Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Why I Haven’t Posted All Summer

August 14, 2011

All through the summer, I’ve seen wonderful things:

A bald eagle perching by its nest in Lyme, New Hampshire

Black-crowned night herons stalking fish in NYC’s Morningside Park

and 1,500 miles west, stalking fish in Texas.

Grackles panting in the 100-degree Texas heat

and a mysterious river dog emerging from the Hudson;

Raccoons lounging in the Riverside Park retaining wall as evening blanketed down

and two baby red-tails jumping and playing in Central Park

Marvelous sights, indeed.  But for the past two months, I’ve not been able to write about what I see.  For my silence, dear readers, I apologize, and for your patience and your inquiries, I thank you.

It’s been a tough summer.  I’ve been sorely missing one particular reader, a reader whose overflowing pleasure in each new post was only equaled by his curiosity and willingness, at 88 years of age, to learn and marvel.  Readers of the comment section of Out Walking the Dog may recall the terse yet effusive praise of “Daddy-o,” who sometimes simply wrote: “More! More!”

Born in Brooklyn in 1923 and raised in New Jersey, my father, aka Daddy-o, moved to Manhattan to attend Columbia University and, aside from a stint of seven years in Connecticut, never left.  He was among the most cultured and rational-minded of New Yorkers, yet he imparted to me an abiding fascination with the natural world.

To say simply that my father “loved nature” would be misleading.  His relationship to nature, as to most things, was complex, layered and richly ambivalent.

For the past 45 years, maybe more, he spent virtually every weekend and a month each summer on the south shore of Long Island.

There he grew gorgeous flowers, attracted songbirds, cast into the surf for bluefish, fought to maintain patches of local wildness, and planted river birches to block the McMansions that cropped up in erstwhile potato fields.

And there he engaged in bitter warfare with any of nature’s agents, be they animal or vegetable, native or invasive, that threatened the boundaries of his cultivated Arcadia.  The phragmites that dominated the shoreline of little Mecox Bay, the tick-harboring white-tailed deer that nipped the heads off his beloved day lilies, the bittersweet vine that gobbled everything in its path, such plants and animals were of the devil’s party; their encroachments unleashed in my father a righteous warrior who pushed back hard against the anarchic threat of uncultivated and invasive nature.

The Battle of the Bittersweet Vine became a personal Thirty Years War of  hacking, chopping and tearing of roots.  Decades ago in Connecticut, this most urbane of men borrowed a neighbor’s 22 rifle and sat in wait for the barbarian muskrats that were tunneling into his lawn. Age did not mellow this fighter;  in his 80s, he swore no meat ever tasted as good as the venison from a hapless deer, undoubtedly bent on heinous vegetable depredations, that a friend killed on his property with a bow and arrow.  His response to the arrival of coyotes in Manhattan in February 2010 was to say wryly, “It’s the end of civilization,” and to, at least in part, mean it.

But it was with my father that I first experienced the unexpected thrills of engagement with the natural world, looking for beetles in the damp dirt beneath a rock, capturing crickets, watching for bluebirds in spring, or rowing behind a water snake as it swam along with a still-kicking bullfrog halfway down its throat.

My father, who spent his life inquiring with compassion and clinical interest into the workings of the human mind, never lost the capacity to be amazed at the wonders and horrors of both the natural and man-made worlds.  I miss him mightily.

Arnold M. Cooper, M.D.
March 9, 1923 – June 9, 2011

Cluster Walk in Riverside Park

October 6, 2010


Walking in Riverside Park, Esau and I sometimes see things in clusters.

Here, for example, is a fungi cluster:

Shroom Cluster

And here is an acorn cluster:

Squirrel's stash, exposed

And look out, Houston, here is the Mother of all Burrs:

Freaking scary cluster burr

Animals too come in clusters.

Cluster o' cats

These cats belong to Riverside Park’s tiny feral cat population. According to volunteers who care for them, they have been spayed, neutered and vaccinated.

