Archive for the ‘Morningside Park’ category

The Curious Osage Orange Tree

November 6, 2011

On a recent walk through Morningside Park, Osage Oranges, also known as hedge apples and horse apples, littered the path below Morningside Avenue.

Osage Orange, aka Hedge Apple

Wondering whether the strange orbs provide a seed bonanza for squirrels and raccoons, I gazed up at the overhanging branches where plenty of the softball-sized fruits were still hanging on the branches. (For an Osage Orange fruit dissection, visit Birder’s Lounge.)

Osage Orange on the Tree

The Osage Orange is a curious tree. Native to eastern Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, its wood was used by the Osage Indians to craft superb hunting bows. French trappers who encountered the native population and their bows named the tree bois d’arc, literally meaning “wood of the bow.”  In the Protean, shape-shifting tradition of living languages, the bois d’arc eventually transformed into the Bodark tree.

“Growing up on the prairies of Oklahoma, one of the first trees I learned was the hedge apple or bow dock, as we ungrammatically called it,” wrote Gerald Klingaman, retired University of Arkansas Extension Horticulturist in a brief and lovely article on the Osage Orange. According to Klingaman and other sources, settlers in the Great Plains planted the fast-growing Osage Orange in hedge rows to create a living fence, a thick, thorny barrier that kept livestock in and unwanted varmints out. Barbed wire, invented in the 1870s, would eventually replace the Osage hedge rows, but the trees are used even today as fence posts. A stand of them is said to make a fine wind break.

My trusty field guide to New York City Trees asserts that the “state champion” Osage Orange is growing in someone’s yard out on Staten Island.  (That would be 342 Seguine Avenue, if you care to visit.)  I don’t know what it means to be a state champion tree. What qualifies a tree as a champion?  Is it size or conformation or age or health or connections in high places or … what?

Well, whatever it is, my obsessive research has to stop some time (sadly, I do have other things to attend to), and there are, after all, things in the world that I really don’t need to know. I’m pretty sure the meaning of being a tree champion falls into that category.  So, enough. We will now draw a veil around the New York state champion Osage Orange tree, and move on with our lives.

Until next time.

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.

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.

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.

Morningside Park on Hurricane Sunday and NYC Wildlife Rehabilitation

August 31, 2011

On Sunday, when the hurricane had passed, after strolling the grounds of Saint John the Divine to check on the peacocks, I continued east to Morningside Park.  A downed tree completely blocked the 110th Street staircase:

The rain had been too much for it, and it had just toppled over from its roots:

The water in the little pond was as high as I’ve seen it:

A flotilla of more than 40 ducks swam about:

One or two dozed:

A few preened and nibbled at mites:

Two turtles swam near the water’s edge, looking for hand-outs, ducking under when I tried to snap a photo. Animals in the park seemed hungry after waiting out the storm. One squirrel dove straight inside a garbage can, then perched on the rim.

Robins fluttered through the trees on the hill, while sparrows foraged near the ball fields

A small flock of pigeons pecked hungrily in the grass

and one dark pigeon huddled behind a bench, clearly ill or injured.

I wondered whether I should do something to help it. I had tried once before to get help for a sick pigeon, but was shunted from one agency to another. All the while, I was standing in the rain on a street corner and worrying about being late for the theater.  As far as I can tell, the city doesn’t help pigeons, because, as feral animals (once domesticated and now wild), they are considered neither pets nor wildlife and as non-natives, they are not a protected species. I abandoned the bird that day, and did the same on Sunday.  But I’m not entirely comfortable with my decision, and have decided I need to formulate a personal policy, both compassionate and rational, on when, and how, to intervene with injured or ill animals.

Yesterday, I happened to pass the future home of The Wild Bird Fund.

The Wild Bird Fund is a non-profit organization that helps to save birds and wildlife in New York City.

Surprisingly, NYC is the only major city in the United States that doesn’t yet have a wildlife rehabilitation center, although it has its share of extraordinarily dedicated and skilled rehabilitators.

I crossed Columbus Avenue to Animal General Hospital, where Wild Bird Fund is currently housed, and asked the receptionist if the Fund helped pigeons.

