Archive for the ‘In the City’ category

Dispatch from the Icebox: Wildlife Update

February 17, 2015

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It’s cold here in the Northeast. Today the dog and I went down to the river.

Looking south along the Hudson River Greenway.

Looking south along the Hudson River Greenway.

We were surprised to see the river flowing freely with just a few large ice chunks floating by the shore.

Looking north toward the George Washington Bridge.

Looking north toward the George Washington Bridge.

You can see ice over by the Jersey shore, but virtually none on our side. Yesterday, the river had an ice crust stretching out to the middle of the mighty waters.

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(The images below are drawn from the past three weeks of wintry walks and window watching.)

Nothing stops the dogs or their walkers, not even the deep freeze machine.

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Dogs gotta walk, and birds gotta eat.

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They also have to stay warm. Look at these mourning doves, puffed up like little Michelin men.

And this flock of starlings trying to catch some eastern roof rays on a morning when the temperature hovered in the teens.

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The feral cats in Morningside Park are fed hearty meals year-round by well-meaning humans. Feeding cats also feeds rats, which contributes to a burgeoning rat population, which leads humans to set out poison for the rats that eat the cat food which leads to the death of the hawks that eat the rats that eat the trash that humans set out to feed the cats that live in the park. (Read that five times fast.)

It’s a regular “This is the house that Jack built” scenario, except that the cats (indirectly) feed the rats instead of just eating them, as in the old nursery rhyme.

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Here are a couple of our apex predators, viewed from my window, that do their best to keep our rat and pigeon population under control.

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I haven’t seen a Riverside Park raccoon for some time. They must be laying low inside their snowy den.

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There may even be babies snuggled up in there, or, if it’s still too early in the season, a pregnant female, waiting for spring. Come spring, I’ll hope to see the whole family out and about on the retaining wall and in the park.

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Meanwhile, brrr.

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NYC: After the so-called Blizzard

January 27, 2015

 Where the blizzard at?

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Snow dogs.

Anybody seen my blizzard?

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Dog with unfortunate sense of style.

I know how bad the storm is for people to our east, west and north. But if there was a blizzard here in Manhattan, I missed it.

Oh, it snowed, all right. Here’s what the city looked like yesterday, back when we still believed in unicorns, elves, and being buried beneath the “storm of the century.”

Disappearing city.

By 6 PM, all city parks were officially closed. The subways started shutting down at 7 PM.  At 11 PM, all mass transit and all roads were closed.

– Wait, did you say the parks closed at six?
– Uh-huh, that’s right.
– But at six, there was, like, hardly any snow, and no wind, and great visibility, and …
– Don’t worry about it.

Because this is New York, baby, and this is what a closed park looks like.

Night sledding! Woot woot!

Night sledding in Riverside Park! Woot woot!

You can’t tame the night sledders. Not in New York.

Wheeeeeee

Wheeeeeee

Only the wildlife took the closing seriously. The raccoons were nestled all snug in their snow-frosted den.

Raccoons are inside in fur slippers, drinking cocoa and watching the weatherman.

Raccoons who live in the wall were wearing fur slippers, drinking cocoa and watching the weather on NY1.

All night and this morning, the city was eerily, wonderfully quiet. And the streets remarkably clear, thanks to the snowplows that had free rein of the streets all night.

Broadway.

Broadway this morning, light snow coming down.

The ever-present city hum was almost imperceptible, and even now, late in the afternoon, it’s unusually quiet. Although not in the parks.

The parks, with their five or six inches of fresh snow (a bit short of the predicted two feet), are bustling.

Sledding in Riverside Park.

Sledding in Riverside Park – looks like a Currier & Ives.

Everywhere are walkers, sledders, little kids in snowsuits, dogs in boots, and parents hauling children in sleds.

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Last but definitely not least, here is an adorable little man in brand new boots, enjoying his first big snow.

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Little man on a mission.

Coyote Captured on Upper West Side

January 11, 2015
Photo by Christopher Sadowski as seen in The New York Post

Photo by Christopher Sadowski. Visit The New York Post for more of Mr. Sadowski’s photos.

