Saturday, March 18, 2017

As Spring Looms, Birds Stuck in Winter Wonderland

Geese, shovelers, coots and mallards still in family groups on ice-covered Central Park lakes.  
Goose family in snow at mostly iced-over Boat Lake.
A dominant gander holding family together during time he normally would be pairing with mate.
Frozen Boat Lake days before spring.
Winter wonderland.
Domestic ducks huddled on ice.
Snow covered Central Park fields making it hard for small birds to dig for insects and seeds.
It's too early to know the impacts on birds and other wildlife of an unusually frigid March and large snowstorm that befelled the north east this past week.

Nearly a week after the blizzard, thick snow still covers all the fields and lawns of Central Park thereby making it difficult for small birds to graze or dig for insects. And ice now covers from half to more than 90% of park lakes and ponds presenting special challenges to water fowl who normally this time of the year are staking our territories and fattening up in preparation for nesting.

A New York Times article from yesterday however, describes the difficulties experienced by migrating American Woodcocks who found themselves unable to get to earthworms imbedded under the deep snow and suddenly flooding into bird rescues, many of them too emaciated or weak to save.

Bird experts recommend that concerned humans try to clear some of the snow covering lawns and backyards in order to allow wild birds opportunity to forage for food. Offerings of bird seed and suet also help many of our feathered friends through this unusual challenge of late winter.

Recent walks around the Reservoir, Harlem Meer and the Boat Lake in Central Park show most of the geese and ducks still in winter mode behavior. The geese are primarily in family groups whereas this time of year, parents usually banish the grown goslings in order to romantically pair again and prepare for nesting. Ducks on the other hand, have usually departed Central Park locations by this time to nest elsewhere. As of now however, most ducks (and northern shovelers) are still in Central Park and like the geese, in groups.

One woman who has been observing and videotaping a pair of geese ("Betty and Ray") who have returned to her property every spring for 15 years to nest, described how the pair suddenly departed the nesting location this week just prior to the blizzard. I speculated then that the goose parents likely returned to their grown goslings from last year in order to safely guide them through the storm.

Sure enough, all five of the geese briefly showed up to Barbara's property yesterday, but were soon gone again as this winter's challenges are not quite over. (Normally, this time of the year, Betty is already sitting on a nest of eggs.)

As described in this blog, the Reservoir nesting geese (Hansel and Greta) returned weeks ago, but also left shortly before the storm. Presumption is that they too are back with the young adult kids from last year -- at least for the time being.

A visit to the Boat Lake and Reservoir yesterday showed virtually all the geese in family groups with just a few pairs veering off from gaggles. I am not aware of any Central Park geese already nesting or even vigorously defending nesting territories.

Weather forecasters are predicting that weather will finally warm and become spring-like after the 26th of this month.

At best, pairing and nesting behaviors in the birds have simply been slightly delayed this year and will not suffer severe adverse impacts from late winter snow storms and bitter temperatures.  

But as said at the top of this entry, it is way too early to speculate and make predictions.

Knowing particularly, the adaptability of Canada geese, I am reasonably optimistic that they will find ways to assimilate and make up for what is surely a wrench thrown into their normal scheduling of romance and family. Canada geese haven't thrived over these past two decades because they are stupid and adverse to change. 

But we have to hope the same is true for the rest of the bird and wildlife kingdoms during these times of extreme and unpredictable climatic changes. And judging by the misfortunes of the American Woodcocks this past week, that might not be too easy to assume. -- PCA


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Winter of Extremes; Its Impact Upon Wildlife Uncertain

A young girl offers nourishment to Jody yesterday at Harlem Meer in Central Park. At no time is such support more needed than now.
The geese and ducks survived the bitter snow storm of mid-March. But long range impacts of late winter storms and frigid temperatures upon wildlife breeding successes are likely to be impacted.
Harlem Meer was half covered in ice yesterday and is likely to be 90% or entirely frozen over today. Bad news in terms of food supplies for struggling water birds so late in the season.
New York City dodged a blizzard bullet yesterday.

Instead of the 18 inches of snow predicted, we merely got 8. But areas north and west of the city were slammed with as much as 32 inches of snow. And bitter, below freezing temperatures all along the north east for most of March make it seem more like the deep of winter, rather than one week before spring.

But it has been that kind of winter -- one of extremes, rather than easy predictions and normal pattern. 

Both, January and February were unusually warm with temperatures sometimes bursting up to the 60's. In most cases, the spring-like days were immediately followed by plunges in temperatures of more than 30 degrees (which also occurred this month). One day people literally walked around in light sweaters and shorts; the next in heavy parkas, hats and gloves.

One wonders of course, about this bizarre winter's impact upon wildlife.

As earlier reported, migratory Canada geese wintering at the Central Park Reservoir left unusually early this year to return to their breeding areas in the far north. They were gone by the end of February, whereas usually they don't depart until mid March.

Meanwhile, one of the pairs of breeding Reservoir geese (Hansel and Greta) returned early in March only to leave almost two weeks later when temperatures suddenly plunged and snow began to fall again.

Early spring blooms of flowers in Central Park have since been obliterated by freezing temperatures and snow.
And it is only now that the Central Park lakes are again icing over when they are typically thawing in March. Yesterday, Harlem Meer was more than half covered in ice. It is anticipated that today it will be more than 90% frozen or perhaps even entirely iced.

Temperatures are to remain at freezing levels in NYC for at least the next ten days.

Considering that many species of birds were already in preparations for nesting (or even already on nests in some cases), a late winter freeze like this is likely to have negative impact upon successful hatchlings.

When, for example, New York City experienced unusually frigid winters two and three years ago, few Canada geese eggs hatched in Central Park. In two cases, nesting hens at the Reservoir actually died soon after laying their eggs. At the time, I speculated that the bitter winters of 2014 and 2015 (lasting well into March) had taken so much out of the nesting geese, they simply lacked the nutritional weight and strength to withstand the rigors of nesting.

By contrast, last winter was mild in NYC and successful goose hatchings occurred at the Boat Lake and the Reservoir.  We also saw squirrel populations rebound in Central Park last year after a couple of years of low sightings.

But, the fact that most of this winter's frigid temperatures and snow have been crammed into the month of March is troubling for their potential impact and disruption upon breeding cycles of wildlife. Spring is usually devoted to rejuvenating strength and preparation for nesting and reproduction -- not having to withstand the challenges of late seasonal blizzards, icy lakes, scant food resources and January temperatures.

In short, while it appears our Central Park ducks and geese survived the bitter snow storm yesterday (and yes, NYC dodged a bullet in terms of the higher snow predictions), it might be the storm's aftermath that is actually far more nefarious.

This is especially true if Central Park ponds and lakes ice over (thereby restricting food sources) and we remain in a deep freeze until the end of the month.

"It might as well be spring" might (sadly) just be a song this year. -- PCA


Monday, March 13, 2017

A Mighty Storm Coming and the Geeese and Ducks Know It

Jody, the domestic, Indian Runner Duck at Harlem Meer about to face his first blizzard.
Even the little Wood Duck was desperate enough to come on land yesterday. He knows something is brewing in the wind.
The pre-storm melee.
And one goose seems to take it all in stride. "We're gonna get through this."
It seems ironic now that I ended the last blog entry with concern that a mild winter might represent, "the calm before the storm."

Those words are now prophetic.

Indeed, an unusual mid-March blizzard is now forecast in New York City for Tuesday of this upcoming week. We may get as much as a foot and a half of snow and strong, sustained winds will result in dangerous, blizzard conditions.

But, if there was no such thing as meteorologists, I would know something big was brewing just by the behavior of the geese and ducks over the past few days.

In short, they are desperate and somewhat frantic.   

The pair of geese (Hansel and Greta) who had returned to the Central Park Reservoir almost two weeks ago to reclaim their nesting area, suddenly departed a couple of days ago.

Just as significant, the behavior of the geese and ducks at Harlem Meer has radically changed in the past few days with many of them now coming on land and wildly scrambling for the food I toss -- behavior very reminiscent of what was observed two years ago when thousands of waterbirds perished in the North East due to an extremely harsh winter. 

In the present case, it's clear that the birds sense a drastic change about to occur and are seeking to "fuel up" before it actually happens.

