Archive for the ‘April’ category

Wandering Peacocks of NYC

September 9, 2011

Peacock in April in fresh breeding feathers.

The free-roaming peacocks of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue exert a strange fascination.

The white peacock bears an uncanny resemblance to my paternal grandmother in her later years.

In June, when a maintenance man rattled a cookie tin filled with food, the white peacock eagerly hopped a fence and positively hustled to get some chow.

Hustlin'

The peacock chowed down.

Puttin' on the feed bag

He appeared completely unfazed by a large troop of day campers traipsing noisily past.

Just another peacock sighting

and greedily gobbled his bird chow.

Staring down dinner.

Three male peacocks, gifts from the Bronx Zoo, roam all over the Cathedral grounds. The maintenance man told me that when the birds first arrived as young fellows, they would wander into the neighborhood, prompting worried phone calls from residents: “Hey, I just saw one of your peacocks over on Broadway.”  Someone from the Cathedral would head over to collect the errant bird and bring it home.

As far as I know, the Cathedral birds now stay close to home.  But a desire to ramble seems to regularly overtake New York City peacocks and peahens. In May 2011, a peahen bolted from the Bronx Zoo.

Peahen in Bronx Street (credit: ALDAG/AFP/Getty Images)

After several days of sightings and capture attempts, the bird was nabbed in a Bronx parking garage, and returned to the zoo. “In general,” said zoo director Jim Breheny, the zoo’s peacocks are “not inclined to leave the property, but for some reason this bird just got curious.”

A few months later in August, strollers on Fifth Avenue were startled by the sight of a peacock perched outside a fifth floor window.  The bird turned out to be an escapee from the Central Park Zoo.

Peacock rests on window ledge high above Fifth Avenue. Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters.

Zoo officials maintained that the peacock was likely to return home of its own accord and, after a night of adventurous sightseeing (and some serious tweeting), the bird did just that.

The Cathedral peacocks have already molted, losing most of their gorgeous breeding plumage and, until spring, will resemble the more modestly feathered peahen.

Mostly molted peacock

Check back soon to find out what Flannery O’Connor thought of peacocks and to see more photos of the Saint John’s trio.

Urban Fledglings

June 7, 2011

In the middle of April, I saw my first fledglings of the year: Columba livia, also known as rock doves, and best known simply as … pigeons.

Young pigeons have dark eyes; their parents have red eyes.

Three brave young birds landed awkwardly on the window ledge and air conditioner of my sixth floor NYC apartment, having made their first flight from the nest hidden some yards away on a ledge between two buildings.

Young pigeon on the nearby building ledge that leads to its hidden nest.

Apparently many New Yorkers insist they’ve never seen a baby pigeon, and believe a mystery, possibly including a conspiracy of some sort, surrounds that strange factoid.  “Where are all the baby pigeons?” they ask in a tone implying that no one is pulling the wool over their eyes.  The answer is simple: they’re all around you.

Pigeon babies spend their first weeks on simple nests, sometimes no more than an unstructured collection of random twigs) that are usually hidden from sight high up on building ledges.  It’s not until they start flying and feeding independently that they’re spotted by human New Yorkers. By that time, they sport adult feathers and have reached their adult size. In fact, they may be fatter than many adults, since they have little muscle tone, having spent their first weeks sitting on the nest, being crammed with food by doting parents.  So baby pigeons are all around us, though difficult for a casual observer to distinguish from an adult. Look for dark eyes, a curious disposition, and stray bits of down that yield a slightly scruffy appearance to the youngsters.

As for the clumsy, curious and skittish young pigeons outside my window, well, I felt a degree of attachment to the naive and ungainly trio.  After all, I had watched the parents mate – repeatedly, I might add – on the air conditioner outside my bedroom.

I had seen the male carry twigs and unidentified objects to the secret nest.

