The Queen’s Birds

The ruling houses of Europe have long had a tradition of keeping menageries. Presents of exotic animals were a common gift to the crowned heads of Europe for hundreds of years. In 1235, Henry III began a zoo at the Tower of London, which housed the Royal menagerie until 1835. If you visit the Tower today, besides the royal armor and the crowned jewels, you will have the opportunity to see a variety of animal sculptures, installed to remind visitors of London’s first zoo.

Given the existing legacy of animal gifts to aid diplomacy between nations, it will probably not surprise readers that this custom carries on today. The Queen has a collection of exotic birds. But rather than being banished to the Tower, many of them are happily installed in St. James Park. Situated between Buckingham Palace, the Mall and Whitehall, St. James Park is firmly seated in the tourist district.

The park contains a large lake, which extends almost the full length of the grounds, making it an ideal home for many varieties of birds, including waterfowl. However, Duck Island, on the eastern side of the lake has officially been designated a nature reserve for the collection of birds that live in the park. My one regret about my visit to St. James Park in 2018 is that I did not have my long lens. So please bear with me as the photos I am going to share in this post were taken on my phone.

Easily the most notable, feathered inhabitants of St. James Park are the great white pelicans. Noted as “the famous pelicans” on the official map of the park (see link below) they never fail to draw a crowd. The pelicans, of which there are at least ten, have all been gifts to Queen Elizabeth II from the city of Prague. The first group of four pelicans were presented to the Queen in 1995, with an addition of three more being added to the gift in 2013 and three more (known as Sun, Moon and Star) in 2019. The tradition of pelicans being gifted to English rulers can actually be traced back to 1664, during the reign of Charles II.

A majestic bird that has historically been linked to nobility for centuries, swans have a special place in British society. It is commonly believed that Queen Elizabeth II owns all the swans of Britain. While that is a slight exaggeration, she does own all the Mute Swans that are unmarked and in open British waters. Apparently she only exercises this privilege over a section of the Thames where every year the Swan Upping (a traditional swan counting) takes place. This unique ownership even comes with a special title, the Seigneur of the Swans. With traditions and connections that go back to the Middle Ages, there are many British laws regarding the Mute Swan population that are still on the books. It wasn’t until 1998 that eating a swan stopped being an act of treason.

Given this strong connection between the Queen and Swans, it is little wonder that Black Swans are among the park’s population of fowl. Native to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania and introduced to England and other parts of Europe and North America for domestication, there are now several wild populations in England. The Black Swan is all black, as its name implies, and has a deep red bill. At 45-55 inches, they are smaller than Mute Swans. Conveniently during our visit one of the white swans was hanging out with a black swan, allowing me to snap a comparison photo.

Of course not all the birds that have decided to make St. James Park their home can be classified as exotic. Among the fancier feathered inhabitants of the pond, you will find many which are commonplace. But commonplace for the British isn’t the same as commonplace for North American tourists. Yes of course, as you would expect with any urban park, there were Pigeons, Seagulls and Canada Geese among the groups of birds begging for handouts. However, there were also a few “common” birds that excited me.

Among the birds floating in the water were a large number of Coots. These Eurasian Coots are cousins to the Coots found in North America and greatly resemble them. Mostly black, these Coots also have a pale bill which blends into a vertical white stripe across the front of their heads. If you are able to get a close look, you will also notice their red eyes. However, one of the Coot’s most unique and identifiable features will be impossible to see while they are swimming. The Coot has very strange looking toes. Overly large, their gray-white toes project from yellow legs. They serve a very special purpose, working in the same way snowshoes do, they distribute the weight of the bird over more surface area, allowing them to walk on floating water plants. I wasn’t able to get a good photograph of their feet, but you can see what I am talking about in some of the photos on this site:

Among the Coots were another black bird of a similar size, the Common Moorhen. The easiest way to tell these two birds apart is by looking at their beaks and heads. Where the Coot has white, the Moorhen exhibits red on the front of its face. There are some other, more subtle differences, including the Moorhen’s thin white wing stripe and a small amount of white plumage under its tail. Again feet can be a helpful tool. The Moorhen has yellow legs and toes that resemble that of a chicken, thin and much less interesting than those of the Coot. The Moorhen is also smaller, usually about four inches smaller than the Coot.

