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.

A Wintry Walk in the Celery Farms

One of the things I like most about the Celery Farms in Allendale, NJ is that it provides an interesting walk, regardless of the season. I know I have said Autumn is my favorite season to visit, and it is, but winter is definitely nice as well. Especially if the weather is snowy and the lake has frozen. In fact many of the locals play hockey on the ice, so on an early morning winter walk (especially during the school break) one often finds the parking lot full.

Winter at the Celery Farms is not really for the unadventurous. If you think the path is muddy in other seasons, wait until you experience it in the winter. What makes it more interesting is that the mud sometimes freezes awkwardly making footing complicated. Definitely don’t forget your boots. Besides slip-sliding on the paths, the platform stairs can also be a bit slippery, so take extra care.

But this extra effort to walk safely around the trail only makes the few sightings you have all the more rewarding. Usually winter at the Celery Farms yields the sightings you would expect. All our year round residents are there including Sparrows, Mallards, Canada Geese, Northern Cardinals, Dark-Eyed Juncos and Woodpeckers.

However, the lack of vegetation makes it possible to see some of the smaller birds that winter here, such as the Golden-Crowned Kinglet. The Golden-Crowned Kinglet is actually smaller than a Chickadee, making it really difficult to spot. But they have a tendency to flick their wings around as they hop from branch to branch, so the extra movement helps to attract one’s attention. They eat insects, fruit and drink tree sap (sans pancakes) as a part of a healthy balanced diet.

If you are having a particularly cold spell, you might see other birds and animals, flushed from discrete roosts to hunt for food. The deer are always foraging about and you never know if you will see other mammals wandering about.

Birding in the Winter

Bird watching in the winter is not always for the faint of heart. Some of the best snowy bird photos can only be taken when one is exposed to the elements. Wintry walks are one great option. Get out of the house for a bit, get some fresh air and explore your favorite trails from a different perspective. Sometimes this can be tricky, especially if piles of snow or icy patches have developed on the trail. In New Jersey the ice is more of an issue than snow, but trail safety, especially when carrying expensive camera equipment, can be sketchy at times. Just remember to have good treads on your footwear and take it nice and easy.

The backyard is also still an option during the winter months. I am not just talking about the view from the warm comfort behind the windowpane. Bundle up, bring a lawn chair and camp out for a bit outside. I have done this a few times after a good storm and I have gotten some amazing shots. The birds are just as happy as the humans that the snow has stopped, so they come out in force. Besides some strange glances from the neighbors, there is really no downside. I get a bit of fresh winter air, and the experience of fresh, clean snow which honestly doesn’t last more than a day of two in New Jersey most of the time.

Winter is also a great time to focus on some of the Northeast’s year-round birds. I feel like the summer is focused on attracting the rare birds…can I get some VIP’st to my yard? Winter allows us to rekindle our relationships with the everyday backyard birds. Woodpeckers, Cardinals, Chickadees, Blue Jays, several varieties of Sparrow. During the winter in New Jersey our usual cast of characters is also joined by the Dark Eyed Junco.

Even if you decide not to brave the storm, remember that the birds don’t have a choice. If you feed the birds during the summer, you really should feed them during the winter as well. During the summer they become used to thinking of your feeders as a source of food. The winter months, especially if there is snow and ice, can be deadly for birds. So get off your couch, put on your boots and go fill up that feeder!

Bird Feeders Are Not All Created Equal

Bird feeders are not all created equal. Any squirrel will tell you this. I have been through many, many feeders at this point, but even the better made, better quality feeders will fail eventually. This is especially true for those made of plastic. Any plastic, even good plastic, will eventually perish when exposed to the extreme cold of winter. There are those people who bring their feeders in during the winter. But you are possibly hurting the birds to save a feeder. Summer feeding is much less important to bird survival. They have other sources of food and they can forage more easily. In winter, especially in snow, that is much more difficult. And remember, many fledglings were taught that your feeder was a food source. They will expect that to remain the case through their first winter. If you want to bring your feeders in, start to wean the birds of their dependence in the late summer and early autumn. Fill your feeders less often, or with less seed. If you have multiple feeders, remove one at a time and allow the birds to adjust.

