Return of the Egret

Flora and Fauna Fridays

The life of our estuary and watershed.


Egret on English Kills. Photo by Bernie Ente. 

by Erik Baard (courtesy of Nature Calendar)

A skeptic might say that a naturalist hoping for the Great Egret to visit the Newtown Creek is a bit like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. Happily, the skeptic would be wrong. This week the Newtown Creek Alliance reported its first egret sighting of 2017, and included an admonition for the Environmental Protection Agency to keep after polluters to clean up the waterway.

The first person to obsessively photograph the Newtown Creek for public education and activation was Bernie Ente, whose loss we still feel six years after his death on April 8, 2011. One of our canoes flies a Bernie Ente flag, created by Caroline Walker based on one of his breathtaking green heron photos. Even the marvelous moment above Bernie captured with a cheap point-and-shoot camera.

The beautiful Great Egret is internationally known as the Audubon Society’s symbol. The society was formed over a century ago when a fashion for feathered hats wiped out 95% of the Great Egret population. Citizens were sparked into action, and they formed one of our nation’s earliest conservation movements and made history when national wildlife protection laws were passed. Today the threat to this species is less visible and dramatic, but equally real: our wetlands are receding at an alarming rate due to pollution and at times thoughtless development. Without healthy marsh grasses, this species of bird will just as surely die off as if hunters set their sites on them.

I’ve most often seen egrets on Mill Rock Island just south of Hell Gate, and they’ve been reported at North Brother and South Brother islands, and the islands of the Arthur Kill. You can recognize them easily by their yellow bills, black legs, and white feathers. In flight they flex their necks into an S shape, and their wingspan is impressive at well over four feet (more than a meter).

Though a mate to the bird in the photo was on a nearby muddy bank, often a great egret will be spotted as the sole representative of its species among many other birds, all congregating. This is normal, and perhaps understandable for a creature that starts life with a battle to the death with siblings in the nest! As adults, Great Egrets hunt alone, stalking small amphibians and fish, snakes, and crustaceans in the shallows of coves and inlets like Anable Basin, Bushwick Inlet, Fresh Kills, and the Newtown Creek. Mill Rock is in the center of the East River, but has a delightful little cove notched into its northern side.

Waves: The Recognized and the Rogues

Water Wonk Wednesdays

Weekly water news, tips, and innovations.

“The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.”

— Virginia Woolf, The Waves

by Erik Baard

March has been a big month for waves. Last week the UN World Meteorological Organization added a new entry to its Cloud Atlas, and it’s a doozy: the beautiful undulatus asperitas, meaning “agitated waves.” Rippling like belly dancing Empress Theodora, perhaps no phenomenon more powerfully reminds us that air is just another fluid riding atop denser water. At the same time, University of Miami report that “massive rogue waves aren’t as rare as previously thought.”


Undulatus asperitas occurs when upwelling meets cross current through cloud cover, usually in the quiet hours after thunderstorms. The new recognition last week on World Meteorological Day  comes thanks to grassroots activism by the Cloud Appreciation Society. Of course other forms of atmospheric waves have long been studied, on Earth and elsewhere. On Venus one massive, pole-to-pole bow-shaped wave has scientists fascinated.

Even the largest, steepest solitary wave recorded on our world are puny in comparison, but are the stuff of mariners’ nightmares. For example, the so-called Andrea Wave of 2007 was 100 meters wide, 21 meters tall, and raced across the North Sea between Scotland and Norway at 64 kilometers per hour. Imagine the Marriott Marquis billboard barreling from its Time’s Square home to Pouqukeepsie in an hour. Now University of Miami and Norwegian Meteorological Institute researches say they’re more common than realized.



1977 Rogue Wave that submerged the 75′ high deck of the Norwegian chemical tanker Stolt Surf . Photo by Chief Engineer Karsten Petersen. 

The good news is that scientists are bettering our understanding of how rogue waves form, and so how we might avoid them. Researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology, University College Dublin, and the Institut FEMTO-ST CNRS-Université de Franche-Comté found that even these messy, briny behemoths share much in common with tiny optical wave packets.






FREE Swimming Lessons!