I had heard the low coos of parental pillow talk and the wild peeps of infant hunger.  Now the big babes stood outside my window, craning their necks around to look down at the street, up at the sky, and inside the apartment at me.

Truly, they seemed, at first, stunned by their new perspective on the great world. Several times over the next few days, one of the babies would huddle for hours beneath the air conditioning unit (the top of which had been the scene of many a parental coupling). It would peer out, crying for mom and dad with high-pitched peeps that belied its size.

It's scary out here.

Sometimes a parent flew down and fed the babies.  At other times, Mom and Dad perched on the railing of a nearby balcony, where they could keep an eye on the youngsters.

Who's watching the kids?

The pigeons spent the better part of a week practicing their flying, indulging their curiosity and learning about the world.  They craned their necks to track adult birds flying overhead

"Mom? Dad? Is that you up there?"

When they noticed me, they became curious

"Oh. Hello."

 The birds sometimes made awkward landings or, like adolescents everywhere, exhibited poor judgment compounded by inexperience.  When the cat made a sudden appearance,

Inter-species fascination

one bird flew straight up and straight into the window screen.  Seems counter-intuitive, I know, but that’s what happened. It then clung by its claws to the screen for several seconds, its wings madly flapping, completely freaking out the poor old cat.  I was afraid it was stuck, but it freed itself and flapped clumsily off.

Over the course of the next week, the birds stopped peeping for their parents, and became assured fliers. They even gained some tolerance for cats on the other side of the glass.

Inter-species obliviousness.

 The pigeon siblings are off to join the legions of rock doves that swirl through the New York skies.

Maybe they’ll try to infiltrate Victor Casiano’s rooftop flock, just a block away.

Members of Victor's flock

Or join the flock that feeds every day in Morningside Park.

Pigeons like snowflakes

Wherever they go, I wish them luck.

For more about the love life of pigeons, read Sex and the City Bird, NYC Wildlife: The Pigeons Outside My Window and Sex and the Pigeon.  For more about Victor Casiano, the last rooftop pigeon fancier in Morningside Heights, read Victor Casiano’s Rooftop Pigeons and Up on Victor’s Roof.

Spring in Three Cities

May 9, 2011

I spent a good chunk of April out of town, and am happy to be back on my island home, now in full  leaf-out.

Biblical Garden at Saint John the Divine.

Oh, yes, it’s spring, at last.

A peacock blossoms in a garden of Saint John the Divine.

Flowers are popping, and animals, too, are busting the confines of their lives.

In April. a baby pigeon rested in front of a flowering tree.

We’re all border crossers, every one of us animals, our lifetime of crossings prefigured by our natal departure from a watery womb world or hard-shelled egg into the dangerous but seemingly limitless possibilities of earth and air.  It’s never more evident than in springtime.

Baby birds are cracking out of eggs

Morningside Park gosling

Raccoons are emerging from dark holes and hollows

Riverside Park raccoon emerges from retaining wall den.

Turtles are leaving their watery homes to lounge on warm rocks

Morningside Park turtles relax in the sun.

and seals are coming ashore in New York City, including a small beach in northern Manhattan.

Gray seal on beach at Dyckman Street and the Hudson River. Photo by Corey Kilgannon/The New York Times.

(Read about my April encounter with a gray seal pup on Long Island here.)

In April, I worked in two midwestern cities, Indianapolis and St. Louis. Most of the time I spent in that strange, indoor world of theater rehearsals, a world that knows no seasons.  But in each city, I managed one small adventure and found wildlife surprises.

One morning, I played hooky from the Bonderman Symposium at Indiana Repertory Theater to explore the city’s amazing collection of war memorials. (Visit my other blog, The Red Animal Project, to read an ongoing series about how we remember our war dead, including a look at the Indianapolis War Memorial Plaza.)

A robin gazed over the city from atop the head of a majestic lion at the War Memorial Museum and Shrine.

Indy robin and lion.

