Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Saga of the Black Vulture Family Continues

Now we know what the Muppets creators used as a model for Big Bird. This is one of two black vulture fledglings born this summer at the Veblen farmstead in Herrontown Woods. In this photo, it's perched on the first story roof of the Veblen Cottage, which almost got demolished this summer, but it looks like we'll now have a chance to save it. There are many ways in which culture intersects with and complements nature at Herrontown Woods, and this is one of them. "Big Bird's" parents--black vultures mate for life and are unusually attentive parents--have been seen around the farmstead for years. Our attention being on other things, this is the first year we've actually witnessed their young.

The farmstead's version of Big Bird is the weaker of the two fledglings, which two days ago were together perching on the cottage, with the healthier one on top of the chimney. That Big Bird somehow found the flying capacity to make it up on the first floor roof is a new accomplishment.

The reason for the parents' absence was made more clear the next morning, when I received an email from birder Laurie Larson. She had just passed by a roadkilled deer near the intersection of 27 and River Road, on the lawn of the Princeton Church of Christ. Some people are ambulance chasers. Taking an interest in vultures means becoming a roadkill chaser, at least for a day.

There were seven black vultures and 3 turkey vultures performing their custodial function on the carcass.

Just getting out of a car 100 feet away was enough to send most of them flying up to ornament the church's cross.

A few continued eating, though. This photo contrasts the heads of a turkey vulture and a black vulture. Turkey vultures are better at soaring, and have a keen sense of smell that allows them to detect dead animals beneath dense tree cover. The black vultures are more dapper, with keen eyes but lousy sense of smell. They often depend on the turkey vultures for finding the food, then shoulder their way in to share in the feast.

Though no juveniles were partaking of roadkill (do they need to lose their facial fuzz first, for sanitation purposes?), the stronger juvenile was missing from nearby Herrontown Woods. In its place was one of the parents, which might have brought some food back for the still stranded juvenile to enjoy, via regurgitation.

Interestingly, the vultures are much less skittish at the cottage, watching us calmly as we watch them from down on the ground. With a good zoom lens, it's possible to inspect the odd growths on their beaks, which seem like they could be a way of telling them apart.

We'll see if Big Bird gains the wherewithal to fly. Clearly the parents haven't given up.

There's lots of interesting info about vultures on the web. New World vultures are not closely related to Old World vultures, but have evolved to similar forms to perform similar ecological functions. One website, with "16 Things You Might Not Know About Vultures," at, works to save rhinos and other endangered species. I've emailed them to see if they know Esmond Bradley Martin, who we discovered is a descendant of Andrew Carnegie's childhood friend and business partner Henry Phipps, Jr, and a grandstepson of the builders of Veblen House who has devoted his life to saving rhinos and elephants from extinction.

The adventure of discovering and learning about all the characters associated one way or another with Veblen House and Herrontown Woods continues.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Black Vultures Close Up--A Photoshoot and Princeton History

Black vultures four--who could ask for anything more? Okay, there are just three in this family photo. We'll get to the fourth one in a minute. This past Sunday, prior to a work session clearing invasive shrubs in Herrontown Woods, and equipped with better cameras, we returned to Veblen Cottage to check in on the black vulture family mentioned in a previous post.

I guess family values aren't the first thing that comes to mind when people think of vultures, but these black vultures are a tight-knit group. That's mom and pop on the right, with the wrinkly skin on their heads (best not to sully any feathers when dipping one's head daintily into rotting carcasses). Hard to know which parent is which. Vultures don't flaunt their sexual identity. And that's a fledgling on the left, still with baby fuzz on the head.

Family means something for black vultures. On this AllAboutBirds site, they are described by the writer as "one of my favorite birds." He describes their characteristic flight pattern: a few beats of the wings followed by a glide." "Highly social birds with fierce family loyalty," he says, "Black Vultures share food with relatives, feeding young for months after they’ve fledged." It may not be coincidence that, in this serendipitous photoshoot, the parents gave their fledgling the top perch on the chimney.

As we snapped photos from below, the birds were surprisingly cooperative, adopting various poses, from noble, to domestic, to nobly domestic.

