Saturday, September 24, 2005

New mammal in Central Park

Red Squirrel [Tamiasciurus hudsonicus]

During a lull at the Moth Tree last week, Nick Wagerik reported that a new mammal had been sighted in Central Park -- a Red Squirrel. It seems to have settled in at the Locust Grove, a grassy strip to the west of the Great Lawn., and many of the park's nature lovers have managed to have a look at it. As far as I know this is the first time that this mammal has been seen in Central Park-- and perhaps in any other New York City park. Please let me know if you have evidence of this species' presence elsewhere in the City. [The common Central Park squirrel is the Gray Squirrel.]

Meanwhile, here is some information about Red Squirrels from the website of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation [DEC] and the State of Connecticut website. The latter provides a range description that makes it seem unlikely that this squirrel arrived in Central Park naturally. Perhaps it is someone's escaped pet squirrel..

About squirrels in general:

[From DEC website]
A large group, the squirrel family includes tree
squirrels (gray, red, fox), flying squirrels,
chipmunks, marmots (woodchuck), antelope
squirrels, ground squirrels, and prairie
dogs. While not all species occur here, New York
State is home to a number of squirrel species
which are readily seen by many people year-round.
Squirrels are distinguished from all other
rodents by their thickly furred bushy tails. In
fact, that "banner tail" is so characteristic of
tree squirrels that it serves as the basis for
naming these small mammals. The Latin word
Sciurus (sk’yooris) means squirrel, and is
derived from the Greek skia (shadow) and oura
(tail). Anyone who’s seen a squirrel run across a
street or lawn with its tail undulating and waving
can appreciate the concept of shadow tail.
And typically, a squirrel sits with its tail curled
over its back– "in the shadow."
Squirrels come in a wide variety of colors. In
fact, as a whole, this group of animals is prone
to producing color variants of the more typical
color patterns for that species. For example, in
New York, gray squirrels can be black-furred,
albino, or many different variations of gray
mixed with yellow-to-reddish brown. Many
squirrel species have light spots on the back of
their ears.
All squirrels have chisel-like front teeth,
sharp claws and strong legs. Most have clusters
of sensitive whiskers on their faces and front
legs to help navigate climbing trees or tunneling
in the earth. Most species of squirrels are active
during the daytime. Some ground-dwelling
squirrels will hibernate in the winter.
Highly territorial, squirrels usually expel
intruders from their "home turf." That’s why you
may see a red squirrel or even a chipmunk
chase off a much larger gray squirrel. Long-lived
for rodents, squirrels average 3-5 years old, but
can live up to 8-10 years in the wild, which is
several times longer than the usual year or two
for most smaller rodents.

About Red Squirrels:

The red squirrel is a small, aggressive squirrel that
primarily lives in areas with abundant evergreens.
It gets its name from the rich rusty coloration
along its back and tail, which is separated from its
whitish belly and chest by a short, black "racing
stripe." A red squirrel seems to almost never walk,
but rather runs or climbs trees in quick and sudden
bursts of energy, sometimes chattering and scolding
loudly along the way. Larger than a chipmunk,
but smaller than a gray squirrel, an adult red squirrel
weighs about one-half of a pound. In areas such
as the Adirondacks, the red squirrel is far more
abundant than the gray.

From the State of Connecticut website:
Identification: The red squirrel is a rather small-sized tree squirrel, only about half the size of the more common gray squirrel. It's bushy tail is somewhat slender and almost as long as the length of its head and body combined. The coat of the red squirrel is a rusty, reddish-brown in summer, turning slightly grayer in winter, and the underside is white. In summer, a black stripe is pronounced along its sides, separating the white underside from the reddish, upper body. Both males and females are about equal in size.

Range: Red squirrels occur throughout the northern United States and parts of Canada, south into the Appalachian Mountains. They are also found in the Rocky Mountains south to Arizona and New Mexico.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Monarch's not the only milkweed-loving insect

Large Milkweed Bug [Oncopeltus fasciata]
Photo by Regina Alvarez

Regina Alvarez, the Central Park Conservancy's Woodlands Manager, who has long served as a valuable liaison between the powers-that-be and the park's so-called "Nature Community" [i.e. people like you and me] just sent me the following note and photographs. For those of you interested in more details about the insect, I'll include some info after Regina's note:

Hello Marie -

I thought you might like to check out the milkweed bugs we have on the swamp milkweed in the Ramble, if you have not already seen them. I am sending you a few photos. They are in the wildflower edge planting of the small lawn at the Ramble parking lot, just across the path from the drinking fountain. Since you posted that whole series about the monarch, I thought this might interest you because this insect also sequesters the toxins from the milkweed and has the black and orange warning colors. Apparantly there are also mimics out there that have the color but not the toxins, the viceroy, for example.

Anyway, you may have seen this and know all of this already, but I figured, just in case...


More Information about Milkweed Bugs

Milkweed Bugs are in the Seed bug family [Lygaeidae], and in the order of Hemiptera -- True Bugs. Monarch Butterflies, in comparison, are in the Milkweed Butterfly family [Danaidae] and in the order of Lepidoptera [
Moths and Butterflies].

