Saturday, October 15, 2005

Donna reports on early morning grackles

Donna Browne writes:

Hi Marie,

I took some notes the other morning at the Grackle Flyout -- the flock's departure from the roost trees around the fountain. These notes are incomplete. Too much happening at once -- I just couldn't get it all. I'll condense the bits, but thought you might find it interesting, since you've been watching the other end -- the birds flying in to roost at sunset.

Grackle/Starling Flyout

Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Sunrise 7:04 AM
Temperature 53F
Heavy rain, gusting wind (All directions are NYC east, west,north, and south.)

I arrived at 6:42AM and the first bird I saw move went from one of the center Lindens to the far west one at 6:47. This turned out to be a staging tree as did the the street Black Locust on the east end of the line of Lindens. [Also a staging tree at the evening Fly-in. MW]

6:51 to 6:54 -- 10 birds moved to the Locust and 6 to the east Linden. 6:55 - lots of vocalizations started in the trees and 10 birds headed north, then 8 to the Locust, then 20
towards thenorth and more to the staging Locust and 14 to the Linden.

6:59-7:00, 100 birds to Locust and the twittering in the trees was VERY loud. 20 birds to the very top ofthe Locust. Then 40 to the Linden and 80 off the Locust.

7:05 to 7:27 [approx] - hundreds of birds were on the move from the Linden and Locust to points north. I'm not completely sure how it was working but there were secondary staging trees (after they left the east Linden and the west Locust) in the tree group behind Sherman [gilded statue of the civil war hero at north end of the Grand Army Plaza] and the trees just inside the west corner of the park. I don't know if all stopped there as some seemed to be going further into the park.

Towards the end of the rush, when I got enough rain off my binoculars to semi-see through them, I saw that the top of the middle tree of the Sherman group seemed to be full of Starlings only. As I said, these notes are very incomplete, but it might help when placing people for the next time.

Donna Browne

PS We'll be checking the fly-out again at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning.

Blakeman on trees ...and this website


You've already posted what I think is surely the answer to the missing sycamores question. The information your correspondent sent you is correct. Platanus occcidentalis is markedly susceptible to spring-time anthracnose infestations. In cool, moist weather this fungus destroys emerging leaves. New growth proceeds later in June, after warmer and drier summer conditions prevail.

But the resulting vegetation can be rather sparse. Even in years without anthracnose blights, the density of sycamore foliage is not thick enough to entice colonial night roosts of any bird.

As majestic as native sycamores are across their native range in the Eastern third of the continent, they do not make good park trees. In the wild, their majestic white trunks can be massively impressive, as depicted in N.C. Wyeth paintings. But it can take many decades for the white bark to emerge. In the meantime, the tree simply loses its leaves every second or third spring and looks quite pitiful. The removal of young sycamores from Central Park is entirely reasonable. They just don't work in such settings.

In hopeful anticipation of having a monumental white-barked sycamore, I planted a seedling in my rural front yard 30 years ago. The tree is now sixty feet tall, but its bark is still dull brown, and anthracnose clips the leaves about every second year. I planted a gorgeous black oak near the sycamore that is particularly scarlet-leaved at leaf fall. It should take its regal place in the landscape when I finally get around to dropping the deficient sycamore -- perhaps this winter.


John A. Blakeman

Note from Marie: Since I worried, in a recent posting, that readers might be less interested in subjects such as moths or grackles or tree identification, John Blakeman added the folloiwing words of reassurance t
o his informative letter :

You needn't fret about the public's dismissal of your recent, non-avian pages and images. Your readers have dismissed neither you nor your new postings. As you've learned, readers have been delighted with these new topics.

The interests of your readers are simply biophilia, “love of living things,” a core element of most humans. Too often, we think that an interest and appreciation of things natural is something merely incidental, even peripheral to the more important and significant things in our daily lives. Not so. Those of us somewhat freed from the continual daily concerns of existence are wonderfully free to ponder and marvel at the things you present, whether large and majestic hawks, or small but elegant lepidopteran larvae.

Again, your website is great, primarily because real people contribute real knowledge and experiences. It's not the birds or the trees. It's the people who reflect on the flora and fauna. Great stuff.

Friday, October 14, 2005

If there were sycamores, then another mystery needs solving

If it turns out that sycamores once stood in a half-circle around the Pulitzer Fountain at Fifth Ave. and 59th St, just as E.B. White says in his 1929 poem, what might have caused them to be replaced? Here are several reader responses:

Margot Roby Treybig sent a link to a website that included the following info:

Potential Problems - American Sycamore is very prone to annual infections of anthracnose, a fungus that destroys the new growth in spring. This causes dieback of the emergent leaves and stem, and subsequently the lateral buds break (either at the base of the new growth, or from previous year's branchlets) and form a whorled pattern of new stems, which resemble witches' broom growth. This secondary growth occurs in late spring and usually becomes the growth of the season, as drier weather does not encourage new fungal growth.