Exactly how the geese and ducks "know" this without weather forecasters telling them, I have no way of guessing, but it's absolutely certain they do.

Even the little wood duck observed at Harlem Meer for the past two months suddenly came on the embankment yesterday to frantically grab food treats. (I had never seen him on land before.)

As for "Jody," the domestic Indian Runner duck at Harlem Meer for the past year, he too, is taking risks he normally does not take.

Jody is usually careful to stay in the water all the time because, being flightless, he is safer there. (Knowing this, I don't encourage Jody to come on land.)

However, for the past two evenings, Jody has ventured on the embankment to take food from my hand -- something that nearly cost him yesterday. An off-leash dog suddenly bolted after Jody and nearly caught him before the duck was able to scramble back to the water.

My heart nearly jumped out of my chest when seeing this. Though I don't believe the smallish mixed-breed dog meant actual harm, there is no question that off leash dogs pose significant risk to any bird incapable of flight in Central Park.

Some people have asked why I don't attempt a rescue of Jody since being a domestic duck, he is in danger in a public park.  But, in order to successfully rescue Jody, I would need to condition him to coming on and being comfortable on land (and with people). That in itself, would put him at greater risk -- perhaps before he could actually be rescued.

I am of course, worried particularly for Jody now.

This is his first winter in Central Park and to this point, it has been mild with little snow.

But it's now as if the entire winter is being crammed into two frigid weeks.

I have to hope for a number of things:

First, that a unusually mild February warmed up the lake water so much that it won't entirely ice over during this atypical bitter week. (If that happens, all the mallards and geese will leave and Jody would be entirely on his own and thus, an easy target for predation.) So far, Harlem Meer has not iced over though temperatures have been below freezing. But that can quickly change -- especially before or immediately after a blizzard.

Secondly, I have to hope that all the waterbirds have sufficient fat on them to get them through a period when they might not have access to food for several or more days.

Thirdly, if Central Park lakes and ponds do ice over, we have to hope for a quick warm-up and thaw. But forecasts for the entire upcoming week do not show any rises of temperature sufficient enough to melt heavy snow or icy lakes anytime soon.   

For sure, it's going to be a rough week for the birds (and other wildlife) of Central Park.

But there is absolutely no question that the geese, ducks and other wildlife are acutely aware of what is coming down the pike.

The only question remaining, is did they prepare adequately for this mid-March blizzard and its bitter aftermath?

We haven't had a significant mid-March snow storm in NYC since the blizzard of 1941.

And none of the current birds in Central Park were around then.

This will be unprecedented for them -- and that worries me greatly.

Just as it worries me thinking about all the geese who wintered at the Reservoir this year and migrated early back to Canada during the last days of an unusually warm February.

The really daunting thing about climate change is its wild extremes.  Wild extremes that we all now have to anticipate and prepare for.

My only sense of "optimism" (if one can call it that) is that our NYC wildlife has anticipated the change and hopefully prepared enough. 

We shall see.  -- PCA


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Winter that Wasn't and Early Departures of Migratory Canada Geese

Migratory Canada geese resting at Central Park Reservoir just prior to taxing departure.
Part of nearly 200 Canada geese who wintered at Reservoir this year. They left nearly two weeks ago to return north. In past years, they did not migrate until the second week in March. 
Indian Runner duck, Jody, surviving comparatively easy winter at Harlem Meer. As the lake rarely iced over this season, Jody enjoyed constant company from other ducks and geese and did not have to battle for open water.
Early return (by more than two weeks) of Hansel and Greta to nesting location at the Reservoir.
The two domestics ducks at the Boat Lake in Central Park. Healthy and robust after unusually warm winter.
The winter of 2017 might well be the winter that wasn't -- at least in New York City.

Temperatures have averaged five to ten degrees above normal for most of the past three months and Central Park lakes and ponds have remained open water for virtually all but a few days.

Such favorable circumstance has obviously benefited the many hundreds of migratory geese and ducks wintering in Central Park this year. If the number of geese, shovelers, mallards, coots and assorted diving ducks has been exceptionally high, it's because they have been able to utilize the other, shallower watercourses in the park and not just the Reservoir. Moreover, what little snow fell this winter in NYC, was quickly melted away within days as temperatures sometimes rose as high as 60 degrees.

