Spring Has Sprung and the Babies Have Come!

Spring is a time of rejuvenation, when we think about new growth and new life. In the bird watching calendar, spring ushers in a whirlwind of behavior as birds find a mate, and then frantically prepare a nest for the little ones that are soon to follow. By May every yard, garden and park is alive with the sounds of tiny little chirps and the sights of fuzzy, fluffy young birds venturing out into the world.

It is important to remember that as we enjoy the new arrivals, we must also respect their space and give them room to grow up safely. Some of their parents, particularly the geese, swans and ducks will be sure to let you know what they consider a safe distance with some aggressive hissing and perhaps even a snap of the jaw or slap of the wing if you aren’t careful.

Other parents signal their displeasure by attempting to distract your attention. They will hover near your face and in many cases, actively avoid approaching the nest for fear of giving away its location (as if the hungry cheeps emitting for the birdhouse or nest weren’t evidence enough of its contents). Be sure to back off if you notice the parents hesitant to approach. Those babies are hungry and they can’t eat if their parents are unwilling to go to them.

If you really want to be in on all the action, they do make cameras that can be discretely placed in nest boxes. This piece of tech will allow you to fully enjoy nature without giving the new parents a coronary while they try to keep you away. You can find tons of different cameras online, but here is an article to get you started if you are interested: https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/installing-a-nest-box-camera/

Not all baby birds are the same. When I say baby, what I am actually referring to is hatchlings. Hatchlings are young birds, just out of the egg and not yet to the stage where they can be considered juveniles. Some hatchlings, such as those born to Sparrows, Robins, Blue Jays and many song birds are often born with no feathers. Bald and defenseless, their beaks often look much too big for the rest of them! As their feathers develop they can often give the appearance of being wet, their feathers looking slicked down. These hatchlings are also called nestlings, because of their nest-bound state. They are completely dependent on their parents for food.

Other hatchlings, hatch ready to roam. They are born with downy protective feathers which do not often resemble their parents, but do help them as they walk and swim shortly after their debut in the world. The species with hatchlings like this tend to live in more open environments like beaches or lakes. The parents teach them how to find food, rather than bring it to them directly. Ducks, swans, geese, and chickens fall under this category.

Once any of the hatchlings begin to leave the nest, or in the case of the roaming hatchlings, wander away from their parents protection, they have graduated to the next growth stage and are considered a juvenile. It is now that they begin to resemble their parents in coloring, although they don’t always look exactly like their parents overnight, a situation which causes much confusion in the bird identification world. Juvenile birds offer enough material to be the topic of their own dedicated post, so I won’t go into more detail here.

So go out and enjoy all of nature’s newest arrivals, but remember, respect their space so they can grow up to be healthy, beautiful 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.

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.

Canada Geese

I want to take the time in this post to talk about a less respected bird, the Canada Goose. Most people choose to write off the Canada Goose as a nuisance. They make a mess in parks and nature preserves. They don’t tend to be friendly, especially in the spring. They don’t have a nice song, and they aren’t pretty to look at. So what’s to like?

Perhaps one of the reasons they aren’t liked is that they are not native to many of the places they now call home. However, despite making the invasive species website- which was somewhat akin to America’s most wanted for our animal friends- being invasive was not really their idea. It is hard to believe today, but the geese population was actually failing in the 1950s. Because of this decline, they were moved to urban and suburban areas where they would not naturally have occurred. They have now thrived in those areas for generations, creating the overpopulation problem we are familiar with today.

Due to the abundance of Canada Geese in my area, I have had a lot of opportunity to photograph them and observe them closely. I think that they have a strength and an intelligence that I truly admire. They also have strong family ties. They are, and this is incredibly impressive, adaptable. One of the reasons we see so many Canada Geese is that they have learned to live in many different situations.

Apparently, Canada Goose identification can actually be more of a challenge than you would think. They are several subspecies, no doubt a result of that adaptability in their nature. All are basically the same to the untrained eye, with the black head and neck, a gray-brown body and white highlights on the chin and backside. Most measure about 36-46 inches, making them much bigger than most ducks but not quite the size of a swan.

One of nature’s first signs of Autumn, the Canada Goose’s V- formation is iconic. The V is also symbolic of the strong family and group ties these geese have. Like Muted Swans and several other waterfowl, Canada Geese mate for life. They also have strong attachment to their nesting locations, and return or remain in the same territory every year. A pair will only have one brood a year, in a nest located near the water. They can have anywhere from five to ten eggs, which incubate for about a month. According to PETA, parent geese can communicate with goslings while they are still in the egg, but I didn’t find any other reference to this in my research. Both parents watch and teach their young for about two months.

In the non-breeding months, Canada Geese join a larger flock or community. They are very protective and territorial all year round, but this is particularly true when they have young or eggs. While other members of the flock search for the aquatic plants, insects, seeds, crustaceans, or berries which make up a goose’s diet, one member of the flock stands guard. The sentinel is easy to spot, usually the only one with its head up, searching the area like the periscope on a submarine. Upon the approach of danger, he or she will honk a warning to the others. The protective nature of Canada Geese extends to the sick or injured birds within a flock, whom the Geese will protect until death or recovery. Suffice it to say, community spirit runs strong in the Canada Goose. And they are very orderly. They always cross the street in a straight, line. A few times I could have sworn the leader looked both ways before starting across!

