Sunday, December 27, 2015

Happy New Year!

Click to enlarge. 
My creature of the year award for 2015 goes to the neighborhood favorites -- Brooklyn's monk parakeets!

The monk parakeet, Myiopsitta monachus, is also called Quaker parrot or parakeet and a few other names. (Click here to read a previous blog about the birds). There are colonies of them in Queens and Manhattan and elsewhere in New York City, but my favorite flock lives in the gothic revival spires of the gatehouse at Brooklyn's famous Green-Wood Cemetery.

No one expects these birds: they're noisy, they're flashy, they're big and green. Congratulations to Green-Wood's monk parakeets for being among the coolest wildlife in the city.

The gatehouse at Green-Wood. 
Twig nests and parrots. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Grackle Pros and Cons

The common grackle, Quiscalus quiscula, is about a foot long, appears uniformly dark from a distance, and has bright yellow eyes. Up close it is all glossy iridescent purples and blues, and very pretty. Click to enlarge. 
Common grackles stay in New York year round. I saw one the other day, striding around on its long legs and looking cocky. Whenever I see one I take a moment to admire its glossy colors. I usually see a single bird in a park, or just a few at a time -- they look innocent and pretty.

But I hear that they get up to no good outside the city limits. They descend on corn and rice fields every year in huge flocks, eating everything in sight, and collectively causing millions of dollars worth of crop damage. And in winter, they sometimes join other birds (starlings, brown-headed cowbirds, and red-winged blackbirds) to forage and roost in noisy flocks that can include thousands of birds. That's usually very unpopular with the humans they sometimes settle near.

Grackles are also seen by many as bullies at bird feeders, driving other birds away and quickly eating every last scrap of food. That does sound rude.

 I think I prefer my polite New York City grackles.  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Warm December

This is how I expect December to look in Brooklyn. Click to enlarge. 
This is what I'm seeing instead. Flowers are blooming all over the place. A pink begonia bud opened on my (outdoor!) porch this morning and the pansies and marigolds out there look better than they did in September.  
The trees around Brooklyn City Hall burst into flower this week. 
Why so warm? According to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), a positive  "Arctic Oscillation" has shifted jet streams northward, and has trapped cold air up there since November. Good! I vote to enjoy it while we can and to walk around coatless, marveling at all the December blossoms.
The birds seem to be having an easy time and I have not yet started feeding them. So far, no winter robins have been driven to my door, no cardinals are waiting at the windows in the morning. But remember that polar vortex? I bet it won't be long until we are complaining about the cold and the view from my window looks like this -- snow in the background, not flowers. 
The easy weather made me think of  this poem by Robert Service called Courage:

Today I opened wide my eyes,
And stared with wonder and surprise, 
To see beneath November skies
An apple blossom peer:
Upon a branch as bleak as night
It gleamed exultant on my sight, 
A fairy beacon burning bright
Of hope and cheer. 

'Alas!' said I, 'poor foolish thing,
Have you mistaken this for Spring?
Behold, the thrush has taken wing, 
And Winter's near.'
Serene it seemed to lift its head;
'The Winter's wrath I do not dread, 
Because I am,' it proudly said,
'A Pioneer.

'Some apple blossom must be first,
With beauty's urgency to burst 
Into a world for joy athirst,
And so I dare;
And I shall see what none shall see -- 
December skies gloom over me,
And mock them with my April glee,
And fearless fare. 

'And I shall hear what none shall hear --
The hardy robin piping clear,
The Storm King gallop dark and drear
Across the sky;
And I shall know what none shall know -- 
The silent kisses of the snow,
The Christmas candles' silver glow,
Before I die.

'Then from your frost-gemmed window pane
One morning you will look in vain,
My smile of delicate disdain
No more to see;
But though I pass before my time,
And perish in the grale and grime, 
Maybe you'll have a little rhyme
To spare for me.' 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Breakfast Flock

In Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach wrote about a gull that "... was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all."
I watched a flock of gulls dashing and darting at the outflow of an open watergate, feeding  on something in the roiling water. 
I couldn't make out what is was -- looked wormy. 
But check out the flashy flying!  
Made me think of J. L. Seagull.
Click to enlarge. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dabbling for Dinner

The photo seems to be crying out for a funny caption. Something about exercise or synchronized swimming, right? Click to enlarge. 
These Canada geese are tipped over and reaching down with their long necks to gather food plants from the bottom of the shallow pond. The one that's right side up in the back is a designated sentinel; that's a goose thing -- they take turns watching for danger. Every time you look at a flock of geese you will see that some of them, the guards, are watching you right back and ready to honk an alarm.

Here is a haiku from 1822 by the Japanese poet Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue, about that very thing.

how prudent! 
the geese post guards
awake, asleep 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

These New Jersey wild turkeys got nervous when they noticed me approaching. Click to enlarge.  
They slipped away into the trees and quietly disappeared. Stealthy! 

