Pelham Bay Park

Pelham Bay Park

The woodlands of Pelham Bay Park attract migrating birds of all kinds and offer a feeling of distance from the city life surrounding the park. Photo: Jack Rothman
For the preservation of birds and habitat, size does matter. But the natural glories of Pelham Bay Park, owned by NYC Parks, are not only due to its being the largest of our city parks, at 2,765 acres. Pelham Bay is also special because of a fortunate conjunction of position, geology, land use history, and a mix of rare plant communities. The park's size and combination of open water, salt marsh, rocky shore, young and old-growth forest, shrubland, rare coastal tall grass meadows, and relict patches of dry and wet oak savanna are unique on this continent. 
 
The phrase "Wild Bronx" may seem an oxymoron to many—but 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. Pelham Bay Park offers its fair share of recreation facilities and includes a former landfill (now revegetated). It escaped the fate of most other large New York City parks, however: Robert Moses ran an interstate along its edge, rather than through its middle. As a result, the park is one of the region’s wilder coastal spots; it’s some three times larger than any coastal nature preserve on the Connecticut or Westchester County shores of Long Island Sound.
Several species of owl, including the round-headed Barred Owl, may visit Pelham Bay Park in the wintertime. Photo: <a href="http://www.cityislandbirds.com" target="_blank">Jack Rothman</a>
Several species of owl, including the round-headed Barred Owl, may visit Pelham Bay Park in the wintertime. Photo: Jack Rothman
The waters around Pelham Bay Park are one of the likeliest habitats in the City to find the rare Barrow's Goldeneye. <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/40928097@N07/49397488141/" target="_blank">Photo</a>: Tom Benson/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a>
The waters around Pelham Bay Park are one of the likeliest habitats in the City to find the rare Barrow's Goldeneye. Photo: Tom Benson/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Orchard Orioles nest in Pelham Bay Park. Photo: <a href="https://www.lilibirds.com/" target="_blank">David Speiser</a>
Orchard Orioles nest in Pelham Bay Park. Photo: David Speiser

Birding Highlights by the Season

(no star = birding is not very productive, = somewhat productive, ✸✸ = productive, ✸✸✸ = very productive)
 
Spring Migration ✸✸✸ 
Warblers and other songbirds, American Woodcock, shorebirds
 
Summer ✸✸    
Clapper Rail, wading birds, Wild Turkey, Belted Kingfisher, Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Orchard Oriole, Wood Thrush, Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows 
 
Fall Migration ✸✸✸ 
Raptors, shorebirds, kinglets, warblers, sparrows
 
Winter ✸✸
Owls, accipiters, Great Cormorant, diving birds including scoters, grebes, and loons, mixed songbird feeding flocks
 
Year-Round Highlights
Great Horned Owl, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Red-tailed Hawk, woodpeckers


Get Oriented



The \"Drink your tea!\" song of the male Eastern Towhee may be heard in Pelham Bay Park during nesting season. Photo: Kelly Colgan Azar/CC BY-ND 2.0 "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> The "Drink your tea!" song of the male Eastern Towhee may be heard in Pelham Bay Park during nesting season. Photo: Kelly Colgan Azar/CC BY-ND 2.0

In 2005, Pelham Bay Park was designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) in New York State by National Audubon. Over 250 species have been recorded and over 80 species have bred here. While migrating songbirds are not as artificially concentrated as in Central and Prospect Parks, a good assortment is found every year, usually in the larger forests and their scrubby edges. Good numbers of migrating blackbirds and sparrows occur in early spring and late fall. Among the more interesting breeding birds are species 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. Forest interior species such as Red-eyed Vireo, and Great Crested Flycatcher are fairly common, and just a few Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Wood Thrush may breed here. Wading birds visit to forage from nearby nesting colonies, including good numbers of Snowy and Great Egrets and Black-crowned Night-Herons. In recent years Osprey have nested in the park, as have Red-tailed Hawks (increasing in the region) and American Kestrels.

Winter ducks congregate in the waters of Pelham Bay, seen here from Hunter Island. Two Tree Island and Twin Island are visible, from left to right. Photo: <a href=\"http://www.cityislandbirds.com\" target=\"_blank\">Jack Rothman</a> "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Winter ducks congregate in the waters of Pelham Bay, seen here from Hunter Island. Two Tree Island and Twin Island are visible, from left to right. Photo: <a href="http://www.cityislandbirds.com" target="_blank">Jack Rothman</a>

In the wintertime, Pelham Bay can be good owl territory. Early as late December, the twilight woods boom with the calls of breeding Great Horned Owls. During migration, Northern Saw-Whet and Long-eared Owls are much less common than in the past, but occasionally appear. Snowy and Barred Owls show up every few years. Barn Owls are uncommon; Short-eared Owls, sighted occasionally in the past, have become rare. For some reason Eastern Screech-Owls, breeders in the west Bronx, are rarely seen on this east side of the borough.
 
