Monday, February 25, 2013

New York City Winter EcoCruise

Lower Manhattan behind Governor's Island - one of the piers on Governor's Island last year had around 30 pairs of nesting common terns, organizations are trying to work something out to possibly block off this pier so the birds can continue to nest there.
     My husband and I went out on New York City's Water Taxi's EcoCruise in partnership with NYC Audubon. Winter is such a great time for waterfowl because we have so many species that travel South from the Arctic to us. While they are here, they can be seen in their lovely breeding plumage as they will be moving up North soon to nest. If you are willing to brave the cold, I highly recommend getting out and seeing some winter birds while you can, if you are interested in the EcoCruise, there is one tour left on 3/3 (check out their site for details:
     Our cruise was great, we saw red-throated loons, bufflehead ducks, long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers, black ducks, black-back gulls, herring gulls, ring billed gulls, a Northern gannet, great cormorants, double crested cormorants, and harbor seals!
     The wind was really powerful when we were moving and the majority of my pictures were just absolutely ridiculous in the worst way. Also, bobbing around in the Atlantic makes taking any picture a challenge, even when the boat came to a stop. The boat did have complementary hot cocoa which was awesome to get a quick warm up, but bundling up was key, while you could stay indoors, outside was best as you didn't have cloudy/salty windows to obstruct your view! I was really happy with my brand new boots that are supposed to be good down to -40F, they performed well in the cold. On board we also had a naturalist who helped ID birds and tell you some tidbits of interesting info about them, I learned a few new things. Also, just sailing through NY harbor was a treat, we never do touristy things, and I have never in my lifetime even been to the Statue of Liberty, so boating past the sights and under bridges was also very cool.
A double crested cormorant. These birds breed in New York. We also saw great cormorants, which look very similar and have a white throat patch, but they nest up North.
Great views of the Statue of Liberty. You can see some terms and dumpsters, I can only imagine they are trying to make repairs to damages that were due to super storm Sandy.
Red Hook, Brooklyn - Active storage and shipping container yards. Around Red Hook are tons (literally, I'm sure too) of rock pilings outlining the land. It makes prime habitat and foraging for purple sandpipers that actually prefer a rocky habitat, unlike the sand that their name suggests. We didn't see any but, it is kind of amazing how these little places in the middle of an urban environment can be prime real estate for wildlife!
A female red-breasted merganser - we saw a lot of these! They are incredibly fast in flight.
A pair of red-breasted mergansers in front of the boat about to make a break for it.
... and off they go! I love birds flying over water, it reminds me of the end of Jurassic Park where they escape and are on a chopper heading home and Dr. Grant is watching the flock of pelicans flying over the water. 
Totally one of those pictures that didn't really come out, but I love it. This guy was using the boat to catch some air, he was just gliding along with us as we moved along.
Black back gulls and herring gulls on Hoffman Island. This is an artificial (man made) island off of Staten Island and Brooklyn. The island was originally used to quarentine immigrants coming in to New York especially since treatment for disease was not the greatest at the time. Now the island is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Sandy Hook, NJ, and the waters in between, The area is monitored and protected by the National Park Service and this island in particular is a huge heron nesting area.
A harbor seal - It's like one of those awkward candid shots that you hope no one puts on the internet. Oops! Harbor seals just started, in very recent years, to show up in the waters of NYC. They migrate down here in the winter and feed on fish. Then they will head back North to Maine and beyond for the summer to have their pups. Although, as of very recent, there are a few cases of seals having their pups here in NY.
Check out those vibrissae! That is the technical term for whiskers. Those vibrissae help this seal feel around and hunt in even the murkiest waters. He is also looking incredibly relaxed, when you have enough blubber one could relax in the cold water at this time of year.
This guy was so far away, but the expression on his face is priceless. I wonder if he is people watching....
A ring billed gull, probably born last year as this is its "first winter" plumage. It can take gulls a few years to get into their adult plumage and I learned some gulls can live 30 years! That's not too shabby! This is probably my favorite shot of the day, I love being able to see every feather in the wings. I also love birds in flight!
The seals were leaping and showing off around Swinburne Island. Check out this guy, spy-hopping! Spy hopping allows seals to get a better look at what is around them above water. I'm sure our giant yellow checkered taxi boat was of much interest to him/her.
Not that these structures were in tip top shape before Sandy happened, but Sandy really destroyed them even more. Swinburne Island was also used to quarentine immigrants and especially those with yellow fever. (Creepy alert) The chimney behind the structure on the left belonged to the crematorium where they incinerated those who died from their illness. The island is now off limits to people and in the four trees standing on the island are prime nesting space for double crested cormorants. 
Male and female long tailed ducks in flight. These guys are my favorite, I LOVE the sound they make. They are also tough little nuggets, they are the deepest diving duck, they can dive up to depths of 200 feet! That's amazing to me, when you consider the water pressure on a little duck at such depths! This is also my first wild long tailed duck! I need to put a notation in my book...
There were probably 150-200 long tailed ducks flying together in this group, this is just a small snip it of them.
Not the best picture, but we did see one Northern gannet. These are pelagic birds and you don't usually see them too far inland. They are in the booby family (ornithologists have a lot of funny names for birds) - you know the blue footed booby well if you have ever read or watched anything Galapagos related. 
A male bufflehead in flight - those wings are moving quick! Apparently many ducks got their names not from scientists, but from the people that hunted them, because, they were being hunted long before binoculars and bird watching became popular, so many of the resulting names for ducks sounds silly, like "bufflehead." I feel like that is something you call someone you don't like.
A rear view of a red-throated loon as we made our way back to Manhattan.
The Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Atop one of the towers sits a pair of Peregrine Falcons who nest there every year.
Brooklyn Bridge as we pull back in to Manhattan.
      I hope everyone has a chance to go out on a boat or just walk down to the water, a lot of these waterfowl were not all that far off the coast. The winter birds are only around for a little while more, so get out and check them out if you can. But, don't be sad, spring is just around the corner and all those snow birds are on their way back, or have even just arrived!

