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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Another Section of Brooklyn Coastline

Last weekend I did some exploring on bike along the (in)famous Gowanus Canal. I ended up in Red Hook and checked out a tiny park-like area behind the Ikea, then down the Columbia Street Pier. Towards the end of the day I headed along the eastern side of the canal and down to the old Bush Terminal piers below Sunset Park.

The Gowanus Canal has a long and sordid past, but was originally a marsh and wetland. In 1776, during the Battle for Brooklyn, several of Washington's troops died trying to cross the Gowanus to escape the advancing British troops. Up until 1999, most people believed that merely dipping a toe into the canal's toxic soup was enough to kill you. Fortunately, an old flushing tunnel designed to circulate fresh water via Buttermilk Channel was repaired and the toxic sludge that had accumulated on the bottom was removed.

My usual perspective of the canal is from the "F" train as it crosses high above the water on the Independent Line Viaduct. Low, flat-roofed warehouses and factories lining the Gowanus are a favorite roost for winter gulls and I've been curious what other wildlife might exist around the Red Hook waterway.

Much of the scenery that surrounds the water is interesting, at best, and an eyesore to many. (For an excellent walking tour, check out Forgotten NY.) Starting on Butler Street, at the "Gowanus Pumping Station and Flushing Tunnel", then along the east side of the canal to Gowanus Bay I had limited access to the waterway. There were the bridges (Union Street Bridge, Carroll Street Bridge, 3rd Street Bridge and 9th Street Bridge) and two dead-end, trash strew streets (Degraw and Sackett Streets). Finally, the parking lots at Lowes and Pathmark offered wide views. From the edge of the canal one can scan the Independent Line Viaduct, the Gowanus Expressway Viaduct, a metal recycling plant, oil storage facility and cement mixing company. The next access to the water along the eastern route wasn't until I'd pedaled all the way to 28th Street and 2nd Avenue; over a mile away. Most of the canal route is blocked by large, warehouse-type buildings and "No Trespassing" signs.

It was low-tide when I arrived at the northern end of the canal. Water was flowing out of the flushing tunnel and Ring-billed Gulls were foraging in any exposed mud banks. Perhaps in the Spring I'll find migrating shorebirds in those mud banks. A small flock of black ducks and Mallards found food in the water near Degraw Street and dabbled in the flowing stream.

From the western side of the canal I rode down Bond Street to where the waterway makes a ninety-degree turn in the direction of Smith Street. The one open lot that I can see from the subway viaduct is surrounded by a high chainlink fence. A warehouse between Nelson and Huntington Street is a favorite winter roost for gulls and many were flying to and from the Gowanus Bay. There was no access to the water for the next mile and I continued to the new Ikea store, next to Red Hook Park.

The Ikea property has a small park at the edge of the water. It is mainly grass habitat with borders of ornamental fountain grass and small, fruiting shrubs. A long pier extends out into the bay, but is closed to the public. Buffleheads were the most numerous waterfowl and flocks of gulls roosted on barges anchored at the Erie Basin facility across the way. I came back to this area the following weekend and found a Lesser Black-backed Gull roosting among the more common gulls.

The Columbia Street pier is a public space that extends nearly half a mile into Gowanus Bay. It is the best place to view the water, as well as, the terminal moraine that slopes up from the coast to Park Slope, Green-Wood Cemetery and Sunset Park. It is the view that advancing British troops would have had as they pursued George Washington and his troops during the Battle for Brooklyn.

The pier's railing was lined with Ring-billed Gulls. On the water there were scattered cormorant, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, scaup, Bufflehead and Red-breasted Merganser; the most birds I had seen all day. I could barely make out other birds within the protection of the piers on the opposite shore or perched on rotting, wood pilings. I headed back to the other side and towards Bush Terminal.

I rode passed the NYC Metropolitan Detention Ceter (aka "Jail"), where there is a very limited view of the water near a large parking lot. I saw Canvasback at this location several years ago. Maybe they were visiting a family member. The roadway in this area of old Brooklyn is treacherous for cycling. There are sections of remnant cobblestone and patchwork asphalt bisected by old freight lines. I've been waiting for all the snow and ice to melt before attempting this section again.

I need to be very clear about one small detail. The Bush Terminal property is accessible by permission ONLY. I, very naively, rode passed a guardhouse, waved at the security guard and kept going. He probably thought I worked there and didn't stop me. This is not something I recommend if you plan to explore the area. I have since returned, but with permission from the NYC Economic Development Corporation, the agency that controls it.

Most of the piers are either in a state of near collapse or have been reclaimed by nature. Between 46th Street and 51st Street, along Marginal Road are the beginnings of new coastal habitat. Where there was once concrete slabs supported by wooden pilings are now earth, grass, shrubs and trees. A small pond has formed between two piers. The largest flock of wigeons that I've ever seen in NYC were coming in to roost at that pond. A Killdeer ran along the shore near a flock of resting Gadwall. The following week I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk. It perched in an Ailanthus tree with the Statue of Liberty in view just over his shoulder. There has been much political wrangling over this area for many years. Some want to turn it into luxury housing and a city park. It might serve more long-term goals if it were left to return to nature and any new housing be built for the average person.

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