Don’t be so Juvenile! -An Examination of Adolescent Birds

As I indicated in my post about hatchlings, juvenile birds exhibit a whole different set of behaviors from younger birds that justify their own discussion. To quickly recap, the growing phases of a bird are: 1. Egg, 2. Hatchling (or nestling), 3. Juvenile, 4. Adult.

When observing a juvenile bird I often reflect on how appropriately they were named. In the English language juvenile has a negative connotation that many of its synonyms don’t carry. When one acts juvenile, one is usually acting in a way thought to be beneath our actual age. Acting childish. While I am sure that birds are not familiar with the nuance and cultural associations of the word juvenile, they often live up to its definition and all that it implies.

The best way to think of a juvenile bird is to compare it to a kid in Middle School. Awkward, gawky, silly, unknowledgeable, unworldly. All of these adjectives can be applied to the juvenile bird. This is the stage of their development when they set foot in the world on their own. And they aren’t really sure about the whole thing. Often their parents are at a discrete distance, observing and prepared to intervene.

Young birds can be a lot of fun to watch. Their antics as they interact with a world they don’t fully understand can sometimes leave you in stitches. Many of the young House Sparrows that visit my feeders have a really hard time figuring out how and where to perch. They loose their balance easily and sometimes they slide down the feeder pole in slow motion, unable to figure out what is going on, or how to stop it.

Often juveniles are fearless when it comes to getting a handout. Many of the young House Sparrows and even one or two young Blue Jays have come to my feeder and then opened their mouths expectantly to any adult bird that came near. One female Cardinal was particularly taken aback by this behavior. She hopped back and then quickly skirted away from a small army of open mouths. Most adults just ignore this behavior, although some parents will continue to mouth feed even as they are trying to teach their children to fend for themselves.

Sometimes juvenile behavior isn’t as funny. My parents have a lot of trouble with young Woodpeckers flying under their porch roof and nearly injuring themselves as they desperately look for a safe place to land. They soon learn, but the first few days are concerning, both of the birds and whoever has dared to sit on the porch.

It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a juvenile bird and an injured bird at first glance. Juveniles often flutter their wings at a quickened, almost frantic pace which can seem to indicate that they are hurt. In fact, this behavior is used in some species of bird to inform parents that the baby wishes to be fed.

Appearance and identification are sometimes difficult when it comes to juveniles. Even though many field guides provide an image of juvenile birds, each bird develops at its own rate, meaning that coloring and major identifying markers for some species may not be easily spotted. Some birds, such as the many kinds of Warblers, have very similar juvenile development, making an exact match hard. However, if you are having trouble identifying a bird, there are some quick clues you can look for which will tell you if you are looking at an immature bird.

Fuzz is the first big clue. Whether it is a downy fluff sticking out under the wings or covering the bird’s belly, immature feathers that don’t seem in harmony with the rest of the bird’s plumage can be a good indicator. Like baby teeth in humans, adult feathers develop gradually and many juvenile birds are still a bit fuzzy here or there.

Inconsistent coloring is another indicator. Some birds will look really weird, or almost sick, with very patchy coloring. Chances are they are a young bird, just developing the mature feathers of an adult of their species. Be careful of the time of year with this indicator though. Many birds, including several different species of duck, develop a different plumage when they are not breeding. When mating plumage is developing or phasing out they can exhibit similar patchy qualities to juvenile birds.

You may recognize the shape of a bird, or the overall appearance but it is not the correct color. There are many juvenile birds that develop mature looking feathers that are not fluffy but also do not resemble those of their parents. This is true of starlings. Many male juvenile birds resemble the adult female in coloring and develop their more colorful mating plumage slowly.

How big are they? Many young birds do not develop their full adult size immediately. If you have many of the same species near each other, compare the bird in question to others of the same kind. If it is smaller in statue, it is likely a juvenile. If other birds aren’t around for comparison, consider the bird’s own proportions. Does it’s beak or feet look too large? These signs can also indicate a bird that is not yet fully grown.

Depending on where you live, you may have a variety of fledglings visiting you all summer long as some birds have two or more broods. Generally, the juvenile phase lasts about four weeks for most feeder birds.

