Tags: birding, birds, Brooklyn
In the last week I’ve heard about half a dozen Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) on the edges of Jamaica Bay, all within the bounds of NYC. Elsewhere, bird watchers in New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwestern states are reporting unusually large numbers of these tundra natives. This is a major irruption year, perhaps the largest in a generation. Why? Poor conditions in an already harsh environment, probably a lack of food. I would wager a peak year for lemmings produced a peak year of viable owl young. Come the lemming crash, an awful lot of owls are still hungry. Still, it is a hell of long way to come. Once here, though, they prefer our most tundra-like habitats: grasslands and dunes. These are birds of treeless places and so usually perch on the ground or on posts.
Anyway, I figured this would be the time to see one, without having to get out to Jones Beach, Breezy Point, or, out in Massachusetts, Great Point. And so on Sunday, I saw my first ever Snowy Owl. Looking like a white plastic bag from a distance, as in the center of the photo above (as good as iPhone optics get)… only plastic bags don’t turn their heads. It was well into these off-limit grasslands (unfortunately, there are few signs; ironically, last week a park police car flushed one of the owls). Being responsible citizens/ethical observers, we stayed on the concrete.Snowy owls are the biggest North American owl species by weight; that bulk is made up of thick feather insulation against the cold. In their breeding grounds in the endless sunlight north of the Arctic Circle, they hunt lemmings, ptarmigan, and other prey. Down here they’ll hunt rodents, other mammals, and birds. Jamaica Bay is riddled with feral cats, which may also be on the menu.
Update: With all the owls, there’s lots of chatter. A study at Jones Beach of Snowy Owl pellets shows they eat rodents almost exclusively there. One in Piermont a while back was observed gobbling up Ruddy Ducks, our smallest duck species, frequently. But, I’ve now heard a couple reports from upstate of owls dehydrated and starved to death. It’s an amazing spectacle for us, but this far-from-home situation isn’t necessarily good for the birds, who are often hatch-year birds, that is, young and inexperienced.
The city’s tendrils reach deep into the countryside, but so too do its arteries. When Croton water arrived in New York City in 1842, there was much rejoicing. What was already the largest city in the country hadn’t had a reliable water supply before this, dependent as it was on often contaminated wells. The lack of ample water meant that fires, back when many buildings were still wood, were a huge threat; equally if not more threatening were the epidemics caused by water-bourn diseases (cholera struck in 1832 and 1834). The blessed water was transported more than 40 miles from upstate through a great civil engineering project, one of the 19th century’s largest. Fed by a dammed reservoir, a masonry aqueduct, not so different from the ancient Roman ones, dropped down through Westchester and Bronx counties and over the High Bridge to the receiving reservoir in what later became Central Park and then into the distributing reservoir at what later became the NYPL and Bryant Park (of suitably, marvelously, pharonic design). The Old Croton Aqueduct no longer brings water to NYC*, (the northern part is still used to supply Ossining) but its route is now a park, probably the narrowest one north of the High Line.
I attempt to live at all costs without a car. The OCA trail was made for me and my kind, since it is easily accessible for most of its route through Westchester via the MetroNorth and within NYC through “transporte coletivo” as the Portuguese has it (at least on the MTA map). We took MetroNorth to Croton-Harmon, the farthest stop from the trail, but also the closet to the trail’s beginning. We wanted to follow the direction of the old water down, but you could start at 42nd Street and make your way north. To get to the start, we walked through the Croton Gorge, a lovely spot unknown to me before this, where the Croton cuts through a steep wooded valley. This portion of our walk was filled with mushrooms. These tall thin trees tell a tale of an area that was once logged out, like virtually all of the region. The OCA starts at the New Croton Dam, a rather fine piece of masonry, completed in 1906, whose history is full of specially imported Italian stonemasons and a strike that won these workers a 8-hour day. This was the highest dam in the world in its day. Its reservoir drowned the Old Croton Dam and reservoir system, as well as the initial portion of the aqueduct. There was a juvenile Bald Eagle circling over the reservoir, as well as a smaller raptor (well, they all are in comparison) they flew off as we followed the eagle; a Kingfisher raced across the reservoir, which covers old farms and mills and cemeteries (1500 bodies were moved). Roughly every mile of the OCA has a ventilation tower (my four foot blackthorn for scale). The route was first full of beech trees, some still leaved, the silver bark and golden tan leaves lit up with late afternoon sun to a fairly high level of fall gorgeousness. Then it was literally littered with black walnuts, a bumper crop evidently, all darkening and softening (at least the outer fleshy parts). The trail goes past many a backyard, our day’s portion providing a few too many MacMansions. This Cooper’s Hawk was probably keeping an eye on the local bird-feeders. A Pileated Woodpecker’s loud call made us turn around in time to see the flying dinosaur land high up in a tree. Another juvenile Baldie was seen high over the “Crossing,” a bicycle path that parallels Route 9 over the mouth of the Croton River and runs by some of the tallest Pragmites I’ve ever seen (we used this to return to the Croton Harmon station).
