February 3, 2021

Minetta Creatures, an eco-art collaborative to celebrate the historic ecologies of the Minetta Brook watershed

Minetta Creatures has a funding page on IOBY and received matching funds from ArtPlace America. Last year, I spoke with ArtPlace about the project. The following is an excerpt from the conversation.

Why is it important to make this history visible?

When I moved to the neighborhood more than a decade ago, I wasn't aware that there once was a stream that flowed through it. I came across that information accidentally while doing some research about the trees of Washington Square Park, the history of the land. I became familiar with the word Minetta and its origins as a Lenape word and dug deeper, did a lot of Googling and realized that we are missing a core piece of what it means to live in this neighborhood and New York City more generally.
You can read the entire interview here.

September 3, 2020

The Risks and Rewards of Being Black in Nature

Photo by Andre Hunter at https://unsplash.com/photos/wN8pecBHoHs
Photo by Andre Hunter at https://unsplash.com/photos/wN8pecBHoHs

I first learned about the concept of “nearby nature” in graduate school. The term was coined by Rachel Kaplan and Stephan Kaplan in their 1989 book, The Experience of Nature. The Kaplans define this form of nature as a space that contains “one or more plants…that is proximal [and] it can be indoors or out-of-doors.” With this wide-open definition, there are arguably many subtypes of nearby nature. I’ve thought about nearby nature or neighborhood nature or next door nature especially in the context of cities because of my work in urban forestry and urban ecology. Conducting my life almost entirely from my apartment in New York City beginning in mid-March of this year because of the pandemic brought home the importance of nature I could easily access, from my window, on a walk around my block, and when things felt less dire, in my local park. The pandemic and how much I craved nature were the catalysts for writing an essay about the benefits of nearby nature. But then the trauma of two stark incidences of racial violence in the outdoors made me pause my work. I didn’t feel that I could unconditionally tout the benefits of nearby nature, of spending time outdoors, when nature has been the setting for anti-black hate crimes. Read my entire essay here.

August 5, 2020

Avian biodiversity in a small park

Large parks such as Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn top the list of birding hotspots in New York City. But smaller, neighborhood parks support diverse bird life, too. My favorite small park, Washington Square Park, is within 10-minute walk from my apartment. It is 9.75-acres and located in the center of the Greenwich Village Historic District. The park is renowned for the Washington Arch, named for the nation’s first president and a doppelganger for the Arc de Triomphe. Locals and tourists also flock to the park to photograph the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center, to sit around the fountain, and to watch and listen to the grassroots performing artists that enliven the park. Locals and tourists engage with wildlife, too. Squirrels are enticed with nuts and bread. Pigeons and house sparrows, the most numerous and gregarious species in the park, get a lot of attention. But most tourists and some locals miss the breadth of bird life in the park. You have to slow down, wander, keep your eyes and ears open, pause, peer into the shrub layer, and stare into the canopy. I learned to take these steps from my birding partner. In the past three and a half years, I’ve been witness to the park’s spectacular bird life. Here are some short tales.

Kentucky warbler in Washington Square Park, photo by Dennis Edge
Kentucky warbler, photo c/o Dennis Edge

Kentucky warbler (Geothlypis formosa)

A Kentucky warbler stopped over in the park in May 2017. My birding partner and I first observed the warbler on May 11th. She spotted the bird on the ground in one of the park’s parterres, a location that seems at first glance, most unfitting for this forest bird. However, Kentucky warblers forage for insects on the ground. For much of the rest of its stay, the warbler took refuge in the crabapple grove just west of the Arch, which is densely vegetated in the spring. The bird’s multi-day layover put the park on the birding radar. On the second day of its R&R, the birding paparazzi descended on the park. A large group of approximately 20 birders and photographers lined the sidewalk and an inner pathway for hours to record this rare sighting. Birders and photographers returned to the park until it was clear that the bird had resumed its migration, moving further north to interior forests. I was happy the warbler stopped over in the park, but was glad the bird moved on to his breeding territory. The Kentucky warbler is an at-risk species; it would have been heartbreaking if the park were an ecological trap for the bird.

Belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)

There used to be an aboveground stream that ran through what is now the park, but the last time Minetta Brook saw daylight was in the 1800s. So, it was a pleasant surprise to observe a belted kingfisher in the park on October 13, 2018. This was the first record on eBird, a bird-listing app, of this species in the park. The kingfisher was heard vocalizing before it was seen. I was participating in a Feminist Bird Club walk in the park, and one of the organizers, CL, thought she’d heard the kingfisher’s call early on in the walk, but a kingfisher didn’t make sense in an inland park whose only water body is a fountain. CL spotted the bird during the second half of the walk. The kingfisher was observed flying and perching in a tree in the center of the largest wooded area of the park. The northwest sector of the park harbors the most biodiversity. The entire walk group gathered below the tree to observe the kingfisher. We were bowled over by the sighting.

