by J. Rothman
Nesting** Spring Migration*** Fall Migration*** Winter**
(no star = birding is not very productive, * = somewhat productive, ** = productive, *** = very productive)
For nature preservation and bird protection, size does matter. But the natural glories of Pelham Bay Park, owned by the City of New York/Parks and Recreation, are not only due to its being, at 2,765 acres, the largest of the city owned parks, they are also present because of a fortunate conjunction of position, geology, land use history, and a mix of rare vegetation communities.
The park's size and combination of open water, salt marsh, rocky shore, old growth forest, young forest, shrubland, rare coastal tall grass meadows, and relict patches of dry and wet oak savanna are unique on this continent. Who would have suspected, for example, that this Bronx park is some three times larger than any coastal nature preserve on the Connecticut or Westchester County shores of Long Island Sound?! And the phrase, "Wild Bronx" is such an oxymoron for the public, that the wilder bits are quite under visited. A midweek visitor to the natural parts of the park can experience an uncommon situation in the city: large spaces without another person in sight. This is a tonic to those of us who dwell in apartments. Of course the park has its fair share of recreation facilities as well as a former landfill (now revegetated), but it escaped the fate of most other large New York City parks when Robert Moses ran an interstate on its edge, rather than through its middle. As a result, it is one of the wilder coastal spots in the region.
The birds of the park that attract most attention are the winter owls. As early as late December the twilight woods boom to the calls of breeding great horned owls. Numbers of northern saw-whet owls appear in November, and in recent years small groups of long-eared owls have again been regular in winter. The numbers for these species fluctuate from year to year and month to month. Barn owls are uncommon but regular in the park. Snowy and barred owls show up every few years. Short-eared owls still occur occasionally but they are much more rare then formerly, perhaps reflecting this species' precipitous decline in eastern North America. For some reason eastern screech-owls, breeders in the west Bronx, are rarely seen on this east side of the borough.
In 2005, Pelham Bay Park was designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) in New York State by National Audubon. With birds in the park in all seasons, over 250 species have been recorded and over 80 species have bred here. Among the special breeders are birds of shrublands and open woods, including orchard oriole, eastern towhee, American kestrel, willow flycatcher, warbling vireo and wild turkey. Pelham Bay Park is one of the last areas in the city where American woodcock engage in their annual crepuscular courtship flights. The woods of Pelham Bay Park are a bit broken up by natural topography and past human encroachments. Forest interior species such as red-eyed vireo, and great crested flycatcher occur only in small numbers, and just a few scarlet tanagers and blue-gray gnatcatchers breed in the oak woods. Breeding birds of younger woods, such as rose-breasted grosbeak and wood thrush are doing fairly well. A nearby heronry attracts a full suite of wading birds including yellow-crowned night-herons, little blue herons, and good numbers of snowy and great egrets. In recent years osprey have nested in the park, as well as red-tailed hawks (increasing in the region) and American kestrel (declining).
Winter View from Hunter Island
by R. Bourque
Winter waterfowl are also an attraction of the park. In the more open water, common and red-throated loons are regular, and on a Christmas Bird Count a few years ago a rare pacific loon was seen. Horned grebes appear in good numbers, and red-necked grebes are present every year. Diving ducks can be seen closely from the rocky extremities of the park, and at times huge rafts of greater scaup appear offshore, with smaller groups closer to shore. Common goldeneye and hooded mergansers are also easily seen and brant geese have become regular and often can be seen at close range.
For reasons that can only be guessed, Pelham Bay attracts only a fraction of the migrating spring songbirds that can be found in Central and Prospect Parks. Still, a good assortment is found every year, usually in the larger forests and their scrubby verge. Good numbers of migrating blackbirds and sparrows occur in early spring and late fall.
