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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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View from Fresh Kills South Hill. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

by Erik Baard

 

Not so many years ago, if you told people that you were getting up early on Saturday morning to rush over to Fresh Kills on Staten Island, they would have thought you were crazy or a highly-paid union worker. Today, a few savvy folks might peg you for a naturalist.

 

The world’s largest dump (actually, the world’s largest manmade structure, of sorts, in that it exceeded the volume of the Great Wall of China) is quietly transforming into the city’s second largest park, after Pelham Bay Park. You can witness the process yourself by signing up for a free tour now through November through this link. Don’t fret the competition to get a ticket – the tour I joined this weekend wasn’t booked up. Besides, you have, oh, a few more years of chances. The park officially opens in 2036.

 

 

My friend Emmanuel Fuentebella and I hit the road early, biking from LIC to South Ferry in 35 minutes. At the St. George ferry terminal on Staten Island we were picked up by a mini-bus operated by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation along with 11 other guests (many of whom were NYC Audubon affiliates and Audubon Society members). Our guide was Christina Somma Berrocal, a NYC Urban Park Ranger. We started learning about the site before we even arrived, as Somma Berrocal pulled out a cardboard cross-section of a trash mound (the site has four large ones, ranging between 140′ and 200′ tall), with a garbage core covered by layers of fresh sand, soil, topsoil and plantings.

 

 

Fresh Kills Vision by NYC Parks.

 

 

Perhaps the most critical component is also the thinnest and toughest, an “impermeable geomembrane.” That rugged black tarp is what stands between 2036’s gorgeous recreation area and wilderness preserve above (in the computer rendering immediately above) and frightening contamination. Tree plantings must be chosen carefully to exclude deep vertical roots systems, Somma Berrocal explained, to avoid any puncture risk.

 

At the moment the trash is being digested by microbes, which will actually cause the mounds to shrink a bit. But not before they’ve earned their keep! The methane (“natural gas” in daily parlance), organic chemicals, and carbon dioxide produced are tapped via long pipe networks (see the methane taps in the foreground of the above photo by Emmanuel). The natural gas is purified and sold to Keyspan (now part of National Grid), which in turn sells it to heat up to 10,000 homes at a time. I can imagine a “green” dry cleaner using the CO2 to spiff up designer suits for the local gentry.

 

Less immediately marketable is the leachate goo that landfills produce when water jazzes up microbial and fungal activity. That’s dried and shipped out to another landfill in West Virginia. As a side note, the five boroughs now send trash to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Remember, the primary insight of environmentalism is that when things are thrown away, there is no “away.”

 

 

A few times we caught a whiff of something not-so-fresh at the North Mound of Fresh Kills. “It smells like badly burned bacon,” remarked fellow-traveler Melody. But those moments were truly the exception, and a useful reminder of the admirable audacity of the endeavor.

 

 

View from the North Mound of Fresh Kills. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

There’s plenty of encouragement from nature, however. Emmanuel snapped some wonderful photos contrasting the Manhattan skyline with the landscape rolling out from the North and South Mounds. To start, only 45% of the 2,200-acre site was actually used for garbage piles. The rest is composed of wetlands, creeks, and grasslands rich with wildflowers. Black locust and cottonwood trees are shading lowlands.

 

South Mound wildflowers. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

 

Before our vehicle even stopped, we saw an enormous turkey vulture aloft over the former wastelands. At the North Mound we were dazzled by the wheeling figures of two osprey silhouetted against a cloud-dappled sky. One of our group, Annie, identified them even at that height by the finger-like feather pattern at their wing tips.

 

 

Osprey gliding. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

 

 

As the trip unfolded there were treated to sightings of egrets, cormorants, an oriole, mallard ducks in a fresh water collect (where I imagine there might also be snapping turtles), and a zigzagging barn swallow. Opal, Meloday’s daughter, explained that the erratic “kamikaze” flight pattern meant it was feeding on insects in flight.

 

 

My biggest thrill was spotting a sharp shinned hawk. In truth, I wavered between that identification and calling it a Coopers Hawk and was clueless either way; I was playing the odds. The juveniles of both species look quite similar, being a dab brown, and it was Opal who sorted it out. Adults are easier to distinguish, and some birders call lanky Coopers Hawks “flying crosses” while sharp shinned hawks are “flying mallets.”

 

 

Blue herons and killdeer are also reliable finds, Somma Berrocal said. The killdeer often lay eggs on the infrequently traveled gravel paths, because their speckled eggs blend so well, she added.

 

We didn’t see deer but Somma Berrocal informed that over 200 of the species now on Staten Island. I imagined them sneaking across the Outerbridge Crossing or graceful Bayonne Bridge, but she stunned me by telling us that the deer swam to the island from New Jersey. How brave and hungry must a deer be to stealthily swim tidal waters plied by oil barges?

 

Curious humans aren’t yet permitted to visit the site by boat, but rowers and paddlers should seek the site’s inclusion in the NYC Water Trail. It would make a wonderful destination, even if for specially arranged tours (as with our landside excursion). And an early dialog might help prevent some well-intention mistakes from being implements, such as the large, artificial launch conceived for Fresh Kills (NYC Parks’ computer generated image below). A soft shoreline, even if created with deposited sand, would be safer, more pleasant, and ecologically friendlier.

 

Fresh Kills kayak launched envisioned by NYC Parks.

 

 

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