Archive for March 2013

Dabblers On the Hudson

March 31, 2013

Black Duck on the Hudson

A week or so ago, Esau and I walked along the Manhattan shore of the Hudson River between 100th Street and 116th Street. Flotsam and jetsam littered the rocks.


I expect to see a mallard pair or two when I walk by the river. And so I did. The female below nibbled away on the moss that covered the rocks down at the water’s edge.


She’d nibble and nibble, then lift her head to swallow.


The male floated nearby as did a huge plank.


I did not expect to see the gorgeous pair of black ducks that were hanging out not too far away.


I didn’t know what they were until I got home and looked them up. I just knew they were stunning with their subtle plumage and elegant postures.


The male was nibbling on moss.


The female nibbled on herself.


More accurately, she preened and seemed to be dealing with bird lice or another of the many small parasites that beset wild birds. While some bird lice are generalists that can feast on any part of the bird’s body, others species specialize in particular areas of the bird. A bird may be infested with wing lice, head lice, body lice, and so on, not to mention mites and other creatures. Without hands, a nibble with your bill is your best bet for scratching the itch.

I’m starting to feel a little itchy myself.


Whew, finished preening.

And what a beauty.


Next up: Divers on the Hudson looks at a pair of hyper-active, punked-out red-breasted mergansers.

For more on dabbling ducks in New York:
Sex and the City Bird
Fresh Ducklings and Growing Goslings in Morningside Park
NYC Mallards Court on Halloween

Black Squirrel in NYC

March 25, 2013


 A year ago, I went hunting for black squirrels in Central Park, but to no avail. Then in  January,  I finally spotted one as I walked along the south side of Washington Square Park. It was dusk and I only had my iPhone, so the photos I took that evening are blurry, as you can see below.


Last week, I was again walking along the south side of Washington Square, keeping my eyes open for a black squirrel.  I watched a fat robin for a while.


And then I saw a solitary black squirrel, sitting on a bench with a snack.


The squirrel soon hopped down into a little clearing, where it joined the robin and a gray squirrel.


The black squirrel seemed to be keeping the gray on its toes. Several times it dashed toward the gray, making it run.


Black squirrels have a bizarre anecdotal reputation for being more aggressive than grays. This is peculiar, since black squirrels are grays. They are not a separate species, but a color morph of Sciuris carolinensis, the Eastern gray squirrel. Yet there seems to be a belief that along with the color mutation has come a personality shift. In the UK, where gray squirrels are considered an invasive species, both grays and blacks are reviled for causing a worrisome decline in the population of native red squirrels. The larger gray squirrel out-competes the red squirrel for habitat and has infected it with “squirrel pox,” a disease for which the red has no immunity.

But black squirrels commonly seen as aggressive even to gray squirrels. It does seem to be true that the population of black squirrels in the UK is growing faster than that of the gray squirrel, but scientists have no clear answer for why this should be. Researchers have begun assembling a black squirrel DNA data base to  to try to learn more.

Meanwhile, I’m simply thrilled to watch this beautiful little animal.


NYC’s Riverside Park Raccoons Emerge

March 21, 2013


By the end of winter, I’m missing my regular sightings of Riverside Park’s raccoons.

There are a couple of reasons I don’t see raccoons in winter as often as the rest of the year. The first reason is my schedule. Dusk comes so early I’m rarely in the park at the right time to see these nocturnal creatures emerge from their den in the retaining wall. The second reason is that raccoons tend to be less active in the coldest months and, during the coldest days, may stay curled up in the den rather than venturing out to feed and explore.

By mid-March, days are longer and daylight savings time means that dusk comes well after 7 PM. I’m happy to report I’m seeing raccoons again. (Please forgive some blurry photos – it was pretty dark, and I’ve had to enhance the images to make the raccoon clearly visible.)


On Sunday night, a solitary raccoon lumbered along the wall. I was struck by the pale, silvery color of its front legs and paws.


It seemed to be moving rather more slowly and clumsily than usual.


But it eventually made its way to its destination.


