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.

IMG_2267web    IMG_2254web

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 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

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

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

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....

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

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!

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

Dude, it's Squirrelollapalooza!

I am not alone.  There are others like me. Eastern Gray Squirrel  Eastern Gray Squirrel

The afflicted among us keep our thoughts to ourselves to avoid ridicule from others, and are overjoyed when we find like-minded kin.  We make secret purchases at the grocery store, and then proceed to the nearest park.

We are the squirrel fanciers.  And there's more of us than you'd expect!

Eastern Gray Squirrel  Eastern Gray Squirrel

Viewed by many as a garden destroyer or simply a rat with a more attractive tail, our local critter -- the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) -- might not have a big fan club, but spend a little time with them in your local park, and your mind will change.  In fact, these chaps are the perfect remedy for a glum mood.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

They're cute, curious, gregarious and their Latin genus name fits them perfectly -- they're scurrying Sciurus!  These are fascinating animals to watch.  With boundless energy, squirrels are able to perform physical feats of derring-do with the aid of extraordinary balance and hind feet that can rotate 180 degrees.  In their still moments you can observe examples of their extensive communication system made up of varied vocalizations, postures, and tail flicking.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

And that tail?  It's the ultimate accessory! Besides balance and communication uses, it doubles as a sunshade, or a wrap in cold weather.

Eastern Gray Squirrel (black morph)

Lest you think that their only purpose is to entertain, squirrels help tree populations by widely distributing acorns.

Intrigued? Get more details about their life cycle from my other blog, NYCNatureNews (pardon the lack of images as I'm doing a big update to the site).

Eastern Gray Squirrel

So grab a bag of peanuts and get to the park!  As this video from our local spot shows, there's no better way to spend $2 and a couple hours.  I guarantee a smile.

The Restorative Power of Nature (or, Pennsylvania: Land of Adorable Rodents)

Each September finds us making a solemn trip to the western Pennsylvania mountains for a memorial.  It's not a trip we relish but feel compelled to continue.  There is a hidden treat: after six or so hours on the Turnpike, we are transported to a  lovely countryside that softens the experience.  Expansive fields of goldenrod, farms and covered bridges (well, just one that we know of), hardwood forests, rivers and streams, birds and charming animals -- taking a moment to enjoy this backdrop makes our mood more buoyant. So enough words. Let me just simply share this gentle landscape and let you feel restored as well.

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit   Groundhog

Glessner Covered Bridge   PA State Game Land 93

Eastern Chipmunk   Eastern Chipmunk

Dogwood fruit   Meadow in Laurel Ridge State Park

Eastern Chipmunk   Farm by the Glessner Covered Bridge

Eastern Chipmunk  

Meadow in Laurel Ridge State Park   Flower heads   Blooming grass

Goldenrod   Bank and Cliff Swallows

Locust Borer on Goldenrod   Groundhog

Lake Somerset

Terrapin Tales

What a relief that I actually like the smell of bug repellent!  A few days ago, I was nearly bathing in it while enjoying an outback safari-like experience complete with incessant mosquitoes. As I now liberally apply no-itch sprays, I still wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world.

Diamondback Terrapin hatchlings

Back in late June, I signed up for a few days with the Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) research team at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, led by the personable Dr. Russell Burke of Hofstra University.  Conducting research on this turtle species for about 10 years, Dr. Burke is a regular fixture at Jamaica Bay through the terrapin nesting and hatching season, running from roughly May through September.

One task on the early summer shift was watching for females scouting out the area for a suitable nesting spot.  On my first day, we found two females.  Alas, they either had already nested or didn't seem to find the right spot, so we marked them with a series of numbers or bright nail polish in case other volunteers found them at a later date.  After recording their size, where they were found and other vital statistics, we sent them on their way.

Female Diamondback Terrapin

Female Diamondback Terrapin

Female Diamondback Terrapin

Except for this terrific first day, my luck was generally not good.  My allotted time was either plagued by uncooperative tides, or cancelled due to excessive heat.  Even the day after their big stroll along the JFK runways, I was turning up zip on terrapins.  Sometimes I spotted them far off in the water, but they just didn't seem interested to climb onto terra firma.

Diamondback Terrapin in water

During these times, we had the sad job of noting locations of predated nests -- excavated holes with the curling remains of terrapin eggshells.  I truly like raccoons, but seeing their exacting skills did not make them particuarly endearing at this moment.  The natural world is harsh indeed.

