Archive for the ‘Squirrels’ category

Black Squirrels in Washington Square Park

September 30, 2013
Black Squirrel in Washington Square Park

Black Squirrel in Washington Square Park

Long-time readers may recall my quest to find one of New York City’s black squirrels, and my thrill when I finally came across a black squirrel in Washington Square Park. Since that day, I now see the Washington Square black squirrels pretty much every time I head down that way.

Looking north from W. 4th Street, as I cross Sixth Avenue.

Looking north, as I head east on W. 4th Street across Sixth Avenue.

Walking east on West 4th Street, I usually find the squirrels foraging alongside their gray relatives in a narrow strip of green that runs next to the sidewalk.


Last Thursday, I spotted this small, extremely active fellow.


He was rarely still, so it was hard to get a photograph that is not a blur of motion. Nearby, a large gray squirrel dug beneath a fallen leaf for something tasty. (Look at those pink ears.)


On the northern edge of the strip, another nervous little black squirrel appeared.


And then I noticed, at the easternmost part of the green, a bulky bear of a black squirrel. I mean, this was one big squirrel.


When the squirrel sat up on its haunches, I saw right away that she was probably a nursing mother, or had just weaned a litter.


Big Mama sat up a long time.


Then she foraged under a nearby leaf.


She found a nut, and sat up to eat.


I left her to her dinner. Nearby a lovely gray squirrel struck a pose.


Morningside Park: Sunbathing Turtles, Molting Mallards, Feral Cats

June 21, 2013

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All the rain we’ve had recently means the animals in Morningside Park are living the lush life.


Green, green and greener.

And the sunshine brings out sunbathers.

Turtle pile-up.

Turtle pile-up.

Turtles are everywhere, on the rocks and in the water.

Female mallard and turtles.

Female mallard and turtles.

Today, mallards and turtles are the dominant species in the little pond.

Cooling off.

Cooling off.

Now that the excitement of breeding season is over, male mallards are molting into eclipse plumage. Drab feathers replace the brilliant iridescence of breeding plumage.

Molting mallard.

Molting mallard.

Not every bird is on the same schedule. The head and neck of the duck below glitters and shines, although he is well into his molt.


Still breaking out the bling.

Each year during their molt, ducks lose their flight feathers, rendering them especially vulnerable to ground predators. What ground predators, you may wonder, do ducks have to worry about here in our urban park? Well, feral cats, dogs off the leash and, possibly, raccoons. Morningside Park’s feral cats have been more visible than ever this past winter and spring.

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It’s no coincidence that someone is regularly feeding the cats.


The spot for the feedings is right by the great stone staircase, on the cliff behind the pond. The pond and its surrounding vegetation draw nesting ducks as well as sparrows, cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, robins, night herons, egrets and many other species. The cats are beautiful animals, and I understand the impulse to care for them. I understand trapping, neutering, vaccinating, and releasing them. But feeding them? Given what we now know about the devastation to North American songbirds since cats were established in the New World, do we really want to be feeding them?

We know a lot about the negative impacts of feeding wildlife, and I was happy to see these signs in Morningside Park.

Please Don't Feed Waterfowl.

Please Don’t Feed Waterfowl.

The signs address intentional feeding. But inadvertent feeding, in the form of trash and dropped food, is what keeps our rodent population so healthy – and I’m not just talking about squirrels, like the one below.


Squirrels don’t need bakery rolls.

Our urban ecosystem works best without hand-outs. Let them forage for themselves.


Douglas Squirrel in Garden Bay, British Columbia

April 30, 2013

One of my favorite easily-observed creatures in British Columbia is the Douglas squirrel, sometimes called the chickaree.


Much smaller than New York City’s hefty Eastern gray squirrels, the Douglas is a tree squirrel found from California to the southern British Columbia coast.


Like most squirrels, it uses its front paws quite charmingly to hold nuts and other food. There’s just something about its small size, big eyes, and overall demeanor that give it the look of a storybook character.


Douglas squirrels eat primarily the seeds of the coniferous trees that abound in this area: Douglas firs, of course, but also Sitka spruce and pines. Like the Eastern gray and many other squirrels, they are scatter hoarders, burying seeds or entire pine cones in various spots. But unlike the Eastern gray, Douglas squirrels have no cheek pouches for holding food.


They have high-pitched voices that pierce the forest, and sound remarkably like a bird. On several occasions, I scanned tree limbs, trying to determine what bird was so persistently peeping, only to discover that I was being yelled at by a squirrel.