“Of course,” she replied. “Pigeons are their star client.”

So if you find a bird in need, call Wild Bird Fund at 646-306-2862.  Until their own home is ready, the rehabilitators are working out of Animal General on the west side of Columbus Avenue at 87th Street.  They see wild bird cases by appointment only on Monday – Friday from 1- 3 PM. Their clients include owls, swans, kingfishers, ducks, hawks and, of course, pigeons.  They welcome donations.

Please comment to share your own experiences and thoughts on when, and how, to intervene with wild (or feral) animals.  And check back soon for follow-up posts on the subject.

Spring in Three Cities

May 9, 2011

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

Biblical Garden at Saint John the Divine.

Oh, yes, it’s spring, at last.

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

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

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

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

Baby birds are cracking out of eggs

Morningside Park gosling

Raccoons are emerging from dark holes and hollows

Riverside Park raccoon emerges from retaining wall den.

Turtles are leaving their watery homes to lounge on warm rocks

Morningside Park turtles relax in the sun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indy robin and lion.

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

and a charmingly awkward American coot slowly revealed itself

Downtown coot

then strolled alone in an expanse of green.

No water here.

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

Oh. So sad.

A gorgeous rose-breasted grosbeak.

Lovely, but dead.

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

Bird killer.

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

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

Indoor cat goes hunting.

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

Welcome Cardinal Nation!

Cardinals perched

Two cardinals guard a baseball.

Cardinals dressed up in baseball caps

Cardinals swung bats

and cardinals kept score

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

Irridescence on parade

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

Rollin' in the dirt

And then, at last, there was the river

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

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

Trumpeter brings soundtrack to my block.

Morningside Park’s Turtle Army and Other NYC Wildlife

April 21, 2011

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

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

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

Turtle army assembles

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

I heard it from Tom.

Tom

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

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

Summer day.

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

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

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

Another platoon of the turtle army

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

One wing drying

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

Watch out, fishies.

A red-winged blackbird waded in the shallows

What is this elegantly epauleted blackbird hunting?

A pigeon also waded,

and a solitary goose stood on a solitary leg.

Cantilevered goose

Until next time…

Great White Peacock of Morningside Heights

April 15, 2011

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

Regal? Yes. Bright? Um...

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

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

Staring at the wall

I mean, a long time. As in minutes.

Getting a closer look.

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

Opening...

Swirling ...

Revolving ...

Let’s do that again.

Opening ...

Raising ...

Spreading ...

Swirling ...

Raising ...

Profile ...

Lowering ...

Furling ...

And we’re back to contemplating the hedge …

Whats in there?

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

Two-Eyed Prophecy of Spring

March 14, 2011

To gain wisdom and a vision of the future, Odin drank from Mimir’s well, and plucked out his own right eye to pay Mimir’s price.

Odin's right eye still stares up from the bottom of Mimir's well. Illustration by Willy Pogany from The Children of Odin, Padraic Colum's beautiful retelling of Norse sagas

Here is my two-eyed prophecy for New York.

I have read the signs, natural and man-made, that tell the truth of the world, and the signs say:

Spring is coming. Prepare, prepare.

Spring! Spring! Spring!

Look at the signs, and interpret for yourself:

The Sign of Flowers:

First flowers in Riverside Park

The Sign of Spring Training:

Hitters on the Hudson.

The Sign of Multi-tasking Outdoor Muses

Playing the trumpet while reading the paper

The Sign of Al Fresco Dining

Starling gang fight over free pizza

The Sign of Strange Sports

Stylin' Frenchmen play bocce ball in Morningside Park.

The Sign of Mister Softee

La dee da la dee da la dee da … Somebody, please, get that tune out of my head!

The Sign of Bare Legs Despite Still-Bare Branches

Bare branches, bare legs

The Sign of Peacocks at Saint John the Divine

Blue guardian of the eastern wall

Skulker in the southern garden

And on every street: The Sign of Tiny Winged Macho Men Singing for World Domination

Small but fierce

These signs deciphered mean: spring.
O my prophetic soul!
Mark me:
Within a month, the secret garden of Saint John’s will explode into pinks and yellows.
All over the city, what grass there is will green.
In the parks, birds and squirrels will nest.
And the crack of baseball bats on balls will be heard throughout the city.
Rejoice.
Though the way be dark before us and cold rain fall,
yet spring approaches.

