Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ridgewood Reservoir

Like Andy Goldsworthy (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

About a month ago I was contacted, through my blog, by an artist named Jennifer Monson. At the same time she also wrote to the Brooklyn Bird Club looking for volunteers to assist with a breeding bird census at the RIdgewood Reservoir. Jennifer is the president of an interesting organization named "iLand". She is working on a collaborative project about the reservoir known as “iMap”.

-Click here for more info about iLand projects-

I had never heard of the Ridgewood Reservoir and immediately went online to research the location. The reservoir is located at the south end of a 4 mile stretch of green in the borough of Queens. Starting at the east end, the various habitats consist of Forest Park, Victory Field, Forest Park Golf Course, about a dozen cemeteries, Highland Park and the reservoir. I grew up about 2 miles from Ridgewood and have driven passed the area on the Jackie Robinson Parkway thousands of times but never knew that the reservoir existed. When I looked at the satellite image of the reservoir I was intrigued by the habitat’s potential.

I agreed to help out so Heidi scheduled a time when she, Steve and I could meet with Jennifer and her associates at the Ridgewood Reservoir. I really didn’t know what to expect as the maps and satellite images lack detail. “Forgotten NY“ has a page on the area’s history here.

-Click here for more info on Highland Park-

Before the others arrived Steve, Heidi and I took a short, cursory walk down one of the paths. On the way back I spotted a Mourning Cloak butterfly flitting about, reminding me that spring wasn’t too far off. Back at the parking lot we observed a pair of courting Red-tailed Hawks diving and circling each other, another sure sign that spring is approaching. I’ve made a note of the location and will look for their nest in the cemeteries and Forest Park.

Ridgewood Reservoir overview map (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Google Earth)

Ridgewood Reservoir outline (click to enlarge)


The reservoir was built on one of the highest points in the borough. Decommissioned in 1990, it was left to be reclaimed by nature. There is a one mile running and cycling path that borders an 8 foot chain-link fence surrounding the old structures. A pair of parallel paths bisect the reservoir, dividing it into three distinct basins. The walls built to retain the water are constructed of stone blocks and are pitched at about a 60 degree angle.

Before we went behind the fence I was astonished to see that a birch forest was growing up from the bottom of the southern-most reservoir. I was expecting to see a lake habitat. The path around the basins is approximately 20 feet above the new forest’s floor, giving one somewhat of a birds-eye perspective of the trees. Walking north, we entered the old facility at a path between the subterranean forest and a pond. The center reservoir is partially filled with water and ringed with phragmites. A pair of Ring-necked Ducks and a few Mallards were the only birds that we observed in the water.

Reservoir bog (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

There are remaining stretches of the original, wrought-iron fence at the edges of the path. Like much of the habitat, however, it is slowly being swallowed up by bittersweet, multi-flora rose and other vines. Climbing down into the southern basin was difficult and we used a rope that had been affixed to a tree but some neighborhood kids. I felt like I was entering a lost world. The habitat was reminiscent of a bog with a damp, spongy ground and patches of small, grassy hummocks. Most of the city’s constant background sounds were blocked out by the high, enclosing berm. Species of mosses and lichens were abundant on decaying logs. Heidi pointed out some British Soldier lichen. Turkey tail mushrooms ringed tree stumps. The majority of the trees were yellow birch but we found one cluster of about 10 to 12 Winged Sweetgums, trees that I have only seen as single plantings around the city. The density of the woodlands, a lack of trails and stretches of ankle deep water made navigating difficult, but fun. We had started off relatively late in the afternoon so we didn’t have much time to explore. The third basin seemed to be the driest habitat but exploring it would have to wait for another time.

Fences surrendering to vines (click to enlarge)


(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

British Soldier lichen

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

We scanned the center lake for waterfowl one more time then continued back towards the cars. As we passed two guys on dirt bikes tearing up a stretch of parkland outside of the reservoir I worried about the fate of this unique habitat. Would the city try to ”improve“ it? I think that it would be an ideal location for an outdoor laboratory. Watching and exploring an evolving patch of urban landscape that has escaped development for decades would be an invaluable educational tool. I have been told that, a few decades back the area was regularly birded. In the late 70’s the crime in that area made it dangerous, though, and it was ultimately forgotten about by the New York City birding community.

Slug eggs?

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

-Click here for more info on lichens-

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