Below is a fascinating two-minute sound clip from NPR’s “Bird Notes” on the Douglas squirrel. Just click the arrow to play:

The little fellow In these photographs hung out near the pedestrian bridge that connects the harbor to Garden Bay Road. Below you may be able to make out the squirrel perched on the fence rail to the right of the tree.


It was often seen in the company of a golden-crowned sparrow.


The two seemed to be masters of their own bathing and drinking pool.


We humans, however, need more sustenance than pine cones and water, or even wildlife sightings. Tearing myself away from the little animals, I crossed the bridge.


Soon I was happily drinking coffee and eating breakfast at Laverne’s Grill.


Ahhhh. Repletion.


Back outside, bald eagles soared overhead (more on them soon).


And the little squirrel went about its squirrely business.


Black Squirrel in NYC

March 25, 2013


 A year ago, I went hunting for black squirrels in Central Park, but to no avail. Then in  January,  I finally spotted one as I walked along the south side of Washington Square Park. It was dusk and I only had my iPhone, so the photos I took that evening are blurry, as you can see below.


Last week, I was again walking along the south side of Washington Square, keeping my eyes open for a black squirrel.  I watched a fat robin for a while.


And then I saw a solitary black squirrel, sitting on a bench with a snack.


The squirrel soon hopped down into a little clearing, where it joined the robin and a gray squirrel.


The black squirrel seemed to be keeping the gray on its toes. Several times it dashed toward the gray, making it run.


Black squirrels have a bizarre anecdotal reputation for being more aggressive than grays. This is peculiar, since black squirrels are grays. They are not a separate species, but a color morph of Sciuris carolinensis, the Eastern gray squirrel. Yet there seems to be a belief that along with the color mutation has come a personality shift. In the UK, where gray squirrels are considered an invasive species, both grays and blacks are reviled for causing a worrisome decline in the population of native red squirrels. The larger gray squirrel out-competes the red squirrel for habitat and has infected it with “squirrel pox,” a disease for which the red has no immunity.

But black squirrels commonly seen as aggressive even to gray squirrels. It does seem to be true that the population of black squirrels in the UK is growing faster than that of the gray squirrel, but scientists have no clear answer for why this should be. Researchers have begun assembling a black squirrel DNA data base to  to try to learn more.

Meanwhile, I’m simply thrilled to watch this beautiful little animal.


Top Five Posts of 2012

December 30, 2012

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

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

Delmarva Fox Squirrel, photo by Mary Shultz.

Delmarva Fox Squirrel. Photo: Mary Shultz.

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

Photo: WCBV

Photo: WCBV

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

Boston Globe.

Boston Globe.

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

Photo courtesy of Gigi A.

Photo courtesy of Gigi A.

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

And the most-read post written in 2012 is …

Flying Point Beach. Photo: Andrew Cooper

Flying Point Beach. Photo: Andrew Cooper

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

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


Readers’ Tales of Urban Wildlife, Final Installment

December 22, 2012

Esau the dog is an avid squirrel watcher.

Esau watches squirrels.

Esau watches squirrels.

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

Squirrel watches Esau.

Squirrel watches Esau.

ready to approach, or

A few kissing noises draw a curious squirrel.

A few kissing noises draw a curious squirrel.

ready to run.


On the ready.

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

Games with Squirrels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature in a New York Minute
Our Urban Jungle

Disappearing Animals: 50 Shades of Brown

December 2, 2012

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

Water tower in the mist.

Water towers in the mist.

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

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

50 shades of brown.

50 shades of brown.

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

Invisible birds fill the air with song.

Invisible birds fill the air with song.

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

Sparrows disappear into the branches.

Sparrows disappear into the branches.

Here is one, now.

Sparrow like a flying leaf.

Sparrow like a chirping leaf.

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

The white of the tail gives this squirrel away.

The white of the tail gives this squirrel away.

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

From a distance, he disappears.

From a distance, he almost disappears.

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

Rodentine potentate.

Rodentine potentate.

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

Sunset over the Hudson

Sunset over the Hudson

After Nor’Easter in Riverside Park

November 8, 2012

A squirrel contemplates the heavy wet snow that blanketed New York City last night.

The New York Times reported 4.5 inches in Central Park. But by the time I got outside this morning at 8:30, the roadways were clear and building supers were hosing off the sidewalks.

