There is an abundance of bird species on Lake Hopatcong, and having a sense for their different traits and characteristics can really enhance your lakeside experience and help you appreciate the ecological web of the lake environment. To help distinguish and get better acquainted with the most common species on Lake Hopatcong, here is a primer for you. Many other species—including the snowy egret, bald eagle, swan, and green heron—have been seen around the lake as well. But here are some basics on 15 of the most common birds you might see off your dock and in your yard. (Information from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Photos from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)
The AMERICAN ROBIN is known for its warm orange breast, cheery song, and early appearance at the end of winter. It is fairly large for a songbird, with a wingspan that stretches 17 inches, and has a round body, long legs, and a fairly long tail. It is gray-brown on the outside with a reddish underbelly, and females are a little paler than males. It bounds around, studying its environment standing straight up with its beak tilted upward, often in yards or fields. It mostly consumes worms, insects, and a large variety of fruits, and its nest of 3 to 5 eggs is built from the inside out, with dead grass and twigs made into a cup shape, which is then reinforced with soft mud and fine dry grasses. Nests are usually found on horizontal branches hidden below a dense layer of leaves. Its song is an abullient cheerily cheerio cheerup, repeated endlessly, and its call can be a flat tut or a sharp cheep, with a zeeeert! in flight.
The BELTED KINGFISHER is often seen hovering before it plunges headfirst into the water to catch a fish, which it will subsequently pound to kill and eat. It is medium-sized, with a 20-inch wingspan, a large head, a shaggy crest, a thick bill, a bluish head and back, a white throat and collar, and a white underbelly, with blue breast band. It mostly eats fish, but it might also consume aquatic invertebrates, insects, and small vertebrates. Its nest, which holds 5 to 8 eggs, is in a burrow in a bank near the water, with no lining. Its common call is a loud, long rattle, c!k’k’k’k, in flight and a softer ch’rrrr when perched.
The BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE has an oversized round head, short neck, and tiny body, with a black cap and bib, white cheeks, white buffy undersides, and gray back, wings, and tail. It has an 8-inch wingspan and is known to investigate everything, including humans and bird feeders. The acrobatic birds are known to associate in flocks, and have a bouncy flight. It eats seeds, berries, and other plants in the winter, and in spring and summer consume insects and spiders, and hides its feed to eat later, with each item in a different location (the chickadee can remember thousands of hiding places). Their calls—a husky, wheezy fzicka bzee bzee bzee, and songs—simple, pure-toned wheee way-ay—are language-like, communicating information on identity and recognition of other flocks as well as predator alarms and contact calls. The more bzeee notes in the call, the higher the threat level. To nest, chickadees excavate a cavity in a site (often dead or rotting branches) and build a cup-shaped nest with moss and other coarse material on the outside and line it with softer material, such as rabbit fur. Their clutch size is 1 to 13 eggs.
The CANADA GOOSE is well known on Lake Hopatcong, and generally not for a good reason; most people spend their time trying to get rid of them. It has a black head and neck, white chinstrap, light tan to cream breast, and brown back. Its wingspan can stretch 60 inches, and it is primarily a waterbird with a large body, large, webbed feet, and a wide, flat bill. They are often seen in groups, whether they’re dabbling in the water, grazing on lawns or fields, or moving in flight in a V formation. The oldest known wild Canada goose lived to be more than 30 years old. In spring and summer, they feed on grasses and sedges, and rely more on berries and seeds during the fall and winter. The Canada goose nest, made for 2 to 8 eggs, is generally a large open cup on the ground, made of dry grasses, lichens, mosses, and other plant material, and lined with down and some body feathers, and can usually be found on an elevated part of the ground near the water. The call is a distinct honk or ha-ronk—a well-known sound on Lake Hopatcong.
The EASTERN KINGBIRD is a medium-sized songbird with a nearly black head and dark gray back, and a white throat, chest, and belly. Its wingspan stretches to 15 inches, and its population is widespread. The kingbird captures most of its prey, flying insects, by aerial hawking from an elevated perch or by grabbing insects off vegetation with its bill. You can find its nest—an open cup of twigs, roots, dry weed stems, and strips of bark, lined with plant down, fine rootlets, and hair—on a horizontal limb of a tree, in the crotch of tree limbs, or on top of a fence post. It usually has 2 to 5 eggs, and a pair generally raises only one brood of young per nesting season. Its song is sputtered and buzzy—much like a live wire (g’g’ giddy giddy gizz! giddy), and its call is a down-slurred sleek, with a sharp buzz.
