Bird Watching in the Days of Social Distance

As so many of us are entering into our fourth week of self quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the struggle to maintain some sense of normality and sanity continues. As many of us work from home, or try to work from home, and so many others are faced with unemployment during the crisis, it is important that we continue to experience the calming effects of nature and the outdoors. And this we can do right in our own backyards and gardens. Just walking outside your door to do some yard work in the sunshine and fresh air can help to ease some of the tension and anxiety, even if just for a short amount of time. You should think of your yard as your sanctuary. This is especially true now that many of the parks in northern New Jersey have been closed to the public. Those of us who are used to traveling to the birds must now be content with seeing only those birds that come to visit us.

March did not come in like a lion this year, but it demonstrated variable and unpredictable tendencies that fluctuated between lion and lamb all month. Thus far April seems to be more accepting that spring has arrived. In our house we know that spring has arrived when we start to be awoken daily by the hammering of a Woodpecker on the outside of our house. I am not sure if it is the same Woodpecker every year, or even every morning, but our vinyl cedar shake shading seems to really have a special attraction, which is lacking in the dozens of trees in a 3 yard radius.

Watching the feeders right now is like a reunion. All our summer favorites have returned from their winter abodes and are getting settled back in. And those winter residents that never left us seem to be venturing out a bit more than they do in the winter, taking advantage of the change in the weather to begin bulking up. Even if we cannot see them all, we can most certainly hear them. With so many birds in the neighborhood establishing their territorial boundaries, searching for mates and seeming to be generally happy that the sun is somewhat shining, the neighborhood is alive with bird song.

Just a few days ago I decided to put my finch feeder back out on the post and see if I could attract New Jersey’s state bird, the goldfinch. In less than twenty-four hours I had success. The males were still molting into their bright yellow summer outfits, but they came none the less. I have been very pleased with the variety of birds I have seen this early in April. This includes some less frequent visitors, such as a curious Carolina Wren and a chatty Brown-headed Cowbird. Even one Dark-Eyed Junco is still kicking around. He seemed unconvinced that winter has left for good, but I think he is alone in that thinking.

Besides being as hungry as ever, they also seem to have that nesting bug. Both of my nest boxes are already humming with activity as two pairs of House Sparrows do their part to increase the population.

So try to take a few minutes each day to go outside and take it all in. The world hasn’t ended and life is going to carry on just as it always has. We will be able to get out to our nature preserves and parks soon, so just hang in there and take quarantine one day at a time.

Common Grackles

The Grackle is one of the most beautiful birds you will ever welcome into your yard. The feature that really makes them stunning to watch is their opalescence, a colorful sheen that reflects off of their feathers.

A large black bird, the Common Grackle can be up to 13 inches, making it one of the largest birds to visit your feeder. In keeping with its plumage, the Common Grackle has a black bill, as well as black legs. Its head is actually blue-black and rest of the body is more of a plum-black or bronzed. One of my bird books indicated that bronzed-backed and purple-backed birds are two different subspecies of Common Grackle. No other books make reference to this. I believe that bronzed is the most likely type to be found in New Jersey. The female resembles the male, being only slightly duller in color and slightly smaller in size.

In overall appearance I think that Common Grackles are actually very dinosaur-like. I think it has something to do with their eyes and the slope of their neck to their feet. They remind me of a Velociraptor. Very predatory. Their eyes are another startling feature. Unlike their feathers, their large yellow eyes are unnerving rather than beautiful. Apparently they are not born with yellow eyes. Young Common Grackles start out with brown eyes which grow more yellow as they age.

They have a varied diet that includes insects, seeds, invertebrates, eggs, nestlings, fish, small vertebrates, fruit, grain and nuts. They will gratefully partake at the seed or suet feeder. They also have strong muscles that help them to open their mouths with focus, a tool which they employ to pry open spaces and get at insects and other small prey.

The Common Grackle is present in New Jersey year-round, but is much more common in the summer than the winter. In the winter they are more likely to be found near farmland where they have an easier time finding food. Grackles often flock in large groups that can include up to 75 pairs. Their winter or migration flocks, which often include other species such as starlings and blackbirds, have been known to number in the tens of thousands.

