Breezy Point Beach
Nesting** Spring Migration*** Fall Migration*** Winter**
(no star = birding is not very productive, * = somewhat productive, ** = productive, *** = very productive)
The Breezy Point District of the Gateway National Recreation Area at the western end of the Rockaway Peninsula covers about 5 miles of uninterrupted Atlantic oceanfront. This barrier beach is included in the Jamaica Bay Complex that was awarded Important Bird Area of Global Significance status in 1997.
by D. Speiser
Jacob Riis Park and Fort Tilden
The major attraction at Jacob Riis Park is the fall migration of songbirds. At Fort Tilden, it is the fall migration of hawks. Under the right conditions – strong northwest winds - there are great
numbers of low-flying raptors, providing a birding opportunity not found at any other site in the city. In winter, during finch irruption years, this area may be the best in New York City to find crossbills.
These parks are open from dawn until dusk. The Visitor Center for Fort Tilden, Riis Park and Breezy Point is in the main plaza opposite the entrance to the Riis Park parking lot entrance. To get there, do not enter the main Riis Park parking lot, instead turn left and then right for the small Visitor Center parking lot. A simple map of Fort Tilden and Riis Park is available at the Visitors Center.
Google map click here.
by D. Speiser
Jacob Riis Park, created in the early 1900s, is a popular golf and beach area (27.5 acres with 2 miles of Atlantic Ocean beachfront), graced by a handsome bathhouse (with restrooms). It includes the requisite 13,000-car parking lot. Rows of Japanese black pine (now dying, but to be replaced in kind or with native pine species) adjoining the parking lot, the mall, and golf course attract fall migrants such as woodpeckers, Brown Creeper, and warblers. When looking for migrating Hermit Thrush and sparrows, check the ground and low brush in the area.
Much of 317-acre Fort Tilden, with a mile of oceanfront, is comprised of remnant maritime dune vegetation, bayberry and beach plum, that has survived in spite of the area being used, until 1974, as an U.S. Army base. Several bunkers, or gun batteries, reveal its military history.
Follow Range Road, the main road through the center of the parkland, for ¾ of a mile to a trail on the right that leads to Battery Harris East (World War II bunker), where an observation platform was recently constructed of recycled wood by the National Park Service. It serves as one of two hawkwatching sites in the Park. Besides hawks, spectacular views of Jamaica Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Brooklyn and Manhattan skylines can be enjoyed from this deck.
by D. Speiser
Directly across the main road from Battery Harris East, there is a trail leading through sand dunes, the last remaining natural dune system in the city, to a small fresh water pond where migratory songbirds, especially Yellow-rumped and Palm warblers, will congregate during spring and fall migration. On occasion Snowy Egret and Black-crowned Night-Heron have been seen here.
Go back to the main road and continue to the Fisherman’s Parking Lot where there is a bunker about 300 feet to the east, the second hawkwatching site. Great numbers of hawks migrate along the Long Island coastline. They are joined at this end of the Rockaway Peninsula by smaller numbers of hawks flying from Floyd Bennett Field and from other inland points, creating an impressive sight overhead.
by D. Speiser
More Osprey, harriers, and falcons are seen here than at Belvedere Castle in Central Park, but there are fewer Broad-winged and Red-tailed hawks than at the Castle. Coastal hawk migration can be very exciting because many of these raptors fly at eye level, making them easy to identify, as they search for prey. Seeing Yellow-rumped Warbler dive for cover as a Sharp-shinned hawk or Merlin appears from nowhere is one of the thrills of watching hawks at Fort Tilden.
In spring, woodcock can be seen in courtship flights at the western edge of the parking lot. Call Headquarters to inquire about their late afternoon walks specifically arranged to watch this unusual display.
by D. Speiser
The east end of Fort Tilden, where you entered, features residences, other buildings, ball fields, and community gardens. The surrounding trees and undercover provide good birding spots. The vegetation along the periphery of the ball fields, especially at the north border of the Fort, and the vegetable gardens are good areas in autumn for Horned Lark, Savannah and other sparrows, Eastern Meadowlark, and other grassland birds.
Breezy Point Tip
At the extreme western end of the Rockaway peninsula, where the dunes reach heights of 10 feet (25 above sea level), the National Park Service manages 1,059 acres that include a beachhead for nesting colonies of endangered and threatened plovers, terns, and skimmers. To protect these birds, recreation is limited to fishing and birding. In spring and summer, the area is subject to closure.
by D. Speiser
During late spring and summer, Piping Plover, American Oystercatcher, Common Tern, Least Tern, and Black Skimmer nest on this white sandy barrier beach. The National Park Service fences off the nesting areas in a valiant attempt to ward off dogs, feral cats, and humans. The Common Tern colony has exploded at the expense of the Least Tern colony. In the early 1990s, the skimmers, which have not been here for years, returned. Piping Plover are holding their own with usually 8-10 nesting pairs. Amercian Oystercatchers with their young are commonly sighted in the dunes and on the beach west of the entrance road.
For best viewing of the nesting plovers and terns at Breezy Point, a spotting scope is essential. Adults, sitting on nests, and their young can be seen if you visit in April, May or June (when entry to the colony is prohibited). Watch from outside the barrier. You will also see adult terns courting and squabbling in the colony.
