The osprey’s silent, majestic beauty caught my breath. The deep azure-blue, cloudless sky was hers for the taking. As she soared over the bay, searching for food, my presence was nothing more than just another blip on her landscape. This experience was precisely what I’d hoped for and also why I had come here to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge for our next report on the Wetlands of New York City.
Beaches, Meadows and Wildlife
Situated on little more than a sand bar (albeit identified as Rulers Bar Hassock, an island), the Refuge is precisely that: a refuge for birds and other wildlife such as the somewhat-threatened diamondback terrapin, raccoons, an occasional opossum, and a few snakes; along with a diverse display of vegetation, albeit some that is unfortunately, invasive. Managed by the National Park Service (NPS), Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (JBWR) is but one part of as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a larger protected area set aside within the confines of New York City that actually has authority to protect animals as well as limit human impact. Of course, NPS works with both NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as NY City Department of Environmental Protection, to monitor and maintain the Refuge’s integrity.
Incredibly, in a city as populated as New York, one can actually find a mostly deserted spot on a beautiful coastal beach like this to just relax and enjoy the outdoors.
Coastal wetlands are extremely fragile; at the mercy of tides, winds, extreme temperatures ranging from hot in the summer to freezing in winter and of course, storm surges that bring higher ocean levels, flooding whatever is in its path. In between the weather extremes, animals seek these areas to nest and breed. Serving as a rest area for the many migratory birds that fly along the NE corridor, the Refuge is also an essential oasis of trees and ground cover, providing a necessary place of respite for the long-distance travelers who would otherwise perish from exhaustion and starvation. Yes, perish. Few people ever stop and consider just how limited the options are sometimes, not just for our feathered friends but also pollinator insects such as butterflies and bees, who embark on long distance journeys. Flying over such a densely populated area as New York City and other metropolitan areas offers very little in the way of a place to stop that’s not already inhabited by the local pigeons or resident sparrows, much less offering fresh water to drink or insects and berries to eat.
This yellow warbler takes a break as it ponders the photographer.
My visit was in early summer, and wildlife was abundant. Here a gray catbird shelters in the leaves, almost invisible but not quite!
Much of the outer Refuge is surrounded by coastal grasses, hardy enough to withstand the harsh conditions and providing a crucial barrier inhibiting flooding during storms and rising sea levels. Of course extreme storm events, as well as rising sea levels due to climate change will overcome even these stalwart plants, as they push up against the edge of where humanity meets nature.
In the photo below, trash washed up from the bay settles into the tidal zone.
Taller grasses and reeds proliferate on the western shore, providing more barriers against flood threats. Unfortunately these are exactly the kind of plants that too many home owners and real estate developers disdain, actively seeking to eliminate them. Far too many people fail to appreciate how specialized the natural world is and how it has specifically adapted critical roles as fortification against the ocean’s encroachment onto land.
Brilliantly colored meadows of wildflowers, providing sustenance for our insect pollinators such as this swallowtail butterfly are also part of this diverse landscape.
But of course where there are flowers, and butterflies, there are also bees!
The richly diverse biomass of the Refuge definitely supports wildlife. Unfortunately, due to over-development, including paving much of the area within New York City limits along with construction of homes, multi-use buildings and industry, much of the native flora has been lost. Much of what remains is invasive, such as the Autumn Olive (red berries) and the Wild Rose (the larger red-orange fruit below). Hungry birds feast on these, then spread the seeds through their droppings.
The diamondback terrapin is a small turtle who evolved and adapted to coastal areas. Its range includes the entire East Coast of the US, but its habitat is exclusively salt water marshes and coastal regions. It is unique in its adaptation to salty (brackish) water while it cannot tolerate the higher saline content of the open ocean. That is, it lives in bays and estuaries, but comes ashore to lay its eggs, which it then abandons, leaving the hatchlings on their own to make their way to the water. While it secretes excess salt through glands near its eyes, these are not sufficient to protect it in the higher salinity of the ocean. The diamondback terrapin therefore evolved for the lower salt content of coastal regions where fresh water sources such as rivers and streams meld into ocean waters.
Colonization has contributed greatly to the demise of the diamondback terrapin in many areas as a taste for its meat encouraged overhunting. Of course loss of habitat where the terrapin could come ashore to lay eggs and have them remain relatively undisturbed also contributed to dwindling numbers in urban areas such as New York City. Again, the Refuge has provided a safe haven for the Diamondback Terrapin to lay its eggs in the sand where they could develop safely until hatched. Unfortunately, the raccoon, which has become well adapted to human development, has discovered the Refuge as well and often preys upon the nests, devouring the eggs.
We know this because the Refuge is fortunate enough to have Russell Burke, Ph.D., from the Department of Biology at Hofstra University, monitor the nests and terrapin population along with his class and various volunteers. During nesting season visitors to the Refuge may even come across small wire cages that have been secured a few inches into the sand. These cages are covering the turtles’ nests with the intention to protect them from hungry raccoons. The hatchlings then just dig their way out from under the wire and make their way to the water, hopefully unimpeded.
