January 20, 2017

Songbirds in Washington Square Village and Silver Towers

Image: Washington Square Village and Silver Towers Complex by Angus Wilson (source)

I am steeped in bird data and migration ecology as I draft the annual report for the research permit Washington Square Park Eco Projects received to conduct a wildlife survey in the park. As soon as the report has been submitted I will post it here. I shared a list of the birds we observed in Washington Square Park earlier on in the survey period. You can find birds elsewhere in the vicinity of the park. Angus Wilson, of the Linnaean Society of New York (I did not know there was a Linnaean Society or that there was a NY chapter), published a list of songbirds sighted in the two superblock residential complexes owned by New York University. It with his permission and that of LSNY that I repost his essay below.



The residential complex associated with the New York University campus includes several small areas of trees and ornamental plantings that attract a variety of songbirds during migration and in winter. The main areas are the Sasaki Garden inside the Washington Square Village complex, the LaGuardia Corner Community Garden and adjoining Time Landscape Garden that runs along the east side of LaGuardia Place between Bleecker Street and West Houston Street and the Silver Towers Oak Grove on Bleecker Street. Additional pockets of vegetation border the superblock hemmed by West 3rd Street, Mercer Street, West Houston Street and LaGuardia Place and are always worth checking especially after a migrant fall. A fenced lawn behind the University mail office is used by foraging sparrows and thrushes. Although this area lacks the observer coverage of other Manhattan parks, a good variety of species has been recorded in recent years and careful scrutiny will most likely add to this list. A female Wild Turkey frequented the area for several weeks back in 1997 and a dead Pied-billed Grebe provided a sad testament to the hazards of tall building to nocturnal migrants. The mixture of mature trees, including many native species, ground cover and water sources likely contributes to this diversity. Sadly, this entire area is threatened by the NYU 2031 expansion plans that will replace most of the gardens and border strips with additional tower buildings.


Fall is the optimal season for birding this area. Good numbers of White-throated Sparrows frequent the flowerbeds and are often joined by Song, Swamp and Chipping Sparrows. Dark-eyed Juncos may also be numerous. Lincoln and Fox Sparrow have occurred as rarities. The trees routinely attract Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the fall and winter, along with occasional Northern Flickers. The Sasaki Garden provides wintering habitat for Hermit Thrush, and in late fall, it's not unusual to encounter a dozen or more. Together with American Robins and Cedar Waxwings these attractive thrushes exploit the plantings of crabapple and cherry trees in the northern section. In flight years, the fruit of these trees has attracted Purple Finches. Additional migrants such as Blue-headed Vireo, Winter Wren, Brown Creeper, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets and Eastern Towhee may also be observed.

In spring, small numbers of warblers pass through but can be easily overlooked in the foliage. These have included Cape May Warbler and Chestnut-sided Warbler. One or two Wood Thrush are recorded each year. Drinking water and cut fruit are put out on the ground in the Time Landscape Garden, attracting Blue Jays and Gray Catbirds and might be worth checking for uncommon visitors. The resident Rock Pigeons and Mourning Doves attract the attention of Red-tailed Hawks, presumably coming over from nearby Washington Square Park, and American Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine have all been seen on occasion.

Other Considerations and Directions

This is a relatively safe area, due in large part to its proximity to the University, which provides round-the-clock patrols of the area. The Sasaki Garden is closed during the hours of darkness and receives a fair amount of foot traffic during the day from residents and building employees. Be mindful of the privacy of the folks whose apartments face onto the garden. Signs forbidding photography in the gardens have disappeared and it's not unusual to see NYU film students at work in the park areas, but common sense should apply. Access to the Community Garden and Time Landscape Garden is controlled but both areas can be viewed through the fence.

The area is easily reached by subway to either the West 4th Street (A B C D E F M) or Broadway/Lafayette Street (B D F M 6) subway stations, both of which are only a short walk away.

Image and essay by Angus Wilson of the Linnaean Society of New York. The original post, WASHINGTON SQUARE VILLAGE AND SILVER TOWERS COMPLEX, can be read at http://linnaeannewyork.org/birding-resources-rba/bird-wash-sq-vill_silver-towers.html.

January 10, 2017

Tree Architecture and Snow

Another title I considered for this post was _Tree Geometry and Snow_ after the chapter title "Tree Geometry and Apical Dominance" in The Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich. I planned to reread this book this year. With the recent snowfall, I read all the chapters about the why and how of tree growth. The most instructive for this post was the chapter titled "Construction for Strength". Last Sunday, the morning after the city received five inches of snow (four more than predicted), my family and I walked to Washington Square Park to get some fresh air and to watch the chipping of our neighbors' discarded Christmas trees. In between snow play and tree mulching, I photographed snow on several of the coniferous evergreens and deciduous broadleaf trees and shrubs in the park.

Here is basic tree geometry: conifers, which tend to be evergreen or partially so, typically grow symmetrically and straight vertically. Deciduous trees, mostly broadleaved, tend to have more rounded shapes. Within these generalizations are variations depending on species and environment. For example, ash, maple, and poplar trees are more "upward-pointing" while birch trees are "bushier". White pine is shade intolerant and so grows quickly vertically to maximize access to sunlight but in an environment where it grows as a specimen tree or without competition, it tends to grow horizontally, branching out and not adhering to an apical dominance regime with a single leader branch.

Upward-pointing versus bushy growth is differently impacted by snow loads (or ice). A more vertical tree (trunk, branches, twigs) presents less surface area to snow and rain (or ice). Where the branch attaches the trunk, the shape is more like a V which means snow or rain flows towards the trunk-branch attachment which can support more weight than the tip of a branch or twig. Imagine a deciduous tree in leaf or recently leafed out caught in a snow or ice storm! Such a bushy aspect under snow or ice loading would likely lead to significant loss of limbs.

Image: Spruce (possibly Picea babies), photo by Sergei Dorokhovsky (source)

Evergreen conifers retain their leaves in winter and withstand snow loads. Their vertical and symmetrical geometry is that of a cone hence the name conifer. These trees are wider on the bottom and narrower on the top. The weight of snow causes the higher branches to droop unto the wider lower branches which can support the load. Think of how an umbrella sheds rain or how snow slides of a pitched roof.

Remember earlier I mentioned partially evergreen conifers? It turns about that white pine falls in this category. It "sheds half of its leaves each fall", the older ones closest to the trunk. Balsam firs and red spruces shed their leaves for between five and 10 years. Some conifers are deciduous such as the Dawn redwoods planted in Washington Square Park. There are broadleaf evergreens, too, like the hollies growing near the half-circle seating areas on the eastern side of Washington Square Park. You also may encounter some red oaks that cling to their leaves or red oak leaves that cling to their trees.

The more you learn about trees, the more fascinating they are in all seasons. Stay tuned for a self-guided winter walk through Washington Square Park.

December 15, 2016

Storm King Art Center - Family Field Trip

My first exposure to big sculpture was during a temp assignment at a construction firm in the East Bay (California). I was assigned to the human resources department and one of my tasks was to organize the art files of the firm's owner. Doing this work, I saw the large scale pieces of artists like Ann Hamilton, Richard Serra, and Andy Goldsworthy set in the expansive landscape of the Oliver Ranch. When I travelled to Seattle several years I visited Olympic Sculpture Park specifically to see Richard Serra's 'Wake' and was also treated to works by Alexander Calder and Mark di Suvero. I have lived in New York for the past seven years but didn't hear about Storm King Art Center until a couple of years ago. Two weekends ago, I visited the sculpture park with my family. The experience was well worth the long drive and cold and windy weather. We basked in the intermittent sun. We did not walk all 500 acres of the park. The route we took was recommended to us by the owner of the pop-up cafe. Follow in our footsteps in the South Fields.

Nam June Paik - Waiting for UFO, 1992 

Alexander Calder - Five Swords, 1976

Alyson Shotz - Mirror Fence, 2003

Dennis Oppenheim - Dead Furrow, 1967/2016

Roy Lichtenstein - Mermaid, 1994

Andy Goldsworthy  Storm King Wall, 1997-98

Another set of large scale elements in the landscape are the park's trees. Thick trunked mades line the drive near the 'Pyramidian' by Mark di Suvero (pictured above). Red oaks populate the uplands area near the visitor center. Moodna Creek is lined with birch, willow, and sycamore. Pin oaks line the drive near 'Storm King Wall' by Andy Goldsworthy.

