Turtle Underground

turtleThe great turtle or tortoise holding up the world is an ancient story from China and India — and the New World, whose original inhabitants came from Asia.

Less well known is the race of giant tortoises who hold up New York City. Your engineer, the very definition of quotidian, will insist on schist — Manhattan, for instance, is said to be “gneiss but full of schist” — as the foundation of all that challenges the sky, but those of us in the know, know better. It is upon their mighty backs, their rock-like carapaces, that all of this Oz rests.

The trouble with these stout, bold, strong creatures, doing the heavy lifting of our metropolis, is that they are rarely seen. They shun the limelight, they have no interest in celebrity, or even, it may be said, humanity, at all. turtleWell, you know how I like keep my eyes peeled like a grape for evidence of the world rushing in, so when I was in SoHo recently — an aberration on my part, but the tarts are delicious — I happened to catch one of these secretive animals passing below the sidewalk grating. Zounds! The shell is a full yard long! The creature was of course lumbering in that deliberate time-is-different-for-us way. Judging from the shiny baubles around its bullish neck, I’d say it was either returning from a bender, if not N’Orleans, or an anointing by a cult of Kurma-worshippers. March on, noble Testudinidae!


AythyaThe great rafts of scaup that gather in Dead Horse and Gravesend Bays during the winter will soon be heading to breeding areas in the north. AythyaThe males are three-toned. The females are brownish with a touch of white on the cheek. I find separating the Greater (Aythya marilla) and Lesser (Aythya affinis) difficult.


The RambleThis is American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) country. Actually, this time of year, practically anywhere is American Woodcock country: backyards, bars, porches, Park Avenue medians, DUMBO parking garages. Yes, I’ve heard cases of them appearing in all these places. I’ve written a poem in which I refer to them bombarding us during the migration seasons; I’d link to the poem if only the swines would publish it already.Scolopax minorKen Chaya spotted this bird in the shade of a tree. Scolopax minorThe two of us circled along the path to try to get a better view, this time with the sun behind us. Success.IMG_1276Soon enough, the Central Park Effect — I believe they use small goat-skin drums to signal the news — had the bird bookended.Scolopax minorBut, considering all the human attention, it was actually a couple of squabbling squirrels that made this bird jump into a better position for our eyeballs and lenses.Scolopax minorThis enormous beak is used to probe in soft damp earth for worms and other delights. Technically shorebirds, they prefer woods and adjacent meadows as their habitat.

The night before, a few of us had gone out to Floyd Bennett Field to witness the courtship ritual of these birds, also known as Timberdoodles. After sunset, the males come out into open meadows and start to vocalize a sound described as “peent” or “beent,” but with more of a wet buzziness to it. Then they fly around twittering, both vocalizing some more and creating sounds with their wings. This is said to really impress the ladies. You can barely see because it’s become so dark, but the sounds are, on a good night, all around. Note the huge eyes on these birds; they do their best work at night.

My friend Gabriel Willow will be doing a field trip for this “sky-dance” on April 18th for NYC Audubon. I’m doing one of my Listening Tours for Brooklyn Brainery this weekend, when we also hope to hear spring peepers (it’s sold out — but check out their other classes and always keep a weather eye out here for other field trips).

And by the way…

Setophaga pinusSayornis phoebeIt’s spring! A Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus) and Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) herald the season in Central Park today.

What the wha…?

IMG_0805A building at Floyd Bennett Field has this Snowy Owl stuffed animal in the window. I mean, I think it’s a stuffed animal.

The Catskills ~ Luna Moths


Lazy Saturday…. so a blast from the past.

Originally posted on Backyard and Beyond:

Checking out of our fog-bound Catskills hotel, we were greeted with a luna moth on the veranda. One of the giant silk moths, Actias luna is large, startling, and spectacular. (See the comments for the status of these show-stoppers here in the city.) Wingspan ranges from 3-4″ in length. Each of the four wings has an eyespot; the hindwings spots here are just visible through the forewings. The streamer-like tails of the hindwings are like curling silk.Note the loops of the feathery antennae, above, and the white underline in the eyespots, below (click on image to open to bigger view). Later in the day, when we took shelter from a downpour, we found another luna hanging onto the wall of a campground restroom. Like the first, it had been attracted to the structure’s light.

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Wash Your Rocks

RocksOne of the earliest disillusionments is the transformation of the beautiful seashell or river rock into something rather dull once it has dried out. Whence the magic of the beach-combing discovery, the footloose, and probably bare-footed, sojourn along the edges of the ocean/pond/lake/stream/river, where the gleaming thing captured our eye? I understand that shell collectors oil their shells for best effect and photographs. I just used water here.





As I understand it (but I’m no Governor of Florida or New Jersey), the problem is one of light, or rather our perception of light. When light hits a water- or oil- covered surface, it bounces back with some uniformity. Things look shiny and new, gleaming and jewel-like. When light hits a dried-out surface, all the gnarliness of that surface means the light will be scattered helter-skelter, looking dull and so over its celebrity.


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  • My first sighting of the year of a Peregrine at the 55 Water scrape. Woot! 24 minutes ago
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