Friday, February 22, 2013

NYC Mutants

     Usually when people hear the word "mutation," it has this sort of negative meaning. People think of something mangled, ugly, or disadvantageous. And while some mutations can cause a disadvantage, mutations can also be a driving force in evolution. Anyway, I'll get off my biology teacherish rant and get to the good stuff!
     This post is about two sparrows that exhibit some unique characteristics that are not the norm for their species. Mutations can occur randomly in any living things DNA, there are all different kinds of mutations and they can sometimes result in some pretty amazing things!
     So, for the last year I have been seeing this neat little house sparrow, usually you don't think much of a house sparrow, I would assume most people have them in a close second to pigeons in birds they could care less about. Well, I love them, and the house sparrow I'm about to introduce is a favorite bird of mine, I see him almost every morning on my way into work, and if not in the morning, he shows up at some point in my day. This little male house sparrow has all white primary feathers (those are like the wing tip feathers) and white border (is that a technical term? Probably not) feathers on his tail. He seems to hold territory in the area and he is such a cool little bird. Being that only his wing tips are white, he is still mostly camouflaged, until he flies and you see this spectacular flash of white. I also found out I'm not his only fan, I even made a friend today who also admires this neat little sparrow, and after this, perhaps he will have a fan club!
     I just learned of another "mutant" around work from some co workers, another white sparrow! This one is a white throated sparrow and it appears to be piebald. "Pied" or "Piebald" is when an animal shows patches of white amongst dark, normal patterned parts of their body (random fact, the "bald" in bald eagle, refers to "piebald" or a patch of white on head and tail). So, this little sparrow definitely qualifies as piebald... in my book at least!
     I hope you enjoy the photo of my two lovely "mutant" feathered friends!
My favorite house sparrow, perched up on a building.
You can see those white primary feathers! Isn't he handsome?
I wonder if the females go nuts for this guy and his fancy wings... he has a cute tush!
I think he nests in the vents right behind him as I've seen him enter and exit them many times.
This is the "piebald" white throated sparrow - cool little thing, right?!
Here is a regular colored white throated sparrow, who was foraging right along with him/her
Piebald tush
Regular tush
While watching him, I did hear a red tail hawk call a few times - I wonder if he knows how much of an easy target he is.
And then as if hearing the red tail hawk wasn't enough, as he foraged in this area, I noticed a pile of feathers probably from a hawk kill. Good luck to you, little sparrow!
I do love that he still has the typical yellow brows - he looks like an angry bird!
     I hope you all keep an eye out when you are doin' your thing. You never know what you'll run into!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Beach Day!

