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Posts Tagged ‘new york’

Red-tailed Hawk on Governors Island. Photo by Erik Baard.

Our kayak camping on Governors Island for City of Water Day reminded me of earlier paddles I took to the island, for the LIC Community Boathouse, to plant apple trees (yes, I transported them by kayak), and to lead a volunteer team on behalf of Earth Day New York. The latter two trips were to support the Added Value Urban Farm annex on the island.

In July of 2011, while enjoying the shade of a locust tree adjacent to the farm, I found myself under an actual predator’s gaze. This fine Red-tailed Hawk was watchful, but at ease just a few feet above me. We’re blessed to live during a time of raptor resurgence in the Big Apple, but a close sighting is still exhilarating. I was unaware that Governors Island has a rich avian life, as evidenced by this census.

Given the name of the island, I dubbed this bird Lord Cornbury, as a small token and humorous nod to the much pilloried  colonial Governor Edward Hyde. I’ve recently had no choice but to learn to forgive undemocratic (and likely transient) leaders on the very local scale who are, as Hyde was described, of “slender abilities, loose principles, and violent temper.”

Red-tailed Hawk on Governors Island. Photo by Erik Baard.

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American Bittern. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The East River is NYC’s premier waterway and as founder of the LIC Community Boathouse and HarborLAB, I’ve made it my paddling home. At sunset, ferry boats filled with skyline gawkers will nearly flip to the west, and East River bridges set the scene for countless films. But for a kayaker, it’s the wilderness refuges of its islands and inlets that make this tidal strait endlessly fascinating.

Returning to Randalls Island from Governors Island in the Sunday morning calm after City of Water Day, Caroline Walker and I paddled through the outskirts of Hell Gate toward Mill Rock. I was admiring Great Black-backed Gulls at rest and Double-crested Cormorants perched on the island’s rip rap skirt while drying their wings when I spied something a bit different — a bird with the shape of a heron but markings similar to an American Woodcock. Caroline described it as “brindled,” which is pretty apt.

As we drifted past, a handful of cormorants and gulls took off while most ignored us. The misfit bird, however, walked quickly and deliberately into the brush that grew down from a turf mound to the rip rap line. It seemed to almost instantly disappear among the twigs and leaves. I didn’t have a camera.

After some research yesterday, I realized how lucky Caroline and I were! We had spotted an American Bittern. This species has fantastic camouflage for its reedy habitat, and so is rarely seen. Sadly, its population is declining rapidly with diminishing wetlands (though I’m comforted that its conservation status remains “least concern“). Good places to seek them are Pelham Bay Park (join Wild Metro for a volunteer day) and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. But they can pop up well away from salty shores. Prospect Park Lake, in the heart of Brooklyn, may have drawn this other one.

For those not lucky enough to glimpse this stealthy heron, there’s still a chance to hear its odd call, the second part of which sounds to me like someone repeatedly unstopping a PVC pipe. Strange that a creature would evolve to be invisible only to concurrently acquire a voice that earns it nicknames like “Stake Driver, Thunder Pump and Mire Drum.”

The American Bittern I observed was silent, so I have something to look (or rather, listen) forward to!

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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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When you see a Spring Azure butterfly, imagine a covetous Cleopatra.

The ancients cherished this brilliant hue of blue with a hint of green, so like the sky on a clear day.  The word azure comes to us by way of Lazheward, the Persian name for the region of Afghanistan where lapis lazuli has been mined for over 6,000 years.

The world’s first synthetic pigment may have been “Egyptian blue“, but artists from that African empire carved sacred scarabs and other symbols of royalty and eternal life from imported lapis lazuli. The stones are prominent among burial gifts. Cleopatra mesmerized Caesar and Anthony with eyes shadowed with powdered lapis lazuli.

Lapis lazuli.

What if Cleopatra, seeing this magical creature flashing the color of life and nobility in mid-air, had the vain and devious thought to capture and powder it for her adornment? Nature has an answer for such hubris! The scales of the butterfly’s wings would grind down to a translucent white glop. You see, the Spring Azure has not a bit of its namesake pigment.

