Archive for the ‘2012’ category

Woodpeckers in New York: Beautiful Redheads

January 4, 2013

Woodpeckers are such stylish animals.

Red-bellied woodpecker. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Red-bellied woodpecker. Photo: Melissa Cooper

And, yes, clearly it was a red cap and nape that I saw on New Year’s Eve Day, not just a red cap. Which means the bird was, without a doubt, a male Red-bellied woodpecker. (In Woodpeckers of Riverside Park Meet Little Red Riding Hood, I made the case for calling it the Little Red Riding Hood Woodpecker.)

How can I be so sure today when I was unsure two days ago? Because I saw the little devil again yesterday morning.  And this time, in case you haven’t noticed, the view was unobstructed and I got photos.


The bird was less active yesterday, remaining on its perch for several minutes, looking around from side to side, and up and down.


The little bird was probably sitting so still and alert due to the unusual amount of hawk activity overhead.  Three Red-tailed hawks were passing overhead, soaring, then swooping low through the trees.  Birds and squirrels tend to go into lock-down when the hawks are flying nearby, trying not to call attention to themselves through movement. Of course, once the hawks perch, they are no longer much of a threat since their hunting technique involves stooping from the air with great force at their prey.  Birds and squirrels can often be quite bold with a perched hawk. I’ve seen squirrels seem to taunt a perched hawk, and the sight of crows or jays mobbing a hawk is fairly common. In rural areas, Red-tailed hawks dine mostly on rodents, but here in the city they are frequently seen eating pigeons and songbirds in addition to rats, squirrels and mice.

  One of the hawks perched for a while in a neighboring Sweetgum tree, looking much like the piles of leaves, known as dreys, that squirrels build as nests.


After a few minutes, the hawk unfolded its great wings, and soared off to the southwest.


The woodpecker then did the same, swooping across the promenade to a higher branch on another tree.

The handsome little bird is a charming addition to the park, easy on the eyes and easy to spot. In winters past, I’ve sometimes seen a sole Red-bellied woodpecker in this area of Riverside Park. Now I wonder if it is the same bird returning year after year. In any event, I hope he sticks around, and continues to evade hawks, cars and other urban hazards.

For more on woodpeckers in Riverside Park:Woodpeckers of Riverside Park Meet Little Red Riding Hood
Who’s Eating What in NYC Parks

And for other New York woodpeckers:
A Visit To Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Sapsucker Woods: My First Pileated Woodpecker

Avian Red Wake-up

January 1, 2013

High in the tree branches in Riverside Park, a small, brilliant flash of red startled me. It soon revealed itself to be the head of a black-and-white woodpecker. The little fellow was very active, hopping from one branch to another with great rapidity, ducking behind branches and twigs, making it hard for me to get a good look at its entire form. And, of course, I had left behind both my binoculars and my camera.

Was the beautiful bird a Red-bellied woodpecker?

Red-bellied woodpecker by John James Audubon

Red-bellied woodpecker by John James Audubon

(Despite its name, the Red-bellied woodpecker is notably black and white with a red cap and nape.  The name derives from a reddish tinge on the belly that is really only visible when the bird is examined close up.)  I watched until the bird swooped off, scalloping the air, to another tree. But when I got home and opened a bird book, it was the the flash of a red cap that lit the image in my mind. A red cap, not a red cap and nape. So hmmm…

Could it have been a yellow-bellied sapsucker?

Yellow-bellied sapsucker by John James Audubon.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker by John James Audubon.

Both birds are seen in NYC parks, although the Yellow-bellied sapsucker is apparently less common.  But something about the coloring, and even the cap, just doesn’t seem quite right when compared with the bird in my mind’s eye. So I believe it was a Red-bellied. Next time I’ll know better how to look at a red-headed woodpecker to note its defining marks.

The unexpected flash of avian red has stayed with me, like a wake-up of some kind. “Sleeper, awake!” the little bird signaled to me.  A good jolt with which to start a new year.

Since I have no photo of my woodpecker, here is a different bit of vibrant wake-up-the-new-year red, photographed by a friend on his morning walk.

Cardinal in NYC. Photo: Rob Pavlin

Cardinal in NYC, plumped against the cold. Photo: Rob Pavlin


Top Five Posts of 2012

December 30, 2012

Our end of year countdown continues with the top five stories, written in 2012, on Out Walking the Dog.  For the first half of the top ten stories, covering coyotes, red-tailed hawks, NYC dogs, and feral cats, visit Top Posts of 2012, Part One.)

