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Lingzhi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) in Sunnyside, Queens. Photo by Erik Baard.

Shoppers at the Sunnyside Greenmarket in Queens last weekend scooped up fresh regional produce yet sidestepped the prized Ganoderma lucidum mushroom growing at their feet.  This medicinal mushroom, more popularly known by Chinese and Japanese names, Lingzhi or Reishi respectively, is also indigenous to our region. You can find it at the base of common hardwoods filling our parks and lining our streets.

Identification of this fungus is easy — the upper fruiting body is often kidney shaped and is remarkable for looking glazed. Indeed, while Asian names reference divinity and immortality, the western scientific name derives from Greek and Latin roots for “shining bright skin. ” Apparently no one has studied the evolutionary advantage of the Ganoderma lucidum’s sheen.

This mushroom isn’t eaten because it’s bitter and tough, with a texture “like balsa wood or hard cardboard,” said Dr. Kathie T. Hodge, Associate Professor of Mycology and Director of the Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium.  This mushroom comes into the kitchen is as a powder that some people mix with coffee, or use to wholly replace coffee. Whether powdered or extracted by boiling or alcohol, it’s consumed for believed health benefits.  Research into these potential benefits continues, but traditional uses include fighting tumors and viral infections, and generally boosting the immune system. The “red reishi” variety is considered more potent than the black.

Red reishi from below. Photo by “Wildman” Steve Brill (http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/).

Is your curiosity is piqued? Harvest. “It will die this fall, so if you want to hack it off, now is the time,” said Hodge. Under the section of the fruiting body that looks glazed is a duller white section riddled with tiny pores. These pores release spores, which are carried by the wind. Once that’s complete, this whole upper section rots off, often consumed by a green mold. “If you find it green, it’s too old. Don’t use it,” Hodge cautioned. This mushroom is also consumed by some rather specifically adapted beetles, both beautiful and bizarre. Their presence might quash some human appetites.

Megalodacne fungus eating beetles. Photo by Kathie Hodge, Cornell University.

Bolitotherus cornutus fungus beetles. Photos by Kathie Hodge, Cornell University.

Foraging mushrooms can be dangerous, especially from urban tree pits. It’s best to go with an experienced forager to a natural area or to take a class, such as those taught by Gary Lincoff, author of The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and a New York Botanical Garden instructor. Or, Lincoff noted, it’s “sold in Chinatown.” Organic red reishi mushrooms are also sold at health food stores and online.

If you’re a determined forager finding only mushrooms that have gone green, don’t fret. They will grow back next year. Deep in the tree bark and roots is the mycelium — the complex base of the mushroom — ready to regrow a fruiting section next year. And check the maples, oaks, beech, sycamore, cherry, and birch trees in the vicinity. When spores land in a tree wound they take root and grow into new mycelia that then also fruit. The downside to Ganoderma lucidum  is that its feeding on lignan, a plant compound, weakens trees. Hodge cited research pointing to a 30-year life span for red oaks with this mushroom, but noted that the stresses of an urban environment might hasten a tree’s demise. The death blow is very likely to be a windstorm toppling the enfeebled tree. One interesting note is that many of the antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic benefits of Ganoderma lucidum are also attributed to lignans themselves.

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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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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

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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