Last night in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, a coyote was captured by the police. As far as I can tell, this is the first coyote sighting in Manhattan since March 2010 when a beautiful young coyote spent about a month in the city. She quickly found her way to Central Park’s Hallett Nature Sanctuary and made her base in that protected acre in the shadow of the Plaza Hotel before being captured down in Tribeca. In 2012, coyote tracks were found in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, but I can find no report of a sighting.

Coyotes have been resident in the Bronx for some time now. More recently, they seem to have taken up residence in Queens, and in 2012, a coyote was spotted in Staten Island. Manhattan’s coyotes probably come down from the Bronx over one of the bridges at the northern tip of the island or, possibly, by swimming.

Wildlife biologists at the Gotham Coyote Project are currently studying our coyote population, using camera traps to answer the question: “Where in NYC and its surrounding suburbs can you find coyotes?” The Munshi-South Lab is also involved with monitoring the establishment and dispersal of coyotes in NYC. A camera trap captured this gorgeous image.

Camera Trap image from the Munshi-South Lab website.

Camera Trap image of coyote and pups from the Munshi-South Lab website.

Last night’s coyote, a female, resisted arrest, as one hopes any healthy wild animal would do, and led the police on a chase through Riverside Park before being tranquilized and captured in a basketball court. According to the Twitter account of the 24th Precinct, the police had the coyote “corralled inside fenced-in BB court, but so cold out, the tranquilizer in the darts kept freezing!” They had to wait for a second Emergency Services Truck to arrive with “warm darts” as they “wanted to stun it as humanely as possble.”

Police report the animal was unharmed and was taken to Animal Care and Control where it will be examined before being released somewhere outside the city.

Happy New Year (We’re Back)

January 1, 2015

Happy New Year, dear much-missed readers!

We’re posting again for the first time since last spring when we watched a White-throated sparrow dig up the park. Eight months is a long time to go dark, but we needed to focus on other work.

A hidden nest from last spring is easily spotted through winter's bare branches.

A hidden nest from last spring is easily spotted through winter’s bare branches.

We missed our readers, and we want to thank all of you for supporting Out Walking the Dog. We especially want to thank those of you, friends and strangers alike, who got in touch over the past months to say, “What’s going on? Where’s Out Walking the Dog?”

Well, we’re back!

The dog is looking a little rumpled after his New Year's Eve dissipations.

The dog looks a little rumpled after the dissipations of New Year’s Eve.

Actually, we’ve been here all along, the dog and I, smack dab in the middle of the city surrounded by the usual urban wildlife suspects. We just haven’t been able to write to you about it.

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In 2015, you can expect more tales of hawks, kestrels, raccoons, chipmunks, turtles, squirrels, coyotes, and so much more. Including rats, of course. More about those little urban devils soon, after I attend a local session of NYC’s “Rat Academy.”

On New Year’s Eve, the dog and I went looking for raccoons in Riverside Park. No creatures revealed themselves, although they were there unseen, sleeping, hunting, eating, grooming, and watching. The empty park was strangely quiet and the great stone stairs mysterious.

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Out of one world and into the next.

Later we walked to Central Park to watch fireworks and cheer the runners of the annual midnight race.

Moving forward into a new year.

May the year bring peace and fulfillment, creativity and joy.

White-Throated Sparrow Digs Up Central Park

April 25, 2014

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Rustle rustle rustle.

Who’s that walkin’ around here?
Sounds like baby patter.
Baby elephant patter, that’s what I calls it.
– Fats Waller, Your Feet’s Too Big

Ah, it’s a White-throated Sparrow, digging through the leaves for tasty morsels hidden below.

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Beautifully camouflaged in the ground litter, the sparrow nonetheless called attention to itself by kicking up an absolute ruckus. If you’ve never seen a little bird dig, it’s quite an impressive flurry of activity with wings, feet and beak all in motion at once.

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White-throated Sparrows have two color morphs, the striking white-striped bird above, and a subtler tan-striped variation.

Here’s what Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website has to say about the color morphs:

The two forms are genetically determined, and they persist because individuals almost always mate with a bird of the opposite morph. Males of both color types prefer females with white stripes, but both kinds of females prefer tan-striped males. White-striped birds are more aggressive than tan-striped ones, and white-striped females may be able to outcompete their tan-striped sisters for tan-striped males.

Okay, got that?

