Birding in the Snow

If you are looking for a unique photograph, precipitation always adds a little something. Snowy bird pictures are some of my favorite to take, but in some ways they are also the most challenging. Not only are you exposing yourself, sometimes for extended periods, to cold and damp conditions, but snow can reflect the light in ways that affect the photograph’s exposure. While including snowflakes in the shot is part of the desired effect, they can sometimes wreck havoc on your focus. And then there is also the terrain. Walking in snow and potentially ice, especially with a huge camera lens throwing you off balance, isn’t always fun. But the challenges are part of what makes the experience all the more rewarding, especially when you do get that great snowy bird photograph.

In my experience, the best time to get a snowy bird photograph is after the storm has passed. If you are out in the midst of a storm, trying to find birds to photograph, you will realize that many of the birds are smarter than you. They are tucked away out of the weather somewhere warm and much less exposed.

However, once the storm has passed, out they all come, and they begin rummaging in the snow for food. The search for food can create opportunities for interesting photographs as the birds get snow on their beaks, ruffle their feathers and sometimes seem to be playing. The snow also sometimes helps you spot birds your wouldn’t ordinarily see, as they make more noise knocking snow of branches and other perches. Many birds also show up even more clearly in the snow, their bright feathers making it easier for you to find them in a white blanket of snow.

Winter is really when having feeders out in your yard can put you at a great advantage. Yes, birds will find you any time of the year, but winter is when they will need to visit your feeder the most and you never need to leave the convenience (and warmth) of your own home.

If you are like me and you really enjoy snow and snowfall, you might find yourself out amid the flakes. Just remember to keep an eye on your light exposure, be careful of your footing and be patient. I try to take twice as many photographs in snowy conditions, just to increase my odds of having one decent photograph.

So glove up and enjoy the snow!

Nature in My Backyard

2020 has been a very weird year. While the birds haven’t been affected by Covid-19 in the slightest, in many cases their habitats have seen a drastic increase in human foot traffic this past year. Trail parking lots that would sometimes only see a few cars in the course of a week are now overflowing every weekend and even fairly busy during the week. I can’t blame everyone for wanting to get out and embrace nature. Perhaps a positive, if indirect result of the pandemic will be that it will have created more nature lovers.

There are many discussions and opinions about these nature newbies around the internet, both excitement and concern that people are not acting appropriately (staying on the trail, removing their trash etc.) but I don’t wish to add my voice to the mix on that particular topic. The only reason I brought up the increased attendance is to explain that as a result I have not been hitting the trails as much as I did in previous years.

But, I am learning that you don’t have to go all that far to find wildlife in your own habitat. And I am not just talking about the usually attendees at your bird feeder. I mean wild, wildlife. Just this summer and fall there were notices about a fox, coyote and bear roaming my area (not together obviously). Since relocating to our new nest in July, my husband and I have witnessed quite a few more unusual animals and I am not only referring to our run in with the three young raccoons which I wrote about in July.

Since we had such a hot August, my husband and I made a habit of grilling and sitting on our deck after dinner, once the sun had stopped beating down on the boards. As a result, we often witnessed the transition between day and night. I am not just talking about the color of the sunsets, but also the more subtle transition as the daytime birds and insects start to bed down for the night and nature’s third shift starts to clock in.

One of the things we continually loved to watch was the emergence of the bats. They were amazing to watch, soaring through the air so gracefully. Often watching them feels like witnessing an optical illusion, as they seem to appear and disappear in the fading light. Unfortunately, even after great discussion and thought, it was determined that we don’t have sophisticated enough equipment to photograph the bats at the moment.

One night while on the deck we heard a loud commotion. Some Blue Jays had nested in the large oak behind our house, and they were clearly unhappy. We decided that based on the noise, which included a lot of rustling of leaves, that they must be trying to fend off a predator that had wandered too close to their abode. Sure enough, they soon ran the unwelcome guest off and we saw a large bird fly from our oak and settle in the very top of a large conifer a few backyards away. Despite the lack of direct sunlight, or perhaps because of the dusky lighting, we could see it very clearly. My husband ran to get the camera, and we took a few shots, which considering the lighting conditions, I feel it is fair to say, didn’t turn out half bad. After looking at these photos zoomed in, we can confidently say that it was not a hawk, but an owl that was plaguing the Blue Jays. As you can seen from the photos, the conditions are not ideal for identifying the exact species, general body shape and size being the only features we can use for comparison. If I had to make an educated guess, I would say it was probably a Great Horned Owl.

While we are on the subject of larger birds, just the other day a Red-Tailed Hawk decided to take a rest in the oak tree in my front yard. I only happened to notice it because I was on the porch, putting up some of the outdoor Christmas decorations. By the time I had my camera, it left its perch, but as luck would have it, it decided to settle in a tree behind my neighbor’s house, so I was still able to snap a few photos. After all, what is a long lens for? While the hawk had its back to me the whole time, I managed to get view of its profile, showing his hooked beak. The red of its tail feathers can also be seen, if a bit subtle in the overcast autumn light.

