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Pelham Bay

Birdwatching and salt marshes in New York City‘s largest park.

 

by Sheila Buff,

 

Pelham Bay Park is the largest park in New York City. It covers 2,766 acres in the northeast part of the Bronx. Within the park are many popular recreation areas: mile-long Orchard Beach on the Long Island Sound, two golf courses, miniature golf and a driving range, a stable, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and picnic grounds. If you look beyond all the recreational facilities, however, you’ll see that this park has a very diverse range of habitats–the most diverse of any park in the city or nearby. About 200 acres of the park are saltwater marshes; there are 13 miles of shoreline.

            Once the site of Siwanoy Indian hunting and fishing grounds and later the site of fashionable mansions, Pelham Bay became a park in 1888 when New York City bought and consolidated 28 private estates. All the houses, except the historic Bartow-Pell mansion, were torn down. In the 1930s, the park was developed as a major recreation site. Landfill was used to create a huge, mile-long beach with a massive bathhouse at Orchard Beach. Extremely popular ever since, Orchard Beach is often called the Riviera of New York City. The beach and surrounding area are always crowded in the warm weather; on a summer weekend, the 45-acre parking lot is jammed.

            The Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary and the Hunter Island Marine Zoology and Geology Sanctuary were created in 1967, as part of an agreement that narrowly avoided having the wetlands of the park being turned into landfill by the city. The 375-acre Pell sanctuary along the Hutchinson River is all that remains of New York City’s original 5,000 acres of salt marsh. This area is bisected by the Hutchinson River Parkway; it is bounded by the bland apartment towers of Co-Op City on the east, by railroad tracks on the west, and by the New England Thruway to the north. The partially paved Split Rock trail runs along the western border of Goose Creek Marsh and provides some excellent views out over the tidal marsh. This can be a good spot for birding, but frankly, I find the traffic noise very oppressive. If you want to check it out, the trailhead is to the west of the Bartow traffic circle. The round trip is less than a mile.

            The Kazimiroff Nature Trail through the Hunter Island sanctuary is a much more pleasant walk. The trail is named for Dr. Theodore Kazimiroff (1914-1980), a dentist and local historian who was a leader in the fight to defeat the landfill proposal in the 1960s. The trail winds through 189 acres of one of the most beautiful sections of the park. The path is very easy to follow.

            Look for sign for the trailhead at the northern end of Orchard Beach (walk away from the promenade), about 30 yards before the Orchard Beach Nature Center at Section 2. Follow the trail as it leads into the woods of Hunter Island. In a few minutes if you look to the right you’ll see Twin Island. Actually, Twin Island and Hunter Island are islands no more. When Orchard Beach was expanded in 1934, 2.5 million cubic yards of sand,soil, and rock were used to fill the area between Hunter Island and Rodman’s Neck; in 1947, additional fill connected Twin Island to the tip of Orchard Beach. There is currently no safe access to Twin Island; Hunter Island is really now a peninsula.  The sheltered lagoon that was formed between the two islands is an outstanding place to see waterfowl, particularly ducks.

            In another few minutes, the trail forks to the left towarda stand of Norway spruce. These dense evergreens were planted by the Parks Department in 1918 as part of a reforestation effort.

            Follow the trail to the left. The spruces soon give way to large numbers of  thin black locust trees–look for the deeply furrowed bark and small, rounded, paired leaves. Black locust is a pioneer tree in forest succession. This tells you that the land here was once an open field‑-perhaps a pasture or a lawn more than 50 years ago. Your surmise will be proved correct in a few more minutes to the former site of the old Hunter mansion, which was demolished in 1937. Vestiges of the old gardens can still be seen here.  

            As you continue on, you’ll quickly come to a grove of white pines. The dense needles and comfortable horizontally layered branches make these trees a favorite roosting place for great horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Long-eared, saw-whet, screech, and barred owls are also sometimes seen here. They’re so well camouflaged that you’re unlikely to actually see any, but you should be able to see evidence of their presence, especially in the winter. Look for splashes of “whitewash” excrement on the trunks, branches, and ground around here. Look on the ground for grayish owl pellets. The pellets consist of the regurgitated indigestible parts‑-mostly the bones and hair–of the animals the owl eats. Pine trees of various sorts have been extensively planted throughout the park. The shelter they offer, combined with the large, open, rodent-filled expanses of Pelham Bay, make the park famous among birders for owls. Another excellent area to see owls here is in the dense evergreens near the Bartow-Pell mansion.

