Our History

New York City Audubon: The First Thirty Years

2010 marked the 30th anniversary of the New York City chapter of the National Audubon Society. From the outset, New York City Audubon's mission has been to advocate for birds, open space, wildlife habitat, and environmental quality.

The following history highlights the major efforts in that mission and mentions some of the hundreds of volunteers who have served as board and committee members, as office help, field trip leaders and coordinators, and in many other capacities. We regret that it is impossible to name all the others who have contributed so much throughout our more than 30 years.

Most of this document is the work of Geoffrey Cobb Ryan, a founding member of New York City Audubon. Because of Geoff's untimely death in 2007, the history of the years after 2005 has been added by other writers.

1979: Twenty-nine members of the National Audubon Society established the New York City Audubon Society as a provisional chapter of the National Audubon Society. A steering committee was organized, as well as conservation, newsletter, program, and field trip committees.

  • Early advocacy work included fighting a proposal to transport nuclear waste through three of the city's five boroughs.
  • The first of many efforts to protect the natural environment on Staten Island resulted in the establishment of the Greenbelt.
  • The first issue of a monthly newsletter, The Urban Audubon, edited by Lewis Rosenberg and Sally Ellyson, was published.

1980: One of the programs most closely associated with New York City Audubon was initiated after egrets were discovered nesting on Shooters Island, off Staten Island. New York City Audubon formed a Harbor Herons committee to press for protection of this and other islands where nesting wading birds were soon discovered. Also in 1980:

  • The National Audubon Society gave official status to New York City Audubon as a permanent chapter.
  • Our first board of directors was elected. It included Emily Jones as president and Blanche Brown, Albert F. Appleton, Lewis Rosenberg, and Geoffrey Cobb Ryan as members. Education, photography, and membership committees were formed.
  • The house finch was chosen as our symbol. (It was changed in 2003 to the American kestrel.)
  • Advocacy work included opposing Con Edison's plan to use high-sulfur oil and coal in its power plants in Staten Island and Queens and fighting the Westway Project, which would have involved a new interstate highway along the ecologically sensitive Hudson River.

1981: New York City Audubon rented its first office space, in the Masonic Building on 23rd Street at Sixth Avenue. Norman Stotz volunteered to serve as office manager and remained in that position until 1993, when the first professional executive director was hired. Also in 1981:

  • Important conservation initiatives included intervening in licensing procedures for Nuclear Plants Two and Three at Indian Point; supporting the Fire Island Wilderness Act; and collaborating with New York City's Department of Parks & Recreation on renovation projects in Central, Prospect, and Van Cortlandt Parks.
  • New York City Audubon, led by Lewis and Sheila Rosenberg and Al Appleton, took a well-publicized stand against the proposal of installation artist Christo to adorn all of Central Park, including the Ramble, with 14,000 nylon panels during migration season. In explaining his reasons for rejecting the proposal, Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis drew on the brief submitted by New York City Audubon. (In 2005, Christo's modified and more bird-friendly proposal was approved without protest from New York City Audubon.)

1982: New York City Audubon's first nature photography course was conducted by Milton Heiberg. Notable graduates of the courses have included Arthur Morris and Rob Villani.

Conservation efforts in 1982 included support for a state-wide bottle bill; advocacy for the federal Clean Air Act and for renewal of the Endangered Species Act; opposition to a plan of the Department of Parks & Recreation to use aerial spraying and chemical pesticides against gypsy moths; and a campaign against the Department's tree cutting in Central Park's Ramble that garnered front-page coverage and an editorial in The New York Times.

1983: This year Emily Jones taught the first of many bird identification classes offered by New York City Audubon over the years. Other instructors have included Starr Saphir, Sarah Elliott, Joe Giunta, and Gabriel Willow.

1984: New York City Audubon's education committee issued its first natural science publication for children, called Look Around New York (later renamed Look Around New York City). Topics included New York City's water supply and birds on National Audubon's watchlist, such as the chimney swift and the piping plover.

1985: New York City Audubon conferred its first annual awards, honoring distinguished service to the environmental cause. Recipients have included the Brooklyn Bird Club, the Hudson River Park Alliance, Bette Midler and the New York Restoration Project, and Natural Resources Defense Council.

