Thursday, November 12, 2009

Oil Spill on the Bronx River

Scenes from a recent oil spill on the Bronx River in a short video I produced.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Crunching Data

Behind the scenes and insulated from the wilds of the city streets and parks by the thick walls of the museum, things are far less glamorous than the reports we're fielding. No naked men or werewolves here. The volunteers have been our eyes and (mostly) our ears tonight, and it's been a blast.

It's late, but things here at Cricket Central are barely slowing down. I'm about to sign off for the evening, but the rest of the team is still processing and posting data.

We have finished with the reports that were phoned into the IO dropbox--including at least one great impersonation of a fall field cricket by a volunteer who sounded like she needed some sleep. Now we are diving into reports emailed in from the field. We just went over 100 records and still haven't scratched the surface of the emailed data. After that, we have to cull through the blogs to make sure we didn't miss anything.

It's too preliminary at this point to make any meaningful assessment, but we've all been amazed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the volunteers. We also have several new, interesting records for the common true katydid. It will be interesting to see what will show up as we wade through all the data. For now, quoting Kevin Matteson from the Matteson-Clark Expedition, I doubt the night will ever sound quite the same again.

Birds Do It

Eat insects, that is. So do many mammals--including humans.

It's called entomophagy and in many parts of the world, it's a common part of many people's diet. Put a tray of roasted crickets out at a party in the U.S., though, and you're more than likely to clear out a room. If entomophagy is practiced here at all, it is more than likely a novelty.

There are, however, groups devoted to promoting the practice. Tonight, I had the opportunity to sample cricket cookies--chocolate chirpies, admittedly something of a novelty.

Still, it got me thinking that perhaps in some places it might be a viable way for under-nourished people to get protein and calories. According to Insects Are Food, quoting the Entomological Society of America, insects generally contain more protein and are lower in fat than traditional meats. In addition they have about 20 times higher food conversion efficiency than traditional meats. In other words they have a better feed-to-meat ratio than beef, pork, lamb or chicken.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Common True Katydid Pretty Common Afterall

In 1920, a naturalist by the name of William T. Davis published a paper (pdf) in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society in which he described what appeared at the time to be the disappearance of the common true katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia) from the forests of New York City. He noted in particular a 1908 publication that described the insect "quite numerous and very noisy in the tall trees in the Egbertville [Staten Island] ravine," but lamented the fact that by the time he was writing they were completely gone from the island.

His assumption was that increasingly poor air quality, caused by the factories that were cropping up along Arthur Kill had driven them away. All he had was 1919 report from S. Harmsted Chubb of the American Museum of Natural Hostory, who heard some singing in some tall trees near Van Cortland Park on the evening of October 6. After that, and until the present day, there were no reports of P. camellifolia anywhere in the City.

Of course, the Cricket Crawl took that as a challenge and almost immediately some teams set out to find it. Advance teams in the Bronx Forest and Manhattan's West Village reported songs on September 1 and later on the far western edge of Manhattan, on Staten Island, and in New Jersey.

Tonight, the air seems to be almost alive with the calls of this once-elusive insect and we are getting reports from teams in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens of common true katydids singing from trees.

New York is Alive with the Sound of Crickets (and Katydids and Naked Men)

Lou Sorkin (above), entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and Sam Droege from the USGS took a couple of radio reporters out into Central Park across from the museum for a quick survey of singing insects. The fall field crickets were calling almost constantly, with a few greater and lesser anglewings chirping through.

We are getting dozens of calls to the Cricket Crawl phone-in message system (646-462-4073 ext. 10220). After a brief period where we were scrambling to figure out some of the fine details of how to get the data mapped accurately (who knew that the Google Earth conversion for decimal degrees would be in the 3-D display perference screen?) things are moving much more smoothly. Lots of expeditions and individuals calling in, Tweeting, and blogging (see the blog roll to the right for the latest news from all 5 boroughs).

The Runfola Expedition in the Bronx Forest has retired for the evening with 5 species recorded and are headed for a pub. Color me jealous. Gowanus is still going hot and heavy with a Common True Katydid under their belt almost immediately. NYBG has almost run the board of all 7, but the sighting of the night has to go to the Sweet Expedition, which went hunting for a cricket they heard calling from a bush and found a naked man instead.

