The Queen’s Birds

The ruling houses of Europe have long had a tradition of keeping menageries. Presents of exotic animals were a common gift to the crowned heads of Europe for hundreds of years. In 1235, Henry III began a zoo at the Tower of London, which housed the Royal menagerie until 1835. If you visit the Tower today, besides the royal armor and the crowned jewels, you will have the opportunity to see a variety of animal sculptures, installed to remind visitors of London’s first zoo.

Given the existing legacy of animal gifts to aid diplomacy between nations, it will probably not surprise readers that this custom carries on today. The Queen has a collection of exotic birds. But rather than being banished to the Tower, many of them are happily installed in St. James Park. Situated between Buckingham Palace, the Mall and Whitehall, St. James Park is firmly seated in the tourist district.

The park contains a large lake, which extends almost the full length of the grounds, making it an ideal home for many varieties of birds, including waterfowl. However, Duck Island, on the eastern side of the lake has officially been designated a nature reserve for the collection of birds that live in the park. My one regret about my visit to St. James Park in 2018 is that I did not have my long lens. So please bear with me as the photos I am going to share in this post were taken on my phone.

Easily the most notable, feathered inhabitants of St. James Park are the great white pelicans. Noted as “the famous pelicans” on the official map of the park (see link below) they never fail to draw a crowd. The pelicans, of which there are at least ten, have all been gifts to Queen Elizabeth II from the city of Prague. The first group of four pelicans were presented to the Queen in 1995, with an addition of three more being added to the gift in 2013 and three more (known as Sun, Moon and Star) in 2019. The tradition of pelicans being gifted to English rulers can actually be traced back to 1664, during the reign of Charles II.

A majestic bird that has historically been linked to nobility for centuries, swans have a special place in British society. It is commonly believed that Queen Elizabeth II owns all the swans of Britain. While that is a slight exaggeration, she does own all the Mute Swans that are unmarked and in open British waters. Apparently she only exercises this privilege over a section of the Thames where every year the Swan Upping (a traditional swan counting) takes place. This unique ownership even comes with a special title, the Seigneur of the Swans. With traditions and connections that go back to the Middle Ages, there are many British laws regarding the Mute Swan population that are still on the books. It wasn’t until 1998 that eating a swan stopped being an act of treason.

Given this strong connection between the Queen and Swans, it is little wonder that Black Swans are among the park’s population of fowl. Native to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania and introduced to England and other parts of Europe and North America for domestication, there are now several wild populations in England. The Black Swan is all black, as its name implies, and has a deep red bill. At 45-55 inches, they are smaller than Mute Swans. Conveniently during our visit one of the white swans was hanging out with a black swan, allowing me to snap a comparison photo.

Of course not all the birds that have decided to make St. James Park their home can be classified as exotic. Among the fancier feathered inhabitants of the pond, you will find many which are commonplace. But commonplace for the British isn’t the same as commonplace for North American tourists. Yes of course, as you would expect with any urban park, there were Pigeons, Seagulls and Canada Geese among the groups of birds begging for handouts. However, there were also a few “common” birds that excited me.

Among the birds floating in the water were a large number of Coots. These Eurasian Coots are cousins to the Coots found in North America and greatly resemble them. Mostly black, these Coots also have a pale bill which blends into a vertical white stripe across the front of their heads. If you are able to get a close look, you will also notice their red eyes. However, one of the Coot’s most unique and identifiable features will be impossible to see while they are swimming. The Coot has very strange looking toes. Overly large, their gray-white toes project from yellow legs. They serve a very special purpose, working in the same way snowshoes do, they distribute the weight of the bird over more surface area, allowing them to walk on floating water plants. I wasn’t able to get a good photograph of their feet, but you can see what I am talking about in some of the photos on this site: https://www.beautyofbirds.com/eurasiancoots.html

Among the Coots were another black bird of a similar size, the Common Moorhen. The easiest way to tell these two birds apart is by looking at their beaks and heads. Where the Coot has white, the Moorhen exhibits red on the front of its face. There are some other, more subtle differences, including the Moorhen’s thin white wing stripe and a small amount of white plumage under its tail. Again feet can be a helpful tool. The Moorhen has yellow legs and toes that resemble that of a chicken, thin and much less interesting than those of the Coot. The Moorhen is also smaller, usually about four inches smaller than the Coot.

