Archive for the ‘2009’ category

O Riverside Park, O Walks of 2009

December 31, 2009

O Riverside Park

O you long, slim, man-made beauty!

Accept this thank you letter for a year of walks with Esau.

Thank you, Riverside Park, for tepee builders and basket weavers  thank you for sculptors of driftwoodand balancers of stonethank you for cross-country skiers and crazy skateboard boys

Thank you for trees, tree holes and painters of trees

Thank you for fish on stonesfor dogs on hay bales for sports drinks on trees and conspiring red riding hoodsThank you for your long, narrow palm  that holds the living secrets of the Great Retaining Wall on your eastern side and, on the west, the fishy banks of the Hudson Most of all, thank you for holding safe the wild things so they can go about their eternal and mysterious animal business right under our city noses.


Snow Day: Audubon Christmas Bird Count

December 22, 2009

Central Park in the snow, the morning after the Big Storm:

On Sunday, December 20th, I participated in my first Audubon Christmas Bird Count in Central Park.  Don’t know what that is?  Read more about it here and here.

I had planned to go to Riverside Park, but didn’t hear back about where and when the Riverside bird counters were meeting. So I walked through the quiet, still-unplowed streets over to 85th Street at the Reservoir to join the Central Park count. I chose to go out with the group counting birds in the Northwest sector of the park, since that’s as close to my regular beat as I could get.

Had a glorious, joyful time tromping through the ten-plus inches of snow for four hours with a generously informative group of birders.

Our group included an Urban Park Ranger (yes, I still want to be an Urban Park Ranger when I grow up), and several super birders, among them wildlife photographer extraordinaire, D. Bruce Yolton, whose Urban Hawks blog is always worth a visit. His recent post on Central Park’s visiting Great Horned Owl is amazing.

Oh, and you can spot me on Bruce’s site.  Look closely at the first photo of a group of bird counters on the December 20th post: fuchsia scarf and Tibetan hat are identifying field marks.

Every year between December 14th and January 5th, Audubon Christmas Bird Counts are held all over the country.  The data collected spurs conservation efforts and research studies. And it’s a total blast.  Hey, it’s only December 22nd. Depending on where you live, you might still be able to join the 2009 Count. What are you waiting for?


New York Winter Storm: Animals in Winter

December 19, 2009

It’s snowing!

And they say it’s going to be a Big Snow. How will the animals stay warm?

First of all, feathers.


Above is my feather collection from walks with Esau over the last year.  Below are my favorites: a blue jay feather and a red-tail hawk feather. Look at the size difference!

The really warm stuff is the downy underlayer. Now that’s cozy.

As for mammals, well, Esau loves the cold. Here he is last winter:

Esau's first Big Snow

I keep warm with help from the birds: a down-filled L.L. Bean coat so toasty I have to unzip it after ten minutes walking.

Squirrels spend the coldest days snuggled into their big, fluffy tails, deep inside a drey or hole, made cozy with leaves, fur and feathers. All they need is a cup of hot cocoa and a couple of board games.  The little guys were very active this morning, chasing each other along the retaining wall and  carrying mouthfuls of leaves and white fluffy stuff – down, maybe – into a hole in the wall. Maybe they can tell when a storm is coming.

Raccoons pack on the pounds in the late fall and early winter. When the cold comes, the whole family piles into the den to live off excess body fat for up to a month. Metabolism slows, but it’s not a true hibernation.

I’m guessing they enter a strange, dozy sleep with slow dreams that go on for days. I wouldn’t mind finding my way into a fat raccoon’s winter dream to wander about for just a little while.

Feather Bouquet

Rabid Raccoons in Central Park

December 16, 2009

After years of being pretty much rabies-free, Manhattan has four confirmed rabies cases in 2009, all in raccoons.  One rabid raccoon was found last summer in Inwood Park; the other three were all found dead in Central Park’s North Woods, two in the week of December 7th.

Oh, my lovely Riverside raccoons, what will happen to you?

photo by mola jen/

So how is rabies being transmitted around the island? An infected raccoon must have crossed into Manhattan, probably from the Bronx where rabies is quite common. Maybe it took the bridge or swam across at Spuyten Duyvil. Hey, it’s an island, you gotta cross the water somehow.

Henry Hudson & Spuyten Duyvil Bridges by mysticchildz

Maybe it hitched a ride in the back of a truck hauling garbage. Somehow it made its way to Inwood Park at the northern end of the island.

View west from Inwood Hill Park by Baslow/

Then it, or another infected raccoon, travelled south, maybe passing though Riverside Park (oh, my raccoons!), then through city streets

108th & Manhattan Ave.

until it reached the North Woods. Somewhere between 50 and 100 raccoons live pretty densely packed in Central Park, which means we can expect more rabies in the coming months.

