Monday, April 24, 2017

Birthday Girl

Greta and Hansel (out of photo) guarding their nest last night as a raccoon wanders by. For one park goer, this was a particularly fascinating discovery and observation.
I nearly always meet interesting people when going to Central Park to check on geese, ducks and other park wildlife. Most times these little adventures result in my providing a sort of tutorial on park wildlife to curious onlookers and nature lovers.

Last night was a little different, however.

I met a young Asian woman doing time lapse photography at the Reservoir. She had been there in the early morning to photograph the sunrise and returned in the evening to photograph the sun going down over the city.

During the course of her photography, the young woman also was able to capture nature happening right under her nose in the form of nesting geese (Hansel and Greta) protecting their eggs from wandering raccoons.

The woman was surprised and jubilant that the day brought so much in unexpected surprises. After a week of mostly flat, rainy skies with little sun, yesterday was a gift to photographers hoping to capture bright, scarlet sunrises and sunsets against vivid, contrasting clouds. Add to that, being in the right place at the right time to capture the wonders of nature under one's very eyes.

The woman then explained that yesterday was her 30th birthday. But rather than spending the day with friends who might or not disappoint, she elected to spend the time in pursuit of her own goals, personal celebration and reflection upon what the new decade might mean for her.

"I did not even tell my boyfriend of a few months that it was my birthday," she added. "I didn't want him to feel obligated."

Such struck me as extraordinary wise for one so young and so I told the young woman.

"So many of life's disappointments are after all, experienced when our expectations of others are too high and fail to be met. The reality is that most romantic breakups occur around Christmas, birthdays and Valentine's Day," I laughed. "We expect cards, romantic dinners and roses and too often end up with excuses or argument. You are wise to seek and find your own happiness."

I then shared with the young woman my own experience of spending my thirty-fourth birthday getting drunk with friends and then coming home to learn John Lennon had just been shot to death outside the Dakota.  "The day forever lives in infamy," I chuckled.

The young woman then told me of her love for the Beatles and how they are her favorite band even so many decades after the fact.

I was never a great fan of the Beatles (Bob Dylan was my favorite musical act), but I have to admit something of innocence, love and simplicity was lost the day Lennon was so violently and suddenly gunned down on the streets of New York City.

The question is, can we ever get those things back?

But perhaps this young person seeking and finding her own independence and happiness in life while still appreciating the wisdom and innocence of days past is sign that there is always hope. -- PCA


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Nesting an Arduous and Sometimes Dangerous Process for Canada Geese


John maintains close guard to Mary's nest last night following close encounter with raccoon.
This raccoon was soon forced into water and sent packing by geese defending their nest.

And so the arduous and challenging process begins. Again.

Hansel, Greta, John and Mary have all returned to the exact nesting spots as last spring and both hens are now sitting on eggs. They will remain constantly on their nests for approximately 28 days and lose up to 25% of their body weight. This is why nesting Canada geese hens have to eat heartily before actual nesting begins. It is a grueling process that takes much out of them.

But the nesting process is no less taxing for their ganders who have to maintain 24/7 vigilance and protection of their mates. Both, John and Hansel constantly patrol the water day and night, keeping potential threats away. As night falls, the ganders take position closer to the nests to guard against roving raccoons as both, hens and ganders defend their eggs.

Although it is claimed that raccoons pose the biggest threats to steal goose eggs in Central Park, the geese are particularly alert to and prepared for the potential theft.

More than once I have personally observed nesting geese aggressively stand up to raccoons and in one case a few years ago, actually attack a raccoon pair who appeared to be merely out for a romantic stroll. No one was  hurt, though one of the raccoons sported a welt on his back the next day.

Another raccoon encounter occurred last night:

It was dark. I don't have a quick or high tech camera and tall reeds obscured most of the action. But a raccoon wandered too close to John and Mary's nest. John immediately bolted from the water to confront the raccoon. John made himself tall, vigorously flapped wings and at one point, actually pushed or forced the raccoon into the water. (Raccoons are excellent swimmers.) The raccoon finally ran away, but John still maintained close position to the nest -- which is when I snapped the photo. 

It is thus, either a foolish or desperate raccoon who is brazen enough to mess with nesting Canada geese. Central Park raccoons have more than learned that lesson and in some cases, have the welts to prove it.  For raccoons, it is far better (and safer) to raid a garbage can than to wander too close to a nesting goose. Both, the hen and gander mean business.

For all these reasons and more, it is usually the more mature and experienced, dominant paired geese who actually nest. (Most geese spend the spring and summers congregated in groups.) The necessary preparations for nesting, vigilance and defense of nests and young are a long, arduous and often dangerous process requiring the utmost in patience, adaptability, sacrifice and bravery.

