Dia Nueve -- Adios Mis Amigos

(Well, all trips come to an end, and as I now post the last entry, I say farewell to Costa Rica -- for now....) This was our first "proper" trip to a place south of Texas (a couple cruise vacation stops don't count, now matter how adventurous we may have been).

We had heard that Costa Rica was incredible. That can't even describe the time we've had.

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I write this on el noche de dia ocho feeling a bit blue about our impending departure though we still have until the early afternoon to enjoy the region.

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On this last evening, I reflect not only on the wildlife, but also the people we've met. Expert naturalists like Raul and Roger, fantastic photographers like Juan, and Hobssee always ready with the field guide -- these were only some of the terrific people we met. All offered warmth and enthusiasm for the environment -- a consistent theme in this country that runs from mountains to rain forest to beach.

Pura vida mis amigos. We will see you again soon.

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Postscript:

This is the last of the several mornings we've been up at dawn (I seem to get more rest at home in the city that never sleeps!), with an alarm clock of birds and insects plus crowing roosters and a barking dog.

The final morning's list netted new species, bringing our total of new birds to over 100.

  • Hoffman's Woodpecker
  • Great Kisskadee
  • Scarlet Macaw
  • Blue-gray Tanager
  • Clay-colored Robin
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Great-tailed Grackle
  • Montezuma Oropendula
  • Blue-crowned (or turquoise browed?) mot mot
  • White-winged Dove
  • Palm Tanager
  • Rufous-naped Wren
  • Crimson-fronted parakeet
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Great Egret
  • Steely-vented Hummingbird
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Masked Tityra
  • Brown-hooded Parrot
  • Barred Hawk

And just 15 minutes before our car picked us up, a White-throated Magpie Jay.

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Hasta luego!

Dia Ocho -- Safari Night

(Costa Rica is months ago, but I am determined to have it stay in the forefront of my mind by spacing out blog posts!) We've moved from the very comfortable surroundings near Manuel Antonio and traded them for a cabin about 1 1/2 hours north along the coast outside the small town of Tárcoles.

Cerro Lodge

Here we found the Carara National Park (sadly, no time to explore) and the Tárcoles River with a fantastic river boat ride.

IMG_0030web    IMG_0164web

In eight days we've moved from cloud forest lodge to beach resort and have now entered the true safari part of the trip, complete with rustic (but as we found out, quite comfortable) cabins with their most unique open-air baño, sans an outside wall. The main building is the general lounge and "restaurant" with picnic tables. It's covered by a roof but without walls or screens  It's like camp!

IMG_2462web   IMG_9979web

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Upon arriving at our new digs we immediately set off for the aforementioned river boat tour. Another wonderful guide who was part of the tidal river's sizable clean-up efforts some years ago. What joy he must feel knowing that all the garbage pulled from this river (it had been essentially a dumping ground) was now home to so much wildlife including crocodiles and countless birds.

IMG_0290web   IMG_0318web

IMG_0150web   IMG_0113web

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As I wait for my hair to dry in the humid night air and enjoy a tasty dinner served up in Crockpots, I'm again amazed by the incredible spottings from the afternoon:

  • Magnificent Frigatebird
  • Anhinga
  • Wood Stork
  • White Ibis
  • Boat-billed Heron
  • Yellow-crowned Night Heron
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Snowy Egret
  • Great Egret
  • Tiger Heron
  • Green Heron
  • Northern Jacana
  • Black-necked Stilt
  • Whimbrel
  • Willet
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Creseted Caracara
  • Scarlet Macaw
  • Mangrove Swallow
  • Ringed Kingfisher
  • Green Kingfisher
  • Hoffman's Woodpecker
  • Tropical Kingbird
  • Rufous-naped Wren
  • Great-tailed Grackle
  • Blue-gray Tanager
  • Barn Sallow
  • Black-crowned Night Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • Clay-colored Robin
  • Fiery-billed Acari
  • Cinnamon Hummingbird

Plus, American Crocodile, Black Iguana, Green Iguana and Jesus Christ Lizard.

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Dia Siete -- Marathon Birding

In the mountains, birding started at 7am. But here in the tropics, the heat means an earlier start and we have now set a record -- present and accounted for at 6am! Roadside Hawk

Led by our new friend Roger, incredible naturalist (and former professional soccer player), we explored the 11 acres of this sustainably-managed hotel. By the time we were finished 3 1/2 hours later we couldn't believe that we spotted so much wildlife and lasted so long without breakfast!

Bananaquit   Pale-billed Woodpecker

The morning was so divine that we met Roger again for an early evening walk.

Sunset

Wonderful new amigo, mesmerizing birds. I see why Costa Rica is so special.