Broadway islands are still snowy.

No need to salt the streets, for which Esau and all city dogs are most grateful.

The wind must have whipped off the Hudson, since trees just west of Riverside Park were coated with snow only on the westward-facing side.

Riverside Park shows a bizarre mix of leafy green trees and snow.  That’s the Hudson River peeking through the trees, and beyond is New Jersey, which reportedly received 12 inches of snow in some unfortunate places.

Esau the dog and I took these steps down to the upper path.

Looking further down to the wide promenade and the river still further below, you can see why we who live up here in Morningside Heights are safe from flooding.

We looked north along the upper path as elements of three seasons mingled: the green leaves of late summer, the colored leaves and bare limbs of late fall, and the snow of mid-winter.

As ever, dogs were delighted with the change in weather.

Sparrows were unfazed.

In fact, a conflagration of sparrows (thank you, Dr. John, for the felicitous coinage) seemed happy to forage among leaves and seeds knocked from the trees.

A lone squirrel seemed to enjoy bounding along the snowy top of the retaining wall.

He headed first this way.

Then that way.

Look at the green leaves on one side, rust on the other.

Then … oops.

See ya.

Thinking of Wildlife As The Hurricane Nears

October 29, 2012

Let’s sit and talk and talk. It’s so nice, so warm and cozy here. Listen to the wind. There’s something in Turgenev – “On such a night, happy he who has a roof over his head and a warm corner of his own.” I’m a sea gull… No, that’s not what I mean. I’m sorry. What was I saying? Oh, yes, Turgenev. “And may the Lord help homeless wanderers.”

The Sea Gull by Anton Chekhov
(English Version by Jean-Claude Van Itallie)

Nina’s lines from Act Four of The Sea Gull often spring to my mind in the anticipatory hours before a big storm. Scientists say that most storms have relatively little effect on wildlife at the species level, meaning a bad storm, even if it destroys many individual animals, is unlikely to permanently affect populations of species. But thanks to anthropogenic climate change, we’re now seeing an increase in the number of “severe weather events,” from storms to droughts to seasonal changes that, taken together, are already affecting some species. Still my thoughts in a storm are not about the fate of a species, but about the suffering of individuals, animal and human.

Luckily for our local wildlife, Hurricane Sandy is arriving well past nesting season. Most of our young animals are on their own by now, and many birds have already migrated south. NYC’s resident wildlife will probably do pretty well, over all. The raccoons of Riverside Park should be safe in their retaining wall.

Songbirds will hunker down, lock their toes onto a protected branch, hold their feathers tight against their bodies, point themselves in the direction of the wind, and hold on for dear life as the wind blows past and the rain pelts down.

Feathers can effectively seal out water.

As long as the branch survives, the birds probably will, too. Cavity nesters, like owls and woodpeckers, are even better protected, tucked into natural holes in tree trunks. And squirrels, too, will find a hole in a tree or in the retaining wall, or they’ll burrow into their dreys, thick nests of leaves that they build high in the trees.

If their tree withstands the storm, these creatures will emerge when wind and rain abate to fluff their fur and feathers, and search for food.

Migrating birds are more vulnerable. Exhausted by their travels, their energy reserves depleted, they must find food and shelter wherever they may be. Migrating birds may be blown hundreds of miles off course. Songbirds may be blown out into open sea where they can find no shelter or rest, while pelagic birds may be blown inland.

What may be a disaster for birds – being blown far from their native habitat – offers thrills for birders, who rush out into the aftermath of a storm to search for rare vagrants they might otherwise never encounter.

Tonight in New York City, the wind is starting to gust, although the storm is still hours away. I look out at the strangely quiet streets from my cozy apartment, and hope that all creatures find shelter from tomorrow’s storm.

NYC October Animal Round-up

October 27, 2012

In early October, a cat and a man dressed in shades of green emerged out of the still-green leaves along Riverside Park.

walking the cat

Just out walking the cat.

The cat was completely calm and walked well on its long leash, unfazed by Esau the dog and other fascinated canines.

cat on leash

Walking the wall with kitty.

The man said he had started leash-training when the cat was still a kitten. He would head to Riverside Drive at 3 in the morning when the streets were quiet. Days passed, and they stayed out later and later into the morning as the city woke up, until the cat gradually became accustomed to the hustle and bustle of traffic, dogs, people and the rest of the urban hubbub. They are an impressive pair.

