Palm Warbler

According to my Birds of New Jersey and Birds of Eastern North America, the Palm Warbler isn’t a common bird to my region. Despite that fact, I have laid my eyes on a couple on my various walks. I guess the few I saw were in New Jersey on vacation.

There is definitely no way that I mistakenly identified this bird. With olive-yellow on its back, a bright yellow neck and belly and a chestnut brown cap on the top of its head, this bird is very difficult to confuse with any others. The impression of yellow overall was not so bright as that of the Yellow Warbler and the chestnut cap is very distinct as many other warblers with yellow bodies have black trimmings.

My first sighting of a Palm Warbler was by far the best. I was in the Meadowlands and the Warbler was on the ground behind a bush. The olive-yellow of its feathers made it stand out prominently and I was able to get photos while only being a few feet away. He wasn’t really upset by my presence, and continued to do his thing, including puffing up his feathers for a good cleaning.

My second and third sightings were both more fleeting, frantically trying to get a photo or two in while the bird was still in site. As with all Warblers, Palm Warblers are small, quick and always seem to be moving. They will sit on branches, but like an antsy child, they are always on the move. A bit to the left…move back where they started…hop up a branch to see if that is better…jump back down to the original spot…hop to the left. If many of the species of Warbler were not bright yellow, I don’t know if I would ever catch any of them on camera at all. My second sighting was again in New Jersey, at Garret Mountain Reservation and the third was while walking the Albany Pine Bush in upstate New York.

The Palm Warbler probably derived its name during its winters in Florida and the Caribbean. Most of the population summers in Northern Canada. They nest on the ground or on the lower level of trees, which may be why my first Palm Warbler was under a bush. They eat insects which they hunt on the ground and on trees.

So let this be a lesson to you. Field Guides are helpful tools, but your own powers of observation are also good. Sometimes Field Guides are wrong. Bird migrations and other natural annual occurrences are effected by weather, urban development and tons of other factors which can combine to change how birds behave and where they live. Don’t doubt what you think you saw, you might be right.

Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve

Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve is another haven of wildlife that can be found in the midst of suburban New Jersey. Formerly a reservoir for the town of Haledon, this space became a Preserve in 2006. The dam is still in place, containing 75 acres of water. This location is the perfect recreation spot for boaters (kayaks or canoes) and fishing, which are both allowed here. Not as wild as some, this Nature Preserve provides a short loop path around the water and an opportunity to enjoy some wild birds from our area. To learn more about this Preserve, visit https://www.franklinlakes.org/flnp

Woodpeckers, Robins, Blue Jays, Northern Mockingbirds and other common forest birds can be found at the Franklin Lakes Preserve. However, for me, the serenity of the water is usually what dominates my attention. Waterfowl are in abundance here, and it is easy to spot Mallards and Canada Geese at any time of the year. Herons and Egrets are much rarer, but they can be found here as well.

However, it is the Mute Swans that I go here to see. There are always at least a pair of them, enjoying the serene waters and searching for aquatic vegetation along the edges of the water and in all the small bays and nooks of the shoreline. Aquatic vegetation actually makes up the majority of their diet, so if you ever see a swan with its beak in some algae, he isn’t hunting, he is munching. While they are majestic to watch, remember to keep your distance, especially during the breeding season, as Muted Swans are extremely aggressive.

Swans are somewhat famous for being monogamous, a romantic feature of their nature which has been referenced frequently in popular culture, including HBO’s the Tudors. While monogamy in birds can vary depending on the species (some only mating for a season) Muted Swan’s mate for life and (this is what pop culture has gripped onto) supposedly when one of the pair dies, the other Muted Swan will not find a new mate. Rather, it is believed it spends the rest of his/her life alone, pining for its lost love. While romantic, this seems unlikely as it would not be great for the survival of the species.

