Hawks in the Bronx

Couple of years ago, I was walking to work on a sunny morning day. The busy streets of the Bronx filled my ears with the sounds of accelerating cars, rushing pedestrians, and elevated subway passing overhead. Typical morning commute commotion.

Out of nowhere, with a lighting speed, a big raptor fell from the sky. In mid air, he grasped an unsuspected pigeon with its long tarsals and landed on the ground. The tarsals could pierce and slice with ease through the toughest flesh. They demanded respect. Once a hawk gripped on the prey, it would not let go. It’s a reflex. The unfortunate pigeon stood no chance.

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His powerful beak and tarsals signaled the message very clearly “Do not approach me. I am having breakfast.”

He ripped through the flesh of the pigeon without any struggle. Pigeon’s feathers surrounded the crime scene, or rather the buffet feast, as he continued to splurge on its flesh.

Unapologetic. Powerful. Hungry.

For a bird of prey, he had no fear of people who began to surround him as if he was a circus performer. All stood there in awe. Some felt disgusted looking at the flying feathers. Most knew to respect the power of the bird. The power of Nature. Several phones were recording this rare encounter.

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Unlike other birds, raptors’ eyes are positioned more forward in their skull, a feature similar to humans and unknown to many other birds, giving them excellent binocular vision. They can see in 3D. Imagine an IMAX quality picture, but eight times better.

Hawks have excellent vision. Their fovea, an area of the eye with the highest concentration of photoreceptors, contains about a million of photoreceptor cells per square millimeter. We, humans, aren’t as lucky. Humans have about 200,000 receptors in our foveae. On top of that, they have two of them, equipping the raptor with a visual acuity we can only imagine and envy.

To stress the extreme of this ocular excellence, we have to acknowledge how they catch food: mid-air, usually diving downward at 120 to 150 miles per hour depending on the species, focusing on a bird in the shape of a small dot underneath them. A visual location skill mastered to perfection.

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Raptors, similarly to marine creatures, when hunting have to account for the third dimension. This requires continuous adjustments in speed and direction. A bird can fly right and left, up or down. A raptor has to adjust its flight to any change of direction in milliseconds, or he will go hungry. It’s a matter of survival.

Even the fastest land animals, such as cheetahs, usually hunt only in two dimensions. The prey runs right or left, sometimes jumps. Their motion is more predictable.

What do you see when you look at a raptor?

Many bird lovers would answer: a dinosaur. Evolutionarily they are right. Birds are the only branch of prehistoric creatures most closely related to the dinosaurs. Their evolution dates back to about 140 million years ago, to the Mesozoic era. Hawks are thought to evolve around 100 million years ago. In comparison, modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved from Africa about 200,000 years ago.

As I stood there watching the hawk indulge himself with the pigeon, I could not help to imagine how they are surviving in a city, but then the answer was quite simple, there are plenty of pigeons and rodents to feast on.

Hawks, like many other birds, are threatened by habitat loss, fires, and pesticides. We need to do better to protect them.

I hope next time you see a hawk high in the sky, you think of its natural history, and its importance to the environment. Hawks are one of the apex predators allowing you to admire its fight.

Uncertainty

Waiting. There is a time where you are not sure if what you have done is right. To me, the knowledge that you could have done nothing, and nobody would judge you, is not freeing. Living with knowledge that I could have done something, but did not is much worse. I had to chose.

Once you make a decision to move forward, your friends and family may dissent. They may say that your judgment is clouded, and doing nothing is the better option. I try to mute those voices, even though I know they all mean well. I weighted every possible outcome, none were truly ideal. All would cause pain.

Am I selfish by not letting go? I am not ready to let go.

The fear of making the wrong choice is paralyzing. I know what pain is, the same exact pain I am inflicting on you, the same pain I dreaded for years.

I cannot help you without inflicting pain. I cannot be sure I will help you by inflating the pain either. My heart and mind hurt every second thinking about my decision.