Zhang Huan - Three Legged Buddha, 2007

I look forward to returning next season. I want to see the entire length of Storm King Wall; I want to see Maya Lin's 'Storm King Wave'; and then we did not explore the Meadows and North Woods. Storm King is a wonderful place for children. We did not hear any complaints about the inclement weather. The landscape's rhythmic qualities and never-ending seeming aspect were both exciting and restorative. If you get the opportunity to visit Storm King Art Center, take it.

December 8, 2016

Maps of NYC Street and Park Trees

Image: WSP Eco Map showing tree clusters and Minetta Creek

With the release of the NYC Street Tree Map by the Parks Department this fall, I wanted to plug the WSP Eco Map, a project of Washington Square Park Eco Projects, which shows the locations of the 200-plus trees growing in the almost 10-acre park. Washington Square Park is not the only city park with a map of its trees and natural resources, but it is rare among the New York City's 1900 parks and playgrounds.

Image: Tree Map of Tompkins Square Park (via Tompkins Trees)

When I began exploring a tree map for Washington Square, I met with Michael Natale, who surveyed all the trees in Tompkins Square Park and created, without external funding, the map you see above. The Tompkins Trees map is beautifully detailed. Carl Schurz Park also has a print map of its trees developed by its conservancy. In case you are unfamiliar with the park, Gracie Mansion sits at its northern tip. Download the Trees of Carl Schurz Park here.

Image: Central Park Entire: The Definitive Illustrated Folding Map (via Central Park Nature)

I own a copy of Central Park Entire: The Definitive Illustrated Folding Map by Edward Sibley Barnard and Ken Chaya. Barnard and Chaya independently researched, developed, and self-funded the map over a two year period. In addition to architecture and art, paths and trails, waterbodies, and rock formations, the Central Park map depicts all the park's nearly 20,000 trees. Learn about the mapping process in the Two Years of Mapping Central Park video or in this New York Times profile. The Central Park Conservancy has its own browser-based Tree Guide that can be filtered by species, general location, and attributes such as flowering and fall color.

Although the High Line does not have a formal tree map, you can use its monthly bloom lists to identify showy-flowering trees as well as shrubs and herbaceous perennials growing in the different garden zones in the park.

Image: Screenshot of Profile of Pugsley Creek Park, Bronx, NY on NAC's Nature Map 

The Natural Areas Conservancy which works with the NYC Parks Department to protect, as the name implies, the natural areas in the city's greenspace portfolio including wetlands and open water, launched its Nature Map this year. You won't find individual trees pinpointed on the map but you will get information on park size and percent landcover type. For example, Pugsley Creek Park in the Bronx is 83 acres of which 12 acres is forest, 4 is wetland, 17 is grassland, and 27 is open water.

I've heard that the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy (BPCPC) is geotagging all the plants and infrastructure components in its system. I look forward to exploring that map. In the meantime read the lists of plants, birds, and fish that inhabit the Battery City park system. Note that Battery Park City parks are owned by the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) and jointly managed by the BPCA and the BPCPC.

Image: Playground of the Americas, Houston and Sixth Avenue

Researching this blog post I was surprised to discover that many of New York City's parks do not have a tree map, or if they do, the map is not locatable on the internet. It's a good feeling to know that two small downtown parks are among those that do (and the maps were not developed by conservancies). At 9.5 acres, Washington Square Park is a small park. According to City Parks Blog, the median and average U.S. city park are 5 acres and 54 acres, respectively. For a point of comparison, Central Park is 840 acres. For very small parks and playgrounds with a handful of trees, a map might be unnecessary. I profiled the trees in several such playgrounds in Greenwich Village for ioby's Recipes for Change blog series. Read the essays!

The Trees of the Playground of the Americas
The Trees of Minetta Playground
Trees of the Playground at Pier 25
The Trees of Evelyn’s Playground

Did I miss your tree map? If your NYC park (or playground) has a tree map in print or digital form and I did not mention it in this post, please let me know in a comment. Thank you.

