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How to Navigate Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

How to Navigate Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is 9,000 picturesque acres of nature, fresh air, and opportunities for outdoor family fun. Here’s everything you need to know before escaping the city for the day with the kids.

Unbeknownst to most New Yorkers, nearly half of the bird species in the northeast can be seen in the bay between the narrow Rockaway Peninsula and the main mass of Long Island. First established in 1972, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is managed by the National Park Service and includes a salt marsh, upland field and woods, fresh and brackish water ponds, and an open expanse of the bay. With such a diverse array of environments, this ecosystem is teeming with wildlife sure to incite curiosity and discovery.

Visitor Center

The first thing you should do is pay a visit to the Visitor Center. Quaint from the outside, the Visitor Center has everything you could need on the inside. Open daily from 9am-5pm, the center offers a large and clean space for families and groups to gather before or after embarking on a trail or guided tour. Park rangers man the front desk during hours of operation and are more than happy to direct you to the appropriate trail, recommend an upcoming program or tour, or simply lend you a pair of binoculars.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center’s front entrance

Year-round programs led by rangers and partners include presentations on seasonal wildlife, sunset tours, hikes, boat trips, miscellaneous family programs, and a lecture series. Past summer events include Keeping a Nature Journal: Enhancing Your Outdoor Connection, Get Your Head in the Clouds, Full Moon Hike, and Birds, Butterflies, and Terrapins of Jamaica Bay. Winter activities include a Winter Waterfowl Workshop, Have a Hoot, an owl focused program and mini hike for children, a Holiday Reading, and Talkin’ Trees, a family program focused on learning about the trees in the refuge. For those completely new to birding and hoping to simply gain some footing, a Birding for Beginners program runs 11am-12pm every Saturday and Sunday from May 28-Sept. 3.

The Visitor Center also doubles as a mini-museum and gift shop with informational posters covering the walls and educational gifts lining the shelves. Three-dimensional exhibits highlight plant and animal life, the history of the reserve, and the impact humans have had on the ecosystem. You’ll want to stop by before you embark on a trail so that you and the family have the maximum understanding of what it is you are about to observe. You’ll want to stop by once more before departing the reserve to either commemorate the adventure with shirts, hats, and water bottles or further cement your child’s love for learning and nature by picking up a plushy or toy model of his favorite creature or her very own butterfly garden kit.

Flora and Fauna

Thousands of birds call the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge home during migrations along the Atlantic Flyway. More than 330 species have been spotted over the past 25 years, including ibises, herons, osprey, scarlet tanagers, and piping plovers. The list of observable birds changes depending on the season making visiting a unique experience each time.

Approximately 70 species nest regularly at the refuge. Feel free to carefully peer into the wooden birdhouses sprinkled along the trails with your kids or spy the osprey nesting on giant man-made platforms closer to the bay. Do, however, make it clear to your children how important it is to remain respectful and not disrupt the wildlife you are observing.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge bird house

A birdhouse occupied by local baby birds on the short West Pond trail 

Birds are not the only winged creatures your family will find at the reserve. Little brown bats and occasional red hoary bats take refuge in designated bat boxes meant to replace naturally hollow trees during migration seasons. Watch closely for them on spring or fall evenings or peek into their boxes during the morning or early afternoon to see them sleeping.

Other than bats and birds, 60 species of butterflies can also be found at the reserve. While these harmless insects are delightful to observe and photograph, you’ll want to apply bug spray to avoid the insects that bite. Lastly on the animal front, the surrounding waters boast one of the largest populations of horseshoe crabs, which can be seen in May and June when they emerge onto the beaches, in addition to fish and other marine life less easily spotted in the ponds and Jamaica Bay.  

The reserve also has its fair share of greenery. Paths are lined with holly, oak, grasses of various heights, wildflowers, and even prickly pear cactus well adapted to the sandy, dry interdunal areas. As beautiful as the plants may be, avoid collecting them and stay on the trail so as not to trample them.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge wildflowers

Wildflowers are visible along less densely wooded areas of the trails. 

West Pond Trails

The 45-acre West Pond trails are accessible through the Visitor Center and offer views of Jamaica Bay and a faint Manhattan skyline. The trail was previously a loop before Hurricane Sandy created a large gap, creating a short and long walk. You’ll have to walk the path you choose twice, once forward and once back to the Visitor Center. Luckily, you’re guaranteed to see something different each time. Both trails offer benches scattered along the way for you and your children to take a rest and enjoy the view.

The short walk has much more in terms of educational value with numerous informative signs scattered along the way. It is also decidedly more attractive and family-friendly due to views of the bay and a much shorter length. The long walk on the other hand is much more wooded and is better suited for hiking.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge West Pond

The West Pond breach caused by Hurricane Sandy, where sea birds can often be seen along the shore

East Pond Trails

The 117-acre East Pond trails start across the street from the Visitor Center. These trails are much muddier and are not as ideal for families with young children, especially the lengthy seasonal path running all the way up the east side of East Pond. This trail should be left to adult hikers and families with older children. Access depends on wildlife activity as well as the state of the terrain. Inquire about access at the Visitor Center.

The much shorter East Garden path is a woodland trail that wraps itself around Big John’s Pond and offers views of ducks and swans as well as two observation blinds and a nesting box for barn owls. The water level is lowered to provide mud flats for migrating shorebirds in June and September, allowing for closer views but resulting in an environment that is more dangerous for young children. Walk along the shore only if the water level is low enough and do so, just be careful not to get stuck in the mud.

Tips for Visiting Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

  • Be sure to pack plenty of water. The Visitor Center also has water fountains as well as bathrooms for your convenience.
  • Some trails do not provide much shade, particularly the short West Pond trail, so bring sunscreen of appropriate strength.
  • With ponds come a variety of unfriendly insects. Bug spray is a necessity.
  • Be aware of ticks in wooded areas. Walk in the center of trails and wear repellant to best avoid bites. Check yourself and your clothes for attached ticks once you come indoors.
  • Stay on trails to avoid disturbing wildlife or coming into contact with common trailside poison ivy.
  • The reserve is a bit secluded, so you’ll want to pack your own snacks for before and after your walk. Picnic only at designated sites outside the Visitor Center, and do not offer food to any wildlife.
  • Anything that might disturb the wildlife such as smoking, radios, bicycles, motor bikes, cars, or pets are prohibited.
  • Wear athletic shoes for West Pond trails. For East Pond trails, wear athletic shoes you wouldn’t mind getting dirty or boots if you plan on walking on the mudflats.
  • Bring binoculars if you have them and move along the trail slowly in order to get the most out of it.
  • Consider the ages and physical capabilities of your children before embarking on a trail. Flat gravel paths make the West Pond trails best for strollers and wheelchairs. For a safe bet, take the short West Pond walk. If you’re unsure, ask a park ranger at the main desk. There’s something for everyone.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge West Pond view

A view of West Pond from the short trail

Want to Go?

Location: Broad Channel, Queens

Hours: Trails: daily, sunrise to sunset; Visitor Center: daily, 9am-5pm.

For more information: 718-318-4340 or nyharborparks.org

Main image: A protected area of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge along West Pond with a view of the Manhattan skyline 


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