Archive for the ‘October’ category

It’s Freaking Snowing in NYC, People!

November 7, 2012

It’s freaking snowing in NYC.

Snowing! It’s November 7th, for heaven’s sake. The day after Election Day. Can’t we have a day or two to enjoy the results of the election without worrying about another storm? People in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey are still without power from Hurricane Sandy. They’re cold. Their houses are destroyed. They need a break.

And this is the second year in a row that we’re having snow way before we should have snow. Look at last October 29th.

And this is 30 minutes ago:

What the …?

It’s dark already, now, so I can’t take any more pictures. Here’s what November 7th, 2011 looked like.

A lovely day.

A woman and a dog enjoyed the river view at 125th Street.

An Occupy Wall Street march proceeded up Broadway.

And all around town were broken trees from the previous week’s bizarre snowstorm.

Downed branches.

Piles of logs.

Heavy wet snow, wind and trees still in leaf make for a bad combination.  Snow accumulates on the leaves, and the weight brings the branches down.

Trees were leafed out last year.

And they are leafed out this year, as you can see in this picture from last weekend of volunteers cleaning up Hurricane Sandy’s mess.

Today, it’s snowing! See that white stuff on the cars and the playground flooring? You know what that is?

Yeah. It’s freaking snow. What the hell, people?  I know not every weird weather event can be attributed to climate change. I mean, of course not. But can I just say how relieved I am that Barack Obama won the election.

But did I mention that it’s freaking snowing?!

Peacock Razzle-Dazzle

November 22, 2011

As leaves drop from the trees and the city grows more monochromatic day by day, I offer you a dazzling reminder of late spring, when the three peacock boys of Saint John the Divine just couldn’t stop showing off their big, beautiful tail feathers.

The boys have lost their tail feathers for the season, now. In October, when I took the photos below, the birds were in varying stages of molt.

The single all-white peacock had lost his long, trailing tail feathers,

Thus peacock is regularly found staring into hedges and other vegetation.

as had this classically colored fellow, who appeared to be wearing a gaudy silk shirt with old, brown corduroys.


The bird on the right was still flaunting some long, green eye-feathers.

Just hangin' out, waiting for something to happen.

They’re all gone now, the tail feathers. But don’t worry.  In just a few more months, as trees bud and grass greens, the feathers will grow back, and the birds will be displaying again, in all their splendor.

This is a rear view (in case you're trying to figure out where the head is).

Until then, take pleasure in autumn, because it’s passing, and winter, because, like it or  not, it’s on its way.

Halloween Walk in Morningside Heights

November 4, 2011

On Halloween morning, Canada geese and pigeons grazed the ball fields like a mixed herd of small ruminants on the Great Plains.

Sparrows were almost hidden in the brown grass.

Snow from the freak weekend snowstorm lingered on the little island across the pond,

while turtles basked on the northern bank – the day after a storm storm!

An amorous mallard pair courted, perhaps mistaking Halloween for Valentine’s Day.

Although I haven’t spotted Morningside’s small pack of feral cats in quite some time, I did see one beautiful, well-dressed, and mostly tame kitten. (You can’t see her ears very well in this photo, but check out that beautiful, homemade tail.)

At the base of the 114th Street stairs, Esau posed with the park’s resident faun and bear.

I’ve always imagined the bear was stalking the faun, but Ephemeral New York, a blog I love, calls the statue “tender … sweet and magical.”  I’ll be taking another look.

A pair of abandoned pants waited patiently for their owner.

Back on the street, a mid-sized devil helped himself to a friend’s take-out food.

Then the young devil headed into the corner store, affectionately known as Crack Deli (don’t ask).

Oh, I do love New York.

NYC Mallards Court on Halloween

November 2, 2011

On Halloween morning, a flock of about fifteen mallards swam about on Morningside Park’s small pond.

