Mapping the Hudson Valley’s Urban Ecosystem

Adam Dylan was a professional landscape designer by day, casual backyard gardener by night. Tending his family’s raised beds of vegetables and native flowers last summer, he’d be digging in the soil, thinking about how some of his friends and neighbors were doing the same. What if there was a way for them to add up their cumulative impact on the environment, he wondered?

Adam Dylan’s garden in Beacon, New York (Photo by eco-nectar)

Dylan spent the winter thinking about how to make that collective tracking happen. The idea was to support urban ecology by encouraging DIY habitat restoration, resource conservation, and pollutant reduction. He told fellow Beaconites like my husband about the plan, and plotted out the finer points with his wife, Kate. In March they launched their virtual group and mapping project, called eco-nectar : beacon. 

“Beacon is a pretty densely developed city, which is good in a lot of ways, but you have these voids where little creatures like butterflies and bees don’t have a way to get through because they don’t have food or shelter,” he told me. “We’re creating these habitat corridors.” 

Eco-nectar has nearly 200 members who put themselves on different maps by reporting the earth-friendly efforts they’re making on or in their own balconies and backyards. Planting native pollinator habitat, installing rain barrels, using solar power, and composting are among the activities people can log to claim badges on the maps. Pledging not to use synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides, or to plant only hardy native species, can also earn a badge.

Dylan hopes participants will see that, multiplied by thousands of others, even a little veggie garden makes an impact. And he thinks the maps’ visuals will inspire people’s neighbors to make even more environmental impacts. 

I am a case in point: I knew I wanted to get on the map. After reading entomologist Douglas Tallamy’s bestseller Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, my husband was committed, too. Our neighbors down the street had already mapped themselves with badges for establishing an “Urban Forest” and a “Pollinator Patch.”

Dylan felt momentum was building this for the project this spring, but shutdowns because of COVID set eco-nectar back in some ways. He had hoped to spread the word at local events, but so far there’s been no chance to pitch the concept at now-paused social gatherings like Hudson Valley Green Drinks.

Yet this strangely slowed-down, home-centered stretch of time helped in other ways. For one, so many Americans took up gardening this spring that seeds are in short supply.

People like my husband and me had time to research the perfect composting system (I went with the Exaco Trading Co.’s massive no-turning Aerobin 400) and best native plantings for our backyard’s wooded edge (he chose species like purple aster and woodsy, cinnamon-scented northern spicebush from standout local nursery One Nature).

Bee Badge from eco-nectar

We’re not on Facebook, where eco-nectar maintains a group, so we emailed Dylan. And pop! Within days, our “Soil Builder” and “Pollinator Patch” badges put us on the map. Our next plan, joining a local CSA, will earn us another badge. The project is designed to include actions that apartment dwellers and other non-homeowners can also take.

Businesses can join as well — the Beacon cafe Homespun recently became the first to display eco-nectar’s hummingbird logo in its shop.

Eco-nectar started with Beacon to demonstrate how the map can illustrate community involvement in a colorful way, and they plan to expand to more Hudson Valley communities within the next year.

Bird Breeding Atlas

Bird Watching from Indoors (Photo: MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr)

Want to contribute to a scientific project while doing something you may already love? Then sign up to start providing data for New York’s Bird Breeding Atlas.

This initiative, spearheaded by the New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Ornithological Association, Audubon New York, state Department of Environmental Conservation and others, takes place every 20 years. For this third iteration of the atlas, observers will record data from now through 2024.

More than a count, the atlas yields important information about changes to birds’ habitats by documenting where they mate and nest. The last atlas, released in 2008, concluded that over half of New York’s 253 species experienced a significant change in their distribution since the previous atlas, with 70 species increasing and 58 declining.  

Bird Watching from Indoors (Photo: MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr)
Bird Watching from Indoors (Photo: MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr)

New this year, observers will submit their information to ebird, an online platform managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Described as the “world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project,” ebird collects and archives data from more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year. It even allows individual observers to keep an ongoing record of their sightings.

Via ebird, participants in the New York Bird Breeding Atlas will record not only the species observed but share information about their calls as well as evidence of breeding and nesting. You don’t even need to leave home. Data about birds in your backyard—and those of your next-door neighbors—are just as critical as those gathered further afield. For some ABCs, click here.

