Cruise of Jamaica Bay puts native birds at center stage

An egret takes a dip in the water at Myakka River State Park in Florida. Photo by Michael Givant
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The 100-foot “Golden Sunshine” leaves Pier 4 at Sheepshead Bay and goes out into the waters of Jamaica Bay. My wife and I are among a large number of people on board for an ecology cruise sponsored by the American Littoral Society. Don Riepe and Mickey Cohen, two authorities on Jamaica Bay, its history and wildlife, narrate it.

Soon we begin to see common terns, black-backed gulls and laughing gulls. At the Marine Parkway Bridge, a peregrine falcon flies past a vertical section of the bridge, then disappears behind it. When hunting, this bird can go into a dive at 200 mph and take prey in mid-air.

At the Cross Bay Memorial Bridge, we see another peregrine perching in the recess of some sheeting. Although it is some distance from us, the raptor’s dark “mutton chops” and striated breast are clearly visible. Oddly, it resembles a toy panda. The bird, perhaps curious, looks at the boatload of humans looking at it.

On the port side there’s a fast-flapping, glistening brown bird. Getting my binoculars on it, I see a long down-curved bill. It is a glossy ibis. We pass some twisted bare trees in a marsh. On one is a perching osprey. Two great egrets stand in the still-as-glass, shallow water near shore looking stately.

On our return, there is a fast-flying, yellow-crowned night heron. We pass a sandy area at the edge of a marsh where there are two oyster catchers. Now we can see their long, thick, red bills and black, dark brown and white bodies. Then there is a gaggle of legs and wings that comes running. It is actually two more oyster catchers side by side.

Out here planes are constantly taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport. A super-sized Lufthansa jet, which carries 500-plus people, flies over the marsh, punctuating the contrast between nature and technology. In the now-graying sky, an osprey with splayed wing tips flies low and hard at a slightly downward angle, tilting side to side.

The “fish-hawk’s” slightly bent back wings give it the appearance of a 21st-century supersonic aircraft. In the background is the control tower of the airport. How fitting.

At the subway bridge, an A train is going to Rockaway. Soon one with 10 cars is crossing in the opposite direction. I love seeing the train rumble over the tracks. This is a juxtaposition of nature and technology to which I can relate.

I grew up in Queens, but long ago moved to Nassau County. The subway now is a distant memory. I wonder what the view looks like from its cars. It should be a treat compared to underground darkness. Later, perhaps with ecology imitating art, I realize the scene reminds me of a Van Gogh painting.

The next day I discover that it is actually a series of paintings of the Langlois Bridge at Arles made in 1888. They depict a horse and wagon and/or a person crossing it. I am charmed.

Now, with the sky clouding over, late afternoon has the look of premature twilight. On the enclosed upper deck we watch a Flamenco performance. The main performers, Bernard Schaller on guitar and Judy Gelman Myers, who dances and sings, transform the trip. The sounds make my wife and I recall Portuguese Fado performers, who we saw years ago in Lisbon.

Caught up in the moment, I almost forget that we are coming back into Sheepshead Bay. This cruise has transported me in more than one way.

For more information on cruises and field trips, call 718-318-9344.

Posted 12:56 am, July 19, 2012
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Reader feedback

Kenneth Kowald from I Sit and Look Out says:
Thank you for this fine report. I know Don Riepe only slightly, but have always admired his work.

As for Mickey Cohen: A gem! A great educator and environmentalist and a joy to be with you.

No wonder you had such a marvelous time!

Kenneth Kowald
July 24, 2012, 10:10 am

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