There are choices in life without good solutions. This is one of them. I fought very hard for this to happen. I had to go against the judgment of many and advocate. I never felt comfortable in that position, but I had to take a stand.

All I can hope for is for you to get better. My stomach is churning inside at the though of this going wrong.

Stay strong my friend. I will be always waiting for you.

_________

For Bradley.

Chasing the waves

Sanderling (Calidris alba).

Sanderlings are master predictors of the motions of the Ocean’s waves. As the waves go back and forth, the sanderlings find a perfect moment to begin their sprint run, dig some sand dwellers, and safely run away. For such a tiny body, they are master sprinters.

Their beak is about the size of their head, a very practical feature to sieve through the moving beach sand.

Seeing them in action is quite remarkable. Tens of individuals run side-by-side, almost imitating the wave itself. Their dance is very synchronized with the Ocean’s rhythm.

As the waves recede, they can easily spot sand crabs buried underneath the sand.

The sanderlings of the Far Rockaway feed predominately on the sand dwellers, but I am sure they would not refuse any other crustaceans or mollusks.

Their beak lets them effectively remove the soft parts of the sand dwellers, leaving behind the chitin body of the tiny sand crabs.

Lucky for the bird and unlucky for the crab, sand crabs do not have claws, making them an easy target.

They would grab the soft insides of the crab, and vigorously shake it out of its shell.

One of the prominent feature of the sanderling breeding adults is the rusty back plumage on their neck, back and head, and black legs and beak.

Non-breeding adults are pale gray, but in the middle of August those are hard to find.

Their main breeding areas are located above the Arctic Circle, quite surprising location for such small birds.

As the Sun began to set, they began to gather in large groups and started napping. They buried their heard in their back feathers, making me cringe a little thinking about the flexibility of their necks.

As they were preparing for the night, you could spot multiple birds looking in my direction from underneath their wings, making sure I am not there to chase them away. They were always ready to run, even half asleep.

Birds standing on one leg are normally resting or sleeping. This is a very vulnerable position to be in.

Thus, the stares continues as long as I was in their vicinity.

Even a seagull tired to blend in, somewhat unsuccessfully.

Sanderlings are treated by raising global temperatures. According to estimates, an increase of 3 degrees in the global temperature, would eradicate 97% of their range.

As more and more of them began to group together and began to sleep, I knew it was a sign for me to go. I do not like to intrude, it was their time to rest and my time to get some dinner.

Fashionista gulls

NYC Plover Project sticker.

After my third attempt to photograph piping plovers at the Far Rockaway’s ended up in a failure, I began to feel disappointed. To protect the plovers, a part of the beach was closed. I walked for hours with my long lens camera, only to learn that the plovers moved to the other side. I wondered what happened to the beginner’s luck.

To help with my failure, the volunteers for the NYC Plover Project handed me some really nice blue stickers depicting a sketch of a plover. I proudly attached it to the back of my computer while hoping for a more fruitful next visit.

I think the child artists, must have foreseen this moment. As I was walking on the broadwalk, I saw many drawings of plovers. I was glad that we were educating the youth on the importance of the environmental protection, but I was upset that these children were not drawing happy birds, but were asking us to protect them. Definitely this is not the future I have envisioned.

With no plovers to photograph, what else was there? As I was starring at the water for a moment, a group of gulls began to fight near the garbage can. I never paid too much attention to the gulls. They are present in most places of the New York City, even not too close to the water. Their white and gray plumage seemed to blend with the surrounding sand and the Ocean water.

Gulls are the villains of the beach. Some are known to steal people’s food, and their loud voices can be heard from afar.

To my surprise, the gulls turned out to be quite mysterious and with a sense of fashion.

With no knowledge of the different species of gulls, I started taking some pictures and noticing the details for the first time. I have seen gulls many times when I was on the beach, but I failed to notice their differences. What made things worse, is that gulls can have multiple plumage colors depending on the season, their age, and species. All seemed very similar to an inexperienced eye like mine.

The ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) is characterized by a ring located at the top and bottom half of its bill, paler color, and yellow legs. The ring-billed gull depicted below, has a streak of tan on its head and neck, marking it as a non-breeding adult.

Ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis), non-breeding adult.

Breeding adults have a clean, white head, pale eyes, and yellow eyes. To an amateur bird enthusiast like me, he looked like totally different bird.

Ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis), breeding adult.

This beautiful bird is often a big nuisance, but maybe we are thinking about this the wrong way. Gulls are known to gather at landfills, from where they pick up garbage and spread it around. The fact is that the bird does not know that this is a landfill, or a garbage can, all he knows is that there is food.

A bird that can adapt to the changing world so well, points to us our failure at managing our trash, and not the bad behaviors of the species.

Ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis), non-breeding adult.

A second most common gull on the East Coast is the herring gull (Larus argentatus). The herring gull is a true fashionista. This species has 4 different plumages in the first 4 years of their lives. From white to different shared of grey to brown, the differences are subtle, and not easily differentiated.

Herring gull (Larus argentatus) and a crab.

Herring gulls have a spatial adaptation, they can drink saltwater. They have special salt glands located near the eyes helping them to excrete the extra salt, but they prefer to drink freshwater. Most animals cannot drink saltwater, as it will lead to quick dehydration due to high salt content, including humans. We all heard of people stranded in the Ocean suffering from dehydration.

Herring gull.

Herring gulls, similarly to other seabirds, present a tricky conservation problem. The herring gulls have been declining by about 2.7% per year since 1966-2019. This may not seem like a big number, but that accounts for about 76% decline over the years. Since the herring gull numbers are difficult to assess, the species is classified as rapidly declining. I am sure this is not something beach goers realize when they complain about the screeching sounds of the herring gulls.

The herring gulls are omnivores. They will eat fish, crustaceans, mollusks, birds, eggs, and insects. At the beach, they will also pick up trash, which makes the young very vulnerable and less able to survive in the wild as adults.

Herring gull flying away with the crab.

Juvenile herring gulls are brown and require 4 years for full adulthood. They remain brown for the first two years of their lives.

Juvenile herring gull.

This particular individual was feeding off sand crabs, a very popular snack on the shore.

Juvenile herring gull

A third species of gulls, the laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla), is also quite common. Similarly to the herring gull, its plumage is dependent on their age and sex. They are much smaller than the herring gulls. Their colors are darker and more distinct form the gulls, making them easier to spot.

Laughing gulls.

Gulls turned out to be are much more interesting than I anticipated. Although the gulls may seem quite abundant, we should not fall into a trap that they are not threatened. Once again this quote come to my head, we should protect what is abundant, before it becomes scarce. Same applies to the gulls.

Mysterious crab

I walked confidently on the yellow sand, staring at the shells deposited on the beach by the powerful waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Movements of the water displaced tiny pieces of sand along the shore, exposing sand dwellers quickly snatched by the seashore birds. 

As we were walking along the water, my sister screamed suddenly, “Watch it!” Confused, I froze in place looking around. She pointed at the sand right in front of me. A ghost crab (Ocypode quadrata). I was inches away from its body and it took me several seconds to realize he was actually there. Great camouflage! 

His closely spaced, black eyes were staring directly at me, unsure about my intentions. Looking at crustaceans is like looking into the very distant past. The ghost crab evolved over 100 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. Compare that to modern humans, which are thought to have evolved from Africa about 200,000-300,000 years ago. Crab evolutionary history is not fully understood, but over the evolutionary timeline many marine species tried to imitate the crabs. 

Male ghost crabs have a very unique anatomical feature absent in females. One of their claws is much bigger than the other. Such differences between males and females are called sexual dimorphism

Ghost crabs blend very well with their environment, and their body color can adjust to their environment over longer periods of time. For that purpose, they have special cells called chromatophores, that are responsible for making pigment. 

