We met our guide, an Urban Park Ranger, at the Salt Marsh Nature Center in Marine Park, which is located on an inlet of Jamaica Bay, in Brooklyn. It was raining, and it took an hour to get there by subway/bus, but my friend and I had been looking forward to exploring what is exotic in this city – a parcel of land set aside for the native habitat. And, attracted by the title, I was excited to meet an Urban Park Ranger!
Our Urban Park Ranger turned out to be as cool as I’d hoped. She was young, laid-back, fairly nerdy (the uniform helped), with just the right amount of spunk. She wore a polyester green uniform, a broad-rimmed hat wrapped in plastic (due to the rain) and wore a bunch of equipment on her belt including a walkie talkie and a police baton. (Urban Park Rangers are responsible for law enforcement in addition to conservation, wildlife rescue and education duties, and are trained peace officers.) There are only about 40 rangers to cover all of New York City’s parks and 4 or 5 assigned to Brooklyn.
We headed out into the persisting rain and onto the mile-long trail loop. Through the rain the air felt clean. Birds were out and about, and there were no other people to be found. We were introduced to native and non-native plants as well as the healthy and not-so-healthy parts of the marsh. Cordgrass (shown above), a native and essential part of the salt marsh, lives in the low marsh, on the edge of the water, and manages to secrete excess salt from the water it takes in.
In this photograph you can see the low marsh in the foreground, a very wet environment which floods at high tide, contrasted with the high marsh in the background, the soil of which is drier and sandy.
Bayberry is a native high marsh shrub. Below is a close-up shot of bayberry looking pretty.
Very soon we came across a problematic, invasive non-native plant: phragmites, or the common reed.
Phragmites has taken over much of the high marshland. It has edged out native species, is not part of the diet of local wildlife, and is extremely flammable – fires are very common here, often started by park-goers’ discarded cigarettes. A year ago, we were told, certain areas were entirely burnt out.
Much has grown back, but you can see blackened trees amidst the sea of tawny phragmites.
In the above photograph mugwort, a non-native and very common city weed, poses in front of phragmites.
Our guide pointed out this birch that is barely alive. In desperation it has sent up a dozen sprouts from its roots. It bears many scars.
But, we were told, despite the unhealthy aspects, the park’s ecosystem is doing pretty well. There is a significant amount of new native growth, and, thanks to restoration efforts, it has undergone a drastic transformation since the ’70s when it was pretty much a junkyard.
By the end of the walk, we were entirely soaked but content having made the acquaintance of this beautiful park. We thanked our Urban Park Ranger and headed to the nature center to dry off. Then we hopped back on the bus and within a couple blocks we were back in the heart of Brooklyn, passing through residential neighborhoods full Chinese and Russian markets.
NYC Wildflower week continues. Check it out!