Tag Archives: urban ecosystem

An urban moment

We were out walking a couple of nights ago. As we crossed one street, I realized there was a raccoon looking up at me. It was standing inside a storm drain. “There’s a raccoon,” I said in surprise.

Carol didn’t see it at first — you don’t necessarily expect to see a raccoon in a storm drain. It kept bobbing up and down: it would poke its head up above the grating, then duck down back under the grating, then back up, then down.

Carol said something like, “Hello, raccoon,” and gave it a wide berth. So did I. It was not a cute raccoon; it was a little creepy.

Urban hike: North Beach to Haight Ashbury

We started walking at about eleven, after buying some nectarines at the North Beach Farmer’s Market. It was a perfectly sunny day, and not too chilly. We climbed up Taylor Street to enjoy the views from Nob Hill (elev. 341 ft.) — we could see Alcatraz Island, the waterfront, and sailboats on the bay, but haze kept us from seeing across the bay. We passed Grace Cathedral where a man in a black cassock was showing off the Ghiberti doors to a knot of three or four people, down the hill, and over to Alamo Square. In the Alamo Square park, a young woman held out a camera asked us to take a picture of her and her two friends in front of the famous row of “Painted Ladies.” As we walked away, Carol said, “I didn’t even notice them until I turned to take the picture.” They were behind us as we were walking. “Neither did I,” I admitted.

There were swarms of people at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. We decided not to go in, so we went across the way to the DeYoung Museum. There were swarms of people there, too. Why pay all that money for admission fees (thirty dollars at the Academy of Science!) if you’re not going to be able to see anything because of all the people? We walked over to Haight Ashbury. I wanted to visit Forever After Books, but it was gone. I had never been to Haight Street before.

Except for the half a dozen stores selling drug paraphernalia, Haight Street would be just another upscale shopping district, thronged with upper middle class young people. A scruffy-looking white kid with a beard and a knapsack walked by us; from his knapsack hung a bright metal coffee cup and a red teflon-coated frying pan. He looked kind of dirty and a little bewildered. He had a cane, and he decided to hold it in front of himself, balancing it on his outstretched hand as he walked through the crowds. It tottered, he moved his hand to keep it balanced, and it almost hit the face of a girl with perfect hair and a fashionable tank-top. She gave him a look, part sneer, part scorn, part anger that he would intrude on her physical space. I didn’t blame her one bit. This poor neo-hippie kid was trying to go back to a mythical time when Flower Power ruled Haight Street, when guys could balance canes on their hand and girls would think it was cool. Today, being a hippie is just another consumer lifestyle choice that involves buying stuff at head shops.

On a quiet side street of Haight, a young woman was having a garage sale — really a sidewalk sale since her apartment didn’t have a garage. For months, Carol has been looking for a basic sewing machine that she can use to make some basic skirts — and there was a sewing machine, barely used, and still in its original box. For months, Carol has been looking for a duffle bag with wheels, so when she’s going to promote her books or work on composting toilets she has a big piece of luggage to carry what she needs — and there was the perfect duffle. She bought both for twenty-two dollars, put the sewing machine in the rolling duffle bag, and with the sewing machine rolling behind us we went over to Duboce Avenue to catch the trolley back to North Beach. It was the perfect ending to a ten-mile urban hike.

Not this year

A couple of Devoted Readers have asked if the Herring Gulls are nesting on our rooftop again this year (some past posts on this topic are here, here, and here).

The answer is that no, the gulls are not nesting on our roof this year. The old nest that had been there for three years, re-used every year, is now completely gone, washed away by some of the heavy rain storms we had in late winter and early spring. There are gulls nesting on nearby rooftops, but not on our roof.

Beech nuts

Yesterday I wound up walking past the fast food joint at the corner of Elm and County. No, I didn’t go in to the fast food joint — even though I crave fatty food with the onset of cold weather, I’ve sworn off fast food for a while because of what it does to my digestive system (you don’t want to know). I walked under the old beech tree that grows along Elm Street across from the fast food joint, a big old tree that somehow survived the decline of the neighborhood. Its branches spread out over the sidewalk, and the sidewalk was almost entirely covered in beech nut shells. A fat Eastern Gray Squirrel idly hopped towards the tree, just out of my reach, keeping a weather on me the whole time. I thought, That’s what I should be doing for fatty food instead of fast food hamburger products, I should be eating nuts.

But then when I was in the supermarket tonight, I forgot to buy a jar of nuts.

Harbor seals

Sunday night’s storm left enough snow to make walking difficult on our habitual routes, so this afternoon I walked along the piers nearest our apartment. I walked out State Pier, past the crane belonging to the Cuttyhunk Ferry Company, dodged a pickup truck driving past the wire and rigging warehouse of New Bedford Ship Supply, watched the Martha’s Vineyard ferry head out of the harbor, dodged another pickup truck belonging to the state environmental police, and went down to the end of the pier to take a look at the harbor in the waning light of a cloudy evening.

When I got to the end of State Pier, I was following a Red-breasted Merganser quite close to the pier when I swuddenly found myself looking into the face of a Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina) down in the water less than fifty feet away. It looked up at me, and I looked down at it. Another seal head popped up out of the water next to the first; two more seals rolled up out of the water farther out. The first seal dove under the water, and resurfaced again at a safer distance from the pier; I could hear the second seal breathing, a sort of huff–ffff sound as it exhaled sharply and then inhaled; then it dove under the surface and disappeared.

It is really remarkable to come upon such a large mammal in the middle of an urban environment. And seals are large, typically some five feet long and weighing over 250 pounds — in other words, about the size of a small American Black Bear (Ursus americanus). If I came across a Black Bear while I was walking around downtown New Bedford, I’d doubtless feel a tingling of fear and a little bit of awe; because seals stick to the water, I don’t feel fear when I see them, but the sense of awe is definitely there. I don’t feel that same awe when I look at a merganser or a gull — they’re too different, and I don’t feel much of anything when I look in their faces — but a seal has a real and recognizable face, and it’s pretty much the same size as I am.

I stood watching the seals for quite a while. At one point, I counted seven seals with their heads above the surface of the water, or just having gone under the surface moments before. I stood stock still, and after a while they began to ignore me, and they came in closer to the pier. I listened to a couple more of them breathing, huff-ffff. At last a deepwater lobster boat came close by going one way, and a small tugboat passed close by going the other way, and the seals moved further away from the pier. The light was beginning to fade, so I headed home.

Low tide

Carol and I walked over to Fairhaven late this afternoon. By the time we got to the public access boat landing, the tide was quite low.

“Want to walk down on the beach?” I said to Carol. The beach in question is perhaps 100 feet long, a short section of muddy, pebbly beach in between the paved boat landing and the piers of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

“OK,” she said. “First one to find the prize wins.”

We walked the short section of beach. There were lots or broken bottles, and small bits of plastic that had washed ashore. But there were also lots of shells, a surprising number of shells for such a disturbed section of shoreline. Particularly common were shells of the Common Slipper Shell, but there were also plenty of Ribbed Mussels and Northern Quahog.

“Look at this oyster,” said Carol, poking at a six-inch specimen of Eastern Oyster with her toe. It was a good shell, but it wasn’t a real prize.

I saw one or two other Eastern Oyster shells, a few Atlantic Bay Scallops, and some barnacles. I was looking for Common Periwinkles, which you can find in some of the most polluted parts of the harbor, when suddenly I spotted something very unusual half-buried in the muck. I pulled it out and held it up to show Carol: “Look, a sand dollar!” I said. The organism was dead, but the shell — technically called a “test” — was intact and perfect.

She came over to look at it. “You win the prize,” she said. It really was a prize — to think that a sand dollar was living in a marine industrial landscape! Carol had me rinse it off so we could take it home; and now it is sitting in our kitchen sink, drying out.

Nature and City: a preliminary checklist

How do you find Nature in the City? I’ve been developing the checklist below to help focus my own thoughts on this question. I suspect some of you may be thinking along the same lines and may have things to add. So even though this is merely a preliminary checklist, I’d thought I’d publish it here and see what you can add or correct.

Basic assumption: City isn’t separate from Nature or divorced from Nature; rather, City is an ecosystem (or collection of ecosystems) that is a subset of wider Nature. (Corollary: humans are not separate from Nature, they are an integral part of Nature.)

Purposes of the checklist: To remind me of what to look for to stay aware of the City ecosystem. To remind me of how City ecosystem affects my emotional and spiritual mood.