Laurie Larson, longtime birder in Princeton who has tracked population numbers over the years as part of the Christmas Bird Count (her data and stories below), suggested the fledgling bears a striking resemblance to Voltaire. People have long suspected a ghost residing in the rather disheveled Veblen Cottage. Was it Veblen himself? Einstein? Now we know.

While the three vultures were preening for the camera up on the chimney of the cottage, another fledgling, looking a bit down and out, was hiding in the corn crib. It didn't seem to be able to fly up to join its kin on the chimney.

When I approached, it shuffled out of the corn crib and hid in the brush.

Laurie's Voltaire comparison is spot on, but I also see something of Art Garfunkle here.

As an aside, given that the photos were taken at the Veblen Cottage at Herrontown Woods, Oswald Veblen died on the brink of the 60s era, but Garfunkel, who performed last year in Princeton, shares Veblen's broad interest in math, architecture and great books. Garfunkel initially majored in architecture, and completed coursework for a PhD in math education while part of Simon and Garfunkel. His interest for numbers expressed itself early on as a fascination with the rise of hits on the pop charts. He has kept a full and public accounting of books he has read, including Voltaire in 1969. He also has that second banana status, which Veblen knew well from living, perhaps contentedly enough, in the shadow of his more famous uncle Thorstein and science icons like Einstein and von Neumann. Part of the joy of the Herrontown Woods project is rediscovering the value of forgotten buildings and legacies that have long flown beneath most people's radar.

Here's the farmstead's little barn and corncrib, whose impending demolition earlier this year by the county, along with all the other Veblen buildings, seemed unstoppable until so many people in the community spoke out to support an initiative by Friends of Herrontown Woods ( to save them. Fortunately, for the black vultures as well as the history of Herrontown Woods, Princeton town council swooped in, raptor-like, and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. FOHW is now working on an agreement with the town to repair and sustain the buildings, while, of course, continuing habitat and trail work, and snapping photos of the local wildlife.

It's funny about the black vultures. They've provided a somewhat haunting presence around the farmstead for years. Not sure what to do with the connotations they carry, we tried to pay them little mind, preferring to talk about the flashy pileated woodpeckers and the elusive great-horned owl. But maybe it's time to give the vultures their due. They are a cleansing force in the universe. They deal with stuff no one else wants to deal with. They find sustenance in unlikely places, and extend the food chain one link further. They're faithful and diligent parents.

I liked this pose, two generations on a branch.

In the distance, you can see the other parent perched on the chimney of the cottage. This was just before they assembled for the group shots on the chimney.

The vultures appreciate the Veblen Cottage's classic design with a chimney at either end. If they knew, they'd appreciate its "balloon" construction, too, meaning the studs extend from the foundation all the way up to the roof. Balloon construction, according to one builder I spoke to, explains why the cottage is still standing, after so much neglect.

Any good photo shoot includes grooming behavior. The parents groomed the juvenile; the juvenile groomed the parents.

One adult aimed for the noble raptor look, confirming the AllAboutBirds writer's view that these vultures are "almost dapper."

Things got downright statuesque here, with the juvenile taking the parents under its wings.

Five days later, we were standing in the Veblen House driveway in late morning when we heard a great ruckus in the treetops behind the barn, not far from the cottage. My friend was giving me advice about fixing up the Veblen House. He didn't have much time, and what he was saying was important. I dismissed the ruckus in the treetops as small birds hassling a crow or hawk or owl. I continued to listen to my friend as the calls reached a blood curdling frenzy. Life was on the line, be it a bird or squirrel. We headed over to take a look just as a large black bird flew off down the hill, the noise fading behind. It looked large enough to have been an eagle.

We walked over to the cottage, and found the second juvenile had been hiding in the crawlspace. It came out and walked ahead of us around the corner,

then hopped onto the old kitchen sink and spread its wings, looking our way, as if to impress us, then hopped down and headed towards the corncrib.

Later, I grew concerned about what might have transpired in the treetops. Who was the aggressor and who was the victim? Eagles are one of the few predators of black vultures, which in turn occasionally prey on weak or injured animals. Was that large dark bird that flew off a vulture, and had it been on the attack or defending its own fledgling? Black vultures lack vocal organs, so the mortal cries must have been generated by something else.