  • Black-hooded Ant Shrike
  • Palm Tanager
  • Spotted Woodcreeper
  • Pale-billed Woodpecker
  • Inca Dove
  • Groove-billed Ani
  • Boat-billed Flycatcher
  • Gray-necked Woodrail
  • Ferrigunous Pygmy Owl
  • Golden-hooded Tanager
  • Broad-winged Hawk
  • Short-tailed Hawk
  • Double-toothed Kite
  • Roadside Hawk
  • Tropical Kingbird
  • Great Kisskadee
  • Social Flycatcher
  • Brown Booby
  • Northern Oriole
  • Great-crested Flycatcher
  • Cherrie's Tanager
  • Bananaquit
  • Orange-chinned Parakeet
  • Yellow-crowned Euphonia
  • Blue-crowned Motmot
  • Fiery-billed Aracari
  • Western Kingbird
  • Blue-gray Tanager
  • Golden-naped Woodpecker
  • Red-legged Honeycreeper
  • Brown Pelican
  • Magnificent Frigatebird
  • Neotropical Cormorant
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Worm-eating Wrabler
  • Red-crowned Woodpecker
  • Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Costa Rican Swift
  • Streaked Flycatcher
  • Crimson-front Parakeet
  • Great-tailed Grackle
  • Pale-vented Pigeon
  • Yellow-crowned Euphonia
  • Dusky-capped Flycatcher
  • Yellow warbler

Other critters:

  • Jesus Christ Lizard (so named, according to Roger, because that's what you'll exclaim after bumping into this formabile reptile on a dark forest trail)
  • Two-toed Sloth
  • Black Iguana
  • White-faced Capuchin Monkey

Jesus Christ Lizard   Flycatcher species

Dia Seis -- Song of the Gecko

Night in the tropical wet forest (a climate just a few inches shy of being a full-fledged rain forest) differs from the cloud forest not only in temperature and air moisture but also in sound. Mountains feature subtle insect sound, while in the tropics, it's a cacophony. Insects sing through the night and birds call well before the sun rises and temperatures rise. But of all these calling creatures, I found the geckos most intriguing.

House Gecko

The first night I thought I was hearing raccoons chattering. It wasn't until dinner that the songsters became apparent -- House Geckos on the outdoor restaurant walls and ceiling bleated out territory warnings to each other while hunting for insect dinners.

House Gecko

In spite of the hotel's resident naturalist's warnings, we hiked through a portion of Manuel Antonio National Park. The naturalist was dead-right -- the park was quite crowded with weekend tourists and locals enjoying the beach and thus wildlife was at a minimum (looking forward to joining him for a walk tomorrow morning). Nevertheless, we enjoyed the walk and had a few nice animal sightings.  We left the Park in awe of how clean the beach and trails were in spite of the crowds -- until a raccoon family uncovered their lunch from a trash can.

White-faced Capuchin Monkey   Three-toed SlothThree-toed Sloth   Iguana   Lizard   SpiderRaccoons   Raccoons Crab   Crab

Dia Cuatro -- The Robin was Right

Raúl, our naturalist guide from the previous day, pointed out a particularly melodic trill from the Clay-colored Robin. Based on the song, one would understandably expect to see a stunner of a bird especially since it is the national bird of Costa Rica, yet the species is quite true to its common name with dull, brownish coloring, but at least sporting a regal shape. Clay-colored Robin   Clay-colored Robin

As Raúl explained, the robin became the national bird thanks to its talents as a barometer long before our current weather forecasts. The trill we were enjoying signaled rain and farmers of years gone by would use the song as a signal to sow seeds for the season's crops. Thanks to this helpful tendency, the Clay-colored Robin became a national symbol.

Based on the song we were enjoying, Raúl said rain would be arriving that afternoon, or perhaps the next day.

Mountain Flowers

Some afternoon clouds did not bring precipitation and when I awoke the next morning -- again at 5! -- the sky was cloudy but there was no sign of overnight rain. By breakfast, blue skies reigned.

While more than happy on a personal level about the conditions, I was disappointed. Could it be that the robin was wrong?

We spent the early part of the day on another 5 hour hike to a waterfall, improving our Costa Rican birding skills, and finally setting our eyes upon the trophy bird of the region -- the Resplendent Quetzal (in our case, views of both the male and female)!

Flame-colored Tanager   WarblerAmerican Dipper   Hummingbird   Damselfly - Costa Rica   Savegre River    Green Violet-ear   Slaty Flowerpiercer Blue-gray Tanager

This spotting was made possible by a sweet Quebecois couple and their 16 month-old baby enjoying a hike. During our chat, we learned that their hike -- only about a mile from the Lodge -- on the previous afternoon was cut short by rain.

Resplendent Quetzal

Ah, the climate of the mountains. Bottom line: the Robin was right.