Get Your Count On

Only a slight chance of showers this evening, so the Cricket Crawl is ON. Organizer Sam Droege, who develops wildlife monitoring techniques for the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, says sound carries farther in humid air, so conditions should be optimal as dusk approaches. Who am I to doubt?

There have been several new expeditions organize in the past 24 hours. The list now includes:

The Buffington Expedition ranging throughout Manhattan
The Feller Expedition in the Bronx and Queens
The Sweet/AMC Expedition in Brooklyn
The Jones/Cub Scout Expedition in Pelham Manor
The Mateson and Clark Expedition crossing the Bronx
The New York Botanical Garden Expedition gamely venturing into the wilds of their own back yard
The Gowanus Expedition exploring the banks of their eponymous creek
The Moskowitz Expedition in East Brunswick, NJ
The Runfola/Bronx River Alliance Expedition in the the Bronx Forest and other wild places along the Bronx River

Many of these folks will be blogging on their own and you can find links to their sites in the sidebar. I will also be updating their progress and that of the many expeditions and individuals that do not have access to teknoligy. Remember, we'll also be Tweeting (or Chirping) updates through the Cricket Crawl Twitter feed (@cricketcrawlnyc) throughout the night. I will be physically located at Cricket Crawl HQ in the American Museum of Natural History and will be posting updates about the data as it is processed by our team of wildlife and analytical experts.

Let the games begin.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Cricket Crawl Postponed to Rain Date

So with a moderate-sized storm pushing wind and rain up the East Coast, we've decided to exercise Cricket Crawl's rain date option. Expeditions and individuals will be headed out Saturday evening from dusk to midnight to listen for crickets and katydids. Frustrating but at least it gives us all an extra day to memorize the calls.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Song of Summer

The nice thing about living in New York is, if you're here long enough, pretty much everyone you know will come visit you at some point. Last week, a good friend and his family made their annual trip through the area and we had a chance to meet for dinner. I haven't seen them for two years, but once the greetings were dispensed with, one of the first things Walter noted was the number of cicadas they had heard in the trees near their hotel at the far end of West 43rd St.

If it had been a comment from almost anyone else, I would have been surprised, but Walter has spent the past 20 years living in Japan, where I met him, and has spent more of his adult there than in the U.S. In Japan, cicadas, or semi (sem-mee), are a an image of both summertime and the carefree days of childhood, as well as the passage of time and the inevitability of death.

In many Asian countries, it is common for people to keep insects as pets. Here in the U.S., it seems to be more common to keep spiders and other exotic species, but in China or Japan, crickets and cicadas are preferred for their beautiful songs. As soon as July arrives and rainy season ends in Japan, store shelves are full of cages and nets for kids to catch and keep semi.

I've seen the reaction of kids in the U.S. to cicadas, when they get near enough to see one live, and even crickets and it is often one of either horror or revulsion. The reaction of Japanese children is almost as surprising. Very often a child will squeal with delight and proclaim their new pet "cute." I like cicadas, but beauty, in this case, truly is in the eye of the beholder. (If you've seen one up close, you'll know what I mean.) I've found myself more enthralled with the scene of dozens of kids hunting down or chasing after cicadas with sometimes comically long nets, their voices competing with the cicadas' as dusk gathers and the heat of the day lifts. It is truly an image of summer.

Crickets and katydids actually make wonderful pets—though they are wild animals and should spend as much of their lives in the wild. Making a cage for one is very easy and keeping them for a short time can be a lot of fun.

In classical Japanese literature, the image of the cicada and its song is somewhat different. Every year, semi appear to sing their short lives away in the trees and providing a very visible (and audible) reminder of the passage of the seasons. Basho, one of Japan's most revered haiku artists, penned the famous work that appears above, which perfectly captures the lingering melancholy of deep summer and the sense that it must, it will, soon give way to fall in the natural course of things.

Cute or horrific, happy or melancholic, it seems insect sounds have a unique ability to color our personal memories as well as our culture with nuance and meaning. As I've already said several times in this blog, all we have to do is listen.


We have almost come to the end of August, which means the Cricket Crawl is almost here. It is time for everyone to start familiarizing themselves with the calls of the seven insects we will be listening for next Friday night. I am vacationing in central Michigan right now and I have brought them with me on my mp3 player, but it seems that fall has already arrived to the north country and the nights have been strangely silent. There was one lone cricket singing outside our window last night, but I was too tired to give it a name. Perhaps tonight. The weather is supposed to warm and summer is still lingering among the dunes.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Guide to the Guides

This is going to be a fairly low-tech post. Retro, even. Because my books—real paper books—about singing insects finally arrived. More about both of the books in a moment. Now I feel like my education about singing insects really begins.