Diamondback Terrapin Eggshells

In many cases -- about 30 or so -- other volunteers were privileged enough to watch females select a nesting spot.  Using her back legs, she creates a cavity in the ground, about 4-8" deep and deposits roughly the same number of oval, pinkish-white eggs.  Once finished, she covers the cavity and heads back to the water.  At this point the volunteers place sturdy cages over the site before the raccoons can do their work.  Each cage's location is noted and marked with a numbered flag. 

Diamondback Terrapin nest cage

Hatchlings emerge 60-85 days later, depending on soil temperatures and nest cavity depth.  Volunteers take shifts  7 days a week to check all the cages.

And this is where my luck changed.

I arrived for my 4pm shift and was immediately greeted by five hatchlings patiently waiting for me.  I moved on and found a very crowded cage filled with -- count 'em -- 15 restless little terrapins.  Each clutch is collected and placed into a container with air holes.  I marked the nest number, hatchling count, date and time, and attached it to each container.  Later, researchers will measure and tag each one, then release them back to the bay.  Females may return again to lay eggs once they reach maturity in about 7 years.  We'll never see males again as they spend their entire lives in water.

Diamondback Terrapin hatchlings

Diamondback Terrapin hatchlings

By the time I finished collecting the second group, the mosquitoes were thick and the repellent was simply not working.  I recall reading about naturalists and photographers braving swarms of biting insects to a point that they were barely able to see.  My conditions were not this extreme, I reminded myself as they slid under my sunglass lenses to my eyelids.

The promise of, and committment to, these little creatures was more than enough reason to continue my shift and just as I rounded to the last nest I was once again rewarded -- 4 more terrapins!

Three hours after I started, I began to understand how research could become addictive.  I was tempted to stay on to watch over each nest like an over-eager babysitter.  In the end, it was the sunset that forced me to call it a day.  Along with the mosquitoes.

Female Diamondback Terrapin heading to the bay

Remains of the Day

Hurricane Irene is now past and as I sit in my apartment, I'm wondering how things look about 12 miles away in the Arverne section of the Rockaways. Herring Gull

Just a few days ago, I stopped by to visit the peeps once again but the tide was still a bit high and they had not yet arrived.  The surf was a little rough (early signs of the hurricane, perhaps?) and I was intrigued by the large numbers of shells and remnants of crabs.

Investigating further, I started to notice differences in the crab shells, and my attention was drawn to the gulls (primarily Herring and Great Black-backed) that were busy gathering a seafood lunch.  Watching them and snapping photos, I was introduced to a bevy of sealife!

Juvenile Herring Gull and crab  

Herring Gull with crab

Herring Gull with crab

One gull was gulping down an Atlantic Starfish, Asterias forbesi, the most common starfish species in the Atlantic.  I've seen starfish on childhood Florida vacations, but never realized they were found this far north.  How wrong I was!  Their range extends as far north as the Gulf of Maine.  A seashore favorite, starfish are common shallow water residents and particularly like being close to rocks and oyster, clam or mussel beds (their favorite food). 

Given their tough skin, starfish are not frequently preyed upon.  I never knew if this gull was able to choke this one down -- he flew away, possibly to deal with the meal in private.

Juvenile Herring Gull with Atlantic Starfish

Another popular item on the day's menu turned out to be Blue Crab, Callinectes sapidus.  Found along the Atlantic Coast, I generally associate this species with the Chesapeake Bay and other southern waters, but the gulls proved my assumption wrong as they plucked the crabs from the surf.  Blue Crabs sport bright blue coloring across their front and claws, fading to an overall olive brown along the shell and legs.

Blue Crab carapace

As a bottom dweller, Blue Crabs eat oysters, clams, mussels and also scavenge for detritus.  That scavenger title hardly makes them less appealing -- they are quite a popular dish and though they don't have any special conservation status, there is concern about population declines in certain areas, like the Chesapeake.

Females mate just once in their lives and, when carrying 2-8 million eggs on their abdomen, they are nicknamed "sponge crabs."  (Note the bright orange appendage on this female that explains the alternate name.)

Great Black-backed Gull with Blue Crab

Kicking around the beach, I came upon the carapaces (like the "top shell" on a crab's body) of what I later determined to be two different species.

