Archive for June 2012

Nesting in New York: House Sparrows

June 24, 2012

House sparrows, those gregarious, aggressive, busy little foragers, are extraordinarily well adapted to city life.  Seed-eaters that first evolved in the Middle East, the birds thrived with the development of agricultural societies, following along as agriculture spread into Europe, Asia and North Africa. They’re now thought to be the most wide-spread bird species in the world.

House sparrows are nothing if not adaptable. In New York, some House sparrows nest the old-fashioned way, in natural tree holes, like this little fellow in Riverside Park.

The location can’t be beat.

This Riverside Park tree is home to at least two House sparrow nests.

Other House sparrows choose to continue their cozy millennia-long association with humans by nesting in the ornate facades of the nineteenth-century townhouses and apartment buildings of old New York.

Neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights offer plenty of free housing for the enterprising sparrow.

Male house sparrow looks out over Riverside Drive, the park and the Hudson River.

Leaving the nest to forage.

Female house sparrow sitting on nest (look to the upper left of nest).

As always in New York, space is at premium, and a terrace is a welcome luxury.

Nest stuffed into a six-inch crack between buildings.

Any little nook will do, really.

Apartment living.

This narrow gap between buildings was filled with nests.

And for those House sparrows not lucky enough to find a Riverside Drive house address, or looking for a bit more privacy, there remains a vast number of suitable man-made housing options.  Virtually every corner offers a perfect nest hole in the open pipe of a traffic light.

House sparrows were intentionally released in North America in the nineteenth century, and quickly spread throughout the continent. Sadly, they pose a significant threat to less aggressive native species, including Eastern bluebirds, which they out-compete for nesting sites.

If only a few more members of those shyer species would come and share our urban living.

Hudson River Dolphin Is Dead

June 21, 2012

I just received word that the Hudson River dolphin was found dead early this morning (Thursday, June 21st) near Pier 59 on West 18th Street, not far from where it was seen swimming in circles four days earlier.

Photo: DNAinfo/Matthew Katz. Click photo to view article at DNAInfo.com

Until today, I had not heard of any further sightings after Sunday  afternoon.

According to DNAInfo.com, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation has retrieved the body, which showed no obvious signs of trauma, and will perform an autopsy within the next few days to determine the cause of death.

Poor little dolphin. Yes, little.

The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin can weigh 800 pounds, according to the National Aquarium.

Photo: The Dolphin Place (click to visit website)

But according to Matthew Katz of DNAInfo, the NYC dolphin weighed just 150 pounds. It seems likely that it was a young animal, perhaps one that became separated too soon from its mother.  The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is raising an orphaned dolphin that is now “almost one year old and weighs in at 150 pounds.”  We’ll know more after the Riverhead Foundation has examined the animal.

Dolphins are highly social animals that travel in groups called pods and have a complex range of whistles, squeaks, and barks that they use to communicate with each other. Young dolphins nurse for 18 months or more, and may stay near their mothers for several more years.

As with many wildlife species, the mortality rate in the first year of life is high.  Nature has a way of reminding us that life is not for the faint of heart.  But hey, how many alternatives do we have?

Hudson River Dolphin

June 20, 2012

A dolphin was spotted on Sunday afternoon (June 17th) in the Hudson River.

Photo from DNAInfo.com (click to go to article)

Lucky people out for a Sunday stroll saw the animal heading south from Harlem to Chelsea, with sightings reported from 120th Street to 14th Street.  According to DNAInfo.com, which has been a terrific source for wildlife sightings in the city, a woman reported seeing the animal (probably a bottlenose dolphin) swim in circles for about half an hour near the pier at 14th Street.

Dolphins have been seen on other occasions in both the Hudson and the East River. The lower Hudson is, after all, a saltwater estuary, a body of water where salt water and fresh waters mix daily with the tides.

Waterways of New York City by Julius Schorzman; Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the whales of New York Harbor, marine mammals that have occasionally made their way into the lower Hudson include harbor seals, gray seals, a harp seal near Haverstraw, and, I kid you not, a 1000-pound manatee.

Still while the sight of a dolphin is not all that rare, the sight of a bottlenose dolphin swimming solo is apparently quite unusual.  Fortunately, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, which I first encountered after finding an adorable gray seal pup on Flying Point Beach on Long Island’s south fork, is on the job.

If you are lucky enough to spot the dolphin, please call  the Riverhead Foundation right away at (631) 369-9829 to report the time, location and behavior of the animal.  Assuming the dolphin is still around, the marine wildlife experts of the Riverhead Foundation will try to ascertain whether it is healthy or in need of assistance.  Should the animal show signs of distress, the Foundation is well equipped to care for it with the goal of releasing it back into the wild.

