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.
As I indicated in my post about hatchlings, juvenile birds exhibit a
whole different set of behaviors from younger birds that justify
their own discussion. To quickly recap, the growing phases of a bird
are: 1. Egg, 2. Hatchling (or nestling), 3. Juvenile, 4. Adult.
When observing a
juvenile bird I often reflect on how appropriately they were named.
In the English language juvenile has a negative connotation that many
of its synonyms don’t carry. When one acts juvenile, one is usually
acting in a way thought to be beneath our actual age. Acting
childish. While I am sure that birds are not familiar with the nuance
and cultural associations of the word juvenile, they often live up to
its definition and all that it implies.
The best way to think of a juvenile bird is to compare it to a kid in
Middle School. Awkward, gawky, silly, unknowledgeable,
unworldly. All of these adjectives can be applied to the
juvenile bird. This is the stage of their development when they set
foot in the world on their own. And they aren’t really sure about
the whole thing. Often their parents are at a discrete distance,
observing and prepared to intervene.
Young birds can be a
lot of fun to watch. Their antics as they interact with a world they
don’t fully understand can sometimes leave you in stitches. Many of
the young House Sparrows that visit my feeders have a really hard
time figuring out how and where to perch. They loose their balance
easily and sometimes they slide down the feeder pole in slow motion,
unable to figure out what is going on, or how to stop it.
Often juveniles are
fearless when it comes to getting a handout. Many of the young House
Sparrows and even one or two young Blue Jays have come to my feeder
and then opened their mouths expectantly to any adult bird that came
near. One female Cardinal was particularly taken aback by this
behavior. She hopped back and then quickly skirted away from a small
army of open mouths. Most adults just ignore this behavior, although
some parents will continue to mouth feed even as they are trying to
teach their children to fend for themselves.
Sometimes juvenile behavior isn’t as funny. My parents have a lot
of trouble with young Woodpeckers flying under their porch roof and
nearly injuring themselves as they desperately look for a safe place
to land. They soon learn, but the first few days are concerning, both
of the birds and whoever has dared to sit on the porch.
It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a juvenile bird and an injured bird at first glance. Juveniles often flutter their wings at a quickened, almost frantic pace which can seem to indicate that they are hurt. In fact, this behavior is used in some species of bird to inform parents that the baby wishes to be fed.
Appearance and identification are sometimes difficult when it comes to juveniles. Even though many field guides provide an image of juvenile birds, each bird develops at its own rate, meaning that coloring and major identifying markers for some species may not be easily spotted. Some birds, such as the many kinds of Warblers, have very similar juvenile development, making an exact match hard. However, if you are having trouble identifying a bird, there are some quick clues you can look for which will tell you if you are looking at an immature bird.
Fuzz is the first
big clue. Whether it is a downy fluff sticking out under the wings or
covering the bird’s belly, immature feathers that don’t seem in
harmony with the rest of the bird’s plumage can be a good
indicator. Like baby teeth in humans, adult feathers develop
gradually and many juvenile birds are still a bit fuzzy here or
Inconsistent coloring is another indicator. Some birds will look really weird, or almost sick, with very patchy coloring. Chances are they are a young bird, just developing the mature feathers of an adult of their species. Be careful of the time of year with this indicator though. Many birds, including several different species of duck, develop a different plumage when they are not breeding. When mating plumage is developing or phasing out they can exhibit similar patchy qualities to juvenile birds.
You may recognize the shape of a bird, or the overall appearance but it is not the correct color. There are many juvenile birds that develop mature looking feathers that are not fluffy but also do not resemble those of their parents. This is true of starlings. Many male juvenile birds resemble the adult female in coloring and develop their more colorful mating plumage slowly.
How big are they? Many young birds do not develop their full adult size immediately. If you have many of the same species near each other, compare the bird in question to others of the same kind. If it is smaller in statue, it is likely a juvenile. If other birds aren’t around for comparison, consider the bird’s own proportions. Does it’s beak or feet look too large? These signs can also indicate a bird that is not yet fully grown.
Depending on where you live, you may have a variety of fledglings visiting you all summer long as some birds have two or more broods. Generally, the juvenile phase lasts about four weeks for most feeder birds.
