By Ben Cacace
In the past this island was made up of at least two sections: Randall's Island to the north and Ward's Island to the south. Under Robert Moses the middle portion of the current island was filled in at Little Hell Gate to connect all sections. All three spans of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (RFK Bridge, previously known as the Triborough Bridge) pass over Randall's Island connecting to Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. The Randall’s Island Park Alliance (RIPA) is a public-private partnership that has as one of its many objectives the restoration and enhancement of the island’s natural areas. Of greatest interest to birders is their major effort in restoring marshes and wetlands: the Little Hell Gate salt marsh and the nearby freshwater wetland, totaling 8 acres, and the smaller half-acre Bronx Kill salt marsh. The Alliance has also planted several gardens and and established an urban farm, providing an abundance of color to the island. Many sections of the nearly 4.5 miles of meandering pathways that encircle the island are cultivated with various species of flowers, bushes, trees (including several Mulberry trees that those in the know snack from) and other vegetation attracting numerous species of insects and butterflies. The most floral is the Harlem River Pathway running from Little Hell Gate inlet to the 103rd Street footbridge, constituting the Water’s Edge Garden. In addition to the areas of interest to birders, the island has an abundance of sports facilities, a psychiatric hospital, a waste water treatment plant, several city facilities and many bridges overhead.
This New York County island is accessible via foot. The 103rd Street pedestrian bridge from Manhattan can be accessed at 102nd Street off First Avenue or from the East River Esplanade. It leaves you in the southwest section of the park just south of the Water's Edge Garden that borders the Harlem River. Heading south leads to the Queens span of the RFK Bridge. The birding can be good on the Harlem and East Rivers from the pedestrian bridge south and east to the RFK Bridge. The prominent light ledge just west of the RFK Bridge is Hog Back Light and Great Cormorants are commonly seen perched here in the winter. All three spans of the RFK Bridge have pedestrian walkways.
Before 2012 birds on the island have been underreported and the makeup of the birdlife for much of the year is still unrecorded. The checklists submitted to eBird.org are still blank for much of April through September. Only after the discovery of Nelson’s Sparrows in the northeast section near the backstop of field 42 in the Bronx Kill salt marsh in October 2012 did more birders visit the island on a semi-regular basis. Even with the limited reporting, there have been 121 species reported from the Randall’s Island hotspots.
Birding the island can be satisfactory from just the north end. Even though this area is made of mostly softball and soccer fields, the human activity is fairly low, especially in the winter, which makes for decent birding. I found my life Eastern Meadowlark on the northwest ball fields. The Bronx Kill borders the island at the north end and the usual duck species are seen here including Gadwall, American Black Duck, Bufflehead, as well as many Canada Geese, Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Red-breasted Merganser, Belted Kingfisher, Killdeer, egrets and herons. The northeast section of the park holds a newly restored salt marsh where the Nelson’s Sparrows were spotted and seen by many observers. In the winter Brant are commonly seen here along with Common Goldeneye and Red-throated and Common Loons. Further south and east, a hill between fields 27 and 30 and just north of the New York City Fire Department Training Academy is a great place for sparrows, including Song, Savannah, Chipping, White-throated, White-crowned and Vesper Sparrows. To the west, the fence between the fire Department facility and the tennis courts is good for blackbirds.
At low tide both ends of the Bronx Kill reveal mudflats and these could potentially be productive for shorebirds during migration.
If you look across the Bronx Kill from the east edge of the salt marsh near backstop 42 you can see the Waste Services of New York (WSNY) building, just east of the New York Post property, where gulls can congregate at times. The gulls are usually seen south of the New York Post building or on the WSNY building. Gulls reported from the area, besides the usual, have included Bonaparte’s, Black-headed, Laughing, Iceland and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.
The Manhattan Psychiatric Center is the dominant building on the island, and in 2012 the building hosted a high Peregrine Falcon nest. During the winter Peregrines are seen regularly along with American Kestrel. Also on the island are nesting Red-tailed Hawks. A previous nest site, which may still be active, is just north of Icahn Stadium.
The west edge of the island is bordered by the Harlem River. The Water’s Edge Garden is north of the pedestrian bridge and runs to the middle part of the island. This Garden is a great spot to pick up sparrows, vireos, finches, some wood warblers and kinglets during migration. Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches and woodpeckers (Downy, Red-bellied and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers) can be seen during the winter. At the north end of the garden at Little Hell Gate is another restored salt marsh. This salt marsh is larger than the one at the northeast corner of the island and includes a boardwalk. It has been a good spot for sparrows and ducks including Field and Swamp Sparrows, Gadwall and American Black Duck. Look for Yellow Warblers in summer, especially along the water drain on the north side. Eastern Phoebes and Eastern Kingbirds hunt from posts and herons and egrets forage among the tall grass. The river to the west hosts a variety of winter waterfowl, including Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, Red-throated Loons, Double-crested Cormorants, Buffleheads, Brant and Canada Geese. In the spring, Northern Pintails have been spotted in the salt marsh, along with Great Egrets and Great Blue, Green and Black-crowned Night Herons. A Belted Kingfisher can be seen or heard with regularity. In the freshwater wetland, various spring migrants feed on the newly planted native herbaceous, shrub, and tree species, such as switchgrass, aster and dogwood. Birds have included several species of flycatchers, warblers, sparrows, finches and blackbirds.
Birding the southwest section of the island, west of Hog Back Light, can also be productive. In the southwest, the vicinity of Field 63 could turn up more birds, and the Urban Farm has future potential.
On a historical note, Ring-necked Pheasants used to nest in the area of the wetlands at mid-island and the Central Fields of Ward’s Island, but with the development of the many new recreational fields that provide enjoyment to the children of New York City, the pheasants haven’t been spotted in a few years. A drake Tufted Duck was seen from the island in 1968.
A scope is helpful when scanning the Harlem and East Rivers from the south end of the island, and from the northeast shoreline.
We thank Chris DeSantis and Alan Drogin for providing additional information on sightings and locales.
As with any of the more remote areas of New York City, safety should always be taken into account. Police are seldom seen on either island, so visitors should always keep their location and proximity to other people in mind when walking around. Even when the ballfields are in use some of the areas preferred by birders may be desolate. The northwest and southeast sections tend to be more isolated.
Restrooms on Randall’s Island can be found in or near the Bronx Shore Fields, Sunken Meadow and Icahn Stadium. On the Ward’s Island side restrooms can be found near Hell Gate and Ward’s Meadow Fields. See the RIPA map for precise locations.
To get tide information search on the internet for tides at Randall’s Island, Harlem River.
Public Transportation: The M35 bus from Manhattan travels the length of the island. This bus can be picked up from 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. The last stop in Manhattan is on 124th Street and Second Avenue. If you wish to start birding from the north end of the island, the first stop on the bus leaves you just west of the northeast section.
For pedestrian access from Manhattan walk over the 103rd Street footbridge off First Avenue. The nearest through street is at 102nd Street, or you can access the bridge from the East River Esplanade. To get to the footbridge, take the 6 train to 103rd Street or the M15 bus to the stop closest to 102nd Street and walk east. Alternatively, take the M106 crosstown bus to the FDR Drive and walk south.
You can also use the walkways on the RFK Bridge from Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. See the Randall’s Island website for the entry and exit locations of the pedestrian ramps and a PDF map of the access points on the island. Access via the RFK Bridge entails a longer walk than using the 103rd Street footbridge. Another pedestrian bridge from the Bronx is currently closed.