Posted tagged ‘urban 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

Winter World: Animals in Red

February 17, 2014
Winter world.

Winter world.

As the dog and I step off the sidewalk into a narrow path dug between snow mounds at the corner of Broadway and 108th Street, the sound of distant honking stops me in my tracks. Not the usual traffic sounds of Broadway, but the calls of wild geese. I shade my eyes and look up in time to see a large flock of Canada geese – an uneven, dark V, followed closely by a long single line – disappearing to the southwest over the solid old apartment buildings of Riverside Drive. “Oh,” I say out loud, struck by beauty.

At the top of the stone staircase that leads into Riverside Park, the dog pauses to show off his red shoes.

The red shoes: Dance, little dog, dance.

The red shoes: Dance, little dog, dance.

We descend the staircase, and enter the white winter world of a snowy city park. Everything is strangely quiet.

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Central Park after a snowfall.

Only a couple of dogs are playing in the 105th Street dog run.

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Down by the river, a solitary runner runs.

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But where are the rest of the animals?

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We retrace our steps to the path above, where a squirrel scoots across the top of the snow and leaps onto a tree trunk.

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The little creature leaves behind a scribble-scrabble of footprints in the snow, the record of many such forays out of the safety of the trees. Three crows call from the top of the plane trees, then fly, one at a time, out of the park toward Riverside Drive. Two house sparrows chirp.

And that’s it. No hawks, no juncos, no woodpeckers, no robins, no flocks of sparrows, no chickadees, no titmice. Where is everyone?

And then we hear a high-pitched call: “Tsip, tsip, tsip.”

Winter’s bare branches make it easy to find the caller: a female cardinal, perched in a tangle of branches beneath the retaining wall. Although I usually see cardinals in pairs, today the brilliantly colored male is nowhere to be seen.  The lovely bird kept just outside the range of my iPhone, so here is a photo from last winter of two females picking up spilled seed beneath a bird feeder on eastern Long Island.

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The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) stays with us year-round, and even in the depths of winter, the male keeps his brilliant plumage. (Thank you, Rob Pavlin, for the beautiful photo below.)

Cardinal in Central Park by Rob Pavlin

Cardinal in Central Park. Photo: Rob Pavlin

Cardinals are particularly stunning against a snowy background, but they’re gorgeous birds in any season.

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Cardinal in autumn in Central Park’s Conservatory Gardens. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Just look at that red.

Cardinal in Central Park, early winter 2012. Photo: Rob Pavlin.

You don’t often see animals in winter sporting such flashy colors.

Still, it’s not unheard of, is it?

The red shoes.

The red shoes ride the elevator home.

This post is for Nick and Zuri.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Squirrels don’t need bakery rolls.

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

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Urban Nature Contest Winner!

December 19, 2012

Out Walking the Dog is pleased to announce that Megan Draheim of Washington, D.C. is the winner of our first Urban Nature Contest.

The entry was selected at random with the help of, who else, the dog.

Esau and a batch of contest entries.

Esau with a few contest entries.

Megan is a wildlife biologist who works on the social dimensions of conservation biology with a special interest in urban biodiversity and human-wildlife conflict.  Her doctoral research focused on social conflict over coyotes in suburban Denver. Megan writes the blog Our Urban Jungle. Here is her description of nocturnal encounters with urban wildlife, often occasioned by having to walk the dogs:

It’s always nice to get a reminder of how lucky I am to live in an urban area that’s so rich with wildlife. Since many critters stay hidden during the day, some of my favorite sightings (and “hearings”) have been late (very late) at night, especially if I’m out walking dogs. For example, I never would have been out right after an ice storm at 1:30 in the morning if it weren’t for the dogs, but that’s how I saw my first wild coyote. We had been slipping-and-sliding up and down our hill on an abbreviated walk, and when I put them inside I went back out with some pet-friendly “salt” to lay down on our front walk. The dogs had pushed open the door and were watching me through the storm door, when suddenly their ears pricked up and they started to stare intensely at something behind me. I turned and saw this gorgeous coyote trotting up the hill across the street from our house — just gliding along effortlessly (as a reminder, the dogs and I had not been nearly as graceful trying to navigate the sidewalk moments before!).

Just a few nights ago I heard a red fox calling late at night (for those of you who have never heard a red fox, they can sound eerily like a woman screaming), and a month or two ago a red fox flew across the street in front of us, going from one wooded area behind some houses towards a park a few blocks away.

We’ve seen deer aplenty, of course — deer peeking out of neighbors’ backyards, deer grazing on front lawns, deer ambling across streets. And opossums and racoons. But my favorite late-night sightings are the wild predators who share our neighborhood. It’s a different way to experience urban wildlife, when they can take more ownership of the land than in the middle of the day when there are lots of people around. And it’s a reminder that we do share the land with them — it is theirs just as much as it is ours.

Thank you to everyone entered. The entries have been such a pleasure to read that I plan to share more of the stories over the course of the next day or two.

And congratulations, Megan. Your copy of Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York will go in the mail today. Enjoy!

Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York


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