P.S. I Quant NY used the city's 1995 and 2005 street tree census data to create Are You in One of NYC’s Treeiest Neighborhoods? (hat tip: Keith Allison/NYU). I profiled Jill Hubley's NYC Street Trees by Species map which was also created using the tree census data. By the way, the 2015 street tree census used a mapping methodology created by TreeKIT.

November 22, 2016

Fall Foliage Collected in Washington Square Park

My intent was to preserve the fall foliage I collected last week with glycerin and to use leaves as a teaching tool for Washington Square Park Eco Projects. Now the leaves may be too dry to preserve them in glycerin successful. There are still many leaves on many of the park's trees so I still have time to collect freshly fallen samples for preservation. I must hurry though has the parks department is cleaning up fallen leaves and winter weather has arrived suddenly with flurries and cold, fast moving winds. The preservation process seems straightforward. Prepare a 1:2 ratio of glycerin to water and pour the mixture in a shallow tray, spread the leaves in the solution, weigh down the leaves so they remain submerged for four days on average, remove the leaves from the solution and pat dry.

Here are my favorite resources:
Glycerin Leaves [Tinkerlab]
How to Preserve Fall Leaves and Branches with Glycerin [Today's Homeowner]
Preserving Leaves [Martha Stewart]

Have you preserved leaves? What method did you use?

The labeled image at the top of the post would also make a good learning tool but it cannot replace the experience of holding an actual leaf. Most of the trees are peaking in Washington Square Park so this is a good time to visit for fall foliage. If you can't make it to the park, enjoy its autumnal show through the photos below.

Washington Square Park, Fall 2016 Foliage, 11/12/16
Washington Square Park, Fall 2016 Foliage, 11/12/16

P.S. The species represented above are different from the ones whose leaves I gathered days after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The leaf litter I observed in Washington Square Park after the superstorm was heavy on the oaks.

November 10, 2016

Historic Lenape Way and Contemporary Native Gardens

In the popular imagination, I think it's fair to say that Broadway is the quintessential NYC street but most people are unfamiliar with this history of this thoroughfare. Broadway, according to The Wayfinding Project at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, "runs along a portion of the original matrix of trails that connected Manaháhtaan to the broader northeast region and the Great Lakes". Manaháhtaan is the original name given to the island by the Lenape peoples. The Wayfinding Project, a collaboration between John Kuo Wei Tchen, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, and artist Beatrice Glow, examines Lenape knowledge of Manhattan and the complex ways in which such knowledge was produced.

Image: Screenshot of Lenapeway & NYU Native Plant Walking Tour map by Beatrice Glow

As part of the larger project, Beatrice Glow developed Lenapeway to celebrate Lenape culture including modes of terrestrial, riverine, and coastal transportation. For example, images of mùxulhemënshi (tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipifera) are projected in the installation; dugout canoes were constructed out of tulip tree wood. There is a virtual reality component to Lenapeway but the feature I was most interested in exploring was the walking tour of native plant gardens in the area. The actual location of the Lenapeway installation is 715 Broadway which "marks the intersection of the main Lenape trail and a side-trail that traverses through present-day Washington Square Park". I did not participate in the live tour of the garden held on October 18th but I followed Beatrice Glow's map. I was comfortable with a self-guided experience because all of the five greenspaces are familiar to me. I wish the map was annotated; it would be informative to know why these particular spaces and which plants are of interest.  The open spaces on the map are NYU owned gardens with the exception of Washington Square Park which is a NYC public park.

1. Mercer Plaza, 251 Mercer Street
2. Oak Grove at Silver Towers, 100 & 110 Bleecker Street
3. Schwartz Plaza at NYU
4. Washington Square Park, north side
5. Willy's Garden, 1/2 5th Avenue

Mercer Plaza

In 2010, I wrote about the renovation of Mercer Plaza. The trees and other plants have filled out significantly. The plaza can be described as verdant. There are a couple of statuesque tulip trees in this garden. Sweetgum and willow oaks also fill out the canopy layer. The sub-canopy and lower layers are planted with native small trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses.