Bird list for the day:

  • Black Vulture
  • Rufous-collared Sparrow
  • Respendent Quetzal
  • Chestnut-capped Brush Finch
  • American Dipper
  • Yellow-winged Vireo
  • Spangled-cheek Tanager
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Flame-throated Warbler
  • Gray-breasted Wood Wren
  • Torrent Tyrannulet
  • Silvery-throated Tapaculo
  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Sulfur-winged Parakeet
  • Striped-tail Hummingbird
  • Yellowish Flycatcher
  • Gray-tailed Mountain Gem
  • Magnificent Hummingbird
  • Flame-colored Tanager
  • Band-tailed Pigeon

Dia Tres - ¿Qué hora es?

5:15am Yellowish Flycatcher

I know the early bird gets the first worm, but I don't like worms and I'm far more of a cocktail hour birder, enjoying nature as it settles in for the night after which I can settle in for dinner.

Yet here we are, getting ready for our first Costa Rican bird walk despite any second thoughts about the comfortable pillows we left behind.

Such affections diminished within 10 minutes of the journey.  Raúl, our capable guide, led us to a few sites where we might catch a glimpse of the aptly-named Resplendent Quetzal and along the way, introduced us to a bevy of new birds including the Elegant Trogon (both male and female).

Raúl's knowledge of the region's flora and fauna was incredible and no accident -- not only did he grow up on this land, but the mountain lodge was the vision of his forward-thinking grandfather who still lives on the property.  Those few moments of not spotting birds or peppering him with plant questions included tales of his family and their connection to this unique landscape.

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Turkey Vulture   IMG_9788web  Green Violet-ear   Acorn Woodpecker     IMG_9784web   Rufous-collared Sparrow

Thanks to our new friend, we were able to see -- and identify -- a vast number of forest birds:

  • Flame-colored Tanager
  • Silver-throated Tanager
  • Spangled-cheek Tanager
  • Emerald Toucanet
  • Elegant Trogon
  • Clay-colored Robin
  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Yellowish Flycatcher
  • Sulphur-winged Parakeet
  • Black Phoebe
  • Stripe-tailed Hummingbird
  • Blue-and-white Swallow
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Black-faced Solitaire
  • Sooty Robin
  • Violet Saberwing
  • Violet-eared Hummingbird
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Green Violet-ear
  • Scintillant Hummingbird (plus saw its little nest!)
  • Collared Redstart
  • Common Bush Tanager
  • White-throated Mountain Gem
  • Ruddy Nightengale Thrush
  • Ruddy Woodpecker
  • Torrent Tyrannulet
  • Volcano Hummingbird
  • Rufous-collared Sparrow
  • Yellow-thighed Finch
  • Black-and-yellow Silky Flycatcher

Collared Redstart

Dia Dos - I Eat a Moth

(NOTE: The Costa Rica expedition has ended and though I did not keep timely updates to the little blog, I did at least make notes for each day.  Thus, I now play "catch up.") While I love moths, it's more of a general appreciation and not a consuming passion.  Yet, walking up the mini-mountain to our cabin at the Savegre Lodge, I stopped, sucked in a deep breath of oxygen available at 7,200 feet and choked.

I had no idea what the problem was until lovely husband inquired "Did you just swallow that moth I brushed out of my way?"

Indeed, I did.

Lepidoptera consumption aside, here at Sevegre, in the ominously-named Cerro de la Muerta area of the Talamanca mountain range, we are consumed by a different group of critters -- hummingbirds.

The weather here is cool but comfortable (except a bit chilly in the evenings) and I don't notice quite as many butterflies (and one less moth!) as seen the day before outside Heredia.  But birds are a-plenty and we haven't even ventured off the property yet for a proper walk.

Just a few hours ago we were back in Heredia where I started a new trend -- waking up at dawn (though if I were a truly intrepid soul I'd be up BEFORE dawn).  It was difficult, but once outside, I was more than pleased, if not downright overwhelmed.

Birds galore -- including those butterflies mentioned a moment ago -- whizzing, zipping before my eyes.  And the sound!  This was not bird song but rather a collection of chirrups, squawks, and a cacophony of dog squeaky toys!

Butterfly

Identification became futile as there was just so much to take in of completely foreign birds to my limited expertise and I was completely relieved to enjoy the morning flirtations of two variegated squirrels.  I offer an equal opportunity program of love for all  critters, but rodents have a special spot in my heart.

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Yet, I digress.  That was this morning, and this is now.  At our new mountain abode, hummingbird feeders are positioned for easy viewing and in the few hours here I have seen more individual hummingbirds -- and more individual species -- than I have seen before in my life.  And with over 50 species to choose from, I haven't even bothered with trying to identify them yet.

Hummingbird   Hummingbird

Hummingbird   Hummingbird

Besides this great spotting, we observed the species Homo sapiens, variety Aves-watchers run through the cafeteria from one end to the other.  Curiosity consumed us and we followed to find they were enjoying close up views of Emerald Toucanets.

IMG_9595web   Emerald Toucanet

As I close out the day earlier than the night before (we have a 5 hour guided bird walk at  the ghastly hour of 7am!), here are the bird sightings of the day.  You'll excuse the very scientific descriptions of a couple....

