Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday Breakfast

I scatter seeds on my porch in Brooklyn Heights for the birds when the weather gets cold. This morning I had lots of visitors. Click on the photos to enlarge.

House sparrows, Passer domesticus, are always the first to arrive. They like seeds and breadcrumbs.  They usually come in a group. 
The cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, eats seeds, nuts, and fruit. A male/female pair come together, and he usually comes out from cover first. She is less trusting and flies away if she sees me watching. They can open peanut shells, and often nibble some grapes and then fly off with one big peanut each to peel and eat in a more private place. 
I can always tell when the blue jays arrive from their loud calls of Jay! Jay! Jay! The jays, Cyanocitta cristata, target whole peanuts in the shell, carrying them off, one by one, until they have collected them all. They find a good spot and bury them for later. 
White-throated sparrows, Zonotrichia albicollis, mainly breed in Canada and then migrate south to spend the winter in the eastern and southern states, west coast, and northern South America -- and in my garden. They show up on the porch when I put out seeds, seeming mainly to be interested in the smaller ones, like millet. 
Pigeons, Columba livia, almost never come to the garden, but they seem to know immediately whenever there are seeds on my porch. Ditto breadcrumbs, another of their favorites. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Urban Wildlife :-)

I had the flu this week and could not go urban wildlife hunting. Here's a collection of urban animals from my archives -- click the pictures to enlarge.
"Animal totems, like the tiger, come from the Other Side, to protect us while we are away from home." Silvia Browne
"I believe in everything until it's disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it's in your mind. Who's to say that dreams and nightmares aren't as real as the here and now?" John Lennon
"An understanding of the natural world and what's in it is a source of not only a great curiosity but great fulfillment."  David Attenborough
"Does the bowl in the garden mock nature when night after night green frogs gather to prove it a pool? Who says you can't make a pond out of a bowl?" Han Yu
"I wouldn't mind turning into a vermillion goldfish." Henri Matisse
"I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril." J.R.R. Tolkien
"This is what you should do; love the Earth and sun and the animals." Walt Whitman
"Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way." John Muir

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Pomegranate for the Cardinals

Sometimes I buy a pomegranate, put it on a shelf, and never get around to eating it. You have to be in the mood to get red juice on your hands...

Cardinals are happy to help with that. I cut a dried-up looking pomegranate into bits yesterday -- it was still juicy inside -- and put them on my porch.

A male (above) and female northern cardinal (below) have been visiting ever since. They eat seeds and fruit, so  pomegranate pips must seem like the perfect food -- a seed wrapped in a bit of juicy red fruit!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Winter Plumage

An adult laughing gull in winter plumage.
I took this photo of a laughing gull in non-breeding plumage at the end of September in southern New Jersey. Laughing gulls, Leucophaeus atricilla, loose their sleek black hoods as summer ends. Breeding season is over by then and they no longer have to look their best to impress potential mates.

If you didn't know better you would think they were different birds in summer when they look like the picture below.

Adult laughing gulls in summer. Click to enlarge. 
Even the winter plumed ones are gone from the northeast now, having flown to their wintering grounds farther south.

Their photos reminded me of summer, and of this line from Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley: "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" 

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Thank you to everyone who came to my presentation at the New York City Mid-town Manhattan Library on Tuesday night. I had a great time! Sorry that we sold out of books. You can order one from by clicking here. P.S. The chubby reddish brown squirrels in Union Square are eastern gray squirrels.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Vulture Shadows

Black vultures and turkey vultures roosting on a water tower.

Check out their shadows! 

Click on any of the photos to enlarge.

Tuesday November 27th at 6:30 I will be speaking about my book at the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York City Public Library. It's the building on the southeast corner of 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, across from the big marble building with the famous lions. It's free!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Snow Geese!

Snow geese, Chen caerulescens. Click to enlarge. 
Snow geese are migrating now. They have spent the summer breeding above the timberline in northern Canada and Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia. Now they are heading to warmer places: southern British Columbia, southern North America, and Mexico.

