Central Park, New York City

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Autumn Morning on Sandy Hook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn in the Celery Farms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Morning in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charleston

I took a trip to Charleston, South Carolina with my mother late one February. If you like history, you cannot pick a better place to visit. We had a wonderful, warm time. It was just the break we needed.

Due to a basic economy ticket with intense baggage restrictions, I had decided not to travel with my then almost brand new telephoto lens. I had a few moments to regret it, but I have no doubt someday I will find myself back there, camera at the ready.

Of course, just because I wasn’t ready for a photo shoot, doesn’t mean that all the animals stayed away. We spent the day at Fort Sumter, which requires a boat trip that starts at the mouth of the Cooper River and proceeds out into the harbor. The water is brackish and somewhat tidal, so dolphins are very common, as are Seagulls, Cormorants and other waterfowl.

For me, the Brown Pelicans stole the show completely. They are common, at least part of the year, on both coasts of the United States. But I don’t believe I had ever seen one in the wild before this trip. Between 48 and 51 inches, they are so strange and somewhat awkward looking as they stand or float. Yet when they fly, it is with an unexpected grace, sleek and agile.

For me, the dive was the best part of all. There is this large bird, gliding through the air with ease, getting closer to the water with every second and then kurplunk! Forget about grace now. The splash of the biggest belly float you have ever done erupts from the water. Seconds later a pelican pops up and floats along the water’s surface, like a buoy, bobbing in the waves. Totally unphased.

While I was watching the pelicans from a distance, I never dreamed that I would shortly have the opportunity to see one closer up. Following our boat trip, we had decided to meander down the boardwalk in Waterfront Park. They have a pineapple shaped fountain there which my mother was particularly keen to see. The park did offer a lovely vantage from which to gaze out into the harbor.

As we were looking out over the harbor, we noticed the reeds on the water’s edge were moving. There seemed to be a lot of commotion. We stopped to watch, and finally made out the shape of a Pelican, half hopping, half walking through the reeds. It continued toward us at its rambling pace. We halted our walk and leaned on the railing, wondering just how close it would get. Its movements seemed really odd, and for a while we were concerned it was injured or tangled in line or rope. Finally it emerged from the reeds at a close distance, and we got a good look at it. Not injured at all, we were looking at a juvenile Brown Pelican, unsteady and unsure about the world. It [we decided it was a she and named her Frances] rested for a while in the reeds near the boardwalk, close enough for us to get some decent photos with our point and shoot cameras.

I hope one day to have the opportunity to observe Brown Pelicans more closely, perhaps with a longer lens. However, Frances will always be my favorite Pelican.

The Twin Hawks

This past July I had an accidental encounter with a pair of young hawks, who I believe were siblings. I had just tucked all my camera equipment away when I noticed a very large fluffy lump on the grass. I was in the parking lot of Lambert Castle, which is terraced above the lawn, so it was a level below me. I crouched down to see what it was. That was when I realized it was a Red-Tailed Hawk, awkwardly strutting around on the ground. Cursing my luck for putting the camera away so nicely ten minutes earlier, I rushed to my trunk to put my lens back on the camera. The Hawk didn’t seem to notice my movement in the slightest. So far, so good. I got a few photos from where I was, still with the Hawk not even seeming to notice me. So I decided to test my luck and I made my way to the stairs for the lower level.

I approached the stairs slowly and took a few more photos. The Hawk still seemed completely oblivious to my existence. So I continued down the stairs. I used the fountain as a blind to get even closer to the Hawk undetected. It finally did seem to notice me, and hopped up on the wall. I decided to continue trying my luck, and I slowly approached the wall, staying far enough away not to really panic it. The Hawk decided to show off, turning around in slow circles, so we had ourselves a little photo-shoot. At this point I knew I had tons of photos, so with nothing to lose, I began to slowly walk closer.

That was when the Hawk decided it had had enough of me. Off he flew. I kept my eye on him, figuring he would head for the trees, way up on the mountain. Instead he headed for a tree at the other side of the lawn, so I decided to follow for some “Hawk in tree” photos. I approached the tree at a slow walk, keeping my eye out for him as he wandered around the branches. I noticed he had very quickly ended up on the opposite side of the tree. But nope… there he was on the lower branch he had flown too….oh my, two of them!