Central Park geese are fortunate in that their only real threats are represented by raccoons.

But in other places, geese have to defend against foxes, coyotes, swans, birds of prey and sometimes even wolves.

Nature is never easy.

But for the brave and committed, it is usually survivable.

Among the main reasons for high survivability among Canada geese are in fact, their devotion to one another and their bravery which likely rank among the highest in the natural world.

Virtually nothing deters Canada geese from loyalty and defense of their lifelong mates and their young.  -- PCA


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Tale of Two Nesters

John protecting as Mary gorges herself.  
Greta busily pulling down from her breast in preparation for nesting.
John and Mary still enjoying the good life while.....
Greta finally settles down in her elaborate nest.
Greta still primping and fussing.
Greta's carefully prepared nest bed. (Eggs hidden underneath.)
Mary apparently nearly or totally blind in right eye. Age catching up to her.
Mary's hastily prepared nest bed. No frills and no down yet.
But Mary is working on it now.
Both Canada goose hens nested last year. Both (together with their mates), successfully raised three goslings. Both left the Central Park Reservoir last August and returned this past March with their families. And both have chosen the exact same spots this year to once again nest.

But those are where the similarities end between Greta and Mary. 

The first difference noted was when it became time to send the kids from last year on their not-so-merry way in order to re-establish romantic pairing with their mates and prepare for nesting.

Mary joined with her mate, John, in chasing and vanquishing the grown goslings away whereas Greta left the job entirely to her mate, Hansel. (Greta was more focused on other things.)

Even greater difference was demonstrated in actual preparation of the nest site.

Greta and her mate, Hansel, hovered around and vigilantly protected the nest site for many days before actually settling down to nest. Greta particularly primped and fussed to "get her house in order" before ever laying her first egg. She pulled and removed weeds for days and busily arranged leaves and plucked down from her breast for her eventual nesting bed.  

Although Mary checked out her nesting site when first arriving to the Reservoir, she and her mate neither hovered around nor protected it. On the contrary, Mary and John spent most of the next several weeks lazing on the opposite side of the Reservoir and fattening up.

But even more surprising than avoidance of the actual nesting site was Mary and John's apparent decision to take a two-day "vacation" away from the Reservoir entirely just prior to nesting!

I searched all around the Reservoir for two days and with no sign of John and Mary anywhere, I finally concluded that they were apparently not nesting this year or made late day decision to nest elsewhere.

Then, a few evenings ago, while walking north to Harlem Meer, I suddenly heard excited honking in the skies above me, looked up and noticed two geese hastily flying towards and landing at the Reservoir!

The next evening, Mary was back on her old nesting site and had dropped at least one egg.

Rather than painstakingly "getting her house in order" prior to nesting, Mary instead decided that a romantic jaunt and presumed exotic banquet were more important than primping and fuss of the nest site. (I say that it was Mary likely making these decisions as it is the female hens who make all the nesting decisions, rather than their ganders. Ganders have their own responsibilities and decisions, most of which have to do with protection and vigilance of their mates and families.)

In looking closer at the now two nesting hens, it appears that Mary is quite a bit older than Greta.  I am personally aware of Mary and John making many nesting attempts at the Reservoir over the years, whereas this is only the fourth year for Hansel and Greta. (Mary is also darker in coloring and appears either partially or totally blind in her right eye. Life is not always kind and easy for Canada geese.)

All of this reminds me of a commercial for baby diapers: "Life after your first kid. Life after your second."

Or perhaps with age, comes a certain Laissez-Faire or living every moment to its fullest.

Why primp and fuss, after all, when you can enjoy romantic adventures and still drop your eggs in time for a May hatching?

Maybe Mary knows something the rest of us don't.  Embrace your responsibilities, but still make time for fun and romance with your mate.  :)   -- PCA 


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Adapt, Adapt, Adapt! -- Name of the Game for Jody (And all Life)

Jody, adapting and surviving for a year now.
Jody cautiously tagging along yesterday with a young and placid mallard pair.
Always careful and wary, but with a couple of seeming friends for the moment.
 Adapt, adapt, adapt! 

Adaptation is the name of the game for virtually all life on earth, be it human, animal or plant. Failure or inability to adapt to changing and sometimes harsh circumstances almost always results in harm, injury or death. 

For a particular domestic ("barnyard") duck abandoned alone last spring at Harlem Meer in Central Park, the early days must have been rough, requiring extraordinary adaptation.

Domestic ducks (bred for "meat") are flightless because their wings cannot support their heavy bodies in the air. Typically, domestic ducks are raised in animal factories or on family farms and are completely human-dependent. Their lives are typically short, cramped, automated and nearly always end in brutal slaughter.  

