Jamaica Bay is New York City's largest wetland and one of largest in the region, surrounded by a nearly completely paved-over, built-up and industrialized watershed. Yet the estuary remains a richly productive wetland complex, arguably the most significant in the Northeast. Preserving and restoring its ecological wealth is the linchpin to the survival of much of the region’s resident and migratory wildlife.
Great Egret at Jamaica Bay
by F. Portmann
by F. Portmann
Hemmed in by Brooklyn and Queens and sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean by the Rockaway Peninsula, this estuarine mosaic of open water, islands, tidal wetlands, beaches, ponds and upland fields and woods provides habitat for more than 325 species of birds as well as 35 species of butterflies, 100 species of fish and many rare and endangered plants. It is a globally significant wetland and home to the country’s largest urban wildlife refuge, part of Gateway National Recreation Area.
For birds, Jamaica Bay is an incredibly vital place. It supports breeding populations of more than 70 bird species, including breeding colonies of herons and other long-legged waders, nesting grassland birds and the largest concentration of beach-nesting birds in the Northeast. Wintering Atlantic brant, bufflehead, northern pintail and other waterfowl congregate in the bay by the thousands. During migration, the bay is a crucial staging area where large numbers of shorebirds stop and refuel on its beaches and wetlands as they navigate the “elbow” where the Atlantic Coast bends from east-west to north-south.
Jamaica Bay Shorebirds
by F. Portmann
Nevertheless, the effects of intensive human activity since the nineteenth century have taken a heavy toll on this complex ecosystem and threaten its future productivity. Extensive physical alteration of the shoreline and bay bottom, together with widespread pollution, have affected the hydrology and water quality of the bay, leading to an accelerating and as-yet-unexplained loss of intertidal wetlands since the mid-1970s. These impacts combine and interact in ways that are still not well understood, despite years of research.
Windblown trash on Jamaica Bay Beach
by J. Rowden
Although controls have reduced some of the worst industrial pollution, the bay still receives contaminated runoff from the streets and from the runways of JFK International Airport. Raw sewage ends up in the bay when heavy storms overwhelm sewage treatment plants, and nitrogen levels are too high even in treated wastewater discharges. Toxic chemicals leach from closed landfills, and windblown trash clogs beaches and wetlands.
Also at risk are the last fragments of open upland fringing the bay, which are needed to leave space for wetlands to retreat as sea levels rise due to climate change.
NYC Audubon's Work in Jamaica Bay
Because birds are sensitive to environmental change and eat higher up on the food chain, they are excellent indicators of the health of the larger ecosystem. As the only organization in New York City dedicated to protecting wild birds, NYC Audubon is in a unique position to study bird populations to understand what is happening in the bay and to use that knowledge for the protection, restoration, management and enjoyment of its ecological productivity. Since the 1980s, we have been involved in a number of interconnected research, education, restoration and advocacy efforts in Jamaica Bay.
Research and Monitoring
Through our extensive volunteer citizen science programs as well as through academic research we sponsor, we have been gathering data on the health and reproductive success of key bird species in Jamaica Bay. This includes our 30-year-old Harbor Herons project to identify, monitor and protect the nesting islands of herons, egrets and other long-legged waterbirds throughout New York Harbor. Since 2003, NYC Audubon has also conducted off-colony monitoring surveys with the help of volunteers. In one program, citizen scientists observed and charted the birds’ flight lines from the breeding colonies to the foraging sites, recording this information for analysis by NYC Audubon conservation staff. Currently, between May and November, volunteer citizen scientists visit specific foraging locations twice a month. They record the number of species and individuals they see and collect behavioral information, which helps us to understand how the birds are using the mosaic of habitats around the harbor. Click here to learn more about the Harbor Herons project and view nesting survey results.
Measuring horseshoe crabs on Plumb Beach
© Diane SanRoman
Since 2009 we have also been collecting data on the numbers, health and food sources of shorebird species as well as the level of human disturbance at multiple sites around the bay, to understand how Jamaica Bay fits into the larger picture of shorebird migration and survival. Citizen science monitors survey sites around the bay for shorebirds during their spring migration, identifying species and number of individuals.
Click herefor the data summary of the shorebird monitoring at five locations in Jamaica Bay.
We also use citizen scientists to monitor the spawning beaches of horseshoe crabs, whose eggs are an important food source for shorebirds, to gather data on horseshoe crab numbers.
Click herefor a summary of horseshoe crab data since 2009
The seminal 1987 “Buffer the Bay” and 1993 “Buffer the Bay Revisited” reports produced by NYC Audubon and The Trust for Public Land identified open space near the bay for public acquisition and restoration. These reports have been guiding conservation throughout the bay for more than 20 years and remain the framework for ongoing efforts.
Schoolchildren Clean Up Beach Debris
© NYC Audubon
We also monitor and participate in federal, state, and local land management planning to ensure the protection of the waters and bird habitats of Jamaica Bay. To that end, we are reviewing the new general management plan for Gateway National Recreation Area being produced by the National Park Service and participating on the Blue Ribbon Task Force guiding the restoration of Floyd Bennett Field.
Restoration and Mitigation
Working with volunteers, including youth groups, schoolchildren and, most recently, the deaf and hard of hearing community, we clean up beach debris and remove invasive plants at sites in need of restoration around the bay.
Beach Cleanup with NYC Audubon
© NYC Audubon
Education and Outreach
In addition to our clean-up and restoration projects, NYC Audubon has a large and active educational program focused on Jamaica Bay. This includes hands-on classroom and field projects for schoolchildren and a full roster of nature walks, birding workshops and boat tours for people of all ages. In conjunction with our shorebird research, we have reached out to the boating community around the bay at dock parties and hold an annual summer Shorebird Festival in partnership with the American Littoral Society and Gateway National Recreation Area.
2010 Shorebird Festival, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge