Archive for March 2012

NYC Peacocks and Blossoms

March 31, 2012

It’s cold and grey today, cold enough that I wished I had brought gloves on my morning dog walk.  So to warm us all up, here are recent photos from a walk through the grounds of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights.  As you look, you must try to imagine the continual sound of Saint John’s three peacock boys, screeching like trumpeting elephants and honking like city buses.

Phil, the white peacock, strolls in the garden by Columbus Avenue.

So many colors in the gardens:


Are these hyacinths?



and white again

Ah, here is the wall that surrounds the secret garden, the Biblical garden where plants grow that are named in the Bible.

Let’s take a closer look.

Why not go inside?

Look, tulips

Let’s have a seat. The birds don’t mind us.

Okay, enough sitting. Time to look for the other peacocks. Ah, here’s one now.

A little higher with the tail, please.

And … we’re done.

Sparrows and pigeons share the peacocks’ food, put out in a cookie tin near their house.

“Wait a minute, I want some of that.”

On our way to Morningside Avenue, we spot the third peacock, perching and watching. (Blurry, thanks to the dog pulling at the leash.)

Until next time…

Herons, Swans and Coots on Long Island

March 29, 2012

Mecox Bay on the East End of Long Island is home to herons, osprey, kingfishers, mute swans, and an array of ducks and shore birds that change with the seasons. Here are a few photos from a quick trip earlier this week.

A Great blue heron hunted in a regular spot, protected from the wind.

Sunset poured pink light all around the bird, the dog and me.

The next morning, swans revealed a less elegant side of their lifestyle.

A 16-bird strong armada of American coots bobbed about near the shore.

They seemed to be relaxed and disorganized, some going this way, others going that way..

But as the dog and I drew closer, they moved into formation,

and formed an orderly platoon with a scout at the lead.

I always enjoy watching coots, whether in Oregon, Texas, British Columbia or Long Island. But I usually see them alone or in very small groups. Perhaps this is a migrating flock that has stopped for a rest and to refuel.

As I resumed my walk, the swans were back at it.

NYC Coyote Round-up: Walking the Talk, Talking the Walk

March 24, 2012

Ever since 2010, when I came face to face with a young female coyote in Central Park, I’ve had coyotes on the brain. As my regular readers know, I’m fascinated by (some might say, obsessed with) the urban coyote phenomenon and bowled over by the extraordinary story of migration as these highly adaptable wild dogs have spread out of their native home in the Great Plains, across the continent and into every imaginable habitat, including our suburbs and cities.

Coyotes in an unidentified NYC park. Photo: Mark Weckel. Click image to go to New York Times Green Blog.

Another winter has come and gone with no new coyote sightings in Manhattan. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t going about their business nearby.  For years, coyotes have been quietly living and breeding in the Bronx (where I suspect the photo above was taken). Recent coyote sightings in Queens induced the usual breathless, frothing-at-the-mouth coverage by local media.

A coyote in Queens, nicknamed Frank by researchers, photographed by a trail camera. Click image to go to article by Mark Weckel and Chris Nagy.

Today I have five happy bits of New York City coyote news:

1. A recent article by  Sindya N. Bhanoo in the New York Times Green Blog looked at New York’s urban coyotes with refreshing calm and genuine curiosity. Bhanoo uses well-chosen quotes – from a researcher, the head of the urban park rangers and even a high school student involved in a coyote study – to educate readers about urban coyotes, reassuring the frightened (simply seeing a coyote is not cause for alarm), cautioning the foolish and/or sentimental (don’t feed, don’t approach, etc.), and even pointing out the possible benefits of having a top predator in the hood (rodent and deer control).

2. Today, Proteus Gowanus, Brooklyn’s interdisciplinary art gallery and reading room, was the starting point for a coyote walk.

Led by artist Dillon de Give, the walk was intended not to look for coyotes, but as a way to imagine how a coyote might travel through Brooklyn. Sticking to green spaces whenever possible, Dillon led walkers into  Manhattan and north to Hallett Nature Sanctuary at the south end of Central Park. Hallett, a one-acre area that is off-limit to both dogs and humans, was used as a resting spot Manhattan’s coyote visitors in 2006 and 2010.

3. Next weekend, de Give will embark on his annual Lah walk.

Image by Dillon de Give. Click image to visit Dillon’s website.