While they were in the tree I was able to get a very close look at their bodies and it was then that I determined they both had enough downy white belly fuzz that they were probably both juveniles, probably siblings, rather than parent and child.

Eventually I decided I had been bothering them enough and I walked off. I didn’t make it to my car before the two of them whistled at each other and then flew to a telephone pole in the parking lot. So I swung my camera around again and decided to take some photos of the two of them together. It was then that the most amazing thing happened. They were seated on two tiers of the same telephone pole. The lower bird turned its head, saw its companion’s tail feathers and chomped down! He held on for a few minutes before he finally decided to let go.

They then proceeded to turn toward the trees on the ledge above the parking lot, calling expectantly up. My guess is that they had been permitted a small excursion as a learning experience, but now they were done exploring and playing and expected their parents to fly down and collect them. Right now! When I finally got tired of waiting for something to happen and headed back to my car they were still sitting there, anxiously watching the treeline.

Richard W. DeKorte Park, Lyndhurst, NJ

Another of the twenty parks managed by New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, Richard W. DeKorte Park (https://www.njsea.com/parks-and-trails/ ) was one of the first locations I ventured to when I started birding. It probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this park inspired me to become a bird watcher. We would pass it on the train and I kept wondering what this amazing place was, and how could I get there. One day I finally tried it, and it didn’t disappoint. I still go there regularly, and it never fails to amaze. In the heart of New Jersey’s Meadowlands, this wetland habitat is visited by over 285 different species. The 3.5 miles of trails include a boardwalk through the wetland area itself, as well as some grassy, treed areas. The Manhattan skyline is visible in the background with the highway and train line. Nature truly co-exists with man in this spot.

I always start by heading out on the Marsh Discovery trail with its boardwalk and bird blinds. There are many birds that you are sure to see here in the summer months. Top of the list is tree swallows. They truly dominate the area. Little wonder really. The whole habitat has been populated with tree swallow sized nest boxes, out in the middle of the marsh. They are constantly gliding overhead and chirping to each other in their hyper-active way. They do settle on banisters, nest boxes and vegetation if you are patience enough to wait. I can never get enough of photographing them. The sheen of their feathers in the direct sunlight is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

After the tree swallows, it is Great Egrets and Great Blue Heron you should expect to see. Sometimes, especially in spring and summer, there will be dozens of them, slowly making their way across the marsh, with their steady, exacting steps, heads down watching for anything tasty they might flush out of the mud. It is actually the Great Egrets that first attracted me to this place.

Being a marsh, Seagulls and Terns are also species you are likely to encounter on a walk here. The Seagulls tend to congregate at the mudflats, while the Terns like to explore the whole area. Their antics are more than a bit amusing. The Terns often remind me of the Three Stooges (even when there are more than three), as each of their actions always seem to be a direct reaction to some action another in the flock took. He hops away, I hop after. He flies up and lands, I fly up and land a little farther. These waterbirds are some of the only birds who remain on this spot through the winter, not a light-hearted prospect. I give them a lot of credit for braving the exposed waters, especially when the icy winter wind blows.

Other waterfowl can also be seen and at some points, such as early spring, you can see five or six different kinds of ducks. Mallards are usually abundant, but I have also spotted Northern Shovelers, Bufflehead and Greater Scaup. Canada Geese are sometimes here and the occasional Muted Swan can also be found floating around. Double-Crested Cormorants really like the mudflats. They usually congregate their in large groups, but you can sometimes see a lone Cormorant drying off its wings in the sunshine.

The song birds need their acknowledgment as well. Song Sparrows and Marsh Wrens fill the air with their songs. Red-Winged Blackbirds also make their presence known either with a loud call or a sudden appearance in the reeds. Catbirds, Robins and the occasional Grackle also like this spot, particularly the more forested areas.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to this location is the surprises that seem to be waiting at every turn. Yes, I see a lot of the same birds each trip, but I never know what other birds and animals might be waiting around the next curve in the boardwalk. I have seen woodchucks, painted turtles and so many lovely butterflies here. Some of my other favorite rare encounters include a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs wandering in the mudflats, a bright yellow Palm Warbler and a Yellow-Rumped Warbler.