The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for June 5th, 2012

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Until you’ve had a flock of baby birds vomit on you, you haven’t really lived.

It seems that such regurgitation is just part of the daily grind here on South Brother island, an unassuming prominence found on the East River. Heavily wooded, the island is owned and managed by the Government(s) and it is usually “verboten” for primates to even visit.

from wikipedia

South Brother Island is one of a pair of small islands in the East River situated between the Bronx and Riker’s Island, New York City and is 7 acres (28,000 m2) in size. It is uninhabited. The other island, larger and better known, is North Brother Island. Until 1964, South Brother Island was part of Queens County, but it is now part of Bronx County. It had long been privately owned, but was purchased by the city in 2007. Together, the two Brother Islands, North and South, have a land area of 81,423 square meters, or 20.12 acres (81,400 m2).

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Your humble narrator managed to insert himself into a scientific survey of the breeding colony of Cormorants, Herons, and Egrets which thrive upon the riverine island. The island has been allowed to go feral, and is positively overrun by seabirds. Upon arriving there via a Zodiac boat, one of the fellows employed by the NRG (Natural Resources Group) of the NYC Parks Dept. asked me if I knew what poison ivy looked like.

Informing him that he should just assume my general ignorance about all things, he remarked- you’re standing in it.

from wikipedia

Toxicodendron radicans, better known as poison ivy (older synonyms are Rhus toxicodendron and Rhus radicans), is a poisonous North American plant that is well known for its production of urushiol, a clear liquid compound found within the sap of the plant that causes an itching, or sometimes painful rash in most people who touch it. The plant is not a true ivy (Hedera).

Poison ivy can be found growing in any of the following three forms:

  • as a trailing vine that is 10–25 cm tall (4 to 10 inches)
  • as a shrub up to 1.2 m tall (4 feet)
  • as a climbing vine that grows on trees or some other support

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The party split into two groups, and the one I accompanied headed into the stand of trees which comprises the center of the island. Thick and overgrown, the darkness of the place was palpable, and a raucous chorus of bird calls was emanating from the canopy above. The mission was to count the number of nests installed (in this section by Cormorants) and whenever possible- to count the number of eggs and or hatchlings.

The other group was busy exploring Heron territory.

from wikipedia

The Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), commonly abbreviated to just Night Heron in Eurasia, is a medium-sized heron found throughout a large part of the world, except in the coldest regions and Australasia (where replaced by the closely related Rufous Night Heron, with which it has hybridized in the area of contact).

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This was by no means an easy task, given the sort of terrain encountered.

Once- the Newtown Creek’s watershed would have resembled this scene, thought a humble narrator, when a half digested fragment of fish dropped out of the sky and bounced off my boonie hat. It was quickly explained to me that this was normal, expected, and part of their daily round. The floor of the place was a spongy mass of fallen branches, mulch, and guano.

An intense smell of ammonia forced me back to the beach a couple of times.

from wikipedia

Regurgitation is used by a number of species to feed their young. This is typically in circumstances where the young is at a fixed location and a parent must forage or hunt for food, especially under circumstances where the carriage of small prey would be subject to robbing by other predators or the whole prey is larger than can be carried to a den or nest. Some birds species also occasionally regurgitate pellets of indigestible matter such as bones and feathers. Penguins are known to regurgitate in order to feed their young ones.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Shooting conditions were difficult, with dense foliage and few clearings. The humidity was nearly unbearable. The instructions I had received from the group leader indicated that I should dress in long sleeves, full length pants, and wear heavy boots.

Conditions on the island indeed demanded such cautions, but heat and humidity plus the aforementioned ensemble worn with a hat while carrying a camera bag and around six pounds of camera and lens made for an uncomfortable morning.

Karmic justice, I suppose, for all the complaining about being cold I subjected you to during the winter at this- your Newtown Pentacle.

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

It should be mentioned that I absolutely detest camping out, abhor hikes in the woods, and am- by definition- a City Boy. Nature wants to eat you, and will at the very first chance it gets. You might be disarmed by the coy attractions of these baby birds, but give them the chance and they’d rip you to shreds.

Then they’d vomit the bits back out onto the next guy who visits this island.

It did occur to me that this might be a safe haven in case of a zombie apocalypse, but the nearby North Brother Island would probably be a better choice. Seriously, I’m not just being paranoid, nature can be messed up, and given several recent headlines– might be time to start formulating a plan for upcoming Nights, Dawns, and Days.

from wikipedia

The bird family Phalacrocoracidae is represented by some 40 species of cormorants and shags. /ˈkɔrmərənt/ Several different classifications of the family have been proposed recently, and the number of genera is disputed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In the real world, of course, such fancies fall before the hard materialism of the empirical mindset, and this mission I was accompanying dwelt naught upon such extravagant thinking. They were doing the hard work of field science, collecting data and samples for later analysis. The South Brother Island was acquired by the Parks people in 2008 and the notion of dedicating the tiny island(s) as a refuge for seabirds is actually pretty darned cool.


