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Posts Tagged ‘habitat’

Paddler with porpoise.

Mutually fascinated mammals in New York Harbor.

PLEASE FORGIVE SPACING ISSUES. WORDPRESS PROBLEM.

Neuroscientist and kayaker Vladimir Brezina paddled with a harbor porpoise in New York Harbor recently, and got great photos! Unlike harbor seals, which congregate and bask in the sun, these dark-backed loners are hard to spot and even more difficult to photograph. Fortunately for Vlad and friends, this porpoise seems to have bored with the pensive, hermetic life and so tagged along with a few odd fellow mammals for two miles around the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
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Here are write ups from the discovery crew, which included excellent kayak blogger Bonnie (aka “Frogma”):
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Being sociable with other species isn’t always a winning strategy for harbor porpoises, which occupy habitats hugging shorelines and inlets quite near humans and other predators. The species name comes to us via French from compounding two Latin words: porco (pig) and piscus (fish). This name doesn’t hold the promise of reverence.
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Harbor porpoises mate promiscuously but have only one pup per year.  Some researchers argue that the species might be divided into “races” by region in the northern Atlantic and Pacific and the Black Sea.  Despite having such a slow rate of reproduction, the species isn’t endangered. Existence is perilous, however, for individual porpoises. They were once hunted for blubber and are still often ensnared in fishing nets. An ongoing hazard in such close quarters with humans  is poisoning by pollution. Even dolphins slaughter small and often solitary harbor porpoises to eliminate competition for food in lean times. Naturalists have recently witnessed this intra-cetacean ruthlessness along the shores of Scotland.
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New York Harbor, on the other hand, is experiencing a resurgence of marine mammal populations in recent decades. It’s unclear if this is because of local environmental improvements or an unrelated increase in ocean prey stocks that sustain whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seals. Vlad and other paddlers, including myself, first documented the return of seals to New York Harbor in numbers after a 120-year absence. I broke the story is this New York Times article (the editor made the headline, which confuses seals with sea lions).
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The Narrows passage seems to be a unsung hot spot for sighting large creatures. Perhaps this is because migrating fish and tide-riding food sources tightly funnel through this stretch between the Upper and Lower Bays of New York Harbor. Earlier in the last decade I enjoyed a blue shark encounter (rare for inland waters) here and Wildlife Conservation Society marine biologist Paul Sieswerda was once privileged to see a juvenile fin whale between 40′-50′ long swimming toward the bridge and then back out to sea. Sadly, large ships sometimes drag fin whale carcasses into the harbor on their bulbous bows.
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If you ever spot a sea mammal or turtle in New York Harbor (either healthy or in distress), or want to volunteer with rescues and care, please contact the Riverhead Foundation.
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The best way to get out there with the porpoises, whales, seals, and other aquatic wildlife is by kayak, sailboat, or rowboat. To get started, volunteer with the NYC Water Trail Association community boathouse that’s best for you or go for instruction with one of our fine local outfitters. Another option is to bike along one of our greater waterfront greenways.

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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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Alchemy at Gowanus Studio Space.

Alchemy at Gowanus Studio Space.

TONIGHT: Free admission to a party of environmentalists and art lovers!

Beer by Kelso of Brooklyn!

DJ Dave “Roosting Box” Nardone!

What’s all the fuss about?

Well, sometimes hardened urbanites think that it would take green alchemy to create habitat on our mean streets. The good folks at the Gowanus Studio Space in Brooklyn (119 8th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Subway: F or G to Smith/9th St. or F, M or R to 4th Ave./9th St.) have conjured just that, featuring reclamation artist Atom Cianfarani’s guerilla habitat restoration, “Suspended Nurseries” and “For the Birds.”

The Alchemy show focuses on how discarded commodities can be reused to investigate our relationship with nature, and perhaps even benefit it. “Suspended Nurseries” and “For the Birds” make use of our waste and ignored resources like rainwater to quietly overlay our city’s hardscape with sustaining ecological niches. Native species rejoice!

