September 24, 2018

The Launch and Evolution of EXPLORE Birds



EXPLORE Birds is a pop-up bird education program developed by Washington Square Park Eco Projects and The Uni Project. The collaboration between the two organizations began during fall 2016. A selection of Eco Projects' nature books were shelved with a Uni READ cart.



The following year, Eco Projects was looking for a partner for its new program about urban birds. The Uni Project offered to exhibit the program. The first iteration of the bird education program was launched with the READ cart in fall 2017 and funded with a grant from the Blake-Nuttall Fund.



In 2018, Eco Projects received its federal and state permits to build its education collection of bird specimens. The collection has grown from one species (two donated European Starlings) to nine species including a Red-tailed Hawk and two American Kestrels. (Thank you to two mentors at the American Museum of Natural History.)




The program has also expanded in terms of its components. Birds and books remain the core offerings but we've included listening and biological illustration stations. Binoculars are also provided and we encourage hyper-local bird watching.


We plan to grow the program by offering bird walks where possible and to record participants bird tales. People of all ages engage with the EXPLORE Bird cart and without fail, we hear stories of their interactions with birds. We've even spoken with an elected official who is an advocate for bird-friendly architecture.


You can make a financial contribution to EXPLORE Birds by donating to The Uni Project. We welcome in-kind contributions such as volunteering to lead a local bird or plant walk. If you are a camera, binocular, compass and/or microscope company, we accept gear donations.

Locations and dates shown: 1, 5 - Albee Square, April 21, 2018; 2, 10, 11 - Union Square Park, June 2, 2018; 3, 4 - Washington Square Park, October 15, 2016; 6, 7 - Jacob H. Schiff Playground, August 3, 2018; 8, 9 - Sara D. Roosevelt Park at Hester Street, September 16, 2018. All photographs owned by The Uni Project and used here with permission.

August 16, 2018

5 Things I Like about Domino Park

There are many fascinating places in any given city. Instead of limiting the "5 Things I Like About" series to cities as I've done in the past, I've expanded it to include neighborhoods and parks, such as Domino Park which is featured today.


I am kicking off the revamped 5 Things I Like about series with Domino Park, the newest public park in NYC. The park, however, is not owned by the city. Domino Park is a 6-acre open space built and operated by real estate firm Two Trees Management Company. The park sits on a portion of the former Domino Sugar Refinery site. Two Trees has prepared an overview of the history of the refinery and the Williamsburgh waterfront.

The five aspects of Domino Park I like the most are:

  • Tree diversity and signage
  • Play areas
  • Waterfront location
  • View of the Williamsburg Bridge
  • Preservation of industrial features


Tree Diversity and Signage

The botanical markers were one of the first elements I noticed in the park. What can I say? I am plant-sighted. The park is designed with blocks of tree species. Within each group, there is a marker listing the common and Latin name of the species. The park is not a formal arboretum, but it's mimicking one with the provision of identification signs. I don't know if the intention was purposeful but either way, it is a great information tool. Another striking botanical feature of the park is the palette of plant species. Once an urban forester, always an urban forester, so I was tree-oriented in my observations. I counted at least 9 species including Pin oak, Tupelo, Purpleleaf plum, Willow oak, Honeylocust, Pitch pine, Japanese white pine, and Crabapple.


Play Areas

I accompanied my younger child to the park on two occasions. Her focus was play. We spent time at the fog bridge, the splash pad, and her favorite, the actual playground. While technically the fog bridge is not a play area, she enjoyed running through the mist. The splash pad is more fun on a hot and humid day. The playground is always fun. It's where we spent the most amount of time. I quite like that it's difficult for adults to maneuver the equipment in this playground. I think it provides children much needed adventure and autonomy. I've also observed at this playground that adults respect the age limitations posted on the equipment.


Waterfront Location

New York City is composed of islands plus the Bronx. Manhattan and Staten Island are islands. Brooklyn and Queens are on Long Island. It can be challenging to see and get close to the water around us. This park gives us another piece of recreational waterfront. The East River, a tidal estuary, really, is a striking waterbody. It's broad and fast.

View of the Williamsburg Bridge

You can see the entire span of the bridge from the park. The Williamsburg Bridge is a multimodal transportation system supporting train, auto, walking and cycling.