1986: From its inception, New York City Audubon had offered monthly lecture programs to the public. In 1986 it was reported that these programs "[could] equal, if not surpass, those of the American Museum of Natural History and Metropolitan Museum." Speakers have included Elizabeth Kolbert, Peter Matthiessen, Roger Tory Peterson, Jonathan Rosen, Carl Safina, Erik Sanderson, Robert Sullivan, Scott Weidensaul, and Marie Winn.

1987: As part of its ongoing work in the city's waterfront areas, New York City Audubon's conservation committee assembled a task force to address problems at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. The goal was to ensure that the anticipated redevelopment of the Park be conducted in a way that protected natural areas and the native wildlife and plant communities they supported.

A Jamaica Bay protection plan, Buffer the Bay, was presented by authors Albert F. Appleton of New York City Audubon and David Tiemann of the Trust for Public Land.

1988: Norman Stotz and Geoffrey Cobb Ryan helped establish the Audubon Council of New York State, an umbrella group for the 30-some National Audubon chapters across the state.

The Urban Audubon, under the editorship of Danielle Ponsolle, adopted a new format.

1989: New York City Audubon joined National Audubon's campaign to preserve Long Island Sound. It also joined a coalition to protect Sterling Forest, 21,000 acres of mostly undeveloped, open space within an hour of New York City. In later years, most of this acreage was purchased by the states of New York and New Jersey for use as parkland and watershed protection.

1990: After a broken pipeline belonging to Exxon spilled almost 600,000 gallons of heating oil into the Arthur Kill, off Staten Island, New York City Audubon called on volunteers to help rescue endangered birds on Prall's Island and Shooters Island, both central to the Harbor Herons project. The director of the project, Katharine C. Parsons, PhD., of the Manomet Bird Observatory, also organized an effort to monitor later effects on the islands' birds as the oil moved through the food chain from invertebrates and fish to the birds themselves.

1991: Geoffrey Cobb Ryan represented the chapters of the northeastern states at a National Audubon meeting convened to discuss the future of Audubon in its second century. He helped promote the establishment of National Audubon state offices.

1992: New York City Audubon opposed proposals for incinerating the City's garbage because of probable damage to air quality and the environment.

1992 saw the publication by New York City Audubon and The Trust for Public Land of Buffer the Bay Revisited. The principal author was Peter P. Blanchard III of The Trust for Public Land and New York City Audubon's advisory council, with assistance from New York City Audubon's David Burg. The publication served as a vital advocacy tool for preserving coastal and upland areas of Jamaica Bay.

1993: New York City Audubon, an all-volunteer organization since 1979, hired Marcia T. Fowle as its first executive director.

Important advocacy work in 1993 included support for passage of the Adirondack Bill and the Environmental Bond Act in the New York State legislature.

1994: New York City Audubon established a family birding club at the Dana Discovery Center in northern Central Park. Also in 1994:

  • A research library, established by Jessie Kitching, was opened in the organization's office. By 2009 it held over 650 books, periodicals, and audio-visual materials.
  • New York City Audubon demonstrated its support for the Pure Water Alliance's Watershed Protection Program by arranging workshops at the American Museum of Natural History on the watersheds and reservoirs that serve New York City.
  • National Audubon presented New York City Audubon with its Earth Defender award for the first stage of a multi-faceted scientific research and community outreach project that culminated in 1997 in the publication of Jamaica Bay Coastal Habitat Restoration Project at Bayswater Point State Park and Dubos Point Wetlands Sanctuary, Queens, New York, 1994-1996, written by Peter P. Blanchard III and Joseph Roman, with David L. Burg as project planner.

1995: New York City Audubon revised its bylaws and established an advisory council of "persons who have demonstrated significant support for New York City Audubon, distinguished themselves by performance in fields of interest to New York City Audubon, and [can] be of assistance in fostering the purposes and goals of New York City Audubon."

1996: New York City Audubon's most significant conservation effort this year was advocating for passage of New York State's Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act. In other news:

  • The annual spring birdathon recorded 167 species throughout the five boroughs.
  • This year's benefit cruise attracted 150 donors.

1997: New York City Audubon advocated for the creation of a Hudson River Park from Battery Park to 59th Street. It was in 1997 that New York City Audubon member Rebekah Creshkoff first noticed dead birds on the sidewalk in the downtown financial district, leading to the establishment of Project Safe Flight, perhaps the chapter's best-known program.

