Archive for April 2011

City Hawk Snatches Chihuahua?

April 25, 2011

Scroll down to see the final image …

In February, I watched a red-tailed hawk eat a rat in the bare branches of a tree in Riverside Park.

Hawk stares at dead rat dinner.

A man stopped to watch with me.  A few minutes later, a woman walking a small dog asked what we were looking at.  When I told her, she said, “I used to think the city’s hawks were magnificent. Now if I had a gun, I would shoot them.”

“Why?” I asked, startled by her ferocity.

She told us a story:  One clear summer day, as she walked in the park, she saw a group of picnickers happily barbecuing and enjoying life up near 125th Street.  Suddenly a red-tailed hawk swooped low, picked up a tiny chihuahua in its talons, and soared north along the river, as the bereft owner wailed.

“It was amazing how far you could see him flying,”  she said, “with the pink leash dangling behind.”

Since then, she hates hawks.

I think I understand.  I’d certainly be devastated – and possibly unforgiving – if a predator ate my beloved dog (it would have to be some kind of prehistorically large pterosaur to choke down Esau).  But as a fellow hawk watcher said, “It’s a wild animal. It doesn’t share our morals. That’s the way it is.”

He’s right, of course, except that we don’t share our morals, either.  We declare some animals all right to eat and others off limits.  There’s no natural law to this; it’s a cultural thing (some cultures eat horses and dogs; we don’t) and an individual choice.

Some pigs, for example, are pets

Miniature pot-bellied pig in harness

and some pigs are meat.

Ham on the hoof; click picture to visit Smallcombe Farm

Surely it’s a bit much to expect wild creatures to distinguish pets from prey, when the distinction is essentially arbitrary.

If this story is true (and even if it isn’t), it brings up the fascinating issue of human-wildlife conflict in urban centers.  New York City’s raptor population, once virtually nonexistent, is growing larger.  Eggs have just hatched in the Riverside Park nest as well as in the peregrine nest down on Water Street.  We’re waiting to hear about the picturesque nest at Saint John the Divine.

Saint John's nest rests on the shoulders of a suffering saint. Photo by rbs, Bloomingdale Village blog (click photo to visit).

And any day now, the numerous other hawk and falcon nests all over the five boroughs will be home to eyasses.

Life is tough for young city hawks, and the majority will not survive to adulthood.  Rat poison, cars and disease will take a toll. But each year, enough babies survive to expand the numbers of predatory fliers in the skies over New York City.  They’ll be soaring over the streets and parks, looking for meals, and tiny dogs and cats look at least as tasty as any rat, squirrel or pigeon.  Like our suburban neighbors who are losing pets to coyotes, this story offers a reminder that we may need to adjust our behavior to accommodate the return of the wild.  So if you love your cats, better to keep them inside where they can be neither prey nor predator (songbirds will thank you).  And if you love your tiny dogs, keep them leashed and under your watchful eye, at least when strolling in Riverside Park.

I couldn’t shake the image of the hawk carrying off the poor little dog with the pink leash, so I asked my friend,  Charlotte Hildebrand, to paint an illustration for me.  And she did.

This painting arrived with today’s mail.  Thank you, Charlotte.

Morningside Park’s Turtle Army and Other NYC Wildlife

April 21, 2011

Morningside Park is in bloom, and its animals, many of them drawn by the little pond, are back in action.

On a sunny yet still cool April day, I spied fifty turtles basking on rocks (yes, that’s 50) as well as mallards, a goose, a cormorant, red-winged blackbirds, warblers, finches, rock doves and sparrows, a red-tailed hawk soaring east from the Cathedral, squirrels and a feral cat that delicately picked its way down the cliff to the water’s edge.

Let’s start with a unit of the turtle army:

Turtle army assembles

Five turtle species reside in Morningside Park: red-eared slider, common snapper, cooter, painted turtle, and mud (or musk) turtle.  I didn’t come up with the number five on my own.

I heard it from Tom.

Tom

Tom is a herpetologist/zoologist with the Bronx Botanical Garden. He grew up playing in and around Morningside Park, worked in the park for a time, and knows it inside and out.  He knows its flora, from trees to flowers to algae, and its fauna, from his beloved herps (reptiles and amphibians) to the songbirds, egrets, heron, falcons, hawks and kestrels that nest and hunt here to the bipedal primates that stroll, play, relax and cook in the park.

I met Tom last summer. He was gazing meditatively at a bullfrog that was lolling in the shallow northeast corner of the pond.

Summer day.

Tom still lives at the edge of Morningside park in a high-rise with a view over the treetops to Central Park. One evening from a window, he watched a pair of peregrine falcons chase a red-tailed hawk.

As for the turtles, Tom said they regularly nest in the area around the pond, but that the babies often don’t make it. Sometimes the ground becomes too “compacted,” and the hatchlings can’t dig their way out.  A woman I met in the park on a separate occasion said she had actually seen a turtle laying eggs under a very exposed tree near Morningside Avenue.

