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Posts Tagged ‘new york city department of parks and recreation’

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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Bumblebee on an eggplant flower East Harlem. Photo by Kevin Matteson. 

 

by Erik Baard

 

There can be no local foods, community garden, and green spaces movement in New York City without a healthy bee population, and that’s a resource we could lose. Our first defense is simply to look a little more carefully at our backyards and gardens.

 

Bee Watchers 2008 wants to train you to observe bees with free sessions in all five boroughs: at Alley Pond Environmental Center (May 19, 6PM), Central Park’s North Meadow Recreation Center (May 21, 6PM), the Greenbelt Nature Center (6PM, May 20), Prospect Park Audubon Center (May 21, 6PM), and Ranaqua, the Bronx headquarters of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (May 22, 6PM). You’ll also be equipped with five native New York flowering plants and a sunflower.

 

For an informative flyer and contact information, click here:

bee-flyer-may-9

 

Being a Bee Watcher is fun, but this is also an urgent mission that has the backing of the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, New York City Urban Park Rangers, and the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History.

 

“We’ve already lost some species. At least two bumble bee species that used to be quite abundant haven’t been seen in years,” said Elizabeth Johnson, manager of the Metropolitan Biodiversity Program at the American Museum of Natural History.

 

“At this point we’re trying to drum up business for bee watching,” added Kevin Matteson, a Fordham University biologist conducting the program.

 

A third of human food stocks depend directly on the services of pollinators, which include insects, birds, and mammals. In the northeast, we rely on bees most (like the bumblebee pollinating an East Harlem eggplant in the photo by Matteson above – click to enlarge). New York State boasts about 423 species. 

 

“Most people have no idea that we have so many local species. They’re amazed at the metallic shiny green ones, the blueish ones. It gets people excited,” Johnson said. (If you happen to spot a bee or other insect that fascinates you, drop a note to wildeyed@naturecalendar.com and we’ll share your observations with readers.)

 

While 219 species have been spotted living in NYC (54 in East Harlem and the South Bronx alone), nearly a fifth of those aren’t native, according to Matteson.

 

The mysterious population collapse of the honeybee, a species imported from Europe aboard sailing ships, has gotten considerable media attention, and rightfully so. But habitat destruction and exotic diseases could pose a great threat to our indigenous partners in sustaining edible and flowering local plants.

 

“We don’t know a lot about most of our native bees. Where do they live? What kinds of habitat needs do they have? We have a lot to figure out about pollinator service and it would help to know how quickly bees show up at their plants in the Spring, and how often, and then correlate that with surrounding land use,” Johnson explained.

 

The honeybee is an exceptional species not only for its production of the syrupy sweets, but for its large colony combs, which are occupied for years. They even huddle for warmth in winter. Most bees live in less enduring groups, or even in relatively solitary fashion: a queen might never see her offspring, laying eggs and sealing them off with provisions before moving on. Many burrow underground or bore into wood, crawl into hollow twigs, or even take over abandoned mouse holes.

 

Development often wipes out bee food sources like wildflowers or even invasive flowers. Paving also eliminates burrowing species from an area.

 

Your community garden or backyard is an oasis in the asphalt desert, but you might see fewer flowers, fruits, and vegetables because a building has gone up on what was a weed-strewn lot a block or two away. A green roof with plants that support bees and butterflies might compensate for that loss, but you won’t get it unless you’re armed with data supporting your case.

 

For the sake of your community’s green spaces, join Bee Watchers 2008 by calling Kevin Matteson at 646-3730250 or emailing him at kevmatteson (at) gmail.com.

 

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Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Photo by Ted Gruber. 

 

 

by Erik Baard

 

I think anything with the word “night” in its name benefits from a bit of mystery by association. As if Yellow-crowned Night Herons needed the help. With gorgeous plumage and reliably picturesque harbor backdrops, these birds are a favorite of NYC Auduban/New York Water Taxi tours and individual birders.

 

Fellow LIC Community Boathouse volunteer Ted Gruber snapped this shot in Steinway Creek, where it was perched atop a collapsed dock. A solitary Black-crowned Night Heron was nearby as well. I’ve found the black-crowned variety to be more common, but having both in view was ample reward for our early start and two crossings through whirl-pool filled Hell Gate. Okay, so I admit I love going through Hell Gate at peak current.

 

Yellow-crowned Night Herons have been spotted at City Island, but I would imagine that Staten Island and its nearby islands in the Arthur Kill would also provide good habitat. Any other recent sightings?

