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Archive for the ‘Estuary’ Category

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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East River book cover.

East River book cover.

A good chunk of the East River book is now online for free! Get some hot cocoa and enjoy?

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by Erik Baard

 

 

He walked up from below the high water mark beside the old seaplane ramp at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and called out, “That’s it! New York City is done!”

 

Not comforting words from a man who measures time in mass extinctions. Paleontologist Carl Mehling is one of many native New Yorkers struggling at the fringes of our city’s constant reinvention and real estate development to preserve glimpses of life from earlier eras. As collections manager for fossil amphibians, reptiles, and birds at the American Museum of Natural History, Mehling went on a personal quest to be the first person to discover naturally occurring fossils in all five boroughs in one year.

 

In his hand that November day he held a piece of chert, a smooth rock that in this case looked like caramel. On its surface were pinholes that a magnifying lens revealed were ringed by radiating spokes. “There’s no ambiguity. That’s a crinoid,” a starfish cousin, Mehling said. The cluster of crinoids that left traces in this stone probably lived about 380 million years ago, he said.

 

Crionoids at Floyd Bennet Field. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Crinoids at Floyd Bennet Field. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 Earlier fossil finds include a brachiopod and a bryozoan (a shellfish and a creature resembling coral, respectively) in a Riverdale Park streambed in the Bronx, another brachiopod or bivalve on a tiny Inwood Hill Park beach in Manhattan, and scallops and oysters on Rockaway Beach in Queens. Conference House Park on Staten Island yielded favositid corals, more crinoids, brachiopods, and bryozoans.

 

 

 

 

 

Brachiopod and Bryozoan from Riverdale Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Bryozoan and Brachiopod from Riverdale Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Brachiopod or Bivalve from Inwood Hill Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Brachiopod or Bivalve from Inwood Hill Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scallops in the Rockaways. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Scallops in the Rockaways. Photo by Jill Palermo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brachiopod and Crionoid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Brachiopod and Crinoid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crinoid and Bryozoan from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Crinoid and Bryozoan from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Favositid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Favositid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mehling targets often forgotten shorelines because “there no buildings and no sidewalks and no streets. They’re remnants of what might have been there a hundred years ago.” When we arrived at one prospective site on Jamaica Bay to find that it had been recently bulkheaded, he remarked, “This is the worst place on Earth to look. It’s so depressing.”

 

In addition to field prospecting, Mehling is compiling a list of all of the fossils discovered in New York City from academic sources. Many can’t be traced today, even the mastodon bone that was dredged from the East River shoreline of Long Island City when Standard Oil built a barge slip a century ago. It hung in a nearby shop window for years before vanishing. Central Staten Island holds rich reserves of fossilized Cretaceous plants that grew when dinosaurs reigned, but they’ve been paved over in recent decades. “There are parts of Staten Island that, if I heard that there was construction starting, I would be out there in an hour.”

 

He’s often in a rush. “I deal in millions of years but always feel I have to be a half-hour early. As if it matters,” he remarked. Actually, it did, one day in August when he tackled Queens and Staten Island, with some Nature Calendar people in tow. We had to race to sites before our quarry was covered by the rising tide.

 

An hour later I was scratching around stones jutting from a red clay shoreline bluff near Conference House Park, hoping in vain to loosen something interesting…if I could recognize it. Mehling was yards behind me on the beach, casually picking up Devonian fossils like sea glass. If a rock looked promising but showed no micro-fossils on its surface, Mehling would smash it open with a larger rock. Jill Palermo of WeAddUp.com and Queens Community Board 2 environmental chairperson Dorothy Morehead came along and had the good sense to stick with him, not me.

breaking rocks in the hot sun. Photo by Jill Palermo.

Carl Mehling demonstrates the paleontologist's/prisoners workout routine: breaking rocks in the hot sun. Photo by Jill Palermo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“This is coral, hundreds of millions of years old. If this fossil is as old as I think it is, this place was below the equator when it was living,” he said. “It’s moved a lot, and it’s been through hell.” He also found sea shells from the same period. Still, he’s not very excited by his finds, dismissing them as “invasive species” transported by the glaciers that ground their way down the continent, and therefore not much better than the fossils one can find in the imported stone that make up the Rockefeller Center façade or the walls of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel.

 

In the Rockaways, Kelly Rimshnick is ankle deep in water not far from her kids as we scour the intertidal zone. “Are you looking for something dangerous?,” she nervously asked.

 

Three of us turned up oysters that Mehling said were merely “12,000 years old, tops. They’re the same species that you find here today.” Mehling, who discovered in Patagonia, Argentina the first fossilized fetal dinosaur skin, says globally these fossils are “as common as pigeons.” Still, he’s excited. “These are native, they are really from this place. In that sense these are real rarities, the stuff I like. That’s why I love to hunt in New York City, because fossils are not supposed to be here.”

 

That’s as much a state of mind as physical reality. As an urban forager, Mehling is used to eating meals of delicious plants that others pass by. But New York City is also truly a lousy place to find fossils. Our bedrock was produced in a fossil-erasing lathe of geologic forces, not gentle sedimentation. Worse yet, “If all the manmade stuff was taken off of Manhattan it would be just a big rock. It’s been stripped.”

