Animal tracking, my favorite winter sport

February 26, 2010

On a sunny morning, I head across the recently renewed snow cover to see what the creatures have been up to in the little nature preserve behind my house. I follow deer tracks to a spot where they’ve pawed up the snow down to the leaves and even some dirt, looking perhaps for acorns.

The many deer trails crisscross, knotting together under a loose thicket of bare-branched shrubs, where I find several piles of deer scat. Alongside the thicket is a patch of broadleaf evergreen shrub. Were they here to dine? But I don’t see twigs of the evergreen nipped off. Ah, but beneath the bare twigs is a roughly triangular depression in the snow, shaped like a deer with its legs folded up and its head curved around to rest on its knees. Two more lays are in evidence a few feet away. While the thicket doesn’t look like a lot of protection, maybe its deer-colored twigs add an element of camouflage.

I’m thinking about the fact that I always see lots of cloven tracks here but almost never see actual deer, except from inside the house. It could be that I even frightened deer from these very lays a few minutes ago—the tracks look pretty fresh. I’m not making any effort to be quiet—too difficult in this crunchy snow. Suddenly I recall something I learned from a tracking teacher about “soft-focus eyes” or “splatter vision”—the act of slightly unfocusing the eyes to take in more peripheral vision rather than concentrating on a spot directly in front. Although I learned this technique years ago, I have totally forgotten about it and virtually never use it. Well, I think, it’s worth a try.

I cast my gaze across the woods and turn my head, letting my eyes soften. Immediately—I mean, within one second—I see a flicker of brown against brown, far off among the trees. It disappears. I keep looking at the area, continuing to soften my vision, and after a few moments, portions of several deer appear, shifting uneasily, white tails wavering. There’s a road nearby, and I don’t want to flush them out into traffic, so I retreat, hoarding my recovered skill like a delightful little surprise.

I head over to a den hole I discovered last year, where I detect a bit of recent activity. Dirt from inside the hole is scattered over footprints leading away. The tracks are too small for a fox—my tape measure says one inch wide and a bit longer. The prints are blurred from yesterday’s thaw and the uneven terrain, so I can’t make out much detail. From the snow, I pluck a wavy black hair. A few feet away on the ridge trail is a small, gooey scat. I poke at it with a stick, and a skunklike scent rises up. I’m not going to say definitively that this creature was a skunk, but the odds are pretty good.


The Saving Grace of Computer Modeling

February 8, 2010

Scientists throw out predictions on how long it’s going to take for the average temperatures on Earth to rise 5 degrees and what the effects will be on sea level, agriculture, and human existence—but many people are skeptical because it’s all based on computer modeling.

As a former computer programmer, I know how impossible it is to take every possible effect into account when considering changes to a system. The more complex a computer program is, the more debugging and tweaking it requires, and not just because of misplaced commas—mostly the problems occur because of an impact the programmer didn’t think of or a phenomenon introduced by the program itself. And the life of planet Earth is an exceedingly complex system.

So the predictions of scientists vary widely and are constantly being revised, as human behavior takes unexpected twists and turns, and new variables in the climate change process are discovered. The predictions of computer models have lots of data to back them up, but ultimately, they are highly educated guesses.

It’s good to have tools to help us make guesses and decisions about the future, even if the climate skeptics are constantly shooting them down. The most positive impact of computer modeling may be the example of the process itself—it models for us the holistic thinking we need to practice in order to solve environmental problems.

A simple cost-benefit analysis is no longer adequate to evaluate industrial development, house building, government programs, new technologies. We have to be thinking about effects on local people and ecosystems, those of other continents, and future generations.

If reports on computer modeling can get us into the habit of thinking holistically, maybe we can see deeply into what we’re doing to the planet. Maybe we can change.

Sometimes I think the Republicans are right

February 4, 2010

It’s not that I disbelieve the scientists who say climate change is happening—I’ve seen photos of the shrinking polar ice caps, and I vividly remember the colder, snowier winters of my childhood.

Nor do I doubt that humans have contributed to, if not caused, a rise in overall global temperatures, and that reducing our energy use would slow, halt, or reverse climate change. Just looking at the masses of cars, industries, and power plants, in the U.S. alone, gives me an intuitive sense that we are deeply altering the climate—and regardless of the numbers, which can be skewed in innumerable ways, it’s our intuition that determines what we believe.

But when the Republicans say, “It’s all part of nature’s cycle—why waste money and effort on trying to change our habits when climate change is inevitable?”—it gives me pause.

