The Tongue of a Heron

On one of my outings this year, I encountered a Great Blue Heron. Often one sees a heron standing still and regal, elegantly waiting for the moment to strike at an unsuspecting victim in the water at its feet. Not this one. It stood on the edge of the Goffle Brook, opening and closing its mouth. I took my photos, as I usually do, in the heat of the moment and while the constant mouth movements did seem a bit unusual, I didn’t think too much about it until after I got home and took a look at the photos.

Once I had the photos on a computer where I could zoom in, I took a really good look at the Heron’s mouth. And that was when I noticed how weird its tongue looked. Usually we think of tongues like our own, a relatively smooth, flat muscle. Not the Heron’s tongue. While the tip was long and thin, the farther back into the bird’s mouth it went, the more grooved and angled it seemed to become. Besides the angles, it had more than one section that was raised, with curves and edges going in several directions. I found the irregular shape interesting and began to wonder why it was formed in such a way. So I decided to do a little research into why a Heron’s tongue is shaped the way it is.

It turns out that not only do birds have tongues that are very different from those of a human, they actually can have very different types of tongues from other birds. The type of tongue a bird has, just like the type of bill or beak, is directly related to what they eat and how they eat it. Nectar collectors like hummingbirds have tongues that differ from woodpeckers or fish eating birds. This is because birds do not have teeth, and therefore their tongues need to take on extra functions that a human tongue would not. Another big difference from human tongues is that most bird’s tongues are not involved in their vocalization or sound making. However, birds do have taste buds, though far fewer than humans. The exact amount of taste buds differs greatly by bird species.

Many fishing birds have tongues with hooks or spikes to help contain their captured fish. But a Heron’s tongue is different from other fish eating birds, like Cormorants or Pelicans, because it also eats amphibians, reptiles, insects and small mammals. Unlike woodpeckers and other birds with long tongues, Herons’ tongues are attached below the mandible bone and are more limited in the their movement. However, this is to their advantage, as it allows more room in their mouth for them to swallow large items. Herons swallow fish and other food whole, and sometimes they regurgitate up to a dozen fish when they are feeding young. So what they need is a tongue that won’t get in the way. Their tongues are shaped not only to allow fish to be swallowed whole, but also to be turned in the bird’s mouth and eaten head first. So now when I see the pink on the inside of a bird’s mouth, I think I will pay a bit more attention. Bird tongues turned out to be much more complicated and interesting than I expected and they can tell the bird watcher a lot about a species, if you know what to look for.

Sources:

https://blog.lauraerickson.com/2014/12/more-about-bird-tongues-than-normal.html?m=1

https://lfpress.com/travel/birds-tongues-reflect-their-diet-habitat

The Queen’s Birds

The ruling houses of Europe have long had a tradition of keeping menageries. Presents of exotic animals were a common gift to the crowned heads of Europe for hundreds of years. In 1235, Henry III began a zoo at the Tower of London, which housed the Royal menagerie until 1835. If you visit the Tower today, besides the royal armor and the crowned jewels, you will have the opportunity to see a variety of animal sculptures, installed to remind visitors of London’s first zoo.

Given the existing legacy of animal gifts to aid diplomacy between nations, it will probably not surprise readers that this custom carries on today. The Queen has a collection of exotic birds. But rather than being banished to the Tower, many of them are happily installed in St. James Park. Situated between Buckingham Palace, the Mall and Whitehall, St. James Park is firmly seated in the tourist district.

The park contains a large lake, which extends almost the full length of the grounds, making it an ideal home for many varieties of birds, including waterfowl. However, Duck Island, on the eastern side of the lake has officially been designated a nature reserve for the collection of birds that live in the park. My one regret about my visit to St. James Park in 2018 is that I did not have my long lens. So please bear with me as the photos I am going to share in this post were taken on my phone.

Easily the most notable, feathered inhabitants of St. James Park are the great white pelicans. Noted as “the famous pelicans” on the official map of the park (see link below) they never fail to draw a crowd. The pelicans, of which there are at least ten, have all been gifts to Queen Elizabeth II from the city of Prague. The first group of four pelicans were presented to the Queen in 1995, with an addition of three more being added to the gift in 2013 and three more (known as Sun, Moon and Star) in 2019. The tradition of pelicans being gifted to English rulers can actually be traced back to 1664, during the reign of Charles II.

