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Wildlife

Every Week is Bird Week on the High Line

It’s Bird Week, and the High Line is an excellent place to observe our avian friends, those who live here permanently as well as the thousands more who pass through en route to someplace else. The High Line parallels the Hudson River, one of this country’s great migration superhighways, and when the Rail Yards section opens later this year, a huge seating platform facing the river will provide one of the best bird-watching perches in the city. But throughout the park in every time of year you can discover many different species of birds. In March I joined Ben Cacace, project leader for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird Project, on an art tour in section 3, and he identified ten species in under an hour. Ben’s checklist from our visit is here, and the High Line’s eBird Hotspots are here. (See below for more info. about eBird and a link to register so you can help build the High Line’s bird list.)

Below are a few of my favorite sitings, beginning with a hungry sparrow enjoying a meal in Sarah Sze’s magnificent 2011 sculpture installation “Still Life With Landscape (Model for a Habitat).”  (As always, click an image to enlarge it.)

Sparrow feeding in Sarah Sze's beloved sculpture installation "Still Life With Birds," December 2011

Sparrow feeding in Sarah Sze’s “Still Life With Landscape,” December 2011

In 2012 this peregrine falcon and his mate made a temporary home under the eave of the Drug Enforcement Agency headquarters at 16th Street. For most of the month of March they could be spotted swooping above the High Line…

A peregrine falcon takes flight off the DEA headquarters, March 2012

A peregrine falcon takes flight off the DEA headquarters, March 2012

[continue reading…]

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An Outlaw of Robins!

An outlaw of robins on the High Line

An outlaw of robins on the High Line

For Shakespeare, the robin is a symbol of love. Speed, servant of Valentine in “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” notes that his master has of late been wandering around, his head in the clouds, relishing  “a love-song like a robin-redbreast.” Just a week before Valentine’s Day, the robins have stormed the wintry gates of Manhattan, and this morning they seemed downright gleeful on the High Line. And there were tons of them.

I combed the Internet for an accepted collective noun to describe a bunch of robins, but can find no such word. There’s an exaltation of larks, a parliament of owls, a flight of cormorants, a convocation of eagles, a murmuration of starlings, a tiding of magpies, a pitying of turtledoves, a kettle of hawks, a murder of crows. But the little robin doesn’t show up on any of the lists. So I’m coining a word myself, in honor of the man from Sherwood Forest and all the early trespassers on the High Line. If you visit the park today maybe you will have the great joy of seeing it yourself: an outlaw of robins. [continue reading…]

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Legal Trespass

Milkweed Bugs: Legal trespassers in the garden beds

Milkweed Bugs: Legal trespassers in the garden beds

These signs are for tourists, not bugs. So yes, if you are a milkweed bug you are welcome to cross over into the High Line’s garden beds. If not, well, you know where you belong.

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Preparing for Cicadas

Germantown School House, early 1980s

Germantown School House, early 1980s

Seventeen years ago we were spending weekends in a small 19th century converted saltbox in Germantown, New York, that had once been home to the local school teacher. It was also her classroom. I bought the house in 1985 from an Episcopalian minister who was partly deaf but swore he could still hear the voices of 1860s school children echoing across the ancient floorboards. He loved the old wreck so much he hired a local contractor to restore it. The item he prized most highly about the lovely little house was a stairway bannister that dated from the Civil War.  It was a wonderful place where I spent many happy years, but little did I know that something — or, to be more precise, hundreds of thousands of something — was lurking below ground.

Cicadas.

We’re hearing a lot about the seventeen-year cicadas these days. They are coming soon, and the memories of 1996 are returning to me like scenes from a Stephen King novel.  For weeks we couldn’t go outdoors without being dived-bombed by hundreds of them. Our dog tried to catch them in his mouth as they flew by, but they pelted him with their orange wings and drowned out his barking with their endless buzz. We would race to the car in the driveway, swatting locusts from our heads with both hands, and then slam the doors closed. Crunch. Many cicadas died a quick, Toyota death, but inevitably one would make it inside, onto someone’s lap.

“Well,” I once said to Ann, “it’s better than mouse, don’t you think?”

Disgusted silence.

The cicadas made so much noise we couldn’t read, or carry on a sensible conversation with the windows open.  When I played the piano I was accompanied by an orchestra that droned on and on in a weird, endless, Arnold Schoenberg track. It was like living in a chapter of the Bible. For six weeks the cicadas hurled themselves at the windows and doors, flying their crazy missions, 24/7, from pillar to post. And then, finally, they all died, and it got very, very, quiet.

