Archive for the ‘Birds’ 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.

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.

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

How to Tell a Hawk from a Handsaw

March 17, 2014

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

Hamlet, Act II, scene ii

But Hamlet, dear, this is easy.

Hawk.

Hawk.

Hawk with squirrel, Riverside Park, NYC.

Handsaw.

Handsaw.

Handsaw.

More difficult in low light and at a distance is to know a hawk from a handbag, or more specifically, a plastic grocery bag.

Many is the perched hawk I’ve seen that, upon closer approach, has resolved itself not into a dew, but into plastic caught in a branch. (Click each photo to enlarge.)

More rarely the process reverses, and a plastic bag metamorphoses into a hawk, and flies.

These metamorphoses from animate to inanimate, from hawk to handbag, and back again, are among the peculiar pleasures of watching urban birds.

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.

Black Snow and Nesting Red-tails

February 22, 2014

This morning, a stunningly beautiful, spring-like day popped out of a snowy winter.

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The sky is blue and the snow is, well, black.

How does the pristine and elegant substance of a week ago …

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… metamorphose into the dark, satanic mountain range of today?

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When urban snow reaches this stage, it doesn’t even melt. My theory is that there are now more solid filth particles than there is water in this Substance formerly known as Snow. As most New Yorkers know, these mini-Himalayan ranges will diminish only to a point.  The remaining black metor-like blobs hang around long after the surrounding street snow has melted. A particularly notable example was a giant blob that threatened to become a permanent resident of 108th Street in 2010.

Today was a good day for hawk-spotting. Over on Morningside Drive, one of the Saint John the Divine red-tailed hawks perched above a saint near its picturesque nest before sailing west out of sight.

Last winter, daily hawk sightings led me to found New York City’s Hawk-A-Day Club. This year, fellow New York nature blogger, Matthew Wills of Backyard and Beyond, has seen peregrine falcons for five days straight in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. But my Morningside Heights sightings have been surprisingly scarce this winter.  So I was delighted to see a red-tail on the Cathedral.

The Cathedral nest, which has been occupied since 2006, undergoes renovation each year by the nesting pair. Last year was an especially active year of redecoration, albeit with some questionable design choices. Long, dangling pieces of string kept me worrying all season long that one or another member of the growing family would become entangled. (Look to the right below.)

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But it was the sight last spring of a hawk wrestling with an unwieldy cardboard box or large paper bag that really led me to question the red-tail pair’s eye for design.Below the hawk flies toward the nest with its catch.

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For more on hawk cardboard-wrestling, visit last year’s How to Build an Urban Hawk Nest.

I’ll be keeping an eye on the nest, along with my trusty walking companion, who would rather be scrounging for food. (Mysteriously fallen street strawberries don’t count, in his book.)

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Next week I’ll once again have a camera that will allow me to take some more detailed shots than has been possible with the iPhone that has been my sole camera for the past six months.

That will be fun.

Winter World: Animals in Red

February 17, 2014
Winter world.

Winter world.

As the dog and I step off the sidewalk into a narrow path dug between snow mounds at the corner of Broadway and 108th Street, the sound of distant honking stops me in my tracks. Not the usual traffic sounds of Broadway, but the calls of wild geese. I shade my eyes and look up in time to see a large flock of Canada geese – an uneven, dark V, followed closely by a long single line – disappearing to the southwest over the solid old apartment buildings of Riverside Drive. “Oh,” I say out loud, struck by beauty.

At the top of the stone staircase that leads into Riverside Park, the dog pauses to show off his red shoes.

The red shoes: Dance, little dog, dance.

The red shoes: Dance, little dog, dance.

We descend the staircase, and enter the white winter world of a snowy city park. Everything is strangely quiet.

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Central Park after a snowfall.

Only a couple of dogs are playing in the 105th Street dog run.

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Down by the river, a solitary runner runs.

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But where are the rest of the animals?

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We retrace our steps to the path above, where a squirrel scoots across the top of the snow and leaps onto a tree trunk.

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The little creature leaves behind a scribble-scrabble of footprints in the snow, the record of many such forays out of the safety of the trees. Three crows call from the top of the plane trees, then fly, one at a time, out of the park toward Riverside Drive. Two house sparrows chirp.

And that’s it. No hawks, no juncos, no woodpeckers, no robins, no flocks of sparrows, no chickadees, no titmice. Where is everyone?

