Archive for December 2011

Top Five Urban Nature Stories of 2011: From Peacocks to Mastodons

December 31, 2011

Yesterday we began our coverage of Out Walking the Dog’s Top Ten Stories of 2011 with Numbers Ten to Six. The stories explored urban coyotes and whales as well as a secret garden in the middle of New York City and two peculiar NYC plants, one of which is connected to an on-going ancient British festival.

Today the countdown continues with the top five stories. Here we go:

Number Five:
Great White Peacock of Morningside Heights takes a look at the pure-white free-roaming peacock of Saint John the Divine. My readers appear to be in the grip of a communal fascination with peacocks in general and white peacocks in particular. Well, who can blame them? The birds are extraordinary. More peacock posts will follow in 2012.

Number Four:
City Hawk Snatches Chihuahua? recounts an eye-witness report by a fellow dog walker in Riverside Park of a red-tailed hawk flying off with a pink-leashed chihuahua. Believe it or not, similar stories are regularly reported. Urban legend? Fact? You decide. With a made-to-order illustration by Los Angeles writer and blogger Charlotte Hildebrand.

Number Three:
Rabies in Manhattan: What About Squirrels and Rats? is a search engine favorite, as readers from NYC and around the country seem especially concerned about the possibility of rabies in squirrels.  I wrote the post almost two years ago, during the early days of the NYC raccoon rabies epidemic, but it continues to receive a large number of hits.

credit: Marcelo Barrera

Number Two:
NYC Coyote Watch 2011: Coyote in Queens
was published at the end of January 2011, when a coyote had been seen – and photographed – in Calvary Cemetery, Queens. Queens and the Bronx seem to be the coyote’s current boroughs of choice with a breeding population in the Bronx and on-going sightings in several Queens neighborhoods. Long Island has fallen to the adaptable predator. Today, Queens. Tomorrow, the Hamptons.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, drum roll, please. The Number One Story on Out Walking the Dog during 2011 is …

Mastodons in Manhattan: How the Honey Locust Tree Got its Spikes. Written in 2010, Mastodons in Manhattan has consistently been my most-read post. Go figure. It tells the story of how the Honey locust tree, which may be seen in abundance in NYC parks, adapted to predation by North American megafauna by developing long, fierce spikes that are tough enough to pierce mastodon tongues (and automobile tires).

And that’s it for 2011, folks. We hope you’ll continue to follow our urban nature explorations in 2012.

Most Popular Urban Nature Stories of 2011: Numbers 10 – 6

December 30, 2011

Today and tomorrow, we’re celebrating another year of watching New York City’s urban wildlife by looking back at Out Walking the Dog’s Top Stories of 2011.  The articles include mastodons, chihuahua-carrying hawks, whales, coyotes, rodents, burdock, peacocks and the secret garden of St. John the Divine. Today I’ll count down from Number Ten through Number Six. Tomorrow I’ll cover Numbers Five through One.

Ladies and gentlemen, let the countdown begin:

Number 10:
In the Number Ten spot, we have a tie between two very different stories.

NYC Coyote Existential: Where Do They Come From and Where are They Going? explores recent scientific research behind the origins of the coyotes that are populating the Northeast and have begun turning up in NYC. Prompted by my own sightings of a young female coyote in Central Park, the story features several of D. Bruce Yolton’s marvelous night photos that capture the odd, dream-like quality of seeing a coyote in our urban world.

Seed Pods and Eyeballs offers a brief exploration of the marvelous Sweetgum tree with its ubiquitous (in Riverside Park, anyway) spiky seedpods, known as monkey balls, porcupine eggs and space balls, among other colorful names. I was inspired to write the post by a reader’s query about the starry eyes of a snowman in a photo from an earlier post.

Number 9:
Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls To His Friends
looks at the problems of over-population, habituation to humans, and disease that may be caused by feeding urban wildlife. But the story also observes the profound pleasure and connection to nature that many people derive from the activity.  Does the pleasure balance the harm?

Number 8:
The Burry Man, The Burry Dog and Burdock
is a personal favorite. After an unpleasant encounter with burrs in Riverside Park (the dog was covered in them), I researched burdock, and found the bizarre annual British ritual of the burry man. Check out the story for more than you ever wanted to know about burrs along with photos of a burr-encrusted dog and the marvelous real-life burry man.

Number Seven:
Saint John the Divine: A Secret Garden in Morningside Heights
is a photo essay of one of my favorite neighborhood spots in the glory of spring bloom. Free-roaming peacocks, bronze animals and more: read the story and plan a visit.