The American Robin

Robins are a very controversial bird in my household. My husband is from the United Kingdom and to him a Robin is a very different bird. The Robin Red Breast of Europe is a much smaller bird than the American Robin, measuring about the same size as a Chickadee. They are tiny and cute and they are the United Kingdom’s unofficial Christmas card bird, much like Cardinals are on many holiday cards in the United States. For more information and images of a European Robin, you can visit: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/robin/

Since we live in America, we will ignore my husband’s protests that this huge, gawky bird ISN’T a “real” Robin, and now focus on the American Robin in all its glory. As Apollo is the bringer of the sun, the Robin is given credit for being the bringer of Spring each year. When you start to see Robins, winter is nearly over. This is particularly funny as in most of the United States at least some of the Robin population doesn’t migrate. Others, particular those living in Canada, do migrate South toward Central America.

The American Robin is actually in the Thrush family. He stands much taller than his European doppelganger, between nine and eleven inches. Robins are commonly seen in parks, forests and backyards, although they are not seed eaters so they will not be attracted to most feeders. Their diet is mostly worms and other invertebrates with some berries or fruit. One of their many well-known poses is to stand still and cock their heads. This cocking of the head is usually attributed to listening for worm vibrations. Actually their eyes are set too far back in their heads and they must turn their heads at a cocked angle to see. They don’t listen for their prey at all.

Some people might disagree, but you can tell the males and females apart. Both have the tell-tale red/orange chest but the male’s chest is much fuller and more vibrant. The male has a gray back and dark gray/black cap on his head. Look for the white around his eye and the streaks of white on his neck. The female is a bit duller all around and her head is lighter gray. Besides their childish behavior, the juveniles are easily distinguished by their speckled chest, usually framed by some orangy feathers around the edge.

Robins usually have two broods, of three to five eggs. These eggs are almost as familiar to us as the Robin itself, a light blue egg sometimes with brown speckles. They are in fact the origin of the color “Robin’s Egg Blue.” Perhaps they and their color are so familiar to us because their hatched remnants can often be found in yards and on porches. In nature Robins typically build their mud and grass lined nests in trees or shrubs. However, they also like porch or roof beams, and exposed foundations, making them a common, if uninvited tenant of human dwellings. This can at times prove difficult as they are very territorial. When protecting their nest they know no fear and have been known to swoop down out of their nests with a single warning cry, not unlike a plane appearing out of the clouds in a WWII movie. My parents had a Robin settle in their porch one summer. After the eggs were laid she (females usually incubate while the males feed the first set of hatchlings) was very touchy. My father is a really early riser, and likes to have his coffee on the porch in the fresh air. That summer, forever marked as the summer of the Robin in my mind, was a summer of early mornings for all of us, as the Robin dive-bombed at my father almost every morning, usually resulting in spilled coffee and a string of obscenities piercing the pure morning stillness. I will give him credit. He let her hatch and raiser her babies before he removed the nest. But you can be sure, no nest of any kind has been allowed in that particular corner since. Any sign of nesting activity and up the ladder he goes.

Feathers

As I spend more time both bird-watching and reflecting on my experiences, I seem to fall further and further down the rabbit hole. There really is so much to learn about our feathered friends. Like what exactly are feathers, and how do they work?

All birds have feathers. The possession of feathers is one of the features that defines an animal as a bird. Feathers make up about 6-9 percent of a birds weight (on average). Birds have a lot of feathers. For example, swans have about 25,000. Plumage refers to a group or assemblage of feathers.

For most birds feathers come out of distinct tracts, like fingernail cuticles or a hair follicle. Feathers are a bit like fingernails or teeth. When they are growing they are alive, but once they are finished forming they are no longer alive. What makes feathers different is that they are not regularly renewing. Rather they are replaced all at once, usually on an annual basis, in a process known as molting. Molting also allows for seasonal coloring to be developed both for breeding and camouflage purposes. Most birds molt after they breed, but before they migrate.

Besides being a key component for flying, feathers also provide a water and sun barrier for birds. They help birds regulate their temperate and protect them from injury. Tail feathers act as rudders in the air, in the water and on the ground. But not all feathers on a bird serve the same function.

