The Tongue of a Heron

On one of my outings this year, I encountered a Great Blue Heron. Often one sees a heron standing still and regal, elegantly waiting for the moment to strike at an unsuspecting victim in the water at its feet. Not this one. It stood on the edge of the Goffle Brook, opening and closing its mouth. I took my photos, as I usually do, in the heat of the moment and while the constant mouth movements did seem a bit unusual, I didn’t think too much about it until after I got home and took a look at the photos.

Once I had the photos on a computer where I could zoom in, I took a really good look at the Heron’s mouth. And that was when I noticed how weird its tongue looked. Usually we think of tongues like our own, a relatively smooth, flat muscle. Not the Heron’s tongue. While the tip was long and thin, the farther back into the bird’s mouth it went, the more grooved and angled it seemed to become. Besides the angles, it had more than one section that was raised, with curves and edges going in several directions. I found the irregular shape interesting and began to wonder why it was formed in such a way. So I decided to do a little research into why a Heron’s tongue is shaped the way it is.

It turns out that not only do birds have tongues that are very different from those of a human, they actually can have very different types of tongues from other birds. The type of tongue a bird has, just like the type of bill or beak, is directly related to what they eat and how they eat it. Nectar collectors like hummingbirds have tongues that differ from woodpeckers or fish eating birds. This is because birds do not have teeth, and therefore their tongues need to take on extra functions that a human tongue would not. Another big difference from human tongues is that most bird’s tongues are not involved in their vocalization or sound making. However, birds do have taste buds, though far fewer than humans. The exact amount of taste buds differs greatly by bird species.

Many fishing birds have tongues with hooks or spikes to help contain their captured fish. But a Heron’s tongue is different from other fish eating birds, like Cormorants or Pelicans, because it also eats amphibians, reptiles, insects and small mammals. Unlike woodpeckers and other birds with long tongues, Herons’ tongues are attached below the mandible bone and are more limited in the their movement. However, this is to their advantage, as it allows more room in their mouth for them to swallow large items. Herons swallow fish and other food whole, and sometimes they regurgitate up to a dozen fish when they are feeding young. So what they need is a tongue that won’t get in the way. Their tongues are shaped not only to allow fish to be swallowed whole, but also to be turned in the bird’s mouth and eaten head first. So now when I see the pink on the inside of a bird’s mouth, I think I will pay a bit more attention. Bird tongues turned out to be much more complicated and interesting than I expected and they can tell the bird watcher a lot about a species, if you know what to look for.

Sources:

https://blog.lauraerickson.com/2014/12/more-about-bird-tongues-than-normal.html?m=1

https://lfpress.com/travel/birds-tongues-reflect-their-diet-habitat

Point Lookout, Maryland

Several years ago, in 2016, we spent a weekend camping with friends at Point Lookout State Park in Maryland. This area is very historic, having been used as a prisoner of war camp for captured Confederate soldiers. Today the park sports a really lovely campground, as well as walking trails and a beach area. The Park is located on the peninsula where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Potomac River. As a result, the natural environment is an interesting habitat. Its feathered inhabitants included many of the coastal and marsh birds you would expect. For more information about Point Lookout State Park, visit https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/pages/southern/pointlookout.aspx.

We were immediately confronted by wildlife, from basically the moment we opened our car doors. The campground areas were small cleared patches cut into a forest of scraggly, straight, tall pines. The pines were so dense that once you were on your camp site you felt you were the only people in the world. You couldn’t see through to the next site on either side. It may have helped that we were camping in late May, before most families begin to descent on campgrounds en-mass.

I was excited for the birding possibilities upon arrival, but was further encouraged to hope when a hummingbird flew up to me, buzzed around my head for a moment, and then flew off again. The pines seemed to offer a comfortable habitat for many birds I had never seen before. This included spotting my first ( not to mention my second, and my third) Red-headed Woodpecker. Though they can technically be found in New Jersey, I have never seen another before or since. As its name implies, the most distinguishing feature of this woodpecker is its red-head. Unlike the Red-bellied Woodpecker with its red cap or the Pileated Woodpecker with its red crest, the Red-headed Woodpecker’s head is completely covered in red feathers. As if someone dipped its head in paint up to the neck. Its black wings and white underbelly help the red plumage to be even more pronounced.

