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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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Bladderwrack seaweed at Roosevelt Island. Photo by Erik Baard. 

 

By Erik Baard

 

One one the many torments my “poor, sainted mother” (as she calls herself) endured from me was a screamingly Pavlovian response to the jingle of the ice cream truck as it rumbled down 159th Street in Flushing, Queens, where I was raised. Little did I know then how intimately my love of the sweet dessert, the salty harbor, and my maternal heritage were bound.

 

A very common, yet fascinating, plant growing in our estuary is bladderwrack seaweed, scientifically known as fucus vesiculosus. Just a few of its other common names are popweed, black tang, rockweed, bladder fucus, seawrack, sea oak, black tany, cut weed, and rock wrack. I snapped the above picture of a healthy mat of its bubble form on riprap rock fringing Roosevelt Island (click to enlarge).

 

Bladderwrack is quite widespread in sheltered bays and inlets in the northern hemisphere, and has ancient pedigree. It’s a close relative of the first plants to colonize land. Of course the distinctive feature of this species is its air sacks, which lift fronds toward the surface, an evolutionary edge in the competition for sunlight for photosynthesis. Today beds of bladderwrack shelter young fish and crustaceans, and stabilizes intertidal sediment by slowing water movement.

 

You might not realize it, but there’s a very good chance you’ve eaten bladderwrack. Ice cream is one of the most common food products to include bladderwrack seaweed. Mass market foods often list it in the ingredients as simply “kelp” or note the chemicals derived from it, especially carrageenan. That thickening agent is named for the organism from which it was first extracted, Irish moss, known in Irish as carraig.

 

Iodine, beta carotene, and potassium are also refined from bladderwrack, though less often in recent years, and this seaweed has traditionally been used to treat thyroid illnesses and (with less solid evidence) obesity. Recent research also points to applications fighting estrogen-dependent diseases like breast cancer.

 

While people with certain medical conditions can suffer complications from consuming too many concentrated supplements made from bladderwrack, in Japan the plant is enjoyed as a popular food in its natural state. Sadly, there could be a pollution danger from eating bladderwrack growing in our harbor (as excited as we are about the estuary’s ongoing ecological recovery). Please consult the Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection (dial 311) regarding any culinary experimentation.

 

 

Asian cultures are known for seaweed cuisine, but for thousands of years the Irish have eaten dulaman and dyed fabrics with it.

   

I can easily picture that kind of trade in a place like my maternal ancestral home of Sligo, Ireland. One of Ireland’s most popular traditional songs, about a monger of edible seaweed marrying (perhaps threatening to elope with) a seaweed dye monger’s daughter, makes that fancy all the more vivid. An interesting note on the lyrics is that in Irish, or Gaeilge, the gatherers and sellers of seaweed were addressed by the same noun as the product itself. That lends itself to some playful word-painting, comparing the fair hair and dark cap and black shoes of the suitor (or rogue?) to the top and base of the plant.

 

Dulaman

A ‘níon mhín ó, sin anall na fir shúirí
Oh gentle daughter, here come the wooing men
A mháithairin mhín ó, cuir na roithléan go dtí mé
Oh gentle mother, put the wheels in motion for me

Curfá: Chorus:
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Dúlamán na farraige, b’fhearr a bhí in Éirinn
Seaweed from the ocean, the best in all of Ireland
Tá ceann buí óir ar an dúlamán gaelach
There is a yellow gold head on the Gaelic seaweed
Tá dhá chluais mhaol ar an dúlamán maorach
There are two blunt ears on the stately seaweed
Bróga breaca dubha ar an dúlamán gaelach
The Irish seaweed has beautiful black shoes
Tá bearéad agus triús ar an dúlamán maorach
The stately seaweed has a beret and trousers

(Curfá 2x) (Chorus 2x)
Góide a thug na tíre thú? arsa an dúlamán gaelach
“What are you doing here?” says the Irish seaweed
Ag súirí le do níon, arsa an dúlamán maorach
“At courting with your daughter,” says the stately seaweed
Rachaimid chun Niúir leis an dúlamán gaelach
I would go to Niúir with the Irish seaweed
Ceannóimid bróga daora ar an dúlamán maorach
“I would buy expensive shoes,” said the Irish seaweed

(Curfá) (Chorus)
Ó chuir mé scéala chuici, go gceannóinn cíor dí
I spent time telling her the story that I would buy a comb for her
‘Sé’n scéal a chuir sí chugam, go raibh a ceann cíortha
The story she told back to me, that she is well-groomed

(Curfá) (Chorus)
Cha bhfaigheann tú mo ‘níon, arsa an dúlamán gaelach
“Oh where are you taking my daughter?” says the Irish seaweed
Bheul, fuadóidh mé liom í, arsa an dúlamán maorach
“Well, I’d take her with me,” says the stately seaweed
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed

(Curfá) (Chorus)
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Dúlamán na farraige, b’fhearr a bhí, b’fhearr a bhí

Seaweed from the ocean, the best, the best
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Dúlamán na farraige, b’fhearr a bhí, b’fhearr a bhí
Seaweed from the ocean, the best, the best

B’fhearr a bhí in Éirinn

The best in all of Ireland

 

The song has enjoyed many modern interpretations:

 

 Anúna

 

Clannad

 

Altan

 

Celtic Woman

 

A dance remix

 

And fan of the song even gives it the anime treatment.

 

I hope all Irish love their mothers as much as they love dulaman seaweed!

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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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72seal.jpg

by Erik Baard

Three kayakers launched into the Hudson River estuary from the 56th Street annex of the Downtown Boathouse late Saturday afternoon for a leisurely outing. The paddle was fun but unremarkable. It was upon their return near sunset that things became quite unusual.

