Jamaica Bay Widlife Refuge

A cluster of waterbirds in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge includes American Oystercatchers and Common Terns. Photo: Don Riepe
The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is the United States Department of Interior’s only “wildlife refuge” administered by the National Park Service. All other national refuges fall under the aegis of the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge covers 9,000 acres (20 square miles) of open bay, saltmarsh, mudflats, upland field and woods, two man-made brackish ponds—the 117-acre “East Pond” and 45-acre “West Pond,” and small fresh water ponds, including Big John’s Pond. The Wildlife Refuge is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
 
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places in New York City to observe migrating species: 332 bird species, nearly half the species in the Northeast, have been sighted at the refuge over the last 25 years (38 are accidental, and include several New York State records). It is one of the most significant bird sanctuaries in the northeastern United States. Birding is excellent year round. It is a rich area for wintering waterfowl, including Snow Goose (at least 700 at one time), Brant, various species of ducks and raptors including Cooper’s Hawks and Peregrine Falcon. 
Oy eat fish exclusively, and find plenty of it in Jamaica Bay. Photo: <a href="https://www.lilibirds.com/" target="_blank">David Speiser</a>
Oy eat fish exclusively, and find plenty of it in Jamaica Bay. Photo: David Speiser
Most years, one or two pairs of Tricolored Herons nest in Jamaica Bay. Photo: Roger Williams/Audubon Photography Awards
Most years, one or two pairs of Tricolored Herons nest in Jamaica Bay. Photo: Roger Williams/Audubon Photography Awards

American Redstarts nest in the tall Willow Oaks in the Jamaica Bay "gardens." Photo: <a href="https://www.pbase.com/btblue" target="_blank">Lloyd Spitalnik</a>
American Redstarts nest in the tall Willow Oaks in the Jamaica Bay "gardens." Photo: Lloyd Spitalnik

Birding Highlights by the Season

(no star = birding is not very productive, = somewhat productive, ✸✸ = productive, ✸✸✸ = very productive)
 
Spring Migration ✸✸✸
Shorebirds, wading birds, terns; courting American Woodcock (mid-March through May); Flycatchers, cuckoos, warblers, and tanagers
 
Summer ✸✸✸    
Nesting Willet, American Oystercatcher, Clapper Rail, Osprey, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Willow Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwing, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Boat-tailed Grackle, Brown Thrasher; foraging wading birds and terns; shorebird migration starting in July
 
Fall Migration ✸✸✸
Shorebirds, wading birds, raptors, flycatchers, sparrows and other songbirds; flocks of Cedar Waxwings
 
Winter ✸✸✸
Wintering waterfowl including Snow Geese and many dabbling and diving waterfowl species; accipiters and Northern Harrier
 
Year-Round Highlights
Barn Owl, Peregrine Falcon, possible Great Horned Owl and Bald Eagle

Get Oriented

Marbled Godwits mingle with American Oystercatchers and a Black-bellied Plover in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Don Riepe "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Marbled Godwits mingle with American Oystercatchers and a Black-bellied Plover in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Don Riepe

In spring, Jamaica Bay is visited by numerous shorebirds, such as American Oystercatcher, both yellowlegs, and Dunlin; waterfowl; wading birds; and warblers, which, on rare occasion, include Kentucky and Cerulean. Also in the spring, American Woodcock performs courtship displays, right by the Visitors Center at dusk. In the fall, look for Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, both yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Dunlin, Stilt Sandpiper, and both dowitchers (with Short-billed being much more frequent).
 
Approximately 70 species nest regularly at the Refuge. Among them are Great Egret, Snowy Egret,  Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Glossy Ibis, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron (the best chance in New York City to see this species, which nests in very low numbers), Osprey (on man-made platforms), Clapper Rail, American Oystercatcher, Willet, American Woodcock, Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, Barn Owl (in man-made nest boxes), Willow Flycatcher, American Redstart, Saltmarsh Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and Boat-tailed Grackle.
Cedar Waxwings gorge on Eastern Red-Cedar berries. Photo: David Sloas, M.D./Audubon Photography Awards
Cedar Waxwings gorge on Eastern Red-Cedar berries. Photo: David Sloas, M.D./Audubon Photography Awards
Arriving—the Visitor Center
When you arrive at the Visitor Center parking lot, it’s always a good idea to scan the skies and check the edges right around the lot; often raptors and waterbirds are spotted flying over, right off the bat! A cluster of Eastern Red-Cedars at the lot’s northern end can attract waxwings and kinglets, while several connected meadows south of the lot and center (you have to thread your way through an old wooden fence) can be popular with songbirds. (These clearings are also a prime spot to see courting American Woodcocks in the spring: from mid-March through May, the aerial exertions and acrobatics of the males can be seen and heard just before dark.)
 