And then we hear a high-pitched call: “Tsip, tsip, tsip.”

Winter’s bare branches make it easy to find the caller: a female cardinal, perched in a tangle of branches beneath the retaining wall. Although I usually see cardinals in pairs, today the brilliantly colored male is nowhere to be seen.  The lovely bird kept just outside the range of my iPhone, so here is a photo from last winter of two females picking up spilled seed beneath a bird feeder on eastern Long Island.

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The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) stays with us year-round, and even in the depths of winter, the male keeps his brilliant plumage. (Thank you, Rob Pavlin, for the beautiful photo below.)

Cardinal in Central Park by Rob Pavlin

Cardinal in Central Park. Photo: Rob Pavlin

Cardinals are particularly stunning against a snowy background, but they’re gorgeous birds in any season.

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Cardinal in autumn in Central Park’s Conservatory Gardens. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Just look at that red.

Cardinal in Central Park, early winter 2012. Photo: Rob Pavlin.

You don’t often see animals in winter sporting such flashy colors.

Still, it’s not unheard of, is it?

The red shoes.

The red shoes ride the elevator home.

This post is for Nick and Zuri.

NYC, Again with the Snow

February 3, 2014

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Again this morning, snow.

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Here are a few images from our snows of the past month.

Esau waits for me in Riverside Park.

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Dog prints on the retaining wall high above the park.

Who's been walking on the wall?

Who’s been walking on the wall?

In Morningside Park, a feral cat makes its way along the cliff near the iced-over waterfall.

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The cat’s white legs look like little ice falls.

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The pond in Morningside Park is sometimes frozen.

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Other times, some kind of bubble machine prevents it from fully freezing.

Bubbling pools in Morningside Pond.

Bubbling pools in Morningside Pond.

After the snow, the sky clears and a hawk flies over the snowy landscape of Central Park.

Red-tail after a snowfall.

Snow Day NYC with Peacocks

January 6, 2014

It was cold and snowy in the city on Saturday, so the dog and I bundled up. He’s the one with the blue boots. I’m the one with the blue hat. (My hat recently inspired some guerrilla art.)

Morningside Park is always magical in the snow.

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The little pond was frozen solid.

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A little boy and his father stopped to throw snowballs onto the ice. (Click photos to enlarge.)

Cross-country skiers slid across the fields, and dogs sniffed and romped.

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Heading up the great stone staircase, we spied three feral cats well camouflaged by snow and bare bushes.  Can you spot them? (Click the photos to enlarge.)

A white cat is balanced in the twigs, a gray cat is perched in the wire fence, and a white-and-black cat sits on the snow to the right.

Saint Luke’s Hospital loomed over us as we continued our climb.

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Sledders were at play on the slope just below Morningside Drive.

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On the street, the back of Saint John’s Cathedral invited us to explore.

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We walked over to Amsterdam Avenue and the unfinished towers at the front.

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We entered through the animal gates.

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“Oh, I want to eat his eyes,” exclaimed one of these lively little girls as they circled the snowman below. “They’re made of Hanukkah gelt!”

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Leaving behind the would-be cannibals, we headed into the Cathedral grounds.

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We spotted the resident peacocks. First one.

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Then two.

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And finally, three as Phil, the white peacock, preened inside the peacock house.

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A group of teenagers came clattering up the path. The girls squealed and shrieked when they saw the peacocks, running toward them to take pictures. The birds, accustomed to paparazzi, ignored the girls, even the one shivering in a strapless dress and bare legs. Humans. What can you do?

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We gave a last look up in search of the neighborhood red-tailed hawks, but no hawks today. Just Gabriel forever blowing his horn atop the Cathedral as the stony apostles wait patiently in the cold.

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Deer Tracks in the Sand and Other Strange Finds

December 11, 2013

Yesterday morning was a gorgeous overcast day on Eastern Long Island. Snow was forecast, but hadn’t yet begun when the dog and I headed out on Flying Point Road to the ocean.

IMG_8947Deer tracks on the beach, below.

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There were several sets of tracks. Why are deer visiting the beach?

In early October, when I was last here, the beach was littered with the remains of tiny creatures.

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Yesterday it was mostly swept clean of flotsam and jetsam. But not entirely, of course. Here and there were a few skate egg cases and bits of sea weed greens.

