On rose-breasted grosbeak watch, a mighty fine surprise

We’re in the second week of May, and I’ve been watching the reports of rose-breasted grosbeaks roll in from other birders nearby. No such luck here at home, even as I’ve camped out with my coffee and camera each morning, hoping one of them will arrive at our feeders.

This afternoon as I passed by the bank of windows to the rear of our house, I was startled to spot a pileated woodpecker hacking away at one of the trees holding up our hammock.

What a creature!

This is only the third time I’ve spotted one of these magnificent birds at home. The first two came last year, once in a tree on the golf course just off the back of our lot, the second on one of our trees. Before that, my only other knowing sighting was of several on the wing in Vermont one fall a few years ago.

In the woods of New Jersey, I’ve heard them many times, their primeval ka-ka-ka-KA-KA-KA-KA cries taunting me from a distance.

A pileated woodpecker pauses before ripping into a tree May 10, 20221.

Today, as the bird traveled up and down one of our maples, I was able to grab my camera and take a few shots through a window, then step out onto the patio for a few more. The bird flew onto the golf course and lighted near the base of a tree, giving his thrilling call to claim his spot before tearing into the bark.

With camera and monopod, I followed onto the course, advancing in stages, getting closer and closer, stopping near a cart path and gently sidling westward to get more of the sun behind me.

I took several more shots, then switched to video. Although I’ve gotten a little better at shooting video with a monopod-mounted Canon DSLR, the video still looks as if it were shot by a goldfinch undulating in flight.

Thank you, Mr. Pileated — a name rooted in the Roman tradition of ex-slaves wearing the “pileus” brimless cap denoting they’d been freed — for stopping by. You made me forget about the grosbeaks. For a little while, anyway!

The early bird gets the sightings

A common yellowthroat emerges from tree cover May 6, 2021, giving me just enough time to snap a few shots.

Up and about earlier than usual this morning, I headed over to the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm and was rewarded richly. I had barely walked out of the parking lot at Cold Soil and Keefe roads when two tree swallows beckoned me in to one of the best birding locations in Mercer County.

Red-winged blackbirds were trilling away as I turned into the allee to my left. At certain times of year, that pathway over-arched with trees is the hottest spot within the hot spot. Today was one of those days.

Within about five minutes, I’d also spotted song sparrows, a downy woodpecker, a couple of common yellowthroats and, high up in a tree, a pair of Eastern kingbirds who appeared to be very much in love.

I was lucky that one of the yellowthroats, usually elusive little bandits, not only gave his signature witchety-wichety-wichety call but popped into the open long enough for me to get a few quick snaps.

In a span of 90 minutes, I counted 17 species, 18 if you add in the pair of chickadees that I listed as either Carolina or black-capped. The two versions mingle freely in these parts, and they’re too quick for me to type them or even photograph them in the woods.

As I walked out of the allee and into an open field, I was hoping to catch an Eastern meadowlark. That would come on my walk back to the car. Instead, I spotted another pair of goldfinches before glimpsing a couple of sparrows on the ground near an observation deck. I got one poor photo but I did get a great view through the binoculars. With broken ellipses of yellow around their eyes, they were unmistakably savannah sparrows.

I’m fortunate to live within a few miles of the Pole Farm, named for the huge antenna arrays that AT&T placed on the property years ago for trans-Atlantic telephone call transmission. I’m planning a section of the website to highlight birding hot spots, and one of the first entries will certainly be on the “vole farm,” as I call it when the Northern harriers are hunting those small rodents at the park over the winter months.

Home is where the house wrens are

One of the house wrens who settled in our backyard birdhouse chatters away in May 2020.

Spring has sprung here in central New Jersey, and I’ve been on high alert for seasonal visitors who are due to arrive soon, some just passing through and others who will stay awhile.

I was on the back patio the other day when I spotted what I was almost certain was a house wren checking out our small birdhouse where wrens have nested previously. But the little fellow flew off the instant I stood for a closer look.

It seems he came back.

Hoping to lure a mate, this house wren is working hard on his new home May 4, 2021.