The southernmost section of the park is separated from the bulk of the park by Eastchester Bay (map). This section is most easily reached by public transportation, including the number 6 subway and many buses. There are some large athletic fields and a victory monument, but much of the site remains wooded and wild, including parts that have not been intensively managed since the mid 1980s. There are plans to refurbish some of the coastal areas soon. Shrubby areas of this section of the park host large numbers of wintering white-throated sparrows, with white-crowned sparrows appearing in migration. Good numbers of northern cardinal and northern mockingbird are year round residents, and gray catbirds and yellow warblers are common summer breeders. The southern zone is divided into several sections, the southernmost of which is the former Huntington Estates, now called Huntington Woods. Though much of the woodlands in that section are composed of non-native estate trees, and invasive shrubs, good numbers of fall migrant songbirds were recorded here in a NYC Audubon sponsored banding study in the late 1980s. Closer to the water a wet shrubland and meadow host breeding willow flycatcher, song sparrow, and red-winged blackbird. The southern end of the stone wall bordering the waterfront in this section of the park makes a great blind for close up views of winter waterfowl, including horned grebes, greater scaup, and ruddy ducks. By approaching low and slow these birds can often be seen within 20 feet without disturbing them. The large numbers of canvasbacks formerly wintering here have disappeared (2000 in number in 1985-86). Christmas Bird Count surveys have shown this species to be the most seriously declining winter resident in New York City.
by J. Rothman
To the north of the Huntington Woods, one of the last coastal oak savannas on the north Atlantic Coast can be found. Look for the ancient white oak called the "Granny Tree." Experts have estimated it to be 300 to 500 years old. Only a handful of ancient white oaks and swamp white oaks have survived, but this section of the park has an unusual number of these trees for a coastal site. Be sure to visit the nearby large black rock formation known as the Indian Prayer Rock, one of several unusual rocks in the park that were held sacred by the Siwanoy tribe who once dwelled here. The savanna and nearby meadows and forests are being maintained and kept "invasives free" by volunteer efforts of WildMetro, a non-profit organization. Among the bird species regularly using this area in migration are American woodcock, several species of flycatcher, cuckoo, and blue-grey gnatcatcher. Wood thrush have recently been breeding in the young woods here. Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks are seen daily from December until April. Closer to the water the mix of meadows and open woods attracts and holds merlins in migration. Red-tailed hawks nest just north of this area.
A abandoned landfill adjacent to the southern zone (on the NE side) has been reseeded to tall grasses. In cold months this is one of the best places in the region to see the state-listed northern harrier, a bird that has declined along with the grasslands it requires. Two to four birds are often present all winter. In migration a dozen can sometimes be seen visiting in a day. Other birds that require shorter grass have declined here in recent years, but proper management could bring back such species as eastern meadowlark and snow bunting.
HUNTER ISLAND and TWIN ISLANDS
Hunter Island Pine Prove
by J. Rothman
In contrast to the nearby rocky shores of New England, most of the southern section of New York State was settled in large land grants, creating estates that survived until the creation of the park in 1888. Unlike the small farmers, the estate owners kept sections of their forests substantially wild, probably in imitation of European aristocrats. Who would have thought that this would result in The Bronx having more old growth forest than all of Connecticut? And on Hunter Island, Pelham Bay Park has what may be one of the most scenic stands of ancient coastal woodlands this side of the Atlantic. Most visitors are incredulous that this is part of the one of the most urban areas of the country; it looks more like the rocky shores of Maine.
The bird specialty of Hunter Island is the wintering owls.
Some notes on Owl Etiquette: please be quiet near roosting and nesting owls. Not all owls survive the winter, and added stress may be harmful. Stay as far away as possible using a field telescope. Make all visits short. Do not linger to get better photographs.
If one arrives at the NE end of the Orchard Beach parking lot on a winter morning, chances are good that one of the local birders will be found. Ask for directions to the current owl roosts. An area that is used every winter is the planted pine grove on the top of Hunter Island. Take the paved road a bit in from Orchard Beach. This is no longer marked with any identifying signage. The beginning of the road passes through a grassy area. Where the woods begin there is a single metal bar gate to keep motor vehicles out. At this location someone usually puts out bird seed during the winter, making this a great place to see winter songbirds. In addition to the usual suspects like cardinals and white-throated sparrows, this is a very reliable spot to see fox and tree sparrow. Continue on the paved road. At the top of the incline it widens and there is a small abandoned brick building. Take a left (west) there, and search the planted pines for saw-whet and long-eared owls. Numbers of these species often peak in late November and early December, with a secondary pulse in late February and early March. These species have been recorded somewhere in the northern part of the park every Christmas Bird Count for many years.