  1. Astronomical phenomena
    • Sunrise and sunset times
    • Sun’s angle of declination
    • Moonrise and moonset
    • Phase of the moon
    • Length of daylight and its effect on mood
  2. Meteorological phenomena
    • Precipitation: departure from seasonal norms
    • Temperature: departure from seasonal norms
    • Major weather events and their effects on mood
    • Climate and its effect on organisms
    • Climate and its effect on mood
  3. Plants
    • List of plant species
    • Trees: when they leaf out, when they lose leaves (N.B.: not just deciduous trees, conifers lose some needles every year) (include impact on mood)
    • Annual plants: when sprout, when flower, when go to seed
    • What organisms eat the various plants
  4. Birds, mammals, and other vertebrates
    • List of species observed
    • Birds: times of migration, breeding, nesting, molting
    • Mammals and other vertebrates: times of breeding and raising young
    • Predator/prey relationships, and/or food sources; times and locations of feeding
    • Habitat for each species
  5. Invertebrates
    • Seasonal appearances of invertebrates (e.g., cicadas)
    • Eating, breeding, other
  6. Interrelationships between humans and other species
    • Humans as food sources (e.g., squirrels and human trash, pigeons eating bread crumbs, etc.)
    • Humans as habitat providers (e.g., raptors which nest on skyscrapers, rats living in subways, etc.)
    • Species humans kill (e.g., roadkill, rat traps, etc.)
    • Emotional and spiritual effect of other species on humans
  7. Other?

Thanks to Mike for prompting me to post this.


Rob sent email reporting a coyote sighting near Rural Cemetery here in New Bedford, not far from the Dartmouth town line. He writes that he followed it for a short distance until it disappeared into the housing projects nearby.

So the coyotes have definitely moved into the area. New Bedfordites, make sure your cats stay indoors at night.


Sublimity consists, in part, of direct confrontation with unknowable mysteries of life and death. There are places in downtown New Bedford where you can stand at a window or in the open and look down on surrounding rooftops. The flat roof surfaces are always littered with shell fragments left by gulls, mostly Herring Gulls, dropping shellfish in order to break them open so they can eat the soft bits inside. The peaked roofs often show a coating of whitewash, gull guano, spreading down the peaks from where the gulls like to perch, facing into the sun. Midafternoon I was standing in a place where I could see down on half a dozen different rooftops. The sun broke through the clouds, and there was blue sky above, although the fog and low clouds wouldn’t let me see the mouth of the harbor, or even the steeples of Fairhaven across the harbor. With my binoculars I looked down on one Herring Gull, who was sitting on a pile of brown dead leaves and stalks, a pile which also included bits of green including a couple of dandelion leaves and bits of white trash or litter. It all looked too carefully piled up to be anything but a nest.

The Herring Gull casually stood up in the sun, stretched its wings out a little, and wandered off a few steps to where it was hidden from my view. The pile of leaves and litter had been hollowed out in the middle, and down inside I could see two olive-green eggs spotted with brown.

Since we moved here last August, I have been pretty sure that there’s a Herring Gull nesting colony on the rooftops of downtown New Bedford. With all the Herring Gulls in the neighborhood all year long this should not be surprising. A hundred years ago it would have been surprising; in Birds of Massachusetts, Richard Veit and Wayne Petersen write:

Before 1900, Herring Gulls were not known to breed south of eastern Maine. In the summer of 1912, the first nesting in Massachusetts was recorded by Allan Keniston on the south side of Edgartown Great Pond, Martha’s Vineyard, and, between 1919 and 1920, 20 pairs were found breeding on an ephemeral sandbar called Skiffs Island off the southern end of Chappaquidick Island. At the time, the prospects seemed so remote that Herring Gulls could ever establish themselves in Massachusetts in the face of the expanding human population that Forbush was prompted to state, “It is improbable that the Herring Gull can maintain itself anywhere on the coast of southern New England.” Defying Forbush’s prediction, the Herring gull underwent one of the most remarkable population expansions of any New England bird. The growth of the population between 1930 and 1970 was almost exponential until about 1965, when it leveled off. The slackening in the rate of increase may have been due to the refinement of garbage disposal, sewage treatment, and fish-processing practices because space for nesting sites does not seem to be a limiting factor. [p. 219; references removed for readability]

The fish processing plant off Route 6 on Fish Island regularly attracts Herring Gulls and other gulls, when the plant pumps blood and byproducts into the harbor; I’m sure they also frequent the other fish processing plants nearby. Gulls also sometimes flock after incoming fishing vessels, and they obviously eat shellfish that they find. Food sources may well be the limiting factor for the Herring Gull population in our neighborhood, since there are plenty of suitable rooftops on which to nest. As I stood watching this afternoon, I found only one other definite nest, and one possible nest, although I saw plenty of gulls in adult plumage who did not appear to be nesting. I stood looking down at those olive-green eggs for five or so minutes, and never saw the adult return to the nest.