New York's wild surprise

by Robert.Liebman

At New York's JFK airport, where the runway ends, the bay and the birds begin. It's a semi-secret side to the city that few visitors see

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a sprawling natural habitat where numerous birds, animals and plants blithely go about their business despite their very noisy neighbour. This wetlands refuge is adjacent to John F Kennedy International Airport, one of the world’s busiest.

The wildlife sanctuary is a mostly quiet and tranquil haven except when planes are directly overhead, an infrequent occurrence. The airport hustle and bustle certainly does not prevent a huge range of birds from inhabiting the bay, either as permanent residents or seasonal visitors. The marshes are also home to small mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

It also attracts several species of human visitors: nature-lovers in general, bird-watchers in particular, and photographers and other devotees of rustic locales in urban locations. The wildlife is not the only subject matter on offer for photography buffs. Although Manhattan is some 10 miles distant, its many skyscrapers are clearly visible. The panorama extends from the financial district in lower Manhattan northward to such familiar icons as the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. The collection of photographs by naturalist Don Riepe of the American Littoral Society ( illustrate the rich visual possibilities at the sanctuary.

When JFK was built some 70 years ago, its Jamaica Bay location was selected because the area was sparsely populated but convenient for the metropolis. In those pre-jet days, fewer planes took to the air, and they were relatively small and quiet. Known then as Idlewild, the airport was one-fifth its current size.

More than 330 bird species - nearly half the species in the northeast -  live in or visit the 9,155 acre refuge. Its diverse habitats include salt marshes, upland fields and woods, fresh and brackish water ponds and an open expanse of bay. There’s something for just about everyone of a feathery disposition. Downy woodpeckers and numerous ducks and gulls are permanent residents, their numbers swelled by visitors such as white pelicans, pied-billed grebes and red-throated loons.

Various native snakes, frogs, bats and other small mammals such as muskrats and  chipmunks hang their hats here, along with more than 60 species of butterflies and horseshoe crabs. The latter, snug in their tank-like shells, pre-date dinosaurs and are more closely related to spiders and scorpions than to common crabs. Their ancient pedigree and primeval appearance notwithstanding, they have their own website -

Nature gets a little nurture

Human intervention has played a role in providing the fresh water that some of these critters depend on. The main intervener was Robert Moses, legendary and controversial NYC Parks Commissioner who ordered the building of the ponds. The refuge was owned by the New York City Parks Department until 1972, when it was handed over to the National Park Service. It is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, which encompasses the entire New York and New Jersey harbour region.

The East Pond is the largest, at 100 acres, and it is still manipulated by man – the water level is lowered in the summer to provide mud flats for migrating shorebirds. The birds take advantage of the gift by the thousands. The 45-acre West Pond is encircled by a modest and often muddy walking trail. Depending on the time of year, it attracts black skimmers, terns, songbirds, snow geese, several varieties of ducks and – twitchers’ delights – the rare visitor not normally seen in this region. This pond is also home to a terrapin nesting area, which is closed (to people) during breeding season. Another freshwater pool, the small Blind Pond, is a breeding ground for tree frogs and a bathing area for small birds.

Thanks to its off-the-beaten-path location, the refuge gets relatively few tourists, and most New Yorkers are blissfully unaware of - or indifferent to - its existence.The location is actually ideal for travellers using JFK who have time to kill. If you or your sat nav or taxi driver know the way, driving to the site is the most convenient way to get there. The site is also accessible by public transport – a bus stops at the Visitor Center.  

Rangers and volunteers conduct tours throughout the year, offering a varied programme that includes talks on seasonal wildlife, sunset tours, family-orientated presentations and an annual lecture series. Depending on time of year, long sleeves (protection against poison ivy as well as insects), footwear appropriate for mud and mosquito repellent are recommended.


National Parks of New York Harbor:

Gateway National Recreation Area:

Where to stay

Comfort Inn JFK: rates are reasonable at this hotel located at JFK Airport.

Ramada Plaza: located just outside the airport, this large hotel has a restaurant and offers free high-speed internet and airport transfers.

Car rental

Europcar: 718 632-8300;





Robert Liebman is a native New Yorker who has been resident in London for more than 25 years. A general freelance writer, Robert has been writing travel pieces for American, British and Continental newspapers and magazines. He also specialises in property and personal finance, contributing articles to major British national newspapers. He also designed and writes his own websites, and Favourite travel destinations My taste runs to near extremes. On the one hand, I can never get my fill of the world’s great cities – greatness being defined by major museums, plenty of first rate music and art, and wonderful architecture. Alternatively, natural settings are also a great draw: quiet serene mountain lakes on the one hand (freshwater angling is my greatest passion), and squawky tropical forests on the other.