Posts Tagged ‘nature calendar’

Robotic herring gull by Festo.

Today is John James Audubon‘s 226th birthday. His exquisite images of North American wildlife are his homage to nature, especially birds. One aspect of birds’ beauty is their adornment, displaying colors rivaled in the animal world only by butterflies. Feathers far exceed fur in specialization in length and shape for display and survival. One of my most moving bird encounters was with a Glossy Ibis in the Bronx River.

But even the least showy birds, like the herring gull, entrance us with another for of beauty — flight. Even though we’ve crossed the globe with airplanes (and are paying the global climate disruption price for it) we still stare upward with awe and envy at birds sailing atop sea breezes. As a scientist and engineer, Leonardo Da Vinci was as in love with birds as Audubon.

Today at Germany’s Festo engineering firm, much of Da Vinci’s dream of mechanical bird flight has been realized, as reported by National Public Radio. This remote-controlled herring gull replica is a major achievement in the booming field of biomimicry, cribbing design tips from nature, with wings that torque and twist in several locations in a coordinated — graceful — way. Herring gulls over the Baltic seashore didn’t look askance at the robot among them.

See for yourself here:

The next step is to meld this machine with artificial intelligence for what might be called an “Audubonaton.” William Butler Yeats might would certainly lament that an immortal bird made of carbon fiber and plastic foam lacks the romance of one fashioned from “hammered gold and gold enameling,” but such is life post-Byzantium.

Perhaps the most appropriate technological response to the crises facing natural habitats is to use lessons from evolution to build a more sustainable society. The Biomimicry Institute seeks to contribute to solutions along that avenue through its AskNature program. But each acre of forest cut down, and each aquatic species overfished or acidified out of existence, and each wetland or meadow paved over for development, is a lesson lost. Conservation is key. Please support conservation efforts as a volunteer or donor. You can start close to home with a birthday present to NYC Audubon and help save the Four Sparrows Marsh!

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On June 5, race across a pristine lake and then drink it from your tap!

New York City’s drinking water comes from a vast system of reservoirs and lakes stewarded by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection. They’re as picturesque as any scene you’ll find pasted across well-marketed bottled water, nestled in green ancient mountains and fed by spring thaws. Photographer Dick Bower has shared the beauty of the reservoir and lake system, and the region in which they rest, extensively in his online gallery.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the municipal government and nonprofit partners purchased vast acreages of forest to naturally filter the water. The system is so effective that NYC tap water needn’t be artificially filtered at the source, which saves taxpayers billions of dollars (home filters primarily address deposits from old building pipes).

Recently public awareness of this precious resource has been raised by controversy over the demand for natural gas drilling in the same region, which is hurting economically while sitting atop a vast expanse of gas-rich shale deposits. In particular, the practice called hydraulic fracturing (or “hydrofracking”) has alarmed environmentalists because of its record of contaminating water tables and damaging wildlife habitats. Specialized groups have formed to object to the practice, and established organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council have taken up the cause.

Cannonsville Reservoir by Dick Bower.

The Cannonsville Adventure Triathlon educates people about the New York City water supply in a brilliantly apolitical way. This event features a 10k run, 4 mile paddle, and 12 mile bike set amid the crystal waters of the Cannonsville Reservoir and rolling Catskill Mountain forests in Delaware County, NY. Whether you’re inspired to compete or would enjoy cheering the athletes through their course, you’ll have a blast getting to know each other and your water. Camping over the weekend is encouraged!

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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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Here’s a stirring, rave-worthy video of solar flares. What a grand entrance for a topic we’ll address later this week: subatomic particles! Last week I had the privilege of talking with Freeman Dyson briefly and enjoying his talk at a small gathering hosted by Hunter College.

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Among local birds, Turkey Vultures have perhaps the keenest sense of smell.

Turkey vultures migrate through our region at this time of year, bringing with them stories as old as the dinosaurs. With their bare heads and large size, it’s easier to imagine this species’ hotly debated dinosaur origins than those of a hummingbird. But one less obvious way the Turkey Vulture reminds us of how birds’ ancestors survived a mass extinction 65 million years ago is its keen sense of smell.

It’s commonly thought that birds are nearly entirely visual and auditory. After all, the portion of their brains devoted to processing the bouquet of a flower, the funk of a friend, or the reek of a rotting carcass is typically very small. But for some species, like Turkey Vultures, smell is critical. It can aid navigation, locate food, or certify kinship.