There is nothing quite like the potential that a new field guide embodies. All it really promises is to help you organize its small part of the world into a structure or a system that will presumably help you understand it a little better. But from that little corner, whether it's cloud shape or soil type or plant species, that tiny foundation gives you a place to stand and observe the rest of the world swirl around it. It's something we do less of these days. Carol Kaesuk Yoon had a very nice essay in this Tuesday's New York Times describing the decline of taxonomy, or the science of identifying and organizing the natural world. We lose something of the richness of the world if our ability to name it falters.

The act of naming, of identifying, also allows us to claim the thing for our own, not in outright ownership, but in awareness. By naming we bring it into our world and through that act, our world becomes richer. It also opens our horizons to the vast amount of stuff out there that we have yet to even turn our attention to. I remember when a friend began teaching me woodland plants and I discovered through those half-dozen names the phenomenal diversity of the unnamed green things poking up through the forest floor in early spring. It was giddily overwhelming.

It's the same now when I open the Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast or The Songs of Insects, I feel like I'm stepping into a whole other world. Now, not only do I have to learn body morphology and feeding or mating behavior, but I need to also think about frequency spectrum and song timing. So much to learn; so little time.

Both books come with a CD of insect songs, but that's where the similarities end. The Songs of Insects (SOI) relies primarily on large, well-lit photographs to identify each insect. Text is relatively minimal on each glossy two-page spread, unlike Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast (NIS), which is laid out in a more conventional, guide-book style, with entries describing range, habitat, size, call, etc. next to simple drawings of the insects and identifying characteristics.

The CDs, are also markedly different. The one that comes with SOI (which focuses on northeastern species) lets the insects speak more for themselves. You hear a voice identify each species with common and Linnaean names, but after that it's all up to the insects to tell you who they are. NIS, on the other hand, tells you something about each insect and their song before playing what they just told you about. Maybe it's because I just came off an eight-hour stint of trying to tease out the best quotes out of an interview I did with a bioelectrical engineer, but I find myself wanting the voice on the NIS disk to shut up and the insects to start singing. (Although I bet when I load both of these onto my iPod to take into the field tomorrow night I'll be glad I have at least some description of the insects themselves available to me without using a flashlight.)

Bottom line—if you have kids (because of the photos) or you just want a nice-looking, nice-sounding book about singing insects, get SOI; if you want a more traditional field guide, go with NIS. Me, I'm glad I have both. Now I can start enlarging my world through theirs.

I live above a busy, confusing intersection in the Bronx, so most of my day is filled with horns honking and engines revving. On nights like this, however, when I find myself awake in the relatively quiet hours, other sounds filter into my window that I hadn't paid much attention to until now. Insects. Across the street is a narrow strip of green called Fort Independence Park. Like anything with any vegetation, something calls it home. Something I may soon be able to name.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Learning to Listen

It's August and the Dog Days are almost upon us. Growing up on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, I always associated the onset of these deepest, laziest days of summer with the sound of what we called "heat bugs" grinding away in the trees. Until I browsed the Songs of Insects Website, however, I had no idea that what I was hearing was actually four different kinds of cicadas: scissor-grinder, Linne's, lyric, and the aptly named dog-day.

Admittedly, we haven't had much of a summer here in New York—not one day in June or July posted a temperature of 90 or above—but hearing just a snippet from any one of these songs makes me feel like I'm in the midst of a long heat wave on the verge of autumn. It's not a bad sort of heat, mind you, but one that brings on a deep sense of blissful listlessness. Humans. Our sense of hearing might stink compared to other species, but our sense memory stretches back decades.

So I was excited when my friend at the Center for Biodiversity Conservation, Liz Johnson, asked me to blog the upcoming Cricket Crawl in New York City, partly because of the memories I have of singing insects, but also because they provide a very subtle way for us urbanites to step out of ourselves and to remind ourselves that, no matter how big this city feels, it is miniscule compared to what surrounds us and (sometimes) suffers our presence. The Cricket Crawl will involve nothing more than creating a diffuse network of volunteers committed staying up past their bedtime to count the different cricket and katydid songs they hear and emailing or texting their results back to a central location. The training is simple, the task light, but what, you might ask, is the purpose of all this?

