Archive for September 2011

New York Master Naturalist Training: Arrival

September 29, 2011

This post is the first in a series about the classes and field walks I participated in as a student of New York’s Master Naturalist Training, September 23-25, 2011. Future posts will cover specifics of our classes on NY State’s flora and fauna.

The New York Master Naturalist Program is a high-quality, science-based training program designed to teach adults about New York’s natural resources, empowering them to educate others and participate in on-the-ground conservation management projects.

I don’t know how I first heard about state-run Master Naturalist programs.  It was around a year ago, and the source may have been the nature blog of Philadelphia naturalist Donna Long.  I liked the idea, so I did some serious Google sleuthing (the program’s web presence still leaves something to be desired), and determined that New York does indeed have a Master Naturalist Program.  Unlike some states (Texas, for example) with long-established programs and multiple chapters, New York is new at the Master Naturalist game. Run by the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, the program has been in existence only three years and is still making changes, based on feedback from participants.

The heart of the program is an intensive weekend of classroom and field training at Cornell’s beautiful 4,000-acre Arnot Teaching and Research Forest.

Heading out for some field study

The weekend provides 16 credit hours, after which participants receive a certificate, making them “Certified Naturalists.”

Yup, that's me.

To become a Master Naturalist, students must continue their training over the coming year with an additional 14 hours of approved coursework and 30 hours of volunteer work.

It all sounded good to me.  And besides, what Manhattanite couldn’t use an autumn weekend in the woods?

So it was that last Friday morning, I hitched a ride to the Arnot Forest with fellow student Kimberly Eierman, a Bronxville-based landscape designer and state-certified Master Gardener with a passion for native plants.  We headed north in sometimes heavy rain for a 4 1/2-hour drive, passing through some sadly flood-damaged communities on our way.

The largest pumpkin known to man appeared and disappeared in the fog.

Giant pumpkin on the lam

After arriving at the forest in the late afternoon, I snagged a bunk in a cabin and unrolled my sleeping bag.

Home

Then students gathered in the Main Lodge for the official welcome and introduction by Kristi Sullivan, Director of the Master Naturalist Program and a biologist with Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources.  The lodge would serve as our indoor classroom, dining hall and social area.

Feed body and mind in the lodge

I was impressed with the turn-out. There were 26 of us from around the state: men and women, young and old, with a wide variety of backgrounds and knowledge of natural history.  There were trained foresters, elementary school teachers, nature center staff members, landscapers, backyard gardeners, a wildife rehabber with a particular interest in turtles, a recent college grad with an impressive knowledge of mushrooms as well as a couple of recent retirees and a few people considering a career change.

Kristi distributed fat binders full of information

Just a small sampling of study info & hand-outs

and a schedule of classes, some with an outdoor field study component:

Bats and Bat Conservation
Forest Ecology
Threats to Forest Ecosystems
Amphibians and Reptiles
Trees
Wetland Ecology
Wetland Restoration
Deer and Biodiversity
Mushrooms and Fungi
Invasive Species
Insect Biology

Check back soon for more on our classes in New York natural history.  First up: bats and white-nose syndrome.

Baby Birds and Animals: To Help or Not to Help

September 15, 2011

Last Saturday night, a reader left a comment on my blog, wondering what to do with the fledgling bird that he had found on a busy midtown Manhattan sidewalk.  He left a message with the Wild Bird Fund, but had not yet heard from them and was looking for someplace to take the bird.  Wild Bird left him a message, suggesting that he drop off the bird but, as my reader later reported, the little bird did not survive long enough to get help.

Making the decision to remove a bird that can’t yet fly or feed itself from a midtown Manhattan street seems like a pretty good call.  But it’s not always so easy to know whether to intervene.  Our hearts go out to a fellow creature in distress or a baby animal that we fear has been abandoned.  But rehabilitators and others who work with wildlife stress that the impulse to help is often misguided.  I know from my own experience that compassion needs to be guided by an understanding of wildlife biology and behavior.

When I found a seal pup alone on a Long Island beach last spring, I was quite sure it was too small to be on its own.  After watching it for a while, I feared that it was in distress, either ill or injured.  Seeing no sign of another seal, I wondered if it had been abandoned by its mother.  Concerned, I alerted the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Mammals.  They had already received several calls about the pup but, swamped with calls about stranded seals, they weren’t able to come to evaluate it.  Luckily, it was a cold day, and there were no people or romping dogs nearby.  I waited and watched for a couple of hours, then left the little seal on its own on the empty beach.

When I returned to the city, I called and spoke at some length to a biologist at the Riverhead Foundation who assured me that the seal sounded like a healthy, normal Gray seal pup and was probably just resting.  Gray seals are weaned by the time they are two or three weeks old, she said, and the pup I saw was probably at least two months, and completely independent.  Doing nothing – and keeping my distance while I did it – was the right thing to do.

Of course, doing nothing isn’t always the right thing to do.  Late last spring, I spotted a sweet fledgling on my street.

It was in a large planter right outside the doorway of a neighboring building.

Across the sidewalk in a nearby street tree I saw adult birds watching – probably parents, I thought.  The baby bird was not in a particularly safe spot – it was a couple of good hops away from the street, but for the moment, it was off the street, near vegetation for hiding, and out of the way of dogs and pedestrians.  I left it where it was.  Early the next morning, I was shocked to find its little body lying in the center of the sidewalk, neatly decapitated.