Watching the birds, I realize that I’ve been a little confused about molting and plumage. I understand that differences in plumage may be attributed to the fact that some of our ducks are permanent residents, while others are migrants, just passing through. Still, I could have sworn that last month, the males on the pond  were in full eclipse plumage, looking almost like females with most of their head color gone.  Yet look at this handsome fellow with his head glowing green and shiny.  Is he already growing back his breeding plumage?  Or is he heading into eclipse?

To my surprise, this duck and his female companion proceeded to engage in some synchronized head-bobbing. This behavior, which ornithologists call “pumping,” is part of an elaborate duck courtship ritual, sometimes leading to copulation. In fact,  on several occasions in spring, I’ve seen mallards copulate right here on the pond, and it’s a somewhat disturbing business. So I watched these two with interest. (Click the arrow to watch my video.)

A visit to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s The Birds of North America clarifies all things mallard. Apparently, male mallards quickly move out of their drab, late-summer eclipse plumage. So this male is on his way back to his classic breeding appearance. And new pairs start to form as early as September with courtship behavior occurring throughout the winter.   Since the ducks are infertile in the fall, they may copulate freely without the risk of eggs being laid in the cold season.

Interesting. Very interesting.

Woodpeckers of Riverside Park Meet Little Red Riding Hood

October 31, 2011

Walking along beneath the Riverside Park retaining wall, the dog and I hear a miniature ruckus in the underbrush.

Yellow stars lie scattered on the path.

At first, I think the rustling leaves are being caused  by a member of the sparrow flock that flittered low off the path as we approached.  It’s getting to be the time of year when fallen leaves are so thick that even a single sparrow hopping and hunting among them can rustle and crunch like a large and mighty creature.

But something about this sound is just not sparrowish.  We pause to peer into the tangle of leaves, and catch a glimpse of black, white and red moving in and out of view.

And then the little noise-maker reveals itself.

Aha! A wee woodpecker.

It’s a Downy woodpecker, or just possibly, a Hairy woodpecker, hopping around on the base of thin weedy stems.

Before this, the only woodpeckers I’ve seen hunting on or near the ground are Northern flickers.  I recently came upon a flock of about eight flickers on a patch of green grass inside a little glade of trees out on Randall’s Island. They may well have been hunting ants, a favorite food. When I approached, the birds rose as one and, as they flew to the safety of nearby low branches, the gilded underside of their wings glowed golden like a Renaissance vision of the Assumption.

But back to the jaunty little red-capped fellow in Riverside Park.  I wonder what he was eating. (I say “he” advisedly, as only the male sports the red cap.) Many insects are certainly still around – or were around, at least, until the weekend’s freak snowstorm.  As botanist Marielle Anzelone observed in a lovely article in Friday’s NY Times, “A cicada is remarkable for this time of year, yet the forest is rich with invertebrates today. As ectotherms, they are soaking up this last bit of sun. They will soon be gone for the season.”

So what will the little woodpecker eat when the invertebrates are gone?  At least one Downy woodpecker stays year-round in Riverside Park; I’ve seen him in winters past in the Forever Wild section above 116th Street.  Does he dig for grubs beneath the bark? Or does he switch to a vegetarian diet?

Other woodpeckers also seem content to spend the winter in Manhattan. Last January, I saw a Red-bellied woodpecker high on the trunk of a majestic tree in Riverside Park.

Rumor (in the form of field guides) tells me that this bird has, as you might expect, a diagnostic red mark somewhere on its belly. But really, couldn’t someone have given it a more helpful name?  Woodpeckers tend to hug the tree as they hop up. I’m not sure what the poor bird would have to be doing to give anyone a good look at its belly, other than lying, well, belly-up.

Note how the Red-bellied’s red markings extend all the way down the bird’s nape like a hoodie, while the cap of the Downy is perched atop its head where a cap should be.

How about we rename it as the Little Red Riding Hood Woodpecker? Much better. Now it can have its own theme song and even its own brilliant Betty Boop cartoon.

If I were a Red-bellied woodpecker, I’d jump at the chance to ally myself with this super-cool mixing of Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs’ great 1966 song laid over the Fleischer Bros. wild 1931 cartoon. Check it out.