17-year cicada, trapped by the author in a highball glass, 1996

17-year cicada, trapped by the author in a highball glass, 1996

I don’t know why it is that one patch of land would be more cicada-rich than another. Perhaps it’s that the Germantown place was once farmland, and the soil was rich and pliable, perfect for a cicada to hunker down and spend seventeen quiet years. Inexplicably, friends nearby didn’t have nearly as many of the creatures as we did. We were, it seemed, Cicada Ground Zero. Today we spend weekends five miles north of Cicadaville but on a rocky mountain that seems — or perhaps I am just in Pollyanna mode — highly cicada-unfriendly. We shall see.

Meantime, I’m taking to heart the advice of David Haskell, I writer a greatly admire. In a blog post yesterday he urges those of us who are “lucky enough” — his words — “to live where the action is, to remember what you’re hearing: seventeen years of stored sunlight being released all at once as acoustic energy. The terrestrial end product of nuclear fusion exploding into your consciousness.”

While I’m waiting for the cicadas to rejoin us, does anyone have a good recipe?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Falcon and the DEA Man

Peregrine Falcon Departs from the DEA Building

If you’re a regular High Line visitor you know the magnificent peregrine falcon who has taken up residence at the Drug Enforcement Agency building on 17th Street. I’ve been photographing this bird for more than a year, and a few months ago saw him perched with his mate.  Occasionally he cries out in piercing bursts, but lately he’s been sitting very quietly for hours at a time, watching the world go by. Today I caught him leaping off his ledge to go soaring over the Hudson River.

The Hudson is a major migratory corridor and some 300 species of birds – songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, shorebirds – pass overhead each year. One reason the abandoned rail line became such a bountiful wild garden is because birds carried seeds here from all over the country, both on their feathers and in their droppings. In his plan for the High Line landscape designer Piet Oudolf included many of the prairie grasses and perennials that first came here courtesy of birds.

The Spring Cutback

My theory is that the falcon is transfixed, as so many of us are, by the Spring Cutback, a great event that brings dozens of volunteers to the High Line to cut back all those perennials and grasses and allow for new growth.

There are 100,000 perennials and grasses in the park, but unlike many gardens, the plants are not deadheaded in the fall. An essential aspect of Oudolf’s planting design is the presence of seed heads in winter, and these dried, multi-form structures play an important role in the distinctive High Line landscape. The untouched plants also provide food and habitat for wildlife throughout the winter. But every year, beginning in March, it all has to be cut back.

There’s so much to see along the High Line right now — it’s an embarrassment of riches. Just don’t forget to look up as you walk south through the Chelsea Grasslands. You might catch that wonderful bird watching you.

 

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The Crickets of the High Line

If you’re having trouble re-engaging with work this first week after Labor Day, I encourage you to take a walk through the Chelsea Thicket, one of my favorite sections of the High Line. I’m sure there’s a scientific reason for why a billion crickets have taken up residence in this particular patch of Manhattan, but after a long day in the office you probably don’t care.

I couldn’t resist doing a bit of investigation into this question and quickly stumbled upon a project that took place in New York just a few months after the High Line opened in 2009: the Cricket Crawl. This was a crowd-sourcing event whose purpose was to discover whether the common (or true) katydid  (Pterophylla camellifolia) — the cricket we commonly hear in the country — had disappeared from New York City. In 1920 an amateur naturalist, William T. Davis, published a paper in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society in which he lamented that “the true katydid is either extinct or nearly so on Staten Island.” He speculated that it was also gone from the surrounding area, a victim of poor air quality that resulted from the many factories that were active at the time. (You can download Davis’ report from Ken Kostel’s blog.) The Cricket Crawl, organized by the American Museum of Natural History and the U.S. Geological Survey, took place on September 11th and the news is good: there are indeed true common katydid’s in town, along with seven other species of cricket. You can read the group’s final report here.

But all of this is getting rather wonky. You’re tired, longing for another week of summer. The Chelsea Thicket is a particularly peaceful part of the High Line, and it has become wonderfully unruly as the trees have grown. Branches reach out across the path, and in wet weather you’re likely to emerge drenched, as though you’ve had a sponge bath that lasted a full city block.  But best of all is the sound track: those chirping crickets — who knows what species they are, but who cares? — all male (because only the males chirp), singing up a storm.

You might prefer, this September 11th, to tune out the news and listen to crickets instead. So head over to the Chelsea Thicket for a live concert. If you can’t make it to the High Line, you can listen to a few examples that were aired as part of this NPR story. Or you can really wonk out and listen to mp3 files of citizen cricket crawlers reporting on what they heard, when, and where.

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