This is a first in a series of dispatches from our team on-the-ground in New York City. Elsa Youngsteadt and Lea Shell are spending the next two weeks in the Big Apple looking at urban street trees and ants in medians and city parks – they’re assessing damage from Superstorm Sandy and installing equipment and sensors to measure the consequences of the storm on urban arthropods communities and ecosystem processes. They’re live-tweeting their work at @YourWild_Life. ~HM

When people hear that this is my first trip to New York City, there is a lot of excitement – not only do I get to visit every beautiful park in this beautiful city, but I get to meet other urban ecologists and hang out in medians all day. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

Elsa collecting field data on a Broadway median (Photo: Lea Shell).

In celebration of me trying my first New York bagel today, here is a baker’s dozen of factoids that I learned during my first couple of days working in New York City medians:

1.     After my first full day in the field, my ears won’t stop ringing.

2.     I’ve almost stopped hearing the honking and the sirens (which, evolutionarily speaking, could be a very bad thing).

3.     We can (almost) figure out when it’s safe to cross the street, even when the light is still red.

4.     We’re interested in measuring ecosystem processes, like the breakdown of dead leaf material, something that happens on the forest floor AND on a NYC median. In the city, we see both the “traditional” leaf litter and the discarded trash kind of litter. To measure the role urban arthropods play in processing these litters, we’re experimentally adding mesh bags of dead leaves and trash (brown lunch bags) and measuring their breakdown over time. I’m curious how the litter we intentionally add to the medians breaks down compared to the vast amounts of litter we’re already finding? We even saw a bird’s nest made entirely from discarded, shredded plastic grocery bags at the very top of a tree – the litter isn’t limited to just the median’s floor.

An on-the-ground view of a litter bag installed at Central Park (Photo: Lea Shell).

5.     The rumble from the trains below the Broadway medians made my feet tingle, and I can now recognize the bell tones that signal the next train is near. Has anyone studied the seismography of the trains… and I wonder if the ants mind (or even like!) all the shaking?

6.     The birds seem completely fearless as they fly straight towards you. Elsa and I are convinced that there is some sort of complex system of dares that go on between pigeons that go something like this,

Pigeon A: “OK, I’ve got a good one. When she’s bent over trying to pin a litter bag to the ground… walk silently towards her until you’re 2 feet away, and then START FLAPPING YOUR WINGS VIOLENTLY AND FLY DIRECTLY TOWARDS THAT CAB’S WINDSHIELD.”

Pigeon B: “Alright, man, but next time you’re going to fly straight at her head while she’s walking across the street. She almost hit me with a ladder that last time.”

7.     We also learned that trains 2 and 3 are always express trains, and train 1 is a local train. As in… “Why did it just skip our stop? And our back-up stop? We should probably get off now. GET OFF NOW!” Which… you would know if you were a real New Yorker… and not posers like us.

8.     Someone did ask us for directions… that felt good. I guess there is not really a good reason for a tourist to be carrying a ladder down Broadway… but then again I guess people don’t really encounter urban ecologists too often.

9.     Green roofs are like medians in the sky… we think. We were able to meet with Krista McGuire and Matt Palmer, who recently did some really cool work on green roofs. We didn’t make it up onto a green roof during this trip but can’t wait to work with them on future trips – who knows, maybe there are even some ants up there!

No landscape staples at the local hardware store meant we had to come up with our own DIY solution (Photo: Lea Shell).

10. There are so many organizations and conservancies, like the New York Botanical Garden and the Central Park Conservancy, dedicated to establishing, maintaining, preserving and protecting green spaces in New York City – it’s amazing. We are lucky to be able to study in such a uniquely engineered environment – after all, it would be so much easier just to pave over the whole island of Manhattan and call it a day; but that’s not what makes people happy. People seem to need (and seek) green space, and even cultivate the little green space they have, as demonstrated by a small brownstone between Broadway and Central Park that had a 2×2 square of dirt with a proud sign displaying “My Garden.”

11. If you are in a hardware store in Manhattan and ask for landscape staples, people look at you like you’re a Martian. Apparently… landscape staples aren’t something that the typical urban island resident needs on any sort of basis. So… some wire + pliers = landscape staples! I didn’t expect to be doing any arts and crafts while hanging out in the medians!

12. New Yorkers even have a fancy word for a ditch… here it’s called a “swale”. They even have some new super-eco-engineered swales called “bioswales” that naturally filter runoff through soils and plants instead of an exposed sewage grate. We’re also keeping our eyes open for those as we go through our grid of collecting sites!

13. Urban ecology has lots of unique challenges… and comedic moments. Elsa and I stopped in our tracks to watch a starling make all sorts of different birds’ noises… and then fly to the top of a bench. Only to be offered a bite of a banana by the man sitting on the bench next to it. Apparently starlings don’t like bananas.

Despite his generous attempt, this New Yorker learned that starlings aren't so much a fan of bananas (Photo: Lea Shell).


Remember to follow our adventures in the field (in real-time) by following @YourWild_Life on Twitter.