Getting the Drop on Pitch Pine

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
(Our apologies for the delayed publication.)

Photos and text by Erik Baard

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) is a hardy little tree that’s native to the eastern US and coastal from the Chesapeake Bay to Acadia National Park, Maine. They thrive in a variety of harsh conditions from poor alpine scratch to low swamps. They protect dunes, stabilize shores, and feed birds and insects. These crooked and twisted trees are rarely used for lumber, but as you can imagine, they were in great demand for the resin pitch.

Physicists are fascinated by how a drop of room temperature pitch can be shattered by a hammer blow yet is experimentally shown to be a liquid (unlike ice, which is a true crystalline solid). The hardness and consistency of pitch, which is also malleable when heated, makes it extremely useful for preserving and waterproofing ships, railroad ties, and mine shaft supports. It’s also used to flavor wine, and sometimes medicinally. Outdoor enthusiasts often use pitch for lamps and torches, glue and wound binding, or even to make natural plastic widgets! Now research labs are following suit.

These trees are very well protected against fire by their specialized bark. In a worst case scenario, even a stump can spring to life with new branches. Their cones also pop open when exposed to intense heat, so they not only endure the flames but help regenerate the ecosystem.

In our region, you can enjoy pitch pine forests in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Fire Island, and Long Island’s East End. But NYC parks have stands of them too,  including Hunters Point South Park just blocks away from HarborLAB. We’ll grow seeds gathered there at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch!

HarborLAB makes pitch pine seedballs to benefit our entire harbor. We’ve gathered cones with students and volunteers with Baruch College, New Jersey Institute of Technology, National Iranian-American Council, and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. We learned our seed ball making technique from Seedball NYC, and how to get seeds from pine cones (by baking them) from the Greenbelt Native Plant Center of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group.

Pine seed. Photo and labeling by University of Miami: http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/altgen.html

Pine seed. Photo and labeling by University of Miami: http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/altgen.html

UN Women’s Day and Water

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

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by Erik Baard

Today is the United Nations designated International Women’s Day. Let’s take this opportunity to recognize that where governments have failed their citizens, obtaining and protecting water is women’s work.

The Women for Science section of the Inter-American Network of Academies of Science maintains an excellent Gender and Water page, providing links to relevant women’s professional networks, data, issues and case studies, training manuals, and other practical resources. Another great resource for women seeking to enter water science and engineering is the Association of Women in Water, Energy, and the Environment.

Men still dominate the engineering agencies and companies that make clean and convenient water a fact of daily life in wealthier nations, but it’s women who fetch and defend water for billions of others, especially in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. This work demands immense strength and daily determination for the many who must trek long distances in the search for water free or pathogens and chemical contaminants, and resourcefulness for those who must clean their water to safeguard their children from illness.

Some international agencies and nonprofits are promoting innovative ideas like micro-finance “water credits” through female community leaders and individual mothers.

In many regions the right to water for life is threatened by the taking of water for profit, for resale or use in development. industrial processes, mining, energy extraction, and agribusiness. This is especially true when those struggling for drinking and sanitation water are poor or from marginalized indigenous communities. There women must demonstrate great physical courage to confront those powerful interests.

The struggle isn’t only a rural one. The world is rapidly urbanizing, straining municipal water systems and creating sprawling fringe shantytowns where no waterworks exist. Even in established cities in wealthier nations neglect and disastrous decisions have dangerously fouled water for some, especially in lower-income communities of color. The women of Flint, Michigan joined the Women’s March in Washington to demand clean water. The DeLoitte Review recently took on the topic in an academic article called, “Thirsty for Change: The untapped potential of women in urban water management.”

Water justice will be achieved only when women’s voices are heard inside board rooms and planning meetings. Women in water sciences are certainly making gains, and in industry and at the UN there’s a growing awareness that achievers should be honored. HarborLAB encourages young women to enter these disciplines and to apply for scholarships that might help them realize their goals, this Women’s Day and all days.

 

 

The Gracefully Gooney Woodcock

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
This week’s entry by Erik Baard, Courtesy of Nature Calendar.

American Woodcock in Propsect Park by Steve Nanz.

By Erik Baard

In coming weeks keen-eyed birders will spot the quiet and nearly invisible migratory returns, solitary or in very small flocks, of one of New York City’s quirkiest birds.