Black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

A black-crowned night heron spent a couple of days in the park in June 2018. The head gardener alerted me to the bird’s presence via text message. When we met up in person, he told me the heron had been chased into the park by two red-tailed hawks. The heron first landed in the water in the fountain’s basin before taken up a perch in one of the Zelkova trees circling the fountain. My birding partner thinks the heron has generational memory of the pre-colonial landscape. One of the historic ecologies of the land on which the park sits was a red maple hardwood swamp. A wooded swamp is a prime habitat for the heron.

Red-tailed hawk, photo by Hubert J Steed
Red-tailed hawk, photo c/o Hubert J. Steed

Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

In 2019, there were 11 active red-tailed hawk nests in NYC. One of these nests is located on a penthouse windowsill of a university building on the southern border of the park. The first hawk pair launched their residence in the 2010-11 season. Courtship began in 2010 and one eyass fledged in 2011. The adult female laid three eggs but only one hatched. Since 2011, the adult partners have changed several times. The first female (“Violet”) died in 2011. A new female (“Rosie”) took over the territory in the same year, but left in 2014. The current female (“Sadie” aka “Aurora”) is the third resident female. The original male hawk (“Bobby”) disappeared after the eyasses hatched in the spring of 2019, and has been presumed dead. A new male (“Juno”) claimed the territory. His arrival was controversial; people had a strong attachment to “Bobby” and disliked Juno’s harassment of Bobby’s offspring.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

I was unfamiliar with the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a woodpecker, until I began birding in Washington Square Park. I have seen both sexes as well as adult and juvenile sapsuckers in the park. I typically spot them in the northwest corner of the park, but the hollies in the southeast corner are another within-park hotspot. One day, my birding partner and I were talking about the sapsucker with our mentor at the natural history museum. I was discussing my fascination with the sapsucker, and how difficult it was to find recent scientific studies of the species. Our mentor brought up the female black-crowned morph, which only added to the bird’s appeal. At that point, neither my birding partner nor I had seen the black-crowned morph, but one of the next times we birded in the park, we saw one! It was as if our mentor had conjured the bird into the park. The female black-crowned morph is described as “occasionally seen” in the 2017 edition of Sibley Birds East.

The moral of these stories is to give nearby nature another look. Your local sky (and ground) might surprise you!

May 28, 2020

Did fill kill a large American linden in Washington Square Park?

American linden, Washington Square Park

The title of this post is a rhetorical question. While I cannot say definitely that fill killed the 35-inch American linden in the northwest woodland of Washington Square Park, fill contributed to the death of this tree. In summer 2019, the soil grade in the northwest woodland was changed (fill was added) as part of a lawn repair project. I voiced concerns about the impact of soil mounding on mature trees on this blog and directly with the NYC Parks administrator of the park.

The critical root zone (CRZ) of a tree is just that: it is essential to the health of a tree and every effort should be made to prevent disturbance in this area. A quick estimate of the CRZ is the area below a tree's drip line or the area underneath the tree's canopy spread. NYC Parks requires a CRZ ratio of "½ foot per one inch DBH (diameter at breast height) to 1½ foot per one inch DBH." The agency provides a stricter calculation of 1½ foot per one inch DBH standard if a species fill tolerance is unknown. It is known that lindens have a low tolerance for grade change so I would argue that the higher standard should be used. The American linden in the northwest woodland is 35 inches in diameter. Even using the lowest ratio of 1/2 foot per 1 inch DBH, disturbance should not have occurred within 17 feet of the trunk of the linden. Fill was added with the CRZ of the linden tree.

Photographic evidence shows a dramatic change in the canopy health of the large American linden in the northwest woodland. The tree has not leafed out as of the writing of this post. Photographs taken in previous seasons show the tree in leaf. 

JULY 2017 via Google Maps user

AUGUST 2019 via localecologist.org

American linden, Washington Square Park

MAY 15,2020 via localecologist.org

It is unfortunate to lose another large tree from the canopy in Washington Square Park. In June 2019, I reported on the removal of 10 large trees from the park between 2017 and 2019. The linden had several dead limbs, but the branches were relatively small and did not have a pattern which might indicate an existing abiotic or biotic stressor. If the linden was stressed prior to the grade change, the layering of fill above its critical root zone would have intensified the stress and reduced the tree's coping ability and gas and water exchange. Arboricultural standards are evidence based and are recommended to protect trees, especially vulnerable species and mature trees. The loss of a mature tree is significant; its size related to its age has conferred numerous benefits both quantified and unnamed to its biophysical and cultural environments. The preservation of existing canopy on public land seems like an easy task, the proverbial low-hanging fruit. The case of this dead linden in a celebrate public park shows that my assumption is naive. There is much work to be done to preserve our existing urban tree canopy.