Click on each title to go to the original post. Enjoy!

Delmarva Fox Squirrel, photo by Mary Shultz.

Delmarva Fox Squirrel. Photo: Mary Shultz.

5. The Endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel was inspired by my friend Mary’s sightings and photographs of an unusually big and beautiful squirrel on her property on the eastern shore of Maryland. I had never before heard of the species, which turns out to be the biggest tree squirrel in North America. Of course, I had barely heard of Delmarva, the long peninsula that belongs to Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and includes the islands of Chincoteague and Assoteague, where the famous ponies run. Now I hope to travel down to Delmarva in 2013 to see its horses and squirrels for myself.

Photo: WCBV

Photo: WCBV

4. A Black Bear Comes to Provincetown! Black bears are increasingly seen all over the northeast, including New York and New Jersey. And bears, as some hairy, masculine gay men call themselves, are long-time regular visitors and residents in Provincetown, Massachusetts. But the sight of an actual 200-pound black bear wandering around the narrow tip of Cape Cod was a notable wildlife sighting. The annual summer gathering known as Provincetown Bear Week was just a few weeks off, prompting many jokes about the young male bear being so eager to participate in the festivities that he arrived early.

Boston Globe.

Boston Globe.

8.  Hurricane Sandy Update: New York and Long Island.  As I watched Hurricane Sandy make a blur of  the world outside my New York City window, my brother rode out the storm at our family house on Long Island, providing eyewitness accounts of the flooding of our road, and of the interesting behavior of birds and foxes as the storm began.

Photo courtesy of Gigi A.

Photo courtesy of Gigi A.

9. Hunting for Central Park’s Black Squirrels.  After hearing repeatedly from people who spotted beautiful black squirrels in parks around the city, I became overwhelmed with the desire to see one for myself.  One day, following tips from other squirrel watchers, I set out to find one in Central Park. Black squirrels are actually a melanistic phase of NYC’s ubiquitous Gray squirrel, so a brief discussion of the natural history of the Gray squirrel is in order. Do I ever actually find a black squirrel?  You’ll just have to read the post to find out.

And the most-read post written in 2012 is …

Flying Point Beach. Photo: Andrew Cooper

Flying Point Beach. Photo: Andrew Cooper

10. Hurricane Sandy: Flying Point Road, Long Island Update. Written in the immediate aftermath of the great storm, this post describes a small stretch of road in eastern Long Island on which sits a one-time farmhouse that has belonged to my family since the 1960s. The once rural area is now home to mega-mansions, and building continues apace on every inch of available land. Global warming is effecting changes all along this once-rural coastal area that is now home to McMansions by the score.  Even now, development continues to gobble up the few remaining fields and marshlands, and houses perch on precarious ocean dunes and along the shore of the easily flooded bay. Photographs and video show the area during peaceful summer scenes as well as in the fury of the storm.

Thank you for visiting Out Walking the Dog in 2012. Here’s to 2013!


It’s Snowing in NYC

December 29, 2012


The dog and I just got back from a beautiful, chilly walk in the park when it began to snow. Big, fat juice flakes are pouring down.  It’s a relief to have a taste of winter since it pretty much bypassed us last year.


If it keeps up like this, the park should be beautiful.


Top Posts of 2012, Part One

December 28, 2012
The dog and I thank you.

The dog and I thank you.

As the end of the year approaches, the dog and I would like to thank our loyal readers for their regular visits to Out Walking the Dog. And as our community continues to grow, we’re  delighted to welcome readers – and commenters – from all over North America as well as Great Britain, Italy, Finland, Spain, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and beyond.

Here is the first installment of Out Walking the Dog‘s Ten Most Popular Stories of 2012.  These stories, all written and published in the past year, cover topics that include waiting dogs and feral cats, the effect of human-generated trash on wildlife, the arrival of coyotes on Staten Island, squirrels, and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. (Oddly, the most popular story of all remains a post I wrote in 2010: Mastodons in Manhattan: How the Honey Locust Tree Got its Spikes. It has received far and away the most hits each and every year for three years now. Go figure.)

Most Popular Stories, Ten through Six

White kitten, Randall's Island, NYC.

White kitten, Randall’s Island.