Standing away from the crowd, we also spotted a lone Grey Heron. An abundant bird which resides in Britain, it behaves similarly to the herons and egrets of America, stalking prey in shallow water. Very similar to the American Blue Heron, the Grey Heron can grow to be between 33 -41 inches. Its plumage is more muted and lacks the blue tint of the Blue Heron, indicating that while these species are similar, their names are appropriate.

There were actually quite a few varieties of geese cohabitating in the park. This included the Greylag Goose. Described as a “bulky” goose, the Greylag is usually between 29-33 inches. Considered abundant in Britain, where many of them reside year-round, the Greylag Goose adapts to many habitats including lakes and wetlands. As far as looks, the Greylag is fairly plain, being a brown-gray, with its neck and head plumage usually being a lighter shade than its wings. Its feet and bill are pale pink.

Next to the Greylag, the Egyptian Goose looks incredibly unusual. Originally found only in Africa, Southern England has had a feral population since they were introduced in the 1800s. Physically smaller than the Greylag (between 24-29 inches), the Egyptian Goose’s plumage looks a bit like a patchwork quilt. Its wings alone sport several colors, including green, brown, dark gray and white. It also has a light gray belly, and tan chest. However, the head is possibly the most distinct. Mostly gray, but with a dark brown circle around the eye, almost as eye catching as a black eye on a boxer. The brown circle is further emphasized as it is surrounded by a thinner flash of pure white feathers. Definitely not a bird to go unnoticed walking down the path.

Among the geese, I also spotted a mismatched pair of…shelducks. Apparently neither really ducks nor geese, the shelduck is a link between these two waterfowl. The pair that I saw actually represented two species of Shelducks. The bird featured on the left in my picture is most likely a female Common Shelduck, with a distinct black-green head, reddish bill, and mostly white body with a band of brown separating its neck from its torso. Its companion, on the right, was the slightly larger Ruddy Shelduck, most easily recognized by its creamy-tan head emphasized by the rest of its darker, brown plumage. The Ruddy Shelduck also sports a black bill and feet.

For a closer look at St. James Park, you can have a look at the map:


Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge

Exactly a year about, I found myself camping with a friend in Rhode Island. We were staying just over the Connecticut border in Burlingame State Campground. It was a lovely spot and great for outdoor activities, with the campsite right on a small lake. One day we decided to leave the campground for a hike at the nearby Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, which encompasses 787 acres, is home to roughly three hundred bird species, over forty mammal species and twenty reptile and amphibians. The habitats included within the borders of the refuge include fields, shrublands, woodlands, fresh and saltwater ponds and sandy beaches and dunes. What makes it extra special is that this refuge is the only undeveloped coastal salt pond in the whole state of Rhode Island. For we two-legged mammals, the refuge also provides roughly three miles of nature trails, including two observation platforms.

When we arrived at the refuge it was late morning. The day was already very hot. As we set out on the trail, it was amazing how green everything appeared. As we got closer to the water, many of the trees grew in curved and sprawling directions rather than heading straight up to the sky. The appearance of dry stone walls here and there added to one’s impression of a mystical, otherworldly atmosphere. You felt that seeing a fairy or a leprechaun wouldn’t be that out of place in these woods.

When we did spot some movement in the trees, it turned out not to be a fairy after all. Rather a lone Cedar Waxwing was hoping around the branches, either snacking or collecting some material for its nest. Always easy to identify with its distinct body type, black mask and yellow tail tip, this Cedar Waxwing was so busy, it made no attempt to hide from us.