First of all, I don’t think we are capable of changing our habits, especially in the U.S.  We are too comfortable and too attached to our lifestyles, and we are not physically tough. The vast majority of our jobs, our living quarters, our pleasures are dependent on the industries and financial systems that are destroying the climate balance.

Secondly, the population of the Earth has expanded beyond what it can comfortably support, especially in Western countries where use of resources is out of control. We are trying to meet the needs of 6.8 billion people and of the physical planet at the same time, and I have doubts that this goal is achievable.

Some people have declared that yet-to-be-invented technology is what will save us, but I don’t see that. Every technology devised has its benefits and its drawbacks. Even solar power, which I wholeheartedly endorse, has pitfalls.

For instance, there’s no such thing as “off the grid” if you rely on solar panels for power. Thirty years from now, when those panels break, you will have to go somewhere to replace them, and you will still be dependent on silicon mines and markets, manufacturers, truck drivers, testing agencies, and the whole economic web.

If you believe in evolution, then the Republicans could be right: we humans are part of nature, and the law of the survival of the fittest will kick in when the seas rise, crops fail, drinkable water grows scarce, disease ravages the population, and only the strong and the savvy will endure the worst and remain alive.

Maybe we are wasting our time and money forestalling the future. Maybe we should let change accelerate and fiddle while Rome burns—grab these last moments of opulence and let the next generation sort out who will survive the apocalypse.

Even though I tend to think this way, I can’t do it. Maybe there’s a chance we can change. I’ve had too many experiences of awe out in the wild to abandon it to the forces of greed and callousness. I have to do what I can, trying to plant seeds of change even as I participate in the absurd riot of spending and using.

After all, no one really knows what will happen.

A Short Poem

January 29, 2010

On New Bridge Road

Something I’ve never seen before:

a tow truck towing a tow truck.

Found: Coles Brook

January 29, 2010

Coles Brook is a small creek that empties into the Hackensack River at New Bridge Landing, once the site of a tide-powered mill and a wharf that serviced boats transporting goods up and down the river.

One day I was watching Canada geese noodle around the mouth of the brook, and I wondered where the rest of it was. In my travels around Hackensack and River Edge, I had never noticed a body of water flowing among the buildings. Maybe it just vanished underground! I decided to track down Coles Brook.

On a nippy afternoon, I set out on my bicycle, crossed the Old New Bridge, and noted where the brook passed behind some apartment buildings, its bank inaccessible due to a chain link fence. I could see the culvert conveying the stream under Hackensack Avenue, a six-lane throughfare leading to two malls, 1/8 mile down the road.

Across the avenue, I parked my bike in the lot beside the train station, and stepped into a narrow, litter-strewn patch of woods. There I discovered a five-story parking garage that formed the opposite bank of the brook. A dozen geese drifted in its meager current. I picked my way through the scraggly trees and around the bend of the stream to see it flow into its next culvert, beneath the railroad tracks and under Johnson Avenue.

On the other side of Johnson, I picked up the brook between a line of two-story apartments and the back yard of a building supply store on Route 4. The stream was about 20 feet across at this point and up to a foot deep. Despite the trash adorning its banks, the water was surprisingly clear. I could see every rock, stick, hubcap, and chunk of plastic on the stream bottom.

On the grass behind the apartment buildings, six geese were foraging. I moved forward slowly, so as not to alarm them. Instead of retreating, they all turned and walked toward me. When I failed to toss out any stale bread, they wandered away. Occasionally, they would dip their heads in an odd little gesture, followed by a movement of their bills. Sniffing the air? Communicating in some subsonic mode?

In the strip of woods beside the stream, three squirrels were cavorting in a spiral chase around a tree trunk. Two of them crawled out a branch to nearly the end, their weight lowering the branch to a power line that paralleled the stream. The lead squirrel leapt onto the cable, and from there to a tree on the other side of the stream.

The lightened branch sprang up into the air, Squirrel #2 hanging on. It made a daredevil leap for another twig, but couldn’t reach the power line. Finally it found the right branch and followed its friend across the stream.

There is so much to see along Coles Brook!

Bucks in the back yard

January 22, 2010

My house in uber-suburban Bergen County is surrounded on three sides by a small nature preserve, so I get to see wildlife meandering through my back yard. At the same time, there’s a four-lane street with cars zooming by at 40 mph about 10 feet from my front door, so I never forget that I’m not in the country.

