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Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Red-tailed Hawk on Governors Island. Photo by Erik Baard.

Our kayak camping on Governors Island for City of Water Day reminded me of earlier paddles I took to the island, for the LIC Community Boathouse, to plant apple trees (yes, I transported them by kayak), and to lead a volunteer team on behalf of Earth Day New York. The latter two trips were to support the Added Value Urban Farm annex on the island.

In July of 2011, while enjoying the shade of a locust tree adjacent to the farm, I found myself under an actual predator’s gaze. This fine Red-tailed Hawk was watchful, but at ease just a few feet above me. We’re blessed to live during a time of raptor resurgence in the Big Apple, but a close sighting is still exhilarating. I was unaware that Governors Island has a rich avian life, as evidenced by this census.

Given the name of the island, I dubbed this bird Lord Cornbury, as a small token and humorous nod to the much pilloried  colonial Governor Edward Hyde. I’ve recently had no choice but to learn to forgive undemocratic (and likely transient) leaders on the very local scale who are, as Hyde was described, of “slender abilities, loose principles, and violent temper.”

Red-tailed Hawk on Governors Island. Photo by Erik Baard.

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American Bittern. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The East River is NYC’s premier waterway and as founder of the LIC Community Boathouse and HarborLAB, I’ve made it my paddling home. At sunset, ferry boats filled with skyline gawkers will nearly flip to the west, and East River bridges set the scene for countless films. But for a kayaker, it’s the wilderness refuges of its islands and inlets that make this tidal strait endlessly fascinating.

Returning to Randalls Island from Governors Island in the Sunday morning calm after City of Water Day, Caroline Walker and I paddled through the outskirts of Hell Gate toward Mill Rock. I was admiring Great Black-backed Gulls at rest and Double-crested Cormorants perched on the island’s rip rap skirt while drying their wings when I spied something a bit different — a bird with the shape of a heron but markings similar to an American Woodcock. Caroline described it as “brindled,” which is pretty apt.

As we drifted past, a handful of cormorants and gulls took off while most ignored us. The misfit bird, however, walked quickly and deliberately into the brush that grew down from a turf mound to the rip rap line. It seemed to almost instantly disappear among the twigs and leaves. I didn’t have a camera.

After some research yesterday, I realized how lucky Caroline and I were! We had spotted an American Bittern. This species has fantastic camouflage for its reedy habitat, and so is rarely seen. Sadly, its population is declining rapidly with diminishing wetlands (though I’m comforted that its conservation status remains “least concern“). Good places to seek them are Pelham Bay Park (join Wild Metro for a volunteer day) and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. But they can pop up well away from salty shores. Prospect Park Lake, in the heart of Brooklyn, may have drawn this other one.

For those not lucky enough to glimpse this stealthy heron, there’s still a chance to hear its odd call, the second part of which sounds to me like someone repeatedly unstopping a PVC pipe. Strange that a creature would evolve to be invisible only to concurrently acquire a voice that earns it nicknames like “Stake Driver, Thunder Pump and Mire Drum.”

The American Bittern I observed was silent, so I have something to look (or rather, listen) forward to!

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Black-crowned night heron in Nolan Park, Governors Island. Photo by Erik Baard.

City of Water Day was another great success this year, thanks to Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance staff, volunteers, partners, and participants.

After some puttering around the island, eating delicious Vspot vegan empanadas,  and spending time with an amazing array of vendors, exhibitors, and fellow mariners, it was time to settle into camp.

We strolled past a rare American Elm tree and into Nolan Park. Girl Scouts of the USA interactive designer and artist Caroline Walker spotted this black crowned night heron in a tree. Noted nature illustrator Steve Sanford (Nature Conservancy, Field and Stream, Boys’ Life, Saltwater Fisherman) and I lingered with Caroline to observe this representative of the most widely distributed (five continents!) heron species.  It drifted down to lower branches to return the curiosity. After a few minutes, we mammals moved on.
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Then, the little thing proved truly brave and inquisitive. It followed us over a tree or two to our camp site, and then came down! Throughout the night it poked around the dirt to feed, strolling among our supine bodies. Sometimes it would swoop over us quite closely, yet not aggressively —  apparently gusts from its wing beats once woke Steve.
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I’ve never known this species to hunt on dry land, but perhaps it’s adapting to better exploit the safety of Governors Island’s canopy for nesting. After all, there are insects in the soil beneath the trees too. Still, I would love for any revamping of the island to include soft shorelines, restored wetland habitat, and other kindnesses to native creatures.
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At points a second heron arrived and departed, to spar or flirt. Only when thus engaged did our friend caw. I’m too ignorant to know what was transpiring, but it wasn’t likely nest aggression — the adults of this species actually feed each others’ young. I’ll ask my friend David Burg of Wild Metro (and adviser to HarborLAB) to clue me in, and update this entry with an epilogue.

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After millions of years in the air, birds might be a bit insulted that they’re blamed for downing planes when one of these giant metal leviathans hurtles into their flock. I mean, imagine a whale crash landing into your bicycle parade and then complaining of “bike strikes.”