1998: Audubon New York published Important Bird Areas in New York State. It included ten sites in New York City, many of them nominated by New York City Audubon, and nine sites that are wholly or partially within the watersheds of New York City's upstate reservoirs. Other events at New York City Audubon that year:

  • The first breeding bird census to cover all of Central Park was directed by Evelyn Sanford and President Peter Rhoades Mott and carried out by 50 volunteers from New York City Audubon and the Linnaean Society. The data they compiled confirmed that birds of at least 31 species nested in the Park that year.
  • New York City Audubon opposed a plan to build a habitat-destroying bicycle path in Alley Pond Park in Queens.
  • Marcia Fowle stepped down as executive director. She continued as coeditor with Lauren Pera (later Lauren Klingsberg) of The Urban Audubon.

1999: New York City Audubon pushed for a ban on Avitrol, an acutely toxic pesticide that was being used for pigeon control but had also killed other birds, both non-native and native. In the following year, Governor Pataki signed a new law banning Avitrol in New York City, though not elsewhere in the state.

Advisory Council member Dr. Claude Bloch gave a grant to fund New York City Audubon's lecture program; he has continued to do so on an annual basis.

2000: National Audubon announced a new policy of no longer sharing membership dues with chapters, although it subsequently replaced part of that money with base payments to the chapters, together with grants for conservation activities. This new policy was an incentive for New York City Audubon to institute a direct membership program of its own.

2001: As a result of advocacy by Norman Stotz, as well as by other New York City Audubon members and area residents, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation set aside twelve acres in Manhattan's Riverside Park for a bird sanctuary. Norman Stotz died later in the year. In a later issue of The Urban Audubon, Peter Rhoades Mott, then president, referred to him as "a combination of Saint Francis and Clark Kent."

  • Other losses during 2001 were Ted Zinn, a one-time board member and the contributor of natural history articles in The Urban Audubon; and another former board member, Kirsten Christophe, who died in the 9/11 catastrophe at the World Trade Center.
  • Cornell University Press published The New York City Audubon Guide to Finding Birds in the Metropolitan Area, by Marcia T. Fowle, and Paul Kerlinger.
  • New York City Audubon and The Trust for Public Land collaborated to publish An Islanded Nature: Natural Area Conservation and Restoration in Western Staten Island, Including the Harbor Herons Region, written by Peter P. Blanchard III with Paul Kerlinger, PhD., as consulting biologist.
  • New York City Audubon's conservation activities during the year included support for a plan called Open Space in New York State 2001, which included areas in New York City and its watershed.

2002: New York City Audubon sponsored screenings of Pale Male, a documentary movie by Frédéric Lilien, in several venues around the city, culminating in a sold-out audience at the American Museum of Natural History. (The film was subsequently shown on public television stations in August of 2004 and again after December, 2004, when Pale Male and Lola's nest was removed from its location at 927 Fifth Avenue.) In other news:

  • Former board member Ned Boyajian authored Wild About New York City, a booklet about New York City Audubon and its work.
  • E. J. McAdams became the new executive director of New York City Audubon.

2003: The Natural Areas Initiative (NAI), a project of New York City Audubon and New Yorkers for Parks (formerly known as the Parks Council), completed a survey of all five boroughs that identified 188 sites that provide habitat for wildlife in the city, such as salt marshes, maritime dunes, grasslands, and forests. These sites were later incorporated into the Open Accessible Space Information System (OASIS) website, a mapping database that helps city residents discover natural areas in their neighborhoods. In the same year:

  • Executive Director E. J. McAdams testified before the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to argue that bird-friendly design be incorporated in the guidelines for rebuilding at the World Trade Center site.
  • New York City Audubon adopted a new logo designed by award-winning graphics designer Roger Whitehouse, with the American kestrel replacing the house finch as our symbol.
  • Representatives from New York City Audubon together with leaders from other large Audubon chapters across the United States met in Berkeley, California, and established the Audubon Urban Chapter Network (AUCN). Also attending were representatives from Golden Gate Audubon (San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley), Santa Clara (California), Tucson, Atlanta, Houston, Seattle, and Portland (Oregon). (Later, the Western Pennsylvania chapter, headquartered in Pittsburgh, joined the AUCN.) The chapters shared practices in financial management, volunteer support, diversifying membership and leadership, and urban conservation issues.
  • Professor Vivian Berger donated over 200 books on birds and nature from the library of her late husband, Curtis A. Berger, professor, attorney, and passionate birder.