 Trees clad in bridal gowns lingered along the paths of War Memorial Plaza

and a charmingly awkward American coot slowly revealed itself

Downtown coot

then strolled alone in an expanse of green.

No water here.

In St. Louis in the last days of April, I spied the first bird of the morning just steps from the hotel door.

Oh. So sad.

A gorgeous rose-breasted grosbeak.

Lovely, but dead.

The killer loomed above the tiny victim: a wall of glass.

Bird killer.

In the U.S. alone, collisions with man-made structures, particularly high-rise buildings, kill somewhere between 100 million and a billion birds a year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Solutions to the problem range from decals to dimming lights on high-rises, particularly during fall and spring migrations. If you ever notice a dead bird on the sidewalk, look up. If the bird lies beneath a building, please take the time to contact the building manager about the problem. If you live in a big city, you can volunteer with your local Audubon chapter to monitor collision deaths and advocate for changes in building codes and policies, such as Project Safe Flight.

Other top human-caused killers of birds are poisons and cats. Yes, cats. Pet cats take an enormous toll on wildlife. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but it is clearly in the high hundreds of millions each year, if not well over a billion. Pet owners, please accept this inconvenient fact, and keep your cats indoors.

Indoor cat goes hunting.

Back in St. Louis, I headed toward the Mississippi River, and discovered the city is a hot bed of cardinals. The fact that the hotel is half a block from the baseball stadium might have something to do with the extraordinary number of sightings.

Welcome Cardinal Nation!

Cardinals perched

Two cardinals guard a baseball.

Cardinals dressed up in baseball caps

Cardinals swung bats

and cardinals kept score

The park by the river was a dazzling green, and filled with robins and brilliantly irridescent blackbirds.

Irridescence on parade

Sparrows on the steps to the river took a wildly active dust bath.

Rollin' in the dirt

And then, at last, there was the river

Bursting its banks, covering walkways and ramps, the Mississippi is spectacular, unpredictable and dangerous.

I loved working in other cities, and I love being home in New York, New York.

Trumpeter brings soundtrack to my block.

City Hawk Snatches Chihuahua?

April 25, 2011

Scroll down to see the final image …

In February, I watched a red-tailed hawk eat a rat in the bare branches of a tree in Riverside Park.

Hawk stares at dead rat dinner.

A man stopped to watch with me.  A few minutes later, a woman walking a small dog asked what we were looking at.  When I told her, she said, “I used to think the city’s hawks were magnificent. Now if I had a gun, I would shoot them.”

“Why?” I asked, startled by her ferocity.

She told us a story:  One clear summer day, as she walked in the park, she saw a group of picnickers happily barbecuing and enjoying life up near 125th Street.  Suddenly a red-tailed hawk swooped low, picked up a tiny chihuahua in its talons, and soared north along the river, as the bereft owner wailed.

“It was amazing how far you could see him flying,”  she said, “with the pink leash dangling behind.”

Since then, she hates hawks.

I think I understand.  I’d certainly be devastated – and possibly unforgiving – if a predator ate my beloved dog (it would have to be some kind of prehistorically large pterosaur to choke down Esau).  But as a fellow hawk watcher said, “It’s a wild animal. It doesn’t share our morals. That’s the way it is.”

He’s right, of course, except that we don’t share our morals, either.  We declare some animals all right to eat and others off limits.  There’s no natural law to this; it’s a cultural thing (some cultures eat horses and dogs; we don’t) and an individual choice.

Some pigs, for example, are pets

Miniature pot-bellied pig in harness

and some pigs are meat.

Ham on the hoof; click picture to visit Smallcombe Farm

Surely it’s a bit much to expect wild creatures to distinguish pets from prey, when the distinction is essentially arbitrary.

If this story is true (and even if it isn’t), it brings up the fascinating issue of human-wildlife conflict in urban centers.  New York City’s raptor population, once virtually nonexistent, is growing larger.  Eggs have just hatched in the Riverside Park nest as well as in the peregrine nest down on Water Street.  We’re waiting to hear about the picturesque nest at Saint John the Divine.