There are a variety of different bird feeders out there, and sometimes it is difficult to know what you want to buy. Seed feeders probably come in the largest variety of both shapes and materials. There are two important things to keep in mind when purchasing a seed feeder. #1 there is no such thing as a feeder that keeps out squirrels. It is definitely true that some feeders are more squirrel resistant than others. But the squirrels have all summer to figure out how to break into your feeders, and you can be sure, no matter how long it takes, one day one lucky squirrel will break the code. #2 the size of the access holes or slits in the feeder, and their corresponding perches are directly related to what birds will be able to use your feeder. Many cylindrical feeders are designed with smaller birds in mind. Larger birds, such as Cardinals, Blue Jays and Grackles, have a difficult time accessing food directly from these feeders They can’t balance and they often can’t get their beaks into the holes. That doesn’t mean they won’t come around. They may glean on the ground below your feeders, eating the seed that falls or they may rock your feeders to spill additional food. There are a variety of different bird feeders out there, and sometimes it is difficult to know what you want to buy.

The holes or slits on seed feeders are a really important consideration all around. Some feeders only have a few openings, while other have many. The question you need to answer before selecting a feeder is, do I want more birds, or do I want to buy bird seed less often? There is really no right or wrong answer. Seed feeders with slits are the most expensive as seeds can easily be spilled or knocked. The summer I used a slit feeder, I filled it only about half as much as I filled my other feeders, simply because it was so often empty merely hours after I filled it.

Materials used to make seed feeders is another large consideration. They can be found in wood, various grades of plastic and metal. Often a feeder will have a combination of materials. I have remained on the cheaper end of the spectrum, often buying “good” plastic feeders and I have been fairly happy. I have also used several feeders that have come free with my bird poles, most of which have been totally crap. One was so flimsy I put it up in the morning, had to throw it out when I got home from work…totally ripped to shreds by the squirrels. I was honestly not surprised in the least. So thicker plastic is better. But it is important to keep in mind that hard plastic also runs the risk of cracking if it falls to the ground (squirrel or high wind), especially after a season of two of weathering has made it more brittle.

Besides my many plastic feeders, I did inherit a lovely wooden feeder, which remains my favorite. However, I have stopped using this feeder because its weight (especially when holding a whole squirrel) was having a very negative effect on my feeder pole, bending it down and tipping it to one side. In a sturdy tree I have no doubt I would have fared better. The large ledge on this feeder was both a positive attribute and a negative. The larger birds really loved this feeder, but the ledge also made life much easier for squirrels and chipmunks to not only get at the seed, but to sit on the ledge and eat themselves silly. I went through a lot more seed when I used this feeder, and that, along with the damage to the bird pole, is why I retired it to my basement.

I have also had the opportunity to watch several metal feeders in action. Most metal seed feeders have a cylindrical, chicken wire style body, with a series of rectangular or triangular openings. They usually have a ledge at their base and the top usually unscrews to allow filling. These types are really popular among both the smaller birds (sparrows, finches, chickadees) and woodpeckers, nuthatches, cardinals etc. The larger tree climbing birds, such as the woodpeckers and nuthatches are really able to hook into the holes, balance and peck, similar to their natural stance on a tree. One major drawback with metal is weather exposure. If you have a very windy rain storm your seed will get wet. As wet seed can grow mold and potentially make birds sick, I always try to dump out my feeders after a very wet storm, so that the seeds don’t have time to mold and harm the birds.

I think, considering all the pros and cons, metal feeders are really the way to go. They withstand the elements better. They are less likely to be damaged from falls. They are no more difficult to fill than other feeders. They represent the best balance of durability and lightweight. Some manufacturers try to add metal components to plastic feeders, which sometimes serves to make them stronger, but I still think all metal is the best move.