Preservation of Industrial Features

The practice of salvaging and incorporating industrial artifacts into contemporary landscapes is nothing new. In NYC, the High Line is perhaps the most well-known park to design with artifacts in mind. Other parks, such as Gas Works Park in Seattle (Richard Haag, 1975) and Landscape Park Duisburg-Nord in Germany (Peter Katz, 1994), set this precedent, however. Given this history, I appreciate the use of salvaged, and re-created, components of the site's former industry. As is noted Yoshi Silverstein's review of Ellen Brae's book, Beauty Redeemed: Recycling Post-Industrial Landscapes, for ASLA The Dirt, these post-industrial parks can make contributions to sustainability goals in terms of recycling materials, can remind of us the various cultural forms of capitalism, and finally, can provoke us to think about the mutability of the landscape and at least from a design perspective, to appreciate and accommodate the existing fabric of a landscape.



A couple of less shiny aspects to note (again). One, Domino Park is not a publicly-owned or operated park but during our visits it has felt public-spirited. Two, A "wet weather discharge point" is located at one end of the park (see above photo) meaning that when it rains, stormwater runoff and raw sewage might be released into the East River at this location.

Finally, how did we travel to Domino Park? We took the J/M to Marcy Avenue.

August 15, 2018

Spring Birding in Washington Square Park

With fall migration underway in New York City, I thought I'd look back at the spring birds Washington Square Park Eco Projects observed during wildlife surveys between 2017 and 2018. 


Believe it or not, fall migrants are in NYC. I first became aware that migration season had launched when Heather Wolf posted a photo of a Yellow Warbler in Brooklyn Bridge Park on August 6. Then WNYC interviewed Purbita Saha of National Audubon this week for a segment about fall migration. From the WNYC episode I learned that 10 species of warbler (!) have already been seen in Central Park. Eco Projects hasn't spotted any migrants making the southward trek yet but I've got spring data to share with you, specifically, Spring (March to May) 2017 and Spring 2018.


The birds we saw on our official survey walks in both Spring 2017 and Spring 2018 are:

  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Mourning Dove
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • American Robin
  • European Starling
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • House Sparrow

The Red-tailed Hawks were more successful in breeding and fledging this year.

Birds we saw on our official survey walks in Spring 2017 but not in Spring 2018 are Kentucky Warbler, Downy Woodpecker, Swainson's Thrush, and Gray Catbird. The Kentucky Warbler sighting in Washington Square Park in 2017 was very special! It is important to note that Swainson's Thrush and Gray Catbird were observed in the park in Spring 2018, but they were not observed during our survey transect walks. Similarly, birds seen during our Spring 2018 season that were absent from our Spring 2017 season were observed during non-survey transect walks. View the eBird Washington Square Park Hotspot Map for details.

When I prepared the lists I was immediately struck by there difference in species richness between this spring and last. There is almost a 40% increase between the two years. I wondered what could account for the difference. Then I counted the number of checklists we submitted to eBird during each season. We surveyed the park five times in 2017 and ten times in 2018. This is a doubling of the number of times we were in the park looking for birds. The greatest contributing factor to the disparity in richness between the spring season in 2017 and 2018 is the number of survey walks we conducted.

Related Link: Bird Species Diversity in New York City Parks


Let's ignore the difference in the number of survey walks in each year, and assume there was truly more species in the park in 2018. An element that often plays a role in the richness of (native) species is the presence of native vegetation. More native vegetation and greater structural diversity supports higher species richness (Chase and Walsh 2006). However, neither the native plant community nor its structure increased significantly in diversity or complexity between 2017 and 2018 so this factor is not a driver in the greater species richness in 2018.

Eco Projects has advocated for more year-round, bird-friendly plants in the park in its annual reports to the Natural Resources Group of NYC Parks. 2018 marks the "100th anniversary of the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act". Audubon and several other conservation organizations have declared 2018 the Year of the Bird. One of the actions you can take this year is to plant native vegetation for birds. There are 73 best native plants for birds in 10012, the zip code in which Washington Square Park is located. Of the 73 species (39 of which are trees), the park has 13 plants, all trees, growing within it:

  • American elm
  • American sycamore
  • (Cock-spur) hawthorn
  • Eastern white pine
  • Flowering dogwood 
  • Northern red oak
  • Northern white oak
  • Pin oak
  • Red maple
  • Red mulberry
  • Silver maple
  • Sweetgum
  • Tulip-tree

Related Link: Washington Square Park - State of the Nature Report 2017

Eco Projects will continue to encourage NYC Parks to increase the abundance and richness of bird-friendly plants in Washington Square Park. Hopefully this will translate into bird species richness during future spring migrations.

