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 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.
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 you 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.
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.
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.
The name Rose-Breasted Grosbeak doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But it is fairly logical. Grosbeak, a name applied to a group of birds, refers to their larger, seed crushing bill. The Rose-Breasted refers to the red patch that can be seen on the chest of the males.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak is a very common resident of northern New Jersey in the summers. I have never seen a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak in New Jersey myself, probably because they are much less common in urban and populated areas. But I have been lucky enough to observe them regularly in New York. If you are looking for them in New Jersey, they begin to arrive in late April, with the population peaking by the middle of May. They can be seen throughout the southern portion of the state as they start to migrate south in September.
Seven or eight inches in size, making it just a bit smaller than a Cardinal, the male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak is a black and white bird with a red patch on his throat and upper chest. His head, back and wings are black, with white stripes on his wings being the only exception. Most of his belly, below his rosy red patch, is white, with small black speckles. The female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak only resembles her mate in size. Being mostly brown and white with a white stripe along her eyes. With only a quick glance, the female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak can be misidentified as a sparrow, some varieties of female finches or sometimes a female Red-Winged Blackbird.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak likes open deciduous forests, but whether in the forest or your own backyard, you might easily mistake the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak’s whistling song with that of an American Robin. Both the males and the females sing, but the males are louder and easier to hear. You can hear for yourself at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rose-breasted_Grosbeak/sounds The male is known to sing while he incubates the nest, as well as using his song to attract a mate and call to his fellow Grosbeaks.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks nest in a cup style nest, built of loose twigs, which they build together. Each breeding season they have either one or two broods of 3-5 eggs. Their eggs are blue-green with brown markings, another similarity to the American Robin. The pair incubate and feed their young together, the female only leaving the first nest and fledgelings to the male if they plan to have a second brood.
While their “Grosbeaks” allow them to crush seeds, the Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks have a varied diet. They eat fruit and insects, as well as seeds. They have even been known to eat flowers. They glean from the ground and by hover, but the females are more likely to hover searching for food than their mates. And they will happily visit feeders, with very little sign of shyness or hesitation.
There is just something about the color yellow. While some birds carry their yellow plumage more subtly than others, it never fails to draw attention. I thought it might be fun to highlight some of our yellow feathered friends, and how they manage to pull off such a bold and outspoken color.
Of course when you talk about yellow birds, it would be remiss not to at least acknowledge one of the most famous yellow birds in history. Yup, you guessed it, Big Bird. At eight feet, two inches I think it is safe to say that Big Bird is the largest yellow bird the world will ever see. Since 1969 he has resided on Seasame Street, educating generations of children. However, as we are unlikely to ever see Big Bird or his like on a hike in the woods (a mixed blessing really) I think we will switch our focus to some of his smaller yellow contemporaries.
Big Bird and a few other species aside, most birds seem to feel that a touch of yellow is bold enough to draw attention to them, without causing them to stand out too much. What they really want is for the yellow to attract mates, without also attracting predators. And in some cases I think they might have the right idea with their approach. In the case of yellow, less is often more.
We take as our first example of subtle yellow, the Cedar Waxwing. Mostly a dull brown-gray, the Waxwing’s yellow can be seen in two places. The downy feathers of its belly have a yellow tint to them, revealed only to those who have the advantage of seeing it from the ground. The second splash of yellow that the Cedar Waxwing displays is a bit bolder, and can be found on the very tip of its tail, a feature it has in common with the slightly larger Bohemian Waxwing. Together, and compared to the dull coloring of the rest of his plumage, these two splashes of yellow do attract the eye.
Our next bird uses yellow similarly to the Cedar Waxwing, displaying it on its belly. The Great-Crested Flycatcher is not the only flycatcher with a yellow belly. However, it has the brightest yellow belly of all its fellow flycatchers. Despite that statement, you can see from the photo that its downy belly could still be considered light or dull yellow when compared to many of the other birds that sport yellow plumage.
Though much smaller than both the Cedar Waxwing and the Great-Crested Flycatcher, the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet shares their fairly flat brown-gray coloring. The Ruby-Crowned Kinglet displays its yellow it is a bolder spot then its belly. Both the male and the female have a series of bars and stripes of both white and yellow on the tips of its wing and tail feathers. While stationary this yellow may not attract too much attention, but when in motion, the yellow and white stripes draw the eye, almost as boldly as racing stripes on a race car.