Still, many people have asked for links to learn more about bird strikes, and the estuary birds of our region. So here’s a quick link list!

BIRD STRIKES:

Nonprofit:

http://www.birdstrike.org/events/signif.htm

FAA:

http://wildlife-mitigation.tc.faa.gov/public_html/index.html

Rotors:

http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2008/11/21/319198/bird-strike-emerges-as-open-rotor-concern.html

 

BIRDS OF NYC:

NYC Audubon:

http://www.nycaudubon.org/kids/birds/

NYC Birds:

http://www.nycbirds.com/

Brooklyn Bird Club:

http://www.brooklynbirdclub.org/trips.htm

Cornell University Database:

http://www.birds.cornell.edu/

 

And now a hot apple cider toast to the pilot! Let’s hope the authorities focus on better detection and avoidence and not fewer birds!

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Neighborhoodcats.org photo of JFK cat protest.

Neighborhoodcats.org photo of JFK cat protest.

by Erik Baard

Australia is learning that it’s traded one form of “cute overload” for another, and there might be lessons for New York City.

 

As reported in this article, Australia attacked its cat overpopulation problem in the interest of preserving its indigenous bird species. The trouble is, without the feline predators around, a rabbit population explosion ensued, stripping away ground foliage needed for safe bird nesting.

 

The conflict between cat lovers and conservationists, which is often an inner one, spans the globe. In NYC it’s found focus on Jamaica Bay and the JFK Airport. Emotional pleas and conservation science studies have crashed upon walls of bureaucracy in recent years as airport officials cleared out a stray cat population. One ironic twist is that some airport managers have claimed that the cats are attracting birds, with their food and feces, and posing a hazard to planes. While bird strikes are very real, environmental concerns on Jamaica Bay center on ground nesting birds.

 

Cats are the flashpoint where empathy and responsibility crash in on themselves.

 

We feel for the cats, cast off in a breach of our social contract with them as a companion species. Activists might have a point in calling the feral ones, though born outside of human housing, “homeless.” That’s certainly true for abandoned pets. But we also grasp the suffering that attends habitat loss and losing young, as birds and other small species struggle to hold on under assault from feline predators.

 

Our sense of responsibility is weighty because we’ve both marginalized local species to a fringe of habitat and introduced an effective predator.

 

The greatest point of consensus is that cats should be adopted only responsibly (for life, and neutered), and that they should be kept indoors. But in cases where colonies already exist, sterilization and reintroduction seems is the most humane and effective means of dealing with the cat population. Infertile cats will still hold territory, preventing a rapid repopulation of the area by breeding cats from adjacent neighborhoods. With rats, another species that’s forever the subject of population control schemes, denying food helps disperse a population and keep them busy seeking sustenance instead of breeding. When social animals have a central food source, they gather and find mates, and have the surplus energy to breed and bear young.

 

Just ask the rabbits down under!

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by Erik Baard

Eastern White Pines. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eastern White Pines. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

 

Far inland, a wind

lifts fine snow from ancient pines.

Shimmers like sea spray.

 

 

I wrote that haiku twenty years ago intending to show the sensual commonality of contrasting locales, pointing toward our shared experiences across superficial cultural divides. Only today, while poking around data piles about pines in this tanenbaum time of year, did I learn of the deep connection Eastern White Pines once had with the ocean.

 

Within twenty years of landing on the Eastern White Pine-spired shores of New England, the Pilgrims were exporting trunks for ship masts to ports as far away as Madagascar. The New World, from Nova Scotia to Georgia and out west to Minnesota, boasted Eastern White Pines standing over 80’ (24m), with reports of individual trees soaring up to 230’ (70m). Though this species is the tallest pine in North America, healthy ones are also pin straight.

 

As the colonies grew, so did competition for use of Eastern White Pines. In no mood to pay market rates for its materials, the British government carved the trunks of choice trees with the “broad arrow,” reserving them for Navy ships and exacted heavy penalties from violators. Colonists came to resent that heavy-handed claim on their assets and began falsely marking lesser stands while selling the navy’s best as more profitable lightweight, strong, knotless, and pale (hence the tree’s name) plank wood. Though it’s little remembered today, friction over the issue contributed to revolutionary sentiments among New Englanders. During the vicious “Pine Tree Riot” a sheriff was lashed with pine switches and his horses were maimed. One might say the Minute Men thumbed their noses at the crown by putting an Eastern White Pine in the white canton of their flag, where the cross of St. George used to be.

 

You can still see a broad arrow carved into white pine in New York City today, but not in a way one might expect. The pinewood door of an 18th century mansion belonging to the wealthy, rebel Blackwell family of western Queens bears the mark from a British soldier’s saber as a sign of punitive confiscation. The house has long since been demolished, but the door (with melted bottle windows in a neat bit of early recycling) is on display at the Greater Astoria Historical Society.

 

The rapid growth of the new United States was fed by raging deforestation. Henry David Thoreau was troubled: “The pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure,” he wrote in Autumn

                                                                                        

Of course, human appreciation the Eastern White Pine long precedes that European imperial tussling and Yankee commoditization. Native Americans depended on the trees for much more than their wood. Their Vitamin C-rich needles can be made into a tisane, or “herbal tea.” The inner bark, called the cambium, can be beaten into a flour extender in hard times. Cones can be stewed and the seeds are edible. The sap, resin, and tar have medicinal value. Resin can be used to waterproof materials, from baskets to boats.

