Archive for April 2010

Spring Fling in Morningside Park: Be Still, My Heart

April 24, 2010

I love Riverside Park. If you’ve been here before, you probably already know that.  I even wrote an ode to Riverside Park.

I love its Great Retaining Wall, full of raccoons and squirrels.

Riverside's retaining wall holds raccoons, squirrels and the occasional human.

I depend for my peace of mind on its sweeping views of the Hudson,

I love its – but this post is not about Riverside Park.

This post is about, well, there’s just no easy way to say this:

I’ve found a new love, and its name … is Morningside.

Maybe it’s just a springtime infatuation, fueled by the sight of nesting birds and soaring hawks, and the need to conduct a brief field study for my Ornithology class. Only time will tell if my love will endure.

But the fact is, I’ve tumbled hard for Morningside Park

I love the little pond where geese and ducks pal around with turtles and bullfrogs.

Goose and turtle

Big Daddy is easily eight inches long and very calm.

On one visit, I counted 40 basking turtles.

Heading for a drink


Pigeons stroll along the path or forage on the grass with the geese.

Red-winged blackbirds perch on tall reeds in front of the little island, flashing their epaulets and calling like electrical wiring gone bad.

Egrets roost in the treetops

and hunt at the water’s edge

Morningside even has a magnificent Olmstead retaining walland mysterious old structures

It has beauty

It has danger

and it has mystery

O woe! Our feet have run away and left us.

Oh, I still love Riverside and in the evenings, I still watch the raccoons

(Yes, they’re fine, thank you for asking, and sporting silvery ear tags like pirate earrings that prove they’ve received their rabies vaccinations)

Riverside Baby Raccoon by Jae Bin Anh

But as long as the geese and blackbirds are nesting, these fresh April mornings belong …

to Morningside.

White Birds of NYC

April 21, 2010

White birds abound on a walk through Morningside Park and the nearby grounds of Saint John the Divine.

A lone egret, its long breeding plumes flowing in the breeze, fishes beneath the waterfall in the well-stocked waters of Morningside’s tiny pond.

On the other side of the pond, a white rock pigeon wanders away from its flock. I wonder if this bird is an escapee from a pigeon fancier. It is particularly plump and sleek, and exudes health and well-being. The pigeon heads for the muddy banks of the pond, where it lowers its head and sucks water through its beak as if through a straw.

I head up the cliff and across Morningside Avenue to Saint John’s, where a white peacock guards the grounds. It stands very still in one spot for a long time, occasionally emitting a sound like a truck horn followed by a wild cry. From somewhere out of sight comes a response.

The white peacock lives on the cathedral grounds with two brightly colored comrades. The white pigeon is a member of a multi-colored flock that regularly forages on the large patch of grass in front of the pond. The white egret appears to be a regular visitor to the pond this spring.

You can go months in New York and not see a pure white bird.  Here are three different species within a few minutes walk of each other. Lovely birds, all.

Saint John the Divine: A Secret Garden in Morningside Heights

April 19, 2010

The grounds of Saint John the Divine Cathedral in Morningside Heights are stunning.

The secret garden at Saint John the Divine

They are also open to the community for strolling and contemplation.Peacocks roam freely through the gardens.

White peacock strolls in its gardens

or parade along ledgesWhenever they choose, the peacocks can retire to their large coop to watch the world go byFlowers bloom everywhere

and brass birds keep watch

Crazy Mohawk bird

Griffon in the garden

Friendly dove

At the back of the Cathedral, high above Morningside Heights, a pair of red-tailed hawks nest on the shoulders of a long-suffering saint

Photo by rbs at

Saint John the Divine is a magical place. Come visit.

Please stop by Bloomingdale Village for more photos of Saint John’s resident hawks. Although I have not seen them, the babies have apparently hatched.

Manhattan Mandalas: A NYC Walking Meditation

April 14, 2010

Walking in Riverside Park is a linear experience.