LIC safety around water week schedule-page-001


During our Red Cross certification training, LIC YMCA Aquatics Director Mohinder Rana asked us to spread the word that the YMCA is offering free swimming lessons on April 10-14, dubbed YMCA Safety round Water Week. Registration starts today, March 27.

This annual YMCA tradition is more than a promotion. It’s a life saver and, with regard to education and the environment, an instrument of racial justice.

Even in swimming pool black kids drown at five times the rate of white, according to research by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About seventy percent of African-American and sixty percent of Latino children can’t swim, according to a study by the University of Memphis. The World Health Organization identifies drowning as a leading cause of death by unintentional injury and cites being a member of an ethnic minority as a risk factor globally, with some regions worse than others. American racism in the management of public pools and beaches compounded that of expensive all-white private clubs. Those barred by bigotry didn’t get a chance to learn to swim, and when parents don’t swim, children almost never do either. A few generations in and you’ve got a cultural void. African Americans’ generations of activism have produced many victories, but today’s grim statistics point to more than physical peril. That where education and the environment come in.

Education: In New York City, our estuary is the greatest presence of nature, and nature is the greatest inspiration for study of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). If more African and Latino youth could swim, more would boat with HarborLAB, and therefore more would have their minds excited by what they observe and discover for themselves. Contact with nature has also been measured to reduce attention deficity hyperactive disorder, stress, and depression, all huge educational hindrances in the lower-income urban experience.

Environment: No one can doubt that African Americans and increasingly US citizens and residents with Latino heritage effectively organize for civil rights and other causes. But without access to nature, forming a bond with nature, how can one advocate in a sustained, moving way for clean water and healthy ecosystems? We will all benefit from more African Americans taking up both paddles and soon after, marine environmental causes. African American experience and honed skills in community organizing for justice could prove to be a transformative element in the fight for a better, equitably enjoyed environment. Let it start on NYC’s waters.

We should see the relative dearth of African American and Latino people in aquatics, maritime occupations, and marine biology as a visible scar left by racism. On the surface this looks like self-exclusion, but with an understanding of history we see it’s clearly not. And it’s not inevitable.

We HarborLAB volunteers hope you spread the word about YMCA Safety Around Water Week because with more swimmers we have more people to welcome into our community and onto environmental education paddling adventures!

If you miss out on the YMCA’s program, check out the free swimming lessons our friends at Swim Strong Foundation are offering in May! Swim Strong Foundation also offers swimming instruction with scholarships throughout the year. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s learn-to-swim program is a great leader in this effort to save lives and open a water world of exploration to all. Time Out New York Kids has a great wrap up of free swimming lessons.



2017 Red Cross Certification Day


LIC YMCA Aquatics Director Mohinder Rana teaches Basic Water Rescue to HarborLAB volunteers at the LaGuardia Community College pool. Photo by Jeffrey Lim.


A group of 15 HarborLAB volunteer leaders were certified by the Red Cross for adult and pediatric AED, CPR, First Aid, and Basic Water Rescue on Saturday. This training is required by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection for program leaders at the Neversink Reservoir and helps meet our insurance requirements for programs on the estuary as well. HarborLAB maintains two kayak and canoe fleets, on the harbor and watershed, for environmental education that encapsulates the entire NYC water system.

HarborLAB also funds American Canoe Association training and certification for our volunteers to teach fundamental paddling skills to underrepresented communities and the public at large through our Instruction for Inclusion program.

We had a great time learning from instructors Bob Erisman of Save a Life, Inc. and Mohinder Rana, Aquatics Director at the LIC YMCA. Sarah Durand, PhD, of the Natural Sciences Department at LaGuardia Community College kindly arranged for our room and pool use.

This program is made possible by LaGuardia Community College, the LIC YMCA, a personal donation by HarborLAB volunteer Katherine Bradford, and ExxonMobil’s community outreach for the NY Department of Environmental Conservation administrated Greenpoint Petroleum Remediation Project, which addresses some of the Standard Oil legacy pollution impacting our Newtown Creek home base. Also sponsoring is ExxonMobil Environmental Services environmental consultant, Roux Associates.