While some birds, like redtail hawks and peregrine falcons, have attracted groupies through intelligence and fierce dignity, today we present a species that’s won the hearts of hardened New Yorkers through its ostentatious goofiness, the American Woodcock.

If you manage to spot one despite its exquisite cinnamon, gray, beige, and pale orange camouflage in the leaf litter, you’ll note its extraordinarily gawky four-inch bill, more than a quarter the length of its seemingly no-necked, stout body. Then it’s on to the high-crested, buggy eyes set behind its ear holes. To make that odd arrangement of features work, its brain is uniquely positioned: upside down, with the cerebellum resting above the spinal column.

No one name can quite frame the whimsical asymmetry of this species. Its alternate names sound a bit like cocktail drinks: timberdoodle, bog sucker, mud bat, mud snipe, and Labrador twister.

That latter name, however, hints at why their devotees are now clearing their schedules of after work commitments and redirecting their morning jogs to mucky corners of parks. The woodcock’s spiraling mating display, an aerial dance at dusk and dawn, is a signature of Spring that delights the eyes and ears.

“Some of these birds who wintered in southern states are passing through,” said NYC Audubon past President Peter Mott, referring to New York City’s place on the eastern seaboard’s migratory flyway. “Those that are staying are setting up their courtship territories. In just a week from now they should be starting their courtship flights.”

You’ll need to visit a wooded area edging a fresh water body and a small clearing. Two places Mott recommends are the Ramble in Central Park (a section called “The Oven,” near the boathouse), and the East Pond of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is also a favorite spot for the tireless Brooklyn Bird Club. Other places known for woodcocks include Pelham Bay Park and Givans Creek Woods Park in the Bronx, the Staten Island Greenbelt,  and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where the photo above was taken by Steve Nanz (click to enlarge).

Where males have formed a loose gathering, called a lek, individuals bob and rotate on the ground in twilight hours, making a peent sound before suddenly jumping into flight. They ascend steeply in a spiral up well over 100 feet, “making a chirping sound with their wings. Then they’ll plummet to earth and hope a female was watching.”

While the males’ ground call is utterly prosaic, the twittering sound made by air passing through specialized feathers of their fast-beating, rounded wings is soothing. The downward glide is accompanied by a vocalization that naturalist Aldo Leopold called a “soft liquid warble.” Marj Rines has audio samples on her great website.

Still, overall it’s a pattern familiar to anyone who’s ever observed a “Sk8ter Boi”: call attention, perform a trick, hope it was witnessed by a pretty girl.

Such acrobatic displays demonstrate vigor, and to produce pleasing wing song a woodcock must be ideally formed with a span fringed with three very fine feathers – a sonic flaunting of symmetry – that advertises genetic viability for robust offspring. A strong start is critical for hatchlings that are nearly independent soon after emergence, reaching adult form in weeks.

The woodcock’s odd face is no less a product of ruthless natural selection than a lion’s fangs. Those oddly set eyes provide nearly 360-degree vision. The woodcock beak is not only long, but articulated and sensitive toward the tip, so that it can probe the mud more effectively for worms and other invertebrates; they can eat their weight, about 10 ounces, daily. Put those two features together and you have a bird that can watch for predators above while simultaneously feasting on what’s below.

The transitional forest ecosystems for which the woodcock has evolved are equally refined, but have been challenged in recent decades. Most conservationists believe this is what accounts for the species’ 55% drop in population since 1960. Poorly-conceived development is a huge problem, of course, but another factor might surprise you. Our attentive forest managers have prevented many forest fires, blights, and other natural means of tree felling, denying the woodcock clearings for mating displays. Clearings also allow for new growth like meadow, understory plants, and a dense covering of saplings to provide resting protection from owls.

When Mott was asked which of these unique characteristics made him so fond of the woodcock, he said his pleasure was in the sharing. “I enjoy taking people to see them,” he said. Funny how a bird that leads a relatively solitary life can bring us together.

EPA Clean Water Rule Rollback

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

 

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President Trump issued an executive order yesterday to roll back the Clean Water Rule issued by President Obama to extend 1972 Clean Water Act protections to smaller streams and wetlands that feed rivers, lakes, and estuaries. President Trump stated that this reversal reflected his emphasis on economic activity and states rights. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is leading a coalition to litigate against President Trump’s order. The New York Times published a useful article about this debate.