West Pond which, as its name implies, is on the western shore of the Refuge, a small idyllic lagoon straight out of a chapter of Earth’s ancient primeval past.
Nestled in a natural cove, surrounded by thick overgrowth, the area drops down to a lush green carpet of marsh grasses, literally spongy to walk on.
Quiet calm waters lap at the undisturbed shore, where one can immediately sense the hectic pulse of New York City streets are not just absent, but so far removed they might as well be on the other side of the planet, not just a short distance away.
Overhead, a determined Common Tern searches for fish.
Skillfully diving faster than one’s eyes can follow, she enters the water with a splash.
Successful or not, the tern emerges unscathed, gaining flight once more.
The tern repeated the process over and over as it has done for millenia, leaving this bystander in awe, agape at this marvelous creature’s talents.
Scattered around in the mud near the water’s edge, horseshoe and other crab shells lay bleached in the sun, no longer inhabited. Their presence indicates wildlife underneath the water also sought this small area of land for nesting during breeding season.
Abandoned by their original inhabitants, the shells themselves offer much needed nutrients to the soil, water, and microorganisms. Natural decomposition provides the fragile lifecycle of coastal marine organisms on the Refuge to perpetuate naturally.
That is, it is actually rare, especially in a metropolitan area as dense and established as New York City, for natural decomposition to occur. Yet this process is essential to restoring the proper ecological balance of microorganisms in the soil, as well as providing those same bacteria to the diets of birds and other animals, including insects, in order to live and thrive as healthy wildlife.
Wildlife malnutrition is a very real threat as a lack of micro- and macro-nutrients in a wild animal’s diet can cause suffering, disease and even death, just as in a domestic animal or humans. This is especially true in urban areas due to a lack of adequate nutritional food in its natural form. We’ve all seen birds pecking at discarded food waste, which is not healthy for them any more than it is for us!
Certainly we expect the sanitation department to pick up waste from our streets and sidewalks, but the truth is carcasses and other material are important in natural areas (as long as they are disease-free) when they decompose. If you compost, you already know this, which bases its concept on the principles of organic waste matter creating healthy soil. Healthy soil supports a healthy ecosystem, as this Catbird can attest having caught a fat juicy bug!
While the East Pond is most definitely larger than the West Pond, it is also somewhat less diverse, perhaps having weathered harsher elements than the western side of the Refuge. Offering a wide path for visitors, the Eastern Pond nonetheless offers a pleasant area to stroll and enjoy the fresh sea air.
Views are expansive on a clear sunny day. Here the Marine Parkway Bridge is visible, crossing Jamaica Bay between Jacob Riis Park and the Rockaways (part of the eastern tip of Long Island, technically Queens) and Floyd Bennett Field, which is on the mainland in Brooklyn.
Again, tall coastal grasses are visible right up to the water’s edge. From this view, one can see how the grasses are able to protect, or at least slow down, further erosion of the beach into the sea.
With shadow landscape views of Manhattan in the distance, the quiet serenity of East Pond languishes timelessly. While some of the taller plants appear to be well adapted, they aren’t native but again, invasive.
Mullein, a biennial native of Eurasia and Africa, is yet another invasive plant flourishing on the Refuge. Abundant in the US, it is considered well established. According to Go Botany, mullein “develops a basal rosette of felt-like leaves the first year, then bolts to heights of six feet or more.” This plant was introduced in the mid-eighteenth century and has since thrived. Unfortunately, many grazing animals won’t eat it, although some elk and deer will in winter when it’s all that’s available. The small hairs along the surface apparently makes it unpalatable in most circumstances. Mullein has, however, established itself as a popular medicinal plant with a large number of followers in the natural plant-based medicines community.
The abundance of nature and most notably, birds, at Jamaica Wildlife Refuge, cannot be understated. If one is truly interested in observing birds in their native habitat, relaxed and somewhat protected from predators, this is a marvelous place to do so. Here, in the scene above, I caught with my camera a pair of birds who had an intense discussion before one decided to take off. Shortly after, the other one did as well. What the fuss was all about, we’ll never know but it certainly provided for some interesting introspection into how sometimes we, as humans, take for granted the world around us. Our natural areas are quite precarious as is life itself, which is absolutely dependent on a balanced and healthy ecosystem not just to survive, but to thrive.
Focusing on the critical role coastal wetlands such as Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge contribute to the New York City community, as well as the global community as a whole, theoretically leads to a greater appreciation of our natural world. Furthering this understanding as to how fragile these natural areas are hopefully inspires more people to make honest efforts at protecting not just New York City wetlands along with other natural areas, but to make better and more informed decisions regarding growth and expansion of urban development.
*Many thanks to Doug Adamo from the U.S. Department of Natural Resources and Dr. Russell Burke of Hofstra University for their generous time and expertise answering all my questions in the preparation and writing of this report.
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