Further down the trail we saw another flash of movement, this time a brighter, yellow flash. A Yellow Warbler perched on a branch just long enough for us to get a decent look at it and snap a few photos before it was off again, a bundle of energy and activity.

At this point the land around the trail became noticeably narrower, as we approached the peninsula where the Osprey Point observation platform was located. We noticed that the water had a foggy haze over it, helping to further enhance that mystical atmosphere we had begun to sense earlier. Unfortunately it also negatively affected our visibility.

Once up on the wooden observation platform we were confronted by a rather large bush or shrub, which had used the man-made platform as a trellis to allow it to reach even further into the air, toward the sun. But while the vegetation obscured our view even more, it was itself a haven for many of the smaller birds that love that kind of covering. A Song Sparrow was the first to show himself to us, belting out his song with great enthusiasm. Rustling in another part of the bush revealed a male Common Yellowthroat who came into view only long enough for me to begin lifting my camera before he hurried back into the network of vines and leaves, away from sight. However, after a few minutes, a much less jumpy female Common Yellowthroat came into view. She was much less skiddish than her male counterpart and I was able to get some very clear photos of her as she gleamed among the flowers.

Extending our gaze beyond the vegetation, we were able to spot one Double-Crested Cormorant, fishing in the brackish water. Additional movement on the water’s surface caught our eyes. But what we saw was definitely not a bird. It took us a few minutes of guessing before it came close enough for us to realize we were looking at an otter. Whether it was a river or sea otter is difficult to tell, but it was probably a river otter, as this was a fresh water pond. It turned out to be one of several that we saw when we started looking closer. They appeared to be bringing building materials from deeper water in toward shore, possibly to build a nest. They were much bigger than I expected.

After watching the otters for quite a long time, we headed back on the trail and went to the second observation platform, Otter Point. There the fog was just as thick, but the vegetation was a bit thinner. We watched a pair of Canada Geese make their way slowly across the water, when we saw a large bird fly in and land on the naked branch of a tree across the water from us. After a few minutes the Osprey flew off, caught a fish and then returned to the same perch and began to eat it. The irony was not lost on us that we saw otters at Osprey Point and an Osprey at Otter Point.

The Osprey’s meal reminded us that we were ready for lunch ourselves, so we started to head back along the trail. Emerging from the woods, the trail skirts the edges of a large, open grass field. On one of the only trees in the area, a gnarly looking fruit tree, we noticed a Tree Swallow. He was most likely resting after having flown repeatedly over the field gathering the many insects that were hovering in the thick and humid air.

Before reaching the car, the trail took us alongside the Farm Pond, a scenic little body of water, covered in vegetation. Getting closer to look for fish or turtles, we spotted several frogs floating among the lily pads. Most likely American Bullfrogs, these frogs floated below the water’s surface, allowing only their eyes, and sometime the tips of their noses to emerge above. Having spotted several frogs, we once again headed for the car. We didn’t make if far before we were distracted by the rustling of leaves high up in a maple tree on the opposite shore. A quick look through my lens revealed a rather noisy female Baltimore Oriole, picking at something, possibly some tasty insects or sap. Having seen her eating confirmed that we were past ready for lunch, and we practically marched back to the car to go out in search of our own sustenance.

For more information about Trstom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, visit:

Appalachian Trail Boardwalk at Pochuck Mountain

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.

Additional Sources:


Point Lookout, Maryland

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

A Short Trip To Florida: Day 2 Mead Botanical Garden

Following my amazing experience at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, I was fairly sure that whatever I did with my second day alone in Florida would seem underwhelming. I decided to check out something a bit closer to Orlando, and went to Winter Park. I spent the morning exploring Mead Botanical Garden.

