Central Park, New York City

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown-Headed Cowbird

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

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

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

Enemy # 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Autumn Morning on Sandy Hook

Like most sane humans that live near a beach, we obviously never visit the Jersey Shore in the summer. Never may be an exaggeration, but once or twice is usually our limit. The traffic alone will kill you. And this is New Jersey drivers we are talking about, so I mean literally, kill you. Once you get there, the beaches are too busy for nature watching anyway.

That is why we usually go to the beach either in early spring or autumn/winter. In winter the cold, salty sea air does the trick if you need to blow out a few cobwebs. It was one such morning last November when my husband and I headed to Sandy Hook, one of our go-to Jersey Shore destinations. The site of Fort Hancock and its associated army barracks, Sandy Hook is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area that features hikes, beaches and nature, along with the oldest lighthouse in New Jersey, historic structures from the barracks and, as my mother in-law once put it, “war thingies,” such as powder magazines, gun batteries etc. So you can probably see why we like Sandy Hook, it has a bit of everything.

This particular November day was cool but not freezing. Clear and bright. Perfect for a brisk ramble on the sand. I honestly wasn’t even really expecting to see a ton of birds, but you never know what sea birds you may see, so we brought the camera along. Sandy Hook, because of the way it is positioned in the Atlantic Ocean and at the mouth of the Hudson River, is a great place for collecting whole seashells. I have a hard time not glancing down at the tidal lines on the beach in search of treasures. A sea urchin, bits of coral and whole crab shells are just some of the more unusual items I have combed on this particular beach.

However, it is actually horseshoe crabs that Sandy Hook is known for. They sell postcards of dozens of them piled up on the beach together and you can often find pieces of their shells in the sand. Atlantic Horseshoe crabs are interesting creatures, actually related to scorpions and spiders rather than crabs. Apparently their blood is used to test medicines, which is pretty unusual. However, I think that one of the more interesting things about them is that they shed or molt their shell when they are growing. They do this throughout their lives, and it is a slow and dangerous process, leaving them vulnerable to predators while they are shell-less. Here is a video showing the process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJr-CQGQYg4 We decided to dig up one of the larger pieces of crab shell we saw sticking out of the sand, and ended up unearthing a very large, complete shell. General rule is that shells with no legs were probably shed, so don’t worry about the crab. However, this one is so big, I am not sure if it was still growing or if its legs and other bits were lunch for a willing seagull.

The biggest group of birds we saw on the beach was a very large flock of Sea Gulls. New Jersey has several Gulls that live on our shore line, the most common being the Ring-Billed Gull, the Herring Gull, Laughing Gulls (with black heads) and the Great Black-Backed Gull. However, especially in the non-breeding months, none of these birds are too picky about their friends and you can see them in large mixed flocks. Many of the juveniles of these species look similar to each other, complicating identification, especially to the naked eye. Their antics were very entertaining and there was one juvenile who was tying to look for food along the waterline without getting wet. He wasn’t very successful but his behavior had a Charlie Chaplin quality to it.

Besides the gulls, the ocean was densely populated with Black Scoter, both males and females. These ducks were swimming just far enough from the beach that it wasn’t easy to get a great look at them with the naked eye, but the photos came out pretty clear, despite the fact that they were bobbing around in the waves. Summering in the Canadian Arctic, the Black Scoter spends its winters along the Atlantic seaboard and is very content to remain in the rough sea. As the name implies, the male Black Scoter is all black, but the female has some gray to her black feathers. The male also has a raised yellow knob on the back of his beak, where it connects to his face. The female’s beak is totally black.

We then crossed the path and the road to the bay side of the peninsula, which proved to be just as exciting. Swallows and Song Sparrows were zipping about, and singing to us from the telephone wires. A Northern Mockingbird decided to challenge us, “who goes there?!” from his vantage point in a bush along the path. A Great Blue Heron flew off into the sky and several deer were wandering about, foraging for something to eat among the bushes and weeds.

The bay was also sheltering a very large flock of Brant. Smaller than Canada Geese by at least ten inches, Brant geese have a black, grey and white body, with no brown. They have a white marking on their throats, called a “collar” which looks like a handkerchief tied around their necks, wider in front and thinning toward the back of their heads. Another summer resident of Canada, the Brant winters along the Atlantic coast.

Sandy Hook is a great place to experience nature regardless of the season. The combination of river and ocean, bay and beach allow for a great variety of wildlife to thrive here. Some of the large nests we saw along the beach promised some interesting spring residents. Regardless of the season, I highly recommend it to nature lovers, history lovers and day trippers. If you want to learn more about Sandy Hook, visit their website at https://www.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/sandy-hook-hours.htm

The Color Orange in the Bird World

The color orange could never be accused of subtly. A warm color, bright and vivid, orange takes on many cultural associations. The color of road work signs and traffic cones, it promotes visibility and denotes danger. There is a reason prison jumpsuits and hunting camouflage are orange. But it also makes us think of sunny days and sweet fruit. Around this time of year, it also makes us think of pumpkins and Halloween.

