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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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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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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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by Erik Baard

 

As I walked past the Sunnyside Railyards yesterday I spotted a tree with a crown that each year is generously laden with green-gold pods. It’s rising up from beside the tracks, reaching eye level for strollers on the south side of the overpass. It occurred to me that while I’ve seen this kind of tree countless times throughout my life, I didn’t know its name.

 

When I focus on a tree these days, the first question I ask is its name, followed by “can I eat it?” For the latter obsession, I blame Wildman Steve Brill. The foraging instinct that he reawakened in me is useful not so much as a survival tool as a prime mover toward general ecological knowledge. Once I’ve asked that, the other questions come flooding: If I eat it, with what species am I now competing for food? If I can’t eat it, what chemicals are there to thwart me, and why? What species are able to eat it and what’s different about their physiology? Did those species co-evolve with the tree because they are superior vectors for spreading seeds?

 

Anyway, I did some digging and found some foresters who want us all to do some more digging…to uproot the species.

 

Oh, “Tree of Heaven!” Oh, “Ghetto Palm!” It’s amazing how a species can be viewed with such difference. We’ve already considered how the pigeon is “revered and reviled,” to use Andrew Blechman’s phrase, as a carrier of both the Holy Spirit and disease. Anthropologist Mary Douglas defined dirt, as opposed to soil, as “matter out of place.” The Ailanthus tree is indeed “out of place”; it’s an invasive species from eastern and southern Asia and northern Australasia. I also guess it doesn’t help that the male flowers of this tree smell like cat urine.

 

I couldn’t find a reason for its more flattering moniker, translated from the Ambonese in Indonesia. Folk medicine practitioners do make some intriguing claims for the tree though; Asian tradition holds that the bark is good for lowering heart rate, reducing muscle spasms, and, well, delaying a particular spasm that could cause your Fourth of July fireworks to shoot off a little too soon. Maybe it was an Ambonese wife who named the tree?

 

The inimitably New York name stems from the hardiness of this tree. Even when the city fails to green a community or lot, Ailanthus trees will find a way to grow. Park Slope has its London planes, while back alleys have the ubiquitous “poverty tree.”

 

That ability to thrive in urban wastelands spotlights another similarity between pigeons and ailanthus trees: despite being so opportunistic, they are usually benign to other, indigenous species because they specialize in unclaimed niches. There are places, however, where Ailanthus can be a destructive force. At forest fringes and clearings, or where new forests are being seeded, Ailanthus squeezes out slower-growing but essential native trees. One good case of this is Conference House Park on Staten Island. Volunteers are needed to yank young Ailanthus on Monday, from 1PM through 4PM. But be careful not to pluck similar-looking sumac, ash, black walnut, or pecan.

 

If you can help, RSVP by calling 718-390-8021 or emailing cheri.brunault@parks.nyc.gov as soon as possible.

 

And even as you’re thrashing the Ailanthus out of our city’s bucolic frontier in southern Staten Island, keep some gratitude in your heart for the shade it provides us when it seeds into the toughest hardscapes of the urban core.

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Pelagia noctiluca swimming near Spain. Jellyfish photo by Oceana/Suarez

 

by Erik Baard

 

The Long Island City Community Boathouse hosted a “brunch paddle” from Anable Cove in Hunters Point down to “Dumbo Cove” in Brooklyn Bridge Park. On the way, one participant was surprised, and then reassuringly centered, by a simple encounter:

 

“Nature sightings started before we even left off when Dan saw a jellyfish bobbling around. There are jellyfish in the East River? Sure, that makes sense,” wrote Wren Longno.

 

As a tidal strait completing the circle of Long Island from the harbor to the Sound, the life of the East River (or as I prefer to call it, the Gotham Strait) is entirely oceanic. It’s easy to forget, however, with highrises, highways, skyscrapers, parking lots, airports, and sitting parks bounding the entire length of the waterway. The gulls, seaweed, salt air, and the humble jellyfish remind us of the salient fact of our location. We are ocean islanders.

 

But recent research has added a new dimension to our relationship with the jellyfish: their recent population boom might herald worldwide decline of marine ecology.

 

“When you knock out species, other species fill in the gap, sometimes from lower down the food chain. The problem with that in this case is that jellyfish are not exactly pleasant, they don’t have much commercial value, and they’re a pain in the neck for many communities,” said Dianne Saenz, North American communications director for Oceana, a global ecology advocate. Oceana provided the above photo, by Carlos Suarez, of the jellyfish now plaguing Spain.

 

We’ve over-fished sharks, turtles, and tuna, among other creatures further up the food chain. Jellyfish are reproducing without checks and have less competition for the feeding on fellow zooplankton. Once their biomass tips the scales in a region, even restocking fish won’t work because it’s hard to shoehorn species into vast seas of jellyfish. Indeed, some of the invertebrates eat the very fish (especially juveniles) we’d seek to reintroduce.