This class added or renewed certifications for:

Attia, Sally
Aquino, Patricia
Baard, Erik
Bradford, Katherine
De Jesus, Erycka
Erickson, Partricia
Lim, Jeff
Maucher, Dee Dee
O’Neil, Evan
Szatkowski, Diana
Tan, Ray
Tse, Mambo
Widawski, Chana
Wolpow, Scott
Zayas, Carolin

Train for the Horseshoe Crab Survey!

Flora and Fauna Fridays

The life of our estuary and watershed.


Photos by Klaus Schoenwiese. 

Represent HarborLAB in the great NYC horseshoe crab watch! The Horseshoe Crab Monitoring Network of NY ( is doing vital work to protect this ancient species. We are happy to assist and hope you volunteer as grassroots volunteers in NYC Audubon’s annual survey.

Learn more about these marvelous creature here:

You must register via the email given below. This page doesn’t suffice as registration.


A pivotal activity in protecting horseshoe crabs is the annual mating season survey. HarborLAB encourages our fellow volunteers, especially members of the Environmental Monitoring Crew, to go for this training, participate in a survey or (or more) and share your knowledge with other volunteers at our World Oceans Day event:

The official count at Plumb Beach will be the night before and after our event.

Training is in April:

Thursday, April 13 – 6-7pm
Thursday, April 20 – 6-7pm

NYC Audubon, 71 W. 23rd St., Suite 1523

Anyone who would like to attend one should RSVP to At the orientation, you’ll learn about the survey protocols and can register for one or more of the 12 survey dates.

World Water (Reuse) Day!

Water Wonk Wednesdays

Weekly water news, tips, and innovations.


by Erik Baard

Happy World Water Day!

The UN World Water Day theme for 2017 is “Why Wastewater?” New York City consumes a billion gallons of water a day from reservoirs up north and then dumps 27 billion gallons of raw sewage into our local waterways because our wastewater system gets overwhelmed when rainfall adds to household discharges. This assault on our estuaries is a problem of water wealth, which might be solved by technologies developed by cities that suffer scarcity.

As I wrote for The Street, Singapore is directly reusing its wastewater (“toilet to tap”) by filtering and sterilizing. Orange County, California takes an indirect approach, pumping treated water below ground to mix with naturally occurring water tables for later uptake. Many other municipalities are similarly thrifty with H2O, and others are studying how reuse might work for them. Global climate change driven by carbon emissions from livestock, industry, transportation, and power generation could disrupt water supplies to many major population centers.

One of the biggest proponents of wastewater reuse is Bill Gates, whose foundation backs the Omniprocessor, a facility that turns sewage into water, energy, and ash.

A less dramatic, but valuable, approach is to reuse cleaned wastewater for agriculture and other non-potable applications. At HarborLAB’s GreenLaunch we’ll be capturing rainwater, mixing it with shower water (where only strictly vetted soaps that we provide will be used) and feeding that to our native habitat and orchard areas via underground irrigation hoses. Our toilet will be a waterless or low-water composter.

Perhaps NYC will one day build Omniprocessors or the technology will lend itself to small-scale, distributed use. After all, just because today we have a wealth of water doesn’t mean we should waste it.

What Ice Storm? Indoor Pool Paddling!

Instruction for Inclusion had another great monthly program on Saturday. HarborLAB’s certified instructors and other volunteers dug a path out from our launch through snow plow piles on a day marked by freeing rain to teach basic paddling skills to a environmental educator Amelia Zaino and other friendly Bronxites. Shout out to Debby Kawalick for bringing people together!

Many thanks to sponsors TF Cornerstone and the LIC YMCA. Much gratitude to volunteers Tito Alvarado and Phillip Borbon for swooping in to help with the big dig on short notice, and Scott Wolpow for heading down early to catch such unforeseen challenges.

Instructors Dee Dee Maucher and Steven Chu, and soon-to-be instructor Scott Wolpow, were pleased with breakthroughs in their teaching techniques, which starts with a poolside orientation and culminates in side-by-side “learn as you go” couching. They’re excited to teach larger youth classes at Gantry Plaza State Park in the summer! The next pool session is April 15.

Our goal with Instruction for Inclusion is to build “confidence through competence” so that people who’ve historically been underrepresented in harbor life and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields — especially communities of color — can participate in HarborLAB’s educational paddling tours. These outings are more challenging but more rewarding and FUN, landing on remote beaches and normally forbidden islands to photograph, remove plastics, seed native plants, and otherwise learn about environmental science through service.