April 2010: Garden on the grounds of Saint John the Divine

Urban Wildlife Mysteries

February 15, 2011

Even a quick visit to Morningside Park yields an urban mystery or two.  The little pond is completely iced over.

Ice and bare branches

Compare to last spring when two egrets regularly visited to fish near the waterfall

Gone fishin’

Today a flock of brightly colored balloons seems to be nesting on the island

(I somehow deleted the photo, so imagine, if you will, a score of balloons lying in a gaudy heap on bare ground.)

in roughly the same spot where a set of mallard ducklings hatched in the final days of May

New ducklings moving out from the nest

The carp, turtles and frogs that live in the pond should be sleeping now, down in the dead leaves and muck at the bottom of the tiny pond, waiting for winter to give up the ghost. When the water warms, they’ll rouse to life.

They’ll bask

Soaking up the summer sun

and loll

Lazy day

and swim.

But today is mid-February and there is no water, only ice.  So how to explain the presence, on the path that runs along the eastern edge of the pond, of a pair of dead fish.

As if it had leapt over the edge of the pond's retaining wall

Someone had fish head for lunch.

Oh, dear

The pond has been frozen for days. Where did the fish come from? How did they die? Why are they here?

A sign on the back of a bench offers the promise of rescue.

Good to know. But what about the fish?

The photo of the sign was taken in midsummer, when there were no ladders to be seen. Now the ladders are ready for trouble.

Beautiful red ladder ready for rescue

On the way home, we passed beneath a tree filled with dozens of sparrows, all singing at the top of their little lungs. Spring really is coming.

But what about the fish?

Hey, what about the fish?

Return to Riverside: Rats and Red-tails

November 9, 2010

With the return of autumn, Esau and I have returned to Riverside Park.

Riverside Drive Promenade

We indulged for months in a thrilling spring-into-summer fling with Morningside Park.

Lush Life: Early Summer in Morningside Park

New goose

Ma, I can fly!

All summer, Morningside’s little pond teemed with animal action. Goslings and ducklings hatched and grew. Bullfrogs, turtles and herons abounded.

Great white hunter

But lately I am again craving the sight of the Hudson River as it laps the long, green finger of Riverside Park.  Subject to powerful ocean tides, the Hudson sometimes runs south to the harbor and the ocean beyond as a river should, and other times it flows north past the George Washington Bridge, carrying its flotsam and jetsam up past the Bronx and the suburbs into the deep interior of the continent.

The river in a peaceful moment

Dazzle-me green

In summer, unless you descend to the lower paths, the park’s dense foliage blocks the river from view. But now that the leaves are thinning, the river calls to us even when we’re walking high above on Riverside Drive.

Yesterday morning, although I appeared to be walking briskly along the parkside of the Drive, I was actually light years away, tracking in my mind’s eye the actions of a young man – well, a fictional character, actually, in a project I’m working on.  A huge hawk, suddenly and silently soaring low past my shoulder, jolted me back into the miraculous common world.

The hawk put out its landing gear and seemed about to touch down on the retaining wall, but changed its mind, landing instead in a tree that grows from twenty feet below in the park.

Hawk in profile

After a minute or two, the bird – I believe it was a juvenile red-tail – moved to a new perch, a few yards south. A single feather poked up above its tail, like an admonishing finger

Signaling

It looked around for a while, then again unfolded its big wings and dropped off its perch.

Through the leaves

It continued to head south from branch to branch, eventually dropping fully into the park to find a spot in the trees below, where we lost sight of it.

I haven’t seen a hawk in this part of Riverside for weeks.  What I have seen in dismaying numbers are rats.  Until this fall, I rarely saw rats along the park side of Riverside Drive. Now I see them every night, running shadows that snatch bits of food from unlined trash cans, pop in and out of holes in the walkway, trot along the top of the retaining wall, and zip through the sandboxes of the children’s playgrounds that dot the Drive.

