Drama in the Black Mangroves

What a joy to see the great egrets again, chasing each other around in the pond below my house in Fish Bay. I knew most of the black mangrove trees had been stripped of leaves and blown over, but didn’t know how the birds had fared.

When I arrived I saw there was some water in the pond, and one day there were five great egrets down there at once. These seem to be resident birds because they have the long feathery frills and green patches on their faces that indicate they are breeding.

The water attracted a variety of other birds too.

The clapper rails were particularly noisy, calling out to each other loudly, and easy to spot because the pond edges were so exposed.  

A little blue heron came to fish in the pond.
And a gray kingbird perched on a dead branch, swooping out to catch bugs flying by – with plenty to choose from.
One morning I was very excited to see some movement by the edge of the pond that turned out to be a red-faced common gallinule (formerly called a common moorhen).
It was a mother and a baby. No wait, two babies.
They swam across the pond and then were hidden again. But not well enough. In a few minutes I saw out of the corner of my eye a pearly-eyed thrasher flying by with a black fuzzy ball dangling from its sharp beak. Oh no! Immediately the mother gallinule went chasing after the kidnapper, clucking and crying out in the bushes where I couldn’t see what was happening.
Finally I saw the mother creeping out of the bushes, and I imagined her heartbreak - but then I saw that miraculously both babies were with her.
Unfortunately one baby was hopping – its leg seemed to have been injured during the thrasher capture.
The unrepentant thrasher watched from a branch.
I haven’t seen the gallinule family since then, so I don’t know if the baby recovered.
But I have seen green herons, and black smooth-billed anis, adapting to the changed, less-leafed environment.
It has been great to see so many old friends still here, despite all the changes and turmoil.

Familiar Faces in the Snow

Great Blue Heron in Jamaica Bay, New York City

The holidays have come and gone and I am still in New York City. It has been a long time since I spent a winter up north, and the first since I became interested in birds.
My birding adventures started when my friend Kathy came to visit us in Fish Bay in 2011 and wanted to explore the black mangrove pond below our house. I knew there were some noisy birds down there but had been too busy to go down and check them out. I was excited to see several types of herons and egrets.

Great Blue Heron in Fish Bay, St John VI

In the summer I was happy to find herons in New York too, and became a seasonal volunteer with the New York City Audubon Society monitoring the foraging activity of herons and egrets in Jamaica Bay, near Kennedy airport.
In this difficult season it has been even more heart-warming to see some familiar birds – like the great blue heron – still here this winter.
I never expected to be out birding in the snow, but I have found it motivates me to get out of the house to see which ones are here, even when the temperatures are below freezing.
Another all-year bird here is the American kestrel. In St. John I see them sitting in the tops of trees, or on the wires waiting to catch unwary lizards that venture out to sun themselves on the road. In New York the kestrels also sit in treetops, now leafless, but are more likely to be preying on the house sparrows and mice they see on the ground in the city.    

Resident Red-tailed hawks also can be found both in St. John and New York City. In the city they go after rats and mice, and can snatch pigeons on the wing. In St. John they eat rodents and birds as well – maybe lizards too.
Many other birds can be seen in both New York and St. John at different times of the year, but very few can be seen in the winter in both places.
Laurel Brannick from the Virgin Islands National Park has led weekly bird walks at St. John’s Francis Bay for many years, but is now temporarily assigned to New York’s Gateway National Recreation Area. She and I recently went birding on a snowy morning in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. It was too cold to stay out for long, and the birds looked pretty uncomfortable too, even with their down jackets. But it was good to be out together again.   

Laurel is currently working on a slide show for the National Park Service documenting the migration pathways and other connections between New York City and the Virgin Islands birds. It is a nice way for us to keep connected as well, looking through photos from St. John and also learning new information about northern birds.








Thankful for Life

This fall season has brought so much loss and devastation. Friends and neighbors are working wearily to restore some sense of normalcy, while many from our Virgin Islands community have dispersed and are facing the onset of unwelcome winter chills. Some are really struggling for feelings of gratitude.

Nevertheless many people are saying “Thank God for life”. Even when times are hard, there can be joy in hugs from family and friends, the pleasures of meals and music, and hopes for the future.

Also birds.

Up in New York City I have been searching for peace by going out looking for birds, and trying to catch them in action with my new telephoto lens. In Jamaica Bay, next to Kennedy Airport, the shoveler ducks made me laugh by sticking their fat butts in the air as they pulled up weeds on the bottom of a pond. They were happy to be face down in icy water.

 A great blue heron was much more dignified, a cool character I saw as a model for coping with turbulence.  

The dark coots reminded me of the ones I saw in Chocolate Hole at last year’s Christmas bird count on St. John.

And I did feel a bit sad to see the snowy egrets heading south - wondering if any birds will find their way to the Fish Bay pond, or if they will just pass by St. John to find a better place this winter. 

Closer to my apartment, I met unfamiliar migrant birds in the small park at the tip of Manhattan.

My favorite was the yellow-bellied sapsucker (a type of woodpecker) that ignored me as it punched holes in cedar trees, waiting to slurp up the sap with its long tongue, along any insects trying to share the sweet treat.

A northern flicker, another type of woodpecker, stopped for a moment on a nearby oak tree.


Meanwhile a tiny hermit thrush posed bravely on a different part of the cedar tree, watching me warily.


As Thanksgiving Day approaches, most of the migratory birds have already moved south, and chilly winds make bird walks less appealing. There is no electricity in Fish Bay, though, so while I am here I still need to get out and look. I have heard that November is a good month to find rare birds in the city, as they sometimes get blown off course on their way to their usual wintering places.   

Have You Seen These Secretive Hunters?

There are some black-crowned night herons on St. John, but few people have seen them - maybe because they are crepuscular.

When I first heard that word I thought it meant that they creep around in the bushes, possibly in a muscular way. More experienced birders know that it means they are most active at twilight and therefore are hard to spot.

In Fish Bay we often hear loud ‘kwaaks’ around dinner time indicating that the night herons are coming on duty. The black mangrove pond near our house is a good place for them to catch small fish and crabs. By the time I hear their calls it is too dark to go out with look for them. The only time I have seen the black-crowned night herons is in the early morning, before they take off to hide during the day.

Since they are so rare and reclusive on St. John, I was surprised to learn that the black crowns are the most widespread type of heron, found all around the world except in Antarctica and Australia. In the tropics, these herons generally stay in the same place all year, while northern ones tend to move to slightly warmer areas for the winter. In New York City during the summer they breed in great numbers out on small islands in the harbor, and often show up in Central Park in broad daylight to entertain the tourists.  

 Why do ours have to be so shy?

The yellow-crowned night herons are not as secretive. They hunt at night and have heavy bills that they use to punch holes in the backs of the large land crabs, which actually do creep around in the dark in a muscular way. During the day the yellow-crowns hang out in the mangrove trees, not really hiding, and occasionally come up into the yard to check out our pool. In the evening we sometimes see them out along the Fish Bay road when we come back from dinner in town. 


The two herons are easy to distinguish by their looks – except when they are young. The juveniles have quite similar plumage. I find the heavier, blunter bill on the yellow-crowned one to be the best way to tell the difference. 
Juvenile yellow-crowned night heron
Juvenile black-crowned night heron


Talking About Trees in Dark Times

Is it wrong to focus on trees when there are so many challenges and injustices in the world that need attention?

After immersing myself in a Virgin Islands tree identification project with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John, I found myself paying much more attention to the natural world. Not just trees, but birds making nests and eating berries, plus bees, butterflies, bats and other pollinators and seed dispersers. 

Watching and learning about the complexity of woodland ecosystems brings me joy and makes me appreciate the miracle of being alive. What a gift. But is it okay for me to spend time this way when I could be responding to so many desperate calls for political action?

For over 20 years I devoted myself to advocacy about climate change risks and the need to replace fossil fuels as our primary energy sources. I presented scientific information about increased greenhouse gas emissions causing higher temperatures, rising sea levels and fiercer storms – and outlined actions to prevent damaging disruption of global atmospheric conditions.

