New York City elicits images of an urban jungle: concrete sidewalks, honking horns, yellow taxicabs, tall skyscrapers, and seas of people moving with determined purpose. This frenetic energy makes the city attractive to locals and tourists alike. People seeking an escape from the Manhattan jungle head to Central Park, a haven from the asphalt and glass. While Central Park may be the most highly recognizable park in town, it is only the 5th largest park in New York City according to the Parks & Recreation department.
In 1938, NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses put much of the Jamaica Bay area in southern Queens under the supervision of the Parks Department because of his interest in preserving the region’s wetlands. In particular, he was interested in building a freshwater bird sanctuary in Jamaica Bay. By 1951, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was formed and in 1972, the park fell under the jurisdiction of the US National Park Service. The refuge along with 10 other parks in Queens, Staten Island, and New Jersey comprise the Gateway National Urban Recreation Area (indicated in green in the map below).
Cross Bay Boulevard bisects the refuge and a large fresh water pond (unimaginatively named East Pond and West Pond) exists on each side of the road with an adjacent trail. Register first at the Visitor’s Center and learn more about the park from the current exhibits and public lectures. Park rangers can also inform you which wildlife can be seen that day. For approximately 60 years, the refuge has served as a rest stop for migrating birds such as the brown osprey and orange tree swallow during the spring and autumn seasons. Some birds remain in the area all year long such as the green-mourning doves, cardinals, and robins. There are many birds to encounter along the trails but binoculars will come in handy should you be interested in seeing smaller, rarer birds in the brush.
Just as the NYC urban jungle assaults your five senses, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge also does the same. As you walk along the marshes, you see cactus plants and holly bushes. Broken clam shells reflect sunlight as they litter the ground creating a shimmery path. Birds dig up the clams and drop them from the sky, allowing gravity to crack them open for consumption. Constant squawks, squeals, and chirps can be heard overhead as the ground crunches beneath your feet. The wind rustles leaves and makes surrounding tree branches squeak. Scattered throughout the park are birds nests and birdhouses offering refuge for adult birds and their offspring.It is easy to relax in the refuge’s serenity even though the distant Manhattan skyline peeks above the marsh tips, cars whiz by on Cross Bay Boulevard, and humanity’s constructed jumbo birds take off and land at nearby John F. Kennedy Airport. Despite these urban reminders, you can taste the salty smell of the ocean on your tongue and hear the rhythmic lapping water of the freshwater ponds. I visited on a sunny yet windy day so the sun gave me welcome warmth against the cold ocean wind. I passed a group of birders in their tell-tale khaki vests and hiking boots carrying their huge binoculars, long tripods, and expensive cameras. Led by a park ranger, the group participated in one of the park’s free tours.
A peaceful calm descended on me and I took a moment to acknowledge the human intervention needed to make this place possible. This refuge would not exist without the foresight to preserve and create a natural bird habitat as land increasingly developed in New York City. It is hard to believe that this haven for both birds and humans exists approximately 15 miles away from downtown Manhattan.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
Cross Bay Boulevard
Broad Channel, Queens
Trails: Open daily, dawn to dusk.
Visitor Center: Open daily, 8:30am-5pm
Take a Queens-bound (Lefferts Boulevard) A train to Rockaway Boulevard and transfer to a Rockaway Park-bound Q53 bus from Cross Bay Boulevard & Liberty Avenue to Wildlife Refuge stop.