During the breeding season, you can spot the Muted Swan’s nest close to the waterline. In Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve they like some of the smaller little “islands” by the main shoreline. The female sticks pretty close to the nest during incubation, on the couple’s 4-8 eggs. They only have one brood a year, so early spring is the best time to see their nesting behavior and to get a peek at their fuzzy little gray youngsters.

On a Trip to France

One thing I have noticed since becoming a bird watcher, you can’t ever really turn it off. You start almost subconsciously being aware of flutters in the air and cooing from the rooftops. Not that I ever really want to stop bird watching. I am simply observing that we become more aware because of this hobby and the results are usually interesting, no matter where we go.

We had the opportunity to spend a week in Southern France last summer, in a small village located in the Dordogne region. This was our first big trip since we had purchased our new camera and my lovely long lens, so we decided to pack the lot and see what photographic opportunities awaited us. And I am glad we did.

The houses in the village were set-up so that the main living space was on what Americans would consider the second floor, with the ground level being used much like a basement or a garage. The result was that the couch in the living room had a great vantage point of the roof-line across the street. And that was how I first noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a lot of fluttering going on just under the roof. The birds, a very small, quick bird (either a swift or a swallow I wasn’t sure) were popping in and out of a series of mud nests which reminded me of mud wasp nests, just much bigger. There was a whole colony of nests, all in a row, like houses along a street.

After some research into European swallows verses African swallows, with their air speed velocity sans coconuts (in all seriousness, I had no idea there were so many different kinds of swallows and swifts around the globe), I think that they were most likely the common house martin.

If you are interested to see how these fascinating mud houses are created, I found a great video online of cliff swallows building their nest: https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/cliff-swallows-build-nests-from-mud/

The Dark-Eyed Junco- A Winter Resident

It isn’t often that anyone chooses to winter in the Northeast (birds included), but I guess New Jersey is just like Florida to a Canadian bird. A least the Dark-Eyed Junco seems to think so. Juncos spend their summers in Canada, flying South for the winter months. If you leave your feeders fulled in the winter, Dark-Eyed Juncos will probably be regular customers. In winter they are often seen in flocks, some of which include other small birds, such as chickadees and sparrows. When not at a feeder, you will see them foraging on the ground using their “double scratching” technique, which makes them appear to be hopping in place. In summer they eat a varied diet of insects and seeds, but in winter it is all seeds, all the time.

Dark-Eyed Juncos are actually a very common sight in winter throughout the continental United States, but the species is divided into five regional subspecies. The sub-species to frequent the Northeast is Slate-colored; Oregon, White-winged, Grey-headed and Guadalupe being the other four sub-species.

As the name implies, the male Slate-colored Dark-Eyed Junco has a matted or slate black body, with a grey belly and white under-tail. The female is even more muted, with a tan/brown body and white belly and under-tail. At about 5 1/2-6 inches, they are only slightly smaller than House Sparrows and only slightly larger than a Chickadee. Their most defining feature is their rounded belly, which is reminiscent of Santa Claus, even if it doesn’t seem to shake like a bowl full of jelly.

Like so many of nature’s other clues, the arrival of the Dark-Eyed Junco in November tells of impending changes in the weather. When they finally depart New Jersey, often in April, we know that Spring has truly arrived!

Central Park, New York City

As someone who is not a resident of an urban jungle, I often underestimate the quality of nature watching available in big cities. Sure they don’t have bears and bobcats (or at least we hope not) but they often provide more thrills than you were expecting.

To that end, I am willing to admit that I often don’t give Central Park in New York the credit it deserves as a wildlife habitat. When Fredrick Law Olmstead started work on the park in the late 1850s, who knows what animals he foresaw (if any) making a home among its trees and meadows. Expected or not, they found their way there and they are staying.

Beyond the squirrels, pigeons, and the carriage horses, Central Park is home to many of the same birds we see in the suburban parks of New Jersey and New York. In fact, according to the Central Park website, there are 230 different birds that spend time in Central Park throughout the year. Canada Geese and House Sparrows are a given, as are Starlings, Blue Jays and Cardinals.

