Naturalist Gabriel Willow leading a NYC Audubon Sunset Ecocruise photo courtesy of Marija Filipovic
The wildlife living in the East River between NYC's bridges is often overlooked. Most people don't realize that New York is an archipelago of islands and that many of these islands are only inhabited by birds. The waterways are stirring with birds, but if you don't know where to look, you may not even know that the birds are out there. On a given summer weekend, city streets are bustling with tourists and a few locals. For those tourists and locals looking for a nearby escape, who want to do something off the beaten path, forget the streets and hit the water. One of NYC's best secrets is NYC Audubon's Sunday evening sunset eco-cruises. It seems unlikely that one could miss the bright, yellow water taxi docked in front of South Street Seaport, and yet with all the musicians, pretzel vendors and beer drinkers, I almost did. The NY Water Taxi departs weekly during the summer, on Sundays at 7pm from Pier 17, and for anyone who finds it, you are in for a special treat. Not Just Another Bird Tour, Also A Tour About NYC's History
I was fortunate to attend one of the ecocruises last Sunday. We embarked on our boat ride, slowly heading north under the Brooklyn Bridge, initially focusing not on birds, but instead learning about the natural and cultural history of New York Harbor. Although I already knew that the East River is not really a river but a tidal estuary, this is one of the factoids I relearned that never ceases to surprise me. It is easy to forget that New York City, despite a century of water pollution is much cleaner than it was and that these ecosystems are making a comeback. For those waterways still heavily contaminated, some of them that we passed by, such as Newtown Creek have gained Superfund status which will, hopefully, expedite their cleanup.
Small Islands Serving As Bird Sanctuaries
As we head up the East River towards the Bronx, we pass many small islands, such as U-Thant, a small island off the coast of the United Nations building in midtown. The island from a distance looks like a few scattered trees covered with vines but when we approach closer, we see that these islands are heavily used by cormorants, black crown night herons and great egrets.
Brother Islands-No Bros But Lots of Birds
When we approach the Brother Islands-North Brother and South Brother, we see not only the remnants of the quarantine hospital for Typhoid Mary, but also see barn swallows flying by, injecting a burst of life into an otherwise ghastly place. Gabriel Willow, our Audubon tour guide, also tells us that he has seen owls on the island in the past and that the owls may have caused the egrets to move to an island with fewer predators, such as Mills Rock. We are also fortunate to see an adult yellow crowned night heron- since there are only six (three pairs) in New York Harbor!
Experience The Juxtaposition of Nature And City
For those interested in viewing pristine nature, this eco-cruise may not be for you. But for those who delight in the juxtaposition of nature and the built environment, may find it even more beautiful to catch a sighting of a falcon flying off Con Edison's Big Alice Power Plant in Long Island City.