Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Rituals of Spring Not Always Kind in Nature -- But Necessary

As Greta grazed earlier in the week, Hansel became annoyed with last year's goslings hovering too close.  
The three youngsters, soon to be banished and sent packing.
Hansel repeatedly honked, chased and pecked at adult children until they finally scurried away.
Hansel returns to guarding his mate as he will have to do 24/7 over the next couple of months if she successfully hatches new goslings.
John and Mary chasing off their youngsters yesterday in the rain.
Both parents engaged in sending the "move on" message.
John and Mary sending their grown offspring packing yesterday. They are doing what is necessary to prepare for nesting. Youngsters will find gaggles of other young and unattached geese with whom to spend the rest of spring and summer.  
Every season brings its own changes and challenges.

For young Canada geese (not quite a year old and still hanging with parents), the rude awakenings of spring are marked by banishment from the family when parents once again prepare for romance and nesting.

Hansel and Greta returned again to their nesting location at the Central Park Reservoir this past week. But they were not alone.

Their three goslings from last year were tagging along with them.

The long-mated pair had returned earlier in the beginning of March.

But a bitter cold turn in weather and a mid-March blizzard compelled the devoted couple to suddenly abandon plans and apparently scurry back to their kids from last year in order to guide the youngsters through the storm.

With the calendar moving on however, and weather finally starting to warm, the entire family returned  to the Reservoir in recent days.

But Hansel was having no part of the three kids continuing to hang with him and his wife -- especially now. Though the youngsters attempted to maintain a respectable distance from their parents, Hansel wanted them gone. Entirely.

Time and again, Hansel loudly honked and charged after the yearlings, sometimes even nipping them hard on their tails.

The message was harsh and clear:  "Your mother and I are to be left alone now! It's time for the three of you to move on. You are not babies anymore!"

Though it is initially hard for the yearlings to receive this "rejection" from their parents, eventually they get the message. It is all part of growing up and becoming adult. It is necessary part of nature and the life cycle -- though to the casual observer, it sometimes appears cruel and even a bit brutal. 

I knew, when seeing this normal ritual play out again earlier in the week, that I would likely not see Hansel and Greta's youngsters again for at least the rest of the spring. Should the alpha pair of geese successfully hatch new goslings again, then there can be no family reunions until well into the summer when the new babies are grown and flying.

And, if it wasn't enough to watch the banishment of Hansel and Greta's youngsters earlier in the week, there was the additional sighting yesterday of the return of the other nesting pair of Reservoir geese, John and Mary. They too, had last year's (two) goslings tagging cautiously along with them.

But not for long.

In repeat of earlier scenes, it was clear that the yearlings had worn out their welcome.  Only this time, both parents chased and honked at the now rejected offspring. Mary was every bit as fervent in setting down rules as her mate, John (unlike the more reserved Greta who usually lets her mate to the dirty work).

I have not seen the kids of Hansel and Greta since their unceremonious banishment earlier in the week and it's equally unlikely I will be seeing much of John and Mary's offspring anytime soon.

For now, all banished youngsters will seek out gaggles of other young and "unattached" geese with whom to spend the rest of spring and most of the summer as their parents now have other duties calling and need to be completely devoted and focused to those.

Then, when the seasons of romance and rearing of young are finally over, families will once again reunite in late August or September in order to prepare for fall migrations and winter.

For every time and season there is purpose and challenge.

And Canada geese understand these rules of nature all too well -- as do most wildlife.  

Turn, turn, turn.  -- PCA


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