Crabs cannot swim, and if fully submerged will eventually drown. Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

Contrary to popular belief, ghost crabs cannot swim, and if submerged in water will drown. However, they require moisture for their gills in order to breathe. Thus, you can sometimes spot ghost crabs near water, but always immediately to the beach. 

Ghost crabs are semi-terrestrial. They burrow right underneath the intertidal zone (the area between high and low tides, where the ocean meets the sand), and prefer to come out at night, although they can be spotted during the day. 

Unfortunately for the crabs, they are a treat for the gulls. I have seen many seagulls consuming crabs, always making sure to avoid their sharp claws.

Cars on the beach destroy crab habitat. Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com.

Although quite common, ghost crabs are not as present on crowded beaches, as human foot traffic destroys their burrows. This significantly alters their distribution, and skewes their presence to the far sides of the beach. Research shows that some ghost crabs will dig deeper, steeper, and smaller burrows on heavily populated beaches. Specifically, car traffic on the beach and rapid urbanization of the adjacent marine neighborhoods were found to be associated with a high incidence of crab mortality. Thus, even if we do not litter on the beach, we will always leave our mark. 

Ghost crabs developed interesting ways of communicating. They can make sounds with their claws when the enemy is further away, and another with their gut, specifically their gastric mill used to grind food, when the enemy is closer. Precise reason for this is not known, but it is believed that it allows the crab to free its claws, and strike back if necessary.  

I hope next time you see those amazing creatures, you won’t see it primarily as dinner, but you think of its history and importance to the marine ecosystem.

When the sounds disappear

My childhood house was located right by the forest. We used to call it the park, but only because there was a trail from one village to the next, parallel to a tiny stream. 

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I would spend countless hours walking that trail. Regardless of the time, my ears would fill in with songs of birds, buzzing of insects, and loud frog calls. The forest was full of life. I did not realize then that those sounds were not present in every forest. 

Hiking in many places of the Eastern United States often can seem eerie. There are places where you would not hear a bird chirp for hours. All you can hear are occasional mosquitos, or see ticks crawling on your skin. If you are a late afternoon hiker like me, you may spot some deer and chipmunks. 

The silence of the forests is very concerning. This question was deeply explored in the 1960s by Rachel Carson in the Silent Spring, where she writes “What has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America?”

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Rachel emphasized the consequences of abusing pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides such as DDT, parathionchlordanetoxophenealdrin, and many others on the environment. Her thoroughness was very impactful, as she gave examples of how improper management of such chemicals polluted water, air, and soil, killing countless birds, insects, fish, and humans. Her descriptions of the animal suffering and the destruction of plant and animal habitats became a major force in the environmental movements. Her writing helped to implement many environmental policies that followed, as it was approachable to the general public and many scientists. 

Yet, 60 years since the publication of the Silent Spring, I feel that the societies around the world have not learned the lessons. For example, DDT is still used to fight malaria in Africa, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Aldrin, one of the most potent chlorinated hydrocarbons, was not banned in the United Stated until 1987, but used for much longer around the world. We still manufacture countless toxic chemicals which end up in the environment. 

Current world continues to be sprayed with insecticides, herbicides, and other pesticides. Many insects such as cockroaches are already resistant to various insecticides. In a place like New York, cockroaches likely exceed the human population several to hundreds of times. 

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What made the Silent Spring so special to me is that Rachel recognized the interconnectedness of the plant and animal worlds. Every species had a place in the food web. Every missing animal destroys this balance. For example, many people would be happy to never see a mosquito in their life, but mosquitos are essential to the survival of birds, bats, fish, dragonflies, spiders to name a few. However, some species of mosquitoes carry deadly diseases including the Zika Virus, which lead to brain birth defects in human babies, malaria, which kills countless lives on the African continent, or the Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus, which can lead to encephalitis and death. It has always been a two-sided battle. 