Raccoons do venture into Manhattan streets. About a year ago, we saw them for a few weeks on 108th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway. And last summer,  the New York Times described regular forays by North Woods raccoons across 110th Street to raid the garbage cans.

Raccoon in trash can by jeremy

Raccoons, listen up.  It’s a jungle out there. Don’t share saliva with strange raccoons. Don’t bite or get bitten. Don’t scratch or get scratched. Be safe.

Meet you at the wall tonight.

Who’s Eating What in New York City Parks

December 8, 2009

Birdfeeders in Riverside Park are almost empty again. So who’s eating what?

Besides a hungry Downy woodpecker, the feeders attract mostly mourning doves and sparrows. On the ground below, scrounging whatever seeds fall, are rock doves, aka pigeons, and squirrels.

Nice stash

Birdseed isn’t the only thing the squirrels are munching. They’re eating acorns. Gobs of acorns.

This is the treasure the bushy-tailed guys in gray are so busy burying. They won’t remember where they hide them, but they’ll find them anyway. By smell. Scientists buried nuts squirrel-fashion in an area where squirrels had also buried nuts. Then they watched. The little guys dug up scientist-buried nuts at the same rate as nuts they had buried with their own paws. That pretty much rules out memory.

Smashing pumpkins

Here’s something they don’t have to dig for. Smashed pumpkin. Not sure if someone brought it to feed the animals or heaved it over the Great Wall just to watch it explode. Either way, squirrels probably enjoy a little taste. Raccoons certainly do.

Raccoons eat pretty much anything. I mean, anything. Fruit, nuts, berries, corn, crawfish, snails, frogs, small snakes, eggs, baby birds, lizards, grubs, earthworms, insects. Oh, and garbage. Yum.

Raccoons do so well in the city partly because they have no predators here, other than the occasional rogue dog. Sadly, two Central Park raccoons tested positive for rabies this week, bringing Manhattan’s 2009 rabid raccoon total to four. Since Manhattan usually has no rabies at all, this is disturbing news.

New York squirrels were also predator-free for years, but those days are gone. Red-tail hawks are back, living and breeding all over the city, including in Riverside Park, and what they really like to eat is rodents. Of which there is never a shortage in New York City. So rats and squirrels, watch your backs.

A Riverside Park Red-tail rests a minute.

No one in New York eats red-tails or any of the other big raptors at the top of their food chain. Like the peregrine falcons that thrive on formerly predator-free pigeons, or the Great Horned Owl, a rodenticide-on-wings, that showed up in Central Park in November. I recently dissected an owl pellet and found tiny mouse bones. Astonishing. More on NYC owls in a future post.

Great Horned Owl; photo by Zest-pk

So, from squirrels to nuts, that’s what’s on the menu this week in New York City parks.

Squirrel Update: The Drey Report

December 8, 2009

Special Note: This post is now part of Scientia Pro Publica 21: Darwin’s 201st Birthday Edition. Scientia Pro Publica is a bi-monthly blog carnival dedicated to science writing that communicates to the public. Check it out! And now…The Drey Report:

Bare branches reveal dreys in Riverside Park. We counted five dreys in the Forever Wild stretch that runs between 119th Street and 116th, and six between 116th and 108th.

“That’s great,” you say. “But what’s a drey?”

See those brown blobs way up in the trees? Those are dreys. Squirrel nests.

“Huh. They don’t look like much.”

Maybe not, from the ground. But inside, inside, it’s a whole other story. At least, that’s what I hear. Lined with moss, lichen, fur and feathers, dreys are soft, inviting baskets for squirrels to spend cold winter days and nights. Some dreys even have separate compartments. At least, that’s what the Urban Park Rangers, Sunny and Sheridan, told me. I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I’m guessing it’s something like a Manhattan studio apartment.

500 Square Feet of NYC Bliss

Anyway, summer dreys are loose collections of leaves and twigs, not built to last. But winter dreys, tucked securely into a fork in a tree, will withstand wind and weather.They’re high enough to be safe from ground predators, but not all the way at the top where a marauding hawk could swoop down.

Savvy squirrels maintain more than one home. That way, they can move when a nest gets wet or infested with parasites like ticks, fleas or mites. All the research says squirrels prefer tree hollows, especially in winter, but I have yet to see any tree hollow action.

The retaining wall, on the other hand, is like an animal apartment building.

No vacancy

Squirrel with entries to right and left.

Raccoon peeks out of hole at night.

Raccoons take the big apartments and squirrels squeeze into the studios.

