Posts Tagged 'harbor'

Oyster Toadfish

Opsanus tauLast night as I watched the sun tuck behind the embankment of New Jersey, a fisherman beside me on the end of Pier 5 reeled this fish out of the dark water. He thought it was a Sea Robin, but I didn’t. It wasn’t that weird. Some research reveals it to be an Oyster Toadfish (Opsanus tau), a species with a high tolerance for hanging out in the bottom murk of polluted, junk-filled waters. Also known as oyster-cracker, ugly fish, mother-in-law fish, etc. It doesn’t have scales, but rather a slimy skin, hence the allusion to toads. The strong jaws are good for cracking oysters and other shellfish, but they will eat anything they can get. They are also known as a vocal species: males make “foghorn” like noises to attract females.

The bright yellow is the lure. Having maimed the 8″ long creature for sport, the fisherman extracted the hook and threw it back in.

Some Names

I was surprised to see, on a large banner on Smith St., which pictured what was there before industrialization, the nearby body of water referred to as “Hudson Bay.” This would be the water ground water flowed to from the Gowanus creek and swamp and the “Woody Heights of Guana,” as the British called the Harbor Hill Moraine in 1776. But of course, that isn’t the Hudson Bay; Hudson, or Hudson’s, Bay is quite some distance to the north of us. Heading up the river Hudson wouldn’t get you there, nor even as far as the St. Lawrence, unless you continued over land; I’d recommend some guidance from the local voyageurs and coureur des bois as you get further north. Water in Brooklyn can only be said to flow thataway in the grand, global, hydrological scheme of things. Both Bay and River are named after Henry Hudson, who nosed into our river in 1609 and died somewhere in their Bay c. 1611 after being set adrift by mutineers.

What this well-meaning banner person meant was Upper New York Bay. It is separated from Lower New York Bay by the Narrows. Further out, flanked by the long coasts of New Jersey and Long Island, is the New York Bight. Through the Bight runs a submerged valley cut by the ancient precursor of the Hudson. When all that water was locked up in ice, the Atlantic coastline was a hundred miles further south.

On old maps, you’ll see that the Hudson is called the North River on the west side of Lower Manhattan, because it actually flows north-south there. Manhattan island is angled, oriented SW-NE, meaning that the standard “east west” compass points of direction on the island are a convention for ease of use. Stuyvesant Street in the East Village is the only east-west oriented street on the island.

I feel sad for people who think maps are ugly digital things that get them to a store.

One of the amazing things about NYC is that it is an archipelago, a city spread out on islands. Seventy-six of the over two thousand bridges in the city are over water. Only the Bronx is part of the mainland of North America. There is water in almost every direction.

The East River is of course not a river, but rather a tidal strait connecting the Bay and ocean with Long Island Sound. The tide rips up and down through it. Yesterday, the ice was flowing…ice

Ring-billed Gull

Larus delawarensisLast year, I posted a picture of a Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) on a lamp between Pier 5 & 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. This year, with a better-lensed camera, I offer another shot of a Ring-billed on the fence in the same area. Could it be the same bird? It’s very tolerant of people, indeed, it has clearly become dependent on our food-spilling and wasting ways. Recently it was shadowing some picnickers (yes, picnicking in January).gullsRing-billed Gulls are the most common over the city (a friend calls them “Ghetto Gulls”). As sunset approaches, the air above the harbor becomes quite active with them, flying, swooping, crying out. It’s a fine spectacle. They make me want to ride the wind. They are preparing to settle in for the night. gulls2One nighttime roosting spot is the end of Pier 6. There was at least one Herring Gull, a rather larger bird, in this crowd of Ring-bills.

Three hour harbor tour

Thalatta, thalatta! cried Xenophon’s Greeks when, after a long struggle, they finally saw the Black Sea again. (In modern Greek, it’s thalasssa, thalassa, the sea, the sea!) I often think of this rejoicing when I see the water. Like the Aegean, another cradle of civilizations, New York City is an archipelago, with almost all of us New Yorkers living within a few miles of the enormous estuary that surrounds us. Hemmed in by buildings, and with much of the waterfront fenced off, it’s easy to forget this, but “Right and left, the streets take you waterward,” as Ismael sighs at the beginning of Moby Dick.

I find it nigh impossible to turn down an opportunity to be on the water, even in February, so last Sunday, we went on the American Princess seal tour. The boat leaves from Riis Landing next to the Marine Parkway Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge, which connects Brooklyn with Queen’s Rockaway Peninsula. The bridge’s south tower has long been host to a peregrine nest, or scrape. It being that time of year, both birds could be seen, at the scrape, flying around it, and even, at one point, mating in a quick flurry of flapping wings.
Our boat went west through Jamaica Bay past Coney Island. We cut across the Ambrose Channel, the artery of the port, much to the annoyance of a full-laden container ship heading into the harbor. We saw many ducks: American wigeon, American black, greater scaup, red-breasted merganser, and especially bufflehead and long-tailed. Common loon, horned grebe, and both the double-crested and at least one juvenile great cormorant were also focused in our binoculars. Our three standard species of gulls, great black-backed, herring, and ring-billed, were also much in evidence.
The harbor seals themselves were hanging around Swinburne Island. The NY Aquarium rep on board counted ten for the seal census they are conducting, but not a one of the slippery mammals was hauled out on the rocks, where they often like to loll about like beached blubber torpedoes. Swinburne is one of two small man-made islands south of the Verrazano Bridge off Staten Island. It is tiny (2.5 acres) and crowded with a trio of brick ruins, real fixer-uppers. It’s named after the man who oversaw the island’s construction and was once home to a small isolation hospital and crematorium. I don’t know if the existing chimney there was part of the crematorium, but it’s now a peregrine perch; one landed on it as we rounded the island, and was still there when we returned past later in the cruise. A couple members of the crew said that they frequently saw the raptor there.
The larger Hoffman Island was named after one of our innumerable and mostly forgettable mayors, who was later an equally unmemorable state governor. Larger than Swinburne at 11 acres, Hoffman was used as quarantine station for immigrants, a Merchant Marine training center, and the anchorage for an antisubmarine net across the harbor in the days of yore. Like Swinburne, it’s now a bird nesting sanctuary and off-limits to pedestrians. We saw a red-tailed hawk above the nest-ridden trees, in addition to Canada geese and many of the black-backed and herring gulls.
We then went up towards the Staten Island tower of the Verrazano to see what was hugging the shore south of Fort Wadsworth. Numerous ducks, as it turned out, digging the cold water, and a few more seals. The trip was longer than scheduled, so we really got the “three hour tour,” minus the Professor and Mary Ann. The weather was sunny, the water fairly calm, the day absolutely gorgeous. There was an edge to the wind, but the sun warmed us through and through.


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