This winter a pair of white-tailed bucks, six-pointers, have been frequent visitors to the yard. Yesterday afternoon they were lying in the periwinkle (also known as vinca, a ground cover with leathery, evergreen leaves) under a huge pine tree. They lay parallel, about 20 feet apart, facing the woods. Apparently there’s less danger to fear from the house than the woods in this hunterless region.

When I crept out and started snapping pictures, the deer slowly stood up and gazed at me, intermittently licking their flanks and scratching their heads with a hind hoof.

After about five minutes, they ambled to the edge of the trees, where they engaged in a bit of mock fighting, lowering their heads and audibly clanking their antlers together. Then they wandered west, with an occasional pause to turn their heads back and eye me suspiciously as I sneaked closer with my camera.

Later my daughter, while looking out her bedroom window, saw one of them with a doe. The buck kept ducking his head and trying to trap the doe’s head between his antlers. She would allow him to encircle her head for a moment and then back away. Another doe stood nearby, watching.

In my ten years living in the Catskills, surrounded by miles of woods, I saw wildlife fairly often, but not in the quantity that I encounter here in the suburbs — and I certainly never saw bucks dueling, even in play, or deer couples courting. Across the street from one end of the preserve is a park that connects to the Greenway along the Hackensack River, so the deer have plenty of space to roam. Ground hogs trundle across the park lawns in summer, squirrels and Canada geese abound, and local rabbits are much less cautious than their mountain cousins.

Whooping cranes still migrating

January 7, 2010

I am still fascinated by the whooping cranes and their slow migration behind the ultralight aircraft. They are flying today, expected to reach Georgia. It’s been a rough migration, with a lot of down days due to bad weather and winds, but their Florida destination is not far off now.

See or to watch live streaming video on flight mornings.

When these cranes fly on their own next year, the 1200-mile trip back from Florida to Wisconsin will take only a few weeks, now that they’ve learned the route and can fly at up to 5000 feet on the thermals. Up there, they soar for 10 to 12 hours a day, but the ultralights can’t go that high. At around 1000 feet, the birds get support from the vortex off the plane’s wing, but they still have to flap a lot, a more tiring flight, and the plane carries only three hours worth of gas. Therefore, they fly in legs of one to three hours per day, depending on whether there’s a helpful tailwind or crosscurrents they have to fight. So the assisted migration, which began in late October, is just now nearing its completion, almost 3 months later.

It’s a lot of work saving an endangered species.

All along the route, landowners with open fields have been contacted, and those that are willing prepare themselves for the arrival of 20 young whoopers, four ultralight “trikes”, several trailers to house support crew, and trucks to haul the pen that is set up in the field for the duration of the birds’ stay. The hosts often cook for the crew and open up their home for use of bathrooms. No one can tell them exactly when the whole gang will arrive or how long they will remain, since the weather is in charge. And if they hit a good tailwind, the pilots might decide, on a moment’s notice, to skip a stop, and all the hosts’ preparation will be for naught.

The pens must be set up out of sight of the house, since the protocol requires isolating the cranes from all human contact, except for non-speaking crew members in baggy white bird costumes.

But people who agree to host the cranes say they are glad to do it, just for the privilege of watching the flyovers and feeling they’ve been a part of the inspiring work of saving these ungainly yet beautiful birds from extinction.

Waterfowl: chinstraps, dabbling, and more

December 24, 2009

One of my favorite activities in fall and winter, when much of nature has gone into hiding, is watching waterfowl, which don’t seem to have a big problem with cold water. Feeding wild ducks and geese is frowned upon, but along the shores of public lakes, where visitors entertain their children with scatterings of stale bread, the water birds are available for close-up viewing, even to the breadless. I recently enjoyed a visit to Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn, where mallards, Canada geese, swans, and seagulls are drawn magnetically to any human who approaches the water’s edge. As usual, I was surprised to observe details I had never noticed before.

What makes Canada geese so striking in appearance is the chinstrap—the white marking that goes under the throat and up the sides of the black head. Individual chinstraps vary in shape. Some are nearly triangular, some are flat-topped, some have a sort of knob at the top, and others have a notch below the knob. If one wanted to identify individual birds by appearance, the shape of the chinstrap would be a good place to start.

I must have seen the tails of male mallards before, but now I noticed two curved sets of feathers on the top side of the tail.

