Brooklyn’s Grasslands

You can’t see them in this picture, but there are thirty-five or so Horned Lark on the ground here at the northwestern corner of Floyd Bennett Field. One of the few open ground bird species on the East Coast, Eremophilia alpestris breeds at the tundra top of North America. The Lower 48 are their wintering ground. Grassland species like this are becoming rarer because grasslands are becoming rarer. This is actually a cricket field. While a forest is obviously a forest and a swamp clearly a swamp, a grassland to the short-sighted is often no more than an empty space, a waste land, ripe for something else.

Landing in Albuquerque, NM, some months ago, I saw a prairie dog from the window of the plane as it taxied. Airports preserve grasslands by default. Floyd Bennett Field, built atop the waste reclamation factories of Barren Island, was NYC’s first airport. After decades in military service, Floyd Bennett became part of Gateway National Recreation Area. Some of its grasslands are being restored and maintained, but threats of development (casino! NASCAR! fairgrounds! etc.) ever abound.

After all, to a lot of people, it looks like nothing is going on in this field…

And in winter things do look still. But yesterday, I watched a female American Kestrel hunting here. She was hovering, facing the wind with her tail fanned out, her wings beating. She can stay relatively motionless like this in the air as she scans the ground for food. Pickings are slim this time of year, of course, but these raptors can go several days without eating. She made several drops to the ground. Back in the air at one point, it looked like she transfered something from talon to beak. I wonder what it was? Kestrels are our smallest falcons; in summer, they eat insects (grasshoppers, dragonflies, moths etc.), generally plentiful in grasslands, as well as amphibians and reptiles, small mammals, and small birds. In winter, prey choices are reduced to small mammals and birds.

10 Responses to “Brooklyn’s Grasslands”

  1. 1 Elizabeth White January 11, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Hi Matthew,

    I agree about the importance of airports as grasslands. When I was doing the Birdathon in Burlington County, NJ, we always went to McGuire AFB (pre-9/11) to look for specific grassland sparrows.

    While waiting on the tarmac for our takeoff from Newark Airport, I once spotted a hovering kestrel – made the long wait endurable.

  2. 3 David Burg January 11, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    The only reason the grassland are still at Floyd Bennett is because of the hard work of Ron and Jean Bourque naturalists and NYC Audubon Society stalwarts. Back in the 1980s, when he was president of NYCAS, (before becoming commissioner of NYC Dept of Environmental Protection) Al Appleton used his political savvy to translate the Bourque’s concerns into a protection program. The Bourques are are still involved, Ron led the Xmass bird count at Floyd Bennett this year. Lots of interesting things about this project, including the wise decision to keep a rare habitat, even though it did not occur “naturally” at the site (plenty of grasslands were nearby before development). Airports are mixed bags for birds. Yes, they provide crucial habitat, but collisions with aircraft and threats of collisions with aircraft result in lots of bird deaths, including at least one of what were probably the last short-eared owls breeding in NYC, back in the late 70s or early 80s. And the US Dept of Agriculture has killed lots of gulls, hundreds of thousands over the years, if my facts are right. And now they are killing geese, too. Understandable for safety, but sad.

    • 4 mthew January 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm

      Thanks for the further details, David. Readers should also note that the Bourques named nearby Four Sparrow Marsh and have been tireless in its defense.

  3. 5 ronpswegman January 11, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Matthew —

    Great post!

    One of my favorite interactions with nature occurs during winter walks through open grasslands. The sound of the unimpeded wind, the pale sky on the horizon, and the scattered bird life combine to create a quality of quietude that is as invigorating as the season’s cold. Thanks.

    • 6 mthew January 12, 2012 at 10:05 am

      Thanks, Ron. I concur. There is something profoundly moving about these spaces, and, say, watching a northern harrier ride the wind not too far off the ground nearby.

  4. 7 Paul January 11, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    I understand there is more forest in Missouri today than there was in pre-settlement times. Missouri is in the ecotone between the eastern forests and the western prairies. My woods were once a cattle ranch, but now they are almost completely forested. I’m actually working slowly to restore some grassy areas in my forest. I hope it will help the local quail population.

    • 8 mthew January 12, 2012 at 10:03 am

      Awesome! That must be both very hard work and immensely satisfying.

      One of the interesting things about meadows, of course, is that they transition to woodland over time, that is, until you get into the too dry west. In the eastern forests, the original Americans using fire to carve meadows out of the woods to make farm plots and deer parks.

  5. 9 Peter D January 13, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    A timely yet critical analysis of our endangered grasslands which are viewed tragically by the general populace as “waste lots”. A great post ! And we somehow have to get all the runways closed off to all those dragster cars and motocycles ( and city buses and sanitation trucks, and police cars and…….)

    BY the way, on my last trip to FloydB, two cars were racing 90 mph + ! One whizzed by me while I was looking for the Shrike…They got caught by the US Federal Park Police….. a shame what FLoyd B goes thru…:(


  1. 1 Floyd Bennett Under Threat Again « Backyard and Beyond Trackback on February 8, 2012 at 8:09 am

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