It occurred that the reason the vultures had been so patient with our photoshoot five days prior was that they were lingering at the cottage to guard the weaker fledgling, hoping it would find the strength to join them in flight.

I returned to the Veblen Cottage the next day to find the vultures gone. After years of trying to ignore them, I suddenly felt their absence.

Thanks to Laurie Larson for the additional info below on black vultures in Princeton. The black vulture, according to another member of the Friends of Rogers Refuge who keeps careful records, Tom Southerland, was first seen in Princeton on March 2, 1980, as part of a general expansion of range northward into the northeast. He noted that they "sleep in later" than the turkey vultures. Vultures in general have a good excuse for sleeping in, given that the thermals don't get going until the sun's a good ways up.

One of the great draws of Princeton for vultures in general back then was the Winant Farm, later preserved with a conservation easement in 2002 as Coventry Farm, between Mountain Lakes and the Great Road. Mrs. Winant in particular loved vultures, and provided a place where police could leave roadkilled deer for the vultures to eat. Roadkill back then was a steadily increasing problem, as the deer population continued to climb until professional culling was finally begun in 2000 under Mayor Marshand. The dramatic circling of dozens (hundreds?) of vultures over the Winant Farm drew a lot of attention to the birds back when black vultures were first arriving on a scene long dominated by turkey vultures, and led to some careful documentation of their numbers, which Laurie provides, below.
Here is everything I know about Princeton Vultures. I was fascinated with them back in the day. The Coventry Farm roost built up during the 1980s. Originally it was all Turkey Vultures; Black Vultures first appeared in 1984 and their numbers rose steadily, although on our Christmas Bird Counts the Turkey Vultures were always in the majority. The all-time high count of Turkey Vultures for the Princeton count circle still stands at 615, in 1986, which was one of the years Jim Williams and I counted the Coventry Farm vultures. That year, Black Vultures were at 79; the first appearance of the species in the Princeton count was just 2 years earlier at 38, and they peaked in 1994 at 102, with 257 Turkey Vultures, still in the same area/same counters.  The present high count for Black Vultures is now 116, from 2008; I was the compiler at that time. I believe that was a composite of several roosts, including two in Kingston/Griggstown and others around the circle. The roost at Coventry farm didn't exist any more by that time. I moved to Montgomery in 2001 and others began covering the northwest-Princeton territory. It has gone uncounted in recent years except for someone who does Mountain Lakes.
Vultures aren't necessarily easy to count. We worked hard to get exact numbers during that period when the Black Vultures exploded into NJ. Coventry Farm was an excellent indicator site and we tried to census it the same way each year. You are correct that there was a field on the northeast corner of the farm away from the road where the police put road killed deer; this was the time when the deer population exploded and there was not yet any control plan. That was probably the trigger for the creation of the vulture roosts in that area. There were at least three interrelated roost groves -- Coventry Farm itself, North Road/Pretty Brook Road, and the corner of the Great Road and Mountain Avenue. These are all in sight of each other (we used to stand by the road in the new development at Mountain Ave./Great Road to count). All are planted groves of large spruces or hemlocks. The birds shifted around among the three, making it hard to count them. We would try to get an estimate at the end of the day (3-4:30 PM or so) of the vultures going into roost. Also, for comparison, we arranged to visit Mrs. Winant on Count day at 8 AM each year, to count the birds in the pines around her barns before they started to rise and soar for the day. I used to make an appointment every December by sending a note to tell her when we'd be coming.  She would lock up her dogs and come out to greet us and then dish out can after can of dogfood right on the driveway for the vultures. The Black Vultures were much more aggressive and would come right up to the food, pushing the Turkey Vultures aside. I don't know whether she did this daily, or whether this was a special effort for us on the Christmas Count. She was not a native English speaker and a bit hard to understand; but she was devoted to animals. A friend of mine drove up with a van full of birders on a field trip he was leading; he actually recruited her as a NJ Audubon member, when she found out they had come out of their way to see "her" birds. She also rescued burros and emus and various other critters, which I don't suppose are still around either. It was quite an adventure to visit the farm and I remember those Christmas Counts in great detail.
I am not sure of the date that the Black Vulture nest was found at Cradle Rock. I believe it was around 1990. I hiked in with a friend after hearing the report, and we found a smelly cave with an adult Vulture, standing on a rock, which hissed at us. We did not want to disturb things further and didn't see a chick at that time. 
Here are the numbers from the Princeton CBC:

