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Urban Jungle

I was the star producer in my own NatGeo special today – except my camera was an iPhone and my quarry was in a park.

I was walking around a neighborhood park with a co-worker and discussing the buffleheads and cormorant we’d already seen amidst floating plastic, when a flapping figure went past my vision and landed on an electric pole. I saw something bird-shaped in its talons, and yelled out in excitement, “It has a bird! And I think it’s a kestrel!” (Given its relatively small size.)

In full nerd mode, I scrambled for the binoculars by throwing my bag on the ground, ripping them from their case, and hurling the eye covers away. I was so thrilled to see a flash of blue wings and red breast that I didn’t care about the squirming prey flapping its wings in vain. I shoved the binoculars at my colleague and basically shouted, “Oh shit! It’s a kestrel!” She noted what a beautiful bird it was before politely handing back the binoculars and saying she couldn’t watch it if it was starting to eat. Fair enough, watching a flapping bird (probably a starling) having chunks torn out of it is not pleasant and elicits feelings of sympathy.

But.

I saw a kestrel make a kill and eat it! While on top of a light pole and in New Jersey’s largest city. So starling aside, it was a top 10 wildlife experience.

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Kestrel, Newark, 2017. Eating unidentified prey, best guess is a starling.

The cherry on top was when I heard two kestrels calling back and forth and freakin’ knew that was a kestrel call. I have been relentlessly learning birdcalls via a phone app and am therefore slightly above the level where you are unable to distinguish a bird call from airplane engine noise.

I spent the rest of the day gleefully showing colleagues pictures of kestrels and buffleheads like they were my own children who had just learned to sit up or roll over or walk.

And I will continue to keep my eyes and ears on high alert in urban settings.

 

 

Don’t Look Away

It is hard to read about destruction, it is hard to look at images of suffering. Yet, I keep reading. Looking away and getting pulled into something else is certainly easier. And maybe someone else will actually do something. But this bystander effect means that a bloc of people who could be really effective advocates for change–at any scale–just try to keep their blinders on and continue on their path. Someone told me they just try not to think about the massive assault on biodiversity but they do work on improving their habitat near their house. And that’s vitally important.

I feel the temptation to look away, but by forcing myself to acknowledge that the plastic bag twisting in the air will end up in the waterways, and potentially in the gut of an albatross or seal or whatever marine animal, I build the necessary emotion for action. My actions are not large, and they are not much on their own, but every piece of plastic that gets picked up is one less piece of plastic in our waterways.

Here are volunteers doing vital work, cutting gorgeous gannets in sheer agony loose from plastic and synthetic materials after nesting season is over. I remember seeing gannets in Maine, beautifully large birds that turn instantly into high-speed assassins, knifing into the water with a splash that would make an Olympic diver envious.

They are glorious creatures to watch.

I will continue to look at things that are difficult, because that is fuel for action. I hope to have better ideas for environmental actions that come out of this.

It’s Migration Time!

Hello, migration! It’s the most wonderful time of year for a bird watcher.

While I celebrate the appearance of unique birds, seeing my first Scarlet Tanager (female or juvenile male) and first American Redstart, I also know that many of the beautiful fierce migrants won’t make it. Hoping to find a couple of other unique sightings in the next weeks, though even seeing common birds makes me happy. Here’s looking at you, mockingbirds.

Put your cats inside and close your window blinds. At least through October. But preferably the rest of the year, at least for the cats thing.

I posted an old National Geographic map poster of bird migration in my cubicle, and was saddened to find in small italics, the morbid factoid that an estimated 100 million birds die on migration every year due to window collisions.

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Wishing these parents and offspring a safe migration if they are peripatetic birds. Photo by author, New Jersey, 2016.

Also, if you haven’t seen this Audubon post on animal movements anticipated due to climate change, check it out:

Climate Change Migration Map

Sparrows in the Airport

airport_sparrow.jpgHey Mr. House Sparrow, how did you end up in the Denver airport? Can you get out voluntarily? Are you stuck? Will you be removed by airport employees? Where do you take your dust baths? Where do you get water? Do you have a nest in the airport?

Questions I expect will remain unanswered.

Other animals in weird places recently included a chipmunk in an apartment complex staircase. He kept trying to dive under closed doorways but was able to be herded outside despite his valiant attempts to dart back up the staircase past my bulky presence.

Wildlife in weird places-a reminder of all we have taken over and how tenuous our grasp might actually be.

 

Goose Encounters

I’ve been birding on my lunch break more frequently than not-a nice way to take advantage of the nearby park, stretch my legs, and thaw out from the subzero office temperatures.

I read an Audubon Birdist post on birding in weird places, and was inspired to try the murky, trash-sprinkled marina nearby.

I wandered over, fully geeked out with my binoculars and Sibley’s guide. Within seconds of leaving the path, two geese started honking frantically from 50 yards away. One flew over with unmistakable intent, landing about four yards away. I have never in life been afraid of a goose, but knowing how aggressive swans can be, I decide to walk sideways with an eye on the goose until he relaxed. I’d had geese hiss at me before, I’m pretty used to habituated urban geese that ignore you in favor of grass. A little freaked out, I clambered further away and reminded myself to not be chicken.

I saw several killdeer, identified a new kind of sandpiper for myself, counted endless robins, and 20+ geese swimming in the brown soup of the harbor. Barn and tree swallows whizzed overhead, surely for the primary purpose of making me dizzy as I try to follow their flight path.

Ready to leave–lunch is always over so quickly!–I began to make my way towards the exit, which the geese and their five goslings (how had I not seen those earlier? where had they been when the goose showed me in no uncertain terms that humans are weak and foolish and only strong when we venture into nature with barriers and technology and an escape plan) had blocked.

There was no second exit, and despite being able to face hordes of rage-filled workers during the subway’s rush hour, I did not feel that I would come out unscathed against two protective geese. So I did my best to look small, skirting around them as far as possible, wishing I had an umbrella as some sort of defense mechanism, and broke into a dignified jog when one of them came at a flying run towards me.

I made it back to the pavement, which I knew definitively was my territory, and left with a healthier respect for geese.

Kudos to all the geese out there for raising goslings in urban, sometimes hostile, human-dominated environments. Let’s give ’em some space, eh?

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.

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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.

Thoughts on Conservation & Omnivore’s Dilemma

“…whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that with our food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water–of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap…You can buy honestly price food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food” (Joel Salatin, quoted in Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan).

This book changed the way I eat, how focused I am on where my food came from and how it came to be. Eating can be a great act of conservation, but is most often a story of destruction. From the palm oil plantations causing habitat loss to the conversion of Amazonian rainforest to cattle pasture, our eating choices affect far-flung ecosystems. It’s easy to pay lip service to wanting to protect the rainforest, but make no connection between the vague descriptor of ‘habitat loss’ as a reason for a species’ decline and their purchase of Oreos, baby food, or a Starbucks coffee. Not that companies are offering up transparency either or making it easier to avoid palm oil (often labeled ‘vegetable oil’). And not that it’s easy to track down the origin of the innumerable consumer products floating through our daily lives. But, we have the information to be better consumers, both ecologically and socially, yet we often lack the time and consciousness to act on that information in meaningful ways.

“But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things:  What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost.” (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 411)

I don’t believe it is hyperbole to say that our appetites shape the landscapes of the world, and have, with noticeable frequency, pushed species towards and into extinction. What we eat every day matters. I’m already a farmers’ market fiend, but I am going to pay more attention to where my coffee comes from, and what labels say about added oils.

And, no more Starbucks.