Archive for the ‘Spring’ category

White-Throated Sparrow Digs Up Central Park

April 25, 2014

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Rustle rustle rustle.

Who’s that walkin’ around here?
Sounds like baby patter.
Baby elephant patter, that’s what I calls it.
– Fats Waller, Your Feet’s Too Big

Ah, it’s a White-throated Sparrow, digging through the leaves for tasty morsels hidden below.

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Beautifully camouflaged in the ground litter, the sparrow nonetheless called attention to itself by kicking up an absolute ruckus. If you’ve never seen a little bird dig, it’s quite an impressive flurry of activity with wings, feet and beak all in motion at once.

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White-throated Sparrows have two color morphs, the striking white-striped bird above, and a subtler tan-striped variation.

Here’s what Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website has to say about the color morphs:

The two forms are genetically determined, and they persist because individuals almost always mate with a bird of the opposite morph. Males of both color types prefer females with white stripes, but both kinds of females prefer tan-striped males. White-striped birds are more aggressive than tan-striped ones, and white-striped females may be able to outcompete their tan-striped sisters for tan-striped males.

Okay, got that?

Here, take a quick look at The Sordid Lives of the White-Throated Sparrow, Kelly Rypkema’s one-minute video:

After mating with whichever-striped chosen consort, White-throated Sparrows build their nests on or near the ground, which makes the eggs and nestlings easy prey for that most adorable of vicious predators, the Eastern chipmunk.

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Eastern chipmunk in Central Park.

Yes, these cute little rodents don’t confine themselves to nuts and seeds. In fact, they are notorious nest-raiders of ground-nesting birds, helping themselves to a quick blast of protein in the form of eggs and babies. Interestingly, a 2011 study indicates that some species of ground-nesting birds, notably oven-birds and veeries, pay attention to chipmunk calls and avoid nesting in chipmunk-rich areas.

I don’t know if the White-throated Sparrow eavesdrops on chipmunks. But watching them dig up the leaves, I’d think they could put up quite a defense with those wings and feet. And speaking of feet (hey, sometimes a good segue is elusive, okay?), here is Fats Waller singing “Your Feet’s Too Big.”

Listen up.

Central Park Chipmunk

April 23, 2014

 

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Chipmunk in Central Park. Photo: Melissa Cooper

A rustle in the leaves reveals a fat-cheeked, lovely chipmunk on a hillside near Central Park’s North Woods. Check out the large nut stowed on the side.

The Eastern chipmunk lives in many of the city’s larger forested parks, but until recently, Central Park was a chipmunk-free zone.

According to the Central Park Conservancy, the return of chipmunks can be traced to a decision in 2009 to remove trash cans from the Park’s woodland areas. The trash had served as a prime food source for the Park’s many rats. When the trash cans were removed, the trash diminished, and the rats left the Park in search of easier pickings. (Sadly, NYC’s system of leaving mountains of trash bags out on the sidewalk overnight means that pretty much any city street on trash night provides a self-service rat buffet.) Apparently, the rat exodus has created favorable conditions for chipmunks to move in and thrive. Whether the rats out-competed the chipmunks for food, preyed on them, or just generated general forest anxiety among smaller creatures, I don’t know. Anyone?

On Sunday, I was thrilled with my first sighting of a Central Park chipmunk.  Now that the little rodents have awakened from hibernation with the warming spring temperatures, I hope to see them more often.

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Eastern chipmunk gives me the hairy eyeball.

This little fellow ducked repeatedly in and out of its hiding place beneath the rock. Eventually, though, it rushed off, giving me a good look at its gorgeous back stripes and ruddy rear end before it disappeared into the leaves.

Eastern chipmunk, Central Park, NYC. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Eastern chipmunk, Central Park, NYC. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Guess Who’s Coming to Lunch, Kestrel Edition

March 25, 2014
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Photo: Janet Rassweiler

My neighbor Janet had an astonishingly beautiful, if rather ferocious visitor for lunch yesterday.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

She was working in her kitchen at midday, when she heard a strange repetitive banging sound coming from the living room. She moved to the doorway, and saw a bird on her air conditioner. This is nothing unusual in itself. Pigeons and mourning doves often perch there.

But this little bird was no dove.

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Photo: Janet Rassweiler

It was a tiny male hawk, or rather a falcon, no bigger than a blue jay, called the American Kestrel.