 

 

 

Raccoons’ Amazing Use of Water

 

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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by Erik Baard

HarborLAB volunteers (including a little one, Lily) recently spotted snow tracks at the GreenLaunch. Not our usual guard cat prints. The fingers weren’t webbed. At first we thought we might have fresh evidence of our resident muskrat. The tracks led up and down our growing native habitat slope from the water to the uplands, so that made sense. Ah, but there was no tail line. That leaves us with raccoon!

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Similar animal tracks. Credit: Lawrence Wade, The Old Naturalist

 

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Raccoon forepaw. Credit: Gaby Muler via Wikimedia Commons. 

The lack of webbing is very unusual for mammals in the order carnivora. What makes raccoon paws absolutely unique, however, is their sensitivity. More than 60% of the sensory perception areas of the raccoon’s cerebral cortex is given to touch. A raccoon’s dexterous fore paws are covered in tiny sensory spikes. The density raccoon pressure sensitive cells (called mechanoreceptor cells) is quintuple that of most mammals, matched only by primates like humans.

The primacy of their fore paws is reflected in the species’ names, including proto-Algonquin via Powhatan ahrah-koon-em (“one who scratches or rubs with its hands”) and part of the Latin one given by Carl Linnaeus (lotor or “washer”). The myth that raccoons wash their hands or food is rooted in amateur observations of their actual use of water: when submerged the sensory micro-bristles soften and become even more sensitive. A raccoon dips objects in water, fully submerging its paws, to even more acutely feel its surfaces. This video of a raccoon accidentally dissolving his treat of cotton candy is for only the most stone-hearted.

Even prolonged time in cold water doesn’t seem to diminish this sensitivity. Naturally this helps them to find small creatures, eggs, and some plants to eat in aquatic or muddy environments. Their fur is also well adapted to repel water.

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Once raccoons have learned of food sources, they won’t soon forget. In laboratory tests they remembered complex tasks for years afterward. Their ability to recall, problem solve, and think abstractly ranks them with Rhesus monkeys in evaluations of animal intelligence. So, say hello to our smart new neighbor! Maybe a furry new volunteer?

Worrying Dawn of the Blue Era

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

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Erik Baard at Hallets Cove in 2015. Photo by NYCDEP for HarborLAB. 

by Erik Baard

The East River has so far rolled through this winter unadorned by a white speckling of sea ice (photos here are from 2015). On the Hudson River, bald eagles and seals have no ice floes to ride from the foot of the Palisades to the skyline. HarborLAB volunteer Thomas Dieter, director of CUNY Start at LaGuardia Community College, relays his observations from his home in Hunters Point South:

“We haven’t spotted ice yet this winter, and at this point I’m guessing we won’t. From our apartment at Hunters Point South Park, we can see that the inlets and coves just north of Newtown Creek haven’t iced over. In the past, the inlet where the ferry docks and the cove south of the fishing pier iced over at some point–but no such luck so far this year that we could see…The water in these areas doesn’t move as quickly as the river, and it’s far shallower, so I expected ice to collect there again this January and February.”

Our local disappointment echoes the vanishing polar sea ice aspect of the global climate change crisis, though some seek to take advantage of it for undersea fuel extraction, military maneuvers, and shipping. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card on sea ice, glaciers, snow cover, temperatures, indigenous cultures, and animal health is profoundly grim. A special concern is ocean acidification in the Arctic, which is undermining the regional ecosystem’s less diverse food chain.
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Scientific American/Climate Central report that winter sea ice at both poles has retreated to record lows. This is a sharp reversal from a record Antarctic peak last year, but a continuation of a trend of historic lows in the Arctic. Ice sheets ashore — notably in Greenland — are shrinking and thinning too. Winter heat waves are lashing the Arctic as warm air pushes north.
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Gantry Plaza State Park in 2015. Photo by Mark Christie, Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. 

Naked Gobies in Newtown Creek

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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Naked Goby. (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.)

 

by Erik Baard

Skinny dipping in the Newtown Creek Superfund Site might seem unwise, particularly in February, but it’s a way of life for naked gobies (Gobiosoma bosc). These very small, bottom-dwelling fish of the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf states are extremely common yet rare to see. That’s a shame because gobies — one of the most diverse families of fish, with over 2,000 species — have rich and fascinating lives packed into typically less than four inches and four years.

