Tag Archives: New Jersey wildlife

A Circle in the Sky

A circle formation of flying birds

A circle formation of flying birds

A raptor (bottom right) was close by

A raptor (bottom right) was close by

A few fuzzy close ups of the raptor that I couldn't identify

A few fuzzy close ups of the raptor that I couldn’t identify

While near the Raritan River the other day, I noticed a circle in the sky that was moving rapidly. The circle was actually a large group of birds. The shape kept getting formed and reformed, over and over, while the birds moved westward.

I’ve seen flocks of european starlings before, flying in patterns in the air then landing en masse before taking off again, but this was different. The birds were very high up in the sky and they did not land. The pattern the birds made remained circular until they went out of sight.

What I didn’t see right away was the raptor in their proximity. The more I watched, it seemed that the formation of the circle was a way for the flock to protect and defend themselves from the threat. Although it looked like the raptor was after the group of birds, I suppose the birds could have been harassing the raptor too (like an angry mob). I’m guessing that the birds were starlings, although it could have been some other type of bird that flies together during migration. I couldn’t identify the raptor either because it was too far away.

Linking to Skywatch Friday.

Reblog: The Song Sparrow’s Friend (or Foe?)

Note: The sparrow is back! I’m reblogging this post from last year because, for the past few mornings, our song sparrow (or his next of kin) has once again been greeting our arrivals and departures with song. April 2, 2014

Our heralding song sparrow

Our heralding song sparrow

Song sparrow on top of the car mirror

Song sparrow on top of the car mirror

Sparrow hanging out on top of the Jeep

Sparrow hanging out on top of the Jeep

Why do birds sing?
A song sparrow with a personality has recently made our front yard its territory. The bird seems to intentionally serenade us as it stands guard on the overhead wires. With a trilly song, it heralds our arrivals to and departures from the house.

This sparrow has also begun a love (or hate?) affair with our Jeep’s side mirror. It will sit on top of the mirror and then scoot down to look at its reflection, back and forth. When the Jeep is gone, our other car’s mirror attracts the bird’s attention instead. The sparrow’s preference, however, is definitely the Jeep; the abundance of “white stuff” coating the top and sides of the Jeep’s mirror is proof positive. This has been going on for almost two weeks.

These antics are cute and entertaining, but I started to wonder what was actually going on with this sparrow. Are his tweets a welcoming song, or was this bird threatening us to keep our distance? Is the car mirror a newfound friend, or is it an avian enemy to be chased away? Is the sparrow’s song a joyful, sweet symphony, or a warning message to a potential foe?

When I had a parakeet, we mounted a small mirror in the bird’s cage to keep it company. Perhaps our sparrow’s reflection in the car mirror is perceived as a friend or a potential mate to be won over. On the other hand, maybe all the commotion is because the sparrow feels threatened by an imaginary rival in the mirror.

I began searching online to find out reasons why birds sing. The All About Birds website states that birds may sing to attract a mate and to defend their territory. Male birds seem to sing one way to attract a female, but sing in a different, aggressive manner toward male competition, according to a study referenced on the UCSB website. An ASU Biology post mentions that birds sing as a form of communication with other birds. For example, there is a specific bird call to declare sources of food and another to warn about nearby predators.

Many people have problems with birds banging into the windows of their home, over and over again. While some of this is accidental, often a bird sees its own reflection in a window and thinks another bird is infringing on its territory. Although our sparrow’s reaction to its reflection in the car mirror didn’t appear like an aggressive behavior to me, it could have been having the same type of territorial response. I also found out that interactions between a bird and a car mirror aren’t unique to our situation. There are plenty of videos on YouTube about birds attacking car mirrors! (This video in particular made me chuckle.)

Since we don’t know if our sparrow is a boy or a girl and we aren’t experts in song sparrow body language or vocalizations, there’s no way to determine what is really going on in our front yard. I’d like to believe that the song sparrow is serenading us as a result of overflowing birdy joy, but the verdict is inconclusive. Our car’s mirror, and my family, may be the song sparrow’s friend (or foe), but we’ll never know for sure.

