The Tufted Titmouse

The Tufted Titmouse is an amusing little guy. His name even means little, “Tit” being Scandinavian for “little.”A frequent backyard visitor, the Tufted Titmouse is a bit bigger than a Chickadee, at about six inches. They are bluish or slate gray in color with a white belly and rusty red-brown feathers under the wings and tail. Their dark eyes and black beak are accentuated by their light colored bodies. The “Tufted” part of their name probably refers to the pointed crest at the top of their head. Both the males and the females look alike.

Historically more common in Southern New Jersey, today they are common year-round throughout the state. They like dry, open woodland and are commonly found in urban parks and suburban yards. They nest in cavities, such as abandoned woodpecker holes. Titmice will also settle in nest boxes. Once they have found a cavity to their liking, they will line it with moss, bark, leaves, grass and, apparently, the fur of animals such as cats and dogs, which they have been known to take right off of the living mammal while it sleeps.

Tufted Titmice are very common feeder birds (both seed and suet), although they will eat insects and arachnids, including spiders and their eggs. They also eat a variety of fruit and seeds. In the winter they can subsist on acorns if necessary. When visiting a feeder you often only see one at a time. Sometimes when they are feeding young, a pair will visit the feeder vicinity together. One mate will retrieve seed while the other perches a safe distance away, keeping lookout. They then switch positions before flying off the feed their young.

Tufted Titmice are not only monogamous, but they have long-term pair bonding. They have two broods a year, usually of five to seven white eggs with brown spots. The female incubates the eggs alone, but both parents feed the young. They will form non-species flocks with other small birds, including Chickadees, outside of the breeding season.

There are a few other species of Titmice in North America, including the plain Titmouse and the Bridled Titmouse, both of which are not even mentioned in my Eastern North America book.

A Very, Very Damp Bald Eagle

Up on Lake Ontario this past August the whole campground was buzzing with the news. There was a Bald Eagle in the area! Several of the fishermen had spotted it, or claimed they had spotted it (you never can be too sure when it come to fishermen and their fish stories). My parents had even claimed to see it flying by on a number of occasions. They had spotted it from the porch. The first conversation actually went something like this:

“What’s new?”

“Your father and I saw a Bald Eagle today!”

“That is cool, where?”

“On the porch.”

“There was a Bald Eagle sitting on the porch!”

“No! It was over the lake, why would it want to sit on our porch?”

As the saying goes, ask a silly question. But regardless of exactly where my mother was positioned when she spotted it, she had seen a Bald Eagle and as a non-fishing individual her word could be trusted to the fullest.

Labor Day weekend came around and I had my camera at the ready, but Bald Eagle could not be seen. Sunday was actually a pretty miserable day, rain coming down in buckets most of the day, making visibility difficult, let alone flying. Not many birds of any kind had ventured out. Sometime after lunch, sitting on the edge of the porch with my feet up and starting to be lulled to sleep by the steady sound of rain on the roof, I noticed a large fluttering movement. Seemingly out of nowhere, an enormous bird settled down on the top of the telephone pole crossbar.

Quick confirmation with the long lens indicated it was one very wet and miserable looking Bald Eagle. It must have been pretty tired to decide to rest on that spot, totally exposed to the elements which were still on full blast. It moved around and adjusted, but the Eagle must have perched on that pole for about twenty minutes before it finally spread its wings and launched back into flight.

When I got home and examined the photos on my computer, two things became apparent. 1. This Eagle was really very wet. Poor thing. You almost looked like you could have wrung out its feathers. 2. Its coloring is a bit off. The head was white with some brown splotches. The beak was yellowish where it met the Eagle’s face. The underbelly of the bird also had a lot of white feathers showing. So what was wrong with the Bald Eagle?

The answer is nothing. Bald Eagles take several molts, effectively several years, before they acquire their adult appearance that we recognize so clearly. After they develop from the juvenile stage, Bald Eagles have a “subadult” phase. In both the juvenile and subadult stages Bald Eagles can be mistaken for their brown cousins, Golden Eagles.