July 18, 2018

Bird Books for Young Birders

Books about birds can be an engaging starter for bird watching or a booster for the already bird curious child. This post has been updated with book summaries.


Summer is the season for raising young in the bird world. This summer there seems to be a corresponding focus on young humans, specifically young birders. Last month, the New York Times ran a wildly popular story about the rise of young -- millennial -- urban birders. The focus of the article was the Feminist Bird Club based in Brooklyn. This month, the Independent also highlighted the Feminist Bird Club in its story about young birders and technology-mediated birding. I came across a recent essay calling for an ornithology curriculum for U.S. high schools published at All About Birds.

You don't have to wait until your human young is in high school to introduce them to birds! My preschool and elementary children are birders. My partner in Washington Square Park Eco Projects is an educator and has developed and implemented a preK bird curriculum. My son participated in this curriculum and my daughter will too, next year. If your nursery and grade schools don't offer a bird curriculum, you can cultivate a young birder on your own. An easy and enjoyable approach is reading age-appropriate books about birds complemented by bird watching.

The bird books I share in this post are part of the Washington Square Park Eco Projects library of nature books. Many of the titles were donated by authors and publishers (thank you!). The bird books have popped up with EXPLORE Birds, a collaboration between The Uni Project and Eco Projects, in Union Square, Albee Square, and of course, Washington Square Park. The bird books are a mix of fiction, reference, and biography. I've included an Amazon purchasing links for my favorites in the collection (contains affiliate links).


BIOGRAPHY

The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist
Margarita Engle, illustrated by Aliona Bereghici
Louis follows his dream of becoming a bird artist instead of his father's vision of him as an engineer.

For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson
Peggy Thomas, illustrated by Laura Jacques
Roger Tory Peterson was a child naturalist and channeled his passion into a livelihood of bird illustrations.

BIRD ANATOMY

Beaks!
Sneed B Collard III, illustrated by Robin Brickman
Creative cut-paper art showcases the beauty and utility of bird beaks.

BIRD ID

Every Day Birds
Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, illustrated by Dylan Metrano
The starter bird guide for very young children.

Noisy Bird Sing-Along
John Himmelman
A fun, and easy to mimic, exploration of bird sounds.

Pie in the Sky
Lois Ehlert
While waiting for the cherries to ripen, we learn about some backyard birds.

The Word Bird
Nicola Davies, illustrated by Abbie Cameron
Another delightful starter bird guide for very young children.

BIRD TALES

Owl Moon 
Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr
A memorable and sensory night of trying to spot a Great Horned Owl in the woods.

Lila and the Crow
Gabrielle Grimard
After being shunned by her peers and in turn shunning local crows,  a young girl embraces the bird after a close encounter with its feathers and finds her place in a new town.


NATURAL HISTORY

The BLUES Go Extreme Birding
Carol L. Malnor and Sandy F. Fuller, illustrated by Louise Shroeder
An adventure to discover the best in class among birds.

Is This Panama? A Migration Story
Jan Thornhill, illustrated by Soyeon Kim
A young Wilson's Warbler gets left behind but with the help of other migrating bird species and animals, he finds his way to his wintering grounds in Panama.

ROBINS

Robins: How They Grow up
Eileen Christelow
A charming and lively biography of a robin's life.

Robins
Kate Riggs
High-quality photographs highlight the stages and behaviors of a robin's life.

Start local when birding with young children. Head to your favorite nearby open space and watch the most common birds -- their feathers, flight, and other behaviors. Sketch them too. Use books to spark your imagination before going outdoors and then to reflect on your own observations.

Image sources: Robins | Lila and the Crow | Is this Panama? 

P.S. If you live in NYC, EXPLORE Birds will be at Jacob H. Schiff Playground on August 3, 2018.

June 28, 2018

Bird Species Diversity in New York City Parks

What accounts for species diiversity, specifically species richness, in an urban park? Is it the size of the park? Is it habitat diversity within the park? Is it the location of the park relative to birds' migration route?