Bowl cluster with cluster o' cats

The cats come and go freely through the bars that protect them from human intruders.  They share their shelter with a homeless woman.  I wonder if they share their food and water with Riverside’s raccoons.  (Yeah, let’s hope those pretty kitties got their rabies shots.)

Other species also gather in clusters, including sparrows …

Sparrows beneath Riverside Park bird feeders


Members of large squirrel cluster

… and, up on Riverside Drive, humans.

A small cluster of street artists takes a break from their chalky labors.

Isaac Brune (above, in the red cap) and friends transformed a stretch of gray cobblestones into the Riverside Drive Sidewalk Gallery, where they displayed a cluster of chalk drawings:

Welcome by Isaac Brune

Chalk Faces

"Caution! might smell funny"

Caution: watch out for clusters.

Rabies in Manhattan: What About Squirrels (and Rats)?

January 20, 2010

Katrinka of the frozen north solved the mystery of the hay bales: “to protect the trees and rock outcroppings from the attack of sliding little children on toboggans and sleds.”  I’m not sure about toboggans in Riverside Park, but we do have a range of sliding objects, including Flexible Flyers, plastic garbage can lids and cardboard boxes. And, sure enough, the hay bales are at the base of two prime sledding hills. So, thank you, Katrinka!

With one mystery solved, a new one presents. Rabies is raging through Manhattan’s raccoon population. Should we worry about our squirrels?

Bagel Brunch for New York Squirrel

I mean, what if a rabid raccoon bites a squirrel? Do squirrels get rabies? Can they transmit it?

NYC Rat by laverrue /

Worse, and please forgive me for putting the image in your heads, what about rabid rats?

Well, dear reader, knowing these questions have been keeping you up at night, I’ve scoured the web for answers.

All mammals can get rabies. The disease is almost always transmitted by a bite or scratch, but any way you can figure out to make contact between your blood stream or mucous membranes and a rabid animal’s infected saliva or brain tissue will generally do the trick.  Squirrels, rats and other small mammals can, and do, get rabies. Yet rabid rodents and lagomorphs (rabbits and hares) are very rare. Why?

Well, there seems to be no definitive answer.  The best explanation comes from Dr. Jean S. Smith at Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control.

Encounter with a Carnivore (Randy Son of Robert/

In 2001, Dr. Smith told the New York Times that “rats probably would not survive an encounter with an infected carnivore. They are food for carnivores, and so would not be around to transmit the disease to people.” Ditto for squirrels and bunnies.

Dr. Smith says the shape of a rodent’s mouth, or some unidentified factor, may impede transmission. And she maintains that since rats don’t fight much among themselves (and squirrels even less), their behavior doesn’t lead to the bites that transmit infection within the species.

photo by Valerie Everett/

Well, okay, but unusually aggressive behavior is characteristic of the disease. Once an animal is symptomatic, the pacific nature of its species may no longer be relevant.  There’s at least one documented case of a rabid squirrel that was captured and tested only after an unprovoked bite on a human.

And what about those rare rabid squirrels? Why did they survive the bite? Scientists speculate they may have been infected by bats, which are common carriers of rabies. Since a bat’s tiny teeth would not cause serious damage, those squirrels survived to develop symptoms.

Tiny Bat, Big Teeth by Wilson B /

Next up on the rabies agenda, the question you’ve all been waiting for: what is NYC’s policy on vaccinating its raccoons and conserving the remainder of the population?  I’m planning a visit soon to Central Park to see if the Urban Park Rangers can answer some questions. Stay tuned.

New York City Raccoon Rabies Update

January 15, 2010

Last week, neighborhood associations in Morningside Heights, Upper West Side and Upper East Side received a new alert from the Health Department about rabid raccoons. The final numbers of rabid animals have come in for 2009, and they are not good. In December 2009 alone, ten rabid raccoons were found, eight of them above 100th Street on the west side.