            As you continue on, you will notice the reforestation that Parks has been doing of the area, as well as the removal of invasive species.Some old chocolate-brown stone blocks strewn on either side of the trail are all that remain of the estate’s front gate. From here, the trail continues on the original winding road that connected Hunter Island to the mainland.

            The trail now leads through a large area of open, mature woodlands. The trees here are mostly oak and hickory, with some towering tulip poplars as well. As the trail curves eastward, you can catch glimpses of the Long Island Sound to your left.  The trail soon brings you out to a view over salt marsh to the Sound and you are now in the Hunter Island Sanctucary. Note the giant, rounded glacial erratics here. The really large gray boulder that sticks up out of the water is called Gray Mare; it was sacred to the Siwanoy Indians who once lived here. The flat, gray bedrock visible here is the southernmost extension of the bedrock that underlies most of New England–that’s why the shore is rocky here. Glacial scours, or deep grooves, can be seen on the surface. There are some side trails leading down to the rocks that are fun to explore, especially when the tide is low.

            The large building that you see on the shoreline to the north belongs to the New York Athletic Club. The large island just across the water is Glen Island. The island further to the northeast is David’s Island; the buildings on it are part of old Fort Slocum.

            The shore area here is an excellent place to watch hawks and ospreys migrating south in the fall. The best time of year is mid-September–you could see literally thousands of hawks go by in a single day. If you’re lucky, you’ll see an osprey snatch a fish from the water.

 

Pelham Lagoon

 

            The trail now leads you back along the inlet between Hunter and Twin islands. The salt marsh along here is quite interesting…and fragile so take care when walking . Tall cordgrass lines the water’s edge; behind it is a low-growing salt meadow. Look for saltmarsh plants such as glasswort and sea lavender here. The salt marsh is one reason there are so many ducks, geese, cormorants, grebes, and other water birds here. The shallow, tidal waters edging a salt marsh are highly productive of the vegetation and small crustaceans, fish, and other foods these birds need.

            Continue to follow the path along the salt marsh and back past the old causeway. You’ll be back at your starting point in another five minutes.

Hours, Fees, and Facilities Pelham Bay Park is open daily from dawn to 1 am, unless signs are posted otherwise. Orchard Beach is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day from 7 am – 8 pm (beach closes at 7 pm), and off-season from 7 am – 6 pm.  During the summer, there is a fee for parking:  $6 on weekdays and $8 on weekends for cars; $8 on weekdays and $10 on weekends for buses. Restrooms, water, pay phones, and a seasonal snack bar are available at the bath house complex on Orchard Beach. Dogs on leashes only; be prepared to clean up after your pet.  Pursuant to Parks rules and regulations, dogs are never allowed on beaches; however, as a courtesy leashed dogs are allowed on the sand from October 1 to May 1.

 

Getting There:

 

Pelham Bay Park is the last stop on the Lexington Avenue IRT 6 train. The station is a very long walk from the main part of the park. In the summer, the Bx5 and Bx12 buses run from the subway station to Orchard Beach. The rest of the year, you’ll have to take the Bx29 bus that goes to City Island, get off at the traffic circle on City Island Road, and walk north along the park road about a mile to Orchard Beach.

            From the Bruckner Expressway or the New England Thruway, take the exits for Pelham Bay Park/Orchard Beach and follow the signs to the parking area at Orchard Beach. From the Hutchinson River Parkway, take the exit for Orchard Beach/City Island and follow the signs.

 

Get Involved:

WildMetro and NYC Audubon will lead a free tour of Pelham Bay Park on July 19. Register online for this great event, and please consider volunteering for these two groups, which are at the forefront of conservation and urban ecological restoration.

 

Also, ask the Bronx staff at Partnerships for Parks about local, grass roots volunteer efforts to nurture Pelham Bay Park!

