Street Art Sunday: Red Hook posters

I ran to and around Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood twice last week: once on a long-shot quest for Snowy Owls (they’ve been showing up in all kinds of unlikely places this year, so why not a warehouse roof somewhere in Red Hook?), once to get sandwiches from Defonte’s. It was on the first run, which meandered through likely unlikely Snowy Owl habitat and yielded no owls, but an inordinate number of Fish Crows, that I saw these cool examples of poster art.

The amorous skeletons at the top of this post were pasted on an expanse of brick wall on one of the quiet streets leading west from Van Brunt toward the waterfront – Van Dyke, maybe? (I made a mental note to remember the location, then promptly forgot it.) They shared the wall with this tagged-over jaguar by the same artist(s) . . .

. . . and this delicate plant, in a very different style.

Alongside Louis Valentino, Jr. Park at the end of Coffey Street, another skeleton:

And finally, not art, but a reminder of how long it had been since my last Red Hook run . . . and how fast the neighborhood is changing; I’m pretty sure this Potemkin building had four walls the last time I was on Coffey St.

2021 in birds

It’s time – past time, honestly, but who among us isn’t mired in the deep lethargy of another pandemic winter? – for a look back at the last year in birds. It was a great year for them. Northern finches descended on Brooklyn in abundance, for reasons I won’t go into here, but which folks who study such things will cheerfully explain if you’re at all interested, or even if you aren’t. So, for reasons no one has been able to explain to me, did seagoing ducks. Plus the usual suspects, and a few breathtakingly unusual ones. Above all, with human time either frozen or stuck on repeat, the progress of the avian calendar – migration, courtship, babies, migration again – was reassuringly normal. It’s OK, the birds seemed to be saying. You’ll get through this.

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Taco Tuesday, Tucson edition (with burros)

Definitely a burro, not a burrito

Burros – along with their diminutive (at least in name) cousins, burritos – have always struck me as problematic. They’re invariably overstuffed, often grotesquely so. When they’re not dry, they’re drowning in goopy sauce and (horrors) cheese. Worst of all is the dreaded burrito fold, confronting the eater with double or triple or quadruple layers of gummy flour tortilla.

But Eric and I are in Tucson this week, and Tucson is the land of flour tortillas, where chimichangas were born and burros reign supreme. As the saying goes: when in Rome, do as the Sonorenses do.

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Taco Tuesday: Coney Island consolation breakfast

It started with a quest to see a bird; it ended with a search for a different bird, and a takeout container of tacos on the F train.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. When I left the apartment early this morning, headed for the R train, I had visions of glory. That Sandhill Crane that’s been reported several times at the Dyker Beach Golf Course, always vanishing before others could lay eyes on it? I would find it. Maybe I’d even manage to document it with my handy iPhone camera.

Ha! You know who gets up even earlier than birders (or at least this birder)? Golfers, that’s who. By the time I had surfaced at 86th St and jogged west to the golf course, multiple foursomes were already well into their games. The idea that a freakishly large, long-legged bird would still be out there grazing in the short grass began to seem a bit farfetched.

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Shirley Chisholm State Park

50 Favorite Places #28
Shirley Chisholm is a new state park, opened in the summer of 2019 and named after the pioneering Brooklynite who represented central Brooklyn in Congress from 1969 to 1983. It’s located on the far eastern edge of the borough, just off the Belt Parkway, where East New York butts up against Howard Beach.

From 1956 to 1985, the site was a pair of working landfills. As the Starrett City housing complex rose, so did the landfill piles across the Belt Parkway from it. The landfills blocked not just waterfront access, but even waterfront views, for residents of the waterfront neighborhood. Take it as a sign of the disregard the city has historically shown its 520 miles of coastline (fun fact: NYC has more coastline than Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston combined), and its scornful attitude toward residents of modest means. (You can find an excellent history of the site here.)

By the time I started birding and running Brooklyn’s coastal edge, the area’s reclamation was well underway – the formerly stinking mounds were covered with grass – but it was closed tight. Ominous signs warned away trespassers, while increasingly tattered banners promised a park was coming.

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2020 in birds

This has become an annual post. In an ordinary year, it’s a nice way to remember where and with whom I saw which birds, and to try to explain why that particular bird, in those particular circumstances, warrants “bird of the month” honors.

Of course, 2020 was not an ordinary year. Most of my birding was done within a 5-mile radius of my Brooklyn home. Despite that constraint, or perhaps because of it, I birded even more obsessively than usual. By late November, I’d already seen more species in Brooklyn than I’d ever managed before.

This was also the year when scores, maybe hundreds, of Brooklynites took up birding for the first time. It was fun seeing them in Prospect Park (at first) and then (as we all started feeling safer traveling a bit farther afield) in places like Fort Tilden, Jamaica Bay and Plumb Beach. Their enthusiasm was a welcome reminder of just how purely, stupidly joyful the pursuit and observation of birds can be.

A year’s worth of idiosyncratically-chosen birds follows. A few were rarities, some of them lifers. Others were birds I see every year, but that took on new meaning in 2020.

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Floyd Bennett Field

50 Favorite Places #26
It has history. It has creepy ruined buildings and empty hangars. It has miles of runways and a coastline. It has birds, from soaring raptors to twittering finches to goofy woodcocks. It has that most coveted of urban luxuries: space.