And disappeared into a hole. Look to the right of the large hole to see the tail.


Based on sightings from past years, there are certainly other raccoons in the wall. Before Manhattan’s raccoon rabies epidemic of 2009-2010, I once saw five or six raccoons emerge from a single hole in the wall. In recent years, I’ve seen no more than three. And this winter, I’ve seen only one at a time.

But spring is coming, and I’ll be watching.

Spring Celebration: Urban Birds Makin’ Whoopee

March 20, 2013

It’s spring, and the air is filled with romance.

In honor of all the exciting animal activity going on in the city, here is a brief Urban Wildlife Valentine from Out Walking the Dog.


This video was originally posted on Valentine’s Day, 2012.

For more on the love life of urban birds:
Sex and the City Bird
Sex and the Pigeon
The Pigeons Outside my Window

Keep Wild Dolphins Wild

March 19, 2013
Dolphin in NYC's East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Dolphin in NYC’s East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

In light of the continued presence in the East River of at least one dolphin, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation reminds us that dolphins “are wild animals and should be treated as such.”

It’s only natural to feel a thrill at the sight of a magnificent, intelligent and charismatic wild animal right off the bustling shores of our huge city. We want to take photographs and shoot video to share our awe at the beauty and power of a free-swimming whale in our urban waterways.  We may feel the urge to get closer to the animal, whether to get a better shot, to feel more spiritually connected with another species, or just to heighten the thrill. But as we marvel at the animal’s presence, we must be sure that our impulses are moderated by respect for the dolphin’s independent existence and concern for its welfare.  This means: KEEP YOUR DISTANCE and DO NOT FEED THE DOLPHIN.

Here is an amusing Public Service Announcement sponsored by the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association):

Most problems with wild animals – whether raccoons, geese, squirrels, pigeons, coyotes, bears or dolphins –  arise when the animal learns to associate humans and their habitations with food.  We landlubbers may not be accustomed to thinking of dolphins in this way. But dolphins that come to associate humans with food are more likely to approach boats and be injured, sometimes fatally, by entanglements with fishing hooks or lines or collisions with propellers.  According to NOAA, “feeding wild dolphins disrupts their social groups which threatens their ability to survive in the wild. Young dolphins do not survive if their mothers compete with them for handouts and don’t teach them to forage.” And from the point of view of human safety, dolphins bite. Powerfully. If those reasons don’t move you, maybe this will: It’s against the law.

For more information on wild dolphins and their interactions with humans, visit NOAA’s website, Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins.

For more on issues of feeding wild animals in NYC, read How Our Trash Kills Our Hawks, How Many Raccoons Live in Manhattan, Anyway?, New York Rats and Garbage, and Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to his Friends.


Pedestrian Bridge to Randall’s Island.

Meanwhile, I recommend a walk along the East River or up the 103rd Street pedestrian bridge to see if you can catch a glimpse (from a respectful distance, of course) of NYC’s marine visitors.

I haven’t heard any reports today, so don’t know for sure if a dolphin still swims the river from the 90s to 103rd Street between Queens and Manhattan. Should you be lucky enough to see it (or them), please call Riverhead Foundation’s sighting hotline at (631) 369-9829.

Oh, and then let me know by leaving a comment here on the blog or sending an email to: Thanks!

Are There Two Dolphins in NYC’s East River?

March 18, 2013

The North Brooklyn Boat Club has posted a video and photos of the East River bottlenose dolphin, taken from the back of a canoe.

Members of the Boat Club are “very sure” that they saw not one, but two dolphins. I was first alerted to this video and the possibility of multiple dolphins by Vladimir Brezina, Out Walking the Dog reader, scientist, kayaker and blogger extraordinaire. Vlad, who was out on the river himself this weekend, posted the video in a comment on one of my earlier dolphin posts where he also informed me that some boat club members believe it is possible they saw three dolphins. It can, of course, be hard to tell since a dolphin can cover quite a large expanse underwater, popping up fairly far from where it was last sighted.

