Inside of the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a lone swan sits on the water, grooming itself. It is backed by the tall marsh grasses that characterize this swampy preserve, and behind those, I can see the Manhattan skyline.
The refuge, which encompasses 9,155 acres just east of Brooklyn and Queens, is such a haven for birds, from oystercatchers to willets and ospreys, that an estimated 20 percent of North America’s bird species visit it annually.
What makes the refuge more striking, though, is its proximity to one of the world most intensely urban areas. Less than an hour outside of Manhattan by subway, it sits just southeast of the runways at JFK, so that a visitor to the refuge hears not only a profusion of wild bird calls, but also the constant blast of man-made birds taking off nearby. When the twin towers fell in 2001, 29-year Park Service veteran Eduardo Castillo was watching from the shoreline of Jamaica Bay, just a short walk from his post at the refuge visitor’s center.
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