A majestic bird that has historically been linked to nobility for centuries, swans have a special place in British society. It is commonly believed that Queen Elizabeth II owns all the swans of Britain. While that is a slight exaggeration, she does own all the Mute Swans that are unmarked and in open British waters. Apparently she only exercises this privilege over a section of the Thames where every year the Swan Upping (a traditional swan counting) takes place. This unique ownership even comes with a special title, the Seigneur of the Swans. With traditions and connections that go back to the Middle Ages, there are many British laws regarding the Mute Swan population that are still on the books. It wasn’t until 1998 that eating a swan stopped being an act of treason.

Given this strong connection between the Queen and Swans, it is little wonder that Black Swans are among the park’s population of fowl. Native to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania and introduced to England and other parts of Europe and North America for domestication, there are now several wild populations in England. The Black Swan is all black, as its name implies, and has a deep red bill. At 45-55 inches, they are smaller than Mute Swans. Conveniently during our visit one of the white swans was hanging out with a black swan, allowing me to snap a comparison photo.

Of course not all the birds that have decided to make St. James Park their home can be classified as exotic. Among the fancier feathered inhabitants of the pond, you will find many which are commonplace. But commonplace for the British isn’t the same as commonplace for North American tourists. Yes of course, as you would expect with any urban park, there were Pigeons, Seagulls and Canada Geese among the groups of birds begging for handouts. However, there were also a few “common” birds that excited me.

Among the birds floating in the water were a large number of Coots. These Eurasian Coots are cousins to the Coots found in North America and greatly resemble them. Mostly black, these Coots also have a pale bill which blends into a vertical white stripe across the front of their heads. If you are able to get a close look, you will also notice their red eyes. However, one of the Coot’s most unique and identifiable features will be impossible to see while they are swimming. The Coot has very strange looking toes. Overly large, their gray-white toes project from yellow legs. They serve a very special purpose, working in the same way snowshoes do, they distribute the weight of the bird over more surface area, allowing them to walk on floating water plants. I wasn’t able to get a good photograph of their feet, but you can see what I am talking about in some of the photos on this site: https://www.beautyofbirds.com/eurasiancoots.html

Among the Coots were another black bird of a similar size, the Common Moorhen. The easiest way to tell these two birds apart is by looking at their beaks and heads. Where the Coot has white, the Moorhen exhibits red on the front of its face. There are some other, more subtle differences, including the Moorhen’s thin white wing stripe and a small amount of white plumage under its tail. Again feet can be a helpful tool. The Moorhen has yellow legs and toes that resemble that of a chicken, thin and much less interesting than those of the Coot. The Moorhen is also smaller, usually about four inches smaller than the Coot.

Standing away from the crowd, we also spotted a lone Grey Heron. An abundant bird which resides in Britain, it behaves similarly to the herons and egrets of America, stalking prey in shallow water. Very similar to the American Blue Heron, the Grey Heron can grow to be between 33 -41 inches. Its plumage is more muted and lacks the blue tint of the Blue Heron, indicating that while these species are similar, their names are appropriate.

There were actually quite a few varieties of geese cohabitating in the park. This included the Greylag Goose. Described as a “bulky” goose, the Greylag is usually between 29-33 inches. Considered abundant in Britain, where many of them reside year-round, the Greylag Goose adapts to many habitats including lakes and wetlands. As far as looks, the Greylag is fairly plain, being a brown-gray, with its neck and head plumage usually being a lighter shade than its wings. Its feet and bill are pale pink.

Next to the Greylag, the Egyptian Goose looks incredibly unusual. Originally found only in Africa, Southern England has had a feral population since they were introduced in the 1800s. Physically smaller than the Greylag (between 24-29 inches), the Egyptian Goose’s plumage looks a bit like a patchwork quilt. Its wings alone sport several colors, including green, brown, dark gray and white. It also has a light gray belly, and tan chest. However, the head is possibly the most distinct. Mostly gray, but with a dark brown circle around the eye, almost as eye catching as a black eye on a boxer. The brown circle is further emphasized as it is surrounded by a thinner flash of pure white feathers. Definitely not a bird to go unnoticed walking down the path.