Ecologists for city, state, and federal agencies did encounter naked gobies in early studies to profile the life and pollutants of what became HarborLAB’s home waterway. They discovered an abundance of goby eggs at the mouth of the creek but not further in, indicating that spawning happened where cleaner East River waters swirled in with each tidal cycle. No surprise given that naked gobies and their eggs and spawn are often found in the fish-protecting screens covering intake tubes at the nearby Ravenswood Power Plant. Bear in mind, however, that this is opposite of the natural state of affairs. Fish normally lay eggs and spawn in sheltered areas outside the swift main channel of waterways. The East River is dredged, constricted by landfill, and edged with bulkheads that make for even faster currents. The slower-moving four-mile stretch of the Newtown Creek should by rights be the East River’s nursery.

As it is, only adult “gobies were prevalent in the mid-section of the Creek,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service report linked above. Still, what a testament to this species’ hardiness, given that the creek bed (commonly described as being like “black mayonnaise”) is sedimented with toxins and stripped of naked gobies’ natural habitat of oyster beds and salt grass clusters. Females prefer to lay their amber-colored eggs into empty oyster shells. In the Newtown Creek, they make do with rock, crumbled concrete bulkheads, partly interred plastic trash, bottles, and other debris. In the winter, they bury themselves into that poisonous black mayonnaise.

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(South Florida Water Management District)

Naked gobies feed on worms and small crustaceans, which concentrate in their tissue the toxins of a century of oil spills, refinery and tannery effluents,  and illegal dumping.  Cloaked by the muck and the murk, these “naked” prey fish for better known species like striped bass, eels, and bluefish are still taking no chances. The species is scaleless and camouflaged in green and brown blotches. Their eyes are close together, atop the head. At a glance they look like lizards. The young are translucent.

Naked goby pelvic fins have evolved to fuse into suction cups, a neat trick for anchoring themselves. Scientists have noted that gobies can remember how to navigate complicated obstacle courses for at least 40 days, and judge and remember spatial relationships, useful for hopping from tidal pool to tidal pool. Some cousin species of goby have also evolved complex behaviors and symbiotic relationships. For example, one species climbs waterfalls that to human scale is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest three times over — check out this video! Others groom the parasites off larger fish. Another enjoys an “Odd Couple” relationship with a large burrowing shrimp. The fish and crustacean cohabitate and deposit eggs in the same burrow. They touch each other (with tail and antennae respectively) constantly to know if the other is agitated or retreating, relying on each other’s complementary senses. And we are still discovering new species of goby!

 

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Naked Gobi range. 

A Night for Snow Pillows

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

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Snow Pillow monitoring station. Photo by NYCDEP 

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SNOTEL with snow pillows. Image by USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service

The term “snow pillow” evokes a peaceful, muffling moonlit whiteness spreading a lull across the countryside. For New Yorkers, however, it’s a critical piece of hardware.

Much of the billion gallons of water used daily by nine million residents of NYC and surrounding counties arrives as snow. The white caps of the old, rounded Catskill Mountains nestling the Neversink Reservoir are a reserve bank that melts to meet our needs in warmer months. Snow melt can also swell rivers, so anticipating flood risks is very important to towns an farms. With so many lives affected by snow, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, in partnership with City University of New York and National Weather Service, is constantly looking for better ways to measure it.

At the end of the last decade NYCDEP began using “snow pillows,” essentially scales that weigh snow in remote locations and transmit data wirelessly in near real-time. The technology (first developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska) is often integrated into remote sensor stations in rougher terrains out west. The NYCDEP deployed its first snow pillow at the Schoharie Reservoir in 2008, and later near reservoirs in Cannonsville, Pepacton, and Neversink. HarborLAB operates a canoeing and kayaking program at the Neversink for NYC youth groups and public school students to learn about their drinking water sources.

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Inner workings of the NYCDEP’s latest generation snow pillow. Photo by NYCDEP. 

The NYCDEP still uses aerial surveys and good old fashioned field work to measure snowpack, but the agency plans to more than double its constellation of snow pillows to 35 stations in coming years. Another sensor used is the Gmon, which helps researchers estimate snowpack by measuring the absorption of naturally occurring radiation. Future snow data collection might increasingly rely on satellites.

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For more about NYCDEP’s work to measure snowpack, please view this PowerPoint presentation by James H. Porter, PhD, Chief of Water Systems Operations at NYCDEP:

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