And you too!

Poke around these websites for directions and more information:

http://www.gowanusstudio.org/

http://www.atomsdream.com

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Redback salamander by Sarah Goodyear

 

by Erik Baard

 

Global warming is forcing the upward migration of reptiles and amphibians to cooler altitudes, according to an American Museum of Natural History researcher. While much has rightfully been made of the world’s visibly melting alpine glaciers, a desperate and quiet migration has been occurring, with creatures scaling slopes to escape the heat at the bottom of the mountains.

 

The alarm is sounded from Madagascar, where the AMNH Associate Curator of Herpetology Christopher Raxworthy has been studying habitats in the mountainous north. The shift uphill, by as much as 167 feet, was observed across the spectrum of amphibian and reptile species over a decade as temperatures rose slightly. By this century’s end there will be no escape and at least three species in that region will be doomed, he asserted in the journal Global Change Biology.

 

What does this have to do with New York City? Well, our own amphibian population is low and confined to small hills where chances for refuge are even more meager. That’s true not only for local rarities like the spotted salamander, but even for frogs and common species like the red back salamander (sitting in my palm in the photo by Sarah Goodyear above). As New York City Department of Parks and Recreation ecologist Ellen Pehek noted in our April 24 entry on Dusky Salamanders, these species prefer cool and damp areas.

 

On an outing to the Marshlands Conservancy in Westchester County with WildMetro (please consider joining this important conservation and education group as a member, volunteer, or trip participant), I learned that wetlands grass species have already begun creeping inland and upland by yards, yanking along with them the ecosystems they support. Global warming is a local threat. It’s quiet, but the losses have begun.

 

 

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Yellow warbler at Ridgewood Reservoir. Photo by Steve Nanz.

 

 

 

The graveyard’s a fine and verdant place,

But none, I think, do there play ball or race.

 

…with apologies to Andrew Marvell            

 

 

 

by Erik Baard 

 

City Council District 30 in western Queens boasts some of the widest swaths of green in New York City, but much of that consists of cemeteries. The stony highlands of the terminal moraine make for bad farmland, so elders in preceding generations set those tracts aside for burials. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is now trying to build more ball fields and tracks in the area, but finds itself running into opposition from more restless living residents, including the candidates vying to represent the district in a special election on June 3.

 

The controversy has two key facets. First, the city has chosen a thriving wild space, Ridgewood Reservoir, for its new facilities. Secondly, the agency proposes to use potentially dangerous artificial turf on the new ball fields (and in parks throughout the city – more than 100 sites when installation is complete).

 

The Ridgewood Reservoir hasn’t provided water to residents for five decades and it became a possession of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation in 2004. Basins have grown over with seeded-on forests on the 50-acre site, and it helps sustain more than 120 bird species, including seven classified as endangered.

 

 

 

 

The $46 million NYC Parks plan would bulldoze 20 acres of land for sports while residents complain that similar facilities at nearby Highland Park are falling into disrepair. NYC Audubon has “strongly urged the Parks Department to commit to no net loss of forest cover.”

 

The Natural Resources Defense Council summed up the crisis this way:  

For not yet heeding the call to preserve this unique natural setting in the heart of New York City (but with the understanding that it is not too late for a change of course), we award the Parks Department plans to develop the Ridgewood Reservoir landscape with an Earth Day 2008 Bad Apple designation.

This video, produced by the invaluable Rob “CityBirder” Jett (and including photos by Steve Nanz – the yellow warbler above was taken by Nanz at the reservoir) provides an excellent overview of the imperiled reservoir wilderness area.

Artificial turf, a chief component of which is crumb rubber derived from used tires, poses potential health hazards to children and performs none of the services of plant life. The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene acknowledges that the threat demands more testing, but encourages play on the plastic fields as an alternative to obesity. The tradeoff is a false one, or at very least an entirely unjust one to demand citizens accept.