Of course, I would be remiss to write about backyard wildlife and not talk a bit about deer. I am used to seeing deer on my hikes. But until I moved here I was not accustomed to their brazenness. Since we relocated it is not uncommon to look out our kitchen windows into the backyard and see deer, only a few yards from our house or our neighbors’. On the few occasions we have ventured out to take a few pictures, our presence doesn’t startle them in the least. Usually they look up for a few seconds before putting their heads back to the ground and focusing on the task at hand. We aren’t just talking fawns or a few misguided does either. We have had bucks, and on one occasion a pair of bucks, without an indication that they sense even the slightest danger. If anyone needs to be taught about social distancing, it’s them!

Autumn Rambles

I mentioned over the summer that my husband and I had relocated to a new nest. Well, that was greatly due to the fact that we were expecting our own little hatching. Our daughter joined us in September and as a result our nature walks and outings have taken on a slightly different form. Instead of a camera bag full of lens options, we now have a diaper bag. Instead of hilly hikes in the woods, we have been sticking to fairly mild trails, usually closer to suburban neighborhoods. If I am honest, the choice of terrain really has more to do with easing myself back into physical activity, but we can blame it on the baby.

As we began taking the baby on airings, I noticed that my focus was greatly changed. When I even thought to bring along my camera, my photos were all of the baby. Nature had taken a back seat. However, that changed recently. One of our rambles this Autumn took us to Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve where we made a rare (at least for me) sighting of a small flock of Hooded Mergansers. I happened to have my camera on this walk, and just like that, the bird watcher was back! (I did/do still take an exceptionally large number of photos of my daughter, don’t worry.)

I really love Mergansers in any of the three varieties: Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers and Red-Breasted Mergansers. They are all just so sleek looking, and they almost give the appearance of an upper-class snob with their fur collars popped at the other ducks in the pond. Based on my observations, even the Common Mergansers aren’t all that common, not in comparison to Mallards, Canada Geese and other waterfowl that you spot in every park in the world. According to The Birds of New Jersey,Hooded Mergansers are not common summer residents in most of the state. They are migrants and winter residents, arriving in late November and can be seen in most places with water, although they are more common near the coast. They typically arrive in pairs or groups of about ten birds. Once in their winter quarters, they meet up with other pairs to form groups of between 100-200 Hooded Mergansers.

The Hooded Mergansers are easy to identify and, as the name indicates, it is all about the hood. Unlike the other two species of Mergansers, the male Hooded Merganser has an arrangement of feathers on his head that form a large and very distinct crest or hood. The male has a sleek black body, with some brown or rust just at the waterline. A mostly black head makes the white patch on his crest pop even more. The male can actually open and close his crest at will, using it to attract attention.

The female Hooded Merganser also has a hood or crest, but as is the case with so many species, hers is much less flashy or eye catching. Its feathers are the same brown and rust color as the rest of her body. Her hood is also not nearly as round as his.

As we continued our walk we were able to spot a few more treats. We saw a few Double-Crested Cormorants. It is not unusual to see a few of them at this preserve. Generally they are spring and fall migrants, but they do live year round along both the eastern and western borders of the state where flowing water is available year round. One of the Cormorants we came across must have just finished fishing because it remained poised on a rock, wings outstretched in the sun. While it might look like this Cormorant was getting ready to take flight, this is a common pose for wet Cormorants who need to dry their feathers between “flying” in the water and taking off in the air.

The resident Mute Swans were also present, their white feathers in stark contrast to the late autumnal brown of their surroundings. They didn’t seem remotely phased by a pair of Double-Crested Cormorants resting nearby. But at sixty inches, a Swan is almost double the size of a Cormorant, and therefore probably not really concerned about them.

We had one final sighting, a bird so small and plain we almost missed it. If we hadn’t been watching the larger birds, we might not have seen its movements in the water. A lone Pied-Billed Grebe. I have only seen one or two of this species before, always a lone bird. Like the Mergansers, the Pied-Billed Grebe is a common winter bird in my area that starts arriving in the fall months. While they are hard to spot, once you have seen a Pied-Billed Grebe, it is easy to confirm its identity. Besides its small size compared to other water birds (it is 13 inches to a Mallards 28 inches), it has a thick, stubby bill. When seen in winter the bill has lost its usual, distinctive black vertical stripe. Its bill is actually its only “interesting” feature, as its body is dark gray and its eyes are black.

I am happy to be back, sharing my birding adventures and observations with you. I hope to get back to posting more regularly in the near future, so stay tuned!

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.