Saint John's nest rests on the shoulders of a suffering saint. Photo by rbs, Bloomingdale Village blog (click photo to visit).

And any day now, the numerous other hawk and falcon nests all over the five boroughs will be home to eyasses.

Life is tough for young city hawks, and the majority will not survive to adulthood.  Rat poison, cars and disease will take a toll. But each year, enough babies survive to expand the numbers of predatory fliers in the skies over New York City.  They’ll be soaring over the streets and parks, looking for meals, and tiny dogs and cats look at least as tasty as any rat, squirrel or pigeon.  Like our suburban neighbors who are losing pets to coyotes, this story offers a reminder that we may need to adjust our behavior to accommodate the return of the wild.  So if you love your cats, better to keep them inside where they can be neither prey nor predator (songbirds will thank you).  And if you love your tiny dogs, keep them leashed and under your watchful eye, at least when strolling in Riverside Park.

I couldn’t shake the image of the hawk carrying off the poor little dog with the pink leash, so I asked my friend,  Charlotte Hildebrand, to paint an illustration for me.  And she did.

This painting arrived with today’s mail.  Thank you, Charlotte.

Morningside Park’s Turtle Army and Other NYC Wildlife

April 21, 2011

Morningside Park is in bloom, and its animals, many of them drawn by the little pond, are back in action.

On a sunny yet still cool April day, I spied fifty turtles basking on rocks (yes, that’s 50) as well as mallards, a goose, a cormorant, red-winged blackbirds, warblers, finches, rock doves and sparrows, a red-tailed hawk soaring east from the Cathedral, squirrels and a feral cat that delicately picked its way down the cliff to the water’s edge.

Let’s start with a unit of the turtle army:

Turtle army assembles

Five turtle species reside in Morningside Park: red-eared slider, common snapper, cooter, painted turtle, and mud (or musk) turtle.  I didn’t come up with the number five on my own.

I heard it from Tom.

Tom

Tom is a herpetologist/zoologist with the Bronx Botanical Garden. He grew up playing in and around Morningside Park, worked in the park for a time, and knows it inside and out.  He knows its flora, from trees to flowers to algae, and its fauna, from his beloved herps (reptiles and amphibians) to the songbirds, egrets, heron, falcons, hawks and kestrels that nest and hunt here to the bipedal primates that stroll, play, relax and cook in the park.

I met Tom last summer. He was gazing meditatively at a bullfrog that was lolling in the shallow northeast corner of the pond.

Summer day.

Tom still lives at the edge of Morningside park in a high-rise with a view over the treetops to Central Park. One evening from a window, he watched a pair of peregrine falcons chase a red-tailed hawk.

As for the turtles, Tom said they regularly nest in the area around the pond, but that the babies often don’t make it. Sometimes the ground becomes too “compacted,” and the hatchlings can’t dig their way out.  A woman I met in the park on a separate occasion said she had actually seen a turtle laying eggs under a very exposed tree near Morningside Avenue.

Well, some of those babies must be surviving, given the extraordinary size of the pond’s turtle army.

Another platoon of the turtle army

Also on last week’s stroll, a cormorant spent time drying one of its wings

One wing drying

Cormorants are voracious eaters that can make short work of a fish population.  Last summer, Tom was pointing out a school of tiny baby fish swimming near the shore, when a flash of gold leaped and plashed in the center of the pond. “Koi,”said Tom.” There’s a lot of fish in there: catfish, carp, crawfish.”

Watch out, fishies.

A red-winged blackbird waded in the shallows

What is this elegantly epauleted blackbird hunting?

A pigeon also waded,

and a solitary goose stood on a solitary leg.

Cantilevered goose

Until next time…

Great White Peacock of Morningside Heights

April 15, 2011

I love my NYC neighborhood.  Where else in Manhattan do the strange cries of peacocks echo through city streets?