Here, take a quick look at The Sordid Lives of the White-Throated Sparrow, Kelly Rypkema’s one-minute video:

After mating with whichever-striped chosen consort, White-throated Sparrows build their nests on or near the ground, which makes the eggs and nestlings easy prey for that most adorable of vicious predators, the Eastern chipmunk.

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Eastern chipmunk in Central Park.

Yes, these cute little rodents don’t confine themselves to nuts and seeds. In fact, they are notorious nest-raiders of ground-nesting birds, helping themselves to a quick blast of protein in the form of eggs and babies. Interestingly, a 2011 study indicates that some species of ground-nesting birds, notably oven-birds and veeries, pay attention to chipmunk calls and avoid nesting in chipmunk-rich areas.

I don’t know if the White-throated Sparrow eavesdrops on chipmunks. But watching them dig up the leaves, I’d think they could put up quite a defense with those wings and feet. And speaking of feet (hey, sometimes a good segue is elusive, okay?), here is Fats Waller singing “Your Feet’s Too Big.”

Listen up.

Central Park Chipmunk

April 23, 2014

 

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Chipmunk in Central Park. Photo: Melissa Cooper

A rustle in the leaves reveals a fat-cheeked, lovely chipmunk on a hillside near Central Park’s North Woods. Check out the large nut stowed on the side.

The Eastern chipmunk lives in many of the city’s larger forested parks, but until recently, Central Park was a chipmunk-free zone.

According to the Central Park Conservancy, the return of chipmunks can be traced to a decision in 2009 to remove trash cans from the Park’s woodland areas. The trash had served as a prime food source for the Park’s many rats. When the trash cans were removed, the trash diminished, and the rats left the Park in search of easier pickings. (Sadly, NYC’s system of leaving mountains of trash bags out on the sidewalk overnight means that pretty much any city street on trash night provides a self-service rat buffet.) Apparently, the rat exodus has created favorable conditions for chipmunks to move in and thrive. Whether the rats out-competed the chipmunks for food, preyed on them, or just generated general forest anxiety among smaller creatures, I don’t know. Anyone?

On Sunday, I was thrilled with my first sighting of a Central Park chipmunk.  Now that the little rodents have awakened from hibernation with the warming spring temperatures, I hope to see them more often.

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Eastern chipmunk gives me the hairy eyeball.

This little fellow ducked repeatedly in and out of its hiding place beneath the rock. Eventually, though, it rushed off, giving me a good look at its gorgeous back stripes and ruddy rear end before it disappeared into the leaves.

Eastern chipmunk, Central Park, NYC. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Eastern chipmunk, Central Park, NYC. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Guess Who’s Coming to Lunch, Kestrel Edition

March 25, 2014
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Photo: Janet Rassweiler

My neighbor Janet had an astonishingly beautiful, if rather ferocious visitor for lunch yesterday.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

She was working in her kitchen at midday, when she heard a strange repetitive banging sound coming from the living room. She moved to the doorway, and saw a bird on her air conditioner. This is nothing unusual in itself. Pigeons and mourning doves often perch there.

But this little bird was no dove.

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Photo: Janet Rassweiler

It was a tiny male hawk, or rather a falcon, no bigger than a blue jay, called the American Kestrel.

Kestrels are the smallest raptor in North America with a range from Mexico to Canada. Their populations are in decline in many parts of the continent due to habitat loss and pesticides that kill off the insects they feed upon. Yet the little raptors seem to be thriving in New York City.  Like other hawks and falcons that have adapted to urban life, they find that man-made structures serve their needs quite well. While their big cousins, the peregrine falcons, nest high on skyscrapers and bridges, the little kestrel prefers to raise its young in the broken cornices of old brownstones and mid-rise apartment buildings. Their prey includes insects, small mammals and birds, like the sparrow Janet’s visitor brought for lunch.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

The banging Janet heard was the sparrow’s head flopping up and down on the metal air conditioner as the kestrel pulled with its beak while holding the body down with its feet. (To move more quickly through the slideshow below, hover over the image, then click on the arrows that appear.)

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When the bird had had enough, it flew off with the body in its talons, leaving behind only the beak and part of the head.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

 I couldn’t tell if the brain had been eaten or not, although I rather guess it had, since brains are apparently chock full of nutrients. Perhaps the kestrel ate a quick blast of brain food before carrying off the rest of the sparrow to feed a nesting mate.