Winter waterfowl are also an attraction of the park. In the more open water, Common and Red-throated Loons are regulars. 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. Long-tailed Ducks, Common Goldeneye, and Hooded Mergansers are also easily seen, and less common species like Canvasback and Barrow’s Goldeneye are occasionally spotted here.
A Yellow Warbler collects nesting material in Pelham Bay Park.  Photo: <a href="http://www.cityislandbirds.com" target="_blank">Jack Rothman</a>
A Yellow Warbler collects nesting material in Pelham Bay Park. Photo: Jack Rothman
Southern Zone
The southernmost section of the park is separated from the bulk of the park by Eastchester Bay (PDF map). This section is most easily reached by public transportation, including the 6 line 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. 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.

Horned Grebes are among the frequently spotted Winter Waterfowl in the waters of Pelham Bay Park. Photo: Peter Massas/CC BY-SA 2.0 "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Horned Grebes are among the frequently spotted Winter Waterfowl in the waters of Pelham Bay Park. Photo: Peter Massas/CC BY-SA 2.0

To the north of the Huntington Woods, one of the last coastal oak savannas on the north Atlantic Coast can be found. 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. 
 
Among the bird species that have regularly used this area in migration are American Woodcock, several species of flycatcher, cuckoo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and occasional stopover by grassland species such as Bobolink. Wood Thrush have recently been breeding in the young woods here. Cooper's 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.
 
An abandoned landfill adjacent to the southern zone (on the northeast 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 might bring back such species as Eastern Meadowlark and Snow Bunting. 
An adult Red-headed Woodpecker visits Hunter Island.  Photo: <a href="http://www.cityislandbirds.com" target="_blank">Jack Rothman</a>
An adult Red-headed Woodpecker visits Hunter Island. Photo: Jack Rothman
Hunter Island and Twin Islands
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. 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 or binoculars. (If an owl is staring at you, you are probably too close.) Make all visits short. Do not linger to get better photographs. Visit our Birding Law & Ethics page to learn more about how to avoid disturbing owls and other birds. 
 
If one arrives at the northeast end of the Orchard Beach parking lot on a winter morning, chances are good that one or more 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 Northern Cardinals and White-throated Sparrows, this is a very reliable spot to see Fox and American 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, Long-eared, and Barred 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 nestlings hatched in Pelham Bay Park.  Photo: Jack Rothman "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Great Horned Owl nestlings hatched in Pelham Bay Park.  Photo: Jack Rothman

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. The owls are best seen very early in the morning. 
 
Other birding sites on Hunter Island include the very scenic small island off the northeast end of Hunter, reachable only by an appropriately modest boardwalk across a saltmarsh. The view of the Sound and a small offshore 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.

A view over the saltmarsh from Pelham Bay Park’s forested Hunter Island, one of the best spots in New York City to see wintering owls. Photo: Jack Rothman "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> A view over the saltmarsh from Pelham Bay Park’s forested Hunter Island, one of the best spots in New York City to see wintering owls. Photo: Jack Rothman

From this site, as well as the northeast 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 parking lot) give a feel of being far out to sea. Similar views of waterfowl can be had from the north end of Big or East Twin, the more seaward of the two. 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 dabbling 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.
A Peregrine Falcon bathes in a puddle in the Orchard Beach parking lot. Photo: <a href="http://www.cityislandbirds.com" target="_blank">Jack Rothman</a>
A Peregrine Falcon bathes in a puddle in the Orchard Beach parking lot. Photo: Jack Rothman
Orchard Beach Parking Lot, Lagoon, Hawk Watch
The 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. Some unusual shorebird species have appeared here in recent years during migration, including Red-necked Phalarope, Whimbrel, and Baird’s, Western, and Pectoral Sandpipers. Peregrine Falcons can sometimes be seen drinking and bathing in the fresh water as well. These are probably resident Peregrines that nest on a local bridge—both Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges usually have breeding pairs.

In recent years, a small colony of Cliff Swallows, an unusual breeding species for New York City, has taken up residence here, building their mud nests by the Orchard Beach pavilion and lagoon. Look for this short-tailed, colorful swallow with pale forehead patch and rump from May through August. Barn, Tree, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows also regularly nest nearby, feeding over and often stopping for a drink or bath in the area's puddles and pools.

