One day while walking along the trail in Garret Mountain Reservation,
Woodland Park NJ, I noticed a bird that seemed unfamiliar. As has
become my practice, I immediately started snapping photos.
Identification can always happen at home. I have learned the hard way
that some birds don’t wait around for you to get the best angle.
This is especially true when you spot them in a wild habitat and not
in your yard where a bird feeder provides a nice distraction.
time my plan of action lucked out and I was able to get a few
semi-descent photos of the bird in question before he disappeared
into the trees, not to be spotted again. Once I was able to examine
the photographs of this little guy in more detail, I was able to
determine that I had spotted an Ovenbird. Not common enough to have
earned a spot in my Birds of New Jersey Field Guide,
the Ovenbird can be found in most of the Northern United States and
parts of Canada. At about 5 ½ to 6 inches, the Ovenbird is a
Warbler. Compared to many other Warblers, with their bright yellow
feathers, the Ovenbird’s appearance is muted. A matted brown body
allows him to blend in well with trees and the forest floor, where he
spends much of his time foraging. He does however, have a very
prominent stripe on his head. Almost orange in color, the stripe is
flanked on either side by dark brown or black stripes which serve to
further accentuate this feature. The feathers on his white belly are
streaked with brown, very similar to those of a thrush.
The Ovenbird gets its somewhat odd name from the style of nest it builds. The female builds a nest on the forest floor. The nest is then roofed with dry leaves and other vegetation, leaving only a small slit for a door. This unique nest style has been compared to a Dutch oven, hence the name, Ovenbird. Personally I am not sure I see the similarity. But maybe they mean a colonial Dutch baking oven rather than a heavy duty pot with two handles, which is what I think of as a Dutch oven. If you want to see for yourself, there is a clear photo of an Ovenbird nest at https://natlands.org/mariton-another-reason-to-stay-on-the-trails/
The Thousand Islands is a lovely spot for a vacation or a day trip. There is lots of history, culture and natural beauty. The natural beauty of the islands is in contrast with the industrial might of the many transport ships traveling along the St. Lawrence Seaway. Home to many species, summer inhabitants of the Seaway include Osprey and Seagulls of all types.
This past summer, while on a boat trip in the Islands, I was introduced to Gull Island, a bird watchers’ paradise. Despite the name, Seagulls were not the main attraction of this tiny rock outcrop in the midst of the St. Lawrence River. Rather every available surface seemed to be covered with loud, socially active, nesting Double-Crested Cormorants.
Double-Crested Cormorants are a very interesting bird. Genetically related to a pelican, they resemble a loon while swimming. Both male and female Double-Crested Cormorants are all black birds, rather large in size, but lanky rather than stout at about thirty-three inches. Their long neck is a distinguishing feature, as is its bright, orange-yellow bill and face, made more stunning by the black surround. This bill has a hooked tip, very like a pronounced overbite, no doubt helpful in the pursuit of fish. The “Double-Crested” refers to two plumes or tufts of feathers that develop on either side of its head (about where ears would be) during the breeding season. The final, and in my mind most intriguing physical feature of the Double-Crested Cormorant is its sparkling, crystal-like blue eyes. Their eyes are very special as they have evolved to allow aerial and underwater vision. Underwater vision is particularly key for this species, as the birds diet consists of fish and mollusks.
As you would expect with an aquatic bird, swimming is a big part of the Cormorant’s life. Despite the fact that its name translated from Latin means “Sea Crow,” the Double-Crested Cormorant prefers fresh water to salt. If you see a Cormorant swimming, it is often alone or with a few fellow Cormorants. They bob in the water like a duck or a loon and then suddenly they dive with a great burst of speed and a splash. Because their pursuit of fish can be arduous, they are able to remain under the water for longer periods than ducks or geese. They also swim long distances and often pop up a yard or so away from their dive spot. Unlike a penguin, the Cormorant swims with its wings at its sides. Once the Cormorant returns to dry land, it is a very common site to see it standing with wings outstretched, the best method of drying its feathers in the sun.
