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View from Fresh Kills South Hill. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

by Erik Baard

 

Not so many years ago, if you told people that you were getting up early on Saturday morning to rush over to Fresh Kills on Staten Island, they would have thought you were crazy or a highly-paid union worker. Today, a few savvy folks might peg you for a naturalist.

 

The world’s largest dump (actually, the world’s largest manmade structure, of sorts, in that it exceeded the volume of the Great Wall of China) is quietly transforming into the city’s second largest park, after Pelham Bay Park. You can witness the process yourself by signing up for a free tour now through November through this link. Don’t fret the competition to get a ticket – the tour I joined this weekend wasn’t booked up. Besides, you have, oh, a few more years of chances. The park officially opens in 2036.

 

 

My friend Emmanuel Fuentebella and I hit the road early, biking from LIC to South Ferry in 35 minutes. At the St. George ferry terminal on Staten Island we were picked up by a mini-bus operated by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation along with 11 other guests (many of whom were NYC Audubon affiliates and Audubon Society members). Our guide was Christina Somma Berrocal, a NYC Urban Park Ranger. We started learning about the site before we even arrived, as Somma Berrocal pulled out a cardboard cross-section of a trash mound (the site has four large ones, ranging between 140′ and 200′ tall), with a garbage core covered by layers of fresh sand, soil, topsoil and plantings.

 

 

Fresh Kills Vision by NYC Parks.

 

 

Perhaps the most critical component is also the thinnest and toughest, an “impermeable geomembrane.” That rugged black tarp is what stands between 2036’s gorgeous recreation area and wilderness preserve above (in the computer rendering immediately above) and frightening contamination. Tree plantings must be chosen carefully to exclude deep vertical roots systems, Somma Berrocal explained, to avoid any puncture risk.

 

At the moment the trash is being digested by microbes, which will actually cause the mounds to shrink a bit. But not before they’ve earned their keep! The methane (“natural gas” in daily parlance), organic chemicals, and carbon dioxide produced are tapped via long pipe networks (see the methane taps in the foreground of the above photo by Emmanuel). The natural gas is purified and sold to Keyspan (now part of National Grid), which in turn sells it to heat up to 10,000 homes at a time. I can imagine a “green” dry cleaner using the CO2 to spiff up designer suits for the local gentry.

 

Less immediately marketable is the leachate goo that landfills produce when water jazzes up microbial and fungal activity. That’s dried and shipped out to another landfill in West Virginia. As a side note, the five boroughs now send trash to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Remember, the primary insight of environmentalism is that when things are thrown away, there is no “away.”

 

 

A few times we caught a whiff of something not-so-fresh at the North Mound of Fresh Kills. “It smells like badly burned bacon,” remarked fellow-traveler Melody. But those moments were truly the exception, and a useful reminder of the admirable audacity of the endeavor.

 

 

View from the North Mound of Fresh Kills. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

There’s plenty of encouragement from nature, however. Emmanuel snapped some wonderful photos contrasting the Manhattan skyline with the landscape rolling out from the North and South Mounds. To start, only 45% of the 2,200-acre site was actually used for garbage piles. The rest is composed of wetlands, creeks, and grasslands rich with wildflowers. Black locust and cottonwood trees are shading lowlands.

 

South Mound wildflowers. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

 

Before our vehicle even stopped, we saw an enormous turkey vulture aloft over the former wastelands. At the North Mound we were dazzled by the wheeling figures of two osprey silhouetted against a cloud-dappled sky. One of our group, Annie, identified them even at that height by the finger-like feather pattern at their wing tips.

 

 

Osprey gliding. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

 

 

As the trip unfolded there were treated to sightings of egrets, cormorants, an oriole, mallard ducks in a fresh water collect (where I imagine there might also be snapping turtles), and a zigzagging barn swallow. Opal, Meloday’s daughter, explained that the erratic “kamikaze” flight pattern meant it was feeding on insects in flight.

 

 

My biggest thrill was spotting a sharp shinned hawk. In truth, I wavered between that identification and calling it a Coopers Hawk and was clueless either way; I was playing the odds. The juveniles of both species look quite similar, being a dab brown, and it was Opal who sorted it out. Adults are easier to distinguish, and some birders call lanky Coopers Hawks “flying crosses” while sharp shinned hawks are “flying mallets.”

