Article and photos by Thomas Seubert
Surrounded by clustered conifers and leafy trees, gravelly paths, ponds and myriad species of birds, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Reserve is a metropolitan oasis for bird lovers that few New Yorkers know about.
“The first time we came here, we took public transportation,” said Peter Jensen, who has gone birding, also known as bird-watching, with Ilona Vinklerova for the last five years or so, often at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Reserve. “It’s quick, easy, and convenient,” he added.
Even during winter winds and below freezing temperatures, devoted bird-watchers flock, often with tucked wings, onto the crowded A train to the wildlife refuge on Jamaica Bay. Only a 10-minute walk from the subway, it is one of the “most significant bird sanctuaries in the northeastern United States,” according to New York City Audubon.
Originally an army outpost, what is now known as the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was turned over to the New York City Parks Department in 1953 and then to the National Parks Service in 1972. It is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a 26,000-acre park stretching from Sandy Hook, N.J., along the south coast of Staten Island and into Jamaica Bay.
“When the national park took over in 1972, we took over the city bird area and the park continued to manage it as a bird sanctuary,” said Dr. George Frame, a biologist with Gateway specializing in salt marsh restoration. “It’s really a world-renowned birding place.” While few New Yorkers know about the sanctuary, ‘birders’ come from all around the world to visit the refuge.
Featuring salt marshes, wetlands, uplands, fields and woods, the refuge’s fresh water and brackish ponds, and its proximity to the bay and variety of landscapes, make it an appealing habitat for many species of birds. The bay is along the Atlantic Flyway, a major migratory path taken by birds from Canada down to places as far away as South America. At the epicenter of a dense metropolitan area, the bay is one of only a few landing places for migratory birds.
Over the course of 25 years, more than 330 species of birds have been sighted on the refuge, almost half the number of species in the Northeastern United States.
Few know Jamaica Bay and its birds better than Don Riepe. A long-time Brooklyn resident, Riepe worked on the refuge starting in 1974 as a seasonal ranger and retired in 2003 as its manager. Now, he leads monthly bird walks and is the guardian of Jamaica Bay for the American Littoral Society, a conservation group that “promotes the study and conservation of marine life and habitat, protects the coast from harm and empowers others to do the same,” according to the group’s mission statement.
“I’m not a bird-watcher per say, but I am a naturalist. So I enjoy everything…just being out in nature,” said Riepe. “It’s a great escape from the hectic city life.”
Riepe likes to point out that the sanctuary on the bay is the only “wildlife refuge” with that title in the National Parks Department; most wildlife refuges come under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The National Park Service has the unique role of facilitating the public’s interaction with wildlife.
“The park is not only designed to attract birds and provide food and habitat, but also for people to view them,” said Riepe.
The refuge has various trails, benches, lookout points and a “green” visitor’s center chock-full of information about the refuge and its natural inhabitants, and it’s staffed with park rangers. “If people are interested in birding, they can always contact one of the many organizations—like NYC Audubon,” said Riepe.
The Audubon Society runs bird-watching walks all year long—even in the winter—as do other bird- watching groups like the Queens County Bird Club, The Linnaean Society of New York and Brooklyn Bird Club, to name a few.
Birding “is good in all seasons, but it really depends on what you want to see,” said Riepe. “In winter you have things like owls that you normally don’t get.”
Water finches from Canada, waterfowl and snow geese are other winter attractions for birders visiting the refuge.
The migratory species can also be seen in Central Park, which also attracts birders; however, many birders prefer Jamaica Bay. For one thing, the scant number of visitors on the bay is a major draw. “There aren’t 6,000 people here like in Central Park,” said Jensen. “Even when the parking lot is full, it’s not crowded.”
“There’s also just a diversity of birds here,” said Vinklerova, who goes birding in Central Park and upstate New York, but still prefers Jamaica Bay for bird-watching.
According to Riepe, the birding community in New York City is extremely tight-knit. Everybody knows everybody, and the bay for him, and a lot of birders, is a place of great significance.