Wetland Flora and Fauna of Freshkills Park
Wetlands are a habitat that transitions from water to land. Wetlands are one of most productive ecosystems and provide many ecosystem services. Wetlands are important wildlife habitat and provide storm surge protection. In tidal wetlands, like at Freshkills Park, water levels vary with the cyclic changes of the tide cycle. The flora and fauna make up a complex food web, where all pieces are important for nutrient cycling and maintaining environmental integrity.
In the late 1800s populations of bivalves (such as mussels and oysters) in the New York Harbor and surrounding areas were reduced due to dredging and overharvesting for restaurants. Bivalves are filter feeders that reduce the water’s turbidity (clarity) by filtering the water they live in. Their reefs also provide protection from storms. Freshkills Park has ribbed mussels and oysters in its waters and shorelines; they are found in clusters and sometimes individuals attach to debris that is sunken in the water. With consistent shoreline clean ups at Freshkills, the accumulation of debris that washes in from the NYC waterways is minimized and the bivalves along the shoreline positively impact the clarity of the Park’s waters. They are also an important food source for many animals including waterfowl.
Intertidal wetlands are important nursery habitat for larval and juvenile fish. Freshkills Park researchers have been monitoring the diversity of fish species in the park’s Main Creek. The waterways within the park are tidal, shallow, and protected; and as a result they act as suitable breeding grounds for many of the fish species in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. This research project adds to our understanding of the region’s fish species and allows park staff to better figure out how to best conserve this important environment. Recent fish seining yielded Atlantic silversides, striped killifish, and mummichogs, researchers found other less common species such as naked gobies, a crevalle jack, a bluefish, and even a tiny horseshoe crab.
Wetland plants are adapted to soil that is periodically or continually flooded by water, and are known as “hydrophytes.” These plants provide food and habitat for the species that live in or require water based ecosystems, like algae, invertebrates, fish, and birds. Our saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina alternifora) along Main Creek, is an essential native grass species to assist in shoreline erosion control. Forming dense colonies, it can be found growing up to 2 feet higher in the shoreline and up to 7 feet tall in the more flooded areas. Behind our Spartina is the invasive phragmites (Phragmites australis), which also assists in shoreline erosion however at the cost of reducing biodiversity. At North Park Phase 1, the slopes will be filled with a tidal shrub mix of groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia), northern bayberry (Morella pensylvanica) and beach plum (Prunus maritima) among other tidal wetland species.
The wetlands of Freshkills Park is an important habitat for many birds and hosts a diverse array of species throughout the year. Our wetlands are a stopover habitat for spring and fall migratory birds. During the breeding season, waterbirds such as Great Egrets (Ardea alba), Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula) and Double-crested Cormorants (Egretta thula) forage throughout the wetlands of the park. Secretive marsh birds such as Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans) and Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola) forage in the tall grasses along the waterline. Many species of waterfowl overwinter in the wetlands as Freshkills Park such as Bufflehead(Bucephala albeola), Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) and Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), in some years in regionally significant numbers.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is listed as a Species of Special Concern in New York populations have substantially increased in recent decades following dramatic population declines in the 1950s and 60s due to the usage of the pesticide Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). DDT interfered with Ospreys’ ability to produce calcium, a vital component of their eggshells. As a result, many of the eggs that ospreys laid were infertile or the shells were thin and easily damaged. At the time when DDT was banned in the United States in the early 1970s, Ospreys were federally listed as “endangered.” As a direct result of the DDT ban, Ospreys populations have rebounded. In New York State, they are currently listed as a species of “special concern”. Ospreys almost exclusively eat fish. At Freshkills Park they have plenty of fish to eat from the creeks running through the site, such as striped bass and Atlantic menhaden. Ospreys are considered an indicator species, meaning that their presence communicates a message about the relative health of the local aquatic ecosystem. At Freshkills Park we have several active Osprey nests that we have been monitoring for productivity since 2018 as part of our NYC Parks’ raptor monitoring effort.