In a Twitter exchange this morning with Out Walking the Dog (@Wildlife_of_NYC),  @NorthBKBoatClub confirms “simultaneous sightings in two locations” (one on the Queens side of the river, one in the original location on the Manhattan side) with the second dolphin appearing to be “smaller and darker.” This is fascinating news, indeed.

Read more at Gothamist.

Is it possible that the river offers some kind of superb fishing right now that is drawing the dolphins? Human fishermen regularly fish the East River. Almost exactly a year ago, I photographed this gentleman on Randall’s Island. He told me he was fishing for Blackfish.

Fishing for Blackfish on Randall's Island.

Fishing for Blackfish on Randall’s Island.

Some fish are essentially resident, while others, including striped bass and bluefish, migrate to the East River in the spring. As the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) eloquently states in Saltwater Fishing in NY, “In general, fish move.” And fishermen, of course, tend to follow the fish. As Ludacris puts it, admittedly speaking of something other than fish, “When I move, you move.”

In addition to humans and dolphins, East River fishermen include seals (the Boat Club reported one on Saturday in Hallett’s Cove in Queens) as well as a variety of ducks, mergansers, cormorants, and gulls.

If any of you readers are fishermen or marine biologists, tell me what you think. Is it possible that these are healthy dolphins that have followed a run of fish into a fairly enclosed area and are having a days-long feast?

NYC’s Hawk-a-Day Club

March 18, 2013
Atop the head of Saint Andrew high on the Cathedral of St John the Divine.

Atop the head of Saint Andrew high on the Cathedral of St John the Divine.

I’m a charter member of NYC’s Hawk-a-Day Club. Anyone can join, and the entrance requirements are, well, not too tough. Basically, all you have to do is spend some time outside, preferably in or near a park, and look up. Because these days, the city’s raptors, particularly its burgeoning population of red-tailed hawks, are pretty easy to spot.

Over the course of the past six weeks or so, I’ve regularly – even, yes, daily – seen red-tails…

in Riverside Park.


Red-tail in Riverside Park at dusk.

On the back of the Cathedral of St John the Divine.

Nesting on the shoulders of St Andrew.

Nesting on the shoulders of St Andrew.

In Central Park.


Red-tail (Pale Male?) near Fifth Avenue.

On a high-rise near Morningside Park.

High above the city.

High above the city.

On another high rise on Broadway between 109th and 110th Streets – on the same spot where I recently watched a pair of hawks copulate.


On a tree near the statue of General Franz Sigel at 106th and Riverside.

Hawk above 106th and Riverside.

Hawk above 106th and Riverside.

On a water tower, looking over 110th Street.




Watching The Watchers of the East River Dolphin

March 16, 2013

On Wednesday afternoon, I watched the dolphin swim and dive in New York’s East River. That afternoon, I also enjoyed meeting and watching a wide range other watchers.

But first … Friday’s Dolphin Update from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation:

After 24 hours of no sightings, we received a report of the bottlenose dolphin in the East River this afternoon. The first report came in at approximately 2 PM. The dolphin does not appear to be in distress and continues to be free swimming and utilizing the east side of the river near the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. While NOAA encourages you to enjoy the presence of the dolphin, please remember that bottlenose dolphins are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. We are continuing to collect sighting information for monitoring and are ready to respond in the event the animal becomes stranded. Please report any sightings to Riverhead Foundation’s Hotline at 631-369-9829.

(If you are just learning about NYC’s dolphin, you may want to read my earlier posts here and here.)

The first watchers I met were these police officers who had been asked to check out the dolphin. The three of us headed up the 103rd Street pedestrian bridge to get a better look south over the river.


Here’s a more formal portrait.


Soon a photography class from East Harlem’s Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation headed up the bridge, led by teacher Benjamin Caraballo. The class was taking their first outing with cameras.


Students from Innovation High School

Turns out Ben is a wildlife photographer and biologist, who was delighted to learn of the dolphin. He and the class headed back down the ramp to the river walk to try for a closer view of the animal.


Teacher Benjamin Caraballo and a photography student.

On the river walk, a young father and son in matching cammies watched the dolphin.


