Our friend, writer and self-proclaimed amateur naturalist (we think amateur is a grand understatement!) Matthew Wills, has brought our attention to many awesome flora and fauna finds over the years. His blog often highlights his treasures, and he’s hosted his own tours of Pier 1, along with many other volunteer efforts. Check out our interview with him below:
What do you do you do when you’re not in the park?
I’m a writer. I’m currently unemployed, and working on two books, neither of which has a publisher yet.
Please describe what you do for/with the park
So far I have volunteered to lead a natural history tour for other volunteers. I also helped out with post-Sandy clean-up. I write regularly about my explorations in the Park on my blog, www.matthewwills.com, and when I find something of particular interest, as in rarity, or the first instance of its appearance, I touch base with your horticulturalist to give you all a head’s up.
How did you become interested in the outdoors?
I suppose I’ve always had some interest. I can remember in elementary school helping my younger brother take a garter snake to school for show and tell. There was a large empty field two houses away then (it was essentially the end of the suburbs) and exploring out there was always thrilling. But I really became interested later in life, in my late thirties. I started bird watching, and this led to such questions as, what is that tree that bird is in? and what could that thing be that that bird is eating right now up there? I call bird watching my “gateway drug,” because soon I became hardcore, interested in everything, from fungi to mammals. I’ve done a lot of reading, exploring and hanging out with experts to learn about many aspects of the wide, wonderful world of animal and plant life all around us.
What’s the most exciting discovery you’ve made in or around the park?
The two-spotted lady beetles I found this summer were pretty exciting. It turned out this was a first for the city for this rare species. A far number of lady beetles (a.k.a lady bugs) can be seen here, but most are species that were introduced to North America from elsewhere to combat aphids. Seeing that fiddler crabs have found the spartina grass was a delight, a matter of if you build it, they will come; I’m still looking out for signs of ribbed mussels in the saltmarsh for the trifecta of three interwoven species.
Lately I’ve really enjoyed watching a male Kestrel, our smallest species of falcon, no bigger than a blue jay, hunting from the light posts in the park. This is the most numerous species of raptor in the city, but they are small and fast and often overlooked, so it’s great to be able to see one regularly in the park, going about its business as people, mostly unaware of the colorful hunter above them, go about theirs.
What’s an interesting fact you’ve learned about Brooklyn or the park since you started collaborating with us?
Learning about the underlying drainage and water system of the park is particularly fascinating, as is the general recycled material ethos of the park’s design. I like the idea that old wood has been given a new life in the benches and fencing, and that the rocks were formerly a part of a local bridge.
What do you like about the park?
It’s very close to where I live. The plantings at Pier 1 in particular are a fantastic theater of activity, much of which is right in front of my face, allowing me to watch to my heart’s content. I’ve also found Park staffers very approachable and happy to answer my questions.
What motivates you to partner with the park?
I enjoy giving back. Also, as vital as money is, I find writing a check to be a rather sterile activity. I’d rather donate myself when I can. (This is a particularly convenient way of thinking since I don’t have any surplus cash.)
Why is it important to educate park visitors about wildlife?
A lot of city dwellers think that wildlife is something found way out there, but it’s really all around us, even in a city that is mostly concrete and tarmac. Plants and animals, unsurprisingly, are just like us; they need a good place to live. They need habitat. And at a basic level, if there is no wildlife, there isn’t going to be much of a park. Insects, after all, are necessary for the pollination of plants. Other insects are natural pesticides, preying on insects like aphids.
Few people think bugs are charismatic, like, say, red-tailed hawks or wolves, but they are fundamental to the complexity of the life webs that ensure a richness of larger animals. At an even more basic level, no plants, no oxygen. For that we should be fostering and expanding green things, not to mention celebrating them. Getting people to see what’s in their backyards, and the park is essentially a backyard for many, should hopefully make them think about nature, should get them excited to see more of it, and to work towards that end.
What is it about Brooklyn Bridge Park that makes it good for viewing wildlife?
Location: overlooking the harbor and East River. This makes it a find vantage point for numerous species of ducks, gulls, and terns.
Habitat: a conscious effort has been made to plant native species, which in turn attract native insects, which in turn attract birds. Some birds eat seeds and fruits, which are also provided for by the plantings. Fresh water is key to most life, which means that birds drink and bathe in the pools, and such friendly habitat means that birds will nest in the area as well. The Park’s compactness allows you to get close to things.