The Friends of the OCA produce two maps of the trail, one for the marathon 26.2 miles of it in Westchester and one for the rest as it goes through NYC. These are essential. The trail is pretty obvious once you’re on it, but there are few markers, and there are places where you’re forced to get off it (for instance, you have to circle a large GE campus where they “put good things to death” as their jingle should have it) and use local roads to get back onto it. We will eventually do the entire course of the trail.
*Three aqueducts distribute 1.3 billion gallons of water a day into the city: the New Croton (east of the original, connected to a much-expanded Croton System that is still the smallest of these three), the Catskill (with its 1,100 foot deep tunnel under deepest part of the Hudson), and the Delaware (which holds the record for the world’s longest continuous underground tunnel, 85 miles).
It’s fashionable to say city dwellers are divorced from nature. Only in their own minds. In actuality they are still very much married. In this case, to distant watersheds and a hydrological cycle that their lifestyles, not to say lives, are predicated on. Put that in your coffee cup (which is probably made of that very fine mud we call clay) and drink it.
I give thanks to planet Earth. Couldn’t live without it.
Coincidently, NASA scientists have announced the discovery of a new moon of Jupiter, Ipomoea. Oddly, initial reports suggest it’s mostly made out of sweet potato, with a gingersnap core.
“And all the leaves on the trees are falling,” this time of year, some of them enormous. My friend and fellow nature blogger Melissa of Out Walking the Dog sent me a photo the other day of a very large face-covering leaf I thought might be American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). The very next day I was walking (mile 30 of 1000) near the corner of 6th and 6th and found some similar giants underfoot my size 9s. Nice coincidence. For American Sycamores, though native to the region, are rare indeed on the sidewalks here in NYC, and aren’t even all that common in the parks (extraordinary tree-mapper Ken Chaya found 22 in Central Park, compared to 1,138 London Planes there). They are not on the current list of approved, or even quarantined, city species).
This is a shame, since the Buttonwood, as it’s also known, is quite intimately tied to city history: the stock exchange was founded by 24 brokers meeting under a Buttonwood on Wall St. in 1792, their founding document known to plutocrats and their toadies ever since as the Buttonwood Agreement. In the confusing non-binomial world, this species is also just known as the Sycamore, as well as American Planetree and Buttonball. It’s one of the largest Eastern hardwood species (the range sweeps from the coast to across the Mississippi, with the rich bottomlands of that river and the Ohio being their great fastnesses) and has the largest trunk diameter (there was a record 15 footer). They have a lifespan of 500-600 years, if they’re lucky; but the wood has long been used for purposes from dugouts canoes (Petrides mentions a reputed 65′ long one supposedly weighing 9000 lbs.), barrels, butcher blocks, furniture, etc. Like all our trees, it is host and habitat to many creatures who use it for food and shelter: deer, muskrat, raccoon, wood duck, opossum, swifts, to name just some of the vertebrates who hang with the Sycamores. But was this 6th/6th tree a Sycamore? It had ample seed balls, one to a stalk (check), and the characteristic dark, scaly lower trunk of a mature specimen (check). The v. similar London Planetree (Platanus ‘x acerfiolia’) keeps its smooth, pale, peeling mottled trunk from top to bottom as it ages. The London Plane, usually with two (or more) seed balls on the same stalk, is of course a common street tree, both here and Europe, although it is now no longer recommended for NYC because of the threat of the Asian Longhorn Beetle. (Though I have seen some recent street plantings of the “Bloodgood” variety.)
I have a surplus of field guides to trees: Barnard; Little; National Audubon; Petrides; Plotnik; Sibley. (Could be a law firm.) Not one has an example of leaves as above, with the deep lobe at the leaf base. Indeed, according to those books, these leaves look more London Plane-ish, again except for that deep lobe, and the size. Leaves are a bit like snowflakes, no two exactly alike; each individual tree, with thousands upon thousand of leaves, showing variation within the patterns. The leaves at the bottom of a tree can be bigger than those at the top, since they have more shade to work with while trying to capture the sun. A healthy, vigorously-growing twig can have larger leaves than a weak or sickly one. And so on. Every tree is unique. And everyone has its own story. (We hardly live long enough to tell these stories; Tolkien’s very slow-to-roil Ents were on to something.) Still, I’m fairly confident as an amateur tree hugger that I solved Melissa’s leaf mystery (her tree is also scaly barked at the base and the seed balls hang like Goring’s in the patriotic ditty), but shout out if you disagree.