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More oddly, wilted flowers that might have come from Miss Havisham’s wedding bouquet had washed up all along the beach.

Continuing the theme of remains, we found a female ruddy duck lying dead on her back just off the road by the bay.

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Her death allowed me to look more closely at a duck’s body than I’ve ever been able to do before. I’ll write more about this beautiful little bird later, along with photos of her extraordinary feet and the serrated edge of the underside of her bill.

Urban Peacocks and Red-tails in Winter

December 9, 2013

Last night we saw tiny snowmen on the top of the retaining wall in Riverside Park.

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It wasn’t much of a snow, but it gave a mysterious look to the park at night.

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This morning in the drizzle, a Red-tail Hawk flew low over our heads as we were crossing Amsterdam Avenue. We tracked it as it soared into the animal gates that lead to the grounds of St. John the Divine.

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The hawk soared along the path of the grounds, then suddenly swooped upward. We found it perched with a second hawk towards the back of the cathedral.

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I have only my iPhone camera these days, so I can’t zoom in for a close look. But here it is with a slightly closer look.

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Moments later, as we continued to watch the hawks, Phil, the Cathedral’s white peacock, wandered past us, looking rather bedraggled.

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He was completely unfazed by a boisterous group of schoolkids who almost walked right into him as they came around the corner.

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Phil simply moved aside with no fuss or hurry.

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The dog, on the other hand, was definitely fazed by the sight of Phil. He moaned with frustration and strained at the leash.

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The poor fellow has been trying for a taste of peacock ever since he first encountered the three neighborhood peacocks five years ago.

Ah, well. We all have our dreams.

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Zelda, the Wild Turkey of Battery Park

November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving from Out Walking the Dog

A wild turkey has been living in New York City’s Battery Park since 2003.

Zelda the wild turkey of Battery Park.

Zelda the wild turkey of Battery Park.

The turkey is called Zelda after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, who supposedly roamed the area around Battery Park during one of her many breakdowns. See any resemblance?

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Zelda Fitzgerald as a teenager.

Zelda (the turkey, not the Fitzgerald) appears to be a tough old bird, having survived for a decade in a highly urban park, subject to wind, snow and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy which flooded the park with a 13-foot storm surge.

I first heard about Zelda soon after I moved home to Manhattan in 2008 after almost twenty years away. In those early years of my homecoming, I found myself in a fairly continual state of wonder as I encountered the wild creatures that share our city. Raccoons! Hawks! Peregrine falcons! Seals! Dolphins! Coyotes! Deer! Wild turkeys! I was smitten with Zelda before ever seeing her, touched by her appearance and survival on our crowded island where great flocks of her ancestors once thrived.  Several times, I set out for the southern tip of Manhattan to meet her.  But she proved elusive quarry, and as the years passed, I fretted that she might die before I ever laid eyes on her.

Last week, my quest to see Zelda was finally rewarded.

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Accompanied by my intrepid friend Mary, I walked south along the Hudson River Greenway to Battery Park.  Although Mary can watch an entire flock of wild turkeys from her house on the eastern shore of Maryland, she signed on with gusto to the quest for Zelda.

It was a beautiful day to walk along the river.

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Ferry plying the Hudson.

Somewhere in Battery Park City, we passed a large flock of Brant.

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Brant and children in Battery Park.

I’ve seen Brant around the same spot in past years as well as further up the Greenway in northern Manhattan. The birds, which resemble a smaller, shorter-necked version of Canada geese, seemed remarkably nonchalant about the many runners, children and dogs sharing their chosen space.

We passed other intriguing sights, including still-golden trees.

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But we were on a mission, and nothing could deter us.

When we reached Battery Park, we were startled to see how much of it was fenced off and undergoing renovation. A man with colorful brochures of New York City tried to interest us in a tour. We politely declined, but asked if he knew about the turkey who lived around here.

“Oh, sure,” he replied. “I see her all the time. She’s usually wandering around the paths.”  He laughed. “First time I saw her, she scared me to death. Keep going around this way. You’ll see her.”

Next we stopped a man driving a Parks Conservancy truck, and asked if he knew where we could find the turkey.

“Oh, Zelda, sure, she’s around,” he said. “She was just over there in the parking lot.” And sure enough, strolling about in a parking lot in front of the Department of Homeland Security and Coast Guard Recruiting Center was Zelda, the wild turkey.

