April birds and curious raccoon of the Central Park

You cannot visit NYC in April and not notice the squirrels vigorously digging through the leaves to look for last year’s supplies. How do they find them after so many months? I am sure they forget many, but those seeds and nuts they forget, later will repopulate the forest.

White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) camouflage exceptionally well among the brown leaves. Often you can hear them among the leaves long before you spot them.

The coo of the mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) is one of the calmest of them all. I always find it relaxing.

Passing the Turtle Pond, you can clearly see tiny heads sticking out of the water. Red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta) is native to Southern United States. Their popularity in pet industry and cuteness of tiny turtles bought in tiny tanks, made this species take over many parts of the United States after their owners realize that this is not a simple pet. Selling turtles over 4 cm in diameter is illegal, and in Florida selling any size sliders is not allowed. Contrary to popular belief, in addition to vegetation, they feed on small fish and frogs. Unwanted, they are often released to the local ponds and lakes.

Female cardinals, similar to the males, have a reddish mohawk on their heard. Excellent camouflage.

Meanwhile, male cardinals never disappoint fully displaying their bright red plumage.

I could not decide who was photobombing whom. It’s a tie in my opinion. Cardinal vs Dove, 1:1.

American robin posing, as he also wanted to make it to this page. At least I hope so.

It was getting dark, then red-bellied woodpecker appeared. He was pushing my 200 mm lens and gave me no time to adjust. Sadly, their nests are often taken over by the European starlings.

Meanwhile, walking towards the exit a raccoon decided to give me a little show. He quietly climbed up a tree branch, checked the nearby nest for eggs, and disappointed at his lack of good fortune today decided to climb much larger tree. I left him alone, as he ventured across the small creek further into the park.

April required some blooms as well.

Birds of Forest Park in April

Male Northern Cardinal. Cardinalis cardinalis. The red feathers of the Cardinal are beautiful. He can be spotted from a very far distance. He remains one of the most iconic North American birds.

Male Indigo Bunting. Passerina cyanea. This blue beauty was very elusive. Due to its tiny size, definitely would benefit from a more powerful lens.

Male and female Downy Woodpeckers. Picoides pubescens. Woodpeckers amaze me, how do you hit your head with such speed and force and not suffer a concussion? Nature engineered their skulls and beaks with shock absorbents to survive even the hardest trees.

Old World sparrows and American robin (Turdus migratorius) can be seen in most places in NYC.

I am not sure about the yellow bird. Comment below if you know what is it.

The visible Moon

I look out of the window and there is was. The Moon.

The Moon is estimated to be 4.51 billion years old, not much younger than the Solar System. The side of the Moon visible from the Earth is speckled with craters, a reminder of ancient asteroids and the power of the cosmos. Considering that the Moon on average is located 238,855 km from the Earth, the craters remind us that the such events are not a rarity for the Solar System.

The phases of the Moon have been used for centuries to measure the passage of time. Many cultures still use lunar calendars. Examples include, Middle Eastern Hijri calendar, Chinese lunisolar calendar, Nigerian Yoruba lunar calendar, and many others.

Not until XX century, the Moon became an attainable destination, at least to a select few. Neil Armstrong, was the first human to walk the Moon. The Mare Tranquillitatis, or the sea of tranquility, recorded his footsteps on 21 July 1969. In total, 12 astronauts walked the Moon, all men. I would not prioritize those statistics, considering the current state of affairs, however representation does matter. Little girls should dream to be astronauts too.

From ancient to modern literature, the Moon remains a central theme. One of the more famous uses of the Moon can be found in Dracula by Bram Stoker, where the vampires awaken during the full Moon. The Moon is also used to represent love, as shown by the famous quote from Rome and Juliet, “Do not swear by the moon, for she changes constantly, then your love would also change. The symbolism of the Moon is broad and central in literature, it defines many characters and situations. Even the Hollywood picked up the idea, and would use the full Moon to either set up a romantic gateway for a couple, or a cringing, fear evoking horror scene of people running from danger.

