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Congressman leads tour of birds in Jamaica Bay

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Decked out in a floppy hat and khakis with binoculars strapped around his neck, U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) visited some of his most vocal constituents Friday afternoon, participating in a tour of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

The congressman peered through his binoculars amid a chorus of whistling birds as he was guided through the area by park officials. The tour was organized to call attention to the resources of the reserve, a collection of salt marshes, woods, ponds, bay and islands that spans more than 9,100 acres and is visited by more than 325 types of birds.

“People should come to see this the way they would see Redwood National Park or Yellowstone National Park,” Weiner said.

The sanctuary, which can be reached by taking Cross Bay Boulevard past Howard Beach toward Broad Channel, is internationally recognized as a prime bird-watching spot. Part of Gateway National Recreation Area, it is a major East Coast stopping point for both north and south migrating birds.

“Whether you know birds or not, you can come here and appreciate nature and appreciate the beautiful views,” said expedition participant Joanne Shapiro, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park).

Established by the city in 1953, the refuge is home to 40 percent of all bird species found in North America, said David Avrin, assistant superintendent for Gateway. Both long-eared owls and short-billed dowitchers are among the more than 300 species that can be seen in the park. The upcoming summer months are prime viewing time for great blue herons.

The refuge’s first manager, Herbert Johnson, fought against the encroachment of an expanding Idlewild International Airport and transformed the then-barren landscape into a haven for birds and wildlife.

Trees, shrubs and grass were planted to provide food and shelter to a wildlife population that includes not just the birds but also various reptiles, amphibians and mammals.

Located in the shadows of Kennedy Airport and entirely within the limits of New York City, the refuge is one of the most important urban wildlife areas in the country. It was transferred to the National Park Service in 1972.

Today the refuge faces a new set of challenges, Weiner said. “There are a lot of corners of the park that we’re trying to provide additional funding for,” he said.

At the top of the list are the disappearing Jamaica Bay marshes, important breeding grounds for wildlife. A panel of environmental experts is scheduled to study the mysterious disappearance and develop ways to address the problem, Weiner said.

Other upcoming projects within Gateway include renovating bathhouses at Riis Park and hangars at Floyd Bennet Field to attract more visitors, the congressman said.

But Weiner, whose idea of bird-watching when he was growing up was seeing pigeons while playing stick ball, said the serenity of a natural enclave in the midst of urban chaos should be enough to attract visitors in and of itself.

“The fact is that right here in the middle of New York City amid skyscrapers and people’s front yards is this beautiful place.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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