Among the geese, I also spotted a mismatched pair of…shelducks. Apparently neither really ducks nor geese, the shelduck is a link between these two waterfowl. The pair that I saw actually represented two species of Shelducks. The bird featured on the left in my picture is most likely a female Common Shelduck, with a distinct black-green head, reddish bill, and mostly white body with a band of brown separating its neck from its torso. Its companion, on the right, was the slightly larger Ruddy Shelduck, most easily recognized by its creamy-tan head emphasized by the rest of its darker, brown plumage. The Ruddy Shelduck also sports a black bill and feet.

For a closer look at St. James Park, you can have a look at the map: https://www.royalparks.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/41644/stjamesspark_english_map.pdf

Sources:

https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/the-tower-of-london-menagerie/#gs.6wa0g3

https://www.zoopraha.cz/en/about-zoo/news/director-s-view/11789-her-majesty-s-pelicans

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fascinating-history-british-thrones-swans-180964249/

https://www.beautyofbirds.com/blackswans.html

Friends of a Feather at the Feeder

In honor of International Friendship day, I thought I would write about birds of a feather getting along. As those of my readers who have feeders will know, one of the great joys of watching birds in your yard is being able to witness their antics. Regardless of the species, as a group they are funny creatures. I personally enjoy watching them interact with their fellow feathered creatures. Therefore, I decided to dedicate this post to getting along…at least some of the time.

Little birds generally seem less territorial of feeders. They operate on a “the more the merrier” mentality. I guess when you are that small, a full feeder represents more than you could possibly eat. It has been my observation that most of the smaller birds, sparrows, finches and nuthatches, among others take a flight rather than fight approach the minute an interaction turns the slightest confrontational. This makes sense, given their size. I have noticed that the House Sparrows are also either the most forgiving or the birds with the shortest memory, because two seconds after taking off, back they come for another pass at the feeders.

With bigger birds, it really depends on who they’re interacting with. Blue Jays often use the strategy of crashing in and scaring everyone away. Like a fighter jet, they are in and out again before you are even sure what happened. In comparison, the Northern Cardinals just stand their ground and voice their displeasure, usually pushing up their crest feathers, just in case the rest of their body language hadn’t made their feelings clear enough to the transgressor. But the Cardinals are pretty unpredictable. Sometimes they are happy to share and other days they want all the grub to themselves.

Woodpeckers also seem to have trouble sharing. At times I can totally understand their mood. They are usually hanging from the suet feeder and they only just find a good spot, the feeder only just stops rocking and they are digging their bills into some good chow when suddenly someone lands on the suet and starts the whole thing rocking again. That would annoy anyone! Most times they grab a few bits and cut their losses but I have seen a few get a bit snippy with the offender. One spring a juvenile Downy Woodpecker got tough with a juvenile House Sparrow. The House Sparrow gave it right back, but he did have several brothers to back him up.

Mourning Doves are a gentle giant, usually happy to share with everyone or to clear out if the other bird seems the slightest bit tough. I have seen a few Mourning Doves push other birds away at the feeders on occasion, but it is really rare behavior.

Baltimore Orioles are another story altogether. It is like their beauty makes them God’s gift to the forest. They do not like sharing with anyone and they will fight for what they feel is theirs. Unfortunately for one Male Baltimore Oriole I observed, the Grey Catbird he was challenging was not really in the mood to be pushed around and gave it right back!

While the fighting is funny to watch, I think I do prefer when everyone is getting along nicely at my feeders. Much less spilled seed and more opportunities to get good photos than when they are all ruffled and flitting around to get after each other. I guess all we can do is hope that they settle their own disputes amicably and co-exist peacefully.

New Set-up

2020 has been a year of big changes for my husband and I. I won’t go into detail, as most of the changes aren’t really relevant to this blog. One change however, is. We moved. We still live in Northern New Jersey, and we are actually only one town over and about nine minutes up the road from our previous residence, but my whole bird feeding set-up has changed.

