulls and Terns are also species you are likely to encounter on a walk here. The Seagulls tend to congregate at the mudflats, while the Terns like to explore the whole area. Their antics are more than a bit amusing. The Terns often remind me of the Three Stooges (even when there are more than three), as each of their actions always seem to be a direct reaction to some action another in the flock took. He hops away, I hop after. He flies up and lands, I fly up and land a little farther. These waterbirds are some of the only birds who remain on this spot through the winter, not a light-hearted prospect. I give them a lot of credit for braving the exposed waters, especially when the icy winter wind blows.

Other waterfowl can also be seen and at some points, such as early spring, you can see five or six different kinds of ducks. Mallards are usually abundant, but I have also spotted Northern Shovelers, Bufflehead and Greater Scaup. Canada Geese are sometimes here and the occasional Muted Swan can also be found floating around. Double-Crested Cormorants really like the mudflats. They usually congregate their in large groups, but you can sometimes see a lone Cormorant drying off its wings in the sunshine.

The song birds need their acknowledgment as well. Song Sparrows and Marsh Wrens fill the air with their songs. Red-Winged Blackbirds also make their presence known either with a loud call or a sudden appearance in the reeds. Catbirds, Robins and the occasional Grackle also like this spot, particularly the more forested areas.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to this location is the surprises that seem to be waiting at every turn. Yes, I see a lot of the same birds each trip, but I never know what other birds and animals might be waiting around the next curve in the boardwalk. I have seen woodchucks, painted turtles and so many lovely butterflies here. Some of my other favorite rare encounters include a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs wandering in the mudflats, a bright yellow Palm Warbler and a Yellow-Rumped Warbler.

Killdeer

I have only had the opportunity to see Killdeer in the wild once. I came across a pair this spring, on the side of Barbour’s pond. They were enjoying the soggy ground near the water’s edge. No doubt it was in the perfect condition for rooting out tasty insects and other invertebrates to eat. As the only “shore bird” that doesn’t really like the Jersey Shore, Killdeer are commonly found by fresh water ponds or lakes, in parks and even golf courses.

They struck me instantly as very comical to watch. A more nervous and neurotic looking bird I have never seen! Even its high-pitched call of “Kill-deer” seems fraught with anxiety. They sprint short distances, in the most awkward (one of my field guides referred to it as clock-work) style, halting suddenly and then remaining incredibly still for a moment before reaching down to take a bite of something. Their movements are perhaps more exaggerated by the shape of their bodies. Eleven inches long, they still seem to be too tall on their thin, stilt legs. Strangely disproportionate.

The Killdeer is not a particularly pretty bird. Both the males and females look the same, having a dull brown back with a white neck and belly, as well as some accents of white on the face. The most important and distinct feature of the Killdeer is the two black rings around its neck. It is the presence of two rings that differentiates the Killdeer from other Plover species, which all possess only one. If you are able to get close enough, you may also notice the eyes of the Killdeer. Large black pupils surrounded by a thin yellow-red iris, add to the appearance of nervousness and anxiety.

Killdeer are apparently most well-known for their distraction techniques. They are in fact, a primary example. When predators approach a Killdeer nest, one of the adults will act wounded, favoring a wing and lead the danger away from their nest. Once they are free and clear, they fly away to safety themselves. I hope that one day I will be able to observe more Killdeer and perhaps even witness this textbook maneuver for myself.

Black-Crowned Night-Heron

As many readers may have realized by this point, I am not one of those bird watchers out only to spot a rare bird. No ticking boxes for me. I appreciate and enjoy all the birds I observe. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get excited when I happen upon something unusual or unlikely.

One weekend morning in mid-October, on a walk in the Celery Farms (Allendale NJ), I had a lucky sighting. Not far from the parking area the path turns around a small, narrow extension of the lake. This is usually where the turtles hang out on overturned logs. And that is where we saw it, standing on a log and peering into the algae covered water. I knew it was a small heron of some kind, but it wasn’t until I had time to compare my photos to my books that I realized it was a Black-Crowned Night-Heron.

What makes this so excited is that, as its name suggests, Black-Crowned Night-Heron aren’t usually spotted at 10am. They are 3rd shift birds, sleeping during the day and feeding at night. The best time to see them is usually dawn or dusk. Yet there he was, hunting. The coloring was unmistakable and the white plumes on the head are clearly visible in my photos, despite using my phone camera. The Heron seems tiny at 24-25 inches when compared with the Great Blue Heron at 45-47 inches.