The Moon was an inspiration for many musicians. Many songs and albums feature its name, including icons such as, Frank Sinatra, Bill Holiday, Neil Young, Elvis Presley, Billie Holiday, Pink Floyd, or more contemporary artist Bruno Mars or Ariana Grande. We all likely can find many memories of the Moon in music. The song by Savage Garden, To The Moon and Back, will forever remind me of my sisters and the 1990s.

Let the Moon take your imagination and become an inspiration.

The Moon.

March for Science

Have you ever tried to recycle cans in NYC? Try, and you will see it is much harder than you think. Majority of stores that sell them won’t buy them back. Bottle and can collection machines only accept some types of bottles and cans marked with NY 5 cent sign. I was ignorant about the problem.

I’m aware of the plastic pollution dilemma. Billions of tons of plastic end up in the ocean, landfills, and air. Microplastics are found in fish, animals, and humans. We can’t escape them. We don’t know what is their long-term effect on our health and bodies.

Poster proudly carried by me, made by Casey.

Some companies are trying to lower their plastic use, but that still doesn’t change the fact they we don’t recycle most plastics.

Approaching Times Square.

When I leaned about the March for Science, I felt compelled to join them. They were marching for environmental causes, including climate change. With slogans like “No more gas, no more oil, keep your carbon in the soil.

Times Square.

It would be hypocritical for me to say that I do everything I can to help the planet. I do drive to work, I do buy plastic bottles and food wrapped in plastics. In many cases, there are no alternatives. I don’t have a plot to grow my own food, I rely on grocery stores.

However, most of these issue can be easily solved with the right legislation and enforcement. Very few politicians care, but you can help to chose those that do. Vote!

Cats and computers

“Cats is sitting on my computer.” In my house this has became a classic excuse to take my eyed off a computer screen. Warm computer keyboard is a cat magnet, but it’s also a sign you’ve been typing for too long. A cat jumping on my keyboard is often a gentle reminder for attention. Contrary to common belief, cats seek attention quite regularly.

In the world full of technology, we often forget ourselves. I spend countless hours staring at screens, watches, phones, tablets, computers, TV…I used to read much more. I try to fix it. It’s hard. We are all addicted to our gadgets. They act through the same brain pathways as other addictions, but that’s a complicated topic for today.

One way I found useful to help myself, is to limit a number of notifications from apps other than email, calendar and text messaging. Otherwise it’s all news apps sending me notifications about the same major event. Sometimes repetition is useful, most often it is distracting.

I try to be better. It’s a constant conscious effort. Sometimes I fail, but sometimes I succeed. One on the main ways to distract me from screen time are good books. Printed books. Thus, I renewed my library card, and decided to read more. That’s one beauty of living in a big city, public libraries have most major new books.

My new goal: less screen and more paper.

Classic Bradley.
Perfect napping spot.
Homework helper.

Spring bloom

I walked confidently down the paved path to see the cherry blossom at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, only to learn that I was there a bit too early. Spring this year has been quite cold and most plants and trees blossomed later. Somehow I also did not get the message. From afar, the cherries looked asleep, not ready for the spring that’s about to happen any day now.

However, only a few steps closer and the famous alley of cherry trees was beginning to show signs of budding flowers. The buds were exposing some pink and white colors, ready to bloom with full force. However, not all cherries were late this year. Few solitary cherry trees scattered around the park became the visitors’ attraction. Countless photographs were taken to document their beauty. They became the celebrities for the next few days.

Spring is the most fascinating time to see flowering plants of all colors, bright pinks, violets, whites, pinks, and yellows. The colors never disappoint, and always make me feel relaxed and at dpeace.

The shape of flowers is one of the most amazing visual experiences. A lesson in geometry and symmetry. From round petals to sharp angles, from spirals to domes, flowers aced mathematics and every ratio we can think of. Think of a shape, and I bet there will be a flower with that shape.

One of my all time favorite flowers of the Spring are magnolia flowers. While many flowering trees rush to generate leaves, magnolias fully ignore this race. They generate some of the most beautiful flowers, which look very sturdy, but will fall apart if you try to cut it. They are meant to be admired from afar. Magnolias will first lose its flowers and then grow leaves. On one way a backward mentality to most trees I know. A true rebel.