Oak Grove

I have written about the oak grove on Bleecker Street here and here. In the latter post, the grove was one of seven Greenwich Village "hidden gems" in and around the NYU superblocks. There are 14 oaks growing in the grove most of which are willow oaks (Quercus phellos). Northern red oak, pin oak, and a young swamp white oak round out the mix.

Schwartz Plaza

The plaza runs between West 4th and West 3rd Streets. Two garden areas bookend the space and are collectively known as the NYU Native Woodland Garden in Schwartz Plaza. The northernmost of the gardens was once planted with littleleaf lindens with a fern and wild ginger understory. In 2011, the lindens were removed and replaced with American hornbeam or ironwood (Carpinus caroliana). You can read my report and see a 2009-2013 photo series.

Washington Square Park

The northside of the park was indicated on the map as a site of native plants. Two of my favorite stretches on this edge of the park is the row of oaks east of the Washington Arch. I also like the layered planting zone northwest of the arch. It is planted with, among species, crabapples, oak leaf hydrangeas, and sage. We have noticed during our wildlife survey walks that the latter zone is a hotspot for birds.

Willy's Garden

The walking tour ends at Willy's Garden on Fifth Avenue. The garden is a narrow ground of trees, shrubs, and ground cover. At the rear of the garden is a statue of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha. This statue was given to New York by Enrique Tierno Galván, the Mayor of Madrid, in 1986. It was placed temporarily in Bryant Park, then slated to be installed in Washington Square Park, but found a permanent home in this New York University courtyard.

These contemporary gardens are within the historic Minetta Creek watershed (refer to the second photo). The creek ran through what is now Washington Square Park but is now culverted and buried. I would like to see gardens on the former route of the creek that reflect plant communities that would have thrived creekside though this concept would require creative irrigation schemes. Another option would be neighborhood greenspaces vegetated with plants that would have been found in Lenape gardens. There is such a garden in New York City. In 2009, Fritz Haeg of gardenlab/Edible Estates with the Hudson Guild, New York Restoration Project, and Friends of the High Line installed a Lenape Edible Estate at the Elliott-Chelsea Houses. The garden was planted in zones: woodland, flowering meow, berry patch, and Three Sisters. The plant list for each zone is only a subset of the species collected and collected by the Lenape peoples. Maybe the call to action for myself is to contact The Wayfinding Project about designing a garden!

October 18, 2016

Using NYC Parks as Classrooms - Learning to Garden with Acorns in Washington Square Park

Have you ever planted an acorn? Maybe you've worked on a woodland restoration project and planted acorns in a natural setting?

Last Saturday we attended an acorn planting workshop led by Kaslin Daniels, the head gardener at Washington Square Park. We planted acorns in terra-cotta pots. Kaslin asked open ended questions about what seeds look, feel, and smell like, what they do, and what they need to grow.  The discussion had an experiential aspect. Kaslin slit the skin of one of the walnuts so the children could smell its lemony scent. In addition to walnuts, she also displayed acorns, haws, sweetgum balls, oak leaves, and one-year old seedlings of hawthorn, ginkgo and red oak. By request of the children, she cut open the fruits and nuts so the children could see their interiors.

After this introduction, Kaslin demonstrated how to plant the English oak acorns that she had gathered from Prospect Park. To each pot, soil was loosely added then two English oak acorns were placed cap side up/root end down into the soil leaving their top halves exposed. The soil was generously watered. The children were told to keep the soil moist to the touch. The roots will germinate before the shoots so be patient.

There was not a story time component to the event, but Kaslin displayed several topical picture books. My son chose Gail Gibbons From Seed to Plant for me to read to him. The remaining three books, which I browsed through, were A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Aston and Sylvia Long; Who Will Plant a Tree? by Jerry Pallotta and Tom Leonard; and Treecology by Monica Russo.

Kaslin is a thoughtful and engaging teacher. The children responded well to her style and to the workshop concept. I would like to see more tree gardening opportunities in the park. Additional types of fruit and nut could be collected from plants in the park and potted. And though the park might not have space for a greenhouse, perhaps participants in future planting workshops could donate seedlings they grew to populate a children's woodland area in the park.