Named for naturalist Theodore Luqueer Mead, who first visited Florida to study butterflies in 1869, Mead Botanical Garden was started in 1937. This non-profit just celebrated its 75th anniversary and continues to provide a variety of family programming in their own oasis of nature in the middle of the suburbs. For more information about Mead Botanical Garden, you can check out their website at

Being about 47 acres in total, and not all of it accessible to visitors, I had a lot less ground to cover than I had on my previous day’s outing. I decided to leisurely wander the trails and enjoy the morning sunshine. When one hears the word garden, usually we are expecting flowers to be oozing out of every possible square inch of soil. The Botanical Gardens were not that garden. They did have many lovely flowering plants and also a variety of palms, greens and trees that gave the garden a park atmosphere.

There were many sections of the garden dedicated to butterfly attracting, which given its namesake’s interest in entomology makes perfect sense. I saw several varieties, but only one Monarch was so preoccupied with nectar gathering as to remain stationary long enough for me to get a decent photograph.

As I headed onto the boardwalk through Lake Lillian Marsh I met with a Carolina Wren. Looking a bit ruffled, it sat on the railing taking a look out into the Marsh.

Not long after seeing the Wren, I started noticing a lot of smaller lizards, crawling along palm fronds and resting on branches. Often they had changed their color to blend in with the surroundings. From my Florida Field Guide I determined that they were all Brown Anole, a smaller lizard from the Iguana family. Brown Anole can change their coloring from tan to darker browns in order to provide themselves some camouflage. They never grow much larger than 7 or 8 inches, which, as far as I am concerned, places them strongly in the “cute” category. One of them even decided to show me his dewlap, or neck flap. I was focusing on him as he sat totally stretched out on the railing, sucking up some early morning rays. While I was looking into my camera, he suddenly unfurled his dewlap, almost in the same way one would casually blow a bubble with chewing gum. I am not sure if he was trying to encourage me to buzz off or not. If so, it didn’t work. I just stood around focused and waiting for him to do it again. Eventually he obliged and I continued on my way.

A good portion of the trail follows along beside a shallow creek. Being a weekday, I had most of the trails to myself. But at one turn in the trail, I realized I wasn’t the only one out for a leisurely stroll. A Great Egret and a Glossy Ibis were both walking along the trail, very methodically. They walked in front of me on the trail a few yards. Eventually they decided to head back into the water and try their luck at fishing.

There were also a few noisy Northern Cardinals around. They were fairly skittish and stuck to the shadows, under the palms. I did get a few photos of one particularly grumpy and rough looking character.

A Short Trip To Florida: Day 1 Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

This past June I was lucky enough to accompany my husband on a short trip to Orlando, Florida. As the cold wind blows outside my window, now seems like the perfect time to reflect upon that visit.

We flew into Florida on Wednesday night, and I had two days on my own while my husband reported to work. After some googling and a long perusal of the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Florida (which my lovely husband had presented to me me as a pre-trip present) I decided on a visit to Canaveral National Seashore and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. After a quick stop for life sustaining supplies (water, Gatorade and fruit snacks), I got on the road. In about an hour’s drive I arrived. I had been enjoying the drive, the atmosphere of Florida being so different from New Jersey that I was definitely aware that I was on vacation. I haven’t been South of the Mason-Dixon line very often so the sight of palm trees and Spanish moss are enough to make me feel I have really traveled somewhere exotic.

My first stop was the Visitor Information Center to buy a day pass and get a trail map of the park. I was very lucky to strike up a conversation with an incredibly helpful attendant. She planned out my entire day, making sure I hit all the highlights and offering several tips which proved useful. She recommended that I check out the short loop trail right behind the center first, as an alligator had been sighted there earlier that morning.

So I headed back to the car to regroup, grabbed the camera, hung my park permit from the rear-view mirror and off I was to start my adventure. The whole trail was buzzing with life. Dragonflies in every possible color imaginable, blue, red, orange, purple. Insects buzzing, butterflies fluttering and lizards scurrying at every turn. I think I even saw the bushy end of a red-orange fox trail, but it was gone so quickly I can’t be sure. I did see the alligator, from a great distance, at first mistaking him for a rock until I checked him out more closely with my telephoto lens. There were several nest platforms in view on this trail, and a pair of Osprey were hanging out in one of the nests. I think they might have been juveniles, based on the way they were behaving. The loop was fairly short and soon I was back in my rental car and on my way to the next trail.