10. Lives of City Cats: The Working and the Feral explores the lifestyles of NYC felines from cats that work to keep delis and bodegas mouse-free to feral cats that roam urban parks and streets. Free-roaming cats, both domestic and feral, cause a surprising amount of ecological damage as they kill birds that evolved without defenses against these efficient non-native carnivores. Are Trap-Neuter-Release programs a humane response to feral cat colonies or part of a larger ecological problem?

NYC Red-tail Eats Rat.

NYC Red-tail Eats Rat.

9. The Trash of Two Cities: How Our Trash Kills Our Hawks is a favorite post of mine. In it, I trace the 2012 deaths of NYC raptors to NYC’s overabundance of trash. Secondary poisoning kills raptors that consume rats laden with rodenticides (see post #6, below). All animals, including rats, seek food, water, and a safe place to rear their young. NYC provides all three in abundance, with trash providing most of the food that sustains our sizable rat population. The key to effective pest control is keeping our trash off-limits to animals. A visit to Philadelphia leads me to compare that city’s solar-powered compacting trash cans with the open cans and dumpsters of New York.

8.  The Waiting Dogs of NYC is a photo essay of New York’s ubiquitous waiting dogs. Dogs wait for their owners outside restaurants, shops, post offices. Some wait in pairs, some wait alone. Some wait happily, some wait anxiously. My dog, too, waits. But the bond between an urban dog and its owner is strong.

Esau waits.

Esau waits.

NYC coyote: Mark Weckel.

NYC coyote: Mark Weckel

7. Another NYC Borough Falls to the Coyote muses over the first documented sighting of a coyote in Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill. How did the coyote get to Staten Island? What research is being done in NYC to find out more about where our urban coyotes are living? “As I’ve been saying for a couple of years now, coyotes are coming, people. In fact, they’re here.”

6. Good-bye, Riverside Park Red-tail documents the community reaction to the demise of a red-tailed hawk known as Mom who nested each year in Riverside Park.  Over the years, Mom survived a string of bad luck, including the death of a mate from secondary poisoning (see post #9 above) and the destruction of her nest with three nestlings in a storm.  But last year was a tough one for NYC’s hawks with at least four dying from rat poison. We visited the charming memorial put up in the park at Mom’s nesting site.

Riverside Park Memorial

Riverside Park Memorial

Check back before the new year for the top five stories of 2012.

Red-tailed Hawk on Riverside Drive

December 23, 2012
Red-tailed hawk

Red-tailed hawk

A red-tailed hawk perched high above Riverside Drive overlooking the Hudson. What view the bird must have with the river to the west,


and Riverside Church, usually lost in a mass of leaves, visible through bare branches to the north.


The hawk calmly took in its surroundings.


After a while, it was joined in the tree by two smaller birds.


The hawk ignored them at first. (The little birds are on branches to the right.)


But when it turned to take a look, the little fellows flew off.


 And the hawk remained.


Visit Backyard and Beyond to see another NYC Red-tail in a construction site in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Readers’ Tales of Urban Wildlife, Final Installment

December 22, 2012

Esau the dog is an avid squirrel watcher.

Esau watches squirrels.

Esau watches squirrels.

And most New York City squirrels are avid dog and people watchers,

Squirrel watches Esau.

Squirrel watches Esau.

ready to approach, or

A few kissing noises draw a curious squirrel.

A few kissing noises draw a curious squirrel.

ready to run.


On the ready.

In our final installment of readers’ entries to our urban nature contest, Kelly Rypkema of Nature in a New York Minute writes about an encounter with a neighborhood squirrel.

Games with Squirrels

I’m heading out to treat myself to a nice Vietnamese dinner. I have yummy thoughts of cilantro, curry, and coconut milk swimming through my mind as I step onto the stoop. The click of the door behind me causes something to jump. I look to the tree on my left, and I lock eyes with my wily neighborhood squirrel. Is this the same one, I wonder, who’s been munching on my impatiens? He’s frozen in place on the tree trunk, staring at me, heels-over-head, hind feet swiveled back to grip the tree as only squirrels can do.

He’s staring me down, so I decide to play with him. I move one step down to see if I can make him flinch. He’s implacable. I take one more step. Nothing. This guy has truly mastered the art of becoming a statue. I give up the contest and continue on my way around the tree. But now he seems to be playing hide and seek with me. With every foot I move, he scoots around the opposite side of the tree. His tail gives away his location though. And sometimes I catch him peering around the tree at me – just an ear and eye sticking out from the tree trunk. He’s too cute!