The squirrels come and go all day, zipping in and out of holes, up and down the wall.

And at night, when the squirrels have finally gone to sleep, the raccoons emerge slowly, like jazz musicians, to start their day in the dark.

Feeding the Birds in Riverside Park

December 3, 2009

Once upon a time, there was a suet feeder that lived all alone in a forest.

Suet feeder

One day a tube feeder mysteriously appeared on a nearby branch. A few days later, a gallon jug feeder moved in. Now there were three feeders living together in the forest. Too bad they’re empty. Is a feeder even a feeder if it has no feed?

Three bird feeders

Maybe a trip to D’Agostino’s can help.

Let’s see. Bird food. Hmm. Not a lot of options. Traditional blend sounds good.

Fill ’em up.

Ahhh.  Now, that’s better. Here, birdie, birdie.

Polar Bears Run Wild in Coney Island

December 1, 2009

On a mild clear day on the last Sunday in November, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club meets for their weekly swim in the Atlantic Ocean.

Polar Bear Club

A first-time observer estimates Sunday’s polar bear population at roughly 25-30, including a couple of bear cubs.

A new bear heads for the sea.

When an inexperienced bear complains of aching in the feet and shins. Capri, a knowledgeable polar bear, says sagely, “Everyone’s different. Me, I come out when my feet start to tingle. Because after the tingling, the feeling stops. You can stay in forever then. That’s how I got a little frost nip one time.”

Bears return from the sea.

Polar bears cavort. Lovely.




Wise bear keeps circulation flowing.

After learning about membership from Club V.P. Tony, it’s time to wander the boardwalk.

Coney Islander soaks up last November rays in a cozy corner.

Handball is big among island natives, who wield bare mitts like tightly strung rackets.

Power hitters

Below, an invigorated, if slightly chilled, polar bear poses for a portrait.

Two happy burger men

The rides are closed, and the quiet structures are beautiful.

The Parachute Jump

Watch for more on Coney Island’s polar bears in future posts.

The Secret Life of Fruit: Bananas in L.A.

November 25, 2009

Buyer, beware

On November 16th, Out walking the dog posted evidence of unusual nesting behavior in New York apples, and asked readers to send pictures and stories documenting abnormal fruit activity.

A correspondent in East Los Angeles recently sent the photo below:

"Walking around the loop this a.m. and saw my meditation bench was already occupied..."

Reader, keep your eyes, if not your bananas, peeled.   Out walking the dog will continue to collect and publish evidence. Send photos or drawings to:

Riverside Park Weekend: The Tepee Builders

November 23, 2009

On Saturday, a man and two boys were discovered building …  a tepee!

Tepee in process

As you may recall, we have wondered about the tepees, large and small, that mysteriously appear and disappear in Riverside Park.

"We have a table!"

Esau by small tepee some weeks ago

When questioned, the man affirmed that he has indeed been building tepees in Riverside Park for several years.

While we talked, the boys lugged two large flat stones into the center of the tepee, and placed a circular tin of pastilles on top.

“Look,” cried one. “We have a table!”

I told the man we admire his work, and are sad when the tepees disappear.

The builder

“Sometimes it seems we’re just gathering branches for the parks department  to  pick up,” he said with a smile and a shrug. “But it’s all right. There’s a kind of atavistic pleasure just in gathering brush.”

Tepee bones

On Sunday, Esau and I returned to admire the completed work.

Sadly, this is what we found.  No more tepee.  Only bones.

The bells of Riverside Church chimed Thanksgiving hymns. Okay, all right. We’re grateful we met the builders and saw a tepee in process.  But we’re still sad to see it so soon gone.

The sight of a painter in a pink plaid shirt working en plein air restored our equanimity.


Come back soon, tepee builders. We miss you already.

Heading Home: South from 136th Street

November 20, 2009

Esau and I are heading south from West 136th Street, passing high above the city on the viaduct. The Hudson and New Jersey lie to the west. To the east, dreary apartment buildings (but what views they must have!) and a remarkable number of self-storage facilities.

At 123rd Street and Riverside Drive, we duck down a little path to visit the Amiable Child Monument. A four year-old boy, St. Claire Pollack, was buried here in 1797. The area to the east was farms and country estates then. One hundred years later, as you can see below, Riverside Park, now so green, was almost treeless.

Amiable Child Monument in 1900

Amiable Child Monument today

Northwest of the monument, near the viaduct, is a rose garden named for the boy.

St. Clair Place, with its inexplicable alternate spelling, runs two blocks from the river to meet both 125th and 129th Streets.

A block south of the amiable child, Grant’s Tomb looms large through mostly bare branches.

