Archive for July 2010

Morningside Park Farmers’ Market

July 30, 2010

The Morningside Park Farmers’ Market is open on Saturdays from 9 to 5, rain or shine. One of the benefits of this location is that you can stroll through the park, before loading up on fresh food.

And there’s always something going on in Morningside Park.

Last Saturday, a young athlete pitched a strike in the girls’ softball game.

On a nearby field, a few fans, looking like something from the last act of Our Town, beat the heat to watch the big boys play.

On the basketball court, little guys played one-on-onewhile dog walkers steered their hounds past rotting chicken bones and mounds of garbage left by Friday night’s barbecue hordes. Okay, so it’s not all good news.

Still, despite the litter, geese and turtles relaxed in the pond

and a handsome black pigeon went down to the water’s edge for a drink

At the market by the park’s southeastern entrance, shoppers lingered over the admirable produce.

Peaches, radishes, carrots, turnips and greens.

Gorgeous fresh fish from Montauk

Also, bread and pastries, nuts, meat

and pickles galore right from the barrel

The Market manager minded the stall for Tierra Farms

What more can I tell you?


Strange Magic: A Wall-walker, Canada Geese and a Water Rat

July 29, 2010

Sometimes strange magic exists alongside basic natural facts.

Yesterday, a spirit strolled the top of the Riverside Park retaining wall,while the desiccated corpse of a rat lay in the middle of the path below.

In Morningside Park, Canada geese, missing for weeks, have returned with a vengeance. A reader of this blog reported seeing four geese last Tuesday.  A day or two later, there were six.  Yesterday morning, I counted fourteen.

Most of the Morningside 14 hung out on the rim of the pond, like small-town teenagers, waiting for something to happen.  Others rested after grazing.

Fourteen geese is a lot of geese for a small area.

Watch your step

If a few more geese join the crowd, the area around the pond may lose its allure for walkers like me.

The goose family that nested on Morningside Pond’s little island does not appear to have returned.  While one Canada goose looks pretty much like any other, the Morningside family was easily recognized by the fact that two of its four juveniles had severe cases of “angel wing,” a wing deformity fairly common among park birds.  My best guess is that the little family simply made its way on foot to the inviting and much larger ponds and fields of Central Park, just a couple of blocks away.  (A supervisory biologist at USDA Wildlife Services has assured me that, despite the recent killing of hundreds of geese in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, no action has been taken, or is planned, for the geese of Central Park.)

If you ignore the mess they make, geese are lovely and amusing creatures.  The Morningside 14 engaged in intense preening, punctuated by bouts of goose yoga in which a leg or wing was held outstretched and motionless for minutes at a time.

First a leg.

Now leg and wing together.

Turtles of all sizes were out in force, as they have been all summer.

And a solitary rat nibbled grass near a solitary duck.

When we approached, the rat slipped silently into the water and vanished, reappearing, sleek and wet, a few feet down the shore.

Unlike the familiar skulking garbage-eaters of the streets, this rat seemed to be enjoying the bucolic life of a wild water-rat.

Ratty takes Mole for a picnic. From The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; illustration by E.H. Shepard

It disappeared again into the water. This time, it didn’t reappear.

I searched among the lilies for a tiny skiff or a picnic basket, but found nothing.

Another time, perhaps.


My Name is Esau and I’m a Thigmophiliac

July 20, 2010

Thigmophilic: used by biologists to describe animals that love to touch things, or be touched

My name is Esau and I'm a thigmophiliac

“Hello. My name is Esau, and I’m a thigmophiliac. Or thigmophile. Whatever.”

Well, hey, you may say, I like to be touched, too. Who doesn’t?  But when scientists call a species “thigmophilic,” or touch-loving, they’re not talking about back rubs, caresses or a scratch behind the ears.  They’re talking about animals that, as Robert Sullivan says in his fascinating, information-packed book, Rats, “prefer to touch things as they travel” or otherwise go about their essential business.  Often, they’re talking about rats.

Rats, specifically Rattus norvegicus, the familiar – some might say, too familiar – city rat, like to keep their bodies in contact with walls as they scurry along on their rodentine missions. Wall-hugging, which protects them from attack on one side, appears to create a kind of kinetic map: it helps the rats learn favorite routes.

Wall hugger

Hedge hugger

Until I read Sullivan’s book, I had no idea a word existed to describe my dog Esau’s love affair with walls.