Number Six:
Whales in New York City
details the thrilling return of whales to the waters of New York, including the presence of a group of 30 to 50 fin whales just past the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

Check back on January 31st – tomorrow!  – for the top five stories of the year.

A Christmas Plea from Dr. Astrov (1897)

December 25, 2011

Out Walking the Dog wishes all readers a very merry Christmas, Chanukkah, Kwanza, Solstice and every other possible reason for celebrating Light-out-of-Darkness. We’re still posting from the coast of British Columbia, and will be returning to the wilds of New York City next week. Wherever we travel, we are deeply grateful for your interest in the world as we see it.

The forests here in British Columbia put me in mind of Chekhov’s nature-loving Dr. Astrov (Uncle Vanya, 1897):

Of course, we have to cut trees sometimes, but why whole forests?

Russian forests tremble under the axe – millions of trees are lost, animals and birds have to flee, rivers dry out, beautiful landscapes are gone forever.

And why? Because man is too lazy to pick up the fuel under his nose. … Aren’t we barbarians to burn beauty in a stove, to kill what we can’t recreate?

Our wit and vitality are given us to increase what there is. But what do we do? We destroy.

There are less forests, waters are polluted, wildlife disappears, the climate is harsher, and each day the world is poorer and uglier.

You’re looking at me sarcastically. You don’t believe a word I say. Well, perhaps I’m crazy.

But when I pass a peasant’s woods that I’ve saved from the axe, or hear leaves rustling in a tree that I’ve planted – I feel I’ve helped.

When I plant a birch, see its leaves sprout, see it sway in the wind – I’m proud, and I think …

But – time to go.

And who knows? Perhaps I’m crazy.

Water Birds in East Vancouver and a Ferry Ride

December 23, 2011

The mountains beckoned over Trout Lake in East Vancouver.

Frost was on the ground.

Waterfowl swam about near the small beach, including mallards and American coots.

Coots are special favorites of mine for their charmingly ungainly physiques. Since I’ve seen the little balloon-bodied, white-faced birds on Trout Lake in summer months as well, I assume they are year-round residents.

American wigeons paddled about,

including this dainty female.

A Northern shoveller seemed in thrall to her impossibly large orange bill, following wherever it led.

She sometimes swam with the tip of her bill in the water, perhaps skimming small creatures as she went.

The park’s habitats include this tiny Louisiana-like marsh,

and this area of soft purplish plants and reeds.

A living fence of willow creates a virtually impenetrable barrier along one side of the lake.

Perhaps it secures a safe haven for nesting waterbirds, protecting them from cavorting off-leash dogs.

Occasional mini-dramas broke out among the mostly peaceable birds, notably a couple of thrilling, if brief, coot chases, one of which may be seen at about the 55-second mark in the video below.

Later we rode a ferry north on our journey to Garden Bay, a village on the Sunshine Coast’s Pender Harbor. From the ferry, snowy mountains shone in the distance.

Closer to us, the forested slopes tumbled to the water.

The sun set early, but light lingered.

Bald Eagle in British Columbia

December 22, 2011

We landed in Vancouver, British Columbia in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. After sleeping a few hours, I took a quiet morning walk around Trout Lake in East Vancouver’s John Hendry Park.

The mountains were out.

On the little beach, American coots and a variety of ducks swam and foraged (more on them soon).

Gulls flew and fished.

Crows scavenged.

On one side of the lake, dogs and their owners gathered.

As I continued my circle round the lake, I heard crows calling with a sound I thought I recognized from my home crows in New York City’s Riverside Park. It was the sound that says, “Hawk on the premises! Hawk! Hawk! Hawk!”

So I looked up and around, and sure enough I spied a huge bird near the top of an enormously tall cottonwood tree with several crows nearby.

But wait a minute. That’s not just any bird.

It was a Bald eagle, being harassed by crows just like our Red-tailed hawks.

As is their wont, the crows were persistent in annoying the giant raptor. But while our Red-tails usually just put their heads down and look beleaguered under the siege of the crows, the Bald eagle seemed less tolerant. Whenever the crows got too close, the eagle would lunge at them and snap a little with its beak. This had little effect on the crows.  They flew above, below and behind, and the eagle kept a close eye on their whereabouts.

I watched for quite a long time. The crows showed no signs of tiring from their work, and the eagle showed no signs of moving. A couple of times, it seemed to fix me with its eyes.

As I finally turned to walk on, an elderly Native gentleman with his dog said “Majestic, isn’t it?” I agreed.  The man told me he sees the eagle in the park at least once a week, sometimes alone, sometimes with a second eagle.  He spoke of how habitat for other animals in the area is being lost, and expressed particular concern for local owls.

I walked on, then turned back.

Again I walked on, and again I turned.

