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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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