The White-Throated Sparrow is probably is probably the most common backyard bird to display the power of the subtle use of yellow. With two dashes of yellow, over the top of each eye, this Sparrow is immediately distinguishable from any other sparrows that might be at your feeders. I am not sure if it is the placement of the yellow, so close to the white strip or if it is the contrast of the yellow against a relatively dark brown head and body. Perhaps it is a combination of both. But there is no denying, the minute a White-Throated Sparrow is on the scene, you can’t help but notice it.
The Common Yellowthroat displays its yellow a bit more openly. While the throats of both sexes of the Common Yellowthroat are the brightest yellow plumage found on their bodies, their brown-gray back feathers do have a yellowish tint if seen in the right light. I personally think the male’s yellow seems a bit brighter than his mate, but that could be because of the contrast between the yellow and the black mask across his face. The female’s face, in comparison, is the same brown-gray of its body, and therefore the combination provides less of an impact.
Yellow plumage is a very common feature of many of North America’s many warblers. As with other bird varieties, we find that some warblers use yellow more sparingly than others. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler provides a good example of subdued yellow plumage on a warbler. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler sports bright yellow splashes in a few key areas, which contrast with the gray, white and black of the rest of its plumage. As his name clearly indicates, one of those three splashes is located on its “rump.” Rump in this case refers to its back, where its tail attaches to its body. Besides its backside, the Yellow-Rumped Warbler also has a flash of yellow on either side of its breast, near where its wings tuck into its body. The third yellow highlight is a stripe going down the center of its head.
When observed alone, the yellow of the Yellow-Rumped Warbler might not seem all that understated. But compare him to the male Palm Warbler or the Yellow Warbler, and suddenly you will understand what I mean by understated. While the Palm Warbler (left) is not completely yellow, he may as well be. While his wings, tail and back are a brownish-green or olive, his chest immediately draws your eye with its vivid yellow coloring. The Yellow Warbler (right) can’t even pretend. While it does have black wing bars and brown stripes running down its belly, the Yellow Warbler is everything its name implies, yellow. After a quick look at the warbler section of any North American bird book, you will see that I am not kidding when I say that these are just two examples of mostly yellow warblers. I counted about fourteen, but you could easily find more. It all depends on where you draw the line between yellow and yellow highlights.
Of course, having talked about all of these yellow birds, many of my readers are probably wondering how I could be so remiss as to omit the bright yellow of the Goldfinch, New Jersey’s state bird. However, rather than omit it, I was saving the best for last. The Goldfinch is probably one of the first birds that come to mind when a bird watcher is asked to name a yellow bird. Despite its name, the Goldfinch is not a rich gold color, but rather a bright and bold yellow. The males sport a black cap on their heads, and both sexes also display black wings with a white band. As is the case with so many bird species, the male Goldfinch tends to be the brighter of the two sexes, but the females are still pretty bright, and only seem dull when they are directly compared to the males.
As self-isolation during the pandemic stretches on, I find myself daydreaming about past hikes and walks. One of the places where my husband and I used to hike frequently was the Pochuck Boardwalk. He had first discovered it as he did overnight hikes along New Jersey’s Appalachian Trail and he brought me back to this spot because it was so nice. With a trailhead literally on the side of route 94 in Sussex County, New Jersey, this section of the AT allows for a leisurely walk on a boardwalk, above boggy or sometimes swampy ground. The spot is certainly scenic, framed by the Pochuck mountains on one side, and Wawayanda Mountians on the other. The boardwalk snakes through the landscape in a way that somehow adds to, rather than detracts from, the picturesque nature of the spot. And the word is out. A very popular walking spot with families, we have never been to the boardwalk completely alone, spring, summer or winter. We tried to walk here once in winter, but hadn’t anticipated or prepared for the ice of the walk (the snow had all melted to the east where we lived at the time). Even then, there was evidence that a few hearty souls had walked along the snow and ice covered boardwalk.
On one particular day in late March 2018, we chose to head to Pochuck and try out our new camera. One of the first hikes/walks with our new birding lens, Pochuck was appealing with its level trail and dense wildlife population. We had never visited and seen absolutely no birds or other wildlife. It was basically a sure thing. So off we went.