For starters, I have two feeding stations. During the course of moving I found my original feeder pole, which has definitely seen better days. Thanks to some very fat squirrels, it will never be straight again, but it still functions. So I have now set that pole up in our front yard, under a pair of trees. At the moment I am trying to keep it light, one suet and a small seed feeder. I have also relocated the felt birdhouse to the front yard, and plan to screw a wooden house onto the oak tree, just as soon as I find the time.

The backyard set-up is similar to my previous layout. I have my feeder pole with several feeders, including my finch feeder. Not far from the feeder is my birdbath. My two remaining bird houses, the gourd and the two family wooden house on a pole, have been relocated toward the edge of our property, as far from the house as possible, to make the birds comfortable.

So far, the feathered community seems to appreciate my humble contribution to their diets. The neighbors have an impressive bird feeder and house set-up themselves, so the birds are definitely familiar with the area. While I have not yet had time to sit outside and watch, I have noticed Blue Jays, House Finches, Goldfinches, House Sparrows, Starlings, Grackles (in droves), Robins, Nuthatch and a Red-Bellied Woodpecker. I also saw a House Wren briefly, while I was sitting on the front porch. There is also a large population of gray squirrels, although I haven’t caught any of them climbing up either pole yet, so maybe they are not as evolved as the monkey-squirrels that lived in our previous yard. And of course there are chipmunks.

Beyond the normal feeder customers, this new location seems to have a plethora of furry critters roaming about. As with our old neighborhood, there are plenty of bunnies. We have seen several deer, including a very new fawn, just relaxing under our neighbor’s outside table. We even saw a fox run across the street one evening.

Our closest encounters have been with raccoons. The first raccoon we saw wandered up on our deck like he owned the place. We were sitting out at the time, and I am not sure who was more surprised, him or us! After a minute, he recovered and ran across the deck at record speed, sneaking through the rails of the porch, very elegantly until the moment his butt got stuck. He struggled very ungracefully for a few minutes, tail in the air, before finally wiggling through. After all this, he hid under our deck for about fifteen minutes before resurfacing and sauntering back across the deck, right past us, as if it was the most normal thing to ever happen.

The second raccoon interaction involved our recycling can, one night. Three young raccoons had decided to tip over our recycling to find something tasty. When my husband investigated two ran off, but the third stayed happily inside the overturned can. Once he had joined his partners in crime, we cleaned up the mess and my husband when to see if they were still hanging around in our yard. In fact they had made themselves quite comfortable on our deck, so we went inside and watched them from the window. One was trying to get food out of a condiment packet, another was scratching his/her behind and the third was very interested in our grill, checking out every nook. Eventually they decided they were ready to move on and they headed deeper into our yard and over the fence.

All in all, our new home promises to provide a lot of new material for this blog and I look forward to sharing our new backyard adventures with you.

A Juvenile Northern Cardinal

I have said it before, but I will say it again, juvenile birds are so weird. With both the disheveled appearance of their developing adult plumage and their equally awkward behavior, it is little wonder many people’s first reaction upon seeing a juvenile is to assume the bird is sick.

In my backyard I have become accustom to certain juveniles. House Sparrow juveniles, for example, are almost a constant throughout the summer. However, last summer I received a few visits from a juvenile Northern Cardinal and I must say, seeing it in person made such an impression.

I think part of the shock has to do with my impression of adult Northern Cardinals. An elegant, almost aristocratic bird, the Northern Cardinal never seems to have a feather out of place. Male and female alike seem to treat the feeder and their fellow birds with disinterested disdain.

So perhaps it is the elegance of the adults that created such a strong contrast between them and their gawky juvenile. When it first landed, it made quite an entrance. Instead of a graceful decent, it more or less plopped out of the air. Once on the ground it began to wander. Like most toddlers, its attitude was one of wonder, as it explored everything with great interest and curiosity. Every other bird in the area was of particular interest, no doubt because they might be convinced to feed this pitiful little guy, so he didn’t have to fend for himself.

I say guy, but the sex of my juvenile could not be determined by appearance. Juvenile Northern Cardinals are similar in appearance to a female, but they are a duller brown throughout. The only hints of the Northern Cardinal’s famous red can be seen with some red tinting at the breast and tail. During its first visit it’s plumage looked particularly bedraggled. However, it visited more than once over the course of the summer, so I was able to see the progression from the scruffy youth toward the sophisticated adult. If you think about it, it was looking pretty good, considering that it was born naked except for a few tufts of grayish-brown down.