Most of the time, I don’t let him hug his beloved walls, because, well, NYC walls are filthy, particularly down at Esau’s level. I don’t even want to think too much about what’s on those walls.  But on a recent trip to Morningside Park, I conducted a not very scientific experiment: I let Esau walk where he wanted.

Rail hugger

Retaining wall hugger

The results? No surprise: He hugged the walls.

He hugged buildings, railings and hedges.

Cathedral hugger

Stairwell hugger

He hugged the side of Saint John the Divine, and the stone steps that lead into the park.

If an object could, by any stretch of the definition, be considered a wall, Esau hugged it.

Back inside, he hustled along the interior wall.

Hustling wall hugger

Is this a case of the hunter coming to resemble the hunted? How peculiar that Esau, the mighty rat hunter who snatches street rats from beneath piles of trash, should share with his prey the unusual trait of thigmophilia.

“So I’m a thigmophiliac. What’s it take to get a drink of water around here?”


Crabbing on Eastern Long Island

July 17, 2010

Flying Point Road curves along the Watermill side of little Mecox Bay on its way to the ocean.

Decisions, decisions

People and animals do a lot of different things in Mecox Bay, depending on the season. In spring, swans nest on its shores. In winter, when the water freezes solid, ice boaters race across the bay at breakneck speed. In fall, hunters shoot ducks and geese.

Summer belongs to the crabbers.

Crabbing restrictions in Mecox Bay

Some crabbers crab alone

Solo Crabber at the Bridge

Others crab in pairs

Two crabbers

and many crab in groups

A crabber in a wheel chair is just out of the frame.

There seem to be three common crabbing techniques. Some crabbers use a baited wire cage, something like a lobster trap, which is placed on the shallow bottom. The trapper watches and waits, peering into the water from the roadside, for a crab to wander in for a meal and spring the trap.

Watching and waiting

Other crabbers use a long-handled net, wading into the brackish water to stalk their scuttling prey.

Hunting crabs

And others use a chicken leg and a piece of string.

Day-after chicken bone with string

They just tie the chicken leg to the string and lower it to the floor of the bay. When a crab grabs hold, they reel it in.

Buckets fill up with crabs.

Emptying the net into the bucket

And at the end of the day, when the sun goes down,

Sunset over Mecox Bay

it’s time for the crabbers to eat some crab.

Toward a Polemic on Urban Wildlife (Inspired by the Geese of Prospect Park)

July 15, 2010

Morningside Goose Family in Early May

The Morningside Park goose family seems to have vanished into thin air.  As far as I can tell, no one has seen the geese for at least 10 days. I assumed they had wandered across Frederick Douglass Plaza to one of Central Park’s lovely bodies of water. But on a visit last weekend to the Meer, I saw no Canada geese at all.

Geese molt at this time of year, losing and regrowing their feathers. Until the new feathers grow in, they cannot fly, making even the short distance from Morningside Park to Central Park a dangerous trek through the streets of New York.  Still, the geese may well have waddled their way  into the Big Park.

Morningside geese in June

I asked Sergeant Sunny Corrao of the Urban Park Rangers whether she has seen our goose family, which is easily distinguishable by the four goslings, two with a deformity called angel wing. She has not.

The disappearance of our little goose family would be no more than a locally intriguing mystery were it not for the news that last Thursday, according to The New York Times, the United States Department of Agriculture captured and killed 400 Canada geese in Prospect Park. Brooklyn park-goers are sad and angry.

Canada geese mitigation measures,” to use the somewhat Orwellian official term, went into high gear after US Airways Flight 1549 collided with a flock of migrating geese in January 2009, and was forced to land in the Hudson River off Manhattan’s west side.

In 2009, over 1,200 city geese were captured and killed within a five-mile radius of JFK and LaGuardia Airports. In June 2010, the radius was extended to seven miles, which places new parks within the kill, or mitigation, zone, including Prospect, Morningside and Central Parks.

It seems extraordinary that animals that were long celebrated as symbols of wildness and freedom are now widely considered a pest species, reviled for striking airplanes, damaging crops and fouling (pun half-intended) golf courses and parks. When I was a child visiting the country, I ran outside at the wild sound of honking to watch the geese flying overhead on their strange journey to far-off lands. But times have changed; many flocks no longer migrate and populations have exploded.

Clearly, the safety of human air travelers must take precedence over the geese. But was the killing of so many resident animals necessary?  What non-lethal measures can be used to control NYC’s Canada geese?  Were such measures tried before the decision to kill Prospect Park’s flocks?  I don’t know the answers, because there has been little effective communication from city, state and federal agencies and the media seems mostly interested in the public’s outrage and sorrow.