Beautiful British Columbia, indeed.

Co-existing with Urban Coyotes – even in NYC

December 18, 2011

Hal, a young coyote trapped in Central Park in 2006, died before he could be relocated. Photograph by Daniel Avila, courtesy New York City Department of Parks and Recreation

Coyote Sightings in Queens: Is the Situation Dangerous?

Residents of Jamaica, Queens have reported sightings of coyotes near the Locust Manor LIRR station. According to the usual media hype, they are being “terrorized” by dangerous predators. It’s impossible to tell from the reporting whether there is one coyote, spotted many times, or several. It’s also difficult to ascertain whether the coyote(s) have shown behavior that is worrisome or potentially dangerous. Often people, especially city dwellers, panic at the very idea of a wild animal among us. Simply seeing a coyote, even in a residential or commercial area, is not in itself cause for alarm. Most coyotes are naturally fearful and wary of humans, and try to keep their distance.

Wary California coyote peers into backyard. Photo by Charlotte Hildebrand.

Removal or Relocation

If the situation in Locust Manor is determined to be dangerous, the city or USDA will respond accordingly. Usually, if an individual animal has shown itself to be aggressive, it will be trapped and killed. If it is considered a nuisance rather than a threat, authorities may attempt to trap and relocate it.  In 2010, a 30-pound female coyote took up residence for a month in Central Park’s Hallett Sanctuary. She began venturing out of the park at night, and was eventually trapped in Tribeca and relocated to an undisclosed location within city limits.

Coyote in Central Park 2010. Photo by D. Bruce Yolton of Urbanhawks.com (click photo to visit)

How well relocation works, either for the coyote or the neighborhood, is an open question. Leaving aside Manhattan Island, research in other communities indicates that many relocated coyotes try to return to their original area (and often don’t make it, hit by cars as they attempt to cross busy roads). The public likes to think of relocation as more humane than killing, a happy compromise for all, but the truth is, as so often in nature, more complex. Most areas that are suitable for relocation of a wild animal already have a resident population of the species that will not welcome an interloper.

Removal is also unlikely to be a permanent solution to a neighborhood’s problem. The qualities that drew a coyote to settle in a particular area (available food, water and shelter) will, in all likelihood, eventually attract new animals into the void created by the removal.

It’s Our Turn To Adapt

Once confined to the Great Plains, coyotes are in the process of colonizing the entire country, a process that began about a hundred years ago. They have evinced a remarkable ability to adapt to the dramatic environmental changes we humans have created, including the loss of traditional habitat. Sooner or later, we must accept their presence in our communities, and learn to co-exist with them. Like it or not, it’s our turn to adapt.

Still, we humans need to adjust our behavior to accommodate the new reality of coyotes in our midst.  Below are basic guidelines, compiled from wildlife biologists, on living with urban and suburban coyotes.

I’m not a coyote expert. I’m an amateur naturalist who is intrigued by urban nature and the changing interplay between humans and wild animals. In a future post, I’ll provide links to a variety of websites from New York and around the country that offer fascinating information on coyote behavior and how to live with these remarkable creatures.

LIVING WITH COYOTES

Keep cats inside. Cats, astonishingly effective little killers of birds and rodents, are often killed in turn by coyotes. If you love them, keep them inside.

Supervise and leash your dogs. Keep smaller dogs under close supervision, even in a fenced yard. Don’t leave pets out at night. Never leave a pet tied up outside without close supervision.

Supervise small children when they play outside, even in a fenced yard.

Don’t feed the animals. Pet food, garbage, and your cat or small dog are all food to a wild animal.  Secure your garbage, and don’t feed your pets outside.

Enjoy watching coyotes from a distance, and never try to lure them closer with food. If you like coyotes, do not try to “make friends” with them.  A common saying among coyote experts is, “A fed coyote is a dead coyote.” Feeding leads the animal to become habituated to humans, which may lead to aggressive demands for food, or to perceived aggression when a coyote approaches too closely.

If you see a coyote, make yourself appear large and potentially threatening by waving your arms and shouting. Let the coyote know that encounters with humans are thoroughly unpleasant and should be avoided. Blow a loud whistle or horn, or bang pots and pans. Don’t run. Running may trigger the coyote’s instinct to chase.

A coyote that is aggressive towards people needs to be removed, which generally means killed.

Report aggressive animals immediately. But remember: just spotting an animal does not mean it is a threat. Seeing a wild animal may be, in fact, an opportunity.

Keep wildlife wild.

Young coyote startled by the sound of a camera. Photo by Charlotte Hildebrand.