I have wanted to make my own suet for a while now. I found a fellow blogger with a recipe that I thought seemed relatively straightforward, but I never seemed to find the time to experiment with it. Well thanks to the quarantine, I have all the time in the world to experiment. And, I ran out of suet, so it seemed like a sign. Luckily I also had all the ingredients that I needed.
I followed a single recipe, which I found here: https://www.houseofhawthornes.com/diy-birdseed-cakes-aka-let-them-eat-cake/ That being said, there were a few differences that I should note right up front. I was unable to find a single jello mold of the size recommended by Pam Kessler in her recipe. So what I ended up with was a mini loaf pan with nine rectangular spaces. Since these suet cakes would fit into my suet holder, I decided to dispense with the straw and string.
I highly recommend having all the ingredients measured out and ready to go, because once you start, there is definitely a finite amount of time. I wasn’t quite ready, and my husband ended up having to sweep in and act as sous chef. My cake-like batter turned out a bit thicker than I expected, and much faster than I expected. More like stirring thick peanut butter or gum, rather than cake batter. It definitely wouldn’t have flowed into the mold on its own.
I lowered the heat way down and I ended up adding more water, to get it back to a more liquid consistency. I think I probably added roughly another ½ cup of water. But that seemed to loosen up the batter enough to allow the whole amount (three cups) of seed to be stirred in successfully, with a bit of elbow grease.
When I spooned the mixture out into the molds, I only filled eight of the nine sections, thinking that it was better to pack those sections I filled as tightly as possible. I opted to cool them in the refrigerator, rather than the freezer, because we did not have enough room in our freezer.
The next morning, I pulled them out of the refrigerator to give them a look. They had solidified nicely and were very hard. They also popped out of the mold with relative ease.
Without too much effort, I was able to fit two of my homemade suet cakes into the holder, and as you can see, I had some customers shortly after hanging it out. Bon appétit!
When you sit in your backyard watching the bird feeders as regularly as I do, occasionally you get lucky and see something really out of the ordinary. I had one such a sighting on a June afternoon. I was reading my book in the yard, keeping an eye on the feeders and my camera on my lap, just in case. I noticed that I had a Carolina Wren on my feeder. While I have had House Wrens and Carolina Wrens in my yard before (just last summer a pair of House Wrens occupied one of my birdhouses) they are still a rare enough visitor to illicit a little extra excitement from me. So I was happily snapping away for quite a while. Long enough to realize that it wasn’t one Carolina Wren visiting my seed feeders, but a pair. They seemed to be visiting the feeder, stocking up and flying off. To feed a baby I assumed, which is a safe guess regarding that type of behavior in June. After a while I thought about the situation in more detail. Wrens had been in my yard before, but never visited the feeder because…suddenly it clicked that they only eat insects. They do not eat seeds or feed them to their nestlings. So what the heck were they doing carting off all my seeds?!
At the rate they kept disappearing and reappearing I decided they couldn’t have been going very far. So I decided to investigate. Very slowly I got up from my chair and slowly skirted my way around the bird feeders, making a very large circle so as not to scare and scatter the other birds eating. From my new vantage point I could see that the Carolina Wrens were landing on a low branch in one of the trees that represents the boundary between our yard and the neighbors’. So very, very slowly and making many long pauses along my way, I slowly advanced toward the branch in question.
Once I made it more or less directly under the tree, the whole picture began to take shape. What I found on the branch was a giant fledgling. Well, giant compared to the Carolina Wrens. It was exhibiting typical fledgling behavior, making lot of noise, moving awkwardly and opening its mouth to indicate that it was hungry. While I was trying to determine exactly what this fledgling was and how it fit into the larger mystery of the Carolina Wrens and my birdseed, one of the wrens landed next to this massive baby and began to feed it the seeds. And it all became clear. Well sort of.
After some research I was able to determine that the fledgling I had seen was a young Brown-headed Cowbird. As I mentioned in my post about them, Brown-headed Cowbirds do not incubate or raise their own chicks. Instead they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds in the hopes that some will survive. Many birds recognize the Cowbird eggs as impostors and either remove the eggs from their nest or destroy the eggs. However, still other species, such as the Wrens that feature in this story, keep the Cowbird eggs and treat the chick as their own.
