Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Happy New Year! Last Paddle of 2019 - 12/28/2019, Loon, Seal, and Good Friends

So here we are in the last hours of 2019...TQ and I aren't big partygoers and I always look forward to the Sebago Canoe Club gathering, so we're home and I'm cooking chicken adobo for the potluck (I always like to bring something that I remember from church potlucks at Aiea United Methodist back in small kid time - so many family variations on chicken teriyaki and adobo, I never had enough room to try them all!) and figured I would put up a post about my last paddle of 2019. This ended up being on Saturday, 12/28; I had a good Sunday option too for a birding paddle with Louis, who I'd joined on a foggy foggy day for the Christmas Bird Count (there's a 3-post trip report back a couple of posts), but it turned out TQ was game for a paddle, and since he works on Sundays amd Saturday is our one day off together, I took up Chris C. on her suggested paddle.

She'd been away for a bit and was ready to get back out on the bay, and Saturday looked like a beautiful day for a spin - sunny, not too cold, not too windy. We had a well-matched group of 5 and Chris wanted to go see the seal, so we set off for Ruffle Bar again. That's also a really nice midrange paddle. 
Chris asked me semi-jokingly if we would see a loon - she loves loons and does a perfect loon call; I'd seen loons (or at least loon) on every one of the paddles I did getting up to 300 miles, so I thought there was a good chance - I hedged a little bit because you never know what you'll see out there, but we had a loon turn up before we were past Canarsie Pol. 

We headed on to Ruffle Bar after that and sure enough, there was a seal on the sandbar again - hooray! This one was pretty calm about us; I stopped paddling and drifted by and was able to get some pretty good photos with my not-so-zoomy Ricoh waterproof camera, including one with the Manhattan skyline in the background! Remember the drawing I did when we first saw that scene on a day I'd forgotten my camera?

OK, actually the drawing was better, but at least you can see I didn't make it up! Click for detail. There is a seal in there, I swear. 

We then paddled on towards the Marine Park Bridge; some of us were feeling ambitious and the bridge was proposed as a goal. As we approached Floyd Bennett Field, though, one of the group suggested that she would be OK with landing and meeting us as we were coming back. The rest of us decided to scratch the bridge and just head back to the Paerdegat with her. This ended up being a good call as we were 2 days after the new moon and there was a very powerful ebb going on. We'd been scooting along beautifully until we turned into the current - then it became a bit of a slog. But we made it home fine. Back at the club, we built a small fire in the woodstove, suitable for an hour or so of hanging out, and shared snacks and stories. A good end to my 2019 paddling! 9 miles, bringing me to 323 miles for the year, 78.5 of those in the last 5 weeks. Felt good!

All photos after this - click for a slideshow view. And have a very Happy New Year! Here's to peace, friendship, and many adventures (big ones, or quiet little ones close to home) in 2020!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

NYC Holiday Windows 2019

As 2020 draws to a close, I'm so glad I've treated myself to so much time enjoying the natural beauty of Jamaica Bay, out on the outskirts of NYC - but it just wouldn't be Christmas without my annual trip to see the holiday windows with Mandy! We did this after work on the day after Christmas this year, as the weather forecast was lovely. We've been out on some bitterly cold days for this, this year we didn't even need gloves! 

We have kind of pared this down over the years - or had it pared down. In the past we'd been known to start at Bergdorf Goodman at 5th Avenue and 58th Street and finish at Macy's. Macy's was always kind of optional, but we loved Lord and Taylor's, and when that venerable store closed, with the last "windows" being videos instead of the animated models of charming holiday scenes that they used to be, we pretty much lost interest in going south of Rockefeller Center.

So this year, we started with Tiffany's and Bergdorf Goodman, walked down to Rockefeller Center for the Sak's windows and light show, and wrapped it up with the Rockefeller Center tree.

We started with dinner at the Knickerbocker Steak House, a favorite of ours when we're in the mood for a bit of a splurge. I walked up from the office - here's the tree under the arch in Washington Square.

