Herons, egrets and ibises find sanctuary in N.Y.

For years, wading birds have made their home among the city's islands

December 26, 2003|By Joseph Berger | Joseph Berger,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The spot was in the heart of an urban bedlam, surrounded by the hurtling traffic of the Triborough Bridge, the smokestacks of Con Edison, the grim warrens of Rikers Island, the roar of La Guardia jets and three sewage treatment plants.

Yet there hunched on a beach on South Brother Island in the East River, looking like old philosophers mulling a tangled question, were five great blue herons.

These willowy long-legged waterfowl would seem to find the quiet of the Everglades more congenial than the hurly burly of New York City. But for many years now, herons - as well as egrets, ibises and other wading birds - have been nesting or roosting on South Brother Island and 13 other uninhabited islands managed by New York City's Parks Department or the National Park Service with help from the New York City Audubon Society.

Several of the islands are unlikely sanctuaries, a stone's throw from Gracie Mansion or the United Nations or Co-op City. Yet the fact that there are wading birds hovering near these landmarks is a lyrical measure of the restored health of the city's waterways and of the salt marshes where the birds feed.

While the herons' taste for New York may suggest a wackiness that should make them fit right in with the city's other eccentrics, ornithologists think the birds' choice may be a sign of shrewd intelligence. A healthy island amid turbulent waters and urban eyesores is actually an "oasis in the wild," said Alexander R. Brash, chief of the Parks Department's natural resources group, discouraging countrified predators like barn owls and raccoons as well as trespassing humans.

While 1,837 pairs of herons, egrets and ibises have been thriving on seven of the 14 islands, the news is not all good. These species have all but abandoned three islands in Staten Island's refinery-lined Kill Van Kull and Arthur Kill waterways, where they once flourished.

Some blame human intruders, pollution and the proliferation of trees unsuitable for nesting. Others say wading birds have forsaken those islands because owls, hawks and raccoons who once fed on garbage in the Fresh Kills landfill have ventured farther afield as the landfill gradually closed and are preying on heron eggs and young on the island.

By contrast, South Brother and its bigger sibling, North Brother Island, have resisted such an invasion. North Brother's vegetation - a jungle of thick brush, low trees and tangled bittersweet vines set among the ruins of a dozen quarantine and hospital buildings - has produced a secure haven for the black-crowned night heron, the city's most populous heron species. More than 230 crude nests of sticks and twigs were counted there last June.

Brash showed off some of these nests on a sunny, but blustery day last week. "Birds tend to be faithful to a place as long as something works," he said. "If they're successful in raising young, they'll come back because success is what's it's all about."

The five great blue herons Brash encountered on South Brother Island, he said, may be migrating birds or vagabonds from other areas along Long Island Sound. As a boat with human visitors approached, the great blue herons arched their necks and pushed off their reed-like legs, dashing off in a splendid gust of blue and gray like a band of squatters fleeing the police.

Still, Brash said, the big herons spend time on South Brother because it is safe and there are now plentiful salt marshes nearby where they can feed on small fish. And, he said, some ornithologists believe that the large herons do nest in the city, but their nests haven't been spotted because herons like to build them in inaccessible places.

"We see them here during the summer, so there's reason to believe they are nesting," he said. "We just haven't found their nests."

Brash, the 45-year-old son of a Wall Street investment banker, traces his passion for birds back to his mother, a biology teacher. He trained as an ornithologist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

As part of what is known as the Harbor Herons Project, parks officials and Audubon volunteers survey the 14 islands every May, when nests laden with fledgling herons and egrets can be counted, sometimes by using a long pole with a mirror at its end. Two parent herons are counted for each active nest.

Officials also post signs warning intruders that they are trespassing on a heron nesting area and risking fines. And they tinker with the vegetation. There are plans to replace inhospitable Norway maples on North Brother with gray birch, which are high enough to resist raccoons but not so high as to invite owls and hawks.

Away from the islands, parks officials, armed with grants from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, have been working on growing grasses needed for salt marshes like those around Pelham Bay Park.

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