      On Friday, February 15th, I went on a birding adventure with two friends/co-workers it was so much fun even though we were foiled by that snowy owl! It was a total bird nerd bonding experience and all in all, I saw some birds I haven't seen before, got up and out for the day, and it was a fantastically warm day for February! I was actually sweating under my layers!
     First stop was Jones beach, we went to the Coast Guard station and checked out the waters on the island side of Jones Beach.
- Geography Lesson: Jones Beach is a barrier island - it's basically a thin strip of land that is not connected to Long Island. As a barrier beach, this is what takes the brunt of the storms and in a way "protects" the mainland. So, one side of Jones Beach, faces the Atlantic Ocean, the other side faces Long Island, and in-between the beach and Long Island are calmer waters, marshes, and small islands. The Coast Guard station is on the side not facing the ocean, hence "the island side."
We looked for seals, but we (maybe) saw one, way far off in the distance. But we did see tons of birds- including my first horned lark!

     Oh, and a little disclaimer, I decided I'd play around with cropping and "editing" - I put that in quotations, because, really, I don't know what I'm doing- consider it an experiment - my pictures.

Brant - these are a type of goose that winters in the NY area. You can find them gathering in all sorts of areas, including the medians and grassy sides of the parkways.
Female red-breasted mergansers - these ducks can dive and have thin serrated bills for catching fish. 
A horned grebe looks VERY different from its breeding plumage. They have stunning red eyes! This one was diving and did have something in its mouth at some point.
Pretty sure this is just a herring gull, but you know what? He looks damn good and he knows it.
A first for me, horned larks! These are the only species of lark native to North America. The little horns - really just feathers - really up their cuteness factor.
     After our trip to Jones beach and not being able to find that darn snowy owl, we hopped in the car and headed back West, making a stop at Jamaica Bay. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is located in Broad Channel Queens. Broad Channel is on Broad Channel Island (creative, eh?) which is located between the Rockaways and Long Island (get over it Queens, you are geographically part of the island we all call Long Island, Brooklyn, you aren't off the hook either!). If you watched the news at the end of October/beginning of November, then you are well aware that this area was hit hard by hurricane Sandy. 
     The refuge itself was open, but the trails, especially along the sides were full of debris, mostly dead plants, branches, and tangles of twigs. The craziest impact was on the loop that goes around the West Pond - the loop is no longer a loop and the pond is no longer a pond. West Pond now joins the bay as a part of land, where the trail looped, was eroded away by the storm connecting pond and bay to one another. So, no longer is there a freshwater pond - it makes me wonder what the impacts on flora and fauna will be. We did learn though that the pond was manmade and in a way it could very well be on its way back to its natural state. According to the ranger there, plans are unknown about whether the loop will be mended or left open. And amazingly, the visitors center was untouched by water during the storm!
     Aside from gawking at the random debris and the missing part of the trail, we still saw plenty of birds: Canada geese, mute swans, mallards, American black ducks, Northern pintails, green-wing teals, red breasted mergansers, buffleheads, gulls, Northern cardinals, American robins, goldfinch, and tons of ducks that were so far off, we couldn't tell what they all were!

A pair of American black ducks waddle out to what was West Pond. I thought they were so cute as their rear ends wiggled in unison.
A washed up sink. It was funny to see a sink in a wildlife refuge,  it seems like a fairly obvious thing that someone could just remove. But, at the same time, it wasn't funny because someone out there had some severe destruction to their property and who knows what else they lost along with this sink. 
A male Northern Cardinal feeding on some berries. They are so common, but let's be real, they are always beautiful and  never get old.
Mute swans preen and two Canadian geese nap on what was West Pond.
This - I think, herring gull - in it's 2nd winter plumage, I think - entertained us as he repeatedly flew up and dropped this clam. We really thought he was going to clonk a Canadian goose on the head, and did come close! He did get that clam open in the end, and it left us wondering, was the energy expended worth the payoff of that tiny sad clam?
In low tide, black ducks, Northern pintails, mallards, and green-wing teals (another first for me) feed in pairs.
You are now looking over West Pond. The fence across the way is where the trails loops - or did loop. The opening to the left of the fence is where West Pond now meets the bay.
     It was a jam-packed fun day, definitely exhausting but well worth it! We all had a great time bonding over birds. One of my friends, Judy, who came on this trip took lots of photos too - she is way more camera savvy than myself! She has a fantastic blog with even more fantastic weekly themed photo montages of animals. I highly suggest you take a look at her blog "While at the Zoo," it's always a nice way to start the week:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day!