As always, knowledgeable wildlife experts urge people to leave the animal alone, and NOT FEED IT, advice which seems to be surprisingly difficult for our species to heed.

Oh, and once you’ve contacted the Riverside Foundation, don’t forget to contact me!  I’m guessing the dolphin has returned to the harbor, since I haven’t heard of any sightings since Sunday. But I’d love to know more about the NYC dolphin – or any other interesting wildlife encounters you may have.  You can always reach me by leaving a comment on Out Walking the Dog or you can email me at outwalkingthedognyc@gmail.com.

And remember: keep your eyes peeled as you walk the city. You never know what you might see out there.

6/21: Sad Update on the Hudson River Dolphin:
The dolphin was found dead this morning near Pier 59 in Chelsea.

Oh Dallas, My Dallas

June 19, 2012

With the return of the television show Dallas, the city that everyone loves to hate is back.

But my Dallas,

Sunset at White Rock Lake, Dallas, Texas

the city where I lived for 16 years,

Harry S. Moss Park, Dallas

is a very different place.

Grackle in Dallas, Texas

I’ll be spending the month of July 2012 in Dallas, where my new play, NYC Coyote Existential, is being produced by Echo Theatre as part of the Festival of Independent Theaters.The Festival takes place at one of my favorite Dallas haunts, the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake.  When I visited in early May for casting, a cormorant perched atop a piling in front of a hazy skyline.

Somewhere in the large park, coyotes prowled or waited for dusk. I didn’t see coyotes – although we looked. But I talked to people who have seen them or heard them calling.

My sightings were mostly of water birds, which abound around White Rock Lake.

Near the shoreline, ducklings massed,

geese waddled,

wood ducks glided,

herons and egrets fished,

a blackbird vied with a flock of tiny ducklings for bits of bread,

and a mama mallard nested right by the path to the water.

The next day, in Harry S. Moss Park, a few miles north of the Lake, a lovely fox squirrel kept an eye on me.

 I strolled the paths and the edge of the prairie.

Behind me was Royal Lane.

But there were better things to look at than the roadway.

Like a prairie with a distant cityscape.

I’ll be posting more from Dallas in July. See you then, little fox squirrel!

Provincetown Bear Captured

June 13, 2012

The black bear that spent several weeks this spring wandering the forests, yards, beaches and roadways of Cape Cod has been captured.  Just last weekend, plans to trap and relocate the bear had been scrapped by state wildlife officials in favor of simply monitoring the 180-pound male bear.  The traps, baited with doughnuts, were taken away.

But when the bear wandered into the heart of Provincetown – he was seen at the Provincetown Monument – officials decided it was time to act to protect the safety of the bear and the Cape’s humans.  According to MassWildlife and the Massachusetts Environmental Police, “people were actively seeking the animal in a narrow geographic area (severely limiting the bear’s options for movement).”  While the Cape Cod bear had shown no aggression toward humans, any animal that is unable to escape imposed contact may react by attacking. (Humans, too!)

On Monday, June 11th, the bear had left Provincetown and headed back to Truro.  “Sure as you were born,” said a Truro resident of an encounter with the bear, “there was the most beautiful big black bear coming up the side of the hill.” Later, the bear was seen on Gull Pond Road in Wellfleet, where members of the Large Animal Unit of the Environmental Police shot him with a tranquilizer dart and carried him off.

Tranquilized Cape Cod bear

The bear was given an ear tag for monitoring purposes, weighed and examined. Officials say he appears to be a healthy young male under two years of age.  He was transported to an undisclosed location in Central Massachusetts and released in an area where he may be able to find a mate.

The bear population of Massachusetts has risen from a low of around 100 in the 1970s to around 3,000 today, and sightings are on the rise.

“If you see one, enjoy the fact that you’ve seen a black bear. As with any wildlife, enjoy them from a distance, and if in your house, make noise. As big as bears are, they are typically scared of people.”
Laura Hadjuk, Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Metro West Daily News, 2010

For more on the peregrinations of the Cape Cod bear, watch this CapeCast video:

Lovely Long Island

June 13, 2012

As you head east toward the tip of Long Island’s South Fork, near the old water mill that gives the town of Water Mill its name, you’ll see on your right a small body of water.  Known as Mill Creek, it opens into a small bay called Mecox Bay.

If you turn off the road and follow the water, you’ll eventually come to Flying Point Beach.

During part of the year, the little bay is more of a saltwater pond, separated from the ocean. But at other times, a channel is opened, allowing the bay to regain its tides, filling and lowering with the ocean.

The beach is different on every visit.

