Birding Guide to Manhattan Hotspots

Governors Island

By Annie Barry

Governors Island map

Also see the PDF Map by govisland.com

This former Army and Coast Guard base, located in New York Harbor, is open to the public from late May through September. It is accessible by ferries out of the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge Park in DUMBO.  Much of the island is under construction as the Trust for Governors Island, a not-for-profit created by New York City, develops 30 acres of new parkland. But there are plenty of areas open to visitors, and great birding opportunities. Mature trees and shrubs in Nolan Park and Colonels Row, the grassy lawn of the Parade Ground and the waters around the island provide a variety of habitats for year-round and seasonal residents.

BIRDS

During the summer months a breeding colony of Common Terns takes over the Yankee and Tango Piers on the southeast side of the island. Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows also breed on the island and can be seen swooping over the Parade Ground or feeding their young atop the barracks of Ft. Jay and at Picnic Point on the southern-most end of the island. Picnic Point also offers spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty. Black-crowned Night Herons roost in trees along Buttermilk Channel on the Brooklyn side of the island during the day. Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons and even Glossy Ibises can be seen flying over the island as they move about the wetlands of New York City and northern New Jersey. Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels live on the island year round.  Birding here is especially rewarding in September as thousands of migrants, from tiny wrens and warblers to Ospreys and Northern Harriers, stop on or pass over Governors Island on their journey along the Atlantic flyway.  Nolan Park and the Parade Ground are especially rich birding areas during migration. The island also provides habitat for an array of dragonflies and butterflies in summer and autumn.

Species confirmed to breed on Governors Island include: Canada Goose, Mallard, American Black Duck, Killdeer, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, Barn Swallow, Northern Rough-Winged Swallow, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Chipping Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Common Grackle, House Sparrow, House Finch. Other species, such as Chimney Swifts and American Kestrels, probably breed here, but nests and young have not been recorded to date.

Parade Ground at Governors Island
Parade Ground, 2007 © Sherry Felix

Access to many parts of the island is currently limited but will change as projects are completed.  Nolan Park, the Parade Ground, Picnic Point and much of the perimeter of the island are expected to continue to be accessible. Yankee Pier is accessible to pedestrians, but the tern breeding area is fenced off. The birds can be viewed from the open portion of the pier or from the island. Tango Pier is fenced off, but terns can be viewed from the island. Though Governors Island is currently open only from May through September, plans are to eventually open it to visitors year-round, providing opportunities for excellent birding during spring and fall migration and in the winter months. Updates about access to additional areas and longer open seasons will be provided as they become available.

The future of Governors Island includes the creation of more parkland. This will include a 10-acre Hammock Grove, which will include 1,500 new trees. A small wetland is planned for the southern end of the island. These and other new natural features will hopefully make the island even more amenable to birds and other wildlife. However, the demolition of island structures to make way for parkland has caused some disruption and displacement of nesting birds, particularly gulls and swallows. At this time, there do not appear to be plans to demolish the Yankee and Tango Piers. For the time being, at least, the Common Tern colony appears to be safe.

Birding Tours

Occasional birding tours are offered by the National Park Service, which shares the island with the Trust for Governors Island. The Park Service oversees the 22-acre Governors Island National Monument, which mainly consists of Ft. Jay and Castle Williams, historic harbor fortifications that are worth visiting. The Park Service also conducts an annual bird census, usually in late September, with help from volunteers.

Amenities on the Island

Castle Williams, Governors Island
Castle Williams, 2007 © Sherry Felix

Food vendors are on the island during the open season, mostly clustered in Colonels Row and at Picnic Point. They sell everything from snack food and hotdogs to gourmet sandwiches. Potable water is not available on the island, so visitors should bring plenty of water or purchase it from vendors. There are restrooms in building 110, just to the right of the ferry landing at Soissons Dock, where Manhattan ferries land. Portable restroom facilities are also located throughout the island.  It should be noted that birding can be quite challenging on some summer weekends as several events include loud music and large crowds. Visit the Trust for Governors Island   and the Governors Island Alliance websites for a list of events to enjoy — or to avoid if your visit only includes birding.

DIRECTIONS to Governors Island Ferry

Ferry Terminal to Governors Island
Manhattan Ferry Terminal to Governors Island © Stephen Chang

The Manhattan ferry terminal is located at 10 South Street, the building to the east (left) of the Staten Island Ferry terminal. By subway, take the 1 to South Ferry, 4 or 5 to Bowling Green, or the R to Whitehall. By bus, take the M5, M15 or M20. Check the Trust for Governors Island website for ferry days and times. From Brooklyn, the ferry leaves from Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 6, located at the western terminus of Atlantic Avenue. The closest subway stations are Borough Hall (2, 3, 4, 5), Court Street (R), or Jay Street (A, C, F), then walk a few blocks southwest. By bus, take the B63.

Note: For the 2014 season, the island will be accessible by ferry from Manhattan weekdays as well as weekends. Brooklyn ferries will still run only on weekends. A $2 round trip fare ($1 for seniors, kids free) will be imposed, but ferries Saturday and Sunday mornings will be free. Check the Trust for Governors Island website for the latest ferry schedule and information. The Trust has opened 30 acres of new park land, with another 10 acres under construction.