OCTOBER 2008 / Links updated 2010 THE FALL MIGRATION Bird watching as ecologic relief
I am tired of waking up every day to a new round of grim economic news and continued uncertainty about what comes next. Perhaps the trend will change by the time this mails. Meanwhile, I am finding relief not in the government's various emergency rescue plans, but in the winged migrations of fall, which are taking place this year, as every year, financial crisis or no.
Surprisingly, New York City, where I live, is excellent bird-watching territory. One reason is its position on the Atlantic flyway, the main artery of which runs down the coast. The other is the availability of habitat in the city's parks, among them Manhattan's 843-acre Central Park, which plays host to 200-plus bird species annually.
Not all the birds in the parks are migrants, of course. Year-round residents also abound, including a much beloved and photographed red-tailed hawk known as Pale Male. When his nest across from the park on Fifth Avenue and 74th Street was destroyed by building managers four years ago, an uproar ensued. Avian-loving New Yorkers staged a protest that garnered international attention and led, eventually, to restoration of the nesting site. (Less well-covered is the fact that Pale Male and his partner, Lola, have not reproduced successfully since -- whether because of alterations to the nesting area or other causes is not known.)
An even better bird-watching spot than Central Park is Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn and Queens, where there are several National Park sites, including the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. At 9,155 acres, it is the largest wildlife refuge in the Northeast, attracting nearly 20 percent of North America's bird species through the year. In addition, the bay itself offers rich habitat to fish, turtles and other aquatic species.
Though Jamaica Bay is clearly within the confines of a metropolis, nature has the upper hand. Spring peepers herald the coming season in February, woodcocks perform their mid-air mating dance in March, and horseshoe crabs and diamondback terrapins (turtles) come ashore to lay eggs in June. In summer, salt spray roses scent the trails and dunes and shorebirds come to feed, mate and nest. As the days turn blustery, wheat-colored marsh grasses light up the landscape and hawks pass through on their way south. In winter, when all the excitement has died down, you can still see owls -- sometimes, even snowy owls down from the Arctic, I'm told.
Unlike far-off and inaccessible nature spots, Jamaica Bay is right here in our midst. If it nevertheless manages to contribute to the "geography of hope" that the nature writer Wallace Stegner spoke about, it does so in a different way than he imagined when he coined the phrase. Rather than reassure us that wildness still exists in the world, it proves to us that civilization and nature can co-exist after all.
And yet, the condition of Jamaica Bay's environment is not what it should be. Water quality is poor and the salt marshes are receding, which affects the estuarine life and bird life as well. NRDC is fighting to control discharges into the bay -- and I encourage all New Yorkers to keep abreast of this issue and support NRDC in its efforts to preserve the bay's health. If you live in New York, I also encourage you to visit. I, for one, plan an outing to Fort Tilden this very weekend to view the hawks. It is supposed to be an amazing sight.
Of course, New York is hardly the only place to see the fall migrations. Besides the many other wonderful viewing spots on the Atlantic flyway, including Cape May just to the south, there are many more on the Mississippi, Central and Pacific flyways and their tributaries.
And everywhere there are birds, there are local birding groups to help you get started. It is helpful to bring along a decent pair of binoculars, but outside the expense of acquiring one, the experience can generally be had for free. In these hard times, need I say more?
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
Scenes from Jamaica Bay: These snapshots from my visits to the bay show wetlands at the refuge, a monarch butterfly passing through in September on its way to Mexico, and horseshoe crabs mating in June at Plum Beach.
Your favorite nature spots and mine
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Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions
(http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996,
designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed
and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.