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Love and loss, life and death, among the nighttime creatures of the city that never sleeps Like her bestseller Red-Tails in Love, Marie Winn’s Central Park in the Dark explores a once-hidden world in a series of interlocking narratives about the extraordinary denizens, human and animal, of an iconic American park. Her beguiling account of a city’s lakes and woodlands at night takes the reader through the cycle of seasons as experienced by nocturnal active beasts (raccoons, bats, black skimmers, and sleeping robins among them), insects (moths, wasps, fireflies, crickets), and slugs (in all their unexpected poetical randiness). Winn does not neglect her famous protagonists Pale Male and Lola, the hawks that captivated readers years ago, but this time she adds an exciting narrative about thirty-eight screech owls in Central Park and their lives, loves, and tragedies there.An eye-popping amount of natural history is packed into this entertaining book—on bird physiology, spiders, sunsets, dragonflies, meteor showers, and the nature of darkness. But the human drama is never forgotten, for Central Park at night boasts a floating population not only of lovers, dog walkers, and policemen but of regulars young and old who, like Winn, hope to unlock the secrets of urban nature. These “night people” are drawn into a peculiar kind of intimacy. While exploring the astonishing variety of wildlife in the city park, they end up revealing more of their inner lives than they expected.
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Marie Winn is the author of Red-Tails in Love: Pale Male's Story; The Plug-In Drug: Televisions, Computers, and Family Life; and many other books. She was born in Prague, but has spent most of her life in New York City, where she lives not far from Central Park.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Central Park in the Dark
1PARTY-CRASHERS AND FLYING MAMMALSThe Loeb Boathouse, located at 74th Street along Central Park's East Drive, is a popular place for parties--you have to book the space months or, for certain holidays, years in advance. Though a shuttle bus is available at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street to take infirm or three-inch-high-heeled or merely nervous-Nelly partygoers to the Boathouse at night, some still choose to go by foot. It's a short and romantic stroll along the well-lit drive, with Pilgrim Hill and the model-boat pond visible to the east and glimpses of the rowboat lake to the west.On most balmy summer evenings these strollers might notice an odd sight--a small band of men, women, and sometimes a few children shining flashlights into a scraggly tree on the drive's east side, just past the point where the 72nd Street transverse goes straight ahead and the drive curves to the north. Indeed, on most summer nights you'll find me there too. Few stop to ask us what we're doing, perhaps because New Yorkers are trained to mind their own business. But the question hangs in the air. The answer: we're watching large, beautiful moths arriving to feed on a special tree.On a certain summer night a few years ago, just a little after sunset, I happened to be one of those gussied-up partygoers myself.Though it was hard to walk right by the gang at the Moth Tree, I couldn't miss this particular bash. It was being held in honor of a romantic couple close to my heart: Pale Male and Lola, the red-tailed hawks that had been nesting on the twelfth floor of a nearby Fifth Avenue apartment house for more than a decade.My attachment to Pale Male began in the early 1990s, when red-tailed hawks were rare in big cities. Though hawks passed over Central Park every year during the spring and fall migrations, none had ever nested there. When a light-colored redtail settled in as a year-round resident, hooked up with a mate, and then proceeded to build a nest on an elegant limestone building at Fifth Avenue and 74th Street, it was a newsworthy event. That year I wrote the first of a series of articles about Pale Male in The Wall Street Journal, and I continued to cover the redtail beat for years.Pale Male, the first avian superstar. Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk that tour guides pointed out as he made lazy circles above the model-boat pond. Pale Male--the very name was a crucial ingredient in creating this hawk's celebrity. It fell trippingly from the tongue. Even the echo of Pall Mall--pronounced either as Americans do, to rhyme with ball, or as the upper-class British do, Pell Mell--gave the name a special zing. People liked to say it--Pale Male. Pale Male and Lola, his third and probably last true love. The names could pull the emotion lever all by themselves.Over the years twenty-three redtail chicks had hatched and fledged from the Fifth Avenue nest. Later, when this same species of hawk began to proliferate in New York City and other urban centers in the Northeast, Central Park's dedicated hawkwatchers began to half believe that all the other city redtails nesting on buildings and ledges were Pale Male's offspring: the Pale Male dynasty.Early one rainy morning in December, just as the twice-widowed hawk patriarch and Lola were preparing for a newbreeding season, the hawks' huge messy nest was summarily removed from its twelfth-floor ledge by workers ascending on a window-washers' platform. The building's fastidious owners had deemed the accumulation of sticks an unsightly mess and consigned it to the garbage bin.The ensuing public furor, with crowds parading outside the building chanting, "Bring back the nest!" and car horns honking on Fifth Avenue in support of Hawks' Rights, inspired newspaper headlines and television news stories around the world. Intense public attention was brought to bear on the building's residents, who became public pariahs, while the Fifth Avenue hawks won the city's sympathy and even love. The building's board of directors swiftly relented, and New York City Audubon, the city's leading bird conservation group, helped broker a deal that would allow the hawks to rebuild their nest, or at least to try. In celebration of their success and--why not?