Autumn Rambles

I mentioned over the summer that my husband and I had relocated to a new nest. Well, that was greatly due to the fact that we were expecting our own little hatching. Our daughter joined us in September and as a result our nature walks and outings have taken on a slightly different form. Instead of a camera bag full of lens options, we now have a diaper bag. Instead of hilly hikes in the woods, we have been sticking to fairly mild trails, usually closer to suburban neighborhoods. If I am honest, the choice of terrain really has more to do with easing myself back into physical activity, but we can blame it on the baby.

As we began taking the baby on airings, I noticed that my focus was greatly changed. When I even thought to bring along my camera, my photos were all of the baby. Nature had taken a back seat. However, that changed recently. One of our rambles this Autumn took us to Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve where we made a rare (at least for me) sighting of a small flock of Hooded Mergansers. I happened to have my camera on this walk, and just like that, the bird watcher was back! (I did/do still take an exceptionally large number of photos of my daughter, don’t worry.)

I really love Mergansers in any of the three varieties: Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers and Red-Breasted Mergansers. They are all just so sleek looking, and they almost give the appearance of an upper-class snob with their fur collars popped at the other ducks in the pond. Based on my observations, even the Common Mergansers aren’t all that common, not in comparison to Mallards, Canada Geese and other waterfowl that you spot in every park in the world. According to The Birds of New Jersey,Hooded Mergansers are not common summer residents in most of the state. They are migrants and winter residents, arriving in late November and can be seen in most places with water, although they are more common near the coast. They typically arrive in pairs or groups of about ten birds. Once in their winter quarters, they meet up with other pairs to form groups of between 100-200 Hooded Mergansers.

The Hooded Mergansers are easy to identify and, as the name indicates, it is all about the hood. Unlike the other two species of Mergansers, the male Hooded Merganser has an arrangement of feathers on his head that form a large and very distinct crest or hood. The male has a sleek black body, with some brown or rust just at the waterline. A mostly black head makes the white patch on his crest pop even more. The male can actually open and close his crest at will, using it to attract attention.

The female Hooded Merganser also has a hood or crest, but as is the case with so many species, hers is much less flashy or eye catching. Its feathers are the same brown and rust color as the rest of her body. Her hood is also not nearly as round as his.

As we continued our walk we were able to spot a few more treats. We saw a few Double-Crested Cormorants. It is not unusual to see a few of them at this preserve. Generally they are spring and fall migrants, but they do live year round along both the eastern and western borders of the state where flowing water is available year round. One of the Cormorants we came across must have just finished fishing because it remained poised on a rock, wings outstretched in the sun. While it might look like this Cormorant was getting ready to take flight, this is a common pose for wet Cormorants who need to dry their feathers between “flying” in the water and taking off in the air.

The resident Mute Swans were also present, their white feathers in stark contrast to the late autumnal brown of their surroundings. They didn’t seem remotely phased by a pair of Double-Crested Cormorants resting nearby. But at sixty inches, a Swan is almost double the size of a Cormorant, and therefore probably not really concerned about them.

We had one final sighting, a bird so small and plain we almost missed it. If we hadn’t been watching the larger birds, we might not have seen its movements in the water. A lone Pied-Billed Grebe. I have only seen one or two of this species before, always a lone bird. Like the Mergansers, the Pied-Billed Grebe is a common winter bird in my area that starts arriving in the fall months. While they are hard to spot, once you have seen a Pied-Billed Grebe, it is easy to confirm its identity. Besides its small size compared to other water birds (it is 13 inches to a Mallards 28 inches), it has a thick, stubby bill. When seen in winter the bill has lost its usual, distinctive black vertical stripe. Its bill is actually its only “interesting” feature, as its body is dark gray and its eyes are black.

I am happy to be back, sharing my birding adventures and observations with you. I hope to get back to posting more regularly in the near future, so stay tuned!

Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about Trstom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, visit: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/trustom_pond/

Richard W. DeKorte Park, Lyndhurst, NJ

Another of the twenty parks managed by New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, Richard W. DeKorte Park (https://www.njsea.com/parks-and-trails/ ) was one of the first locations I ventured to when I started birding. It probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this park inspired me to become a bird watcher. We would pass it on the train and I kept wondering what this amazing place was, and how could I get there. One day I finally tried it, and it didn’t disappoint. I still go there regularly, and it never fails to amaze. In the heart of New Jersey’s Meadowlands, this wetland habitat is visited by over 285 different species. The 3.5 miles of trails include a boardwalk through the wetland area itself, as well as some grassy, treed areas. The Manhattan skyline is visible in the background with the highway and train line. Nature truly co-exists with man in this spot.

I always start by heading out on the Marsh Discovery trail with its boardwalk and bird blinds. There are many birds that you are sure to see here in the summer months. Top of the list is tree swallows. They truly dominate the area. Little wonder really. The whole habitat has been populated with tree swallow sized nest boxes, out in the middle of the marsh. They are constantly gliding overhead and chirping to each other in their hyper-active way. They do settle on banisters, nest boxes and vegetation if you are patience enough to wait. I can never get enough of photographing them. The sheen of their feathers in the direct sunlight is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

After the tree swallows, it is Great Egrets and Great Blue Heron you should expect to see. Sometimes, especially in spring and summer, there will be dozens of them, slowly making their way across the marsh, with their steady, exacting steps, heads down watching for anything tasty they might flush out of the mud. It is actually the Great Egrets that first attracted me to this place.

Being a marsh, Seagulls and Terns are also species you are likely to encounter on a walk here. The Seagulls tend to congregate at the mudflats, while the Terns like to explore the whole area. Their antics are more than a bit amusing. The Terns often remind me of the Three Stooges (even when there are more than three), as each of their actions always seem to be a direct reaction to some action another in the flock took. He hops away, I hop after. He flies up and lands, I fly up and land a little farther. These waterbirds are some of the only birds who remain on this spot through the winter, not a light-hearted prospect. I give them a lot of credit for braving the exposed waters, especially when the icy winter wind blows.

Other waterfowl can also be seen and at some points, such as early spring, you can see five or six different kinds of ducks. Mallards are usually abundant, but I have also spotted Northern Shovelers, Bufflehead and Greater Scaup. Canada Geese are sometimes here and the occasional Muted Swan can also be found floating around. Double-Crested Cormorants really like the mudflats. They usually congregate their in large groups, but you can sometimes see a lone Cormorant drying off its wings in the sunshine.

The song birds need their acknowledgment as well. Song Sparrows and Marsh Wrens fill the air with their songs. Red-Winged Blackbirds also make their presence known either with a loud call or a sudden appearance in the reeds. Catbirds, Robins and the occasional Grackle also like this spot, particularly the more forested areas.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to this location is the surprises that seem to be waiting at every turn. Yes, I see a lot of the same birds each trip, but I never know what other birds and animals might be waiting around the next curve in the boardwalk. I have seen woodchucks, painted turtles and so many lovely butterflies here. Some of my other favorite rare encounters include a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs wandering in the mudflats, a bright yellow Palm Warbler and a Yellow-Rumped Warbler.