Sometimes however, domestic ducks are raised from ducklings as pets.  

Unfortunately, the novelty of keeping ducks as pets usually wears off when the birds become adult and prove difficult for most people to care for properly -- especially inside a house or apartment.

One suspects that the Indian Runner duck named, "Jody" dropped off at Harlem Meer last June was a discarded pet who quickly outgrew his welcome and became a burden to his caregivers.

But a city park -- even one with a sizable lake -- is not a natural or hospitable home for a domestic, human-dependent duck.

The challenges that this young duck was forced to adapt to in the early days of his abandonment were not only formidable, but nearly impossible.

There was first the matter of suddenly being in a frightening and foreign place.

Presuming Jody acted typical of other domestic ducks abandoned in parks, he likely hid in one small area of the Meer (probably among the marshes) for many days or weeks, being terrified to move around and attract attention from either other birds or humans.

Fortunately, as he was abandoned in warm weather, food was not an initial and insurmountable problem for Jody as water plants and insects are plentiful in spring and summer.  Nevertheless, domestic ducks are not accustomed to having to forage for wild food sources, so even this would have represented significant challenge and learning curve for a young duck devoid of flock or experienced companion.

But even greater than the obstacles of a strange and frightening place and the necessary foraging for food, was the matter of suddenly being in the territory of other (wild) birds and not being capable of flight and easy escape.

Jody would not have been welcomed and accepted by the wild mallards who regard Harlem Meer as home and territory. On the contrary, he was surely regarded as "threat" especially in the early days of his existence at Harlem Meer.

Even a year later, Jody's current behavior still demonstrates some fear, trepidation and past trauma associated with mallards  -- especially when getting too close or if humans are tossing food. Jody constantly defers to mallards and appears to take great pains not to alienate or irritate them. It is more than obvious that Jody has had to take his licks at the Meer and learn very quickly who the bosses are. Jody is the low bird on the totem pole and no one knows that better than he does.

I first became aware of Jody early last summer. But there came times when I did not see him at all and assumed that either something happened to him or he was rescued. I stopped visiting Harlem Meer for some months as it is not that close to where I live.  

Then on a chance revisit to the Meer, I saw Jody again last December.

I became concerned for his survival over the winter and Harlem Meer again became part of my routine walks through Central Park.  I felt it important to nutritionally look after Jody over the winter when natural food sources are in short supply. Were the lake to entirely freeze over and the other birds to leave, Jody would have required rescue.

Fortunately, the winter wasn't particularly brutal and Jody proved himself to be highly resilient and adaptable. He quickly learned how to adapt to frigid cold, ice on the lake, snow storms and an influx of more than 100 migratory Canada geese and ducks of many sizes and varieties.

Since all the birds were in winter "survival mode" there was little in the way of territorial disputes and dominance displays. Though Jody still showed reverence and caution around the other birds, none appeared to harass, reject or chase him.  Put simply, they needed their energy for more important things -- like staying warm and finding sufficient food.

But winter officially ended three weeks ago. The migratory ducks and geese have since departed Harlem Meer and the remaining (resident) mallards have mostly paired off and become protective and territorial of their mates and space.

(One dominant mallard pair has seemingly claimed the south east portion of the lake and any bird who wanders into their space --including Jody -- quickly gets the bum's rush.)

But, Jody has been through all this before and against all odds, adapted and survived.  Truth is, it had to be much harder a year ago, when he was new, juvenile, human-dependent, terrified, alone and completely inexperienced. (Since then, Jody has also learned to be wary of dogs, hawks, fisherman and other suspect humans.) 

Yesterday, I visited the Meer again and was pleasantly surprised to find Jody cautiously intermingling with some of the more placid and accepting mallards. In fact, he appeared to be tagging along respectfully with a young mallard pair who bore him no obvious ill will.

One imagines that after all this time, Jody has a "sense" of which dominant mallards to avoid and which he can casually hang with without causing undue riff and irritation.

It's still a lonely and uncertain existence for the domestic duck who will never fly and stands out on the Meer like snow in June. Like so many other domestic ducks abandoned in parks who eventually fall victim to dogs, hawks or sick humans, anything could happen to Jody anytime. There are no guarantees -- especially for a domestic bird incapable of flight.

But for sure, Jody has proven himself to be exceptionally smart and most of all, adaptable to whatever has been thrown his way.

For the moment, Jody is Okay.

And who knows? 

Perhaps in a month or two, one of those adorable little "Easter ducklings" might suddenly find him or herself in a strange and frightening place -- only this time there will be a peaceable mentor only too happy to take him under his wing and show her the ropes of survival in a public park with many potential dangers and predators.