For those of us who monitor and sometimes help feed, wintering birds, such "easy season" is relief.  To my knowledge, no waterbirds were lost to starvation in Central Park this winter as has occurred in the past. All appeared to be healthy, robust and more than capable of withstanding the few storms, frozen watercourses and "bitter blasts" that occurred.

Even the few domestic, flightless ducks (abandoned on park lakes) were mostly spared this winter of having to scrounge out survival in tiny pools of water on otherwise frozen ponds and lakes. Whatever icing occurred thankfully did not cover entire lakes, nor did it last more than a week. The Indian Runner duck (whom I named, "Jody") at Harlem Meer and the two domestics at the CP Boat Lake, not only have survived this winter, but to this point, appear to be thriving.

But if this easy winter has been relief (for the animals and New Yorkers), it is also disquieting in terms of concern for global warming.  

Last year was the warmest world wide on record and that trend has been in place for some years now. Add to that, record-breaking droughts and/or floods occurring in many parts of the world and the science and concerns are very real.

Unfortunately, we now have a President and administration that denies evidence of climate change and is in the process of dismantling the EPA.

I am not a scientist and cannot say with any certainty that early departures of migratory geese and early returns of nesters means anything. But perhaps in combination with other happenings around the world, they do. Especially when one considers the interconnectedness of virtually everything in life and everything on the planet.

Perhaps in the long run, we have to hope that the small and seemingly innocuous changes we are observing in nature aren't actually akin to the "canary in the coal mine" scenarios we grew up hearing about.

As easy and relieving this winter has been in New York City, I can't help but feel some sense of disquiet and unease.

We have to hope it isn't the perennial, "calm before the storm," but I fear it might be. -- PCA


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Saving Up for Icy Days, The Geese Take Nothing for Granted

Typical posture of wintering Canada geese. But what might appear "laziness" is actually calculated to save energy and needed fat reserves for the long winter ahead.
They haven't had a lot of ice to deal with so far in NYC, but the geese and ducks are well suited and prepared for it.
The winter of 2016 is a tough one to figure out so far.

We have had a couple of "Arctic blasts" in New York City but they have been followed by quick warm-ups with temperatures rising into the 60's.

Any snow that has fallen or watercourses iced over have rapidly thawed, thus making this an easy winter so far for the birds.

Canada geese wintering at the Reservoir Central Park have taken advantage of a relatively mild January by being more active than they usually are in winter. It's not unusual these days to see the geese flying out of the Reservoir in the early mornings or evenings to presumably seek grass grazing somewhere.

Typically, geese "hunker down" during bitter weather to presumably slow their metabolisms and save energy and fat reserves. This enables them to sometimes go many days without food and still survive regardless of what mother nature has in store. While it is a little unusual to see geese "sleeping" with their heads tucked on their backs during the spring, summer and fall, such posture is typical in winter.

It is during the three other seasons (in addition to mating and raising young), geese concentrate on feeding and building strength to see them through the winters. While they may appear "lazy" during the winter, the geese are actually being calculating and smart. No point after all, in wasting precious energy and burning calorie and fat reserves one might need later during a particularly long or challenging winter.

This might help explain why geese are better able to survive unusually brutal winters than their smaller cousins, the ducks.

From personal observations of mallards over the years, their smaller size and apparently faster metabolisms don't allow them to go many days without food. Put simply, the ducks have to eat virtually every day of the year if they are to survive. But geese can "zone out" for stretches of a time and not seem to suffer devastating effects.

This was particularly notable during the harsh winters of 2013 and 2014 when thousands of water birds, particularly ducks, perished in the North East due to starvation. With watercourses frozen over and snow on the ground for many weeks -- particularly during the later stages of winter -- the birds had no access to food and whatever fat reserves had long been used up.

It is far too early now to evaluate the winter of 2016.

While seemingly "easy," so far, I am reminded that the challenges of 2013 and 2014 did not truly settle in until mid February and even early March.

So with cautionary note, we say, "so far so good."

But for sure, the geese are not just sitting back on laurels and counting lucky stars.  

Rather, when the moon rises and the stars come out, the geese take to the skies and lawns to bank those extra calories -- just in case.

