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.
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 https://www.meadgarden.org/
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.
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 https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Merritt_Island/
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.
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:
“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 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.
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.
Do you get cabin fever in January and February? I know I do! One
winter weekend I couldn’t take it any more, so we piled into the
car and off down the road we went. After a bit of driving, we found
ourselves in Clinton, New Jersey. Clinton is the perfect town to kill
some time and wander. Coffee shops, stores with plenty of window
shopping opportunities and the Red Mill Museum, which is well worth a
visit if you are in the mood!
While taking a minute to snap a few picturesque shots of the Red Mill, we discovered another couple had the same idea as we did, and they were taking a stroll along the Raritan River. A pair of Mallards came walking up the ice, slip-sliding as they waddled. I know it isn’t nice, but I couldn’t help chuckling. While some Mallards do migrate to warmer climates in winter, much of the Northeast retains its Mallard populations through the winter. Look for them in places were the freshwater has not completely frozen. They seek winter homes where they will have access to their aquatic food sources.
We also spotted a few Ring Billed Gulls, who were much braver than us
and decided to dip their feet in the water!
Having been under-wowed, and cold, on a winter walk in Richard W. DeKorte Park, my expectations for Mills Creek Marsh in the winter were extremely low. However, I should have realized that Mills Creek Marsh is more sheltered from the bitter winds we encountered in Lyndhurst. Therefore a few more birds seem to shelter here in the winter. Regardless of the number of animals we encountered, the frozen landscape at the Marsh is also much more interesting, with the tree stumps planted in the ice covered water.
We spotted many of the winter residents we expected to see, Mallards,
Canada Geese and Ring-Billed Gulls. They all seemed to be managing
with the icy water. There was enough of a current that some of the
water was still flowing ice free and many of these birds had turned
the icy patches into a shortcut, walking across the ice with the ease
of a figure skater.
One Mallard was so impressed by my camera that he stopped his march across the ice to pose for me. He turned his body and his head several times, holding the pose just like a runway model, complete with attitude. I took several great photos, but the one I selected below I think expresses his personality the best.
The lack of vegetation on the surrounding trees also allowed us to
get a good look at a few feathered friends that we know are at the
Marsh, but don’t usually see so clearly. A very cold and fuzzy
Northern Mockingbird was trying to get some shelter in the branches
of a naked tree. He kept his eye on us, but decided we weren’t so
scary that he needed to hi-tail it. A female Northern Cardinal also
showed herself to us. She took a high open vantage point in a pine
tree, and while she was looking around, I moved a bit closer and took
The water in the Marsh also flows on the outer edge of the trail and
in the winter that water seems less prone to freezing. While taking a
few more photos of the Canada Geese and the Mallards, I noticed a
different duck that I had never seen before. He was a Green-Winged
Teal. According to my New Jersey book he should have been migrating
thorough this area in the Autumn, but it was definitely winter and he
seemed pretty content. I don’t think he had received the memo. The
Green-Winged Teal’s chestnut brown head has a vibrant patch of
green. A matching patch of green on his wing (as his name implies) is
harder to see when swimming.
The Mills Creek Marsh trails are a must visit in winter.
My husband’s family have a lovely tradition, they like to take a
walk on the beach each New Year’s Day. It blows out the cobwebs,
helps with the hangover and is a good move toward working off all of
the Holiday’s tasty treats. We have carried on the tradition, and
every New Year’s Day we try to go for a walk somewhere, although we
don’t always choose the beach. A few year’s ago, I suggested we
take a turn around Richard W. DeKorte Park in the meadowlands.
Previously we had only ever visited these trails in the spring and
summer, but they were always chuck-full of wildlife of every
description, so I didn’t see why winter would be much different.
what I hadn’t accounted for was how exposed to the elements we
would be. The same open landscape that was so great in the summer
meant that we were beaten by the cold winter wind from the moment we
left the car, with no relief. It was a particularly cold winter that
year, which certainly didn’t help.
You have to give us credit though, we braved it. We walked the entire perimeter of the West Pool. Despite the cold we did spot a few birds, hearty enough and brave enough to have endured these Baltic conditions. One single, very fluffy Song Sparrow was trying to look unaffected by the cold. He posed for me on top of a reed, making sure to turn his head a few times, so that I definitely got his best side.
Opposite the West Pool, the Saw Mill Creek Mudflats were mostly frozen over with the exception of a thin flowing stream running through. They were occupied by a very large flock of Mallards. Unlike the Sparrow, they were not trying to prove anything. They all had their faces buried deeply into their chests, hiding their bills from the cold.
A few Gulls were also around. One was very busy hunting, hovering over the water, peering into the depths. His persistence was rewarded in the end and he did catch a rather large fish, which he most definitely did not offer to share with any of the others.
Looking back on the experience, I think I can say with confidence that the wind was definitely fresh. But so far we have never repeated the experience of visiting Richard W. DeKorte Park in the “off-season.” I leave that to those who are made of sterner stuff than myself.