 

 

Blue herons and killdeer are also reliable finds, Somma Berrocal said. The killdeer often lay eggs on the infrequently traveled gravel paths, because their speckled eggs blend so well, she added.

 

We didn’t see deer but Somma Berrocal informed that over 200 of the species now on Staten Island. I imagined them sneaking across the Outerbridge Crossing or graceful Bayonne Bridge, but she stunned me by telling us that the deer swam to the island from New Jersey. How brave and hungry must a deer be to stealthily swim tidal waters plied by oil barges?

 

Curious humans aren’t yet permitted to visit the site by boat, but rowers and paddlers should seek the site’s inclusion in the NYC Water Trail. It would make a wonderful destination, even if for specially arranged tours (as with our landside excursion). And an early dialog might help prevent some well-intention mistakes from being implements, such as the large, artificial launch conceived for Fresh Kills (NYC Parks’ computer generated image below). A soft shoreline, even if created with deposited sand, would be safer, more pleasant, and ecologically friendlier.

 

Fresh Kills kayak launched envisioned by NYC Parks.

 

 

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Horseshoe crabs at Plumb Beach. Photo by Klaus Schoenwiese. 

 

by Erik Baard

Horseshoe crabs having been laying and fertilizing eggs along our beaches, and the beaches of the continents as they were once assembled, for at least 350 million years and through several global mass extinctions. Somehow they’ve done all this mating without the help of MP3 players stocked with Barry White. A couple of years ago I was impelled to visit Plumb Beach, Brooklyn to investigate. I was lucky enough to have my extraordinarily talented photographer friend, Klaus Schoenwiese, with me. I hope you take the chance this Sunday, with the American Littoral Society. Check our WildWire, below, for details.

It was a magical night, set to the subtler music of crickets and lapping small waves. A yellow squash-colored full moon rose over eastern Rockaway Inlet, Jupiter shone brightly further south, and Ursa Major reeled across the northern sky. And Klaus observed another beautiful sight often glared out by the riotously incandescent city: bioluminescence. A tiny spot of sand glowed blue-green when nudged. Perhaps it was a juvenile jelly fish, since it was a tight source, not the mind of nebulous expanse one would expect from a patch of dinoflagellates saturating the sand.

 

Horseshoe crab mating train. Photo by Klaus Schoenwiese.

In Klaus’ photo of horseshoe crabs under the moon you’ll note the slipper shells and barnacles that are among the many species that make their homes on all surfaces these long-lived creatures (sometimes over 30 years, though they cast shells in youthful molting). Contrary to mythology, the pointed tail isn’t a stinger, but rather an ultraviolet light-sensitive periscope of sorts and a tool to right horseshoe crab when waves flip it on shore, leaving it vulnerable (despite a nifty ability to regrow limbs). Gleefully interfering with nature, we lifted and returned distressed specimens to the water.

 

Horseshoe crab flipped. Photo by Klaus Schoenwiese.

Every May and June you can spot horseshoe crabs swimming and crawling ashore in prime places like Jamaica Bay, Staten Island, and Plumb Beach. At the last location, the pattern was disrupted for a few years in the ’90s when sterile sand was dumped over the rich mud flats, depriving birds and horseshoe crabs of small snails and such to eat.

The females are significantly larger than the males, who desperately cling to their would-be mates (needy is the new black?). The female will haul herself to the intertidal zone’s highpoint and then partially bury herself into the wet sand to lay thousands of tiny, greenish eggs. At least one male will be in tow, and often several will descend upon her when she’s tucked in.

The males’ approach might be a terrible case study in the art of seduction, but it’s an efficient means of winning in what biologists call “sperm competition.” Besides, give the horseshoe crabs credit for one romantic touch, which human voyeurs can appreciate: they prefer to do it under a full moon.

The advantage of a full moon is that by laying eggs in the highest tidal point, subsequent high tides won’t wash away the eggs before they’re hatched and juveniles are ready to take their places in the deep bays or continental shelves a few weeks later. It will be ten years before you see them again, matured for reproduction. The lunar cycle and strictly defined mating ritual is so central to the horseshoe crab’s life that it has ten eyes (yes, TEN!) on its body. Additionally, there’s a row of optic sensors on its spike-like tail. The eyes and sensors are geared for measuring ambient ultraviolet light levels and for spotting mates. Mind you, this didn’t stop three of four amorous males from trying to mate with Klaus’ feet!