--to raise some much-needed funds, the worthy organization was throwing a party at the Boathouse, smack in the heart of Pale Male's territory.Among the bird-loving guests at the party were three who not only loved birds but loved to eat them. They were raccoons. Thick-tailed members of the Procyonidae family, close relatives of kinkajous, coatis, cacomistles, ringtails, and olingos, raccoons are far from uncommon in Central Park. Some park officials suggest that up to fifty of the black-masked mammals are permanent, year-round residents, and their real population may be twice as high.Appearing in the bushes behind the Boathouse's outdoor terrace at about 9:45 p.m., the three rather underdressed party-crashers consumed large quantities of chicken and pasta furtively offered them by a few of the invited guests. The raccoons ate noisily, but their benefactors managed to close the terrace doors. Thus they kept the animals' little growls of bestial contentment from disturbing the benefit's co-honorees, Mary Tyler Moore and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. Togetherwith the local Audubon chapter each had helped to resolve the nest-removal crisis. Indeed, Mary Tyler Moore was a resident of the Hawk Building at the time and a vital liaison between the bird lovers and the building's board. Her prepared remarks were being delivered just as the raccoons began feasting.Five years earlier, more than twenty-five raccoons had been found dead in the northern part of the park. Necropsies revealed multiple lacerations and puncture wounds, probably inflicted by dogs. There were rumors that two large, muscular canines, possibly Rottweilers or Doberman pinschers, had been seen ranging through the northern end of the park. Once, the rumors continued, the dogs had been seen running out of the park and into a waiting car, suggesting that the vicious pair had been loosed in the park to kill for their sadistic owner's amusement. It was a bizarre scenario.Perhaps the killers were simply feral dogs who belonged to no one. But no stray dog was deemed capable of winning a fight with a strong, aggressive fifteen- or twenty-pound raccoon. Raccoons are known to defend themselves savagely when attacked. They pose no danger to people, however--there has never been a case of a human attacked by a raccoon in Central Park. It's as unlikely an event as a squirrel biting the hand that feeds, and feeds and feeds, it. Fortunately, the dog attacks ceased as mysteriously as they started, and the park's raccoon population seemed to return to its normal number, whatever that might be.Though they are classified as nocturnal mammals, raccoons are often seen by day in Central Park. Tourists in particular are charmed to come across a wild woodland creature in the park--it's a little nature experience in the heart of the city. Birdwatchers too enjoy raccoon encounters, especially on days when birds are "quiet"--that is, nowhere to be seen. Scanning the trees with binoculars, the park's birders often come upon a raccoon sleeping at the entrance to one of its dens--they have many--or sprawled out on a horizontal branch with its legs and tail dangling.Sightings are less common in winter; though raccoons don't actually hibernate, they go into an energy-conserving winter sleep during the cold-weather months, living off stored fat reserves. Even then they'll emerge on sunny, warmish days for an evening stroll. By ones or twos, and sometimes by nines or tens, they'll venture forth at dusk to harvest the treasure trove of discarded hot dogs, pretzels, half-eaten sandwiches, apple cores, and other goodies available in every garbage can.The three raccoons who attended the benefit at the Boathouse seemed to like the chocolate petits fours and the miniature cheesecakes from the dessert table above all. They picked up each little pastry with their hands and delicately placed it in their mouths, a behavior that a widely used text describes as characteristic of the species--the manual dexterity, that is, not the consumption of baked goods."Procyon has a well-developed sense of touch ... the hands are regularly used almost as skillfully as monkeys use theirs," say the authors of Walker's Mammals of the World (none of them, oddly enough, named Walker), adding an observation that seriously undermines the raccoon's scientific name, Procyon lotor ("washing bear"): "Although raccoons have sometimes been observed to dip food in water, especially under captive conditions, the legend that they actually wash their food is without foundation."The raccoon's versatile hands (actually the front feet) are a useful adaptation that allows these highly successful animals to reach into small spaces or turn over stones while looking for prey, as well as to catch and hold on to small animals, fish, and a variety of invertebrates. They enable raccoons to perform the single act for which they are most famous (or infamous) in the human community: opening garbage cans, no matter how securely closed. Raccoons don't have to exert themselves much in Central Park--many of the garbage cans have no lids at all. The nimble animals just climb in and carry off their booty to eat innearby trees. Sometimes a couple of animals will work in concert to knock over a large garbage can. Then they can dine on the spot. They just crawl in and chow down.At the Boathouse Pale Male shindig, the three raccoons didn't have to lift a finger. But after the bandit-masked, ring-tailed, pointy-muzzled omnivores had eaten a truly awesome number of rich little confections, some partygoers became concerned for their health. These fears were groundless. Raccoons show up regularly at private Boathouse functions and employees reported that the three were seen again the evening after the Audubon benefit. They were in fine fettle, the men reported, though they seemed a little peckish, if not downright hungry.