The two major types of feathers are contour feathers and down feathers. Contour (flight) feathers usually include all feathers that are visible on an adult birds back, tail and wings. Down (semi plume) feathers are hidden in the underparts of adult birds. Most baby birds are hatched with only down feathers. Other types of feathers that are only present on some birds include powder down and facial bristles, but for the purposes of keeping this simple, I am going to focus on contour and down.

Contour feathers have two parts, a spine or quill and a vane on each side. Each vane is made up of a series of barbs that form at about a 45 degree angle from the spine. The barbs in turn have a series of hooked barbules generating from them more or less perpendicular to them. The barbules for each barb hook together, creating a knit or mess pattern. The barbules can become unhooked, but are easily re-hooked by stroking the feather from bottom to tip. It is this action which we call preening.

Down feathers have a spine as well, and their barbs also project. However, they are almost perpendicular to the spine and the absence of hooks on the barbules helps to create a more fluffy structure. Their major function is insulation. Some contour feathers have barbules without hooks toward the bottom, creating a downy insulation without a full down feather.

Spring Has Sprung and the Babies Have Come!

Spring is a time of rejuvenation, when we think about new growth and new life. In the bird watching calendar, spring ushers in a whirlwind of behavior as birds find a mate, and then frantically prepare a nest for the little ones that are soon to follow. By May every yard, garden and park is alive with the sounds of tiny little chirps and the sights of fuzzy, fluffy young birds venturing out into the world.

It is important to remember that as we enjoy the new arrivals, we must also respect their space and give them room to grow up safely. Some of their parents, particularly the geese, swans and ducks will be sure to let you know what they consider a safe distance with some aggressive hissing and perhaps even a snap of the jaw or slap of the wing if you aren’t careful.

Other parents signal their displeasure by attempting to distract your attention. They will hover near your face and in many cases, actively avoid approaching the nest for fear of giving away its location (as if the hungry cheeps emitting for the birdhouse or nest weren’t evidence enough of its contents). Be sure to back off if you notice the parents hesitant to approach. Those babies are hungry and they can’t eat if their parents are unwilling to go to them.

If you really want to be in on all the action, they do make cameras that can be discretely placed in nest boxes. This piece of tech will allow you to fully enjoy nature without giving the new parents a coronary while they try to keep you away. You can find tons of different cameras online, but here is an article to get you started if you are interested: https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/installing-a-nest-box-camera/

Not all baby birds are the same. When I say baby, what I am actually referring to is hatchlings. Hatchlings are young birds, just out of the egg and not yet to the stage where they can be considered juveniles. Some hatchlings, such as those born to Sparrows, Robins, Blue Jays and many song birds are often born with no feathers. Bald and defenseless, their beaks often look much too big for the rest of them! As their feathers develop they can often give the appearance of being wet, their feathers looking slicked down. These hatchlings are also called nestlings, because of their nest-bound state. They are completely dependent on their parents for food.

Other hatchlings, hatch ready to roam. They are born with downy protective feathers which do not often resemble their parents, but do help them as they walk and swim shortly after their debut in the world. The species with hatchlings like this tend to live in more open environments like beaches or lakes. The parents teach them how to find food, rather than bring it to them directly. Ducks, swans, geese, and chickens fall under this category.

Once any of the hatchlings begin to leave the nest, or in the case of the roaming hatchlings, wander away from their parents protection, they have graduated to the next growth stage and are considered a juvenile. It is now that they begin to resemble their parents in coloring, although they don’t always look exactly like their parents overnight, a situation which causes much confusion in the bird identification world. Juvenile birds offer enough material to be the topic of their own dedicated post, so I won’t go into more detail here.

So go out and enjoy all of nature’s newest arrivals, but remember, respect their space so they can grow up to be healthy, beautiful birds.

Additional Sources:

https://www.audubon.org/news/birdist-rule-57-its-summer-watch-out-juveniles

Birds in Iceland

We were fortunate enough to visit Iceland for a few days in 2016. While at the time I was not yet totally immersed in my new hobby of bird watching, we did snap a few bird photos that I thought it would be fun to share. According to our guidebook (The Rough Guide to Iceland 2010), Iceland is home to over three hundred species of birds.

