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.

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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

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!

    

  

      

  

  

    

     

  

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

The Undiscovered Country

Like a planet in a faraway galaxy, my most local wildlife area was essentially light years away. I can see Willow Lake, part of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, from my apartment window.  Yet it is closed to the public due to vandalism and deterioration of footbridges leading to the trails.  By chance, I noticed an Urban Park Ranger-led bird walk in the area, and a new world opened up for me.

 Asters in Willow Lake, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

Along with nearby Meadow Lake, Willow Lake is one of the largest freshwater bodies in Queens.  The 106-acre landscape has been managed as a natural area since the 1930s (it’s also a NYC Parks Forever Wild site).  Though I’m disappointed that access isn’t easier, perhaps the lack of disturbance (save for a large MTA subway rail yard) might be beneficial to wildlife.

Turtle in Willow Lake, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

Our first spotting of the morning was scat.  Now, I’m not too interested in dog doo, but this was special – consensus is that a coyote has made a home at Willow Lake!

Possible coyote scat, Willow Lake, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

Birds were plentiful.  Barn Swallows darted by, Red-winged Blackbirds shouted their trills, and we were reprimanded in no uncertain terms by two Killdeers.  An Osprey was a special sighting along with a little sandpiper which I think was a Spotted Sandpiper.

Red-winged Blackbird, Willow Lake, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

Sandpiper at Willow Lake, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

Invasive phragmites reeds are a big problem for Willow Lake but I must say, bushwhacking offered an exotic feeling to this Sunday morning walk.  Though the pesky reeds made access to the actual Lake nearly impossible, an old wooden bridge over a small inlet was the perfect place to coo over Canada Goose goslings.

Willow Lake, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

Footbridge at Willow Lake, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

Canada Goose goslings in Willow Lake, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

Though we did not see the secretive rails (a small reed-dwelling bird) or muskrats our Ranger guide watched just days earlier, we were thrilled to almost trip over a Ring-necked Pheasant tail feather.

Ring-necked Pheasant tail feather at Willow Lake, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

My journey to Willow Lake was not far, but felt so remote in spite of the distant humming of the Grand Central Parkway and Van Wyck Expressway.  I longed for more time to explore, but maybe that's the special grace of such areas.  Our time is restricted and thus the experience is nearly divine.

Mud flats at Willow Lake, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park

Up a Creek

River, lake, estuary, fjord – these conjure majestic, pristine waterways.  But I have a particular affection for the lowly creek. Like the black sheep of the family, the creek is not savored or preserved.  It’s usually the place to dump things, and the place you don’t want to live near.

Newtown Creek

My interest dates back to childhood, growing up across the street from Hart’s Creek.  Though allowed to freely explore the outdoors in my suburban neighborhood, I was forbidden to even look over the high banks leading down to the creek.  Between steep slopes, consuming mud, sewage, stormwater runoff, and swift currents in rain storms that claimed a few lives, it was not a place to visit.

Yet, I remain intrigued by creeks.

Newtown Creek

So it was a treat to join three intrepid souls from the Newtown Creek Alliance early this morning for a drive around this waterway looking for birds.  In the industrial landscape of waste transfer stations, shipping companies and scrap metal yards, an ecosystem manages to eke out an existence despite decades of degradation.

Newtown Creek

During just two hours, some of which was spent in a car navigating around the factories and buildings, we spotted 11 species including Killdeer, Barn Swallows, Black-crowed Night Herons and an unidentified sandpiper.  Even a Gray Catbird managed to serenade us over the din of truck engines.  Black Locust trees were in full flower and pockets of greenery showed great potential for wildlife.

Black-crowned Night Heron on floating boom, Newtown Creek

Newtown Creek

Newtown Creek

Incredible! 

I visited Hart’s Creek just twice in my life.  Once with my mother to release a catfish caught at a local lake which I didn’t have the heart to allow on the dinner table, and once in a move of teenage derring-do.

I doubt I’ll ever visit Hart’s Creek again, but am happy to have the Newtown Creek to explore.

P.S. The Newtown Creek Alliance is planning to offer bird tours of the area.  Stay tuned for details as they become available.  Here’s NCA’s post on today’s bird walk.

Newtown Creek

Garden Companions

I was being watched.  Every move I made, he was there.  But I wasn’t worried – my harmless voyeur was an American Robin. American Robin

Such was my experience several years ago as a horticulture intern at Queens Botanical Garden.  Though consumed with weeding the Fragrance Walk, I soon noticed the male Robin consistently underfoot, enjoying the insects exposed by my work.