Additional Source:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/lifehistory

Common Yellowthroat

If you only bird watch in your own backyard you can really miss some of nature’s most interesting creatures. And you don’t really need to go that far to see them. There are so many beautiful birds that live in our neighborhoods, if not directly in our yard. One perfect example is the Common Yellowthroat.

The Common Yellowthroat is found in open fields and marshes, usually near water. Within that range they are highly adaptable. Their choice of habitat is probably greatly affected by their diet of insects, which is also a reason why you won’t see these little guys visiting your feeders.

Fairly small at five inches, they stick to vines, reeds and bushes with heavy vegetation, making them more difficult to spot. They also hop around fairly quickly. According to The Birds of New Jersey, Common Yellowthroats are one of the most common breeding birds in the state, spending their summers here. You couldn’t prove it by me. Another book described them as “secretive,” which I think is an accurate description, and goes a long way to explain my relatively few sightings. I always feel extra pleased when I am able to spot, identify and photograph one of these little guys before he disappears from view. Most advice seems to agree that learning to recognize the call of the Common Yellowthroat is your best approach to more successful spotting. If you would like to hear its “witchety-witchety-witchety song” you can hear some clips here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Yellowthroat/sounds

If you can get a clear visual, identification is usually a no-brainer. Their backs are what the field guides describe as an “olive brown,” but what I would refer to as a mustard brown. They have a relatively large patch of bright yellow on their throat and breast, which terminates into a white belly. The male has one feature which distinguishes him very easily from his female counterpart, and most other birds his size, a black mask across his eyes, outlined in white. Imagine the lone ranger in bird form. If you can see a Common Yellowthroat in profile, you will probably notice his thin pointed black beak.

The Common Yellowthroat have a lot of time over the summer to hop around in the bushes looking for insects. They spend less than a month caring for their three to five babies, with the female incubating the nest for eleven to twelve days and the pair feeding their young for about ten days. This fairly quick turnover allows the Common Yellowthroat to have two broods each breeding season. That being said, their young remain dependent on their parents longer than is the case with most warblers.

So next time you are on a walk, and you hear a rustle in the reeds, keep an eye out for the masked ranger of the marsh, the Common Yellowthroat!

Baltimore Orioles

Baltimore Orioles are one of bird-watching most prized songbirds, beloved for their song and bright, distinctive coloring. Baltimore Orioles are very common throughout New Jersey, though they are less likely to be seen in the Pine Barrens. Besides those birds that decide to reside in the Garden State all summer, the best times to see these beauties is actually in the spring and fall, when their numbers increase with the migration. The earliest sightings are usually mid-April. Typically they have migrated completely by late September, heading south to winter in the much warmer climates provided by Central and South America.

Baltimore Orioles are easy to spot and even easier to identify. As one of the northeast’s only orange birds, they are difficult to confuse with anything else. Both sexes are the same size, growing to be between seven and eight inches. However, it is only in size that the sexes are similar. The male Baltimore Oriole displays his orange coloring on his belly, across his shoulders and the underside of his tail. Though limited to certain areas, the orange appears brighter and more startling because it contrasts so strongly with his black head, back and wings. He has white wing bars and white flashes can be seen on this wings while he is in flight.

The female Baltimore Oriole has more orange plumage than the male, with an orange head. The tint of her orange feathers is slightly duller than her male counterpart, but only just. Only her wings and back are gray-black, or olive with white wing bars. She looks very similar to female Orchard Orioles or Hooded Orioles, but their plumage is more yellow than orange. If you have time to study them beyond the dazzle of their feathers, you will notice that the Baltimore Orioles have dark, penetrating eyes, a pointed gray bill and gray-black legs and feet.