Horseshoecrabs. Photo by Klaus Schoenwiese.

As alien as their mating habits might be (or creepily familiar), horseshoe crabs are more a part of your daily life than you might expect. Each time you see pretty shorebirds and migrating birds in these areas, soaring over a strand, think of the humble horseshoe crab. This creature’s eggs are a critical food stock for the birds you’re admiring — so much so that they time their own annual cycles to it. You might also owe thanks to horseshoe crabs for your very ability to see: chitin from its shell and exoskeleton are a key ingredient in many contact lenses (as well hairspray and skin cream), and horseshoe crabs compound eyes and simple optic nerves have been a mainstay of medical optical studies for decades. Indeed, horseshoe crabs, which are not crabs at all, were the center of research that earned the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1967.

Another aspect of horseshoe crab physiology for humans is their blue-green blood (they use copper to carry oxygen, not iron), which sells for about $15,000 a quart. It’s chief value is a compound called Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL). LAL is a fast, reliable indicator of bacterial toxins in medicines (so good that the Food and Drug Administration requires use of it) and in the human body. That’s right: there’s a chance you’ve been injected with horsehoe crab blood and didn’t even know it. A hot field of medical and evolutionary research is the commonality of human and horseshoe crab complementary immune responses.

But as you can imagine, the more uses humans find for this slow-maturing species, the fewer remain in the waters. Populations have markedly declined in recent years. Bird advocates like the Audubon Society have taken up the cause of horseshoe crab protection. If the spirit moves you, get involved in the important work of protecting this ancient cousin.

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Glossy ibis in the Bronx River. Photo by Ted Gruber.

By Erik Baard

Up to a point, I love being ignorant. As an aspiring urban naturalist, I am frequently discovering my hometown’s exoticism. I had one such moment on Saturday, as I paddled up the Bronx River with a boathouse volunteer to help with the Amazing Bronx River Flotilla.

 

Stroke by stroke we left the west bank of the Bronx River mouth’s grocery store distributor truck lots, warehouse construction, and the old sanitation pier further behind. Retaining walls ended and broad mudflats footed the green, landfilled uplands of Soundview Park. Brilliant white birds stole our attention first – three great egrets and two large mute swans. But after that rush subsided, I noticed the smaller wader silhouetted above (photo by Ted Gruber) and was awed. It was an ambassador from ancient Egypt.

 

The first time I came across the hooked-bill face of an ibis, it had a human body and was busy teaching Isis spells to resurrect the dismembered Osiris. This was a depiction of the Egyptian god of wisdom, magic, and measurement. He derived his name, Djehuty, as well as visage, from the ibis. He is also credited with inventing writing, and Egyptian scribes often owned depictions of ibises. We more commonly know Djehuty through the Greeks as Thoth. That distinct bill (great for snatching up crustacens, snakes, and invertebrates) stirred Egyptian imaginations further, and they associated the bird, and Djehuty, with the similarly shaped crescent moon. The god is usually attended by a baboon (which is also an occasional incarnation), as Egyptians noticed how that primate seemed to howl at the moon.

 

As I read those enchanting stories, encountering a living descendent in the South Bronx was nowhere in my thoughts.

 

During the winter I’d flipped past the ibis in an Audubon Society guide, not having much faith in seeing one. Despite a population surge in the mid-twentieth century, it’s now listed as a species “of greatest conservation concern” in New York. Still, a dedicated birder can count on spotting them in our parts from spring through autumn (they winter in the Deep South); this absolutely breathtaking photo offers a closer look at a glossy ibis in Jamaica Bay, with its breeding plumage, rusty and iridescent green like a dogbane beetle.

But for all its ancient pedigree, the glossy ibis is a newcomer to America. Most scientists believe it arrived in the late 19th century. Now you might ask, “If it’s invasive, why would the Audubon Society be worried about it? Shouldn’t the organization be working to curtail it so that native shorebirds can survive?”

Well, this is partly because the glossy ibis seems to have arrived naturally, swept across the Atlantic Ocean by a hurricane as it migrated between Africa and Europe (this still happens today). And today it’s habitat is threatened by pollution and wetlands draining throughout its current range, even North Africa. Our continent is home to 21,000 ibises, about one percent of the global total, but we could end up serving as a global gene bank for the species.

