Archive for January 2011

Whales in NYC!

January 31, 2011

You know, within a few tens of miles of Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera of NYC, there are the largest animals on this planet, crooning and singing arias and magnificent songs, just offshore. And if you went to the very top of the Stature of Liberty, looking out onto the ocean south of NY Harbor … you’d be looking onto the stage on which the animals are singing. They’re right there.

– Christopher Clark, Director of the Bioacoustic Research Program at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology

There are whales right here in New York Harbor. And seals and dolphins and a wealth of marine life.  Wildlife is returning not just to the skies and parks of the city, but to its waters.

Spouting humpback whale

Tom Paladino of American Princess Cruises in Queens has been leading wildlife-watching boat tours into the waters of New York Harbor and beyond. In a recent article in the NY Daily News, Paladino reports a tenfold increase in whale sightings in recent years, and says he saw dolphins virtually every day from June to September.

The Daily News posted a nice video of whales and seals seen from one of Capt. Paladino’s boat.

Six different species of whale have been identified in New York waters: Humpback, Minke, Fin, Sei, Blue and the endangered North Atlantic Right whale, of which fewer than 400 still exist.

Eubalaena glacialis (North Atlantic Right whale) with calf

In 2008, the Bioacoustic Research Program at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology placed acoustic devices in the waters around NYC  to monitor and study the whales.  Yes, the famed ornithology lab has a pioneering acoustic wing that studies animal communication with a focus on birds, elephants and whales.  According to an article in the Daily News, a group of 30 to 50 fin whales appears to have taken up full-time residence just past the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge; Photo: Andreas Praefcke

Thrilling as this news is, it’s also worrisome.  The waters around New York Harbor are filled with boat traffic, placing the whales in danger of collisions, a leading cause of injury and death.

The New York bioacoustic study was short-lived, but Christopher Clark, Director of the Bioacoustic Program, is trying to raise money for further research as well as for a monitoring system to warn ships of the presence of whales.

Listen to NPR’s joyful 2008 interview with Clark as well as to the sounds of New York’s whales:

(click on the arrow to listen)

If you walk by the rivers, keep your eyes open for sea mammals.

Last March brought a dolphin to the East River

Photo by Bill Hannan of FDNY Marine Company 6

and a seal to the piers along the Hudson.

Seal at 64th Street and the Hudson River.

As native New Yorker Fats Waller so eloquently put it, “One never knows, do one?”

Fats Waller

NYC Coyote Watch 2011: Coyote in Queens

January 24, 2011

I’ve been meaning to sit down and write about how it’s just about time for New Yorkers to go back on coyote watch.

Well, the coyotes beat me to the punch.

Queens coyote by Marcelo Barrera, NY Post

While I’ve been dawdling, the animals have been on the move.  The first New York City coyote of the season was spotted this past weekend in Queens. Yes, Queens.

It’s around this time each year, in the heart of winter, that parent coyotes kick out the pups that were born the previous spring.

Lounging coyote pups by Ecobirder (click photo to visit site with more wonderful photos)

While the parents get ready to provide for the next litter, the almost-yearlings go out in search of new territory.  With coyote populations expanding and natural habitat shrinking, the wild dogs are increasingly making their home in suburbs and cities.  Last winter, several coyotes were spotted in Manhattan with one animal taking up residence for weeks in Central Park’s Hallett Nature Sanctuary before being captured downtown in Tribeca.

Coyote in Central Park by D. Bruce Yolton,

The New York Post reported yesterday that a coyote has been seen in Cavalry Cemetery in Woodside, Queens.  Cemeteries and golf courses offer good habitat for a coyote’s natural prey, including rabbits, squirrels, mice and other rodents.  Many experts have said that Long Island, is the only large land mass in New York State that is not home to coyotes.  No longer. Whether New Yorkers realize it or not, Queens is on Long Island.

But how did the coyote get to Queens?  A large breeding population exists in Westchester with a small population in the Bronx.  Last winter’s Manhattan coyotes may have crossed from the Bronx to Manhattan via the railroad bridge,  or they may have swum across. No one knows for sure.

One possible route for the Queens coyote would be to cross from Mott Haven and Port Harris in the Bronx to Randall’s and Ward’s Islands and from Ward’s to Queens.

The coyote was spotted in a graveyard in Woodside.

Reader, what do you think? If you have a better idea about How the Coyote Came to Queens, please leave a comment.

Last winter, I had the good fortune to watch the Hallett coyote on several occasions, as it made its way out of the sanctuary after dark to hunt for food.  Watching a coyote go about its business in the middle of a bustling city is a strange and magical event, as you can see in Bruce Yolton’s photos and videos of the Central Park coyote.

