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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Paddling to White Island

Earlier this winter Heydi and I observed several species of raptors hunting over White Island. I've only viewed this 77 acre island owned by the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation from the western shore of Gerritsen Creek as is inaccessible by the general public. I decided to do some research about this intriguing patch of urban nature and maybe do a little close up exploring.

I found the following historical information about White Island in the document "Gerritsen’s Creek: 1997 Archaeological Field Excavations", by H. Arthur Bankoff, Christopher Ricciardi, and Alyssa Loorya:

"Within the tidal inlet of Gerritsen’s Bay is the island sometimes known as Barren Island. It is also commonly known by two other names, White Island and Mau-Mau Island (Cornell 1997). This island has been reported as being a center of the wampum industry and remained uninhabited by Europeans until the late eighteenth century (Seitz and Miller 1996: 228-230). Members of the Schenck family who built a mill on the island and a bridge to the mainland (Stayton 1990:77) owned the island. By the mid- nineteenth century various businesses were set up on the island. Most of these involved fertilizes, fish oil, glue and garbage disposal industries (Seitz and Miller 1996:229). The City of New York purchased all of the property in tidal creek area by the early 1930s. Their plan was to turn the area into a public recreation facility (Black 1981)."

The parks department is currently spending $15 million to restore the dune and grassland habitat on White Island in response to promises made in the mid-1990s. It was during that time that developers were allowed to destroy a large chunk of important habitat to build the Gateway shopping mall near Erskine Avenue. The razed area was known as Vandalia Dunes and according to environmentalists approximately 56 of the 93 acres of dunes were significant habitats for many species of animals, including the Henslow's Sparrow. Read a NY Post article here. Download a parks department capital projects factsheet here.

Last Saturday there were strong winds blowing in from the south. We were ambivalent about paddling to the island against the wind, but I decided that a windbreak formed by the western shore should make it fairly easy. The only hard part would be when we had to head east, exposing us to the full force of the gusts. Neither of us were wearing waterproof gear, so ended up a little soggy by the time we pulled up onto a narrow sandy opening along the island's north shore. Thankfully, the sun was shining and it was a mild 50 degrees.

Despite restoration efforts, a narrow, but fairly dense wall of invasive phragmites ringed the island's north-western edge. As we climbed the hillside towards the top of the dome-shaped island, we spotted an American Kestrel teetering on a snow fence. A few yards from there we flushed a flock of four Killdeer.

There were curious, large mounds of wood scattered around the island, most likely the remains of trees and shrubs removed during the restoration process. I speculated about the size of rodent that could build these giant beaver dens. Tumbleweed littered sections of the island and, like flies caught in a spiderweb, many were snared by the heaps of gray, sun bleached wood. Hummocks of native dune grasses protecting the perimeter of the newly created dunes created great bird habitat, unfortunately, gusting winds kept most wildlife activity to a minimum. Feeding in the windbreak at the channel on the eastern side of the island were Brant, Canada Goose, American Wigeon, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser and Ruddy Duck. A single Pied-billed Grebe was hanging out under the rotted timbers that remain of the bridge to the mainland.

We were heading back to the kayaks, walking along the remains of a road, when I spotted a male Ring-necked Pheasant. He ducked his head down and quickly vanished into the tall grass. Following in the direction of the pheasant, we flushed two small, sparrow-like birds. They perched low in the grass, out of the wind. The sparrows turned out to be a pair of Common Redpolls. When they took off, the strong wind practically carried them into the creek below.

I hope that the parks department continues with the White Island restoration project. The coastal habitats around New York City have been degraded for decades and only recently have our politicians begun to understand the importance of these ecosystems.


Starz723 said...

Im happy to hear you spotted the pheasant. Its been years since Ive seen one in Brooklyn. The last one I saw, a beautiful male, was in Floyd Bennet. I can remember how profuse they were years ago and would see them feeding on the approach to the belt pkwy by Flatbush Ave. I thought they were completely gone, so this is good news.

Matthew said...

An excellent adventure, especially consider the time of year. This is one tough town for pheasants, since as non-native ground nesters they fall prey to cats, rats, raccoons, etc. The island (where ever did it get its alternative name of Mau-Mau?) may be free of cats and raccoons, but I doubt it's free of rats. A wily old male, though, probably doesn't have much to worry about from them, though.

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