Of course one could choose to look at this tale with cynicism and negativity. Yes, it is awful to think that the Carolina Wrens eggs likely perished and the pairs was left with this huge demanding impostor. Almost an ugly duckling story, if the ugly duckling had been less sad and much more demanding (which, in reality, as a young swan, he probably would have been). And then there is the obvious question…how dumb are wrens that they think this thing could possibly belong to them? Even as a baby he towered over them both. But what really grabbed at me was that they had figured out to feed him what it was he needed to eat. How many other animals would have realized… “honey he really doesn’t seem into the spiders and the grubs, maybe we should try seeds and see what happens?” How did they know? Instinct? Because if it is instinct, that opens an even greater realm of possibilities. If they have the built in instincts to feed the Cowbird babies, perhaps nature gave them the instincts so that the Cowbirds, rejected from so many nests, would find one species of willing foster parents. So while many bird lovers are bemoaning the fact that the Brown-headed Cowbird kills the eggs of so many different songbird species, maybe they should stop and consider that nature does everything for a reason. The Cowbirds are just as necessary as the Carolina Wrens.
The Gray Catbird is one species that I have become acquainted with since I started feeding the birds. They are fairly common, and now that I know what I am looking for, I seem to see them everywhere. But I honestly never noticed them before, which is really a shame. While they may not be colorful songbirds, they are beautiful in their own, subtle way.
According to most field guides, Catbirds are more often heard than seen. While that might be the case if you are walking on an unfamiliar path, in general, I find that if you hear a Gray Catbird call and stop to look for it, you will see it. They aren’t particularly shy birds. They also aren’t small birds that are able to easily hide, unless the vegetation is very thick. I find that they tend to exhibit the bold personality of most birds their size (at nine inches they are about the same size as an American Robin or Kingbird).
So don’t be discouraged by what the field guides say. If you want to see a Gray Catbird, just keep looking for one. Of course you will need to know what you are looking for. All Catbirds look similar, even the juveniles quickly develop to look like their parents. As its name implies, the Gray Catbird is primarily gray, a very pretty slate gray. The Catbird does have other colors in distinct areas, including a black hood or cap on its head. Its beak and legs are also black, as are its penetrating, large black eyes. If you are lucky you will also spot a flash of rusty red that can be seen under the Catbird’s tail and on its butt. You many have more chances to see this patch of rust than you would think, as the Catbird often uses its tail as a rudder for balance. As a result, you will often see a Catbird carefully perched, with its tail pointed toward the sky. This rusty section under its tail also plays a part in attracting a mate, with males showing their rusty bottoms to potential mates at the end of a several part mating ritual.
But even beyond looks, it is the sound of the Gray Catbird that lets you know of its presence. The origin of their common name gives you a big hint. The Catbird is known for the meowing sound it sometimes makes. Don’t believe me? Check out this link, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Gray_Catbird/sounds. Of course the meow isn’t the only call a Catbird can make. They do sing in other tones and were known by the Chippewa Indians as Bird That Cries With Grief because of the mournful cry they make. The Gray Catbird has also been known to mimic other birds. Unlike the Northern Mockingbird or other species that copy sounds, the Catbird does not repeat a song or sound more than once.
Keep an eye out for Catbirds in shrubs. They do like the cover of dense forests, but that can include spaces in parks or even wooded backyards. They like to eat both insects and fruit/berries so you can often see and hear them foraging in leaf piles. That being said, they do come to feeders. I have seen them at seed, suet and jelly feeders, and they aren’t shy of their fellow diners in the least. According to the field guides, the babies are fed exclusively on insects alone. However, I have witnessed Catbirds taking mouthfuls of suet off to nesting young, so you have a lot of food options to attract them to your space.
Gray Catbirds are not a year round resident of New Jersey, with the exception of the shore and southern counties. They usually depart for warmer living by late September, returning to meow at us again by late April. So fill your feeders and keep your eyes peeled, your ears ready and maybe you will spot a Gray Catbird yourself!