What it doesn’t have are easy transit connections. Consequently, I’d lived in Brooklyn for more than three years before I made my way to the end of the 2 subway line, found the Q35 bus stop alongside the Nostrand Junction Target store, got off by the Gateway Marina and dashed across Flatbush Avenue to what was, at one time, the main commercial airport serving New York City.

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Salt Marsh Nature Center at Marine Park

50 Favorite Places #24
My pursuit of birds has taught me a lot about my city. Before I got serious about birding Brooklyn, much of the borough south of Church Avenue was a mystery to me. Sure, there was Coney Island and Brighton Beach and DiFara Pizza and all those lettered avenues you run past during the Brooklyn Half Marathon . . . but I had at best a glancing familiarity with vast swaths of the city.

For example, I’d never heard of Marine Park. And even after I heard of it (from eBird, naturally), I had no clue where it was or how to get there without a car. But it seemed like one of those places someone attempting a local “biggish year” should go, and so, after looking it up on a map and figuring out transit connections, off I went.

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Sunset Park

50 Favorite Places #21
This is about Sunset Park – the actual park, not the neighborhood of the same name (though I love the neighborhood as well). In general, I rank parks according to the quantity, variety and novelty of the birds I’ve seen or aspire to see within their boundaries. Sunset Park is an exception. Not so with Sunset Park. While you can see birds there – Red Tailed Hawks and Kestrels and Crows of both the American and Fish persuasions, as well as the ubiquitous pigeons, House Sparrows and starlings, other common backyard birds, and the occasional weary migrant – it’s no one’s idea of a birding hot spot. The fact that I love it so much despite its failure to contribute a single species to my life list attests to its other charms.

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Plumb Beach

IMG_8320 (3)50 Favorite Places #20

Or is it Plum? Over the years, it’s been called both. The “NYC Go” site describes “Plum” as a misspelling, then proceeds to assert the name derives from beach plums (plumbs?) indigenous to the area. Old photographs from the collection of the Brooklyn Historical Society show the name spelled Plum.  But at some point – and I’ve not been able to pinpoint exactly when, or why – the official spelling changed to Plumb. If you pull off the Belt Parkway into the rather tatty parking area today, “Plumb Beach” is what you’ll see on the official National Park Service sign.

Before it was either Plumb Beach or Plum Beach, it was Plum (not Plumb) Island, cut off from mainland Brooklyn by a tidal creek. Its isolation contributed to a colorful history, documented by my running teammate Keith Williams in his (sadly defunct) blog, The Weekly Nabe. I won’t go into the details – you can read Keith’s telling here – but the highlights include the world’s shortest ferry route, grandiose military plans, a squatters’ encampment, contraband liquor, illegal prize fights, and of course, because this is NYC, Robert Moses.

It was Moses who demoted Plum from Island to mere Beach. With Hog Creek filled in for the construction of his Belt Parkway, Plum(b) joined the rest of Brooklyn. And while it’s still not easy to get to by foot or public transit, it’s a cinch if you have a car. Classic Moses.

Since 1972, Plumb Beach has been part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, administered by the National Park Service. It’s an unlikely national park. There’s not much of a buffer between it and the congested Belt Parkway, just a narrow strip of grass and a bike/pedestrian path. Even from the bike path, the beach and its adjacent tidal marsh are mostly hidden from view by scrubby growth. The trash-strewn parking lot and its permanently closed visitor center offer the only clues that something might be up.

Its unlikeliness is precisely what I like about it. Though Plumb Beach is no longer an island, it’s still a world apart. On summer weekends, beach-going families congregate on the sand west of the jetty, while kite surfers provide a show out on the water. The pious splash and lounge fully covered, next to sunbathers covered with practically nothing.

The wilder beach on the other side of the jetty is the domain of fishermen, off-leash dogs (the bane of my existence) and birders. Its dunes surround a shallow basin that transforms itself twice daily, going from lake dotted with swaying grasses to mudflats strewn with debris. From the beach, you wouldn’t know it was there.

Birders know it, of course. We desire the birds it conceals: herons and egrets and rails and shorebirds, swooping skimmers, diving terns, skulking sparrows. The other group who knows it are sexually marginalized men, also drawn by its possibilities for concealment, also motivated by desire.

There’s an undeniable awkwardness that comes from being fully kitted out as a Bird Nerd – convertible shorts, baseball cap, binoculars, spotting scope – in a place where others are kitted out in, well, nothing. And, I assume, an even greater awkwardness being naked or recently naked or about to get naked in a place where others are peering through binoculars while carrying powerful telephoto lenses. Sometimes, to combat the awkwardness, greetings are exchanged. But in general, the two groups occupy the space as though it’s two separate spaces, parallel worlds.

My two most vivid memories of Plumb Beach are of a regally long-beaked Whimbrel plucking crabs from the interior mud flats at low tide, and of a regally naked man liberating his hair from its messy bun before stepping into the lagoon that fills that same space at high tide, then floating there among the grasses.

It’s been a couple of years now, and I haven’t seen either the bird or the man since. Both have acquired a dream-like quality. In this sweltering pandemic summer, Plumb Beach seems more remote than ever, at least for the car-less, and the quantity of trash in its parking lot and along its shore has reached frightening levels. But it’s still one of my favorite places in the city, if only because the idea of multiple worlds hidden behind the Belt Parkway enchants me so.

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