One never knows what February and March have in store and Canada geese are never ones to take anything for granted.

Saving up for icy days, might well be their credo. -- PCA


Monday, January 2, 2017

"Assimilate, but Never Forget" -- Lessons Learned by Canada Geese

As New Year's fireworks boom in Central Park, the geese gather tightly together and wait out the challenge.
All is quiet (again) on New Year's Day.
"We made it through another year, guys!"
To catch a little shut-eye on a lazy winter's day.
Large snowfalls, frozen watercourses and frigid weather in many parts of the country (including upstate New York) have seemingly sent many geese and other water birds to seek refuge in New York City -- even in larger numbers than we are normally accustomed to seeing this time of year.

So far, New York City has seen little snow and experienced just a brief bout with an, "Arctic cold blast." But temperatures over the past ten days have been relatively mild. So mild that on one 60 degree day last week, all the iced-over ponds and lakes of Central Park suddenly melted.

Fair weather and open waters have served as attractant to geese and other water birds not wanting to stray too far from their home bases, but still seeking temporary wintering habitat.

The Central Park Reservoir has long been especially appealing to these birds during the hearts of most winters.

For one matter, the apparently deep Reservoir rarely freezes entirely over (though it nearly did during the particularly harsh winters of 2013 and 2014, resulting in the deaths of many water birds due to starvation). Most winters, the Reservoir only partially freezes, thereby allowing the birds to survive fairly easily.

Another amenity the Reservoir offers is relative safety from predators and hunters -- something especially important to Canada geese who are most noted for their extreme organization, vigilance and protection towards family members. (One of the many reasons for their high survival rates.)

And finally, the Reservoir is close to grazing areas in the park and elsewhere where the geese can fly in and out to munch on whatever grass remains from summer and fall.

All in all, it's a generally good set-up for geese and ducks most winters -- though as noted, there can sometimes be nasty surprises.

What intrigues me especially about the migratory geese and ducks who spend winters in New York City is how they are able to adapt to the noises, crowds, lights and general chaos of New York City as compared to the quiet, rural environments they come from.

One would think New York City to be a shock to wild birds and indeed it is for most species of our feathered friends.

But the highly resourceful and intelligent Canada geese and their mallard pals seem immune to the stresses that would send most wild birds packing -- up to and including fireworks.

As part of Central Park's  New Year's, "Midnight Run" for joggers, it routinely sets off fireworks every year as the clock ushers in the New Year.

The exploding lights and loud booms of fireworks are frightening to the park wildlife, especially as the "festivities" are not part of daily park routine.

Witnessing the fireworks displays for the past several years, the geese quickly gather themselves together and swim their way to the far north east reaches of the Reservoir -- the farthest point from fireworks without actually leaving the water. There is a continued and somewhat frantic dialogue occurring among the geese as represented by loud and lingering honk exchanges from one flock to another.

But unlike past years, none of the geese actually flew out from the Reservoir this year.

Rather, they elected to "wait out the challenge" which they apparently figured or more accurately remembered, would soon end. Presumably, the older and more experienced geese were able to calm and assure the younger and more frightened ones to stay.  

It seems that even fireworks, the geese and ducks eventually adapt to. 

Yesterday, I returned to the Reservoir shortly before sunset and was struck by the number of geese and ducks lazily gliding along the water. There were easily more than 200 geese and almost as many mallards, diving ducks and coots; the stresses of the preceding night apparently long forgotten.  

That is until next New Year's Eve.

Lessons learned by Canada geese may be easily assimilated, but they are never forgotten.

Call me biased, but I truly believe Canada geese to be among the least appreciated, but most intelligent, adaptable and resourceful life forces on planet earth -- and that would include human beings who don't always remember and learn from our mistakes. -- PCA


Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas Wish of a Friend -- "Please Look After My Ducks"

Dennis (a domestic, Black Swedish duck) and Davy (a Khaki Campbell duck) look out over a frozen Boat Lake in Central Park.
Dennis, Davy and their two mallard pals. The four ducks (two wild and two domestic) enjoy an unusual relationship and are the concern of a cherished friend temporarily off her feet.
It wasn't the happiest Christmas in a year that has been characterized by personal and political losses.