Lady Crabs, Ovalipes ocellatus, range from Canada to Georgia, and like many of their relatives, feed on mollusks. They are not demure but rather assertive -- happy to pinch the feet of beach goers as we tiptoe in the surf! -- so I wondered if these remains had once been a crab fished out by gulls or simply came to its end rolling about in the rough waves.

Lady Crab carapace

With slightly different coloring and shape, carapaces of Atlantic Rock Crab, Cancer irroratus, were also common.  A mobile scavenger, they've been granted popularity status by chefs which may eventually affect their conservation status.  Seems our taste buds match the gulls' preferences as well.

Atlantic Rock Crab carapace

Juvenile Herring Gull with Atlantic Rock Crab

I was quite surprised to see a fairly intact tail shell of an American Lobster, Homarus americanus, though I did wonder if it might have been discarded after a barbecue rather than washed up on the shore.

American Lobster tail shell and Blue Mussel shells

A favorite of humans, birds, and -- as I've now learned -- starfish and crabs, the Blue Mussel, Mytilus edulis, is a familiar site along our shoreline, with a range that extends all over the northern Atlantic Ocean.  Quite abundant, they don't have any special conservation status, so this American Oystercatcher, looks unconcerned as he pries open the bivalve with his awl-shaped bill.

American Oystercatcher eating a Blue Mussel    American Oystercatcher

Not the observations I expected to make this day, but was very content with my new discoveries.  As I packed up to leave, the flocks of peeps arrived.  I hope they are still there, safe and sound, after the hurricane.

American Oystercatcher

Quiet Waters, but Questions Surface

Thrilled to be back on the American Princess yesterday for another whale and dolphin cruise, and the afternoon was proof positive that it doesn't matter if nothing's jumping -  it's simply fun to be on a boat on a lovely day! Common Bottlenose Dolphin

Common Bottlenose Dolphin

With the exception of a brief sighting of a small dolphin pod, the day was quiet -- and most relaxing.  Merryl, our on-board naturalist extraordinaire, kept us busy with her excellent cetacean presentation, along with a touch tank filled with aquatic beauties collected just minutes before leaving the dock.  Two different types of seaweed (one with tiny anemones attached!), a sea sponge, pipefish, glass shrimp and a juvenile crab no bigger than a 1/2 centimeter -- what could be better!?

Rounding our the excursion, we were treated with regular, albeit distant, views of another Wilson's Storm-petrel.  I've become rather intrigued by this pelagic species ... note to self: read up and write.

While the day may not have been filled with quantity, as I reviewed my photos of the day, I realized that having fewer dolphin images allowed me to concentrate more on details -- specifically a peculiar attachment to some of the dorsal fins, something we noticed on our earlier cruise. 

Common Bottlenose Dolphin with Pseudostalked Barnacle

At first we figured it was seaweed caught on the fin, but it looked too large and dark.  American White Pelicans develop a bulbous lump on the bill around mating season -- perhaps this was a similar accoutrement?

American White Pelicans

Wrong! 

We're all familiar with images of barnacle clusters on whales but these tiny organisms also hitch a ride on dolphins.  I'm hardly an expert on this (so please readers, let me know if you can provide guidance), but think I've identified this as Xenobalanus globicipitis, or Pseudostalked Barnacle.   A crustacean, this species seems to attach itself to dorsal fins, flippers and tails but has been noted in other places.   According to the study I found, published by the Southern California Academy of Sciences in 2010, unhealthy dolphins tend to host Xenobalanus.  This concerns me and raises questions.  Are our dolphins not well? Could geography play a role in species distribution (the study was conducted off the California coast)?  What percentage of the Atlantic Common Bottlenose Dolphin population is affected?

I'll have to dive deeper and find out.

Common Bottlenose Dolphin with Pseudostalk Barnacle

Gone Fluking

Harry promised sleep of the gods. This was my first thought when the alarm woke me at an obscene time last Saturday morning.  An avid fisherman, our pal Harry said the waking up part was terrible, but come nightfall I could expect a glorious slumber.

I'm far more interested in fish than the activity of fishing (not much of a fish eater and not keen on being the grim reaper).  However, and in spite of the early meeting time, I jumped at the chance to join the American Littoral Society's fluke tagging boat trip out of Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey.  Now I'd be able pull in that fish, admire it, tag it for research, and let it go!