Then we were off to midtown. We caught the bus up and got off at 57th street, right near Tiffany's, which featured mice frolicking among Tiffany boxes and goods. 
Next stop, Bergdorf Goodman. These are always my favorite windows - ridiculously lavish and over the top, and just so much fun to look at. This year's theme was Berdorf GoodTIMES, with festive fun in every window. They played with perspective this year, as they do from time to time, setting up the scenes as though you were looking down into the view from above.

Here was a surrealistic chess game - 

A 1950's slumber party that made me think of a variant of the Aqua hit "Barbie Girl" - "I'm a Claes Oldenburg girl, living in a Claes Oldenberg world"...ok maybe not quite as catchy.

And this one represented a scavenger hunt, and completely reminded me of a gigantic page from a Walter Wick book. No clever poem to tell you what to look for, but still fun to look at. 

Our next stop was the Peninsula Hotel. They always have their front entrance done up nicely, but we've never thought to go inside - this year, um, well, I was ready for a pit stop. Glad we went in, too, the lobby was spectacular. We were also admiring the menu for their restaurant - we may come here for dinner next year.

Here are the front stairs - 

This was actually a piece of art on the theme of "Home". Interesting enough for a photo.

Calls of nature answered, we moved on to Sak's Fifth Avenue, across the street from Rockefeller Center. They always have a big light show set to music - we got there just as that was starting and found a nice open spot, so decided to watch that first. Here are 3 of many many many permutations!

Their windows were scenes from Frozen 2. Or I'm guessing they are, I have not seen that movie. Actually haven't seen the original, either, so I was maybe not the target audience for these - but here, this was pretty!

And then, the tree.

And one look back as I headed for the B train, wrapping up the Mandy and Bonnie Holiday Windows Extravanganza for another year!
Want to see more photos? Click here for a Google album with more.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Bird Count Part 3 - Christmas Seal!

I'm being followed! :D As usual, click on any photo for a slideshow view.

Merry Christmas! Finally finishing off my Christmas Bird Count posts a week and a half later. I enjoyed these ones, such a different focus from anything I've done before. However, I think I'm giving myself away as still far from a Real Birder by admitting that I became very distracted from birds when this seal started following us around.

I've seen plenty of seals out kayaking but never had one q
uite so interested. We first spotted it near Ruffle Bar, where we'd seen the oystercatchers. 

Seals are frequently curious about kayakers, but this one followed us for 20 minutes, waited in the water while we took a shore break on Little Egg Marsh, and then joined us again for a little bit longer! First photo (the one immediately above) was at 10:52, last one (final one on this post, these are all in order except the first one and the one from the 21st, next shot down) at 11:08, which was before our shore break. I thought it had left when we got out, because as we beached and started getting out of our boats, there was a big splash right behind us - it must not have expected that, but then we could see it nearby from time to time while we had our tea and snacks, and then it came right back when we got on the water again. With that thrown in, that seal stayed with us for probably 40 minutes. It was the only one we saw, so although maybe it's unscientific, I'm a layperson and I'm gonna say it was maybe a little lonely and looking for company. Neat encounter, but felt a little sad, too.

The Christmas Bird Count is a great piece of citizen science coordinated by the Audubon Society, and with this seal posing for pictures so nicely I was also able to make a contribution to Gotham Whale's work to catalogue and track our local marine mammals. If you are a NYC area boater or frequenter of the shore, and you spot a seal, dolphin, or whale, try to get a picture and report it - the more sightings are reported, the more accurate a picture Gotham Whale gets . It's great that our local waterways are now healthy enough to support a growing population of these creatures - if you'd told me 10 years ago that at some point I was eventually going to be going whalewatching out of Queens at least once a summer, I'm not sure I would've believed it. Good stuff, right? click here for the report form.

I got a really nice thank-you note for my submission saying that this was my 2nd submission and I'd been one of their first reporters in the earlier days of the organization. I have not been good about reporting since then - part of it is that it's not always easy to get a photo, most seals are not as friendly as this one was, but I am going to try to get better about reporting when I can get a picture. I actually have one from my solstice paddle on Saturday, when 2 were hauled out on the sandbar at Ruffle Bar - that seems to be the center of operations for our J-Bay phocidae. Supporting my looking-for-company theory - although one of the 2 seals was thoroughly unskittish about our presence, which made me think maybe that was our kayak-confident one, neither of them had any interest in hanging out with teh hoomans.