There are many more bats than raccoons to be found in Central Park, but the flying mammals' more reclusive hunting habits usually keep them out of human sight. That may be a good thing, since many people are deeply--and needlessly--terrified of bats. Late strollers in the park may glimpse the dark shapes of hunting bats circling over one or another of the park's bodies of water, but unthinkingly they assume the creatures are birds. Being crepuscular--active at dusk and at dawn--as well as nocturnal, bats are rarely seen by Central Park visitors in broad daylight. Rarely, however, does not mean never.One of these rare daytime bat encounters was enjoyed by Kellye Rosenheim, a fairly recent addition to Central Park's roster of expert birders. A pretty and stylish young woman, Kellye had been a beginner ten years earlier when she'd gone on one of Wendy Paulson's Nature Conservancy bird walks in Central Park. She just wanted a few hours away from the kids. But those few hours changed her life.Once bitten by the birding bug, a gifted person can moveahead quickly. Kellye advanced at breakneck speed. She went on bird walks. She went on birding trips. She studied bird books and field guides and tapes of birdsong. Today she leads the Nature Conservancy1 walks in Central Park whenever Wendy is in Washington. This happened frequently after her husband, Henry Paulson, was appointed secretary of the treasury in June 2006.One late October morning Kellye had a serendipitous encounter with a red bat in the Ramble and sent me a detailed note about it. When I compared some of her observations with scientific accounts of the same species, I appreciated the precision of her description. That ability to observe carefully and remember tiny details, even ones that might seem insignificant, is the sign of unusual talent.Picture this: 8:30 a.m., Sunday, October 22, a little chilly. A friend and I walked up the hill from the Boathouse and turned toward the Point, where that little path begins. Just where a low railing on the right begins, we stepped out onto the rock cliff there. You know the spot, it's where most birdwatchers begin their watching. Looking down, you see the swampy area below.As you're standing there, if you look out at eye level, you see the willows on the left. But straight ahead there's a tree--it has oval leaves, pointed at the end, about four inches long, which hang down vertically from the twig branches they grow on. They grow in a line down the branch.Well, we were watching a cardinal moving around on that tree. All of a sudden something hissed at the bird and I thought it was a snake coming out of the leaves to strike at it. But I put my binoculars on it and saw it was a bat, with its side to me. The "snake's body" that I thought I saw was its wing extended out.I could see its face. Its little mouth was open with the teethshowing. It was hanging upside down, not, I believe, from the branch, but clinging to a big leaf, kind of hiding behind it. The fur was red all over its body (about four inches long) and the skin on its wing was black except where the bones underneath were--there it was reddish, like its fur. That's how I figured it was a Red Bat. It was just awesome. Eventually it retracted its wing and went back into hiding, but not before a hermit thrush dove at it as it would at an owl.The bat was hanging on to the leaf of that tree near its stem, or so it appeared. I should mention that the leaves on its tree were all still green. The bat itself was at eye level, if you're standing on the cliff there. It looked kind of like a dead leaf behind some green leaves.The image of a bat looking like a dead leaf in the midst of a cluster of green ones jogged my memory. I looked in a file folder of references to bats in Central Park and there I found what I was looking for: an article in the August 1956 issue of the Journal of Mammalogy entitled "Migration Records of the Red Bat," by the late ornithologist John K. Terres. He wrote:On September 1, 1955, I caught a live female red bat with my hands that I saw hanging from the branch of a wild black cherry tree in Central Park, New York City. The bat was only about eight feet above the ground, and bore a striking resemblance to a dead brown leaf. It hung from a twig among a cluster of green leaves, and was asleep when I caught it. I examined it for ectoparasites but found none. I returned it to its perch by putting its feet to the twig, which it clutched, and after a momentary shuffling of its wings, seemed to go back to sleep. When I came back to look for it the next day it was gone.As I reread the old clipping, an odd question struck me: How had John Terres managed to reach a bat hanging eight feetabove the ground? I called an old friend who'd worked with the noted bird expert on his magnum opus, The Audubon Society's Encyclopedia of North American Birds, and asked: "Was John Terres an exceptionally tall man?" "No," she answered, "he wasn't particularly tall. Sort of average height." How had he nabbed his bat, then? I wondered. Had he climbed the tree?A week later I visited the spot Kellye had described, the rocky cliff looking down on a swampy area Central Park's birders call, for unknown reasons, the Oven. It's a favorite birdwatching location, especially during the spring migration, and for a simple reason: ...
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