In the first two weeks of 2010, the Health Department website reports another eight rabid raccoons. All but one Lenox Avenue renegade were found in Central Park. That’s 18 raccoons dead of rabies in a month and a half. Not good.

For Riverside Park raccoon lovers, the good news is that no rabid raccoons have turned up in our park. I saw three of my (well, not my, of course) raccoons last night, as they left their hole in the retaining wall. A mother, a baby and a third whose size I couldn’t determine, all looking as fat and beautiful and healthy as ever.

The bad news is that infection is probably only a matter of time.

Saint John the Divine grounds

Raccoons pass easily from  the northern end of Central Park to the southern end of Morningside Park. From there, it’s no problem to make their way west through the grounds of Saint John the Divine to Amsterdam Avenue, cross the avenue to the tiny West 111th Street People’s Garden, and from there it’s only two blocks to Riverside Park and its unsuspecting raccoons.

Once inside, the park’s a long, green highway to carry the disease south.

Early fall Riverside Park

No human or dog has been bitten. Yet. But we live crammed together on this narrow island. Something has to be done, and soon.

Raccoon rabies baited vaccine

Elsewhere in the state, the Department of Health uses an oral rabies vaccine, distributed in small baited packages that smell like fish, to control the spread of raccoon rabies. Baited vaccine was distributed in eastern Queens in 2006. It seems increasingly likely that Manhattan will have to follow suit. Tougher to implement in Manhattan where raccoons share habitat with park-loving humans and off-leash canines. Adults would surely avoid the odoriferous bait, but would children and dogs?

Come back here!

I’ll continue to keep an eye on Riverside raccoons.

And, everyone, here are the Health Department recommendations: avoid contact with wildlife, keep pet vaccinations up to date, and walk your dogs on leash.

Hey, Esau, that means you.

Bench Plaques in Riverside Park

January 4, 2010

The mysterious lives of others

Transient Beings Visit Riverside Park

January 2, 2010

A few hours after the snowfall of December 31, 2009, beings appear in Riverside Park.

Giant Dirty Being with Cat

Misspelled German Being with Dog

Owl Perched on Retaining Wall at Night

By midday on January 1, 2010, the owl has disappeared. By the time you read this, all beings are gone.

From Sein to das Nichts in two short winter days.

O Riverside Park, O Walks of 2009

December 31, 2009

O Riverside Park

O you long, slim, man-made beauty!

Accept this thank you letter for a year of walks with Esau.

Thank you, Riverside Park, for tepee builders and basket weavers  thank you for sculptors of driftwoodand balancers of stonethank you for cross-country skiers and crazy skateboard boys

Thank you for trees, tree holes and painters of trees

Thank you for fish on stonesfor dogs on hay bales for sports drinks on trees and conspiring red riding hoodsThank you for your long, narrow palm  that holds the living secrets of the Great Retaining Wall on your eastern side and, on the west, the fishy banks of the Hudson Most of all, thank you for holding safe the wild things so they can go about their eternal and mysterious animal business right under our city noses.


Snow Day: Audubon Christmas Bird Count

December 22, 2009

Central Park in the snow, the morning after the Big Storm:

On Sunday, December 20th, I participated in my first Audubon Christmas Bird Count in Central Park.  Don’t know what that is?  Read more about it here and here.

I had planned to go to Riverside Park, but didn’t hear back about where and when the Riverside bird counters were meeting. So I walked through the quiet, still-unplowed streets over to 85th Street at the Reservoir to join the Central Park count. I chose to go out with the group counting birds in the Northwest sector of the park, since that’s as close to my regular beat as I could get.

Had a glorious, joyful time tromping through the ten-plus inches of snow for four hours with a generously informative group of birders.

Our group included an Urban Park Ranger (yes, I still want to be an Urban Park Ranger when I grow up), and several super birders, among them wildlife photographer extraordinaire, D. Bruce Yolton, whose Urban Hawks blog is always worth a visit. His recent post on Central Park’s visiting Great Horned Owl is amazing.