My second destination was the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a one way driving route through the marsh. As I pulled in, I was more than a little nervous about going down the dusty gravel road in a rental car, but soon the scenery distracted me totally. There were several pull offs and I made great use of them, hopping out of the car at the slightest flutter of a bird wing. This drive truly was not to be missed. There were a number of waterbirds hunting in the shallow water. The first bird I saw was a lone Tricolored Heron. Significantly smaller than the Great Blue Heron, the Tricolored Heron is about 24-26 inches. The deep, yet subtle and muted blue of its feathers really makes you wonder how the Great Blue Heron was ever called blue. Watching it for a bit longer, the burgundy or purple feathers along the neck and back become evident. Its beak is so yellow in comparison and the eyes’ reddish-pink. Closer to the road, hunkered down in some short shrubs were a pair of American Coots with their snow white beaks and red eyes. Just a bit further along the drive I noticed a Anhinga. Similar to a Cormorant in size and appearance, the most distinct different to differentiate the Anhinga is its long, thin, pointy, yellow beak, so very different from the black hooked beak of the Cormorant. I could also see Great Egrets and other Herons stalking slowly though the water in the distance.

As the road wound its way around the marsh there was one spot where bird watchers could park and walk up a short path to a few bird blinds. I decided to venture out of the car and stretch my legs. As I first excited the car I noticed what I thought the be another Tricolored Heron, but I quickly observed that this bird was much more red, almost like a very dark flamingo. This Reddish Egret had coloring in what is known as the dark morph, other members of the same species also occur with white feathers. Its toned beak was very interesting, light pink ending in a black tip, almost like it had dipped the end of its bill in black ink.

Once I had snapped enough photos of the Reddish Egret I headed on down the short trail to the bird blind. Had a very quick but close encounter with a snake. I am not sure which of us was more startled, but the snake made the first move, quickly heading away from the sunny path and back toward the water’s edge. I only saw enough of it to guess that it was probably a Southern Water Snake. I decided to leave him be and headed on to take a seat in the bird blind. As I looked at the habitat around me, I noticed some barnacles clinging fairly high up on some vegetation, indicating that the water level in the marsh could climb much higher than I would have suspected.

I did not have to long to think about changing water levels before a Tricolored Heron decided to introduce me to some of the fish, plucking one out of the water right in front to me and waving it around before he finally decided to put the poor thing out of its misery. After watching the Heron hunt for a little bit longer I decided to head back to the car, taking a look in the water as I passed for any fish or turtles I might see. Just as I had almost reached the road, I looked up from the water’s edge and started. There was an alligator calmly hanging out in the water only about 15-20 feet away. Seeing him so close, especially when I was so alone, made me both excited and nervous. I managed to remain fairly calm, take a few photos and then I walked quickly back to the safety of my car.

I continued to drive and stop along the rest of the Black Point drive. One final spot proved worthwhile. The water level was very low and there were large clumps of grass breaking up the open space and providing cover. I noticed another Tricolored Heron standing very near another large bird, which I thought might be a stork. So I parked the car and walked down the road to get a better angle. The Heron’s companion turned out to be a White Ibis juvenile. Similar in size to the Tricolored Heron, the White Ibis looks significantly less intelligent than the Heron. Something about its eyes seemed so much more gentle and perhaps naive. On my way back to the car I noticed some movement in a bush right on the edge of the road. Still very aware of my close encounter with both alligator and snake, I cautiously take a closer look. A Green Heron inched higher up on the bush as I approach, and we watched each other for a few moments as I took its portrait. The subtle green tint, not only to its feathers but also to the flesh around its eyes was so pretty in the sunlight.