 

Waves of jellyfish are chasing swimmers back to shore in the Mediterranean. The Gulf of Mexico has been a pool of jellyfish in some recent summers. In Northern Ireland, global climate change is being eyed as possibly contributing to a jellyfish invasion that wiped out stocks of penned organic salmon. Chinese and Japanese fishers are trying to contend with jellyfish crowding out the fish that provide their livelihoods. We can’t even accurately measure how had the problem is, or how fast it’s advancing, because jellyfish don’t show up on radar, sonar, or satellite images very well. After all, they typically are composed of up to 98% water, less than one percent collagen, salt and other trace minerals.

 

One thing biologists often slap lay people for is referring to some creatures as “primitive.” I understand their argument; adaptation is measured in genetic success – longevity and progeny, not brains or beauty. Some, including the great Stephen Jay Gould, go as far as to say that bacteria rule the Earth, not our self-involved primate species. This pushes the argument too far; the facts are left wanting for a poetic thread. I believe in the inherent value of complex order within individuals as well as ecosystems. Whether your sentiments are those of an artist or an engineer, nature teaches an appreciation of refinement.

 

Yes, many species of jellyfish have a ghostly beauty, and they have a fascinatingly simple, elegant structure. They are most prominently a bell and tentacles (in most species). There’s no brain or central nervous system but they can see changes in light and shade with a 360-degree scope and can smell and touch. They thrive without specialized digestive, respiratory, or circulatory systems. Some glow with sublime bioluminescent displays. But I don’t want them crowding out the dizzying array of species who have developed in the 650 millions of years since its Cnidaria or Coelenterata phylum appeared on the scene.

 

 

Jellyfish cookies

 

 

One solution, offered by the Japanese on the island of Fukui, is to eat them in cookies. But, as Florida State University food scientist Yun-Hwa “Peggy” Hsieh cautioned me, jellyfish don’t provide a complete nutritional protein. Once dried, what remains is nearly pure Type 2 collagen, she said.

 

According to Hsieh, Florida has the first large U.S. jellyfish export industry, mostly to Asia, but species in that region are smaller than in northern Asia. That means they have a higher waste proportion, and so they require more labor. In short, the real economic benefit is to tourism, by keeping beaches desirable, not the fish processor.

 

Cosmetics companies frequently send queries to Hsieh, seeking advice on turning jellyfish into Angelina Jolie pouts and other Cosmo Girl miracles. Hsieh politely takes their calls but the real goldmine, she believes, is in using their Type 2 collagen as a therapy for rheumatoid arthritis.

 

“Chicken collagen has been tested, but it seems that a more homogenous might be more effective. We may be creative and really original with this work, but I don’t have the research funding for that right now,” said Hsieh, who has grants to pursue other questions. “If I had a sponsor, I could easily produce more interesting data. I would like to do a clinical study on rheumatoid arthritis because the animal studies were very good.”

 

One can imagine a government program to seed industrial interest in using jellyfish for adhesives or biomechanics and implants, or a George Washington Carver of jellyfish promoting many uses for the species.

 

Regardless of the uses we find for jellyfish, one thing is for certain: we’re exhausting the seas for animal protein as terribly as we are the land. Lab-grown meat might a biotech savior at some point, but the ready solution is veganism.

 

As a media center with a boisterous vegan community, New York City is well positioned to help lead that culture change. In terms of wildlife protection, habitat preservation, and energy conservation (and resulting pollution and carbon emissions), glamorizing veganism might prove more critical to the world at large than our city’s leadership in mass transit, “green” building, and the humane density made possible by tree planting.

 

If you’d like to get active as a volunteer promoting ocean ecology, veganism, or natural sciences, contact the Mayor’s Volunteer Center for help finding a great organizational partner.

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Summer daylight and heat cycle by USA Today

 

 

by Erik Baard

 

A kid waiting to kayak at the Clearwater Festival last Solstice weekend asked me, “If this is the longest day of the year, then why isn’t it the hottest?” It’s a logical question, and I guess a common one. The incomparable Joe Rao addressed it in his New York Times astronomy blurb last week, and USA Today explored the question as well. The graphic above comes from USA Today.

 

In short, if Earth lacked an atmosphere, then surface temperature, apart from heat retained by rocks, would correlate with sun exposure. But our relatively stable atmosphere slowly and steadily receives energy from sunlight over the course of the spring and summer, as days lengthen. That energy, which we feel as heat, builds higher and higher until reaching its peak in July and early August.

 

I suppose an economist might call day length a leading indicator of summer, whereas as temperature is a lagging indicator. Swimmers and boaters (who are perpetually potential swimmers) know that this phenomenon of delay is even more pronounced with water temperatures.

