“Muskrat Love” on the Newtown Creek…

Muskrat  swimming against the tide and toward the white late afternoon sun trail, past the HarborLAB launch.  Photo by Erik Baard.

Muskrat swimming against the tide and toward the white late afternoon sun trail, past the HarborLAB launch. Photo by Erik Baard.

After a long day of producing a public paddle event at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, HarborLAB volunteers were treated to the sight of a new (or at least newly sighted) neighbor at our Newtown Creek launch. A muskrat!

We believe this creature hasn’t been verifiably reported in the Newtown Creek in living memory. The Newtown Creek’s chief chronicler and photographer, Mitch Waxman, says there have been murmurs about it for over a year. 

For urbanites like us, a muskrat conjures images of fur trappers and musk collectors from centuries past. This indigenous, semi-aquatic burrowing rodent is ubiquitous over much of North America. Indeed, Algonquin and other Native American creation stories credit the muskrat with swimming to the primordial ocean floor to scoop up the mud that formed the lands of the world. This animal is also depicted as the mother of humanity in some tales, and often as an auspicious symbol promising wealth. Perhaps HarborLAB has found a mascot?

Surprised to see this critter in the Newtown Creek? We were too, but perhaps we shouldn’t have been; muskrats survive in sulfurous streams polluted by coal plants, where frogs and fish have been wiped out. These herbivores (they’ll only occasionally eat small amphibians, invertebrates, and shellfish) thrive in wetlands, but have found niches in more challenging areas disrupted by development. One benefit of muskrats is that they eat invasive phragmites reeds, which choke out native plants in fresh and brackish waters. The fate of muskrats (locally breeding or arriving) factored into a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study on the possible scope of industrial damage to the Newtown Creek’s natural resources. No doubt many muskrats once inhabited this waterway, but not in living memory. A study for the Environmental Protection Agency done by HarborLAB sponsor AECOM posited that muskrats might use the creek:

“Birds are likely to be the principal aquatic-dependent wildlife species that occur in and around the Study Area, although some mammals such as muskrats may use the area. Members of various avian feeding guilds may, at one time or another, also be present in the Study Area.” — Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study  Work Plan  Newtown Creek (AECOM Environment)

This muskrat might be living in a burrow dug into the soft slope where the bulkhead has disintegrated on the Queens side of the Newtown Creek. Muskrats are usually nocturnal or crepuscular, so they’re not easy to spot. We have few muskrat predators here, though these rodents (especially their young) might still find themselves on the menu for cats, raptors, some large fish, and turtles.

Muskrats prefer slow-moving waterways, but can transit on swifter courses like the East River. They aren’t likely to drown in strong currents because they can hold their breath for up to 17 minutes!

We’re not sure what this neighbor was up to. It swam against a mild but burgeoning flood tidal current, using its distinctive vertically-flat tail as a flagellum to propel it toward the white sun trail of late afternoon. Its partially webbed hind feet are a secondary means of swimming. What we do know is that it looked so serious about its agenda, which made it look even more painfully cute.

“It’s serious stuff, being an urban muskrat,” remarked Waxman. 

It may have been seeking new territory, for mating advantage or because it belonged to a population that had consumed its food sources. Muskrat populations often boom and bust with available edible plants. Sadly, most muskrats don’t live more than a year.

Where we are, toward the Newtown Creek mouth, water quality is better than inland reaches. This is because ocean water flowing through the East River strait swirls into the creek west of the Pulaski Bridge. Dissolved oxygen levels are higher than the creek average, allowing for more fish and invertebrates and therefore a heartier ecosystem. Also, we’ve had a dry spell, so pipes combining storm water with household sewage haven’t overflowed into the creek recently. That said, however, the sediment pollutants that warrant U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund designation remain a carcinogenic hazard for mammals feeding in the creek or having repeated exposure. Muskrats have been shown to concentrate, or bioaccumulate, metals in their tissues.

As for protecting the human mammal, HarborLAB uses canoes on the creek to reduce water contact greatly. Our sit-on-top kayaks are exclusively for harbor voyages. We never have children paddle from the Newtown Creek site or contaminated nearby sites like Anable Basin and Hallets Cove. We make the effort to host children’s paddling in cleaner regional waters, while advocating for local cleanups.

HarborLAB hopes this little guy finds a healthier habitat to call home soon. But for one afternoon, we enjoyed “Muskrat Love.”

October 20: Paddling in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park!

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Explore Willow Lake of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park between 11AM and 2PM. Last boats go out at 145PM, so don’t rush in at the last minute! Triassic Playground (JEWEL AVE & VAN WYCK Expressway).