Paleontologist Darla Zelenitsky of the University of Calgary in Canada compared fossil skulls with those of modern birds (and tapped existing data) to determine how much of their circuits were aimed at smell. It seems the ancestral birds’ sense of smell greatly sharpened after the cataclysm, believed to have been an asteroid collision with Earth. More here from ScienceNOW. One can imagine buzzards circling the skies of a world of death.

Turkey Vultures and other carrion eaters play a critical role in recycling nutrients and curbing the spread of disease by acting as nature’s cleanup crew. Though their diet, defensive arsenal of projectile vomit and poo, and undertaker visages creep many people out, these birds soar gracefully on thermal vents (here gyring Fibonacci is at it again) and they can even save human lives: Turkey Vultures are sometimes used to locate natural gas leaks because they’re drawn to the smell of an additive, ethyl mercaptan.

Though Turkey Vultures fly great distances and their physiology reminds us of a remarkable global period, they’re actually pretty localized. Vultures in other parts of the world are unrelated, providing a striking example of convergent evolution — similar mutations exploit similar opportunities, and in the end you get a similar animal or plant despite genetic isolation. To find a close relative of the Turkey Vulture just head down to a local wetland. If you’re lucky you’ll spot it — the far more celebrated Blue Heron.

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This post has abstract charts because this beautiful sequence is expressed in nature in so many forms that Pantheism has taken the spiral as its symbol. Conscious human recognition and employment of this sequence first occurred in India 2,200 years ago in, surprisingly enough, Pingala’s treatise on Sanskrit prosody. In 1202, Leonardo Pisano Bigollo (known to us as Fibonacci) introduced this description of the spiral to Western scholars through his book Liber Abaci, which generally popularized Indian (via the Arabs) numbers as a useful replacement for Roman numerals.

Fibonacci Numbers” calculate the growth of phenomena as diverse as buds on a stem to hurricanes and the Whirlpool Galaxy. Generation of it is as simple as starting with zero or one, and then arriving at each subsequent number by adding the previous two.

Here are the first 50 numbers in the sequence:

F0= 0 F1= 1 F2= 1 F3= 2 F4= 3
F5= 5 F6= 8 F7= 13 F8= 21 F9= 34
F10= 55 F11= 89 F12= 144 F13= 233 F14= 377
F15= 610 F16= 987 F17= 1,597 F18= 2,584 F19= 4,181
F20= 6,765 F21= 10,946 F22= 17,711 F23= 28,657 F24= 46,368
F25= 75,025 F26= 121,393 F27= 196,418 F28= 317,811 F29= 514,229
F30= 832,040 F31= 1,346,269 F32= 2,178,309 F33= 3,524,578 F34= 5,702,887
F35= 9,227,465 F36= 14,930,352 F37= 24,157,817 F38= 39,088,169 F39= 63,245,986
F40= 102,334,155 F41= 165,580,141 F42= 267,914,296 F43= 433,494,437 F44= 701,408,733
F45= 1,134,903,170 F46= 1,836,311,903 F47= 2,971,215,073 F48= 4,807,526,976 F49= 7,778,742,049

Put into action, we take squares (or tiles) built upon each other by the same rule and then draw a line bending opposite corner to corner:

In a transient and humble way, I was reminded of the eternal ideal form of this sequence when kayaking from Manhattan’s west side to Sandy Hook, NJ. Each paddle stroke created a little vortex, a spiral, as is demonstrated by this photo by Björn Olin I grabbed off the Web.

By pondering the mathematics behind the swirls, I felt the presence of our predecessors who revealed the sequence. I was no longer alone. Drawing upon another poetic tradition, I wrote this Haiku:



Paddle dip and stroke.
Pier 40 to Sandy Hook
with Fibonacci.

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Two indigenous species, a red-tailed hawk and a tulip tree, gorgeously paired. Photo by Laura Meyers.

A beautiful start to the week from the “Birds Eyes and Butterflies” blog. This photo was taken in Prospect Park.

I’ll add more about tulip trees to this post soon, but wanted to rush out the image for the pure pleasure of it. Please click on it to see more from Laura!

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Spreading smiles along with hay around newly planted trees on Jamaica Bay. A MillionTreesNYC event with the National Park Service and NYRP. I organized the Earth Day New York contingent.