As was the case with our attempted walk in the winter, even in March we had underestimated the difference in weather and temperature between where we lived and Sussex County. Never mind. We quickly zipped up our rain jackets against the last of winter’s bitter winds and headed onto the trail. We were not going to waste the trip being cold. The space was definitely bleak and potential stormy, creating an interesting lighting conundrum. But we were mostly oblivious as we were playing with all the setting, trying to figure out new camera.
The cool weather, ensured it was fairly quiet among the reeds and cattails, many of which were lying down where the crushing snow of winter had pushed them. After some careful searching within the reeds and the sky, a Turkey Vulture emerged above the treeline. The Turkey Vulture is fairly easy to identify, because of its naked pink/red head, which is were it gets its name. While it wasn’t the most attractive bird to look at, it definitely offered us a moving target to aim the camera at, and a large one. Even at a distance we had mixed success getting the camera to focus on it as it rode the wind over the reeds, searching for something to eat.
As we slowly walked on, scouting the ground for something smaller to photograph, the Turkey Vulture circled overhead, carrying out its own search. Watching it soar through the air was mesmerizing, as it never needed to flap its wings to continue its forward motion. They achieve this by flying not parallel to the ground but with their bodies at a slight angle. As the wind brushes the upper wing, it tips the bird further in that direction, propelling the bird’s body either left or right. The push also creates a more extreme angle of the birds body, This results in the lower wing now being more exposed to the same gust of wind, which pushes this lower wing in turn and that puts the bird back to a more parallel angle with the ground. With this strategy Turkey Vultures can use smaller air currents that other raptors can’t.
After following the Turkey Vulture’s crooked trail across the sky for a while, the wind got the better of us, and we continued to head further down the boardwalk. By this point we realized from both the lack of movement and the lack of bird noises that we were unlikely to see the large variety of wildlife that we were expecting. The animals all had the good sense to stay warm for at least a little while longer. We carried on with our walk and our conversation. So it was amid a thrilling conversation about apeture settings verses ISO when we saw some flashes of movement among the reed to our right. We stopped and starred for a long time before we realized that the fallen reeds and cattails were serving as perches for a few bright blue Eastern Bluebirds. The birds stood out so clearly against the otherwise bleak background. As we don’t spot Eastern Bluebirds on our walks very frequently and because they were a much smaller and jumpier subject to work with, we decided to set up the mono-pod and see if we could get some decent shots.
At seven inches the Eastern Bluebird isn’t exactly small, but these birds were too busy searching for food among the reeds to sit still and pose for us. Despite their name, the Bluebird isn’t all blue. It has a rusty or orange chest, similar in color to that of an American Robin, and a white downy belly. Its back, head and tail however, are a bright blue, with the females being a bit more gray-blue than her mates.
The American Bluebird is one of nature enthusiasts’ favorite feathered friends. I am not really sure why that is. It might be due, at least in part, to a decline in their population for most of the 1900s. This decrease was due to nesting competition with Starlings and House Sparrows (both species technically invasive, having been introduced to North America from Europe). But birders, nature lovers and the larger community reacted, and today the Bluebird population is doing well, thanks to a plethora of bluebird bird boxes provided throughout the northeast.
Having had our nice photo session with out small flock of Bluebirds, we decided that we had had enough of the wind, and packed off back to warmer elevations for some much deserved hot chocolate.
I thought I would dedicate today’s post to woodpeckers. I do not intend to focus on just one species of woodpeckers, but actually look at how to differentiate common in New Jersey woodpeckers from one another. According to Birds of New Jersey: A Field Guide, there are six woodpecker species that are commonly found in the State of New Jersey: the Red-Headed Woodpecker, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker, the Hairy Woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker and the Northern Flicker. I would add the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, a common winter resident of New Jersey. These are the seven woodpeckers that you are most likely to encounter in New Jersey.
I am not saying that you will never see another species of woodpecker in the state. As with any bird species, there are anomalies due to weather conditions, wind currents, etc. which take a bird from its normal pattern. There have been isolated sightings of uncommon woodpeckers within New Jersey, including a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, sighted in Hoboken around 1860 and an American Three-Toed Woodpecker, seen in West Englewood in 1918. Indeed, there have been sixteen sightings of the Black-Backed Woodpecker in New Jersey, occurring in various counties, north and south. Although, it must be pointed out that several of those sightings were of the same bird, by different observers.