The gentleman below rushed excitedly to the railing, phone camera at the ready, saying “Where is it?” After I pointed it out to him, he said, “I need a photograph of it.” “And I need a photograph of you,” I said. He gave me a big grin.

Happy dolphin watcher.

Happy dolphin watcher.

I talked a long time with a very nice woman whose grandfather was a New York City tug boat captain, and who knew the area well. I didn’t get a picture of her, but I did get a picture of “her” ducks.


Ruddy duck armada.

She has run along the river for years, and has gotten to know the lovely little ruddy ducks that gather here.


Note the electric blue bill.

These fishermen, according to my new friend, are always out.


“He’s sick. He’s gonna die,” the fishermen declared of the dolphin with great finality, citing the terrible pollution of the East River.


“Then I wouldn’t eat that fish you catch,” muttered my new friend under her breath. Here is a fisherman of another species, that was swimming and diving far below the surface of the river.

I believe this is a Common merganser.

I believe this is a Common merganser.

A little later, I talked with Tara who was taking a friend’s dog for a walk. Like most of the watchers, Tara was thrilled with the presence of the dolphin but concerned for its safety. She told me how much she loves working in the summers at an equestrian center on Randall’s Island that I didn’t even know existed. She said they even give lessons to neighborhood kids who can’t afford to pay.


Tara and her friend’s dog.

After a few hours, it was time to go. Bye bye.

Wave bye-bye.

Wave bye-bye.

Watching NYC’s East River Dolphin

March 13, 2013

I spent a few hours this afternoon watching a dolphin in the East River off Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Dolphin in NYC's East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Dolphin in NYC’s East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that? Did you say, a dolphin in the East River?”

Dolphin in East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Dolphin in East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

That’s right. As of two hours ago, a dolphin was swimming in the East River. I first heard about the dolphin this morning, when a reader wrote in to report spotting it near 96th Street. (Thank you, Samantha!) It seems to have spent most of the day swimming in the same general area off the East River Drive.

During the time I watched, it stayed on the west side of Mill Rock, a small uninhabited island.

Dolphin at northern end of Mill Rock. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Dolphin at northern end of Mill Rock. Photo: Melissa Cooper

It stayed south of the 103rd Street pedestrian bridge to Randall’s Island.

Pedestrian Bridge to Randall's Island at 103rd Street and the East River.

Pedestrian Bridge to Randall’s Island at 103rd Street and the East River.

It stayed north of the sanitation station.

Dolphin near 96th Street.

Dolphin near 96th Street.

It stayed east of the Triborough, er, I mean, the RFK Bridge.

Dolphin in front of RFK Bridge. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Dolphin in front of RFK Bridge. Photo: Melissa Cooper

The Riverhead Foundation believes the animal to be a bottlenose dolphin. The Foundation is gathering information about the dolphin, but is not immediately alarmed. According to their Facebook page, four other cetaceans have been reported in the East River since 2010, and all four were able to find their back out without intervention. Let’s hope this creature, too, follows the turn of the tide back out into the harbor.


Check back soon for more on the New York dolphin and on New Yorkers watching the New York dolphin. And meanwhile, keep me posted on your urban wildlife sightings!


For more on NYC’s cetaceans:

Dolphin Spotted in East River
Hudson River Dolphin
Whales in NYC
Hudson River Dolphin is Dead

Dolphin Spotted in East River

March 13, 2013

Update with photos:
Watching NYC’s East River Dolphin.

A reader has just reported seeing a dolphin this morning in the East River at 96th Street. She found my post about last summer’s Hudson River dolphin, and called the Riverhead Foundation to report the sighting. Within the last hour, it has been reported swimming in circles between the Randall’s Island pedestrian bridge and Mill Rock. (Thank you to everyone who is keeping me informed!)

Dolphins and other large marine animals occasionally turn up in both the Hudson River and the East River. Here’s hoping this is a healthy animal that finds its way out of the river, either south into New York Harbor or north into Long Island Sound.

Major waterways in NYC. Julius Schorzman, Wikimedia Commons.

