Central Park, New York City

As someone who is not a resident of an urban jungle, I often underestimate the quality of nature watching available in big cities. Sure they don’t have bears and bobcats (or at least we hope not) but they often provide more thrills than you were expecting.

To that end, I am willing to admit that I often don’t give Central Park in New York the credit it deserves as a wildlife habitat. When Fredrick Law Olmstead started work on the park in the late 1850s, who knows what animals he foresaw (if any) making a home among its trees and meadows. Expected or not, they found their way there and they are staying.

Beyond the squirrels, pigeons, and the carriage horses, Central Park is home to many of the same birds we see in the suburban parks of New Jersey and New York. In fact, according to the Central Park website, there are 230 different birds that spend time in Central Park throughout the year. Canada Geese and House Sparrows are a given, as are Starlings, Blue Jays and Cardinals.

However, if you luck out, you might spot a Heron or and Egret in one of the many ponds or lakes around the park. One warmer December day, while having a drink outside at the Loeb Boathouse, located not far from the Bethesda Fountain, we noticed a juvenile Great Blue Heron, fishing off one of the overturned rowboats.

On more than one occasion we have also been lucky enough to see a bird of prey in Central Park. Last Autumn we were wandering among the paths and we noticed a good deal of fluttering. We looked up at the tree in front of us to see a Red Tailed Hawk, who had just caught himself lunch, a lovely squirrel, which he proceeded to eat while we watched. First taking dainty bites, he very quickly decided to swallow the rest in one go.

Central Park, it really is a jungle…who knew? For an interactive map of Central Park and more information about the park and all it has to offer, visit http://www.centralparknyc.org

Brown-Headed Cowbird

The Brown-Headed Cowbird is often considered an unsavory character of the bird feeder crowd. Perceived like a seedy, back-alley character from a gangster film, many bird watchers chase the Cowbird away from their feeders. They see the Brown-Headed Cowbird as only a nuisance, taking food from the “pretty” birds. In many ways that could easily be a metaphor for human nature and life, but we won’t dwell on the greater philosophy and psychology behind it.

Brown-Headed Cowbirds are in many ways the loners of the bird world. But this loneliness is self-inflicted. The Brown-Headed Cowbird does not build a nest in which to lay eggs. Instead, the female leaves her grayish-white eggs with brown speckles in the nests of other birds. They are the only parasitic bird to reside in New Jersey. Their eggs have been found in the nests of over 200 different species. Some of these birds recognize an imposer and abandon the nest or remove the Cowbird egg. However, many other species raise the Brown-Headed Cowbirds’ babies along with their own young. It is this leaving of their young, like orphans, to fend for themselves in an ugly duckling situation that leads me to pity them.

But while this behavior may seem appalling to some bird lovers, especially those of us particularly partial to songbirds, we need to remember that such is the nature of nature. Brown-Headed Cowbirds were probably laying their eggs in the nests of other species long before man, pencil and paper in hand, decided to study and record his behavior. We shouldn’t judge them harshly for it.

Enemy # 1

We all have our problems and bird watchers are not immune. After three years of feeding the birds, I have developed a love/hate relationship with our furry, gray friend with his/her bushy tail. You guessed it, I am referring to the Eastern Grey Squirrel.

When I say love/hate, please understand that the worst thing I do is chase them off. I have invested in a few deterrents, with mixed success, including a squirrel guard (not unlike a backward funnel that they supposedly can’t maneuver around), and a slinky, which did work to keep them from climbing my original pole. My new pole has many low hooks, etc. and I have somewhat given up my active attempts to keep these greedy little buggers out of my feeders.

Their antics are fairly amusing and I have begun to think them akin to monkeys, because of some of the positions and situations they manage to get themselves into.

They are fun and sometimes even cute, so I humor them. I do however, recognize that they are eating their way though my wallet, especially when they get up on my feeders and help themselves. Once I came home to a squirrel on the feeder, systematically pushing the seed out to at least five of his buddies, anxiously waiting below, faces turned heavenward. Another time, they had managed to open my suet holder, and knock out a new bar of suet. Not super crazy. However, by the time I caught up with them, a pair of them were trying to run off with the whole suet, one squirrel on each corner. So well planned and executed, I almost let them have it….almost.

They wouldn’t bother me so much if they stayed on the ground and ate what was dropped. However, their chewing and knocking has broken countless feeders (many of which were not very good quality to begin with, I will grant you that). I have even considered feeding them separately, but I decided that might only serve to attract more of the hungry little things to my yard.

To make things worse, they seem to have been teaching the chipmunks bad habits!