I must start my descriptions by clarifying that I have not seen all seven of these woodpeckers personally. I have never seen a Pileated Woodpecker. Therefore with this species, I will rely on my trusty field guides. The key distinguishing feature of the Pileated Woodpecker is its size. They measure about sixteen or seventeen inches, making them not just New Jersey’s, but also North America’s largest woodpecker. The only other woodpecker to come close is the Northern Flicker, measuring between twelve and thirteen inches. For comparison, most of the other woodpeckers discussed in this post measure about nine inches. The physical appearance of the Pileated Woodpecker is also distinct. Most of their bodies are black, with white and red markings on their head. The red is very prominent, creating a bright crest across the top of the bird’s head. The crest also gives the Pileated Woodpecker’s head a triangular appearance. Despite their size, the Pileated Woodpecker is relatively shy and tends to choose habitats that include large woodlands, which may be why I have never encountered one in the flesh. In New Jersey they tend to concentrate in the northern part of the state, especially toward the west and along the border with Pennsylvania. Being such a large bird, their presence in trees is much more obvious than some of their fellow woodpeckers, as they make very large oval holes in which to nest. To get a look at the Pileated Woodpecker, I suggest you visit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/id
The Red-Headed Woodpecker is probably the closest in appearance to the Pileated Woodpecker, but that really is not saying much. The similarity arises because the Red-Headed Woodpecker also has a mostly black back. However, the Red- Headed Woodpecker is both much smaller, measuring about nine inches, but he also has a round head, without even the hint of a crest. The Red-Headed Woodpecker also is not nearly as black as the Pileated Woodpecker. Despite his black wings, his snow white belly and wing tips are very prominent. Of course, as you can probably guess from its name, the Red-Headed Woodpecker’s most distinct feature is its completely red head. It almost appears as if someone dipped its head in paint up to the neck. The Red-Headed Woodpecker’s bill is not as good at excavating holes in trees as its fellow woodpeckers, so it is more likely to be found in dead or decaying branches. If it can, it will sometimes just take over the abandoned nest of one of its fellow woodpeckers. Because if the need for decaying trees, the Red-Headed Woodpecker tends to be seen on the edges of forest or in more open woodland than the Pileated Woodpecker. The Red-Headed Woodpecker is another bird I haven’t seen many of. The pictures included here are of Red-Headed Woodpeckers I spotted in Maryland, as I have never been lucky enough to see any in New Jersey, despite their presence. For better photos you can visit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-headed_Woodpecker/id
In my opinion the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is most often confused with the Red-Headed Woodpecker because it too has a red head. Unlike the Red-Headed Woodpecker, the red of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is not nearly as prominent. Imagine a mohawk or mullet and you will start to get the idea. The red plumage starts at the forehead and goes across the top of the head, between the eyes, and terminates at the back of the neck. The shade of red is also different. It is a brighter, lighter red, as compared to the almost blood red shade found on the Red-Headed Woodpecker. Another difference, which I think is easily the most identifiable feature of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, is the pattern of black and white on its wings. While other woodpeckers have spots or speckles, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker has what can only be described as zigzags or stripes. One guide calls it “Zebra-backed.” When its wings are at rest, the white sections of their plumage connect to form lines rather than a random pattern. In person it is quite dazzling. The one thing that you will probably not notice about the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is his “red” belly. I think the people who give birds their common names were reaching a bit with this one! The Red-Bellied Woodpecker has a stripe of colored feathers in the middle of its belly, which can be seen against the rest of its white belly if you look very closely. More tan than red, it sometimes has a tinge of rust color to it. The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is common throughout woodland habitats and can be seen in New Jersey year-round. Not only is it a resident bird, but the Red-Bellied Woodpecker will often return to the same tree year after year, creating a new nest hole below the nest from the previous year. Not great news for the tree, but a nice way to keep track of a particular breeding pair.
