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Posts Tagged ‘south bronx’

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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