Image

An Interesting “Bird” at the Feeder

interesting bird at the feeder

Remembering a Groundhog/Woodchuck Invader in our Garden

groundhogwoodchuck coming out of his holeWhen we had a vegetable garden in our backyard, woodchucks were our adversary. Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, are a type of mostly plant-eating rodent that digs burrows. They are actually part of the squirrel family.

I remember one time, when looking out through the rear window of my house, I realized the plants in our garden were swaying. Seconds ticked away as my brain processed why this was happening. Suddenly, I realized that there wasn’t a breeze or a storm blowing in; it was a certain short-legged intruder munching on the baby veggies. I flew out the back door yelling “Caaa-Caaa” while loudly clapping my hands together and chased the woodchuck into his underground tunnel beneath the neighbor’s shed. It was all in vain though; it didn’t take long for him to return and take a bite out of nearly all of that day’s ready-to-pick vegetables.

My neighbor also had an eye out for woodchuck invaders. We called her Babcia (babshee?). She was Ukrainian and, I believe, in her late eighties. With her hair pulled up in a bun and wearing her muumuu-type dress, she spent almost all day tending her garden of tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, corn, and other expertly-grown produce. She was a sweet neighbor, until the groundhog decided to venture out from under the shed into her garden — then she became ruthless. For an elderly woman, she could be very spry. In a flash, I’d see her grab a broom and chase the critter. After she passed on, I picked up her technique for myself…Note to readers – I only scared them away, no groundhogs were injured in the process!

Woodchucks were actually a double threat to our garden. Not only can they burrow under the fencing, but they can also climb quite well. woodchuck on grassWhen the groundhog became nervous about being in my neighbor’s garden, it would climb the chain link fence into our yard. I never realized they could climb that well, until I watched one skillfully pausing at the top to make sure the coast was clear. As soon as he decided he could visit without interruption, he’d jump right down from the fence into our garden.

If you can forgive them for raiding your veggies, woodchucks are quite fun to watch. They waddle around like large, rotund guinea pigs. They are quite humorous when they stand on two legs, probably checking the landscape for broom-carrying humans. I’ve never had an encounter with one that was aggressive; they seem to run away quickly when a human being comes near. Other than human entertainment and their yearly prediction of when spring will come, groundhogs do make a contribution to the ecosystem. Other animals use their burrows as shelter and all their digging helps improve the quality of the soil. Interested in learning more about these creatures? A general woodchuck overview can be found on this school website.

Three Tips for Identifying Swallows

swallow under bridge

Barn swallow sitting under a bridge – notice the long, forked tail

Juvenile tree swallow (inset shows the blue color coming in)

Juvenile tree swallow (inset shows the blue color coming in)

nest

Barn swallow in nest under gazebo

swallow hole

A hole in the dam makes a great nesting spot for a tree swallow

flying tree swallow

Tree swallow in flight

I’ve always liked looking at birds, but swallows in particular are fun to watch. They tend to be in groups, flying and swooping down and around. When we are out near the water or in a park, we see them acrobatically flying back and forth catching insects.

The most common types of swallows we see in my area of New Jersey are barn swallows, purple martins and tree swallows. The other day, I saw some swallows that I couldn’t identify right away. I ruled out the barn swallow, but was still unsure what kind they were. Despite the white on the breast, they didn’t have the glossy-blue color of tree swallows. I took some photos and after I downloaded the pictures on the computer, I was able to look at them more closely. Little areas of blue were beginning to appear on the feathers; they were juvenile tree swallows.