Stop in at the Visitor Center to get a free checklist, Birds of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (not available online). During the colder months, the feeders behind the center (viewable through large, safety-net-covered windows) are usually filled, and can provide nice views of sparrows, finches, and other feeder birds. Also at the Visitor Center, rangers can point you in the right direction and give you tips on the birds. The facility has interesting exhibits which highlight Jamaica Bay's remarkable plant and animal life and ecological history. Just outside and behind the Center to the right, towards the West Pond, is a wooden box which houses a log of recent sightings of note. Check it out before you go out birding!
Glossy Ibis come from nesting islands in Jamaica Bay to feed in the marshes around the West Pond. Photo: <a href="https://www.pbase.com/btblue" target="_blank">Lloyd Spitalnik</a>
Glossy Ibis come from nesting islands in Jamaica Bay to feed in the marshes around the West Pond. Photo: Lloyd Spitalnik
The West Pond
As you exit the back of the Visitor Center, a trail to the left leads through a native plant/pollinator garden and past Tree Swallow and House Wren nest boxes to a new wooden walkway and observation platform looking over the salt marsh. In the warmer months, these marshes can be an excellent spot for Clapper Rail, which breed here, as well as foraging wading birds including Glossy Ibis and Little Blue and Tricolored Heron. 
 
The main trail to the West Pond departs just from the back entrance to the Visitor Center. Take the gravel trail that encircles the West Pond, following it in a clockwise direction. The trail is about 1 ½ miles and takes about an hour and a half to complete, depending on your birding style. During nesting season, this trail is swarming with Tree Swallows, Yellow Warblers, and Red-winged Blackbirds; also be on the lookout for Willow Flycatcher and Boat-tailed Grackle. Examine the saltmarshes to the left carefully at several spots where a good view is available from the trail, for waders and shorebirds. Check snags around the pond for raptors such as Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle. An Osprey platform in the marshes to the left hosts nesting birds every spring.

Osprey fledglings; over two dozen Osprey pairs nest in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Don Riepe "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Osprey fledglings; over two dozen Osprey pairs nest in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Don Riepe
 
As you head around the pond, the variety of birds can be spectacular, as you look to your left at the bay and saltmarsh, and to the right at the West Pond. The bird life changes constantly with the seasons; in late summer it’s a tern nursery, while in winter, the pond can be filled with hundreds of ducks and the open bay can host grebes and other diving birds. Please stay on the trail; good perspectives on the pond and bay are available from the trail at several points, including the narrow section of the pond’s edge formerly known as “the Breach”—where Hurricane Sandy broke through into the pond in 2012. (The West Pond was a saltwater lagoon of the bay for several years until the Breach was repaired in 2016.) 
 
At the westernmost end of the West Pond, the trail passes by Terrapin Point—which is closed to access during Diamondback Terrapin nesting season to provide protection for these turtles of brackish (partly saltwater) environments. From June through July, female terrapins leave the waters of the Bay to lay their eggs in sandy areas; you may notice small shelters on the path, built to protect the nests from predators. (Brown Thrasher also nest in this area.)
In recent years, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have nested in the South Garden, likely drawn the native Trumpet Creeper that thrives there. Photo: Patricia McGuire/Audubon Photography Awards
In recent years, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have nested in the South Garden, likely drawn the native Trumpet Creeper that thrives there. Photo: Patricia McGuire/Audubon Photography Awards
The North Garden and South Gardens
As the trail swings around past large saltmarshes on the Bay side, you will lose sight of West Pond and reach the lush, wooded North Garden. Follow the trail back south (right), and the South Garden follows; it is just before you return to the Visitor Center. (Note that though these areas may have once resembled “gardens” of some sort, they are now a thick tangle of forest, vines, and shrubs, interspersed with a few clearings.) Several interconnected trails here are excellent places to explore in spring and autumn for migrant vireos, gnatcatchers, warblers, and other songbirds. 
 
