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How NYC Parks Protects Rare and At-Risk Wildlife

New York City is home to a wide array of rare and unusual animal species that most people rarely see or know about — including herring, terrapin, piping plovers, and bald eagles. These animals depend on the health of parks, from our wildest forests to our expansive shorelines, to survive and thrive. 

We have successfully worked with community partners and volunteers in parks throughout the city to restore animal populations that were once at risk. These include alewife river herring in the Bronx River, diamondback terrapins in Jamaica Bay, and piping plovers on Rockaway Beach—all of which have become a more common sight in NYC in recent years.

Take a look at some of the rare and at-risk animals NYC Parks cares for:

Atlantic Coast Leopard Frogs

The Atlantic Leopard Frog is a green frog with black spots like a leopard.

Found in expansive open-canopied wetlands, this frog can be identified by its distinct dorsal spots and unique "chuck"-like call that can be heard during the breeding period (late March to early April).

Threat
Once widespread and amongst the most common frog species in the NYC region, it’s now found in only a handful of sites in NYC—all on Staten Island. Substantial evidence of population decline points to a combination of disease and habitat loss.

What we're doing to help
We will help ensure the long-term survival of the Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog on Staten Island through monitoring and managing its natural resources, and protecting sensitive areas as Forever Wild habitat.

American Eels

A tiny worm-like eel moves around in someone's palm

American Eels are born thousands of miles away in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean. They disperse along the Atlantic Coast and travel upstream to freshwater. They live in streams and rivers for the next 20 or 30 years of their lifespan. Once they reach sexual maturity, they make the long journey back to where they hatched, where they spawn just once and then die. They are considered “catadromous fish” because they spend most of their life in freshwater and only require saltwater for part of their life cycle.

Threat
Due to overfishing and habitat loss, particularly caused by barriers like dams that prevent the eels from reaching freshwater habitat, American Eel populations are dramatically reduced.

What we're doing to help
In partnership with the Bronx River Alliance and other partners, we're working to restore American Eel populations in the Bronx River by creating access to freshwater habitat. An eel ladder was installed at the first dam barrier in the River in 2015 to help American Eels get over the dam and access the habitat they need. Since it's opening, the fish ladder has allowed more than 1,300 American eels to swim over the dam. We're working to design and build additional eel ladders at the other upstream barriers, or to remove the barriers where possible so that American Eels can access the rest of the Bronx River once again.

Bald Eagles

A bald eagle perches on a tree in the park.

Bald eagles—our country's national bird—will usually nest close to water sources for easy access to fish, which is their primary food source along with carrion. Nests are often found high in trees. Bald eagles sometimes mate for life, and breed at 4-5 years old, typically laying between one and three eggs.

Threats
Though bald eagles have made a comeback in recent years thanks in large part to the banning of the harmful pesticide DDT, high temperatures and habitat loss caused by climate change are still a threat to their survival.

What we are doing to help
NYC Parks' Wildlife Unit monitors active raptor nests--including those of bald eagles--on a yearly basis throughout the city to better understand their nesting preferences and inform rodenticide usage. Bald eagles have been recently spotted in parks along the Hudson River, including Inwood Hill Park and Riverside Park.

Diamondback Terrapins

A diamondbacked terrapin hangs out in a marsh area in the park.

These turtles can be found all along the entire east coast shoreline, as far south as the Florida Keys and around into the Gulf Coast of Texas. They inhabit the brackish water of marshes and shallow bays. During the warmer months (April-October), they are actively feeding and reproducing. In the winter, they nestle into the mudflats of their home range and go into torpor, a state of decreased physiologic activity, to conserve energy.

Threats
Historically a favorite food source, terrapin numbers plummeted between the late 1800s-early 1900s due to unregulated over-harvesting for turtle soup.  Current threats are all human-associated. Population numbers are decreasing due to habitat loss caused by the development of roads and buildings along waterways. Predation rates of eggs and hatchlings by animal species that benefit from human-altered environments (raccoons, foxes, and rats) are extremely high. Many terrapins die due to being hit by cars during road crossings and as by-catch in crab pots.

What we are doing to help
For the past few years, we have been studying Diamondback Terrapins in the salt marshes of Queens to try to assess the numbers in and around NYC Parks and understand how these small populations may interact with those being studied near John F. Kennedy airport and in Jamaica Bay. We have surveyed nest numbers and locations, calculated predation rates, and protected incubating nests by incorporating exclosures in Idlewild Park. During this time, we have engaged interns from various universities and students from local after-school programs.

