Floyd Bennett Field and Dead Horse Bay

Summer Grasslands

D. Riepe

Nesting**    Spring Migration***    Fall Migration***    Winter**

(no star = birding is not very productive, * = somewhat productive, ** = productive, *** = very productive)

In 1931, New York City built its first municipal airport, Floyd Bennett Field, on a group of marshy islands at the mouth of Jamaica Bay by landfilling with garbage, rubble, and dredge spoil. The maintained grassland areas between runways inadvertently provided habitat for grassland birds. When Floyd Bennett Field was decommissioned 40 years later, in 1971, the management practice of suppressing woody vegetation by frequent mowing ceased; natural succession started to occur. In 1985, the United States Department of Interior’s National Park Service and the NYC Audubon initiated a grassland restoration project (GRAMP) for 130 acres (out of 1,500) of Floyd Bennett Field. Trees and shrubs were removed and mowing was resumed. The managed grasslands are particularly lovely in spring when the wild flowers and grasses display hues of green, red, blue, and yellow.

Floyd Bennett Field became part of the Gateway National Recreation Area in 1972. The airport administration building and flight tower are landmarked, as are the runways, saving a piece of the city’s history. The runways are now used on occasion for bicycle races and skating. Floyd Bennett Field’s other recreational areas include ball fields, cricket field, two public campgrounds, model plane flying field, and community gardens.

Savannah Sparrow

D. Speiser

Very good birding is found at the North Forty and along Floyd Bennett Field’s shorefront as well as in the grassland areas. Observers have recorded up to 30 species nesting in these areas.

Floyd Bennett Field Grasslands

During spring migration, Floyd Bennett Field is the place to look for the relatively common Savannah Sparrow, and the rare Grasshopper Sparrow, Bobolink, and Eastern Weadowlark. Northern Harrier, occasional nesters, can be occasionally seen hunting the fields and open shrubland. The Savannah Sparrow is the only grassland species still nesting here regularly, reflecting a wider decline of these species throughout the region as a result of habitat loss. Other nesters are Ring-necked Pheasant, American Woodcock, Northern Flicker, White-eyed Vireo, Tree Swallow (in man-made nest boxes), Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, and Common Yellowthroat.

In early October, migrating tree swallow flock in swarms of more than 1,000 birds, feed on the bayberry shrubs around the field. And, in the fall, as many as six American Kestrel have been sighted at one time sitting along the fence that encloses the New York City Police Department’s runway (formerly used by the U.S. Coast Guard).

Cooper's Hawk

by F. Portmann

Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, and Merlin are winter residents, as are the rarer Rough-legged Hawks and Snowy and Short-eared owls. Hawks are seen in the small stands of tall cottonwoods trees between runways.

Scattered about the field are Japanese black pines of various sizes and densities; many of which are dying. The National Park Service is replacing them with native pines. In the Ecology Village, an educational environmental center, the existing pine grove provides nighttime winter roosts for Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks and, from time to time, day roosts for Barn Owl. Because the pines are neither tall nor dense, owls do not feel secure among them. These birds of prey are easily flushed from their roosts, before birders get a good look.
The many runways and roads that crisscross Floyd Bennett Field make walking easy, but the distances are long. In winter, the wind is cold, and in summer, there is little shade. Birding by car is a consideration, although limited, because two of the main runways are closed to motorized vehicles. Besides providing mobility and shelter, a car can act as a blind that allows you to get close to birds. When the car is not in motion, harriers, kestrels, and owls may fly within 20 feet of you. But if you get out of your car, a Cooper’s Hawk as far as 100 yards away will be frightened off its perch. Try using a scope on a window mount.

North Forty

Besides the grassland area, there is a remote section at the north end, west of the model airplane area, called the North Forty. It is accessible by a trail that winds through shrubland and Phragmites to a man-made, 2-acre pond named the Return-A-Gift Pond. If you checked return-a-gift-to-wildlife on your New York State tax return, you helped pay for the trail and the pond. During spring, summer, and fall, look for American Robin, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Towhee, and Northern Cardinal in the shrubbery at the beginning of the trail. Some of these birds nest nearby. When you reach the pond, you may see Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Glossy Ibis, Wood Duck, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Hooded Merganser, and Solitary, Spotted, and Least Sandpipers.

Snowy Egret

by F. Portmann

Good birding (best in spring) is also found at northeastern end of the north runway (Raptor Point). When you reach this point, walk around to the right, look south to the beach and marsh for waterfowl and American Oystercatcher. Although you are permitted to walk this beach, it is recommended that you do not. View the birds from the bulkhead area, so you do not disturb them.

Across the bay are two large uninhabited islands (which are off-limits), Canarsie Pol and Ruffle Bar. The islands host gulls, Barn Owl (in nest boxes put up by the National Park Service), and colonial nesters such as Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Glossy Ibis, and a few little Blue and Tricolored Herons (mainly at Canarsie Pol). In spring and summer, you may see these egrets, herons, and ibis flying over the bay’s waters, in transit to and from their nests.

Special Note:
At certain times of the year, parking areas may be restricted to fishermen with special permits or to special events’ participants. For advice, check at the information desk at the Contact Center just inside the main entrance to the field.