Cormorants are colonizing birds, meaning they choose to nest in large groups. They are happy building nests either in trees or on the ground, however the whole colony will build consistently, so you will never find a colony where some nests are in trees with others on the ground. Each mating pair have one brood a year, of three or four eggs on average. The young Cormorants who grow up in ground colonies will get out of their nests after three or four weeks and wander the community, however they will still return to their nests to be fed. As they develop, the juvenile Cormorants take on a light gray or brownish color until their mature feathers grow in.
There is some controversy regarding the presence of Cormorants in the Great Lakes and Thousand Islands regions. Once a common resident of the Great Lakes Region, their populations were greatly diminished by a combination mandated population control and pollution in the 1940s-1960s. The elimination of DDT and other pesticides allowed their populations to grown throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Following this slow beginning, the population has been steadily increasing and they now thrive throughout the Great Lakes region. However, as living memory doesn’t reach beyond the time of DDT and its effects on the environment, many people look on the Double-Crested Cormorant as an invasive species.
The Cormorants’ large populations throughout the region has caused them to attract the attention of the fisherman, who feel the presence of so many Cormorants is negatively affecting their fishing. There are even some shocking reports of unlicensed killing of whole Cormorant colonies in an effort to protect fish populations in the region. The worst report I came across occurred in 1998 outside of Watertown, New York. 800 birds were killed in the name of recreational fishing. I am sad to say this is not an isolated incident. The decline of the Smallmouth Bass population specifically has been blamed on the increased populations of Double-Crested Cormorants, however the fisheries believe that a number of contributing factors, of which the Cormorant population is only one of many, has led to this population decline. Extensive studies of the Cormorant diet in the Great Lakes and Thousand Islands regions found this concern to be unfounded (study conducted in late 1990s). While a Cormorant’s diet does consist of a variety of sport fish, both Northern Pike and Smallmouth Bass comprised of only 3% of the fish they consumed. The same study found that smaller fish (pumpkinseed, yellow perch and rock bass) made up the majority of the Double-Crested Cormorant’s diet, about 83%. The same study found some differences in the diets of the birds residing in the St. Lawrence verses those birds that colonize in Lake Ontario, however these variances still did not effect the Smallmouth Bass populations. I also feel the need to point out that the Cormorants also do their bit for the Great Lakes/Thousand Islands ecosystems. They eat indiscriminately, meaning that their presence helps battle invasive species of fish and mollusks, such as the alewife and zebra mussel.
While they are innocent of the charges against them with regard to fish populations, the Cormorants are guilty of another crime which some of the locals think is just as bad. Their settlement on an island seems to spell impending doom for all vegetation and trees that live there. This phenomenon could definitely be seen from the state of Gull Island. This is directly related to the Cormorants’ excrement which is very rich with ammonia. The effect is worsened by the fact that the Cormorant lives in colonies, meaning that small areas receive a concentration of the droppings and they are repeat visitors, returning the same nesting location year after year, which gives the vegetation little time to recover.
In the discussion of these Cormorant controversies I do not mean to imply that people are totally wrong or that the Cormorants are completely victimized. I think one look at Gull Island can show that the Cormorant population is thriving in this region, which can have many negative effects on both the vegetation and habitats of other bird species. Rather, I think it is best left up to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and other similar departments on both sides of the lakes to monitor and manage. The Cormorant population is being monitored and controlled in New York, which include nest destruction and nesting deterrents. The idea that wholesale slaughter of a bird population won’t have negative effects on the whole region demonstrates a lack of understanding I thought far behind us. Did we learn nothing from the Dodo? Individuals should never take matters into their own hands. Ecosystems are very delicate webs and the slightest changes can have catastrophic effects.
Do you get cabin fever in January and February? I know I do! One
winter weekend I couldn’t take it any more, so we piled into the
car and off down the road we went. After a bit of driving, we found
ourselves in Clinton, New Jersey. Clinton is the perfect town to kill
some time and wander. Coffee shops, stores with plenty of window
shopping opportunities and the Red Mill Museum, which is well worth a
visit if you are in the mood!
While taking a minute to snap a few picturesque shots of the Red Mill, we discovered another couple had the same idea as we did, and they were taking a stroll along the Raritan River. A pair of Mallards came walking up the ice, slip-sliding as they waddled. I know it isn’t nice, but I couldn’t help chuckling. While some Mallards do migrate to warmer climates in winter, much of the Northeast retains its Mallard populations through the winter. Look for them in places were the freshwater has not completely frozen. They seek winter homes where they will have access to their aquatic food sources.