Several years ago, in 2016, we spent a weekend camping with friends at Point Lookout State Park in Maryland. This area is very historic, having been used as a prisoner of war camp for captured Confederate soldiers. Today the park sports a really lovely campground, as well as walking trails and a beach area. The Park is located on the peninsula where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Potomac River. As a result, the natural environment is an interesting habitat. Its feathered inhabitants included many of the coastal and marsh birds you would expect. For more information about Point Lookout State Park, visit https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/pages/southern/pointlookout.aspx.
We were immediately confronted by wildlife, from basically the moment we opened our car doors. The campground areas were small cleared patches cut into a forest of scraggly, straight, tall pines. The pines were so dense that once you were on your camp site you felt you were the only people in the world. You couldn’t see through to the next site on either side. It may have helped that we were camping in late May, before most families begin to descent on campgrounds en-mass.
I was excited for the birding possibilities upon arrival, but was further encouraged to hope when a hummingbird flew up to me, buzzed around my head for a moment, and then flew off again. The pines seemed to offer a comfortable habitat for many birds I had never seen before. This included spotting my first ( not to mention my second, and my third) Red-headed Woodpecker. Though they can technically be found in New Jersey, I have never seen another before or since. As its name implies, the most distinguishing feature of this woodpecker is its red-head. Unlike the Red-bellied Woodpecker with its red cap or the Pileated Woodpecker with its red crest, the Red-headed Woodpecker’s head is completely covered in red feathers. As if someone dipped its head in paint up to the neck. Its black wings and white underbelly help the red plumage to be even more pronounced.
The trees also allowed for a close encounter with a bird I really was unlikely to see in New Jersey, unless one took a wrong turn somewhere! The Brown-Headed Nuthatch is similar to its cousin, the White-Breasted Nuthatch and they have similar mannerisms. Namely, they both like to climb down trees upside down. The scratching of its long nails along the pine bark is what attracted my attention in the first place. Very similar in appearance and coloring to the White-Breasted Nuthatch, the biggest and most obvious difference between them is the black cap of the White-Breasted Nuthatch has been replaced by muted brown feathers that extend down the neck and level to the bottom of its eyes. If you were to compare the two side by side, the Brown-Headed Nuthatch would be sightly smaller, measuring a little over an inch smaller than the White-Breasted Nuthatch.
As I mentioned, the meeting of the bay and the river created the perfect ingredients for brackish water and marshes. Therefore, you will probably not be surprised to learn that we also spotted a few Great White Egrets and Great Blue Herons. In the case of the herons, a few would not be an accurate representation. So many herons flew over our campsite in the first few hours of our arrival, at first I thought the campground was in the flight path of a small local airport. Finally I was able to glimpse more than just shadow, and I realized that the area was teaming with Great Blue Herons!
Besides the Great Blue Herons, the other bird species that was occupying this peninsula in great numbers was the Osprey. These pescatarians were accommodated with a series of Osprey boxes along the bay road. However, not all of them felt they needed one of the purpose built boxes and made due with their own accommodation. This was true of one Osprey who had made a nest at the end of the campsite’s dock. Her nest was balanced between a floodlight and what I believe as the power box for said floodlight. This trip was one of my first encounters with Osprey, especially so close up. Of course this particular Osprey felt that when we were fishing on the other side of the dock, we might be too close. She kept a watchful, almost crazy eye on us the entire time!
The bay side of the park also seemed to be the home to a good many Laughing Gulls. Common along the whole eastern coast of the United States, the Laughing Gull is a bit smaller than the more commonly spotted Ring- Billed Gull or Herring Gull. Laughing Gulls are also easily distinguished from other species of seagulls because of their black head, sometimes referred to as a hood.
Any bird watchers who are going to be near St. Mary’s County Maryland should really consider a stop over to take a look at this majestic park and its feathered inhabitants.
In this blog I often focus on those birds we are likely to see at our backyard feeders, but today I would like to talk about the Tree Swallow. Though by no means uncommon throughout the state of New Jersey, it is unlikely that Tree Swallows will come to your feeders or nest in boxes in dense populated, suburban areas. You might have better luck if you live in a more rural area, especially if you live near a source of still water, such as a small pond or marsh. We usually see Tree Swallows when we visit our favorite marshes in the Meadowlands or the Celery Farms.