 

Across a wide swath of North America, Eastern White Pines feed white-winged crossbills (whose bills are specialized for prying open cones), pileated woodpeckers, flying squirrels, red squirrels, beavers, snowshoe hares, porcupines, mice, rabbits, and voles. Bald eagles, moths, chickadees, morning doves, common grackles,and  nuthatches shelter in them when they stand, while in fallen trees you’ll find woodpeckers and hibernating black bears nesting. They become such a bedrock of the ecosystem because they efficiently spread seeds by wind and mature trees are somwhat fire resistant.

 

Sadly, it’s tough to find what naturalists reverently call the “virgin whites,” specimens aged over 350 years. After centuries of rampant exploitation (and vulnerability to blister rust that’s carried by cultivated ribes) we’re beginning to make restitution. A few mature stands can be found within the boroughs, notably along the Kazimiroff Nature Trail in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and at the Jackson Pond pine grove of Forest Park in Queens. In northern Manhattan, visit Inwood Hill Park near Payson Street. Look for tall, blue-green pines with finely serrated needles measuring between 2” and 5” (5-13cm), and bundled in groups of five. The cones are soft and slender and about 5” long. For me, the most beautiful part of this tree is its almost fractal expression: branches, needles, and cones all spiral in a Fibonacci sequence.

 

Here’s a great little video lecture snippet:

 

 

 

Conifers like the East White Pine are marvelously well adapted to snow and cold. The smaller and more numerous needles (compared with typically broad, deciduous leaves) remain evergreen and exceptionally dark to absorb maximum sunlight in the dim northern winter. Photosynthesis isn’t the aim in the dormant season, but rather simple heat, because like humans, trees survive best in a limited temperature range. With few pores and a waxy coat, they also retain water well. Unlike the skyward reaching branches of some species, their branches angle downwards before curling up at the end, to slough off snow before the weight can cause damage.

 

 

Future generations of New Yorkers will enjoy more Eastern White Pines than we do. It’s a core species of the Million Trees NYC drive. A crew of volunteers from the LIC Community Boathouse was happy to plant white pines in Floyd Bennett Field under the guidance of Friends of Gateway. Our little Charlie Brown Christmas Tree-like saplings surrounded dying Japanese black pines, which were planted under a “Beautify America” program spearheaded by Ladybird Johnson. Those exotic transplants are falling to the blue stain fungus, which doesn’t affect indigenous white pines, explained Dave Lutz, chair of Friends of Gateway. Earth Day NY rounded up people to plant some more for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation this autumn and I was glad to participate. Another recent “Million Trees” planter of a white pine was Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden. Volunteer tree planters are needed.

 

For an urbanite, the greatest value of a stand of Eastern White Pines might be spiritual, in a way that transcends any one religion or the Christmas holiday. As Thoreau wrote, “I saw the sun falling on a distant white-pine wood…It was like looking into dreamland.” When we look upon the tree for itself, and not for its uses, the effect is immediate and the cause is clear for why the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people called this the Great Tree of Peace.

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Imagine the sandy shores of Dumbo, Stuyvesant Cove, Hunters Point, South Beach, and Pelham Bay resplendent with bushes full of white blossoms that grow into delicious fruits akin to fat cherries as summer passes. Or seeing trees at City Hall, or in a school playground just inland from the Newtown Creek, heavy with sublimely sweet and tart green apples.

Welcome to New York City, 2015!

Well, potentially. Check this page in the coming weeks to learn how you can be part of bringing beach plums and Newtown Pippin apples back to NYC! It might even be possible to have the Newtown Pippin recognized as the official apple of the Big Apple. We have some amazing sponsors and partners already committed to plantings and helping others receive saplings.

Beach plums grow in sandy soil, even dunes, from New Jersey to eastern Canada. They sustain birds and delight beachcombers, and provide a living for those who make them into desserts. Industrialization erased them from our city’s shores.

Newtown Pippins were developed on the Queens bank of the Newtown Creek in the 18th century and quickly became known as the “prince of apples.” Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Queen Victoria were all ardent fans. Today they are grown by celebrities like Dave Matthews. They consistently win apple taste competitions to this day. The namesake creek has quietly descended into a state that should shame all New Yorkers. The nation’s largest oil spill leaches into it while combined sewer outflows continually assault it. The creek bed is laden with heavy metal wastes.

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May the restoration of these species remind us of how lush and wondrous our environment once was, and inspire us to act to replenish our city.

One key element of the campaign will be to excite city officials by providing a taste of these plums and apples. On Saturday, Dec. 13, we will carpool or take a train out to Riverhead, Long Island, to buy apples, cider, plum jams, plum pies, and other delicacies at Briermere Farm. While we are there, there will be some exploring, of course!

If you’d like to come, please email naturecalendar@gmail.com so that we can determine how best to coordinate travel.

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