We also spotted a few Ring Billed Gulls, who were much braver than us
and decided to dip their feet in the water!
Having been under-wowed, and cold, on a winter walk in Richard W. DeKorte Park, my expectations for Mills Creek Marsh in the winter were extremely low. However, I should have realized that Mills Creek Marsh is more sheltered from the bitter winds we encountered in Lyndhurst. Therefore a few more birds seem to shelter here in the winter. Regardless of the number of animals we encountered, the frozen landscape at the Marsh is also much more interesting, with the tree stumps planted in the ice covered water.
We spotted many of the winter residents we expected to see, Mallards,
Canada Geese and Ring-Billed Gulls. They all seemed to be managing
with the icy water. There was enough of a current that some of the
water was still flowing ice free and many of these birds had turned
the icy patches into a shortcut, walking across the ice with the ease
of a figure skater.
One Mallard was so impressed by my camera that he stopped his march across the ice to pose for me. He turned his body and his head several times, holding the pose just like a runway model, complete with attitude. I took several great photos, but the one I selected below I think expresses his personality the best.
The lack of vegetation on the surrounding trees also allowed us to
get a good look at a few feathered friends that we know are at the
Marsh, but don’t usually see so clearly. A very cold and fuzzy
Northern Mockingbird was trying to get some shelter in the branches
of a naked tree. He kept his eye on us, but decided we weren’t so
scary that he needed to hi-tail it. A female Northern Cardinal also
showed herself to us. She took a high open vantage point in a pine
tree, and while she was looking around, I moved a bit closer and took
The water in the Marsh also flows on the outer edge of the trail and
in the winter that water seems less prone to freezing. While taking a
few more photos of the Canada Geese and the Mallards, I noticed a
different duck that I had never seen before. He was a Green-Winged
Teal. According to my New Jersey book he should have been migrating
thorough this area in the Autumn, but it was definitely winter and he
seemed pretty content. I don’t think he had received the memo. The
Green-Winged Teal’s chestnut brown head has a vibrant patch of
green. A matching patch of green on his wing (as his name implies) is
harder to see when swimming.
The Mills Creek Marsh trails are a must visit in winter.
My husband’s family have a lovely tradition, they like to take a
walk on the beach each New Year’s Day. It blows out the cobwebs,
helps with the hangover and is a good move toward working off all of
the Holiday’s tasty treats. We have carried on the tradition, and
every New Year’s Day we try to go for a walk somewhere, although we
don’t always choose the beach. A few year’s ago, I suggested we
take a turn around Richard W. DeKorte Park in the meadowlands.
Previously we had only ever visited these trails in the spring and
summer, but they were always chuck-full of wildlife of every
description, so I didn’t see why winter would be much different.
what I hadn’t accounted for was how exposed to the elements we
would be. The same open landscape that was so great in the summer
meant that we were beaten by the cold winter wind from the moment we
left the car, with no relief. It was a particularly cold winter that
year, which certainly didn’t help.
You have to give us credit though, we braved it. We walked the entire perimeter of the West Pool. Despite the cold we did spot a few birds, hearty enough and brave enough to have endured these Baltic conditions. One single, very fluffy Song Sparrow was trying to look unaffected by the cold. He posed for me on top of a reed, making sure to turn his head a few times, so that I definitely got his best side.
Opposite the West Pool, the Saw Mill Creek Mudflats were mostly frozen over with the exception of a thin flowing stream running through. They were occupied by a very large flock of Mallards. Unlike the Sparrow, they were not trying to prove anything. They all had their faces buried deeply into their chests, hiding their bills from the cold.
A few Gulls were also around. One was very busy hunting, hovering over the water, peering into the depths. His persistence was rewarded in the end and he did catch a rather large fish, which he most definitely did not offer to share with any of the others.
Looking back on the experience, I think I can say with confidence that the wind was definitely fresh. But so far we have never repeated the experience of visiting Richard W. DeKorte Park in the “off-season.” I leave that to those who are made of sterner stuff than myself.