The Bald Eagle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

Click to access cormorant.pdf

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

A Day in Clinton

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!

If you are interested to know more about the Red Mill Museum, visit https://theredmill.org/

Winter Visit To Mills Creek Marsh

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 her photo.

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.

New Year’s Day in Richard W. DeKorte Park

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.

However, 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.

A Chance Encounter with a Famous Owl

This past August I attended the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire and had a brush with fame. Located on the estate of the Mount Hope Winery, the faire is home to the wide variety of acts and demonstrations we have come to expect at Renaissance themed events. Alongside the jousts and human chess, the jugglers and musicians, was Her Majesty’s Royal Falconer. It didn’t take much convincing to get my party to both take a look at the birds in their pens and to check out one of their daily educational demonstrations. The faclconer, Ash Cary gave a wonderful talk entitled Knightwings: Birds of Prey, which included a lot of information about the efforts made toward conservation of birds of prey. To learn more about Cary and his conservation efforts, you can visit the website of his non-profit One World Raptor at https://oneworldraptor.org/

Unfortunately, I had decided I would enjoy the faire more without carrying the weight of my camera and lens, so I was forced to rely on a phone camera for the show. As you might expect, not all the birds are included in each demonstration. Our demonstration included Zuul, a South American Black Hawk-Eagle and Ulysses, a European Eagle Owl. While Zuul was a beautiful bird, it was Ulysses who completely captivated me. Elegant and distinguished, his large size dominated your attention from the moment he emerged. And one look into his large orange eyes with their disdaining disinterest, and you understand immediately why humans often personify owls as being stuck up and haughty.

It is really a small wonder that Ulysses caught my attention. Eagle Owls are the largest species of owl in the world. While in looks they somewhat resemble the Great Horned Owl, the Eagle Owl is over two feet tall. Its size is further enhanced with its “fluffy” plumage, presenting a large girth that seems formidable. Ulysses and other Eagle Owls have yellowish brown bellies with darker brown wings and back. Besides their large orange eyes, their other distinctive facial feature are their long ear tufts on either side of their forehead, which stand straight up except when they are in flight. The young look much less distinguished, being as white as snow with fluffy downy bodies, resembling a clump of cotton candy.

When living in the wild, Eagle Owls reside in mountain regions. They like forests that have rocks or cliffs. They often nest in the cliffs and spend most of the daytime hours roosting in coniferous trees. Like many other owls, they feed on small mammals and small birds.

As if Ulysses was not cool enough already, he is also a movie star. According to Cary, he was cast as Draco Malfoy’s owl in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). A quick review of the movie credits indicated that they did not list every animal by name. I decided to re-watch the movie in full to see if I can spot him. While he might have been cast as Draco’s owl, I am confident that there are no scenes of Draco with an owl. I did however spot a European Eagle Owl in a few scenes. Assuming that owl was Ulysses, he was in the first scene, sitting on the street sign as baby Harry is delivered to his aunt and uncle’s home and he was the owl who delivered the first Hogwart’s letter to Harry. He was hanging on the roof with several other owls trying to deliver Hogwart’s letters when uncle Vernon goes to work, he was among other familiars hanging out in Diagon alley and he also delivered some mail to Hogwarts when Neville received his remembrall. Unfortunately my DVD doesn’t include deleted scenes so I couldn’t investigate further.

I am very excited because this post has given me the opportunity to use the newest resource in my growing bird library, a gift from my husband Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe text by Lars Svensson, 2009.

A Wintry Walk in the Celery Farms

One of the things I like most about the Celery Farms in Allendale, NJ is that it provides an interesting walk, regardless of the season. I know I have said Autumn is my favorite season to visit, and it is, but winter is definitely nice as well. Especially if the weather is snowy and the lake has frozen. In fact many of the locals play hockey on the ice, so on an early morning winter walk (especially during the school break) one often finds the parking lot full.

Winter at the Celery Farms is not really for the unadventurous. If you think the path is muddy in other seasons, wait until you experience it in the winter. What makes it more interesting is that the mud sometimes freezes awkwardly making footing complicated. Definitely don’t forget your boots. Besides slip-sliding on the paths, the platform stairs can also be a bit slippery, so take extra care.