 

Read more of Sheila Buff’s work at her website.

 

 

 

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By Erik Baard

Easter eggs are hunted in “Eggstravaganzas” and “Eggstreme” events across the city, from the Bronx Zoo to the Queens Zoo, and south to the Leon Kaiser Playground in Brooklyn and the West Brighton Zoo on Staten Island. But the best-hidden eggs in the very center of Gotham right now may be those laid by Winter Flounder.

The mighty machinery of our industrial port city has been stayed so that the roughly million tiny eggs (the fertilized flounder eggs magnified in the photo above are from a Virginia Institute of Technology laboratory) dropped by each mature female can be deposited right on the sandy substrate, and incubate undisturbed for two or three weeks.

“From February first through the end of May for the past several years we’ve suspended dredging the shipping channels where the eggs are laid,” said William Slezak, Chief of the Harbor Operations Branch of the U.S. Army Corps of engineers. Winter flounder prefer sheltered shallows with cool water, such as you’ll find in the kills (Dutch for creek, a linguistic colonial legacy) surrounding Staten Island, Newark Bay (a main commercial hub of the mid-Atlantic region), Jamaica Bay, and Raritan Bay.

That surprising deference to a not-so-pretty bottom feeder reflects not only how far natural resources public policy has come hereabouts, but how dire the winter flounder crisis has become.

“It’s pretty amazing that winter flounder is steering dredging policy in the harbor these days. These ‘conservation windows’ are certainly very progressive, working our way around a species’ critical periods to cause as little harm as possible,” said Queens College marine biologist John Waldman, author of Heartbeats in the Muck. “But something has happened and the local stock is really crashing.”

Waldman, who grew up on the western Long Island Sound, recalls that in his youth the species was “common as hell.” Now, after a decline in population that began in the ‘70s, “You can fish all day and catch one or two.”

Waldman points to a pincer of culprits threatening the species: global climate change and “a whole suite of hungry mouths.”

The species is clearly sensitive to warmth; when water temperatures cross 73 degrees Fahrenheit (23C) they bury themselves in muddy bottoms and wait out the heat wave. A few degrees more and they are dead. Also, as Waldman pointed out, a change in water temperatures could disrupt previously reliable detritus-based food production at the microbial level before it can rain down to the flounders below.

As for all those “hungry mouths,” winter flounder certainly remain prized by local anglers, including those in New Jersey ready at this very moment to sneak out from family gatherings to hook them; fishing season for the species begins today. But natural predators, often themselves benefitting from government protection, are removing much more winter flounder, both in terms of numbers and biomass. Species like striped bass, bluefish, summer flounder and fluke, and even seals in the Gateway National Recreation Area, are feasting on winter flounder. Cormorants are a new arrival to our estuary, having expanded their range north. These extraordinarily effective fishing birds put greater pressure on an already stretched resource.

But there’s some cause for optimism about the estuary as a whole, even if winter flounder fans aren’t ready to pop the cork on the champagne. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration section for Ecological Applications views the species as a maritime canary in a coal mine, signaling befouled habitats in decades past. Note this report based on data from decades past:

Winter flounder are particularly susceptible to pollution (Grosslein and Azarovitz 1982). The eggs are laid directly on the substrate and therefore any toxins in the sediment can affect their viability. This species’ close association with the benthos also potentially exposes the fish to sediment toxins. Grosslein and Azarovitz (1982) noted that few larvae survived in polluted estuaries, and that winter flounder were entirely absent from polluted sections of NY/NJ Harbor. In particular, winter flounder experience increased mortality as a result of exposure to insecticides, especially DDT (Buckley 1989).

But now, while winter flounders are scarcer than ever, their re-colonization of our bays and inlets testifies to a cleaner and healthier estuary.

“It’s interesting, a kind if dualistic situation. The Upper Bay and some of these other places in the harbor were once written off as wastelands, and now they’ve recovered so much that they are recognized as productive ecosystems,” Waldman observed. “So in a way, there’s some good news here.”

Yeah, but just try to get a flounder to see any situation from both sides.

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