The bird house — from which several weeks ago I’d removed the few leftover sticks from last year’s Wrenthwacket* tenants — now has sticks poking out from its sides. A new nest is underway, and this afternoon I spotted a wren popping out of the entry hole.

For the next 20 minutes or so, I stayed on the patio, listening to him chattering away in the trees. It’s a joyous noise, in and of itself but also for affirming the continuum of year-to-year renewal.

Welcome, little wren, and may the girl bird of your dreams find her way to your bachelor pad swinging from our larch tree.

MORNING UPDATE, May 5: When I went out to refill the birdbath just after dawn, the wren was singing lustily from the trees. A short while later, I saw two wrens pop out of the house. I’m not going to pry into what transpired overnight, but it seems Mr. has found his Mrs. I have named them DIdo and Aeneas, and I anticipate an epic year ahead.

*Wrenthwacket is a winking reference to Drumthwacket, the New Jersey governor’s mansion a few miles up the old King’s Highway (U.S. 206) from our home.

The first bird I identified on my own

A tufted titmouse, ready for takeoff from our backyard feeder.

As a kid growing up in northeast Ohio, I knew the basics of the birds that frequented our neighborhood. Mom always pointed them out, marveling at the cardinals and their song, tisk-tisking the raucous blue jays (“those bullies!”), and pointing with delight at the cute house wrens popping in and out of the birdhouse that hung from one of the backyard trees.

Robins and house sparrows were common, and every once in a while we’d see a red-headed woodpecker, validation that the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker was reality-based.

One day in our yard I spotted a gray and white bird with a crested head, like a cardinal only smaller, yet definitely not a cardinal. What was it?

My parents had a bird book on the bookshelves beside the fireplace in the living room. I can’t remember which book it was. The Golden field guide “Birds of North America” published in the mid-1960s is a fair bet, although it doesn’t quite match the vague image lingering in memory. I can’t remember how old I was; six or seven seems a reasonable guess.

I thumbed through the book and discovered the tufted titmouse. You might say I started my life list that day, as it was the first bird I identified on my own, without adult input.

It would take years for my interest in birds to build to the daily duty it is today. I have no recollection of taking any interest in the birds on campus when I was in college or graduate school, and I think the first real interest came during my late 20s and early 30s in Nebraska.

I traveled nearly everywhere in the Cornhusker State in my jobs as AP correspondent and bureau chief in Omaha. One of the most wonderful experiences I had was catching the sandhill cranes congregating along the “mile wide, inch deep” Platte River near Grand Island. I had never seen so many noisy, gawky birds assembled in one place in all my life.

I was also startled on one of my first drives through the Sand Hills in the central part of the state to see white pelicans — how on earth did these sea birds end up in the middle of the continent?

So many birds, so many questions! Just thinking about these early experiences stirs up more memories of my travels, to recall in future days.

All hail the New Jersey state bird, the American goldfinch

A male American goldfinch, in its splendid plumage, perched on a shepherd’s hook, Lawrence Township, New Jersey, 2017.

The American goldfinch — the New Jersey state bird, dazzling with yellow in mating-season plumage — is not easily overlooked.

I’ve lived 15 years in this state in two incarnations: six years in Union County in the northern tier, and the last nine in Mercer County in the central section.

In all my north Jersey years, I can’t recall seeing one single goldfinch, the brilliant yellow male or the more green-hued female, in our yard. Fortunately, that’s not the case where I live and work now, the Princeton-Trenton area.

The goldfinches flock to our feeders. They are a continuous joy, particularly in the spring. That’s when the males transition from subdued winter coloring to vivid yellow contrasting with sharp black wings accented by bright white wingbars, like the fellow in the photo above.

The goldfinches dart from the trees at the side of our property to peck at the nyjer seed in the tube feeder in the center of our back lawn. It’s not unusual for us to see half a dozen or more of them on the tube, sometimes sharing a meal with house finches or a downy woodpecker.

When I see photos of brilliantly colored birds in other lands, I wish I had the opportunity to see them for real. As I watch the goldfinches flit and flash, I realize how privileged I am to observe them year round, knowing that somewhere far away somebody else is looking at a photo of one, wishing he could be right here in my yard.