The abandoned head reminded me of another dramatic wildlife story that unfolded on my block. One day a few years ago, I noticed a fledgling sparrow hopping about inside the large planter of a nearby building. The little bird was clearly not yet able to fly, and was probably being fed by a parent hiding in a street tree. I made the decision not to intervene, since the planter seemed as safe a spot as any on a city street for a still earth-bound baby bird. Early the next morning, the decapitated dead body of the baby sparrow lay on the sidewalk. The head was nowhere to be found. (I wrote about the fledgling’s predicament, and my own, in Baby Birds and Animals: To Help or Not to Help.)

Had Janet not witnessed the kestrel eating the sparrow, she would be left puzzling over the mysterious appearance of a bird head on her air conditioner.

What a city we live in, my friends. What a city.

What a world.

All photos in this post courtesy of Janet Rassweiler.

NYC Wildlife After Hours

March 23, 2014

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Two nights ago, around nine o’clock, I leaned over the retaining wall at Riverside Park to look for raccoons, and found a raccoon looking right back at me. It was perched, as it were, on the broad stone ledge outside its den. We stared at each other, each apparently curious what the other might do. Neither one of us did much of anything.

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Just looking.

This raccoon and its family members have an ideal den spot with a broad ledge outside that makes it easy for them to loll and relax at the mouth of the hole.

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I’m looking at you.

When a man and two off-leash dogs came into view on the path below, the raccoon turned its attention away from me to watch the newcomers.

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The man was talking on his cell phone and kicking a ball for his rambunctious long-legged black mutt to chase, while a slow, imperturbable pug brought up the rear.  Neither man nor dogs noticed the raccoon high above their heads, watching their every move. Nor did they notice this human, even higher above their heads, also watching every move.

As it watched, the raccoon curled partway into its hole.

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We left it there, the dog and I, and continued our walk along the Riverside Drive promenade. On our way back, I again leaned over the wall.

But the raccoon was gone.

It had probably ducked back into its den. In my admittedly limited and unscientific observations, the Riverside raccoons are slow to actually leave the den for their evening forays into the park. They tend to hang out on the ledge for quite some time, singly or in twos, threes or even fours. They look around and sniff the air, occasionally ducking back into the den as if suddenly remembering they’d left the stove on.  Sometimes, when the weather is pleasant, a raccoon will groom itself or a mother will groom a kit, although I haven’t seen any grooming behaviors yet this season.  I can’t even say how many raccoons are living in the den this year. Eventually, though, one or another of the raccoons will leave the ledge and start making its way north along the wall. Only rarely do I see one heading south from the den, probably because the grand stone staircase quickly breaks up the wall, so that the raccoon would have to come down to the ground right at a spot that is well traveled by humans and dogs.

Here is the view from just above the den of Riverside Park, the Hudson River and New Jersey.

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Not bad. You might linger at the mouth of your den, too, if you had this view to look at.

Urban Wild and Feral Life in Spring

March 21, 2014

Spring is officially here. Red-tails are nesting, peacocks are showing, and male mallards are acting downright crazy.

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Trees are still mostly bare, which means you can more easily spot wildlife.

And feral life. The feral cat colony in Morningside Park seems out of control this spring. The cats are everywhere around the pond, stalking  ducks and other birds.

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But that’s a topic for another post.

For now, let’s put away the ice rescue ladder, and celebrate the arrival of another spring.

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Below are links to a few of Out Walking the Dog’s odes to springs past:

Two-Eyed Prophecy of Spring

It’s Spring; Everybody Sing!

Spring Fling in Morningside Park: Be Still, My Heart

Spring in Three Cities

NYC Signs of Spring: Red-tails Nest and Mr Softee Sings

How to Tell a Hawk from a Handsaw

March 17, 2014

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

Hamlet, Act II, scene ii

But Hamlet, dear, this is easy.

Hawk.

Hawk.

Hawk with squirrel, Riverside Park, NYC.

Handsaw.

Handsaw.

Handsaw.

More difficult in low light and at a distance is to know a hawk from a handbag, or more specifically, a plastic grocery bag.