What do you think?

From Childhood's Favorites and Fairy Stories

One Million Bats Dead … and counting

October 26, 2011

Scientists have just officially confirmed that White-nose Syndrome, a swiftly-spreading disease responsible for the deaths of over a million bats, is caused by a previously unknown cold-loving fungus called Geomyces destructans.  The just-released study in Nature maintains that “the disease has the potential to decimate North American bat populations and cause species extinctions.”  It urges that “future research … focus on mitigating the effects of WNS before hibernating bat populations suffer losses beyond the point of recovery…”.

In popular culture, October is the month for bats.

In fact, by Halloween, it’s cold for the bats of the Northeast , and they are disappearing from the forests, fields and city streets.  Yes, city streets. New York City is home to bats.  Last summer, Richard Simon of NYC’s Urban Park Rangers told Amy Zimmer of that Central Park is probably home to hundreds of bats, although they go mostly undetected due to their nocturnal habits, speed and tiny size.

Like this federally endangered Indiana bat, many bats are a mere two inches in length.

Three of New York State’s nine bat species are migratory, heading south with the birds for the cold winter months. The other six species spend the winter in hibernation, often congregating en masse in the region’s caves, where they will stay until spring brings the return of flying insects, their only prey.

Hibernating bats. credit USFWS/Ann Froschauer

Sadly, the last few years have seen an astonishingly rapid mass die-off of hibernating bats, due to a virulent emerging disease known as White-nose Syndrome. Our bats really are disappearing.  First discovered in bats hibernating in a cave near Albany, NY in 2006, WNS has now been reported in 19 states and four Canadian provinces.

Map of white-nose syndrome by county/district as of 10/03/2011. Courtesy of Cal Butchkoski, PA Game Commission.

WNS is caused by Geomyces destructans, a fungus that thrives in the cold soil of caves.  During hibernation, when the bats’ immune systems are virtually suspended and their body temperatures drop to within a degree of the surrounding air, the white fungus lodges on their muzzles and attacks the sensitive membranes of the wings. The origins of the recently discovered fungus are unclear. While it has been found in European caves, it does not appear to be causing fatalities in European bats.

Little Brown Bat with White-Nose Syndrome; photo: Marvin Moriarty/USFWS

Under normal circumstances, bats rouse themselves several times during their winter hibernation to warm their bodies, groom, urinate and, possibly, reactivate their immune systems.  WNS appears to irritate the bats so that they rouse more frequently, depleting their fat reserves and sometimes even flying out of the hibernaculum in search of food. They may freeze to death or starve, since there is no food for them in winter and they cannot survive the cold unless in a state of torpor. Even those that survive the winter may have suffered damage to the wings that impairs their hunting ability, leading to further deaths in the spring.

Aside from their incalculable intrinsic worth, bats are an essential part of the ecosystem, not least because of their phenomenal insect-eating abilities. All of New York’s bats are insectivores, eating 20-50% of their body weight in insects each night.  According to Bat Conservation International, one million bats – the number that have been killed so far by White-nose Syndrome – eat  “just under 700 tons” of insects each year, including vast numbers of mosquitoes and agricultural pests. If we lose our bats, our world will suffer.

Today’s report has also confirmed that the disease can be transmitted from one bat to another.  Bats gather together in huge numbers to hibernate, then carry the disease with them when they disperse in the spring.  The fungus survives in the soil of the cave, waiting to infect surviving bats when they return in the fall. It also may be tracked out of caves by spelunkers and sightseers. For this reason, many caves have been closed to visitors.

With their extremely low reproductive rates, bats cannot easily recover from any drop in population, let alone one as catastrophic as is currently underway. Many bat species produce only one pup each year; under normal circumstances, a bat may live 20 years or more (one bat is known to have lived 34 years).  White-nose Syndrome poses the very real risk of extinction for some of North America’s bats.

