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The Variety of Our Natural World Enriches our Enjoyment of the Seasons

A red fox, like this one, inquisitive and opportunistic,

finds a home in Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Park.

It’s been a wonderful summer of rich flora and fauna sightings for those of us who have ventured outdoors, even for short times. The fields and woods of Staten Island seem to be fairly teeming with a diversity of wildlife. For me, these encounters are always serendipitous—while biking or walking—but the encounters no longer have the feeling of being uncommon. Indeed, I all but expect that by rounding the next corner or by glancing at the sky, I will find some mammal or bird or reptile deserving of admiration and attention. Plants and fungi also have their wonderful place in the category of rewarding finds.

Most memorable for me occurred while I was biking along the New Springville Greenway along Richmond Avenue, bordering Fresh Kills Park. Anyone who knows me knows that I travel this route several times a week on bike trips down to Conference House Park. Well, one day in late July, I was biking towards Costco when suddenly I came upon a red fox eating something along the vegetated bank along the bikeway. I passed by, but quickly stopped in surprise and thrilled at my first closeup of this beautiful mammal in our Staten Island habitat. It skittered away, but came back for whatever it was eating and disappeared up the bank before I had a chance to snap a picture with my cell phone camera. I heard reports that fox had been reported in our fields—maybe even in Fresh Kills Park—but this was my first eyewitness occurrence.

The now ubiquitous groundhog stands alert for danger in the grasses of Mount Loretto.

Squirrels and raccoons inhabit our neighborhood woodlots, nocturnal opossums and skunk turn up (sad to say mostly as roadkill), and I have found a few bats flying erratically on their nightly feeding hunts. Then there is the groundhog, our only true hibernating mammal. I have never seen so many groundhogs as in the past few years. I see them most consistently at Mount Loretto, contentedly munching on the grassy lawn by the billboard sign. They ignore my red, speeding bike, but when I holler out a hello! they scramble clumsily away into the surrounding brush. I’ve seen turkey, cottontail and osprey at South Beach and beautiful great egrets in their springtime plumage at the ponds of the Butler Manor Bluebelt on the South Shore on Hylan Blvd. by Long Pond.

Deer are still prevalent in the woods as well, and enjoy free range to forage with the exception of the exclosures placed throughout the Greenbelt. We find round-leaf pyrola and both hay scented fern and New York fern in the understory, but also the invasive Japanese stiltgrass and garlic mustard.

A healthy Northern water snake taking a sunbath on a Sunday afternoon by the Meisner Dam.

Our recent summer 10-miler did not disappoint either. Hikers spotted two dark Northern water snakes sunning themselves on the rocks at the Meisner Dam—keeping a safe distance from each other. And, there are some delights still to be found: On the same Greenbelt walk , Don pointed out a stand of Cardinal flower in the swampy area near the dam. The vivid crimson flowers atop tall stems illuminate the gloom of the deep forest and creates an opportunity of poetic beauty in Nature.

A wonderful and tasty oyster mushroom is a veritable gift of the woods.

One more finding of note to share: I was biking again on the multi-use trail, this time along the woods at Park Drive North. I spied a large fungal mass on a fallen tree. It was fresh and new and moist and to my untrained eye looked like chicken-of-the-woods (or as Don prefers, simply chicken mushroom). I took some samples home with me. When I looked it up, I discovered that it was oyster mushroom instead. Following the preparation instructions, I washed the portion I took, cut it up, boiled it for 20 seconds, drained it and patted it dry, and then sautéed it in a stir fry of fresh vegetables with some soy sauce and ginger. Heaven!

—Hillel Lofaso

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