 

We didn’t get to see this bird lunge at a crustacean, insect, mollusk, amphibian, or fish. The action happens in darkness for this species. Instead it (the sexes look alike) simply held its place in a stately fashion. The species is threatened in our area, but ironically it’s also more widely dispersed than before; when the Bermuda Night Heron went extinct, environmental authorities there imported this North American species and plugged it into the vacant ecological niche.

 

Yellow-crowned night herons lay their eggs in overhangs, whether a living bush or a jutting piling or beam. We didn’t see if this one had a blue-green clutch of eggs because getting that close would disturb it. The geese and mallards along the East River shores and on North Brother and South Brother islands had full nests, so perhaps there’s a decent chance that New York City has an upcoming generation of Yellow-crowned Night Herons warming in Steinway Creek?

 

I’ll write a more complete report on the Steinway Creek at a later date. Due to an imminent property sale, the city and state should aid Astorians in seizing a rare chance to ecologically restore the petroleum-despoiled, sewage-filled waterway and its surprisingly verdant southwest bank. Toss in a kayak launch, and you’ll have a constituency to keep it green, blue, and clean for neighborhood youth…human and heron.

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by Erik Baard

  

 

Flip Victorian and Edwardian snobbishness on its head with a wild and spicy forager’s. answer to the British cucumber sandwich! With its peppery and garlicky kick, call it a Cattail-on-a-Hot-Tin-Roof sandwich.

 

This recipe isn’t likely to show up on the next International Debutante Ball menu, but it might be perfect for the livelier Billionaires for Bush set.

 

Some culinary historians believe that upper-class Britons chose the blandly delicate cucumber sandwich specifically because it demonstrated that they could afford to spend money on empty calories. The poor put their shillings down for protein and nutrients. We’ll enjoy our version as a little reward for adventurous field work and creativity in the kitchen.

 

Last weekend I joined Wildman Steve Brill for a tasting tour of Central Park (photographed above by Heather Sweeney, getting an early start on his cattail feast). Nature offered up a suite of delicious choices. One highlight was cattails, a freshwater plant with a soft stalk core that tastes very much like cucumber, with what a member of Fuji television crew noted was a hint of celery. It can be found by the Central Park Lake and many other sites, including Inwood Hill Park, Van Cortlandt Park, Udalls Park Preserve, Eibs Pond Park, Clay Pit Ponds Preserve, Kissena Park, Prospect Park, and Alley Pond Park

 

 

(Photo of cattails in Central Park by Heather Sweeney)

 

Having sampled garlic mustard (“The garlic taste is the plant’s defense against insects, unless they are Italian insects, in which case it will go extinct,” Steve joked) and lemony sheep sorrel, it occurred to me that we might have the makings to liberate a traditional cucumber sandwich recipe.

 

I strongly recommend that you join Steve or another experienced botanist or naturalist on your early foraging outings. Plant misidentification can bring illness or death.

 

Slice your cattails near the base, but DO NOT uproot them. The roots are edible (and be made into a flour for baking bread), but in fairness to others and local wildlife, grow your own. A cattail corner to a community garden, perhaps fed by roof-collected rainwater, might be a wonderful signature. Check with the Green Guerillas, New York Restoration Project, or Green Thumb to investigate this tantalizing possibility.

 

Bunches of sheep sorrel (named for the sheep’s head look of their leaves) are easily had in moist meadows and grass hillsides, especially near the kinds of ponds where you’ll find cattails. It’s an invasive and common plant, so feel completely guiltless in munching it down.

 

 

(Photo of sheep sorrel in Central Park by Heather Sweeney)

 

Ditto for garlic mustard, which has swept aggressively through woodlands and floodplains.  

 

 

(Photo of garlic mustard in Central Park by Heather Sweeney) 

 

Another key ingredient is wild onion, which has scallion-like tubular shoots.

 

 

(Photo of wild onion and fellow-forager Alex in Central Park by Heather Sweeney)

 

 

Now blend the yummy invaders in the sheep sorrel  spread recipe on Steve’s website (scroll down for recipes).

 

And given that Steve and I are both vegans, please forgive me if I suggest you try a nondairy butter substitute, for the sake of the environment, your health, and a more humane culture. And if you’re a crust-trimmer, earthworms will appreciate your noblesse oblige in tossing them in compost bin. 

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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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