Last Light by Linda Van Cooper

I read that before the 1938 hurricane, Flying Point Beach had dunes that ranged from 40 to 75 feet. But a 15-foot storm surge carried the sand off and deposited it in the bay. The dunes are not particularly high now.

Dune at the Cut by Linda Van Cooper

And most years, they take a pounding by one storm or other. In August 2011, Hurricane Irene sent water pouring up the slope of the beach and into the parking lot, as you can see in this video.

The surf easily dismantled wooden pathways to the beach, and exposed the huge steel barriers intended to build up the dunes, and protect the many homes that have been built on them.

The beach is narrower now in some spots than I ever remember seeing it.  Of course, beaches have always been about change, but the warming of the planet, thanks to man-made climate change, has put our shorelines in a new kind of jeopardy.

I’ve been coming out here for a long time. The potato fields that swept the open landscape are mostly long gone. The acres of scrubby, tangled vegetation that hid generations of foxes have shrunk to tiny lots, although Linda, the painter of these landscapes, recently spotted a fox and kit on the road to the beach. Mecox Bay is now ringed by houses of Gatsbyesque proportions (whose existence I try to deny by not including them in my photographs), and the few remaining farmhouses and cottages in the area have been renovated beyond recognition, or replaced by  huge, ostentatious structures that look like beach hotels or clubs, but are single-family homes.

And still … it’s beautiful.

You have to avert your gaze sometimes to diminish the shock of seeing a huge monstrosity of a house fill your range of vision. But luckily, we haven’t yet figured out how to build right on the water, so the beauty remains.

Path to the Beach by Linda Van Cooper

At any time of day, any time of year, in any weather, in the rosy glow of sunset or the bright light of day.

Flying Point Beach by Linda Van Cooper.

And if you can’t get out to see this place where the bay meets the ocean, you can get a taste of its beauty in these paintings by Linda Van Cooper.

Tracks at Mecox Bay by Linda Van Cooper

So long for now.

For more on Long Island, Mecox Bay and the wildlife of the area, visit:

I Find A Gray Seal Pup
Herons, Swans and Coots on Long Island
Swans on Long Island
Crabbing on Eastern Long Island

A Black Bear Comes To Provincetown!

June 9, 2012

A handsome young male black bear has turned up in Provincetown, Massachusetts at the very tip of the Cape Cod peninsula, 30 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Uncredited photo of Cape Cod bear on WCBV website.

The bear probably swam across the Cape Cod Canal, which separates the peninsula from the mainland, in his search for a mate.  Since Memorial Day, he has been spotted all over the Cape, making his way from Sandwich to Barnstable, Orleans, Wellfleet, Truro and, finally, Provincetown, the end of the road.

The bear, whose age is estimated at two or three, may be the first bear ever on Cape Cod and is certainly the first in several hundred years.  He has been spotted in the National Seashore that stretches up the narrow neck of the Cape as well as trotting along by the side of Route 6.

Photo: Provincetown Police on Wicked Local Provincetown (click for article)

Authorities have been watching his progress, and trying to figure out what to do about his presence in the small, densely populated area of Provincetown. Traps were set in hopes of capturing and relocating him off-Cape in an area where he might find the love he’s looking for.

Yesterday, the Cape Cod Times reported the traps were being removed and attempts to capture the bear were being suspended.  State wildlife officials, who will be monitoring the bear’s presence closely, seem to be hoping he will head back the way he came from, staying out of trouble with humans.

Oddly enough, Provincetown is accustomed to bears, but bears of a very different kind.

Gay Bear Pride.

The term “bear” is used for a member of a gay subculture that, according to the Beltway Bears, “don’t feel comfortable with the prevailing standard defining stereotypes of what a gay man should be or look like,” and instead “prefer men who act masculine, are physically affectionate (Bear hugs!) and who are low/no attitude.”  Or as a colleague, a proud bear, recently put it, bears are typically “big, hairy guys who like other big, hairy guys.”

Every summer, the Provincetown Bears host Bear Week, when human bears from around the world gather to meet and celebrate.  A joke running around Provincetown is that the Black bear is just a few weeks early; Bear Week doesn’t start until July 7th.

But back to wildlife. Black bears are shy and rarely aggressive toward humans. To minimize contact, humans in bear country should secure all trash in bear-proof containers and take down bird feeders. Here are guidelines from the American Bear Association in case you do encounter a bear:

  • Stay calm. DO NOT RUN (running may elicit a chase response by the bear)
  • Pick up children so they don’t run or scream.
  • RESTRAIN YOUR DOG.
  • Avoid eye contact and talk in a soothing voice.
  • If the bear stands up, he is NOT going to attack but is curious and wants a better sniff or view
  • Back away slowly. If the bear chomps their jaw, lunges or slaps the ground or brush with paw he feels threatened.
  • Slowly retreat from the area or make a wide detour around the bear. DO NOT block or crowd the bear’s escape route.