Blooming magnolia tree.

As I continued to walk the garden paths, I passed by unrolling ferns. Seeing ferns can be compared to looking at the early beginning of the Earth. Ferns evolved over 360 million years ago, and many species proceeded the dinosaurs. Today’s ferns are believed to evolve about 150 million years old, but as a geneticist I will always wonder, how did their genome differ from current ferns? Their shape from fossil records appears frozen in time. A true testament to the enormous adaptation to survive.

Unrolling ferns.

Further down the walk, apple trees emerged. Apple trees are very melancholic to me. I grew up surrounded by many apple trees. During blossom, apple trees have the most beautiful flowers. Apple flower petals are easily ripped from the tree by strong wind. If you stand near a group of apple trees and there is even a slightest breeze, it can feel like snowflakes surrounded you, as if one was inside a snow globe and somebody shook it. It is very inspiring.

Spring flowers surround you. Enjoy their beauty and scent as they can be ephemeral.

Hawks of Brooklyn

New York City does not stop to surprise me with its hidden pockets of nature. A walk to the Botanical Garden turned into a viewing of one of the most majestic birds inhabiting this region, the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

I was intrigued at how little he cared about twenty park dwellers staring directly at him. He sat on the tree branch, checked out his feathers and looked down at us. He looked extremely calm, bringing peace to my heart. I could see how beautiful his feathers were, and how powerfully his feet clasped the branch. The power of his claws and beak signaled very clearly that this raptor meant business. That entire show lasted about 5 minutes. In 5 minutes, he managed to stop all nearby visitors who forgot that they actually came here to see plants, including me.

I was unaware that red-tailed hawks had nests in the Botanical Garden, I have heard of hawks in Manhattan regularly. Somehow the Brooklyn red-tails managed to remain hidden. I wished I had a more powerful camera lens to document the intricate details on its anatomy.

Once he got bored, he spread his wings and flew away to a nearby tree. Maybe plant enthusiasts were not as intriguing as he expected them to be. As majestic as these creatures are, I was surprised to learn that small little birds would attack it. He remained patient. I was not sure if it was bravery or ignorance on their side, but the red-tail must have been used to such insults. Lucky for them, he was not in the mood for a snack.

Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) looking down at the crown underneath him.
Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).
Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) left after being harassed by resident birds.

Trees are more than meets the eye

Most city inhabitants know of solitary trees growing in their neighborhoods. Trees is yards, on playgrounds, or in flowerpots places on the sidewalk. I know of many such lonely trees. Separated from other trees by street pavement, skyscrapers, and playgrounds. In many places in Manhattan, trees grow on top of large residential buildings, as a decoration I presume. Many times I have witnessed trees plated in pots way too small for their extensive root system, only to die few years leaving behind wooded carcasses. It saddens me, because tress are so much more than meets the eye. When I see solitary tree in a planter, I feel like we have robbed it from it’s own society. This isn’t anthropomorphism, trees in fact form extensive ecological communities.

Many trees have complicated ecological relationship. One of the most famous symbiotic relationships is with mycorrhiza, a symbiotic relationship between roots and fungi to exchange sugars made by the trees for water and minerals. Mycorrhiza is thought to also aid in tree-to-tree communication. Yet, we don’t get to see those interactions.

Protection of offspring isn’t only an animal trait. Many species of trees protect their young, communicate with neighbors when being attacked by insects or when infected. Mother trees can send nutrients and water to their offspring as well. Trees send warning signals through their root system as well, and the extent of such communication is still poorly defined. Many of such signals we are only beginning to understand. Many of such interactions are described by Peter Wohlleben in his book “The Hidden Life of Trees.

Over millions of years of evolution, trees made an important trade off, they adapted to stay in place. This seems like a huge risk, but trees evolved to take in the Sun’s photons, water and atmospheric carbon dioxide to make their own food and oxygen we breathe through a process called photosynthesis. With a few exceptions of carnivorous plants, mainly trapping insects or protozoans, or requiring bacteria for nutrients, most plants are quite self-sufficient. Photosynthesis is a remarkable adaptation. Plants learned how to split water over 3 billions of years ago, all at low temperatures.