In 2001, the City assigned Parks jurisdiction over the publicly-owned lands extending outward from the shores of South Brother Island. The island itself was owned by Hampton Scows, Inc. The recent acquisition of South Brother Island was directly negotiated and completed with approximately $2 million in funds allocated by Congressman Jose Serrano through NOAA’s Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program.

The acquisition was executed by The Trust for Public Land on behalf of the recipients of the NOAA funding, The Wildlife Conservation Society and The Point Community Development Corporation. The Trust for Public Land then donated South Brother Island to Parks for public ownership, management, and natural resource protection.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

An interesting auditory effect was noticed, incidentally, which rendered the vocalizations of the avian multitudes into something akin to that which you would hear coming from a crowded lunchroom full of school kids. This blended with a syncopated call and response of what sounded like calisthenics PE over at Rikers Island, a short distance away.

Note- the island is strictly off limits (said status is zealously enforced by several of the different harbor officialdoms and gendarmes). I was the guest of a highly trained and dedicated crew who catechized me on the rules of the place and watched my every step to insure that no harm came to anything living here. It is illegal, in the extreme, to visit this place without prior approval from the authorities.

Despite my dripping sarcasm and good natured kvetching about the trip, the folks I was with are really fighting the good fight here, gathering data in difficult conditions in order to understand the breeding habits of endangered wildlife to foment the survival of said species in the harbor of New York.

check out this 2007 report from, which contains data supplied by some of the folks on this trip, and is an earlier iteration of what they were up to just a few days ago.


June 16th, 2012- Newtown Creek Alliance Dutch Kills walk

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Newtown Creek Alliance has asked that, in my official capacity as group historian, a tour be conducted on the 16th of June- a Saturday. This walk will follow the Dutch Kills tributary, and will include a couple of guest speakers from the Alliance itself, which will provide welcome relief for tour goers from listening to me rattle on about Michael Degnon, Patrick “Battle Ax” Gleason, and a bunch of bridges that no one has ever heard of.

for June 16th tickets, click here for the Newtown Creek Alliance ticketing page

June 23rd, 2012- Atlas Obscura Thirteen Steps around Dutch Kills walk

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Additionally- the “Obscura Day” Thirteen Steps around Dutch Kills tour proved that the efficacy and charms of the Newtown Creek’s least known tributary, with its myriad points of interest, could cause a large group to overlook my various inadequacies and failings. The folks at Atlas Obscura, which is a fantastic website worthy of your attentions (btw), have asked me to repeat the tour on the 23rd of June- also a Saturday.

for June 23rd tickets, click here for the Atlas Obscura ticketing page

June 30th, 2012- Working Harbor Committee Kill Van Kull walk

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My various interests out on the sixth borough, NY Harbor, have brought me into association with the Working Harbor Committee. A member of the group’s Steering Committee- I also serve as the “official” group photographer, am chairman and principal narrator of their annual Newtown Creek Boast Tour, and occasionally speak on the microphone during other tours (mainly the Brooklyn one). This year, the group has branched out into terrestrial explorations to compliment the intense and extant schedule of boat tours, and I’m going to be leading a Kill Van Kull walking tour that should be a lot of fun.

The Kill Van Kull, or tugboat alley as its known to we harbor rats, is a tidal strait that defines the border of Staten Island and New Jersey. A busy and highly industrialized waterfront, Working Harbor’s popular “Hidden Harbor – Newark Bay” boat tours provide water access to the Kill, but what is it like on the landward side?

Starting at the St. George Staten Island Ferry terminal, join WHC Steering Committee member Mitch Waxman for a walk up the Kill Van Kull via Staten Islands Richmond Terrace. You’ll encounter unrivaled views of the maritime traffic on the Kill itself, as well as the hidden past of the historic maritime communities which line it’s shores. Surprising and historic neighborhoods, an abandoned railway, and tales of prohibition era bootleggers await.

The tour will start at 11, sharp, and you must be on (at least) the 10:30 AM Staten Island Ferry to meet the group at St. George. Again, plan for transportation changes and unexpected weirdness to be revealed to you at

For June 30th tickets, click here for the Working Harbor Committee ticketing page

Written by Mitch Waxman

June 5, 2012 at 12:15 am

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