  • Blue-gray Tanager
  • Rufous-collared Sparrow
  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Mississippi Kite
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Clay-colored Robin
  • Some kind of black flycatching bird
  • Some kind of yellow bird

Costa Rica, dia uno

Hotel Bougainvillea At long last, after years of thinking about it, we've arrived! One night in Santo Domingo just north of San Jose at the Hotel Bougainvillea with 8 acres of gardens featuring native plants.

Hotel Bougainvillea

Only a bit of casual birding and trouble identifying them with all these new species.

Hotel Bougainvillea

In lieu of a paper journal, I'll be modern and post some pictures of the hotel's garden and our very incomplete bird list:

  • possible Social Flycatcher
  • some sort of hummingbird (there are 52 species here!)
  • White-winged Dove
  • possible Rufous-naped Wren
  • Clay-colored Robin
  • Great-tailed Grackle
  • flock of unidentified parrots
  • bright yellowed-bellied bird on phone line - no clue on identification

Hotel Bougainvillea

Hotel Bougainvillea

Enjoying the Early Bird Special

I admit, my view of southern Florida was narrow.  As some might expect New Yorkers to be rude and unfriendly (a common misconception), I was expecting southern Florida to be filled with golf courses, strip malls, and seniors high-tailing it to the oft mentioned early-bird dinners starting at 3pm. West Palm Beach Gardens sunset

Sure there are some rude New Yorkers (usually not the natives!).  And  yes, there are certainly seniors, golf courses and of course, malls in southern Florida -- yet these days such a description is interchangeable with many locations.  Yet we recently discovered that southern Florida is a landscape rich with nature and diversity.

White Ibis in Boynton Beach

First stop, the wildly-named Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, part of Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department's Southern Region Reclamation Facility (a mouthful to say in itself!), offering wildlife and human visitors open ponds and boggy wetlands with a 3/4 mile boardwalk.

Our trip was short -- we could have spent many more hours exploring -- but the wildlife list was not.  Birds galore including our first sightings of Purple Gallinules and one diminutive Sora pecking through the aquatic plants, plus interesting views of broody Great Blue Herons and Anhinga, as well as a view of the latter species tenderizing a fish for lunch next to a very unimpressed turtle.  And of course, a young alligator made the requisite appearance nestled in a flower patch for an afternoon nap.

Anhinga on nest    Great Blue Heron on nest

Purple Gallinule   Sora

Alligator

Anhinga with fish and turtle

Another fruitful stop was Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands in Boynton Beach.  Run by the Palm Beach County Parks  and Recreation Department, 100 lush acres feature a 1.5 mile boardwalk and a nature center at the entrance (unfortunately closed the day of our arrival).

Frog   Pied-billed Grebe

Tri-colored Herons

Wood Stork   Tri-colored Heron

We made a far-too-short trip to the John D. MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach which appeared to have wonderful potential if only we had just a little more time to enjoy the park's 438 acres that include beach, maritime hammocks and a spectacular boardwalk causeway.

Brown Pelicans

A sunset jaunt to the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Boynton Beach was equally short thanks to signs warning of a dusk closure and imposing road gates (wimp that I am, I was not keen on a forced swamp camping trip!).  Nevertheless, in the last rays of daytime we sauntered along the Cypress Swamp boardwalk serenaded by birdsong. But it was along the dark waters near the canoe launch that offered one of our most imposing sightings -- a huge alligator submerged alongside the wood lookout point with only a hint of its massive head exposed in the water.

Alligator

Final visit of our weekend trip was a pre-flight rest along the Lake Worth Municipal Beach Pier.  The birds were outnumbered by fishermen and surfers but still quite plentiful especially with the arrival of a flock of Ruddy Turnstones.

Ruddy Turnstone   Osprey with fish

Our time was far too limited -- so many critters and plants, and nice people enjoying nature.  Now when someone tells me "I'm really not much for Florida," I can tell them that they're really missing something special, other than that early-bird one.

Firsts of the Year

Looking over the past year, I realize it's been one filled with firsts. My first Humpback Whale sighting, off the coast of Long Beach, Long Island no less, and a testament to our area's cleaner waters.

Humpback Whale   Humpback WhaleHumpback Whale

My first trip as an adult to the Southern Florida Coast which, in spite of the various senior citizen references, I loved and look forward to the next visit (and NOT for an early-bird dinner special!).  It was also the place for my first sightings of new birds -- the long-awaited Purple Gallinule and diminutive Sora -- both at the fantastic Wakadohatchee Wetland.

Purple Gallinule   Sora

My first adult trip to Utah to see family and get in some birding.  What a landscape -- from salt flats to wetlands to mountains -- the views and animals were spectacular.

East of Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats   Park City, Utah chipmunk

Antelope Island State Park, Utah   Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah

Logan Canyon, Utah   Antelope Island State Park, Utah

My first intimate encounter with Horseshoe Crabs observing their, um, intimate moments during mating season along Jamaica Bay.