Over the years, scientific predictions about the consequences of failing to make drastic cuts in emissions have become more and more alarming, even as the impacts are already being widely experienced. Now I brood about what will become of us, and our children, as political leaders rush to undo national climate change response measures – along with many other elements of a just and caring society.

What more can I do at this point?

I find that I am most drawn to go for a walk in the woods.

A much-quoted poem ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake’ written by Berthold Brecht in 1939 on the brink of World War II, starts out “Truly I live in dark times” and goes on to ask:

      “What times are these, in which
        A conversation about trees is almost a crime
       For in doing so we maintain silence about so much wrongdoing?”

It is certainly a privilege to have the time and opportunity to talk about trees and birds when others are struggling for mere survival. But it may also have political significance. In a world of violently partisan politics and alternative facts, talking about trees may be a valuable way to try to find common ground – or at least your own bearings.    

For me, a walk in the woods usually offers quiet and calm, an escape from anxiety, talking heads and bitter arguments. I become observant, looking at live things rather than figures on a screen or the pages of a book. I listen to birds and wonder at the beauty and complexity of everything around me – feeling fully present.

Trees are mysterious. It seems miraculous how they make food out of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water – supporting almost all other forms of life on earth. Many cultures have celebrated the spiritual significance of trees – as God’s creations, as manifestations of the universal life force, as links between the seen and unseen worlds. They create forest communities in which individual trees both support and compete with each other, while also providing sustenance for many other species – including us.  

Many trees have life spans much longer than ours, standing as durable markers of cultural history within the landscape. At the same time their lost leaves and new sprouts, short-lived flowers and falling fruit mark the seasons and remind us of our own ephemeral existence.

Still, we have power over trees – cutting them down to burn them or build with them, or just to clear the land, cultivating them for food and medicines, cross-breeding them and even modifying their genes.  

Quietly standing there, the trees do not judge or criticize. But sometimes they do manage to provoke a sense of responsibility, calling on us to preserve the natural world we depend on.

How does this talk about trees benefit people in need - growing populations faced with enormous inequities and injustices?

One thought is that communities focusing on preserving and cultivating trees and edible plants can help people feed and support themselves – while also organizing themselves to address other economic, social and environmental challenges. This may sound like a silly and inadequate response to today’s widespread distress, but it does seem more interesting and productive to me than many other suggestions.   
In connection with my work with the United Nations, I met Wangari Maathai from Kenya, who started the Green Belt Movement in 1977 after she saw local forests being cleared to make space for commercial plantations. The result for her community was not just loss of firewood and forest products, but also the water that had been held in the land by the trees. By the time she won the Nobel Peace prize in 2004, members of the Green Belt Movement had planted over 30 million trees, which restored the land and provided fuel, food, shelter, and income. In her Nobel Prize lecture, she reported:

 “Initially, the work was difficult because historically our people have been persuaded to believe that because they are poor, they lack not only capital, but also knowledge and skills to address their challenges. Instead they are conditioned to believe that solutions to their problems must come from ‘outside'. … We developed a citizen education program, during which people identify their problems, the causes and possible solutions. They then make connections between their own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society. … They come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.” www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-lecture-text.html

In the current US world of cell phones and online shopping, planting trees may not seem very practical or appealing – like something for poor countries, or from our ancestors’ distant past. But growing your own food does have a lot of advantages – including the American virtue of self-reliance.

It may make the most sense in rural areas, but can also be feasible in urban settings. In Detroit, which has been experiencing de-urbanization, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is using agricultural activities as a way to strengthen communities and address socio-economic disparities. www.miufi.org/ Meanwhile public orchards have been established in Seattle, Boston, Asheville and Madison, Wisconsin. www.takepart.com/article/2014/07/09/public-fruit-trees In San Francisco, the Urban Orchard Project helps community-based organizations plant and maintain publicly accessible fruit trees, including in Golden Gate Park.  https://sfenvironment.org/article/managing-our-urban-forest-types-of-urban-agriculture/urban-orchards. 