Migrating up from Mexico starting in mid-March, the majority of the population has usually arrived by mid-April. You really cannot mistake them for another bird. Their most distinguishing feature, especially from other Swallows, is their vibrant plumage. Their upper feathers are a shiny blue that can seem opalescent in direct sunlight. Their downy white bellies provide a stark contrast to the blue. The female is often duller than her male counterpart, while the juvenile is a gray-brown with a gray breast band around its white belly.
They are about the same size as most songbirds, growing to be between five and six inches. Besides their plumage, you can also recognize them by their pointed wings and notched or forked tails. They have black feet, a small black beak and large black eyes, which almost appear too large for their heads.
You will also know them by their overactive behavior. While Swallows do perch more often than a Hummingbird, they are still a very energetic and active bird, usually swooping and flying in a show of constant activity. There movements are usually accompanied by a series of chirps and chatters directed toward their fellow Tree Swallows. While they do settle on branches or the tops of bird boxes, you will most often see them flying back and forth across open fields or water. They spend most of their time hunting for insects, which make up their entire diet.
Tree Swallows nest in cavities and have really adapted well to bird-boxes, such as bluebird houses. Other man-made cavities they can nest in include PVC pipe houses, sometimes found in marshes. In nature they look for tree cavities and often use abandoned Woodpecker holes. Once they have found their home, Tree Swallows like to line their nests with dropped feathers and they have been known to travel long distances to collect features to pad their nest with.
Regular readers of this blog will probably have realized by now that I am not a bird watcher who focuses on the pretty birds. What I enjoy about bird watching is the challenge of seeing new and different birds. And that often includes common backyard birds that are less likely to hang out at a bird feeder.
Under those circumstances, the House Wren has become one of my favorite birds. Tiny and relatively fast moving, it is difficult to catch a glimpse of a House Wren. Even harder to get a decent photograph. Over time I have begun to shamelessly court the House Wren with special bird houses. I was lucky enough last summer to have a pair of House Wrens settle in one of my bird houses and raise four little ones. You can read about it in my post A Family of Wrenshttps://tailsofatwitcher.com/2019/08/08/a-family-of-wrens/). But despite these successes, the House Wren is still fairly challenging to capture in photos, making the chase all that much more exhilarating.
At five inches, House wrens are very small. They are also fairly dull and camouflaged being a muted brown with some lighter brown markings, which you will only see if it sits still long enough for you to get a good look. They have rounder bodies, short legs (with disproportionately long toes) and short wings. Besides its small size, its long curved beak and habit of perching with its tail erect are two if its most distinguishing features.
A common summer resident of the whole Garden State, House Wrens usually return from wintering in Mexico around mid-April and you will begin to hear their songs as the males search for mates in May. You can often spot House Wrens foraging for insects to eat among the leaves. Their diet consists of only insects and invertebrates, including snails.
House Wrens prefer to nest in a cavity and have two broods a year, of between four and six tan eggs. The pair are truly a team, with both the male and female incubating and feeding the young. House Wrens are also very territorial and will destroy the nests and eggs of other House Wrens or other birds that are too near their nesting ground. One of the facts I love about House Wrens is that the male will build more than one nest. He then lets his mate choose the nest she prefers and then she helps him to finish up the building. One of the first House Wrens I had the opportunity to observe was making a nest in a neighboring porch ceiling. He was no dummy! He was prepping several nests, but no one ever said they needed to be in different locations. He selected three identical roof beams in a row, and he prepped them all without having to fly all over the place. Once his lady picked her favorite, they used material from the other two partial nests to finish off their renovations.
One of the magical things about the House Wren is its song. So loud and clear and beautiful. According the Cornell Lab All About Birds website, the House Wren’s songs “are a long, jumbled bubbling introduced by abrupt churrs and scolds and made up of 12-16 recognizable syllables.” If you would like to hear one for yourself, you can visit their website and listen to several clips, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/House_Wren/sounds.
There are several other species of Wren in Eastern North America, including the Carolina Wren which is a common wren in New Jersey. But discussing the similarities and differences of these varieties could be an entire post on its own.