Major waterways in NYC. Julius Schorzman, Wikimedia Commons.

I’m reprinting below a bit of info from my post on the Hudson River dolphin in case anyone else spots the dolphin today.

If you are lucky enough to spot the dolphin, please call  the Riverhead Foundation right away at (631) 369-9829 to report the time, location and behavior of the animal.  Assuming the dolphin is still around, the marine wildlife experts of the Riverhead Foundation will try to ascertain whether it is healthy or in need of assistance.  Should the animal show signs of distress, the Foundation is well equipped to care for it with the goal of releasing it back into the wild.

As always, knowledgeable wildlife experts urge people to leave the animal alone, and NOT FEED IT, advice which seems to be a surprisingly difficult instruction for our species to heed.

Oh, and once you’ve contacted the Riverside Foundation, don’t forget to contact me!  I’m guessing the dolphin has returned to the harbor, since I haven’t heard of any sightings since Sunday. But I’d love to know more about the NYC dolphin – or any other interesting wildlife encounters you may have.  You can always reach me by leaving a comment on Out Walking the Dog or you can email me at

And remember: keep your eyes peeled as you walk the city. You never know what you might see out there.

NYC Red-tails: Nesting on St John the Divine

March 12, 2013

Seen from the front, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine at 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue is a lovely, forever unfinished hulk of stone.

A lovely, perpetually unfinished hulk.

A lovely, perpetually unfinished hulk.

But for now I’m more enamored of the Cathedral’s less commonly appreciated back.

St. John the Divine, as seen from

St. John the Divine, as seen from Morningside Drive

Because on the shoulders of a long-suffering saint (well, aren’t they all?) high on the back of the Cathedral is one of the most picturesque hawk nests in the city.

Nest resting on the shoulders of a saint.

There a red-tailed hawk often perches atop the saint’s head and gazes east over Morningside Park and Harlem Valley, as it did a week ago when I showed the nest to Kelly Rypkema, biologist and host of Nature in a New York Minute. (Thanks, Kelly, for letting me use your camera that day!)

Red-tailed hawk on saint's head. (Thanks to Kelly Rypkema for letting me use her camera!)

Red-tailed hawk on saint’s head. (Thanks to Kelly Rypkema for letting me use her camera!)

Esau and I visited the nest again last Thursday as a light March snow fell.

Hawk and saint in the snow.

Hawk and saint in the snow.

A pair of hawks has been nesting and raising young here since 2006. Robert of Morningside Hawks gives a fine history of the nest. For two years, the female, known as Isolde, nested with a male known as, you guessed it, Tristan. When Tristan died in 2008, a male called Norman, for (possibly ecclesiastical) reasons beyond my ken, paired with Isolde. According to Morningside Hawk’s history, the pair has successfully fledged a total of nine babies since 2008.

Look at how the wind is blowing the hawk's feathers.

Another view of hawk and saint.

Sadly, Norman is rumored to have died during Hurricane Sandy. But in the past month, I’ve watched two hawks at a time bring twigs to the nest. I never learned to identify Isolde or Norman as individuals, so I can’t tell you which hawks I’m seeing. I assume one is Isolde, and the other a new male. Whoever they are, I’m thrilled that nest-building is going on apace.

In fact, NYC’s upper Manhattan hawks have been incredibly active over the past month. I watched a pair copulate on a building at 109th Street and Broadway, and have been seeing at least one raptor almost every day, whether in Riverside Park, Central Park, or outside my window. Red-tails are by far the most frequently sighted.

Red-tail at 106th and Riverside Drive.

Red-tail at 106th and Riverside Drive.

But I’ve been lucky enough to spot my first Merlin zooming north along Riverside Drive, and two peregrine falcons, one a mature male perched on a water tower, the other a juvenile perched on a school.

So look up, New Yorkers.

Raptors are all around us, perched on water towers and tree limbs, soaring overhead and swooping low, mating on high-rises and nesting on bridges. Keep your eyes open, and LOOK UP.

A Riverside red-tail.

A Riverside red-tail.

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