These photos were all taken on our first full day in Iceland, the only time we visited ocean coastline on our visit. We were just north of the airport, on the peninsula visiting the Garðskagi lighthouse. The tide was out, so we decided to walk along the beach. That was were we saw a few of the local feathered inhabitants.

One of the species we saw, sitting among the sea-smoothed pebbles and the seaweed was the Eider or Common Eider. There are four different varieties of Eider, but the Common Eider is the largest, making it the largest duck found in Europe. They can grow to be up to 28 inches long. The birds we saw were all female and some of them had fuzzy new chicks nearby. Fairly dull and brown, I think their most interesting feature is the shape of their bill which Collins Bird Guide refers to as “wedge-shaped.” Eiders or Æðarfugl as they are called in Icelandic, like salt or brackish water were they hunt crustaceans and mollusks.

We also spotted another common coastal bird, the Sanderling. Known to migrate to the arctic for the breeding season, they are not year-round residents of this island nation. When we observed them, they were poking around in the seaweed, looking for something tasty to eat. Eventually they wandered further down the beach.

It was the third species we encountered which made the greatest impression. The Arctic Tern, or Kria as they are known in Iceland were everywhere. According to our guidebook, summer is when “flat, open places around the coast are utilized by colossal numbers of ground-nesting Arctic Terns.” We drove right though one such Tern Colony and I was able to video our slow journey as we waited for each bird to leave the ground.

I know that my visit to Iceland was not nearly as bird-filled as it could have been. It is still one of my my greatest regrets that we did not take a puffin boat tour while we were there. Maybe one day I will have an opportunity to go back. The second time around I would spend more time on the coast and in the countryside.

Besides my Iceland guidebook which I listed earlier, I also referenced Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe 2009.

Cedar Waxwings

Cedar Waxwings are one of my favorite birds to spot in the wild. While they are considered common in New Jersey, their movements are considered “erratic.” This is due to their nomadic search for a specific type of food, berries. Because of this wandering existence, it is difficult to predict the Cedar Waxwings’ movements or to find them in the same place more than once. They do summer in Northern New Jersey and can be found in the southern half of the state year-round. They are present in much of the Northern United States year-round.

According to my field guides, late autumn into the winter months is the best time to spot them. The lack of leaves makes a visual easier to accomplish. In the winter they will flock, sometimes as many as 100 together, making it even easier to spot them. That being said, they like to perch on the tops of tall trees, making a close-up view tricky.

While some might claim that the Cedar Waxwings lack conventional beauty, I wouldn’t call them ugly. Distinguished or noble might be the best characteristics to use when describing them. They measure in at about 7 ½ inches, as compared to their larger relation the Bohemian Waxwing who measures 8 ¼ inches. Both the females and males look alike. They are mostly brown-gray in color, with hints of yellow, flashes of white and a black mask on their faces. They have a crest on their head, giving them a silhouette not dissimilar to a Northern Cardinal. But it is the tips of their tails and wings that make them really special. The tips of their tails are a shiny yellow, and the tips of their wings have a similarly shiny red. Earlier observers believed that the tips on their wings looked as if they had been dipped in wax, leading to their common name Waxwing. These waxy wing tips only appear after a few years and some believe they may be used to signal the bird’s age to its fellows.

Cedar Waxwings live in wooded spaces. They usually nest a bit later than most birds, in July and August (at least in New Jersey). They usually have only one brood a year, which consists of 4-6 eggs that are pale blue with markings. The female incubates the eggs, but both the male and female feed their young together.

One key to understanding the Cedar Waxwing is grasping just how dedicated they are to the pursuit of berries. While they do eat insects, and will eat primarily bugs during the spring, Waxwings are really all about the fruit and sweet berries. They begin feeding their young berries after only a few days. One of the ways they display to their mates is by feeding each other berries. Their unswayed berry fixation has given them a reputation for gluttony among bird watchers.