Oh, and you can spot me on Bruce’s site.  Look closely at the first photo of a group of bird counters on the December 20th post: fuchsia scarf and Tibetan hat are identifying field marks.

Every year between December 14th and January 5th, Audubon Christmas Bird Counts are held all over the country.  The data collected spurs conservation efforts and research studies. And it’s a total blast.  Hey, it’s only December 22nd. Depending on where you live, you might still be able to join the 2009 Count. What are you waiting for?


New York Winter Storm: Animals in Winter

December 19, 2009

It’s snowing!

And they say it’s going to be a Big Snow. How will the animals stay warm?

First of all, feathers.


Above is my feather collection from walks with Esau over the last year.  Below are my favorites: a blue jay feather and a red-tail hawk feather. Look at the size difference!

The really warm stuff is the downy underlayer. Now that’s cozy.

As for mammals, well, Esau loves the cold. Here he is last winter:

Esau's first Big Snow

I keep warm with help from the birds: a down-filled L.L. Bean coat so toasty I have to unzip it after ten minutes walking.

Squirrels spend the coldest days snuggled into their big, fluffy tails, deep inside a drey or hole, made cozy with leaves, fur and feathers. All they need is a cup of hot cocoa and a couple of board games.  The little guys were very active this morning, chasing each other along the retaining wall and  carrying mouthfuls of leaves and white fluffy stuff – down, maybe – into a hole in the wall. Maybe they can tell when a storm is coming.

Raccoons pack on the pounds in the late fall and early winter. When the cold comes, the whole family piles into the den to live off excess body fat for up to a month. Metabolism slows, but it’s not a true hibernation.

I’m guessing they enter a strange, dozy sleep with slow dreams that go on for days. I wouldn’t mind finding my way into a fat raccoon’s winter dream to wander about for just a little while.

Feather Bouquet

Rabid Raccoons in Central Park

December 16, 2009

After years of being pretty much rabies-free, Manhattan has four confirmed rabies cases in 2009, all in raccoons.  One rabid raccoon was found last summer in Inwood Park; the other three were all found dead in Central Park’s North Woods, two in the week of December 7th.

Oh, my lovely Riverside raccoons, what will happen to you?

photo by mola jen/

So how is rabies being transmitted around the island? An infected raccoon must have crossed into Manhattan, probably from the Bronx where rabies is quite common. Maybe it took the bridge or swam across at Spuyten Duyvil. Hey, it’s an island, you gotta cross the water somehow.

Henry Hudson & Spuyten Duyvil Bridges by mysticchildz

Maybe it hitched a ride in the back of a truck hauling garbage. Somehow it made its way to Inwood Park at the northern end of the island.

View west from Inwood Hill Park by Baslow/

Then it, or another infected raccoon, travelled south, maybe passing though Riverside Park (oh, my raccoons!), then through city streets

108th & Manhattan Ave.

until it reached the North Woods. Somewhere between 50 and 100 raccoons live pretty densely packed in Central Park, which means we can expect more rabies in the coming months.

Raccoons do venture into Manhattan streets. About a year ago, we saw them for a few weeks on 108th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway. And last summer,  the New York Times described regular forays by North Woods raccoons across 110th Street to raid the garbage cans.

Raccoon in trash can by jeremy

Raccoons, listen up.  It’s a jungle out there. Don’t share saliva with strange raccoons. Don’t bite or get bitten. Don’t scratch or get scratched. Be safe.

Meet you at the wall tonight.

Who’s Eating What in New York City Parks

December 8, 2009

Birdfeeders in Riverside Park are almost empty again. So who’s eating what?

Besides a hungry Downy woodpecker, the feeders attract mostly mourning doves and sparrows. On the ground below, scrounging whatever seeds fall, are rock doves, aka pigeons, and squirrels.

Nice stash

Birdseed isn’t the only thing the squirrels are munching. They’re eating acorns. Gobs of acorns.