As you can see from the pictures of my very damp friend, I think it was only a molt or maybe two away from the full adult plumage, with only some spotting of white on its wings and only white feathers starting to become apparent on its head.

The Pigeons of New York

I made reference in my post about Mourning Doves that my family has a strong affinity for pigeons. I know that this is an attachment that is not shared by most of my fellow humans, especially not most of the urbanites among you. In that same post I complained that I didn’t often have the opportunity to photograph pigeons in my own neighborhood. Over the summer I decided to rectify that situation with a trip to the best pigeon watching ground in my area, New York’s Central Park.

One of the great things about urban pigeon populations is the variety of colors and plumage styles. Most cities, including New York, have pigeon racing clubs. The pedigree pigeons sometimes do more than just fly home when they are released for a race. The evidence of their romantic dalliances can be seen in the more exotic white and brown plumage one sees mixed among the gray native populations of Rock Pigeons.

Love was definitely in the air on this particular summer day as I was able to observe at least two males attempt to incite a lady pigeon, really any lady pigeon. One was a darker blue-gray, while the second male had more of the traditional light gray Rock Pigeon coloring. Their flirtatious behavior can at quick glance be confused with their normal head bobbing walk. However, courtship is accompanied with the male spreading his tail feathers, puffing up his chest and walking mostly in circles around or at the female. Sometimes those circles are rather tight, giving the impression that the male pigeon is engaged in a game of hokey-pokey, and keeps turning himself around.

Both of the males I observed were in hot pursuit of ladies who seemed distinctly uninterested. The males didn’t seem to be bothered by the lack of interest or consent, probably confident that their charms would win out in the end. At times their actions were akin to those of a pantomime villain, lurking just behind the female waiting for the opportunity to pounce!

The Bald Eagle

The first Bald Eagle I saw in the wild was actually in Washington D.C. It was my husband’s first visit to the nation’s capital and we had decided to visit in January, when the Mall is both empty and cold. At the Jefferson Memorial my husband looked up and said, “Look, a Bald Eagle!” We had been joking all day about seeing the Vice President in a car window or Uncle Sam in a doorway, so I figured this was just another good natured joke about America and her patriotic symbols. But it was in fact a Bald Eagle. We didn’t have as long a lens as we have these days, so the photos do little more than prove him right. The white head and brown back is clearly visible against the clear blue sky.

I was recently discussing with a friend the increasing number of Bald Eagle sightings we are aware of in the past few years. We are both in our thirties, and I genuinely feel that there are more Bald Eagles around than there were when we were growing up. According to The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution by William J. Boyle Jr. (2011), our instincts are correct, there is a growing number of Bald Eagles, in New Jersey. DDT, persecution and habitat destruction all combine to decrease the Bald Eagle population to the Endangered level in forty-eight states. In 1970 there was only one nest in all of New Jersey. Thanks to incubation programs through the Endangered and Nongame Species Project, in 2009 New Jersey sported 69 nests and 85 territorial pairs. Many more Bald Eagles who do not choose to nest in the Garden State year-round come to the area to winter. I certainly know that the northern New Jersey suburbs have a few hanging around. We have seen the odd Bald Eagle flying over the highway, always without a camera or a safe place to stop, naturally.

Those of us who live in Northern New Jersey are doubly lucky because a lot of Bald Eagles make their homes, or at least their winter residences, along the lower Hudson River. The ice breakers make it easier for the Eagles to access fresh fish throughout the winter and they are fairly common. We saw a nest at Stony Point Battlefield State Historic Site. We were taking a look at the lighthouse and the view of the river when we saw a huge flash of bird. “If I didn’t know better, I would have said that looked like a Bald Eagle!” I exclaimed to our guide. “Yup, it was. We have a nest.” She pointed to the nest and then headed back to the visit center, like people see Bald Eagles in the wild every day! Well, I guess she does probably see them every day. We decided to get the long lens out, sit on a bench and see if it circled around again. We didn’t get to see the adult again, but we did see a juvenile less than gracefully swooping around at the edge of the cliff.

