Birders Flock to the Hudson the Morning After Hurricane Sandy

“It’s amazing how variable the experiences can be. We were basically fine. No power loss and yet 8 million people are apparently without power.”

That was how a passerby summed it up for me when our respective paths came to a halt before a downed tree in Riverside Park. It was one of dozens of majestic tress struck down by the massive storm.

Famished animals, many left homeless by the hurricane, forraged for food among the litter of leaves and branches.

In the course of a walk by the river I saw feeding squirrels and starlings, some ducks and even a red-tailed hawk. A group of birders gathered at the 79th Street Boat Basin Cafe to watch storm-tossed ocean birds make their way up the Hudson toward New York Harbor, and ultimately back to the sea.

“Storm Petrels and jaegers are things that we wouldn’t ordinarily see here but after hurricanes they often turn up,” said Dr. Richard Fried a veterinarian and local birder.

“A lot of birds that get blown off course never make it back to where they’re supposed to go because they’re exhausted or injured or they’re in the wrong habitat to get food or they’re preyed upon by predators they don’t normally have to defend themselves against.”

According to Fried, The Ornithology Department for the Museum of Natural History has put out a call asking birders to bring the bodies of rare species they might come across to the museum to be added to their collections.

POSTSCRIPT: 1/5/13 Columbia University Journalism School students Matthew Claiborne and Salima Koroma produced this great piece on post-Sandy birding using some of the above footage shot along the Hudson River during and after Sandy.

Gull Under Glass

Earlier this year, Brooklyn artist George Boorujy began putting renderings of ocean birds in bottles and setting them adrift in New York’s waterways in an effort to connect with other New Yorkers and gather information on their interactions with the ocean and local marine life. He recently launched one of his bottles from the deck of The Frying Pan, a lightship docked on the Hudson River, as part of an exhibition New York’s P.P.O.W. Gallery held in collaboration with Underwater New York. Check back in the days ahead to track the bottle’s progress, or visit NY Pelagic.

River Summer

I spent the better part of the weekend with a group of teachers staying on board the Seawolf, a research vessel docked on the Hudson as part of the Environmental Consortium of Hudson Valley Colleges & Universities’ River Summer program. The five-day session was packed with lectures, site visits and research projects. As glad as I am to have squeaked through my last chemistry class years ago, I didn’t mind the science lessons at River Summer. Studying the ecology and development of New York City with the entire Hudson River watershed as a classroom changes everything. The main thing you learn is that, in addition to being a source of wonderful stories, the river is also a great teacher.

Different Strokes

It’s a sweltering summer afternoon. The temperature is edging toward 90 and the sparkling Hudson looks like a mirage. There’s a small group of people paddling around in the water. I move in for a closer look.

“It’s like bath water,” says Nancy King, a local cyclist who calls the sandy inlet located midway between the George Washington Bridge and the 125th Street sewage treatment plant Paradise Cove.

“When the tide is high the salt comes in and it cleans things out,” says King who prefers the Hudson to the local beaches. “I spent my summers in Montauk so I’m used to clean water. Coney Island, as exciting as it is, I just wouldn’t swim in it.”

King met Harlem resident Eric Schechter here a year ago. The British-born writer and filmmaker swims in these waters at every opportunity and considers them to be as clean as rainwater despite the occasional solid waste plume.

“There is a time of day– I don’t know quite how it works–when debris does show up and all the famous condoms and Tampax and other effluvium from the city comes to the edge.“

But Schechter is undeterred. “My imagination would dry up without this. It’s as simple as that. This is the joy of my life.”

While the Hudson’s water quality has improved considerably since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, raw sewage overflow continues to pose a health risk to swimmers. Even officials who claim New York waters are the cleanest they’ve been in more than a century advise would-be bathers to steer clear of the river after rain storms.

When I meet Schechter walking by the river a few days after his swim he complains about a soreness in his throat and joints. Coincidence?

Lead, pesticides and PCBs aside, raw sewage (specifically enterococcus, a bacteria commonly found in human waste) is what poses the most immediate health threat. Riverkeeper, a Hudson River advocacy group, runs a testing program that issues periodic water quality reports. In accordance with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, levels up to 35/100ml — about four tablespoons per cup — are deemed to be safe.

Despite its proximity to a wastewater treatment plant, this inviting stretch of the river– referred to by Riverkeeper as George Washington Bridge Mid-channel– has passed water quality tests with flying colors since 2008.

Sixty-five year old Antonio Conejo says he’s been swimming here for the last 25 years and he has no complaints. His wife waits on shore, nonetheless, to make sure he doesn’t spend too much time in the murky water. 

“When he told his doctor (that he swam in the Hudson), recalls Conejo’s wife laughing, he said (“You should get) five or six shots.”

Their children grew up a block from the river but prefer to swim in a pool.

“They don’t do crazy stuff like this.” she says.

To access Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Testing data click HERE.

“Dub Baby” used courtesy of BonesUK / ccMixter

Message In A Bottle

Is it possible to live plastic-free? And why bother? Because the plastic bag or bottle that doesn’t make it into a trash bin could end up washing down a storm drain and in the Hudson River. In this short video, a plastic-free lifestyle advocate talks about her effort to live plastic-free in NYC.

“Naa Yanga” used with the permission of Benjamin Robert Tubb of Public Domain Music (