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

Bread-Should We Feed it to Birds?

I would like to definitively settle an ongoing debate, at least for myself. Can we feed birds bread, or are we hurting them? To provide a bit of background, I grew up feeding the ducks stale bread. It was an annual vacation tradition with my grandmother. We went up to Lake George, settled into O’Sullivan’s Motel and headed down to the beach to feed the ducks. I am pretty sure that grandma rationed grandpa’s bread intake for a few weeks to amass the quantity of stale bread she deemed an adequate offering to our feathered friends. So I grew up feeding the ducks bread and I sentimentally view it as a fun pastime, one that I want to share with the little ones in my life.

As an adult I recognize that feeding the birds, particularly waterfowl, is a complex issue. If you feed birds in one location too often, they can develop a dependence on that food source instead of seeking their food. In public spaces, such as parks and beaches, there is a human health concern to attracting birds who then assemble in large numbers, fowling the area. Excess bread can also mold and negatively effect the water in which the birds live. This is especially the case in ponds and small bodies of still water. The birds can also, especially Canada Geese and Swans, be unfriendly and have been known to attack small children when they have felt threatened. In this post I don’t want to focus on any of these components of the larger discussion. I simply want to discern if I am physically hurting a bird by feeding it bread.

According the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, bread will not harm birds if ingested. They can fully digest bread of all types. But there is a but. While they will eat it, bread does not provide the protein or fat the birds really need. It is an empty filler. Carbs, even birds should avoid them! It is okay to leave out bread, but try not to offer it too often or exclusively, as it can cause vitamin deficiency if it becomes a staple of the bird’s diet. If you are leaving out bread, you should break it into smaller pieces, especially in the spring. Hard stale bread should be soaked so it is easier to digest. Multigrain bread is better for birds than overly processed white bread. You can also add protein by spreading jelly, marmalade or nut butter on the bread. The spreads can even be topped with seeds, dried fruit or insects, making the bread a platform, rather than the main food source.

Furthermore, there is a variety of household food waste that can be left out for birds rather than thrown away: the cut fat from unsalted meat, mild cheeses (grated), dried or bruised fruit, baked or mashed potatoes and pastry (cooked or uncooked). Seeds from pumpkins or squash can also be left out for the birds. If you are feeding waterfowl, greens, such as lettuce would also be a good choice, just be sure it is chopped into a manageable size. Non-salted food is the key here as any human salt will be harmful to the birds.

Sources:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/how-you-can-help-birds/feeding-birds/safe-food-for-birds/household-scraps-for-birds/

https://lifehacker.com/dont-feed-bread-to-birds-1833943997

https://www.thespruce.com/good-bread-for-birds-385833

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.

Autumn in the Celery Farms

The Autumn is one of my favorite times to visit the Celery Farms. The air is usually crisp, the temperate is usually perfect for a leisurely stroll, and if you hit it just right, the trees around the lake just explode with color.

Taking advantage of a rare weekday off, I headed to the Celery Farms mid-morning and had it more to myself than I usually do. The weather and light couldn’t have been more perfect. I had all the time in the world, so I sat on benches, went up every platform and even made a second loop on the trail.

Waterfowl was the main attraction. There were all kinds of birds taking advantage of the water. Most prominent due to their size, were four Muted Swans, whose pure white was such a stunning contrast to the palette of colors behind them.

Canada Geese and Mallards were present, as they usually are, but with the aid of my telephoto lens I noticed that some of the ducks looked different, and their bills seemed longer. Once I got a good look at the male, I confirmed it, Northern Shovellers. It was really amazing I was able to see them at all, or their fronts at any rate. As soon as they got a breath of air, they were right back in the water, butts in the air. I can tell you, one duck butt looks much like the next.

Another smaller bird was also in the water. Swimming solo, it was so small my camera had trouble focusing on it. The largest challenge to photographing it was that it kept submerging and would pop up somewhere just beyond where I expected it to be. Quite the little swimmer. My photos didn’t come out as clear as I would have liked, but I am fairly certain it was a Pied-Billed Grebe.

Besides the water birds, I was able to spot several others as I made my way around the trail. One Robin even decided to pose for me, changing the position of his head back and forth like a supermodel in front of a lovely Autumn leaf backdrop. A Red-Bellied Woodpecker was likewise inclined.

While sitting on one of the platforms, a very fluffy and slightly frazzled looking Sparrow (Song Sparrow I think) was so intent of getting all the berries on the floor that he came right up by me. I couldn’t even photograph him with my lens, he was too close. We hung out together for quite a while. He wasn’t phased by my presence in the slightest. You could almost hear his inner monologue, “…eat the berries…there’s a berry! Eat the berry…need some more berries…there’s a berry!” as he zigzagged along the platform floor.

Some less common sightings for me on this particular walk were a female Ruby-Crowned Kinglet and a female Magnolia Warbler. I think both the decreased vegetation and my meandering pace helped me spot them, and both birds stayed in place long enough for a few nice shots.

A deer crossed my path as well. It wouldn’t be a day at the Celery Farms, no matter what season, if you didn’t see at least one deer.

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.