I’ve scheduled an interview with a biologist from USDA’s Wildlife Services to try to answer some of these questions.  I understand the public outcry. I feel an attachment to the Morningside geese, and hope to find out whether they, too, were rounded up as air hazards.

But really, the underlying issue is bigger than Canada geese, even 400 of them.

Across the country, conflict between wildlife and humans is on the rise, and NYC is no exception.

Riverside Park Raccoon

Central Park coyote: Bruce Yolton/

To date in 2010, a rabies epidemic, now almost extinguished by a labor-intensive vaccination program, raced through the Central Park raccoon population, putting park-goers at risk, while coyotes roamed the island from its northern tip to Tribeca. Meanwhile, just across the river in New Jersey, an increase in black bears has led to an ill-advised campaign to reinstate bear hunting.

We need an informed public debate about the changing relationship between wildlife and humans in an increasingly developed world. The term, “wildlife management,” should no longer call up only images of bison, caribou and wolves in the national parks of the west.  Our densely populated cities and suburbs are the new epicenter of human-wildlife conflict and so, like it or not, of wildlife management.

Feeding of animals by humans, whether intentional or inadvertent, is a key problem. Feeding draws animals closer and provides people with pleasure, companionship and a feeling of connection to nature, despite its often negative effects on the wildlife. Many animal populations expand or contract based on availability of food, and the association of humans with food is the primary cause of problems, including injury.

Riverside Park squirrel on the prowl

In Morningside Park, people love to feed the ducks, geese and pigeons. Riverside Park has several regular feeders of squirrels.  In Prospect Park, ironically, some of the same people who care for and mourn the geese may have contributed to the problem by regularly feeding the birds, thereby increasing their numbers.

But the desire to connect to animals is profound.  Posting signs telling people not to feed the animals is not enough.

Rabies Alert: Do not feed wildlife

Any campaign to discourage feeding will have to acknowledge this desire and provide people with alternative ways to connect to nature. Groups like the Urban Park Rangers already provide free programs that introduce both children and adults to the birds and other animals that live in our parks. Programs can engage educators, artists, wildlife biologists and naturalists to impart, with passion but without sentimentality, the excitement and pleasure of observing wild creatures from a distance without interfering or trying to lure them into a relationship that gratifies us yet places the animals at risk.

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver (This is an excerpt – read the whole poem)

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

A Visit to Dallas

July 10, 2010

NYC’s recent heat spell has awakened sweat-enhanced memories of 17 summers in North Texas. To a transplanted New Yorker, life in Dallas is mostly summer. It stretches easily for eight months, from April to November, during which the air never cools. Even in the middle of the night, the city is like a warming oven; the sidewalk, streets, buildings and cars are perpetually warm to the touch.

Texans call the early unstable days of summer “spring;” these days are characterized by an apocalyptic enthusiasm of weather: thunder storms, flash flooding, hail that ranges in size from marbles to baseballs – baseballs, people – and has given rise to an entire sub-industry of car and roof repair,  and regular tornado alerts.

Once the Texas so-called spring has roared itself out, the long, hot days of summer lay themselves down over the city like a heavy quilt on a winter sickbed. Days of 100 degree temperatures pile up like dealt cards and when it’s not 100 degrees, it’s 99 or 96, so what, really, is the difference?  From inside an air-conditioned house or car, it looks beautiful out there.

But, oh my friends, it’s hot.

Texans who run or garden or bike tend to get up and out early. Which is what I did on a quick visit to Dallas last month.

My friend Ellen was excited to show me a turkey vulture nest she had spotted a few days earlier, near the bike path around White Rock Lake.  So at 7:30 one morning, we headed out to bicycle the nine or ten mile loop around the lake.

The sun had already begun its relentless shine and the temperature was in the 80s when we stopped at a swampy area to admire a pretty little coot.

It swam placidly about, enjoying the company of two lively juvenile wood ducks.

Further on, a mixed group of water fowl relaxed and foraged

while on the other side of the path, a charming fox squirrel found something tasty to munch on.

In NYC, I miss fox squirrels, just as I missed Eastern gray squirrels when living in Dallas. Bigger than grays, fox squirrels have a lovely reddish tinge to their undersides.

Snow appeared to cover the ground beneath a nearby cottonwood tree.

Hot and thirsty, we took a water break out on a dock

and watched two peaceful fishermen.