 

Of course both air and water move around, so there’s a good bit of chaos and complexity to the fluid dynamics that make for summer weather and those late night skinny dips in open water that feel as warm as a bathtub. But the principle of heat retention is a far more powerful truth than its exceptions.

 

I’m also reminded of my good friend, David Grinspoon (with whom, for the record, I’ve never skinny-dipped), who joined us with comments about the Orion Nebula for the very first essay on Nature Calendar. He’s an astrobiologist (with an Earthly incarnation as a rhythm guitarist) with prestigious Mars and Venus robotic probe science assignments from both NASA and the European Space Agency, and serves as the curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. He’s devoted much of his career to the planet Venus. He notes that if there was intelligent groundling life on Venus, it won’t see dominant temperature zones as we see them, corresponding to latitude, but instead look skyward to temperate altitudes. This is because Venus has an atmosphere that’s so dense, and therefore conductive, that heat overloads long ago seeped across all geographic areas. The surface is now isothermic, meaning that temperatures at the poles and the equator are the same. It’s gotten so hot there, due to a greenhouse effect gone into overdrive, that David postulates Venusian life would prefer a cloud habitat

 

Of course, our cities perversely punish themselves, with air conditioners dumping extra heat into the dense local ecosystem through their exhaust, building electrical wires, regional transmission lines, and the power plants required to power them. Makes you wonder if there’s intelligent life on Earth.

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Pelham Bay

Birdwatching and salt marshes in New York City‘s largest park.

 

by Sheila Buff,

 

Pelham Bay Park is the largest park in New York City. It covers 2,766 acres in the northeast part of the Bronx. Within the park are many popular recreation areas: mile-long Orchard Beach on the Long Island Sound, two golf courses, miniature golf and a driving range, a stable, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and picnic grounds. If you look beyond all the recreational facilities, however, you’ll see that this park has a very diverse range of habitats–the most diverse of any park in the city or nearby. About 200 acres of the park are saltwater marshes; there are 13 miles of shoreline.

            Once the site of Siwanoy Indian hunting and fishing grounds and later the site of fashionable mansions, Pelham Bay became a park in 1888 when New York City bought and consolidated 28 private estates. All the houses, except the historic Bartow-Pell mansion, were torn down. In the 1930s, the park was developed as a major recreation site. Landfill was used to create a huge, mile-long beach with a massive bathhouse at Orchard Beach. Extremely popular ever since, Orchard Beach is often called the Riviera of New York City. The beach and surrounding area are always crowded in the warm weather; on a summer weekend, the 45-acre parking lot is jammed.

            The Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary and the Hunter Island Marine Zoology and Geology Sanctuary were created in 1967, as part of an agreement that narrowly avoided having the wetlands of the park being turned into landfill by the city. The 375-acre Pell sanctuary along the Hutchinson River is all that remains of New York City’s original 5,000 acres of salt marsh. This area is bisected by the Hutchinson River Parkway; it is bounded by the bland apartment towers of Co-Op City on the east, by railroad tracks on the west, and by the New England Thruway to the north. The partially paved Split Rock trail runs along the western border of Goose Creek Marsh and provides some excellent views out over the tidal marsh. This can be a good spot for birding, but frankly, I find the traffic noise very oppressive. If you want to check it out, the trailhead is to the west of the Bartow traffic circle. The round trip is less than a mile.

            The Kazimiroff Nature Trail through the Hunter Island sanctuary is a much more pleasant walk. The trail is named for Dr. Theodore Kazimiroff (1914-1980), a dentist and local historian who was a leader in the fight to defeat the landfill proposal in the 1960s. The trail winds through 189 acres of one of the most beautiful sections of the park. The path is very easy to follow.

            Look for sign for the trailhead at the northern end of Orchard Beach (walk away from the promenade), about 30 yards before the Orchard Beach Nature Center at Section 2. Follow the trail as it leads into the woods of Hunter Island. In a few minutes if you look to the right you’ll see Twin Island. Actually, Twin Island and Hunter Island are islands no more. When Orchard Beach was expanded in 1934, 2.5 million cubic yards of sand,soil, and rock were used to fill the area between Hunter Island and Rodman’s Neck; in 1947, additional fill connected Twin Island to the tip of Orchard Beach. There is currently no safe access to Twin Island; Hunter Island is really now a peninsula.  The sheltered lagoon that was formed between the two islands is an outstanding place to see waterfowl, particularly ducks.

            In another few minutes, the trail forks to the left towarda stand of Norway spruce. These dense evergreens were planted by the Parks Department in 1918 as part of a reforestation effort.

            Follow the trail to the left. The spruces soon give way to large numbers of  thin black locust trees–look for the deeply furrowed bark and small, rounded, paired leaves. Black locust is a pioneer tree in forest succession. This tells you that the land here was once an open field‑-perhaps a pasture or a lawn more than 50 years ago. Your surmise will be proved correct in a few more minutes to the former site of the old Hunter mansion, which was demolished in 1937. Vestiges of the old gardens can still be seen here.  