Come paddle for FREE, or better yet, volunteer!

Email volunteer@harborlab.org to help out! Volunteers must be approved ahead of time by our volunteer managers. Including set-up and wrap-up, and a possible partnership paddle, we’ll be in the park from 10AM-4PM. We’ll gather at our launch to load boats at 9AM and return by 5PM. We’ll need people to staff an education table, fit life vests on public participants, launch and pull in boats, act as safety escorts, get waivers signed, and generally help out.

This event is organized by the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Conservancy, and we serve at that caretaker group’s invitation. Our thanks to the Conservancy and to NYC Department of Parks and Recreation for permitting the event. Other groups will provide bike safety education, face painting, games, and magic!

More here:

https://www.facebook.com/events/437759413008390/

HarborLAB Acquires a Dock!

HarborLAB's dock at its current Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club home. HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson seated, YRPC Commodore John Maggiotto in waders.

HarborLAB’s dock at its current Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club home. HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Menje Erickson seated, YRPC Commodore John Maggiotto in waders. Lovely Hudson River and Palisades in background. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB’s first season is closing with continued burgeoning growth. We agreed with Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club to purchase its dock as that storied organization (over a century of paddling tales!) upgrades and expands. HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Menje Erickson will oversee the refurbishing of the dock, which floats level, has new floats, and is decked with durable recycled plastic timber. We’re very grateful to NRG Energy and TF Cornerstone for their renewed sponsorships, which will make this work possible. We’ll also have budget transportation of the dock from the Hudson River to Hunters Point. We’re also grateful to YPRC and its Commodore John Maggiotto for this arrangement to foster our safe growth.

We will move the dock to our launch in November.

The dock is among those built through a program coordinated by Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance in 2000, under the direction of Carter Craft.

HarborLAB Helps Tree Giveaways!

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Forest Hills tree giveaway. Photo by Erik Baard. Tulip tree saplings in the foreground.

Seven HarborLAB volunteers helped make the Forest Hills Tree GIveaway organized by Michael Perlman at the Forest Hills Jewish Center and MacDonald Park on October 13 a great success. Help get more trees planted in western Queens with the Queens Public Library! Both events were coordinated with campaign leaders New York Restoration Project and MillionTreesNYC.

If you’d like to join our team in supporting the western Queens tree giveaway, please email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line “Broadway LIbrary Trees.” It also helps to join through our Facebook event. Please indicate if you’d like to work the entire event, or the first shift (noon-2PM) or the second shift (2PM-4PM). The program runs from 1PM-3PM.

This is a MillionTreesNYC event coordinated by New York Restoration Project and its local partner, Queens Library at BroadwayGreening Queens Library. HarborLAB volunteers will follow their directions. Our help was requested by Greening Queens Library.

Here’s the link to register for your tree, or to register a tree for the HarborLAB launch site:  http://treegiveaways.com/qnlib. Here’s a general page for NYRP-coordinated tree giveaways in all five boroughs.

Trees and other plants reduce combined sewage overflows, which raise pathogen levels in local waterways. Let’s do all we can as advocates and greeners to make Hallets Cove and other NYC inlets safer, especially for kids. The ability of these trees to absorb CO2 also reduces ocean acidification, perhaps the world’s greatest looming threat to food supplies and ecosystems.

HarborLAB enjoyed great success helping the Forest Hills tree giveaway. Let’s do it again! This is also a great opportunity for HarborLAB to earn salt-tolerant fruiting trees for our launch! We have shadbush (aka service berry) trees for our launch now, and will add persimmon. Maybe some tulip trees, which were the trunks of choice for the first canoes of this harbor?

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The Forest Hills tree giveaway’s cutest volunteers (Harpo the pooch puts it over the top). Photo by Erik Baard.

Free Reservoir Access Permit!

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Photo by Watershed Post (http://www.watershedpost.com/).

Get your free five-year access permit (
http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/recreation/access.shtml) to paddle and hike our NYC reservoir system!

If you want to volunteer for HarborLAB’s Watershed Wonder Tours (aka ReservoirLAB), or even just participate, you’ll need this permit. Our watershed programs at the Neversink Reservoir begin Memorial Day, but we’d like volunteers to square this paperwork away early.

It’s quick and easy!

Please go to this link:

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/recreation/access.shtml

And here’s our Facebook “event” promoting sign permit applications:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1405827916313561/

After completing the form, please email edu@harborlab.org with the subject line “Watershed,” telling us that you’ve applied for your permit and how you’d like to help. We’ll have both educational partnerships fostered by the NYC DEP and community “walk-up” days with educational and activity booths promoting other water ecology causes.

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Photo by Google Maps/Google Earth.