Please let me know if you hear more about Cape Cod’s roaming Black bear.

Liam Crivellaro, 13, of West Barnstable shot video of the black bear climbing down a tree on Memorial Day. South Coast Today (click for article)

The Endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel

June 4, 2012

Endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel. Photo: Mary Shultz.

My friend Mary had a thrilling experience earlier this month when she spotted this Delmarva fox squirrel on her property on the eastern shore of Maryland.

Beautiful. Photo: Mary Shultz

You don’t know what a Delmarva fox squirrel is? Well, I didn’t either. In fact, not only had I never heard of Delmarva Fox squirrels, I had never heard of Delmarva until Mary called with her big news. The word incorporates the shorthand  for Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and refers to a large peninsula that runs along the eastern shore of the three states.

Delmarva Peninsula. Image: Worldatlas.com

The Delmarva Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus) is an endangered subspecies of fox squirrels (Sciurus niger). Its range once included southern portions of the border states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but it is now confined to Delmarva. So perhaps it’s not surprising that even though Mary grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland, she had never seen one. She described it as unmistakeable: huge (well, for a squirrel) and slower moving than Eastern gray squirrels, a pale silver in color with a lovely white belly, small ears and an enormous fluffy tail.  In fact, at three pounds and 30 inches long, Delmarva fox squirrels are easily twice the size of an average Eastern gray squirrel and a third larger than the Eastern fox squirrels I used to watch in Texas.

Delmarva Fox squirrel with an Eastern Gray squirrel. Photo: Mary Shultz.

Three pounds may not sound like much, but it makes for one hefty rodent.

The Delmarva Fox Squirrel is the biggest tree squirrel in North America.  Here’s the squirrel climbing up a large tree, its long tail pouring down behind.

Jumbo squirrel. Photo: Mary Shultz.

The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern shore has the largest native population of Delmarva fox squirrels. Here’s a video from Blackwater NWR of a gorgeous gray Delmarva Fox squirrel foraging for food. While it’s hard to get a sense of the size without another animal for comparison, you can clearly see the shape of the head, the stumpy ears and the long tail.  The squirrel also seems less twitchy than its smaller cousins, flowing quite gracefully over the ground.

Loss of habitat due to logging and development is the primary cause of population decline for the Delmarva squirrel, as it is for so many animals.

Nibbling. Photo: Mary Shultz.

Mary’s squirrel returned to the yard every day, sometimes twice a day, for a couple of weeks before disappearing. Mary and her husband also saw the squirrel feeding with a smaller Delmarva fox squirrel, leading them to suspect that she had been raising young nearby and that her companion was one of her babies.

Delmarva Fox Squirrel on the alert. Photo: Mary Shultz.

On a rainy day, the squirrel seemed to be using its tail as an umbrella, something I’ve read about but never seen.

Multi-purpose tail. Photo: Mary Shultz.

The squirrel hasn’t been spotted for some time now, and has probably moved on to a new foraging site. Hope she returns soon.

So long, pretty squirrel. Photo: Mary Shultz.

Yes, Virginia, There Really Are Baby Pigeons

June 2, 2012

In early May, a baby pigeon played peek-a-boo on my window ledge. This baby, not yet full-sized, huddled for hours on the window sill, peeping loudly in a tiny high voice.

Note the black eyes and scruffy feathers that indicate this is a young bird.

Every spring, I watch a brood or two of squabs learn to fly from a nest hidden between my building and the building next door. (To see an amusing video of the parents courting and copulating on my air conditioner in February, click here.) Although easy to mistake for an adult, this baby was still many days away from self-sufficiency.  In fact, you won’t often see a baby this young down at street level. Still dependent on its parents for food and protection, it spent days practicing flying from its sixth-floor nest to nearby ledges and rooftops and back again.

Mom and Dad stopped by regularly to feed the baby or just to keep an eye on me and make sure I was behaving myself.

Note the red eye and smooth feathers of an adult bird.

After a few hours, the baby flapped awkwardly off to its hidden nest, just a few yards away.  The babies are off on their own now, and I confess that after this last brood left, I finally decided to put up plastic pigeon spikes to keep future pigeon families from landing on my air conditioner.  I’ll miss seeing them there, but I won’t miss waking just after dawn to the scratch and scrabble of claws on metal or the booming coos of courtship.

And anyway, they still visit the window ledge.

For more on the pigeons outside my window, visit the archives:

Sex and the City Bird
Sex and the Pigeon

The Pigeons Outside my Window

Urban Fledglings


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