Snow geese are white with black wingtips.
They have pink bills with a dark line, sometimes called black lips.
To call snow geese gregarious is an understatement; some flocks contain several hundred thousand individuals. When they land, they can cover the ground like a sudden snowfall. But I like them best when they are flying. Standing near a big flock as it takes wing is such a sweeping phenomenon it is like being in their world: a honking whistling blizzard, a ticker tape parade of falling geese. Go see them at a wildlife refuge, marsh, or farm field near you. Click here to see a video of snow geese in the air. (If an ad pops up, click it away.)

And, from Mary Oliver  -- Snow Geese

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
to ask
of anything, or anyone,
yet it is ours,
and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.
One fall day I heard
above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound
I did not know, and my look shot upward; it was
a flock of snow geese, winging it
faster than the ones we usually see,
and, being the color of snow, catching the sun
so they were, in part at least, golden. I
held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us
as with a match,
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
but delightfully,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.
The geese
flew on,
I have never seen them again.
Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won't.
It doesn't matter.
What matters
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.

The pictures in the blog were taken at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, New Jersey, near Atlantic City. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Coney Island's Great Black-backed Gulls

The great black-backed gull, Larus marinus. Click to enlarge.
 A few weeks ago, just before hurricane Sandy, I spent a day at Brooklyn's Coney Island. it was not a big day for urban wildlife, but I saw this fine fat Great Black-Backed Gull at the fishing pier. He eyed me as a potential source of snacks, but flew away when I turned out to be wildlife paparazzi.

The great black-backed gull is easy to identify. It is the largest gull in the world, almost two feet long with a four-foot wingspan. It has a dark grayish-black back, white spots on the tips of the wings, and pink legs. Its bill is yellow with a red dot near the tip. In winter plumage, shown above, it has light dusky streaks on its head.

The great black-backed gull takes four years to reach adulthood and goes through a series of plumages. In this photo a third winter bird is taking wing while an adult floats on the water. Click here for Cornell Lab of Ornithology's plumage descriptions.
Coney Island was at its best that day -- hot dogs, cotton candy, carnival rides, sun, surf, and great black-backed gulls. Here are some photos. I Hope Coney Island is back on its feet soon.
The fishing pier.

The roller coaster.
The carousel.
Scream Zone!

The Wonder Wheel is expected to be back in service for next year's opening. I heard on the news today that rides will be free on opening day, Palm Sunday 2013.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Here is the flyer the library made for the event.
(I had to cut it in two to fit this format.) 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pine Siskins at the Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge Park and Manhattan. Pine siskins have moved in!
I saw a flock of pine siskins in Brooklyn Bridge Park a few weeks ago. Just behind the row of red bushes in the photo above, the little birds were collecting seeds from plants and grasses. They chatted softly while they flitted from plant to plant, sometimes fluttering to stay balanced while perching on the end of a stem. When pine siskins fly we see flashes of yellow feathers on their wings and at the base of the tail.

Little pines siskins, Spinus pinus, are easy to overlook. They are about five inches long and only weigh about half an ounce. They are mainly brown with streaks on body and head. 
Yellow wing edges.
Pine siskins are residents across southern Canada and at high elevations of the western United States. They breed in western Canada. In winter they sometimes migrate south, or irrupt, into other areas. They move further south in eastern North America and into lower elevations in the west. Changes in food availability are thought to inspire irruptions. Some years the siskins stay put, other years they suddenly appear in New York parks and gardens.

Pine siskins eat seeds of conifers like pine, cedar, hemlock, larch, and spruce. They also eat seeds of birch, sweet gum, maple, and alder. And they eat the tiny seeds of grasses, dandelions, ragweed, and other plants. They occasionally snack on an insect or spider. They are happy to come to feeders for thistle and sunflower seeds.

Pine siskins sometimes travel with other irruptive migrants like crossbills, redpolls, purple finches, evening grossbeaks, and goldfinches. Birdwatchers call these the winter finches; I hope to see some of them in Brooklyn Bridge Park, too! But the park has been closed for a week because of hurricane Sandy and has just reopened. I'm on my way out to look for finches. I'll report back.

