The reservoir's historic structures & ecosystems are an opportunity to create a unique environmental education center for our children & their future.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Final Breeding Bird Survey

Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota)

07/14, Ridgewood Reservoir

Saturday was our final day of the 2007 breeding bird survey at the reservoir. I wondered aloud if there would be something for us to come back to next year.

Our volunteer list for the day was John Criscitiello, Rusty Harold, Steve Nanz, Suzanne Ortiz, Janet Schumacher, Heidi Steiner and myself. We could not have asked for better weather. It was mild, dry and a slight breeze was blowing in from the west.

After we slathered on sunblock and bug spray in the parking lot, we started the day as we had each of the previous 6 surveys; dodging cars to cross the busy roadway then walking up a short, dirt rise to the running and biking trail that rings the basins. Despite the reservoir's relative isolation, we always encountered many people running, walking or cycling the 1 mile loop.

A narrow border of trees across from the parking lot, has held several auspicious "good-way-to-start-the-day" birds. Among the species on the list are Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Wood Thrush and Great Crested Flycatcher. We've also seen Indigo Bunting along that stretch. On our last morning of the survey, Steve spotted a single, hyperactive Blue-gray Gnatcatcher foraging near the treetops. It is difficult for me to grasp the minuteness of an animal that can subsist on a days worth of gnats.

As we turned the corner of basin #1, I spotted a male goldfinch still sporting his brilliant yellow breeding plumage. He flew from inside the reservoir and into a cherry tree filled with ripe fruit. Farther up the path, Steve located an American Redstart. It is possible that there are some late breeders around, but for the most part, the nesting season for NYC birds has ended.

A grass buffer between the road and the running track was dotted with thousands of flowering red and white clover. Like a Lilliputian airport, the air space between the earth and flower heads was seething with activity. Butterflies, bees, dragonflies, damselflies and hover flies avoided mid-air collisions while competing for nectar-laden blossoms.

Eastern Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus)

Also present was one of my favorite insects - the Cicada Killer. I have been observing a colony of these unnervingly large wasps in Prospect Park for several years. Saturday was the first time that I ever saw one feeding on nectar. I never considered the adults diet. I have only seen them hunting cicadas, which they paralyze, carry to their burrows and use as a live host on which their larvae eventually feed. I would not have guessed that an insect with such a sinister survival strategy was a vegetarian.

We passed beneath a House Wren singing from a perch within a large, vine-draped tree. He is always in that vicinity, but we have never been able to locate his nest. At a spot tangled with multiflora rose, porcelein berry vines and bindweed we noted the presence of White-eye Vireos twice, but like the wren, we never found a nest. Fortunately, on our final day of the breeding survey, Steve spotted a juvenile foraging in the trees above the edge of basin #1.

Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium)

Near the first central maintenance path, we split into two groups. Steve, Janet and I covered the interior of one of the basins while the others surveyed the outside perimeter.

Our climb down the steep, granite block lined berm took a little longer than usual. A "safety" line that somebody had attached to a tree was gone. Once inside I noticed that the "bog" has dried out a little since my last visit. There were still plenty of areas carpeted with a mix of emerald green mosses. In addition, the ground below several stretches of yellow birch forest had the appearance and spongy quality of peat bog.

As the three of us made our way into the forested sections of this basin, I decided to take a different route through a more dense section. I planned to meet Steve and Janet at the opposite side.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)

Some sections I encountered were impassable and I spent a lot of time climbing over downed saplings or detouring around stands of sapling that were just inches apart. I should have brought my compass. Twenty minutes into the basin, I took a rest at an opening beneath a tangle of chokecherry and other shrubs. There were six chatty young catbirds feeding on berries when they suddenly became curious about me. I made a mewing sound, which brought them closer. Catbirds tend to be tame, but I wondered if these young birds had ever seen a human? When I started hiking back towards Steve and Janet a few of the catbirds trailed along, watching from a safe distance.

I caught up with Steve and Janet at a grassy opening near the center of the birch forest. There were dozens of dragonflies flying around or perching on the tips of bare, dead sapling. The majority appeared to be large Carolina Saddlebags. We had not seen many birds to that point, but the singsong whistle of Warbling Vireos seemed to be nearly everywhere.

