Pelham Bay Park

“Only the dead know Brooklyn…” but you can say the same thing for the rest of NYC. Five massive boroughs: it’s a full-time job to explore them all. Last Saturday, we journeyed up to the eastern Bronx to visit Pelham Bay Park. Pharaoh — or should I say “Tyrant,” based on the Greco-design of the bathhouse — Robert Moses had Orchard Beach built there in the late 1930s from sand barged up from dredging in the Rockaways. He — of course I mean his workers — merged a small peninsula of the Bronx, Rodman’s Neck, to several rocky islands with a mile-long arc of beach facing Pelham Bay. The resulting “Riviera of the Bronx” should be experienced just for itself: this is da Bronx letting it all hang out, papi.

He didn’t seem to be trying to separate the Ring-billed from the Herring gulls.

Just west of the beach is parking for 6,8000 cars — Jesus freaking Moses! — but we ventured up on the 6 train and the Bx12 bus, a long trip but well worth it. (Unfortunately, the bus only runs in summer.) Hunter’s Island north of the beach has some nice, but we thought haphazardly marked, trails. Considering the number of people on the beach, there were only a few in the woods, although the salsa from the beach could be heard throughout. This is a fine stretch of mature oak-hickory forest (alas for the chestnuts!), with patches of white pine, and remnants of John Hunter’s mid-19th century estate garden. Cabbage White butterflies were absolutely everywhere in the woods, from the path to the upper canopy. We passed three broken robin’s eggs on the path. But wait! With this great forest, you also get: the rocky shore of Hunter and it’s neighbor, Twin Island. This is Hartland Formation schist, a convoluted gneiss, with numerous quartz veins, one of the bedrocks of the region that looks amazingly tortured in places. Where it meets the water of Long Island Sound, the rock is smoothly worn away by long erosion. For those of us from Brooklyn, which is made up of chaotic piles of glacial till, or rubble, the exposed bones of the earth here are evidence of the great drama of regional geology.We found our old friends, Spartina cordgrass, ribbed mussels, and fiddler crabs, anchoring expanses of tidal salt marsh. All the rocks meant blue mussels as well, much paler specimens than I’m used to. Long Island Sound is rife with invasive species, and we found one of them, the Asian or Japanese Shore Crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus). This trio was sun-bleached.

The mudflats were well-patrolled by several Great and and few Snowy egrets and half a dozen Black-crowned Night herons. A single Great Blue Heron also rose up on its six foot wings. They should eat more invasive crabs! unfortunately, these crabs like rocky habitats, not mud flats. In all, we saw about thirty species of birds. The ranger at the Nature Center told us that a pair of Great Horned Owls had successfully nested in the area this spring. We didn’t see the birds, but we did luck upon an unusual feather very near to the Nature Center that sure looked raptor-ish. Upon research, it in fact turned out to look a lot like a tail feather from a Great Horned Owl.Inside the Center we came across another Bronx native, an Eastern Box Turtle.Totally unexpected, but where the tide is concerned, one should always expect the unexpected. (This has been the downfall of more than one mobster.) This foot-long American eel (Anguilla rostrata) is probably under two years old, not yet sexually mature, in the process of becoming a “yellow eel” as this stage in its life is called. (UPDATE: That is, if it was alive. It’s an ex-eel.)

The Hunter’s Island Marine Zoology and Geology Sanctuary, to give it its official title, should be on everyone’s list of urban natural history hotspots.

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8 Responses to “Pelham Bay Park”


  1. 1 lolasanrose June 18, 2012 at 9:59 am

    you do get about. how in the world did you manage a picture of three crabs? they are so skittish. box turtles are a favorite of mine. the eel is amazing to.

  2. 3 Out Walking the Dog June 18, 2012 at 10:18 am

    Adventures in the boroughs! Great birds, nice feather find, such landscape diversity. And the eel is terrific. They used to be virtually a NYC food staple, as I understand it.

    • 4 mthew June 18, 2012 at 10:24 am

      Well, they are delicious. The eel is a very interesting creature: it’s born in the ocean but lives much of its life in fresh or brackish waters, returning to the ocean — the wide Sargasso Sea — to breed. This makes it catadromous, as opposed to anadromous like the fresh-water born and returned salmon. Search out pictures of the babies, glass eels, which you can see right through. Plus the classic crossword “elver.”

  3. 5 Mark Wilkinson June 19, 2012 at 6:46 am

    Who would have known the Bronx had a beach!
    Great post Matthew. So much to explore in such close proximity to the megalopolis

  4. 7 Paul Lamb June 19, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Thomas Wolfe and Monty Python references!

    I’m in Park Slope today but depart for Kansas tomorrow.

    • 8 mthew June 19, 2012 at 9:54 am

      Welcome back to Brooklyn! There’s a Hummingbird nest in the Rose Garden (no roses, no garden) section of the Park this year.


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