The iridescent dazzle of the Spring Azure comes from nature’s nanotechnology. The Spring Azure boasts a “structural color,” meaning its wing scales have an elegant microscopic architecture that reflects very specific wavelengths of color. Textile manufacturers have already mimicked this trick to make fabrics that never fade or dull, while bankers are weighing how structural colors might make currency harder to counterfeit. And yes Cleopatra, “photonic cosmetics” is an emerging industry. The most exciting prospect, however, is a new information revolution that takes cues from nature to create transistors based on light rather than electricity.

The following video is a great introduction to this field of research:

While Spring Azures are easy to spot across a field, they’re pretty rare in the big city. Seek them in woodlands and open fields in our parks, or in gardens. Females often deposit their eggs on dogwood tree flower buds and lower to the ground in blueberry bushes and New Jersey tea. Males hang out near mud puddles and the mucky edges of stream banks and ditches. Both sexes feed on the nectar of rock cress, winter cress, dandelions, buckeyes, and violets.

If you’d like to boost your chances of spying a Spring Azure, please consider volunteering for the Butterfly Project NYC, donating to the organization, and going on field trips.

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Survivor. Photo by Barry Masterson of Kayak Staten Island.

Sharp-eyed Nature Calendar reader Christopher Johnson spotted this seal casually sunning its shark bite wound on rocks near Swinburne Island, in a gallery published at SILive.com (Staten Island Advance, photo by Barry Masterson, co-founder of Kayak Staten Island).

The question is whether this bite occurred in local waters or if the seal is healing up from an attack out east. Breathe a little easy, for now, says Paul Sieswerda, a shark expert and seal watching guide (and fellow Frisian). Paul has kindly written about sharks for Nature Calendar before, and was profiled in The New Yorker for his seal trips. I got to know him when I broke the story of seals returning to New York Harbor a decade earlier in the New York Times. That discovery was made by fellow kayakers (I joined for the confirming trip), who have now gotten familiar with porpoises.

It seems inevitable that larger sharks will return to our waters as the estuary grows cleaner and more bountiful. Prospects for that are good, if unnerving, with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Seascape Initiative fostering the process. Last summer a NYC beach was closed in the Rockaways after a thresher shark sighting, but sadly the specimen was found dead the next day. A series of attacks in New Jersey became the stuff of legend nearly a century ago. Several sources report large sharks being caught off of lower Manhattan before the 20th century, perhaps attracted by rotting meat scraps tossed into the Hudson River. It also seems the Narrows were then, as now, a hot spot for finding larger creatures. A fun exploration of this topic by Tom Vanderbilt was published in the New York Times a few years ago, bearing this gripping image from the New York Historical Society.

Chaos in the Narrows (circa 1880). Collection of the New York Historical Society.

If you see a shark, please report it to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Seascape Initiative. If you see a marine mammal or turtle, even in good health, please report it to the Riverhead Foundation. If you have the urge to get out there among the big fish, please volunteer at a community boathouse on the NYC Water Trail.

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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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Tulip tree flower.

Tulip trees (Liriodendron) are a marvel, both a-flower and afloat. Their large and solid trunks were prized by our harbor’s first mariners for making dugout canoes. English colonists even dubbed the trees, “canoewood.” Here’s an educational video by Lenape Lifeways about tulip tree canoe construction:

http://www.lenapelifeways.org/videodugoutcanoe.htm

Recently the Shinnecock Nation in eastern Long Island crafted tulip tree canoes to revive the tradition. Note the long, seamless canoes that our forbearers paddled on this estuary in the 1626 illustration (found by my co-authors of the East River book) below.

Felling tulip trees in New York City isn’t welcomed today, but strolling among them certainly is! You’ll find them in Central Park, Prospect Park (an earlier entry showed a red-tailed hawk perched in a tulip tree in Prospect Park), and other large greens. Perhaps the best place to appreciate them is Tulip Tree Allee in the New York Botanical Garden. It’s wondrous to see such delicate flowers growing on such a giant — when hiking the Appalachian Trail you can see them reach 180′ tall. Within New York State, the greatest number are concentrated in the lower Hudson Valley and western Long Island. A great concentration can also translate to diverse coloration, as the species hybridizes easily.

Though the cucumber-scented flowers resemble the tree’s European namesake, the species is actually a cousin of the magnolia. One beautiful coincidence is how a tulip tree’s life mirrors that of a human — it takes fifteen years to flower and can live 100 years.

If you want to be part of this tree’s future, please consider joining the Eastern Native Tree Society or the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, or filling out this New York Botanical Garden volunteer application.

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