Who benefits from your sightings? Along with the groups that advocate for protecting bird habitat, including Scenic Hudson, it provides vital information for scientists researching everything from climate change to socioeconomics. You also stand to gain: Contributing to the Bird Breeding Atlas provides another reason to grab the binoculars and keep tabs on your feathered friends.

The Mastodon’s Return

Working Sketch of the Mastodon by Rembrandt Peale

A fascinating — and extremely large — piece of Hudson Valley history has returned to America for a brief visit. With any luck, we’ll be able to see it.

As part of the exhibit “Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture,” the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., secured the loan of “Peale’s Mastodon” from a museum in Darmstadt, Germany. The bones of this great beast caused a huge stir upon their discovery in 1801 on a farm in Montgomery, Ulster County. In essence, they offered undeniable proof that America had a storied past.  

With funding from the federal government — the first ever dedicated to a scientific endeavor — the American Philosophical Society dispatched Charles Willson Peale to recover the remains of this 10,000-year-old mammal. Peale was a wise choice: As well as an accomplished painter, he operated America’s first natural history museum. His painting Exhumation of the Mastodon evinces both his skills as an artist and early paleontologist. It portrays the large team of workers he assembled and the ingenious contraption he devised to prevent water from flooding the dig site.

What made this find truly remarkable was the skeleton’s virtual completeness. Individual mastodon bones had been unearthed around the new nation, but they failed to convey the animal’s immensity. At the time, European scholars ridiculed America for lacking any “important” natural history. They contended that the country’s wildlife sprang from weak, puny ancestors. Here at last—to the great joy of the nation—was solid evidence to the contrary. “There’s a huge amount of civic pride attached to this mastodon skeleton,” explains Smithsonian senior curator Eleanor Harvey. The scientific name accorded the beast — Mammut americanum — honored its country of origin.

For nearly half a century, Peale’s Mastodon proved the main attraction at his Philadelphia museum, attracting thousands of visitors. So how did it wind up in Germany? Following the museum’s closure in the mid-1800s, the Peale family sold it. After spending some time in France and England, the skeleton settled in at Darmstadt’s Hessiches Landesmuseum. (Read this compelling account of curators’ efforts to prepare it for the homeward journey.)

“Alexander von Humboldt and the United States” was scheduled to run from March 20-August 16, but the museum remains closed during the coronavirus crisis. Hope springs eternal that it will reopen in time, or the exhibit’s dates will be revised. And while this most famous of all mastodons eventually will re-cross the Atlantic, a skeleton unearthed in Cohoes in 1866 will continue delighting visitors to the New York State Museum in Albany.

Big Beasts


Occasionally we hear about mountain lion sightings in the Hudson Valley. And within short order, the stories are usually debunked.

While the DEC states that New York has not sustained a native population of mountain lions (aka cougars) since the late 1800s, the agency does admit there have been occasional, verified sightings of mountain lions that escaped from licensed breeding facilities in the state or, in one very special case, a male cougar who passed through New York on an epic 1,500-mile trek from South Dakota in search of a mate. His quest ended tragically in 2011, when the 140-pound beast was killed while trying to cross a Connecticut parkway.

So while there’s little likelihood you’ll spot a specimen of our nation’s largest cat (even if one is around — they’re extremely shy and excellent at hiding), you have a better opportunity of seeing several large mammals that, while not exactly common, do have a definite presence in the region.

The most prevalent of these are black bears. The DEC estimates that some 3,000 of these hefty omnivores — males weigh up to 300 lbs., females a little over half that — reside in Southeastern New York. Sightings in Westchester and Rockland counties have become more common. In the mid-Valley, black bears wander into backyards with some regularity.

The best way to keep them off your property is to limit their access to food by keeping trash cans lidded, fencing the compost pile and taking down bird feeders once spring arrives. (State law forbids the deliberate feeding of bears.)

If you plan to hike or camp in “bear country,” read these DEC guidelines for avoiding conflicts.