I never fuss about in dirt all on my own – as I garden in my little urban farm, eyes are all around.  While I add supports for the newly emerged sugar snap peas, a Red-winged Blackbird offers his advice from the fence.

Red-winged Blackbird

Song Sparrows are happy enough to add a tune to the chores, but seem to have no interest in gardening tasks, keeping a healthy distance from the work.

Song Sparrow

Those Robins are never far as they look to scavenge a tasty treat, while the Tree Swallows zip around high in the air.  Like the Song Sparrows, the swallows don’t show an interest in gardening but are quite happy to show off their aerial acrobatic skills.  Northern Mockingbirds notice the weeds I missed.

Northern Mockingbird

Lady bugs are omnipresent audiences to my horticultural practices, and, later in the season, are joined by dragonflies, butterflies, and the Praying Mantis who will no doubt offer a disapproving look at my skills.

Lady bug

Dragonfly

Praying Mantis

If I’m lucky, I’ll also stumble upon one of the two toads who took up residence last year.

Toad

And if I’m unlucky, one of the local rats will zip along the fence line, trying to be stealth as he maneuvers into a weedy area within my neighbor’s garden plot.  Sorry, no photos of this critter -- he moves too fast!

Life on the Farm

I received my first diary for Christmas when I was eight. Writing was never a bother, but  I never took to the practice of recording the happenings of each day despite my good intentions. Now I'm trying to change my ways by keeping a diary for the sake of my garden, to have an annual record of planting dates, vegetable yields, chores, and other such minutiae. Since I can visit my little allotment only once a week and I'm just writing brief notes, the pressure of daily entries and Hemingway-esque prose is removed.

My garden journal

With gardening season now in full swing, I thought I'd share a bit of life on the farm, taking the garden journal's notes and actually writing full sentences, though not sounding much like Hemingway...

Construction can be a big part of gardening. Mitch has been mending part of our fence -- sounds so rural, doesn't it?! -- that began sagging in the autumn. Summertime project will be setting up a little tool shed.

We tilled the red clover cover crop about a month ago, while mixing in some rather fragrant manure. Planted in the fall to reduce erosion and enrich the soil, I was amazed at the clover sprouts' density and how difficult it was to till.  Decided to leave some clover handfuls and have been enjoying their recent blooms.

 Red clover    Red Clover

Our compost bin was full up and emptied this week into one bed that now has fingerling potatoes (my first try at these!). I really like worms but must admit the sheer number of the little wigglies was somewhat overwhelming. Perhaps not a sight for the squeamish.

Ah seeds... Coming in all shapes, sizes and colors, these little powerhouses contain everything a plant needs to get a start in life: food in the cotyledons, plus a diminutive root and leaf (or leaves) forming the embryo.  All this is wrapped up in a protective covering called a seed coat.

Seeds

Once the seed coat is broken by water and/or scarification (when the coat is scratched), the seed can germinate with suitable environmental conditions like light, water, and oxygen, developing into a seedling or "baby" plant .

This year most my seeds are organic and from Abundant Life Seeds and Territorial Seeds.  Planted just last week, I already have a few tiny arugula seedlings -- or did I plant the heirloom lettuce there?

Seedlings

In the spirit of record keeping, in addition to the aforementioned lettuce and arugula, I sowed sugar snap peas, dill, beets, carrots, and wild arugula.

I longed to add beans -- both pole and bush -- to the list of plants this weekend, but the forecasted cool temperatures and the advice of a gardening friend forced me to delay.

No matter, as I was busy planting my veg that arrived in the mail. Besides the potatoes already mentioned, I found a nice home for two tiny rosemary plants, and filled two small containers with young onion plants, no thicker than a pencil.

Rosemary

White onions  

Despite the lack of water (until yesterday), my garlic and leek-like Egyptian walking onions planted in the fall have been looking quite handsome. I've propagated the latter from an original set of four offered by a garden neighbor nearly six years ago.  Sorry no EWO pix, but here's the garlic:

Garlic

Of course, the key to any productive organization, which I aspire to be, is the watchful eye of a good supervisor, ready to intervene with a gentle word when something looks amiss:

American Robin  American Robin, supervising my work

A Tale of Two Seals

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... No -- wrong story!  This is A Tale of Two Seals, not Cities, which is only about the best of times!

Harbor Seal

After all, what could be better than spending a sunny afternoon on a boat, admiring salt marshes and skyline while spotting Harbor Seals?