Back in the saddle, we neared the turkey vulture nest.

“There,” Ellen whispered. “In that tree hole.”

A turkey vulture nesting in a tree hole? Really? I moved closer.

“Ellen,” I said, “That’s a duck.” 

And it was. A strange-looking, carbuncle-adorned duck.

A Muscovy duck, we determined, after consulting the Audubon Guide on my iPhone. If it is wild, rather than an escaped captive, it is an unusual find. Either way, we were thrilled with the sighting.

After the bike ride, no matter how much I drank, I was thirsty. So another friend pulled the car up to Sonic where, in addition to selling burgers,they sell drinks “as big as your head.”  In Texas, a person needs a drink as big as her head. We bought two.

Summer in North Texas will eventually be followed by four stunningly beautiful months of autumn. Texans call these months “winter,” but people from the Northeast know better.  A person doesn’t really need a winter coat in Dallas, just a jacket.  That’s not winter. That’s fall.

It’s true that every couple of years, a thin winter-like layer of snow dusts the ground, and a crop of undersized snowmen springs up on the lawns like mushrooms after a rainfall.  These snowmen tend to be brownish in color, due to the amount of dirt scraped up by their Creators along with the snow.  And once in a very great while, a winter ice storm turns tree branches and grass blades to crystal.

But the main game in Dallas is summer. And right now, whether in NYC or Dallas, it’s all about the heat. Time to find some shade.

New York Times Reveals Blog Dog’s Secret Identity; Mysteries Remain

July 3, 2010

Well, it’s finally happened.  We must have known that the identity of Esau, the blog dog, couldn’t stay secret forever. But like the seemingly innocuous suburbanites alleged to be working as deep-cover agents for the Russian government, we thought we could get away with our little subterfuge. No more.

Esau poses by miniature tepee

After eight carefree months masquerading as Esau, the Biblical hairy man who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage (tell me, what self-respecting canine wouldn’t?),  Esau’s identity has been revealed in the New York Times. In an article about this blog, A Dog Walked into a Blog, reporter J. David Goodman wrote, “The  four-legged star of the endeavor is Strider, the 8-year-old mottled mutt …”

Esau, aka Strider, or the mottled mutt, peers into the unknown

And so, just like that, the carefully cultivated persona of Esau is blithely stripped away, revealing … Strider.  But who, really, is Strider?  The New York Times seems eager to explore the identities, assumed and actual, of the Russian not-quite spies. Perhaps they should be asking the same questions about this apparently ordinary little dog: What do we really know about “the mottled mutt”?  Who is he? Where did he come from? What is he doing in New York City?

His origins are shrouded in mystery. A skinny Texas stray with no known identity, he was plucked in 2003 from impending doom at the Lewisville, Texas animal shelter by Casa de Critters, a tiny animal orphanage run by Becky Sue Parton.

Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard

Picard aka Strider

Dr. Parton named the dog Picard in honor of Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, perhaps due to the remarkable resemblance, as evidenced here. Or perhaps it was for another reason known only to her.

In a concerted effort to find young Picard a home, Dr. Parton  splashed charming photos of the dog across her website, describing him as lively, sensitive, cheerful, loving and intelligent. Who could resist?

Agility training by agiledogs;

But there was another side to Picard, one far more serious than his considerable talent for thieving socks. Presented by Dr. Parton as “an excellent candidate for agility training,” Picard turned out to possess physical skills that deep-cover suburbanites can only dream of. A first-class escape artist, he could sail over a five-foot fence in pursuit of a squirrel, and had once leaped from the window of a moving car because, well, he saw something interesting out there.

Yet despite his shadowy past and suspicious abilities, Picard found a new home.

Viggo Mortensen as Strider

Strider as Esau

There he was given the name of Strider by a 10-year-old boy smitten with Viggo Mortensen’s dark, hooded portrayal of the loner Aragorn, aka Strider, in The Lord of the Rings.

Which, I ask you, is the real movie star?

People often stop us on our walks. “What kind of dog is that?” they say.  It’s a larger question than they know. Esau, as I think I will continue to call him here, is a mutt of unknown ancestry about whose first year or two we know nothing, not even his name. But of his life now, we know many things.  He’s a vigilante rat-killer, an amusing companion, a tireless walker, an eager adventurer, an affectionate and forgiving friend, a patient and inspiring muse.

But enough about Esau/Strider/Picard, dog of multiple identities, known and unknown. It’s time to go for a walk.

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