Fishing rods on the Eagle

Though still a bit groggy when we arrived at our boat, the 50-foot Eagle, we perked up soon after meeting Jeff Dement, the personable and knowledgeable fish tagging director.  The team was rounded out with Captain Art and terrific mates Jeremy and Pat.  Combined with a beautiful summer morning, my alarm clock discontent was quickly wearing off.

Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey

We motored out to the Raritan Bay and settled a mile or two from the coast.  Novices (like me) were shown how to bait the hook with a tasty mix of squid and spearing (Menidia menidia), then how to drop the line without getting everything tangled.  Within minutes, the fluke were biting.

Bait

Bait

Fluke, aka summer flounder and more formally known as Paralichthys dentatus, are found in our waters until fall when they move out to the Continental Shelf where they spawn and spend winter months.  Like other flounder, they have a flat shape for bottom dwelling, but sport eyes on the left side and sharp teeth to prey upon other fish.  In their second year, they reach maturity and measure between 15-20" long. 

Today we were focused on tagging fluke over 14" (tagging smaller fish can be too stressful on their young bodies).  Once caught, the fish are brought to a table where they are calmed with a dark cloth placed over their eyes, then measured and outfitted with an orange tag placed just in front of the tail, before being released back to the water.  The size, date, location of catch, and fisherman's name is recorded and later placed in a database so Jeff can monitor the specimen's size and location when it is caught in the future.

Measuring and tagging fluke

Those measuring 18" or more were large enough to be made into dinner ... except the handsome fella I caught!  He measured well over 18" and I don't think I made friends with the serious fishermen when I said that I wanted to tag and release rather than keep him.  No matter though, I made a fish friend and it was quite a thrill to send him off back into the bay!

Me and my fluke, with Jeff

But fluke wasn't the only highlight of our seven hour trip.  The mates and Jeff pointed out schools of Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) as they churned about in the water, a common practice when they are being picked off by a larger fish from below.  Large groups of petite Comb Jellies (phyllum Ctenophora) appeared several times around the boat, and we had a murky sighting of a very large jelly that looked like its sting could pack a whallop.  And the Sea Robins (family Triglidae)!  Unattractive to many, I find them stunning, prehistoric-like fish and welcomed the chance to see so many of them close up.

Atlantic Menhaden

Jellyfish

Sea Robin

The day was not relegated only to fins -- feathers were a raucous accompaniment to the entire outing!  Terns, terns and more terns, along with gulls, gulls, and gulls.  Couple glimpses of Least Terns (Sterna antillarum) but the Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) made their presence quite known along with Laughing (Larus atricilla), Great Black-backed (Larus marinus), and Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus).

Common Tern

Laughing Gull (left) and Herring Gull

All were spectacular as they sailed around the boat, but I have to list the regular company of three Wilson's Storm-petrels (Oceanites oceanicus) as the treat of the day.  A pelagic -- or ocean living -- species, Jeff explained that seeing Storm-petrels in the Bay was a rare occurrence and wondered if the sanitation pump foul-up on the west side of Manhattan a couple weeks earlier might be the reason the birds are foraging so close to shore.  Whatever the reason, it was incredible to watch these delicate birds dangle their toes in the water as if dancing so that they could stir up the minute creatures at the water's surface.

Wilson's Storm-petrel

Wilson's Storm-petrel

Wilson's Storm-petrel

The Littoral Society's fish tagging program has been in place since 1965 and Jeff has been at the helm for the last four years.  He was pleased with our work that day, and our contribution to the approximately 25,000 fish tagged annually.  Besides fluke, other popular tagging fish include Striped Bass, Bluefish and Winter Flounder, caught all along the Atlantic coastline.  Jeff's enthusiasm and dedication to these fish and this program was palatable.  Talking to him was an education in ichthyology in itself, but he was also so knowledgeable about birds and plants.  He, along with Captain Art, and ship's mates Jeremy and Pat were extraordinary ambassadors to our local creatures and watery landscapes.

By the end of our trip, we tagged around 80 fluke, released about the same number of small ones, and I'm not even sure how many were keepers.  A successful day I considered, as I drifted into a sleep that would make Neptune proud.

Manhattan skyline from Raritan Bay