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A beautiful bird, plump and well-feathered, she walked slowly and with a stately demeanor – stately, for a turkey, anyway. Mary wondered if she might be arthritic. After all, she’s old for a turkey.

A man, cellphone camera in hand, tried to get close to have his picture taken with her.

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Soon, the man we had met in the truck joined us in the parking lot. His name is Charles, he told us, and he knows Zelda well.  When Charles jingles his keys, Zelda comes and follows him as he retrieves a cupful of sunflower seeds and corn for her.

Here he is with jingly keys in hand.

Charles with keys in hand.

Charles with keys in hand.

Zelda did indeed respond to Charles, but when he left to get the seed, she seemed slow to follow, and rather easily distracted. First she became distracted by a hedge, staring into it in a way that reminded me of the great white peacock of Saint John The Divine.

Then a group of tourists on the path blocked her way.

  Charles returned and handed us a cup of seed. He told us to sprinkle it on soft patches of earth, because it’s hard for Zelda to pick the food up off the hard sidewalk or asphalt. We carefully sprinkled a few seeds on a promising bit of ground, but Zelda was skeptical of our feeding abilities. Charles took the cup and unceremoniously dumped out the entire contents along a sliver of soil at the edge of the sidewalk.  Zelda immediately chowed down.

As Zelda dined, Charles told us a little about her life. Every year, she lays eggs in various spots in the park. This year, she laid them in the hedge we saw her staring into.  Despite the huge flock of wild turkeys that live on Staten Island, Zelda seems to be Manhattan’s only resident turkey.  Zelda’s unfertilized eggs will never hatch.  “We have to take the eggs away sometimes,” Charles explained, “or she’ll just keep sitting on them and she won’t eat. It’s kind of sad, but she has a pretty good life here.”

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Every Thanksgiving, Charles said, people come to see if she’s still here. Mary asked if people ever harass her. Not if he’s around, Charles said. He also reminded us that she can fly, and so can escape, if she needs to. She roosts at night in nearby trees. Charles left us to our watching.

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And we left Zelda to her meal.  Goodnight, Zelda.

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Happy Thanksgiving.

Ospreys on Long Island

October 14, 2013

For several days, high winds buffeted Flying Point Road in Watermill. The winds did not daunt the local ospreys. Here are two ospreys hunting, soaring, and hovering over Mecox Bay.  Note the power of the birds’ wings as they continually adjust to the winds while looking down into the water for prey.

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See you soon, beauty.

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Death of a Cedar Waxwing

October 12, 2013

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Some deaths make waves. They’re noticed, written about, talked about, mourned.

Other deaths, not so much.

Yesterday morning, I noticed a bird lying in the grass just a few feet from the back deck. It was a Cedar Waxwing, as the brilliant yellow tail tips and the crest made clear. I thought it might be stunned, so I kept my distance so as not to frighten it further.

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But I saw no flutter of feathers, no glitter of eye, no movement of breath. The little creature was dead.  I lifted it and turned it over.

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There was no blood, but the feathers were disarrayed and perhaps damaged. Was this a result of sitting in dew-wet grass for hours? Or had the bird been hurt?

I was surprised at how heavy the little bird felt in my hand.

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A living bird feels so much lighter. (The Baltimore Orioles below are held by ornithologist Eric Slayton, but I had the opportunity to handle a couple of birds on this bird banding trip to the Bronx.)

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I wondered if the Cedar Waxwing was a juvenile. I saw only the faintest yellow on its underparts, and no sign of the bright, waxy-looking red wingtips that give the bird its common name.

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But Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds maintains that the “red wax tips” are not always present. And the damage to the birds’ breast feathers may have destroyed the yellow of the under feathers. So I assume this was an adult. Whether male or female, I can’t say, since male and female waxwings are close to identical to an untrained eye like mine.

The bird looked peaceful in its oddly settled pose, even when I set it down for a moment on the picnic table.

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I wonder what happened to it. Did it escape from a cat, only to die later of internal injuries? Had it flown into something, and suffered injury? Or was it ill and could simply fly no further?

I took it down to a scrubby patch by the bay, and left it there, thinking some scavenger would appreciate the morsel. A day later, it remained untouched.

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R.I.P., Cedar Waxwing and all small creatures at the end of their days.


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