Spring can bring emotional regrowth to you through exercise in nature. A critical insight illuminating American history is that Jefferson used the word “happiness” as a standard Enlightenment translation for the Classical Greek concept eudaimonia. Today academics translate this as “flourishing,” both in personal potential and value to the community.

Depression and chronic stress (and even severely stressful incidents) kill brain cells, deepening depression in a vicious cycle. The good news is that the brain is much more regenerative than once believed. Both exercise and natural experiences have been shown to alleviate depression, so do yourself and your loved ones a favor — combine those benefits by enjoying outdoor recreation and active volunteer work. These activities also tend to be social. Get started on a virtuous cycle of enjoying nature and sharing the accomplishments of stewardship with other caring people!

A few resources to get you going:











May you flourish in every season!

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Come celebrate and lean about nature with NYRP all week, April 18-22! From treetops to bottom-feeding fish, there’s lots to learn. Artists, educators, outdoor explorers and other allies will help you turn your new appreciation into action and adventure!

For more details, CLICK HERE.



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Raccoon in northern Manhattan by Omari Washington/NYRP

New York Restoration Project is at the forefront of bringing sustainable gardens and straight up wildlife back into the inner city. Its cleanups, reforesting, weeding, seining, and other programs draw volunteers and participants from all walks of life. After all, all hands are needed!

Apparently this masked intruder felt that a pair of eerily human-like hands was needed at the NYRP’s Nature Center on Sherman Creek. It slipped between a gate and a window, perhaps seeking shelter until nightfall. NYRP Education Manager Omari Washington was thrilled to photograph a raccoon so close up and in such good lighting, as this species is usually nocturnal. “I was surprised to see him or her crawl down the window in the middle of the day, given all of the activity around our office,” he said.

Washington’s excitement was tempered by broadly held concerns. “I was a little concerned about the health risk but I’m always excited to see more nature in our neighborhoods!,” he said. Raccoons, like other species, can carry rabies. Even when healthy, however, raccoons are considered vermin by many for their habit of opening our garbage cans to messily rummage.

But what could we expect from a dexterous, clever omnivore? Indeed, raccoons are literally wired to be engineers of sorts. Raccoons devote more of their brains to processing input from sensitive hands than any other creature. Therefore raccoon explore the world and learn about objects by feeling their way around and rolling things through their hands. In the course of feeling up a  latch, for example, they learn how it works — and they remember it! On North America, the raccoon occupied the trickster role in ancient mythology that we associated with monkeys in Asia and the fox in Europe. Raccoons have demonstrated such easily observable non-primate intelligence that some prominent scientists have strongly objected to their relative underrepresentation in comparative studies.

Raccoons evolved to primarily reside in forests, and Inwood Hill forest (the last natural one in Manhattan) is near Sherman Creek. A bit further south, raccoons thrive in Central Park, to the delight of tourists, though naturalists rightly fret over pilfered bird and turtle eggs. John James Audubon himself observed this.
We stripped away tree cover for centuries, however, so the adaptable raccoon has taken up residence in cities and in coastal areas. They’re easy to spot in spring because after a winter of sleeping, they need to eat. They drop up to half of their weight over the winter because they don’t truly hibernate; raccoon body temperatures remain constant during that long sleep, unlike their hibernating bear cousins. (Though some speculated relationships with weasels and foxes, the proof is in the DNA.)

Though the NYRP’s visitor was apparently alone, raccoons aren’t typically solitary creatures, as once was widely supposed. When not raised with their own kind, they can readily bond with other species, like humans and dogs.

In many areas of North America it’s illegal to keep a raccoon as a pet. Pet raccoons that are legal are bred for sale, which regardless of species is a moral crime when so many pets are killed at shelters when they aren’t adopted, and many more cats, rabbits, and dogs die abandoned to our streets.  When I found my own cat, Lewie, outside the Lewis H. Latimer Historic House six years ago, he was near death from what looked like a raccoon mauling (missing front paw, damaged back paw, emaciated and dehydrated because he could no longer fend for himself). The Humane Society of New York tested him, patched him, and now we’re buddies. But in fairness to the supposed raccoon, I’d bet Lewie started the brawl!

Lewie the bruiser with his stump. The work of a raccoon?

But there’s hope, courtesy of PhotoShop, in this image that’s gone viral.

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