Waterfowl and other wild creatures tend not to be the first images to come to mind when travelers think of New York. But beneath the skyscrapers, and in the corners and edgelands of New York’s vertiginous built environment, you can encounter a wide array of wildlife living an existence oblivious to the anxious struggles of the humans next door. And for those with a passion for New England’s wildlife, several vibrant refuges located further afield in New York state will also be well worth the trip.
Jutting into the Little Peconic Bays from the east end of Long Island, this small wildlife refuge contains a wide array of habitats. A bay beach and the saltwater beyond provides a crucial habitat for Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles, joined from time to time by loggerheads. Also making use of the beach are nesting piping plovers and various species of tern. Inland, visitors can explore brackish and freshwater ponds, kettle holes, tidal flats and salt marshes, all a popular winter home with a range of waterfowl including long-tailed ducks, white-winged scoter and goldeneye ducks. Alongside these varied wetlands are patches of grassland and oak and cedar forest, creating a diversity that is central to the continued survival of Long Island wildlife.
At the end of the last ice age, the huge Wisconsin glacier retreated east across the American landmass, leaving a great glacial lake known as Glacial Lake Passaic. Today, just west of the City, the wetland remnants of this once mighty lake are preserved in Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Spreading across 12 square miles, the refuge has become one of the region’s crucial wilderness areas, a migration resting point or permanent home for more than 244 species of bird. Grasslands, scrubland and mature forests fringe the swamp and waterways, where walkers following the refuge’s many trails may encounter deer, foxes, raccoons, snakes, insects, and even the occasional bear or beaver, once the prey of the area’s native inhabitants.
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge knits together a patchwork of habitats to the north of New York, creating a small, self-contained wilderness that is exceptionally rich in wildlife. It encompasses a significant chunk of the Montezuma Swamp and its composite marshlands, along with some of the most undisturbed swamp woodlands in New England. It is also situated in the center of one of the most populated flight lanes in the Atlantic Flyway, making it a key resting, feeding and nesting habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. At 260 miles, it is a significant distance from NYC, but its vibrant birdlife ensure the journey from the city is worthwhile for any ardent birdwatcher. There are plenty of decent places to stay in nearby Syracuse, which also has its own airport.
A little north of Montezuma, located on the shore of Lake Ontario, Durand Eastman encompasses a string of small lakes fringed by steep wooded slopes and scenic valleys. The park’s Slavin Arboretum, threaded through by walking trails, contains a variety of native and foreign trees, and is particularly spectacular during fall. Deer, raccoons, squirrels, turkeys and chipmunks can be spied scurrying among the tree trunks. In summer, swimming in the lakes and sunbathing on the Lake Ontario shoreline are popular activities, while winter brings cross country skiers to the park’s hilly terrain.
Back within the bounds of New York City, the Jamaica Bay refuge is one of the most important urban wildlife refuges in the north-eastern United States. More than 330 bird species – half the total number of species in the region – have been spotted in the park in the past 25 years. Its birdlife evolves with the turning of the seasons: in spring, you can hear warblers and songbird migrants; in August, the migration of southbound shorebirds begins; while in the Fall, migrating raptors and flocks of waterfowl pass through the park. Much of its terrain consists of the open water and intertidal salt marshes of Jamaica Bay, prime viewing spots for diamondback turtles and horseshoe crabs.