Walking My Way From Wasps to Rats

On a recent walk in Riverside Park, the dog stopped to investigate a fallen wasp’s nest.

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The dog investigates.

What a beautiful little structure. Let’s take a closer look.

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Look, one little creature seems to have died in the process of crawling out of a hole. How strange.

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But who precisely built this nest? What kind of wasp? A hornet? A yellow jacket?

It’s been my experience that naturalists, both professional and amateur, are eager to share, expand and refine their knowledge about the world we live in, and interestingly, the technology of social media provides a swift and effective way to share knowledge. I sent out a query on Twitter, asking “Whose fallen nest is this in Riverside Park?”

Matthew of Backyard and Beyond quickly replied, “Paper wasp, probably Bald-face Hornet.”  Andrew of Urban Ecology and Science Research soon responded with a photo of a much larger, enclosed nest hanging from a tree at Storm King Art Center, saying he was seeing these hives all over.

Wasp nest at Storm King Art Center. Photo: Andrew Collins

Wasp nest at Storm King Art Center. Photo: Andrew Collins

Chris of Flatbush Gardener believes Andrew’s hive to belong to Bald-faced Hornets, adding: “More visible without leaves,” which I take to mean that the nests seem to be suddenly everywhere only because they are more visible now that the trees are growing bare.

And it’s true: one sees things differently when trees are bare. One also sees, quite literally, different things, including, perhaps, hornet’s nests. There may be fewer birds around in winter now that most of the migrants have moved on, but the ones that stay, from Northern cardinals to Red-tailed hawks, are easier to spot when they perch on leafless branches.

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Red-tail hawk overlooks Riverside Park.

Squirrels, too, have fewer places to hide. And if I may act for a moment as a squirrel real estate agent, I’d like to recommend a couple of deep and lovely tree holes as fine living quarters.

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Roomy studio apartments with unobstructed river views.

Non-living natural things – what ecologists call abiota – also emerge from obscurity in winter. The structure of the land, its slopes and cliffs, all hidden in summer by leafy trees, bushes and undergrowth, reveals itself.  And the Hudson River, seen in leaf-edged glimpses through much of the year, reclaims its place as a central feature of the far west side of the island.

Pointing the way to the Grant's Tomb National Parks Service Visitor's Center in Riverside Park around 123rd Street.

Pointing the way to the Grant’s Tomb National Parks Service Visitor’s Center in Riverside Park around 123rd Street.

After the leaves have fallen, plants too reveal surprises. In summer, the two bushy plants below appear to be a single solid and impenetrable mass of green, the shoots drooping like willow branches all the way to the ground. But in late fall and winter, a beautiful hiding place is revealed at their heart where an animal like a fox, if only Riverside Park were lucky enough to host a fox, might curl up undetected.

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The dog investigates.

The fallen leaves now cover the ground, obscuring its features and camouflaging small creatures. This seemingly empty patch of leaves was actually hopping with life, as junkos, house sparrows and squirrels scratched, dug and pecked for nuts and seeds.

Hidden animals.

Hidden animals.

Look. There goes one now.

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Deep leaves often bury natural structures, like exposed tree roots or rat holes. Or dogs.

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Leaves half-bury the dog.

Here the dog investigates a rat hole at the base of a tree. Who’s there?

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The dog investigates.

The other day, a naturalist friend, Kelly of Nature in a New York Minute, knowing my interest in rats, kindly brought me a NYC booklet with the elegant title, Preventing Rats on Your Property. I’ll write more about it some other time, but the fundamental message  is simple: “To control rats, you have to remove everything they need to survive: food, water, shelter and ways to get around.” My own block has seen a bit of a decrease in rat activity since a few once-slovenly neighbor buildings started better securing their trash and closing up burrows at the base of street trees. But even so, rats still run rampant in the area. On a brief late night walk a few days ago, the dog and I saw three rats within two blocks.

And remember, the rats you see are just the tip of the ratty iceberg; beneath the surface of the street live scores – or hundreds – of others.

But wait, how is it I am talking about rats? I was talking about leaves, wasn’t I, and how they veil and reveal natural structures. Or was I talking about changing seasons? Or ways of seeing? Or, no, it was about naturalists sharing information. Oh, I remember now, I was talking about a wasp’s nest. Yes, a wasp’s nest. And here we are at a rat’s nest.

Well, that’s the way it is when you go out on a ramble. Even when every walk starts and ends at the same place, as so many of mine do, you never know where the path will take you along the way.

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Explore posts in the same categories: 2013, Fall, In the City, insects, NYC Parks, Riverside Park, Rodents (other than squirrels), Seasons, Wildlife/Natural History, Winter

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5 Comments on “Walking My Way From Wasps to Rats”

  1. Jenny Says:

    Lovely post as always, Melissa. Interestingly I just discovered a large wasps’s nest–maybe another bald faced?–in a corner of one of the retail greenhouses at work. I can’t believe that I’d not noticed it until now! How often did I ignorantly water the pansies below whilst hornets sped overhead?

    I also want you to know that I’m very much enjoying your blog’s snowball effects :) Happy season of the seen unseen!

  2. Mr. Mantooth Says:

    How delightful to take a walk with Melissa and her magical mop. Love the photos and the way one observation leads to another.
    The lamppost one reminds me of Eugene Atget picture.


  3. There’s a nest just like the one you show at Storm King on the East side of Central Park, hanging directly above the bridle path at 96th Street. It must have been there all year, but it’s suddenly visible now that the leaves are down…

  4. p hoey Says:

    A wonderful ramble through a very different park than the summer
    one. Thank you, Melissa.

  5. mthew Says:

    This hexacomb is encased by the paper covering, which is made of masticated wood pulp (did such creatures give humans the idea of pulp paper?); there maybe a couple of horizontal layers of comb within a nest, depending on how big the nest is. You can also sometimes see tiny eggs inside the walls of the hexacomb, little ones that didn’t make it. All the wasps but the queen die off at the end of the season; the queen hides herself away under bark, leaflitter, etc., to await next spring.

    Some more pictures of the paper nests: http://matthewwills.com/2013/11/15/silent-nests/
    http://matthewwills.com/2013/11/01/all-hallows/

    Some as big as footballs, some larger. What I love about these is that they are hiding in plain sight, and not just in the parks.


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