Black-Capped Chickadees

Black-Capped Chickadee’s are one of Northern New Jersey’s year-round residents. Small but spunky (they are only about 5 inches), the Chickadee tends to be a bit shy of other birds around the feeder and will often wait to have some alone time with the seeds. When they are feeding young, often the pair will visit the yard together, one keeping watch while the other gets seeds. Then they swap places before flying off to fill the empty bellies and gaping mouths of their little ones. But don’t let this behavior make you think of them as cowards. The are cautious adventurers. If you are just starting to feed birds or you put out a new feeder, it is very likely that the Chickadees will be the first to find it.

Besides their small stature, you will know the Chickadee easily. He has a black cap and neck, with a tan belly and gray wings. There is some white in his wings and a white section at the back of his neck. I say he, but in fact the male, female and juvenile Black-Capped Chickadees are all identical. Even if you can’t see a Chickadee, they tend to be very polite, and introduce themselves with their typical “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call that gives them their name (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/sounds)

Attracting a Black-Capped Chickadee to your yard with a feeder is pretty easy. Their diet is varied enough with a mix of insects, seeds and fruit that they will come to seed or suet feeders. It is also pretty easy to convince them to become tenants. In nature the Black-Capped Chickadees like nesting in cavities, but they think the basic nest box is very homey. In my garden they have tried to move in for a few years now, however the Sparrows seem to intimidate them until they abandon their nesting activities. It takes them about 10-14 days to make their cavity homey, lining it with moss, feathers, hair and cocoons. They typically have one brood of 6-8 white eggs with red-brown markings. After three weeks the babies fly off make their own way in the world.

In the winter Chickadees have been known to flock in groups up to twelve. They like to roost in dense conifers for protection from the weather. They are easily spotted in the snow, foraging for food as they need to eat on a daily basis to survive. They must even brave the worst winter storms to search for food. So next time you look out your window into a snowstorm, spare a moment of thought for the brave little Chickadees.

A Wintry Walk in the Celery Farms

One of the things I like most about the Celery Farms in Allendale, NJ is that it provides an interesting walk, regardless of the season. I know I have said Autumn is my favorite season to visit, and it is, but winter is definitely nice as well. Especially if the weather is snowy and the lake has frozen. In fact many of the locals play hockey on the ice, so on an early morning winter walk (especially during the school break) one often finds the parking lot full.

Winter at the Celery Farms is not really for the unadventurous. If you think the path is muddy in other seasons, wait until you experience it in the winter. What makes it more interesting is that the mud sometimes freezes awkwardly making footing complicated. Definitely don’t forget your boots. Besides slip-sliding on the paths, the platform stairs can also be a bit slippery, so take extra care.

But this extra effort to walk safely around the trail only makes the few sightings you have all the more rewarding. Usually winter at the Celery Farms yields the sightings you would expect. All our year round residents are there including Sparrows, Mallards, Canada Geese, Northern Cardinals, Dark-Eyed Juncos and Woodpeckers.

However, the lack of vegetation makes it possible to see some of the smaller birds that winter here, such as the Golden-Crowned Kinglet. The Golden-Crowned Kinglet is actually smaller than a Chickadee, making it really difficult to spot. But they have a tendency to flick their wings around as they hop from branch to branch, so the extra movement helps to attract one’s attention. They eat insects, fruit and drink tree sap (sans pancakes) as a part of a healthy balanced diet.

If you are having a particularly cold spell, you might see other birds and animals, flushed from discrete roosts to hunt for food. The deer are always foraging about and you never know if you will see other mammals wandering about.

Birding in the Winter

Bird watching in the winter is not always for the faint of heart. Some of the best snowy bird photos can only be taken when one is exposed to the elements. Wintry walks are one great option. Get out of the house for a bit, get some fresh air and explore your favorite trails from a different perspective. Sometimes this can be tricky, especially if piles of snow or icy patches have developed on the trail. In New Jersey the ice is more of an issue than snow, but trail safety, especially when carrying expensive camera equipment, can be sketchy at times. Just remember to have good treads on your footwear and take it nice and easy.