That's not so easy. As a group, crickets and katydids are mostly plant-eaters (katydids) or omnivores (crickets). Few of this group ever rise to the level of pest, as their relatives grasshoppers and locusts do. They are, however, part of the web that is the natural world. They eat and are eaten, their lives affect and are affected by the environment as their populations rise and fall. They might seem irrelevant to our lives, but their disappearance from the ecosystem would inevitably alter the region's natural function, just as removing bricks or nails from a house makes it more vulnerable to collapse.

Yet, very little is known—other than the general shape of their distributions—of the populations that share our backyards and our world with us. In fact, we know so little that new species are still being found right here in the eastern part of North America. Any survey of the existing populations would therefore be helpful in forming a foundation for future studies.

And because they sing, they allow us to become a part of their world for just a little while, if we simply stop and listen. So on the night of September 11, I'll be keeping track of those adventurous urbanites who decide to stay up late doing nothing but listening. Listening for the insects that map their world via a song-and-response patchwork and who are simply trying to further their own species by out-singing their neighbor. Little do they know that, for once, a small number of humans will have stopped to take notice and to count their voices.

Photo: Fall Field Cricket courtesy of Songs of Insects

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

You Can Go Home Again

The Bronx has a few new residents. Though, to be honest they are actually native Bronxites—more returnees than new arrivals. They're also silver.

In March, a trap net set in the Bronx River by the Natural Resources Group of NYC Parks and Recreation captured half a dozen alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus). Like salmon, alewife are an anadromous species, meaning they are born in fresh water, spend much of their life in the ocean and return to fresh water to spawn. But they don’t return to just any patch of fresh water—they return to the same river or stream where they were born. By all indications, the fish that appeared in NRG's nets were likely born somewhere in the quiet water above the dam at 182nd St. three years ago.

Their reappearance is not particularly miraculous, but it does speak to the surprising ability of a heavily urbanized waterway to support a diversity of life. Together with the appearance of Jose the beaver in 2006, it also speaks to a general resurgence in the overall health of the river that has occurred as a result of hard work on the part of community members, local non-profits, and government agencies. The return of the alewife is a good example of what can happen when this partnership mobilizes.

In 2006, a load of 200 adult alewife from Bridle Creek in Connecticut were introduced to the Bronx River (the actual release happens from 4:24 to 5:35 in this video) in the hopes that they would mate and their offspring, or fry, would return when they were ready to spawn three or four years later. Analysis of the scales on several of the fish caught in NRG nets showed that the fish were three years old.

"Unless alewife suddenly came into the Bronx River or unless they had always been coming and we hadn't seen them, it's reasonably likely that this represents a return of some of the animals that were born in the river in 2006," said Joe Rachlin, an aquatic biologist at Lehman College who helped plan the release.

There is no historical evidence that alewife, in fact, ever called the Bronx River home, but they are common in nearby streams. Studies by Rachlin and others have also shown that the river offers the right habitat for spawning and for hatchlings and that, despite appearances, the river contains almost all of the fish species known to have inhabited the waterway. The fact that alewife have never been found in the Bronx River until now may, therefore, be less an issue of water quality and more a result of the fact that the river has been dammed continuously since the 1600's, effectively preventing the adults from reaching their freshwater spawning grounds.

Both the young and adults are an important part of a healthy river’s ecosystem. They feed on microscopic zooplankton in the water column and, in turn, serve as prey for waterbirds and mammals. In 2006, however, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service declared (pdf) alewife and blueback herring (collectively known as river herring) "species of concern." The steep declines in stocks of both fish since 1990 are largely due to the human tendency to dam the coastal rivers and streams that alewife need to complete their lifecycle.

That raises a difficult question on the Bronx River (and on rivers up and down the East and West Coasts): What to do with the dams that currently stand between the ocean and the rest of the river and that serve no real purpose. But that's a story for another post. For now, welcome back A. pseudoharengus. We missed you.

Photo courtesy of Rocking the Boat

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Garbage Out, Garbage In

For some reason, I’ve run across several references to the great Pacific garbage patch in the past couple of weeks, the most recent being a mention on “Real Time with Bill Maher” (towards the end of this “New Rules” segment). The patch is the result of floating garbage, mostly plastic, being caught in the currents that encircle the North Pacific Gyre.

I first learned about the phenomenon from a friend who used to sail from California to Hawaii twice per year in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 2003, an article in Natural History magazine brought the accumulating garbage back to my attention to wider public consciousness.