At the tip of Breezy Point, on the Rockaway Inlet side, there is a fishing jetty. The beach area around the jetty offers good birding opportunities and beautiful vistas. In the winter, from November to March, the jetty hosts Purple Sandpiper that glean arthopods from the algae growing on the rocks. Also in winter and in fall, Horned Grebe, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Snowy Owl, Horned Lark, and Snow Bunting are seen. In the spring, gannet, sandpipers, and cormorants may be encountered here. Use extreme caution when venturing onto the jetty, especially when heavy surf wets the rocks. During subfreezing weather, the rocks can be glazed with ice.
Butterfly and Dragonfly Migration
Naturalists may also enjoy Fort Tilden’s butterfly and dragonfly migration. Monarchs stage a spectacular southern migration during September. From late September through mid October, keen observers may see migratory question marks, mourning cloaks, and red admirals. Recent studies counted fourteen species of dragonfly present on the site from late July through September.
Annual International Coastal Cleanup
If you are out on the Rockaway Peninsula on the third Saturday in September (or any other waterfront anywhere in the United States), join the beach cleanup. Every year, volunteers take to inland lakes, rivers, streams, and ocean beaches to remove the debris that floats ashore. (Sixty percent of the trash comes from land-based sources!) Cumulatively, more than one million people in over 100 countries have participated since the cleanup became an international event in 1989. The Ocean Conservancy oversees this monumental task, educating people about keeping our oceans and waterways clean and documenting what litters the shores-plastic bags, cigarette butts, straws, bottles, monofilament fishing line, shopping carts, and tires. Birds may ingest small pieces of trash, mistaking it for food, and obstruct their intestinal tracts or they may get fatally entangled in fishing line. Your clean up efforts will help the birds! For New York City, contact the American Littoral Society.
by D. Speiser
When to Go
Fall hawk flights are best from mid-September into late October, generally between 10am and 2pm. American Kestrel, which contribute the greatest numbers of individuals, peak during these months. Merlin flights occur a bit later in the day, and are seen mostly between 2pm and 6pm when they stop migrating and start hunting songbirds and small shorebirds. Ospreys are seen from mid-September to early October, Northern Harrier from August into December, and Cooper’s Hawk in October. These species as well as buteos and eagles peak midday.
Sharp-shinned Hawk are mainly morning migrants here, passing through between 9am and 1pm. But on a day following a good flight of Sharp-shinned Hawk and American Kestrel, if the wind has continued overnight from the northwest, these birds of prey move through beginning with the first light. A sea breeze can blow in as early as 11am in August and September. This southerly breeze often occurs with light winds and reduces the numbers of migrants along the shore. Migrant Peregrine Falcon are observed from late September through mid-October. A pair that nests on the Marine Parkway (Gil Hodges Memorial) Bridge cruises the area year round.
by D. Speiser
Fall flights of diurnal songbirds begin in late July, an hour after daybreak, and continue for about two hours, led by Barn Swallow and Red-winged Blackbird. Tree Swallow are the most numerous diurnal songbird migrant from late September into October. In late October through mid November there may be spectacular flights of Northern Flicker, American Robin, and Common Grackle, as well as a sprinkling of Eastern Bluebird and finches.
Nocturnal migrants can still be seen on the move for an hour or so after daybreak. Afterwards, they can be found resting and feeding in the vegetation where they are safe from hungry hawks.
NYC Audubon Birding Trip to Fort Tilden
Optimal Weather Conditions
Without question, the most exciting fall hawkwatching at Fort Tilden is on clear to partly cloudy days with northwest winds between 10 to 20 mph. In the spring of 1997, these fall conditions produced an unprecedented flight of Chimney Swift, Eastern Kingbird, and Bank, Cliff, and Barn swallows. Ordinarily Cliff Swallow do not migrate along the Rockaway Peninsula, spring or fall.
Light north and northwest winds may also produce good numbers of migrating hawks, but they fly higher with these conditions. Southwest winds in the fall are the dread of eager birders, but surprisingly in late August 1994 such winds produced an unprecedented overland flight of 180 Black Terns.
Spring migration at Fort Tilden and Riis Park has not been explored fully. In nearby areas, southwest winds accompanied by early fog have produced impressive fallouts. Across the New York Bight at Sandy Hook (NJ) the spring migration of hawks is quite good, but where they go from there is a mystery. A few, such as Osprey, harriers, and falcons may end up here.
Riis Park, Fort Tilden, and Breezy Point are generally safe places to visit alone. As part of Gateway National Recreation Area, the National Park Service patrols them. However, it is more enjoyable to bird these areas with others.
In the warm weather mosquitoes are pervasive. Places at Fort Tilden that are especially troublesome are the sheltered areas, such as the freshwater pond, the trails, and the southwest bunker. In the open areas, small biting flies are problematic near the beach, particularly in late August and early September. Striped mosquitoes thrive in the marsh at Breezy Point. Dog ticks are found in the grassy/brushy areas. Use repellent and enjoy the birds.
Poison ivy is plentiful. Long pants are strongly advised.
Driving directions from the National Park Service click here
Riis Park Visitors Center - Google map click here
*Breezy Point - Once you have arrived at Fort Tilden there is no public transportation to Breezy Point. There is also no parking at Breezy Point. Visitors can walk the Fort Tilden beach (west bound) until you reach the Tip.
For Additional Information on Jacob Riis Park, Fort Tilden, and Breezy Point
Jacob Riis Park/Fort Tilden Headquarters, 718-318-4300 www.nps.gov/gate
2012- Ronald V. Bourque, Board of Directors and Former President, NYC Audubon
2001- Ronald V. Bourque; Oscar W. Ruiz, NYC Audubon; and Steve Walter