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Raptor Wednesday

Looking northwest-ishly from the View From The Moraine towards Governor’s Island, we see two brick smokestacks rising from the plains of Industry City. They are that massive facility’s power plant’s exhaust funnels. The taller one works: steam (and what else?) rises from it night and day, except sometimes not on weekends. I’ve often wondered if anything in the nature of a bird perches way up there, because as the tallest thing for many blocks, the 360 view from up there must be magisterial. I occasionally scan the towers with my bird-eye. In the middle of December I noticed a blip up there. The tower is about 3/4ths of a mile away, so detail was scant. But damn, that was a familiar upright profile. On War-on-Christmas weekend, the blip had the good graces to stick around. We got closer and closer. Peregrine! Over a four hour span on 12/23, we saw at least one falcon up there almost every time we looked. And sometimes two. They spent a good long time grooming. The bird on the right looks larger (and not just puffed up?), meaning female. If I wasn’t an amateur, I say they had mated. Seems awfully early, though, doesn’t it? Or had they just bathed, in a roof-top puddle somewhere?This is a view of the stacks from the heights of Green-Wood Cemetery, further to the north of the View From the Moraine. I see there’s some suggestion in the news that Industry City is going to tear down its power plant to put in another god-damned ugly (that’s just an educated guess after 25 years of living here) building.

I’ve seen one or two Peregrines up there every day since the beginning of the year except for 1/4 (blizzard) and 1/6. Both were up there yesterday morning.

(This blog is published before sunrise, but as soon as it’s light enough I’ll take a look over there.)

Raptor sightings in Brooklyn this year: 19.

A Return Engagement

The great elm of Sunset Park on a recent wintery day. To track this tree over a year, I photographed it roughly every month from November 2015 to the end of 2016.

Mimus polyglottos

And who hasn’t felt the side-eye of a Northern Mockingbird greedily claiming all the little pears of winter?

Different day, same patch. A different tree this time: those red linden branchlets! Same bird? In this case, it was much colder so there some puffed-up feather action here. Great insulation, feathers. I wore down myself yesterday.

Tree Omnibus

The trees are singing. If only we would listen. Tolkien suggested it might be quite hard to hear them, since they sing on a whole different time scale. David George Haskell is listening with microphones and an acute biologist’s senses. The Songs of Trees was one of last year’s best naturalist books, beautifully written and globe-spanning in reach. If you missed it, go get it.

The fig is absolutely remarkable. Of course, there isn’t just one fig; the Ficus genus has 750 plus members, from the house plant standard to the edible fig to the strangler species which dominate tropical forests. Each one of these species has at least one tiny fig wasp species that specializes in pollinating the “fruits” — which actually aren’t fruits but rather collections of inward growing flowers — in what are essentially suicide missions. I’ve written about figs before. Mike Shanahan has written a short, engaging book on the genus, and the vital role figs play in vast life webs around the world. Go exploring Ficus with Shanahan from the bodhi tree to Wallace to the Rhinoceros Hornbill to the Mau Mau rebellion, with a dozen or so creation myths thrown in. Was the fig the forbidden fruit of Eden? It sure is sexier than the apple, which definitely wasn’t the verboten fruit.

Shanahan notes that a 100 meter by 100 meter piece of old growth rainforest in Borneo (what’s left of it, anyway) can harbor 600 tree species. In Britain, by contrast, there are 36 native tree species. There, in 1664, John Evelyn’s Sylva was published by the Royal Society. This famed work, one of the first English language books about the cultivation of trees, was inspired by the Royal Navy’s worries about the shortage of timber for its boats. An example: the Mary Rose, launched in 1511, required 1,200 trees, mostly oaks but some elms as well; later and larger ships gobbled up 2,000 oaks each. The white pines of North America were a major draw for the journey across the Atlantic.