Today, the patch is variously described as one or two times the size of Texas and is primarily (80 percent) composed of debris blown or washed off of land. The rest probably originated from shipping containers lost at sea. Charles Moore, who has been sailing into the gyre for much of the past decade to study the amount, distribution and type of garbage there, believes it contains more than 100 million tons.

That’s right, out there in the middle of the Pacific, days from land, you can find garbage of almost every conceivable shape and purpose—including raw, pre-consumer plastic pellets that never made it into a recognizable product. It just went straight from the manufacturer to the ocean. Now THAT’S cutting out the middleman.

The impacts this and other so-called marine debris is having on birds and marine mammals have been well documented. NOAA even maintains a program devoted specifically to understanding, controlling and removing large marine debris from U.S. coasts and waters. I also once had the opportunity to edit a series of dispatches by then-journalism-student Joe Spring in which he collected and examined just a fraction of the trash that accumulated on one tiny, deserted beach in Northwest Hawaii. Some of the most frightening things out there are discarded or lost fishing equipment—including miles-long “ghost nets” that continue to float through the oceans capturing marine life for years.

As horrendous as the larger debris can be, the increasing abundance of microplastic—tiny plastic particles between 5 and 0.5mm in diameter—dispersed throughout the oceans are an even more insidious problem. These are formed when large pieces break down through physical or chemical processes. In some areas, plastic debris in the water column outweighs the amount of plankton several times over.

These particles can either adsorb pollutants onto their surface, transporting the chemicals well beyond a localized spill, or they can leach their own toxins into the water. Plankton and other organisms at the base of the food chain then consume persistent organic pollutants (POPs), the lipophilic, or “fat-loving” substances, in the plastics. Because we consume marine organisms higher up the food chain indirectly (through feed given to livestock) and directly, we are now not only littering our own nest, we are now effectively eating our own garbage. Bio-accumulated poetic justice.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Oh, Canada

A couple of years ago, many on the left in the U.S. were threatening to stampede our northern border for what they perceived as a more enlightened society in Canada. Free healthcare. Culturally ingrained politeness. Thankfully boring politics. Most importantly, no W and, with that absence, no religious-based war-on-science. OK, that last probably didn't make it to the top of the list of reasons why anyone renounced their U.S. citizenship, but it would have been close to mine.

Last year, many cheered the impending arrival of a new U.S. administration that promised to "restore science to its rightful place." Those who fled—though I doubt the exodus ever reached a trickle, much less the epic flood that anyone held it out to be—were probably feeling a little dazed, then, when recent developments in Canadian politics had them thinking about lining up at the border again. This time facing south.

Last month, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, evaded questions put to him by the Globe and Mail about whether he believed in evolution, saying, "I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate."

He later backtracked somewhat on Canadian television, saying that "Of course" he believed in evolution, but that it was an irrelevant question. Mr. Goodyear, formerly a chiropractor went on to add:

We are evolving every year, every decade. That's a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment. But that's not relevant and that is why I refused to answer the question.

Unfortunately, it appears that he's mistaking adaptation with evolution. A person adapting to waking on cement might put on shoes. A species evolving to the same environment would, over generations (ie, not decades for humans) and through the processes of mutation and selection, eventually produce young with the biological equivalent of running shoes—thickened soles or wide feet, perhaps. Goodyear also claimed that he was being quoted out of context, that the questions were not relevant to Canada’s leadership in science and technology.

One hardly knows where to begin. First, and most obviously, Goodyear may believe in evolution, as he states, but it's an evolution that is starkly at odds with the evolution biologists have documented in the natural world. Second, he is the Canadian minister in charge of science policy, so I would argue it most certainly is relevant whether he believes (and understands) something as fundamental as evolution to Canada’s leadership in something as non-trivial as biotechnology or pharmaceutical development.

Oddly, few if any U.S. news outlets decided to cover the story. Odd because, in addition to being our largest trading partner, the U.S. receives quite a few Canadian researchers looking for labs and students looking for advisors—both of whom are looking for funding. In January, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government cut funding to the sciences at the same time that the U.S. wants to expand science funding as part of broader economic stimulus plans, leading to fears of a brain drain to the south. Now one has to wonder whether Goodyear’s comments will further sour the atmosphere in labs across Canada and increase the number of Canadian scientists looking the exit signs.