Where the wild things are, now
Donde ahora encuentras las cosas salvajes
Where the wild things are, now
Story and photos by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer
“I was just some guy who saw the problem and felt bad because I wasn’t part of the solution,” says “Birdman” James Cataldi.
Block 2189, lot 50 is teeming with life.
The lot has no address, and no owner, but it is by no means empty. Better known to locals as the North Cove, this partially submerged mudflat on Ninth Avenue near 207th Street is to waterfowl as Times Square is to commuters.
New York State-licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator James Cataldi believes it is an age old stopover on a timeless migration route. Cataldi has seen a number of bird species flock there. They include several kinds of ducks, herons, kingfishers, Peregrine falcons, mocking birds, magpies, as well as sandpipers, geese, and other migratory birds at the cove. On a recent winter day, a collection of feathered fauna quacked, mingled and flapped and about like school children in a cafeteria, only louder. Many of the birds rely on nutrients in the mud and algae to sustain themselves.
When one looks at the vast collection of feathers, wings, and legs from a certain angle—a view that does not include wood pilings that used to be a dock, or the halfway submerged tires—the cove is a portal that transports you to a different Manhattan, a green, sparsely populated island that went by the name of Manhahatta.
It did not look like this five years ago when Cataldi, an Inwood resident, decided to clean up the cove.
Cataldi, who left a Wall Street job after 9/11, comes to the cove nearly every day to clean up. After five years of work, he has removed 1,300 cubic yards of trash, including kitchen sinks.
He has also dragged syringes, tires, rotting carpets, clothes, an empty safe, bikes, cars, boat parts, drivers’ licenses, leaking oil drums.
Once, he pulled an old truck – with a 30-year-old tree growing out of it.
Now the beach is visible and a path has been cleared through the brambles that hug the fence separating the cove from the adjacent parking lot.
Cataldi says he has even seen seals relaxing at the cove.
But the wildlife worker some call “The Birdman” doesn’t accept accolades easily.
“I was just some guy who saw the problem and felt bad because I wasn’t part of the solution,” he said.
The site’s use as an active garbage dump made his work challenging early on.
“When I first started cleaning there were only two geese and they were eating garbage. They were like hot coal walkers walking through the glass,” he recalled.
But instead of simply lodging a complaint with the city, Cataldi took matters into his own hands and developed a rapport with the locals who used the cove, from the bottle collectors who were illegally dumping trash to the crack addicts who stationed themselves there.
“I didn’t report them, I educated them. [They] still come by to say hello.”
The North Cove was previously an illegal dumping ground.
And he hasn’t seen a single syringe in two years.
He has also gotten help from volunteers throughout the area, including youths from the Dyckman Houses. And the cove got a little help from natural disaster. The storm surge from Hurricane Sandy flushed out oil leakages that had been plaguing the hamlet for years.
Now the area is filled with several species of crabs, shellfish, and birds. It also has resident mammals, including possum, raccoon, and muskrats.
“This project takes away a lot of excuses. It shows what can be done,” said volunteer Gary Yugetsu Sharp, as he and Cataldi raked the beach for debris one afternoon last week.
Sharp is a Bronx resident who lives on the other side of the Harlem River.
“If anyone saw this when James started, they would have said it was a lost cause,”he said.
Now it is a bustling safe zone for birds that might help resident geese regain their natural instincts. Cataldi charges that quick jaunts between area coves like the one in Inwood Hill Park helps the birds regain their migratory instincts. In an effort to encourage this behavior, Cataldi discourages the geese from breeding at the cove; they generally tend to home around egg laying areas.
In the winter, Cataldi and other volunteers offer seeds to supplement the birds’diet, and to help keep their immune system strong. He also takes them to nearby animal clinics if they have an urgent medical need. But in the spring, he does not offer then additional food because he wants to encourage them to migrate in the fall.
But until then, Cataldi is worried he might not be able to supplement the birds enough this year.
The Polar Vortex caused for some freezing over of the geese’s foraging areas, prompting a greater need for seed.
But there has also been an unexpected loss in funds.
Cataldi had entrusted a volunteer with money to get feed for the geese, but after two weeks, the volunteer has not returned.
It’s fair to say the resources are gone.
Now Cataldi is worried there won’t be enough funds to help the geese get through the winter.
“It’s the worst possible moment to lose those funds.”
He has started an online fundraiser at www.nycwetlands.org to help collect seed funding.
And as he notes, there are many ways to help the cause. Volunteers are needed at every turn.
They’re bound to make interesting discoveries about urban wildlife – above and in the water.
“I have removed pretty much everything imaginable,” he laughed. “Nothing surprises me anymore. Except bowling pins.”