Sunday, November 15, 2015


A mockingbird in a persimmon tree. Click to enlarge.
The sun is going down at around 4:30 here now, so by the time I get home from work it's fully dark. Nevertheless there is autumn beauty all around. The wild persimmons are ripe and the birds are feasting on them!

Here is a poem for the season by Adelaide Crapsey. The poet was born in my  neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights in 1878.

               November Night

               With faint dry sound,
               Like steps of passing ghosts, 
               The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
               And fall. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Columbus Circle Pigeons

There I was, sitting on a bench at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, eating a hot knish and looking around. A lot of things were going on: food vendors, sirens, souvenir sales, people renting bicycles, pet-walkers, skate-boarders, shoppers, police, horse-drawn carriages, beggars, preachers, pedicab drivers drumming up fares, New Yorkers walking fast, traffic churning, trains rumbling below, someone doing yoga, and a guy playing a saxophone. And right there in the center of it all --- pigeons. They seemed to be perching on the statues with particularly artistic flare. 
Is this boy showing off for his mother?
"Look -- three at once!" 
A pigeon delicately balanced upon the nose. 
A tender moment with mother, child, and pigeons.  Click on the photos to enlarge. This is the sixth blog I've written about pigeons! Type "pigeon" in the search box on the right for the others. 

"Pigeon friend of mine, 
Fly on, sing on." -- Carl Sandburg

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Another Walk in New Jersey

I wrote a blog in August about a walk I took in northern New Jersey. Here's another blog about a walk in New Jersey, but this time around Cape May at the end of October. The trees were turning colors around one of the ponds at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management area.  Click on the photos to enlarge. 
There were a lot of buckeye butterflies around. They are migrating now. Click here to see a previous blog about buckeye butterflies. 
Buckeyes are seasonally dimorphic; the undersides of their rear wings are tan or brown in spring but pink like this one in autumn. 
Through the woods and onto the dune path. 
To the windy beach. 
All the while migrating hawks were zipping overhead -- too fast for me to photograph, alas. 
Then a little more woods walking. 
Past a few of these south Jersey style swamps. 
In the sheltered spots there were green darner dragonflies, Anax junius.  They are migrating now, too. We can tell that this one is a male from the blue on its abdomen. 
Then there was this little metallic bee shining like gold in the sunlight. It's scientific name Augochlora pura means "pure golden green." These bees are usually green but can be coppery or gold like this one. It is one of the prettiest bees ever. 
And here is a spiffy hover fly from the genus Sphaerophoria. You would think it was still summer in some of the sunny protected corners of Cape May's fields. 
Then back to the leafy country road and home. 
There are some really pretty places in New Jersey. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Cape May Point

Cape May Point, New Jersey, is always nice -- but I love it in October. The leaves are changing, the summer tourists are gone, and the hawks are migrating. Click on the photos to enlarge.
Today there were lots of hawks sitting in the trees around the Point, like this handsome Cooper's hawk. 
But one of the best moments of my long walk was when I paused by a creek to investigate a quiet smacking sound. It turned out to be this mallard duck voraciously munching duckweed. Apparently duckweed is beak-smacking good. 
The autumn leaves looked great. 
The rest was soothing scenery. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Cicada Killer

Here's an interesting insect from the summer of 2015 -- a big wasp I passed on a hot day in August. It's Specius specious, commonly called the eastern cicada killer or cicada hawk. 
At about an inch and a half long, the cicada killer is one of our larges wasps. Their huge size makes them look dangerous, but they are usually not aggressive and do not often sting us. They are solitary wasps that live alone; they lack the hive-defending sting-whatever-comes-close attitude of the yellowjackets they are sometimes mistaken for.

I saw this cicada the same day. It is also a really big insect, up to about two inches long.  Click on the photos to enlarge. 
It was not accident that I saw both of these on the same day; they are intimately associated. When a female cicada killer is ready to lay eggs she digs a nest in the ground. (Lawns, planting beds, and the edges of concrete slabs are favorite sites.) Then she goes out hunting cicadas.

She stings a cicada to paralyze it and then carries to her nest. The flight is laborious because the cicada is so big and heavy. The wasp will sometimes land along the way or stop to rest, holding onto the prey. Back at the nest, she pushes the cicada in and may go back to find more. After the nest is provisioned to her satisfaction she lays eggs on the paralyzed prey and seals the nest.

The eggs hatch into larvae that eat the fresh cicadas. Then, plump and satisfied, the larvae become pupae and spend the winter underground. They emerge from the nest the following summer, digging upward, and fly about eating flower nectar and plant sap until the time comes to breed, and hunt cicadas.

Check out how this wasp is resting with its front legs folded up to its shoulders. Maybe wasps do that all the time and I never noticed until I watched a giant.