Some distance from shore, a flock of northern shovelers—small ducks of the type known, like mallards, as “dabblers”—swam in circles. The males were brown and white, with iridescent green heads and long dark bills. The females were a mottled brown. At moments, a pair—male and female—would swim together in a circle, head to tail, dipping their bills in the water. Generally there were about a dozen in a general scrum, most of them moving either clockwise or counter-clockwise, the rotation shifting as individuals changed direction. It looked like they were setting up a pattern of centrifugal movement in the water and then feeding on the result. The Internet informs us that the shoveler feeds by passing water through its bill, which contains comblike filtration structures along the sides.

A great blue heron flew low over the water and landed in the reeds at one end of the lake. It stood there for a long time, its gray plumage barely discernible against the reeds. Although the plants were tan, it was the same intensity of color as the bird, which, at a distance, faded into the background. What stood out for me was a horizontal white line, which turns out to be the bird’s chin—although the beak is yellow-orange, the lower part of the head is white, and it supports the long bill, extending partway along the bill’s narrow length.

These little details appear only after long contemplation, helping one settle into the calm of (mostly) unhurried nature. I like to seek out details when my mind resists rest.

Is biomass a renewable resource?

December 10, 2009

Technically, yes, since it is composed of woody debris, algae, agricultural waste, fish guts, or other living or formerly living matter, which can be regrown and replenished. But renewability is also related to speed of consumption—when a power plant uses 70 tons of biomass per hour, the forests cannot be expected to keep up, as Michael Donnelly observes on

Another problem is that much of the woody biomass used for fuel is culled from dead wood and leftovers from the timber industry, which Donnelly says are essential as natural soil-builders and habitat for birds and insects. Furthermore, biomass emissions contain large amounts of polluting nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide.

On the other hand, I just wrote an article for InterPress Service on a Wisconsin paper mill that has converted to biomass fuel, reducing CO2 output and eliminating use of coal. (Read the article at

The mill is scheduled to build a biorefinery that will ultimately use the biomass to produce green diesel for the transportation industry, while diverting the heat produced by the conversion process into running the paper mill. It appears to be a beneficial set-up, carefully tuned to the amount of waste biomass the region can easily provide. When dealing with an industry that is would otherwise be  highly polluting and has easy access to woody biomass, the advantages may outweigh the drawbacks.

In case of power plants, burning biomass requires vast amounts of wood, which must be often be shipped long distances. Addressing climate change may call for different solutions in different situations. We need to take a careful look at the effects of biomass fuels before using them in any given application.

After all, even petroleum is renewable, if you have millions of years to wait.

More suburban wildlife adventures—deer and wild turkey

November 19, 2009

Not the turkey in the story

At 7:30 yesterday morning, I saw a buck, probably the same one that crossed the highway in pursuit of a doe in a recent blog post. Today he was shuffling through the woods behind the house, water vapor steaming from his nostrils as he walked with his head down. At first I thought his substantial rack must be heavy, recalling how he lowered his head to dart in front of the approaching SUV last week—maybe he always walks that way this time of year. Then I noticed he seemed to be sniffing the ground, perhaps tracking the doe.

When a blue jay squawked overhead, and a squirrel rustled in the leaves, the buck looked back through the trees—“Is it she?”—then lowered his head and plodded onward. He looked forlorn, not the proud, alert trophy male you see on postcards, luring hunters to the mountains. But then I’ve never seen a buck tracking a doe in the mountains—only (if my interpretation is correct) here in the hunterless suburbs.

I had another surprise when I fed my friend’s cats in Englewood, a city of 26,000 near the mouth of the George Washington Bridge. As I was leaving her house, I saw a wild turkey in the middle of the road. My friend lives on a residential street less than one block from the city’s two major cross streets, two blocks from the main shopping district. The turkey was a handsome fellow with glistening feathers and a long tassel of “beard” feathers hanging from his chest. He ignored me as he wandered onto the neighbor’s lawn. A man approached from the apartment complex across the street. “Are there always wild turkeys here?” I asked him.

“Oh, yes,” he said, without pausing to look, and headed into town.

In 2007, the Boston Globe reported an explosion of turkeys in suburban areas around the country. Police in Brookline, Massachusetts were receiving frequent complaints from residents who were nipped at by turkeys and had to take refuge in nearby stores. Mail carriers gave the birds a wide berth.

According to the Globe, wild turkeys had disappeared from the state by 1851. Between 1972 and 1996, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife succeeded in reintroducing the species to the Berkshires and then spreading them around Massachusetts. No one knew they would adapt to suburban life.