The trees also allowed for a close encounter with a bird I really was unlikely to see in New Jersey, unless one took a wrong turn somewhere! The Brown-Headed Nuthatch is similar to its cousin, the White-Breasted Nuthatch and they have similar mannerisms. Namely, they both like to climb down trees upside down. The scratching of its long nails along the pine bark is what attracted my attention in the first place. Very similar in appearance and coloring to the White-Breasted Nuthatch, the biggest and most obvious difference between them is the black cap of the White-Breasted Nuthatch has been replaced by muted brown feathers that extend down the neck and level to the bottom of its eyes. If you were to compare the two side by side, the Brown-Headed Nuthatch would be sightly smaller, measuring a little over an inch smaller than the White-Breasted Nuthatch.

As I mentioned, the meeting of the bay and the river created the perfect ingredients for brackish water and marshes. Therefore, you will probably not be surprised to learn that we also spotted a few Great White Egrets and Great Blue Herons. In the case of the herons, a few would not be an accurate representation. So many herons flew over our campsite in the first few hours of our arrival, at first I thought the campground was in the flight path of a small local airport. Finally I was able to glimpse more than just shadow, and I realized that the area was teaming with Great Blue Herons!

Besides the Great Blue Herons, the other bird species that was occupying this peninsula in great numbers was the Osprey. These pescatarians were accommodated with a series of Osprey boxes along the bay road. However, not all of them felt they needed one of the purpose built boxes and made due with their own accommodation. This was true of one Osprey who had made a nest at the end of the campsite’s dock. Her nest was balanced between a floodlight and what I believe as the power box for said floodlight. This trip was one of my first encounters with Osprey, especially so close up. Of course this particular Osprey felt that when we were fishing on the other side of the dock, we might be too close. She kept a watchful, almost crazy eye on us the entire time!

The bay side of the park also seemed to be the home to a good many Laughing Gulls. Common along the whole eastern coast of the United States, the Laughing Gull is a bit smaller than the more commonly spotted Ring- Billed Gull or Herring Gull. Laughing Gulls are also easily distinguished from other species of seagulls because of their black head, sometimes referred to as a hood.

Any bird watchers who are going to be near St. Mary’s County Maryland should really consider a stop over to take a look at this majestic park and its feathered inhabitants.

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/

Central Park, New York City

As someone who is not a resident of an urban jungle, I often underestimate the quality of nature watching available in big cities. Sure they don’t have bears and bobcats (or at least we hope not) but they often provide more thrills than you were expecting.

To that end, I am willing to admit that I often don’t give Central Park in New York the credit it deserves as a wildlife habitat. When Fredrick Law Olmstead started work on the park in the late 1850s, who knows what animals he foresaw (if any) making a home among its trees and meadows. Expected or not, they found their way there and they are staying.

Beyond the squirrels, pigeons, and the carriage horses, Central Park is home to many of the same birds we see in the suburban parks of New Jersey and New York. In fact, according to the Central Park website, there are 230 different birds that spend time in Central Park throughout the year. Canada Geese and House Sparrows are a given, as are Starlings, Blue Jays and Cardinals.

However, if you luck out, you might spot a Heron or and Egret in one of the many ponds or lakes around the park. One warmer December day, while having a drink outside at the Loeb Boathouse, located not far from the Bethesda Fountain, we noticed a juvenile Great Blue Heron, fishing off one of the overturned rowboats.

On more than one occasion we have also been lucky enough to see a bird of prey in Central Park. Last Autumn we were wandering among the paths and we noticed a good deal of fluttering. We looked up at the tree in front of us to see a Red Tailed Hawk, who had just caught himself lunch, a lovely squirrel, which he proceeded to eat while we watched. First taking dainty bites, he very quickly decided to swallow the rest in one go.

Central Park, it really is a jungle…who knew? For an interactive map of Central Park and more information about the park and all it has to offer, visit http://www.centralparknyc.org

An Autumn Morning on Sandy Hook

Like most sane humans that live near a beach, we obviously never visit the Jersey Shore in the summer. Never may be an exaggeration, but once or twice is usually our limit. The traffic alone will kill you. And this is New Jersey drivers we are talking about, so I mean literally, kill you. Once you get there, the beaches are too busy for nature watching anyway.