The man tries to get the cat to pose for a picture, but it has other plans.

Also on Riverside Drive, well-camouflaged sparrows filled the branches of a baby tree.

sparrows nyc

A sparrow tree.

Here’s a closer look.

A gathering of sparrows.

We paid a quick visit to the “Forever Wild” section of the park, where migrating warblers and nuthatches abounded.

dog and forever wild sign

Esau is forever wild.

Leaving the park, we crossed one of the islands, or medians, of Broadway, where we discovered a tiny corpse.

monarch butterfly corpse

A tiny corpse on Broadway

We bent to take a closer look. It was a monarch butterfly, looking as beautiful as ever, but with a strange yellow substance coming out of its underside. Are monarch guts bright yellow? I was not able to find any answers to this question, so, my trusty reader, please tell me, if you know.

monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly on Broadway.

Further down Broadway, a man sat on a barbershop pony, while talking with a friend.

NYC barbershop

Just another bit of Broadway.

Over at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, a squirrel hung upside down to gorge on berries.

squirrel hanging upside down

Upside down at the Cathedral.

We watched the little animal for at least five minutes, during which it remained upside down, calmly reaching for berries with its paws and nibbling away, as if this was its usual position in the world.

Eating berries behind the Cathedral.

  Two brightly colored animals walked the grounds of the Cathedral.

pink and blue

Two lovely creatures (well, four, counting the pigeons at the left).

We went back to Riverside Park at dusk, this time descending the steps into the park.  A raccoon lounged in the mouth of its den high in the retaining wall.

raccoon at its den

Raccoon gets ready to start its day at dusk.

A mother gazed at the raccoon, while her child gazed at Esau, tied to the chain link fence.

Raccoons high on the wall; mother and child below.

The sun went down, and the raccoon began its nocturnal prowl with a walk on the wall. Raccoons sometimes walk the wall on all fours.

Riverside Park raccoon

A walk on the wild side of the wall.

At other times they stand erect, looking like bulky little mannikins edging along a high ledge.

Raccoon does its “man on a ledge” impression.

When it got too dark to follow the raccoon’s progress easily, we went home where Esau took his stuffed dog to bed.

dog and his toy


Hot Town, NYC

September 4, 2012

Minnie Mouse sells flavored ices on 109th Street.

It’s the day after Labor Day, and even this hot summer is drawing to a close.  The air is thick and heavy today as what’s left of Hurricane Isaac passes us.  And I’m thinking about summer in the city.

The way the colors are brighter than at any other time of year.

Remember when manikins (and womanikins) faced front, even in tight pants?

The way Amsterdam Avenue comes alive in the heat.

Caribbean blues on Amsterdam Avenue.

Girls in bright colors pass in front of a meat market on Amsterdam and 107th Street.

Another block, another meat market, this one on Amsterdam between 108th and 109th.

On 108th Street, a prayer meeting closes the street.

Hold hands or raise them high, bodies swaying.

Over on Broadway, too, August colors shimmer.

Famous Famiglia offers Italian ices in the summer.

On 59th Street, a plumed carriage horse was working hard, maybe too hard.

Carriage horse passes children on their way into Central Park.

Animals of all species need to slow down, cool down, and take it easy.


Esau rests by tiny blue flowers.


Lazy Boy squirrel.


Through gular fluttering, a form of panting, birds can cool their bodies.


Beneath the parasol, amid an array of stuff, a person dozes.

And cats.

Why we have benches.

The cat pictured in the above photo isn’t just any tabby.  It’s the (locally) famous Samad’s Gourmet cat,

Samad’s Gourmet on Broadway.

a very cool kitty, well known on the street, who is not above moonlighting in record sales.

Would you buy a used record from this cat?

But the photo just above was taken in cooler days, in the middle of winter, when a working cat doesn’t mind a little extra responsibility.  Mid-summer is a whole other story.

“So chill in the heat I can barely breathe.”

But perhaps the cat comes alive on a summer night, as the Lovin’Spoonful classic has it:

Cool cat lookin’ for a kitty
Gonna look in every corner of the city,

Ah, let’s just let the Spoonful tell it:

The Endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel

June 4, 2012

Endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel. Photo: Mary Shultz.

My friend Mary had a thrilling experience earlier this month when she spotted this Delmarva fox squirrel on her property on the eastern shore of Maryland.