Rats make a fine meal for a red-blooded red-tail.

Redtail Eating Rat by D. Bruce Yolton: http://www.Urbanhawks.com

May the hawks dine in peace and plenty.

(I am not the only blogging park-lover to stray from a main squeeze.  In Brooklyn, a nature blogger abandons the charms of Prospect Park for a dalliance with lovely Green-wood Cemetery where red-tails, kestrels and merlins haunt and hunt among the graves.)

Note:  This post is part of I and the Bird #138, a regular birding blog carnival.

Again with the Central Park Rabies Advisory

October 4, 2010

Strolling in Central Park with Esau yesterday morning, I was surprised to encounter dramatic new “Rabies Advisory” signs on lamp posts along the western edge of the park.

The new signs scream “Rabies” in multiple languages (La Rage! Rabbia! Tollwut!) and feature a realistic line drawing of a hulking raccoon that could probably hold its own as a National Football League center.

Last winter, when it had become clear that Manhattan was in the midst of a raccoon rabies epidemic, bright green signs appeared on park lamp posts, urging visitors to “Leave Wildlife Alone.”

Note the cute little cartoon-like drawing of a raccoon head and the small lettering for the words “rabies advisory.”

The new signs are striking, easy to read and, well, kind of scary. But why scare us now?  The epidemic appears to be mostly over, thanks to USDA’s humane and labor-intensive program to individually trap, vaccinate and release Manhattan’s healthy raccoons.  Over 130 already-infected raccoons have died off  since summer 2009, while the remaining, much-decreased, vaccinated population should serve as a barrier that prevents the disease from reaching epidemic proportions.

After a monthly high of 38 reported rabies cases in March 2010, the numbers began to decline.  June and July saw three rabies cases each, and August became Manhattan’s first rabies-free month since November 2009.

So I repeat, why the scary new signs?  Well, it ain’t over till it’s over and with rabies these days, it may never be completely over.  In early September, a single rabid raccoon was found in Central Park in the West 70s, reminding us just how difficult it is to eradicate a disease with a long incubation period.  And to maintain effectiveness, we’ll probably need an annual vaccination program to ensure that new babies are trapped and immunized.

But even if we were to succeed in immunizing the entire resident raccoon population, raccoon rabies is now endemic across the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine. Raccoons and other wild animals, including skunks and coyotes, regularly find their way from the mainland to Manhattan, as juveniles seek new territory.  They cross the railroad bridge from the Bronx or swim a narrow channel. If in their travels, they have been in contact with a rabid animal, they will again bring rabies to our island paradise.

So heed the scary signs, and leave wildlife alone.  Enjoy the raccoons, but don’t feed them or try to lure them closer so you can get a better photo.

And while we’re at it, it’s probably better not to feed any of our urban wildlife, except maybe small migrating songbirds.

Grazing geese take over the outfield in Morningside Park

Feeding by humans encourages animals to overpopulate, which makes us consider them pests that need to be eradicated, as in this summer’s killing of geese in Prospect Park.  Unnaturally dense populations allow disease to flourish and spread.  So if you have a soft spot for  geese, raccoons, pigeons, squirrels and other urban wildlife, do the animals a favor and stop feeding them.

Red-eared sliders, expecting crumbs, mass beneath the Turtle Pond overlook

If you don’t have a soft spot for animals, count yourself lucky that we don’t yet have a need for these signs in Manhattan:

Sign in Vancouver, Canada proclaims: Warning! Coyotes in the Area

Then again, coyotes love goose eggs, so maybe you goose-haters want to roll out the coyote welcome mat. After all, as the sign says, coyotes are “smart, fast, and will take what they can get.”

Welcome or not, coyotes will be back in Manhattan. If not this winter, then next.  They may be here already, slipping through the old growth of Inwood Park and the tangles of Highbridge.

Esau contemplates ducks as a possible food source.

NYC Parks Going to Seed

September 2, 2010

I should have warned you, dear Reader, that there would be no new blog posts in the month of August. But I didn’t plan to take a summer break from Out Walking the Dog. It just happened.