The Hemiptera , called True Bugs to distinguish them from other insects people simply refer to as "bugs" , number about 4,500 species in North America. Almost all members of this order have a first pair of wings that fold flat over the back. The hind pair, which are the flying wings, are slightly shorter than the fore pair. True bugs have sucking mouthparts in the form of a beak, usually found far forward on the head, rather than at the back of the head, as in the case of cicadas.

PS Other well-known members of the Hemiptera order are: Bedbugs [!], Water Striders, Assassin Bugs, Ambush Bugs, and Stink Bugs,

[Source: National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders.]

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Early Birders have Big Day

Here's Ardith's report of a great couple of hours yesterday morning:

Date: 9/21/2005
Site: Central Park
Observers: "Early Birders": Marie Winn, Irene Warshauer, John Holland, Joyce Hyon,
Eleanor Tauber, Deborah McMillan, Mary Birchard, Ardith Bondi
Reported by: Ardith Bondi

Canada Goose
American Kestrel (Flyover, Strawberry Fields)
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee (Lower Lobe)
Great Crested Flycatcher (Lower Lobe)
Blue Jay
White-breasted Nuthatch (Lower Lobe and Riviera)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Lower Lobe)
Gray-cheeked Thrush (Riviera, with Mary Birchard)
Swainson's Thrush (Ramble)
Wood Thrush (Ramble)
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher (Lower Lobe, noon, with Cal Vornberger)
European Starling
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler (Lower Lobe)
Palm Warbler (on grass opposite Lower Lobe)
Blackpoll Warbler (Lower Lobe)
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird (Ramble)
Northern Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Song Sparrow (Oven)
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Riviera)
Common Grackle
House Sparrow

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Q & A with John Blakeman about Pale Male and Lola

Another good question from Mai Stewart, and an answer from John Blakeman:

Dear John,

My question today concerns Pale Male and Lola -- there've been a couple reports on Lincoln's website of PM + Lola visiting the 927 Fifth Avenue nest . The first report I noticed indicated Lola had taken a twig with her to the nest, and today's relates that PM spent about 25 minutes on the nest. Do you think there's anything significant going on here? (Or is this just wishful thinking on my part?) Is it a little early for this clearly well-bonded pair to be interested in nesting? I thought that behavior didn't begin until about January.
The report of Pale Male Sr or Lola again at the 927 nest indicates that the pair has not abandoned it. Their appearances, with sticks, and probably some brief episodes of sitting or stick rearrangements at this time of the year are merely incidental. From the red-tail's mind, things are quickly changing right now. They are losing about four minutes of daylight each day. These ever increasing daily changes work dramatically on the hawks' endocrine systems. They are completing their molts, with virtually all the new flight feathers in. For immatures, the decreased day length tends to prompt migration, especially where food is getting harder to find (apparently no so in Central Park, however). So the parent's activities at the 927 nest are incidental to seasonal hormone changes, and show that the pair still regards the nest as theirs. Pale Male and Lola, baring any unforeseen event, will be back at 927 this winter and resume their breeding activities as before.
The Central Park red-tail saga will continue, this next season probably at two venues, at the 927 nest toward the north, and also at Trump Parc at the south end. Will a new pair of young adults also try to nest somewhere in between? Quite possible. The red-tailed hawk population of Central Park has not yet stabilized. The area apparently is not yet saturated, so let's continue to see what develops. The 927 nest activity indicates that things there will resume, thankfully.
Keep me posted.

John A. Blakeman

PS from Marie: These were not isolated visits to the nest. Pale Male and Lola have been bringing twigs to the nest sporadically all spring and summer. To any regular observer at the model-boat pond the nest looks substantially bigger now than it did last April. This does not mean they have begun nest-building. That should start in earnest next February. We think of these visits-with-twigs as re-decorating.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Monarch is born

Here's the Chrysalid to Monarch story, shown in a sequence of photographs I took with a Canon Powershot S410 Digital Elph.

The first was taken on September 10th, the day after the chrysalid was discovered in a bed of flowers by young Aiden Smith, aged four.

The photos taken yesterday morning and early afternoon are also labeled by minutes and seconds. Much of the dramatic action of the emergence happened within a period of a minute-- around 12:32 pm.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Mon Sept 12, 2005

Friday, 9/16/05

Sunday -9/18/05
[note color of wings showing through
That inspired me to come have a look the next morning.]

8:34 a.m - Monday--Black!

11:39 a.m. Monday

12:32:03 pm Monday

12:32:13 pm-- Monday

[Everything happening very fast!]

12:38:21 p.m Monday

12:52 pm Monday

At this point the butterfly had reached its complete size. It had to stay there until its wings dried before it could take flight. I had to leave at 1 pm. Eleanor Tauber, who also witnessed the butterfly's emergence, stayed another 1/2 hour. Also present: a woman named Elise or Lisa, who made an accomplished sketch of the chrysalid before the emergence. By the time Jim Lewis stopped by in the late afternoon the Monarch was gone. Only the empty chrysalid case remained.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Preview of a thrilling event

photo by Lloyd Spitalnik
Monday, September 19, 2005 -- 9:15 a.m.