Kestrels are the smallest raptor in North America with a range from Mexico to Canada. Their populations are in decline in many parts of the continent due to habitat loss and pesticides that kill off the insects they feed upon. Yet the little raptors seem to be thriving in New York City.  Like other hawks and falcons that have adapted to urban life, they find that man-made structures serve their needs quite well. While their big cousins, the peregrine falcons, nest high on skyscrapers and bridges, the little kestrel prefers to raise its young in the broken cornices of old brownstones and mid-rise apartment buildings. Their prey includes insects, small mammals and birds, like the sparrow Janet’s visitor brought for lunch.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

The banging Janet heard was the sparrow’s head flopping up and down on the metal air conditioner as the kestrel pulled with its beak while holding the body down with its feet. (To move more quickly through the slideshow below, hover over the image, then click on the arrows that appear.)

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When the bird had had enough, it flew off with the body in its talons, leaving behind only the beak and part of the head.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

 I couldn’t tell if the brain had been eaten or not, although I rather guess it had, since brains are apparently chock full of nutrients. Perhaps the kestrel ate a quick blast of brain food before carrying off the rest of the sparrow to feed a nesting mate.

The abandoned head reminded me of another dramatic wildlife story that unfolded on my block. One day a few years ago, I noticed a fledgling sparrow hopping about inside the large planter of a nearby building. The little bird was clearly not yet able to fly, and was probably being fed by a parent hiding in a street tree. I made the decision not to intervene, since the planter seemed as safe a spot as any on a city street for a still earth-bound baby bird. Early the next morning, the decapitated dead body of the baby sparrow lay on the sidewalk. The head was nowhere to be found. (I wrote about the fledgling’s predicament, and my own, in Baby Birds and Animals: To Help or Not to Help.)

Had Janet not witnessed the kestrel eating the sparrow, she would be left puzzling over the mysterious appearance of a bird head on her air conditioner.

What a city we live in, my friends. What a city.

What a world.

All photos in this post courtesy of Janet Rassweiler.

NYC Wildlife After Hours

March 23, 2014

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Two nights ago, around nine o’clock, I leaned over the retaining wall at Riverside Park to look for raccoons, and found a raccoon looking right back at me. It was perched, as it were, on the broad stone ledge outside its den. We stared at each other, each apparently curious what the other might do. Neither one of us did much of anything.

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Just looking.

This raccoon and its family members have an ideal den spot with a broad ledge outside that makes it easy for them to loll and relax at the mouth of the hole.

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I’m looking at you.

When a man and two off-leash dogs came into view on the path below, the raccoon turned its attention away from me to watch the newcomers.

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The man was talking on his cell phone and kicking a ball for his rambunctious long-legged black mutt to chase, while a slow, imperturbable pug brought up the rear.  Neither man nor dogs noticed the raccoon high above their heads, watching their every move. Nor did they notice this human, even higher above their heads, also watching every move.

As it watched, the raccoon curled partway into its hole.

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We left it there, the dog and I, and continued our walk along the Riverside Drive promenade. On our way back, I again leaned over the wall.

But the raccoon was gone.

It had probably ducked back into its den. In my admittedly limited and unscientific observations, the Riverside raccoons are slow to actually leave the den for their evening forays into the park. They tend to hang out on the ledge for quite some time, singly or in twos, threes or even fours. They look around and sniff the air, occasionally ducking back into the den as if suddenly remembering they’d left the stove on.  Sometimes, when the weather is pleasant, a raccoon will groom itself or a mother will groom a kit, although I haven’t seen any grooming behaviors yet this season.  I can’t even say how many raccoons are living in the den this year. Eventually, though, one or another of the raccoons will leave the ledge and start making its way north along the wall. Only rarely do I see one heading south from the den, probably because the grand stone staircase quickly breaks up the wall, so that the raccoon would have to come down to the ground right at a spot that is well traveled by humans and dogs.

Here is the view from just above the den of Riverside Park, the Hudson River and New Jersey.

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Not bad. You might linger at the mouth of your den, too, if you had this view to look at.

Urban Wild and Feral Life in Spring

March 21, 2014

Spring is officially here. Red-tails are nesting, peacocks are showing, and male mallards are acting downright crazy.

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Trees are still mostly bare, which means you can more easily spot wildlife.

And feral life. The feral cat colony in Morningside Park seems out of control this spring. The cats are everywhere around the pond, stalking  ducks and other birds.

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But that’s a topic for another post.

