The western section of Long Island Sound, between Queens and the Bronx, is the most highly urbanized part of this 1,300-square-mile estuary of great ecological and economic significance. Yet significant populations of birds breed, winter or stop here during migration. To keep Western Long Island Sound a vital place for birds—and for New Yorkers who share the ecosystem—it is essential to identify, protect, and restore the places birds need for finding food and successfully raising their young.
Western Long Island Sound, the area where the sound narrows and connects to Upper New York Bay through the tidal strait known as the East River, suffered tremendous degradation during the growth and industrialization of New York City. More than a century of dredging and filling wetlands, rerouting watercourses, removing rocky outcroppings and hardening the shoreline has profoundly disturbed the landscape around the sound and altered the tidal system. Continued development and expected sea level rise further threaten the natural land that remains.
The Western L.I. Sound View of Manhattan from South Brother Island
© NYC Audubon
This part of the sound is also seriously impacted by high nitrogen levels in treated sewage discharged from the city’s treatment plants, as well as from combined sewage overflows, contributing to dead zones where there is too little dissolved oxygen to support aquatic life. The water and sediment is also contaminated with toxic chemicals from industry along the Bronx River, which drains into Western Long Island Sound, and from landfills that continue to leak hazardous substances.
In addition, invasive plants and disturbance from the many competing uses for open space threatens the value of the few remaining natural habitats, including in city parkland, for birds and other wildlife
A web of highways and private and public industrial infrastructure enmeshes many neighborhoods bordering the western sound. Residents of these predominantly low-income communities suffer from some of the worst air pollution in the city as well as the lowest access to green space and recreation.
Black-crowned Night-Herons in Western L.I. Sound
© NYC Audubon
Nevertheless, three sections of western Long Island Sound have been recognized as “Important Bird Areas” (IBAs) in National Audubon Society’s global effort to identify and conserve areas that are vital to birds and other biodiversity. The IBAs are: North Brother and South Brother islands, two of the 17 islands used for breeding by long-legged wading birds in the waters surrounding the city; Pelham Bay Park, which provides habitat for the city’s remaining breeding forest and wetland species as well as for migrants; and Little Neck Bay to Hempstead Harbor in Nassau County, an important waterfowl wintering area.
The evidence suggests, however, that these are not the only places in Western Long Island Sound that birds rely on, and that efforts to protect and restore avian populations will be successful only with an ecosystem-wide approach to addressing past degradation and ongoing threats.
Snowy and Great Egrets in Western L.I. Sound
© NYC Audubon
Our Work in Western Long Island Sound
NYC Audubon has played a major role in the preservation of North Brother and South Brother Islands for nesting birds. We are also engaging members of the local community in exploring, restoring and valuing the natural resources at their doorstep. Combining scientific research with restoration, educatio,n and advocacy, and coordinating with other Audubon groups, we are broadening our involvement in the Western Long Island Sound ecosystem. Our goal is to document more thoroughly how birds use the area, to understand what bird populations are telling us about the health of the larger ecosystem, and to use that information to improve the environment for both birds and people.
Our scientific studies in Western Long Island Sound focus on monitoring bird populations, including nesting and foraging waterbirds, wintering waterfowl and migratory shorebirds, to understand how birds use this region and to determine whether there is a broader Important Bird Area encompassing the three existing ones.
Harbor Herons - Western Long Island Sound includes islands where 19 species of herons, egrets, ibises and other colony-nesting wading birds returned to breed in the New York area after a half-century of absence. As part of the Harbor Herons project begun in 1986, NYC Audubon has been conducting nesting surveys on North and South Brother Islands for more than 25 years. More recently, we have also been banding nestlings to determine their fate after they leave the harbor islands. Click here to learn more about our Harbor Herons project.
Satellite-tracking of Double-crested Cormorants
© NYC Audubon
Foraging Sites and Behavior - Under a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we enlisted members of several South Bronx youth groups to monitor populations of birds that eat anadromous fish (fish that spawn in fresh water and mature in saltwater) in the Bronx River watershed. This and related studies seek to determine where and how different bird species are foraging, how successful they are, and what the findings indicate about fish populations and the health of the larger ecosystem.
Assessing the “Nutritional Landscape” of western Long Island Sound - Through various studies conducted by our scientists or with graduate students-including satellite-tracking of Double-crested Cormorants and analysis of regurgitated cormorant pellets and wading bird feathers-we are seeking to understand what birds are eating, how far they have to fly to find food, and how successful they are in providing their young with the quality and quantity of nutrients they need to survive.
Migratory Shorebirds - In 2011 we initiated a study partnering the Rocking the Boat to survey migratory shorebirds in the Bronx River estuary. High school students were trained in shorebird identification and data collection methods and surveyed sites along the river from boats.
Students Exploring the Bronx River
© NYC Audubon
For many years, partnering with the Natural Resources Group of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, we have assembled volunteer teams, most recently from the youth program of The Point Community Development Corporation. These teams work to control invasive species on North Brother Island. We have also worked with youth and environmental organizations in the Bronx to clean up trash, remove invasive species and plant native shrub species in Baretto Point Park and Pelham Bay Park.
Education and Outreach
Through classroom programs and by training educators to deliver our citizen science program to students, we engage residents of communities surrounding Western Long Island Sound in exploring and valuing the natural resources of the region. These efforts have brought about a greater understanding of the connections between the presence of birds and the quality of our shared environment. Our birding trips and summer Sunday eco-cruises bring an appreciation of birds and other wildlife to New Yorkers of all ages.
North and South Brother Islands
© NYC Audubon
For many years, we have been advocating to protect and restore waterfront habitat, address water and air pollution, and improve access to the outdoors in communities around the Western Long Island Sound.
In 2007, we saw the culmination of years of work with local and federal officials and community and conservation organizations to preserve South Brother Island. The six-acre island, one of the city’s last untouched wilderness areas and an important waterbird nesting site, was purchased with federal funds and transferred to the NYC Parks Department.
We collaborated with government, non-governmental and academic institutions and drew on our 25 years of research on colonial wading birds to develop the Harbor Herons Conservation Plan to support and protect waterbird populations as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Conservation and Management Plan for New York/New Jersey Harbor Estuary. The plan was released in 2010 and we will be working to see that it is implemented in Western Long Island Sound.