Carolina Saddlebag (Tramea carolina)

We relocated the Black-capped Chickadee's nest but the cavity in the birch stump was vacant. I heard a distant "dee dee dee" earlier in the morning, but never saw any of these tiny, black and white birds.

We exited the basin and walked the asphalt trail to meet the others. From there, we would descend into basin #3. Along the way I heard, then found, a fledgling redstart. She was trailing along behind her father chirping and fluttering her wings for food. There was no way to tell if this was the same young bird Steve and Heidi found a couple of weeks ago.

Basin #3 is the smallest of the three impoundments. It has a slight downhill grade towards one corner where it forms a small swamp. Once inside the basin, Janet and I went in the opposite direction from the rest of the group. I was curious if the swamp still existed (as if the mosquitoes hadn't already drained enough of my blood).

Most of the water and mud holes have transformed into small grass meadows tucked away between stands of young, narrow trees. There was no sign of the swamp that had previously attracted a diverse mix of songbirds. This lower section of basin #3 is most likely just an area of vernal pools.

As we continued walking, I noticed an active nest in a tall, thin locust tree. We had to move to another location to get a clear view of the birds and ended up wading through several yards of chest-deep mugwort. We were in a windbreak and it felt like 90 degrees in the sun. Four chicks in the locust tree stood at separate edges of nest with their mouths agape. It was their only relief from the heat. We circled around the locust tree, as we still could not identify the birds in the nest. Finally, with the sun at my back, I could see three young birds with prominent dark masks across their faces. Moments later an adult Cedar Waxwing arrived at the nest with their lunch.

As we were pushing our way back through the maze of mugwort Janet noticed a House Wren. It was a few feet above the ground, near the locust tree. I heard the rattling chitter call of another one in front of us. He had the yellow gape of a young bird. As he flew to our left, another emerged from the mugwort near the locust. Then, another bird answered his rattle. Eventually, a family of House Wrens - 2 adult and 3 fledglings, surrounded us. They did not seem the least bit concerned by our presence and even answered back when I imitated their call. They clung to the sides of trees, flew to dead snags to check us out, played hide-and-seek in the mugwort; we were thoroughly amused by the young wrens for several minutes. Finally, the adults rounded up their brood and they all vanished into the basin's dense understory.

I would like to believe that the department of parks will listen to the surrounding communities desire to keep the reservoir as a nature preserve. Perhaps the administrators for the reservoir site need a reminder of the mayor's edict for better education, more green spaces and a greater respect for the environment. That mission alone should sway the parks commissioner to use the tools of learning at Ridgewood Reservoir, not chainsaws and bulldozers.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Earth Conservation Corps

Bill Moyers had a great program on PBS this evening about the Earth Conservation Corps. From their website:


To empower our endangered youth to reclaim the Anacostia River, their communities, and their lives.

Our Outcomes

In 2005 Corps members completed 54,500 hours of service, providing school standards-based environmental education and service opportunities to 4,987 youth and adults."

How much creativity and planning would it take to create a similar program centered around the Ridgewood Reservoir?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Second Listening Session

Elliotte Rusty Harold was present for the second of two parks department listening sessions. He has written up a summary of the event on his website. I sounds like those who were present had the same feelings as the folks at the first meeting:

"What emerged from this was that nobody, nature folks or locals, wanted “active” recreation at the site. Not a single baseball field or cricket pitch showed up in the presentations. One group put in a small skate park on the very edge of the site since local kids had been asking for it (though I don’t think anyone under the age of 30 came to the meeting). Otherwise, though, the general feeling was that there were sufficient baseball fields and basketball fields already in the neighborhood."

You can read the entire report on his website.

In the event that his blog page goes down (is has been almost 12 years), below is his excellent report:

Planning the Reservoir’s Future
by Elliotte Rusty Harold

Yesterday, Peter Dorosh, myself and about 20 other people attended the second of the New York City Parks Dept’s “Listening Sessions” for Ridgewood Reservoir. We learned that $50 million has been allocated specifically to turn Ridgewood Reservoir into a “destination park”; that is, one that will draw people in from outside the neighborhood. This is part of PlanNYC, Mayor Bloomberg’s 25-year plan of which, according to Kim Fallon, the “biggest part is greening the city.” In particular, the plan proposes planting about one million new trees. As Peter kept pointing out, it seems rather strange to bulldoze an area that’s already full of native trees in order to accomplish this.