On the Forever Wild trail, someone has put up a wren house and hung a suet feeder from a bare branch.

Underfoot, leaves, leaves, leaves:

A whole dumpster full of fallen leaves:

When the leaves are dry, like today, they rustle so loudly that squirrels hunting for nuts sound like bears.

Look: a mysterious box on a bench!

Esau sits by mysterious box and wonders.

Inside are the remains of a white powdery substance. Hmmm.

Esau briefly escapes.

Time to go home.

Riverside Park: The Secret Life of Fruit

November 16, 2009

Posting of the journey home from 137th Street is being delayed in order to bring you this special bulletin.

Several entries ago, I posted the question: Do squirrels nest in the retaining wall of Riverside Park?  I have since acquired sufficient evidence to believe that they do, although I welcome other opinions, including from my new friends at NYC’s Urban Park Rangers (more on the Rangers in a future post).

Today I bring you a far more startling revelation of nesting behavior, this time–hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen– in the vegetable world.

Evidence indicates that Big Apple apples may be nesting in Riverside Park.


An apple takes refuge in Riverside Park.

What could be causing such behavior? Stress? Over-crowding in the markets?


A closer look at a nesting apple

Half a block away, on 108th street, we spotted an apple escaping the confines of a trash can. Is this a desperate break for a new life? A call to action? Will this apple join its tribe in Riverside Park?


An apple escapes.

So many questions, so few facts.

Please help by sending photographic evidence documenting the secret life of fruit.

Journey North: Beyond Manhattan’s Easter Island

November 13, 2009

On a long walk north on a gray day, Esau and I see an amazing group of stone sculptures down by the river. The sculptor carefully, skillfully, balanced rocks of all shapes and sizes to create this community of shapes:


Easter Island on the Hudson


Stones contemplate the Hudson.


Balancing act

Strange and magical.

Further along, we pass a man standing on a flat stone, moving slowly in a prayerful manner:


We see driftwood sculptures:


and a tepee, much like the mysterious park tepees of several weeks ago


Esau sits by tepee and gazes at the Hudson.

At the Harlem Piers, we walk out onto the river.  We look east to the Heights:


Seagull flying past Riverside Church

We look south along the coastline:


Downtown in the distance

We look north towards Canada:


George Washington Bridge

Leaving the river behind, we push north up 12th Avenue, where we find a big dog guarding a restaurant at 135th Street in the shadow of the viaduct:


Big Dog/Little Dog

We climb the huge stone steps that lead to the viaduct, and head for home.

Esau on the Move

Esau on the move

The trip south is for another post.

Raccoon Babies at Play in the Dark

November 11, 2009

Esau has never understood why I won’t go into the park at night.  But though I’ve been sorely tempted, I’ve been ruled by an ancient taboo forbidding parks after dark, along with cannibalism and incest. But no more.

Last night, lured by the possibility that raccoon babies might be dancing in the night park, we descended the 116th Street steps. The rustling leaves gave me a little frisson, but I had just read the beginning of Marie Winn’s wonderful book, Central Park in the Dark. I mean, she walks in the Ramble at night – the Ramble, for crying out loud. I can handle Riverside Park.

Around 109th Street, we saw low shadowy figures just ahead: the raccoon family. The mother darted up the slope towards the wall, but the two babies bolted down the slope towards the lower promenade. Each ran partway up a tree, froze and waited. After a minute, the babies peeped cautiously around the tree trunks. They must have felt safe, because they climbed back down, and proceeded to chase each other up and down the slope in an exuberance of wheeling and turning. The babies were dancing.


A young raccoon enjoys life. Photo courtesy of Michael Scheltgen,

The taboo is shattered. We’ll be back tomorrow night.

Meet the Trees of Riverside Park

November 10, 2009

I don’t know trees. From my years in Texas, I can recognize a magnolia and a crape myrtle. I know a maple only from its leaves, a weeping willow from its droop, and cherries when they’re in bloom. That’s about it. But identifying trees in Riverside Park just got easier.

Meet Chris from the NYC Parks Department. ChriswithBlackCherry

Chris was recently spotted on the upper path, driving a green golf cart-like vehicle packed with stepladder, hammer, nails and neatly stacked piles of green metal name tags. Accompanying her were two gentlemen from the Riverside Park Fund, armed with tree identification books. The trio graciously explained that they’re creating a tree trail up to 116th Street.

Here’s Chris tagging a black cherry.ChrisPutsUpTag

Here’s the tag:

And now … meet the trees, proudly sporting brand-new name tags.


Black Cherry

Norway Maple

Norway Maple


Thanks, Chris.

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