Posted tagged ‘NYC nature’

White-Throated Sparrow Digs Up Central Park

April 25, 2014

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Rustle rustle rustle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, got that?

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

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

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Eastern chipmunk in Central Park.

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

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

Listen up.

Central Park Chipmunk

April 23, 2014

 

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Chipmunk in Central Park. Photo: Melissa Cooper

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

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

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

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

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Eastern chipmunk gives me the hairy eyeball.

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

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

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

Guess Who’s Coming to Lunch, Kestrel Edition

March 25, 2014
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Photo: Janet Rassweiler

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

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

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

But this little bird was no dove.

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Photo: Janet Rassweiler

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

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

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

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

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

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

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

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

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

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

What a world.

All photos in this post courtesy of Janet Rassweiler.

Urban Peacocks and Red-tails in Winter

December 9, 2013

Last night we saw tiny snowmen on the top of the retaining wall in Riverside Park.

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It wasn’t much of a snow, but it gave a mysterious look to the park at night.

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This morning in the drizzle, a Red-tail Hawk flew low over our heads as we were crossing Amsterdam Avenue. We tracked it as it soared into the animal gates that lead to the grounds of St. John the Divine.

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The hawk soared along the path of the grounds, then suddenly swooped upward. We found it perched with a second hawk towards the back of the cathedral.

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I have only my iPhone camera these days, so I can’t zoom in for a close look. But here it is with a slightly closer look.

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Moments later, as we continued to watch the hawks, Phil, the Cathedral’s white peacock, wandered past us, looking rather bedraggled.

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He was completely unfazed by a boisterous group of schoolkids who almost walked right into him as they came around the corner.

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Phil simply moved aside with no fuss or hurry.

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The dog, on the other hand, was definitely fazed by the sight of Phil. He moaned with frustration and strained at the leash.

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The poor fellow has been trying for a taste of peacock ever since he first encountered the three neighborhood peacocks five years ago.

Ah, well. We all have our dreams.

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Walking My Way From Wasps to Rats

December 7, 2013

On a recent walk in Riverside Park, the dog stopped to investigate a fallen wasp’s nest.

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The dog investigates.

What a beautiful little structure. Let’s take a closer look.

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Look, one little creature seems to have died in the process of crawling out of a hole. How strange.

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But who precisely built this nest? What kind of wasp? A hornet? A yellow jacket?

It’s been my experience that naturalists, both professional and amateur, are eager to share, expand and refine their knowledge about the world we live in, and interestingly, the technology of social media provides a swift and effective way to share knowledge. I sent out a query on Twitter, asking “Whose fallen nest is this in Riverside Park?”

Matthew of Backyard and Beyond quickly replied, “Paper wasp, probably Bald-face Hornet.”  Andrew of Urban Ecology and Science Research soon responded with a photo of a much larger, enclosed nest hanging from a tree at Storm King Art Center, saying he was seeing these hives all over.

Wasp nest at Storm King Art Center. Photo: Andrew Collins

Wasp nest at Storm King Art Center. Photo: Andrew Collins

Chris of Flatbush Gardener believes Andrew’s hive to belong to Bald-faced Hornets, adding: “More visible without leaves,” which I take to mean that the nests seem to be suddenly everywhere only because they are more visible now that the trees are growing bare.

And it’s true: one sees things differently when trees are bare. One also sees, quite literally, different things, including, perhaps, hornet’s nests. There may be fewer birds around in winter now that most of the migrants have moved on, but the ones that stay, from Northern cardinals to Red-tailed hawks, are easier to spot when they perch on leafless branches.

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Red-tail hawk overlooks Riverside Park.

Squirrels, too, have fewer places to hide. And if I may act for a moment as a squirrel real estate agent, I’d like to recommend a couple of deep and lovely tree holes as fine living quarters.

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Roomy studio apartments with unobstructed river views.

Non-living natural things – what ecologists call abiota – also emerge from obscurity in winter. The structure of the land, its slopes and cliffs, all hidden in summer by leafy trees, bushes and undergrowth, reveals itself.  And the Hudson River, seen in leaf-edged glimpses through much of the year, reclaims its place as a central feature of the far west side of the island.

Pointing the way to the Grant's Tomb National Parks Service Visitor's Center in Riverside Park around 123rd Street.

Pointing the way to the Grant’s Tomb National Parks Service Visitor’s Center in Riverside Park around 123rd Street.

After the leaves have fallen, plants too reveal surprises. In summer, the two bushy plants below appear to be a single solid and impenetrable mass of green, the shoots drooping like willow branches all the way to the ground. But in late fall and winter, a beautiful hiding place is revealed at their heart where an animal like a fox, if only Riverside Park were lucky enough to host a fox, might curl up undetected.

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The dog investigates.

The fallen leaves now cover the ground, obscuring its features and camouflaging small creatures. This seemingly empty patch of leaves was actually hopping with life, as junkos, house sparrows and squirrels scratched, dug and pecked for nuts and seeds.

Hidden animals.

Hidden animals.

Look. There goes one now.

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Deep leaves often bury natural structures, like exposed tree roots or rat holes. Or dogs.

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Leaves half-bury the dog.

Here the dog investigates a rat hole at the base of a tree. Who’s there?

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The dog investigates.

The other day, a naturalist friend, Kelly of Nature in a New York Minute, knowing my interest in rats, kindly brought me a NYC booklet with the elegant title, Preventing Rats on Your Property. I’ll write more about it some other time, but the fundamental message  is simple: “To control rats, you have to remove everything they need to survive: food, water, shelter and ways to get around.” My own block has seen a bit of a decrease in rat activity since a few once-slovenly neighbor buildings started better securing their trash and closing up burrows at the base of street trees. But even so, rats still run rampant in the area. On a brief late night walk a few days ago, the dog and I saw three rats within two blocks.

And remember, the rats you see are just the tip of the ratty iceberg; beneath the surface of the street live scores – or hundreds – of others.

But wait, how is it I am talking about rats? I was talking about leaves, wasn’t I, and how they veil and reveal natural structures. Or was I talking about changing seasons? Or ways of seeing? Or, no, it was about naturalists sharing information. Oh, I remember now, I was talking about a wasp’s nest. Yes, a wasp’s nest. And here we are at a rat’s nest.

Well, that’s the way it is when you go out on a ramble. Even when every walk starts and ends at the same place, as so many of mine do, you never know where the path will take you along the way.


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