Baltimore Orioles like to live on the edge of deciduous woodlands, and don’t mind being close to human habitation. They choose to build the nests high up in the tallest trees. Their nests are very interesting, being a sock-like sack that dangles down from a branch. They make it by weaving plant fibers together. For images of an Oriole nest being built, visit: https://www.nephotographyguild.com/2016/03/baltimore-oriole-nest/

Once the nest is ready for their four or five blue eggs, the male leaves the female to incubate for twelve to fourteen days. Once the eggs hatch, he returns and they feed the new babies together for the next two weeks. As they grow, the juveniles will take on the plumage of a female, with the males not growing their adult plumage until they are in the second or third year.

A Baltimore Oriole’s diet is widely varied. They eat insects, but also like fruit and nectar. They will come to feeders for fruit, nectar and suet. Jam/jelly feeders is another favorite. They definitely have a sweet tooth. As they grow, the adults will not be shy about bringing their fledglings along to feeders, so as the summer progresses you might have an opportunity to see the whole family.

Painted Turtles

Today I want to take a little time to focus on a non-feathered inhabitant of New Jersey’s many nature parks, the Painted Turtle. A common northeastern reptile, I encounter Painted Turtles on many of my excursions, as I am sure do most nature lovers. I am very fond of these colorful little guys, with their often grumpy faces and knowing eyes.

The Painted Turtle is one of the most common turtles in North America, being found from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In New Jersey they are most active between April and September. Because of their wide range, there are actually four types of painted turtles: Eastern, Midland, Western, and Southern. Therefore, the turtles that I see here in New Jersey are most likely of the Eastern variety.

As its name implies, the Painted Turtle is very colorful. Its black or dark brown skin is striped with a series of horizontal red and yellow streaks. The stripes reappear on the turtle’s butt. Its similarly dark brown shell is edged in red flashes. All together these markings make the Painted Turtle very recognizable. If you are on the lookout for a Painted Turtle, don’t be looking for anything too big. They typically don’t grow larger than seven inches. Generally the females do grow larger than the males, but not to the degree that you could identify the genders by size alone. Usually, they will not grow beyond the means of their habitat, basing their size on the available food in the area.

Known as a “pond turtle,” Painted Turtles adapt to almost any body of still water. They are commonly found in ponds, marshes, beaver ponds and slow moving streams, however they prefer bodies of water with muddy bottoms and vegetation. The presence of water is key, as they are very active swimmers. Besides swimming, their other favorite activity is basking in the sun. If you approach a pond quietly, you are almost guaranteed to see at least one basking turtle, with its neck and back legs outstretched to their limits, balancing on a rock or log and soaking up the rays. But be ready for the “kerplunk” that inevitably follows. The minute the turtle senses your presence it will pop back into the water for safety.

Breeding season for the Painted Turtle begins in early spring. At that time males can be observed leaving their ponds and habitats and sometimes crossing a lot of terrain, in search of a female. Once they have mated, the female nests between May and June. She will typically build her nest within a few yards of the body of water she calls home, but some females have been known to travel greater distances to find the ideal nesting area.

Painted Turtles can lay anywhere between two and eight eggs, however five or six is typical. Once laid, the eggs will incubate for up to eighty days, usually hatching in late summer. The hatchlings, who look like miniature adults, will remain in the nest until the following spring. And who would blame them? It is a dangerous world for a little turtle. Painted Turtle nests are commonly raided by skunks, raccoons, foxes, snakes and other small mammals that eat the eggs. Once hatched, the juveniles are still in danger. They have been known to be eaten by large fish, snapping turtles, herons, crows and raccoons. Humans also cause some casualties both with vehicles and lawn mowers.

The young Painted Turtle’s best strategy for survival is to get bigger, and those that survive the early days do just that. While adult Painted Turtles are omnivores and eat a combination of meat and vegetation, the young Painted Turtles’ diet is a concentration of meat protein. With the nutrients present in the meat, they are able to double in size in their first year out of the nest. Once they grow larger, their diet will become more varied. Adult turtles eat beetles and other bugs/insects, algae and small fish. If they survive their first few years, Painted Turtles can be in for a long life. They have been known to live between twenty and forty years in the wild. They reach sexual maturity and begin breeding around ten years old.

