Out in the cold

Despite our sense to the contrary, birds are well guarded against the cold by their dense covering of down and feathers. Finding food enough can be relentlessly hard on them during the leanest months of winter when the remaining seeds and berries have been thoroughly picked over. Hawks and owls become more desperate as their prey remains tucked away in dens and tunnels and they’re forced to pick off the weak from our backyard feeders.

A short-term solution is to provide a feeding station to help birds find enough food during the day to keep them warm overnight. Thinking long-term requires that we consider the value of habitat in terms of three things: food, shelter, and water. Planting native shrubs and trees with fleshy fruits (mountain ash, holly, crabapples, cedars, etc) and seeds (maples, pines, hemlocks, etc) will provide food. Many of these trees and evergreen shrubs also benefit the birds in that they provide shelter to roost in at night or to escape from the winds in the daytime. Birdhouses and roosting boxes can also provide shelter from the cold. Water is difficult to keep unfrozen, but a garden pond or heated birdbath will provide much needed fresh water each day.

My own yard is sadly lacking in many respects, but I do see the benefits of what I’ve been able to provide thus far. The pond is always a draw, but especially so in winter. The robins, starlings, and mourning doves appreciate a drink or bath in even the coldest of weather. American hollies are the only evergreens we have planted, but the robins flock to them in winter. A horse farm that I pass on my way to work has probably a hundred of them planted along the property line; sadly the robins fly back and forth across the road to feed on the holly berries and many are hit by cars in the process. Each day on my way to and from work I count at least 3 dead on the shoulder of the road. The viburnums and dogwoods we have at home have been picked clean by late December and my husband insists on cleaning up the garden in the Fall, rather than the Spring, so the many seeds of my flowering plants aren’t available for the birds. We need to plant more evergreens and a more diverse variety of fruiting shrubs, and learn to leave the garden alone so that it can feed the birds in winter.

Of course now is the time to begin planning the garden for the season to come. I have a small pile of flower and seed catalogs that I’m lookiing over, but I’m trying to think in terms of trees and shrubs instead of the more alluring and short-lived flowers.

What have you found that sustains the birds in your garden during the coldest of days? Tonight I’m going to try a short-term solution to the present cold spell and whip up a batch of Julie Z’s suet dough, mostly for the oriole from last week who I spotted at the feeders again this morning.

Robin photo courtesy of Associated Press.

Cranky catfish

If I had a tunnel to hide in today I would do it.

Do the people you work with ever make you feel like you were dropped here from some other planet? Like their mindless drivel about shoes and vacations and ex-husbands is some foreign language that hurts your ears to listen to? Like their screwy perspective on the world might be contagious and you should run screaming from your desk before you’re infected with their stupidity?

Do I need to think about a new job?


This rant brought to you courtesy of seasonal affective disorder. Cheerful and sweet Laura may return tomorrow after a night under the grow light.

Officer’s Row

Volunteer day again at the bird observatory and I didn’t see a soul out at Sandy Hook – not even any fishermen – so you know it had to be bad! The wind was really whipping across the bay and it felt like the frozen arctic today.

The bird observatory is housed in that smaller building all the way to the right, partially hidden by the sycamores and hackberry trees that grow around it. There’s a long row of 18 buildings like this that front the bay and which are known as Officer’s Row from when Fort Hancock was an active army post. There’s all sorts of gun batteries and nike missile sites that I may bore you with photos of someday. Anyway, nowadays most of the officer’s quarters are empty except for a few local environmental organizations like NJ Audubon, the Littoral Society, and Clean Ocean Action. A pair of Osprey usually nests on the chimney of one of these buildings each summer also.

On summer days when I volunteer I love to sit out on our porch and watch the bay; I even like to do it on reasonably mild winter days. The sunsets on the bay are spectacular! Even though our building is smaller than the officer’s housing (I think it used to be the doctor’s quarters and the hospital was next door) I imagine it was a very nice place to live. Not so on days like today with that wind! Keeping house must have been nightmarish too, with the constant salt-spray on the windows, not to mention the sand being tracked in all the time. These are the things I think about to pass the time when no one visits.

Eagles on the horizon

No pics, but I did get to see lots of eagles today. The distances are just too great for photos. The pristine, undiked and unditched salt marsh that these gentleman are scanning into stretches for five miles to the west where it meets Delaware Bay. The various wildlife management areas that I was driving the inland edges of today make up one the largest contiguous protected areas in NJ – more than 30,000 acres of prime raptor hunting and nesting area. Not to mention the shorebirds and wading birds and waterfowl that use the area in other seasons. At the horizon in this photo is a nice group of snow geese that were brought up from their feeding by an eagle overhead. In the middle of all that sky and grass often the only clue of an eagle’s presence is that the waterfowl suddenly all *get up* and the birder knows to scan above the flock for an eagle.
I spent most of today either freezing cold on the marsh or warm, but lost, in my car. I had maps, but none of them seemed to jive with reality. I asked for directions more times than I can remember and drank too much coffee, but saw some incredible things. About 5 minutes from home I saw my first bald eagle of the day, soaring over the Navesink River. I considered going home and going back to bed at that point, thereby saving myself hours in the car, but decided instead that it must be a good omen. Eagles do nest within 10 or so miles of me, but the site is not viewable from any public property. There’s another nest at a county park close to where I work that I visit fairly often.

