By SANFORD SORKIN
For Montclair Local
Before developing a fascination with bird watching, I did not experience the excitement and anticipation I enjoy now in witnessing the last days of winter and the emerging activity of spring. The earliest shoots start to appear in the garden, and the birds in the yard are mostly in pairs. A few remaining juncos are hanging out with the last white-throated sparrow that spent the winter living under our boxwood, but common grackles, mourning doves, northern cardinals and house sparrows are building nests in every available bush and tree.
I changed the suet in the feeder to the fancy kind with spices that might even tempt people. The squirrels stayed away, as the label promised, and it gave me a false sense of superiority, because it isn’t every day you beat squirrels at their own game. That feeling of success didn’t last for more than a day. My resident starlings and grackles have much more refined tastes than the squirrels, and they love the new suet and relish it as an experience in fine dining. They also think it is their mission to shield the suet feeder from the woodpeckers I try to attract. On a minor positive note, the starlings and grackles are sloppy eaters, and they drop enough on the ground to keep the ground feeders busy.
It would be interesting to read the minds of some of the local birds to understand how they select their nesting sites. We’ve lived in our home for 43 years, and every year we have watched the house sparrows collect small sticks and dry grass to build nests behind the neighbor’s shutters. Over the years, some of the house’s owners have attempted to remove the nests, but they all had disappointing results. Disappointing, because it usually takes the house sparrows less than a day to build new, bigger and better nests. Frequently, they start rebuilding within the hour and probably are working on establishing rebuilding speed records. Maybe one day there will be a Guinness Book of World Records — Sparrow Edition.
While juncos are preparing to leave, other birds are making their way back. A hermit thrush regularly pokes around in the undergrowth and drinks from the birdbath. In the fall, warblers spend time in the trees in the back, but on returning in the spring, the warblers tend to spend more time feeding in the pin oaks that line the street in front of the house. But it is still early, and many more warblers should arrive shortly.
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Most of my end-of-April backyard entertainment centers on a pair of European starlings and a pair of common grackles. Fortunately, I am only writing about four birds. I know that town residents have been plagued in the past by significantly large flocks of these birds, apparently intent on making rackets and fouling cars. My four birds are manageable. But they are clearly not fans of each other, and they behave like small children who see no need to play nicely together. When the starling is on the feeder, that is exactly where the grackle knows he has to be. The same holds true for the birdbath. If a grackle is washing, the starling starts to feel the need for a dip. Size is usually the determinant of who chases whom; however, the smaller birds find that if they approach the larger birds with a great deal of speed and accuracy, they can have their way for a moment or two.
But while I wait for migration to bring more birds to my backyard, I’m seriously considering expanding the scope of this column. I note birds flying over, like chimney swifts, black vultures and bald eagles, which never settle in the backyard, and I also photograph birds on distant trees, giving me the leeway to discuss a few more visitors. For example, almost daily I see a red-tailed hawk on a beeline to someplace else or climbing on a thermal, often with other hawks and falcons.
Expanding my purview allows me to consider the neighborhood, and the property just behind the house. My bird-watching activities regularly take me to locations around Montclair where we have a great variety of birds that I may not see in the backyard. Edgemont Pond frequently has double-crested cormorants fishing alongside great egrets and great blue herons. These birds periodically fly over my house, but it is much more satisfying to see them in action, though “action” may not be the best way to describe their habits. While the cormorant dives for fish, the egret and heron wade into the water and stand motionless, waiting for the fish to come to them. There is probably a lesson to be learned here.
You are also likely to see hooded mergansers testing the waters at Edgemont Pond. I have only encountered female mergansers swimming and diving for fish there. The mergansers’ casual swimming is a stark contrast to the frantic flight of the tree swallows, which never pause as they hunt insects over the water and in the park.
Some days the birds are everywhere, and other days not so much. But it is always nice to take a walk outdoors, get a little exercise and appreciate the trees and flowers that are blooming right now.
Sanford Sorkin, a Montclair resident since 1978, is currently president of the Montclair Bird Club. An experienced bird watcher and accomplished nature photographer, he is the co-author, with Rick Wright, of “Watching Birds in Montclair,” “Feeding Birds in Northern New Jersey” and “Watching Birds in the New Jersey Meadowlands.”