You many not think so, but you will definitely know a Bald Eagle nest when you see it. At this point I have seen a few in real life, and I am still always surprised by just how big they actually are. They are the largest nests you will ever see in North America. The largest has been recorded at about 13 feet deep and 8.2 feet wide. They often add to the nest each year, reinforcing it, which is probably how they come to grow so large. This DIY project is part of the pair’s annual breeding ritual and helps them to both prepare for the coming eggs. There is a mating pair of Bald Eagles who reside on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The nest has been in place for so long that they have had multiple generations of the same Bald Eagle family nest there.

Blue Jays- The Bully of the Backyard

I have seen numerous references to Blue Jays as “the sentinels of the forest,” sounding the alarm of danger for their fellow birds and other woodland creatures. I feel that this title attributes a benevolent quality to the Blue Jay’s actions which is totally unwarranted. True, Blue Jays often send out loud cries which serve as a warning to the rest of the animals in the immediate vicinity. However, rather than the primary purpose of the call, this is often a coincidental side effect, if not a deliberate misrepresentation, designed to scare the other birds away from what the Blue Jays covet for themselves.

Based on my observations, rather than the overseer of safety, I think it would be more accurate to classify the Blue Jays as the bombastic and inflated characters that they are. John James Audubon, for whom many bird watching societies are named, referred to Blue Jays as “mischievous.” Like the bully in a playground, the Blue Jays very loudly and pompously push their way into the midst of the feeder crowd, using their superior size and prancing movements to intimidate and push their fellow birds from the seed or perch they plan to possess.

Don’t get me wrong, Blue Jays are a beautiful bird. Familiar to most people, at about twelve inches long, the Blue Jay ‘s back, head and tail are a bright, light blue, decorated with horizontal stripes along the bottom of its wings and length of its tail. A fluffier white-gray belly and neck provides some contrast. Its face is bordered in a black semi-circle, almost like a beard. Its head is topped with a distinct crest, adding an almost regal formality to the Blue Jay’s overall appearance.

One of the reasons Blue Jays are so familiar to us is directly due to human interaction. Blue Jays have adapted well to human populations, both urban and suburban and are just as comfortable in a yard or park as they are in the forest. People are a consistent and convenient source of food all year and as a result very few Blue Jays migrate in the winter. They have a varied diet of bugs, fruit, seeds, nuts (they are very partial to peanuts specifically) and carrion which allows them additional flexibility in their various habitats. They also cache food, a behavior uncommon in birds. In the spring, Blue Jays supplement their diets by attacking the nests of other birds and eating their eggs or newly hatched nestlings. Yes, Blue Jays eat babies. While they are not the only bird species to behave in this manner, this activity is leading to a decline in many forest’s song bird populations as nest robber population, including the Blue Jay increase due to their positive relations to humans.

Blue Jays are interesting it watch. The have a curious and inquisitive nature that seems to imply a deeper intelligence. Matched with their seeming fearlessness, these qualities find them often invading humans’ personal space bubbles similar to seagulls approaching beach goers. But while their “mischievous” actions may be funny, remember that they can also be aggressive and even mean to other species.

Blue Jays can definitely hold their own, and have been known to mob (or attack as a group) owls and other large predator birds. Their imitation of a hawk can scatter birds in an instant and the juveniles seem to pick up this loud-mouth quality very early on. The cries of a juvenile Blue Jay are some of the loudest and most unsettling sounds of nature. They seem to feel that their parents need a constant verbal reminder to feed them immediately! This behavior lasts for the first twenty days of their life, after which point they are responsible for feeding themselves.

So there you have it, a loud-mouth bully with aggressive behavior. Next time you admire the beautiful blue of a Blue Jay, just remember that appearance is only one aspect of its complex character.