Solstice Seals, 12/21 - same area as where we picked up our bird-watcher-watcher on the 14th.

That's actually good, I worry about seals that are too interested in people - there was a Jersey Shore one who had to go to a zoo a couple of years back because it got too comfortable with us. It sounds like it settled into zoo life well -- click here for that story -- but it still just seems sad for a wild seal to end up in a tank. So, if that was our same seal, good to see it preferring to sunbathe with a seal friend than come say hello to the paddlers.

Here are the rest of the seal photos from the Christmas Bird Count. What a lovely encounter! 

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas Bird Count in the Fog, Part 2

Our Christmas Bird Count route. Blue is travelling, orange is where we actually counted. click on the photo for a better view. 

I've attempted to reproduce our route here, beginning and ending at Sebago in the Paerdegat. The blue sections were just travelling, no counting allowed there since, had the day been clearer, those waters and shoreline would've been visible from Floyd Bennett Field (called Barren Island on the chart) by someone with a high powered spotting scope. The sectors are carefully laid out to avoid double-counting - of course you can't stop a bird from flying from one sector to another but Louis was very clear that we couldn't start counting until we got to our assigned area. Of course this being my first Christmas Bird Count, I was imagining that everything I saw was something more interesting than what it was. May have been good that we had some distance to cover before we started - enough time for me to get my overactive imagination under control and admit that brants were brants and bufflehead were bufflehead, even off in the fog.

Once we got to Ruffle Bar and were beyond even theoretical sightlines from sectors on shore, it was time to start counting those birds! Louis had explained that our main goal for the day was to provide a count of Canada geese and American black ducks, birds who love the marshes of Jamaica Bay better than anywhere else. We started off with a couple of Northern Harrier hawks, and then started working our way east along the north shore, counting Canada geese, brants, and gulls as we went. Ruffle Bar has a lovely interior marsh that you can paddle into at high water, and we did - that's where we started seeing tons of the black ducks Louis was after, along with lots more Canada geese. I think it was in there that Louis suggested that I count the geese and he would watch for the ducks, because there were SO many of both in there. That worked pretty well. A lot of times we were counting by 10's because the flocks were just too big to go bird by bird.

It was as we were over near the entrance to the marsh that we got probably the most surprising bird of the day - and it was one of my favorites! If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that instead of watching for the first robin of spring, which is not an actual thing here in NYC because you see them in the parks all winter, I watch (and listen) for the first oystercatcher of spring. Oystercatchers are one of the common birds of the summer bay, I've usually started hearing their assertive "Wheet, wheet, wheet-wheet-wheet-wheet-wheet-wheet-wheet!!!" in March but I have seen a few in February too. Here's a paint doodle I did of them in Spring 2012 - 

and then of course there's The Early Bird, who reappears here every time I see an early oystercatcher who's come back before NYC's last snow of the year. They fly south for the winter and the first time I saw one on a snowy day I just couldn't help imagining that the bird was maybe having some regrets for not staying in Florida for another week or two.
American oystercatcher - Cape May, NJ
And here's a nice real photo from Wikimedia Creative Commons of one. Saying "WHEET!", of course.  

So, you get the picture, these are SUMMER birds. So we were not really expecting them - but then we heard that distinctive "WHEET!" - just one this time, not the strings that they let off in the summertime - and turned to see 5 of them flying by. The only reason I wasn't totally surprised was because Don Riepe, our Jamaica Baykeeper, had posted a great shot of some of them that he'd seen a week or two earlier.

