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 Days of Social Distance

As so many of us are entering into our fourth week of self quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the struggle to maintain some sense of normality and sanity continues. As many of us work from home, or try to work from home, and so many others are faced with unemployment during the crisis, it is important that we continue to experience the calming effects of nature and the outdoors. And this we can do right in our own backyards and gardens. Just walking outside your door to do some yard work in the sunshine and fresh air can help to ease some of the tension and anxiety, even if just for a short amount of time. You should think of your yard as your sanctuary. This is especially true now that many of the parks in northern New Jersey have been closed to the public. Those of us who are used to traveling to the birds must now be content with seeing only those birds that come to visit us.

March did not come in like a lion this year, but it demonstrated variable and unpredictable tendencies that fluctuated between lion and lamb all month. Thus far April seems to be more accepting that spring has arrived. In our house we know that spring has arrived when we start to be awoken daily by the hammering of a Woodpecker on the outside of our house. I am not sure if it is the same Woodpecker every year, or even every morning, but our vinyl cedar shake shading seems to really have a special attraction, which is lacking in the dozens of trees in a 3 yard radius.

Watching the feeders right now is like a reunion. All our summer favorites have returned from their winter abodes and are getting settled back in. And those winter residents that never left us seem to be venturing out a bit more than they do in the winter, taking advantage of the change in the weather to begin bulking up. Even if we cannot see them all, we can most certainly hear them. With so many birds in the neighborhood establishing their territorial boundaries, searching for mates and seeming to be generally happy that the sun is somewhat shining, the neighborhood is alive with bird song.

Just a few days ago I decided to put my finch feeder back out on the post and see if I could attract New Jersey’s state bird, the goldfinch. In less than twenty-four hours I had success. The males were still molting into their bright yellow summer outfits, but they came none the less. I have been very pleased with the variety of birds I have seen this early in April. This includes some less frequent visitors, such as a curious Carolina Wren and a chatty Brown-headed Cowbird. Even one Dark-Eyed Junco is still kicking around. He seemed unconvinced that winter has left for good, but I think he is alone in that thinking.

Besides being as hungry as ever, they also seem to have that nesting bug. Both of my nest boxes are already humming with activity as two pairs of House Sparrows do their part to increase the population.

So try to take a few minutes each day to go outside and take it all in. The world hasn’t ended and life is going to carry on just as it always has. We will be able to get out to our nature preserves and parks soon, so just hang in there and take quarantine one day at a time.

Common Grackles

The Grackle is one of the most beautiful birds you will ever welcome into your yard. The feature that really makes them stunning to watch is their opalescence, a colorful sheen that reflects off of their feathers.

A large black bird, the Common Grackle can be up to 13 inches, making it one of the largest birds to visit your feeder. In keeping with its plumage, the Common Grackle has a black bill, as well as black legs. Its head is actually blue-black and rest of the body is more of a plum-black or bronzed. One of my bird books indicated that bronzed-backed and purple-backed birds are two different subspecies of Common Grackle. No other books make reference to this. I believe that bronzed is the most likely type to be found in New Jersey. The female resembles the male, being only slightly duller in color and slightly smaller in size.

In overall appearance I think that Common Grackles are actually very dinosaur-like. I think it has something to do with their eyes and the slope of their neck to their feet. They remind me of a Velociraptor. Very predatory. Their eyes are another startling feature. Unlike their feathers, their large yellow eyes are unnerving rather than beautiful. Apparently they are not born with yellow eyes. Young Common Grackles start out with brown eyes which grow more yellow as they age.

They have a varied diet that includes insects, seeds, invertebrates, eggs, nestlings, fish, small vertebrates, fruit, grain and nuts. They will gratefully partake at the seed or suet feeder. They also have strong muscles that help them to open their mouths with focus, a tool which they employ to pry open spaces and get at insects and other small prey.

The Common Grackle is present in New Jersey year-round, but is much more common in the summer than the winter. In the winter they are more likely to be found near farmland where they have an easier time finding food. Grackles often flock in large groups that can include up to 75 pairs. Their winter or migration flocks, which often include other species such as starlings and blackbirds, have been known to number in the tens of thousands.

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

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.

Splish-splash in the Bird Bath

I was in search of the ideal bird bath for almost two summers before I finally settled with the weighted plastic model I bought from Lowes. Despite the fact that it wasn’t exactly the bird bath I had designed in my imagination, I was very happy to both provide my feathered friends with water and, of course, to observe and photograph their aquatic-antics.

So I did some bird bath research, made sure I was dumping the old water regularly and refilling it with fresh. I even converted a kitchen brush for scrubbing dishes into a bird bath scrubber to get rid of anything gross growing along the edge of the bird bath (I guess I used a bit to much elbow grease because after about three months of cleaning the bird bath, the finishing paint started pealing off the basin).

So my bird bath was in place, clean and welcoming, safe and ready to provide refreshing baths for hundreds of birds.

And they just never took a bath.

They did use the bird bath as a convenient ledge to rest on.

Sometimes they even decided to drink out of it.

Sometimes they even seemed to be scrying the future in its surface.

Even the squirrels were drinking from it…and using it as a jumping point onto my feeders whenever they were feeling particularly bouncy.

But no baths, or at least no baths while I was in the yard. Occasionally I would pull in the driveway and there was a bird looking wet and hopping out of the bird bath. But when I am in the yard, armed with my camera and ready for the water droplets to fall, nothing. Maybe they were shy. I don’t know.

Then one summer day, we had locked ourselves out of our house after an afternoon of grilling and sitting in the yard. I was frustrated with the situation and tired of standing over my husband as he tried to break in to our home, so I took my camera back out, turned my back on my problems and watched the feeders. Within minutes a Starling landed on the bird bath. At this point I had been two years with a bird bath and I knew better than to hope for an actual bath. But I figured if it perched long enough I might be able to get some interesting shots. And then it did the unexpected. It stepped off of the ledge, entered the water and actually bathed. A bird used my bird bath to take a bath! Amazing!

I was so shocked that my frustration with the locked door vanished. My husband didn’t seem to understand the monumental level of excitement about a bird taking a bath in a bird bath, so I left him to his task, feeling great satisfaction that after two years my investment had paid off. I settled back down to watch the feeders some more, assured that we would soon be back in the house, when a Catbird landed on the bird bath. And then he walked into the water. And took a bath.

It is really the little things in life. And the funny part is, if we hadn’t been locked out, I would have been inside cleaning up or something equally mundane and I never would have witnessed these two stupendous baths.

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.