Central Park has, in fact, a long history of teaching (or forcing) "adaptability" on a variety of discarded pets, most notably, turtles and domestic ducks.

It doesn't say a lot for the human race, but it says a lot about the animals and their sheer will and tenacity to survive. -- PCA 



Friday, April 7, 2017

For Jody, One is a Lonely Number

Alone again, naturally. Jody, the domestic Indian Runner duck at Harlem Meer evaluates his new circumstances.
Jody is no longer welcomed and accepted among wild mallards who are now in spring territorial and mating modes.
A mallard drake giving chase to Jody.
One is a lonely number -- especially for birds who are by nature, members of flocks.

This past winter, I worried for Jody, the domestic Indian Runner duck at Harlem Meer.

It was not known if the flightless duck was prepared for his first winter in Central Park and if he would know how to survive frigid temperatures, an often iced-over lake and snow storms.

Fortunately, it was not an especially brutal winter in New York City. Though occasionally icing over, Harlem Meer remained partially or entirely open water throughout most of the winter and as such, served as suitable winter habitat for many wintering migratory ducks and geese.

Jody was thus, not alone in dealing with winter. He had many wild and experienced "mentors" who knew well how to get through and survive nature's grueling and harshest season. Jody had only to follow their leads and so he did.-- Successfully.

But truth be told, each season brings its own special and unique challenges.

Winter is now a few weeks departed. Migratory (wintering) geese, mallards and even the feisty little wood duck who stayed at the Meer throughout the winter have also departed with the last snowflakes.

What currently remain in Central Park are the relatively few (compared to winter numbers) resident geese and ducks, most of whom are now paired up and in territorial mode.

Such is not good news for Jody who is neither part of an established flock or coupling.

A couple of weeks ago, a then-smitten Jody briefly attempted to cozy up to a female mallard who, for the moment, appeared amused and welcoming of his attention.  But the mallard was apparently part of a wintering flock and has since departed with the rest of her clan. 

Unlike Jody, all the other water birds of Harlem Meer can fly.

So, Jody is once again the loner, "low bird on the totem pole" and subjected to chasing and harassment from the more dominant and paired wild ducks. Jody is forced to keep respectable distance at all times and not compete with the other birds for food or territory.

Mating season can be nothing short of torment for the solitary bird who is the "odd one out" on the lake. There is not even possibility for Jody.

Watching Jody yesterday, either swimming alone and away from the other birds or (when venturing too close), chased and harassed, I could not help but feel bad for him. Wild ducks and geese may have accepted Jody in winter when all were in survival mode, but spring brings with it, entirely different behaviors. It is no longer, "All for one and one for all," but rather, "Get out of our space."

Though it's terrible to say, I can't help secretly wishing for another domestic duck to be dropped off and miraculously appear at the Meer.

Anything for Jody to finally have a friend, as one is such a lonely number for an otherwise social animal.   -- PCA 



Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Painstaking Preparations Before Long-Distance Flight

Geese slowly organize and gather on Reservoir shortly before sunset on overcast evening.
Organization takes time -- notice the one goose facing wrong direction.
A family of five takes off.
Back and forth....back and forth....
Everything has to be just right.
Gander at top of photo was the lead bird. When he finally gave signal, they all took for the air.
And they're off -- heading north over the city.
Returning to breeding grounds in Canada and Sub-Arctic.
Bye, bye until next year.
The last pair to leave.
I knew when arriving to the Central Park Reservoir shortly before sunset last week, that the migratory Canada geese who had briefly stopped and rested for a day or two were preparing to take off and leave.

But I couldn't be sure exactly when or in what order.

Unlike many other migratory birds, Canada geese do not depart in one huge flock. Nor do they all leave with the exact same preparations. Smaller family groups will usually take off with little fanfare or indicators. Others (usually the larger gaggles consisting of 15 or more geese) appear to take much time, organization and deliberation before finally lifting off.

I particularly observed one large gaggle of 19 geese who, though appearing eager and ready to take off, traveled back and forth on the water for more than 45 minutes, apparently waiting for just the right moment, location, wind direction and sign from their alpha leader to finally head for the skies. (Yes, this particular group had a leader who swam a good 30 or 40 feet away from the rest and on whose "signal" and lead, finally took off.)

A heavy rainstorm was predicted for later that night and it seemed the geese wanted to get an early jump on the approaching storm by departing with the fading daylight.

Though there had been nearly 100 geese on the Reservoir the day before, by the time I left on Monday night, all but the four resident (and soon-to-be nesting) geese had left.

I felt lucky and blessed to have witnessed the painstaking preparations and calculations that migratory Canada geese actually take before embarking again on their long and arduous journeys to the far north of Canada and the Sub-Arctic.

It is a wonder to observe and experience. -- PCA