However, this was pretty neat for the count because most sensible oystercatchers HAVE gone south by December, so the species doesn't come up until the "Rare" birds are being counted. There's definitely a spirit of friendly competition among the birders doing the count; the counts of the common birds are important but when they get to the rare birds and somebody gets one, everybody goes "Oooooh!". And if your sector is the only place where a certain bird was seen, it's called a "Save", and that is also a cool thing to get. Louis and I got two of these. One interesting procedural point for the count to is that to get a "save" you have to show a picture for it to be verified. Fortunately, our little flock landed on the Ruffle Bar sandbar, and although my little Ricoh WG-60 is not at all a satisfactory camera for bird photos, believe it or not, this was just good enough: 

Again, click on the photo to see better. The first one is on the left, and that one was kind enough to pose in profile so you can really see that it is what we said it was, then the other 4 are in the middle, one in front of one of the gulls and the other 3 standing between the 2 clusters of gulls.

So that was fun!

Our other "save" was seeing a few Dunlin on the next spots we went to visit, Little Egg Marsh and Yellow Bar Hassock. Dunlin weren't considered rare (that was the kind of bird that treated a group of Sebago hikers to an amazing mass flight "murmuration" last winter at Jones Beach) but we were in a really good place for seeing them on this foggy, foggy day. Louis got the picture there. Note to self: one thing I could definitely work on to be more useful next year would be those little wading shorebird types. I can't really tell one of those from the other, if I'd seen the dunlin and Louis hadn't we wouldn't have been able to claim them because I would've just said "Uh, some sort of sandpiper type?"

The marshes had lots more brants, bufflehead, black ducks, and Canada geese, plus a couple of great blue herons. We also saw a whole flock of mergansers doing this very neat coordinated diving routine. Louis spotted them first, then went to look at his phone to work out which kind they would be. I watched them all dive and surface and dive again while he was doing that; he looked up again and thought they'd flown away but I told him they were all underwater, and sure enough, a minute later they all popped up again. Very cool to watch.

We also heard a couple of loons, I've been seeing those out there on almost all of my paddles in the last couple of weeks.

I think that was it for our sightings. Louis kept the official ebird list for submission - click here to read that (and I have to admit I cribbed from that quite heavily for this post).

The potluck dinner at the Audubon Center at the boathouse in Prospect Park was delicious. The compilation happens after dinner. Here was the scene: 

They literally go through a list of the birds of NYC, calling on each sector for their counts - it takes a while but it was actually really interesting to hear who was seeing what, and where, and who wasn't seeing things. As far as range of species go, other people saw a lot more different kinds of birds than we did, but what we did have really added something to the data.
Click here for the Brooklyn Bird Club's writeup of the count results. Louis and I ("BT" on the photo) got a really nice little call-out.  Glad I joined in! 

Oh, yes - and somewhere between Little Egg Marsh and Yellow Bar Hassock, I finished my 300th mile of the year.

One thing I didn't mention - while we were watching birds, somebody else was watching us! But this is enough for today, I'll do Part 3 tomorrow to wrap things up.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

300 Miles Done - Christmas Bird Count In The Fog, Part 1

Closing in on 300 miles - in the fog!
I am delighted to report that last Saturday, December 14th, I wrapped up my personal challenge of making it to 300 miles of paddling here in 2019. Now it's not like that's a really big number (for perspective, in the time since I first started kayaking, my 2 longest single-day paddles were both around 50 miles, taking advantage of the Hudson River's strong tidal currents and long summer days, and my Waterford to Brooklyn paddle was 150+ miles in one week, with a lot of 15 to 20 mile paddles in the weeks leading up to make sure I was ready). So for a full year of mileage, 300 isn't really anything to write home about. However, I realized I could also think of it as The Challenge of the 5's - 55.5 miles in the last 5 weeks of the year. With short days and cold weather, that actually was a good goal, not a gimme, but very achievable with commitment and a little cooperation from the weather. I finished it off with time to spare only because I treated myself to that paddling mini-vacation the week before last - just saw a sweet weather window and decided to take advantage of it!