Before we can completely move away from the topic of seed feeders, we must also consider finch feeders. Like the popular girls at school, everyone wants to catch the attention of finches to their gardens. And because the finches are so special, they get their own special seeds and their own designated feeders. This is because nyjer seeds, the finch food of choice, are much thinner than most other bird seeds. They tend to slip out of normal feeders. As a result finch feeders have most of the same qualities as all other seed feeders, with the exception that they all have much smaller holes. If you aren’t sure you can attract finches, you might want to start with a finch sock. Inexpensively found where most bird feeders are sold, the “socks” are thin cloth bags with very small vent holes. They are usually refillable, with a drawstring top. While they are very inexpensive, I have found they do not withstand the elements. Especially if you do attract a lot of finches, expect to replace your sock once or even twice a season (at least). Being such thin material, they are very easily torn. Once you have a hole, you are done, because those thin nyjer seeds just spill out and the finches rarely, if ever, will go looking on the ground. If you decide to graduate from a sock to a more substantial feeder, you will find a variety of metal and plastic finch feeders, all identified specifically as finch feeders due to those smaller openings. Like with all seed feeders, if you want longevity, go with metal.

In comparison to seed feeders, suet feeders are pretty straightforward. Yes there is occasionally a fancy wood and metal suet feeder available, but the basic square metal hinged cage seems to serve just fine. I have inherited several since I started feeding birds and I haven’t needed to throw any away due to damages. The biggest area of concern is where the two halves close. A lack or loss of tension and the suet feeder will pop open easily. Suet feeders are also relatively inexpensive compared to other feeders, so no real worries there. I highly recommend that everyone consider having a suet feeder. The suet is a bit gross at first, but you soon get used to it and you will find they attract a greater variety of birds. Larger birds like suet and can use suet feeders. With a suet feeder I have attracted woodpeckers, red-winged blackbirds, grackles, cardinals and catbirds. I have also seen Baltimore Orieles, nuthatches and other birds drawn to them. Weather is the big drawback with suet. A rainy day and your suet dissolves. I have started checking the weather for the next few days before refilling my suet. Sometimes manufacturers will combine seed feeders with suet feeders, which is a nice way to save space. My wooden seed feeder was a combination feeder and I saw no disadvantages. The birds weren’t bothered by each other, and sometimes they would switch from suet to seed or seed to suet depending on what other birds came to the feeder.

Not unlike finch feeders, hummingbird feeders and Oriole nectar feeders are a bit more specialized. While Oriole feeders tend to hold more nectar and be larger, with larger perches, they are in essence very similar. They are usually a bottle like shape on top with the perch base usually doubling as a threaded lid, when flipped upside down. When right-side up, the base has holes where the birds can reach in to drink the nectar. Depending on the quality of the feeder’s plastic (they are pretty much all plastic) cracks or damage to the thread or seams are your major concern. You will have a sticky mess! Nectar food, often dyed red with food coloring, can be easily made at home with boiled water and sugar. It is important to know that if your feeder is not frequented by a lot of birds (my parents probably have 50-70 hummingbird’s perch in their feeders daily) you need to dump out the nectar every few days, regardless of how much has been consumed. This is particularly true if the nectar is in direct sunlight. Old nectar can harm or even kill hummingbirds. If you are having trouble with ants (or uncles) getting into your nectar, you can buy a smooth ceramic, bell-shaped attachment which goes between your hook and the string of the feeder. Apparently the ants can’t get purchase on the surface, so they cannot crawl down to the feeder.

I have saved jam feeders for last because they are my new favorite. Jam is a favorite among Orioles, and we have also discovered some Catbirds are also big fans. The feeders follow the same basic design as a nectar feeder, upside down jar or holder, with a threaded base that doubles as the lid. Potentially very sticky, but also a lot of fun. The one my parents have has a build in arm which scrapes the jam off the sides of the feeder so that it will drop down for the birds to more easily access.

There are a lot of feeder types out there, and this article is really only just scratching the surface. I have not discussed meal-worm or orange feeders because I don’t personally have much experience with either. My general advice is to test things out before you buy an expensive feeder of any kind. Observe what the birds like, what they seem hesitant of etc. Then you can make more expensive purchases with insider knowledge. The last thing you want to do is buy an expensive feeder the birds don’t like. Another aspect of feeder shopping to consider is that unfortunately a lot of stores seem to be under the impression that there is a feeder season. Yes places like Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart sell feeders year round, but they often get a greater supply in the spring. So if you are looking to replace a feeder in the winter, there are often slim pickings. If you know what you want, you might be better off online, but I like to look at the feeders in person.