Sources:

http://www.reptilesmagazine.com/Care-Sheets/Turtles-Tortoises/Painted-Turtle/

https://srelherp.uga.edu/turtles/chrpic.htm

https://www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/reptiles/turtles/eastern-painted-turtle/eastern_painted_turtle.php

https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife/Fact-Sheets/Painted-Turtle

American Goldfinch

Found throughout the state of New Jersey in great numbers, it is little wonder that the American Goldfinch was officially declared the New Jersey state bird on June 27, 1935. Not only are they found around the state, many of the Goldfinch stay around all winter. However, in northern New Jersey we usually only see them in spring and summer as many of the state’s population migrate further south with the cold weather, in search of larger sources of food. At one time the population was noticed to decline as the House Sparrow population increased, but today the numbers have stabilized and the species is not considered under threat.

At five inches, the American Goldfinch is an inch smaller than most sparrows. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in color. We all know this iconic bright yellow bird. The male has a black patch at the front of his head, as well as black wings and a tail. The wings have small bars of white, and a small patch of white is sometimes visible on its belly, right where the tail connects to its body. The female is just duller in color all around. The classic example of bird species where the vibrant male plumage is in contrast with a female of mellower coloring. The female’s yellow is just duller, almost grayer than her male counterpart. The black and white of her wings is also a bit more drab and she lacks the black on her head.

The male American Goldfinch does experience one of natures more drastic molts. After the conclusion of the mating season, the males lose their bright luster and appear much more muted, almost indistinguishable from the females. He does not even retain his black forehead plumage. His transformation in early spring, back into the brighter version of himself can sometimes seem even more extreme. During this process the males often look ill or strange, with patches or tufts of white scattered among the brighter yellow feathers.

The American Goldfinch eat a wide variety of seeds, as well as some berries, flowers and the occasional insect. They will visit seed feeders, but if you want to be sure that they find you, you can fill a feeder with exclusively Nyjer seeds. Nyjer attracts finches the same way that catnip calls to cats. It really works. Nyjer seeds come from the African yellow daisy, and they are so appealing to the finches because of their high oil content. Unfortunately, the Nyjer seeds are more expensive than the average backyard bird mix.

If you do succeed to attract New Jersey’s mascot to your feeders, be prepared for some of the most wimpy behavior you have ever seen. Goldfinch are not just flighty or shy, they are the most hesitant bird I have even seen. Often coming to my yard in groups of three to seven, they will slowly hop from branch to lower branch, calling to each other in their high-pitched squeaks. I swear the squeaks have a questioning inflection. “Is it safe?” “Is it safe?” They leap frog their way down the trees until the group finally convinces one bird (often a female, which I find interesting) to go the distance and land on the feeder. Once the guinea pig passes the test, the others will tentatively make their way over, often one at a time. But the slightest motion from an observer, or another bird, and they are all off like a shot, back up to the top of the tree, to start the process all over again.

If you are looking for the American Goldfinch beyond your own backyard, you can frequently find them in fields with high grass and weeds. They are also fond of open woodland. Gardens with lots of sunflower type plants are another good spot to look. Outside of the breeding season, they can be found in groups of up to twenty.

The American Goldfinch is known to be late to nest, waiting until late August or sometimes even in early September before they nest. The females usually build their cup-shaped nest in the fork of a tree branch and, like the hummingbird, they use spider silk and caterpillar webbing on the outside of the nest as binding. Due to their late start, the American Goldfinch only have one brood. Each brood consists of between four to six blue eggs, which the female incubates. The male will return to the nest periodically to feed her, but she sometimes has to call him and beg for him to return. Once the eggs hatch, the male assists with the feeding of the young. From year to year they will select different mates and are not monogamous.

Source:

To learn more about nyjer seeds visit: https://www.thespruce.com/birds-that-eat-nyjer-seed-386533

Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge

Exactly a year about, I found myself camping with a friend in Rhode Island. We were staying just over the Connecticut border in Burlingame State Campground. It was a lovely spot and great for outdoor activities, with the campsite right on a small lake. One day we decided to leave the campground for a hike at the nearby Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, which encompasses 787 acres, is home to roughly three hundred bird species, over forty mammal species and twenty reptile and amphibians. The habitats included within the borders of the refuge include fields, shrublands, woodlands, fresh and saltwater ponds and sandy beaches and dunes. What makes it extra special is that this refuge is the only undeveloped coastal salt pond in the whole state of Rhode Island. For we two-legged mammals, the refuge also provides roughly three miles of nature trails, including two observation platforms.