So I stop again, this time on the other side of the tree. Now he’s fully visible, once again the statue. Game on! And this time I’m closer. I take a step. Aha! The tail starts flicking up an angry storm. One more step closer. Whoa! Now his whole backside is vibrating with the vehemence of his tail twitching. The tension is palpable, yet no sound comes from his mouth. His tail, however, is screaming, “Get out of my face, lady!” It even makes me uncomfortable, so I break the silence by saying, “Psst.” Now, he vibrates so much, he looks like he’s going to explode.

I wonder what could be so important about this tree that he stands his ground like this? Does he have babies? A movement in the corner of my eye makes me glance up. There’s another squirrel up there, making his way down towards us. A friend? A mate? A sibling? The newcomer gives challenge to his friend, my squirrel, who turns and high tails it after him into the tops of the tree. Thus commences their high-wire act that I so envy, careening from tree to tree, using the tiniest branches as trampolines to the next, their own private freeway in the sky. And I am left earth-bound.

My stomach rumbles, and thoughts of Bun thit nuong return. So I turn, and my gravity-laden feet take me further down the street toward the restaurant. But part of me stays with the squirrels, flying through the trees with the greatest of ease.

Thank you to everyone who sent in a story for our Urban Nature Contest, and thank you to all my readers for your continuing support of Out Walking the Dog.

Several bloggers submitted entries. Here is a list of their blogs so that you can stop by:
Local Ecologist

Nature in a New York Minute
Our Urban Jungle

Reader’s Tales of Urban Wildlife, Part 2

December 21, 2012

The sky over Manhattan looked oddly bruised and swollen this morning, a fitting sky for the end of the world.


You do know that the end of the world is happening (again) today, according to the latest in an endless stream of crackpot theories. Today’s prediction is brought to you by the ancient Mayans. Their calendar ends today, and apparently the world can’t go on without its Mayan datebook. At least, this is a rather more democratically wholesale approach to the end of the world than the Christian apocalypse. There’s no Rapture to whisk away believers before the apocalypse, just death and destruction for all.

Oh, wait, will you look at that? Here comes the sun.


Maybe today is just one more of earth’s four and a half billion-and-still-counting first days of winter. Happy winter solstice!

And anyway, end of the world or not, the dog still needs to be walked, and people, animals and the planet itself still need real help.


So in celebration of the on-going work of living together in the world, here is a beautiful story told by a reader who entered our recent Urban Wildlife Contest. (To read other reader entries, visit Readers’ Tales of Urban Wildlife.) Linda Ekstrand of New York City describes seeing a tiny bird stranded on the sidewalk. Unlike many of us in a similar situation, Linda picked up the “beguiling” bird, and carefully carried it across town to the Wild Bird Fund for rehabilitation.

On election day I went to my old neighborhood just twelve blocks away from my present apartment. I stopped in a hardware store on 78th and York and while I searched for a light bulb, I overheard someone say ” there is a cute little bird here.”  I assumed it was a toy, but I heard activity at the door and realized there was a small commotion. Then at the bus stop right outside the store I saw a  tiny little bundle of feathers being photographed by a young girl and her brother using an iPhone. They helped me look for a nest, but obviously that would have been difficult to see if it existed at all. I scooped up the bird and decided to take it to the Wild Bird Fund. Since I was holding it, I did not want to risk getting on a bus and losing it or, worse, being crushed, so I walked through the park with it cupped in my hand.

Golden-crowned kinglet by Dick Daniels

Golden-crowned kinglet by Dick Daniels

It was a delightful walk, but slightly uncomfortable as I was  holding it so carefully. I realized this was an adult bird because it had a long beak. When we arrived at the Wild Bird, they took it in and determined that it was a Kinglet, a migratory bird slightly larger than a hummingbird. The bird was totally unafraid of humans and jumped on me and curtains and anything it could find while we waited for it to be admitted. I was totally charmed by the bird and, truthfully, I wished I could have kept it.

I haven’t heard from the Wild Bird Fund about its fate and while this was not the first bird I ever rescued, it was the most beguiling. Gold and green coloring with an alertness that was remarkable and hopping about with the most winsome expression, he was a real bundle of joy. I hope he had a happy ending, and is winging south as I write this.
Check back soon for the final installment of Readers’ Tales of Urban Wildlife.

Readers’ Tales of Urban Wildlife, Part 1

December 20, 2012

Yesterday we announced the winner of our Urban Nature Contest: Megan Draheim of Washington, D.C.  We invited readers to enter the contest by submitting a description of an encounter with wildlife in the city.  Today and tomorrow I want to share a few of these stories.