While they lack the heft of cougars, bobcats still elicit a thrill when spotted. Roughly twice the size of house cats, they sport black tufts at the ends of their ears and a stubby (“bobbed”) tail. Bobcats live on both sides of the Hudson, especially in the Catskills and the Taconic Mountains, on the valley’s border with Massachusetts. They roam widely for prey, primarily deer and rabbits, but tend to seek out rocky ledges and rock piles for shelter and breeding.

Bobcats are extremely shy and rarely aggressive, so it’s unlikely you’ll need to take any defensive measures if you’re lucky enough to spot one.  

And that brings us to New York’s largest land mammal — the moose. Once prevalent in the Valley, they became extinct here by the late 1800s. As populations in their home range of northern New England have expanded, they’ve begun migrating southward in greater frequency.

Today, they’re occasionally reported in the region and have become permanent residents in the Taconic Mountains. (Still, your best bet for seeing a moose in NY is the Adirondacks; consider a road trip to one of these sighting “hotspots.”) The best time for moose watching is at dawn and twilight, when they feed. Be sure to keep a respectful distance.

Despite their usual shyness, a threatened moose will attack and definitely can outrun you. The last thing you want is to be chased by an angry, 1,400-lb. beast with 6-foot antlers, so give them a wide berth.

Red, White & Bluebird

Male Eastern Bluebird (Photo: Patricia Pierce on Flicker (CC by 2.0))

“When nature made the blue-bird she wished to propitiate both the sky and the earth, so she gave him the color of the one on his back and the hue of the other on his breast.” —John Burroughs

Spotting a male eastern bluebird adds a special thrill to any outdoor excursion. Its patriotic plumage — vivid blue back, rusty red breast and white belly — makes it one of the most colorful animals in the natural world. Perhaps for this reason, it has the rare honor of being the official bird of two states: New York and Missouri.

While a treat for birdwatchers, the male eastern bluebird’s beauty has a more important function — to attract a female bluebird. To prove he’s a responsible mate, he takes some very rudimentary strides to build a nest in a tree cavity, often a hole created by a woodpecker. He spends most of his time perched near the hole, flapping his azure wings to “hook” an interested female. He leaves it entirely up to her to complete the housekeeping — gathering and fitting together the twigs and grasses to build the cup-shaped nest.

Once the 3 to 7 eggs in a typical brood hatch, the male helps feed the young. The normal bluebird diet consists of insects, fruits and berries, although they have been known to chow down on salamanders, snakes and tree frogs.

Unlike most bird species, eastern bluebirds typically hatch two broods a season. The first batch is pushed out of the nest in the summer. Those born in the second hatching tend to overwinter with their parents. Sadly Eastern bluebirds have a very high mortality rate — most die within the first year of life from starvation, freezing or falling prey to other animals. Still, their overall population has remained relatively stable.

How can you help Eastern bluebirds? If your yard is relatively open — they don’t like shady, forested areas — consider building a nest box.  You can find tips for this here. And stop using pesticides: the bluebirds will take care of your lawn’s insects.

Global Deal for Nature

Binnen Kill

UN researchers estimate that 1 million plant and animal species face extinction. Meanwhile, January 2020 was the warmest in the 141 years of record-keeping. Hoping to roll back alarming statistics like these, a group of scientists have suggested making 30% of the planet a nature preserve by 2030, with an additional 20% to secure our terrestrial carbon sinks and promote climate resilience.

Their ambitious plan, called the Global Deal for Nature, has garnered wide-ranging support since its proposal last spring. Nearly 3 million people worldwide have signed a petition backing it, while several nations—from Costa Rica to Senegal—have begun taking steps to help reach the target.

Binnen Kill (Photo: Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)
Binnen Kill (Photo: Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

But would it work? In terms of replenishing habitat, signs definitely point to yes. Animals don’t seem choosy about the lands they occupy, even if they have been degraded by humans. For example, in the decade since residents around the site of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster were forced to leave their homes because of health concerns, more than 20 wildlife species—from Macaques to pheasants—have begun thriving.

“We know from many studies all around the world that when we give space to nature, she comes back spectacularly,” says National Geographic’s Enric Sala. “And we know that when nature comes back, all the services that nature provides for us come back, too.” Those services include sequestering carbon, which is essential for combatting the climate crisis.