Last night the Monarch chrysalid looked...well, different. It was the same jewel-like green color, but the surface seemed a little more bulgy, and a little more transparent.

I decided I'd better look in on it this morning. I arrived at the Model-boat pond a little after 8. I was astonished to see what had happened overnight. The little green jewel hanging from the yellow flower [Rudbeckia family] had turned completely black.

Lloyd Spitalnik was heading for a warbler-photographing session, but stopped to take the dramatic shot above.

I'll post what happened next early tomorrow. I can only promise you it was unbelievably exciting .

A new Q&A with an old friend: John Blakeman

A question from regular website correspondent Mai Stewart and an answer from John Blakeman. [Note: Both Q. and A have been abbreviated.]

Hi John,

I recall that one of your comments/warnings was that in order to survive their first year, the babies, even tho successfully fledged, needed to be able to learn to hunt for + feed themselves -- and that this is the most common reason for the lack of survival of fledglings in the wild .

Do you think it's too soon to tell whether these hawks have actually mastered the skills needed to support themselves, and survive? Do you think we need more evidence, or more time, to really tell the story? (Of course, assuming they do survive, an equally, if not more interesting story, will be what happens re territories -- That remains to be seen!)
I'd be interested in any thoughts/ideas you would have.

Thank you,
Mai Stewart
Yes, early in the summer I was very concerned that the new fledglings from the Trump Parc nest would have great difficulties learning how to successfully and consistently capture food. The Central Park pigeons seemed completely out of the equation, as they can fly so much faster then the red-tails, and the ability of the adults to capture these abundant birds depends, I think, almost solely on clever stealth in the form of a partially concealed ambush, either while pigeons are feeding and not paying attention, or by plunging into trees where perched pigeons think they are safe. I have no doubt that both such pigeon-catching strategies require a lot of experience and mature athletic prowess. Hawks in their first summer have neither, so pigeons haven't been much a part of their apparent success (except for those provided by the parents).
Likewise, I initially thought that rats wouldn't be so commonly available to the hawks, either, as these rodents are primarily nocturnal, and hawks can't see any better at night than we can. But it appears that a good number of rats are available during the daylight hours in Central Park, and rats are actually perfect prey upon which inexperienced youngsters can learn the strategies and mechanics of consistent success Rats are nearsighted, so they don't see an approaching hawk, and they don't run very fast, compared to the diving flight speeds of our big red-tails. They are easily killed by the hawk's talons, and lastly, they provide very ample and nutritious food. I think rats are better prey than the common voles that rural red-tails subside on. One or two rats a day is ample sustenance. The smaller, gerbil-sized voles must be eaten in daily quantities of four or five.
In short, I'm now convinced that Central Park rats are abundant, and for whatever reason related to Central Park, sufficient numbers are out wandering around in the daylight for the red-tails to thrive, especially the birds of the year trying to learn how to hunt and kill.
Several times I've gone back and pondered Lincoln Karim's many summer photos of the Trump Parc fledglings. When perched, almost every single image of these birds shows that they have an enlarged, full crop. These birds are eating well, which may also contribute to their disregard of nearby humans. Frankly, life has been extremely good for this year's eyasses. I have no doubt now that they have successfully learned how to hunt and kill in Central Park.
With their full crops, they are probably so fully sated that their migratory urges are suppressed. Right now, in mid September, is when immatures begin to really feel the urge to begin to drift and migrate southward. Here in rural Ohio, virtually all of our summer-resident fledglings have left (or have been forced out of) their natal territories. A few red-tails are being seen at migration spotting areas, especially to the north. The migration so far is more of a general southward population drift of immatures. With the right weather patterns, this will break out into a well-formed mass migration at places like Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania and at Cape May in New Jersey. Red-tails are already starting to drift across the western shores of Lake Erie, dropping down from Michigan and Ontario.
A large percentage of the red-tails hatched last spring are already dead, having starved from a lack of food. Out here in rural areas, there are lots of voles, but they are widely scattered. Successful hunting of them demands a lot of a young, inexperienced hawk. Many met their nutritional demise in August. The birds that survive into September have a much greater chance of migrating, surviving the winter at some more southern latitude, and then making their way back to the north next spring. Many will still expire this winter, but it appears that the vast majority that die do so in August from lack of food.
But there is apparently no lack of food in Central Park. The immatures there are fat and sassy, utterly disregarding those thousands of biped animals that their rural cousins are so wary of.
In summary, the young Central Park red-tails have passed the greatest period of vulnerability with great success. Let's see if they elect to stay in Manhattan, or will they drift off toward New Jersey. I hope we can continue to follow their lives.
Keep me posted.

John A. Blakeman

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Before the chrysalis

. . .comes the caterpillar.

Lloyd Spitalnik writes:

Since you're doing such a great job on the life cycle of the Monarch, I thought you might like to have a few photos of the Monarch caterpillar. These were taken on Saturday [9/17/05] around Turtle Pond. I probably never would have seen them or known what they were without the expertise of the fabulous Nick Wagerik.