April 3, 2020

Observe nature from home

It’s spring! Migratory birds are on the move and plants are flowering and leafing out. Typically, our public landscapes would be teeming with people, some of whom would be outside to count brightly colored warblers, to watch cherry trees reach peak bloom, and to track the “green wave” of maples, oaks, and poplars pushing out new leaves. In the global wake of Covid-19, however, human movement is largely on pause. In the U.S., several states have orders and advisories to stay home. Despite this incredibly necessary limitation, if you have a room with a view (or a private outdoor space), you can make nature observations from home.

binoculars and field guides

Observation tools

Observing nature while inside might require binoculars depending on how close birds or plants are to your windows. If you have bird feeders next to your windows or in your private outdoor space, you will be able to bird watch without binoculars. If you have neither, and birds will congregate at some distance beyond your windows, then binoculars or telephoto lenses will be essential. The same is true if you want count a tree’s leaves or see the details of its flowers.

Nature watch station

Once you’ve decided on your observation tool, set up your nature watching station. Find the window in your home that offers the best views of sky and nearby habitats—vegetation and/or water. Stock your observation deck with binoculars and field guides. Other tools to consider are a camera and art materials, in case birds or other animals linger.

Share your nature finds

While some birders and botanizers have dedicated places in which they track nature through the seasons, some bird and plant watchers like to go to the latest super bloom or bird fallout sites. Since human travel is restricted now, it’s unlikely that people will be trekking locally or regionally to catch these natural phenomenon. However, from your indoor perch, you might be witness to flowers and birds that are of high interest to other nature observers. Furthermore, seasonal data about bird and plant activity are still important to scientists and land managers. Share what you are seeing. Upload your plant photographs to iNaturalist. List your bird sightings with eBird. Use SciStarter to find other community science projects.

Think beyond listing, though. For those of us whose rooms don’t have the best views of the diversity of birds that will move through North America or of the blooms and expanding green canopies, stream what you are seeing on Instagram or YouTube. Publish your photos and stories on a blog or in a Twitter thread.

Virtual nature encounters

If your living situation precludes direct nature observation, online nature cameras can deliver nature’s wonders to you. Universities on both coasts host raptor cams. The Campanile Tower at the University of California, Berkeley is home to a pair of peregrine falcons. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology hosts a bonanza of bird cams, 15 in total. If forest canopies are more your thing, watch a New England forest leaf out courtesy of the Harvard Forest Phenocam. The mother lode of live nature cams is hosted by lode Explore.org. To see, and even to help identify, what people are seeing worldwide, head to the Explore section of iNaturalist.

Let’s join in the study of seasonal activity in plants, birds, and other animals, known as phenology. It’s another way to connect to each other and to nature during this time of physical distancing.

March 24, 2020

Birding for beginners

Image: Screenshot of PopSci.com (Cardinal photo by Bruce Jastrow/Unsplash)

A spot of good news: I've got a new story--a how to guide for beginning birders! It was published by Popular Science as How to start birding in any U.S. city. Thanks to DIY editors John Kennedy and Sandra Gutierrez. Let me know what you think about the bird watching guide. Be well.

March 3, 2020

Kindergarten Tree Walk

Not only is leaf litter an important resource for forest function, fallen leaves can also spark environmental learning experiences. One day, a kindergarten-aged boy was walking through Washington Square Park and saw a large leaf on the ground. He collected the leaf to bring to his kindergarten teacher. His class was studying trees. The teacher and the students identified the leaf as an oak but did not know if the lead belonged to a pin oak or a red oak. (Note: a pin oak is in the red oak group.) The teacher reached out to me because of my connection to the park. We agreed on a tree walk with a classroom tree lesson and an outdoor identification session. I visited with the class twice; I worked with one half of the class, about 10 students, on each visit.

I started off each visit asking the children to describe a tree. Their answers reminded me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. No child offered a complete definition, but the list of features they generated was comprehensive. On one of the days, the teacher had a debrief session and noted additional student observations on the board. All of the student responses where interesting but I particularly appreciated the following description: “big piece of wood standing up where animals can live.”

Our tree walk occurred on the south side of the block on which the school sits. I had walked both sides of the block before meeting with the students so was familiar with the species and the seasonal changes each tree was undergoing. I paired trees and compared and contrasted the species along the block to teach and illustrate basic tree identification. We talked about leaf arrangement (opposite versus alternate), flowers (showy versus inconspicuous), fruit, bark patterns, and new twig growth. The most appealing trees had showy flowers (the Callery pears on the street and the Kwanzan cherries in the small front yards). The students were also fascinated by the herbaceous plants in the tree beds, most of which were growing spontaneously, as well as the trash on the soil.

I would like to replicate this workshop for other early childhood education programs. The students were engaged indoors and outside, and the head teacher provided positive feedback. The tree walk was a valuable experience for me as I grow my outdoor educator skills.

Photos courtesy of the classroom teacher.