 

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, a former Parks commissioner, has called on the agency to halt installation and allow independent testing of the artificial turf. CUNY psychology professor William Crain sent samples over to Rutgers University chemist Junfeng Zhang who found hazardous concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), according to NY State Department of Environmental Conservation standards. One sample contained highly carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene at more than eight times above levels deemed acceptable for soil.

 

 

The New York Environmental Law Project has also taken up the cause, providing a very informative summary page.

 

 

The reservoir and artificial turf plan was raised at a recent candidate forum hosted by the Historic Districts Council. Each candidate, seated in alphabetical order, commented in turn. Republican Anthony Como has said in the past that some of the land surrounding the reservoir might be built over for recreational use. At the forum he stated that in such a small habitat area it was impossible to eliminate sections of growth without affecting the ecosystem of the rest. Democrat Elizabeth Crowley (for whom I’m doing low-level volunteer work: get-out-the-vote phone banking, carrying literature as she pounds the pavement) often mentions her enjoyment of playing ball with her sons but in this case opposed any recreational development, calling the unofficial refuge an “enchanted land” for visitors. Democrat Charles Ober also railed against the plan, questioning the City’s logic in cutting down “5,000 trees” while asking volunteers to help plant a million trees. Republican Tom Ognibene who that evening announced himself as a skeptic of global warming, has argued before that the reservoir should be maintained as an emergency backup resource. At the forum he focused on the artificial turf aspect of community concerns. He conceded that he supported the introduction of the substitute based on the best information he had available at the time, but asserted that he now believes more testing is needed.

 

As I rode my bike home from the forum, I noodled through the broader implications of the Ridgewood Reservoir issue. It seems our city might be best off if future developments by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation adhered to three principles:

 

 

1) Preservation and restoration of wild spaces is first priority.

 

I don’t need to lecture NYC Parks about the value of green and blue areas. The Forever Wild program is fantastic, and I support transferring public wetlands into its administration. When I find myself disagreeing with NYC Parks so strongly over land use, it pains me.

 

Using hardy indigenous plant species (some are far less prone to invasive species competition than others) and adaptive xeriscaping, natural habitat areas can be created affordably.

 

 

2) New built spaces must incorporate athletic recreation.

 

New developments, especially those sited near residences, should be required to include places for active play and fitness. The declining sport of baseball is very land-intensive. Basketball, roller hockey, water polo, and volleyball are just a few space-efficient team sports – so much so that they can be placed on the rooftops of new stores.

 

3) We must foster a culture change toward outdoor, eco-recreation.

 

Wilderness areas aren’t exclusively for birders. Hiking, rowing, paddling, rock and tree climbing (in designated areas), and other activities can be as physically demanding as any typical weekend sport while also introducing young minds to the science and excitement of exploring nature. And we’ve seen that habitat can thrive in spaces like the reservoir that aren’t amenable to the uniform grass required by ball fields, leaving public servants in the utterly perverse position of destroying green, lush natural spaces so that artificial grass can be installed.

 

There is no park as grand as our harbor. Protected bike paths should be means of bringing green into neighborhoods by using green medians; they should offer access to habitat areas but not slice them up. Bike paths can weave neighborhoods together so that young people are exposed to new foods, cultures, and ways of living. Cycling is civics.

 

 

And so is voting. As the old punchline goes, “Is this a personal fight or can anyone join in?” A habitat like Ridgewood Reservoir is a boon for all New Yorkers, and this most egregious use of artificial turf will only embolden officials to spread it over public spaces in all five boroughs.  

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Red-tail hawk in Prospect Park. Photo by Steve Nanz.

 

By Erik Baard

 

This is a sad week for Red-tail Hawk lovers in New York City. Three red-tail hawk chicks, or eyas, have died in Riverside Park. There were the grandchildren of Pale Male, our most city’s most famous bird of prey.

 

We’ll keep you informed of developments in the case. The Urban Hawks blog is also following the case intently, and the New York Times City Room blog has extensive background.