Additional Sources:

https://www.audubon.org/news/birdist-rule-57-its-summer-watch-out-juveniles

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
https://lambertcastle.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/cedarlawn_map.jpg

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.

Blue Plumage

The color blue is commonly found in nature. Many varieties of birds found in our own backyards exhibit a shade of blue. While some colors in plumage are the result of a pigment, the blue in feathers is due to their structure. Light refracts off of the feather proteins and we see it as blue. It seems likely that birds have evolved blue feathers for different reasons than their fellow feathered friends have evolved yellow or orange plumage. Like all other colors in birds, bright blue will likely serve to attract mates and more subtle blues will provide camouflage in certain habitats. Blue is a cool color often associated with calm. Perhaps this is why blue colored birds are among some of bird watchers’ most favorite.

One of the most obvious birds to open this discussion is the Eastern Bluebird. As its name indicates, the Eastern Bluebird is prominently blue, with bright blue wings, tail and head. Like so many bird species, the male usually has a deeper blue than his female counterpart.

The Blue Jay offers another, somewhat softer shade of blue than the Eastern Bluebird. Most of its upper body including its head, back and tail are blue, but the Blue Jay’s underbelly is a downy white. Though in their capacity as “the forest’s sentinel,” it seems that the calming aspect of the color blue cannot be attributed to Blue Jays without some reservation.

Closely related to the Blue Jay, Florida’s Scrub Jay also boosts blue plumage, if not as prominently as its cousin. Its gray-brown back and gray underbelly serve to further highlight the blue feathers of its wings, tail and head.

Several different varieties of swallows have some blue in their plumage. However, male Tree Swallows not only demonstrate a vibrant blue but also another interesting aspect of structural color, iridescence. Iridescent colors in birds are created because of light refracting from feather barbules. This effect works like a prism, splitting the light into component colors. In this case, as we view the birds from a different angle, the color changes.

The Great Blue Heron has a blue-gray body with darker blue stripes on either side of its head. This shade of blue-gray is much more subtle than the colors of the other birds discussed in this post. The sheer size of the Great Blue Heron makes its blue seem more prominent than it otherwise would be. The muted coloring most likely developed to help the Great Blue Heron blend into its wetland habitats.

Much the same as the Great Blue Heron, the Tricolored Heron is a muted blue-gray color. However, its coloring is a darker and richer shade of blue than its fellow heron. The Tricolor Heron, as its name suggests, is not completely blue in coloring. The blue is highlighted with purplish-red on both its wings and neck. But the Tricolor Heron’s plumage also as a strong similarity to that of the Tree Swallow, not in the shade of blue but in its iridescent nature.

As you can see, blue occurs in nature in a variety of hues for our viewing pleasure. Whether for mating advantage or camouflage or another reason altogether, we can thank the structure of the birds’ feathers themselves for the lovely shades we all enjoy.

To learn more about the parts of a feature, visit https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/feathers-article/2/

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 https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_5/NWRS/North_Zone/Great_Swamp_Complex/Great_Swamp/GreatSwampMap.pdf

Blue Jays- The Bully of the Backyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbour’s Pond- Garret Mountain Reservation, Woodland Park NJ

Garret Mountain Reservation is a wonderful urban park. Located in Woodland Park, New Jersey, the park has at least two different vantage points where visitors can look down/out at the city of Paterson and beyond. Along with the paved paths frequented by walkers and joggers and the many picnic areas (some recently updated) with grills and picnic tables, there are also hiking trails. According to Passaic County’s website, the park welcomes over 150 species of birds throughout the year and the County sponsors Bird Watching meet-ups throughout the summer. While they are not as intense, nor as remote as the Appalachian Trail, they do provide good terrain for a short walk. I typically do not follow the whole trail (which basically works its way around the outer edge of the park. Instead I usually walk an easier and shorter loop around Barbour’s Pond.

Well shaded, the trail at Barbour’s Pond has lots of lovely ledges to sit on and watch the swallows. There are also many outlets to the water’s edge, though you often have competition for these spots from fishermen. In the many times I have walked this loop (often my go to spot between the end of the workday and an evening activity) many times and seen a great many birds. Most are the common New Jersey birds you would expect, but I have also seen a Palm Warbler, Killdeer, Ovenbird and what I believe was a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker.