Queens Coyotes Expand NYC Range

December 16, 2011

Coyotes have taken up residence in another New York City borough.  They’ve long been living in the wilds of the Bronx.  Now continued coyote sightings and encounters confirm that at least one animal, and possibly several, are living near the Locust Manor Long Island Railroad station in Jamaica, Queens. The local media is playing up the situation (‘Coyotes Terrorizing Residents Near LIRR Station’) as if a pack of fire-breathing, man-eating dragons had moved into the patch of woods by the train tracks.

Residents of the Locust Manor neighborhood are scared, which is certainly understandable, particularly given the lack of reliable information about urban coyotes.  One woman tells a reporter that she turned around and “it was on me,” a statement the reporter does nothing to clarify. Does the woman mean that the coyote attacked her or that it simply and suddenly appeared? Clearly not the former, or the reporter would have had an even bigger field day.

I started to wonder about the ongoing presence of coyotes in Queens when a post I wrote last January, NYC Coyote Watch 2011: Coyote in Queens, suddenly began receiving a large number of hits from people seeking information on coyotes in Queens.  In February, a reader wrote in to say that a friend of his had spotted a coyote in Flushing Cemetery. In April, another reader wrote worriedly of a disturbing encounter in Jamaica, near the LIRR tracks. Frank Vincent of  The Wild Dog Foundation wrote back, offering to speak to the community about the issue. And yesterday, a reader wrote about her family’s encounters with the Locust Manor coyote.

In the wake of the news report, the city sent a park ranger to investigate the situation.  My hope is that the city and the community will take an active role in educating residents about co-existing with wildlife. Many communities in New York and around the country are bringing in wildlife experts to talk to their citizens, defuse hysteria, answer questions, and offer suggestions and perspective. Informative websites are Project Coyote, based in California, and Chicago’s Urban Coyote Research Project.

The Locust Manor coyotes are certainly not the first wild coyotes in Queens. The animals appear to be spreading throughout the borough. Almost a year ago, a beautiful reddish coyote was spotted in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, not far from Long Island City. Calvary Cemetery is in Zone Two in the NYC map below, while Locust Manor, Jamaica, is in Zone Twelve, and Flushing is in Zone Seven. I think they’ve got the borough covered.

New York neighborhoods

When coyotes are spotted in such disparate areas, odds are pretty good that they’re living unnoticed, or unreported, in other areas as well.

This is big wildlife news for New York City, as well as for Long Island. For years, New York State wildlife experts have maintained that coyotes are resident throughout the state with the exception of Long Island. But Queens is on Long Island, so that statement clearly needs a little updating.

Today, Queens. Tomorrow, the Hamptons.  Oh, and Brooklynites, you’d better keep your eyes open.

Everything changes: Two Days at the Beach

December 13, 2011

Two November days on a familiar beach served to remind me that everything changes, and a beach, perhaps, most of all.

Day One

Tiny animal holes dot the wet sand.

Breathing trail. Photo: Melissa Cooper

The surface of the beach is pretty empty,

Esau the dog in an undisclosed desert country. Photo: Melissa Cooper

except for a few remnants of life. Like this brilliant piece of seaweed.

Who lives below? Photo: Melissa Cooper

Or this lovely mussel shell resting against a twig.

Mussel and twig lie near paw print. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Or this delicate little crab, a few of its legs and much of its color washed away by sun and surf.

Where's the rest of me? Photo: Melissa Cooper

Tire tracks broke the beach into a system of unnecessary trails.

Rutted beach. Photo: Melissa Cooper

and  Esau warns of impending danger.

Danger Deep Water Photo: Melissa Cooper

On the way home, a gull looks out over Mecox Bay.

Day Two

The next day, there’s not an air hole to be found. Instead, beach stones lie strewn on the wet sand.

Smooth, rounded, multi-colored touchstones. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Among the stones is a golden egg.

Looking for the golden goose. Photo: Melissa Cooper

 Is this the gull that laid the golden egg?

I will never tell. Photo: Melissa Cooper

A peculiar cartilaginous skeleton lies on the sand.  Reader, any guesses as to identity?

What am I? Or what was I? Photo: Melissa Cooper

A solitary swimmer braves the icy waters,

Brrr. Photo: Melissa Cooper

and Esau leaves footprints wherever he goes.

Esau was here. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Hawk of the Day

December 10, 2011

December 9.

As I’ve said before, bare branches make for fine hawk watching.

From late summer through early fall, I wondered where Riverside Park’s red-tails were hanging out. A Parks employee told me to try the playground near Grant’s Tomb, but I found no raptors other than the bird on top of this little structure near the swings.

Hawk on the roof.

But over the past couple of weeks, to my great delight, I’m averaging a hawk a day.