You meet the nicest people on the birding paths

A not quite sharp photo of an Eastern towhee, my first of the year, spotted April 17, 2021, at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm in Lawrence Township, New Jersey.

On-the-trail etiquette is a bit skewed these days because of COVID pandemic restrictions. Midwestern native that I am, I’m usually one to say “hello” or “good morning” or to wave to passersby.

Nowadays, each encounter with an oncoming pedestrian triggers the questions, do I put my mask on, and will the runner/walker do the same? Usually, my answer to the former is yes, even when on a path that’s wider than the six-foot standard for social distancing.

With more and more people getting vaccinated, I expect to see masking expectations and the accompanying tensions ease a bit. That’s good.

This morning at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm, I came across two women who not only said hello, but upon seeing my camera, wished me good luck in shooting and even asked where I post my images. Surprised and flattered, I mentioned that I had started this site yesterday. (Ladies, if you’re reading, thank you for that and for brightening my morning.)

A bit later, I encountered a gentleman birder whom I’ve chatted with a few times before. He comes down from a county north of here, and each time we’ve crossed paths, he’s taught me something new. Today, he spotted a blue-gray gnatcatcher, and I was able to get a nice view through my binoculars. He also helped me identify the call of the field sparrow (“like a dropped Ping Pong ball“), which I’d been hearing all along my walk.

While I venture out to commune with the birds and other critters in the woods, it’s a bonus to encounter birders like those above, freely and amicably giving advice and trading notes on what we’ve seen or hope to see.

Phoebes in our midst

Eastern phoebe, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, Pennsylvania, 2019

This has been Infrastructure Week in our neighborhood, as the streets are being repaved. Our three-block enclave has been beset by enormous machines grinding down the old road surface and splaying out the new, kicking up dust and making an awful lot of noise.

Amid that cacophony, I took a walk the other day and heard a faint call that sounded like “fee-be, fee-be.” In more than five years at my current location, I’ve never seen or heard an Eastern phoebe, so I figured I was mistaken.

A day or so later, my wife spied a bird near one of our feeders and asked, “What kind of bird is that?” It flew off a split second later. Noticing its dark top and white underside, I was a bit puzzled but figured it must be a dark-eyed junco, either one who was late in heading north than the usual reverse snowbirds we see or maybe one migrating from farther south.

Back on the golf course on June 7, I had my camera with me and was able to take this fuzzy shot of an Eastern Phoebe, probably the same bird I saw earlier this spring. This time he gave me a signature tail flick before taking off.

This morning, while walking along a pond on the golf course behind our street, I watched a great blue heron to my right fly away once it sensed my approach. Then I heard clearly the trochaic call of “fee-be, fee-be.” There, about 15 feet away on the edge of wooden bridge over a creek just off to my left, was a no-doubter Eastern phoebe. It flew into a tree, another and then another before take its leave of me.

What a thrill! I’ve rarely seen phoebes, and I only recently got acquainted them on a beginner’s bird-watching class my wife and I took at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve just over the Delaware River near New Hope, Pennsylvania. On a subsequent visit, the phoebe shown at the top above presented himself to me near the parking lot as I was about to head home.

I think it’s likely that our backyard visitor was a phoebe, and it’s even more likely that the one I heard around the block was one because that’s near the woods of the golf course.

Come and stay awhile, little bird. You are welcome here always.

Editor’s note: one of the hazards of learning to be a better birder is mistaken identifications. While I properly identified the phoebe in the wild, when I initially wrote this post I wrote “peewee” instead. I have corrected that. So if you’re looking for infallible advice here, you won’t find it. Should you spot anything in error, dear reader, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Hello, world!

Eastern Bluebird at Mercer Meadows Park, Lawrence, New Jersey, 2021

Inspired by a renewed acquaintance with an old friend who is a wonderful nature writer, I’ve decided its time to do what I’ve been contemplating for months: create an outlet for my observations on the natural world around me.

Since switching to remote work in March 2020, I’ve spent virtually every day at home, and many of those days venturing out to some of the wild places nearby. New Jersey life is self-evidently wild, but I’ll be concentrating on the natural spaces and places I frequent.