Upper Riverside Park Map

Like its lovely Harlem sister parks, Morningside, Saint Nicholas and Jackie Robinson, Riverside Park stretches north like a ribbon unfurled.

Bounded on the west by the Hudson River and on the east, at least in its northern reaches, by the high cliffs of Morningside and Harlem Heights, the park is just too narrow for the kind of meandering induced by the curving paths and deep woods of Central Park or Prospect Park.  I grew up wandering in Central Park, and I’m happy to say that I still regularly lose my way in the Ramble or the North Woods. Heading east, I’ll strike out on a new path only to realize,  fifteen minutes later, that I’ve somehow turned myself completely around. I’m headed straight back where I came from.

That doesn’t happen in Riverside. It’s pretty much flat-out impossible to lose your way in Riverside Park. It’s hard to even take a turn.

I’m not complaining. I love my park. But like the tug-propelled barges that work the river, you can go north or you can go south, and that’s the way it is.

Maybe that’s why I sometimes find myself obsessed with circles.

It starts innocently enough with a natural oval inside the park

but quickly progresses to circles, natural:

Who lives here?

and man-made:

Quick, somebody, wash out the mop.

Leaving the park, I have a revelation: the streets of Manhattan are paved with mandalas.

Some are large

and some are small

And when I raise my eyes from the street, what do I see?

Yes, you guessed right.


We cross Broadway with its mysterious, circular hieroglyphics

and head, at last,

to Mecca

where the apotheosis of the circle resides in ever-replenished, puffy splendor.

The consumption of a plump, fresh-from-the-oven edible circle successfully exorcises my obsession.

For the moment.

Oh, but look at that ceiling light.

May the circle be unbroken.

NYC Wildlife: The Pigeons Outside My Window

April 11, 2010

Pigeon of mystery lurks outside my window

My air conditioner, unused since the dog days of last summer, has recently taken on a new function. It’s a pigeon boudoir.

For days, the pigeon of mystery has been landing on the unit every few minutes with a long, slim twig in his beak.

Pigeon with twig

He struts around, goggles at me through the glass and screen, then disappears. Moments later, he’s back, empty-beaked, to coo and strut before swooping down to the trees in the playground below. And in another minute, he’s back again with an almost identical twig sticking out of his beak like a long cigarette.

Pigeon with twig (the thin line to the left) checks me out.

Sometimes the pair hangs out together, billing and cooing, carrying on like teenagers in Riverside Park.  Occasionally a third pigeon tries to land, only to be chased off by one of the pair.

After more twig carrying, the twig-carrier lands on the air conditioner and begins to vibrate.  With wings arched forward and beak open, he moves the area beneath his beak rapidly up and down, his entire plump body shaking. Only the solidly-planted red legs and feet are still.

Vibrating pigeon

After ten minutes of this strange behavior, the pigeon again flies off.  Then with a great scraping of claws, both pigeons land. Cooing and bowing , they seem, well, excited.

Pigeon courtship: male bowing. Cornell Lab of Ornithology Project PigeonWatch; click image to visit website

And suddenly, wait a minute, what are they … what’s all that flapping … oh, oh, all right,  yeah… my pigeons are going at it, they’re copulating, right there on my air conditioner, just inches from my desk.  It’s over in seconds, too fast for me to grab my iPhone and take a picture.

Apparently, after mating, male pigeons clap their wings audibly in a display flight. If my male clapped, I missed it. But it probably looked something like this:

Post coital clap. Cornell Lab of Ornithology Project Pigeon Watch; click image to visit website.

Later, the pair rests amiably on a nearby fire escape.

How was it for you?

The next day, with more twig gathering going on, a friend visiting from Los Angeles makes a bold suggestion: open the window, stick your head out and look for the nest that is clearly under construction.  A brilliant idea. I angle my head out, look to the right, and find two birds staring curiously back at me from barely six feet away.

Pigeons on nest between two buildings

I’ll be tracking the pair and their nest as closely as I can, given the uncomfortable viewing arrangement. (The picture above is taken by holding my iPhone way out, while hoping I don’t drop it to the ground six floors below.)