Seven other areas are up for the same treatment including the beach at Far Rockaway, Dreier-Offerman Park in Brooklyn, Ocean Breeze in Staten Island, Fort Washington Park and the Highline in Manhattan. Mark K. Morrison has already been selected as design consultant. A preliminary plan should be available in a few months. They hope to start construction in Fiscal Year 2009. It’s not clear how far advanced the city’s plans are, or in fact what they are. Other than the statement in the plan that they want to “set aside two of three basins as a nature preserve and new active recreation center” they really haven’t said very much. I hope they haven’t made up their minds yet.

The stated goal of the session was to listen to what local residents want to be done to the park. Roughly 25 people attended, split about half and half between nature enthusiasts like Peter and myself and folks from the immediate neighborhood. (The Parks Dept. employees kept calling the nature folks “birdwatchers”, but the group that was there was quite a bit more diverse than that.) There were also about a dozen Parks Dept. officials. Also in the audience was state assemblyman Daryl Towns.

They split us up into five different, color coded tables. Peter and I were on the green team, apparently by accident since we’d registered separately. The other member of our team was John C. Muir from the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment. After listening to a brief initial presentation, we got maps and aerial photos of the site. We also got little cardboard cutouts of soccer fields, baseball fields, skate parks, cricket pitches, and parking lots to place at the points on the map where we might like these things. We were also encouraged to draw on the maps. After 45 minutes or so of discussion, every team gave a brief presentation on their thoughts.

Rev. David Benke from St. Peter’s Lutheran Church presents the White Team’s suggestion: “Passive use as primary use”

What emerged from this was that nobody, nature folks or locals, wanted “active” recreation at the site. Not a single baseball field or cricket pitch showed up in the presentations. One group put in a small skate park on the very edge of the site since local kids had been asking for it (though I don’t think anyone under the age of 30 came to the meeting). Otherwise, though, the general feeling was that there were sufficient baseball fields and basketball fields already in the neighborhood.

Improving the trails around the reservoir was universally desired for walking, jogging, and bicycling; and everyone wanted the street lights fixed. Interestingly, John C. Muir told us that when the reservoir first opened to serve the city of Brooklyn, it was explicitly designed as a “promenade” and walking was encouraged. Several teams suggested improved public transit, probably to be accomplished by adding a bus route or rerouting existing ones. (Right now, it’s a bit of a hike from the nearest bus and subway stops.) The groups were split on whether more parking was needed, and if so how much. Most of the time, the current lot is empty; but it can get crowded in the middle of a sunny day on the weekend.

Everyone assumed the lake in basin 2 should stay. Some folks wanted it improved for fishing or canoing and rowing or both. One interesting question was where the water that fills that basin actually comes from. Nobody was quite sure. It’s been drained at least once in recent memory, and it has refilled itself. Is it rainwater, a leaky pipe, or something else? And just how good is that water? We’ll have to figure that out.

Nobody asked for any of the three basins to be filled, although the Parks Dept. had explicitly stated that they could afford to fill one of them. However, there’s really no reason at all to fill the basin unless you’re going to put in ball fields. Furthermore the expense of bringing in enough soil to fill 10-20 acres 20 feet deep (not to mention the trouble of moving that many trucks through a residential neighborhood for months) seemed a total waste of resources.

Basin 1, which is in the process of turning into a bog, should probably be protected. How much access should be provided is an open question, but no one wanted to put much of anything there at all. Basin 3, the largest, should also be limited to passive use. There were various suggestions for nature trails, botanical gardens, arboretums, nature centers, and so forth. Various people suggested a serious effort to remove invasive species like Phragmites and Asian Bittersweet.

Rob Jett wrote about the first of these meetings, which apparently came to similar results. We’ll find out in a few months how much the Parks Dept. actually valued these sessions. If the initial plans show nature trails and no ball fields, we’ll know they were listening. If the plan starts by filling Basin 1 and covering it with astroturf and concrete, then we’ll know these sessions weren’t taken seriously. I hope they were listening, though. Ridgewood Reservoir is a very unusual and hidden gem in the heart of the city, almost a relic of another time, and it would be a shame to lose it now.

D.E.C. website

Here's a DEC website that could be very helpful"

The New York State Urban and Community Forestry Program