Many is the perched hawk I’ve seen that, upon closer approach, has resolved itself not into a dew, but into plastic caught in a branch. (Click each photo to enlarge.)

More rarely the process reverses, and a plastic bag metamorphoses into a hawk, and flies.

These metamorphoses from animate to inanimate, from hawk to handbag, and back again, are among the peculiar pleasures of watching urban birds.

Roof Creatures

March 16, 2014
Roof Human, Riverside Drive.

Roof Human, Riverside Drive.

Roof hawk.

Roof hawk, back of Saint Luke’s Hospital, Morningside Drive.

Starling and Mourning Dove.

Roof Starling and Roof Mourning Dove, 109th Street.

Dove in the Ardéche, France.

Aerial Dove in the Ardéche, France.

Rock Pigeon.

Roof Pigeon, 108th Street.

Human.

Roof Human, 109th Street.

Raccoons Again

March 14, 2014

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On a mild, clear evening a few nights ago, the dog and I entered Riverside Park. It was a little after 7 PM and thanks to the recent arrival of Daylight Saving Time, there lingered still the faintest trace of light in the sky. Down by the river, the last of the rush hour traffic coughed and roared along the parkway as the lights of New Jersey glittered across the Hudson.

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We were seeking raccoons.

It had been many weeks since I’d seen the Riverside raccoons, and I was hoping the suddenly spring-like weather would entice them out of their cozy dens in the great retaining wall. And so it had.

A small face peeped from the entryway to an always-occupied den.

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And a little further north, a large raccoon filled a small space near the bottom of the retaining wall.

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The raccoon filled its hole like a living object in a Joseph Cornell box.

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We walked on a brief distance, but saw no other raccoons before turning back. As we retraced our steps, the first raccoon was slowly emerging into the night.

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Peacocks By Design

March 12, 2014

New York City’s three Cathedral peacocks have already begun their annual spring courtship displays in which they unfurl their insanely long, dazzling tail feathers, hold them up in a giant fan, and rotate slowly to enchant the ladies. Here is a video I took a few years ago of one of St John the Divine’s peacocks in fine form.

The boys will be displaying like this all spring and summer, but who do they hope to woo? The nearest peahen is several miles away at the Central Park Zoo or the Bronx Zoo (from which one of the pealadies briefly escaped in 2011).

Still the peacock boys display to anyone and no one.  Yesterday, the white peacock was showing his tail in front of the shed that serves as their roost, while one of the blue peacocks stood alone at the end of the steep driveway, just a few feet from Morningside Drive, with his tail in full sail.

Tails furled or unfurled, peacocks seem to have an innate design sense.

Here the white peacock displays a striking horizontal elegance.

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Down the driveway, his friend advocates for the power and beauty of the vertical.

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For more on the Cathedral peacocks, stay tuned. Or visit our archives.

Red-tail at Work

March 10, 2014

I’m not sure what to make of the collection of twigs amassed by the Cathedral Red-tailed hawks atop Saint Peter’s canopy.

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I posed the question on Twitter, and love the response I received from Robert of Morningside Hawks: “If they were predictable, they wouldn’t be wild. And sometimes they do weird stuff because they know you’re watching.”

For now, at least, the hawks seem to be focused on refurbishing the old nest on Saint Andrew’s mossy shoulders.

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When I arrived at the nest this morning, it appeared empty. But as I crossed Morningside Drive to enter the park, I looked back toward the Cathedral in time to see a hawk swooping in from the north to disappear from view behind the saint’s head.  Although I could no longer see the bird, I could see twigs moving as the hawk rearranged nesting materials.

Then the hawk hopped onto the old man’s head and looked out over the park and nearby streets.

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What a view.

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Somehow, the poor saint looked especially sorrowful this morning, and the hawk, well, hawkish.

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After a few minutes, the big bird spread its wings and soared off to the southeast.

Hidden Things Revealed

February 24, 2014

Last week, snow blanketed the gardens of Saint John the Divine …

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Today much is revealed.

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All over the city, for better and for worse, things buried are coming to light.

Take a look at the bike buried beneath snow in front of my building.

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Turns out it’s more than a bike. It’s at least a bike and a half. Who knew?

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These are benign examples. In truth, once things start emerging from their hiding places, there’s no telling what may come to light.

Be careful out there.


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