However, if you luck out, you might spot a Heron or and Egret in one of the many ponds or lakes around the park. One warmer December day, while having a drink outside at the Loeb Boathouse, located not far from the Bethesda Fountain, we noticed a juvenile Great Blue Heron, fishing off one of the overturned rowboats.

On more than one occasion we have also been lucky enough to see a bird of prey in Central Park. Last Autumn we were wandering among the paths and we noticed a good deal of fluttering. We looked up at the tree in front of us to see a Red Tailed Hawk, who had just caught himself lunch, a lovely squirrel, which he proceeded to eat while we watched. First taking dainty bites, he very quickly decided to swallow the rest in one go.

Central Park, it really is a jungle…who knew? For an interactive map of Central Park and more information about the park and all it has to offer, visit http://www.centralparknyc.org

Brown-Headed Cowbird

The Brown-Headed Cowbird is often considered an unsavory character of the bird feeder crowd. Perceived like a seedy, back-alley character from a gangster film, many bird watchers chase the Cowbird away from their feeders. They see the Brown-Headed Cowbird as only a nuisance, taking food from the “pretty” birds. In many ways that could easily be a metaphor for human nature and life, but we won’t dwell on the greater philosophy and psychology behind it.

Brown-Headed Cowbirds are in many ways the loners of the bird world. But this loneliness is self-inflicted. The Brown-Headed Cowbird does not build a nest in which to lay eggs. Instead, the female leaves her grayish-white eggs with brown speckles in the nests of other birds. They are the only parasitic bird to reside in New Jersey. Their eggs have been found in the nests of over 200 different species. Some of these birds recognize an imposer and abandon the nest or remove the Cowbird egg. However, many other species raise the Brown-Headed Cowbirds’ babies along with their own young. It is this leaving of their young, like orphans, to fend for themselves in an ugly duckling situation that leads me to pity them.

But while this behavior may seem appalling to some bird lovers, especially those of us particularly partial to songbirds, we need to remember that such is the nature of nature. Brown-Headed Cowbirds were probably laying their eggs in the nests of other species long before man, pencil and paper in hand, decided to study and record his behavior. We shouldn’t judge them harshly for it.

Enemy # 1

We all have our problems and bird watchers are not immune. After three years of feeding the birds, I have developed a love/hate relationship with our furry, gray friend with his/her bushy tail. You guessed it, I am referring to the Eastern Grey Squirrel.

When I say love/hate, please understand that the worst thing I do is chase them off. I have invested in a few deterrents, with mixed success, including a squirrel guard (not unlike a backward funnel that they supposedly can’t maneuver around), and a slinky, which did work to keep them from climbing my original pole. My new pole has many low hooks, etc. and I have somewhat given up my active attempts to keep these greedy little buggers out of my feeders.

Their antics are fairly amusing and I have begun to think them akin to monkeys, because of some of the positions and situations they manage to get themselves into.

They are fun and sometimes even cute, so I humor them. I do however, recognize that they are eating their way though my wallet, especially when they get up on my feeders and help themselves. Once I came home to a squirrel on the feeder, systematically pushing the seed out to at least five of his buddies, anxiously waiting below, faces turned heavenward. Another time, they had managed to open my suet holder, and knock out a new bar of suet. Not super crazy. However, by the time I caught up with them, a pair of them were trying to run off with the whole suet, one squirrel on each corner. So well planned and executed, I almost let them have it….almost.

They wouldn’t bother me so much if they stayed on the ground and ate what was dropped. However, their chewing and knocking has broken countless feeders (many of which were not very good quality to begin with, I will grant you that). I have even considered feeding them separately, but I decided that might only serve to attract more of the hungry little things to my yard.

To make things worse, they seem to have been teaching the chipmunks bad habits!