Floyd Bennett Grasslands

by D. Riepe

New York City Audubon Speaks Out
In the past, the National Park Service has pressed for expansion of the baseball fields into the grasslands. NYC Audubon opposes any plans that will encroach on this sensitive grassland area.

When to Go

During the first through third weeks in April, Savannah Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark migrate through. From early April through May, migrating Osprey, Northern Harrier, and American Kestrel can be seen. From mid-April through May nesting birds arrive.

From the second week in September to the end of October, when there is a cold front with strong northwesterly winds, raptors such as Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Kestrel, and Merlin move through.

By the middle of November, most resident winter hawks have arrived, and waterfowl are arriving in increasing numbers. But by the end of February, winter birding is slowing down.

Personal Safety
It is always best to bird with at least one other person, even at Floyd Bennett Field.
When you are on the North Forty Trail or on trails through and around the Ecology Village campgrounds, be on the lookout for poison ivy. After leaving the trail, check yourself and your clothing for dog ticks.

Obey the speed limit (25 MPH) and stop signs when driving the roads and runways. Caution should be exercised when driving on the runways during bicycle races. Extra caution should be exercised when approaching runway intersections where there are no stop signs.

Trail Map
Click here for a map that shows the distances of the trails and runways at Floyd Bennett Field. Although designed for bicyclists, it’s very useful for birders.

There are two entrances to Floyd Bennett Field:

  • Just 200 yards south of the Belt Parkway on Flatbush Avenue there is an entrance for the Aviator Sports complex (encompassing two historic hangars). There is a food court and restrooms here. Parking at this facility is free.
  • The second is the main entrance - ¾ miles further south on Flatbush Avenue near the Marine Parkway Bridge toll plaza.

Click here for a Google map for public transportation and driving directions to Floyd Bennett Field.

Further Information
 To read Mixed Woodlands of Floyd Bennett Field from the National Park Service click here


 Resource Person for Floyd Bennett Field:
Ronald V. Bourque, Former President NYC Audubon Board of Directors and currently on NYC Audubon's Conservation Committee

Dead Horse Bay

20,000 Greater Scaup in February 2010

R. Bourque

The small bay and uplands (138.8 acres) directly across Flatbush Avenue from the main entrance to Gateway National Recreation Area and Floyd Bennett Field, is Dead Horse Bay. The bay has the reputation of attracting disoriented birds, such as Red-necked Grebe and Surf and White-winged Scoters, from late autumn through winter. By scanning the bay with a scope, you may reveal an out-of-place bird. Throughout the winter, waterfowl, including loons and grebes, are scattered across the bay. The regulars are Brant, American Wigeon, scaup, Bufflehead, and Red-breasted Merganser. In summer, look for Least Tern and Boat-tailed Grackle.

Dead Horse Bay trails

R. Bourque

Click here for a printable version of this map.

The southern section of Dead Horse Bay is easily accessible through a series of well-maintained trails (see trail map). From the trailhead on the west side of Flatbush Avenue, (across Flatbush Avee. From the main entrance to Floyd Bennett Field) take the far right hand trail to the shore of the bay (.28 miles). As you emerge from the trail onto the sandy beach, inch forward quietly until the shore is in sight. This slow approach is unlikely to disturb the shorebirds. Sometimes horse bones are found in the sand, evidence of the bay’s past as a manufacturing center for fertilizer made from horse carcasses.

Walk left when you reach the beach and follow around the tip of a peninsula to the base of the Marine Parkway (Gil Hodges) Bridge that spans Rockaway Inlet (.75 miles). For this walk, the tide is an important consideration. The full moon/new moon high tides may swamp the beach. At low tide you will see exposed mud and sand flats and a sand spit at the mouth of the bay where waterfowl, gulls, and shorebirds gather, including American Oystercatcher and Greater Yellowlegs in spring and fall and Common and Least terns in summer.

[b]American Oystercatcher[/b][br]by F. PortmannAmerican Oystercatcher
by F. Portmann


To consult the tide schedule, call the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge at 718-318-4340 or click here and then go to Long Island South Shore, Mill Basin and then fill in the rest of the necessary information.
In the winter, look out into the inlet for Long-tailed Duck, black and white riders of the chop, far from their summer haunts in Greenland and Northern Canada.

While on the beach at the Rockaway Inlet, scan the towers of the Marine Parkway Bridge for the resident peregrine falcon.

To return to Flatbush Avenue, at the bridge and turn left onto the bicycle/pedestrian path to the traffic light or you can take inland trails back to the trailhead at Flatbush Avenue. The inland trails are generally less productive, except in winter when raptors patrol the uplands.

When to Go
You can go birding at Dead Horse Bay at any time of year without restrictions. The best time for waterfowl is from November to March and for woodcock courtship behavior, early April at dusk.
The last week of May to the first week in June, horseshoe crabs breed and lay their eggs, which attract Ruddy Turnstone, Laughing Gull, occasionally Sanderling and other shorebirds. Horseshoe crab eggs are a specific food source for these species.

Personal Safety

It is recommended that you go birding at Dead Horse Bay with at least one other person.
If you walk the bicycle/pedestrian path, be on the lookout for speeding cyclists.

Getting There
Go to Floyd Bennett field directions

 Resource Person for Dead Horse Bay:
Ronald V. Bourque, Former President NYC Audubon Board of Directors and currently on NYC Audubon's Conservation Committee

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