But this extra effort to walk safely around the trail only makes the few sightings you have all the more rewarding. Usually winter at the Celery Farms yields the sightings you would expect. All our year round residents are there including Sparrows, Mallards, Canada Geese, Northern Cardinals, Dark-Eyed Juncos and Woodpeckers.

However, the lack of vegetation makes it possible to see some of the smaller birds that winter here, such as the Golden-Crowned Kinglet. The Golden-Crowned Kinglet is actually smaller than a Chickadee, making it really difficult to spot. But they have a tendency to flick their wings around as they hop from branch to branch, so the extra movement helps to attract one’s attention. They eat insects, fruit and drink tree sap (sans pancakes) as a part of a healthy balanced diet.

If you are having a particularly cold spell, you might see other birds and animals, flushed from discrete roosts to hunt for food. The deer are always foraging about and you never know if you will see other mammals wandering about.

Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve

Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve is another haven of wildlife that can be found in the midst of suburban New Jersey. Formerly a reservoir for the town of Haledon, this space became a Preserve in 2006. The dam is still in place, containing 75 acres of water. This location is the perfect recreation spot for boaters (kayaks or canoes) and fishing, which are both allowed here. Not as wild as some, this Nature Preserve provides a short loop path around the water and an opportunity to enjoy some wild birds from our area. To learn more about this Preserve, visit https://www.franklinlakes.org/flnp

Woodpeckers, Robins, Blue Jays, Northern Mockingbirds and other common forest birds can be found at the Franklin Lakes Preserve. However, for me, the serenity of the water is usually what dominates my attention. Waterfowl are in abundance here, and it is easy to spot Mallards and Canada Geese at any time of the year. Herons and Egrets are much rarer, but they can be found here as well.

However, it is the Mute Swans that I go here to see. There are always at least a pair of them, enjoying the serene waters and searching for aquatic vegetation along the edges of the water and in all the small bays and nooks of the shoreline. Aquatic vegetation actually makes up the majority of their diet, so if you ever see a swan with its beak in some algae, he isn’t hunting, he is munching. While they are majestic to watch, remember to keep your distance, especially during the breeding season, as Muted Swans are extremely aggressive.

Swans are somewhat famous for being monogamous, a romantic feature of their nature which has been referenced frequently in popular culture, including HBO’s the Tudors. While monogamy in birds can vary depending on the species (some only mating for a season) Muted Swan’s mate for life and (this is what pop culture has gripped onto) supposedly when one of the pair dies, the other Muted Swan will not find a new mate. Rather, it is believed it spends the rest of his/her life alone, pining for its lost love. While romantic, this seems unlikely as it would not be great for the survival of the species.

During the breeding season, you can spot the Muted Swan’s nest close to the waterline. In Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve they like some of the smaller little “islands” by the main shoreline. The female sticks pretty close to the nest during incubation, on the couple’s 4-8 eggs. They only have one brood a year, so early spring is the best time to see their nesting behavior and to get a peek at their fuzzy little gray youngsters.

On a Trip to France

One thing I have noticed since becoming a bird watcher, you can’t ever really turn it off. You start almost subconsciously being aware of flutters in the air and cooing from the rooftops. Not that I ever really want to stop bird watching. I am simply observing that we become more aware because of this hobby and the results are usually interesting, no matter where we go.

We had the opportunity to spend a week in Southern France last summer, in a small village located in the Dordogne region. This was our first big trip since we had purchased our new camera and my lovely long lens, so we decided to pack the lot and see what photographic opportunities awaited us. And I am glad we did.

The houses in the village were set-up so that the main living space was on what Americans would consider the second floor, with the ground level being used much like a basement or a garage. The result was that the couch in the living room had a great vantage point of the roof-line across the street. And that was how I first noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a lot of fluttering going on just under the roof. The birds, a very small, quick bird (either a swift or a swallow I wasn’t sure) were popping in and out of a series of mud nests which reminded me of mud wasp nests, just much bigger. There was a whole colony of nests, all in a row, like houses along a street.

After some research into European swallows verses African swallows, with their air speed velocity sans coconuts (in all seriousness, I had no idea there were so many different kinds of swallows and swifts around the globe), I think that they were most likely the common house martin.

If you are interested to see how these fascinating mud houses are created, I found a great video online of cliff swallows building their nest: https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/cliff-swallows-build-nests-from-mud/

Central Park, New York City

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

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

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

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

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

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