Horseshoe Crabs

Horseshoe Crab

My first hurricane and one that destroyed both human and natural life in areas I love.

Arverne Piping Plover Nesting Area

Finally, after long last, my first time to visit with the newly hatched Mallard ducklings at Queens Botanical Garden before they departed with the mother duck to a new location.

Mallard duckling   Mallard duckling

And it was my first sabbatical from this little blog, and hopefully the last.  But no worries -- I'm now rarin' to go!

Salt Flats to Mountain Tops

Light on words, heavy on images for this post.  Some snaps from our recent trip to Utah - 5 days spent within 2 hours of Salt Lake City.  Stunning place with such diverse landscapes, flora and fauna! American Avocet, Antelope Island State Park, Utah   Antelope Island State Park, Utah

Antelope Island State Park, Utah   Long-billed Curlew, California Gulls, Black-necked Stilt - Antelope Island State Park, Utah

American Bison - Antelope Island State Park, Utah   Loggerhead Shrike - Antelope Island State Park, Utah

California Gulls - Antelope Island State Park, Utah    Antelope Island State Park, Utah

American White Pelican - Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah   Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah

Yellowlegs - Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah   White-tailed Deer - Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah

3rd Dam, Logan Canyon - Wasatch National Forest   3rd Dam, Logan Canyon - Wasatch National Forest

3rd Dam, Logan Canyon - Wasatch National Forest   Least Chipmunk - Park City area, Utah

   3rd Dam, Logan Canyon - Wasatch National Forest

Park City area, Utah   Wildflower - Park City area, Utah

Wildflowers - Red Butte Botanical Garden, Utah   Fragrance Walk - Red Butte Botanical Garden, Utah

Great Salt Lake - Utah   Bonneville Salt Flats - Utah

Western Utah

The Trophy Wife of the Garden

She’s curvy, a little plump but firm, glossy and warm after a day of sun bathing. High-paid executives may seek out the trophy wife, but for the gardener it is the tomato that fills our dreams.

Tomato

Beets, carrots, and sugar snap peas might be grand but when the shovel hits the mulch, most gardeners are in it for Solanum lycopersicum.

A fruit (yes, a fruit as opposed to a vegetable), tomatoes are utilized in cuisines around the world, but trace their roots to South America.  Introduction to the world isn’t firm, but historians believe that Christopher Columbus may have played a role, and thus changed the flavor of European food forever!

Tomatoes

The perfect tomato is something to behold after a summer of toil and worry.  Some gardeners fawn over their plants with concoctions and old-world traditions, while others go the tough love route, trying not to fuss with watering regimes and pest control (I’ll let you in on a secret – even those tough gardeners secretly worry!). But just like today’s ugly dog competitions, we now have more appreciation for a misshapen, spotted, or generally peculiar tomato.  As long as creatures are not crawling out of it, the fruit is still sweet.

Tomatoes

For many, the growing season is based around that moment when green transitions to orange then brilliant red and the tomato can easily be plucked from the plant.

Green Tomato

A tomato crop is a cherished member of the family.  In fact, a true sign of love and friendship is sharing a tomato – though this isn’t a wholly selfless act as the recipient is expected to buoy the gardener’s ego with praise of her horticultural prowess!

Tomato variety

Perhaps the saddest day of the growing season comes several weeks after that joyous harvest, when plants are finished pushing out flowers to form fruit.  The leaves and stems lose their sublime green coloring, becoming dry and brown.  That’s the day when plants are untangled from wood trellises or wire tomato hoops, and the remains reach the compost pile.

Yet, as those days morph into winter months, the tomato gardener’s mood improves with the arrival of next season’s plant catalogs.  And with this mail, so too improve the summertime hopes and dreams of coworkers, friends and entire neighborhoods.

Large tomato

Whale Tales

We just can’t stay off the boat.  Last Friday, a lovely summer day, we were back on board the American Princess anticipating fun and marine adventure. Tern   Tern

With earlier reports of whale and shark sightings, our captain steered us into new waters – instead of the Raritan Bay we headed to the Long Island coast, just a few miles off shore from Long Beach.

Off the Long Beach, NY coast

Cut the motors and just wait. But not for long!

We spotted the puff of spray from the blow hole just off the port side, followed by the dorsal fin.  And the show began thanks to two cooperative Humpback Whales.

Humpback Whale   Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale   Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale

Captain Ahab had his white Sperm Whale, but the Humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) was the focus of Captain Kirk and crew in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”  While the movie focused on the extinction and reintroduction of this species, the truth isn’t far from fiction.  According to the American Cetacean Society, Humpback Whales were still hunted into the 1970s despite worldwide legal protections, and today the total population is estimated at 30-35% below original numbers.

