Last weekend I traveled by train, boat and van to a far-off place to go bird watching. Where might that be, you wonder? For this Manhattan resident, it meant Staten Island. Our guide, Joe Giunta—birding instructor for Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a volunteer leader for New York City Audubon—was knowledgeable and affable, and the other bird watchers enjoyable company to keep. The avian company however, was, in a word, sparse.
That’s to be expected of any trip in early-March, I learned from Joe. It’s still early for migrants to come through the New York City area. Starting in late-March and extending through May, more spring migrants are around, he promised. But I still had hope. Our destination was the Staten Island Greenbelt, a 2,800-acre wooded area across the heart of the island. The land, designated as a city park in 1984, is protected and maintained by the not-for-profit Greenbelt Conservancy in conjunction with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Wouldn’t you have hope too?
Despite the day’s dearth of feathered fauna, it wasn’t a complete wash. After a quick trip on the ferry—a new experience for me—we stopped near the water to await shuttles from the Greenbelt Nature Center. With binoculars trained on our surroundings, we spotted some adorable black-and-white bufflehead and several pairs of red-breasted mergansers, their spiky head crests visible to even those with the worst binoculars. Then, in what seemed like a little joke played by Mother Nature, nearly everyone but Joe missed a beautiful question mark butterfly float by.
At the nature center (after a long and bumpy van ride through Staten Island), we stumbled across a few wildlife gems. On a tree branch just out front, an abandoned Baltimore oriole nest hung in plain view. And before we left for our hike, a red bat hovered overhead, dropping behind the building and reappearing as if it were showing off.
All in all, we saw about two dozen different bird species. But to give you a sense of the level of frustration that permeated the group, I leave you with this anecdote: At the end of our two-hour walk, someone to my right spotted “two raptors above”. On my left, another birder heard rustling from the bushes. To our chagrin, it was Mother Nature up to her old tricks again.
The birds above were turkey vultures; the bird in the tree was a blue jay. And we were all excited to have seen them, two common species most Manhattanites can spot from their apartment windows.
To try your luck at the Greenbelt, here’s some information about making the trek from Manhattan, courtesy of the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation and the Greenbelt Nature Center:
History of the Greenbelt – Urbanization resulting from construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1964, which (among other things) connects Brooklyn to Staten Island, motivated a group of private citizens to try to protect the area’s natural land. High Rock Park, a 77-acre swath of central land, first earned city park designation in 1965. The rest of the Greenbelt earned the title in 1984.
How to get to Greenbelt Nature Center – The center is accessible by car or public transportation. From Manhattan, ride the Staten Island Ferry. Outside the terminal, take the S62 bus to Bradley Avenue. Transfer to the S57 bus until you reach the intersection of Brielle and Rockland Avenues. The nature center is across the street from the bus stop, at 700 Rockland Avenue. For driving directions, visit the nature center Web site. The Nature Center is closed on Mondays and all major holidays.
Where to bird watch – The Greenbelt offers four foot trails, on which bikes and motorized vehicles are prohibited. For details of the trails, check out the Greenbelt Web site or a detailed trail map from the NYC Parks Department. You can also walk through the 260-acre William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge located on the park’s western edge. Greenbelt’s parks and natural areas are open 365 days a year, from dawn until dusk. However, some parking areas may close earlier.
How to join an NYC bird-watching excursion – Every month, New York City Audubon offers several trips. Some are free, others cost a fee. Visit the NYC Audubon Web site for a full schedule of upcoming events, as well as a list of other spots to bird in Staten Island. Joe Giunta is one of many fantastic guides who lead these trips.