When trying to identify swallows, here are three helpful tips to consider:

  1. Tail — When flying or perching on a wire, barn swallows are the easiest to identify by their distinctive tail. It’s long, pointy and deeply forked. Most other swallows have tails that are forked, but not nearly as prominent as the barn swallow.
  2. Color — It’s not too difficult to spot the orangey-blue color of the barn swallow. The blue on the face is so dark it’s hard to see their eyes. Cliff swallows have similar coloring, but without the prominent barn swallow tail. Purple martins are completely dark and are the largest type of swallow. Tree swallows are darkish blue on top and white underneath. If the swallow you are trying to identify is a juvenile, it can be a little tricky, especially if the lighting is poor and you are too far away for a good look.
  3. Nest — Barn swallows like the eaves! Of course, they are noted for nesting inside barns, but I’ve seen them build underneath an overpass on top of the support beams and on the small inner ledge of a gazebo. Tree swallows seem to favor a more closed-in location. Recently, I found some nesting inside the drilled out holes of a concrete dam. Purple martins can be very happy nesting inside manmade martin housing. When you see swallows flying around, try to watch where they go. When they return to their nests, you have another clue to their identity.

Bunny Perspective

This is our backyard bunny with his ears flattened.

This is our backyard bunny with his ears flattened.


This is the same bunny from the front. Sometimes it's all in the perspective!

This is the same bunny from the front. Sometimes it’s all in the perspective!

An Out of the Ordinary Jersey Bird

American Kestrel perched in a tree

American Kestrel perched in a tree

kestrel on line flying kestrel kestrel hoveringToday, I had the opportunity to see a bird that’s considered out of the ordinary for my state. Although common elsewhere, the American Kestrel is considered a Species of Special Concern in New Jersey, most likely due to shrinking areas of grassland needed for its habitat.

The kestrel that I saw flew fairly close to where I was walking. It landed in a tree and then moved to a few different branches before perching on a nearby wire. Moments later, it was in the air. It hovered in place while beating its wings, before suddenly diving down. It’s amazing how it can stay in one spot, despite the wind. The kestrel put on quite a display searching for food before I lost track of it. I couldn’t tell if it succeeded in catching anything or not.

Guide books describe the American Kestrel as a raptor of the falcon family, similar in size to a mourning dove or a jay. They are very attractive-looking; the colored patterns on the underside of the kestrel reminded me of a common flicker.

An American Kestrel in central New Jersey was certainly an out of the ordinary sight for me.

Signs of Spring

Trying to get the female cardinal to take notice

It’s spring, time to get the female cardinal to take notice

The male cardinal fanning his tail feathers

First a little singing, then fanning the tail feathers

The attentive female cardinal

The attentive female cardinal takes it all in

There are a few scattered piles of unmelted snow in the dark corners of my backyard, but some telltale signs of spring have come. The daffodils started poking out of the ground and, a few days ago, the spring peepers began calling from the boggy area down the road. I thought the birds would still be waiting for warmer weather, but the cardinals have already abandoned all thoughts of winter and progressed straight into the spring mating season.

I heard the male cardinal tweeting repeatedly the other day, so much so that I stopped what I was doing to look outside. From the top of a small tree, the male cardinal was loudly carrying on. The reason for all the ruckus? A female cardinal was perched nearby in an adjacent tree. After he finished his serenade, he flew over closer to the female and began chipping and strutting about, fanning his tail feathers and putting on quite a show. She played cool though, sitting very still and seemingly not giving him a glance. Today, I noticed the cardinal pair checking out the site of last year’s nest, so I suppose his display won her over. Spring is here!

Linking to “Signs of Spring” at the Outdoor Blogger Network.

The Stealth Move

This backyard hawk caused a downy woodpecker to make some stealthy moves

This backyard hawk caused a downy woodpecker to make some stealthy moves

The woodpecker flattened itself against the tree branch

The woodpecker flattened itself against the tree branch

What a trick! Hiding behind the branch out of the hawk's sight

What a trick! Hiding behind the branch out of the hawk’s sight

Every once in a while a hawk visits our backyard; today it came twice and caused one of our backyard birds to resort to a stealthy move for its survival.

The first raptor visit was early this morning when I was in the kitchen. Through the window, I saw the hawk perch low in the walnut tree next to our bird feeders. I wanted to take a photo through the sliding glass door, but the hawk flew off just as I returned from down the hall with my camera. Later this afternoon, I was outside in the backyard, with my camera, when the hawk returned a second time.

Normally, when a hawk is nearby, the backyard birds flee into the hidden areas of the bushes or pine trees and there is silence. All chirping ceases. This afternoon, the hawk appeared so suddenly it seemed to take the birds by surprise. They weren’t able to resort to their normal safety routines.