Other diseases and pests may occur on American Sycamore, but the most serious problem after anthracnose is usually hollow trunks, which eventually make the tree subject to storm damage, and of course getting too big for its space in urban areas. In both cases, the tree may need to be removed.

Diane D'Arcy wrote:

[Sycamores] would not be very tolerant of the conditions in NYC. Even here in Northern Virginia they do not do well in the more urban, exposed locations.

But another mystery will remain:

Let's say that our diligent research unearths the fact that indeed, the present-day Lindens at the Pulitzer Fountain were preceded by Sycamores. The next question would be: Did grackles and starlings by the thousands roost in those Sycamores too? While much has changed about New York City in the years since 1929, we know from old Central Park bird records that huge flocks of Grackles did, indeed, congregate in the park at certain times of year. Did they spend their nights at the fountain?

Though E.B. White's poem does use a word evocative of birds --"twitter" --in his winter dream of a future spring, I am again ready to hazard a guess about whether the sycamores that [may have]once surrounded the Pulitzer Fountain were night roosts. My guess is No, the sycamores of yore were not used as night roosts for grackles and starlings as the Lindens are today.

What do communally roosting birds like robins or grackles require for their roosting trees? Above all, it seems to me, they need thick cover that will allow them to melt into obscurity even on moonlit nights. The Linden is a tree that provides an almost impenetrable cover. With a super-strong flashlight I have peered into a Linden where I know more than a hundred robins are roosting. [See previous website reports about roosting robins].I have trouble finding even one. Meanwhile, sycamores are far more sparcely leaved, or is it leafed. I believe that a roosting bird would be easily spotted in a sycamore or in any other member of the planetree family.

But all this is guesswork. I hope I'll come up with some concrete answers soon.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Lady is Cold: reader response and a call for assistance

Keeping up an [almost] daily website page has become a habit -- yet I'm never quite sure I'm not veering off into areas that interest few people besides myself.

It all started with hawks, and I know that many readers have a special interest in birds of prey. During the hawk nest-removal crisis, and during the time Pale Male Jr. and Charlotte's nest at the Trump-Parc Hotel was active, I was aware of deep excitement about the hawk story. The regular contributions of John Blakeman were adored. Donna Browne's minute-by-minute coverage of activities at the Fifth Avenue nest site and at the one on Central Park South had many ardent fans. But moths? Milkweed beetles? Grackle roosts?

I especially wondered about the level of excitement my website was achieving in recent days when I began to receive letters saying, in one form or another: "Checking your website is the last thing I do every night before I go to sleep." Hmmm. Before or after or instead of the Ambien, I felt like answering.

I was particularly uneasy when I posted a poem by E.B. White a few days ago as an addendum to several previous reports about grackles roosting in the plaza outside the Plaza Hotel. Did anybody in the world besides me care whether the trees the birds spent the night in were Sycamores, as the poem claims or Lindens, as my Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast assures me? I could almost hear the exasperated mutterings: This is the last straw. Stick to Pale Male and Lola, girl.

Oh me of little faith. The response to the Sycamore-Linden mystery has been animated and great, with many suggestions for the discrepency. The greatest number suggested that the poet called the trees Sycamores instead of Lindens because the extra syllable fit into his metrical scheme.

I cannot buy that theory. Every good writer cares enormously about getting facts right, little or big ones. Syllables, shmillables, I know E.B. White would never have turned a Linden into a Sycamore just for the sake of scansion.

Here's something I just found out. A simple Google search did the trick . The poem is included in E.B. White's first book. It was published not in the 40's or 50's as I guessed in an earlier posting, but in 1929! Here's the citation, from

The Lady Is Cold. A collection of verses treating the daily routine of city life. The poems present some of the dominating themes in White's work, namely, his love of New York City, simplicity, and liberty.

White published his first pieces in the New Yorker in 1925, and joined the magazine's staff in 1927, so the chances are that the poem was originally published there. This means that the facts in the poem were checked by the New Yorker's famed fact-checking department. [Yes, I happen to know as a fact that the New Yorker's fact-checkers also check facts in poems.] That's another strike against the theory that the author of Charlotte's Web, an American classic, casually changed a sycamore into a linden for metrical reasons.

But 1929 was more than 75 years ago. A sapling can grow into a big tree in many fewer years than that. So I'm still betting that the present-day lindens replaced a stand of old sycamores at some point in the past.

How do I find out if and when this might have happened? Chris Karatnytski, a website correspondent who is Scripts Librarian of the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, has written in with some great suggestions:
Marie: [I'd like to] suggest two resources that might be able to help you resolve the linden-sycamore mystery. The New York Public Library has a US History, Local History and Genealogy Division that might be able to help you, with info here:

Room 121
The New York Public Library
Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street
New York, NY 10018-2788
(212) 930-0828

And there is The Museum of the City of New York:

1220 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY 10029 212.534.1672

Good luck. I'm curious to know this history.


Anybody want to become an unpaid researcher for a writer who should be writing her book, not having fun with her website?