2004: On December 7, the management of the apartment building at 927 Fifth Avenue removed Pale Male and Lola's nest and its moorings from its longtime home outside the top floor of the building, where the hawks' comings and goings had for over a decade been monitored by loyal fans in Central Park. New York City Audubon alerted the press and organized vigils across the street from the building. New York City Audubon, National Audubon, and New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe negotiated with the building's management to have the nest moorings returned to the original location, with a new platform to be designed by architect Dan Ionescu. Earlier in the year:

  • New York City Audubon for the first time held its benefit at the boathouse in Central Park, calling it "The Fall Roost."
  • Charles Kennedy, a longtime, generous supporter of New York City Audubon, a fine photographer, and a passionate advocate for Pale Male and all other birds of Central Park, died.

2005: New York City Audubon was honored with the 2005 August Heckscher Award from CIVITAS, an Upper East Side and East Harlem quality-of-urban-life organization, for "its steadfast role in environmental education over many years' time and its successful campaign to restore Pale Male and Lola to their nest." In addition, from the Girl Scout Council of Greater New York it received a "Super Service Certificate in Recognition of the Support Given to Girl Scouting by New York City Audubon." In other news:

  • The New-York Historical Society mounted the first of five annual exhibits of John James Audubon's original bird paintings. New York City Audubon board members Peter Joost, Peter Rhoades Mott, and Richard Gershon provided written commentaries, called "Audubon's Aviary," to accompany the paintings, and several of the exhibits were accompanied by programs. The first exhibit was introduced by a lecture, "Real Birds, Fake Nature, and the Future," by A. Richard Turner, an avid birder and former president of New Jersey Audubon.
  • Lights Out New York, a program inspired by Project Safe Flight, was introduced at buildings that agreed to turn out all lights from midnight through dawn during migration season.
  • Under the aegis of New York City Audubon's Project Safe Flight program, Hillary Brown, architect, and Kate Orff, landscape architect, wrote Bird-Safe Building Guidelines. In December of 2007, New York City Audubon formed the Bird-Safe Glass Working Group (BSGWG), with representatives from many nonprofit organizations, to promote awareness of the problem of birds colliding with glass and to support research and development for new bird-safe glass products.

2006: Conservation efforts this year included ensuring that birds, open space, and native plants have a place of importance in the master plan for the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island; recommending that an 80-acre section of Governor's Island, transferred to New York City in 2003, be planted with native vegetation and used as a natural and educational resource; supporting New York State legislation to protect small wetlands; asking the National Park Service to develop a plan for protecting the salt marsh at Plumb Beach in Jamaica Bay; voicing its opposition to using part of Floyd Bennett Field–the focus of the Grassland Restoration and Management Project (GRAMP), initiated by Ron Bourque, a former president of New York City Audubon, and his wife Jean–for a racetrack; and submitting comments for the Environmental Impact Statement on the planned NASCAR racetrack on Staten Island. Also in 2006:

  • New York City Audubon joined a seven-member task force set up by the environmental committee of the New York City Council to study whether wetlands owned by the city and identified in the Natural Areas Initiative should be transferred to the city's Department of Parks & Recreation.
  • The field trip program became a staff responsibility, with major changes introduced to make it easier for people to participate and with the offerings greatly expanded. Previously, Lenore Swenson and Ann Lazarus had for many years been outstanding volunteers for the program, setting schedules, engaging leaders, and arranging car pools.
  • In collaboration with the American Littoral Society, New York City Audubon organized the first annual shorebird festival at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, led by Don Riepe, Lloyd Spitalnik, and Guy Tudor.
  • New York City Audubon sponsored five free boat trips to the Harbor Heron islands for 300 K-12 schoolchildren.
  • The spring breeding bird census at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx found 34 confirmed and eight possible breeding species.