Hairy Woodpeckers (above), and Downy Woodpeckers (below) represent the hardest two woodpeckers to distinguish, from each other. They both appear almost identical, especially at a quick glance. Both have black wings, with white splotches and a white stripe down the middle. Their bellies, also white, are often very fluffy or downy looking. Their heads, like several other woodpeckers, have stripes of white and black. The largest bands of black being across their eyes, and over the top of the their heads, from their beak to the nape of their necks. The males of both species sport a small, bright red patch on the back of their heads. So how does one tell these two apart? The honest answer is that sometimes it is very difficult to do so. Looking back at photos for this article, I sometimes struggled to distinguish between them. It is even more difficult as the Hairy Woodpeckers send their smaller fledglings out into the world, who are sometimes about the same size as an adult Downy Woodpecker.
But there are a few characteristics that you might be able to use, if the bird will sit still long enough, or if you have a photograph to examine. The first, and most obvious is their size. The Hairy Woodpecker is similar in size to many of the other woodpeckers discussed in this post, usually measuring about nine inches. The adult Downy Woodpecker is more petite, growing to about six inches, about the same size as a House Sparrow. The Downy Woodpecker also has black spots along the side of its tail, something the Hairy Woodpecker does not have. The beak of the Hairy Woodpecker is also longer than that of the Downy Woodpecker.
As I mentioned above, I am including the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker because it is commonly found throughout the state during the winter months. Arguably the winter is the best time of year to look for woodpeckers, when the leaves are off the trees and visibility in the forest is much better. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker has many features similar to one or the other of its fellow woodpeckers, however the combination of all of these features makes its appearance rather unique. Smaller than the Pileated Woodpecker, it shares the red crest. On closer inspection, the red crest of the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is not as long as that of the Pileated. Besides the crest, their faces are very similar with a mix of black and white lines running across the face from the beak to the back of the head. But at the neck, the similarities to the Pileated Woodpecker end. The back and wings are much more like those of the Hairy or Downy Woodpeckers, black with speckles of white. Here too there is some slight differences. The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers both have black wings with distinct white splotches, well defined. Almost as it someone had taken a paintbrush, pressed down and then lifted the brush straight off its back. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker’s back is much more mixed and blurred. More like someone ran a white dry-brush over the top of its black back. The reverse effect seems to be the case for its belly, mostly white, but for a smudging of black. A resident of deciduous forests, the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker can be found in New Jersey roughly between October and April. You need to keep your eyes peeled for them though, they are fairly quiet and often manage to avoid detection. The few photos I am sharing here are of the only Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker that I have ever seen, spotted in early spring on one of the wooded trails at Garret Mountain Reservation.
The Northern Flicker is probably most different from all other woodpeckers. Some field guides do not even group the Northern Flicker with the other woodpeckers. The second largest of the woodpeckers who call New Jersey home, the Northern Flicker is colored very differently from it fellows. A brown or dark tan body contrasts with the white and black of the others. The Northern Flicker has both round, black spots on its belly and black splotches (irregular in shape) on its back. The black splotches on the wings form a dizzying pattern similar to that found on the Red-Bellied Woodpecker’s wings. There is also a black section on the bird’s breast, almost like a necklace. The Northern Flicker’s head and face are fairly plain, having some gray on the top of its head, a small splash of red at the nape of the neck and, in the case of the males, a black, triangular “mustache” on either cheek. However, appearances are not the only way that one can easily distinguish the Northern Flicker from other woodpeckers. The Northern Flicker is also the only woodpecker that can be seen feeding from the ground regularly. This is because the Northern Flicker likes to eat ants and beetles, rather than the insects more commonly found in trees. So they spend a lot of time wandering slowly on their feet, along the ground searching for ant holes.
While I have been spending all this time trying to point out the differences between these woodpeckers, they do have a lot of obvious similarities. Most of these woodpeckers, with the exception of the Northern Flicker and probably the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, will visit a suet feeder. Downy, Hairy and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are all commonly seen at my feeders. In fact, I have had a Red-Bellied Woodpecker get into my seed feeders as well on several occasions. While they may differ on which bugs and insects they prefer, they all have long barbed tongues, which help them to get into tiny spaces and pull out insects. They also all nest in tree cavities, of varying sizes. So next time you hear that distinct “knock, knock, knock” of a woodpecker on a tree, take a look up and try to see if you can figure out which kind of woodpecker is making all the racket!