Standing away from the crowd, we also spotted a lone Grey Heron. An abundant bird which resides in Britain, it behaves similarly to the herons and egrets of America, stalking prey in shallow water. Very similar to the American Blue Heron, the Grey Heron can grow to be between 33 -41 inches. Its plumage is more muted and lacks the blue tint of the Blue Heron, indicating that while these species are similar, their names are appropriate.

There were actually quite a few varieties of geese cohabitating in the park. This included the Greylag Goose. Described as a “bulky” goose, the Greylag is usually between 29-33 inches. Considered abundant in Britain, where many of them reside year-round, the Greylag Goose adapts to many habitats including lakes and wetlands. As far as looks, the Greylag is fairly plain, being a brown-gray, with its neck and head plumage usually being a lighter shade than its wings. Its feet and bill are pale pink.

Next to the Greylag, the Egyptian Goose looks incredibly unusual. Originally found only in Africa, Southern England has had a feral population since they were introduced in the 1800s. Physically smaller than the Greylag (between 24-29 inches), the Egyptian Goose’s plumage looks a bit like a patchwork quilt. Its wings alone sport several colors, including green, brown, dark gray and white. It also has a light gray belly, and tan chest. However, the head is possibly the most distinct. Mostly gray, but with a dark brown circle around the eye, almost as eye catching as a black eye on a boxer. The brown circle is further emphasized as it is surrounded by a thinner flash of pure white feathers. Definitely not a bird to go unnoticed walking down the path.

Among the geese, I also spotted a mismatched pair of…shelducks. Apparently neither really ducks nor geese, the shelduck is a link between these two waterfowl. The pair that I saw actually represented two species of Shelducks. The bird featured on the left in my picture is most likely a female Common Shelduck, with a distinct black-green head, reddish bill, and mostly white body with a band of brown separating its neck from its torso. Its companion, on the right, was the slightly larger Ruddy Shelduck, most easily recognized by its creamy-tan head emphasized by the rest of its darker, brown plumage. The Ruddy Shelduck also sports a black bill and feet.

For a closer look at St. James Park, you can have a look at the map: https://www.royalparks.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/41644/stjamesspark_english_map.pdf

Sources:

https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/the-tower-of-london-menagerie/#gs.6wa0g3

https://www.zoopraha.cz/en/about-zoo/news/director-s-view/11789-her-majesty-s-pelicans

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fascinating-history-british-thrones-swans-180964249/

https://www.beautyofbirds.com/blackswans.html

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

Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve

Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve is another haven of wildlife that can be found in the midst of suburban New Jersey. Formerly a reservoir for the town of Haledon, this space became a Preserve in 2006. The dam is still in place, containing 75 acres of water. This location is the perfect recreation spot for boaters (kayaks or canoes) and fishing, which are both allowed here. Not as wild as some, this Nature Preserve provides a short loop path around the water and an opportunity to enjoy some wild birds from our area. To learn more about this Preserve, visit https://www.franklinlakes.org/flnp

Woodpeckers, Robins, Blue Jays, Northern Mockingbirds and other common forest birds can be found at the Franklin Lakes Preserve. However, for me, the serenity of the water is usually what dominates my attention. Waterfowl are in abundance here, and it is easy to spot Mallards and Canada Geese at any time of the year. Herons and Egrets are much rarer, but they can be found here as well.

However, it is the Mute Swans that I go here to see. There are always at least a pair of them, enjoying the serene waters and searching for aquatic vegetation along the edges of the water and in all the small bays and nooks of the shoreline. Aquatic vegetation actually makes up the majority of their diet, so if you ever see a swan with its beak in some algae, he isn’t hunting, he is munching. While they are majestic to watch, remember to keep your distance, especially during the breeding season, as Muted Swans are extremely aggressive.

Swans are somewhat famous for being monogamous, a romantic feature of their nature which has been referenced frequently in popular culture, including HBO’s the Tudors. While monogamy in birds can vary depending on the species (some only mating for a season) Muted Swan’s mate for life and (this is what pop culture has gripped onto) supposedly when one of the pair dies, the other Muted Swan will not find a new mate. Rather, it is believed it spends the rest of his/her life alone, pining for its lost love. While romantic, this seems unlikely as it would not be great for the survival of the species.

During the breeding season, you can spot the Muted Swan’s nest close to the waterline. In Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve they like some of the smaller little “islands” by the main shoreline. The female sticks pretty close to the nest during incubation, on the couple’s 4-8 eggs. They only have one brood a year, so early spring is the best time to see their nesting behavior and to get a peek at their fuzzy little gray youngsters.

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.

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