Photos by Debby and Steven, and videos by Steven.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.





M. vaccae, the Mirthy Dirty Microbe

Flora and Fauna Fridays

The life of our estuary and watershed.

mycobacterium vaccae

by Erik Baard

People who play in the dirt are happier. We certainly see that at HarborLAB’s GreenLaunch where we’re growing a native habitat area, a small orchard, and fruiting vines. The greenery, fascinating and beautiful wildlife, satisfaction of helping things grow, and great company all make for a sense of connection and more fully realized life. Every participant in nature and our work crews contributes, right down to the microbes. That’s especially true of Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium in compost and healthy soil that stimulates the production of mood-lifting neurotransmitters.

M. vaccae was first found in Austrian cow dung (hence the “vaccae” name) but is quite widespread. Scientists studied the microbe in hopes that this cousin of tuberculosis might reveal tricks for fighting the dreaded disease. Dr. Mary O’Brien, an oncologist at Royal Marsden Hospital in London, made a serum with the goal of improving lung cancer patients’ immune systems. Instead it improved their emotional states. They felt less pain. They felt happier. Further British research found a similar effect in mice. Over here in New York, scientists found ingestion, inhalation, and daily contact provided the same benefits. No injection necessary. The mice were less stressed and learned their way through mazes faster when “on” M. vaccae.

United Nation’s International Day of Happiness is March 20 and April is Mental Health Awareness Month. Maybe spend some time in the dirt at HarborLAB’s GreenLaunch this April to get to know this bright yellow bug of joy.   🙂

To garden with us, please email with the subject “GreenLaunch gardening.” To have us conduct seedball workshops or other greening programs with your school, community center, youth group, or other service, please email





Let’s Make an Irish Currach!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Happy St. Patty’s Day! In the best tradition of craic, we’ll take the scenic route to talking about Ireland.

Julius Caesar was in Spain and unexpectedly needed a bridge. It was spring and he was in civil war against Pompey the Great, ally of Senate traditionalists. He was trying to outmaneuver Pompey’s armies when melting snow flooded the Sicoris River (now the Segre), trapping his troops with currents and swamps. Famine and disease set in. Caesar gave some of his men a novel command: quickly make wicker and leather boats. These were clearly not Roman ships, but Caesar’s little flotilla brought in men and supplies, they built the bridge, and drove his enemy away.

The boats Caesar’s troops made were knock-offs of the Irish currach, which he’d seen plying what today we know as the English Channel. These craft enabled trade between Ireland, Britain, and the continent. He marveled at their efficiency, describing them as being constructed “from the lightest wood.” Once again Caesar’s careful attention to detail and embrace of innovation paid off, this time in a victorious Iberian campaign.

The currach dates back perhaps thousands of years before Caesar. Contemporary currachs are generally rowers’ racing boats, longer and slenderer than their fishing boat antecedents. Their ribs are now most often made of thin plank wood and the “hides” are tarred canvas. Ireland has notably used the end of the island’s historic poverty to become a leading voice for the famine-wracked and refugee peoples of today, and more joyfully to revive its arts, language, and cultural heritage. Currach building and racing is perhaps the most prominent nautical expression of this renewed flourishing.

On this St. Patrick’s Day 2017, let’s commit to making a currach from sustainable and recycled materials by May of 2018! Sooner? It also happens that May 16 is the feast day of Brendan the Navigator, who many Irish believe crossed to America by currach long before other Europeans. HarborLAB makes ancient boats from cultures around the world. Last year we made one from bound phragmites reeds, inspired by boats made in Ethiopia and the First Nations of the Americas.

There’s practical value to this project as well. Being lightweight, a currach would be easy to raise and lower at the GreenLaunch. It would be suitable for Newtown Creek exploration because it would cause minimal water contact, and could carry research equipment. A rowboat would be excellent for students because an introduction to rowing could lead to sculling, a scholarship sport. And of course Western Queens has a large, enthusiastic Irish community! We have woodworkers and other craftspeople and artists too!

