Appalachian Trail Boardwalk at Pochuck Mountain

As self-isolation during the pandemic stretches on, I find myself daydreaming about past hikes and walks. One of the places where my husband and I used to hike frequently was the Pochuck Boardwalk. He had first discovered it as he did overnight hikes along New Jersey’s Appalachian Trail and he brought me back to this spot because it was so nice. With a trailhead literally on the side of route 94 in Sussex County, New Jersey, this section of the AT allows for a leisurely walk on a boardwalk, above boggy or sometimes swampy ground. The spot is certainly scenic, framed by the Pochuck mountains on one side, and Wawayanda Mountians on the other. The boardwalk snakes through the landscape in a way that somehow adds to, rather than detracts from, the picturesque nature of the spot. And the word is out. A very popular walking spot with families, we have never been to the boardwalk completely alone, spring, summer or winter. We tried to walk here once in winter, but hadn’t anticipated or prepared for the ice of the walk (the snow had all melted to the east where we lived at the time). Even then, there was evidence that a few hearty souls had walked along the snow and ice covered boardwalk.

On one particular day in late March 2018, we chose to head to Pochuck and try out our new camera. One of the first hikes/walks with our new birding lens, Pochuck was appealing with its level trail and dense wildlife population. We had never visited and seen absolutely no birds or other wildlife. It was basically a sure thing. So off we went.

As was the case with our attempted walk in the winter, even in March we had underestimated the difference in weather and temperature between where we lived and Sussex County. Never mind. We quickly zipped up our rain jackets against the last of winter’s bitter winds and headed onto the trail. We were not going to waste the trip being cold. The space was definitely bleak and potential stormy, creating an interesting lighting conundrum. But we were mostly oblivious as we were playing with all the setting, trying to figure out new camera.

The cool weather, ensured it was fairly quiet among the reeds and cattails, many of which were lying down where the crushing snow of winter had pushed them. After some careful searching within the reeds and the sky, a Turkey Vulture emerged above the treeline. The Turkey Vulture is fairly easy to identify, because of its naked pink/red head, which is were it gets its name. While it wasn’t the most attractive bird to look at, it definitely offered us a moving target to aim the camera at, and a large one. Even at a distance we had mixed success getting the camera to focus on it as it rode the wind over the reeds, searching for something to eat.

As we slowly walked on, scouting the ground for something smaller to photograph, the Turkey Vulture circled overhead, carrying out its own search. Watching it soar through the air was mesmerizing, as it never needed to flap its wings to continue its forward motion. They achieve this by flying not parallel to the ground but with their bodies at a slight angle. As the wind brushes the upper wing, it tips the bird further in that direction, propelling the bird’s body either left or right. The push also creates a more extreme angle of the birds body, This results in the lower wing now being more exposed to the same gust of wind, which pushes this lower wing in turn and that puts the bird back to a more parallel angle with the ground. With this strategy Turkey Vultures can use smaller air currents that other raptors can’t.

After following the Turkey Vulture’s crooked trail across the sky for a while, the wind got the better of us, and we continued to head further down the boardwalk. By this point we realized from both the lack of movement and the lack of bird noises that we were unlikely to see the large variety of wildlife that we were expecting. The animals all had the good sense to stay warm for at least a little while longer. We carried on with our walk and our conversation. So it was amid a thrilling conversation about apeture settings verses ISO when we saw some flashes of movement among the reed to our right. We stopped and starred for a long time before we realized that the fallen reeds and cattails were serving as perches for a few bright blue Eastern Bluebirds. The birds stood out so clearly against the otherwise bleak background. As we don’t spot Eastern Bluebirds on our walks very frequently and because they were a much smaller and jumpier subject to work with, we decided to set up the mono-pod and see if we could get some decent shots.

At seven inches the Eastern Bluebird isn’t exactly small, but these birds were too busy searching for food among the reeds to sit still and pose for us. Despite their name, the Bluebird isn’t all blue. It has a rusty or orange chest, similar in color to that of an American Robin, and a white downy belly. Its back, head and tail however, are a bright blue, with the females being a bit more gray-blue than her mates.

The American Bluebird is one of nature enthusiasts’ favorite feathered friends. I am not really sure why that is. It might be due, at least in part, to a decline in their population for most of the 1900s. This decrease was due to nesting competition with Starlings and House Sparrows (both species technically invasive, having been introduced to North America from Europe). But birders, nature lovers and the larger community reacted, and today the Bluebird population is doing well, thanks to a plethora of bluebird bird boxes provided throughout the northeast.

Having had our nice photo session with out small flock of Bluebirds, we decided that we had had enough of the wind, and packed off back to warmer elevations for some much deserved hot chocolate.

Additional Sources:

Source: https://www.raptorresource.org/2019/06/28/identifying-birds-of-prey-in-flight/

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/

Derby Hill Observatory – Oswego County NY

“Oswego is where we go…” Most of the summers of my life have been spent, at least in part on the edge of Lake Ontario. Yet, considering all that time, I discovered the Derby Hill Observatory only a few years ago. I guess I needed the extra interest in birds to motivate me to turn down the dead end road and find the Observatory.

Operated by the Onondaga Audubon, Derby Hill Observatory has a strong focus on watching birds of prey. Their website claims they count about 40,000 raptors each spring, so I guess the focus is justified. (https://onondagaaudubon.com/derby-hill-bird-observatory/) The observatory’s lands include a small strip of cliff at the lake’s edge, a true novelty as the rest of the road is crammed with homes along the water’s edge. This, especially given its height, provides a great vantage point to observe fishing osprey and other birds of prey. In fact, the first time I visited, we were meandering over to the edge and there was a flash of Bald Eagle. By the time I ran to the edge, it was out of sight. I haven’t seen another Bald Eagle in any subsequent trips (I have only visited about 3 or 4 times), but I keep hoping!

The Observatory is actually split up into about four or five sections, but the main parking area provides you access to the lake overlook, as well as four fields (with a mowed perimeter) and a woodland trail. If you follow the meadows down the road, you can also cross over to the marsh space, but it is a very small section, better for watching than walking.

There is no doubt that there are many birds residing in and around the Observatory. The trees just reverberate with bird calls and chirps. But I have never been very lucky at spotting many birds when I visit. The Scarlet Tanger manages to be particularly elusive, but I have seen a few other birds that are outside of my regular milieu. This included an Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebes (juvenile as well as adult) and a young Cedar Waxwing, chowing down on some berries.

Along with some birds I am more familiar with, including Robins, Red-Winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows.

The meadows do have another big perk… butterflies are everywhere! You also see some great frogs and other woodland creatures if you are lucky.

On my most recent visit, earlier this summer, I was disappointed by the obvious lack of trail maintenance of the woodland trail. Not only was vegetation overtaking the boardwalk, but the trail markers were all over the place. After tromping around in the woods with very little guidance, hoping the trail would become more clear, we made our way back, getting turned around more than once. Painted trail markers are far superior to the signs, which fall off trees, or get moved around. I know there has been a lot of rain and flooding in the area, but they should still try to maintain what they have, before it deteriorates further. Compare the difference between 2018 and 2019.

Another issue I have with the Onondaga Audubon is their website and that it lacks even a basic trail map for the Derby Hill Observatory. I know I did find one once, after some extensive googling, but it really shouldn’t be that hard. I don’t even think the map was on their website, but on another birder’s private site.

Despite the disappointment of my last visit, I will doubtless give Derby Hill another chance. It does provide a nice excuse for a stretch of the legs, and statistically, if I go enough times, I will get another view of my bald eagle.