            As you continue on, you’ll quickly come to a grove of white pines. The dense needles and comfortable horizontally layered branches make these trees a favorite roosting place for great horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Long-eared, saw-whet, screech, and barred owls are also sometimes seen here. They’re so well camouflaged that you’re unlikely to actually see any, but you should be able to see evidence of their presence, especially in the winter. Look for splashes of “whitewash” excrement on the trunks, branches, and ground around here. Look on the ground for grayish owl pellets. The pellets consist of the regurgitated indigestible parts‑-mostly the bones and hair–of the animals the owl eats. Pine trees of various sorts have been extensively planted throughout the park. The shelter they offer, combined with the large, open, rodent-filled expanses of Pelham Bay, make the park famous among birders for owls. Another excellent area to see owls here is in the dense evergreens near the Bartow-Pell mansion.

            As you continue on, you will notice the reforestation that Parks has been doing of the area, as well as the removal of invasive species.Some old chocolate-brown stone blocks strewn on either side of the trail are all that remain of the estate’s front gate. From here, the trail continues on the original winding road that connected Hunter Island to the mainland.

            The trail now leads through a large area of open, mature woodlands. The trees here are mostly oak and hickory, with some towering tulip poplars as well. As the trail curves eastward, you can catch glimpses of the Long Island Sound to your left.  The trail soon brings you out to a view over salt marsh to the Sound and you are now in the Hunter Island Sanctucary. Note the giant, rounded glacial erratics here. The really large gray boulder that sticks up out of the water is called Gray Mare; it was sacred to the Siwanoy Indians who once lived here. The flat, gray bedrock visible here is the southernmost extension of the bedrock that underlies most of New England–that’s why the shore is rocky here. Glacial scours, or deep grooves, can be seen on the surface. There are some side trails leading down to the rocks that are fun to explore, especially when the tide is low.

            The large building that you see on the shoreline to the north belongs to the New York Athletic Club. The large island just across the water is Glen Island. The island further to the northeast is David’s Island; the buildings on it are part of old Fort Slocum.

            The shore area here is an excellent place to watch hawks and ospreys migrating south in the fall. The best time of year is mid-September–you could see literally thousands of hawks go by in a single day. If you’re lucky, you’ll see an osprey snatch a fish from the water.

 

Pelham Lagoon

 

            The trail now leads you back along the inlet between Hunter and Twin islands. The salt marsh along here is quite interesting…and fragile so take care when walking . Tall cordgrass lines the water’s edge; behind it is a low-growing salt meadow. Look for saltmarsh plants such as glasswort and sea lavender here. The salt marsh is one reason there are so many ducks, geese, cormorants, grebes, and other water birds here. The shallow, tidal waters edging a salt marsh are highly productive of the vegetation and small crustaceans, fish, and other foods these birds need.

            Continue to follow the path along the salt marsh and back past the old causeway. You’ll be back at your starting point in another five minutes.

Hours, Fees, and Facilities Pelham Bay Park is open daily from dawn to 1 am, unless signs are posted otherwise. Orchard Beach is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day from 7 am – 8 pm (beach closes at 7 pm), and off-season from 7 am – 6 pm.  During the summer, there is a fee for parking:  $6 on weekdays and $8 on weekends for cars; $8 on weekdays and $10 on weekends for buses. Restrooms, water, pay phones, and a seasonal snack bar are available at the bath house complex on Orchard Beach. Dogs on leashes only; be prepared to clean up after your pet.  Pursuant to Parks rules and regulations, dogs are never allowed on beaches; however, as a courtesy leashed dogs are allowed on the sand from October 1 to May 1.

 

Getting There:

 

Pelham Bay Park is the last stop on the Lexington Avenue IRT 6 train. The station is a very long walk from the main part of the park. In the summer, the Bx5 and Bx12 buses run from the subway station to Orchard Beach. The rest of the year, you’ll have to take the Bx29 bus that goes to City Island, get off at the traffic circle on City Island Road, and walk north along the park road about a mile to Orchard Beach.

            From the Bruckner Expressway or the New England Thruway, take the exits for Pelham Bay Park/Orchard Beach and follow the signs to the parking area at Orchard Beach. From the Hutchinson River Parkway, take the exit for Orchard Beach/City Island and follow the signs.

 

Get Involved:

WildMetro and NYC Audubon will lead a free tour of Pelham Bay Park on July 19. Register online for this great event, and please consider volunteering for these two groups, which are at the forefront of conservation and urban ecological restoration.

 

Also, ask the Bronx staff at Partnerships for Parks about local, grass roots volunteer efforts to nurture Pelham Bay Park!

 

Read more of Sheila Buff’s work at her website.

 

 

 

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