Currently, we are studying terrapins in marshes along two roadways in William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge (Staten Island) and Idlewild Park (Queens) to understand how road infrastructure impacts terrapin movement and livelihood. By conducting population surveys before and after road-raising construction, we hope to understand how increased connectivity through added culverts and ecopassages can augment Diamondback Terrapin populations. The results will also help to inform future roadway connectivity efforts.

Horseshoe Crabs

A horseshoe crab, round with a long tail, swims up to the shore.

The Atlantic Horseshoe Crab is a species of arthropod that lives in coastal waters all along the east coast of North America. Every summer Horseshoe Crabs lay eggs on NYC’s beaches, notably in Brooklyn’s Coney Island Creek and at Staten Island’s Conference House Park. Horseshoe crabs have existed as a species since before the dinosaurs evolved, millions of years ago.

Threats
Horseshoe crabs are threatened by habitat loss and overharvesting. They are harvested both for use as fishing bait and by the pharmaceutical and medical industries, which use their blood to test the sterility of drugs, vaccines, and equipment.

What we are doing to help
Together with volunteers, we monitor horseshoe crab spawning by counting and tagging individuals every May and June on beaches at Conference House Park, Kaiser Park, and Calvert Vaux Park. NYC Parks, with funding from NYS DEC, restored sandy beach habitat for horseshoe crab spawning at Calvert Vaux Park in 2013.

Learn more about horseshoe crabs in New York City parks

Piping Plovers

A tiny bird with a white underbelly, gray feathers, a black and yellow beak, and black markings tend to her chicks on the shore.

These small, lightly-colored shorebirds can be found on Rockaway Beach in Queens. Piping plovers generally begin arriving in New York City in mid-March, some from as far south as South Carolina and the Bahamas, to nest for the summer before migrating south in August. They spend their winter months along the Gulf Coast and the southeastern seaboard of the United States.

Threat
Piping plovers are considered an endangered species in New York State, and are listed as threatened at the federal level. Hunting of piping plovers for their feathers and for sport led to their near-extinction in the early 1900s. Although their populations were able to recover, they are still at risk. Their largest threats are predation, habitat damage and destruction, coastal development, and human disturbance. As of 2016, there were just 496 known breeding pairs in New York and New Jersey.

What we're doing to help
Since 1996, NYC Parks has been managing the Rockaway Beach Endangered Species Nesting Area in Queens. This site is used by piping plovers and other vulnerable shorebirds like American oystercatchers, black skimmers, common terns, and least terns as a nesting ground. Part of managing this site involves closing approximately one mile of shoreline to the public to allow piping plovers and other threatened shorebirds to nest and incubate their eggs undisturbed. Parks' Wildlife Unit closely monitors their nesting sites for productivity and threats.

Learn more about piping plovers in New York City parks

River Herring

The Atlantic Leopard Frog

These fish visit NYC’s freshwater rivers and streams with saltwater connections, most notably the Bronx River. In NYC, river herring can include two different, but physically almost identical, species: Alewife and Blueback Herring. They spend the majority of their lives in saltwater but only come to freshwater to spawn. Every spring, river herring from the Atlantic Ocean swim upstream to freshwater to spawn, individuals returning to the same waters where they hatched multiple times in their lifetime.

Threats
River herring were once so abundant that their annual migration was recognized as the start of spring. Populations have declined dramatically due to overfishing and habitat loss caused by barriers like dams that prevent river herring from reaching their spawning habitat. Neither river herring species is considered threatened or endangered on a regional level, but due to local threats to their populations, NYS DEC considers them a high priority Species of Greatest Conservation Need.

What we are doing to help
NYC Parks, in partnership with the Bronx River Alliance and others, is actively working to restore river herring populations in the Bronx River access to freshwater habitat. A fishway was installed at the first dam barrier in the River in 2015 to help river herring over the dam and access spawning habitat. Since it's opening, the fish ladder has allowed more than 300 river herring to get over the dam. Parks also stocks the Bronx River with adult spawning Alewife each spring.

Other Notable Rare Wildlife

Parks also surveys and documents rare wildlife that use NYC Parks properties as safe corridors to access other areas in NYC, such as cemeteries, gardens, or state parks.

  • The state-endangered mud turtle passes through City parkland in Staten Island to access Greenbelt waterways.
  • NYC Parks researchers are also investigating sightings of the eastern worm snake (not seen in NYC for over 100 years) found in Emanu-El Cemetery in Queens, which is adjacent to habitat in nearby Highland Park. This highlights how unexpected wildlife discoveries can still happen in big cities, and illustrates the need to preserve and expand Forever Wild sites in New York City.

If you're interested in supporting efforts to protect these vulnerable species—or just appreciating some local wildlife—you can find wildlife-related events and volunteer opportunities on the City’s WildlifeNYC website.

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