Coloring in the bird world is thought to have evolved to both encourage mating and promote survival through camouflage. Females of many species are duller in color to protect them from predators and promote the survival of the species. Along the same lines, the males of many species have developed very bright coloring to attract females to mate with them. Feather colors are created one of two ways, through pigment or light refraction from the physical structure of the feathers. Some multicolored birds have both occurring at the same time.

It is easy to see that orange occurring in the bird world is also about visibility. While we often associate the brightest feathers with exotic habitats, we can still find evidence of orange in our own backyards. The Baltimore Oriole serves as the primary example. While the male is much brighter, both the male and female Baltimore Orioles are primarily orange. Orange may be a color that attracts them to more than just prospective mates, as they are also known to eat oranges and be attracted to orange-colored feeders.

An orange belly is a prominent feature of another backyard regular, the American Robin. Though not as bright a shade of orange as found on the Baltimore Oriole, the rusty-orange of the Robin certainly attracts the eye. Female Robins often have paler bellies than their mates, but both males and females demand attention. The Robin’s rusty belly not only differentiates it from other Thrushes, but is its most distinctive feature.

The Barn Swallow demonstrates still another shade of orange found in plumage. He sports a peachy orange belly, reminiscent of a creamiscle, which contrasts with the darker blue of his back and wings.

Thinking about birds in relation to their color allows for a new perspective. Understanding the purpose of their coloring allows us to appreciate it for more than just aesthetic beauty. Nature has certainly provides us with a wide and varied palette to enjoy.

Additional Sources:

https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/blog/eureka-lab/mates-or-survival-which-explains-bird%E2%80%99s-color

Autumn in the Celery Farms

The Autumn is one of my favorite times to visit the Celery Farms. The air is usually crisp, the temperate is usually perfect for a leisurely stroll, and if you hit it just right, the trees around the lake just explode with color.

Taking advantage of a rare weekday off, I headed to the Celery Farms mid-morning and had it more to myself than I usually do. The weather and light couldn’t have been more perfect. I had all the time in the world, so I sat on benches, went up every platform and even made a second loop on the trail.

Waterfowl was the main attraction. There were all kinds of birds taking advantage of the water. Most prominent due to their size, were four Muted Swans, whose pure white was such a stunning contrast to the palette of colors behind them.

Canada Geese and Mallards were present, as they usually are, but with the aid of my telephoto lens I noticed that some of the ducks looked different, and their bills seemed longer. Once I got a good look at the male, I confirmed it, Northern Shovellers. It was really amazing I was able to see them at all, or their fronts at any rate. As soon as they got a breath of air, they were right back in the water, butts in the air. I can tell you, one duck butt looks much like the next.

Another smaller bird was also in the water. Swimming solo, it was so small my camera had trouble focusing on it. The largest challenge to photographing it was that it kept submerging and would pop up somewhere just beyond where I expected it to be. Quite the little swimmer. My photos didn’t come out as clear as I would have liked, but I am fairly certain it was a Pied-Billed Grebe.

Besides the water birds, I was able to spot several others as I made my way around the trail. One Robin even decided to pose for me, changing the position of his head back and forth like a supermodel in front of a lovely Autumn leaf backdrop. A Red-Bellied Woodpecker was likewise inclined.

While sitting on one of the platforms, a very fluffy and slightly frazzled looking Sparrow (Song Sparrow I think) was so intent of getting all the berries on the floor that he came right up by me. I couldn’t even photograph him with my lens, he was too close. We hung out together for quite a while. He wasn’t phased by my presence in the slightest. You could almost hear his inner monologue, “…eat the berries…there’s a berry! Eat the berry…need some more berries…there’s a berry!” as he zigzagged along the platform floor.

Some less common sightings for me on this particular walk were a female Ruby-Crowned Kinglet and a female Magnolia Warbler. I think both the decreased vegetation and my meandering pace helped me spot them, and both birds stayed in place long enough for a few nice shots.

A deer crossed my path as well. It wouldn’t be a day at the Celery Farms, no matter what season, if you didn’t see at least one deer.

A Morning in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

I happen to have a friend who lives in Ohio, which means that I have the pleasure of visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park once or twice a year. A 47 acre park, Cuyahoga Valley has many lovely nature trails and waterfalls. I have had the opportunity to explore many of them on my various visits. However, my absolute favorite is without a doubt the Towpath trail through the Beaver Marsh. Although I have never seen a beaver here, this spot is always alive with activity. Previously I have visited in the early spring and winter but this year I had the opportunity to check out the Beaver Marsh in the midst of summer.

The Towpath starts off as many do, a large even dirt path, fairly wide. This towpath is a big favorite among bikers and the morning air was filled with the friendly “tink-tink” of bicycle bells, followed by barks of “on your left!” As you would expect, the towpath follows a stream of water on one side, never particularly deep, but it provides a source of flowing fresh water for the animals that live here. Not very far from the Ira Trailhead parking lot is the remnants of a lock. Just a bit further along the Marsh opens up on both sides of a lovely boardwalk and viewing platform. This is where most of the action is.