This is the treasure the bushy-tailed guys in gray are so busy burying. They won’t remember where they hide them, but they’ll find them anyway. By smell. Scientists buried nuts squirrel-fashion in an area where squirrels had also buried nuts. Then they watched. The little guys dug up scientist-buried nuts at the same rate as nuts they had buried with their own paws. That pretty much rules out memory.

Smashing pumpkins

Here’s something they don’t have to dig for. Smashed pumpkin. Not sure if someone brought it to feed the animals or heaved it over the Great Wall just to watch it explode. Either way, squirrels probably enjoy a little taste. Raccoons certainly do.

Raccoons eat pretty much anything. I mean, anything. Fruit, nuts, berries, corn, crawfish, snails, frogs, small snakes, eggs, baby birds, lizards, grubs, earthworms, insects. Oh, and garbage. Yum.

Raccoons do so well in the city partly because they have no predators here, other than the occasional rogue dog. Sadly, two Central Park raccoons tested positive for rabies this week, bringing Manhattan’s 2009 rabid raccoon total to four. Since Manhattan usually has no rabies at all, this is disturbing news.

New York squirrels were also predator-free for years, but those days are gone. Red-tail hawks are back, living and breeding all over the city, including in Riverside Park, and what they really like to eat is rodents. Of which there is never a shortage in New York City. So rats and squirrels, watch your backs.

A Riverside Park Red-tail rests a minute.

No one in New York eats red-tails or any of the other big raptors at the top of their food chain. Like the peregrine falcons that thrive on formerly predator-free pigeons, or the Great Horned Owl, a rodenticide-on-wings, that showed up in Central Park in November. I recently dissected an owl pellet and found tiny mouse bones. Astonishing. More on NYC owls in a future post.

Great Horned Owl; photo by Zest-pk

So, from squirrels to nuts, that’s what’s on the menu this week in New York City parks.

Squirrel Update: The Drey Report

December 8, 2009

Special Note: This post is now part of Scientia Pro Publica 21: Darwin’s 201st Birthday Edition. Scientia Pro Publica is a bi-monthly blog carnival dedicated to science writing that communicates to the public. Check it out! And now…The Drey Report:

Bare branches reveal dreys in Riverside Park. We counted five dreys in the Forever Wild stretch that runs between 119th Street and 116th, and six between 116th and 108th.

“That’s great,” you say. “But what’s a drey?”

See those brown blobs way up in the trees? Those are dreys. Squirrel nests.

“Huh. They don’t look like much.”

Maybe not, from the ground. But inside, inside, it’s a whole other story. At least, that’s what I hear. Lined with moss, lichen, fur and feathers, dreys are soft, inviting baskets for squirrels to spend cold winter days and nights. Some dreys even have separate compartments. At least, that’s what the Urban Park Rangers, Sunny and Sheridan, told me. I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I’m guessing it’s something like a Manhattan studio apartment.

500 Square Feet of NYC Bliss

Anyway, summer dreys are loose collections of leaves and twigs, not built to last. But winter dreys, tucked securely into a fork in a tree, will withstand wind and weather.They’re high enough to be safe from ground predators, but not all the way at the top where a marauding hawk could swoop down.

Savvy squirrels maintain more than one home. That way, they can move when a nest gets wet or infested with parasites like ticks, fleas or mites. All the research says squirrels prefer tree hollows, especially in winter, but I have yet to see any tree hollow action.

The retaining wall, on the other hand, is like an animal apartment building.

No vacancy

Squirrel with entries to right and left.

Raccoon peeks out of hole at night.

Raccoons take the big apartments and squirrels squeeze into the studios.

The squirrels come and go all day, zipping in and out of holes, up and down the wall.

And at night, when the squirrels have finally gone to sleep, the raccoons emerge slowly, like jazz musicians, to start their day in the dark.