Cliff Swallows often build their mud nests on man-made structures. Photo: Joe Galkowski/Audubon Photography Awards "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Cliff Swallows often build their mud nests on man-made structures. Photo: Joe Galkowski/Audubon Photography Awards


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 northwest winds blow migrating raptors toward the coast. Bald Eagles have become more common in recent years. 
American Woodcocks stop to rest in Pelham Bay Park during migration; a few birds may stay to nest each year. <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/faulkners_fowl_shots/28521994098/" target="_blank">Photo</a>: Don Faulkner/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-SA 2.0</a>
American Woodcocks stop to rest in Pelham Bay Park during migration; a few birds may stay to nest each year. Photo: Don Faulkner/CC BY-SA 2.0
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. The meadow is currently too small to attract many grassland birds as breeders. Species such as Bobolinks sometimes visit this area for brief periods on their way south; breeding species include Willow Flycatcher and Red-winged Blackbird. 
 
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.

Sharp-eyed birders may spot the skulky Wilson`s Snipe, a variation in pattern and shape on the American Woodcock. Photo: Karen Willes/Audubon Photography Awards "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Sharp-eyed birders may spot the skulky Wilson`s Snipe, a variation in pattern and shape on the American Woodcock. Photo: Karen Willes/Audubon Photography Awards
 
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.
 
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 poplars 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. This is one of the wildest, trackless areas in New York City. Interesting species currently breeding include Orchard Oriole, Eastern Towhee, and some years, Great Horned or Barred Owls. This is an under-birded area and may yet yield some surprises. 
A Clapper Rail runs for cover in Pelham Bay Park’s Turtle Cove. The secretive species breeds in the park.  Photo: <a href="http://www.cityislandbirds.com" target="_blank">Jack Rothman</a>
A Clapper Rail runs for cover in Pelham Bay Park’s Turtle Cove. The secretive species breeds in the park. Photo: Jack Rothman
Turtle Cove
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 dabbling ducks, and Clapper Rail, which breed here. Willow Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, and Saltmarsh Sparrow are frequently seen. The open water on the bay side of the cove is one of the best places in the City to observe waterfowl including Horned Grebes and Greater Scaup in winter and in migration. 
Pelham Bay Park is one of the few sites in New York City where Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are known to nest. Photo: Brian Kushner/Audubon Photography Awards
Pelham Bay Park is one of the few sites in New York City where Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are known to nest. Photo: Brian Kushner/Audubon Photography Awards
Bartow Pell Mansion and Vicinity
Across the front lawn of the mansion to the west are two planted groves of pines, which should be checked for Saw-whet and Long-eared Owls. A manicured garden behind the mansion can be a good spot for songbird migrants, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird has nested here in recent years. 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.
A singing Seaside Sparrow. This declining coastal species may breed in small numbers in Pelham Bay Park. Photo: <a href="http://www.cityislandbirds.com" target="_blank">Jack Rothman</a>
A singing Seaside Sparrow. This declining coastal species may breed in small numbers in Pelham Bay Park. Photo: Jack 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. Eastern Bluebirds sometimes stop by during migration.
 
The park's largest saltmarsh 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; American and Least Bitterns are seen occasionally 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.
 
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 available in the Split Rock Golf Course parking lot (a low fee may be charged); this section can also be reached by foot or by bicycle along a paved recreation path.
A Wild Turkey takes a “dust bath” (a practice thought to discourage insect parasites). Wild Turkeys breed in Pelham Bay Park. Photo: Carla Rhodes "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> A Wild Turkey takes a “dust bath” (a practice thought to discourage insect parasites). Wild Turkeys breed in Pelham Bay Park. Photo: Carla Rhodes


Special Birding Notes

If you are looking for waterbirds and shorebirds, it is generally best to go at low tide at any time of year. View tide information. (Under "North Side of Long Island Sound," click on "City Island," and then choose the month and day you are birding.)
 
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.
 

When to Go

To see birding highlights at Pelham Bay Park by the season, 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 Pelham Bay Park operating hours, see the “Directions and Visiting Info” section, below.
 

eBird

View eBird hotspot records for Pelham Bay Park to explore recent bird sightings, species bar charts, and more.
 

Personal Safety

Many of the birding areas in Pelham Bay Park are isolated. It is safest to bird with a friend or two. In late spring and summer, mosquitoes can be a problem. Be on guard for dog ticks and deer ticks, which are both common here. (See the CDC website for more information on ticks.)
 

Guided Bird Walks

Visit our Local Trips page for information on upcoming walks led by NYC Audubon.
 

Directions and Visiting Info

View a Google map to the Orchard Beach section of Pelham Bay Park where there is access to Hunter Island and Twin Islands. 
 
View the NYC Parks page for Pelham Bay Park for operating hours, directions, a park map, and additional background information. 
 

Other Resources

 
 
 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to those who provided local birding expertise for this page: Jack Rothman (2020); David Burg (2012, 2001).