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The Birdman of Inwood Restores North Cove

By Farran Powell | October 17, 2012 12:54pm

INWOOD — Nestled behind a 207th Street parking lot at the tip of Northern Manhattan, Inwood's North Cove is being cleaned by the Birdman.

James Cataldi, 54, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator nicknamed the "Inwood Birdman" for his dedication to saving injured birds, has single-handedly spearheaded a campaign to restore the area.

"My primary mission is to restore it, enhance the ecological habitat and turn it into a salt marsh," said Cataldi, a former Wall Street analyst.

Cataldi, who works with Manhattan non-profit the Wild Bird Fund,  began cleaning this hidden Manhattan outback four years ago as part of a self-funded restoration initiative to attract migratory birds.

Working alone, he removed several tons of dumped garbage, including car tires and syringes.  

"It used to be an illegal dumping ground for everyone," said Cataldi, who trespassed on to the shoreline to begin cleaning the surface area along the land. "There were hundreds of syringes. It was a heroin shanty town."

Self-described as a modern day "Lorax" — a tree-adoring Dr. Seuss character — Cataldi expanded the project last year under his nonprofit organization, the Manhattan Wetlands and Wildlife Association, with the hope that he could recruit volunteers and raise private donations.

"Right now it looks like mud, but the wildlife and plants will begin to grow and diversity will follow," said Edgar Westerhof, 38, a North Cove volunteer and transplant from Rotterdam who worked on urban waterfront strategies in The Netherlands.

The North Cove is already home to several hundred feathered residents. Ducks, American kestrels, egrets, Canadian geese and, just recently, a peregrine falcon have been seen in the area, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

One private contributor has donated seeds for North Cove volunteers to add more plant life to rejuvenate the soil, Cataldi said.

Community efforts to conserve the North Cove are still funded privately, despite the property being split between city and federal ownership. The land below the tidal level is controlled at the federal level.

Cheryl Pabaham, a local resident and former Community Board 12 member, said that Cataldi had helped raise the larger community's awareness.

"He's done a tremendous amount of work and we really want to protect that investment," she said at a picnic fundraiser for the restoration.

Plans to use public money to restore upper Manhattan's waterfront areas have been discussed, but are currently on hold. The Sherman Creek plan that CB 12 approved in February 2011, which would have restored the North Cove and other sections of the Harlem River shoreline, is listed as an inactive project on the New York City Department of City Planning's web site.

"Of course, I would like to see the Sherman Creek area developed," said City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez. "I would like to see that development included in the budget in 2014."

Cataldi said, "It's amazing to see the support I have and the people who see the North Cove as their own home."