According to Dillon’s website:

“Lah” is an annual project that commemorates the spirit of Hal, a coyote who appeared in Central Park in 2006 and died shortly after being captured by authorities.

Lah illustrates how a coyote might find its way into Manhattan with a reverse human journey out of the city: a hike retracing a potential coyote-like path through greenspaces. Citing examples of juvenile coyotes that have made long dispersal trips, the walk averages around 50-60 miles.

The walk has been performed solo, in a group, and in a pair.

In 2010, I joined Dillon and his fellow Lah walkers on the first leg of their journey from Hallett to the north end of Central Park, leaving them at Frederick Douglass Circle to continue their way north for several days.

4. On Saturday afternoon, March 31st, Frank Vincenti, Director of The Wild Dog Foundation, will lead a Coyote Lecture in Forest Park in Queens. Frank is a passionate advocate for co-existing with coyotes, and will be talking about coyote natural history. I’m guessing he will also talk about the growing population of NYC coyotes, and the latest DNA research showing that many Eastern coyotes carry wolf genes, acquired during their long migration by inter-breeding with a remnant population of Red wolves. For more information, visit the NYC Parks Department or call (718) 846-2731.

5. And last, an invitation for NYC readers to join me for a staged reading of my hot-off-the-presses new play:

New York City Coyote Existential
(a short play with science & songs)

Apologies for the blurry screen shot. Some day, I’ll learn to scan.

This is a bare bones reading in a small gallery space at Proteus Gowanus. It will feature the wonderful actress Mary Shultz as The Coyote with music by Thomas Cabaniss. Please be aware that seating is very limited, and is first come, first served.

Check back soon for updates on New York’s coyote news.

Spring Evening in Riverside Park

March 21, 2012

Tonight the dog and I took an early evening stroll in Riverside Park.

The park is just about perfect right now. Many branches are still bare, letting the river show through.

Some trees on the Cherry Walk are budding,

while others are blooming.

We left the river walk,

and headed back up to the center promenade.

Like the river, the city shows easily through the trees.

I love the seasonal layers, daffodils coming up through last fall’s leaf litter

bud-fuzzy branches,


lovely white blossoms,

and magnolias.

In a month or so, views of the river and the city will be obscured by layers of lush green leaves.  But meanwhile, I’m loving spring.

The Trash of Two Cities: How our trash kills our hawks

March 17, 2012

I recently spent 24 hours in Philadelphia, and I want to talk trash. Trash as in garbage, refuse, litter, rubbish. Why do I want to talk trash? Because of NYC’s wild winged predators, of course, specifically our large population of red-tailed hawks.

Let me connect the dots that lead from refuse

to red-tails.

Simply put: Humans make garbage. Garbage feeds rats. Well-fed rats thrive, breed and raise healthy young. The growing rat population causes problems for humans. Humans use poison to eliminate rats. Red-tailed hawks eat poisoned rats and die.

Rats, like all animals, need three essentials in order to thrive: food, water and shelter. NYC provides all three in abundance. Most city rats take shelter in a vast underground empire that exists below the city streets, amid tunnels and pipelines and storm drains. They come up into the streets to feed. What do they feed on?  Mostly garbage, which New York City provides to its rodents free of charge, 24 hours a day.

Open trash cans,

Open trash cans offer easy access to rats, as do bread crumbs spread for pigeons

food dropped on the street,

Starlings fight over pizza

mountains of bagged trash awaiting pick-up by the sanitation department,

It takes no time at all for a rat to gnaw through a plastic bag to feed on the rotting scraps inside.

and unsecured garbage can lids

Rats slip easily inside an open lid.

these are the gateways to health, happiness and profuse breeding in our urban rodent population.

The recent deaths of several red-tailed hawks in Manhattan has led to speculation that the birds suffered secondary poisoning after eating street rats laden with rodenticide.  The bodies are being tested to find out why these apparently uninjured hawks died.  In previous years, rodenticides have been identified as the cause of death for several NYC hawks, both adult and juvenile. Clearly, poisoning prey animals causes problems for NYC’s wild predators.

Riverside Park red-tail eats a rat.

I’m certainly not advocating that we protect the hawks at the expense of our quality of life. Rats have over-run my neighborhood in Morningside Heights, and I want them gone. But poisons, while sometimes necessary to control a specific infestation, will not solve the underlying problem.