Measuring 40-50 feet in length and weighing 25-40 tons, Humpbacks are found in waters around the world.  They spend summer in temperate and polar areas – like New York City – and migrate to tropical waters for winter.  Great information about Humpbacks and other whles can be found on the American Cetacean Society’s website.

A special experience doesn’t even live up to the feelings amongst my fellow passengers.  We were giddy and erupted in applause for the wonderful crew of the American Princess who have become ambassadors for our city’s marine life.

(Like I said, we can’t get enough of these cruises! Check out other posts -- A Tale of Two Seals, Quiet Waters but Questions Surface, Thar She Blows!, and Wonderful Seal Watch.)

Laughing Gull

Farm Livin'

Red-winged Blackbirds trill in the hedgerows, plump tomatoes glow in the sun, bees dive into cucumber flowers. Roma tomatoes

Sometimes people ask if we'd like to live on a farm, but the true farming life -- complete with tractor and 50 acres -- is not something I'm cut out for.  Farms are usually far from cities, which is my preferred habitat.

But I'm able play dress up (or more accurately, dress down) and pretend at my little urban farm in Brooklyn, growing some of my own food, and nurturing my ever-increasing respect for those who actually farm for a living.

 Shovel and raised bed with mint  

The sun and heat forced me to take a moment to sit in the shade, but break time is over -- I have chores.  The last sugar snap peas need harvesting and then the plants must be cleared out and composted to make room for the next sowing of arugula seeds.  Carrots need thinning, and soil around the potato plants must be mounded.  Undersides of leaves -- particularly beans, cucumbers and potatoes -- need a thorough examination  for the usual outbreak of various insects like Colorado Potato Beetle and Mexican Bean Beetle.  And please don't mention weeding...

Egyptian Walking Onion  

I fuss and fret over my plants.  Are the tomatoes staked enough? Should I water less? Or more? Why aren't the eggplants growing? Should I harvest the garlic now? Did I plant the basil too early?

Onions   Cucumbers

Cucumber seedlings  

Thankfully, the plants seem to know what to do and don't appear to mind my mother hen approach.  I'm relieved when I see the tiniest bit of green on the soil, emerging just hours later to reveal a little bean seedling.

Emerging green bean seedling   Green bean seedling

The building, the watering, the mending, the weeding, the sowing, the harvesting.  Sheer heaven.  And I thank heaven for the farmers -- especially the small farmer-- who does it all on a much larger scale.

 Tomato plants

War Games

I have seen the enemy and it has compound eyes and six legs. Right now, a war is on against a few members of the class Insecta. This crafty enemy is armed with efficient mouth parts and, shall we say, energetic reproductive systems. I am outgunned.

But let me back up.

Insects are fascinating creatures with astounding variations on the general theme that makes an insect, well, an insect: those compound eyes and six jointed legs, along with an exoskeleton, three body parts (head, thorax and abdomen), and a pair of antennae. Within those limitations are all shapes, sizes, colors, antennae and wing forms, mouth parts , life cycle appearances - the list goes on.

Insectarium, Montreal   Insectarium, Montreal

Insectarium, Montreal

With over 100,000 different insects and other arthopods (this includes critters like crabs), we need to live with their prescence and appreciate their role in the ecosystem, and yes, admire their beauty.

I like to think that I'm one of those who reach that elevated state of mind, and thus avoid using chemical controls in the garden. But claiming such benevolence at this moment might be hypocrisy.

Meet the key enemies of the state (er, garden):

Mexican Bean Beetle -- related to the beneficial Lady Beetle (or Lady Bug), the chewing mouth parts of the larval and adult form of this insect is gnawing at my bean's leaves.

Mexican Bean Beetle, adult   Mexican Bean Beetle, larva

Colorado Potato Beetle -- apparently "Go East, young bug" is the advice this chap heeded. Both adults and larvae are chewing up my potato plant's foliage.

Colorado Potato Beetle, adult   Colorado Potato Beetle, young larva

Colorado Potato Beetle, larva

Striped Cucumber Beetle -- I now know who to implicate on the death of my cucumber seedlings last year. Thankfully this year's plants survived their young, tender days (when the adult beetle likes to enjoy them as a snack), but I must continue vigilance since they'll still eat leaves, flowers and fruit. Not enough damage for you? These guys also can transmit bacterium and a virus to the plants.

Striped Cucumber Beetle, adult

Aphids - you want diversity? You have it with this teeny-tiny insects that literally suck the juice from plants (they particularly like my green beans). There are over 1,300 aphid species just in North America. Though probably the most plain in appearance from the other insects I listed, aphids are possibly one of the most fascinating in terms of reproduction and life cycle. Depending on species and time of year, females may give live birth (rather than laying eggs), some have wings while others remain wingless, and females don't always need males to create baby aphids.

Aphids

So that's a look at the most formidable foes. What are the options for my allied forces?