To experience the sounds of the Blue Jay for yourself, visit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Blue_Jay/sounds

An Ovenbird

One day while walking along the trail in Garret Mountain Reservation, Woodland Park NJ, I noticed a bird that seemed unfamiliar. As has become my practice, I immediately started snapping photos. Identification can always happen at home. I have learned the hard way that some birds don’t wait around for you to get the best angle. This is especially true when you spot them in a wild habitat and not in your yard where a bird feeder provides a nice distraction.

This time my plan of action lucked out and I was able to get a few semi-descent photos of the bird in question before he disappeared into the trees, not to be spotted again. Once I was able to examine the photographs of this little guy in more detail, I was able to determine that I had spotted an Ovenbird. Not common enough to have earned a spot in my Birds of New Jersey Field Guide, the Ovenbird can be found in most of the Northern United States and parts of Canada. At about 5 ½ to 6 inches, the Ovenbird is a Warbler. Compared to many other Warblers, with their bright yellow feathers, the Ovenbird’s appearance is muted. A matted brown body allows him to blend in well with trees and the forest floor, where he spends much of his time foraging. He does however, have a very prominent stripe on his head. Almost orange in color, the stripe is flanked on either side by dark brown or black stripes which serve to further accentuate this feature. The feathers on his white belly are streaked with brown, very similar to those of a thrush.

The Ovenbird gets its somewhat odd name from the style of nest it builds. The female builds a nest on the forest floor. The nest is then roofed with dry leaves and other vegetation, leaving only a small slit for a door. This unique nest style has been compared to a Dutch oven, hence the name, Ovenbird. Personally I am not sure I see the similarity. But maybe they mean a colonial Dutch baking oven rather than a heavy duty pot with two handles, which is what I think of as a Dutch oven. If you want to see for yourself, there is a clear photo of an Ovenbird nest at https://natlands.org/mariton-another-reason-to-stay-on-the-trails/

The Thousand Islands and the Plight of the Double-Crested Cormorants

The Thousand Islands is a lovely spot for a vacation or a day trip. There is lots of history, culture and natural beauty. The natural beauty of the islands is in contrast with the industrial might of the many transport ships traveling along the St. Lawrence Seaway. Home to many species, summer inhabitants of the Seaway include Osprey and Seagulls of all types.

This past summer, while on a boat trip in the Islands, I was introduced to Gull Island, a bird watchers’ paradise. Despite the name, Seagulls were not the main attraction of this tiny rock outcrop in the midst of the St. Lawrence River. Rather every available surface seemed to be covered with loud, socially active, nesting Double-Crested Cormorants.

Double-Crested Cormorants are a very interesting bird. Genetically related to a pelican, they resemble a loon while swimming. Both male and female Double-Crested Cormorants are all black birds, rather large in size, but lanky rather than stout at about thirty-three inches. Their long neck is a distinguishing feature, as is its bright, orange-yellow bill and face, made more stunning by the black surround. This bill has a hooked tip, very like a pronounced overbite, no doubt helpful in the pursuit of fish. The “Double-Crested” refers to two plumes or tufts of feathers that develop on either side of its head (about where ears would be) during the breeding season. The final, and in my mind most intriguing physical feature of the Double-Crested Cormorant is its sparkling, crystal-like blue eyes. Their eyes are very special as they have evolved to allow aerial and underwater vision. Underwater vision is particularly key for this species, as the birds diet consists of fish and mollusks.

As you would expect with an aquatic bird, swimming is a big part of the Cormorant’s life. Despite the fact that its name translated from Latin means “Sea Crow,” the Double-Crested Cormorant prefers fresh water to salt. If you see a Cormorant swimming, it is often alone or with a few fellow Cormorants. They bob in the water like a duck or a loon and then suddenly they dive with a great burst of speed and a splash. Because their pursuit of fish can be arduous, they are able to remain under the water for longer periods than ducks or geese. They also swim long distances and often pop up a yard or so away from their dive spot. Unlike a penguin, the Cormorant swims with its wings at its sides. Once the Cormorant returns to dry land, it is a very common site to see it standing with wings outstretched, the best method of drying its feathers in the sun.