Now comes The New Sylva by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet to update things. There are certainly more than 36 tree species in Britain today. Actually, Hemery and Simblet say there are 60 native species, subspecies, or hybrids in Britain. They note that the native cut-off (1492 for us) stretches back circa 8,200 years for Britain, to when the land connection to continental Europe was submerged by the rising ocean. American readers, meanwhile, will recognize quite a few of the species in the transatlantic botanical exchange, species we gave them/species they gave us. Note that this book is primarily about silviculture, or timber-hunger, not the complex ecosystems known as forests, but then the un-human touched woodlands is non-existent today. Which reminds me: shouldn’t we date the Anthropocene back to the killing of Huwawa/Humbaba, the guardian of the sacred cedars, by Gilgamesh?

Simblet’s black and white drawings, from microscopic to landscape in detail, are wonderful. This book certainly works on a coffee table.

Off the subject, but Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham, which I’m still reading, is majestic. It covers just two decades of NYC’s history, but these were the years the city became a world capital of capitalism. More than a century later, we still live there.

And the new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein “Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds” turns out to be quite a course in ethics.

Pulp Nonfiction

All right, then, I will admit an obsession with these Bald-faced Hornet nests.

The scraps of paper blown down from one that I bought home recently revealed at least two tiny invertebrate species making their home there after the wasps were undone by the year.

At 10x magnification, you really begin to see the tiny fibers of wood pulp, so painstakingly gathered.

Bark

Street signs. Wrought iron. Chain link. The trees don’t care. They will absorb the things in their way. Here’s a local Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa ), pressing through some fencing as the bark alligators in remembrance.

The Year in Raptors

Suddenly, every local Rock Dove and Starling is in the air. They swirl this way and that, creating visual confusion: which way do your eyes go? Then just as suddenly, the long tail of a Cooper’s Hawk concentrates the eye in the airborne melee. The Accipiter is hunting, surfing over the tops of buildings, jetting through the alleys between. Sunset Park, the neighborhood I look out on from up here on the top of the moraine, is the bird’s forest.

New York City is raptor country. Plate glass, rat poison, and all the vile two-legged enemies aside, this town is full of hawks and falcons.

Over the past year, I tried to keep track of the number of raptor sightings I had here. When I started thinking about doing so in late 2016, one a day was the minimal count, and I wanted to see if that could be maintained. My total of 331 is obviously just slightly less than that on average. (I spent 49 or so of the year’s 52 weeks here in the city.) Closed curtains to block the sun, combined with breeding season (half of all birds at nest), meant summer had runs of several days without a single sighting. My best single day’s count was five, a record reached half a dozen times.

A raptor a day, or almost every day, it should be said, keeps the doctor away.

Note that these aren’t necessarily separate individuals. For instance, I started noting the Peregrines atop the Industry City smokestack, the subject of an upcoming Raptor Wednesday, in late December; subsequent daily instances were all probably one of the two birds first definitely seen up there 12/24.

The species:

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Peregrine (Falco peregrinus)
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)
Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius, formerly Circus cyaneus)
Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

This list is roughly in order of frequency. Only the Goshawk, a rather unusual occurrence in the city, was a solo instance (after I made multiple attempts to see it, by the way). A notable absence: the occasional winter-visting Rough-legged Hawk, but I didn’t often get to Floyd Bennett Field and other coastal areas they prefer when they’re down here. Unlike 2016, Osprey did not nest atop a light at the waterfront parking lot this year, so they were not a potential sight from my window during breeding season.

Elsewhere, trips to Virginia, Great Swamp NWR, Croton Point Park, two fall hawk watches, and Sweden (nine new species of raptor!) added substantial numbers to the grand total of 470. (The frequency of sightings in Sweden and the two hawk watches within short drives from NYC were so fast and furious I just threw up my wings and only counted species seen.)

Pictured above is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk perched in Green-Wood Cemetery, 12/17/17. Pictured below is an adult Cooper’s preening on a fire-escape a third of the way down the block, 12/26/17. Long-time followers may remember that a juvenile Cooper’s perched on the same fire-escape, at virtually the very same exact spot, in April 2017.

And we’re off to a good start for 2018: One Peregrine Monday. Two Peregrines Tuesday (one screaming bloody murder over a perched Red-tailed Hawk). Also yesterday, a male Kestrel perching on the fire-escape pictured above in the cold, cold morning, and a Cooper’s on the mid-day prowl.


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