What’s in your backyard: Look down, and up
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 email@example.com.
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.
Fall migration is in full swing, adding an exciting dimension to checking out the backyard.
In addition to scanning the ground and trees, you can see a number of acrobatic sky shows almost every day over Montclair.
Late afternoon and into the evening, chimney swifts, very small cigar-shaped birds, are overhead catching mosquitoes. Never enough, of course, but they make a dent in the population, and you may get fewer bites. If you have any questions about how high in the sky mosquitoes are flying, watch the chimney swifts. I’ve never understood why they stop hunting mosquitoes so early in the evening, but at around 7 p.m. they depart for the chimney at Buzz Aldrin School to spend the night.
Toward dusk, you may also see common nighthawks grabbing insects. Most of their presence this time of year is migratory, but they do summer around here, and they are seen routinely from the Montclair Hawk Watch.
The simple message to birders is that this is the time of year to spend more time looking up. Your own backyard is the perfect place to look up: Chances are you will be less likely there to trip over garden gnomes and other stationary objects. The most stationary item in my yard is the birdbath, positioned where I can’t trip over it.
Montclair is an ideal location for looking up and scanning the sky. On most days there will be soaring red-tailed hawks, a few robins, blue jays carrying acorns, finches searching for flowers in seed and a collection of colorful warblers.
Warbler colors are as different in the fall as are the leaves in our tree canopy. I feel fairly confident identifying warblers when they are traveling north, but on the return trip they frequently look like an entirely different species.
Not all of these birds are migrating; quite a few are Montclair residents offering year-round views.
Another quite common bird over Montclair is the vulture. We have black vultures and, more often, turkey vultures. Turkey vultures may not be the most attractive birds, but few birds glide so elegantly and effortlessly. You may never see them flap their wings because they use every updraft to make their way.
I don’t see as many bald eagles flying over my yard as I see at our local hawk watch, but I do see them. Frequently they are adults, with their very recognizable white head and white tail, but just as often they are mottled brown immatures. Even without the bright white adornments, the striking size of the bird and the large wings make it identifiable.
Young bald eagles slowly gain their white feathers over the first few years, and are in their full and recognizable glory by age 4.
I am often told by friends that they don’t see the birds I mention, and I think it is truly a matter of perspective. I probably spend more time looking up than they do. Beyond my backyard, I have seen magnificent bald eagles flying directly over Park Street; on numerous occasions, driving west on Bellevue Avenue, I have seen them over the Watchung Mountains. Montclair is on the flyway, and the birds are regularly seen following the mountain crest.
Where you look makes a difference. Robins that in summer are found hunting worms on lawns are now frequenting trees and bushes for berries. You may also see cedar waxwings doing the same thing. In our yard, fall is the season of goldfinches. A little after sunrise, they start pulling seeds from the purple coneflowers and the black-eyed Susans. (If you live with a gardener, that is echinacea and rudbeckia.)
Another interesting change is in the plumage of the goldfinches. The males start the season bright yellow and black, but as fall progresses, they lose their bright colors and transition to a distinctive beige.
Less common in the backyard are the warblers that are also migrating south in large numbers. They do not stop by as frequently as they did in the spring, but when they do pause to feed, they fill the trees with multiple species sporting their fall colors.
My backyard is clearly a Montclair backyard.
That means you must also look down and possibly sideways to take in all the activity. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are also migrating and are seen at the same height as the
flowers. Butterflies are feeding and dodging hungry house sparrows. While the garden attracts birds, it is clearly a butterfly buffet. Depending on the time of day, we may see a fox, a racoon, pairs of chipmunks or the occasional groundhog waddling to someplace else.