I am interested in these questions because of my interest in urban ecology, but also specifically because I am involved in a long-term wildlife survey project in Washington Square Park, a 9.75-acre located in NYC.

Looking at the park acreage, you would expect that Central Park at 843 acres would have the most bird species. It does. You probably also know that those 843 acres are packed with different types of bird-friendly habitats. But acreage and habitat abundance can't be the entire story. Bryant Park at 9.6 acres is 1.1% the size of Central Park, yet it has 55% of the number of species of Central Park. Bryant Park is a well-established hotspot for a very broad range of birds. Read the guide to birding in Bryant Park by NYC Audubon. The guide points out several "best birding spots" in the park: perennial borders, the London planetree allees surrounding the park, honey locust stands, and a limited access maintenance area. Other parks have these elements and more so what else could account for such high numbers in Bryant Park?

The NYC Audubon guide provides a clue. Bryant Park is located in midtown Manhattan and is densely surrounded by some of the city's tallest buildings. The park appears as an oasis during nighttime migration flights.
After a long night’s flight, nighttime migrants flying over Manhattan must seek a place to rest and feed among the City’s landscape of cement and glass. The results can be almost surreal.
The other small parks on the chart aren't similarly located.


Another major factor which is not directly related to the biogeography of the park is the data generation process, specifically who records the data and when is a bird species recorded on a checklist. Consider the first aspect. The bird numbers presented here were taken from eBird Hotspot Maps. eBird is a contributory citizen science project meaning members of the public are submitting the data. Maybe people who bird in Bryant Park log their data with eBird more than birders in other parks. 2112 Bryant Park checklists have been submitted to eBird versus 428 in Madison Square Park and 289 in Washington Square Park. An element that connects this first issue with the one I explore in the next paragraph is the defining characteristics of the data recorder. If the person is an expert birder, she might spot more birds than a newer birder. If the checklists for a park are derived primarily from expert-led bird walks then more birds might be recorded in that park.

The second component of the data factor is what counts as a species sighting. Who is contributing the majority of species records in each park and what criteria are they using? WSP Eco Projects follows a standardized bird survey protocol but this is not the case for each member of the public birding in a NYC park. For the purposes of the long-term wildlife survey, we only record birds that are seen within the boundaries of the park with the exception of the resident nesting pair of Red-tailed Hawks. Other birders might record flyovers and birds identified by sound only.



Species diversity in these NYC parks seems to derive from a combination of factors -- within-park habitat, the urban form of the surrounding matrix, the number of eBirders in the park. It's worth comparing Bryant and Central Parks again. Bryant Park has 2112 checklists to Central Park's staggering 13,583 checklists. Bryant Park only has 15% the number of checklists as Central Park yet it has 55% the number of total bird species of Central Park. There's something about Bryant Park!

I don't envy Bryant Park's location in the city but I do think Washington Square Park can be made more bird-friendly through habitat management. WSP Eco Projects has an advocacy mission, too. In our first two permit reports, we encouraged the NYC Parks Department to consider expanding its herbaceous perennial beds in terms of size and native species. We also recommended planting more fruit-bearing and evergreen woody species. We will continue to make the case for bird-friendly plantings in Washington Square Park.

P.S. As I wrote this post, the chart became outdated. Madison Square Park now has 100 bird species.

May 22, 2018

Arbor Month Photos

It's almost too sentimental to write but every day is Arbor Day for me. I am passionate about trees. One of my favorite tree places is Washington Square Park. 



During Arbor Month I posted a tree-related photograph to the Instagram feed of Washington Square Park Eco Projects. National Arbor Day is the last Friday in April but your state might observe it at a different time of year. Check out this Arbor Day calendar.


I began the month with a Magnolia stellata flower. I followed a single flower on a star magnolia in the park from bud to bloom. I did the same for other trees in the park including crabapple and Yoshino and Kwanzan cherries. I began this phenology project last year. I was much more systematic this year. There is room for refinement, however. I'd like to watch the same bud over time but I haven't figured out a discreet and safe way to mark the buds of interest.



The showy-flowering trees were well represented in the Arbor Month photos but I also paid homage to the so-called inconspicuous flowers. If you know what you are looking for, the flowers of maples, oak, and dogwoods are not so hidden.



While the Arbor Month collection is filled with close-ups of buds, blossoms, and new leaves, I also showcased individual trees or groves of trees.