I continued to take photos out the window as I completed the loop. I spotted another Anhinga, which I believe was a female given its brown neck and head. I also spotted a Double Crested Cormorant, enjoying its perch on the top of a pole. A Common Moorhen and her chick were swimming and nibbling in one quiet spot. The Moorhen is very similar to the American Coot I had spotted earlier, except for its deep red bill in contrast to the Coot’s white bill. Turning one curve in the road I came upon a group of Glossy Ibis, feeding on crustaceans in the shallows. Very similar in shape to the White Ibis, their coloring is their one noticeable difference.

Having completed the drive, my next destination was the Manatee observation deck. Located in the Haulover canal, the deck doesn’t look like much. A concrete platform with railings, overlooking the canal. But as you approach the railings you begin to understand why everyone is hanging over the edge. At least six manatees were just below the surface, chowing down on underwater vegetation. The most of any one of them you can see is their backs, the occasional tail flick and their little noses poking out of the water for a breath of fresh air. They never fully surfaced. They never really stopped their munching and lunching.

Moving on from the Manatees, the visitor center attendant had recommended that if I wanted to take a walk, I should definitely visit the Scrub Jay Trail. So off I went. When I pulled into the trail the only other car in the parking area was pulling out. It was just a bit after lunchtime, pretty hot and it was starting to get a bit buggy (although over all I would not say that I was really attacked by the swarm of bugs I was expecting). I starting walking along the trail, keeping my eyes peeled on the ground as well as the sky. There were high grasses on parts of the trail and I wasn’t sure if I might see another snake. Other than a few dragonflies whizzing by, I didn’t see anything for the first third of the trail. I was just considering whether I should turn back when I heard this rather angry sounding grunt, right next to my right ankle. I turned to look and saw a large Gopher Tortoise right next to my foot, in the shoulder of the path. He repeated his guttural noise and this time he made it clear that his grunt was really a growl. Aware that I was clearly invading his personal space I quickly backed off and took my photos from a safe distance. While bizarre, this encounter gave me renewed enthusiasm for the path and I continued down the trail with a bit more hop in my step.

A Brown Pelican flew overhead and I got some more good photos of dragonflies resting on reeds. At one point, as I was walking under some taller trees I had the sensation that I was being watched. I looked around, but didn’t spot anyone on the trail. Slowly I look up into the tree to see an Osprey staring down at me, very intensely. I had apparently interrupted his lunch and he wanted me out of the way. I continued down the path a bit more and saw my first Scrub Jay, Florida’s finest. Friendly and fairly inquisitive, the Scrub Jay’s actions were very similar to its cousin the Blue Jay. It hoped from branch to branch, checking me out at every step. I got some lovely photos when I suddenly realized that the Jay looked like he was about to launch himself off of ihis perch, right at me. We were only a few feet from each other. I was very anxious until I remembered that the visitor center attendant had mentioned that the Scrub Jays were overly friendly because people fed them and not to be surprised if one decided to perch on my shoulder. As soon as that very thought passed through my mind he was in the air. I squeezed my eyes closed, expecting to feel a weight on my shoulder. But instead I felt a plop on my head. The Scrub Jay had decided my hat looked like a promising place to find some lunch. He sat on my head, systematically inspecting every inch,. He was so focused I was able to snap not one, but a whole series of selfies with my phone. He stayed on my head so long, that I wanted to get walking again. I didn’t want to shoo him off, so I started walking. He must not have liked the direction I was headed, because he hopped off onto a nearby branch and that was the end of our intimate relationship.

