Except for the crunch of gravel underfoot, the twitter of peeps and the honking Canada geese, the silence at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge can be deafening.
Just off Cross Bay Boulevard on an island in the middle of Jamaica Bay, the refuge serves as a reminder of a borough before boulevards or brick apartment houses, cars or condominiums. Primarily a sanctuary for all types of birds, the reserve also hosts terrapin turtles, green frogs and butterflies — to name only a few species from this incredibly diverse eco-system in the shadow of Kennedy International Airport.
Birdwatching opportunities abound in the salt marshes between the bay and the island’s West Pond, prime real estate for fowl of every size and shape. “This is where birdwatchers come,” said Robert DeCandido, a lifelong bird enthusiast who often makes the trip to the sanctuary from his home in The Bronx.
On a sultry day last weekend, DeCandido and fellow birder Deborah Allen used 21st century technology to help them get a peek at the elusive white-eyed vireo. With an iPod Nano playing its call while hooked to a portable surround-sound speaker, they got the tiny greenish-yellow feathered bird to briefly appear in the brush nearby.
“It’s nice when the birds sing back to you,” Allen said in a hushed whisper so not to spook the visiting vireo. “You can hear the different variations of the song.”
This wildlife refuge, along with Central Park in Manhattan and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, is a major draw for birders throughout the tri-state region. Birdwatchers come to Jamaica Bay to see waterfowl like sandpipers, herons and ducks in numbers without equal in any other city park.
On the beach of West Pond, Canada geese and mute swans crowd together much like their two-legged counterparts on the sands of Far Rockaway, less than three miles away.
“This is one of the best places in the entire country to birdwatch,” said Jane Hoffer of Manhattan, clad in standard birdwatching apparel, including a hat with brim turned down against the sun, a long-sleeved shirt to protect against ticks and a pair of binoculars around the neck.
Last Sunday, Hoffer and friend Olivia Fox of Far Rockaway got a good look at the rarely-seen yellow-billed cuckoo, a mockingbird and a brown thrasher.
And if these or any other of the hundreds of bird species’ names mystify, don’t worry. The visitor center has plenty of information on many of the feathered fowl found here, including their much more grounded neighbors, the painted-backed terrapin turtle, just returning to the refuge from the sea to lay their eggs.
Park rangers reminded visitors to stay on the paths at all times and not to take any plant or soil samples back home. Also, outside food is not allowed at the refuge.
A one-time free permit is available at the visitor center and must be carried with visitors at all times within the refuge.
The park opens at sunrise and closes at sundown. The visitor center and parking lot hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (718) 318-4340, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.