Regrettably, I did not plant a tree this year. I have not planted a tree for Arbor Day in a very long time. I think the last time I did so was when I worked as the urban forester for the City of Boston in the early aughts. Have you planted a tree this year? Was it in honor of Arbor Day?

May 17, 2018

Green Neighborhood Tour of Greenwich Village

I am a huge fan of walking tours, especially ones set in cities. I typically veer towards nature-oriented ones, so for example, I joined a guided bird walk in Battery Park on Tuesday and saw a record number of species (for me), of which at least 11 of the 33 species were warblers. The tour I share in this post was billed as "A 'GreenNeighborhoodod Tour." It was led by Bettina Johae, co-founder of aplusnyc.net, an architecture and art tour company based in NYC.


We met on a gorgeous Saturday morning in the Sasaki Garden at Washington Square Village, the first parking garage roof garden (in the U.S., I think). The garden was completed by the landscape architecture firm of Sasaki, Walker and Associates in 1959. Ms. Johae provided an overview of the tour and discussed the natural history of Manhattan and the Greenwich Village neighborhood. The island of Manhattan was known as Mannahatta or "island of many hills" by the Lenape. Greenwich Village was marshland with a creek coursing through it. A couple of years ago I walked a self-guided tour of artist Beatrice Glow's Lenapeway and contemporary native gardens.

From the Sasaki Garden, we headed south to another superblock, the New York University Silver Tower designed by architect I.M. Pei. At the center of the superblock are several small greenspaces one of which is locally known as the "oak grove" filled with red and willow oaks and a young white oak. A former lawn area was transformed into the Urban Farm Lab in 2013. My family has been assigned a plot in this garden and I'll share updates as soon as we break ground.

The next stop was the Time Landscape, a land art project developed by Alan Sonfist. I've been researching this landscape and learned that Sonfist conceived of it as a monument to "the history of the natural environment at that location" pre-European settlement. He had hoped that there would be many such monuments installed throughout the city but Time Landscape is the only one. This idea of a living memorial to pre-settlement nature in what are now dense residential neighborhoods has not been communicated very well by the artist. Some people perceive the site to be a place of "weeds." Others, including me, value it for its very passive aspect. As far as I know, only one layperson has a key to the gate. Plants, both cultivated and spontaneous, and wildlife get to enjoy it at their pace.


We walked north and stood across the street from the Center for Architecture. While not a landscape, Ms. Johae pointed out that a geothermal heating system was installed in 2003. From there we went to my favorite park in the city - Washington Square Park. I was pleasantly surprised when Ms. Johae used the Washington Square Park Eco Map to illustrate her points about Minetta Creek. I've written many posts about Washington Square Park.


The next stop two stops were examples of POPS or privately owned public spaces. An encounter at the first stop highlighted one of the challenges of these spaces. We were told by a security guard that we could not gather in the plaza space of 300 Mercer Street. This is a publicly accessible space but it is not signed to indicate public use. Ms. Johae advised the guard our right to be in the space even when he said he would call the police. He did not.


There were four stops remaining and I'll focus on two of them. One was the facade landscape of 41 Bond Street. This one of my favorite facades in the neighborhood. The bluestone cladding is inviting though I've never touched it. I'm always afraid that security personnel from the building would come out with harsh questions. This is a luxury building; the average sale price per square foot is $2,661. Each window has a landscape planter. The building has a green roof as does the entrance marquee.


The final stop was a place I have been wanting to visit. My son had been there before me. It is Walter de Maria's The New York Earth Room. The installation is on the second floor and the 3,600 square foot room is filled with 280,000 pounds of earth, peat, and bark. The dirt has been in the space since 1977. My first impulse was to sink my hand into the earth but you are not allowed to touch the art. Also, photographs are not allowed. View the sculpture here. The smell of the sculpture is overwhelming; you feel as if you've stepped into a moist temperate forest, or an old, unfinished New England basement.

My daughter accompanied me on this tour and she did so with minor fuss. I include this information here as a testament to the vibe and content of the tour. Also, there were two older girls (by a few years) on the walk and my daughter delighted in engaging with them. Ms. Johae was knowledgeable and affable. The walk went longer than advertised but most participants stayed until the end and even lingered.

Do you take walking tours in your home city?