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August 2005
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge: An Urban Respite from the Concrete Jungle
By Sangamithra Iyer


Canada Goose. Photo by Sangamithra Iyer
Jamaica Bay Refuge. Photo by Sangamithra Iyer
Photos by Sangamithra Iyer

While many of us like to boast the title New Yorker, few of us are truly native. By choice, chance, or circumstance, we’ve adapted to our urban surroundings to call this city our home—whether it be temporary or permanent.

Though I’ve always had an affinity and respect for animals, I felt living in NYC never allowed much opportunity for me to be around them. I thought you had to travel long and far to remote places—or at least outside the five boroughs—to experience ‘wilderness,’ not fully recognizing or appreciating all the critters who also by choice, chance, or circumstance make my city their home—whether it be temporary or permanent.

If you listen closely above the sounds of traffic, car alarms, sirens and general hubbub, you can hear birds chirping in the street trees. And if you look closely, your eyes can follow the paths of the subway rats and mice while you await the next train. And if you spend more time in the city parks, you’d sense the plethora of four-legged or two-winged critters hanging around.

But exposure to city critters doesn’t always have to be a peripheral or underground experience. Did you know that New York City is home to one of largest bird sanctuaries in the Northeast? Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens serves as an important rest stop for migrating birds along the Atlantic flyway. The refuge includes 9,155 acres of habitat with salt marshland, woods, ponds, and an open expanse of bay and islands. It was established in 1951 by the NYC parks department and transferred to the National Park Service in 1972 as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Initially created with the path of migratory birds in mind, the refuge also supports a variety of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians: Opossums, bats, jackrabbits, muskrats, chipmunks, turtles, snakes, frogs and butterflies call Jamaica Bay their home.

Visitors can get to the refuge via car, subway or bus. If driving, you’ll notice the stark change in scenery from the sprawling highway to the bay islands as you cross the North Channel Bridge. Your first stop on the island should be the visitor’s center, where you’ll receive a free hiking permit, a site map, and a guide to the flora and fauna of the refuge. Parking is free.

There are two major trails you can follow—the West Pond and East Pond—to observe critters. The West Pond trail is a 1.75-mile loop where you can see the marshland set against the city sky. Birds aren’t the only winged objects in flight you’ll observe. Situated in close proximity to JFK airport, you’ll witness planes also competing for the sky.

Benches are readily available along the pond to sit and watch the waders and waterfowl. You may encounter ducks, geese, gulls, or a peregrine falcon. Along a portion of this trail, diamond back terrapin turtles lay their eggs. The end of the trail is a more wooded area, containing red maple, gray birch, autumn olive, and pine trees. Prickly pear cacti also thrive in this environment.

The East Pond trail located across the street from the visitor’s center is less frequented—as it requires visitors to cross many lanes of highway—and is more secluded. The three-mile trek around the pond is quite muddy and on some days, portions of the trail are closed. Getting dirty is worth it though, as you are likely to encounter the long and slender beaked glossy ibis, as well as turtles and swans, along this trail.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife refuge is open year-round, and each season offers something special. Winter is cold, but snowy owls, geese, and bufflehead ducks will give you company. Along with warmer weather, the spring offers songbirds, wildflowers, and the greening of the salt marsh. The summer brings waders like egrets and herons and, when things cool down, shorebirds and hawks stop by in the fall.

While it is great to have this refuge in an urban environment, urbanization does have considerable impact on the habitat. Extensive areas of the bay have been dredged for navigation channels and fill material for the airports and other construction projects. Sediment is being depleted faster than it can be replaced, which threatens the survival of Jamaica Bay’s salt marshes. An experimental marsh restoration project was launched in 2003 at Big Egg marsh at the southern end of the refuge, to raise marshland and plant marsh grass. This may serve as a model for other marsh restoration in the bay. While still being monitored, the project seems to be working with little erosion observed so far. Wildlife spottings of birds and crabs in the newly raised and planted areas are also an indication of success.

So if you feel like going wild, throw on a pair of hiking boots, grab your camera, hop on the subway and spend time with some furry and feathered New Yorkers. It’s a nice escape from the city without escaping the city.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge visitor’s center is open year-round 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is located at Cross Bay Boulevard, Queens. The refuge is accessible by car, the A train to Broad Channel station, or the Q53 and Q21 buses. For information call (718) 318-4340 or visit


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