For now, let’s put away the ice rescue ladder, and celebrate the arrival of another spring.

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Below are links to a few of Out Walking the Dog’s odes to springs past:

Two-Eyed Prophecy of Spring

It’s Spring; Everybody Sing!

Spring Fling in Morningside Park: Be Still, My Heart

Spring in Three Cities

NYC Signs of Spring: Red-tails Nest and Mr Softee Sings

Peacocks By Design

March 12, 2014

New York City’s three Cathedral peacocks have already begun their annual spring courtship displays in which they unfurl their insanely long, dazzling tail feathers, hold them up in a giant fan, and rotate slowly to enchant the ladies. Here is a video I took a few years ago of one of St John the Divine’s peacocks in fine form.

The boys will be displaying like this all spring and summer, but who do they hope to woo? The nearest peahen is several miles away at the Central Park Zoo or the Bronx Zoo (from which one of the pealadies briefly escaped in 2011).

Still the peacock boys display to anyone and no one.  Yesterday, the white peacock was showing his tail in front of the shed that serves as their roost, while one of the blue peacocks stood alone at the end of the steep driveway, just a few feet from Morningside Drive, with his tail in full sail.

Tails furled or unfurled, peacocks seem to have an innate design sense.

Here the white peacock displays a striking horizontal elegance.

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Down the driveway, his friend advocates for the power and beauty of the vertical.

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For more on the Cathedral peacocks, stay tuned. Or visit our archives.

Red-tail at Work

March 10, 2014

I’m not sure what to make of the collection of twigs amassed by the Cathedral Red-tailed hawks atop Saint Peter’s canopy.

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I posed the question on Twitter, and love the response I received from Robert of Morningside Hawks: “If they were predictable, they wouldn’t be wild. And sometimes they do weird stuff because they know you’re watching.”

For now, at least, the hawks seem to be focused on refurbishing the old nest on Saint Andrew’s mossy shoulders.

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When I arrived at the nest this morning, it appeared empty. But as I crossed Morningside Drive to enter the park, I looked back toward the Cathedral in time to see a hawk swooping in from the north to disappear from view behind the saint’s head.  Although I could no longer see the bird, I could see twigs moving as the hawk rearranged nesting materials.

Then the hawk hopped onto the old man’s head and looked out over the park and nearby streets.

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What a view.

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Somehow, the poor saint looked especially sorrowful this morning, and the hawk, well, hawkish.

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After a few minutes, the big bird spread its wings and soared off to the southeast.

A Dog in New York

November 10, 2013
My house is a very very very fine house.

My house is a very very very fine house.

Lately I’ve been feeling grateful to my walking companion.

Just over five years ago, my family and I left the horizontal landscape of Dallas, Texas for the vertical world of Manhattan. Since then, like old-fashioned postal workers, the dog and I can fairly say that “neither rain nor snow nor heat nor gloom of night” has stayed us from our daily exploration of our neighborhood’s streets and parks.  Walking with Esau has led me to discover things about my city and its inhabitants – human, domesticated and wild – that I might never have known if the dog didn’t need to go out, and then go out again.

So today I just want to take a minute to admire the dog who gets me up and out, who poses patiently whenever asked, and who valiantly represses his predatory instincts long enough to allow me to watch the hawks, raccoons, squirrels, egrets, sparrows, peacocks, woodpeckers, ducks, and other creatures that share the streets and parks with us.

(If you hover over the photos, arrows will appear so that you can click through the slide show)

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Thank you, Esau dear. You can take five now.

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Fledgling Red-tailed Hawks in NYC (video)

June 19, 2013
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Fox and dog: the iron animal gate at St John the Divine

Oh my readers, I have so much to tell you, so much to show you. All through the spring, Esau the dog and I have been walking, looking and listening. I’ll try to catch you up on some of the curious, intriguing, and amusing things we’ve seen. But where to begin? Let’s start with the hawks that nest on the back of the Cathedral of St John the Divine.

Here is a fledgling hawk on the move this morning.

A fledgling hawk on the move in NYC.

A fledgling hawk on the move in NYC.

But let’s back the story up a little. In April, three eyasses (baby hawks) hatched.

About two weeks ago, one youngster could be seen practicing its flapping skills on the fingers of good Saint Andrew.

Almost fledged.

Almost fledged.

A second fledgling had left the nest too soon, landing on a ledge far below the nest. There it stayed for a few days, not ready to fly, calling to its parents.