Dillon de Give writes about a “modest little bird” in his Brooklyn backyard that transformed the way he sees and experiences birds in the city:

Dark-eyed Junco by Ken Thomas.

Dark-eyed Junco by Ken Thomas.

My First Bird Living in Brooklyn I was only aware of a couple of birds on city streets: pigeons, the shiny black ones, sea gulls, sparrows,and that was pretty much it. Back home in New Mexico I took a day trip to the Bosque del Apache, where Sandhill cranes were passing through. It was my first time being impressed with the experience of looking through binoculars, but it was a “special” excursion. When I got back to NYC I thought about what it would be like to birdwatch in the city, the place I actually lived and operated every day. What a novel experience that would be (little did I know how much of a culture around the activity existed already). But enough preamble, now for the encounter. With these thoughts somewhere in my mind, I noticed something out my apartment window in the inaccessible back yard. It was a sparrow, that looked a little different. It wasn’t brown. It was grey on top and white underneath. I had never seen the bird before, even though I had lived there for 4 years. I set to work finding out what it was. It took a while to figure it out, but as you may have guessed it was a dark-eyed junco. What a great name. And this modest little bird felt like my bird. I had seen plenty of birds, but this was the first that I went through the complete process of noticing, breaking down color and shape, identifying, and “knowing”. After that, I felt that I could be able to look at birds, and other natural things in a new way. Last week I saw a flock of juncos in the neighborhood park the other day, and I wonder if other people can see them.

Jake, in the only entry about plants, sent in a link to a one-sentence tweet that reads like a tiny poem:

In damp Atlanta, even street signs sprout lichens and moss, the tender vanguard of an encroaching horde that patiently stalks this city.

Melanie Hedlund of Lexington, Massachusetts was dive-bombed by an owl in the Boston Public Garden:

A lovely Friday night, the Boston Public Garden was looking festive with lights reflecting on the ponds, three foreign tourists asked me to take a photo of them with this Boston backdrop. There was laughter and nothing sinister.  I felt safe but did have a moment asking myself if walking down the less lit path alone was a good idea, when …WHUMP! I was hit on the head from above. It was a soft hard blow, one that took me a quick moment to recover from, and then I saw the beautiful big owl continue it’s swoop back up to a nearby willow tree. I googled owl-in-boston-public-garden and came up with some great shots of a barred owl, taken there a few weeks before. My head tingled for hours after.

Andrew at the University of Georgia’s Office of Sustainability was driving home one night last week when he encountered two deer in the middle of the road.

I approached slowly and stopped, waiting for them to finish crossing. As they start walking again, one looks at me and I swear he was thinking ‘get the heck off of my path.’

I’m sorry to say, Andrew, that I’ve seen just that look on a NYC street rat once or twice.

Check back tomorrow for another installment of Readers’ Tales of Urban Wildlife.

Urban Nature Contest Winner!

December 19, 2012

Out Walking the Dog is pleased to announce that Megan Draheim of Washington, D.C. is the winner of our first Urban Nature Contest.

The entry was selected at random with the help of, who else, the dog.

Esau and a batch of contest entries.

Esau with a few contest entries.

Megan is a wildlife biologist who works on the social dimensions of conservation biology with a special interest in urban biodiversity and human-wildlife conflict.  Her doctoral research focused on social conflict over coyotes in suburban Denver. Megan writes the blog Our Urban Jungle. Here is her description of nocturnal encounters with urban wildlife, often occasioned by having to walk the dogs:

It’s always nice to get a reminder of how lucky I am to live in an urban area that’s so rich with wildlife. Since many critters stay hidden during the day, some of my favorite sightings (and “hearings”) have been late (very late) at night, especially if I’m out walking dogs. For example, I never would have been out right after an ice storm at 1:30 in the morning if it weren’t for the dogs, but that’s how I saw my first wild coyote. We had been slipping-and-sliding up and down our hill on an abbreviated walk, and when I put them inside I went back out with some pet-friendly “salt” to lay down on our front walk. The dogs had pushed open the door and were watching me through the storm door, when suddenly their ears pricked up and they started to stare intensely at something behind me. I turned and saw this gorgeous coyote trotting up the hill across the street from our house — just gliding along effortlessly (as a reminder, the dogs and I had not been nearly as graceful trying to navigate the sidewalk moments before!).