The siskins may have been carried far away by the storm. (Click here to listen to a short NPR interview describing how birds can travel inside a hurricane's eye.)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mating Damselflies

About a month ago, I walked the 8-mile path around Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, New Jersey (near Atlantic City). The walk takes several hours for those of us who constantly stop to take photographs and to identify birds and butterflies. There were many many pairs of damselflies mating in the marsh grass that day.

It is not immediately obvious (to us) what is going on during damselfly and dragonfly sex. Here are the basics: An amorous male begins by producing sperm from genitalia at the tip of his abdomen (tail). He transfers the sperm package to receptacles under his belly. Then he goes off to find a female.

When he locates a likely mate, he grabs her by the head with hooks on the end of his abdomen; his claspers fit precisely to females of his species. The claspers-to-head position is called a mating chain. Sometimes they  fly while connected like this.

They eventually perch. The female curls to pick up the male's sperm with the tip of her abdomen, getting into a position called a mating wheel (some call it a heart). Click here to see a halloween pennant dragonfly mating wheel in a previous blog post.

And from the obscure trivia department. The damselfly has a very nice name in Dutch -- it's called a waterjuffer.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Common Copper Butterfly

The common copper butterfly, Lycaena phlaeas. Click to enlarge. 
This little butterfly would be easy to miss if not for the flashes of bright orange as it flits about in its active flight. The butterfly is only about an inch across. It usually flies within a few feet of the ground, often landing and spreading its wings; that's the time to sneak up and take a close look.

Its forewings are orange with black spots and a gray border; underneath they are similar but lighter colored. The hind wings are gray above with orange patches at the rear; underneath they are lighter gray with black spots and a zigzagged orange line at the edge. As is typical for members of the butterfly family Lycaenidae, the common copper has black-and-white ringed antennae and its eyes are outlined with white.

Striped antennae and white-ringed eyes! 
The common copper is also called the American copper and the small copper. It is found throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and in some parts of North Africa, visiting habitats from woodland clearings to city lots. But only when it's warm and the plants are green. This is about the end of the season for common copper butterflies in New England. Or, as Mother Goose would say:

Butterfly, Butterfly,
Whence do you come?
I know not, I ask not, 
Nor ever had a home. 
Butterfly, butterfly, 
Where do you go?
Where the sun shines, 
And where the buds grow. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Jamaica Bay

Not the image that comes to mind when you picture New York City, is it?  This is Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. The refuge office is on Cross Bay Boulevard in the New York City borough of Queens. Click on the photo to enlarge. 
You can see the distant Manhattan skyline from the gravel paths of the refuge. The tallest building is the New World Trade Center. 
You can get there on the NYC subway -- another surprise! From my Brooklyn neighborhood it takes about 40 minutes to get to Broad Channel station, about a mile from the refuge. The last half of the ride is above ground. Take the Mott Avenue-Far Rockaway bound A train. Click here to check the schedule with the MTA's trip planner.  Step out of the station and walk straight to Cross Bay Boulevard. Turn right. Continue to the refuge entrance on the left side of the road. 
Then relax and walk around the West Pond. The trail takes you for a 1.6 mile stroll through woodland and marsh. 

Yesterday I saw cormorants, great egrets, ruddy ducks, mallards, song sparrows, kinglets, mute swans, Canada geese, and large flocks of brant geese. But the real stars were the yellow-rumped warblers. 
Thousands of yellow-rumped warblers were darting across the paths and flitting from branch to branch. They migrate down the east coast in large numbers every autumn. Some of them will continue south and some will spend the winter in New York, especially in coastal areas like the refuge where wax-myrtle plants provide food for them. 
The yellow-rumped warbler, Setophaga coronata, is also called the myrtle warbler.  The picture above explains its common nickname butter butt. 
The trail has nicely placed benches for a mid-hike picnic lunch. 
The autumn foliage is perfect now, too. :-)