That is not to say that their overpopulation is not a problem. Human feeding, among other factors, has encouraged too many geese to reside in parks and other recreational areas. In these places they lack many natural predators and can have an impact on the water and vegetation through both their presence and microbes in their feces. An overabundance of Canada Geese has had a negative impact on many wetland habitats in particular.

One human attempt to control the rampant numbers of Canada Geese is through licensed hunting. In New Jersey geese can be hunted in the Fall. And yes, you can eat Canada goose. If you are interested in recipes, this might be a good website to check: https://honest-food.net/cooking-my-goose/ But even hunting Canada geese is more complicated that it first appears. New Jersey lies in the flight path of several different groups of Canada Geese. The New Jersey DEP Fish and Wildlife have identified three separate populations of Canada Geese: Atlantic Population, North Atlantic Population and Resident Population (no-migratory). Of these three, the Resident population is the group that has fewer natural predators however, hunting birds that live in suburban and urban areas creates problems. Hunting regulations have been designed to target the groups with highest populations. Bag and time limits are determined based on the variable populations of the migratory groups.

Outside of hunting seasons, some communities, including Greenwood Lake, have conducted culls against the geese populations in the past. In 2019 they canceled their cull for alternative, humane measures including noise, lasers and dogs. Egg addling, or stopping the grown of embryos younger than fourteen days is another method employed to keep the population down. I don’t envy those who undertake these measures, especially as the Humane Society’s Canada Goose addling guide warns “addling active nests is not a solo activity.”

So there you have it, the Canada Goose. Far to complex to fit into a nutshell. Tenacious creatures with endearing family instincts that happen to be overpopulating our parks due in part to first human intervention and human encouragement.

Additional Sources for this post include:

http://www.iucngisd.org/gisd/species.php?sc=1427

https://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/artgoose19.htm

https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/passaic/west-milford/2019/06/14/greenwood-lake-commission-cancels-controversial-canada-geese-cull/1448330001/

Click to access wild-good-egg-protocol.pdf

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

Mill Creek Marsh – July

Another visit to Mills Creek Marsh in Secaucus, New Jersey. A warm day but not too hot, so we walked the whole loop. We were rewarded for our efforts, and I am not just talking about the treat we had at Panera afterward.

The dominant sensory experience throughout our walk was the Marsh Wrens calling to each other from every patch of tall reeds or bushes. There must have been hundreds of them. Spotting them however, presented a challenge. I did manage to spot a few, but they mostly eluded me. This soundtrack of the wetlands was interrupted occasionally with the call of the Red-Winged Blackbirds, not wanting to be left out or overshadowed.

As you might expect, we spotted Robins, Grey Catbirds, Swallows (probably tree), Mallards, a Tern (not sure which variety), a few House Sparrows and a Song Sparrow. There were many Canada Geese, some with goslings, and we saw several Mockingbirds, including a juvenile whose adult feathers hadn’t fully come in yet.

Snowy Egrets were the only stilted birds present. At 24 inches tall, they are much shorter than Great Egrets or Great Blue Herons. They also have longer feathers around their chests and the back of their heads, which, when added with their bright yellow beak and often weird postures, gives them a deranged almost Igor-like quality.

Besides our feathered friends, we saw a few butterflies fluttering and some dragonflies hovering. There were a pair of Painted Turtles on a log in the water. We also saw a Diamondback Terrapin Turtle, a first for us. She was backed over a small hole and I think she might have been laying eggs, or she was planning to until we came and stood over her. After a few photos at a safe distance we left her to it. I only hope our fellow walkers did the same. Diamondback Terrapins are listed as endangered or species of concern in many states, including New Jersey.

We also saw a very fat groundhog, who, despite his size was a quick runner.

Celery Farms

One of the places where I take frequent walks is the Celery Farms in Allendale, New Jersey. Doubtless I will mention it again. And again. There are many reasons I keep returning to this site, not the least of which is it is quick and easy to get to, and a fairly short loop. There are also, according to the website, 240 species of birds recorded. And that is only birds. Besides our feathered friends, there are countless deer, squirrels, chipmunks, painted turtles, and snapping turtles who make this wetland their home. On one occasion I even saw what I think was an otter. Butterflies can also be found, depending on the season. Considering that you can peek through the leaves on the trees and see into the backyards of suburban New Jersey, this place is pretty wild.

Formerly a farm, this space was flooded to create a lake and wetland habitat, with a stream running along the trail on one side of the loop. The trail is about a mile and is muddy eight times out of ten. Flat and easy to walk, but watch out for tree roots. It is a pretty popular trail for walkers, joggers and other bird watchers so don’t expect to feel like the only human left on earth. That being said, the Preserve doesn’t allow boats, dogs or fishing, so it can be more peaceful than similar spaces.

Besides some well placed benches, there are also several observation platforms where one can get a good vantage point over the lake from various angles. One of the platforms even has benches when you get to the top, so hanging around to bird watch is pretty easy.

As you would expect in a wetland habitat, you will likely see Red-Winged Blackbirds, Great Egrets, Great Blue Heron, Tree Swallows, Canada Geese, Mute Swans and a variety of duck species.

In the wooded areas turkeys, robins, cardinals and a variety of sparrows are common and you usually hear the turkeys, and woodpeckers.

The smaller birds are often a bit harder to spot among the vegetation, but finches and chickadees are frequent visits, as well as a variety of warblers, if you are lucky to catch sight of one!

To find out more about the Celery Farms and to see a map of the Preserve, visit http://www.fykenature.org/celeryfarm.html