Bird Watching in the Cemetery

I spent one Sunday morning in Cedar Lawn Cemetery, in search of the ever elusive Bald Eagle. I have written about Bald Eagles on this blog before, but they are just so impressive, it is hard not to keep gravitating toward them.

On this particular occasion, a sunny but cold and windy day in mid December, I went in search of the nest I had heard was somewhere inside the cemetery. I have said it once, but I will say it again. You know a Bald Eagle nest when you see it. Imposing, huge and dramatic are some of the first words that come to mind. It took me a little time to find it, but it was just where one would expect, in the Y of one of the tallest trees in the area. It was comprised of sticks that look more like branches than twigs. Of course, my luck only ran so far. I found the nest and photographed it, but the Bald Eagles were not at home. Probably out Sunday brunching on the Passaic River.

Found on the Passaic County Historical Society’s website at
https://lambertcastle.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/cedarlawn_map.jpg

I have been in Cedar Lawn Cemetery in Paterson many times. It is a really nice and very historic rural cemetery, full of some of the area’s most notable residents, including Vice President Garret Hobart and several the silk manufacturers who helped put Paterson on the map as Silk City. The artistic nature and architectural beauty of many of the gravestone and mausoleums is also worth noting.

This was the first time I walked through the cemetery looking for birds. I was pleasantly surprised by just how many different species I encountered. I am not sure why I was surprised, the cemetery is fairly wild considering it is in a city and right next to a highway. There is a small herd of deer that live inside the cemetery grounds. In the spring you see the fawns resting up against the headstones.

Besides the deer, I saw many of our neighborhood favorites including a mourning doves (never more appropriately named), Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays and Dark Eyed Juncos. An entire flock of Canada Geese seemed right at home as well.

I also saw several species of woodpeckers, including the Hairy Woodpecker, the Red Bellied Woodpecker and the Northern Flicker. I am pretty sure I also saw a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, though the encounter was brief and as you can see the photo is blurry.

The odd seagull flew over, as did a whole flock of ravens or crows. They never seemed to settle on anything long enough for me to get a good look at their features. A Northern Mockingbird kept me company while I was on the Bald Eagle stakeout. It kept hopping from grave to grave, and then posing… “now my left side, now my right… looking straight at the camera, now back to the left side…” A hawk, probably a Red Tailed Hawk, landed briefly in a tree near the Eagle nest before he took off again.

I have no doubt that I will be visiting Cedar Lawn’s bird population often, and not just in the hopes of getting a glimpse of the Eagles.

Blue Plumage

The color blue is commonly found in nature. Many varieties of birds found in our own backyards exhibit a shade of blue. While some colors in plumage are the result of a pigment, the blue in feathers is due to their structure. Light refracts off of the feather proteins and we see it as blue. It seems likely that birds have evolved blue feathers for different reasons than their fellow feathered friends have evolved yellow or orange plumage. Like all other colors in birds, bright blue will likely serve to attract mates and more subtle blues will provide camouflage in certain habitats. Blue is a cool color often associated with calm. Perhaps this is why blue colored birds are among some of bird watchers’ most favorite.

One of the most obvious birds to open this discussion is the Eastern Bluebird. As its name indicates, the Eastern Bluebird is prominently blue, with bright blue wings, tail and head. Like so many bird species, the male usually has a deeper blue than his female counterpart.

The Blue Jay offers another, somewhat softer shade of blue than the Eastern Bluebird. Most of its upper body including its head, back and tail are blue, but the Blue Jay’s underbelly is a downy white. Though in their capacity as “the forest’s sentinel,” it seems that the calming aspect of the color blue cannot be attributed to Blue Jays without some reservation.

Closely related to the Blue Jay, Florida’s Scrub Jay also boosts blue plumage, if not as prominently as its cousin. Its gray-brown back and gray underbelly serve to further highlight the blue feathers of its wings, tail and head.

Several different varieties of swallows have some blue in their plumage. However, male Tree Swallows not only demonstrate a vibrant blue but also another interesting aspect of structural color, iridescence. Iridescent colors in birds are created because of light refracting from feather barbules. This effect works like a prism, splitting the light into component colors. In this case, as we view the birds from a different angle, the color changes.

