When I arrived at 7 o'clock in the morning, mine was the only car in the small gravel parking lot except for a few ranger vehicles. I finished my doughnut and beverage by the car and watched a Concorde lower its landing gear high over the southern horizon. Bright-colored warblers flew through the shrubs and gulls wheeled overhead. I hoisted binoculars and bird book and set off.
Forty-five minutes from Manhattan and 10 minutes by car from John F. Kennedy Airport lies Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge -- a piece of reclaimed wilderness sandwiched between Brooklyn and Queens, at the southwest corner of Long Island. The refuge, part of Gateway National Recreation Area and run by the National Park Service, encompasses 9,155 acres of low-lying islands and marshland surrounded by the spread of Jamaica Bay. You get an idea of that expanse when you fly over the bay coming into Kennedy Airport.
The morning I visited the refuge in early spring, a breeze blew out of the south, the sky was high, wide, and very blue; no one else was around. The birds were out in good numbers.
The exciting thing about the wildlife refuge is the concentrations of birds. This patch of green landscape and open water bordered by roads and houses acts as a magnet to birds migrating north along the Atlantic Flyway, the avian ``highway'' along the Atlantic coast. They stop here to rest and feed, some stay to nest -- all to the delight of the bird watcher.
Birds have migrated through here for centuries and have always used the bay. But it wasn't until some fairly recent changes in the physical environment were made that certain species, like glossy ibis, were attracted, and a large part of the migrants began appearing on a regular basis and staying longer. The reason for these patterns was the creation of a freshwater pond in the midst of a salt marsh. A basic incongruity, this situation came about in an interesting manner.
Around 1951, the New York City Transit Authority proposed dredging sand from Jamaica Bay to create an embankment on which to run its subway trains. The trains carried passengers from mainland Queens to seaside resorts in the Rockaways, a thin stretch of barrier island beach shielding the bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
Robert Moses, then commissioner of parks, agreed to the railroad plan if, in conjunction with its dredging operations, the Transit Authority would construct two dikes that would impound fresh water. By August 1953, two ponds were finished, one on the east side of Cross Bay Boulevard, the other on the west. The stage was set, and soon shore birds, geese, and ducks, in greater numbers than ever, were showing up at the freshwater ponds to rest and feed during their long migration flights.
A million and a half clumps of beach grass were planted on the West Pond dike to prevent wind from driving the dredged sand back into the bay. Thirty years later, the path I walked on seemed natural enough, with grasses, flowers, and shrubs. Warblers, vireos, and sparrows, newly arrived from Mexico and Central America, made the bushes alive with their darting. A great egret preened itself in the mirror of the pond. Through my binoculars, it made an interesting picture as it groomed the elegant white plumes of its tail.
At the refuge, it is easy to free yourself from the workaday world and get caught up in the purposeful flight of a hawk, or stare, for long intervals, at the green tops of salt marsh grasses bending in a wind. A feeling of space survives out here; distant horizons and wide, open skies. The refuge appeals to all kinds of folks: naturalists, birders, photographers. Many come just for a refreshing walk or to breathe long drafts of sea air. It's an ideal place to spend that extra hour while you wait for your flight out of Kennedy Airport.
As you walk, you are reminded, however, that you are on the fringe of a major urban area: The Twin Towers of Manhattan poke at the northern sky, and the jumbo jets rumble and roar along the runways of JFK.
Every big city has its unusual occupants, and Jamaica Bay has its resident character. A gentle hulk of a man, with one tooth, travels here by subway. He walks the half-mile to the refuge carrying a football-sized stone. Hundreds of stones, from all his journeys, now form an elaborate mosaic of concentric rings and cairns in a secluded section of refuge woods. This is the same person who is said to come to the refuge to observe his imaginary narwhal, a marine mammal with one tusk found in Arctic waters.
The National Park Service maintains the refuge and offers a wide array of nature programs and walks, free of charge. During spring and fall migration, a refuge visit is an unforgettable experience. The first two weeks of May heralds the warbler invasion; sometimes seven species of warbler in one tree! Beware a visit in July and August -- the deerflies and mosquitoes are ferocious. Winter is grand if you don't mind cold northwest winds. In autumn, few things are more simple or gratifying than to watch flocks of shore birds wheeling in over a mid-tide to feed on the exposed sand flats.
Over 300 species of birds have been recorded here. It's a real challenge for the novice and expert alike.
The trail around the West Pond is about 13/4 miles in length, and you should plan on spending at least an hour for a leisurely exploration. The refuge is open every day, except Christmas and New Year's, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information on Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, write Superintendent, Gateway National Recreation Area, J. B. Unit, Bldg. No. 69, Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11234 or call the refuge at (718) 474-0613.
Stephen R. Swinburne is the author of ``Trail Guide to West Pond -- Jamaica Bay,'' published by Eastern Acorn Press.