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The fragile relationships between various animal and plant species require our full attention. I am not a big supporter of introducing foreign species to new habitats. In many instances such relationships can work, but the primary goal should be preserving natural biodiversity and preventing the spread. This is extremely difficult when invasive species populate environments where they have no natural predators. One example of that are Asian Longhorned Beetles (ALB) destroying many of the American forests, specifically targeting hardwood trees such as the elm and ash trees. Hiking in ALB infested forests is like walking through a forest graveyard, the destruction is immense. Once infested, safe and reliable solutions are hard to find. 

As Enigma sings, “Silence must be heard, noise should be observed.” We as a society have a responsibility to make sure a forest your children walk into is full of diverse animal sounds to inspire them to continue the legacy. Rachel’s legacy must continue with us. 

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Preserving the unknown

One cannot miss what one does not know exists. 

A book by Michelle Nijhuis, Beloved Beasts, Fighting for Life in the Age of Extinction, presents several classic examples of animal species severely affected by human activities. Michelle describes animals which became symbols of conservation. Many such species are still with us, while some can only be seen in the natural history museums. 

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We all heard of the Wild West and the American Frontier, and the decimation of the bison (the American buffalo). We also heard how excessive use of pesticides, one of which is DDT, decimated many bird populations, including the hawks and the eagles. Over several years, the fashion industry dating back to the late 1890s slothered countless shore birds, with near extinction of the whooping crane. Poaching and trophy hunting in Africa led to extinction of the black and northern rhinos. The examples keep on pouring in. Michelle Nijhaus describes those stories beautifully and in great depth. 

We do not know precisely how many animal species inhabit the Earth, as current estimates are vague. We are much better at counting large land animals, such as the elephants or rhinos, but we are pretty bad at estimating anything else. 

How do we protect anything, without knowing that it is there?

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I think that we do not need to classify all the species to begin to understand what to protect and how to protect them. Protecting habitats can often be more effective. 

After reading the Beloved Bests, I realized that I must agree with the statement that we need to protect what is common, while it is common. It is not a novel idea, but in my opinion critical. Such early actions may seem as trivial and unnecessary endeavors, but they are the key to future successful conservation efforts. 

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We should also note that as we establish safe havens for many endangered species, we are also protecting common species. If we start to protect more common species, we will preserve biodiversity. As greatly noted, the planet requires preservation of complexity. For example, countless grass lawns do not provide any diversity of plants and insects, they are simply green deserts. Rather than grass, plant naive flowers. 

The real dilemma is that we already have countless species with dire futures. In order to protect the Earth’s biodiversity, we have to protect them before their numbers begin to drop. This approach not only preserves the species, but also maintains their genetic diversity. Within species, genetic diversity is critical to their survival, and should be emphasized in any conservation effort. 

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What the book by Michelle Nijhuis made me realize is that conservation does not exist in a vacuum. Animal protection laws, without infrastructure to support the local human communities will likely fail, and many failed in the past. For example, attempts to create national parks in parts of the African continent ignored the needs and voices of the local communities, many of which saw this as another attempt of colonization. Some even killed rare animals in the established parks in protest. Making the local communities involved in conservation can drastically change the course of many species. This is true all over the world.

I do not have all of the answers, but we have to protect what is left as a society. Even I can think go simple things that anybody can do: use less plastic; conserve water; plant wildflowers and native plants instead of grass; do not use pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides; recycle; conserve energy; support conservation efforts; donate to local rescue groups; leave water for wild animals during heat waves; do not plant invasive plant species; do not release invasive animals into the wild; bring your own shopping bags; do not buy synthetic clothes; and many other simple lifestyle changes.

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One particular example we can try to address is missing plastic toys. I love to walk on the beach in the afternoon, once the masses of beachgoers begin to depart. I always thought that the beach would be mainly full of plastic bottles, and they do appear, but what I see most is plastic toys. 

Children love to dig in the sand right by the water, at least I did. As the waves approach the shore, their power washes off the toys, and buries them in the sand. Keeping track of toys is challenging. To make you realize how many toys you are missing try this exercise. Number the toys your child takes to the beach, and count them again before you leave. I bet you will be missing at least one or two. Many times I would toss abandoned toys deeper into the sand, but once left they become garbage. Save the beach and save your money by counting the toys. 