Know thy enemy. In other words, know the different forms the insect can take depending on its stage in the life cycle. And be careful not to mistake the enemy for one of your allies (as I mistook Lady Beetle eggs for those of Colorado Potato Beetle, I think...).

  

Hand-to-hand combat. Spraying insecticides opens up a variety of issues so I just pick the bugs off. Perhaps not everyone's cup of tea and yes, I still get plant damage, but I also get some good photos and the chance to further appreciate the natural world, even if it is chewing my veg.

Join forces. One reason not to spray insecticides is that it disrupts the food chain and can kill beneficial insects, of which there are many. Lady Beetle, Praying Mantis, Lacewing, even bird, amphibian and reptile -- all are your combat partners and each have their handy ways of getting the best of the enemy.

Colorado Potato Beetle adult in spider web   Praying Mantis

Northern Mockingbird   Lady Beetle, adult

Lacewing eggs   Toad

Sign a peace treaty. If all else fails, I remember that the insect that is chewing my plant could grow up to be a beauty.

Black Swallowtail, larva   Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Duck Soup

To know me is to know I love nature, particularly birds, and especially ducks.  Of all our dabblers and divers, my favorite remains the very common Mallard.  Few things bring me as much joy and peace as watching the birds we grew up toddling after at a local duck pond. So you can imagine my bliss when we spotted 10 freshly-hatched ducklings at my wonderful workplace, Queens Botanical Garden.  Though we've had Mallards before, this was my first chance to spend time with ducklings.  About 250 images later, I'll just let photos speak for themselves about the charms of these little cuties!

    

  

      

  

  

    

     

  

Under the Bridge

We love acronyms to label neighborhoods.  TriBeCa, NoLIta, SoHo, DuMBO.  Let me add a new one for my recent hotspot: DUCBBBO or Down Under the Cross Bay Boulevard Bridge Overpass. Big Egg Marsh, Broad Channel American Fields Park

Broad Channel American Fields Park

I've often passed this little city park en route to Rockaways, but lacked a proper introduction until recently when I joined an NYC Audubon volunteer group monitoring Horseshoe Crab populations.

Just about 19 acres, the Broad Channel American Fields Park is easy to miss with a nondescript entrance just before the Cross Bay Bridge.  A popular spot for baseball, Jamaica Bay's waters are just steps away, and on our visit, the shoreline was full of nature and fishermen.

Big Egg Marsh, Broad Channel American Fields Park

On this particular evening, the moon was full and the tide was exceptionally high, perfect for the crabs to spawn along the sandy shores of Big Egg Marsh. 

Big Egg Marsh, Broad Channel American Fields Park

Our job was to count the number of crabs at certain distances.  The high water made this a bit difficult, including the walk – or perhaps “wade” is a better word – to the starting point through watery muck.  It was reminscent of The African Queen as Humphrey Bogart’s character pulled the boat through a thick marsh.  Thankfully, we did not encounter any leeches!

Big Egg Marsh, Broad Channel American Fields Park

Large females and smaller males moved in the shallow waters, forming clusters.  Sometimes they moved up to the shoreline, and seemed almost curious to see us.  Besides counting them, a few were tagged to hopefully be spotted again in the future to determine their movements and range.  As the water retreated and the moon rose, the tiny sandpipers moved in to feast on the eggs, a perfect example of an interrelated ecosystem.

Horseshoe Crab, Big Egg Marsh, Broad Channel American Fields Park

 Big Egg Marsh, Broad Channel American Fields Park

Horseshoe Crabs, Big Egg Marsh, Broad Channel American Ballfields Park   Big Egg Marsh, Broad Channel American Ballfields Park

A beautiful night, and rewarding experience.  However, my boots may never recover....

Hometown Pride or, Queens -- We've Got Good Stuff!

No secret here -- I can wax poetic about city life and I'm particularly eager to talk about nature in my fair city. Sure, those big national parks are great but where else can you see endangered bird species AND catch a Broadway play all in one day? Piping Plovers

If I'm happy to talk about New York City's nature in general, I'm very thrilled to narrow it down to favorite spots in my neck of the woods -- Queens.

This fact was once again brought into the forefront when talking to my friend Suzanne who recently moved back to her home borough. In the efforts to show her that Queens life is quite rich, mutual friend Annette coined the above headline phrase. Indeed, Queens does have good stuff and everyone else is just catching up to it! As one of the most diverse counties in the country, the food options have been mindblowing long before "foodie nation" discovered them, and now Queens is coming into its own in terms of music, art and other cultural interests.

As the geographical giant of New York City's five boroughs (just a hair over 112 square miles), Queens nature is just as rich. Forest meets ocean, glacial ponds meet salt marshes, and everything in between. Even eastern-central areas were once part of the Hempstead Plains, one of the few natural grasslands east of the Allegheny Mountains.