 

Mehling dreams of finding an unlucky mastodon, caught in bogs during the glacial thaw. Short of that, Mehling plans to kick continue kicking over stones in Inwood Hill Park and Central Park (and check this site too), along the Bronx River and in Van Cortlandt Park with very humble expectations. “This is the lowest form of fossil hunting,” he said. “The lowest, but done with high hopes.”

 

The challenges don’t stop eager local amateurs from frequently bringing in egg-shaped stones for him to inspect. “I have to explain that there are many ways nature can produce that shape. Not every round stone flew out of a dinosaur’s ass.”

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by Erik Baard

If a seal falls ill in the Gowanus Canal, a turtle catches an autumnal chill in Montauk, and a dolphin gets marsh bound in the Great South Bay, there’s a good chance they’ll end up as roommates at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.

As New York State’s only authorized marine mammal and sea turtle rescue group, the Riverhead Foundation is called upon to perform rescues and verify unusual sightings throughout the southern New York salty shorelines — the Long Island Sound, Atlantic Ocean, New York Bight and New York Harbor. The small, overstretched staff is like an aquatic A-Team housed within the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium, a well-run regional attraction where sting rays poke up to kiss you right upon entering the door. Really. Well, okay, and be fed.

 

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(This photo and those following, unless otherwise specified, were taken by trip participant Sofia Theologitis.)

Our Nature Calendar group of five was ushered into the back rooms where the Riverhead Foundation does its work of assessing, monitoring, and healing animals held in cylindrical tanks for eventual release into the ocean or transfer to another aquarium. The most frequent guests are seals and turtles (we saw about ten of them, representing a mix of species that including harbor seals and a loggerhead turtle that had arrived an hour before us), though dolphins and porpoises are regulars too.

(I learned about the foundation eight years ago when I was with a pod of fellow winter kayakers who confirmed Harry Spitz’s sighting of the first community of seals in New York Harbor in 120 years, and wrote about it for the New York Times.) 

You’ll know that turtles are in residence if upon stepping off the decontamination shoe pad you’re hit with a wave of warm, moist air. Some “cold stunned” turtles appear dead because they’ve been immobilized by temperature drops, before they could migrate to warmer waters.

“They get washed ashore like any other debris,” said rescue program supervisor Julika Wocial, who trains the public in making proper sighting and stranding reports . “Don’t assume a turtle is dead unless it’s decomposed or missing a head.”

Other turtles can’t dive well because of trapped gas pockets in their shells. This makes it hard to feed, leaves them vulnerable to predators and boat injuries, and above-surface shells sections can degrade with prolonged air exposure (as with the patient below). A bubble can be drained, but evenly distributed gas is a challenge. Sometimes weights are added, or the turtle is found unfit for release.

Flipper injuries like the one photographed below were common (suspected shark bites) among turtles, as are propeller lacerations. Even double rear amputees can survive in the wild, explained Robert DiGiovanni Jr., director and senior biologist at the foundation.

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Whirl pools at the center of seal tanks mimic ocean currents and combat muscle atrophy.

Seal pox further weakened a few already struggling pinipeds. The viral disease, which isn’t transmittable to humans, runs its course with the severity and duration of our experience of chicken pox. Instead of many small pustules dotting the skin, however, seals get several larger, hard knobs near their faces and flippers.

Seal pox lesion.

Seal pox lesion.

Perhaps more surprising was how common eye injuries are among seals. Of course, those at the foundation were being rehabilitated and weren’t representative of the general population. It makes sense, however, that seals would often get bitten or poked around the eyes as they rooted around the seabed.

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The staff takes special care to not bond with the animals, so that they retain natural behaviors and a healthy aversion to humans upon release. As social mammals with expressive faces, seals make this particularly difficult. Well, at least for me. The female seal I photographed below and I had some immediate chemistry. Ms. Wocial mildly reprimanded me for lingering and chatting with this pirate-eyed beauty.

ladylove

 

Staff and highly-trained volunteers work together in both rescues and releases, with the latter being sometimes nearly ceremonial. Sponsors who “adopt” seals and turtles come out, as do reporters and other friends of the foundation. Sometimes a dolphin must be gently ushered out of its tank by a wall of staff and volunteers wearing dry suits, with arms interlocked. Slight injuries, sometimes quite painful, are common among the humans.

Costs for rescue, rehabilitation, and release range from $6500 for a seal to $120,000 for a dolphin. Medical machines are always needed, Mr. DiGiovanni said, and often come through hospital donations. One recent acquisition greatly improving the Riverhead Foundation’s field work is a portable unit to test for blood gases, electrolytes, and glucose levels.

Released patients of the rescue hospital have paid back their human tenders with unprecendented revelations. Tracking devices on their backs have mapped migration patterns, not only north-to-south, but inshore and offshore, where deeper waters have steadier temperatures, according to Mr. DiGiovanni. The foundation doesn’t necessarily deliver animals to places near their rescue locations because they usually swim hundreds or thousands of miles within weeks or months of returning to the wild.

Our own path was more predictable. As people now contaminated by seal pox, we were slipped out the back door. Our hosts apologized for the necessity, and stopped short of making us wear leper bells.

GET INVOLVED

ADOPT” a rescued animal, make a cash or in-kind DONATION or become a MEMBER.

(One trip participant, Neena Dhamoon, is already raising funds from officemates, friends, and family!)

To volunteer, please email: volunteers@riverheadfoundation.org

(Different skill levels are needed, ranging from basic office help to *gentle* dolphin wrestling, after much training.)

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