I had signed up then for evening lap swims at Lasker Pool which is located at Harlem Meer. But, in the course of walking to or from the pool each night, I found myself endlessly entertained by the beautiful variety of Canada geese, mallards, swans and a small number of domestic ducks.
I discovered "Brad," a domestic Rouen duck who, with his mate, "Angelina" (a Khacki Campbell) seemed to rule the Meer with iron, but flightless wings.
There was also the beautiful pair of muted Swans who were the subjects of thousands of photographs and endless adoration by the people of Harlem Meer.
And there were the Canada geese who, at that time resided at the Meer in substantial numbers (along with the mallards) and like the swans, were revered by residents for their whimsy and sociability.
It was in fact common in those days to see human families and individuals sitting on park benches tossing out bread and crackers to small gaggles of gregarious geese who cheerfully waddled up to them and took gratitude in their generosity and willingness to share.
One August evening in 2009, there were suddenly three white Pekin ducks hunkered down in the protected grassy area near the Dana Center.
Where did they come from? I wondered.
Concerned for the newcomers because they appeared to be frozen solid in fear, it was obvious someone had just abandoned the three Pekins at the Meer -- presumably because Harlem Meer was at that time, a kind of paradise for ducks, geese and other waterfowl.
The three white (flightless) ducks eventually acclimated to Harlem Meer and within a couple of weeks were swimming around in the lake and begging treats from generous passers-by as most of the other ducks and geese already did.
Summer eventually ended, as did outdoor swimming and most other human activities at the Meer.
But, I continued to visit Harlem Meer through the winter of 2009, mainly out of concern for the Pekin ducks (so recently abandoned there), as well as my fascination with the geese, mallards and of course, Brad and Angelina.
Amazingly, all of the known ducks, geese and swans made it through a tough winter, including all three Pekins.
But, the following spring and summer would not be so fortunate for them.
Two of the three Pekins mysteriously vanished in the spring of 2010 within a couple of weeks of each other.
A park ranger speculated that they may have been grabbed for Santeria ritual (a thought too horrible to bear at the time) as there were no real predators at Harlem Meer that would have gotten to the fairly large and robust ducks.
Only one of the Pekins survived and having lost both members of his flock was then scared out of his head.
The duck I then named, "Joey" was shunned by all other ducks at the Meer and was relentlessly attacked and picked on by Brad, the dominant Rouen duck of the lake.
I recall one particular time when Brad viciously attacked Joey, sending the terrified white duck bolting in the water as Brad jumped on and held him under.
I and several other people watching the horrifying scene thought Joey would actually drown with Brad holding him under so long, but fortunately, Joey survived the assault -- and many others.
Poor Joey had a "trial by fire" initiation into the duck hierarchy at Harlem Meer in the summer of 2010. He lost many a feather to Brad's seemingly endless torment, but somehow managed to take it all in stride.
But, in the fall of 2010, everything changed.
Apparently, sensing that a rough winter was around the corner and that he and Angelina would need additional assistance to keep the lake from freezing over once the mallards left, Brad began to cozy up to Joey and actually welcomed the white Pekin into his then flock of three.
Joey was of course thrilled to have a flock once again and gratefully accepted Brad's very calculated overtures.
By the time winter arrived with freezing temperatures, storms and even a blizzard, all three ducks were bonded like glue and worked tirelessly and in unison to maintain open water on an otherwise fast icing over lake.
By mid January, 2011 open water at Harlem Meer was reduced to that which would fill a bathtub and all the mallards and geese had vacated the then frozen over lake.
There were many nights that I attempted to help the three struggling domestic ducks by breaking up some of the quick forming ice with even bigger blocks of ice. But, it seemed a losing battle. I feared finding one or even all three ducks dead one night from brutal storms, freezing temperatures of just sheer exhaustion.
During this time, Brad, Angelina and Joey got no rest at all. They literally had to swim, duck and dive 24/7 to maintain even that bathtub size pool of open water.
Then one bitterly cold night in late January, I went to the Meer to find Joey with a huge, open bloody gash on his back.
It was obvious he was attacked by something on the ice. His condition was perilous.
The next morning, I made calls and arranged to meet with two park rangers in order to try and rescue Joey.
Though he was severely injured, Joey was nevertheless frightened when seeing strange people come at him with a net and for more than a half hour managed to evade capture, by slip sliding away on the ice.
But, persistence finally paid off and the injured, exhausted duck was finally captured by the park rangers, put into a carrier and loaded up into their van.
