Hacking the park

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Team portrait (we were named by the individual in the middle)

A couple of weeks ago, I received one of those mysterious email invitations that cause those of us with suspicious minds to wonder if the offer is entirely on the up and up. Would I like to participate in an exciting event called “Hack the Park”? For free? With a guest of my choosing?

The only catch was – well, as far as I could tell, there was none. I was invited, but not required, to blog about the experience . . . and since I’m always on the lookout for blog fodder, why not?

I said sure, and invited one of my Prospect Park Track Club teammates to be my date.  Continue reading

Brooklyn nature, red in tooth and claw

Marathon training has put a serious damper on my birding habit. Last year, I tried to finesse the conflict by incorporating what I called “birding jogs” (which involved far more walking and standing than jogging) into my easy mileage. This year, I’ve called bullshit on that practice and erected a firewall between my two hobbies.

So far, it’s holding reasonably well.

But today was a rest day on my training schedule. Naturally, I spent it unrestfully, tromping through Prospect Park with binoculars around my neck. I saw some great birds – the rarest a worm-eating warbler, the prettiest a male redstart, the most arresting a chestnut-sided warbler in fall plumage, lacking the namesake chestnut sides but seemingly dusted with greenish-yellow glitter on its back, so that it shimmered when it moved.

That’s not what I want to write about, though. What I want to write about is nature’s brutal, seamy underside. It’s not all pretty flowers and birdsongs out there, you know. Sometimes it’s the stuff of horror movies. Continue reading

A clumsy runner greets the new year

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My first running mishap of 2015 came early. Tuesday’s program called for a loop and a half of Prospect Park, cutting across Center Drive to run the bottom of the park twice. On my second half-loop, for variety’s sake, I went off-road and onto the wide dirt path that hugs the south shore of the lake. It was cold and windy, but the bitterest of the bitter cold hadn’t yet hit, and a light snow softened January’s sharp edges.

What a beautiful morning.

Until – whoosh. My foot skidded on a sheet of ice, my arms flailed (great as a comic effect, useless as a practical measure), and I went down hard.

Next came the sound of ice cracking as a runner-size hole opened and half-submerged me in a deep mud puddle – mud pond, really. I had two immediate (and equally useless) responses.

Useless response #1: yell “goddammitshitfuck” at the top of my lungs.

Useless response #2: attempt to use the unbroken ice around me as a support to lift myself out of the freezing water.

As anyone who ever watched a child-in-peril melodrama (winter edition) knows, #2 does not work. But sometimes you have to learn things for yourself, and I was surprised and outraged when my efforts led to the horrifying sound of more ice cracking, a wider hole, and a profound sense of futility.

The only way up and out was to plunge my hands under the water to find solid ground. I did that and struggled to my feet, soaked to the skin. There was no Lassie to the rescue. There was no Saint Bernard with a flask of warming brandy. There was only a bundled-up walker, who clucked sympathetically as she passed but did not stop, and two miles between me and home.

I resumed my run, because what else could I do?

It was quite impressive how quickly my gloves and jacket froze solid. Running through the deserted park in that state was tough; running through the populated streets of Park Slope was even tougher. Knots of people are always milling around New York Methodist Hospital, and though you have to work hard to attract attention here in the Big City, I did get a few sidelong glances as I passed them. When I finally made it to our building, I understood why. The face reflected in the entry way mirror was that of a doomed polar explorer: frosted eyebrows, full-face ice beard, desperate, haunted eyes.

A plush robe, a hot drink and a warm shower chased away the deep chill surprisingly quickly. The bruise on my left hip is more stubborn, and I’ve spent the past two days charting its progress. It’s 6 inches long and 3 inches at its widest (yes, I measured) and is shaped like Jamaica flipped upside down. At first, with its concentric rings of different colors, it looked a bit like a topographic map. Later, I saw in it a swatch of old-fashioned chintz: two billowing pink cabbage roses surrounded by soft-edged foliage in pastel shades of purple, blue and green. Now it’s mostly darkened to midnight violet.

Though Eric can’t look at it without grimacing, I find it endlessly fascinating and oddly beautiful.

Postscript – when I ran by the site of the incident yesterday morning (safely on-road this time), I saw that park maintenance vehicles had been over the spot with a vengeance, breaking the ice and churning up the (now frozen) mud. It was my bad luck to be out running during what was probably a short window of danger, when enough snow had fallen to hide the ice but park workers had not yet rolled through.

Fall migration: first blood

Bird watching in Prospect Park is not generally a hazardous occupation.  How, then, did I end up with a bruised and bloodied chin, abrasions on the palms of both hands, and second degree road burn on my right knee?

It started innocently enough, on one of the woodchip paths that splits off from the paved walkway along the Lullwater (such a gentle name!), sloping down to the water and then back up.  I was scanning the water for herons (unsuccessfully) and the trees and bushes for warblers (only slightly more successfully).  At the point where the trail rejoined the pavement – WHAM. It was as though someone or something had grabbed my foot.  I went down hard, leading with my chin, glasses flying off my face and skittering onto the grating of a storm drain.  (Mercifully, they did not fall in.)