Great Horned Owl
by D. Speiser
Since at least the 1980s a pair of great horned owls has nested in the old growth woods at the north end of Hunter Island every year. One of the earliest nesting species, courting commences in earnest in December and usually there are eggs laid by January, chicks by February, and fledglings by April. Some years they are interrupted and re-nest, putting this calendar back a month or more. For over 25 years they have used one of two nest trees, a tall living red oak with a hollow at the top, or a dead, barkless snag with a broken off top. At least one year, the living oak site was commandeered by raccoons causing the owls to renest. The owls are best seen very early in the morning. b-By nine o'clock, they are often hunkered down out of sight. Later in the season (March and April) when the chicks are large they can't hide in the hollow, so for a few weeks viewing is fairly certain.
Other birding sites on Hunter include the very scenic small island off the north east end of Hunter, reachable only by an appropriately modest boardwalk across a salt marsh. The view of the sound and a small off shore island with an arrangement of fractured boulders left by a glacier (sometimes called the Stonehenge of The Bronx) is sublime, one of the nicest seascapes in the region. It is a great spot to just sit, watch waterbirds, and listen to the soft clang of the bell buoy. In recent years American oystercatchers have been breeding on the small rocky islets near here.
From this site as well as the NE coast of Twin Islands one can see a distant "reef" of rocks to the south east where harbor seals haul out in winter. Up to 17 have been seen at once, but a good quality spotting scope is required for a satisfying view. The seals are generally only present on the falling tide when the rocks are exposed. Occasionally a seal approaches the shore, an event that may be occurring more frequently.
The Twin Islands (like Hunter Island, now connected by the Orchard Beach beach parking lot) give a feel of being far out to sea. Similiar views of waterfowl can be had from the north end of Big or East Twin, the more seaward of the two. It is one of the last places in the park where the introduced ring-necked pheasant has been regular in recent years. The tidal body of water in between Hunter and Little (West) Twin Island is good for wintering waterfowl, especially red-breasted mergansers, brant, American widgeons, gadwalls, and other puddle ducks. On the section of partially impounded tidal water in between Hunter and Twin Islands, great winter views of buffleheads and black-crowned night-herons can be had. At low tide in spring and late summer a few shorebirds visit, mostly yellowlegs and killdeer.
Salt Marsh between Hunter & Twin Islands
by J. Rothman
ORCHARD BEACH PARKING LOT, LAGOON, HAWKWATCH
The overly large paved area by Orchard Beach was built on garbage decades ago under the direction of Robert Moses. Somewhat ironically, the construction of the parking lot filled in almost all of the former Pelham Bay. Large puddles of water in the parking lot attract numbers of gulls, mostly ring-billed gulls but other species as well. They also frequently attract peregrine falcons in winter, these large falcons can sometimes be seen drinking the fresh water. These are probably resident peregrines that nest on a local bridge - both Throg's Neck and Whitestone Bridges usually have breeding pairs. From the west side of the parking lot there is a good view of the lagoon. This body of water is the last remnant of Pelham Bay. It was modified and partly channeled in 1964 when it was the rowing race course for the summer Olympics. It is one of the best places in the region to view migrating osprey from mid-August until October. Osprey have been nesting at the south end of the lagoon. The west end of the parking lot is also a good hawk watch site, especially when brisk NW winds blow migrating raptors toward the coast. It is interesting to contrast numbers at this site with more inland sites such as the hawkwatch at the Audubon sanctuary in Greenwich, Connecticut. When the Pelham Bay hawkwatch was active in the 1980s, good numbers of birds were counted, including 15,000 broad-winged hawks. Most of those birds were seen on just a few days in mid-September, but almost all species of birds of prey pass by in their season, from early falcons to late eagles.
