Archive for January 2012

Hunting for Central Park’s Black Squirrels

January 24, 2012

UPDATE, March 2012: I finally succeed in spotting one of New York City’s lovely black squirrels. Not in Central Park but in Washington Square Park: Black Squirrel in NYC.

A fellow nature lover recently told me of seeing a black squirrel repeatedly in the northern end of Central Park.

Black squirrel in Central Park. Photo courtesy of Gigi A.

The squirrel usually seen in NYC parks is the Eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensus. Eastern grays love hardwood forests that provide them with acorns, berries, bark, insects and tree buds. In the old days, before the virgin forests of the east were cleared, it was said that a squirrel could travel the entire east coast in the treetops, without ever touching ground.

And travel Gray squirrels did, and sometimes, perhaps, still do. Audubon and other early American naturalists called it the Migratory squirrel for its mass migrations through the trees, which Charles Joseph Latrobe described in 1811:

“A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being, left their reckless and gambolling life, and their ancient places of retreat in the north, and were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and sober phalanx to the South …”

Other nineteenth century writers describe Gray squirrel migrations that lasted up to four weeks and involved hundreds of thousands of animals.

Today’s Gray squirrels live in whatever wilderness remains to us, while also thriving in the suburbs and in urban parks. Black squirrels, according to most researchers, are a melanistic color morph, or variation, of the Gray squirrel, the color resulting from an excess of melanin, a dark pigmentation.  Essentially, black squirrels are simply black Grays.

I’d heard of black squirrel populations in other parts of NYC, including Union Square Park and the grounds of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. City parks can be like islands, separated by streets instead of water, where inbreeding leads to swift manifestation of unusual genetic traits, including melanism. Was a nascent population of black squirrels emerging in Central Park? I decided to go squirrel hunting.

The morning glowed with sunlight that failed to warm.

Central Park boulder sporting icicles.

Despite the bitter cold, someone appeared to be meditating on a point of land that jutted out into the still-unfrozen Pool, the little pond at 101st Street.

A peaceful moment.

A mixed flock of ducks paddled about, and a few came over to see if I was offering food. (I wasn’t.)

Who gets the girl?

The stretched-out neck of one of the male Mallards is a behavior called ‘steaming’ and is one of many Mallard courtship displays. The ducks are already pairing up in preparation for spring nesting.

Across the Pool, Buffleheads, a particularly adorable duck species, dove and surfaced, flashing their big white heads and sides.

Quick-diving ducks: Now you see them, now you don’t.

Buffleheads, like scaup, mergansers and canvasbacks, are diving ducks, capable of swimming underwater to feed, while Mallards, like American wigeons, teals and shovelers, are dabbling ducks, tipping up their tails to feed with their heads underwater. Mallard ducklings regularly dive underwater to avoid predators, although duckling predators also include water dwellers, like snapping turtles and fish.

But I digress. A good walk makes for many digressions. I resumed my hunt for the black squirrel, heading south  through the park all the way down to 89th Street.

Along the way, I saw a huge flock of Common grackles.  (Birder friends, these are grackles and not some kind of blackbird, yes?)

Just a small corner of a much larger flock.

The flock was accompanied – or, perhaps, infiltrated – by a solitary bluejay.

One thing is not like the others.

I saw perfect squirrel hideouts.

Anyone in there?

I saw squirrel dreys, or nests, including this one high in a tree.

Apartment with 360-degree view

And, inevitably, I saw squirrels. Just a few, due to the cold, and all of them normal Grays, like this little fellow in the fork of a tree.

Gray squirrel keeps an eye on the passing world.

So I’m still looking for my first black squirrel.

When I returned home, I discovered that while I was traipsing the Park’s north end, a black squirrel had been hanging out down at the southern end, near Wollman Rink.

Black and Gray, just chillin.’  Photo by Gigi A.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned from a favorite naturalist in England that across the Big Pond, in the U.K., black squirrels are a source of serious controversy.  All Gray squirrels are considered an invasive species there, as they drive out the native red squirrel population. But there’s something about black Grays that … well, more on black squirrels in a future post. Meanwhile, do let me know if you see any unusual squirrels around your neck of the woods.

NYC First Snow of 2012

January 22, 2012

Snow poured down on the city early yesterday morning.

Huge white flakes quieted the traffic

and veiled the water towers from view.

In Riverside Park, sledders of all sizes gathered at the 108th Street slope.

Looking north, the retaining wall took on a ghostly appearance.

When we started our walk, snow was still coming down and the park was strangely quiet with no animals to be seen and no birds singing. Where were they all?

The raccoons were probably nestled all snug in their den.

But look! The snow is stopping, and a solitary squirrel comes out to forage, almost disappearing into the snow.

Gray squirrels are made for winter camouflage,

as is this mixed flock of sparrows and junkos. The little birds vanish into snow and bare branches.

Fluttering into a more open space, one bird seems to be looking for something he’s lost, burrowing deep into the snow until only his tail shows.

Soon I’ll write more about urban animals in winter.

But now, it’s time to continue our walk. Esau’s waiting.

Ibsen and Me

January 16, 2012

When it comes to reincarnation, I’m a died-in-the-wool skeptic.

And yet.

Take a look at Henrik Ibsen, the great 19th-century Norwegian playwright.

Henrik Ibsen (bad hair day)

Now take a look at my dog, a 21st century American mutt.

Ibsen and me

You have to admit the resemblance  is striking.

No signs yet of canine literary prowess or theatrical ambitions.

The Waiting Dogs of NYC

January 5, 2012


If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life.
                           – Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (Act Three)

The modern dog spends a significant portion of his or her life waiting. Much of a dog’s waiting time happens away from human eyes, alone in houses or apartments, waiting, patiently or not, for owners to return from wherever it is that owners go.

But in New York City, where so much of life takes place on the street, dogs also wait in public.

Lucky dogs wait together.

But most dogs wait alone.

How many little losses a dog endures each day, never knowing if a separation will be long or short.

It’s not easy to wait. Waiting is, by definition, uncertain.

And so reunion, never taken for granted, is always sweet and fresh, no matter how many times a day it happens.

Are dogs on to something here?

Pigeons and Starlings in Flight

January 3, 2012

Watching a flock of city pigeons in flight can be mesmerizing. Here is my first attempt to capture a flock in flight, wheeling and circling over 110th Street and Broadway.  Is it my imagination or does the flock grow, attracting other birds to fly with it as if by centrifugal force? Look closely at around the 35 second mark and then again around 42 seconds. Strange and wonderful.

And for a more spectacular vision of birds in flight, watch this video of a murmuration of European starlings soaring above the River Shannon in Ireland.

Starlings frequently gather in huge flocks, and then fly together, making incredible patterns in the sky. For another look with a bit of an explanation, watch the longer video below from England.

Sweet Dreams, 2011. Nice to Meet You, 2012.

January 1, 2012

Say goodnight, 2011.

Electric sunset over New Jersey.

It’s been swell.

Hudson River goodnight.

But it’s time for you to go.

Pink water tower sky.

Sweet dreams.

Moon Over Manhattan.

And oh, good morning, 2012!

(Okay, I'm cheating here on my beloved NYC. This photo is from a brief fling with beautiful Virginia.)

Thank you, dear readers, for a wonderful year.

Here’s to the future.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!


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