A mid-August deadline for the first draft of a new play gradually crowded out all other projects and pastimes. I’ve been living, breathing, dreaming and writing in another world.  Now the first draft is complete, and I’ve more or less returned to the so-called real world, a world that includes city parks and animals, blogs and dogs, and long walks with Esau.

I spent last week on the coast of British Columbia, about two or three hours north of Vancouver.

View from the deck

At night, the temperature dropped into the 50s and a hot day topped off somewhere in the 80s.  Glorious.  We were surrounded by water, both fresh and salt,  islands, Douglas firs, massive ferns and mostly unseen animal life.  A lone bald eagle soared overhead in the mornings, sometimes harassed and chased away by a gull. But more about B.C. in a future post.

What’s on my mind today is … seediness.

Seedy
sordid and disreputable: his seedy affair with a soft-porn starlet
shabby and squalid: an increasingly seedy and dilapidated property

As soon as I arrived back in New York, I headed out with Esau to my beloved parks. After the freshness of British Columbia, I faced a sordid reality:  my beloveds are looking downright seedy.  Yes, I know that the trees and flowers are literally going to seed, which is, I assume, where the word, “seedy,” originated.

Gone to seed

But I’m talking about something more than simple botanical imperatives here.  Blowzy and past their early summer prime, the parks exude a kind of over-ripe dissoluteness, a laxness that feels, well, moral. I’m not much of a puritan, but really, I think Webster’s has nailed it, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that both Morningside and Riverside are engaged in summer affairs with soft-porn stars or starlets.

Watch the tabloids. You heard it here first.

Riverside Park plants swallow a lamppost.

Lush life

Morningside, in particular, is looking down-at-heels, as if it has drunk a little too much of this summer’s endless heat, and can no longer muster the will to shave or brush its teeth. Forget picking up the trash.

The geese don’t help.

As Jerry Lee might say, there's a whole lot of preening goin' on

Earlier this summer, we worried about the sudden disappearance of the little Canada goose family that nested on Morningside’s island.  In July, new geese began congregating, and by the end of July, there were at least 14 that hung out in the pond and field.  This morning, 29 geese are preening, loafing, grazing and slathering the walkway around the pond with great green gobs of goose droppings. The water is a deep brown-green, thanks to the algae, and appears almost thick in consistency, like pureed lentil soup.  Despite the lovely sound of the man-made waterfall, the pond is less than inviting. To a human, that is.  The multitude of turtles seems quite happy, as do the geese, ducks and pigeons.

Inter-species harmony: Morningside's animals appear unbothered by the soupy water.

West at the Riverside Greenway, driftwood sculptures converse with boats and buildings.

And all I ask is a tall ship

Mutt and Jeff observe the river

Leaning

Reading

Gazing

Oh, and you can forget about the girls in their summer dresses. In Riverside, it’s the boys who shed clothes.

Heading home, we see a miniature fungi forest.

Many mushrooms

Thank you to my patient readers, wherever you are. I’m delighted to be back. More posts will follow soon.

Morningside Park Farmers’ Market

July 30, 2010

The Morningside Park Farmers’ Market is open on Saturdays from 9 to 5, rain or shine. One of the benefits of this location is that you can stroll through the park, before loading up on fresh food.

And there’s always something going on in Morningside Park.

Last Saturday, a young athlete pitched a strike in the girls’ softball game.

On a nearby field, a few fans, looking like something from the last act of Our Town, beat the heat to watch the big boys play.

On the basketball court, little guys played one-on-onewhile dog walkers steered their hounds past rotting chicken bones and mounds of garbage left by Friday night’s barbecue hordes. Okay, so it’s not all good news.

Still, despite the litter, geese and turtles relaxed in the pond

and a handsome black pigeon went down to the water’s edge for a drink

At the market by the park’s southeastern entrance, shoppers lingered over the admirable produce.

Peaches, radishes, carrots, turnips and greens.

Gorgeous fresh fish from Montauk

Also, bread and pastries, nuts, meat

and pickles galore right from the barrel

The Market manager minded the stall for Tierra Farms

What more can I tell you?

Go.


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