Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the gateway national recreation area, is one of the most significant bird sanctuaries in the North Eastern United States, and one of the best places in New York City to observe migrating species. On top of its ability to attract wild life, it is also unique for the type of plants and habitats that exist on the property. 

Urged on by Robert Moses, the then New York City Parks Commissioner, The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was created in 1951 on top of what was essentially a land fill adjacent to a salt marsh. At that time the ecological value of salt marshes was not so apparent to the designers, and they felt that adding two large fresh water ponds would be more beneficial to the wildlife. 

In October of 2012, hurricane sandy breached those ponds and while the east pond was quickly repaired by the lands department in order to restore subway service to the Rockaways, the west pond remained opened to the salt water of Jamaica Bay, transforming it from a pond into a lagoon. This issue however is now in the process of being resolved, which adds an new chapter to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. 

While the west pond is being restored to its original conditions, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge has also taken the initiative to address issues of invasive plant species that have dominated the understory of the property. 

In early 2014 the national parks service began conversations about the needs of ecological restoration in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, in response to capital investments donated from TNC by Jamaica Bay Rockaway Parks Conservancy. While Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was originally created to be a high quality habitat for wild life, recent surveys have shown that 25 percent of the understory is comprised of invasive species and 40 percent of the over-story also contains invasive species, such as oriental bitter sweet and other vines which creep up into the trees. 

Because of the high density of birds, seeds and fruit from plants like the oriental bitter sweet, and autumn olive are distributed quite regularly all over the property, which created a bramble like effect of unwanted plants. 

Mackenzie Younger recently visited the refuge to see what type of work they’ve been doing. To his delight, he observed the tremendous amount of habitat restoration taking place, starting with the removal of the thick understory layer of invasive vines and shrubs. These shrubs were gathered up and broken down and in some areas even prescribed burns were implemented to create what would have happened naturally in ecosystems that would be found in costal regions in the eastern united states, particularly ones home to the native pitch pine.  

Mackenzie noticed that pitch pine was on one of the main restoration plants that they were using along with beach plum and eastern baccharis. Although the list of species is probably much larger its hard to identify all of the plants in the middle of the winter. 

Every season in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge provides something new, from the migratory birds in the spring to the blooming flowers in the hot summer and the leaves color changes in the fall. But possibly the most over looked time of all, and certainly the least visited time, the winter, still has many amazing attributes. While most of the species have lost their foliage a couple of species really stand out, allocating winter as their time to shine. Some of these winter stars include the paper bitch and pussy willow, as well as some native grasses including little blue stem and tufted hair grass. Evergreen trees also stand out, like the pitch pine and the eastern red cedar. The signius shrubs are also vibrant, these including the bay berry which on female shrubs produces a waxy white fruit. If you find yourself free on a weekend’s day, Native NY Gardens suggests you go to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, and if you do, please send us a message and let us know what you saw! 

Hamamelis vernalis

Hamamelis vernalis commonly known as Ozark witch-hazel from the Ozark mountain range is one of our two native witch-hazels. Its relative Hamamelis virginiana (the American witch-hazel) blooms in late fall with bright yellow flowers while Hamamelis vernalis blooms in late winter / early spring with smaller, yellow-orange-red and even purple colored flowers. Inconspicuous to say the least... most people won't even notice this shrub in bloom - unless of course your observant and looking for a unique winter treat. Stick your face into the blossoms of Ozark witch-hazel and experience a wonderful aroma.

An odd family the witch-hazels are flowering when no other plants are in bloom - attracting the lone and rarely seen winter pollinator. These pollinators include bees, flies or even gnats. 

Winter wonder - Winter Berry

If you want excitement in the off season, we recommend planting Winter Berry in your landscape. Winter Berry (Ilex verticillata) like its cousins American Holly and Ink Berry, are dioecious. Meaning they need male and female plants to produce fruit. So make sure to have both (male and female plants) if you want this spectacular display! Also birds love to eat these berries in late winter when food is scarce, but if your planting for wildlife don't use cultivars but straight species. Why? Some cultivars are selected because their berries last all winter - way into early spring (which is attractive) but also means they never become edible for birds, remaining distasteful and in many ways useless; contributing little to the ecosystem. With straight species birds get the nutrients they need and inreturn, the plant has its seeds dispersed over the landscape contributing the spread of generic diversity, vital to any heathy habitat. 


Wild Hydrangea / Hydrangea arborescens

If you ever visit the Great Smoky Mountains in late June, keep your eyes out for our beautiful native Hydrangea!  More formally known as Smooth Hydrangea; cultivated verities of this plant have been widely used in landscaping for many years - yet its nearly impossible find a true species for sale! This is a shame because Smooth Hydrangeas natural form is stunning, and with fertile flowers, can be very attractive to pollinators.