Goethals Pond is a relatively recent “natural” feature. The story begins well before the 1935 construction of Goethals Bridge, for which the preserve is named. In the 1880s, the Travis Rail Line split an unnamed creek, later known as Bridge Creek, and its associated meadows and marshes into an upper and lower system. Instead of railroad trestles an enormous earthen berm was constructed across the marshland. Two five-foot diameter, concrete culvert pipes were installed to allow the ebb and flow of the creek. In 1892, Staten Island’s famed naturalist, William T. Davis, made note in Days Afield that the rail line with trestle bridges, reshaped Staten Island’s marshes and not always to their detriment. The Bridge Creek culverts either collapsed, became choked with silt, or both, although they never entirely closed up, and as a result, the upper system overflowed its banks, creating a shallow body of water, Goethals Pond. When the pond is full, it is no more than 3 feet deep. Saltwater intrusion is apparent by the brackish quality of the water and the occurrence of small patches of salt meadow hay. Although the Pond level rises and falls, it is not related to the diurnal tides. Rainwater and runoff from nearby paved surfaces contribute to the inflow. Less is known about outflow through the restricted culverts. It is believed that most water escapes through evaporation. Between periods of rainfall, the pond becomes increasingly shallow. During extended dry periods there are broad, open flats. Phragmites surround the perimeter edge.
From 1992 through 1996, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) took possession of 67 acres, including all of the pond and some surrounding forest land in order to create the "Goethals Pond Complex.". Click here for the NYSDEC website on Goethals Pond.
It was not until the 1970s that birders began to take note of the Pond’s unique shorebird habitat and to make regular birding trips here. In the mid 1980s, migrating Black-necked Stilt were discovered. Goethals Pond made headlines in August 1992 when a single Roseate Spoonbill made the pond its temporary haven, the northernmost site ever recorded for this species. By the time Roger Tory Peterson made the trek down from his Connecticut home, the bird had left for good. But Peterson was not disappointed; a Hudsonian Godwit and a Red Phalarope were among the day’s sightings.
Today a trip to the pond in late summer (August-September autumn migration), or to a lesser extent spring, is sure to reveal Greater Yellowleg, Lesser Yellowleg, Solitary Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, both Short-billed and Long-billed dowitchers, Common Snipe, Wilson’s and Red-necked phalaropes. Among shorebirds, only Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper are known to breed here.
Other warm season sightings include all of the heron species that nest on nearby islands; breeding waterfowl such as Gadwall and American Black Duck; breeding Red-tailed Hawk, Ring-necked Pheasant, Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Towhee, Red-winged Blackbird, Baltimore Oriole, and American Goldfinch.
Recent winters have not been productive. However, some species are dependable when the pond is not frozen. Among them are Canada Goose, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Hooded Merganser, numerous gulls, Great Horned Owl, and roosting Cooper’s Hawk and Red-tailed Hawk.
Bridge Creek, part of the Goethals Pond Complex, is on the other side of the railroad from Goethals Pond. It is located off Western Avenue between Goethals Road North and Arlington Yards and is a restored 22 acre wetland. Restoration was completed in April 2006 by National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration(NOAA) and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC).
Wilson Snipes can be found on the mudflats during migration. On July 31, 2010, an adult Clapper Rail with chick was observed from the bridge. During mild winters Black-crowned Night-Herons can be seen nestled down in the Phragmites along the creek. Most of the species seen at Goethals Pond are also present here. Whitetail Deer have been seen here also.
Parking is available in a small pull off next to the Goethals Bridge. Locals crab here and others just stop to look at the marsh.
When To Go
Some species of shorebirds seem to be constantly migrating throughout the spring and fall migration seasons. May is best for spring migration. August and September are excellent for shorebirds on the southward fall migration. Any time could yield good results, but there are ways to improve your chances. Check the weather from the previous week or even month. Rain greatly effects the water level. Low water levels may enhance shorebirds. Mid-levels may encourage wading birds. If the water level is greater than one foot, watch for colonial waterbirds. They feed solo or in small numbers in the spring and become quite gregarious by the end of the breeding season.
Wintering waterfowl are numerous if the water is open and the level is high. Tides may play an indirect role as well. Shorebirds and some wading birds may relocate to the pond from nearby tidal marshes during daily high tides.
Optimal Weather Conditions
When the water level is low in winter, the pond ices over easily. The Winter Waterfowl Count in January has generally been disappointing.
Rain greatly effects the water’s depth, so it is best to consult last week’s weather. Differing water heights will affect birds’ usage during migration.
There is only one safe spot to view the Goethals Pond. It is where the NYSDEC has provided an elevated viewing platform. The platform has good views overlooking the east end of the Pond. The fenced and gated parking area is sometimes closed.
Click here for a google map showing Goethals Pond and the viewing platform. Write in your starting location for directions.
Resource Persons for Goethals Pond Complex Birding:
2012- Catherine Barron
2001- Carl Alderson, Natural Resources Group, City of New York/Parks and Recreation; and Catherine Barron
All photographs are courtesy of David Speiser, www.lilibirds.com