Calling for food and attention.

Calling for food and attention.

 It called and called in its high voice, but appeared active and healthy. It’s not unusual for baby birds to fall out of a nest before they can fly.  Most of the time, the parents will continue to feed and care for their young, as they did with this fellow. (Morningside Hawks has documented visits by the parents, including the delivery of a dead pigeon to the hungry baby.)  On the day of these photos, the hawk stayed for a while in one spot, on the ledge.

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Nice pantaloons.

Then it started to move around. It studied the stained glass window.

Studying the art work

Fascinating.

It climbed the walls.

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It worked its way along the narrow window ledge to a difficult spot.

IMG_2205There it seemed to lose its footing, which led to some serious flapping.

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And then, after returning to a better perch, more yelling.

IMG_2174And yet more yelling.

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Here is a short video of the young hawk, listening to a siren from St Luke’s Hospital, looking around, preening, and calling.

More on the young hawks soon.

Crows and Sparrows from NYC to British Columbia

May 4, 2013

Many of the birds we saw on our trip to British Columbia have counterparts back east, whether the same species or a closely related species.

A male White-throated sparrow surveys the area in Riverside Park, New York.

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White-throated sparrow.

 This little fellow was singing up a storm about two weeks ago, fluttering in not-yet leafy bushes and shrubs quite low to the ground. Here he seems to be giving me the old stink-eye from beneath his extraordinary yellow “eyebrows”.

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Below is a male golden-crowned sparrow in Garden Bay, British Columbia.

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Here he is again in the same location, but on a brighter day. Look how much paler and less gray his throat and breast appear below. The golden-crowned sparrow is found only along the Pacific coast, while the white-throated ranges over much of the continent.

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Crows are found all over the continent. Back in March, this group of common crows was delightedly bathing and playing in a large puddle in Riverside Park. (If you place cursor over image below, arrows will appear so you can click through the slide show.) There were five or six crows, but they flew off by ones and twos, eventually leaving just one crow to wallow in the puddle.

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Back in the late 70s, I co-founded a theater in Portland, Oregon called Crows & Roses Theater Project. Portland has long been known as the “City of Roses,” but for us, it was the “City of Crows and Roses.” Turns out crows abound all over the Pacific Northwest, and are extremely successfully at adapting to suburban and urban environments.

For a fascinating discussion of urban crows, inspired and anchored by the author’s observations of crows in her Seattle neighborhood, read Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

In British Columbia, crows are everywhere.

A crow fans its tails as it looks over the harbor.

A crow fans its tail as it looks over the harbor.

Here is a sunlit crow.

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Below, a crow perches high on a barren tree.

Or could the bird below possibly be a raven? I heard ravens frequently in the woods, and saw them on several occasions calling and flying. I also heard one making a kind of strange high-pitched constant call as it flew that I had never heard before.

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Yet another crow engaged in a turf battle with a gull in the harbor. When it circled up to this tree, its feathers looked quite a bit the worse for wear.

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It repeatedly soared down to the rocks at the water’s edge.

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But if the gull became aggressive, it took off and lit on the tree.

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Then it would fly back down. Must have been some good seafood down there.

A Canada goose also figured in the scenario.

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The goose was mostly left to its own devices, ignored by gull and crow, even when it mounted the rocks.

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Back in Vancouver, a flock of crows mingled with a mallard and a coot at the water’s edge.

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I wondered if any of the crows I saw were Northwestern crows rather than American crows. Northwestern crows, which are found only along the upper Pacific coast, are described as being slightly smaller than the American crow. They specialize in scavenging along shorelines. My guidebook claims they are most easily distinguished by their lower-pitched, hoarser voices. Next time, I’ll listen more closely.

Eagles and Hummingbirds of British Columbia

May 3, 2013

Bald eagles abounded on our recent trip up the British Columbia coast.

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This beautiful bird was sitting on a body of fresh water in an area that looks to me like a beaver dam.

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Another closer look.

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We saw many eagles on the wing. With a wingspan of nearly seven feet, they are an impressive sight.

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And for a size contrast, we also observed several rufous hummingbirds whose wingspan reaches a magnificent 4 1/2 inches.

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We saw these tiny, brilliant creatures at a nectar feeder, and darting out over a road to capture insects.  Several times, the hum of those rapidly beating wings alerted me to the bird’s presence before I registered it visually. According to Journey North, hummingbirds beat their wings at a rate of about 75 beats per second.