Allow me to share my favorite green spaces (in no particular order) of my favorite place:

1. Arverne -- Perhaps 21 years growing up in the Midwest sealed it, but I just can't get enough of salt air, let alone salt water. When I need the beach, there's no better place than Arverne and its Piping Plover Nesting Area. On these beach dunes nest this little sprite of an endangered shorebird along with the equally endangered (but far more raucous) Least Tern. Combine this scene with other shorebirds like American Oystercatchers, plus Horseshoe Crabs, sand dunes, native dune plants and associated beautiful shore insects like dragonflies and Monarch Butterflies, and heaven is within reach, just as the A train rumbles by.

Least Terns, Arverne Piping Plover Nesting Area

American Oystercatchers, Arverne Piping Plover Nesting Area

Arverne Piping Plover Nesting Area

2. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge -- part of the larger Gateway National Recreation Area, Jamaica Bay holds a special spot in my heart. It's right here that we started birding many years ago soon after moving to Queens. Words are not enough to describe these 9,155 acres -- that's how famous they are. Woodland, salt marsh, sandy shores, brackish ponds and lakes, meadows all combine to form an incredible habitat for all. On any given day, you'll see folks searching for species in avian, botanical, entomological, marine, mammalian, reptilian and amphibian forms.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge West Pond
 
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge woodlands
 
Big John's Pond, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge 

3. Queens County Farm Museum -- maybe not a nature preserve, the Farm is still a very important place to visit in order to appreciate early Queens life down on the farm. Next to a looming high-rise apartment complex, the space is even more poignant, a juxtaposition of old and current life. Enjoy (and feed!) the goats, chickens and geese, and be sure to walk along the vegetable rows and grape vines. Plus take a wander out to the perimeter wooded areas, part of which is old growth forest.

Queens Farm

Queens Farm

Queens Farm

4. Forest Park -- its main drive, designed by Frederick Olmsted, winds through the Park's eastern side where one can get lost -- almost really lost -- along the dense woodland trails. Full of old growth forest, the park also boasts high points -- glacial deposits forming the Harbor Hill moraine -- and deep, low depressions creating seasonal kettle ponds.

Truth be told, I'm embarrassed -- Forest Park is one of my very local spots but I've explored so little, despite the great wilderness it offers. Here's a promise, dear reader(s) -- I shall explore more and report back.

Forest Park

Forest Park, Strack's Pond

Forest Park

5. Queens Botanical Garden -- you didn't think I'd leave off one of my favorite places in the world, did you?! One might consider the end of the workday to be the cue to head home, but I tend to linger and enjoy.

And why not? This 39 acre -- as we fondly say -- urban oasis is teeming with natural life even in the frenetic setting of its Flushing neighborhood. Over 50 bird species have been spotted, plus QBG boasts stunning plants, charming squirrels, lounging Italian Wall Lizards, and other wildlife.

Italian Wall Lizard, Queens Botanical Garden

Queens Botanical Garden

Queens Botanical Garden 

Yes, we do have good stuff here in Queens. Come and enjoy.

Salt Marsh Safari

While it may not be as exotic as an outback excursion to Kenya or similar far-off land, the salt marsh is an ecosystem just as robust. Smithsonian Education and Research Center trail

Salt marshes abound in the NYC area, but a recent trip to see family led us to those hugging the Chesapeake Bay. And the perfect place to marvel at the marsh ecosystem is the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland.

Unbeknownst to us, there was a family public event earlier that day but thankfully we caught the tail end and enjoyed close up views of the Bay's most famous resident -- the Blue Crab (Callinectes sapidus), both the adult form with its colorful but menacing claws, and far less painful-looking "baby" stage measuring about one inch.

 Blue Crab in Chesapeake Bay   Immature Blue Crab in Chesapeake Bay

Hardly an expert on the Chesapeake coastline, I always find it interesting how wooded areas brush up against the waterways or marshes without much transitionary landscapes like beaches or bogs. You have the forest, then BOOM! the water, sometimes with bits of marsh in between.

Smithsonian Education and Research Center trail

The forest part was rich with trees and bird song including our first glimpse of what might have been a Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons) (sorry, no photo). The Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexgutata) cavorted in dappled sunlight and two  Broad-headed Skinks (Eumeces laticeps) tried to hide on a Tulip Tree trunk (Liriodendron tulipifera).

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

The section of salt marsh we visited perfectly demonstrated why these vital areas are called nurseries. Tide was out but quickly returning, and little fish bubbled in the waters. Dragonflies found nifty perches on new and old grasses. And we were treated to the aerial dexterity of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) looking for...well gnats!

Smithsonian Education and Research Center trails

Fish in the salt marsh   Fish in the salt marsh

 Dragonfly in salt marsh   Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in salt marsh

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the salt marsh

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the salt marsh 

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) were ever-present along with Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura). An immature Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fly-by rounded out the complete salt marsh life cycle experience.

Immature Bald Eagle at the Chesapeake Bay   Turkey Vulture at the Chesapeake Bay

Osprey at the Chesapeake Bay