Beautiful. Photo: Mary Shultz

You don’t know what a Delmarva fox squirrel is? Well, I didn’t either. In fact, not only had I never heard of Delmarva Fox squirrels, I had never heard of Delmarva until Mary called with her big news. The word incorporates the shorthand  for Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and refers to a large peninsula that runs along the eastern shore of the three states.

Delmarva Peninsula. Image:

The Delmarva Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus) is an endangered subspecies of fox squirrels (Sciurus niger). Its range once included southern portions of the border states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but it is now confined to Delmarva. So perhaps it’s not surprising that even though Mary grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland, she had never seen one. She described it as unmistakeable: huge (well, for a squirrel) and slower moving than Eastern gray squirrels, a pale silver in color with a lovely white belly, small ears and an enormous fluffy tail.  In fact, at three pounds and 30 inches long, Delmarva fox squirrels are easily twice the size of an average Eastern gray squirrel and a third larger than the Eastern fox squirrels I used to watch in Texas.

Delmarva Fox squirrel with an Eastern Gray squirrel. Photo: Mary Shultz.

Three pounds may not sound like much, but it makes for one hefty rodent.

The Delmarva Fox Squirrel is the biggest tree squirrel in North America.  Here’s the squirrel climbing up a large tree, its long tail pouring down behind.

Jumbo squirrel. Photo: Mary Shultz.

The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern shore has the largest native population of Delmarva fox squirrels. Here’s a video from Blackwater NWR of a gorgeous gray Delmarva Fox squirrel foraging for food. While it’s hard to get a sense of the size without another animal for comparison, you can clearly see the shape of the head, the stumpy ears and the long tail.  The squirrel also seems less twitchy than its smaller cousins, flowing quite gracefully over the ground.

Loss of habitat due to logging and development is the primary cause of population decline for the Delmarva squirrel, as it is for so many animals.

Nibbling. Photo: Mary Shultz.

Mary’s squirrel returned to the yard every day, sometimes twice a day, for a couple of weeks before disappearing. Mary and her husband also saw the squirrel feeding with a smaller Delmarva fox squirrel, leading them to suspect that she had been raising young nearby and that her companion was one of her babies.

Delmarva Fox Squirrel on the alert. Photo: Mary Shultz.

On a rainy day, the squirrel seemed to be using its tail as an umbrella, something I’ve read about but never seen.

Multi-purpose tail. Photo: Mary Shultz.

The squirrel hasn’t been spotted for some time now, and has probably moved on to a new foraging site. Hope she returns soon.

So long, pretty squirrel. Photo: Mary Shultz.

Back to Blogging, Catching Up on Spring

May 31, 2012

In the two months since I last posted at Out Walking the Dog, I’ve spent time in Texas, northern Michigan and eastern Long Island as well as here at home in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights.  I’m back now and ready to blog. Soon I’ll write about what I saw in Dallas,

White Rock Lake, Dallas, Texas

Traverse City,

Traverse City, Michigan

and the south fork of Long Island.

Mecox Bay, Long Island, NY

  But first I want to catch up with a look at early spring here on my Morningside Heights home turf, back in early April before the trees leafed out. Riverside Park’s great retaining wall is an object of great beauty in all seasons as well as a terrific place to watch animals, including humans.

Here is the wall in late afternoon on one of the first days of April, when the trees were still mostly bare of leaves.

An Eastern gray squirrel, lit by the sun, ventures near the entrance to the raccoon den.  The raccoons, which keep the animal equivalent of jazzman hours, probably won’t be stirring for another hour or two.

At the top of the wall, against a tangle of soon-to-leaf branches, another squirrel discusses life with a young woman.

A man gazes out across the Hudson,

while a young mother and her baby enjoy the daffodils below.

A robin with his breast afire forages at the bottom of the wall.

And high above, the moon glides through the still blue sky.

Hunting for Central Park’s Black Squirrels

January 24, 2012

UPDATE, March 2012: I finally succeed in spotting one of New York City’s lovely black squirrels. Not in Central Park but in Washington Square Park: Black Squirrel in NYC.

A fellow nature lover recently told me of seeing a black squirrel repeatedly in the northern end of Central Park.

Black squirrel in Central Park. Photo courtesy of Gigi A.

The squirrel usually seen in NYC parks is the Eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensus. Eastern grays love hardwood forests that provide them with acorns, berries, bark, insects and tree buds. In the old days, before the virgin forests of the east were cleared, it was said that a squirrel could travel the entire east coast in the treetops, without ever touching ground.

