Where to Spot Wildlife in New York City's Concrete Jungle

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska on July 2, 2013 7:21am 

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 New York is home to a surprising variety of wildlife.
Searching for Animals in New York City's Concrete Jungle
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NEW YORK — The Big Apple's a wild place.

New York City may be the last place you think of if you want to see wildlife, but its parks and shores are home to a host of animals including deer, coyotes and hundreds of birds — perfect for passing a day outdoors, experts say.

From white-tailed deer to snapping turtles and even the occasional blue whale, species abound in the five boroughs.

“I think most New Yorkers expect to see pigeons and are surprised if they see anything more than that,” joked Richard Simon, deputy director of the Urban Park Rangers at the Parks Department. “But there are hundreds of different types of animals in New York City.”

Among the more unusual animals in New York are white-tailed deer, coyotes and red foxes, Simon said.

While the population of coyotes is quite small and they are difficult to spot, the number of white-tailed deer has been growing, according to the Parks Department.

Both coyotes and deer can be seen in parts of The Bronx, including Pelham Bay and Van Cortlandt parks, after coming from Westchester County. They can also be seen in the southern parts of Staten Island, in Conference House and High Rock parks, likely making their way over from New Jersey, according to the Parks Department.

“It has to be a quiet time, because deer are skittish,” Simon said. “So if you go to the park on the weekend and it’s filled with people, you are not gonna see them. But if you go on a quiet weekday or weekend morning you probably have a good chance to spot them.”

Simon said there are also red foxes in the city. Some have been spotted in Alley Pond Park in Queens, but they are extremely rare.

Alley Pond Park, which has both freshwater and saltwater wetlands, is an excellent place for wildlife watching, Simon said, and is among 14 New York City locations listed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as watchable wildlife sites.

Others parks on the list include: Central Park, where people can see red-tailed hawks, painted and snapping turtles, little brown bats and mute swans; Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve in Staten Island, which has broad-winged hawks, black-billed cuckoos, white-tailed deer and cottontail rabbits; Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where nature lovers can spot red-bellied woodpeckers, spotted salamanders and chipmunks; and Pelham Bay Park and Orchard Beach in The Bronx, which has harbor seals, white-tailed deer and long-eared owls.

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 Jamaica Bay is a wildlife refuge in New York.
Wildlife at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
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New Yorkers can always count on seeing some birds, Simon said, even though spring and fall — when the city becomes a stopover for many migrating species — are the best season for birdwatching.

Apart from pigeons, European starlings and house sparrows, which are the most common species in New York, robins, blue jays, cardinals, mallards and Canada geese are also abundant, Simon said.

Central Park, where approximately 250 species of birds live or stop over during their migration, is a great place for birdwatching, especially The Ramble, a heavily wooded portion of the park between 73rd and 78th streets, according to ornithologists from Audubon New York and the Parks Department. 

Birders can spot red-tailed hawks there, the population of which has been growing in New York City. According to Audubon estimates, there are about 80 to 120 red-tailed hawks around the city, including 30 to 40 nesting pairs.

The most famous nest in the city was built by Pale Male on a building at 927 Fifth Ave., near Central Park. There are also hawks’ nests in the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and in Washington Square.

Birders will also appreciate the opportunity of seeing piping plovers, one of the city's endangered species, which can be seen on Rockaway Beach where the rangers set up their nesting area, Simon said.

“You’ve got to just be patient when you go out there and spend time to actually see those birds,” he added.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is another place teeming with wildlife and surrounded by spectacular scenery.

“Jamaica Bay has nice open views of the city skyline and beautiful sunsets,” said Don Riepe of Jamaica Bay Guardian, who leads many tours around the bay.

Visitors can see raccoons and opossums, Riepe said, as well as “many species of birds including egrets, herons, ibises, ospreys, oystercatchers, common terns and peregrine falcons."

Jamaica Bay's osprey, known as Coley, is one of the park’s attractions and its nest is visible from a hiking trail.

In June and July, nature lovers can see nesting diamondback terrapin turtles and mating horseshoe crabs.

But smaller bodies of water around the city are also full of life, Simon said. Turtles, for example, can actually be seen all over New York at various ponds.

“They are easy to spot, particularly on a sunny day because they tan themselves,” Simon said.

Many reservoirs, including Turtle Pond in Central Park, are filled with red-eared slider turtles, a non-native species of turtles, that were dumped there by people who bought them as pets and got tired of them, Simon said. Newly introduced turtles chased out many native species, like snapping and painted turtles, he said.

In Coney Island, in the Rockaways, at Orchard Beach as well as in the Hudson and the East rivers, New Yorkers have a chance of spotting one of the three species of seals that live in the area (harbor, harp and hooded seals). In very rare instances, they can also see dolphins, harbor porpoises and even blue and humpback whales along the shoreline in Brooklyn and Queens.

Groundhogs can be spotted in the areas around the Henry Hudson Parkway, including Fort Tryon Park.

Evenings are a great time to spot little brown bats, which are very active at dusk, and Simon recommends looking for wildlife early in the morning, especially if it’s hot out.

Birds are active in the early morning or in the late afternoon.

A decent pair of binoculars will be helpful, as well as hiking boots, sun protection and field guides, Simon said.

“If you go to more remote areas, you might be rewarded and see some of those rare animals,” he said.

To get information about programs organized by Urban Park Rangers go here. Programs organized at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge can be found here.

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