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A red-tailed hawk sweeps the sky. SANFORD SORKIN/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By SANFORD SORKIN
For Montclair Local

SANFORD SORKIN

Today, Montclair Local debuts a new column: “What’s in Your Backyard.” In this column, Sanford Sorkin and David Wasmuth will alternate writing about the birds and beasts you may see around your house. Seen a bird or animal you want to know more about? Write to us at culture@montclairlocal.news.

Sanford Sorkin has been a Montclair resident since 1978, and is currently the president of the Montclair Bird Club. He has been a bird watcher and nature photographer for the last 12 years.

The current crises that mandate social distancing elevate the backyard to a more prominent position. Once, we could share the garden and observe nature with our friends. Now it is restricted to us and any fauna we attract. While we would prefer to have friends on the patio, it is entertaining to watch birds from the patio.

I doubt that there are many smaller backyards in Montclair than mine. My good fortune is that my wife is a gardener who does an amazing job, even if she is under the delusion that I have any design sense and could conceivably help in some way. Coupled with my lack of design sense, I have almost no idea what plants should be considered for a backyard garden. The good news, however, is that when she did ask for my planting opinions as she was planning her garden, I was ready with an answer. If you attract wildlife, specifically birds, then you have the garden I would love.

And she did create a garden that attracted birds. Not just birds, but also a skunk or two, raccoons periodically, chipmunks, and one of the most beautiful red foxes I have ever seen. For years she had a garden snake that would bask on the boxwood and watch her work. I wouldn’t call the backyard an aviary, but we do get a fair amount of avian traffic between the backyard and the Bonsal Preserve over a fence or two behind the house.

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READ: WILD MONTCLAIR: TWO RIVERS RUN THROUGH, AND UNDER, TOWN

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We’ve lived in Montclair for over 40 years, but bird watching wasn’t a hobby of mine until 2008. Consequently, I know we saw a lot of birds over the years, but I wasn’t prepared to identify them. However, not knowing their names in no way diminished the joy of just watching from the porch. It is now a little more than 10 years later, and I can name most of what I see.

I even have a good idea of how many birds I’ve seen and when they visited because I should probably be considered a lister. Listers are people that keep tallies of their observed species by date and location. Some just check off sightings on a list, but others with an interest in contributing to science participate in Cornell’s eBird program, where they reliably keep track of everything for you. My total for New Jersey is 249 species, and 130 of which are from Essex County. It is going to take me a little longer to determine how many are from my backyard, but I know that if I include the Bonsal Preserve the local count jumps to around 100 individual species.

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A sharp-shinned hawk defends his catch. SANFORD SORKIN/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

LOOKING AT HAWKS

With approximately 100 species to choose from, I think that two come to mind immediately: red-tailed hawks and sharp-shinned hawks.

There is at least one very local red-tailed hawk that periodically perches in our backyard. More often, it rests in one of the pin oaks that line the street. Spotting the red-tailed hawk is not difficult because we have sentinel blue jays on the street who are completely intolerant of invading hawks. So, whenever we hear a bird racket, we can step outside and see what is being mobbed by noisy birds, and it is frequently a hawk.

The one in the picture was perched on a small limb by the back fence. It may just be hungry and looking for prey on the ground or just resting. He isn’t likely to find reptiles on a snowy day, but squirrels, rabbits, mice, and voles are also part of its diet. Small- to medium-sized birds may also be on the menu.

In addition to the resident red-tailed hawks we also can see migratory birds flying south on the eastern flyway over Montclair. The Montclair Hawk Watch in the fall counts large numbers of migratory raptors heading south to warmer climes, and you are almost guaranteed to see some of our resident red-tails on every visit to the Hawk Watch. 

Seasonally, we see many activities such as soaring until the hawk can only be seen with binoculars, performing mating rituals with incredible acrobatics, and even upside-down flying talons-extended engaged in combat with Cooper’s hawks or sharp-shinned hawks. On occasion the red-tailed hawks will go into a stoop (downward dive) at possibly 100 miles per hour towards something we would probably never spot and carry off a squirrel or grab a pigeon in midair with an explosion of feathers.

When the light is right, the red tail will give you a lot of confidence in your identification of a red-tailed hawk. A dark band across the breast is also diagnostic for the local population.

The other raptor that frequents our yard is a sharp-shinned hawk that usually brings a meal with him. He sits in the back of the yard and assumes a pose indicating that he will fiercely defend his catch.

As spring approaches, other birds frequent the backyard. The nesting pairs seem to enjoy the garden atmosphere as well. In short order we expect to start watching the parents make innumerable journeys to and from the nest with insects for the young.

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