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Red bat. Photo by Gil Lopez.

By Erik Baard

When New York City flies under the Gotham moniker, there’s a good chance Bat Man will show up in scenes of mayhem. But in this living city, residents usually have to work harder to spy bats, seeking them out in quiet corners or on professionally guided tours — sometimes with the help of modern technology.

That wasn’t the case for Woodside, Queens’  Gil Lopez, an edible landscape designer and urban farmer. Later in the evening after the great summer hail of August 15th, he emerged from his bedroom to find this red bat had flown into his apartment livingroom.

“He was cute. He had an adorable, fuzzy face and a little snub nose,” Lopez said. “When his wings weren’t spread out, he was no bigger than my fist. I could have held him in my palm.”

Red bat. Photo by Gil Lopez.

As it happens, Lopez waved his arms to steer the bat into the bathroom. The bat flew rapidly around his arm-waving host without making any contact, despite close quarters. Lopez was surprised by the bat’s “smooth, gliding flight” and that it was tracking him with its eyes. Contrary to popular mythology, bats have vision.

Lopez had thoughts of putting the red bat to work clearing mosquitos away from the urban farm he co-founded, but instead helped it out the bathroom window. Lopez’s five-minute encounter extraordinary; unlike the colonies of little brown bats that pack caves and other hollows in NYC, red bats live largely solitary lives among trees. Because there aren’t social, they’ve been spared the “white nose syndrome” afflicting other bats.

Red bats at rest. Photo by Lynn Robbins.

“I am surprised that one was found in a NY apartment,” said Lynn Robbins, a Missouri State University biologist who specializes in bats. But the hail storm may have played a role. “The only time people report them to me is after a storm, when their tree roost may not have provided them enough protection and they can show up anywhere, but in a man-made structure is not common.”

Lopez lives across Queens Boulevard from the quiet and leafy New Calvary Cemetery, a pretty ideal red bat habitat. A keen observer might spot them in normal conditions hunting for bugs around street lights glowing amid the deciduous trees of the graveyard.

Red bats might soon be even harder to spot. Their coloring (females are grayer) camouflages them against predators among autumn leaves, and when temperatures drop near zero, they dig down into the leaf litter and enter the low metabolic state called torpor. When asked if decomposing leaves leaves produced heat to sustain the bats, Robbins replied that the leaves are “probably just insulation over that big thermos called earth.”

Red bat camouflaged in autumn. Photo by Lynn Robbins.

Red bat in leaf litter. Photo by Lynn Robbins.

Red bats “can migrate long distances to enhance their survival,” Robbins notes. But a mild winter might yield more red bats — they bear up to five young in a litter, as compared to the two typical for bats. “If there is good weather and and plenty of food, their numbers can grow much more rapidly than other species,” Robbins said.

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The Esso Aruba, built in 1931, a water tanker as much as an oil tanker.

Just today I heard an interesting bit of Hudson River trivia from my “grandfather.” Some of you know that both sides of my family have been in tug and barge and marine contracting work on New York Harbor for about a century. But I’m blessed with a third grandfather, Jim — my childhood landlord who, along with his wife, essentially adopted my mom, brother, and me during hard times and now we’re there for him as he reaches his 90s.
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I biked over to Jim in Flushing, and he told me something from his days as a Merchant Marine, 2nd engineer aboard this kind of oil ship, in World War II. The convoys to which he belonged ran oil both from the Middle East to Europe and Aruba to Albany. Regarding the latter, he noted that when oil was delivered stateside, they pumped about half out in NYC before heading up the Hudson River to Albany, where the other half was pumped out. The ships then took on ballast water (a practice now carefully regulated to avoid introducing invasive species).
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When the ships arrived to desert island of Aruba, that Hudson River water was so precious that it was pumped out, spun through a centrifuge to remove any oil residue, and used sparingly as a precious commodity! Who knew that we once swapped Hudson River oil for water in unofficial international trade?
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It occurred to Jim then, as a young man in his 20s, that much of the world would one day treat water as covetously as oil. He moved to water rich NYC after the war, and later thought the growth of huge cities in areas that required water conservation was madness.
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Science Photo Library caption: Desalination plant. View of a mixed desalination and electricity generating plant. This is the second largest desalination plant in the world. Oil-fired turbines generate electricity using sea water which condenses and is desalinated in the process. The water is then passed over coral rocks to add minerals and pumped to the rest of the island which receives little rainfall. Photographed on the Dutch island of Aruba in the West Indies in 1999.

Today, Aruba has a massive desalination plant. The Hudson River has endured environmental assault but now Rockland County is edging closer to relying on it for life. NYC might also turn to it if times get desperate.
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Instead of obsessing over another fossil fuel, natural gas, that lies under our region’s earth, we should be grateful for the plentiful water above it. Protecting it means, at this time, choosing water over dangerously extracted fuel.

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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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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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An early pass on our Black River tour. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The variety of water conditions in northern New York is a continual source of amazement to a visitor. For a water lover who isn’t ready to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel but hungers for more of an adrenaline rush than lovely, languid creeks can deliver, there’s the whitewater of the Black River.

Between the drops and twists of this Class IV rapid there are mellower stretches where one can take in the exquisiteness of the Black River Valley. This rift is carved by a flow that on many spring days measures well over 60,000 gallons per second. High, layered walls of granite cocoon you away from the sounds of traffic and medium-sized city life. The canyon is clearly still evolving and deepening, with chunks of stone sometimes calving and falling into the river and tree roots more finely crumbling the rock face.