2007: Glenn Phillips, previously vice president for education and programs at the Prospect Park Alliance, began serving as executive director of New York City Audubon in February, replacing E. J. McAdams, who had resigned the previous October. Also in 2007:

  • As part of the city's Wetlands Transfer Task Force, New York City Audubon recommended that the Arlington Marsh Cove, a 14-acre parcel of Arlington Marsh, on the northwestern shore of Staten Island, be transferred to the Parks & Recreation Department.
  • The death in August of Geoffrey Cobb Ryan, who attended the founding meeting of New York City Audubon in 1979 and had served on the boards of New York City Audubon, Audubon New York, and the National Audubon Society, was a profound loss to the entire Audubon community. Other losses in the same year were Peter A.A. Berle, past president of National Audubon and a member of New York City Audubon's advisory council; and Alfred Ott, a former board member whose persistent opposition against an ill-conceived bike path into the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge resulted in a path that was built at the edge of the Refuge.
  • Contribute New York Magazine in its November–December issue named New York City Audubon one of the city's top ten environmental organizations, giving it the highest possible rating for organizational sustainability.

2008: Because Pale Male and Lola had failed to reproduce since 2004, despite the new nest cradle built for them, New York City Audubon under the leadership of Sandy Fiebelkorn brought in ornithologists to study the problem. Their recommendation to remove the cradle's spikes was acted on, but once again, the eggs failed to hatch. Other news:

  • The Harbor Herons program moved into a new phase as New York City Audubon in partnership with New Jersey Audubon began studying the foraging habits of the birds in order to make evidence-backed recommendations about habitats to conserve.
  • New York City Audubon representatives familiar with the Project Safe Flight program argued to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) that bird-safety standards should be included in their Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for green buildings. The proposal was not adopted, but the USGBC did agree to use bird-friendly language in the next revision of the LEED reference guide.
  • New York City Audubon advocated that Highland Park, a 50-acre tract in Queens that includes the former Ridgewood Reservoir, be left forested rather than converted to ball fields.
  • After 23 years during which the publication grew from 100 to 10,000 copies, Naola Gersten-Woolf retired as publisher of Look Around New York City.

2009: Under the general term "Together Green," New York City Audubon's education and conservation work in Jamaica Bay was greatly expanded. New projects included IWASH (Improving Wetland Accessibility for Shorebirds and Horseshoe Crabs), for which volunteers counted horseshoe crabs and shorebirds at four Jamaica Bay beaches between mid-April and mid-June; and an ecosystem education and beach cleanup program for high-school students in Sheepshead Bay, using a plan developed by New York University graduate students. Other important events:

  • As a memorial to Geoffrey Cobb Ryan, New York City Audubon oversaw the building of chimney swift nesting towers in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx. (In 2010, towers were added in Manhattan and Queens.)
  • Frédéric Lilien introduced The Legend of Pale Male--the sequel to his 2003 documentary, Pale Male--with showings for New York City Audubon members.
  • Data from Project Safe Flight was used for an article published in the March issue of The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, "Architectural and Landscape Risk Factors Associated with Bird-Glass Collisions in an Urban Environment." Writers of the article included New York City Audubon staff members Nicole Delacrétaz and Yigal Gelb.
  • Karen Cotton died on July 14. She had directed New York City Audubon's Bird-Safe Glass Working Group and led the effort to persuade the USGBC to include bird safety standards in its LEED rating system.

2010: New York City Audubon celebrated its 30th anniversary by thanking its members, staff, and volunteers for their work in protecting habitats throughout the five boroughs.

  • The final Harbor Heron conservation plan was published and is now available at nycaudubon.org. Conservation Director Susan Elbin, PhD., in her position as co-chair of the Harbor Herons Subcommittee of the Habitat Working Group of the Harbor Estuary Program, was coeditor of the plan.
  • Volunteer Sandra Koponen produced a three-and-a-half-minute video of New York City Audubon's work at Jamaica Bay.
  • Results of a study of 55 ovenbirds in Prospect Park, carried out by Chad Seewagen, PhD., and supported jointly by New York City Audubon and the Wildlife Conservation Society, suggested that urban habitats serve just as well as non-urban habitats as stopover sites for migrating birds.
  • New York City Audubon publicized the importance of maintaining Pouch Camp, located in the center of Staten Island's Greenbelt but owned by The Greater New York Council of Boy Scouts, as parkland, rather than being sold to private developers.
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