 

 

Lola, Pale Male’s mate at Fifth Avenue, has had a “nest failure” for the fourth year — her eggs didn’t hatch. No one knows if this is because the nest was disturbed over three years ago, or if it’s simply that Pale Male has grown infertile with age — he’s over 17 years old, which is geriatric for his species.

 

 

I am happy to trumpet New York City’s ecological recovery, which for all its stumbles is real, but will never spare you reminders of the frangibility of this achievement. Even at the cost of sounding perhaps a bit too precious at times. In the Prospect Park photo above (click to enlarge), Steve Nanz captures that truth beautifully, all in the look the red-tail shoots back at his camera.

 

 

If a city is a complex machine in which we live, as many have said, then no indigenous species are braver in facing down the machine than our raptors. They patrol their skies, spiraling over the arrogance of our often-ghastly intrusions. They glorify our mundane constructions – nondescript ledges and garish corporate logos are reborn as aeries.

 

But a careless dusting of poison can contaminate the pigeons or rats we introduced into the food chain, and hawk nestlings die from food dropped from their mothers’ mouths. That might have happened at Riverside Park.

 

Cities are happenstance allies of global environmentalism because of their efficient energy and material usage. But we assault ourselves and co-inhabitants with asinine daily decisions and poorly conceived development.

 

Drill this into our next crop of candidates for city office: Habitat and human health are one in such tight quarters.    

 

 

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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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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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Northern Dusky salamander in leaf litter. Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

Editor’s note: We are thrilled that National Public Radio featured Nature Calendar’s quest for the Manhattan population of Northern Dusky salamanders (well camouflaged in leaf litter above) as part of its Earth Day coverage. Check out the online story produced by NPR’s hot new show The Bryant Park Project:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89830807

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by Erik Baard

Amphibians serve as a bellwether for ecosystems ranging from tropical rainforests to temperate woodlands, and the news is rarely good. The Global Amphibian Assessment of 2004 found that we may have lost 120 species since the 1980s. Another 32% of remaining species are threatened with extinction, and 43% are suffering population declines. That’s an environmental body blow when you consider that salamanders alone are the largest contributor to vertebrate biomass in many North American forests. Part of this crisis seems traceable to global causes like climate change and ozone depletion. More often the problems are tied to local pollutants and habitat fragmentation.

Yet we bring you a quietly happy story of survival in, of all places, Manhattan.

Back in 1944, a 21-year old German immigrant naturalist named Carl Gans noted the presence of dusky salamanders living on a muddy slope in northern Manhattan. They prefer areas with limestone and need copious water, but only if it’s very slow flowing and not laden with silt. Weed-choked streams and bogs are good habitats. Seepages, that is gradually inclining hillsides where water saturates a broad swath of soft earth, are also places where a dusky salamander seeker might find quarry under rotting logs, leaf litter, and some loose stones. This common species is often known as the “pit bull of salamanders” for its stocky body and large jaw. Like many salamanders, they lack lungs and so breathe through their moist, delicate and permeable skin when they outgrow their newborn gills.

The duskies were probably a fun find for Gans, but he quickly moved on to adventures with sharks and exotic reptiles in a stellar, globetrotting career researching biomechanics and evolution. New York City had big ideas too. Over the next six tumultuous decades we built highways and iconic skyscrapers, birthed punk rock and hiphop, and rode waves of crime and condos with equal gusto.

Rough stuff for salamanders. Nearby pavement can accelerate water flow and sweep away salamanders, their young, and the small insects and worms they eat. Pesticides and herbicides cause mutations, behavioral aberrations, or outright kill them. Hydrocarbons and salts running off roads poison them. Clear cutting trees and shrubs denies them the protective shade they require. Urbanization finds a thousand ways to do them in. Even the gentler suburb of Westchester County saw its dusky salamanders nearly vanish in the latter twentieth century. The Manhattan area of the salamanders’ habitat became known for prostitution and illegal dumping, including many stripped cars (since cleared).

Despite the odds, Ellen Pehek, senior ecologist with the Natural Resources Group of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, led a little expedition alongside the Harlem River Drive to revisit the site. Astonishingly, the salamanders were still there.