 

Or maybe there’s an environmental grant waiting for a revival of the Egyptian solution to species preservation: Temple priests raised the birds in captivity so skillfully that archeologists have uncovered millions of ibis remains…sacrificed and mummified. Or not.

But the next time I see the moon at a crescent sliver, I will see ibis-headed Djehuty and smile knowing I once glided alongside him. I will hope, as a minor scribe, that I have honored him.

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Morel, from a wikipedia entry.

Editor’s note: Tomorrow I will be busy kayaking north from the LIC Community Boathouse to honor the Amazing Bronx River Flotilla and the great work of the Bronx River Alliance and then hopping around free arts and entertainment events in LIC after that, so Nature Calendar won’t have a Saturday post. So here’s a second Friday entry. I hope you enjoy it.

 

 

 

Where is NYC’s Morel Minority?

 

 

By Erik Baard

 

One extremely rare sighting in New York City is that of Wildman Steve Brill being humbled by a hunt for a wild vegan edible. Let’s make that occurrence even rarer by helping out one of the best friends populist urban ecology will ever find.

 

While reading through Steve’s always fun and educational website, I was a little dismayed to come across this passage:

Living in NYC, I find large quantities of a variety of mushrooms in our many parks, but morels are rare here, or I don’t have the eye for them. We find them only rarely on my tours, and people who know where they grow don’t give away the locations.

At very least we know that morels are to be found in Central Park, as reported by Gary Lincoff, author of National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. They can thrive on path edges, especially in the presence of soil with limestone. One reason morels might be rare in New York City is that they aggressively colonize areas of wet ash after forest fires, and particularly love dead elm trees. Our city does all it can to prevent both circumstances. But in other regions they are so common that farming can’t yet compete with foraging even for supplying the commercial market.

  

 

If sympathy for Steve doesn’t move your hard cityslicker heart, let enlightened self interest kick in: sautéed morels are famously delicious (scroll down Steve’s page to the edible wild mushroom section), adding a deep and rich flavor to soups, casseroles, stir fries, and stews. Just make sure you cook them for at least 15 minutes, Steve warns, to avoid getting “quite ill.”

 

As always, please consult with an experienced naturalist before you eat wild finds. So, here’s a fair deal: hunt for morels, and share a sample (or at least a good digital photo) with Steve. If he spares you a terrible, regrettable inedible (or simply gives you the peace of mind of a “bon appetit!), you might return the kindness by not leaving him to stew in the shame of his immorelity. 

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by Erik Baard 

 

One of the most beautiful contrasts in New York Harbor is that of the verdant tip of Roosevelt Island against the sheen of Manhattan’s glass towers. That is in danger of being replaced with what might be described as a $40 million, concrete press-on nail for the island.

 

The sterile, largely paved and walled Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and Four Freedoms Park designed by Louis I. Kahn would run counter to our city’s progress toward reconciliation with the estuary, restoration of both marine and uplands habitats, and recreational enjoyment of the harbor. One look at the model in the image at top reveals the travesty awaiting the island, one that ends in what is literally a high-walled room.

 

he future FDR Memorial, as designed by Louis I. Kahn, as it will look in a new Southpoint Park (rendering from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute).

 The future FDR Memorial, as designed by Louis I. Kahn, as it will look in a new Southpoint Park (rendering from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute).

 

It’s a shame when quite easily the form of the memorial can be reinterpreted through natural forms and materials. The southern point of the island, in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo below, doesn’t need much improvement.

 

Roosevelt Island by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

 

Imagine that key elements of the Kahn design were expressed through natural forms and materials.

 

Native NYC bedrock quarried from construction and tunneling to pave necessary walkways and be incorporated into the monument itself. This would better respect the environment and ground visitors in ubiety. Bedrock would also symbolize the role that the Roosevelt family has played in our city’s culture and civics. Excerpts of the “Four Freedoms” speech could be engraved into inclined slabs that allow viewers to read the immortal quotations while exhilarated by the wide open freedom of the openness around them. It would be sadly ironic to have the Four Freedoms speech carved into confining walls, especially in our overly-imprisoned era.