November 13th.

A hawk a day! I see them circling, swooping and perching. They perch on branches.

November 11.

They perch on buildings.

December 6.

And they perch on water towers.

November 8. The crow over head is part of a gang of crows that harassed the hawk.

Today was a two hawk day. In the morning, I saw a hawk perched on a branch inside the park at 108th Street, and this afternoon, I saw one circling high over Riverside Drive and 114th Street. I can only hope I’ll have another opportunity for a close-up view, like the one I had last January, of a juvenile red-tail dining on squirrel.

Meanwhile, welcome back, hawks.

December 6.

NYC Raven: The Scold of Broadway

December 8, 2011

A belligerent raven, sculpted by Peter Woytuk, hangs out near the entrance to the subway station on Broadway and 72nd Street. The big bronze bird appears to have taken on the character of a neighborhood scold.

“Ever hear of personal space, pal? Back off, or I bite.”

An equal opportunity scold, the raven’s most common targets are walkers.

“Get off the damn cell phone, son!”

But the bird is not above nagging the occasional sleeper.

“Sleeper, awake! There is no time but now! Let’s go, buddy, rise and shine.”

On a recent visit to my neighborhood on-line newspaper, the West Side Rag, I was surprised to encounter this photo of the raven.

Photo courtesy of West Side Rag (click photo to visit)

Notice anything strange? Okay, I’ll tell you. The raven is facing the other direction.

Given that the bird weighs many hundreds of pounds, this is decidedly odd. In an accompanying article, the Rag surmises that someone, “probably young, drunk and strong,” is responsible for changing the bird’s position. “Please sir or madam,” implores the writer, ” do not do this again. It is messing with our collective heads.”

But I have a different theory about the raven’s rotation. Have you ever tried to scold someone who’s standing behind you? Of course not. An effective scold always gets right up in the face of his or her target.

Now take a look at the photo below.

“Put that drink down! Put that cigarette out! Are you listening to one word I say?”

The raven rants and raves, but that young man goes right on smoking and guzzling.

But I imagine there comes a moment, out of sight of any camera, when the raven suddenly snaps, spins, and unleashes the full fury of the scold. In terror, the man throws down his cigarette and drink, and runs for shelter into the subway. He’ll never take another puff, and never buy another soda.

This is just one of the unexpected health benefits of sharing the city with wildlife.

And just so you know, we really do share the city with flesh-and-blood ravens. A single raven was brought to NYC by a man who found it injured in Idaho in 2008. The raven spent a couple of years living in Marble Cemetery on the Lower East Side. According to Animal Tourism News, the bird eventually healed and, just last spring, flew away to parts unknown. In addition, a pair of wild ravens have successfully nested and raised young in Queens.

Click to see more of Peter Woytuk’s street sculptures, which are dotted along the Broadway subway line from Columbus Circle (a pair of elephants) to 168th Street in northern Manhattan (three resting bulls). See the locations here, on a lovely map. Then take the Number 1 train to Columbus Circle and head north, or walk south from the subway stop at 168th Street and Broadway.

Sweetgum Seed Balls: Eyeballs and Ankle Biters

December 7, 2011

Riverside Park’s Sweetgum trees have lost their lovely leaves.

Sweetgum trees soar high.

The bare branches are hung with seed balls that look like Christmas tree decorations. If you like your tree decorated in drab brown, that is.

I'm dreaming of a brown Christmas.

The little balls seem to be empty houses, the light, winged seeds having flown out through the tiny windows to colonize new territory for the Sweetgum tribe.

In my house, there are many windows.

Known as porcupine eggs, ankle biters, and monkey balls, among many other names, the seed balls make fine eyeballs for snow people.

Don't bat those porcupine eggs at me, Buster Brown.

But wait. Maybe there is something tasty in there, after all. Either that, or the squirrels are decorating early.

Food or decor? Only the rodent knows for sure.

Swans on Long Island

December 5, 2011

Mecox Bay

On Mecox Bay, on the eastern shore of Long Island, some swans are year-round residents.  In early September, this family, consisting of an adult pair and two cygnets, swam the bay together,

and dipped for seaweed and small creatures

Large flocks of adult swans had gathered on the bay.

By the end of November, the flocks were gone, and the bay belonged to the few resident families.

Parent and child

Swans often mate for life, and each year’s cygnets stay with their parents throughout their first winter.  Famous as Hans Christian Andersson’s ‘ugly duckling,” the cygnets are a drab brownish gray.

I find cygnets beautiful.

But then, I like a gray animal

This cygnet and its sibling continue to spend their days swimming the bay,

and eating seaweed,

while Canada geese fly overhead.


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