When we arrived at the refuge it was late morning. The day was already very hot. As we set out on the trail, it was amazing how green everything appeared. As we got closer to the water, many of the trees grew in curved and sprawling directions rather than heading straight up to the sky. The appearance of dry stone walls here and there added to one’s impression of a mystical, otherworldly atmosphere. You felt that seeing a fairy or a leprechaun wouldn’t be that out of place in these woods.

When we did spot some movement in the trees, it turned out not to be a fairy after all. Rather a lone Cedar Waxwing was hoping around the branches, either snacking or collecting some material for its nest. Always easy to identify with its distinct body type, black mask and yellow tail tip, this Cedar Waxwing was so busy, it made no attempt to hide from us.

Further down the trail we saw another flash of movement, this time a brighter, yellow flash. A Yellow Warbler perched on a branch just long enough for us to get a decent look at it and snap a few photos before it was off again, a bundle of energy and activity.

At this point the land around the trail became noticeably narrower, as we approached the peninsula where the Osprey Point observation platform was located. We noticed that the water had a foggy haze over it, helping to further enhance that mystical atmosphere we had begun to sense earlier. Unfortunately it also negatively affected our visibility.

Once up on the wooden observation platform we were confronted by a rather large bush or shrub, which had used the man-made platform as a trellis to allow it to reach even further into the air, toward the sun. But while the vegetation obscured our view even more, it was itself a haven for many of the smaller birds that love that kind of covering. A Song Sparrow was the first to show himself to us, belting out his song with great enthusiasm. Rustling in another part of the bush revealed a male Common Yellowthroat who came into view only long enough for me to begin lifting my camera before he hurried back into the network of vines and leaves, away from sight. However, after a few minutes, a much less jumpy female Common Yellowthroat came into view. She was much less skiddish than her male counterpart and I was able to get some very clear photos of her as she gleamed among the flowers.

Extending our gaze beyond the vegetation, we were able to spot one Double-Crested Cormorant, fishing in the brackish water. Additional movement on the water’s surface caught our eyes. But what we saw was definitely not a bird. It took us a few minutes of guessing before it came close enough for us to realize we were looking at an otter. Whether it was a river or sea otter is difficult to tell, but it was probably a river otter, as this was a fresh water pond. It turned out to be one of several that we saw when we started looking closer. They appeared to be bringing building materials from deeper water in toward shore, possibly to build a nest. They were much bigger than I expected.

After watching the otters for quite a long time, we headed back on the trail and went to the second observation platform, Otter Point. There the fog was just as thick, but the vegetation was a bit thinner. We watched a pair of Canada Geese make their way slowly across the water, when we saw a large bird fly in and land on the naked branch of a tree across the water from us. After a few minutes the Osprey flew off, caught a fish and then returned to the same perch and began to eat it. The irony was not lost on us that we saw otters at Osprey Point and an Osprey at Otter Point.

The Osprey’s meal reminded us that we were ready for lunch ourselves, so we started to head back along the trail. Emerging from the woods, the trail skirts the edges of a large, open grass field. On one of the only trees in the area, a gnarly looking fruit tree, we noticed a Tree Swallow. He was most likely resting after having flown repeatedly over the field gathering the many insects that were hovering in the thick and humid air.

Before reaching the car, the trail took us alongside the Farm Pond, a scenic little body of water, covered in vegetation. Getting closer to look for fish or turtles, we spotted several frogs floating among the lily pads. Most likely American Bullfrogs, these frogs floated below the water’s surface, allowing only their eyes, and sometime the tips of their noses to emerge above. Having spotted several frogs, we once again headed for the car. We didn’t make if far before we were distracted by the rustling of leaves high up in a maple tree on the opposite shore. A quick look through my lens revealed a rather noisy female Baltimore Oriole, picking at something, possibly some tasty insects or sap. Having seen her eating confirmed that we were past ready for lunch, and we practically marched back to the car to go out in search of our own sustenance.

For more information about Trstom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, visit: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/trustom_pond/