As one of the paddlers, Tim Gamble, shared with others on the NYC Kayaker email list hosted by the Hudson River Watertrail Association, a seal appeared and got friendlier than any on record in these parts:

“It was very curious and followed us, popping up, first behind, then in front again. It seemed very interested and was getting closer and closer. So I made the classic keetch keetch noise and held my hand out like I had some food. It always works with dogs, so I figured it might work with a seal too. The seal swam closer and closer, and then put its paws up on my front hatch. It looked at me once more, then hauled itself up ONTO MY FRONT HATCH COVER. It sat up there for about 30 seconds while I carefully balanced, then it jumped back in the water on the other side of my boat. Really incredible!!!”

Indeed. Though seals are curious and playful creatures, marine mammal protection groups in the New York City area seek to deter overeager humans from unintentionally harassing them, and must often tend to stranded animals. When a seal initiates contact so boldly, it’s cause for alarm.

“That seal’s behavior was absolutely bizarre,” said SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology science professor and Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island president Arthur Kopelman. “That shouldn’t happen. That seal was in need of help or was used to being fed by people. You should call the stranding hotline at that point.”

Immediately after being told of the incident by Nature Calendar, Kopelman alerted biologist Kimberly Durham, the rescue program director of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. Kopelman noted that in photos posted elsewhere, the young seal seemed to be recovering from an injury to its left eye.

Durham told Nature Calendar that her organization has been monitoring the juvenile, which they believe is healthy, since March 15. She strongly admonished against any kind of interference that would alter a seal’s normal conduct, such as summoning it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration levies heavy penalties on those found to feed or harass seals, dolphins, whales, and other wildlife.

Gamble, and the experienced kayakers who shared  his close encounter, are harbor veterans and committed estuary preservationists who never approach seals hauled out for rest or chase them down in the water.

Back in December of 2001, a pod of kayakers observed seals hauled out at Swinburne Island, a former crematorium off the coast of Staten Island that’s now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. I returned with them a week later to confirm that sighting and report on it for the New York Times. It was newsworthy because until then no community of seals had lived in the harbor for over a century. Individuals might have swam in here and there, but there was no populated “haul out.” Now seal watching at Swinburne Island is so reliable that New York Water Taxi promotes tours in late autumn.

Last week, kayakers voyaging down the Buttermilk Channel to Red Hook, Brooklyn for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation inauguration of the NYC Water Trail saw a seal on Governors Island’s small beach. The small seal that decided to befriend Gamble was photographed hauled up on the Downtown Boathouse’s 72nd Street floating dock hours earlier (captured in the photograph above by Elizabeth Powers). A harp seal, an arctic species that accounts for less than one percent of local sightings, sojourned on the former Downtown Boathouse dock in Tribeca a few years ago.

All five boroughs can claim seal sightings in the new millennium. The event is exciting for eye witnesses but no longer cause for a NYC media sensation. Seals live in our relatively warmer waters between November and June before heading north to the Gulf of Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

Seals once gathered here in such multitudes that linguistic legacies remain; Robbins Reef lighthouse comes down to us from the Dutch “rob,” for seal. But harbor seals are less sociable than they appear, congregating at haul-out spots that offer safety and convenience, not necessarily camaraderie (excepting oddballs like Hoover, the talking seal). Such locations are ideally near food, though they’ll swim over twenty miles for a good meal.

Today’s pinniped restoration comes as New Yorkers are stampeding to their waterfronts and splashing into their waterways to paddle, row, and swim. Aquatic coexistence between the harbor’s two largest resident mammals is inevitable. If deftly handled, that could be a great thing for both species.

“Kayakers are out there on the water all winter and could provide information beyond the traditional seal count week,” said New York Aquarium animal curator Paul Sieswerda, who is leads annual seal counting expeditions by motorboat to Swinburne Island with Kingsborough Community College. The aquarium reported roughly a dozen seals in its previous counts, but a single outing is unreliable because individuals tend to “spy hop” and reemerge elsewhere, getting tallied redundantly, or stealthily slip past even sharp professionals.

Sieswerda encouraged kayak boathouses to post a marine mammal and turtle spreadsheets to their websites and offered to pass that data along to the Riverhead Foundation so that “a picture will form over the years of just where the seals are and what times they can be expected.”

Photographs are critical, especially now that the 72nd street juvenile has been documented. Harbor seal mating and courtship occurs underwater, but evidence is mounting that New York has become a breeding area. “I’m absolutely sure I’ve got photos of pregnant females,” Kopelman said, adding that his surveys evidence that one of the outer islands of the Long Island Sound is particularly fecund for grey seals, a much rarer species.

Does this seal baby boom signal a broader ecological recovery? Kopelman isn’t sanguine.

The Clean Water Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act (more stringent in the U.S. than anywhere else) have certainly contributed to the rebound over the past three decades. Flounder, striped bass, squid, and alewife, and crustacean stocks must be adequate to support the NYC returnees and their pups. But is the food chain contaminated from the bottom up?

“Coastal ecosystems are in a lot worse shape than they had been. I’m surprised regularly that we don’t see a reduction in seal populations. I’m sure if we studied them we’d find they have high levels of toxins” in their bodies and brains, he said, citing garbage and poisons like methyl mercury (from power plants and industry) to organic chlorines that exist beyond their intended uses in pesticides and herbicides to become general biocides in the environment.

The most intensive study of New York Harbor’s pollution challenges has been conducted by the New York Academy of Sciences. Among the locally active groups translating that information into action are Storm Water Infrastructure Matters, the River Project, and Riverkeeper.

Much of the support these groups get, both financial and volunteerism, comes from recreational water users. What’s good for the seals is good for us.

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