January 6, 2019

Birding Life

Famous birdwatchers are the subject and authors of books. I am not a famous birdwatcher but I do have a story about the presence of birds in my life and my active noticing of them especially in recent years.

EXPLORE BIRDS, Sara D. Roosevelt Park, Chinatown
Image: Birding in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, EXPLORE BIRDS, c/o the Uni Project

Early Childhood in Jamaica

My childhood was awash in birds A teenaged cousin and a neighbor separately kept homing pigeons. My cousin n my family's backyard for a time. The neighbor's birds were in his backyard which was across the street from our front yard. The pigeons were Columba livia, and the not the endemic Patagioenas caribaea or Ring-tailed Pigeon. Birds were also moral and spiritual guides. A proverb and a folk lore are exemplary of there pervasive nature of birds in my youth. The idiom "when the chicken is merry, the hawk is near" is a proverb I remember from the earliest parts of my childhood. The idiom means conspicuous displays of happiness will bring bad luck. I also took it to mean that even private pride about a situation could lead to bad luck. I recall that this idiom was a line in a popular song. The observation of a certain bird could bring luck as bad as death. That bird is the John Crow, the turkey vulture. It seems obvious now that there would be a link between this bird and death given the feeding behavior of the vulture. As a child, however, I did not necessarily make that connection. Another aspect of John Crow folk lore was its nose naught. Spotting this excretion also brought bad luck. Gathering background information for this post, I learned that the bird's nose naught is the stinkhorn mushroom, a "foul-smelling" fungus.

Volunteer Service in the Western U.S.

The next time that birds played a significant role in my life was after college when I served with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. One of our project was restoration work on wildlife management area lands in Idaho. It was during this stint that I saw Sandhill Crane for the first time! We lodged on the Market Lake WMA in Roberts, Idaho. We were close to the Snake River and had a view of the Grand Tetons. Before I knew about eBird, I would note the place and date of bird sightings in my copy of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

Graduate Studies in New Haven, Connecticut

Not long after Idaho I was in New Haven where I collaborated with a neighborhood group to design the Ivy Narrow Bird Sanctuary.  I was a community forestry intern with Urban Resources Initiative (URI), a community forestry nonprofit based at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. I was the first intern to work with Jeannette Thomas and other members of the Ivy Narrow group so I wasn't involved in the final phases of the preserve's development. The URI internship was my first applied community and urban forestry experience. It is an understatement to say that I learned a lot. I am convinced this experience secured my first job out of the graduate school as an urban forester for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department.


Adulthood in New York 

Fast forward many years to New York City where I currently live. In 2013 I launched a fundraising campaign for a tree map project with a fellow blogger. That project became Washington Square Park Eco Projects which I direct. I started with trees which naturally led to wildlife. We started with birds because my professional partner is strong birder. We survey the park twice a month to count birds and other vertebrate wildlife. We also take note of non-bird pollinators. We wanted to provide opportunities for hands-on learning about NYC birds so applied for a permit to prepare a teaching collection of study skins. We have able tutors at the natural history museum. We found an enthusiastic partner in the Uni Project to design and deploy a pop-up bird education program through the city.

Related Link - The Launch and Evolution of EXPLORE BIRDS


My bird life in New York City is leaping and bounding through preparing specimens, counting birds in my bird patch, participating in the bird walks Eco Projects organizes (which are led by local experts), and more. Part of the latter are the didactic and osmotic practices I create for my children, the next generation of birders, who even in early childhood have many bird stories to tell.

I would love to hear about your birding life!

December 19, 2018

Three Community Science Projects for Feeder Birders (aka My First Print Article for Audubon)


My first print article for Audubon Magazine is the Winter 2018 issue! The piece feature three community science projects in which feeder birders can participate. The article is part of the Field Guide: Birding section.

November 19, 2018

Explore Species with eBird (aka My First Web Article for Audubon)

American Robin from The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Princetonnature via Wikimedia Commons

I wrote my first web byline for Audubon Magazine! My assignment was to review eBird's newest feature, Explore Species.
On a clear, cold October morning, for the first time in my birding life, I watched hundreds of American Robins migrate in a single, synchronized stream. Typically, I see a solitary robin or a small group of them pulling earthworms from the soil. But what I witnessed that fall day in Washington Square Park in New York City was a more intentional scene—one that made me think of the historic flocks of Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets that used to fill the Eastern skies.... (read more)

November 14, 2018

Washington Square Park Tree Index by Genus

Cataloguing tree diversity in the park was a founding goal of Washington Square Park Eco Projects. Eco Projects launched with an online map of the park's trees. In addition, I have been interested in a management plan for the park since I began to explore it. Currently the tree map does not filter by genus or species. Here I've listed the genus (n=34) present in the park. In a future post I will provide a species index including the number of trees per species.

Acer (maple)
Betula (birch) [sole individual died and was removed]
Carpinus (hornbeam)
Catalpa (catalpa)
Cedrus (cedar)
Cercis (redbud)
Cornus (dogwood)
Crataegus (hawthorn)
Fraxinus (ash)
Ilex (holly)
Malus (crabapple)
Magnolia (magnolia)
Morus (mulberry)
Picea (spruce)
Pinus (pine)
Platanus (plane tree, sycamore)
Prunus (cherry, plum)
Quercus (oak)
Robinia (locust)
Syringa (lilac)
Taxodium (cypress)
Tilia (linden)
Ulmus (elm)
Zelkova (zelkova)

Ailanthus (A. altissima) (tree-of-heaven)
Ginkgo (G. biloba) (ginkgo, maidenhair tree)
Gleditisia (G. triacanthos) (honey locust)
Liquidamabar (L. styraciflua) (sweetgum)
Liriodendron (L. tulipifera) (tulip-tree)
Metasequoia (M. glyptostroiboides) (dawn redwood)

Koelreuteria paniculata (golden rain tree)
Maclura pomifera (Osage orange)
Phellodendron amurense (Amur cork tree)
Styphnolobium japonicum (Japanese pagoda tree)

October 31, 2018

Red Oak Fall Foliage

Closing out October aka Oaktober with an explanation of the sources of fall colors.


The dark green leaf is a summer leaf, colored by chlorophyll. The yellow leaf is colored by a class of pigments called carotenoids. This pigment family is present in the leaf during the spring and summer but only surfaces with the decline in chlorophyll in the fall. Tannins are responsible for brown leaf color. Tannins are present in the tree throughout the year, too, but chlorophyll and carotenoids mask their expression. Carotenoids are also responsible for orange fall colors. Anthocyanins are the source of red and purple leaves in the fall. Unlike carotenoids and tannins which are present in the leaf during the growing season, anthocyanins are produced when sugar availability increases in the fall. Why do leaves make anthocyanins in the fall? Research suggests that red leaf color protects senescing leaves.

What's the state of fall color in your area? Let me know in the comments.

A version of this post first appeared here.

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.