Field Notes: Four Sparrow Marsh


Birding, or any other natural history pursuit, depends upon the kindness of strangers and friends. We all learn from each other. This in prelude to saying I have no anxiety of influence about this: I followed the lead of the City Birder and went to Four Sparrow Marsh yesterday. It was my first time there. I went specifically looking for Wilson’s snipe. Four Sparrow is a Forever Wild piece of parkland at the intersection of Flatbush and that vile Shore Parkway (I took the train and the bus). It is marsh, swamp, sedge, reed, mud, and clay. It is the slippery littoral edge of the city.

The littoral is that ambiguous space between the water and the land, that tidal zone of murk and mire. The lagoony edges of Jamaica Bay were once all like this, I think, but now much is filled, bulkheaded, paved, and dredged. Four Sparrow Marsh is just a taste of the old edge. It is also fiercely littered, the despository of airborne and tide-borne garbage, plastic, glass, and large pieces of wood. Probably a good place to drop off unwanted bodies, too. The ground was tricky, puddled, covered in flattened dried grasses that made the surface impossible to see, to judge. The high tide line was thick with masses of old dead phragmites. It was like walking on giant straw. I didn’t know where my foot was going to come to a rest.

And some parts of the place were just skittering with fiddler crabs, hundreds, thousands, of them, so I had to walk very carefully. Luckily, they saw me coming and most of them zipped away or into their holes. A few of the stoutest lads waved their mighty little claws in protest against my galumping simian footfall.

Wilson’s snipe, Gallinago delicata, like last Saturday’s woodcock is a chunky long-billed shorebird of some elusiveness. I saw my first one some years back in Prospect Park, which is not its usual habitat. I hadn’t seen one since. Marshes are the bird’s habitat. So much depends on habitat.

As with the woodcock, snipes are more likely to see you long before you see them. (Cf. the legendary “snipe hunt”.) They will flush when that happens, zipping low over the marsh to curve into the distance. I was well around the other soggy side of the marsh before I saw my first one of the day. Look for the long bill and the white underbelly. There were three or four in all, one of them probably a repeat.

Returning back around the edge of the marsh, watching every step, I heard something in the pragmites next to me. I stopped, I looked. More noise, movement, not the wind. A mammal! Rat, I figured at first, but then I saw the size of it. No, a perfect view, not six feet away: it was a muskrat. Search the above picture for two holes: the muskrat slipped into the top (center) one. The other, bottom center, must be another way into the muskrat den, where I have no doubt, Toad, Ratty, and even crabby old Mr. Badger were having an afternoon cuppa before a night on the town.

My boots were gooey with mud, my jeans were splattered up to the knee, but what a damned good day on the edge of Brooklyn,

Update: There’s a proposal to develop the upland part of this Forever Wild preserve for yet another fucking retail complex. More details here.

6 Responses to “Field Notes: Four Sparrow Marsh”


  1. 1 amarilla April 2, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    Never heard of it before! I am in marshy happiness.

  2. 2 Larry Jordan July 9, 2010 at 9:23 am

    An interesting looking place Matthew. I think I would be wearing rubber boots on a trek out in Four Sparrow Marsh. No, I’m pretty sure about that.

    Are there many shorebirds that frequent this place?

    • 3 mthew July 12, 2010 at 9:18 am

      Good boots are a must. Four Sparrow is a good stop on a Floyd Bennett Field-Dead Horse Bay-Ft Tilden-Breezy Point bird watching tour.

  3. 4 dreamfalcon July 13, 2010 at 10:18 am

    An adventorous piece of land. I like that kind! Did you see any sparrows?

  4. 5 Out walking the dog January 12, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Wonderful foray. Brooklyn amazes. Love the strange top photo & your vivid description. Sounds like those stout fiddler boys might have just wanted to hoist a beer with you. And I’m fond of muskrats, though I’ve never seen one in the city.


  1. 1 I and the Bird #129: Five Years of Bird Blogging Brilliance Trackback on July 8, 2010 at 2:45 am

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