Polar Bears Run Wild in Coney Island

December 1, 2009

On a mild clear day on the last Sunday in November, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club meets for their weekly swim in the Atlantic Ocean.

Polar Bear Club

A first-time observer estimates Sunday’s polar bear population at roughly 25-30, including a couple of bear cubs.

A new bear heads for the sea.

When an inexperienced bear complains of aching in the feet and shins. Capri, a knowledgeable polar bear, says sagely, “Everyone’s different. Me, I come out when my feet start to tingle. Because after the tingling, the feeling stops. You can stay in forever then. That’s how I got a little frost nip one time.”

Bears return from the sea.

Polar bears cavort. Lovely.




Wise bear keeps circulation flowing.

After learning about membership from Club V.P. Tony, it’s time to wander the boardwalk.

Coney Islander soaks up last November rays in a cozy corner.

Handball is big among island natives, who wield bare mitts like tightly strung rackets.

Power hitters

Below, an invigorated, if slightly chilled, polar bear poses for a portrait.

Two happy burger men

The rides are closed, and the quiet structures are beautiful.

The Parachute Jump

Watch for more on Coney Island’s polar bears in future posts.

Journey North: Beyond Manhattan’s Easter Island

November 13, 2009

On a long walk north on a gray day, Esau and I see an amazing group of stone sculptures down by the river. The sculptor carefully, skillfully, balanced rocks of all shapes and sizes to create this community of shapes:


Easter Island on the Hudson


Stones contemplate the Hudson.


Balancing act

Strange and magical.

Further along, we pass a man standing on a flat stone, moving slowly in a prayerful manner:


We see driftwood sculptures:


and a tepee, much like the mysterious park tepees of several weeks ago


Esau sits by tepee and gazes at the Hudson.

At the Harlem Piers, we walk out onto the river.  We look east to the Heights:


Seagull flying past Riverside Church

We look south along the coastline:


Downtown in the distance

We look north towards Canada:


George Washington Bridge

Leaving the river behind, we push north up 12th Avenue, where we find a big dog guarding a restaurant at 135th Street in the shadow of the viaduct:


Big Dog/Little Dog

We climb the huge stone steps that lead to the viaduct, and head for home.

Esau on the Move

Esau on the move

The trip south is for another post.


November 1, 2009

A little after 4:30 this afternoon, inside Riverside Park and just north of the 108th Street entrance, Esau and I spy three little faces all in a row, peeping out at us from a hole in the great wall:  Raccoons!


Raccoons on Riverside Park wall. You can just make out raccoons on the ledge outside their den. Thanks to the nice soccer player for the photo.

They stare. They wrestle. They stare.

Dusk comes down fast and they seem restless. Probably hungry.

They venture out onto a ledge at the mouth of the den – a mother and two babies. A fourth little face appears, but stays behind.

The mother can’t decide what to do. She leads the babies up the wall. Stops. Leads the babies down the wall. Stops. She’s wary of us, and the other dog walkers and soccer players gathered to gawk.

She hustles her babies into a second hole, and waits. It’s almost too dark now to see the raccoons, camouflaged against the gray wall. My fellow gawkers leave the park, except Jay and his little dog, Chase.


A different NYC raccoon family. Possibly raccoons from outer space. Photo by Striatic: (Sadly, my cell phone camera is pretty useless on wildlife.)

Mom is on the move again. She leads the babies not up, not down, but horizontally across the wall. It’s not easy, especially for the little guys.

Wherever the stone bricks form a ledge, the trio goes on all fours. But in narrower places, they stand straight up on their hind legs, faces to the wall, hold on with their front paws, and edge along sideways, inch by inch, looking like small humans in lumpy fur suits.

The third baby never leaves the den. I wonder if the mother will bring it something to eat.

By 5:30 it’s too dark to stay in the park. I hate the shortening days. I hate the loss of daylight saving time. I hate the approach of winter’s stunted afternoons and endless nights.

But I saw raccoons in the early dusk!  And now I know where they live.

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