The only other thing I can offer about Princeton Vultures is that they used to love to sit on the water tower that was behind the YWCA and Merwick, on Paul Robeson Ave. They caught the morning sun in winter on their outspread wings. Promptly at the Spring equinox they'd disappear until next fall. My assumption has always been that the equinox was their trigger to start looking for a nest site. When I lived at Stanworth I enjoyed seeing them every day and took note of their disappearance. These guys were probably close enough to also be a splinter group from the big Coventry roost.
PS Vultures were not the only "good" birds from Coventry farm. In 1994 a flock of gulls was attracted to the barnyard on CBC day, and Jim and I were astonished to find the count's first Lesser Black-backed Gull among them, as well as only the third Iceland gull ever.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Walking Tour of Leaf Sculptures at Graeber Woods

Artist Susan Hoenig, known for her environment-themed artwork and instruction at the Arts Council of Princeton, will lead a tour of leaf sculptures she created at Graeber Woods. The sculptures are shaped like the leaves of the tree species they are situated under.

Bunker Hill Environmental Center is located at 287 Bunker Hill Road in Griggstown, Franklin Township, N.J., about 9 miles down the Millstone River from Princeton.

Tours will be on Saturday, August 26, and Sundays October 1 and 22. All tours begin at 2pm.

You can read more about her artwork and its environmental connections in this article entitled Connecting Earth and Art.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse Bathing

I got an unusual suntan today. It will all probably wear off in a week or two, but I have to say, the eclipse was transformative, even without making the trip to see totality.

It was a day when some of the world's greatest telescopes were trained on the sun. Okay, maybe this cereal box wasn't one of them.

My dad designed great telescopes (Twins! What a surprise!) on Las Campanas in Chile, so that kind of took the pressure off for his offspring.

Still, the performance of the cereal box with a pinhole was, in my view, subpar. It was time to put on a thinking cap. Fortunately, I'd read an email from the Princeton Public Library, earlier in the day, with a link to Neil Degrasse Tyson's alternative approach. Use a colander, he said.

At first, it didn't seem to be working. I wasn't seeing anything special, though I began feeling an inexplicable craving for those pecan crescents my mom used to make at Christmas time.

Then came the eureka moment. Let the colander cast a shadow on the patio stones.

How cool is that? A whole bunch of crescent pastas bloomed on the ground. Yum!

Leo was suspicious, and gave it a sniff.

But I wasted no time, doing what any normal person would do in the presence of a rare celestial event: shoot a selfie. That's me trying to compete with the eclipse's many-smiled head while on our summer vacation in the backyard. You won't believe the deal we got on a hotel room.

To save time--the eclipse's visit being so brief--I shot a photo of the colander while my shadow shot a photo of the colander's shadow. That's my younger daughter's shadow assisting.

Here's the eclipse posing with its grandfather,

and with Leo.

An obit of my dad says that in 1945 he traveled to Canada with theoretical astrophysicist and future Nobel Prize winner Chandresekhar, to photograph a total eclipse of the sun. They published the photos they took there in a scientific paper.

Sometimes I look up towards the sky and wonder what he'd think of his son's life orbit. He pointed his cameras skyward, but the images had gravitas. I'm more apt to point a camera at the earth, even when the subject is an eclipse, finding levity on the ground rather than gravitas in the heavens.

It all works out, I guess, especially after this weird tan wears off.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Fledgling Black Vultures at Herrontown Woods

A pair of vultures has long hung out around the Veblen Cottage, up along the red trail in Herrontown Woods. They can seem a bit creepy, perched on top of the chimney, haunting the building with their symbolism of decline and imminent demise. But I've also seen vultures perched on restored buildings, and over time I've stopped investing them with negative connotations.

