Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ten Things I Learned from Marie Winn

On Saturday a group of nature enthusiasts met at the 92nd St. Y to hear Marie Winn talk about animals and their nocturnal activity in Central Park. She's the author of the new book "Central Park in the Dark."Marie is a grand and gifted storyteller and has been following some of the creatures featured in her talk for many years - the most famous one being Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk who nested on a Fifth Avenue apartment building and had his romance with Lola chronicled in Winn's previous book "Redtails in Love," which was later made into a documentary film. Below are a few highlights of her talk.
"Pale Male" (c) D. Bruce Yolton

1)White Footed Mouse - This is probably the cutest rodent you'll ever see. Problem is, he's very hard to find. The only way they were discovered in Central Park was by analyzing owl pellets. Bone particles found in the owl droppings were taken to the Museum of Natural History to be identified.

2)Robins - Huge numbers of robins visit Central Park. In fact, Central Park has a higher density of robins per square mile than just about any place on earth. One of their favorite trees (at the north end of the Great Lawn) has been given the nickname "All Male Dormitory."

3)Common Grackle
As many as 1000 Common Grackles and starlings fly into 10 trees surrounding the Pulitzer Fountain near the Plaza Hotel (in front of Bergdorf Goodman) to roost overnight at dusk from summer to late fall. It's strange that so many birds arrive every evening with so few people noticing.

4) Owls
Some of the species of owls found in Central Park include Barn Owls, the Great Horned, Saw Whet, and Screech owls, which nest year round in the park's North End. Once, a Boreal Owl showed up near Tavern on the Green and and lots of birders made a pilgrimage to see him. (A "life bird" is a bird seen for the first time in one's life, and the Boreal was on many people's list of "life birds" still to be seen.) The love lives of these owls, their romances and fledgelings, are avidly monitored by the owl enthusiasts that frequent the park. (photo (c) D. Bruce Yolton)

5)Moths -
Many don't know that moths have two pairs of wings - the bright colors and eye-like markings on some of the underwings are used to scare birds away. The largest moth seen in Central Park was the rare Black Witch (shown at left) Others include the Small-Eyed Sphinx, the Plume, the Cabbage Looper, the Ilia, the Sweetheart, the Widow, the Wavy-Lined Emerald and Lobelia Dagger and many others. If you want to be a "Mother" (rhymes with author) don't wear "Off". You can attract moths to your yard with a special moth light.

6) Crickets & Cicadas
A snowy tree cricket is known as the weatherman of the bug world because you can find the approximate ambient Fahrenheit temperature by counting the number of his chirps in a 13 second interval, and then adding 40. These insects can sometimes be identified by their chirps. A cicada emerging from it's nymph shell is an amazing sight - you can actually see the fluid fill the wings.

7)Slugs - All slugs have both male and female organs. Watching them have sex is something everyone needs to do at least once in their life. They entwine around each other and their slime co-mingles to form a beautiful luminescent flower.

8)Stars - The Amatuer Astronomers Association gathers once a year for "Urban Starfest" on the Sheep Meadow. They bring their telescopes and invite the public to join them. Read more at on their website.

9)Bats - Bats find their prey by making high-pitched sounds and listening to the echos they produce when they bounce off their target - a process called echolocation. It's not easy to find bats at night, so people who want to see them often use a bat detector, a hand-held instrument that translates ultrasonic bat songs into frequencies people can hear. Bats typically emit sounds between 20 and 220 kilohertz.

10) A Coyote found in the Park was pursued by 25 people and had to be subdued with tranquilizers. The whole endeavor took close to 20 hours. The year-old coyote, nicknamed "Hal" died mysteriously after being held captive for a week. He stopped breathing while being tagged for release.

Marie speaks about many of these creatures as if they were her friends. Many of them have names and it's not unusual for their offspring can be doted upon as devotedly as grandchildren. People have set up websites and blogs devoted to following their favorites - Bruce Yolton's blog, is extraordinary and is updated regularly with bird video and photos.

Marie's website is at -- find links there to lots more critter photos and resources.


Joanne said...

To think that all this beautiful wildlife exists right there in the heart of Manhattan is incredible! Nature is so adaptable. Marie seems to be a wonderful resource, bringing the animals' stories to the public's attention.

dennis said...

Dennis totally loves this post! Must get book!

Bangchik and Kakdah said...

Once you are passionate about certain things, you can talk for hours... And definitely a good storyteller will make 3 hours feel like half an hour. Only recently I realised about one gourd having flowers open at night and close daytime. Then I learn about nocturnal insects and moths... Lot of nocturnal lives are new to me... ~bangchik

PamHMG said...

When I used to hang out in Central Park back when I was in HS, we used to sit by the lake around 72nd street, I remember seeing a cat our of the corner of my eye and when I turned to look at it, it was a nasty giant NYC rat! Gross! They were not afraid of you either and it was broad daylight!

dennis said...

Dennis has the Red Tails in Love book and has had people read it to him twice.

June said...

And to think...when I first lived in the city, it was a fearsome thing to go anywhere near Central Park in the dark. Except when everybody was going for opera or Shakespeare. Wow. This is fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing!

JGH said...

Joanne, I was really shocked to see that a coyote actually made his way there (they're still trying to figure out how!)

Dennis, you should get book. Maybe you & Miss B could read it and "Redtails" together!

Bangchik, you're right. Especailly with animals that become your "friends" - and you know their histories and habits.

Pam, I believe you. Some of those city rats are so BOLD. Squirrels too.

June, I know - it had such a bad reputation. Marie was actually talking about how crime in the park rarer than in other parts of the city -- And it's much safer now than it was in previous decades.

catmint said...

thank you for this post - I love to look at nocturnal wildlife too. I have seen an owl and possums in my garden. I have just discovered the existence of the High Line, now if it's safe I want to camp overnight in Central Park, although it's a long way away from where I live. cheers, catmint

Frances said...

I love owls and bats, but have to say the thought of snail/slug sex is somewhat repulsive to say the least!!!! But it sounds like this author help your rapt attention. Thanks for sharing the ten things. :-)

JGH said...

Catmint, now you've got me thinking about how it might be possible to camp in the Park. I don't know if they allow it...but it's worth checking into!

Frances, I agree that slugs are repulsive, especially because they eat my veg garden. But the way she described it made me want to see it (the sex, that is, not the eating of the garden!)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a delightful book and I never knew all these stories existed. And just think, this exist in our backyards too. Elizabeth Clarkson in Charlotte, NC had a whole wildlife community in her backyard.

She even opened her home to the birds. She covered all her furniture in white sheets to keep the birdie poo from messing it up.

brigit said...

Marie sounds wonderful. I'll check out her website. I always thought Central was one of those places to stay away from in the dark?

In Sydney there are a couple of large parks where the possum population obviously thrives, but I now wonder what other fauna you'd find there.