On this particular visit I was spoiled by nature. I had decided to take an early morning hike before driving back to New Jersey, so I headed out to the park around 9am. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and a refreshing walk seemed like the perfect compliment to a lovely and relaxing weekend with friends. I was pretty content, birds or no birds.

Before I even walked far enough down the trail to see the lock, I noticed a lone female Wood Duck, standing on a log. I was pretty excited because this was the closest Wood Duck I have had the opportunity to photograph, most of them tending to shy away from paths toward more secluded sections of water. I snapped some photos of her standing on her log and continued along my way, even more perky.

Little did I know, Cuyahoga had much more in store for me. I decided to divert from the trail and have a closer look at the lock, which is when I noticed my second great surprise. A Great Blue Heron, perched in a tree. It didn’t seem remotely bothered by my presence but just kept on preening and scratching its head. It seemed particularly itching and I had to wait a while before it settled down for me to get some full body photos.

Next I walked out onto the boardwalk and was dazzled by the purple flowers growing in the marsh. Everything was green and purple. White water lilies with glowing yellow centers dotted the water. The air above the water was buzzing with activity as a colony of Tree Swallows flew overhead, swooping down on unsuspecting insects. A pretty gluttonous Song Sparrow landed on a bush full of berries. It hopped from branch to branch scoffing down the blue-purples spheres with great vigor. The only evidence of his over indulgence was some berry remnants stuck to the outside of his beak. The Marsh viewing area was pretty crowded, so I didn’t hang around too long, hoping to get ahead of the crowd and check the Marsh out on my way back to the car.

As I made my way from the Marsh, the stream went back to a small meandering vein flowing ever so slightly. Another Wood Duck appeared, this one slowing swimming against the meager current. This duck struck me odd. It felt different from the first Wood Duck I had just seen, but it took me a moment to put my finger on it. While the plumage was similar in coloring, the eyes were different. This ducks eyes were blood red. What I had before me was a male Wood Duck showing his non-breeding plumage. Like several other types of ducks, the male Wood Duck molts his green head feathers after he has successfully attracted a mate. Presumably the brown head allows for better camouflage during the rest of the year.

Only a bit further downstream I encountered still more Wood Ducks. This time it was three juveniles hanging out together. They were still a little fuzzy, a telling sign of their age and their overall behavior seemed more hesitant. They swam for a bit before setting on a log together.

After the group of juvenile Wood Ducks the Towpath leaves the stream behind for a bit and is wooded on both sides. The air was punctuated by the calls of Catbirds and Blue Jays, but it was a different kind of wings that attracted me. Several moths and butterflies fluttered around, feeding off the nectar of various plants that grew along the side of the path. An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was so focused on nectar extraction that it stopped moving its wings long enough for me to get some nice photographs. A rare opportunity as butterflies, like hummingbirds, seem unable to hold themselves still but are just bursting with energy and the need for flight.

Speaking of hummingbirds, I also managed to spot and take a few photographs of the Hummingbird Moth, a fascinating creature. As you might expect, the Hummingbird Moth behaves similarly to the Hummingbird, fluttering its wings to hover in the air over a flower from which it drinks with its extended tongue-like proboscis. There are many varieties of Hummingbird Moths in the United States and it was really great to see one in action up close.

At this point in my walk I turned around and headed back to the boardwalk. As I had hoped, the crowds had all moved on and the space was pretty empty. I settled down along the rail at a good vantage point and scanned the water. Snapping turtles are among the wildlife I have seen here before, and I could hear frogs, so I was trying to notice any and all movement. A pair of Wood Ducks slowly swam among the lily-pads, searching for a nice snack under the leaves. In the relative silence, the buzzing of blue dragonflies created an audible current in the air. One of the dragonflies met a sad end and became dinner for a hungry female Red-winged Blackbird. The water lilies also humming with bees, busy pollinating. The fish were remaining pretty still, trying not to attract any attention as they waited just below the surface. Only their bubbles gave them away. A lone fluffy flycatcher sat on the branch of a dead tree, waiting for the next insect to come within reach.

All too soon my time was up and I need to head back to my car and get on the road. It had been a great morning, so it was only with a tinge of regret that I pulled myself away from the railing and headed back to the towpath. But Cuyahoga Valley had one last surprise. Just beyond the lock and almost back to the parking lot, I noticed a Green Heron, slowly and deliberately making its way through the mud. Shorter than the Great Blue Heron by almost thirty inches, the Green Heron’s size also helps it to blend in more subtly into its habitat. With that final sighting I headed back to my car, already thinking about when my next trip to Ohio would be.

If you are interested to learn more about Beaver Marsh, visit: https://www.nps.gov/cuva/planyourvisit/the-beaver-marsh.htm