Breeding land birds in the “Gardens” include Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Great Horned Owl, White-eyed Vireo, Great-crested Flycatcher, and American Redstart—the latter two often found in several trailside clusters of tall Willow Oaks. Also, check out the butterflies: to date, 72 species have been recorded with 35 species regular breeders. Pick up a butterfly checklist at the Visitor Center.
A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron rests in the branches overhanging Big John's Pond. Photo: <a href="https://www.fotoportmann.com/" target="_blank">François Portmann</a>
A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron rests in the branches overhanging Big John's Pond. Photo: François Portmann
Big John’s Pond
To reach Big John’s Pond (and the western side of East Pond), first cross Cross Bay Boulevard at the traffic light at the Visitor Center parking lot entrance. (Traffic moves very quickly here, so please only cross with the walk sign and watch for oncoming cars). The trail begins right on the eastern side of the intersection, veering left and running parallel to the boulevard as it winds through open woods; watch for sparrows and warblers along the trail; Carolina Wren often sings in this area. 
 
Continue on this trail until you reach a perpendicular, wide, open grassy trail that enters from Cross Bay Boulevard. Head right here and you will soon come to Big John’s Pond (on your left). It’s best to keep quiet as you walk the short wooden walkway to the wildlife observation blind, so as not to scare any birds near the blind.

Popular with bird photographers, the blind can offer up-close views of both night-heron species, which often loaf in low trees along the edge (look carefully). Check the shadowy pond’s edge for waterfowl such as Wood Duck and Green-winged Teal, as well as freshwater sandpipers and waterthrushes. Warblers also forage in the trees around the blind and along the water’s edge. At the far end of the pond from the blind, you will see a nesting box. In season, Barn Owls call it home. Get there early in the morning and you may get to see one in the next box entrance (or see young, in the springtime). 
A gathering of Greater Yellowlegs. Photo: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/don.riepe.14" target="_blank">Don Riepe</a>
A gathering of Greater Yellowlegs. Photo: Don Riepe
The East Pond
 
Continuing straight down the trail past Big John’s Pond, you will reach a viewing area (with a bench) on the western bank of the East Pond. (There is also a small bird blind a five-minute walk down a trail to the left (north).) In the warmer months, look for waders and shorebirds along the pond's far edge. Late fall through early spring, the East Pond can be full of wintering waterfowl: numerous Ruddy Ducks, Scaup (mostly Greater, but look for Lesser), and American Wigeon are sometimes joined by Redhead, Northern Pintail, and rarities such as Eurasian Wigeon. Check the far shore for Green-winged Teal. Snow Geese are also a star attraction here; they often gather at the southern end.
 
During shorebird migration in May and particularly in late July through early September, the East Pond is THE place in New York City to look for shorebirds. In early summer (by July 1), the East Pond water level should be lowered to provide a mudflat around the three-mile perimeter, thereby making it attractive to shorebirds—and shorebirders. (Note: See “Special Birding Notes” below to learn about the importance of both the East Pond water level and the tide to successful shorebird watching in Jamaica Bay.)

Every once in a while, a White Pelican joins in the fray (which here includes Double-crested Cormorants, Northern Shovelers, and Greater Yellowlegs) at the East Pond. Photo: François Portmann "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Every once in a while, a White Pelican joins in the fray (which here includes Double-crested Cormorants, Northern Shovelers, and Greater Yellowlegs) at the East Pond. Photo: François Portmann
 
When the East Pond water has been sufficiently lowered, walking on the edges of the pond to view shorebirds is possible. Many birders start at the southern end. Carefully cross Cross Bay Boulevard at the light in front of the Visitor Center and then walk south (right) about 200 yards and look for a trail that leads in towards the pond. Boots are highly recommended as it can be muddy and wet. Here, it is advisable to bird with others, in case someone gets stuck.
 
The East Pond was impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and since then, navigating it requires new cautions. A deep cut was formed at the south end. When entering from the southwest corner, follow the trail signs to properly continue to the east side of the pond. There are soft spots in the southeast corner, and walking along the edge is not recommended. It is actually safer to walk diagonally through the shallow water to reach the east bank of the pond.
 
American Avocets stop by in Jamaica Bay. Photo: François Portmann "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> American Avocets stop by in Jamaica Bay. Photo: François Portmann

Depending on the water level, getting your feet wet may be necessary again in order to walk northward toward the area of ruins known as the Raunt, often one of the busier areas for shorebird activity. Beyond the Raunt, one can continue to the north end of the pond, but for most it is recommended to only go as far as a deep-water cove created by Sandy. (If you wish to continue further, it is possible to walk up the embankment and around the cove.)
 
The North End is another access point, but only if the water is very low. For this entrance, parking is available in the Fisherman’s Parking Area just south of the North Channel Bridge. If the water level is too high, do not walk in; if it's muddy, walk with caution. Access to the pond is from the northwest. Never walk the shoreline along the north side--this is one of the most treacherous areas on the pond—and only walk south along the western bank with caution.
 