What is it about hummingbirds that fascinates us? And by us I don’t just mean bird lovers and bird watchers, I mean the population at large. Everyone with more than a square foot of outside space is trying to lure hummingbirds to their little patch of green. You don’t have to look hard to see the bright red plastic feeders, usually full of their red nectar. Perhaps the great attraction of the hummingbird is that they are indeed so elusive. Even when they do come to one’s feeder, they are there and gone in a flash, and unlike Speedy Gonzales, they don’t leave a trail of dust in their wake. We are just left wondering if we did actually see that flash of movement, or did we imagine it?
But not everyone has to wonder. My parents have had a lot of luck with hummingbirds up on the southeastern edge of Lake Ontario. They have been feeding them for almost ten years. They have armies of hummingbirds come to their feeders, easily fifteen to twenty different birds through the course of the day. And to be honest, they didn’t have instant success. There were a few years of persistence before they got to where they are now. The hummingbirds frequent their feeders. Often there is more than one bird at a time. They also sit, and sip for extended periods of time. Sometimes they just sit to hangout. One of their regulars, a male who has been dubbed “Chubby” just sits on the pole above the feeder, checking out who else is around. My mother actually bought him a swing. Honest, there is someone out there marketing swings specifically for hummingbirds. I have a sneaking suspicion this may be the same company that decided trees need faces. Chubby doesn’t actually use the swing. I think he thinks hummingbird swings are silly too.
Despite how easy my parents make it look, attracting hummingbirds is very hard work. Timing is key. Getting the feeder outside by mid-May when the birds are returning from the south is the best way to attract them. Location of your feeder is also important, not just for attracting the birds, but also for helping to keep them healthy. Putting their sugar water in the sun can greatly shorten its longevity, and drinking bad sugar water/nectar can really harm the little guys. But who are these elusive, tiny little birds? Lets take a closer look at the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.
The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is one of the smallest birds in the world. It usually measures between three to three and a half inches and weighs only about two or three grams (that is 0.105822 ounces). Despite their small size, or perhaps because of it, they flap their wings (at least) between fifty and sixty times per second. Their hearts beat 1,260 times a minute and they breathe 250 times a minute. It is their amazing wing speed that allows them to not only hover, but navigate directly up, down and backwards. With all that movement, it is hard to imagine a hummingbird stationary. It seems we always think of them in some partially-blurred fashion. But they do sit down.
When they are stationary, you will be better able to appreciate their bright green backs. The green, which has a bluish or aqua tint in some lights, is in greatest contract against their white bellies. The female’s belly is often a more pure white than the males, who often have a smoky gray-white coloring to their breasts. The male also differs from the female because he has a dark, almost black patch across his throat that shines bright red in sunlight. Both sexes have a long, needle-like bill, almost perfectly straight. It’s length allows them to access the nectar in many of the tubular flowers that they love so much. Besides eating nectar they also eat insects. They also sometimes snack on the tree sap that is oozes from freshly made woodpecker holes.
Hummingbirds do not sing. But that does not mean that you will not hear one approach. As their name implies, the speed of their wings creates a hum, almost like that of a bee. They also do communicate with each other through a series of chatters, squeaks and often high-pitched chirps. These sounds are most often heard at my parents’ when they are competing for the feeder. They seem highly territorial and possessive, and often spend more time chasing each other away from the feeder than they actually send eating out of it.
It is the female hummingbird who is responsible for caring for the young. She builds a cup-shaped nest, consisting of plant down on the inside and lichen on the outside (for camouflage). Everything is held together using spider webs. It is in this nest that the female will lay two white and unmarked eggs, about half an inch in size. Then the female incubates the eggs for about two weeks. Once they hatch she proceeds to feed them on her own as well. Each female will have up to two broods a season. Females have been known to return to the same nest over multiple seasons, choosing to clean up and add to an existing nest, rather than starting over from scratch.
Toward the end of August, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds begin to migrate. They spend their winters in to the southern states, Mexico and Central America, many flying over the Gulf of Mexico to reach their destination. Interestingly, the sexes migrate separately, the males heading south first and returning to the north first, usually around mid-May. So keep an eye out for the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, they should be arriving right around now.