Hurricane Sandy Update from the Field: Central Park Remains Resilient

One of the trees Hurricane Sandy took down. Photo: Michele Berger

Walking through Central Park on Marathon Sunday, it’s as though no one heard the race had been canceled.

Crowds cheer on groups of runners, surrounded by an amped up police presence and many park staff. Tourists wind their way through the maze of paths and trees, equally amused by their natural settings and the scene their fellow humans are making. Yet despite outward appearances, Central Park is different than race day last year. It’s different from even a week ago.

Listen carefully and you can hear a buzz. It’s not birds or people or typical city sounds, but distant chainsaws and wood chippers dealing with the aftermath of the area’s worst hurricane in more than a century. Every 15 feet or so, the remnants of a freshly felled tree remind of the battering the 843-acre park took. Though we don’t yet know the storm’s full human or financial costs, a walk through this New York City centerpiece reveals majestic nature uprooted.

One of Hurricane Sandy’s victims was an 8,700-pound swamp white oak, another a very old willow. All told, 550 trees here felt Sandy’s effects. “Many of the trees destroyed in the storm were more than a century old,” says the Central Park Conservancy, which manages the park. “The number…is expected to climb dramatically as inspections continue.” One truck driver hauling out a dozen or so logs—some two-feet thick—told me he thought 50 such loads had already been cleared.

A truckload of trees hauled out of Central Park. Photo: Michele Berger

Combined, the park’s trees offer an important Atlantic Flyway stopover for hundreds of species of migrating birds, “a welcoming place to rest and stoke up energy for the next leg of their journey,” as New York City Audubon puts it. During National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, hundreds of watchers tally thousands of individual birds there, with numbers hitting their peak—100-plus birders counting 6,462 individuals representing 62 species—during Central Park’s 100th CBC in 1999. It’s also an Important Bird Area.

One birder en route to her typical lookout spot stopped to discuss Hurricane Sandy. (Her dangling binoculars gave her away.) “I just come walk out here and I try to keep track of all the birds on the reservoir, particularly in the winter,” says Nancy, who lives on Central Park East. She hadn’t been out since the hurricane hit and hoped to find out whether the species she typically sees fared okay. She worried about the storm’s impact on the birds.

According to the National Audubon Society, Hurricane Sandy’s timing could have been far worse. “Birds were lucky that Sandy did not occur during nesting season but during the later part of fall migration. Some birds get blown way off course and may find themselves far out of their range and without the food and foraging habitat they need to survive. Some are physically injured or killed during a storm. But most in good condition probably survive.”

Those flyers around me—titmice and sparrows and chickadees, the usual crew—seemed happy, flitting around and responding to my pssh-pssh-psshs. (Unlike in Prospect Park, as Editor-in-Chief David Seideman reported, no rare sitings here.) And despite hundreds of trees getting damaged, that was just a small percentage of the park’s 24,000—leaving many a respite for our feathered friends. Now that seems like something to cheer about.

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