I was down to 4.5 miles left after that peaceful paddle to Broad Channel, and I finished that off with a really interesting experience. I'm not a great birder, but I do love all the wildlife that calls Jamaica Bay home for part or all of the year, and I've learned the names many the birds I see on a regular basis (let's see, there's Fran, and Tom, and Bob...nah just kidding!). I'm so grateful that the bay survived the Robert Moses era without being turned into a marine transfer station and is now part of the National Park Service's
 Gateway Recreation Area. It's astounding to be able to get on a bus in my Brooklyn neighborhood and an hour later be paddling out into a wildlife refuge that is a major stop on the North Atlantic flyway for migrating birds.

We have some really excellent birders at Sebago, and I've learned a lot about our local birds from them. Now, if you hang out with birders very much, you will have heard about the Christmas Bird Count. This event was started in 1900 by a respected ornithologist who proposed it as an alternative to a Christmas tradition called the "side hunt", where hunters went out in teams and shot everything that moved, with whoever had the most kills being the "winner". I have no problem with responsible hunting, but wow. Thank goodness that of the two traditions, the Christmas Bird Count is the one that's still going strong today.

It's a solid piece of citizen science - it's very well organized, with "circles" being laid out and then surveyed in non-overlapping sectors by local birders, with the total counts being methodically compiled afterwards. Brooklyn is one "circle", and last Saturday was the appointed day. I've heard of this and thought it sounded interesting, but never joined in until this year, when Louis DeMarco, one of Sebago's birders, decided to resurrect the "Jamaica Bay Boat" sector. This area used to be surveyed by our Jamaica Bay Baykeeper, Don Riepe, but he'd stopped doing that a long time ago, and Louis decided that he wanted to get that going again with paddlers. Kayaks are perfect for the job, we can really get into the marshes and get counts of birds that the land-based birders aren't going to see. Louis worked with the Brooklyn Bird Club to set everything up; they discussed which areas would not be visible to even the strongest spotting scope from the parks on shore, Louis worked out a route, and we were set to go!

We got really, really lucky with the weather. I'd been watching the forecast with some concern. The plan was to cancel if there was a small craft advisory, maybe jumping in with one of the land groups if we could sort things out. There was definitely some wind possible. I use NOAA and also iWindsurf.com, which has a JFK airport station that's really helpful for Jamaica Bay. I'd been seeing some pretty high winds for Saturday, but they kept shifting around over the course of the week they'd settled down to THIS. Which was phenomenal. I never saw the weather gods cooperate so nicely for an event - that low-wind period happened to be quite precisely the time Louis had planned for us to be out (click on the photo for detail)!

The NOAA forecast contribution to our picture of the day was that it was going to pour on us. But winter kayaking involves a lot of waterproof safety gear, so rain is not really that much of an issue.

So it was a go for the return of the Jamaica Bay Boat Sector! Louis picked me up at 7 am and we were getting on the water around 8:30.

It wasn't raining at all - but there was fog heavier than I've ever seen in Jamaica Bay before! There are a couple of stories I've heard of paddlers getting confused by fog; there was one where people ended up paddling into Dead Horse Bay coming back from a paddle out in the Lower Harbor, and then Joe Glickman, a great racer, professional writer, and amazingly nice guy who we lost to cancer a few years back, used to tell a story of spending a cold night jogging up and down the shore on Canarsie Pol after the fog closed in while he was out for a training paddle on his surfski.

Louis has a GPS program on his phone, which he was also using for our day's bird list, but we had charts and compasses and this turned out to be an excellent chance to actually practice a little navigation. Louis had already planned our course so we just needed to follow that. We started out by picking a heading that would get us to the west end of Canarsie Pol. We paddled out into the gray, and we paddled along following our selected heading, and just when I was starting to wonder if maybe we'd made a mistake, a dark line loomed up in the fog and then resolved itself into the expected shoreline. Fun! Next heading was to the western end of Ruffle Bar - that also went according to plan. Really unique paddling out there with no landmarks visible, just gray, and pretty rewarding to actually find the places we were looking for without cheating and using the GPS. Louis did check it one time towards the end to confirm we'd done our course, but we did all of our crossings the old-fashioned way.

That's enough for one day - here are some photos from the leg from Sebago to Ruffle Bar. Into the fog we go! Click any photo for a slideshow view. And click here for lots more information about the Christmas Bird Count.