Wood frogs engaged in amplexus, the male grabs the female from the top - from this position the female lays eggs and the male fertilizes them, externally.
     A little something for your Valentine's Day. This is from April 2007, back when I was an educator/naturalist at the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center. Spring had just sprung and the wood frogs were literally on top of their biological duties. So I hope, like these two wood frogs, you are feeling the love this Valentine's Day. It should be fairly soon though that our amphibian friends start making their appearances for the spring!
      Once it is warm enough, amphibian breeding season begins, so all those cute frog calls are really just male frogs trying to, well, you know... Female frogs and toads can lay hundred of eggs at a time and like I said, the male fertilizes them externally. Small vernal pools (pools of water that will disappear after spring) can be teeming with frogs and toads trying to pass on their genes - the day I took this photo, there were more than just this pair. So as a result, a small pool can have thousands of tadpoles in them, which makes it an interesting place to spot wildlife because they are attractive to predators, and, with time, those that do survive go through metamorphosis and become a mini adult. A tiny pond can be such a neat little place!

    Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The day after "Nemo"

     Everyone was really flipping out over this storm - I got sent home early from work, my job cancelled my program for today, everyone was in full on snow freak-out mode. I grew up on Long Island and I remembered the big snow we got in '93, or was it '94? That was a long time ago. I remember the blizzard of '96, that was, as a kid, crazy awesome fun time! But then I went to Oswego, NY for my undergrad, and woah, now THAT was snow. We got close to 5ft my freshman year, first weekend of spring semester. Before that, I never saw anything like the snow they had there. So this "Nemo" guy, was nothing compared to that lake effect snow. But, this storm did make for a pretty day in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.
     My husband and I took a stroll through the park, and walked some of the trails, trying to avoid the crowds of sledders. The lake was kind of frozen, it seemed more like a layer of slush, but it was solid enough that it pushed the waterfowl into small pockets of water on the lake. There were tons of gulls and mallards, but in the mix we also saw some Northern shovelers, female hooded mergansers, American coots (the birds, not those crazy Brooklyn people), a female bufflehead, ruddy ducks, and I think I spotted a female scaup. The mute swan family was there as well, they are probably the nicest wild swans I have ever seen - as in, they are not aggressive towards people who are in close proximity of them and their family.

     After taking a picture of the swans, two Cooper's hawks zipped by in pursuit of a pigeon who was equally as fast. It was pretty awesome. Oh, and we took our real camera, and then realized all the memory cards were at home - but good thing we all have technology and iPhones have pretty decent cameras.
     The best part of the walk was finding an Eastern Towhee and having a conversation. Actually, I don't know if we were having a conversation, but I have an app on my phone (the best app ever) which acts as a bird field guide, but it doesn't just write out the birds' songs and calls - like a towhee would sing: "drink-your-teaa!" The app also plays them and I LOVE this feature, because it can sometimes allow you to interact with wild birds. I played the towhee call (which goes: "chewink") while he was foraging, kicking leaves and soil out from under a low lying branch. After a few calls played from my phone he started to respond but continued to do his thing, it was really neat, it never gets old and I get really excited every time.
Snowy trails in Prospect Park

A cute log trellis along the lake, near the Audubon Boat House
The little black and grey bird is an American Coot, they have the coolest feet. Unlike the mallards, who have webbed feet, the coots have lobed feet.
Here is an American coot from our trip to New Orleans, but you can see their neat feet!
     We circled almost the entire lake in Prospect, before we left, we saw a Canadian Goose - a bird that people tend to have a love/hate relationship with - people feed them (that's the love part) but really get angry when they poop everywhere, especially their nice grassy fields (that's the hate part). Anyway, I like them just fine. This one goose came up out of the water on one and a half legs, its right foot was totally gone, and who knows why, but the sad thing for a lot of waterfowl is human-caused injury. The lake and many other areas where water meets land is popular for fishing and not everyone is aware of the impact of just leaving some fishing line, or a hook, or a lead weight behind. Birds easily get tangled in fishing line and lines that get wrapped around the legs can cause serious injury and even loss of limbs. I don't know if that is exactly what happened to this goose, but it very well could be the reason it no longer has a foot. It is sad and heart breaking to see wildlife injured due to the carelessness of people. So please, be aware of the things you may accidentally leave behind or how you discard things, you are preventing injuries and even death to our wild friends.
This Canadian Goose had its right leg, but had no foot, so getting around is a bit tougher for him/her. Injuries happen to wildlife for many reasons, but with lots of people around, many of them are due to us.