The bucolic stillness of the Lullwater was broken by some truly vile curses.

I picked myself up and looked around.  I can’t be completely sure what happened, but let’s just say that strong circumstantial evidence points to a steel reinforcing rod, left over from a construction project and sticking out from the ground at more or less the spot where I went down, as the prime suspect.

Birder, beware

Birder, beware

Gingerly, I brought my hand up to the throbbing ball of pain at the bottom of my face. I was relieved to find my chin still there.  I was less relieved when I lowered my hand and saw that it was full of blood.

I speedwalked past the Boat House – locked tight, no park workers around – duly noting a black-crowned night heron perched on a snag in the Lullwater Cove.  A strange jostling sensation with each step had me worried that my chin might be fixing to fall off (worst case) or bounce itself into some painful and disfiguring angle (slightly less-worse case).

Out on the main road, I flagged down a park truck and got a wad of paper towels and directions to the nearest park maintenance office.  “They have a first aid kit there,” I was told.  I’m sure they do – however, at that moment, the first aid kit was securely behind locked doors.  The restroom was open, though, so I was able to clean myself up a little and inspect the damage as best I could in the prison-style, polished metal “mirror.”  Not only was my chin still there, it seemed to be quite firmly attached. And despite all the blood, there was no gaping wound that might require stitches.

So I did what any normal person would do under the circumstances, considering it was a beautiful fall day, the height of songbird migration, and the middle of marathon training to boot: I jogged along the woodchip path back to Center Drive, looking for warblers and thrushes.  I did have a moment of panic the first time I lifted up my binoculars to investigate something fluttering in the canopy.  I couldn’t see a thing: had I broken them in the fall?  Another small mercy – my binoculars were fine.  It was just that the eyepieces were covered in blood.

In praise of birding

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Green heron – photo credit to Brandohl Photography.

Not in praise of birds – though a photograph of a green heron (aka butorides virescens, Latin for “heron so tiny you could smuggle it home in your shoulder bag, and so cute you’ll want to, but you won’t, because it would be wrong”) illustrates this post – but in praise of the act of birding itself.  By “birding,” I mean walking slowly, ideally in a park or other natural setting, most likely with a pair of decent binoculars around your neck, and stopping frequently to investigate a flutter of wings in the canopy or underbrush, or locate the source of a particular song or call, or simply because a spot looks – or has the reputation of being – “birdy.”

I spend a considerable time running in Prospect Park, but it was only after I started birding again last March that I really got to know it.  Like most runners, I stuck pretty close to the main park drive.  If I veered off the road onto the dirt, I still generally paralleled the roadway.  I used familiar mile markers to gauge my pace, stopping only at drinking fountains (and for occasional bathroom emergencies).  With the exception of my Prospect Park Track Club teammates and a few other well-known fixtures of the Brooklyn running community, to whom I would wave (or occasionally run a partial loop with), I passed other runners in silence.

Birding is different.  In part that’s because birders move slowly, but it’s also, I think, because birders are an even smaller and more eccentric tribe than runners.  When we see one another, we almost always stop to compare our sightings and offer tips (“worm-eating warbler was working the lower pool half an hour ago”).  Sure, some of us are testy about off-leash dogs, but in my experience, birders as a group are almost absurdly friendly and helpful.  They also know the park really, really well.  Thanks to my birding colleagues, I now have a greatly expanded geographic vocabulary that takes in the Pools, Upper and Lower; the Lullwater; the Lily Pond; the Butterfly Meadow; and so on.  I am particularly proud to know which lamppost is the famous Lamppost 249 (to complicate things, it now bears a different number) and would be more than happy to point it out to you if you’re interested.

I’ve seen some great birds in the park, starting with the red-necked grebe that paid an extended visit in early spring, and including a prothonotary warbler so bright it seemed to glow, tail-wagging prairie warblers, diving ospreys and bobbing sandpipers.  I’ve watched our three green heron fledglings lose their baby-bird down and grow into streaky adolescence.

I’ve also seen lots of interesting non-bird stuff, and had some interesting non-birding conversations.  There was the couple having sex in a clearing surrounded by phragmites.  There was the (different) couple who became engaged by the Butterfly Meadow: I heard a woman crying, then laughing, then saw her holding up her hand so the light would catch the diamond on her ring finger while she cried/laughed.  There was the older man who works the night shift, goes home to take his tea, then heads to the park to walk – and who told me a long and improbable story about a chance meeting with a musician playing the bass, right here in the woods on the Peninsula, yes, right here, no idea how he carried his instrument in, and how he spent the entire morning jamming with him, spoken word and bass, just jamming.

As fall migration picks up, I’m looking forward both to more birds (my seen-in-the-park list is already up to 114 species) and more non-bird encounters.

(A quick note about this blog – technical difficulties involving the catastrophic failure and subsequent replacement of the hard drive on my brand new computer resulted in a month-long hiatus from posting.  But we’re officially back in business.)