These are black vultures, as opposed to the turkey vultures that are frequently mistaken for hawks as they glide deftly above Princeton's treetops. Turkey vultures have red heads, and can be distinguished overhead by the silver that lines the back half of the underside of their wings. Black vultures have grayish heads, and silver only on the tips of the wings.

This quote from the Cornell Lab's Birds of North America site suggests that Herrontown Woods' pair of black vultures has a deep and lasting relationship, and has been finding what they need there, year after year. Perhaps they've been raising their young in the corncrib all this time, unbeknownst to us.
"Black Vultures do not build a nest. Instead they lay their (usually two) eggs on the bare ground in a cave, hollow tree, abandoned building, or other dark recess. Pairs will continue to use a nest site for many years as long as breeding is successful. Black Vultures are monogamous and maintain long-term pair bonds. The pair associate closely year round and may feed their young for as many as eight months after fledging. This prolonged dependence of the young on their parents may, in part, be responsible for the strong social bonds with kin that Black Vultures maintain throughout their lives."

A couple days ago, I was walking by the cottage and noticed a strange site. Up ahead, standing outside the barn door, was one of the black vultures, its fluffy neck feathers all a'jumble. Another vulture was perched in a low branch behind the cottage. Neither flew away as I approached.

The vulture on the ground looked embarrassed, its head down. It walked into the barn and stood there, as if deeply sad. They were either juveniles or molting adults.

Later, I remembered that last year in August a friend had noticed that geese had disappeared from Mountain Lakes. Some research showed they had gone off to molt at an undisclosed location.

I asked some birders with the Friends of Rogers Refuge if vultures molt this time of year, after finding nothing about it on the internet. Laurie Larson replied:
"I know they molt wing feathers during the summer, after their young fledge, and it would be consistent with most other species of birds to molt the rest of the body at the same time. This time of year most birds have less demands on their energy than they would during migration, winter, or when rearing young, and food is relatively abundant, so it’s the time of year to put energy into growing feathers. Embarrassed-looking vultures… interesting thought!"
After seeing the photos, however, she wrote back:

I think the vulture by the door in your photo is probably actually a fledgling. The adults are bald - their heads have bare skin. I’ve never seen a vulture so young, so I didn’t know they had black fuzz on their necks. It’s also possible that the reason it didn’t leave is that it isn’t yet a very good flyer. (It’s hard to tell whether the second bird, sitting in a tree, is another juv. or an adult). Wikipedia does have a portrait of a juvenile, which seems to be somewhat older than yours. It has a fully feathered neck rather than the bare whitish adult skinhead look. Yours is just growing those feathers. Congratulations; this would seem to be a rare look at a very young vulture.
The timing is right as well. Local nesting starts around April 1. Wikipedia says the eggs hatch in 28 - 41 days; and after hatching the young require 75-80 days to grow to be flying independently. That puts it around August 1.
As you may know, Black Vultures have expanded their range north through New Jersey rather rapidly and now are being seen throughout New England to southern Maine. When I started doing the Princeton Christmas Bird Count in 1982, I was assigned the territory including Mountain Lakes and Woodfield Reservation. Black Vultures began to show up in the huge roost that existed at Coventry Farm during the 1980s (the elder Mrs. Winant, rest her soul, used to feed them dog food every morning) and the numbers increased rapidly until the roost was dispersed after her death. One of the first nests in the state was found in a shed in Monmouth County, while locally an early nest was on the Princeton ridge in a cave near the bouldering area called Cradle Rock, up behind Woodfield. The area had not yet been developed with all the huge houses along Drakes’ Corner Road.
I would not be at all surprised if the vultures have been nesting at Herrontown for years. I hope the corncrib is going to remain undisturbed for these gentle and interesting birds to continue to live in, even as your project to protect and repair the house has succeeded. Congratulations on that as well!

So, it sounds like we have some fledgling vultures at Herrontown Woods, and an additional reason to save the little barn and corncrib as part of the 1875 cottage farmstead that mathematician Oswald Veblen used as his study before giving it to the county in 1957.