Regal? Yes. Bright? Um...

Three gorgeous, pin-headed, tiara-wearing peacock boys freely strut their stuff through the grounds of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.  A recent stroll found the sole white peacock repeatedly displaying his astonishing tail to a green hedge.

The Great White Peacock of Morningside Heights spent a long time staring at, or into, the hedge.

Staring at the wall

I mean, a long time. As in minutes.

Getting a closer look.

But eventually, whether he found inspiration in the hedge or simply got bored, he began to display.

Opening...

Swirling ...

Revolving ...

Let’s do that again.

Opening ...

Raising ...

Spreading ...

Swirling ...

Raising ...

Profile ...

Lowering ...

Furling ...

And we’re back to contemplating the hedge …

Whats in there?

Check back soon for a look at the colored peacock in action…

I Find a Gray Seal Pup

April 12, 2011

Two weeks ago, Esau the dog and I were walking down the road to beautiful Flying Point Beach in Watermill on the south fork of Long Island.

Long Island

On the way, we encounter a flock of mostly headless mute swans on little Mecox Bay.

Mute and headless swans

The beach is empty.  Empty of humans, that is.

Shorebirds dart about on toothpick legs

while herring, black-backed and other gulls swoop overhead.Young gull on the prowl

As we walk, I scan the ocean for wildlife.  I always look for seals – or floating bowling balls, which is what seal heads resemble when they peek out of the water.  I used to see seals in Casco Bay when I lived in Portland, Maine and in the waters of Long Nook Beach on Cape Cod.  But in decades of walks on Flying Point Beach, I have never spotted a seal, although I know they are out there.

Three gorgeous, punky-crested red-breasted mergansers swim by.

Through binoculars, these boys are beautiful.

Further down the beach, I spy an unusual lump.

Beach lump: what is it?

We walk lumpward, until the lump reveals itself to be … a seal pup.

Is it all right?

It is a few feet long, and remarkably fat.

I  scan the water in hopes of seeing a mother seal bobbing just offshore. Nothing. Has the little guy been abandoned? Is it injured or ill?  Not wanting to frighten the seal, I keep my distance, and examine the pup through binoculars.  The little seal seems to sleep.

Resting

Then it perks up and looks around.

'sup?

It rolls over onto its back and wriggles around, as if to scratch an itch.

Sometimes it gazes right at Esau and me.Oh. Hello.

It rubs its nose with a flipper and sometimes seems to be playing peek-a-boo, covering its face with a flipper. I worry about its flippers.  Are they moving properly? I can’t tell.

I use my cell phone to call a rescue hotline for marine mammals. The hotline turns out to be operated by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Mammals. A woman from the answering service tells me that several people have already called to report the Flying Point seal pup. I ask when a biologist will arrive to assess its health. She has no idea."But it may be injured or abandoned," I say. "Surely someone will come soon." The woman explains that the foundation handles all of Long Island from Queens to Montauk. With only one van. The van has gone to Coney Island to check out a seal, and has several other stops to make. There's no telling when or if anyone will come to Watermill.I call the Southampton police station to see if they can help. The policeman says that no one there has the training to evaluate a seal (fair enough), and the hotline is the best resource.So I wait and watch, accompanied by my patient dog. I wonder at the strange tug of kinship with a fellow creature, alone and possibly in distress. I don't know how to interpret the movements of the seal. What is it saying when it gazes at us or when it covers its eyes with a flipper, the way my old dog Lucy used to do with her paw?The sun goes down, and my fingers freeze. A friend brings gloves to the beach, then stays to wonder at the little lump, apparently alone in an expanse of sea, sand and sky. No one comes.After a while, we walk away.

In the morning, I return to find … nothing. The seal is gone, and the ocean has claimed the spot where the little animal rested.

Click here for a follow-up on the seals of NYC and Long Island, and click here to read about the seal-people known as silkies .


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