Spring to bring new sights, flocks to Jamaica Bay 1

Snow geese, which flock down to Jamaica Bay during the winter, will stay in the area until late March and early April.

While spring might not have fully sprung in Queens yet, the warmer weather is beginning to usher in new critters to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

To inform nature lovers about some of the seasonal sights that they can find in the refuge in the transitional period between winter and spring, Don Riepe, the American Littoral Society’s Jamaica Bay program director, will be giving a live virtual program from the estuary on Facebook at 10 a.m. on March 21.

“The earth is waking up. Birds are starting to change into their spring plumage and gear up, starting to sing and look to set up territories,” said Riepe.

With New Yorkers cooped up in the cold weather and pandemic conditions, the demand to return to the great outdoors is rising. Two limited capacity in-person National Park Service guided walks near the end of March have already been booked up.

The NPS will be creating more programming for later in the spring. In the meantime, nature enthusiasts can follow Riepe’s walk through the refuge for notes on what to look out for, and then grab their birding binoculars and hit the bay in-person.

Two key natural features of the refuge are the Eastern and Western ponds, which are brackish bodies of water created in the 1950s. Several trails include a 1.7-mile loop that circles around the West Pond and includes several open vistas, a beautiful view of the cityscape, and some prime birdwatching opportunities.

There have been 325 species of birds recorded at the refuge, according to the NPS. Much of that bird activity is due to the salt marshes that dot the bay and provide habitat, not just for the birds themselves but for prey and grasses that they feed on.

“It’s like a big nursery ground for many species of fish and crabs and shrimp and marine life. So they’re very important and that attracts all the birds — the wading birds,” said Riepe.

Late March means that the bird population will include some early spring arrivals as well as some winter birds that are still sticking around before heading farther north. There are still flocks of snow geese, for example, and brant geese — the largest population of geese in the bay. Brant geese number about 10,000 in Jamaica Bay, Riepe said, and will be here for at least the next few weeks, maybe until the second week in April.

“The birds would be starting to sing as well. Some of the permanent residents, like the cardinals and Carolina wrens,” said Riepe.

Early migrants tend to include birds like the phoebe, a plump songbird, and osprey, a.k.a. fish hawks, which start showing up by late March and early April. Out in the waters of the bay, seals are still finishing out their winter stay, according to Riepe, hopping up on the mud flats to be seen during high tide.

One of the booked NPS walks is set for the night of the full moon, March 28. While the refuge is one location to view the moon coming up that evening as the park closes around dusk, Riepe recommended Floyd Bennett Field as a good alternative to see it rise over Jamaica Bay.

To join the virtual tour, visit the Facebook page LittoralsocietyNYC or Google American Littoral Society Northeast Chapter. For more information, call (718) 474-0896 or send an email to donriepe@gmail.com.

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