Just a few nights ago I heard a red fox calling late at night (for those of you who have never heard a red fox, they can sound eerily like a woman screaming), and a month or two ago a red fox flew across the street in front of us, going from one wooded area behind some houses towards a park a few blocks away.

We’ve seen deer aplenty, of course — deer peeking out of neighbors’ backyards, deer grazing on front lawns, deer ambling across streets. And opossums and racoons. But my favorite late-night sightings are the wild predators who share our neighborhood. It’s a different way to experience urban wildlife, when they can take more ownership of the land than in the middle of the day when there are lots of people around. And it’s a reminder that we do share the land with them — it is theirs just as much as it is ours.

Thank you to everyone entered. The entries have been such a pleasure to read that I plan to share more of the stories over the course of the next day or two.

And congratulations, Megan. Your copy of Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York will go in the mail today. Enjoy!

Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York

Ants in the Hood

December 13, 2012
Amy Savage (left) shows me where to look for ants.

Amy Savage (left) shows me where to wield the electric ant aspirator.

Gathering ants in the city is a curious way to pass a few hours. I can’t say I’d ever given a thought to ant gathering.  But on a mild mid-October day, I joined biologists Holly Menninger and Amy Savage, in a green island in the middle of Broadway to look for, and collect, ants.


Amy Savage seeks ants in a Broadway median near 106th St.

I tend to look up and out when I walk, alert to the presence of urban birds and mammals like squirrels or raccoons. I scan trees, the sky, water towers, building ledges, the Riverside Park retaining wall. Seeking ants turned my gaze downward to the earth, and focused it narrowly on small patches of ground. My abilities as an ant collector are, to put it gently, undeveloped, but my few hours spent looking for ants has yielded an expanded appreciation for how much life is unfolding in small patches of ground beneath my feet. In a sense, my neighborhood has expanded.

Worlds within worlds: ant collectors in NYC, look for creatures below our feet.

Worlds within worlds: ant collectors in NYC, look for creatures below our feet.

But back to ant collecting.

Holly Menninger

Holly Menninger

Holly Menninger is an entomologist and Director of Public Science at Your Wild Life, a team of scientists interested in “exploring the ecological frontiers that exist right under our noses, from the surface of our skin to our backyards and neighborhoods.” Based at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh, Your Wild Life conducts a variety of research projects.

I first saw Holly at the Arnot Forest in Ithaca, NY a little over a year ago. I was attending NY State Master Naturalist training, and she was one of our lecturers. She gave a lively lecture on invasive species with a particular focus on an invasive marine plant that, transported unknowingly by boat owners, was threatening the waterways. More recently, we met through the internet after Holly had moved to North Carolina when, in preparation for up-coming field trips to New York City, she started following NYC nature blogs, including Out Walking the Dog.

Amy Savage

Amy Savage

Amy Savage is an ecologist who studies ants and their beneficial relationships with other insects and plants. Her research on ant mutualisms has taken her to Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, Panama, Washington State as well as New York City.

I was thrilled when I learned that Holly and Amy would be gathering ants in NYC, and not just anywhere in NYC, but in my neighborhood within steps of my front door. Needless to say, I joined them.

Here are a few things I learned about ant collecting that you may not know.

1. On a warm, pleasant day in mid-October, collecting ants is quite an enjoyable activity.

Amy and Holly among the trees in the median on Broadway between104th and 105th Streets.

Amy and Holly among the trees in the median on Broadway between104th and 105th Streets.

2. Ants are partial to Pecan Sandy cookies, which are considered the gold standard for ant bait.

Pecan Sandy crumbs await devouring ants.

Pecan Sandy crumbs await devouring ants.

Apparently, Pecan Sandies have just the amounts of sugar, salt and fat that ants love. Still the cookies Amy and Holly had laid out in the medians did not seem to be attracting ants on this day.

3. Real scientists, like Holly and Amy, suck ants. Let me explain. They use a tool called an aspirator which works through suction.

Amy uses the aspirator. (Click image to go to Your Wild Life blog.)

Amy uses the aspirator. (Click image to go to Your Wild Life blog.)

You breath in through a rubber hose, drawing ants up through a nozzle at the other end into the clear collecting jar at the center of the contraption. You are protected from the bits of soil, and other debris that come with the little guys by rubber gaskets that seal off the plastic chamber. Even so, Amy wasn’t too happy on an earlier trip to Broadway medians when she learned that pesticide, said to be rat poison, had been sprayed on plants in the median. (She was even less happy when a rat fell to her feet from a tree while she was collecting.)