An Autumn Morning on Sandy Hook

Like most sane humans that live near a beach, we obviously never visit the Jersey Shore in the summer. Never may be an exaggeration, but once or twice is usually our limit. The traffic alone will kill you. And this is New Jersey drivers we are talking about, so I mean literally, kill you. Once you get there, the beaches are too busy for nature watching anyway.

That is why we usually go to the beach either in early spring or autumn/winter. In winter the cold, salty sea air does the trick if you need to blow out a few cobwebs. It was one such morning last November when my husband and I headed to Sandy Hook, one of our go-to Jersey Shore destinations. The site of Fort Hancock and its associated army barracks, Sandy Hook is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area that features hikes, beaches and nature, along with the oldest lighthouse in New Jersey, historic structures from the barracks and, as my mother in-law once put it, “war thingies,” such as powder magazines, gun batteries etc. So you can probably see why we like Sandy Hook, it has a bit of everything.

This particular November day was cool but not freezing. Clear and bright. Perfect for a brisk ramble on the sand. I honestly wasn’t even really expecting to see a ton of birds, but you never know what sea birds you may see, so we brought the camera along. Sandy Hook, because of the way it is positioned in the Atlantic Ocean and at the mouth of the Hudson River, is a great place for collecting whole seashells. I have a hard time not glancing down at the tidal lines on the beach in search of treasures. A sea urchin, bits of coral and whole crab shells are just some of the more unusual items I have combed on this particular beach.

However, it is actually horseshoe crabs that Sandy Hook is known for. They sell postcards of dozens of them piled up on the beach together and you can often find pieces of their shells in the sand. Atlantic Horseshoe crabs are interesting creatures, actually related to scorpions and spiders rather than crabs. Apparently their blood is used to test medicines, which is pretty unusual. However, I think that one of the more interesting things about them is that they shed or molt their shell when they are growing. They do this throughout their lives, and it is a slow and dangerous process, leaving them vulnerable to predators while they are shell-less. Here is a video showing the process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJr-CQGQYg4 We decided to dig up one of the larger pieces of crab shell we saw sticking out of the sand, and ended up unearthing a very large, complete shell. General rule is that shells with no legs were probably shed, so don’t worry about the crab. However, this one is so big, I am not sure if it was still growing or if its legs and other bits were lunch for a willing seagull.

The biggest group of birds we saw on the beach was a very large flock of Sea Gulls. New Jersey has several Gulls that live on our shore line, the most common being the Ring-Billed Gull, the Herring Gull, Laughing Gulls (with black heads) and the Great Black-Backed Gull. However, especially in the non-breeding months, none of these birds are too picky about their friends and you can see them in large mixed flocks. Many of the juveniles of these species look similar to each other, complicating identification, especially to the naked eye. Their antics were very entertaining and there was one juvenile who was tying to look for food along the waterline without getting wet. He wasn’t very successful but his behavior had a Charlie Chaplin quality to it.

Besides the gulls, the ocean was densely populated with Black Scoter, both males and females. These ducks were swimming just far enough from the beach that it wasn’t easy to get a great look at them with the naked eye, but the photos came out pretty clear, despite the fact that they were bobbing around in the waves. Summering in the Canadian Arctic, the Black Scoter spends its winters along the Atlantic seaboard and is very content to remain in the rough sea. As the name implies, the male Black Scoter is all black, but the female has some gray to her black feathers. The male also has a raised yellow knob on the back of his beak, where it connects to his face. The female’s beak is totally black.

We then crossed the path and the road to the bay side of the peninsula, which proved to be just as exciting. Swallows and Song Sparrows were zipping about, and singing to us from the telephone wires. A Northern Mockingbird decided to challenge us, “who goes there?!” from his vantage point in a bush along the path. A Great Blue Heron flew off into the sky and several deer were wandering about, foraging for something to eat among the bushes and weeds.

The bay was also sheltering a very large flock of Brant. Smaller than Canada Geese by at least ten inches, Brant geese have a black, grey and white body, with no brown. They have a white marking on their throats, called a “collar” which looks like a handkerchief tied around their necks, wider in front and thinning toward the back of their heads. Another summer resident of Canada, the Brant winters along the Atlantic coast.

Sandy Hook is a great place to experience nature regardless of the season. The combination of river and ocean, bay and beach allow for a great variety of wildlife to thrive here. Some of the large nests we saw along the beach promised some interesting spring residents. Regardless of the season, I highly recommend it to nature lovers, history lovers and day trippers. If you want to learn more about Sandy Hook, visit their website at https://www.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/sandy-hook-hours.htm