Well, some of those babies must be surviving, given the extraordinary size of the pond’s turtle army.

Another platoon of the turtle army

Also on last week’s stroll, a cormorant spent time drying one of its wings

One wing drying

Cormorants are voracious eaters that can make short work of a fish population.  Last summer, Tom was pointing out a school of tiny baby fish swimming near the shore, when a flash of gold leaped and plashed in the center of the pond. “Koi,”said Tom.” There’s a lot of fish in there: catfish, carp, crawfish.”

Watch out, fishies.

A red-winged blackbird waded in the shallows

What is this elegantly epauleted blackbird hunting?

A pigeon also waded,

and a solitary goose stood on a solitary leg.

Cantilevered goose

Until next time…

Great White Peacock of Morningside Heights

April 15, 2011

I love my NYC neighborhood.  Where else in Manhattan do the strange cries of peacocks echo through city streets?

Regal? Yes. Bright? Um...

Three gorgeous, pin-headed, tiara-wearing peacock boys freely strut their stuff through the grounds of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.  A recent stroll found the sole white peacock repeatedly displaying his astonishing tail to a green hedge.

The Great White Peacock of Morningside Heights spent a long time staring at, or into, the hedge.

Staring at the wall

I mean, a long time. As in minutes.

Getting a closer look.

But eventually, whether he found inspiration in the hedge or simply got bored, he began to display.

Opening...

Swirling ...

Revolving ...

Let’s do that again.

Opening ...

Raising ...

Spreading ...

Swirling ...

Raising ...

Profile ...

Lowering ...

Furling ...

And we’re back to contemplating the hedge …

Whats in there?

Check back soon for a look at the colored peacock in action…

I Find a Gray Seal Pup

April 12, 2011

Two weeks ago, Esau the dog and I were walking down the road to beautiful Flying Point Beach in Watermill on the south fork of Long Island.

Long Island

On the way, we encounter a flock of mostly headless mute swans on little Mecox Bay.

Mute and headless swans

The beach is empty.  Empty of humans, that is.

Shorebirds dart about on toothpick legs

while herring, black-backed and other gulls swoop overhead.Young gull on the prowl

As we walk, I scan the ocean for wildlife.  I always look for seals – or floating bowling balls, which is what seal heads resemble when they peek out of the water.  I used to see seals in Casco Bay when I lived in Portland, Maine and in the waters of Long Nook Beach on Cape Cod.  But in decades of walks on Flying Point Beach, I have never spotted a seal, although I know they are out there.

Three gorgeous, punky-crested red-breasted mergansers swim by.

Through binoculars, these boys are beautiful.

Further down the beach, I spy an unusual lump.

Beach lump: what is it?

We walk lumpward, until the lump reveals itself to be … a seal pup.

Is it all right?

It is a few feet long, and remarkably fat.

I  scan the water in hopes of seeing a mother seal bobbing just offshore. Nothing. Has the little guy been abandoned? Is it injured or ill?  Not wanting to frighten the seal, I keep my distance, and examine the pup through binoculars.  The little seal seems to sleep.

Resting

Then it perks up and looks around.

'sup?

It rolls over onto its back and wriggles around, as if to scratch an itch.

Sometimes it gazes right at Esau and me.Oh. Hello.

It rubs its nose with a flipper and sometimes seems to be playing peek-a-boo, covering its face with a flipper. I worry about its flippers.  Are they moving properly? I can’t tell.

I use my cell phone to call a rescue hotline for marine mammals. The hotline turns out to be operated by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Mammals. A woman from the answering service tells me that several people have already called to report the Flying Point seal pup. I ask when a biologist will arrive to assess its health. She has no idea."But it may be injured or abandoned," I say. "Surely someone will come soon." The woman explains that the foundation handles all of Long Island from Queens to Montauk. With only one van. The van has gone to Coney Island to check out a seal, and has several other stops to make. There's no telling when or if anyone will come to Watermill.I call the Southampton police station to see if they can help. The policeman says that no one there has the training to evaluate a seal (fair enough), and the hotline is the best resource.So I wait and watch, accompanied by my patient dog. I wonder at the strange tug of kinship with a fellow creature, alone and possibly in distress. I don't know how to interpret the movements of the seal. What is it saying when it gazes at us or when it covers its eyes with a flipper, the way my old dog Lucy used to do with her paw?The sun goes down, and my fingers freeze. A friend brings gloves to the beach, then stays to wonder at the little lump, apparently alone in an expanse of sea, sand and sky. No one comes.After a while, we walk away.

In the morning, I return to find … nothing. The seal is gone, and the ocean has claimed the spot where the little animal rested.

Click here for a follow-up on the seals of NYC and Long Island, and click here to read about the seal-people known as silkies .


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,226 other followers

%d bloggers like this: