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

Baby Boom

It happens every year -- the little ones arrive.  I'm not speaking of tots pushed in strollers, but rather youngsters emerging from tree branches. Emerging leaves

Leaves in spring tend to play second fiddle to flower blooms, and often need to wait until fall for everyone to gush about their beauty.

Emerging leaves

Admittedly, I didn't fully appreciate their springtime beauty until I moved to New York nearly 25 years ago.  During my first Manhattan spring, I was enthralled with the tiny leaves, amazed by their brightness. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of new growth in an urban setting -- the city seemed to be covered in an explosion of little puffs of lime green, yellow green and chartreuse, darkening as the weeks progress.

Emerging leaves

And their size!  As with babies, puppies and ducklings, young leaves are irresistible with their diminutive features.

Emerging leaves

Just like flower blossoms, the time to enjoy baby leaves is short.  Their cells begin to expand and the leaves grow.  The larger leaves produce wonderful summer shade, that morph into fall color.  And as they drop in the winter, I will once again be thinking of those green puffs of spring.

Emerging leaves

 

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

Sighings for Spring

I really have no right to complain considering this mild winter.  But no matter – around this time every year I get desperate for warmer weather and flowers. Conveniently some plants are happy to accommodate my longing.

Quince

Indeed, abnormally warm temperatures can wreak havoc on botanical biological clocks, but surprising as it may be, late winter is a normal time to see some flowers and shoots.

Crocus

Though they may not have brains like animal counterparts, plants are pretty smart and can almost “sense” the passage of time.  It boils down to those temperatures, longer day lengths, and hormones like gibberellin and auxin that help plants break dormancy and grow.

Wintersweet   Snowdrops

I wish I were better versed in plant physiology to properly explain it all, but perhaps the real awe is just simply watching it happen every year.

Edgeworthia   Witchhazel

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

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.

Birds, Bugs, Buds, and Buddies

As I consider the last 12 months, the places I've visited and the nature I've enjoyed, one consistent theme shines through: great people. So in this last post of 2011, let me just thank my wonderful friends and family.  Wish I had photos of ya' all, but do have snaps of a few of you to share...

Bird walk at Queens Botanical Garden

Annette

Apartment garden

Rebecca and Gennadyi

Susan and our new friend.

Wayne and Mitch

Me and my fluke

Bill on a hike

Mitch and mom

Amanda on a hike

Fritz and friend

But, as always, the biggest thanks goes to Mitch --

Mitch and Flora 

Happy New Year everyone!  Here's to a great 2012!

Wild Turkey on the Rocks, Please!

Though I'm not a local, I know that Staten Island has many things to offer -- Snug Harbor, charming Historic Richmond Town, and the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in the city. But I never expected Staten Island to offer me an intimate visit with Wild Turkeys (Melagris gallopavo).

Wild Turkey

Pals and Staten Islanders Marion and Joe mentioned a growing population of the big birds near Staten Island University Hospital, and of course, a full investigation was in order!

Driving down Father Capodanno Boulevard, I wondered if they were really so prevalent or if had I just set myself up for a wild goose, er, turkey chase.  I needn't have worried.  Just yards from the turn off the Boulevard toward the hospital, I nearly ran into a female leisurely crossing Seaview Avenue.  Another 30 or so watched her from behind a large chain link fence.

Wild Turkey

Incredible!  Sadly, I wasn't able to photograph this group as they were on the grounds of the psychiatric hospital.  Disappointing, but perhaps it would be smart not cause trouble at this particular location.

My nose-to-beak meeting was minutes later on the quiet side streets where a loose group of 20 or so foraged in front yards and between parked cars.  I have seen turkeys only twice in my life -- once driving through Nebraska on I-80 without the opportunity to stop, and another time at the Bronx Zoo when I spotted a female in the shrub understory by the Reptile House.  These brief encounters made me long for a closer view.  And here, on Staten Island of all places, was my chance.

Besides their girth, a turkey's color is mesmerizing.  At first they appeared brownish with some streaks of white, and of course, the red wattle adorning the bald face.  But from my distance -- just a couple feet at times -- the feathers showed stripes and iridescence, while the head was nearly hot pink.

Wild Turkey Plumage   Wild Turkey Plumage

Wild Turkey Plumage

I'm not an expert on turkeys so I'm unable to impart much information, but have heard they are very intelligent.  Can't say that I witnessed any evidence in my hour or so following them on the street, but what did strike me was their soft, thoughtful eyes that certainly made them look like a wise uncle.  And while the folds of naked skin might not appear handsome at first, when combined with those eyes and regal posture, they become a most majestic bird.  I can understand why this was Ben Franklin's choice as our nation's bird.

Wild Turkey

Car traffic was limited so I witnessed another endearing characteristic -- vocalizations.  We're all familiar with the gobble sound but as they peacefully picked through the leaf litter, each offered a soft, almost cooing sound (scroll down on the page and listen to "Purr").  Not at all what I would expect to hear from such a formidable-looking creature.

While my pals generally focused on lunchtime foraging, two males were engaged in a little power struggle.  To my untrained turkey eye, a large male with an impressive wattle was making some gentle yet persistent moves toward a smaller male.  I assume the smaller one was younger and perhaps intruding on the old boy's territory or flirting too much with his ladies.  It was not an all out fight, but the elder was quite convincing that he was the boss.

Wild Turkey   Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

Local news stories have reported on the turkeys which mysteriously appeared some years ago, and the mixed opinions of residents.  As an outsider, I can't think of a more wonderful animal to join my yard, but perhaps their associated mess would start to wear thin as it has with other folks.  On the other hand, the turkeys seem to have enough fans and started their own Twitter feed.

Opinions might abound but one thing is certain: we do have it all in our city, including the opportunity to see -- and truly watch -- a remarkable animal in a way most people never will.

Can hardly wait for spring when I head back to watch males in their breeding displays....

Wild Turkey

My Own Walden

I fully admit to bouts of wanderlust.  At the same time, I equally enjoy learning the intimate seasonal details of a particular place. Green roof at Queens Botanical Garden

Thoreau's Walden passed by my eyes many years ago -- high school, perhaps? -- and while I might appreciate the concept behind the man's work, truth be told I found it a bit dull.  Enjoying a recent walk through Queens Botanical Garden has made me reconsider his deep documentation of a single landscape.

I stopped by QBG on a day off when I recalled the previous year's sudden downpour of Kinglets, a sprite of a bird.  That same week a year earlier, both Ruby- and Golden-crowned species (Regulus calendula and satrapa) were thick in the garden.  During my regular lunchtime walk with pal Annette, one nearly landed on her shoulder and a couple days later, another sat on my shoe for a few seconds.  Their quick, flitting motions seemed to be just a sign of their personality rather than an indication of fear -- they were almost tame considering how close we approached.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

This year's journey began when I drove into the service entrance where heaps of manure sat decomposing, awaiting the transformation into excellent compost for the next growing season.  Immediately, I saw quick flashes that, with some later guidance, turned out to be the yellow variation Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum).  While enjoying this sighting, I noticed lovely clusters of mushrooms.  Fungi on decaying matter is not unusual, but I've not seen this type before.  Note to self:  watch manure more frequently.

Mushrooms on manure pile

I moved onto the Parking Garden, a space of great pride at QBG.  You heard right -- Parking GARDEN, not Parking Lot.  This fantastic space not only accommodates cars, but with permeable pavers, rainwater-retaining depressions called bioswales, and native plantings, it can manage stormwater onsite.  It's also a great place to enjoy plants, birds, and insects.

Bees were laying low this day given the breeze but a few Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) drifted past on their migration route.  I wanted to visit a large stand of sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) that Annette and I noticed several weeks earlier.  The flowers should be giving way to seeds by about this time, offering food for various birds, and I was not disappointed to see American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), plus my first Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus).

American Goldfinch on Sunflowers

Bobolink

There are moments I wonder if I spend too much time in just one spot -- so opposite my wanderlust tendencies -- and question if time should be spent in other landscapes.  But looking at the Parking Garden's adjacent meadow and recalling the nesting Killdeers (Charadrius vociferus) in early summer, I reconsider.  After all, if I had not been so tied to watching this landscape with my alert workmate friends, I would have never seen these birds and their two broods raised over the summer.

Killdeer

I rounded a small stand of Poplar trees (Populus spp.), just taking on golden fall colors, and headed to QBG's main gardens.  Abundant blooms in the Perennial Beds clearly did not receive the memo that fall had arrived, though the bright orange Persimmons (Diospyros spp.) -- the outcome of a season filled with hard work from a tree's perspective -- nearly glowed.

Autumn trees   Perennial Beds at Queens Botanical Garden

Northern Mockingbird on Persimmon

Next stop on my Kinglet quest were the turf areas, a rewarding location last year.  This time the grass near the Floral Border was silent, along with the expanse of the Oak Allee where our stunning trees waited to show off autumn hues along with their Red Maple neighbors (Acer rubrum).  It wasn't until the Woodland Garden path that I noticed quick movements in the leaf litter below a Magnolia (Magnolia spp.).  Perhaps not in the same number as before, but the Kinglets had returned on cue.

Maybe it's time to give Walden another go.

P.S. A week later the Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris) and Red Maples caught up to the season.

Red Maple at Queens Botanical Garden

Nature in Needle Park

Once a potter's field, reservoir, construction storage space for new subways, site of a huge anti-war rally, and drug/prostitute marketplace, Bryant Park has certainly seen it all.  Before its renovation into a more friendly landscape, heroin sales were so brisk that it was nicknamed "Needle Park" -- not to be confused with the one at 72nd Street and Broadway and the setting for the movie "The Panic in Needle Park."  Ah, New York City in the 1970s!

Hermit Thrush

Today's Bryant Park is still heavily used but by office workers, families, and tourists.  Not sure about those darker days, but the park is also a wonderful haven for birds, even though it is considered the most densely populated park in the world.

Gray Catbird

My birding excursions have not been terribly intensive as I usually enjoy the park seated with a cup of coffee in hand, but even such casual visits turn up nice birds.  Under the canopy of London Planetrees (Platinus acerifolia) with a shrub/perennial understory that includes Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) mixed with Purple Coneflower (Echincea purpurea), and extensive Periwinkle (Vinca minor) groundcovers, those seed- and insect-loving birds have a plentiful banquet!

White-throated Sparrow   Hermit Thrush

A brief visit last weekend -- with the requisite coffee -- did not disappoint.  Within minutes the birds made their prescence known.  Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) made the rounds in an empty flower bed, while a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) lurked under the shrubs.  But the best spotting of the day was a friendly Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus) that hopped nearly underfoot next to the Petanque court.  Note to self: next summer move beyond birds, and start checking out the insects that make use of the some nine acres.

Needle Park?  Nah, Nature Park!

Ovenbird   Ovenbird

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

While I love my home city, I succumb to tendencies of wanderlust.   After a September filled with a whopping three trips, I must admit to enjoying some at-home time ... though I regularly catch myself reminiscing about that last jaunt a couple weeks ago -- a lovely vacation to London and the north Cornwall coast. In a desire to see EVERYTHING, there's never enough time for it all, including nature appreciation.  Still, we did pretty well.  Here are a few of the nature sights.

Hyde Park: our hotel was nearby and the closest entrance along Bayswater Road led to a wild meadow area full of uncut grasses.  Divine, and I could have spent the entire morning parked in the midst of flowing Poaceae (plants in the grass family) yet the wristwatch was calling.  Crows (not positive of the exact species) scoured the overgrown turf for snacks, while wildly playful Magpies hopped under large oaks collecting acorns.  Above, Wood Pigeons-- think of our little pidges on steroids! -- were precariously balanced on branches also collecting their winter acorn stash.

Wood Pigeon

Measuring over 300 acres, Hyde Park boasts a large waterway called The Serpentine but in our limited time with Kew Gardens calling that same day, we could only make a brief stop at the Round Pond next to Kensington Palace.  Hardly a disappointment -- a spotting of bespectaled Egyptian Geese, along with European Starlings in their native habitat!  The Coots were close and cooperative along with the delicately-formed yet raucous Black-headed Gull.

Egyptian Geese  

Coot

Black-headed Gull

Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew: Ah, the mother ship!  The end-all, be-all for gardeners.  Maybe it was the time of year, maybe I didn't have enough time -- while this was a stunning specimen of public horticulture, I was not moved to tears as expected.  Considering its size and the pleasant heat wave during our visit, I expected to see birds and bugs galore, yet both seemed to be a bit shy during our visit.  No matter, as the arboretum was cool and shady and the late-season perennials in perfect form.  Hey, I'm willing to give these few hundred acres another go!  After all, our last visit of the day was to the pond in front of the famous Palm House -- full of waterfowl and the trip's first sighting of a Grey Heron offering high hopes for a later visit.  And even if the growing season was on the wane, the botanical displays were lovely.

Royal Botanic Garden, Kew

Water lily

A Sower   Cattails

Duck

Flowerhead

Grass Garden

London Wetland Centre:  Now this is where it's at --a joyful 42 hectares just south of the Thames, focused on habitat preservation and accessible by public transportation.  Instead of the bus, we opted to load into dear pal Wayne's now deceased Mini Cooper for a visit to this wonderful sanctuary.  Also a nature enthusiast/photographer, Wayne focused in on the native plants while I couldn't divert my eyes from new birds (particularly the very cooperative Grey Herons).  Up in one of the two-story hides we enjoyed the company and expertise of Ziggy, sanctuary manager for a nearby preserve who was involved with a dragonfly count.

Magpie

Eurasian Wigeon

Grey Heron   Grey Heron

Coot

London Wetland Centre

Grey Heron

Grey Heron   Little Grebe

Oxford: Rats!  The one day I leave the big lens behind is the day...the ONE day... that we spotted a most incredible bird.  But let me back up.  Our trip to this academic city was focused on history and its great mystery shows, namely Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis.  Today, nature would have to take a back burner which we later regretted during a walk through a riverside meadow with the most interesting bird -- the Jay.  You'll excuse these photos taken when I was ill-equipped, but I couldn't resist the temptation to capture this bird.

Jay

Jay

Cornwall: Sigh.  Compared to the London sun and heatwave, Cornwall's northern coast was unfortunately just what the seasonal weather averages expected -- chilly, windy, with intervals of rain, sun, rainbows, sun showers, mist, sun, followed by rain.  While this changing forecast put a bit of a damper on things, during those less gloomy moments we covered a lot of ground, enjoying the most incredible coastline I've ever seen.  The wind was constant and penetrating to the point of madness (I now understand the meaning of a common local saying "Goin' Bodmin" when one loses their marbles), so birds and insects were hunkered down and clearly we missed the good months for plants.  But oh! -- the cliffside walks, the tides, and those birds and plants that could tough out the climate.  Such glory in sturdy species.

Port Isaac, Cornwall

Port Isaac, Cornwall

Robin

I'm long unpacked, but ready to saddle up again for travels.  So many places yet to go even when limited to one place.  Wayne mentioned the deer in Richmond Park, and I would like to see Ziggy's spot in Morden.  And those mud flat moments along the Thames called out to me and my muck boots.  Cornwall's incredible low tides and associated tidal pools were not explored fully, along with the shared walking paths with grazing livestock, along with a few nature preserves. 

Enough already!  My bags will be packed in an hour!

Robin

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

Raptor Rescue!

Hooray to terrific pal/workmate Regina who shall hereafter be named "Eagle Eyes" for spotting an injured American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)! Not much bigger than my pet cockatiels, this small falcon had an injured wing and was hiding in the arborvitae hedge at Queens Botanical Garden.  With the help of ever-willing hubby, we were able to capture this charmer who rather quickly settled onto the pillow inside a large plastic box.  About an hour later, we dropped him (her?) off at a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for further care.

American Kestrel

Kestrels are delicate in build but jaunty in appearance with exceptional coloring and patterns -- white, black, rust and slate blue feathers arranged in solids, stripes and spots, plus a little dark moustache.  They've always been my favorite bird of prey, perhaps sealed by an experience a few years ago at the fall Cape May Birding Festival.

American Kestrel

We were observing a raptor banding demo near the Cape May Lighthouse.  Each raptor was carefully pulled from from their little "container" used to keep them calm and secure, and the leader showed off plumage before releasing.  All the bigger birds were quite calm, but the Kestrel wanted to make his presence known  in no uncertain terms.  He fidgeted, struggled, and nipped the leader's fingers before wiggling out of his grip.

The bird -- small, but with a sharp beak and talons -- zipped past the group straight towards me.  Dear Readers, you know I'm not scared of a bird, but I decided that a ducking motion was in order to avoid a possibly painful collision.  I saw the Kestrel swoop by in the corner of my eye as the crowd released a collective "Oh!"

Naturally, I thought my evasive maneuver meant that I missed a good show.  I looked over to the woman next to me and noticed that she had a parting gift from the kestrel on her jacket sleeve.  Ah, poor dear, but now I know why the crowd reacted.  But why were they still looking at me?

I glanced at my shoulder and saw my own parting gift: an enormous blotch of what looked like white paint.  Only it wasn't.

As a bird owner, I know this meant good luck.  But it was simply a mess.  Still, as I wiped away...and wiped away... and continued to wipe away, I knew the American Kestrel was forever connected to me.  And not more than an hour later, I spotted my first American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), very deep in a reedy wetland.  What luck!

But the jacket has never been the same.

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

A Delightful Dog Day Afternoon

Happy are cicadas' lives,They all have voiceless wives.

Dog Day Cicada

So goes the saying (though probably only known by bug enthusiasts!), but as I walked along the paths at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge's East Pond, I wondered about the female cicadas' point of view.  The males' songs were deafening!

This pleased me to no end.  Back around July 4th I noted the first cicada song outside my apartment window, but all summer the neighborhood has been eerily silent.  Cicadas are one of my favorite insects, and their tunes provide the perfect summer soundtrack.  I do not have an answer yet on my locals, but clearly the Jamaica Bay cicadas are happy and active.

Not as newsworthy as their relatives -- the Periodical Cicadas, with the groovy genus name of Magicicada -- our usual summer friends are commonly called Dog Day or Annual Cicadas.  At least 75 cicada species are found in North America; our yearly locals fall into the Tibicen genus.  According to both experience and one of my favorite books, Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw, cicadas are more often heard than seen. 

Except this time.

Dog Day Cicada

Walking along the trails towards the East Pond enjoying their song, I noticed one high up in a tree.  Then another, and another, so many closer to eye level, buzzing around my head back and forth to branches.  It was like a cicada Lollapalooza!  The birds weren't so cooperative that day, but the cicadas more than made up for it.

As inferred by the poem, cicada song is the male's domain and his way to attract a mate.  The sound is made by a percussion-like ribbed membrane called a tymbal found on each side of the thorax or abdomen, and activated by a large muscle.  The song is then amplified in the air-filled abdomen.

What a treat to see this in action, and I was thrilled to try out the video function in my camera.  Click on the video below to see a single cicada and later, two starting to mate (and dropping on me -- notice my surprise!).  Apologies in advance though: still learning the video feature on my camera so it's a little fuzzy, but you'll still get the general idea:

While watching all the cicadas literally dripping from the trees, I noticed that wing flicking motion that you can see in the video.  The flicking is followed by the rattling abdomen and song, leading me to think that these are males.  However, as I researched this behavior online (sigh ... most research dealt with the perennial favorite, the Periodical Cicada), one site indicated that wing flicking is a female behavior.  Clearly not from the video -- both are flicking wings. Perhaps both males and females participate in this action to ... um ... say "Hello"...?

Ah, science and nature.  When one observation leads to a hundred questions!

Cicadas are sometimes incorrectly called locust, an unfair nickname since not only are they in completely different insect orders (locust, such as grasshoppers, are in Orthoptera, while cicadas are in Hemiptera) but also are much less damaging than ravenous, chewing grasshoppers.  Cicadas tap into tree branches and twigs with their sucking mouth parts and feed on fluid from the tree's xylem, the tissues that conduct water and nutrients throughout the plant.

After mating, the female deposits eggs into tree bark with a needle-like organ called an ovipositor (again, damage is usually minor).  Nymphs, or immature cicadas sans wings, will emerge from eggs then drop to the soil and bury themselves in, sucking sap from tree roots.  Once mature, they will emerge from their nymphal exoskeleton as a mature -- winged -- cicada and the cycle begins again.  Dog Day Cicadas take 2-5 years to develop from egg to adult.

When it comes down to it, there's really nothing better than these summer friends.  They're attractive, don't bite, cause minimal damage that is not even noticeable, and continue the natural food chain by becoming a meal for several bird species.

And who doesn't like an insect that can carry a tune for our lazy summer afternoons?

Dog Day Cicada