 

The V-shaped colonnade of trees should be indigenous. This stand could edge the existing landfill hillock, which should be made rich in indigenous meadow wildflowers and grasses. According to the Audubon Society, wild meadow is vanishing without the attention given wetlands. A soft edge, guarded by thoughtfully placed riprap rock would allow harbor birds, tidal pool creatures, and saltwater plants to live. It would also offer safe landings to paddlers in distress.

 

A bit over a week ago I spoke with a prominent young Roosevelt and asked, half in jest, if one could still love the family without loving the memorial. After teasing me about the “one” pronoun deflection, he reassuringly said, “we all love green.”

 

Regardless of the final form of the park, stopping the outdated version of this monument is a goal that people throughout the harbor community should share with the residents of Roosevelt Island, who have expressed their overwhelming preference for a natural restoration for the southern end of the island in repeated polls and a design exercise by the Trust for Public Land.

 

Yet the project boasts mystifying institutional backing – the New York Times editorial department, and local politicians at city, state, and federal levels. Sentiment in some circles of the architectural profession runs in favor of the plan, perhaps because of the biography of the architect behind it. Louis Kahn died in a Pennsylvania Station bathroom in 1974, ending his life deeply in debt and without this vision realized. But it’s incalculably important to bear in mind the dawn that was concurrent with his death: the national Clean Water Act of 1973 stated “wherever attainable, an interim goal of water quality which provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation in and on the water be achieved by July 1, 1983.”

 

We missed that goal by a decade in NYC, but our increasingly cleaner harbor and resurging ecosystems will afford adventure and beautiful experiences to people for decades to come. Yes, honor Kahn’s life story and work, but also honor the biographies yet to be written. Let children on Roosevelt Island (thousands more of whom are being added with dense, large-scale development) walk out their doors and into a soul-fortifying relationship with nature. Great Egrets have found nearby Long Island City and Mill Rock Island, so why not invite them to Roosevelt Island?

 

Roosevelt Island is full of paddlers and rowers eager to hit the water, and plans for a boathouse are afoot. A hardscape doesn’t fit the new desire for a landscape that invites residents and visitors alike into uplifting green and blue.

 

“It’s called an FDR memorial but it really seems to be a Louis Kahn memorial,” said a Roosevelt Island resident kayaker who asked not to be identified. “It looks like a Soviet era, Eastern European thing. It will impede the views of the UN and surroundings. The focus should be on looking out, not looking in.”

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Great Egret by Bernie Ente

by Erik Baard

A skeptic might say that a naturalist hoping for the Great Egret to visit the Newtown Creek is a bit like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. Happily, the skeptic would be wrong.

This morning, Bernie Ente snapped this quick shot of one above the English Kill (one of the most polluted sections of the creek) with a cheap point-and-shoot camera. I thought after bumming you all out with my biodecathection essay for the past couple of days, you deserved this marvelous moment.

The beautiful Great Egret is internationally known as the Audubon Society’s symbol. The society was formed over a century ago when a fashion for feathered hats wiped out 95% of the Great Egret population. Citizens were sparked into action, and they formed one of our nation’s earliest conservation movements and made history when national wildlife protection laws were passed. Today the threat to this species is less visible and dramatic, but equally real: our wetlands are receding at an alarming rate due to pollution and at times thoughtless development. Without healthy marsh grasses, this species of bird will just as surely die off as if hunters set their sites on them.

I’ve most often seen egrets on Mill Rock Island just south of Hell Gate, and they’ve been reported at North Brother and South Brother islands, and the islands of the Arthur Kill. You can recognize them easily by their yellow bills, black legs, and white feathers. In flight they flex their necks into an S shape, and their wingspan is impressive at well over four feet (more than a meter).
Though a mate to the bird in the photo was on a nearby muddy bank, often a great egret will be spotted as the sole representative of its species among many other birds, all congregating. This is normal, and perhaps understandable for a creature that starts life with a battle to the death with siblings in the nest! As adults, Great Egrets hunt alone, stalking small amphibians and fish, snakes, and crustaceans in the shallows of coves and inlets like Anable Basin, Bushwick Inlet, Fresh Kills, and the Newtown Creek. Mill Rock is in the center of the East River, but has a delightful little cove notched into its northern side.

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