The thornier question: Is the Global Deal for Nature doable? About 15% of the Earth’s land mass and 7% of its oceans are currently protected, so there’s a long way to go in a little time. And the forces lined up against its success—timber, large-scale commercial farming and mining industries (groups eager “to make money in the casino of the Titanic after hitting the iceberg,” according to Sala)—have deep pockets and powerful lobbyists. 

Still, proponents of the Global Deal for Nature remain optimistic for the very reason that the planet’s future depends on it. “Even if [our energy system] went 100% renewable,” notes Sala, “we still need forests and wetlands and healthy ecosystems to help us absorb all the CO2 we’ve put in the atmosphere… There is no solution to climate without biodiversity.”

1.5C scenario graph. (Photo: Karl Burkart, One Earth)
1.5C scenario graph. (Credit: Karl Burkart, One Earth)

Connecting Hudson to Nature

Offering the potential to provide new health and quality-of-life benefits for City of Hudson residents and visitors, Scenic Hudson has protected 80 acres of scenic and ecologically important land just outside the city — the first step in creating a place for people to enjoy outdoor recreation and explore nature.

Conserving the property — which features meadows, forested ravines, wetlands and numerous streams — affords future opportunities for hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and birdwatching very close to Hudson’s downtown. In addition, it permanently protects views from the historic Dr. Oliver Bronson House and Estate, located on the grounds of the Hudson Correctional Facility and managed by Historic Hudson, as well as from Olana State Historic Site to the south. The property also sustains diverse wildlife.

The conserved land sits adjacent to a new community solar energy array. Solar company East Light Partners worked with Scenic Hudson to address all concerns regarding potential visual and ecological impacts of this project from the newly acquired land and the Bronson House.

The acquisition also marks a step forward in Scenic Hudson’s vision of creating a trail stretching from Hudson to Olana and across the new Hudson River Skywalk (on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge) to the Village of Catskill and the organization’s 612-acre RamsHorn-Livingston Sanctuary. To date, Scenic Hudson has protected more than 500 acres along the proposed route of the trail.

Much of this conserved acreage — including the newly acquired property — is within the watershed of South Bay Creek and Marsh, which the New York State Department of State has designated a Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitat. The Town of Greenport secures drinking water from wells abutting this assemblage. In addition to supporting the ecological health of these waterbodies and the Hudson River (into which the creek flows), Scenic Hudson’s acquisitions in the South Bay Creek watershed will help to accommodate the inland migration of species whose habitats face inundation from climate-related sea level rise in the Hudson River and South Bay.

Smart City

Talk about sustainable urban planning: A Milan-based architecture firm has proposed a remarkable green development — 100% food and energy self-sufficient — on the 1,375-acre site of a sand quarry in Cancun, Mexico. The outside-the-box, planet-friendly concept would replace plans to build yet another shopping district in the tourist mecca.

Smart Forest City would include housing for 130,000 residents and habitat for 200,000 new trees, which works out to about 2.3 trees per person. And that marks just a small portion of proposed new greenery — a staggering 7.5 million plants of 400 different species. “Thanks to the new public parks and private gardens, thanks to the green roofs and to the green facades, the areas actually occupied will be given back [to] nature through a perfect balance between the amount of green areas and building footprint,” the firm says.

If constructed, the city will be ringed by arrays of solar panels and agricultural fields that can meet energy and food needs, respectively. Community amenities will be sited within walking or bicycling distance of all homes; if needed, vehicle transportation — whether on-road or via boat along a series of canals — would be all-electric, with traditional cars relegated to the outskirts.

Solar Buzz

Solar Panels

Underhill solar farm in Poughkeepsie, which went on line in 2019, was one of New York’s first solar arrays developed expressly to include habitat for bees and other pollinator species — a win-win. It not only produces clean energy, weaning us off fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, but supports insects critical for making the valley’s crops — and the region’s agricultural economy — continue to grow. A third of the world’s food depends on pollinators, whose numbers have been declining alarmingly. In the U.S., honeybees alone contribute nearly $20 billion to the value of U.S. crop production, including Hudson Valley food favorites like apples, cherries and blueberries.

(photo courtesy of Clearway Community Solar)