To find out more about bats and WNS, visit any of the sites below:

National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Wildife Library: Bats

Nature: Culprit Behind Bat Scourge Confirmed

U.S. Fish & WIldlife Service: White-Nose Syndrome – Something Is Killing Our Bats

USGS: White-Nose Syndrome Threatens the Survival of Hibernating Bats in North America

With thanks to Kristi Sullivan of Cornell University Extension’s Master Naturalist Program for her presentation at the Arnot Forest last month.

Occupy Wall Street in Pictures, Part One

October 21, 2011

Earlier this week, on a long lunch break from jury duty, I strolled south to take a look at Occupy Wall Street headquarters in Zuccotti Park.  The tiny square was bustling with occupiers, curious on-lookers and press, and the over-all atmosphere was calm and friendly.

The square has been divided into distinct areas, each with its own function.

Librarians handed out books in the people’s library.

Is this a clothing distribution area?

Posters and T-shirts were being printed at a little manufacturing center with two silk screens.

Food servers took a break from preparing lunch to chat.

In the center of the square, the Working Group Schedule laid out the week.

At the medical tent, a worker unloaded supplies.

Nothing much seemed to be happening at the Arts and Culture center.

But really, arts and culture were all around.

And everywhere, people were talking.

They talked on the sidewalk,

and they talked in a sukkah.

Not everyone was working or talking.  A white dog and its owner caught some z’s, each sound asleep in its own blanket and bedroll.

Some were playing with their dogs.

Some played chess.

One woman knitted,

and, of course, many people sat with home-made signs.

And then it was back to jury duty, feeling proud of my fellow citizens.

The Hills Are Alive … with Rats (Video)

October 18, 2011

On Sunday, I returned in daylight to the twin peaks of Rat Palace with dog and camera.  Since the fast-moving inhabitants have eluded my primitive skills as a photographer, I decided to try video instead, and … voila: Rattus norvegicus, one of New York City’s most common wildlife species, going about its business under the noses of mostly oblivious New Yorkers, their dogs and children.

The squeaking sound is the swing set in the playground behind me, not giant rats, and the whining sound in both videos is the poor dog, longing for a little rat-catching action.

There was far more rat activity on the mounds than I was able to catch on the video below, but I think you’ll get the idea.

While rats and humans cavort, the sun goes down over Riverside Park.

Goodnight, sun. Goodnight, park. Goodnight, rats.

If You Build It, Rats Will Come

October 16, 2011


Water World in New York Gutter

October 10, 2011

The corner of 108th Street and Broadway in Manhattan is home to a persistent puddle.  Although its borders expand and contract with the city’s rainfall, the puddle rarely dries completely.

After Hurricane Irene, it assumed epic proportions.

Wildlife of one kind or another, seen or unseen, is all around us. A city puddle is a habitat for vast numbers of microorganisms, including algae, bacteria, fungi, insect larvae and minuscule crustaceans. For these tiny New Yorkers who thrive in standing water, their puddle is the world.

Over a month later, the puddle serves pedestrians – the few who care to look, anyway –  as a natural reflecting pool in an unnatural environment, revealing dream images from the far side of Broadway.

Yesterday, the bizarrely balmy temperatures had finally dried most of the water, revealing a long-submerged grating.

Today, Monday, the puddle is gone and so, presumably, are the little creatures and other organisms that inhabited it.

But wait. What’s with the grating to the storm sewer?

Although strangely beautiful, it is completely nonfunctional. No wonder the puddle never empties, and must wait for evaporation to do its magic.  I suppose the grating is now simply an intermittently visible found art object.

Most NYC corners have open gratings that, although often clogged, at least give the reassuring appearance of functionality.

But not at 108th and Broadway.  So, hmm.