Note:  I’m trying hard not to get sidetracked with the intriguing question of what animal killed the bird and made off with its head.  It’s not relevant to the question we’re considering here of when to intervene to help a wild animal.  But I can’t help myself.  It’s just too bizarre.  There are not that many predatory species on our street to put into the murder line-up.  Known neighborhood predators include raptors (kestrels and red-tails), raccoons (but I’ve not seen one outside the park in over two years),  stray or feral cats (but I’ve never spotted one on my street), dogs (many, but usually attached to a human and not known for such tidy bites), humans and, my personal choice, rats, the kings of the night.  Who do you think killed the bird?  Please leave a comment.

So should I have “rescued” the bird, and taken it to a rehabilitator?  Maybe.  I asked Wild Bird Fund that question on their Facebook page, and they answered: “Since the fledgling was not injured and it was in a decently safe place, you did the right thing leaving it there. So many fledglings are kidnapped from their parents by “rescuers.””

The truth is, outcomes for fledglings are often bad, whether you intervene, as my reader did, or do nothing, as I did.  Even under completely natural circumstances, millions of baby birds do not make it to adulthood.  Had I known about the Wild Bird Foundation at the time, I might have decided to take the bird in.  But would that have been the right decision?

Wild bird experts, including the NYC Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology agree with the Wild Bird Fund that, when possible, fledglings should be left alone unless they are in obvious danger or clearly orphaned.  Many bird species leave the nest days before they can fly, or fly well.  During this risky period of development, the parents continue to watch over and feed the young birds who are easy prey for natural predators as well as those most efficient, human-introduced, non-native killing machines known as cats.

So how do you know what to do the next time you find a baby bird?  Here is a terrific flowchart on how to make a decision.  Scroll down for instructions on how to safely transport the bird, if it is in need of help.

View this document on Scribd

Good luck to the late-summer fledglings, and to all the migrating birds already making their way south.

Wandering Peacocks of NYC

September 9, 2011

Peacock in April in fresh breeding feathers.

The free-roaming peacocks of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue exert a strange fascination.

The white peacock bears an uncanny resemblance to my paternal grandmother in her later years.

In June, when a maintenance man rattled a cookie tin filled with food, the white peacock eagerly hopped a fence and positively hustled to get some chow.

Hustlin'

The peacock chowed down.

Puttin' on the feed bag

He appeared completely unfazed by a large troop of day campers traipsing noisily past.

Just another peacock sighting

and greedily gobbled his bird chow.

Staring down dinner.

Three male peacocks, gifts from the Bronx Zoo, roam all over the Cathedral grounds. The maintenance man told me that when the birds first arrived as young fellows, they would wander into the neighborhood, prompting worried phone calls from residents: “Hey, I just saw one of your peacocks over on Broadway.”  Someone from the Cathedral would head over to collect the errant bird and bring it home.

As far as I know, the Cathedral birds now stay close to home.  But a desire to ramble seems to regularly overtake New York City peacocks and peahens. In May 2011, a peahen bolted from the Bronx Zoo.

Peahen in Bronx Street (credit: ALDAG/AFP/Getty Images)

After several days of sightings and capture attempts, the bird was nabbed in a Bronx parking garage, and returned to the zoo. “In general,” said zoo director Jim Breheny, the zoo’s peacocks are “not inclined to leave the property, but for some reason this bird just got curious.”

A few months later in August, strollers on Fifth Avenue were startled by the sight of a peacock perched outside a fifth floor window.  The bird turned out to be an escapee from the Central Park Zoo.

Peacock rests on window ledge high above Fifth Avenue. Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters.

Zoo officials maintained that the peacock was likely to return home of its own accord and, after a night of adventurous sightseeing (and some serious tweeting), the bird did just that.

The Cathedral peacocks have already molted, losing most of their gorgeous breeding plumage and, until spring, will resemble the more modestly feathered peahen.

Mostly molted peacock

Check back soon to find out what Flannery O’Connor thought of peacocks and to see more photos of the Saint John’s trio.

NYC Raccoon Sunset

September 2, 2011

One evening earlier this week, Esau and I strolled over to Riverside Park. The sun was already going down, and I thought with longing of those 15 hour days of June when daylight stretches into our nights. We’re down to 13-hour days now on our annual march to the puny gray 9-hour slivers that pass for winter days. I know, I know. The end of August is a little premature for the onset of my yearly Terror of the Shrinking Days. I’ll stave it off as long as I can. There will be plenty of time for obsessing over darkness come December.

The late summer sunset over the Hudson was a subtle beauty.

And the two raccoons that live high in the great retaining wall came out to enjoy it.

For a while, their fur was lit by the sun

as was the retaining wall itself

Raccoons begin their day as the sun goes down. Evening is morning for these two, who greeted the night with a little personal grooming

followed by some rather extensive inter-personal grooming

The Washer vigorously attacked the eyes, ears and neck of the Washed

which led to squirming on the part of the Washed and grabbing on the part of the Washer.

The Washer eventually interrupted the bath to perform some pretty serious self-scratching (most wild animals and birds host mites, fleas and other itch-inducing parasites), while the Washed looked on

The noise of a boisterous softball team traipsing up the otherwise quiet path set the raccoons on alert

and when a teenager, suddenly noticing the raccoons, made half-playful aggressive moves in their direction, they ducked swiftly inside their hole.

They peeped out again as soon as the team passed. But by then, the light was fading and patient Esau still awaited his walk. We ambled on, he and I, leaving the raccoons to their mysterious night business as the dusk slowly fell around us all.


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