The backyard is also still an option during the winter months. I am not just talking about the view from the warm comfort behind the windowpane. Bundle up, bring a lawn chair and camp out for a bit outside. I have done this a few times after a good storm and I have gotten some amazing shots. The birds are just as happy as the humans that the snow has stopped, so they come out in force. Besides some strange glances from the neighbors, there is really no downside. I get a bit of fresh winter air, and the experience of fresh, clean snow which honestly doesn’t last more than a day of two in New Jersey most of the time.

Winter is also a great time to focus on some of the Northeast’s year-round birds. I feel like the summer is focused on attracting the rare birds…can I get some VIP’st to my yard? Winter allows us to rekindle our relationships with the everyday backyard birds. Woodpeckers, Cardinals, Chickadees, Blue Jays, several varieties of Sparrow. During the winter in New Jersey our usual cast of characters is also joined by the Dark Eyed Junco.

Even if you decide not to brave the storm, remember that the birds don’t have a choice. If you feed the birds during the summer, you really should feed them during the winter as well. During the summer they become used to thinking of your feeders as a source of food. The winter months, especially if there is snow and ice, can be deadly for birds. So get of your couch, put on your boots and go fill up that feeder!

Palm Warbler

According to my Birds of New Jersey and Birds of Eastern North America, the Palm Warbler isn’t a common bird to my region. Despite that fact, I have laid my eyes on a couple on my various walks. I guess the few I saw were in New Jersey on vacation.

There is definitely no way that I mistakenly identified this bird. With olive-yellow on its back, a bright yellow neck and belly and a chestnut brown cap on the top of its head, this bird is very difficult to confuse with any others. The impression of yellow overall was not so bright as that of the Yellow Warbler and the chestnut cap is very distinct as many other warblers with yellow bodies have black trimmings.

My first sighting of a Palm Warbler was by far the best. I was in the Meadowlands and the Warbler was on the ground behind a bush. The olive-yellow of its feathers made it stand out prominently and I was able to get photos while only being a few feet away. He wasn’t really upset by my presence, and continued to do his thing, including puffing up his feathers for a good cleaning.

My second and third sightings were both more fleeting, frantically trying to get a photo or two in while the bird was still in site. As with all Warblers, Palm Warblers are small, quick and always seem to be moving. They will sit on branches, but like an antsy child, they are always on the move. A bit to the left…move back where they started…hop up a branch to see if that is better…jump back down to the original spot…hop to the left. If many of the species of Warbler were not bright yellow, I don’t know if I would ever catch any of them on camera at all. My second sighting was again in New Jersey, at Garret Mountain Reservation and the third was while walking the Albany Pine Bush in upstate New York.

The Palm Warbler probably derived its name during its winters in Florida and the Caribbean. Most of the population summers in Northern Canada. They nest on the ground or on the lower level of trees, which may be why my first Palm Warbler was under a bush. They eat insects which they hunt on the ground and on trees.

So let this be a lesson to you. Field Guides are helpful tools, but your own powers of observation are also good. Sometimes Field Guides are wrong. Bird migrations and other natural annual occurrences are effected by weather, urban development and tons of other factors which can combine to change how birds behave and where they live. Don’t doubt what you think you saw, you might be right.

Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve

Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve is another haven of wildlife that can be found in the midst of suburban New Jersey. Formerly a reservoir for the town of Haledon, this space became a Preserve in 2006. The dam is still in place, containing 75 acres of water. This location is the perfect recreation spot for boaters (kayaks or canoes) and fishing, which are both allowed here. Not as wild as some, this Nature Preserve provides a short loop path around the water and an opportunity to enjoy some wild birds from our area. To learn more about this Preserve, visit https://www.franklinlakes.org/flnp

Woodpeckers, Robins, Blue Jays, Northern Mockingbirds and other common forest birds can be found at the Franklin Lakes Preserve. However, for me, the serenity of the water is usually what dominates my attention. Waterfowl are in abundance here, and it is easy to spot Mallards and Canada Geese at any time of the year. Herons and Egrets are much rarer, but they can be found here as well.

However, it is the Mute Swans that I go here to see. There are always at least a pair of them, enjoying the serene waters and searching for aquatic vegetation along the edges of the water and in all the small bays and nooks of the shoreline. Aquatic vegetation actually makes up the majority of their diet, so if you ever see a swan with its beak in some algae, he isn’t hunting, he is munching. While they are majestic to watch, remember to keep your distance, especially during the breeding season, as Muted Swans are extremely aggressive.

Swans are somewhat famous for being monogamous, a romantic feature of their nature which has been referenced frequently in popular culture, including HBO’s the Tudors. While monogamy in birds can vary depending on the species (some only mating for a season) Muted Swan’s mate for life and (this is what pop culture has gripped onto) supposedly when one of the pair dies, the other Muted Swan will not find a new mate. Rather, it is believed it spends the rest of his/her life alone, pining for its lost love. While romantic, this seems unlikely as it would not be great for the survival of the species.

During the breeding season, you can spot the Muted Swan’s nest close to the waterline. In Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve they like some of the smaller little “islands” by the main shoreline. The female sticks pretty close to the nest during incubation, on the couple’s 4-8 eggs. They only have one brood a year, so early spring is the best time to see their nesting behavior and to get a peek at their fuzzy little gray youngsters.

On a Trip to France

One thing I have noticed since becoming a bird watcher, you can’t ever really turn it off. You start almost subconsciously being aware of flutters in the air and cooing from the rooftops. Not that I ever really want to stop bird watching. I am simply observing that we become more aware because of this hobby and the results are usually interesting, no matter where we go.

We had the opportunity to spend a week in Southern France last summer, in a small village located in the Dordogne region. This was our first big trip since we had purchased our new camera and my lovely long lens, so we decided to pack the lot and see what photographic opportunities awaited us. And I am glad we did.

The houses in the village were set-up so that the main living space was on what Americans would consider the second floor, with the ground level being used much like a basement or a garage. The result was that the couch in the living room had a great vantage point of the roof-line across the street. And that was how I first noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a lot of fluttering going on just under the roof. The birds, a very small, quick bird (either a swift or a swallow I wasn’t sure) were popping in and out of a series of mud nests which reminded me of mud wasp nests, just much bigger. There was a whole colony of nests, all in a row, like houses along a street.

After some research into European swallows verses African swallows, with their air speed velocity sans coconuts (in all seriousness, I had no idea there were so many different kinds of swallows and swifts around the globe), I think that they were most likely the common house martin.

If you are interested to see how these fascinating mud houses are created, I found a great video online of cliff swallows building their nest: https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/cliff-swallows-build-nests-from-mud/

The Dark-Eyed Junco- A Winter Resident

It isn’t often that anyone chooses to winter in the Northeast (birds included), but I guess New Jersey is just like Florida to a Canadian bird. A least the Dark-Eyed Junco seems to think so. Juncos spend their summers in Canada, flying South for the winter months. If you leave your feeders fulled in the winter, Dark-Eyed Juncos will probably be regular customers. In winter they are often seen in flocks, some of which include other small birds, such as chickadees and sparrows. When not at a feeder, you will see them foraging on the ground using their “double scratching” technique, which makes them appear to be hopping in place. In summer they eat a varied diet of insects and seeds, but in winter it is all seeds, all the time.

Dark-Eyed Juncos are actually a very common sight in winter throughout the continental United States, but the species is divided into five regional subspecies. The sub-species to frequent the Northeast is Slate-colored; Oregon, White-winged, Grey-headed and Guadalupe being the other four sub-species.

As the name implies, the male Slate-colored Dark-Eyed Junco has a matted or slate black body, with a grey belly and white under-tail. The female is even more muted, with a tan/brown body and white belly and under-tail. At about 5 1/2-6 inches, they are only slightly smaller than House Sparrows and only slightly larger than a Chickadee. Their most defining feature is their rounded belly, which is reminiscent of Santa Claus, even if it doesn’t seem to shake like a bowl full of jelly.

Like so many of nature’s other clues, the arrival of the Dark-Eyed Junco in November tells of impending changes in the weather. When they finally depart New Jersey, often in April, we know that Spring has truly arrived!