What draws me to South Jersey at this time of year is the numbers. At one point today I had four eagles in view in my binoculars at the same time. Pretty cool, huh? If you look closely and use your imagination you’ll see the eagle’s nest in the tree left of center in this pic – see that one that looks a bit darker than the others? There weren’t any eagles housekeeping (or having sex) at this nest site, but at another place there was a nest visible on a small wooded island in the marsh – the eagles were doing some housekeeping there, sitting in the nest, and copulating on the ground at the edge of the marsh with a juvenille eagle looking on from above. I couldn’t really see that that’s what they were doing, but it sure looked like it.
I wish I’d had more daylight and wasn’t so worried that I’d never find my way back to civilization – there’s so much to see here – so long as you like looking at the horizon and the miles of salt marsh in between. I *just missed* a Golden Eagle (as usual) but watched red-tails harassing bald eagles and harriers hunting over the grass and diving down every so often near a muskrat lodge. I feel really lucky to be able to see these things at all and can’t imagine why everyone isn’t out there in the cold with me.


those perennial apparitions
of the backwaters – their shadows
the faded sails of anchored boats

– John Kinsella

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Nothing much of interest to say today, other than a reminder to stop by Wanderin Weeta tomorrow and have a look at this week’s Good Planets show. I sent along a few photos that I wasn’t able to post during the month of January while I was hosting, so don’t be surprised if you find a pic there that you sent to me. Recycling is a good thing!

I’m thinking about heading south in the morning to attend the Cumberland County Winter Eagle Festival; getting up early enough to make the trip will be a challenge, as will the predicted cold, but the chance to see nesting Bald Eagles and the beautiful scenery in that part of NJ is hard to pass by.

I took the Cormorant photo above a few weeks ago at the Shark River Marina in Neptune NJ. The marina is a good spot to see Ruddy ducks and there is usually always a Eurasian Wigeon there, but I wasn’t able to find it that day. It was a very foggy day; not very good for taking pics, but the Corms made me smile with their wings hung out to dry.

Winter beach

Given a choice, where would you spend a winter’s day? Deep in a forest, high on a snowy mountain, beside a quiet lake? Hawaii? In the absence of other options I choose the beach. Fall is my favorite season at the ocean, but a February day at the shore with a biting wind makes a person really appreciate the comforts and warmth of home. I think I need to be reminded of just how blessed I am, especially at this time of year, when the walls are closing in on me.

For a person who’s attuned to nature and the cycle of the seasons, February holds the promise of Spring to come. Our winter birds will begin singing this month and the great flocks of Grackles and Red-Wing Blackbirds that mark winter’s passage should arrive. Great Horned Owls are nesting. Skunk cabbage will poke its head out in wet places by month’s end and red maples should begin to show some color at the branch tips.

It’s still winter in February at the shore. There is ice and wind, and solitude. The Oldsquaw and Mergansers court on the glassy surface of the bay. There is little color to distract you from the cold, but for the occasional glint of sea glass brought ashore by the wind. With luck you might find a harbor seal hauled up from the bay to bask in the sun at low tide. An exceptional year for the birder would find a snowy owl in the dunes at North Beach. To repay your wanderings in the wind and cold there might be a small flock of snow buntings instead of a snowy. There are rewards to be found, for sure. Spring peepers and woodcock and plovers are just around the corner.

Real rabbits – Minefield

This is typical of what greets me most mornings when I first get up and head out onto the sunporch to feed the bunnies before work. Missy and Freckles live in the white lattice pen that you see there, but Boomer and Cricket are loose at night. I used to have a makeshift fence to keep the big bunnies from getting too close to the other pen, but I got tired of hopping over it and bruising my shins so I took it down. This is the result of that choice. Instead of hopping a fence I have to walk this minefield, sleepy and barefoot.

Rabbits are territorial and those that live close together, like mine do, need to mark their territory, just like a dog does outside. When I had the barrier up, the Flemmies would mark the *fenceline* but that was easy to control by placing a litterbox in front of it. Despite the two litterboxes in this tiny area, the Flemmies still feel the need to leave poops everywhere else.

Thank goodness they’re easy to clean up and make good fertilizer. I always have plenty of it! Bunnies are very efficient recyclers.

Just so you don’t get the impression otherwise, these bunnies are box trained, just not on that side of the room! They keep their own pen very clean. Peeper, who lives alone in a different room, has perfect litterbox habits, and never poops anywhere but in one of her boxes. The key to that is that she doesn’t feel any competition or the need to make a point of her ownership of the space. It’s all hers and she knows it!