The corner of 49th Street and Maspeth Avenue is about as industrial as it gets. Tractor trailers backing in and out of loading docks, men in work gloves and hardhats directing heavy inventory and jagged streets make the area look entirely manmade. Almost.
If you turn north, look past the leaning rusted chain-link fence and just over the boom, you may see a cormorant stretching and shaking excess water off its wings.
“That’s like the standard pose you’ll see them in,” Kate Zidar said as she looked through a pair of black binoculars. “They spend most of their time in the water so when they do get on land, they hold their wings up to let some of the water drip off.”
Maspeth Creek runs into Newtown Creek and is home to many birds. Not just seagulls, morning doves and pigeons but Red-tailed hawks and swallows have also been spotted in the seemingly industrialized ecosystem.
To celebrate Earth Week and announce the release of the New York Wildlife Viewing Guide, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Newtown Creek Alliance and the North Brooklyn Boat Club joined together for a quick birdwatching excursion on Friday.
“There are over 100 locations in the state where you can view all sorts of wildlife, and in New York City, with places like Jamaica Bay and Central Park, there are great places to see birds,” Venetia Lannon, director of the DEC New York City Regional Branch, said. “People flock from all over the world to see these places. But we also wanted to highlight the places in your own backyard, or here in the Maspeth Creek.”
Standing between the creek and a food manufacturer’s building, it was hard not to notice the bizarre juxtaposition. The tall grass picks up almost immediately where the cemented roads leave off. Even throughout the speeches and Q-and-A session, trucks continued to roar past.
“Clearly, it’s a bit loud during a weekday,” Lannon said. “But if you come on a weekend, especially early morning or at dusk, it’s pretty quiet and you can usually see a few birds.”
The Newtown Creek Alliance has photographed 30 different types of birds on Maspeth Creek. A majority of the shots were taken by Mitch Waxman, the group’s official photographer.
“As the story goes, I got sick and the doctor told me to start running,” Waxman said. “Now, I come from South Brooklyn, and unless something’s chasing me, I ain’t running — but I did start walking around.”
Waxman said he brought his camera with him to keep his walks interesting by taking shots of train yards and other places. But when he learned of Newtown Creek, he immediately took interest.
“I spend an awful lot of time around Newtown Creek,” he said. “There’s actually a lot of history to the area. Since it was one of the most significant corridors, Dewitt Clinton would actually launch his boat from here to get to Manhattan. It really is the most amazing place I’ve ever seen. A Harper’s writer called it the “insalubrious valley of the Newtown Creek.’ It was one of the most amazing descriptions and I just can’t get it out of my head.”
Waxman enjoyed the description so much that he named one of his walking tours after it.
Starting May 4, the Newtown Creek Alliance and the North Brooklyn Boat Club will host monthly birdwatching canoe tours. Will Elkins of the club said each tour could accommodate about 10 people. Walking tours are also available.
“We work to restore, reveal and revitalize Newtown Creek,” Zidar said. “We bring people out here so they can see it in new way. By the end of one year, we have seen 30 different types of birds. Sure, there are pigeons or seagulls, though we love those too, but there are other and more types of birds.”
According to Lannon, all the birds living on the creek are native to the area but in places like Jamaica Bay, it’s a bit more complicated.
“Jamaica Bay and Central Park are like the JFK of birdwatching,” Lannon said. “These are birds who are migrating across the globe and when they’re flying over so much infrastructure, Central Park looks like one big green rest stop to these birds.”
“Anywhere you are, there is natural activity,” Zidar said of wildlife in the city. “Ecosystems never really give up. This is one of the largest and most active sewer overflow sites, yet we have these birds and there are even rumors of a beaver living here.”