Monthly Archives: January 2016


Anytime I see a newt, I think of the newt scene from Matilda. It is definitely not a snake (sorry Ms. Trunchbull), and if in doubt, can be distinguished by the fact that it has legs.

Came across this old photo, with its splash of color, to counteract the mounds of grimy snow that frame the landscape. I think it’s from wandering around in the Adirondacks late one July, and can’t wait to look for salamanders and newts (order Urodela) in the spring. Meanwhile, there’s the Great Backyard Bird Count to hold me over.

Red Eft, Juvenile Eastern Newt

Red Eft, Juvenile Eastern Newt, author photo from 2013

Harbor Seals + Oodles of Birds

There’s a wealth of wildlife creeping and crawling and flapping and swimming and bobbing and sunning right under our noises.

We usually miss it, buried in cellphones or power walking around slow strollers or just noticing the pigeons.

The headliners were harbor seals, but for me the scene-stealers were the birds (loons in winter plumage! bubble-gum pink bills on long-tailed ducks! jumbo-size gulls! the adorable buffleheads! punk-rock mergansers! many more but I didn’t take notes!)

Thanks NYC Audubon for an awesome water ride around the harbor and opening my eyes to the awesome wildlife in the midst of our metropolis.


Photo by author, Hoffman Island, New York, January 2016. Formerly used for quarantine, now home to birds and winter harbor seals.

Urban Birds

Due to a nagging hip injury, I have been turned away from hiking and turned towards bird-watching, which is really long periods of walking punctuated with focused periods of excitement. I’m amazed by the diversity of birds found in the five boroughs of NYC, from kingfishers to kestrels to mergansers.


Hooded merganser & Canada geese, Central Park, 2016

Their presence raises all sorts of questions for me. How are their internal systems affected by the noise and light pollution? How does their reproductive success compare to counterparts in rural areas? How does noise affect their communication, especially with songbirds? How do their densities compare to the ‘natural’ density of the species? Within an area, how are different species and different populations distributed?

So far, I’ve gone to Jamaica Bay, where I saw ruddy ducks for the first time; Randall’s Island, where I saw my first kestrel in years; Central Park twice (once for the Christmas Bird Count) where I saw a great horned owl (!), loads of white-throated and house sparrows, three red-tailed hawks cruising on thermals, a Northern flicker, and a lone warbler (confirmed by a much more experienced birder).

A good reminder to be mindful of urban wildlife and urban habitat. An even better reminder of the importance of providing a foothold for biodiversity.

Return from the Abyss…

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again…who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.” (Teddy Roosevelt)

It would be a signature achievement to revive, or at least come very close in genetic terms, the Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii). As the New York Times describes, scientists found close genetic matches to the Pinta Island tortoises and hope to utilize a breeding program to create the closest probable match to the original species.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it is a marvel that we can use DNA analysis and managed breeding programs to repair some of the harm we do through extinction. This program is using living animals, not trying to re-establish a species from stored DNA, like some of the rumors of creating a mammoth, which seems gimmicky to me. More like it’s the thrill of the challenge, which would be fine if there weren’t living beings unwittingly involved.

On the other hand, we should not feel the catastrophic error of human-caused extinction can just be undone by some plucky scientists and a dash of DNA. Better to put our energies into protecting the diversity of life that we still have. Preserving the remaining species and building ecosystem resilience would be the ultimate “triumph of high achievement.”