Night Herons at Noon

October 7, 2011

I’ve always found the idea of night herons mysterious, imagining I would have to go out in the gloaming or on a moonlit night to catch a glimpse of one of these intriguing creatures.  Not so, at least as far as the Black-crowned night heron is concerned.  Nycticorax nycticorax, to use the Black-crowned night heron’s marvelous Latin name, is found across much of North America.  I saw members of the species this spring and summer in both Dallas, Texas and New York City.  And, despite what the field guides say about the birds being active after dusk, these night herons were going about their business in  broad daylight.

One bright day in May, I saw several of the stocky little herons, hunting from the island in the little pond of NYC’s Morningside Park.

Here is a gorgeous adult bird. Note the long white feather reaching down its back, part of its spring breeding plumage.  Its legs are yellow, although they may turn pink at the height of the breeding season.

Nearby stood a juvenile in drab, streaky feathers and yellow legs.

A third bird seemed to be somewhere in between juvenile and adult with the colors of an adult but without the striking color-contrast.

Apparently, night herons don’t acquire their full adult plumage until the third year.  So here in this highly urban park with its postage stamp-sized pond, we have a first year, second year and third year (or later) bird.  Amazing.

A family of Canada geese, with the usual darling ducklings, also enjoyed the park.

At the end of June, I visited lovely Lakeside Park in Dallas.  It was midday and over 100 degrees (the start of what would be a seemingly endless succession of 100-plus-degree days for Texas), which may explain the paucity of birds and animals.  I had the park to myself.  The only visible members of my own species were tooling about in closed automobiles with the ac cranked.

Many large nest boxes had appeared since I last wandered Lakeside’s almost alarmingly green paths.

Who are these boxes built for? Anyone know?

A fox squirrel, far more timid than his NYC Eastern gray cousins, dashed up a tree and gave me the evil eye

Panting Great-tailed grackles were the only birds on the lawn

Birds pant to cool themselves.  It’s effective, but they need to replenish the water they lose. Luckily, Lakeside Park really is by the side of a tiny lake.  There, huge lily pads created a solid green field that reached quite a ways out into the water.

I saw none of the usual egrets, ducks or cormorants.  But at the base of the spillway, I spied an interesting shape.

Look to the left of the dry section below.

It was a Black-crowned night heron, patiently hunting from a relatively cool damp spot

Stunning birds.

Fall is Coming

October 4, 2011

How do I know? I read the signs of the city.

Wall sitters wear long sleeves.

Thinning trees let the river peep through.

The dog is a walking seed dispensary,

from his head

to his tail

Sparrows in camo poke around in the underbrush.

Fall flowers abound.

Art work surprises. (AM:PM. To me, that means: NOW.)

Berries delight.

But hold on a minute, do you see that burr on the left, pushing its way into the photograph?  That bad burr?

Oh no, not a burr cluster!

Don’t let me get started on burrs.  As the poor dog knows all too well, being a seed dispensary is one thing, being a burdock mule is quite another.

A cyber-friend, Tricia Vita, who tracks all things Coney Island on her wonderful blog, Amusing the Zillion, tells me that the roots of burdock are edible.  She refers me to a recipe with photos and claims that Marumi Restaurant on LaGuardia Place makes the best burdock in a dish called Gobo. Hmm.  Dining on the dog’s nemesis seems like fine revenge.

But I digress.  Burrs will do that to a person.  Where was I? Yes, signs of approaching autumn.

The peacocks have lost their tail feathers

and the man on the street is wearing autumn brown.

Strangely, rumor has it temperatures will be up near 80 degrees again this weekend. Well, maybe the hula hoopers of summer can have one last go before they lose their midriffs to an accumulation of sweaters and jackets.


How Many Raccoons Live in Manhattan, Anyway?

October 3, 2011

So just how many of you guys are out here, anyway?

Back in 2010, I asked several wildlife experts how many raccoons were living in Central Park.  Not one would venture an answer. But the Great Raccoon Rabies Epizootic of 2009-2010 has apparently yielded enough data for an estimate.  Dr. Sally Slavinski of the NYC Department of Health places the population at close to 300 raccoons, according to a 2010 Powerpoint presentation that I unearthed on the web.