Pushed up and over rocks. Note the limestone slabs leading toward the deeper canyon. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Leaping out for a swim on a quiter stretch of the Black River. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

You’ll want to paddle with an expert guide (I was fortunate to raft with Alex Atchie, a veteran guide with Adirondack River Outfitters) who’s up to date on new hazards and opportunities for fun. And yes, those are often one in the same!

At one point Alex decided to play in a vortex. Paddlers were allowed to opt out and wait on a limestone ledge — many did.

We spent a few long minutes hurling ourselves from one side of the raft to another to keep from keeling over. At any given moment one of our crew or another was submerged or invisible through spray. At one point when our raft was barraged and seeing that I wasn’t freaked out, Alex decided to strike up a casual conversation with me. “Pretty stupid way to make a living, eh?,” he joked. Absolutely not! “It’s refreshing,” I replied, encompassing both the cool, clear water running over our shoulders and the lifestyle Alex embodied.

In a vortex – Alex, in white helmet, leans forward to chat. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Two front paddlers submerged. One’s girlfriend looks concerned. Author in black shirt toward rear. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Everyone came up with smiles. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Raft or bathtub? (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The Black River, which runs 114 miles from the Adirondacks to Lake Ontario,  probably gets its name from concentrations of dark tannic acid deposited by trees — some oaks are especially rich in it. A bit of trivia for your imagination: If alligators lived as far north as the Black River, they’d be quite dark because their hides pick up the tannic acid.

The Black River nearly turns our raft into a taco shell. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

Apart from hawks a-wing, the biggest predators you’ll likely spot on the Black River are nautiloids. These gorgeous fossils dating to the Ordovician period bulge from limestone at several haul-out points. Unlike the gently spiraled chambered nautiloid of today’s Andaman Sea, many of these invertebrate ancestral hunters had shells shaped like javelin tips. Though the examples I saw on the Black River were measured in inches, one discovery in Arkansas measured eight feet long! You can see in these nautiloids development toward today’s squids, who are also propelled by water jets. An apex predator during an age of high levels of atmospheric CO2, nautiloids ruled warm seas that overflowed the continents as never before or since. That epoch seems to have ended in an Ice Age 443 million years ago.

Ordovician life in an illustration posted by the University of Wisconsin.
Similar nautiloids unearthed in Morocco and exhibited at the Museum Victoria in Australia. (Photo by Simon Hinkley for Museum Victoria)

For me, seeing these fossils was as thrilling as the whitewater that nearly tossed me into them a few times!

Of course gawking at fossils in a strong set of  rapids might be a reliable way of becoming one yourself. When it comes to the Black River, seasoned whitewater paddlers worry most about the Knife’s Edge where water can push overturned paddlers into hollows. Alex has an endearing habit of telling our group about worst case scenarios regarding each rapid after we’d zipped safely by. He did, however, give us repeated and explicit instructions on each approach and wasn’t shy about barking out navigational commands over the roar.

Alex has bonded himself to the Black River for 30 years and knows its ways. He’s also a font of the Black River’s natural and industrial history, and how they’ve intertwined. The river’s admirable present condition is in great part thanks to advocacy from paddlers and diligence from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which maintains a Black River website for salmon, bass, trout, pickerel and pike fishing enthusiasts.

A calmer and verdant end to an exciting tour. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The Black River is a place of stories — whether your own fish tales and whitewater rafting boasts, local lore or the fossilized life its coursing reveals from deepest time. Looking ahead to next spring, make time to visit and let those stories live through you!

Getting to Watertown is easy, either by Amtrak to Syracuse or the Watertown International Airport.

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Worlds living under two suns might be covered in forests and glens of gray or black, according to a Royal Astronomical Society presentation reported by ScienceNow. With disparate wavelengths to harness at once, plants might deploy densely packed pigments of different hues. To our eyes, such broad spectrum absorption would make the leaves look black.

Red dwarf stars are the most common in the Milky Way and could frequently pair up with large companions here and in other galaxies. Astronomers have detected three planetary systems shone on by binary stars, but in each case the planets orbited only the primary star and the smaller companion was distant. In many cases the violence of two stars’ gravitational fields would simply hurl worlds out into the void. Red dwarfs themselves might pose hazards to life, lashing out with enormous flares.

Our green planet isn’t so unlike these imagined graylings swimming through space. Chlorophyll, which comes in three forms, is helped in its light-to-sugar alchemy by handmaiden pigments like carotenoids, anthocyanins, and betalains. These other yellow, orange, red, blue, and purple pigments are nearly ever-present but are more easily observed in autumn foliage and ripening fruit when chlorophyll drains away (or in some species, like members of the rose family, in young leaves before chlorophyll fills in), or by turning over forest understory leaves.  These pigments absorb wavelengths that chlorophyll fails to catch for energy or protection against damage, or reflect light back into the chlorophyll before it can exit the leaf. One point of curiosity is that science has yet to identify a plant in which  anthocyanins and betalains coexist.

If our sun were to capture a stray red dwarf, might evolution favor plants best able to boost and adapt use of their complementary pigments?

An absolutely wonderful way to enjoy stars and leaves in one setting is to hike up Inwood Hill for a picnic before sharing the splendor of the heavens with the Inwood Astronomy Project.

Eerie gray planets aside, it’s beautiful to imagine worlds of myriad hues. I’m with Robert Frost, however, on the point that there’s one color no living world can maintain:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

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