At Work in Jamaica Bay

Young volunteers get ready to clean the Rockaways’ 116th Street Beach. Photo: NYC Audubon


This article appears in the winter 2021 issue of The Urban Audubon.

By Rebecca Minardi

This year, NYC Audubon researchers Aurora Crooks, Emilio Tobón, Tod Winston, and Kaitlyn Parkins have been hard at work in Jamaica Bay. Thanks to support from generous funders, NYC Audubon has carried out numerous conservation and educational activities in this important estuary habitat. Jamaica Bay, covering nine thousand acres (20,000 square miles) of open water, marshlands, intertidal flats, and islands, is home to a rich diversity of birdlife and other species. This remains true despite extensive development of the bay over the years: much of its original wetlands have been filled in or dredged for fill,while sewage and urban runoff have also had negative impacts. As is true across the globe, climate change poses a profound threat to the region. Thanks to the generosity of our funders, NYC Audubon is working to protect and restore Jamaica Bay—as Aurora puts it, “the anchor of wildlife in New York City.”

In her role as NYC Audubon’s community science programs manager, Aurora is gratified that her work “bridges two things I think ought to be naturally intertwined: ecology and people.” With support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Grant Program, Aurora led community scientists on horseshoe crab surveys this spring, and with volunteers, cleaned six local beaches. She was hard-pressed to name the most fulfilling part of this work, but noted that, “Seeing a person’s eyes light up when surrounded by horseshoe crabs on a moonlit night is an experience I won’t soon forget.” This grant also helped purchase native plants for habitat restoration at the Beach 108th Street ferry landing. Aurora notes that if Jamaica Bay can thrive, it can be used as a model for how to protect the natural environment within urban areas. She hopes for the “future of Jamaica Bay to be kept wild.”

Emilio Tobón and fellow banders Kellye Rosenheim and Kaitlyn Parkins at work. Photo: NYC Audubon
Emilio Tobón, NYC Audubon’s conservation field biologist, continued our 11th consecutive year of American Oystercatcher nest monitoring at Jacob Riis Park, Fort Tilden, and Breezy Point, thanks to funding provided by Manomet (a Massachusetts-based shorebird conservation organization) through an Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. For Emilio, this collection of monitoring data provides a better understanding of the dynamics of the City’s American Oystercatcher colony, which “will help us develop a better strategy for the preservation of this species and its environment.” This year Emilio monitored 41 nesting pairs. Of these, 17 broods hatched, and 13 broods fledged for a total of 22 chicks. Emilio banded 7 chicks for continued monitoring and hopes Jamaica Bay will continue to be a haven for all the species that call its habitats home.

Glossy Ibis are among the seven wader species that regularly nest on Jamaica Bay’s Subway Island. Photo: Don Riepe

After a lapse last year because of the pandemic, Harbor Herons Nesting Survey Coordinator Tod Winston was excited to get back to the islands this spring. Enabled by donations from members including longtime supporters Elizabeth Woods and Charles Denholm, a team of NYC Audubon staff and volunteers from multiple New York City agencies surveyed 20 islands across the New York/New Jersey Harbor, including six islands in Jamaica Bay: Subway, Little Egg, and Elders Point East and West Islands, along with Canarsie Pol and Ruffle Bar.

“Jamaica Bay represents both the principal threats to these island habitats, and the importance of maintaining multiple habitats for waterbirds,” Tod says. “These low-lying islands are vulnerable to both human disturbance and sea-level rise. By keeping them preserved for wildlife, we also provide opportunities for the birds to shift their colonies to new locations, as they have in Jamaica Bay multiple times in the past 20 years.”

During this year’s study, the surveyors observed 427 nesting pairs of 7 wader species on the Jamaica Bay islands, making this cluster of islands the most diverse wader colony in the harbor.

A Semipalmated Sandpiper is fitted with light-weight tags that will allow tracking of its movements during both migration and the breeding season. Photo: NYC Audubon

Kaitlyn Parkins, NYC Audubon’s associate director of conservation and science, notes that “urban wildlife is often overlooked for conservation funding” and that the Disney Conservation Fund values supporting environmental efforts within cities. A generous grant from the Fund supported an array of projects, including all of NYC Audubon’s shorebird research, horseshoe crab surveys, shorebird blitzes, two beach cleanups, and the planting of Spartina plants for a marsh island restoration. The Disney Conservation Fund also supported a Jamaica Bay Ecology program for middle school students. Though it was done virtually because of the pandemic, Kaitlyn hosted a “field trip” streamed live from the beach. NYC Audubon also conducted “Share the Shore” beach nesting bird outreach at Jacob Riis Park thanks to the Disney grant’s funding.

For Kaitlyn, the most rewarding part of these projects was nanotagging Semipalmated Sandpipers and then following them virtually on their migration to the Arctic. She says it’s incredible to see a bird she held in her hand one day show up in Canada days later, and is excited that the data she and NYC Audubon gathered will be used by a larger group to study these long-distance migrants. She reminds us that “ensuring wildlife and people can coexist is going to be critical for wildlife conservation now and in the future.”

To read about another important, non-avian wildlife species in Jamaica Bay, see page 15 of the winter 2021 issue of The Urban Audubon.