The Internet might solve the mystery. But if by any chance you want to go to the Library or Museum in person to do this research, check with me first. It wouldn't do to have a bunch of people suddenly showing up at the Library or Museum asking about sycamores and lindens in the Grand Army Plaza.

If nobody responds during the next few days, guess what? I'll do it myself! Procrastination is the name of the game.

Naomi puzzles over the mystery

In reference to yesterday's [or rather, very early today's] posting, Naomi Machado writes:

Good luck with your research into the linden/sycamore mystery. It cannot have been a problem of rhythm, as both fit equally well into the line; perhaps E.B.White had a particular affinity for the sycamore, or.... it could be that as he spent many years away from New York and was visiting the lady only in memory, there was a memory lapse. Obviously he did not count on the likes of you calling the identity of the trees into question!!

I don't believe E.B. white could have had such a memory lapse. I've been thinking along other lines. The poem is rather old, probably dating back to the 1940's or 50's. [Do any of you date back to those antediluvian days?] Is it possible that the sycamores got some disease, were removed and new trees planted in their place? I did mention that the Lindens aren't very big. I'll still look into it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Mystery of the Grackles' roost trees

For the last week I've continued to monitor the huge numbers of grackles roosting for the night in the trees surrounding the Pulitzer Fountain -- the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel.

As the days get shorter, the grackles arrive earlier. On Monday they were already flying in at 5:30 pm . By 5:45 they were streaming in in groups of twenty or fifty. A cloud of about 300 starlings flew in around 5:50. By 6:15pm I'd say there were easily 1000 birds in the 10 Linden trees that form a half-circle around the fountain.trees.

Early this morning Donna Browne, erstwhile chronicler of the Trump-Parc hawk family, checked out the Grackle roost to see when they fly out. She reports that the birds began to leave at 6:37 a.m.

The mystery I refer to in the headline above is hidden in a poem about the Pulitzer Fountain that was sent to me by Mary Birchard, a Central Park birder. But it will not make sense unless I mention another detail about the Pulitzer Fountain that had not seemed particularly relevant earlier: the fountain is topped by a bronze statue of a nude woman. She is leaning over in a posture reminiscent of the popular painting entitled September Morn. Here's E.B. White's poem:

(Intimations at Fifty-eight Street)

The fountain is dry at the Plaza,
The sycamore trees go bare;
The ivy is sere and it has a
Resigned and immutable air.

The lady is cold at the fountain,
The sitter is cold on the ledge,
The Plaza is gaunt as a mountain,
The air is a knife with as edge.

But what is this sniff and this twitter,
And what is the pluck at my vest ?
What gleam in the eye of the sitter,
What lamb of a cloud in the west ?

The earth is but held in solution,
And March will release before long
The lady in brazen ablution,
The trees and the fountain in song !

Here is the mystery: E.B. White describes the trees as Sycamores. Yet the ten trees now surrounding the fountain are Lindens. Could the famous writer, a resident of a farm in rural Maine and the author of a book filled with natural science details [Charlotte's Web] have mistaken a Linden for a sycamore? Impossible.

What happened to the sycamores E.B.White mentions in his poem? I'm determined to find out, and I'll let you know what I discover.

Monday, October 10, 2005

It's not quite over

female Redstart bathing
photo by Cal Vornberger
In spite of heavy rain and the lateness of season, seven species of warblers and a few other migrants were still spotted by birders in Central Park yesterday Here is  Phil Jeffrey's e-bird report :

DATE: Sunday, 9th October 2005
LOCATION: Central Park/Ramble
REPORTED BY: Phil Jeffrey

Central Park Birding:

Wood Duck (male in partial eclipse, Turtle Pond)
Red-tailed Hawk
Spotted Sandpiper (Lower Lobe)
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Eastern Wood-Pewee (Weather Station)
Black-capped Chickadee (several)
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Wood Thrush
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
Northern Parula
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Wilson's Warbler (Lower Lobe - getting late for this species)
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Birds of Central Park: A Guided Tour

While the park has been getting some deperately needed rain, , I've been spending most of the last three days learning the arcane mysteries of Powerpoint and getting a lot of slides together for a talk at the Natural History museum with Cal Vornberger. The details are below. Cal and I have divided up the Central Park bird species in a slightly unequal and yet perfectly logical way: He is covering 199 species while I am taking just one: the Red-tailed Hawk. Tomorrow or the next day at the latest I'll try to catch you up on my various Central Park projects involving robins, grackles, and moths.

Birds of Central Park: A Guided Tour

  • Thursday, October 20
  • 7:00 p.m.
  • Kaufmann Theater
  • Code: ML102005
  • $12 ($15 Non-Members)

Central Park is one of the top birding spots in America, with more than 200 species passing through the park on their migratory routes each fall and spring. This represents close to one-third of the bird species found in the United States. Photographer Cal Vornberger, author of Birds of Central Park, is joined by Marie Winn, former nature columnist for the Wall Street Journal and author of Red-tails in Love, to take you on this fascinating journey to learn what you might see in your own neighborhood.