4. Faux scientists, scientists-for-a-day, like me, are guided away from the breath-activated aspirator to an electric aspirator. This operates by means of a simple switch rather than human breath.  Yet even this very simple machine takes a little time to figure out how to use effectively. I’d spot an ant or two, aim my aspirator and then jab my thumb around in a futile attempt to find the on-button without losing sight of the tiny, well-camouflaged ants. In these early stages of my ant-collecting apprenticeship, quite a few ants escaped my scientific grasp, disappearing into grass or soil before I could get my machine working.

Ants in the collection jar, all labeled and ready to go.

Ants in the collection jar, all labeled and ready to go.

Sometimes the way to get the ants is a gentle and judicious use of tweezers.

Tweezing ants.

Tweezing ants.

We spotted other small creatures, as we searched. Snails, for example, and lots of roly polies, or pill bugs. Roly polies belong to the family of wood louse known as armadillididae, which roll up into tight little balls when threatened. This marvelous rolling-up behavior is given the equally marvelous name of “conglobation.”

Roly polies and snails.

Roly polies and a pretty snail.

Here is another collection of animals, found on the underside of a rock, that include roly polies and other creatures I do not know.

Roly polies and other small animals.

Roly polies and other small animals.

A bright orange spider.

Orange spider in its web.

Orange spider in its web.

A millipede.



And aphids.



We shared the median with members of our own species as well.

The median is a multiple-use miniature park, and its users come from many species.

The median is a multiple-use miniature park, and its users come from many species.


Amy on the hunt.

Amy and Holly were indefatigable.

Holly at work.

Holly at work.

But after a couple of hours, I said good-bye to return to my work.

Later in the day, Holly and Amy apparently hit the ant bonanza in Riverside Park, where ants were plentiful. The next day, they were joined in Morningside Park by Georgia, who writes NYC’s Local Ecologist blog.

Now they’re back in North Carolina, where the ants will be categorized and their DNA will be analyzed.

In a future post, I’ll tell you why these scientists are studying NYC ants, what they’re hoping to learn, and how you can contribute to their research as a citizen scientist.

Meanwhile, visit School of Ants for more on ants and citizen science.

This Dissolving City

December 10, 2012

The city is dissolving today.

Dissolving city.

Dissolving city.

What happened to New Jersey? It’s gone.

The Once (and future?) View of New Jersey from Riverside Park.

The once (and future?) view of New Jersey from Riverside Park.

New Jerseyites, are you out there? Did the Rapture come and take you away, leaving behind this dissolving city.


City of dissolution dissolves.

The Hudson River, too, is gone.

Once, a river ran through it.

Once, a river ran through it.

Buildings and water towers are disappearing.

Water towers and buildings fade away.

Water towers and buildings fade away.

People appear out of the void.

Where do you come from?

Where do you come from?

Then slip back into nothingness.

Where are you going?

Where are you going?

No birds sing, no squirrel stirs.

Squirrel drey in the mist.

Bare branches with squirrel drey.

Very strange. Very strange, indeed.

Remember to enter Out Walking the Dog’s Urban Nature Contest to win a new book of essays. Just send an email describing an encounter with nature in the city (as short as one sentence or as long as you like) to

Win a Prize in our Urban Nature Contest

December 7, 2012

Out Walking the Dog announces our first URBAN NATURE CONTEST!

Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York


Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York
edited by John Waldman, Fordham University Press

This newly published collection on a subject close to my heart features essays and articles that explore the relationship between nature and New York City. Writers include Robert Sullivan, Betsy McCully, Christopher Meier, Tony Hiss, Kelly McMasters, Dara Ross, William Kornblum, Phillip Lopate, David Rosane, Anne Matthews, Devin Zuber, and Frederick Buell.

Out Walking the Dog is proud to have a personal connection to the book through this painting by Charlotte Hildebrand.

Painting by Charlotte Hildebrand

Painting by Charlotte Hildebrand.

Out Walking the Dog originally commissioned the painting to illustrate Urban Hawk Snatches Chihuahua?  In that post, we pondered the line humans like to draw between meat animals and pet animals, and the reactions of city dwellers when one of our more revered wild animals, a red-tailed hawk, ignores our distinction. The illustration was spotted on Out Walking the Dog by the editors of Still the Same Hawk, and appears (in black-and-white, but still looking fine) as an illustration to Robert Sullivan’s essay, My Time Spent in the Nature that People Would Rather Not Think About.