After suddenly losing a dear friend several months ago to a recurrence of breast cancer, another cherished friend has been hospitalized on and off over the past two months for what was at first, a deep vein thrombosis and is now cancer of the reproductive system.

My friend, Liliana, has long been a valued ally in the quest to look out for the wildlife of our Central Park and has even assisted me in several rescues of injured or ailing ducks and geese.

During the brutal, punishing winter of 2014 in which thousands of water birds perished due to starvation on ice-covered lakes and ponds, Liliana often assisted me in helping feed the hundreds of desperate geese and ducks wintering at the Central Park Reservoir. We still lost some birds, but thankfully most survived.

A lovely story about Liliana and her efforts to support NYC wildlife was published two years ago in a respected travel blog.

But for more than two months now, Liliana hasn't been able to get anywhere near Central Park.

She is barely able to walk. And last week, she had to undergo a hysterectomy.

Liliana is due to begin chemotherapy and radiation shortly.

News of Liliana's illness has been painful for me to learn, not only because we share a love for animals and wildlife, but because she has always been so kind and giving towards me. Liliana has always been a woman of very meager means. But she would spend her last dime or day of life to help an animal or human in need. That is just who she is.

Liliana isn't always easy to understand due to her thick Romanian accent. But we could still share the laughs, tasteless jokes and even laugh at ourselves.

But, the jokes are harder to crack and come by now.

I try to make light of the situation by telling Liliana that she needs to "get up and atom soon!" because the geese and ducks will be expecting her to show up with bagels, cracked corn and whole wheat bread come January and February. But the jokes fall flat.

We both know Liliana's not going to be "up and atom" anytime soon.

Memories of my own mother's (uterine) cancer and hysterectomy in 1967 and its long, difficult recovery make me pause in terms of fanciful illusions about my friend. My mother was fortunate in that she did fully recover eventually. But she never had to undergo chemotherapy or radiation as Liliana will.

Seeming to sense traumatic memories of seeing my mother all battered up in a hospital and appearing like the loser in a prize fight, Liliana has been adamant in demand that I not visit her in the hospital.

"I have everything I need!" Liliana admonishes. "My brother, people from the church, bring me food and other things. I don't want you to come! What I would like is that, if possible, you look after my boy and his friend and let me know how they are doing. I am worried for them on the frozen lake."

Liliana's "boy and friend" are two male domestic (flightless) ducks who have been toughing it out on the Central Park Boat Lake for the past several years.

There were originally four ducks, but two have recently disappeared and likely perished over the past several months.

During the recent "arctic blast," all of Central Park lakes and ponds iced over, including the Boat Lake. (The Reservoir remains open water and that is where virtually all the geese and ducks are currently.)

But because Liliana's "boys" cannot fly, they are stuck on the Boat Lake for better or worse. (Ironically, there are two mallards hanging with them which is surprising considering the mallards can fly. Presumably, there is some kind of relationship among the four water birds.)

Recent visits to the Boat Lake have illuminated a kind of frozen tundra with just a small pool of open water not far from the Ladies Pavilion.   

There, Dennis and Davy (as I call them) and their two chummy mallard pals are making do by either resting at the edge of the ice or swimming in the water as circumstances dictate.

This is not the boys' first rodeo (i.e. winter on ice).

Having survived the particularly brutal winter of 2014, both ducks are extremely proficient in knowing how to deal with and navigate an iced-over lake.  

The challenge (as Liliana knows) is to ensure that the birds have sufficient food to get them through the lean times. Hopefully, I and a few other caring people can take on that responsibility as long as need be.

Temperatures have fortunately warmed over the past few days to above freezing. While such has served to widen the open pool of water, more than 95% of the lake remains frozen and likely will remain that way until March.

The two domestic ducks and their mallard pals so far look good and are dealing well with adversity and challenge.

But, it is a very long winter ahead.

I pray that both, my friend and the ducks she so worries over will come out on the other side of winter, in vibrancy and health. 

But so much remains to be seen in these tough times of unpredictability and loss.

We have to find way to ride out the darkness and storms and prevail to the other side -- when spring again looms over the horizon.   -- PCA