ORCHARD BEACH MEADOW and RODMAN'S NECK
This very rare remnant of coastal grassland is a botanical treasure, containing many rare species. It has an extensive patch of gamma grass, unusual in its own right, but also host to a race of a little brown moth (Amphipoea erepta ryensis is the scientific name, it has no common name) that may now be restricted to Pelham Bay Park. Other suitable coastal grasslands in the region have long since been converted to seaside mansions, or dense development. Though in recent decades the meadow has only been kept open by fires set by vandals. The meadow is currently too small to attract many grassland birds as breeders. Species such as bobolinks (July migrants) sometimes use the meadow for brief periods on their way south. Native and non-native shrubs and trees have been steadily encroaching on the grassland, and invasive purple loosestrife has also been spreading. Fortunately, the City of New York/Parks and Recreation has recognized the danger and has been cutting back the offending plant species. It is hoped that the meadow will be allowed to expand in size to the point where grassland birds will choose it to breed in the future. Currently the meadow is home to some species that require a mix of shrubland and grassland, such as willow flycatcher and red-winged blackbirds. The rocky ridge on the east side of the meadow is one of the few reliable places in New York City to observe displaying American woodcock. Most of the woodcock are migratory, but some probably breed under the dense shrub layer of bayberry, since they have been flushed later in the summer. The twilight flight of these strange shorebird relatives is elegant and stirring. In some recent years migrating Wilson's snipe have also visited the flooded grasslands for brief periods in early spring. The ghostly snipe "winnowing" call is part of an aerial display that rivals the woodcock.
Note: Permission must be obtained to remain in the park after dark, and cars remaining in the Orchard Beach Parking lot without permission after curfew are subject to heavy fines and/or towing.
by J. Rothman
To the south of the meadow is Rodman's Neck, the location of one of George Washington's many defeats in the New York City region during the American Revolution. A plaque near the north end of Turtle Cove commemorates John Glover, the officer in charge of the rebel unit that fought a rear guard action against the British and kept the defeat from becoming a disaster. This formerly farmed peninsula has reverted to an odd forest, dominated by introduced European white poplar. Most of the older poplar are dying and many are being removed by the parks department, with more native species being encouraged. Rodman's neck extends on both sides of the road to City Island and all the way south to the New York City Police Department training and bomb disposal area. With construction of a new shooting range elsewhere it is to be hoped that this site can be reclaimed for nature and passive recreation. This is one of the wildest, trackless areas in New York City. No exceptional birds have been found there, but it has great potential for expansion of the globally rare meadows. Interesting species currently breeding include orchard oriole, eastern towhee, and some years, great horned owls. This is an under-birded area and may yet yield some surprises.
This small body of water just west of the City Island traffic circle has been modified in recent years to allow more tidal flushing and to encourage saltmarsh vegetation. The more northerly section is an excellent spot to observe hooded merganser in winter and early spring. On sunny days in February and March the birds can be seen engaging in distinctive courtship antics, puffing up their crests and pumping their heads forward and back. In warmer weather the Turtle Cove tidal pond is used by numbers of snowy and great egrets and puddle ducks. Clapper rail and saltmarsh sparrow were both observed recently. The open water on the bay side of the cove is one of the best places in the city to observe closely horned grebes and greater scaup in winter and in migration.