Send me a description of an encounter you’ve had with urban wildlife. This may be as simple or elaborate as you like. You may write a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a poem, a dialogue, a haiku, whatever strikes your fancy.  Be sure to include your name and mailing address, so that, should you be the lucky winner, I can mail you your prize without delay. Send via email to:


One winning entry will be selected at random.  All entries will be read with interest, but interest will have no bearing on your chances.


Entries must be received by Tuesday, December 18th at 7 PM.

The drawing will take place later that night or the following morning. The prize will be mailed via Priority Mail on December 19th. This means that, if the United States Post Office does its part and if you reside in North America, you’ll probably receive the book in time for Christmas.  (I will send the book anywhere in the world, but no guarantees of when it will arrive.)


December 18th is around the corner, folks. So get those entries in, and please help me spread the word.

Good luck!

(Did you know you can follow Out Walking the Dog on Twitter and Facebook?)

Gimme Shelter

December 6, 2012


A branch-and-leaf structure recently appeared in Riverside Park.

What is it?

What is it?

A closer look reveals a solid low doorway from which the proprietor – or a shaggy interloper – can keep an eye on the grounds.

My house is a very very very fine house.

My house is a very very very fine house.

Built with fallen branches and leaves by an unknown architect, the above ground tunnel looks something like a sleeping animal covered with leaves.

A sleeping animal covered with leaves.

Long, low and leafy.

Tall branches leaning against a tree make for a taller space.

At the other end.

At the other end.

The walls are tightly woven, like the brambles of the 100-year forest that sealed Sleeping Beauty from the world.

Dog inside.

Dog inside.

And leaves are thickly strewn.

Walking the tunnel.

Walking the tunnel.

The structure both hides and reveals.

The view from within.

The view from within.

And speaking of tunnels as well as of hiding and revealing, my friend Charlotte of The Rat’s Nest blog recently observed a gopher near her house in Los Angeles. She videotaped the little rodent with her iPhone as it repeatedly popped its head out of its hole, looking rather like a large thumb, then disappeared. Charlotte reports that she could actually hear the gopher tunneling in the earth.

The rodent holes I see in and around Riverside Park are not gopher tunnels. These, my friends, are rat holes, and as swiftly as the Parks Department fills them in, the rats dig them out.

Entrance to rat tunnel.

Entrance to rat tunnel.

This particular spot, most recently filled in after Hurricane Sandy, sometimes becomes a huge gaping sinkhole leading in and out of the mysterious tunnels where rats live much of their lives, sheltered from predators. Intriguing, but…

I think I’ll stay above ground.

Above ground action.

Above ground action.

For more on man-made structures in Riverside Park:

Riverside Park Weekend: The Tepee Builders

Journey North: Beyond Manhattan’s Easter Island

Beauty and the Tepee: Central Park and Riverside Park Go To the Mat

Disappearing Animals: 50 Shades of Brown

December 2, 2012

A thick fog enveloped Manhattan this morning, rolling over Broadway and wrapping the water towers in a ghostly shroud.

Water tower in the mist.

Water towers in the mist.

By late morning, when the dog and I descended the steps into Riverside Park, the fog had lifted.

Brown was the color of the day. Or rather 50 shades of brown.

50 shades of brown.

50 shades of brown.

The park was full of beautifully camouflaged small animals. These trees, for example, were full of unseen birds. I know, because I heard them.

Invisible birds fill the air with song.

Invisible birds fill the air with song.

And this tree, too, received a sudden gust of sparrows that disappeared swiftly into its branches.

Sparrows disappear into the branches.

Sparrows disappear into the branches.

Here is one, now.

Sparrow like a flying leaf.

Sparrow like a chirping leaf.

Squirrels, too, disappear amid dead leaves, bare branches, and gray retaining wall.

The white of the tail gives this squirrel away.

The white of the tail gives this squirrel away.

From a small ledge high on the mossy retaining wall, a squirrel looks out over Riverside Park.

From a distance, he disappears.

From a distance, he almost disappears.

Zooming in, he looks like a tiny fat potentate surveying his kingdom.

Rodentine potentate.

Rodentine potentate.

Perhaps he is gazing out at the river. As I discover anew each fall, bare branches make for fine river views.

Sunset over the Hudson

Sunset over the Hudson

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