My friend suggests a periscope.

What are those pigeons up to?

I’ll keep you posted.

NYC Coyote Existential: Where do they come from and where are they going?

April 4, 2010

Central Park Coyote, 2010 by Bruce Yolton. Visit

Across the continent, interaction between wildlife and humans is on the rise, as urban and suburban sprawl eats up ever more habitat. Stanley Gehrt, director of the Urban Coyote Project, maintains there are more than 2,000 coyotes living, often out of sight, in the Chicago metropolitan area. Biologist Jonathan Way of the Eastern Coyote Research is studying coyotes in the greater Boston area.

But Manhattan? Surely Manhattan is exempt from sharing its paved-over, built-up streets with wild predators.

No more. Our island status and a relative paucity of desirable habitat has made us late-comers to the wildlife party sweeping the country.  But the guests, predators and prey, welcome or not, are arriving.  We can kick them out, but, as we have already seen, others will arrive to take their place.

So, New Yorkers and city dwellers around the country, it’s time to open up a public discourse about our changing relationship to nature and urban wildlife in the new century.

Coyotes in Manhattan: In 1999, a young coyote turned up in Central Park. Nicknamed Otis, he was captured and taken to the Queens Zoo (yes, Manhattanites, Queens has a zoo) where he lives today.

In 2006, another young coyote turned up in Central Park. Called Hal after the Hallett Nature Sanctuary where he made his base, he too was captured. After a brief stay with experienced NYC rehabilitators, Hal died just as he was about to be released on private land outside the city. His death was variously attributed to an underlying heartworm condition, poison from a consumed rat, stress from the chase and capture, and injuries sustained in the capture.

In the winter of 2010, a coyote again made its home in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, where it was regularly sighted over a two month period. In early March, a young 30-pound female coyote, probably the Central Park coyote, was captured in downtown Tribeca,. She was taken to Animal Care and Control for observation and assessment, and was later released in an undisclosed location within city limits, possibly Van Cortland Park in the Bronx.  (Some NYC coyote watchers believe the animal captured in Tribeca is a different animal from the Central Park coyote; however, no new Central Park sightings have been reported since the capture.)

Between January and March 2010, other Manhattan coyote news included the capture of a young female coyote in Harlem, a coyote killed on the West Side Highway, the sighting of three coyotes on the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University, a near-capture of a coyote in Chelsea, and a sighting by walkers in northern Manhattan’s wild Highbridge Park. While the total number is in dispute, it is safe to say there have been at least three, and quite possibly four, coyotes in Manhattan this winter.

Unlike the falcons, hawks, bald eagles and osprey that have returned to the city in recent years, coyotes are newcomers to the eastern seaboard.  The first coyote sightings in New York state date from the 1920s. Originally a western species that thrived across the open territory of the Great Plains, coyotes  have successfully colonized every county in the state except Long Island and, until recently, New York City.

Coyotes are one of the few large carnivores that have responded to human manipulation of the environment by expanding their range and numbers.  Most large North American carnivores, including the coyote’s close cousin, the wolf, suffered dramatic declines after the arrival of European settlers, four hundred years ago. But coyotes, like humans, are an extraordinarily adaptable species. Opportunistic omnivores, they can eat just about anything from carrion to berries, can scavenge, forage or hunt, and can live just about anywhere from the southwestern desert to northern forests. To avoid contact with humans, coyotes in highly developed areas shift from their usual diurnal schedule to become successful nocturnal hunters. And if the population dwindles due to hunting or natural environmental cycles, coyotes simply produce more pups. Despite decades of relentless hunting, poisoning and trapping, the coyote is thriving.

As human development changed the face of the Great Plains, the adaptable coyote gradually extended its range north and east into the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and southern Canada. In Canada, they interbred with the remnants of an eastern wolf population before moving south into New England. Recent DNA testing confirms that many eastern coyotes have a significant portion of wolf genes, resulting in a hybrid animal that is larger, on average, than western coyotes.