People are often surprised to hear that Harbor Seals can be seen in New York City and surrounding waters, but indeed, they regularly spend winter months in our neighborhood.  Seals are frequently seen by boat with their heads poking through the water (think of a person treading water) in a behavior called "bottling." Other times, they are sighted lounging on rocks and shoreline.

This year, we treated ourselves to two seal cruises so that we could observe different habitats and populations (any excuse to spend time on the water!).

Seal cruise one took us from the busy Freeport, Long Island marina on one of the comfortable boats in the Captain Lou fleet.  Guided deep into the brackish waters of the Hempstead Bay, we entered an area within Jones Beach State Park that most of us never get to see.

Near Freeport, Long Island Marina   Abandoned house, Hempstead Bay

Huge flocks of Brant Geese flew overhead, or chatted amongst themselves as we motored by.  Above their raucous conversations, we heard shrill and very distinctive calls, leading us to sightings of American Oystercatchers on the marsh edges -- a sure sign that summer was not long off.  Both species offered a spectacular display of the changing seasons.

American Oystercatchers   Brant Geese

Brant Geese

Soon after the Captain stopped the motor, we saw our first Harbor Seal bobbing in the water, looking much like a dog (their Latin name, Phoca vitulina, roughly translates to "sea dog").  By the end of the two hour trip, we racked up about 50 sightings, though I couldn't say that we saw 50 individuals -- seals are very active swimmers!  I hoped to see a few basking on the salt marsh but the on-board naturalist indicated such sights were only at extreme high tides.

Four Harbor Seals

Cruise number two brought us back to my favorite people who run the American Princess out of Riis Landing in the Rockaway section of Queens.  (You might remember that our first seal cruise was back in February 2011 and we returned in the summer for the whale/dolphin experience).  The boat is great, the people warm and knowledgeable, and I simply love enjoying nature that lives right here in the city.

Coney Island

Despite warm land temperatures, it was cold and windy on deck, leading to a slightly choppy ride, and possibly the reason for limited bird sightings.  As we sailed past Brighton Beach, Coney Island and then out to the private Sea Gate community, we only saw a few Long-tailed Ducks and a Common Loon, but loads of Herring Gulls and a healthy representation of Great Black-backed Gulls.

No matter, this was one of the rare times I wasn't after birds -- I was looking for those pinnipeds!  And I didn't need to wait long once we arrived south of Swinburne Island...

Swinburne Island and Staten Island (background)

This artificial island within sight of the Verrazano Bridge was created in 1860 to quarantine new immigrants carrying contagious diseases.  The island was later used for training of merchant marines in World War 2.  Today, nature has claimed this man-made landscape and its building shells -- bird life abounds and Swinburne is part of NYC's Harbor Herons monitoring program.

Harbor Seal

Our boat bobbed in the shallow waves, and the seals bobbed around us, looking just as curious as we were.  My guess is that the boat's total number of sightings hovered around 20 -- quite impressive, but the day's highlight was the mother and pup found basking in the afternoon light along the rocky, cement "shoreline."  This was the scene I had longed for.

Harbor Seal mother with pup

On a boat, in the sun, surrounded by seals.  Yes, this is clearly the very best of times.

Harbor Seal mother with pup

Bronx Birding Bonanza

All work and no play makes me a very, VERY dull girl. Blue Jay And so it has been while I work on the revamp of my other website, NYC Nature News (check it out and check back often as I'll be updating regularly!).  Just took longer than expected...

To remedy this situation,  I enjoyed a rejuvenating nature excursion but took a whopping 3 weeks to write about it!

So let's pretend that it's 3 Saturdays ago...

Eastern Gray Squirrel

On a reconnaissance mission with Mitch, divine spouse, and Hannah, delightful pal from work.  She wants to look at retail offerings, I want to check out the avian line-up.  Mitch, the best shopper around and a keen birder, is along for both opportunities.

Nesting holes

Our recon mission takes us to the mother ship of NYC public gardens: New York Botanical Garden.

Dear readers, you know how I adore my lovely 39 acres in Queens, but I must admit that Queens Botanical Garden's northern cousin is pretty nifty.  With 250 acres that include a terrific forest, it makes for a nice bird outing.

Black-capped Chickadee

We hoped to see Great-horned Owls that have nested in the past, but no luck.  Yet we could hardly complain with the array of tame birds and a fantastic Red-tailed Hawk fly over as we watched Hooded Mergansers in a Bronx River inlet.

Red-bellied Woodpecker   White-throated SparrowWhite-breasted Nuthatch   Downy Woodpecker

Tufted Titmouse

And, yes, the gift store was rather nice too.

Bronx River Bridge at New York Botanical Garden