Here a rufous hummingbird sips nectar from the feeder.

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And here’s a lovely view from the vicinity in which we saw the hummingbird zoom back and forth over the road.

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Douglas Squirrel in Garden Bay, British Columbia

April 30, 2013

One of my favorite easily-observed creatures in British Columbia is the Douglas squirrel, sometimes called the chickaree.

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Much smaller than New York City’s hefty Eastern gray squirrels, the Douglas is a tree squirrel found from California to the southern British Columbia coast.

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Like most squirrels, it uses its front paws quite charmingly to hold nuts and other food. There’s just something about its small size, big eyes, and overall demeanor that give it the look of a storybook character.

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Douglas squirrels eat primarily the seeds of the coniferous trees that abound in this area: Douglas firs, of course, but also Sitka spruce and pines. Like the Eastern gray and many other squirrels, they are scatter hoarders, burying seeds or entire pine cones in various spots. But unlike the Eastern gray, Douglas squirrels have no cheek pouches for holding food.

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They have high-pitched voices that pierce the forest, and sound remarkably like a bird. On several occasions, I scanned tree limbs, trying to determine what bird was so persistently peeping, only to discover that I was being yelled at by a squirrel.

Below is a fascinating two-minute sound clip from NPR’s “Bird Notes” on the Douglas squirrel. Just click the arrow to play:

The little fellow In these photographs hung out near the pedestrian bridge that connects the harbor to Garden Bay Road. Below you may be able to make out the squirrel perched on the fence rail to the right of the tree.

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It was often seen in the company of a golden-crowned sparrow.

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The two seemed to be masters of their own bathing and drinking pool.

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We humans, however, need more sustenance than pine cones and water, or even wildlife sightings. Tearing myself away from the little animals, I crossed the bridge.

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Soon I was happily drinking coffee and eating breakfast at Laverne’s Grill.

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Ahhhh. Repletion.

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Back outside, bald eagles soared overhead (more on them soon).

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And the little squirrel went about its squirrely business.

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Happy Arbor Day!

April 26, 2013

I learned this morning from Backyard and Beyond that today is Arbor Day. Since I am in British Columbia, surrounded by magnificent forest, it seems a fine occasion to celebrate the day.

Garden Bay Provincial Park

Garden Bay Provincial Park

The forest here is dense and layered. This time of year, leaves on the deciduous trees are still pale against the darker needles of the evergreens.

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The many shades of green are mesmerizing.

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Sometimes you glimpse islands and water through the trees.

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Even the downed trees and stumps are covered in many shades of green made by moss and lichen.

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An old and beautiful tree, felled to create a younger and beautiful trail.

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Happy Tree Day.

To Vancouver and British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast

April 25, 2013

Yesterday in the wee hours, we arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia. We slept a few hours in this beautiful house.

Jay and Atty's house

Jay and Atty’s house

I walked around Trout Lake Park with Jay, Atty and Bella. In December 2011, I observed a perching eagle here. No such luck today, but the park is lovely in springtime.

Trout Lake Park, Vancouver, BC

Trout Lake Park, Vancouver, BC

Red-winged blackbirds are calling.

Female red-winged blackbird at Trout Lake.

Female red-winged blackbird at Trout Lake.

Old Bella stood on the walkway and grazed the tops off tender shoots of grass.

Bella trots and Man meditates.

Bella trots and man meditates.

Later, waiting to board the ferry at Horseshoe Bay, we watched at least three bald eagles as they circled high above us.

Bald eagle over Horseshoe Bay.

Bald eagle over Horseshoe Bay.

On the ferry, the mountains shone.

Ferry ride

Ferry ride

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The islands loomed.

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We disembarked at Langdale, and drove north up the coast.

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Of course, there are always crows wherever you go in the northwest.

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More on British Columbia tomorrow…

Check out the Snow!

April 20, 2013

It’s crazy snowing this morning!

Snow in Traverse City, Michigan

Snow in Traverse City, Michigan

I flew into Traverse City in northern Michigan last night, where I’m serving as a mentor for a Young Playwrights Festival run by the Wharton Center. You can’t really see in this quick shot out my hotel window, but these are big beautiful snowflakes pouring down.

This is what I left behind in New York City: Broadway in bloom.

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Morningside in bloom.

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Wow.

Well, the work the young playwrights are doing will warm us up.


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