Just because fall is on its way and beaches and pools are starting to close, it doesn’t mean curling up on the couch is the way to go. There is plenty to do outdoors from bird watching to foraging for those who want to get away from it all, without having to leave the borough.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a 50-year-old haven for rare plant and animal life, is the best place in the city, and one of the best places in the Northeast, to spot exotic birds.
The refuge encompasses dozens of islands in Jamaica Bay, along with the main visitor center near Broad Channel. More than 325 species of shorebirds have been spotted here, along with 60 butterfly species and even diamond terrapin turtles.
Getting started at the refuge couldn’t be simpler. First check in at the visitor center, where you can get a map and tips on what species should be visible the day of your visit.
Most visitors spend time in the refuge’s western half, where the 45-acre West Pond and wide-open vistas predominate. But it’s worthwhile to check out the eastern side as well, with its 100-acre East Pond and secluded, wooded feel.
Located a mile and a half south of the North Channel Bridge on Cross Bay Boulevard, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge welcomes visitors seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For information, call 718-318-4340.
A smaller bird sanctuary, but no less important to nature’s ecosystem, is Alley Pond Park in northeastern Queens, about a mile from the Nassau County border.
Queens’ most ecologically diverse park, it contains an entire watershed, touching Little Neck Bay on the north. Alley Pond’s nature trail, the first in the city’s park system, is a wonderful place to explore forested hills, ponds, meadows and salt marshes, as well as the abundant bird life that lives there.
The Alley Pond Environmental Center in Douglaston serves more than 20,000 students annually, offering hiking, birding, lectures and tours.
Throughout the fall the center offers after-school programs, weekend programs for children and adults and special events for the entire family. For more information call 718-229-4000.
The only undeveloped barrier beach in the city can be found at Breezy Point, the westernmost tip of the Rockaways. While it may be too cool for a dip, fall is the right time for exploring.
At the tip of Breezy Point, the National Park Service manages 1,059 acres of dunelands and wetlands that are home to endangered and threatened birds, including piping plovers, terns, American black duck and mourning doves. In the fall and winter, peregrine falcons have also been spotted in the area.
To reach Breezy Point by public transportation, take the “A” train to Rockaway Park-Beach 116th Street station, then take the Q35 Green Bus line to the entrance of the park.
Just down the road from Breezy Point is Fort Tilden, a former nuclear weapons storage site and part of New York’s harbor defense system from 1812 until it closed in 1974. Although the area is best known for its beach and majestic dunes, the upland area is ideal for hiking and spotting woodland birds, especially warblers. The diverse terrain includes white poplar, cherry and willow trees as well as a number of evergreens. The black pine and Russian olive trees in the park were planted by the Army to stabilize the soil and camouflage gun positions.
Another favorite spot for walking enthusiasts is Forest Park, 538 acres of trees and fields bordering Woodhaven, Glendale, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens and Richmond Hill. On the eastern side of the park are three nature trails for hiking and mountain biking as well as two private stables and seven miles of bridle paths. The preserve is the largest continuous oak forest in Queens, but there are also plenty of hickory, pine and dogwoods.
Reaching the park is easy by car—the Jackie Robinson Parkway, Myrtle Avenue, Woodhaven Boulevard, Union Turnpike and Park Lane South all lead to the park—by subway, take the J or Z to 85th Street-Forest Parkway. The Parks Department will offer walking tours and special events here and at other Queens parks throughout the fall. For schedules and other information log on to www.nyc.govparks.org.
When everything about Queens nature is said and done, there is, perhaps, no better way to learn about the borough’s wildlife than taking a tour with Wildman Steve Brill. The naturalist has been leading walking tours through New York’s urban parks since the early 1980s, not just pointing out nature’s resources, but eating them as he goes along.
Nearly every Saturday he takes groups on expeditions in search of wild delicacies such as nuts, berries, greens, mushrooms, roots and seeds. For more information call 914-835-2153 or log on to www.wildmansteve brill.com.