BARTOW PELL MANSION AND VICINITY
In recent years wintering saw-whet owls have roosted in the evergreen shrubs around this pretentious but classic 1842 stone mansion. One of the evergreen shrubs that has been used is just feet away from the front door. Across the front lawn of the mansion to the west are two planted groves of pines. Saw-whet owls and long-eared owls have been roosting in these groves in recent winters. To the north of the mansion a trail borders a marsh. Marsh wrens have nested here in recent years; their persistent rattling calls are unmistakable. To the east of the mansion there is a reedy pond that is rarely flushed by tides. This is a good spot to observe small numbers of migratory shorebirds in May and August. It also attracts great blue herons and other wading birds. Between the mansion and Shore Road stood the famous white oak where settler Thomas Pell signed a treaty with the Native Americans in the 1650s. This field grown oak, already ancient in Pell's day, stood until the early 1900s. It gave further proof to the once widespread amount of oak savanna in the area. Other ancient oaks still survive on the Pelham and Split Rock golf courses.
by J. Rothman
BRIDLE PATH, GOOSE CREEK MARSHES, GOLF COURSES, WEDGEWOOD
These northwest sections of park can yield good birding. Barn swallow and eastern phoebe nest under, or near, the railroad bridge over the Bridle Path, near the golf course parking lot. The oak woodland adjacent to the bridle path has had numerous breeding rose-breasted grosbeaks some years, as well as blue-gray gnatcatchers and orchard orioles. This area may have declined in quality somewhat since several large oaks blew down in 2009.
The park's largest salt marsh lies along Goose Creek Marsh, south of the bridle path and between Shore Road and the Hutchinson River Parkway. Marshland birds found here include saltmarsh sparrow and clapper rail. Green herons are regular and American bitterns are rare, but regular in migration.
In the woods adjacent to the marsh and bridal path some forest interior species may still breed, including red-eyed vireo and great-crested flycatcher. The Split Rock and Pelham Bay Golf Courses have been the most reliable place to see the flocks of wild turkey that breed in the park. They are attracted to the mix of oak and short grass. Bird boxes near the park's only small fresh water pond in Pelham Bay golf course have been used annually by tree swallows, and in the past were the only nest site of eastern bluebirds in New York City.
To the north west of Split Rock Golf Course is a large glacial boulder where religious dissenter and early settler Anne Hutchinson and her daughter were killed while unsuccessfully trying to hide from warring native Americans in the 1640s. The woods to the north of the golf course can be good for migrating and resident songbirds including black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, and both species of kinglet. Parking is no longer available along Shore Road, so the best way to reach this section is by foot, horseback, or by bicycle along the paved recreation path built a few years ago.
When to Go
If you are looking for waterbirds and shorebirds, it is generally best to go at low tide at any time of year. For tide information go to www.saltwatertides.com/dynamic.dir/newyorksites.html. Then under "North Side of Long Island Sound" click on "City Island" and then choose the month and day you are birding.
Generally, May through July early mornings are best for spotting nesting and spring migrants, although nesting great horned owl can be seen at the end of January through April. Wintering waterfowl are seen from late November to mid-March.
Optimal Weather Conditions
A northwest wind is favorable for fall hawk migration, especially after bad weather. When a warm front moves up from the southwest after a period of unfavorable northerly and easterly winds, spring migrants are most plentiful. In winter, heavy snow forces hawks, owls, and some winter finches (such as purple finch, common redpoll, and pine siskin) toward the coastal regions of Pelham Bay. Very cold winters tend to drive waterfowl into the open waters of Long Island Sound and Eastchester Bay. A cloudy day, when the air temperature is close to the water temperature, allows the best viewing of distant rafts of waterfowl.
Many of the birding areas are isolated and deserted. It is best, and safer, to bird with a friend or two at Pelham Bay Park.
In late spring and summer, mosquitoes can be a problem. Dog ticks and deer ticks are rare.
Click here for a google map to the Orchard Beach section of Pelham Bay Park where there is access to Hunter Island and Twin Islands.
Click here for the Pelham Bay Park virtual tour by the NYC Parks Dept.
For further information
Friends of Pelham Bay Park - www.pelhambaypark.org
Hutchinson River Restoration Project - www.hutchinsonriverrestorationproject.org
City Island Birds - www.cityislandbirds.com
Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum - www.bartowpellmansionmuseum.org
WildMetro - www.wildmetro.org
Resource Person for Pelham Bay Park Birding:
David Burg, founder and president of WildMetro, a member of the NYC Audubon's Conservation Committee since 1986 and former president of the board of NYC Audubon.