The disappearance of large carnivores throughout most of the northeast created an imbalanced ecosystem in which rodents and deer populations grew unchecked by the wolves, mountain lions, bobcats and bears that were once their natural predators. Coyotes moved easily into this prey-saturated predator void, hunting rodents and other small animals, and scavenging deer carcasses. Wildlife ecologist Justina Ray calls the coyote “the most successful colonizing mammal in recent history.”

Mid to late winter is the usual time for adolescent coyotes to venture away from their parents in search of new territory. This annual pattern led coyotes to colonize Westchester by the 1990s, and the Bronx in the late 2000s. As of 2010, according to Sarah Aucoin, Director of the Urban Park Rangers, two coyote families are breeding successfully in Van Cortland Park, leading some officials to suspect that Manhattan’s young coyotes may be Bronx juveniles seeking new habitats.

Scouting Territory? Bruce Yolton/

Gordon Batcheller, a wildlife biologist with New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, says, “Looking at the Manhattan landscape, it’s not hard to see where they could live. They are very adaptable to a variety of conditions.”

To get from the Bronx to Inwood Park in northern Manhattan requires nothing more than an easy trot across the Amtrak railway bridge, or, possibly, a short swim battling the Hudson River’s notorious currents. From Inwood Park, an enterprising coyote can head south through a system of greenways and beautifully restored parks with only occasional necessary forays into the streets. At Riverside Park and 116th Street, they can move east through the Columbia campus to Morningside Park, which is, at its southern end, just one short block from the great wooded expanse of Central Park. The most recent coyote was first spotted several times in Central Park’s wild North Woods before settling on the protected four acres of Hallett Nature Sanctuary as her home base.

Leaving Hallett. Bruce Yolton/

The appearance of coyotes in Manhattan has inspired a wide range of responses in New York residents. One long-time New Yorker said, “It’s the end of civilization,” while others thrilled to the idea of a large wild creature in the heart of the city and wondered, perhaps naively, as the days of residence turned to weeks and the weeks to months, whether long-term co-existence just might be possible.

While Manhattan may be coyote-free at the moment, they’ll be back. If not next year, then the year after. How should we respond? Reader, what do you think?

Visit the archives of Out walking the dog for other posts on Manhattan’s coyotes, including NYC Coyote Dreams: Worlds Within Worlds.

Note:  Ravens, which traditionally scavenge alongside western coyotes, appear to be following the coyote’s track into the northeast. A raven that haunts Marble Cemetery, an old graveyard in lower Manhattan, may be a released captive, but a pair of wild ravens is nesting, as I write, in Queens.

Thanks to the Urban Park Rangers for hosting a talk last weekend, entitled “NYC Coyotes: Return of Native Wildlife – Balancing Urban Ecology, or Conflict in the Urban Jungle?” The speaker was Frank Vincenti of the Wild Dog Foundation, a “coyote advocacy group” eager to educate the public about eastern coyotes and wild dogs around the world.  Thanks also to Matthew Wills of Backyard and Beyond for pointing out the coyote-raven connection, which is also discussed in Hope Ryden’s book, God’s Dog: A Celebration of the North American Coyote.

Blog Carnivals and Festivals

April 2, 2010

“Out walking the dog” is participating in several blog carnivals this week.

The post, Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to his Friends is part of “I and the Bird #122”.

(“I and the Bird” takes its name from a poem by Eleanor Vere Boyle, a nineteenth-century British poet and illustrator:

“A tiny wren was among the Chrysanthemums this morning,
noiselessly flitting in and out, like a little shade;
evidently in a state of the highest enjoyment.
No doubt I and the bird both took our pleasure with them in different ways!”)

The recent post, Mastodons in Manhattan, is part of both  “Carnival of Evolution #22,” and “Festival of the Trees #46“.  Many of the posts in “Carnival of Evolution” have a scientific bent, as you might expect from the title. This edition of “Festival of the Trees”, on the other hand, focuses on humorous pieces.

Visit the carnivals and enjoy the rides.

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