That is why we usually go to the beach either in early spring or autumn/winter. In winter the cold, salty sea air does the trick if you need to blow out a few cobwebs. It was one such morning last November when my husband and I headed to Sandy Hook, one of our go-to Jersey Shore destinations. The site of Fort Hancock and its associated army barracks, Sandy Hook is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area that features hikes, beaches and nature, along with the oldest lighthouse in New Jersey, historic structures from the barracks and, as my mother in-law once put it, “war thingies,” such as powder magazines, gun batteries etc. So you can probably see why we like Sandy Hook, it has a bit of everything.

This particular November day was cool but not freezing. Clear and bright. Perfect for a brisk ramble on the sand. I honestly wasn’t even really expecting to see a ton of birds, but you never know what sea birds you may see, so we brought the camera along. Sandy Hook, because of the way it is positioned in the Atlantic Ocean and at the mouth of the Hudson River, is a great place for collecting whole seashells. I have a hard time not glancing down at the tidal lines on the beach in search of treasures. A sea urchin, bits of coral and whole crab shells are just some of the more unusual items I have combed on this particular beach.

However, it is actually horseshoe crabs that Sandy Hook is known for. They sell postcards of dozens of them piled up on the beach together and you can often find pieces of their shells in the sand. Atlantic Horseshoe crabs are interesting creatures, actually related to scorpions and spiders rather than crabs. Apparently their blood is used to test medicines, which is pretty unusual. However, I think that one of the more interesting things about them is that they shed or molt their shell when they are growing. They do this throughout their lives, and it is a slow and dangerous process, leaving them vulnerable to predators while they are shell-less. Here is a video showing the process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJr-CQGQYg4 We decided to dig up one of the larger pieces of crab shell we saw sticking out of the sand, and ended up unearthing a very large, complete shell. General rule is that shells with no legs were probably shed, so don’t worry about the crab. However, this one is so big, I am not sure if it was still growing or if its legs and other bits were lunch for a willing seagull.

The biggest group of birds we saw on the beach was a very large flock of Sea Gulls. New Jersey has several Gulls that live on our shore line, the most common being the Ring-Billed Gull, the Herring Gull, Laughing Gulls (with black heads) and the Great Black-Backed Gull. However, especially in the non-breeding months, none of these birds are too picky about their friends and you can see them in large mixed flocks. Many of the juveniles of these species look similar to each other, complicating identification, especially to the naked eye. Their antics were very entertaining and there was one juvenile who was tying to look for food along the waterline without getting wet. He wasn’t very successful but his behavior had a Charlie Chaplin quality to it.

Besides the gulls, the ocean was densely populated with Black Scoter, both males and females. These ducks were swimming just far enough from the beach that it wasn’t easy to get a great look at them with the naked eye, but the photos came out pretty clear, despite the fact that they were bobbing around in the waves. Summering in the Canadian Arctic, the Black Scoter spends its winters along the Atlantic seaboard and is very content to remain in the rough sea. As the name implies, the male Black Scoter is all black, but the female has some gray to her black feathers. The male also has a raised yellow knob on the back of his beak, where it connects to his face. The female’s beak is totally black.

We then crossed the path and the road to the bay side of the peninsula, which proved to be just as exciting. Swallows and Song Sparrows were zipping about, and singing to us from the telephone wires. A Northern Mockingbird decided to challenge us, “who goes there?!” from his vantage point in a bush along the path. A Great Blue Heron flew off into the sky and several deer were wandering about, foraging for something to eat among the bushes and weeds.

The bay was also sheltering a very large flock of Brant. Smaller than Canada Geese by at least ten inches, Brant geese have a black, grey and white body, with no brown. They have a white marking on their throats, called a “collar” which looks like a handkerchief tied around their necks, wider in front and thinning toward the back of their heads. Another summer resident of Canada, the Brant winters along the Atlantic coast.

Sandy Hook is a great place to experience nature regardless of the season. The combination of river and ocean, bay and beach allow for a great variety of wildlife to thrive here. Some of the large nests we saw along the beach promised some interesting spring residents. Regardless of the season, I highly recommend it to nature lovers, history lovers and day trippers. If you want to learn more about Sandy Hook, visit their website at https://www.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/sandy-hook-hours.htm

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.

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