I know this from experience. Here on my block is a rat burrow in the dirt around a street tree. You can see that the burrow has been covered with mesh, and that the mesh has been gnawed right through.

Rat burrow.

This has happened more times than I can count. Poison is regularly dumped down into the hole, to no avail.

Layers of signs warning of rat poison.

On Thursday, this was the scene at the rat burrow.

Are these poison packets? Right out in the open, where children or dogs could pick them up? Panning out a little, you can seen how the poison is counteracted by … trash.

As long as we feed our rats (and give them take-out coffee), we will continue to have a problem.

Okay, enough ranting. Let’s go to Philly.

Solar-powered trash compactor and recycling bin.

The area of Philly I stayed in was full of heavy-duty, double-bodied refuse containers. Small openings in the left side are for cans, bottles and paper. But the right side, the trash side, is completely enclosed.  Rats can’t get in. Philly started using these trash cans a couple of years ago. They’re computerized, high-tech, solar-powered, laser-operated machines that, by compacting the trash, can hold many times as much garbage as a regular can. When they’re full, they send signals to the sanitation department to alert them.

The cans need to be emptied much less often, allowing the city to expand its recycling program. Philly insists it has cut no workers from the payrolls, but is using them to work in other areas. It also claims the pricey new cans have easily recouped their cost and are now saving the city money.

The city has also commissioned students and artists to decorate the cans as toothed and hungry creatures.

Toothy trash can.

Here’s a garbage-eating shark.

Feed me.

Apparently New York is trying a few of these out in Chinatown, Park Slope and other neighborhoods around the city. There are a few minor obstacles.  You have to be willing to touch a potentially germ-covered handle to deposit your trash. And while virtually all the cans I saw in Philly looked clean and slick, the one at the bus stop in front of the train station, where passengers line up for the Bolt bus and Mega bus, had a wobbly handle.

Still, these seem like our best hope, along with a major education campaign, for controlling our rats.

And now, to reward you for having stayed with me through my trash talk, here’s a glimpse of non-trashy Philly.

Flowering trees

pretty bike racks

dogs in windows

murals and garden plots

tiled murals

and – the reason I went to Philly in the first place – a terrific production of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, directed by my husband, at the wonderful Wilma Theater.

If you live in or near Philly, do go see it. It runs through April 8th.

Good-bye, Riverside Park Red-tail

March 12, 2012

I learned yesterday from a visit to the Morningside Hawks blog that the female of Riverside Park’s paired red-tailed hawks was found dead on Friday. This is such sad news, just as nesting season is underway.

Today, the dog and I walked to the nest site.

Just above the 79th street boat basin, the nest overlooks the Hudson River.

There we found a makeshift memorial to the hawk.

According to hawk watchers, the hawk seemed ill on Friday, perching for hours without moving. The Riverside nest has a particularly fraught history, as rehabilitator Bobby Horvath told the NY Daily News, “Every year there is a tragedy with this poor bird. One year there was a storm, the nest blew out of a tree and three babies died and last year her mate was found dead by a Dumpster.”

The death of the Riverside female brings the recent death toll of Manhattan’s Red-tails to four, three in the last two weeks alone. The bodies are being tested to determine the cause of death, a process that may take over a month. Many birdwatchers suspect rat poison, an on-going hazard for urban raptors.

Rat poison caused the death last year of the Riverside Park male red-tail, and has also killed baby hawks that were inadvertently fed poisoned rats by the their parents. After last year’s death, the Parks department stopped using poison near the nest, but NYC hawks hunt in the streets as well as in the parks. And I can attest from daily experience that rats, and boxes of rat poison, are easily visible all over Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side.

Whatever the cause of the recent deaths, red-tails move on to new mates with astonishing rapidity. There seems to be no shortage of “floaters,” unattached, usually younger hawks in search of mates. The Riverside female had found a new mate earlier in the season. And on Saturday, Roger_Paw reported, the male had already been observed copulating with a new  female.

When I got home this afternoon, I spotted a red-tail perched on a water tower on 109th Street. It might have been a Riverside red-tail, but it could just as easily be from Saint John’s, Central Park, or elsewhere.

As I fumbled with my camera, the bird took flight, heading south.

Here’s hoping we have another successful nest in Riverside Park this year.