The question of whether and how vultures molt is still up for grabs. And I wondered if molting birds are as down-in-the-mouth-looking as the fledgling vulture, standing there in the barn. Does a molting bird know it will soon regain the ability to fly, or might the bird, stripped of its identity, fall into an existential crisis that ends only when new feathers grow? And is that feeling anything like what people and other sentient beings will feel tomorrow, when the sun seems to molt, high above us?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Wildflowers and People Gather By the River

What a glorious day, this past Sunday, down along the canal in Princeton. Cool, sunny weather drew people to the canal, by boat, foot and bicycle. The sounds of laughter and conversation mixed with birdsong and a generous show of summer floodplain wildflowers.

Boys returned to their Huck Finn roots,

and insects, too, gathered by the river

or bathed in the sun.

Many different species of oak have long gathered along the section of the towpath between Harrison St and Washington Rd, planted back when the university viewed the canal as an ornamental entryway to campus.

Here's white oak, with it's rounded lobes,

and possibly a post oak, with its lobes arranged in the shape of a cross.

Swamp white oak and bur oak have similar leaves, swollen towards the tips, like the bison that used to forage in the oak savannas of the midwest and south, back when mildfire could play through and refresh the landscape.

Not sure what type of oak this is.

It was a day when nature seemed to be moving towards restoring balance. The overly aggressive multiflora rose was getting a humbling dose of rose rosette disease.

One Ailanthus, at least, was being slowed down by the munchings of the caterpillars of the Ailanthus webworm moth.

The adult is the orange patterned insect in this photo.

And a honeysuckle shrub was being hampered by some sort of witch's broom growth.

Queen Anne's Lace was being pretty without taking over.

Introduced knapweeds like spotted knapweed have spread very agressively in the midwest. I've been trying to believe that this Tyrol knapweed will be relatively benign as it spreads slowly along the canal. Here, at least, it's hosting a monarch.

True, the porcelainberry was having its way in one of the openings in the canopy,

and capitalizing on a tree's demise.

Stiltgrass still lines the nature path,

and a Norway maple's dense shade was stunting growth beneath it.

Mugwort framed concrete marker, but hasn't dominated along the canal like it sometimes does in gas line right of ways.

Signs at the Harrison Street crossing warned of hydrilla, an aquatic invasive plant. None of this, however, could break the upbeat mood of a cool, sunny Sunday in late July.

Flowers from earlier in the year were quickly turning into seeds, like buttonbush

silky dogwood,

common milkweed,

One of the ornamental cherries planted by the university long ago,


and tall meadow rue.

Seeing native shrubs like this elderberry trying to grow along the banks of the canal, I long ago envisioned managing the banks for native shrubs that could beautify and provide abundant wildlife food. But the banks of the canal are managed independently of the towpaths, by a different agency. As with most landscape maintenance, the workers tend to be unselective in what they cut. To preserve the view from the towpath, the bank is cut every few years--not enough time for a shrub to do much flowering and fruiting that would benefit wildlife.

Not far down the lake from Washington Rd. bridge stands the stump of a sweetgum tree once darkened each day by roosting cormorants.

Its life may have been cut short by the excess guano, or its own precarious perch on the edge of the bank. Not sure where the cormorants have gone.

Another sweetgum, with its star-shaped leaves and protruding wings on the branches, was thriving elsewhere along the trail.

Some of the wildflowers have grown to giant size with the well-spaced rains this summer. These cutleaf coneflowers are ten feet high,

as are some of the ironweeds.

The cutleaf coneflowers were the first native wildflowers I spotted ten years ago along this section of the canal, which in turn led to the state park staff reducing the mowing to once a year so these wildflowers would have a change to mature and bloom

Hollow-stemmed Joe-Pye-Weed has really prospered in the open shade of the oaks. Each year there are more patches of these attractive flowers.

Goldenrods can be distinguished by the different shapes of their flowerheads. Some have elm shaped inflorescence,

others are flatter.

Each year, the rose mallow hibiscus bloom along the shore, with lizard's tail and yellow pond lillies extending out into the Carnegie Lake waters beyond them.

It would have been a perfect day to lead what usually is an annual nature walk along the towpath. For 2017, this account will have to do.