I had one final stop to make before I started driving back to Orlando to meet my husband for dinner. The beach at Cape Canaveral. As I pulled into one of the first parking lots, I noticed a Black Vulture sitting on the top of the bathroom hut. Very similar in appearance to the Turkey Vultures I am used to seeing in New Jersey, the Black Vulture has a black skin on its naked head. Leaving the Vulture behind, I headed for the stairs up to the beach. I took off my shoes and socks and launched myself onto the boiling hot sand. I hadn’t been thinking about how hot the sun had been, beating down on the sand most of the day, as it was now about 2pm. I ran with all hast toward the water. Once my feet felt some relief I looked around myself and got my barrings. A clear, beautiful day. The beach had more occupants than I had expected for a weekday. The blankets and umbrellas were pretty spread out and I was able to maneuver around everyone. And then I saw them. A huge group of White Ibis walking up the beach, hunting for invertebrates in the surf. They were totally focused on food and paid little attention to the humans, who in turn didn’t seem to interested in the birds. I couldn’t stop watching them. The light blue of their eyes was so stunning. So was the bring reddish-pink of their bills against their snowy white feathers. Once they passed, I wandered up the beach a bit. I noticed a lot of round holes along the beach, but I couldn’t figure out what was forming them. The birds were not that high up on the sand, so it wasn’t their bills. Then I noticed something scurrying across the sand and popping into a hole. Ghost crabs, were making the holes, which they would carefully inch out of to wander around the beach. At the first sign of danger they would run (sideways) across the sand and dive back down into their dark little hole.

If you cannot tell by the length of this post and the number of photos I have included, I had an amazing time at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. I have decided it is a little piece of heaven on earth and I hope I will have the opportunity to visit it again in my lifetime. The refuge was formed alongside NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in the early 1960s, with the National Seashore directly adjacent being established in 1975. A day pass to the refuge will also allow you on the Seashore for free. Both are well worth a visit if you are anywhere in the area. For more information, you can visit

Bread-Should We Feed it to Birds?

I would like to definitively settle an ongoing debate, at least for myself. Can we feed birds bread, or are we hurting them? To provide a bit of background, I grew up feeding the ducks stale bread. It was an annual vacation tradition with my grandmother. We went up to Lake George, settled into O’Sullivan’s Motel and headed down to the beach to feed the ducks. I am pretty sure that grandma rationed grandpa’s bread intake for a few weeks to amass the quantity of stale bread she deemed an adequate offering to our feathered friends. So I grew up feeding the ducks bread and I sentimentally view it as a fun pastime, one that I want to share with the little ones in my life.

As an adult I recognize that feeding the birds, particularly waterfowl, is a complex issue. If you feed birds in one location too often, they can develop a dependence on that food source instead of seeking their food. In public spaces, such as parks and beaches, there is a human health concern to attracting birds who then assemble in large numbers, fowling the area. Excess bread can also mold and negatively effect the water in which the birds live. This is especially the case in ponds and small bodies of still water. The birds can also, especially Canada Geese and Swans, be unfriendly and have been known to attack small children when they have felt threatened. In this post I don’t want to focus on any of these components of the larger discussion. I simply want to discern if I am physically hurting a bird by feeding it bread.

According the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, bread will not harm birds if ingested. They can fully digest bread of all types. But there is a but. While they will eat it, bread does not provide the protein or fat the birds really need. It is an empty filler. Carbs, even birds should avoid them! It is okay to leave out bread, but try not to offer it too often or exclusively, as it can cause vitamin deficiency if it becomes a staple of the bird’s diet. If you are leaving out bread, you should break it into smaller pieces, especially in the spring. Hard stale bread should be soaked so it is easier to digest. Multigrain bread is better for birds than overly processed white bread. You can also add protein by spreading jelly, marmalade or nut butter on the bread. The spreads can even be topped with seeds, dried fruit or insects, making the bread a platform, rather than the main food source.

Furthermore, there is a variety of household food waste that can be left out for birds rather than thrown away: the cut fat from unsalted meat, mild cheeses (grated), dried or bruised fruit, baked or mashed potatoes and pastry (cooked or uncooked). Seeds from pumpkins or squash can also be left out for the birds. If you are feeding waterfowl, greens, such as lettuce would also be a good choice, just be sure it is chopped into a manageable size. Non-salted food is the key here as any human salt will be harmful to the birds.