The Great Blue Heron has a blue-gray body with darker blue stripes on either side of its head. This shade of blue-gray is much more subtle than the colors of the other birds discussed in this post. The sheer size of the Great Blue Heron makes its blue seem more prominent than it otherwise would be. The muted coloring most likely developed to help the Great Blue Heron blend into its wetland habitats.

Much the same as the Great Blue Heron, the Tricolored Heron is a muted blue-gray color. However, its coloring is a darker and richer shade of blue than its fellow heron. The Tricolor Heron, as its name suggests, is not completely blue in coloring. The blue is highlighted with purplish-red on both its wings and neck. But the Tricolor Heron’s plumage also as a strong similarity to that of the Tree Swallow, not in the shade of blue but in its iridescent nature.

As you can see, blue occurs in nature in a variety of hues for our viewing pleasure. Whether for mating advantage or camouflage or another reason altogether, we can thank the structure of the birds’ feathers themselves for the lovely shades we all enjoy.

To learn more about the parts of a feature, visit https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/feathers-article/2/

Wandering Around Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge

I recently found myself with a half day on a Tuesday and decided this was the perfect opportunity to head up the highway to Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge in Morris County. I have visited the swamp a few times, but it is just a bit too far for a trip after work, so I don’t get to visit as much as I would like. I headed straight for the Wildlife Observation Center, a set of looping trails that are almost completely elevated boardwalks. If you walk the whole network there are three bird blinds.

I always feel that because I found the time for a walk, the birds should have preened their feathers and be all lined up on a branch waiting for me. Of course, that is not the case. The Great Swamp seemed pretty empty. I could hear birds, but spotted very few. But there is a lesson to be learned in this, timing. Uneventful walks remind us that timing is everything. Not just the time of year we are looking, but also the time of day. Many birds seem to take a siesta in the early afternoon. You really need to research the habits of the birds you are seeking.

I am not sure I should even include this walk on my blog, or at least I should have titled it, the fungi of the Great Swamp because that is what I saw the most of, weird and interesting mushrooms. I have been working on my mushroom identifying, with the help of Mushrooms of the Northeast by Teresa Marrone and Walt Sturgeon, but I have a long way to go before I can confidently identify the hundreds of subspecies. I believe I saw Smoky Polypore, Aspen Oyster and, my favorite because of its bright orange color, Jack o’Lantern varieties.

With just the mushrooms for company, at times the silence of the forest was almost too vast. I considered singing to break up the silence, but as my feet occasionally skidded on the slimy wooden planks of the boardwalk, Paul Simon’s Slip Slidin Away was the only song that seemed appropriate. I decided to sing it in my head, so as not to annoy an of the other walkers I occasionally encountered on the trail.

I also got in some quality nest spotting. The naked trees left some very interesting nests exposed to view.

That is not to say that I saw absolutely no animals. I did see a few squirrels and one of two Red-Bellied Woodpeckers (I heard many more than I saw). When I got to a bit of deeper water I always saw Canada Geese, Mallards and at least one pair of American Black Ducks.

It seems bird watchers and not just fishermen can have stories about the one that got away. “You are about an hour too late,” a fellow birdwatcher announces to me as I am focusing my lens on one of the ducks. Too excited to contain himself he turned on his camera and showed me photos of a pair of bald eagles bathing. I couldn’t blame him for bragging. After all he was pretty polite about it. Besides, who other than fellow bird watchers can we brag to? A pair of bald eagles being one of the few exceptions, who among the human population would truly appreciate the dedication and discomfort associated with a great sighting. A photo is our only harvest after a day of toil.

Frustrated with my bad timing, I decided to try another trail before giving up on the Great Swamp entirely. I headed to White Oak Trail. Possibly a mistake. I really would have enjoyed this bit of the trail better if I had my waterproof boots. When they named this area Great Swamp, they were not exaggerating. There were spots where the trail resembled a stream. I did spot a few Blue Jays and a tree full of Grackles for my trouble.

For a trail map of Great Swamp, visit https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_5/NWRS/North_Zone/Great_Swamp_Complex/Great_Swamp/GreatSwampMap.pdf