Friends to the north at Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club made the construction of a coracle, a rounder wee cousin to the currach, their winter project.

16388059_10210011020249422_1587656406059090592_n (2)

YPRC coracle under construction. Photo by Patricia Slaven.

A line from the poem “An tlascaire” by Maidhc Sé reads, “Nothing but a smooth, tarred canvas between him and eternity. . .” Well, less forebodingly there’s nothing but a few weekends of work between us and learning adventures aboard a currach!

Mr. Spock’s Water Quality Scans

Water Wonk Wednesdays

Weekly water news, tips, and innovations.


by Erik Baard

Sometimes just looking at the water is enough to send you running back inland; witness the Gowanus Canal turdnami above. Snow melt from our recent storm could less dramatically force raw feces releases into our estuary through combined sewer overflows. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences warns that global climate change will likely increase the risk of waterborne diseases. The Inuit, who invented kayaking, are already suffering.

Dangerously contaminated waters don’t usually reveal themselves to our eyes, or even noses. Most commonly used detection and measurement methods are slow and require careful laboratory work. Imagine if you could instead scan coastal waters from orbit aboard the starship Enterprise? Already on it, as this paper describes. Or perhaps point a “Star Trek” tricorder at a water body to measure its pathogens. That prospect might too be approaching, but expect bumps and high costs along the way.


WISP wielder scans for algae and cyanobacteria. Photo by BlueLegMonitor.

The Dutch company BlueLeg Monitor has developed handheld, installed, and backpack devices to detect pigments and other suspended particulates instantly. The company also processes satellite images. The main markets are public agencies and large businesses that need fast, reliable data to close beaches or protect water resources and aquaculture. Small nonprofits like HarborLAB couldn’t afford the installed EcoWatch, for example, at 40,000 Euros ($42,930). Veritide, based in New Zealand, adds first responders and meat packers to the market list.

Researchers Mohammad Haji Gholizadeh, Assefa M. Melesse, and Lakshmi Reddi of Florida State University provide “A Comprehensive Review on Water Quality Parameters Estimation Using Remote Sensing Techniques.” They conclude that while aerial and satellite sensing of water contamination is reliable and less expensive than the in situ sampling now prevalent, “Improvement of the methodology to interpret images from simple linear regression to multivariate statistical analysis approaches like principle components analysis (PCA) and neural networks will help to make the procedures more accurate and easier to manipulate.”This is a prospect the US Geological Survey takes seriouslyIrish researchers make a case for cheaper, ubiquitous sensors that can measure turbidity and color.

Danish research, published in NatureResearch’s Scientific Reports, promises to reveal fecal bacteria like e. coli  in just ten minutes by comparing microscopic photos of a water samples with a library of images. A 3D image recognition algorithm can sort species from each other and suspended particles.


Image first published in Scientific Reports, NatureResearch. 

Perhaps innovations along these lines for the mass market of grocery shoppers and healthcare might attract even more research, lowering costs across the board and speeding solutions to our waterfront.

Why is this a big deal? Determining the most probable number of fecal bacteria per unit of water is a slow process (more than 24 hours) of sampling, incubation, and testing. Enterococcus testing is the preferred method for determining swimming beach safety in the U.S., succeeding the old standard of fecal coliform testing in 2004. If a beach shows a five week mean of 35 colony-forming units or  more per 100 milliliters of water, it’s closed. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality published a great introductory explanation of this process. Improved, faster assays are sold or in development, but most cost too much for groups like HarborLAB.


Water samples incubated and tested by Bronx River Alliance. 

Each week members of the NYC Water Trail Association, like HarborLAB, sample water for laboratories to test for fecal bacteria indicating sewer overflows. One test involves incubating bacteria cultures and then detecting the presence of enterococcus, a genus found in human intestines, by the contaminated vials’ glow when exposed to ultraviolet light. Above you see the results from a lab operated by Bronx River Alliance. HarborLAB initiated sampling in western Queens and samples the water at Gantry Plaza State Park.

You can count on our Water Quality Monitoring volunteer crew to be out there each week to keep paddling at Gantry Plaza State Park safe, and we welcome you to join us by emailing with the subject line “Water quality volunteer.” But forgive us for scanning periodicals for hints of when robots might replace us!  😉