Although we need more global changes, you are the first step to conservation. Your next step is your voting poll, but I will leave that argument for others to make.

Insect pain.

As a child I remember looking at the sticky yellow tapes handing in people’s houses. Fly traps. Countless flies died on that yellow piece of tape, trying to escape in vain. Back in the 1990s, an upgraded version of a fly trap displayed in countless stores was an electric fly trap, with neon purple long, cylindrical bulbs, surrounded by a metal cage. The buzzing of the trap was unnerving, and every few minutes I could hear a quick “zap” and a fly would fall to its demise. Underneath the apparatus, a fly cemetery was building up. At a time, nobody talked about insect pain, it was a foreign concept. 

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Around 2007, I began to work at a fly laboratory as an undergraduate student. Specifically, I worked with small fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, often found flying around ripe fruits left on the countertops. The more I learn about them, the more fascinated they become. They were living creatures, kept in plastic bottles filled with a mixture of agar, cornmeal, yeast, various sugars, and antifungals like Tegosept. The smell of the fly food would penetrate the entire floor of the Science building, and we often had to make it from scratch, pour it into tiny bottles, caps, and packages for storage into the refrigerator. As an undergraduate, capping fly food was one of those things we dreaded the most. 

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During that time I learned about the nervous system of a fly. Fruit flies, like most other insects, have a nervous system made out of the brain and thoracic ganglion, or a fly equivalent to the human spinal cord (note that flies are invertebrates and do not have a spinal cord). To my surprise, flies have a whole array of behaviors such as flying, color vision, great sense of smell and taste, sense of balance, courtship, they have a sense of day and night, and many others. The most important however is their ability to sense noxious stimuli. Many insect ideas and anecdotes are more fully discussed in the book by Jonathan Balcombe The Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects

A fly learns about its surroundings very quickly. Flies learn to avoid experimental chambers associated with pain from electric shock, unpleasant smell, high or low temperatures, and other stimuli affecting their various senses. A more recent study showed that flies can even experience chronic pain.

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The idea that insect experience pain is not universally accepted. The question is why not? I think most of this comes from the notion that if an animal cannot express pain in a way we can recognize, we think that it does not feel pain. This is strange, as insects have the relevant pain receptors, for example nociceptors that respond to increased heat. A mutant fly, painless, fails to respond to increased heat, when its nociceptive receptors are missing from its sensory neurons. We know of human cases with inability to sense pain, a very dangerous condition, because our ability to sense pain is one of our survival skills. Sensing pain tells us that is wrong with our bodies and that we should take notice. Flies do the same as they also need to be able to tell when something is wrong. 

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Another part of the issue is that flies can have negative consequences to our health. Certain species of flies, such as Tzetze common to Sub-Saharan Africa can carry parasites leading to sleeping sickness, which can be fatal. Common house fly, Musca domestica, are known to carry multiple pathogens, many of which are dangerous to humans and animals. This does not help their reputation. 

This love and hate relationship with flies is a part of life. Flies are critical to the environment, as they are a major food source to many species of fish, spiders, birds, dragonflies, beetles, ants, to name a few. Thus, we have to recognize and acknowledge their abilities too. 

We are not the only species with a nervous system, and maybe we have to open our eyes a little bit to see beyond ourselves. 

Full Moon in the sky

Look up and you will see the full Moon.

Today, is one of the few days where all of the Moon’s mountains and craters are exposed, at least on the side of the Moon visible from the Earth.

We cannot see the dark side of the Moon, maybe we can leave that to the astronauts and the Pink Floyd.

Take it all in. Tomorrow you will see much less of the Moon’s surface, until it fully disappears. But don’t worry, it will come right back, the universe has its motions set on a schedule.

In Polish the Moon is called Księżyc, not an easy word to pronounce.

Till next time.