One can continue a good distance south along the western bank, but for some, stopping at the Sanderling Point sandbar may be a better plan than navigating the soft-bottomed Mud Cove (a.k.a. “Deadman’s Cove”). And always, consider the disturbance that your movements may cause the birds.
Snow Geese over the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge at sunrise. Photo: François Portmann "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Snow Geese over the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge at sunrise. Photo: François Portmann
 

Special Birding Notes

East Pond Water Level: In recent years, difficulty with adequate drainage has affected the available shoreline of the East Pond, resulting in diminished foraging habitat for migrating shorebirds. If shorebirds are your goal, check with the Refuge office for current conditions before traveling to the refuge, at 718-318-4340.
 
Tide for Shorebirds: The best shorebirding on the East Pond is during high tide in Jamaica Bay—or more specifically, from about two hours before high tide until an hour or so after high tide. (This is because while the marshes of the open Bay are submerged during high tide, the East Pond mudflats are not tidal—and so provide foraging and/or resting areas while the waters are high outside.) View online tide information to determine when is best to visit. (Scroll down a bit and under the bold heading “Long Island South Shore, Shinnecock Inlet to Mill Basin,” and select “Beach Channel (bridge)” (in the section under “East Rockaway Inlet Jamaica Bay”). Then scroll down further to choose the month and day(s) you are birding, and click “Get Tides.”) Tide information can also be obtained by calling the Refuge.
 
Bird Early: Though birding in the early a.m. is good birding practice in general, it is particularly helpful if you aim to see secretive birds such as Clapper Rail and Barn Owl. (Also, beware: in the warmer months, the refuge trails can get pretty hot by mid-morning!) 
 

When to Go 

To see birding highlights by the season at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, see the top of this page. 
 

To learn about bird migration times and get other timing tips, see the When to Bird in NYC guide on our Birding 101 page.

 
For Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge operating hours, see the “Directions and Visiting Info” section, below.
 

eBird

View eBird hotspot records for Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to explore recent bird sightings, species bar charts, and more. (Click on “Hotspot Map” at left to see specific hotspots within the refuge; note that in eBird, Jamaica Bay includes a number of hotspots.)
 

Personal Safety

Though the main trails of the refuge are generally well frequented and safe, some areas of the gardens are more remote and out of view, and birding with a friend may be advisable. (While navigating the East Pond’s shore looking for shorebirds, getting stuck in the mud is also a real possibility—so in this case, birding companions is also a good idea.) From April to September, beware of ticks, mainly dog ticks, along grassy edges of the trails. Poison Ivy is common at the trailside. During some summers, mosquito outbreaks can be severe. 
 

Refuge Regulations

Obtain a permit at the Visitor Center desk, if you are a first-time visitor. The following regulations apply: stay on trails, except in garden areas; picnic only at the designated site outside visitor center; no smoking; no radios or other sound-producing equipment; no collecting plants and/or other wildlife; no feeding of wild animals; and no bicycles, motor bikes, or cars on the trails.

Guided Bird Walks

NYC Audubon leads frequent bird walks in Jamaica Bay, often in partnership with the Northeast Chapter of the American Littoral Society. Visit NYC Audubon's Local Trips page for information on upcoming walks led by NYC Audubon.

The American Littoral Society's Northeast Chapter, based in the heart of Jamaica Bay in Broad Channel, Queens, offers birding and other natural history walks and trips throughout the year, both around Jamaica Bay and beyond.

The Queens County Bird Club, a nonprofit organization founded in 1932, offers trips, walks, lectures, and presentations focused on birds and other natural history topics, and promoting conservation of wildlife habitat. 
 

Directions and Visiting Information

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge trails and parking lot are normally open dawn to dusk year-round; parking in the Visitor Center lot is free. (If the lot is full—which is rare—visitors can park ¼ mile south in Broad Channel.) The Visitor Center, which has more limited hours (see the National Park Service link below), includes restrooms, a bookstore, a natural history exhibit area, and a lecture room. National Park Service rangers offer bird walks, workshops, and other activities. 
 
Visit the National Park Service page for the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge for operating hours, comprehensive directions, and additional background information.
 
 
View and download a map of the East Pond (PDF).
 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to those who provided local birding expertise for this page: Don Riepe (2020, 2012, 2001), Steve Walter and Tod Winston (2020), Guy Tudor (2012)