The female cardinal didn’t flee and hide. Instead, it stayed completely frozen in place on a tree branch, not moving whatsoever. The tufted titmouse was a little bit braver. It made a short, sudden warning call and then immediately dropped into the pine branches out of sight. The mourning doves stayed still in the same position they had been sitting in previously. The downy woodpecker, however, was the stealthy one. First, he froze on the tree branch. He didn’t move his head to the right or to the left, but you could tell he was aware of the danger. Then, he pressed his body down as close as possible to the branch. His final move was to swiftly rotate around to the underside of the tree branch to get out of the hawk’s direct line of sight. The woodpecker stayed completely still in that position, keeping the branch between himself and the hawk, until the hawk finally flew away. Once the danger was gone, the woodpecker moved back around to the top of the branch and started to eat some suet. The other birds also resumed their activities like nothing had happened.

East Meets West, Bug Style

The Western Conifer Seed Bug has reached eastward to my NJ office.

The Western Conifer Seed Bug has travelled eastward to my NJ office.

The bugs like to cling to the front of my office building.

Bugs like to cling to the facade of my office building.

East met west this afternoon in front of my office building. I had stepped outside for a breath of fresh air, when I saw a strange looking insect sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. I’m definitely not a bug fan, but it caught my attention anyway. Not only was it fairly large, but it was unusual because I hadn’t seen any insects hanging around all winter, except the stink bugs. Today the temperature reached into the mid 40s, so perhaps the bug was attracted by the pre-spring warmth.

The insect had a brownish colored abdomen with a pattern on it and long front antennas. I had never seen an insect like it before. I was intrigued enough to run back inside the office to grab my camera. After taking a photo of the bug, I Googled “large brown bug with antennae” to see what I could find out about it. I figured out that the mystery bug was a Western Conifer Seed Bug. Western . . . immediately I thought I had made a mistake identifying the insect. Since I live on the east coast, I checked to see if perhaps there was an eastern variety of seed bug. After a little reading on the Penn State Entomology web page, I learned that the western conifer seed bug has been expanding its range into the east. At first it was identified in Pennsylvania and now the bug ranges in New Jersey and even into Canada.

Although the western conifer seed bug I saw on the sidewalk was barely moving, apparently they buzz and fly like a bee. The bad news for me is that the bug is considered a pest that likes to come indoors, inside homes and office buildings, in the winter. Perhaps this western conifer seed bug has been hanging around with the stink bugs at my office all winter and I hadn’t noticed it before.

Hawks Everywhere

I suppose it’s the February cold, but I’ve been seeing so many hawks this past week. On my way to work the other morning I spotted at least five and I don’t have a very far commute. Usually they are perched high and away, but these hawks were perched low, prominently positioned much closer to human activity. The winter search for food must be getting more intense.hawk

Fast Flying Chimney Swifts

chimney swift3 chimney swift5In a few months when the weather gets warmer, it will be time to start looking for the chimney swifts again as they return from South America. Although I hadn’t taken much notice of them before, this past summer they entertained me quite a bit with their fast flying antics. They were regularly flying overhead, darting back and forth in the air, similar to bats. Not only are they fast, but I don’t think I ever saw one land and sit for awhile. It’s almost like they fly nonstop. This constant motion made taking photographs very difficult. I tried for weeks to get a good shot of a chimney swift, but ended up with lots of blurry photos of distant dots in the sky. What you see posted here are my “best” pictures. I thought that maybe they spent their evenings nesting in the big brick chimney at the school complex nearby, but I wasn’t able to confirm that. I figured that stalking around the schoolyard with a camera probably wasn’t a good idea.

Although the chimney swifts seemed to be plentiful in my neighborhood, I read a web article recently about a decrease in the chimney swift’s population. While it had been presumed that these birds are becoming less numerous because of chimneys being capped off, the article points to the bird’s diet as a cause. Hopefully, this year the chimney swifts will be just as plentiful flying over my neighborhood, because I need another chance to photograph them!