On one particular summer afternoon in July the landscape was dominated, not by the flapping of feathered winging, but rather the flitting of an army of blue dragonflies

While the dragonflies stole the show, there were also Robins, Grackles, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Catbirds and mourning doves around and about. A pair of Canada Geese were surprisingly the only members of the species near the water. At one point I came across three Blue Jays, all a bit unsure of themselves. Upon closer inspection, you could see a few downy feathers still among their mostly adult plumage indicating that they were juveniles. The shrill of a baby Blue Jack was gone, but they still made a racket.

The swallows at Barbour’s Pond are usually far too busy to stop and pose for photos. One did land on a tree. Being darker blue/black, I believe it was a Bank Swallow. Bank swallows sometimes nest along stream bank and I think in the case of Barbour’s pond, they like the rock ledges which line one whole side of the pond. I have also seen Tree and Barn Swallows at the pond, but not on this occasion.

There were three Mallards hanging out in the shade by the edge of the pond, two males and one female. The males were between feathers, just molting into their breeding plumage. Their partially green heads were particularly odd to see. There are apparently six different plumages for the Mallard, four of which are different phases of the male’s feathers. You can see am great image of them all together at: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/metro/urban-jungle/pages/110830.html?noredirect+on&noredirect=on

Besides the dragonflies, there was a lot of other interesting insect activity. Moths fluttered around and one beautiful blue-black butterfly. I didn’t get an amazing photo of it, but I can see enough of the wings with their iridescent blue to determine it was a Red-Spotted Purple. You can learn more about this butterfly at the North American Butterfly Association’s website: https://www.naba.org/chapters/nabanj/butterflies/red_spotted_admiral.html

Painted turtles were also everywhere, particularly in the algae covered edge of the pond directly in front of the boathouse. At first I didn’t realize quite how many there were. Most weren’t moving an inch. Rather, they were perfectly still, mostly submerged with the exception of just their heads popped up above the blanket of green algae. At first I thought they were the ends of sticks or maybe jagged rocks, but I knew I hadn’t seen that many rocks here on earlier visits. There were at least seven or eight turtles in this concentrated section, floating along, just chillin’.

To learn more about what Garret Mountain Reservation has to offer, and for a map of the trails, visit: www.passaiccountynj.org/passaic_county_park_system/parks/garret_mountain_reservation.php

A Day in the Backyard

A leisurely weekend morning spent in the garden with a book, a cup of tea and my trusty camera, ready for action. Many of my usual customers stopped by, including a pair of Cardinals, several Mourning Doves, House Finches and Goldfinches of both genders and a Catbird. A Brown-Headed Cowbird grabbed a quick snack at my feeder and a Northern Flicker rested on a branch for about a minute, but I wasn’t quick enough with my camera. A young Grackle even took a few drinks from the bird bath.

It is amazing that in just the span of a day or two the baby birds sticking their beaks through the hole of their birdhouse are suddenly up and out. The frantic and awkward flapping which at first glance appears to indicate an injury, is really the international bird body language for “I’m hungry.”

Today the baby House Sparrows that have been living in one of the birdhouses in our yard ventured out into the world. They didn’t venture very far, just a few branches above their home, hopping more than flying from branch to branch. They are still being fed directly by their parents, the adults’ beaks going right into the eager open mouths of the chicks. Their coloring is such that they could almost pass for an adult, if a bit smaller in stature when you have mom or dad right next to them for comparison. But when you look closely, the fluffy, downy feathers are still there.

The quiet, still morning air was constantly pierced with the shrills of much larger babies, the Blue Jays now have their babies out of the nest. I believe their cries rank among my least favorite sounds of the summer. As gawky as the most awkward teenage you can think of, Steve Urkel comes to mind, you could almost think they are so ugly that they are cute, but then they open their mouths and shrill again. The adult Blue Jays had all they could do to satisfy their bottomless-pit children. They came to my feeder, gulped down the food, shoved it down the babies’ throats, repeat. Suddenly breast feeding doesn’t seem that bad.