It was amazing how quickly Joey calmed when captured and seemed to melt into the ranger's arm. It had been a very rough summer and winter for him. Joey seemed almost grateful to finally be out of the cold and the stresses of Harlem Meer in winter. He actually looked happy in the van.
Joey was taken to the Wild Bird Fund where he was treated for a deep dog bite, eventually recovered and was adopted out successfully to a loving home in Connecticut -- thanks to the efforts of Rita McMahan of the Wild Bird Fund. (41) Wild Bird Fund, Inc.
It was a happy ending for Joey -- but Brad and Angelina were then less one duck to aid in keeping open water on the frozen lake. "No rest for the weary" as the saying goes.
Fortunately, as the weeks passed, the weather finally warmed, the ice melted and the mallards and geese returned to the Meer.
Brad and Angelina had miraculously made it through another winter!
But, the spring -- and summer would not be so kind. Indeed, if we thought winter had been "mean," it was nothing compared to what lied ahead.
Angelina mysteriously vanished in the spring of 2011.
His "status" suddenly lowered, he was a loner duck on the lake without mate or flock. Brad (like Joey the year before) was shunned by the other waterfowl.
The summer of 2011 was not only bad for Brad, but also the swans of Harlem Meer and geese all around New York City.
The female swan at Harlem Meer died of Botulism late in the summer of 2011. Like Brad, her surviving mate searched frantically for her and even at one point ended up in the then empty Lasker pool.
Meanwhile, at parks around the city, more than 1,200 geese were rounded up and killed by USDA. This represented a "war" on Canada geese that had actually begun two years before following the "Miracle on the Hudson" incident, (though it did not become public knowledge until 368 geese and goslings were rounded up and gassed from Prospect Park in Brooklyn during the summer of 2010. -- An incident covered substantially in the New York Times.)
While no geese were rounded up and gassed from Central Park in recent years, the geese in one of the world's most prestigious parks were nevertheless, subjected to almost constant harassment.
Quickly gone were the days of gaggles of geese begging treats from and entertaining the folks of Harlem Meer in summer.
There were barely any geese there in the summer of 2011 (and 2012) -- or anywhere in Central Park for that matter.
Probably many, if not most of the geese I so admired in the summer of 2009 were harassed out of Central Park in subsequent years only to be rounded up and gassed (or slaughtered) from other parks around New York by USDA.
Fast forward to the recent past and present.
There are no swans in Harlem Meer now and few, if any geese at all most of the time.
Ironically, Brad perished on the last day of summer last year following a weekend of heavy fishing at Harlem Meer.
I will never know for sure what caused the normally very healthy and robust Brad to suddenly sicken and die within days, but I will always suspect it had something to do with the fishing which so permeated the Meer that late September week. It was everywhere and far more than Brad succumbed to fishing violations and vices over the years. Mallards, geese, turtles and even sea gulls have at one time or another been hooked or ensnared and crippled by fishing line and tackle at Harlem Meer.
Following complaints to the Central Park Conservancy about constant fishing abuses at Harlem Meer, "Fishing Rules" were finally posted around the Meer a couple of weeks following Brad's death. I don't believe that to be mere coincidence.
The signs of course should have been put up years before, but it apparently required my favorite duck's death on the last day of summer to make them so.
But, despite the signs, fishing abuses still continue at Harlem Meer ad nauseum.
Yesterday, someone posted a picture in comment to this blog of a goose at Harlem Meer with fishing line wrapped around its beak with a fake fish at the end:
Horrified that this mangling of still another bird at the Meer would occur only a week following complaints about discarded fishing lines at this location spurred me to make still more calls yesterday.
A man at the Dana Center informed me that they knew about the injured goose, but park rangers were "unable" to get him.
Determined to see for myself the condition of the fishing line goose, I went to Harlem Meer yesterday and was surprised to find the lake areas miraculously cleaned up of almost all fishing debris.
But there was no sign of the injured goose.
It was the same story early this morning.
No one from the Conservancy or the Park Rangers has called back to inform me whether the goose with fishing line was rescued and freed of the potentially lethal fishing line.
I have to presume s/he was not and simply flew away from this now very inhospitable and treacherous place for waterfowl and other wildlife.
Such a come down is Harlem Meer today from the seeming waterfowl "paradise" it was just a few years ago.
Call it, the "Hook, Line and Sinking of Paradise." -- PCA