Cormorants are colonizing birds, meaning they choose to nest in large groups. They are happy building nests either in trees or on the ground, however the whole colony will build consistently, so you will never find a colony where some nests are in trees with others on the ground. Each mating pair have one brood a year, of three or four eggs on average. The young Cormorants who grow up in ground colonies will get out of their nests after three or four weeks and wander the community, however they will still return to their nests to be fed. As they develop, the juvenile Cormorants take on a light gray or brownish color until their mature feathers grow in.

There is some controversy regarding the presence of Cormorants in the Great Lakes and Thousand Islands regions. Once a common resident of the Great Lakes Region, their populations were greatly diminished by a combination mandated population control and pollution in the 1940s-1960s. The elimination of DDT and other pesticides allowed their populations to grown throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Following this slow beginning, the population has been steadily increasing and they now thrive throughout the Great Lakes region. However, as living memory doesn’t reach beyond the time of DDT and its effects on the environment, many people look on the Double-Crested Cormorant as an invasive species.

The Cormorants’ large populations throughout the region has caused them to attract the attention of the fisherman, who feel the presence of so many Cormorants is negatively affecting their fishing. There are even some shocking reports of unlicensed killing of whole Cormorant colonies in an effort to protect fish populations in the region. The worst report I came across occurred in 1998 outside of Watertown, New York. 800 birds were killed in the name of recreational fishing. I am sad to say this is not an isolated incident. The decline of the Smallmouth Bass population specifically has been blamed on the increased populations of Double-Crested Cormorants, however the fisheries believe that a number of contributing factors, of which the Cormorant population is only one of many, has led to this population decline. Extensive studies of the Cormorant diet in the Great Lakes and Thousand Islands regions found this concern to be unfounded (study conducted in late 1990s). While a Cormorant’s diet does consist of a variety of sport fish, both Northern Pike and Smallmouth Bass comprised of only 3% of the fish they consumed. The same study found that smaller fish (pumpkinseed, yellow perch and rock bass) made up the majority of the Double-Crested Cormorant’s diet, about 83%. The same study found some differences in the diets of the birds residing in the St. Lawrence verses those birds that colonize in Lake Ontario, however these variances still did not effect the Smallmouth Bass populations. I also feel the need to point out that the Cormorants also do their bit for the Great Lakes/Thousand Islands ecosystems. They eat indiscriminately, meaning that their presence helps battle invasive species of fish and mollusks, such as the alewife and zebra mussel.

While they are innocent of the charges against them with regard to fish populations, the Cormorants are guilty of another crime which some of the locals think is just as bad. Their settlement on an island seems to spell impending doom for all vegetation and trees that live there. This phenomenon could definitely be seen from the state of Gull Island. This is directly related to the Cormorants’ excrement which is very rich with ammonia. The effect is worsened by the fact that the Cormorant lives in colonies, meaning that small areas receive a concentration of the droppings and they are repeat visitors, returning the same nesting location year after year, which gives the vegetation little time to recover.

In the discussion of these Cormorant controversies I do not mean to imply that people are totally wrong or that the Cormorants are completely victimized. I think one look at Gull Island can show that the Cormorant population is thriving in this region, which can have many negative effects on both the vegetation and habitats of other bird species. Rather, I think it is best left up to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and other similar departments on both sides of the lakes to monitor and manage. The Cormorant population is being monitored and controlled in New York, which include nest destruction and nesting deterrents. The idea that wholesale slaughter of a bird population won’t have negative effects on the whole region demonstrates a lack of understanding I thought far behind us. Did we learn nothing from the Dodo? Individuals should never take matters into their own hands. Ecosystems are very delicate webs and the slightest changes can have catastrophic effects.

Sources

http://tilife.org/BackIssues/Archive/tabid/393/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/2101/The-Devils-Bird-in-the-St-Lawrence-River.aspx

http://www.glfc.org/pubs/lake_committees/ontario/cormorant.pdf

https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/28442.html