Trees are also important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as they absorb carbon dioxide. New York City recently finished planting one million new trees as part of an effort to help offset climate change, while also capturing storm water, removing pollutants from the air, and cooling and shading the city.

In dark times it is critical to find sources of hope for the future. While trees might help provide practical responses to public challenges, they can also provide spiritual inspiration. The joy that disparate people find in trees and flowers and birds sometimes brings them together in unexpected conversations, quietly acknowledging the interdependent connections we share as living creatures coexisting in the natural world.

Low Water Leads to Bird Fights

By April, the bottom mud was exposed in the shallow pond near our Fish Bay house. During months without rain there is no freshwater runoff to capture from the hill behind us, while a seasonal drop in the Fish Bay water level cuts off the flow of salt water through the inlet.
Small fish come into the pond along with the flow from the bay, and get trapped as the water starts drying up. The easy fishing attracted egrets and herons and other wetland birds – and one morning there was some unusual squawking and a flurry of wings so I went down to investigate. A couple of great egrets seemed to be quarreling over fishing rights.

                                        This pond’s not big enough for both of us.”

                                                Then a third great egret dropped in.
                                           Maybe I got a little bit too close to the action.
Meanwhile other smaller birds were busy snarfing up the fish.
A green heron

                              A spotted sandpiper
A clapper rail

     An adult little blue heron

         And a juvenile little blue heron – their feathers are white for the first year.
                           The juvenile little blue heron got chased off by the adult.

                                      But was tolerated by one of the great egrets

                                           A busy and exciting time in the pond

Why the Red Face, Gallinule?

This winter I lay in bed wondering about the strange sounds I was hearing from the pond below our house. I had learned the calls of the night herons and the clapper rails, and some of the frogs, but this was different – a high-pitched, drawn-out series of squawks.  

What could it be? The cries of some poor creature being tortured in the night? A witch’s laugh?

I finally found out when NPS ranger Laurel Brannick identified a similar sound at Francis Bay during one of the Friday morning bird walks. It turned out to be the call of a Common Gallinule, Gallinula galeata – formerly known as a Common Moorhen.
Check out recordings of some of its cackles, yelps and squawks from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or the Audubon Society.

It is not a rare bird, and is native to the Virgin Islands as well as many other places in the western hemisphere. The gallinules are related to clapper rails, and also American coots. Though common, they aren’t always easy to see because they usually hang out in dense swampy areas.

Besides alarming me, their loud calls are supposed to help them find their friends in the dark, or warn competitors to stay out of their territory. 

Eventually I was able to spot one of the gallinules down by our pond. It was sneaking through the pneumatophores – root-like projections that help the roots of black mangrove trees get oxygen – looking for snacks. They eat both plant parts and small aquatic creatures.


When you actually see one of the birds, its face is even more distinctive than its call. The bill is bright red with a yellow tip, and then the red bill seems to extend up the front of its face.

The red part that goes up its forehead above the bill is called a frontal plate or facial shield. It isn’t the same material as the bill, but a type of hard skin that grows from the base of the upper bill, and can swell up and get brighter in response to hormonal changes. This is not a common feature for a bird. (The related American coots do have a similar plate, though theirs is white rather than red.)

What a strange look. Why would anyone want to wear a red mask? 

One idea is that the gallinules’ facial shields help protect the birds’ faces when they are foraging in the swamp or defending their territory. Is that really effective or necessary?


Like so many other strange affectations, a red mask could just be a way of attracting prospective mates.

 Male and female gallinules both have a shield, so it is not a sign of male differentiation from – or dominance over – the females. Both sexes are socially aggressive, and they share parenting duties. For both, a bright shield is an indicator of good health and social status.   

Still, there is an element of courtship display and competition. A study of the some gallinule relatives in New Zealand (Pukeko swamphens) concluded that the size and width of the facial shield in males was strongly correlated with testes mass, suggesting that a large red mask is a sign of masculine strength.


But they also found that male social status can shift quickly. The gallinules’ testosterone levels (and facial shield size) quickly decrease if they do not respond successfully to challenges by other birds.