Archive for New Jersey
Brookdale is the next “neighborhood” over from ours, and its namesake park — one of Essex County’s many Olmsted designs — is conveniently on the way to any place we have to go in Montclair.
After a few quick visits with Gellert when we first moved back to New Jersey, we gave up going: too many off-leash dogs, too much of their leavings on the sidewalks, too few dark and brushy corners. But I’ve decided — inspired by a lecture by Jean the other day about her experiences in the park — to give the place another chance.
I’ve found that the the west edge of the park, from Bellevue south almost to Watchung, offers the best birding. It is there, away from the ballfields and playgrounds and dog runs, that remnants of scrubby woodland edge persist, and there are even a few dead trees scattered around, to the obvious delight of the woodpeckers.
I’m expecting some good passerine migrants along this band of vegetation this spring. And so are the park’s birds of prey, I’d guess.
Red-tailed Hawks nest everywhere in our wooded little suburb, and I’m sure the birds in the park are local breeders. Today, I also found a fine little juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (“why doesn’t that feeder have any birds at it?,” I asked myself a moment beforehand), and a gang of noisy Blue Jays found me a dashing gray male Merlin, that latter a “good bird” around here (and presumably not averse to a blue-jay breakfast).
The night shift seems to be active, too. If anything, Great Horned Owls are more common than Red-tailed Hawks in Bloomfield, and it’s hard to imagine there’s not a pair hard at work somewhere in Brookdale’s tall conifers.
I haven’t found them or their nest yet, but I will. Meanwhile, there’s abundant evidence that at least one owl roosted in the park this winter.
Let me know if you happen to be birding Brookdale some morning, and maybe we can meet up. I’m sure there will be a lot to see as time goes on.
This was the sight that greeted me yesterday noon as I pulled in to DeKorte Park in the Meadowlands. Rough-legged Hawks aren’t exactly rare here in northern New Jersey, but these tiny-billed visitors from the Arctic are always exciting — and I think I’ve seen more Snowy Owls this winter in the state than members of this species.
Whenever you pause to admire a rough-leg, of course, you also have to smile at the bird’s scientific name, Buteo lagopus, the “bunny-footed buzzard.” Erik Pontoppidan, the original Great Dane himself, named the bird 250 years ago, following in the tradition of Linnaeus’s name for the ptarmigans and anticipating Pallas’s for the Common House-Martin. Though the Danske atlas is not available on line (tsk tsk), I assume that all three scientists were thinking of the birds’ feathered tarsi, which recall, to the eye and to the touch, the furry hind limbs of a hare.
It all makes very good sense. But why do we English-speakers call this bird Rough-legged rather than “fuzzy-footed”? Are rabbits’ feet really that abrasive?
It turns out that I just don’t know the word “rough” very well. Our friends at the OED remind me that in special application to animal integument, the word has — like its German cognate “rauh” — long had the sense of “thick” or “bushy” or “fluffy,” without necessarily connoting any sort of harshness. Animals — birds, horses, dogs, even bats and turtles — are “rough-legged” or “rough-footed” simply by virtue of having feathers or fur or conspicuously keeled scales on the extremities. “Rough-legged,” in other words, means “fuzzy-footed,” or even “soft-footed.”
Now don’t tell that to a vole or mouse, of course.
I’ve been watching Red-bellied Woodpeckers since way back in Centurus days, and we weren’t at all surprised to see this one using the rock-hard ice crust of our backyard as an anvil for opening tough oilseeds this morning.
Whenever I see this species on the ground, I’m reminded of a red-belly I saw years ago in eastern Nebraska, gleaning something or other from among the ballast stones on a railroad track. As I watched, the bird actually grasped one of the pieces of pink quartzite in its bill and moved it to the side; I didn’t measure the stone, or keep it, and I don’t know what the standard size of ballast is, but I have it in memory as more than two inches across.
That impressed me. These birds can do anything.
One of the few things I can still enjoy about winter in the snow zone is the chance to spend some time with one of my (fifty or sixty or so) favorite emberizids, the American Tree Sparrow.
There’s a game I like to play when I’m watching this or any other “familiar” bird: How, I ask myself, can this bird be identified without recourse to any of the old Petersonian “field marks”?
After all, once you’ve seen your first hundred or thousand or (probably, though I don’t have an exact count) ten thousand tree sparrows, you don’t really look at the rusty crown or the smudgy breast spot or the swollen, yellow-based mandible.
Those are all “micro” marks, often hard to pick out without the application of glass. And yet we know what we’re looking at even before we’ve switched off the car. So what are we actually seeing — and can we make our impressions explicit, in real live honest-to-goodness words?
Well, there’s the rather long, black tail with conspicuous white edging, for one thing. There’s the coarse back pattern of rufous and black tracks, so unlike the neater, finer markings of this species’ (current) congeners. And there’s that big reddish secondary panel that contrasts so strikingly with the most beautifully black and white tertials worn by any American sparrow.
But most of the time it’s that single bright white wing bar that catches my eye.
And every time it does, I smile. What I learned as a young birder was that
Two conspicuous white wing-bars are also characteristic,
in the words of what still ranks as one of the very best field guides ever.
Indeed, American Tree Sparrows do have very large, very conspicuous white tips to both the greater and the median secondary coverts.
But just because a bird “has” two wing bars doesn’t mean it “has” two wing bars. More often, I think, than most sparrows, birds of this species tend — at least in the winter — to droop their scapulars and fluff their breast feathers, often covering the median coverts, and thus the “upper” wing bar, entirely, creating the effect of a single bold white slash across a rich chestnut field.
Even when the second, upper wing bar is visible, it tends to appear incomplete; in two hours of sparrowing the other day, I had sustained looks at a bird revealing both wing bars in their full glory exactly once.
None of this is exactly earthshaking, I suppose, and I’ll admit that I still take every opportunity I can to enjoy the classic, oft-repeated identification characters of this charming species. But my birding is invariably enriched when I stop to ask not “What is it?” but rather “How do we know?”
Maybe yours would be, too.
How do you know it’s February?
Finally, after brightening the landscape for nearly six months now, those festive red sumac fruits are drawing birds. With softer, more palatable food sources pretty much gone, American Robins, Northern Flickers, and other frugivores are turning to these rock-hard, bristly little citrus-bitter seeds.
Yes, it’s a sign of desperation. But it’s a sign of spring, too. Bring on the sumac banquets!