While the tree trunk may stay out in place, it’s progeny travels the world. Significantly, trees generate millions of seeds that are spread by wind and other animals. Seeds are special, as they all have special features required for their survival, making them some of the toughest embryos inhabiting the planet. Those features can include, thorns to attach to passing animals, heather-like fluff to be easily carried by the wind, or protective coating when ingested by animals and spread away from the mother tree. A more poetic description of such movements can be found in a book by Stefano Mancuso, “The Incredible Journal of Plants,” a true inspiration for this blog entry.

However, the tree trunks may be relatively static, it’s leaves and branches do no such thing. Trees move their leaves for sunlight exposure, and they grow new branches towards the Sun. Their movements are slow and subtle, but always have a purpose. When trees grow back their leaves, look up and you will see trees’ space tiling in action. It’s remarkable that every leaf matters and can be oriented with such precision. And that’s the part we see, imagine what the roots are doing.

Tree roots are an ecosystem in itself. We don’t have a full understanding of its mysteries. As many trees live in very harsh environments, they figured out some tricks. One interesting example are halophytes, plants that can tolerate high salt concentrations. Halophyte trees are rare, fewer than 2% of trees have those abilities. Although true mainly for other plants than trees, halophytes are often used to clear the earth from salt, to make it more hospitable for other plants. This is called phytoremediation, and is extensively uses is many agricultural settings.

Trees are also long-lived. Under the right circumstances, many trees can live hundreds of years. One astounding example are trees in Japan, which survived the destruction of the atomic bombs. Hibakujumoku, also called survivor trees. Hibakujumoku represent a gamete of species, and a nature’s perseverance to survive. What made this possible is that trees as we see them are not only made out of a trunk, leaves and branches. Trees have extensive root systems, allowing them to regenerate from many insults.

Not all sleep is restful

Sleep disruption is a plague of the modern society. In the world full of cell phones, social media, and gadgets constantly sending reminders, we are continuously distracted. We can learn how to limit our dependence of sleep disruptors, but all of us who own a smartphone experienced their addictive nature. We justify it quite easily, “Let me see what’s new on this social media platform,” only to find ourselves 20 videos later unsure what we have watched for the past hour. 

 Sleep disorders have many causes, many are still not well understood. Charlotte Brontë writes, “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.” Stress is another major sleep disruptor, but many causes for sleep disorders have unknown biological origins. Sleep is critical to our health and lack of good quality sleep increases our risk for chronic conditions such as, heart attack, stroke or depression. 

Many of issues associated with sleep disorders are described in a book by Guy Leschziner, “The Nocturnal Brain.” Leschziner, a neurologist and sleep physician, depicts sleep struggles of his patients he treated over the years. One story in particular struck my attention, as it described middle-aged woman called Janice who would wake up in the middle of the night feeling as if she was choking.  Many people struggle to fall asleep, and equally many wake up multiple times per night unable to fall asleep. For her, sleep became terrifying. Janice lived misdiagnosed for many decades. Due to her difficult upbringing, and history of behavioral issues, her symptoms were largely dismissed. Since early childhood she was “treated” with antipsychotic and sedative drugs. 

Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem on Pexels.com

As patients, we want to believe in medical testing. However, many sleep disorders do not have a test, or the test is not always able to detect the underlaying cause. This is very true with sleep disorders. Luckily for Janice, the right doctor took her symptoms seriously. Janice was diagnosed with recurring seizures, and was helped with anti-epileptic medication. Her seizures were located in the brain area difficult to measure by the electroencephalogram, (EEG), a machine capable of measuring electrical brain activity. Unfortunately, her story is not unique. There are many people like Janice. I hope in the near future we will be able to detect and treat more sleep related issues. 

For more sleep related issues and diagnoses I strongly recommends the book by Guy Leschziner. You will never look at sleep the same way ever again.