New York City provides habitat for a diverse wildlife population Birds, beasts, flowers all call corners of the metropolis home

January 08, 1998|By WILLIAM GRIMES | WILLIAM GRIMES,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - At a far corner of Brooklyn sits Floyd Bennett Field, where the wind swirls and whips, disturbing the ghosts of Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes and Wiley Post, the fliers who helped make the place a symbol of the romance of aviation.

Despite appearances, the abandoned airport is a thriving place - for nature, that is.

For some time now, Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson have treated the old Brooklyn airfield as their personal Yosemite. With binoculars and Audubon field guides in hand, they wander the old runways, amble around the crumbling buildings and pick their way along the sandy path that winds through the young forest known as the North 40 in search of the birds, animals and wildflowers that carve out a living in what was once a cluster of islands bordering Jamaica Bay.

Their peculiar insistence on seeing New York City as a vast nature preserve with rude, concrete interruptions led to a recently published book, "Wild New York" (Crown, $30), a wayward, whimsical field guide to the five boroughs. It includes 33 walking tours of the authors' favorite haunts, from Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx to Blue Heron Park on Staten Island.

On this day, with a tang of the season in the air, Mittelbach and Crewdson were intent on proving that more than 300 years after the Dutch began filling in the East River with their garbage, New York City offers something a little more exciting than a few acres of overtrampled park and a dependent population of squirrels, pigeons and cockroaches.

A glacier-shaped landscape

As Crewdson's well-traveled Toyota entered the neighborhood known as Flatlands, he addressed an obvious question. Whence this flatness? "All this was created by a glacier," he said. "Prospect Park is a terminal moraine, and the rivers flowing off it created an outwash plain."

A sheet of ice about 300 feet high pushed its way through Queens and Brooklyn, piling up rubble that now supports neighborhoods like Ridgewood, Crown Heights, Bay Ridge and Forest Hills, whose names reflect their elevation. Flatlands is, in effect, a river delta.

At the end of the line is Floyd Bennett Field, the fabled strip where Wrong Way Corrigan took off for Los Angeles on July 17, 1938, and wound up in Dublin, Ireland, earning a place in the record books. These days, the airfield is given over to police helicopter exercises and motorcycle training. In one corner of the field, gas-powered model airplanes take off and rip the air with an angry, high-pitched buzz.

For birds, the old field is a hot spot.

A compact flock of tree swallows with iridescent blue chests swoops down to feed on insects. On a nearby parking lot, where rainwater has collected into a pool, 30 or 40 of them dive to get a sip of water on the fly and torment two hapless crows that seem to be engrossed in a conversation.

In migration season, the New York area, which lies along the Atlantic Flyway, is to birds what the New Jersey Turnpike is to cars, the most direct, heavily traveled north-south route. That means vast armies of birds, and butterflies, flying by the thousands in close formation over the wetlands and barrier islands at the far end of Queens and Brooklyn as well as the Bronx and the Hudson River.

Nature's pioneers

In small steps, nature has reasserted its rights at the old airport, which was turned over to the National Park Service in 1972. The tracts between the runways have been returned to grassland by the Audubon Society, about 130 acres of it, where wildflowers like toadflax and sheep sorrel dot the area with color from spring to fall. The grasslands may lack visual drama, but they are popular with grasshoppers, meadow voles, mice and the open-country birds that feed on them.

"Peregrine falcons come here sometimes," said Mittelbach, a native of Los Angeles who, like Crewdson, now lives in Brooklyn. "You can also see kestrels, which hover, almost like little helicopters."

Kestrels show up in summer and early fall. Marsh hawks frequent the area throughout the year. In a prime example of retrofitting, a pair of peregrine falcons use the airport's old control tower as an observation post. In winter, the occasional snowy owl makes an appearance and the sharp-eyed observer may be lucky enough to see one making off with a rat.

Mittelbach and Crewdson began their studies at the beginning.

"We started by asking basic questions like, what are pigeons doing here, or squirrels?" said Mittelbach. The squirrel inquiry yielded a choice bit of lore. In the wild, squirrels require about an acre apiece to live in style, and they will defend their turf so fiercely that territorial disputes can end in death or dismemberment. In New York, they relax and enjoy the city's generous welfare system, a steady supply of easily gathered food.

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