Wreckage, Then Renewal at Queens Bird Sanctuary

Photo: Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge After Hurricane Sandy, NOAA

Migratory seabirds make Jamaica Bay Wildlife Sanctuary a popular place for bird fanatics and other nature lovers. But Hurricane Sandy took its toll, wiping away boardwalks, stripping away vegetation, and limiting both bird and human access to this refuge. “Hurricane Sandy: Before and After,” a photo exhibit showcasing the effect of the storm on the park, opens at the Visitors Center this Sunday.

The news isn’t all bad, says Glenn Phillips, Audubon NYC executive director, who gave a recent talk on the subject. Bird lovers and environmentalists are using the whirlwind of change resulting from the storm as a chance to improve wildlife habitat. This includes pushing for new freshwater ponds at Jamaica Bay. In the 1950s Robert Moses, who helped shape New York’s parks, added two of these as part of a deal with the city: the MTA got the A train, and the Parks Department got the East and West Ponds. The storm clobbered all three, with one breach in the West Pond, three in the East, and a rail section removed from the A line.

This time around, no deal was made. The A train was fixed without Audubon’s involvement, Phillips says. Habitat conservationists now hope to use the storm and the MTA’s rush construction to create new ponds with a drainage system that maintains ideal water levels for shorebirds, he adds. The water bodies have not been freshwater ponds for at least a decade and they currently hold debris and oil from the storm—making new, smaller, more manageable ponds plausible.

There are also hopes of improving public access, such as new boardwalks located in areas ideal for birds and people. And although the Jacob Riis bathhouse, parking lot, and beach all need restoration—the bathhouse was destroyed and the parking lot is currently buried under oil and waste—new area plans will ideally include more bird-designated locations and birdwatching spots, Phillips says.

Although Sandy has “dramatically changed the landscaped” at Jamaica Bay, according to Phillips, some birds are benefiting from the natural alterations caused by the hurricane. Breezy Point, an important beach for nesting shorebirds, has been cleared of most of its vegetation and dunes. The new beach is much longer, increasing the area between high tide and the first dunes, where common and least terns, black skimmers, and piping plovers like to nest.

Hurricane Sandy greatly altered Jamaica Bay and birds will need to adapt to new changes. But with comprehensive planning, the transition can be made as easily as possible, Phillips adds, in some cases, making the new conditions better than the old.

Exhibit info
Where: Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center
Address: 100 Cross Bay Boulevard, Queens
When: Beginning Sunday, January 27, 2013, and running for several months
Admission: Free
More information: National Park Service website


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