The EASTERN WOOD-PEWEE blends into the scenery with its dull brown plumage; grayish olive above and pale below, with a darker wash on the breast and sides. It is medium-sized, with a 10-inch wingspan, and a flycatcher that eats all kinds of flying insects. The nest, usually found on a horizontal limb of a tree, is a shallow cup of woven grass covered on outside with lichens and lined with hair, grass, moss, lichens, and plant fibers. Its song consists of a sweet peeee-a-weeee (with an explosive p- sound at the beginning), followed by a long pause, and then a down-slurred peeee-urr.
The GRAY CATBIRD is a medium-sized, somber-gray-colored bird with a black cap and bright rusty feathers under the tail. Its wingspan is 11 inches, and it has a slender body with a long, rounded tail, a narrow, straight bill, long legs, and broad wings. It hops and flutters from branch to branch, often taking quick, low flights over vegetation. You can find them in dense tangles of shrubs, small trees, and vines, and in thickets near the water. It mainly eats ants, beetles, grasshoppers, midges, caterpillars, and moths, as well as some fruits. Its nest for 1 to 6 eggs is bulky, made of twigs, straw, bark, mud, and sometimes pieces of trash, with an inner lining of grass, hair, rootlets, and pine needles, and can usually be found on horizontal branches hidden in the center of dense shrubs or small trees. Its song, which can last up to 10 minutes, is a complex series of short, thin, nasal notes (aay-wa… chiddy… which… ur-beety), and its call is like a cat’s meow.
The GREAT BLUE HERON is the largest and most widespread heron in North America, and can often be found along the shores of Lake Hopatcong. It’s tall and large, with long gray legs, a stretched S-shaped neck, a 72-inch wingspan, and a long, thick bill. It is gray in color, with a white crown stripe, a black plume behind the eye, and a yellow beak. It primarily eats fish, though sometimes it will consume invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and small mammals. You can usually see it standing or walking slowly, and then quickly stabbing at its prey. It nests in colonies, with a large platform of sticks lined with pine needles, moss, reeds, dry grass, or twigs, usually placed high in trees, but occasionally on the ground. The nests hold 2 to 6 eggs. Its call is far-carrying and startlingly loud up close—a deep and harsh rrrup or rrr-uh-unk, and can be heard anytime.
The MALLARD is one of the most recognized birds on the lake. The male has an iridescent green head, a rusty-colored chest, and a gray body, and the female is a mottled brown. Its wingspan stretches to 35 inches, and it tends to eat insects and larvae, aquatic invertebrates, seeds, acorns, aquatic vegetation, and grain (and, of course, bread from intrigued humans), all by dabbling and filter-feeding at the surface, going tip-up in shallow water, and making occasional dives in deeper water. It is the ancestor of just about all domestic duck breeds, and because it is so widespread, different populations in different parts of the world are almost their own separate species. Mallard couples form long before the spring breeding season begins, pairing up in the fall (but courtship can be seen through the winter). Only the female stays with the eggs and cares for the ducklings (usually 1 to 13 of them). The nest is generally a depression scraped in the ground, lined with vegetation and down from the female’s breast. The ducklings are usually independent after about two months. The female has the traditional “quack,” and the male has a softer, more whistling “quishp quishp quishp.”
The NORTHERN CARDINAL is pretty familiar to most: it is a fairly large (12-inch wingspan) long-tailed songbird with a short, thick bill and a prominent crest—and it’s the state bird for seven states. The male is a brilliant red, with a reddish bill and black markings around the bill, and the females are brown overall with reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest. They don’t migrate, so you see them all year. They tend to sit low in shrubs and trees or forage near the ground, often in pairs, and they regularly visit bird feeders. They are obsessed with territory, and males fiercely defend their breeding ground. They mainly eat seeds and fruit, though occasionally some insects. Their cup-shaped nests, usually found in the forks of small branches in saplings or shrubs, have four layers—course twigs, a leafy mat, a bark lining, and then grasses, stems, rootlets, and pine needles—and are built for 2 to 5 eggs. The northern cardinal’s song is clear and ringing: a chur birdy birdy birdy birdy birdy burr and whit dyeer dyeer dyeer dyeering, and the call note is a light, smacking tyit. Few female North American songbirds sing, but the female northern cardinal is one of them, usually while sitting on the nest (it is believed that this gives the male information about when to bring food to the nest).
The RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER is a showy, noisy bird that can have a wingspan of 16 inches. It has a sleek, round-headed body shape with a black-and-white striped back, pale underbelly, and a flashing red cap. It has an undulating flight pattern, but is often seen along the branches of medium to large trees, picking at the bark surface and sometimes drilling into it. They’ve been known to take over the nests of other birds, but often lose their own nests to invading starlings. It can stick out its tongue nearly two inches past the end of its beak, which makes it easier to snatch prey—generally insects—from deep crevices. Their nest, usually a bed of woodchips left over after excavating a nest cavity that’s 8 to 12 centimeters deep, generally holds 2 to 6 eggs. Its call is a muffled and descending cheeerf, given singly a few times or in a muffled series. In the spring and summer, you might also hear a rising, tremulous queeer-r-r.
The RING-BILLED GULL is familiar on the lake and in other inland locations, such as parking lots. It is medium-sized, with a yellow bill that has a black ring near the tip, a white head and underbelly, a light gray back, black wingtips with white spots, and yellow legs. Its wingspan can stretch 48 inches, it generally spends its time foraging on lakes and ponds, and is an omnivore, eating fish, insects, earthworms, rodents, grain, and sometimes garbage. Its nest, which generally holds 1 to 4 eggs, are scraped in the ground or vegetation and filled with twigs, sticks, grasses, leaves, lichens, and mosses. The gulls generally nest in colonies. Their flight call is a recognizable wail, ay-eeee-ya, and long call a steady mocking hyaw hyaw hyaw. Will also give a deep, monotone chochocho.
The SONG SPARROW is often seen perching on a low shrub, singing its stuttering, clattering song. It is medium sized and fairly bulky, with a short and stout bill and a fairly rounded head. Its tail is long and rounded, and its wings are broad, stretching 8 inches. Its coloring is streaky and brown with bold streaks on its white chest. The head is a mix of red-brown and a slate gray. It flits through dense, low vegetation in short and fluttering flights, with a downward pumping of the tail. It mainly eats seeds and fruits, with some invertebrates during the summer. Their nests, which hold 1 to 6 eggs, are simple and sturdy, made of loose grasses, weeds, and bark on the outside, and lined with grasses, rootlets, and animal hair. The nests are usually hidden in grasses or weeds. The song sparrow’s song has clear opening whistles, followed by a buzz or trill, then a few short notes, and its call is a nasal chemp, its flight call a high seeet.
The TUFTED TITMOUSE is a small, silvery-gray bird with large black eyes, a small, round bill, a brushy, white crest with rusty flanks, and an echoing voice. Tufted titmice are acrobatic foragers of insects (including caterpillars, beetles, ants, wasps, spiders, and snails), seeds, nuts, and berries, which often flock with chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers and are regular visitors to feeders, where they are more assertive among smaller birds. They hoard their food in fall and winter. Their flight can be fluttery, but level. Their nests are cup-shaped and made of damp leaves, moss, grasses, and bark, and lined with soft materials such as hair, fur, wool, and cotton, and can generally be found in natural cavities. They can’t create cavities of their own, so their nests can be found in tree holes, nest boxes, fenceposts, and metal pipes, and generally include 3 to 9 eggs. Their vocalizations are highly varied, with a song that’s rich and repetitious (peedo peedo peedo and peer peer peer).
The TURKEY VULTURE is considered a creepy bird, probably because it’s most associated with scavenging carcasses. It is large, with long wings and a tail, blackish-brown feathers, and a mostly unfeathered red head. Its wingspan can stretch to 67 inches, and it is usually seen soaring as it locates carrion, and it has an excellent sense of smell to find food. It usually forages alone as it travels long distances, searching for everything from small mammals to dead cows, though it also eats insects, other invertebrates, and some fruit. It roosts in large trees or on large urban buildings, and it has no nest structure for its clutch of 1 to 3 eggs, placing the eggs directly on the ground in caves, crevices, mammal burrows, hollow logs, under fallen trees, or in abandoned buildings. Its wing flaps are audible, and it gives an ominous hiss when disturbed that can last several seconds, a ksssssshhhhh-uhhhhhhh.