The estimate was based on analyzing the raccoons that were trapped and evaluated in the two-round Trap-Vaccinate-Release program managed by the USDA in 2010. Here’s a terrific video of the TVR Program in action in Central Park, narrated by Lee Humberg, Supervising Biologist with the USDA’s Wildlife Services.

The number of raccoons trapped was staggering.  A total of 460 raccoons were trapped in Round One (February 16th – April 9th, 2010).  Of those, a number were recaptured animals, meaning raccoons that had already been trapped, vaccinated, ear-tagged, and released – some more than once.  Over 50 were sick or injured animals that were euthanized and then submitted for rabies testing.  By October, 2010, more than 130 rabid raccoons had died of rabies.  When the USDA conducted a second round of TVR in early fall, they didn’t find a single sick raccoon, indicating the immunization program was preventing further spread of the disease.  The epidemic was over.

So how many raccoons were there, before the die-off?  My personal, unofficial guesstimate is upwards of 400 in Central Park and Riverside Park combined.  (How many raccoons make their home in the northern Manhattan parks of Inwood and Highbridge, I have no idea.)  When I returned to NYC in 2008, after almost 20 years away, the raccoon population was overflowing the natural boundaries of the parks. They were regularly seen running along the top of the Riverside Park retaining wall, eating trash out of dumpsters near the basketball courts, and hanging out in sidewalk trees on West 108th Street, a full block and a half from Riverside Park.  That means they were crossing busy Broadway.  Why would they do this?  Best guess: food.

John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times (click photo to go to article)

According to the New York Times in September 2008, raccoons were also turning up on 110th Street across from Central Park, to eat out of garbage cans and trash bags.  The sightings prompted a range of responses from superintendents (“I don’t know what to do; they’re big, like dogs,”) and residents (“They’re lonely and they don’t talk back”).  I speculate that the population had grown so large that some animals were venturing out of the protection of their park habitat in search of new food sources.  In New York City, you don’t have to go far to find some easy pickings.  Garbage is available 24 hours a day in the city that never sleeps, and is especially easy to come by on trash nights when plastic garbage bags line the sidewalks like miniature mountain ranges.

As a child living in New York in the 60s and 70, I don’t remember ever seeing a raccoon in the city or hearing anyone talk about seeing one.  I’m not saying raccoons weren’t here.  But if they were, their population must have been small enough to go unnoticed.  (If you ever encountered a raccoon in Manhattan in the decades before the 2000s, please let me know by leaving a comment below.)  As recently as 1995, Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern estimated the total Central Park raccoon population at a mere twenty. Twenty!

Why the tremendous increase? I have some ideas, but need to do more research. (As ever, your speculation is welcome.)  Meanwhile, I’ve been delighted to see fewer raccoons on my walks in Riverside Park.  With no natural predators, there’s little to keep a wildlife population in check, and too many animals means they’re bound to start showing up where they’re not welcome – and that’s when people start seeing them as pests.  And as we have seen, when a population becomes too dense, disease easily sweeps through it. In the case of rabies, this places both wildlife and humans at risk.

Before the epidemic, I used to see five or six raccoons emerge from their den at dusk.  For a long time now, I’ve seen only one or two.  A week ago, one was chilling out at the usual spot.

Queen of all she surveys (or King, I don't really know)

And then a little further north, I spied a second, looking remarkably like a little man in a bear suit.

Ledge walker

This surprised me, because they usually hang out together.  And then, wait a minute, what’s this?  Two more raccoons.

Is there room for me?

Okay, let’s be sure the first raccoon is still in place at the regular den.

Yup, still there.

Still there.  So, hmmm.

Hey, careful with the face.

So who are you guys and where did you come from?

I’m guessing these are young raccoons just venturing out on their own, or two juveniles with their mother. But who knows?  Size is hard to estimate, particularly when they’re climbing around high on a wall. Well, I’m sure USDA will be launching follow-up vaccination campaigns.  Here’s hoping the new recruits stay healthy.

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