Female Northern Cardinals

I know that I have already written about Northern Cardinals, but I feel that the female Cardinal deserves some special attention. As I mentioned in an earlier post, because of the bright red color of the male Northern Cardinal, the females are often overlooked. But they are really just as interesting to watch and, in my opinion, their subtle hints of red are more striking than the bold display presented by their male counterpart.

The female Cardinal is the same size as the male, 8 ¾ -9 inches. She is a golden brown color with some red highlights on her tail, wings, crest and above her eye. She has a red beak, the same as her male counterpart and she has the same black mask on her face, though usually her mask is smaller and more subtle.

What I love most about the female Cardinals that visit my yard is their sassy attitude. They are just as likely to be aggressive with other birds as a male Cardinal, and there is nothing timid or passive about these ladies. Cardinals are usually one of the larger birds at my feeders and the females have no problem throwing their weight around if need be.

The female Cardinals I have been watching seem more adventurous than the males. The female Cardinals are often balancing on the feeders designed for smaller birds, and figuring out how to perch. Sometimes it takes a few tries, but they usually figure out a good, if awkward, way to balance. The males, either don’t have the patience or maybe have a bit more weight to them making this less likely.

Cardinal couples are monogamous for at least one breeding season, sometimes more. Bird monogamy, and the cheating therein, probably deserves a whole post of its own, and we won’t go into the genetics discussion right now. In one season they will have usually two or three broods. Once the first group have hatched, the male feeds and cares for them while the female goes off to lay and incubate the next clutch.

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.

Northern Cardinals

Despite their ubiquity, the appearance of a Northern Cardinal, especially the male Cardinal, still manages to wow and excite. Perhaps this is because most people can identify them with ease. Or is it because they stand out in a yard or the forest? Any way you try to spin it, the attraction of Cardinals is all about the red. Think about it, there is a reason traffic signs and lights are red. They grab our attention. So does the male Cardinal, often stealing the show from his fellow feeder friends.

Cardinals are very common in my yard, visiting my feeders for long periods, or frequent trips depending on the season. They also brave the winters of New Jersey and do not migrate. This bravery has inspired many a holiday card and we often associate Cardinals with winter and the holiday season. The female Cardinals are often overlooked because they lack the male’s attention-grabbing coloring. Besides her golden brown color, her overall appearance is very similar to the male, and if you look closely, you will see she has red highlights on her wings, crest, tail and over her eyes.

Observing them in my own garden, I would say they are more aggressive than average, but not always unfriendly to birds of other species. I have seen both the males and females chase off sparrows and other birds, but they usually don’t interfere with birds on the opposite side of the feeder. It seems to me they have a very large personal bubble, which the sparrows, being sparrows, don’t seem to understand in the slightest. When they are feeling aggressive you can usually tell, both the male and the female will perk up the crest at the top of their head in warning.

When it comes to their own species, it is a bit more complicated. During the breeding season (Spring and Summer) the males are territorial. I have often seen a pair of Cardinals (one male and one female) visit my yard and feeders together. Sometimes they are a bit more cautious, with one of the pair observing the yard while the other is at the feeder or on the ground. That being said, it isn’t uncommon for them to visit the feeders together. According to my field guides, in winter they live in larger flocks, but I have never seen more than a male and female pair in my yard at one time (not that I am outside observing in the winter nearly as much as the other three seasons).

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cardinals have at least sixteen different calls. I have observed at least two distinct calls. The more high- pitched version is usually what the male uses to attract a mate (in Spring) and they continue to use this call to communicate with each other throughout the summer. He has another call, which consists of an introductory call followed by short, quick whistles, often repeated with the shorter whistles increasing in number: one, then two, then three etc. This seems to be all about territory. Basically, “if you can hear this, you are way to close.” If you are good at whistling, you can imitate them, using the exact number of short whistles they use, right after them. Nothing like a good old whistle battle! Here are some examples of their songs and sounds: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/sounds