And here’s a last look at “Mom,” showing unequivocally why we call them red-tails.

Look Up: Men in Trees!

March 8, 2012

What is this man looking at?

Men in trees, of course.

You never know what you’ll see on your morning dog walk in New York City.

Today, with the Hudson River as a backdrop, these guys were as good as a circus aerial act

or perhaps a troupe of nature-loving funambulists,

working with wires and spotters,

but without a net.

On this beautiful spring-like morning, it was like seeing tree spirits come to life

until they touched earth again

and were transformed back into humans.

You know, just, normal young guys with gear.

But don’t forget: these guys really do walk in trees.

Check back soon to find out what they’re doing up there.

Hey Robin, Jolly Robin

March 1, 2012

Hey Robin, jolly Robin,
Tell me how thy lady does.
– traditional English song, sung by Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Two days ago in Riverside Park, I saw my first robin of spring, and he was not a jolly fellow. He (or she) was fluttering about desperately on the ground, snagged on a bush by a wad of string that had wound around one foot. I tied up the dog, and made my way to the fenced-in area where the bird flopped and flapped helplessly.  As I approached, he repeatedly cried out with a loud, shrill sound, unlike any I have heard a robin make. It seemed to me to be the bird equivalent of screaming. I bent down and took him in my hand, gently pinioning his wings to prevent him from further injuring himself.

The robin’s foot was pretty much engulfed by some kind of soft, stretchy, black material, a few strands of which had become entangled in the low dry branches of the bush. I was able to break the string that bound the bird to the bush, but there was no way I could completely free his foot from the mass of material that undoubtedly prevented him from perching or walking properly. In fact, the material had probably turned the foot into a mostly useless block. I held him for a moment,thinking what to do.

Before I continue my story: if you find an injured wild animal in NYC and want to help, contact the wildlife rehabilitation center of The Wild Bird Fund at 646-306-2862.

But I did not take the bird to the rehabilitation center.  I simply opened my hand and released him. He flew swiftly to a nearby tree, where he half-perched, half-lay in a low position.

Injured robin in tree

I was relieved to see him fly well, as he had been flapping with such vigor I was afraid he might have injured his wing. He looked scruffy and uncomfortable, but was quiet and still, remaining in his spot as the dog and I left.

Calming down

Whether the bird will survive is an open question. The fencing, designed to protect plantings, had kept him safe from off-leash dogs, but, come evening, he would have been easy prey for the raccoons that live in the retaining wall a short distance away

Raccoons in the retaining wall of Riverside Park

or for the red-tailed hawks that were circling above Riverside Drive a few blocks north.

It’s sad to watch a little bird struggle, and natural to feel an emotional attachment to an individual animal in distress. Should I have tried to take the robin to the rehabilitation center, which might have been able to remove the string and save its foot? Maybe. On a species level, however, predators like the red-tailed hawks need to eat, too, and (unlike the omnivorous, garbage-loving raccoons) the hawks’ only food is other animals.

Young hawk eats squirrel in Riverside Park, January 2011

Stressed and injured, less able to compete for food or escape from predators, the robin may very well become some other animal’s prey.

Or … he may survive. One does sometimes see one-legged pigeons foraging successfully in the city. If the robin hasn’t sustained other unseen injuries, if the foot doesn’t develop an infection, and if he’s just plain lucky, maybe, just maybe, the little guy will make it through another season.

Of course, he’ll still have to cope with the vagaries of early spring. February is not generally considered spring in NYC, but in case you haven’t noticed, this year has been, oh, just a little warmer than usual.

Snowdrops in Riverside Park

Still, winter may come roaring back at any moment, and then, as another old song says of the English robin (an entirely different species):

The North wind doth blow and we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing?
He’ll sit in a barn and keep himself warm
and hide his head under his wing, poor thing.

Birds that migrate early, as robins tend to do, sometimes face survival problems, if the plants and insects they rely on for food are not yet available.  But robins can eat a fairly wide variety of food, and so can adapt to sudden cold weather and even snow by eating berries and seeds, instead of earthworms and insects.  (All About Birds reports that robins sometimes become intoxicated by eating too many honeysuckle berries.) By mid- February this year, many trees were already sporting nutritious buds, which robins, like the sparrow below, can also eat.

Sparrow eating buds in tree

Good luck to the robin and all the coming birds of spring.

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