And travel Gray squirrels did, and sometimes, perhaps, still do. Audubon and other early American naturalists called it the Migratory squirrel for its mass migrations through the trees, which Charles Joseph Latrobe described in 1811:

“A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being, left their reckless and gambolling life, and their ancient places of retreat in the north, and were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and sober phalanx to the South …”

Other nineteenth century writers describe Gray squirrel migrations that lasted up to four weeks and involved hundreds of thousands of animals.

Today’s Gray squirrels live in whatever wilderness remains to us, while also thriving in the suburbs and in urban parks. Black squirrels, according to most researchers, are a melanistic color morph, or variation, of the Gray squirrel, the color resulting from an excess of melanin, a dark pigmentation.  Essentially, black squirrels are simply black Grays.

I’d heard of black squirrel populations in other parts of NYC, including Union Square Park and the grounds of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. City parks can be like islands, separated by streets instead of water, where inbreeding leads to swift manifestation of unusual genetic traits, including melanism. Was a nascent population of black squirrels emerging in Central Park? I decided to go squirrel hunting.

The morning glowed with sunlight that failed to warm.

Central Park boulder sporting icicles.

Despite the bitter cold, someone appeared to be meditating on a point of land that jutted out into the still-unfrozen Pool, the little pond at 101st Street.

A peaceful moment.

A mixed flock of ducks paddled about, and a few came over to see if I was offering food. (I wasn’t.)

Who gets the girl?

The stretched-out neck of one of the male Mallards is a behavior called ‘steaming’ and is one of many Mallard courtship displays. The ducks are already pairing up in preparation for spring nesting.

Across the Pool, Buffleheads, a particularly adorable duck species, dove and surfaced, flashing their big white heads and sides.

Quick-diving ducks: Now you see them, now you don’t.

Buffleheads, like scaup, mergansers and canvasbacks, are diving ducks, capable of swimming underwater to feed, while Mallards, like American wigeons, teals and shovelers, are dabbling ducks, tipping up their tails to feed with their heads underwater. Mallard ducklings regularly dive underwater to avoid predators, although duckling predators also include water dwellers, like snapping turtles and fish.

But I digress. A good walk makes for many digressions. I resumed my hunt for the black squirrel, heading south  through the park all the way down to 89th Street.

Along the way, I saw a huge flock of Common grackles.  (Birder friends, these are grackles and not some kind of blackbird, yes?)

Just a small corner of a much larger flock.

The flock was accompanied – or, perhaps, infiltrated – by a solitary bluejay.

One thing is not like the others.

I saw perfect squirrel hideouts.

Anyone in there?

I saw squirrel dreys, or nests, including this one high in a tree.

Apartment with 360-degree view

And, inevitably, I saw squirrels. Just a few, due to the cold, and all of them normal Grays, like this little fellow in the fork of a tree.

Gray squirrel keeps an eye on the passing world.

So I’m still looking for my first black squirrel.

When I returned home, I discovered that while I was traipsing the Park’s north end, a black squirrel had been hanging out down at the southern end, near Wollman Rink.

Black and Gray, just chillin.’  Photo by Gigi A.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned from a favorite naturalist in England that across the Big Pond, in the U.K., black squirrels are a source of serious controversy.  All Gray squirrels are considered an invasive species there, as they drive out the native red squirrel population. But there’s something about black Grays that … well, more on black squirrels in a future post. Meanwhile, do let me know if you see any unusual squirrels around your neck of the woods.

NYC First Snow of 2012

January 22, 2012

Snow poured down on the city early yesterday morning.

Huge white flakes quieted the traffic

and veiled the water towers from view.

In Riverside Park, sledders of all sizes gathered at the 108th Street slope.

Looking north, the retaining wall took on a ghostly appearance.

When we started our walk, snow was still coming down and the park was strangely quiet with no animals to be seen and no birds singing. Where were they all?

The raccoons were probably nestled all snug in their den.

But look! The snow is stopping, and a solitary squirrel comes out to forage, almost disappearing into the snow.

Gray squirrels are made for winter camouflage,

as is this mixed flock of sparrows and junkos. The little birds vanish into snow and bare branches.

Fluttering into a more open space, one bird seems to be looking for something he’s lost, burrowing deep into the snow until only his tail shows.

Soon I’ll write more about urban animals in winter.

But now, it’s time to continue our walk. Esau’s waiting.

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