Central Park Coyote. Photo by D. Bruce Yolton,

Coyotes now live in cities throughout the U.S., including downtown Chicago as this video attests.  An enlightened supervisor for Chicago Commission on Animal Care and Control said of the coyote running through city streets at night, “He’s not a threat….His job is to deal with all of the nuisance problems, like mice, rats and rabbits.”

Rats by Blek le Rat

Coyotes are naturally wary of humans. Problems with wildlife generally occur when the animals lose their distrust and come to see humans as a food source.  No, I don’t mean we ourselves are food, but that we provide food, whether directly (“Here, pretty doggy, have a treat”) or indirectly, by leaving garbage – or small pets  – unsecured.

Tasty morsels belong indoors.

As natural habitats shrink, we will increasingly be sharing space with wild animals.  Coyotes are successfully adapting to our presence. We had better start figuring out how to adapt to theirs.

Meanwhile, don’t feed the animals.

Sign in a park in Vancouver, B.C.

Red-tail Eats Lunch in Riverside Park

January 19, 2011

Regular encounters with Riverside’s red-tailed hawks have rung out the old year and are ringing in the new.

Winter’s bare branches make the birds easier to spot. And the truth is, Morningside Heights and Harlem teem with raptors. Look up and out as you stroll neighborhood parks and streets or along the river, and you may see red-tails, kestrels, peregrine falcons or even a bald eagle.

One morning in late December, I scanned the skies and building tops from my window for avian activity.  Seagulls soared to and from the river, a flock of pigeons wheeled in and out of sight to the east, and a lone starling perched atop the school.

On last year’s Harlem Hawk Walk with James of The Origin of Species, I learned to pay attention to unusual bumps on water towers, antennae and chimneys.

Binoculars revealed a large hawk on the right tower. After about 15 minutes, the bird opened its wings and soared east down a side street. It was probably a red-tail, but I couldn’t be sure. I still need up close and personal encounters to identify what I’m looking at.

Later in Riverside Park, a juvenile red-tail obliged.

I almost walked right by, but a raspy cry drew my attention to a tree branch by the path, where a perching hawk sat and watched … something..

I followed its gaze up the slope towards the retaining wall.


I tied Esau to a garbage can

and made my way slowly up the slope. The hawk did not seem to mind my presence.

It was intent on devouring a squirrel. The head was pretty much off the little mammal, but much of the body – and the beautiful bushy tail – remained intact.

I watched from a few yards away, while the first hawk watched from the tree branch.

The meal required a remarkable amount of effort. The hawk stood on the carcass to hold it down.

Then the bird tore and pulled with its powerful beak.

The next day, I returned to the spot to see if any signs of the meal remained. I once found a squirrel tail on the upper path and wondered how it came to be there. Now I think I know the answer. I expected to find bits of fur caught in the fallen leaves.

I did not expect to find … utensils.

Ah, the mysteries of the city.

Ode to the Shovellers of New York

January 16, 2011

O shovellers of New York

O ye mighty inhabitants of a city swept by snow

O ye stalled and ye stuck

O ye commuters and alternate-side-of-the-street parkers, praying for yet another day of parking regulation suspension

The winter is against you

Old Man Winter

The snow plows are against you

Rage, o ye keepers of cars in a city that doesn’t care

Rage, and dig

O look, o look where stubborn folly leads

This is a car.

Yet dig o ye shovellers

Beneath the deep snow, wheeled freedom awaits,

Free at last.

And shovelling too will pass.

Truly, spring will come.

I’m Loving Me Some River Views

January 11, 2011

One of the good things about winter is branches bare as bones.

Bare branches reveal the river's proper domination over its namesake park, Riverside.

Oh, I know: in mid-winter, when the pale sky presses down until it hovers barely an inch above your head, when the wind blows savagely off the Hudson like it’s hungry to tear your face off, when everyone you pass on the street has the pinched and pasty look of Dubliners in the 1970s before the Irish imported fresh fruit and vegetables, on days like those, a bit of spring foliage might warm the cockles and lift the spirits.

Spring comes to the secret garden at Saint John's Cathedral.

But the thing about leaves is, all that lush vibrant beauty masks and obscures wondrous things. Like the river.

What river?

From May to October, you can barely see the Hudson through the leaves, unless you head right down to its banks.  A glimpse here and there, sure, but not enough of a vista to appreciate the essential river-ness of the river, the way it moves and the power of its currents flowing north or south with the ocean tides.

The river as sculpture gallery

On calm, clear days, the smooth surface is a broad skein of blue silk. On windy days, it’s a chopped and pitted sheet of metal that Thor pounded with his hammer in a fit of rage. And however it appears, the sight of the river tells me there’s always a way out. Just follow the river to somewhere, anywhere, not here.

Looking north to the George Washington Bridge

By February, I’ll be craving buds and green leaves, but right now, in the middle of this snowy winter, I’m just loving me some river views.

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