“That was quite a find. I think people assumed they were gone, but they just hadn’t gone back to check on them,” Pehek said. “The lesson here is that we can protect them without giving up recreational activities. We can plan around these habitats to avoid certain places and all coexist. If they can live in Manhattan, we know we can coexist.”

Pehek was kind enough to share the location of this rare habitat with me – not that it was easy to find, even with directions. “Landmarks” included puddles and hillsides that looked alike to someone out for a casual stroll. To protect this special place, Pehek asked that I not reveal it here. But she encourages readers to visit the duskies in the Staten Island Greenbelt (check out the June 1 “Amphibian Adventures” program!), where they are plentiful.

I invited my old friend, Laura Conaway, and her wife, Sarah Goodyear (whose photos you’re enjoying – click to enlarge), on a salamander safari. Also joining were Laura and Sarah’s son, Nate, and Laura’s brother, Brian. Both Laura and Sarah are writers, and I got to know Laura when she edited a number of my Village Voice stories. She’s now a web editor with The Bryant Park Project at National Public Radio.

After a few wrong turns on my bike and direction checks by cell phone with the very-patient Pehek, we met up and walked the edge of a wood, never leaving the sounds of traffic and Latin music far behind. A small pack of sad-faced stray dogs slowly wound their way single-file up through hillside outcroppings in single file while Northern Flicker woodpeckers busy on fallen logs below. Baseballs were oddly placed in the crotches of locust, dogwood, and oak branches. Glass was ubiquitous. Some boulders were cracked and slivered; tell-tale bullet shell casings lay beneath them.

We turned over logs as we went. Millipedes here, pillbugs (aka rolly pollies) there, but no salamanders. I was starting to feel foolish. Laura continued to record, I continued to stall.

Finally, Brian exclaimed, “Found one!” From that point on, we found duskies and more common redback salamanders under every log in a small area. No wonder Pehek was so cautious about protecting the duskies’ coordinates: on the entire island of Manhattan, this species’ habitat can be measured in yards.

The salamanders were still when held, but quite fleet of foot on the ground. They have very muscular hind legs, which are a distinguishing characteristic second in prominence only to their muddy, dark gray-brown camouflage pigmentation. They are known to be excellent leapers. Subtler differences include a pale line from the eye to the corner of the mouth and an immobile jaw – they lift their heads to open their mouths.

The duskies felt cool in my palm (they don’t grow larger than five inches) for the few seconds I held them before I returning them to the wet ground, lest their skin dry.

Not so camouflaged now. Photo by Sarah Goodyear

“Most salamanders like the cold. You think of cold-blooded creatures liking warmth, but they can’t handle the heat. They sort of almost pass out from your skin warmth. They’re not something you want to handle for long,” Pehek cautioned. “They need to recover in moist leaf litter or a cold stream.”

In a few weeks they’ll begin courtship, an involved affair that includes head stroking, “butterfly” forelimb movements, and tail straddling. Then the grape-like egg clusters will develop in the mud during the height of summer. By the season’s end, yellow-spotted, gilled juveniles will be scurrying about. As they mature, the spots fade and the gills are subsumed. Salamanders don’t travel far in their several years of life, hugging the same muddy spring or stream bank.

That doesn’t mean they’re equally easy to find year-round. “They like a somewhat steady temperature, so when it’s too cold they’ll burrow down and do their thing there” in the warm earth, Pehek said. “In the middle of summer, when it gets too dry, they’ll also go under ground.”

A good strategy to catch them in action, Pehek advised, is to go to their haunts after sunset with a headlamp or flashlight. “At night they’ll climb around flowering plants and shrubs looking for invertebrates to eat.”

But don’t interrupt their feeding for too long – it’s important work. “They eat the insects that break down the leaf litter, so salamanders are slowing that decay. There’s carbon sequestered in those leaves, so in a way you could say salamanders are slowing down global warming,” Pehek said.

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