Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

Site Description

  • State: New York
  • County: Queens
  • Ownership: Federal


  • East Pond: 278 acres
  • West Pond: 86 acres

Ecology and Management

Terns & Sandpipers over East Pond of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Photo © cometoseemerganser/FLICKR

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a unit within Gateway National Recreation Area located in the borough of Queens, New York City (NYC). The bay is located at the southern end of Long Island, on the Atlantic Flyway, and is well known for its concentrations of waterfowl, shorebirds, and long-legged wading birds (Burger et al. 1983, Brown et al. 2001, Tsipoura et al. 2013). The impoundments (“ponds”) at Jamaica Bay are a centerpiece of the refuge and attract high densities of birds (and birders) due to their low salinities and varying water levels, as well as the readily accessible trails. Birdlife in the area has been well documented through numerous studies and monitoring efforts over the years (Burger et al. 1983, Tsipoura et al. 2013), including citizen science shorebird monitoring following the International Shorebird Survey (ISS) protocol. Birders frequent both impoundments: well over a thousand eBird checklists have been submitted each for East Pond and West Pond! Based on these, over 285 species have been sighted using the two ponds. Impressive high counts of waterfowl (15,000 Greater Scaup, 10,000 Brant) and shorebirds (5,900 Semipalmated Sandpiper, 4,400 Short-billed Dowitcher) have been recorded.

The impoundments were originally designed by architect Robert Moses and constructed by the city of New York in 1954 as part of a bird sanctuary. Water levels in the ponds were managed for waterfowl in consultation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service until 1972, when ownership and management transitioned to the National Park Service (NPS). Active management for migratory birds continued and in recent decades this has entailed lowering water levels in spring and late summer to provide mudflats for migratory shorebirds and raising levels in late fall and throughout winter for migratory and wintering waterfowl. Salinity levels in the ponds have historically been low (near fresh) though the events of Hurricane Sandy impacted this as well as efforts to control water levels.


Both East Pond and West Pond at Jamaica Bay were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. For the first time in their histories, both impoundments were overtopped and breached by rising ocean waters. Prior to this event only minor overtopping (East Pond only) and erosion had been noted following severe storms. The breach to East Pond occurred in several locations on its eastern edge which is formed by an embankment supporting the A-Train, a NYC subway line. This was repaired soon after the storm to resume train operations, sheet piling reinforcements were installed, and the impoundment has gradually returned to back to freshwater. West Pond suffered a major breach in its sandy southern embankment which remains open to the tides. A decision to repair the breach to restore freshwater conditions and water level control to the impoundment was made recently following lengthy public debate and a formal environmental assessment (NYCA 2014, NPS 2015). Construction may begin in fall 2016.

Human Value

West Pond is one of the few places within the greater New York City metropolitan area that visitors can easily access the refuge.”
– NPS (2015)

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a vital link to nature for many urban dwellers in the NYC region. An average of about 550,000 people visit Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge every year, most starting out on trails around West Pond which begin directly behind the main visitor center (NPS 2015). A significant fraction also crosses Great Bay Boulevard to hike or bird the trails surrounding East Pond. Repairing the breach in West Pond was a high priority among many local and regional birders that frequent the site (NYCA 2014). Non-birders including families, hikers, and nature lovers also take advantage of the trails surrounding the impoundments.


We are grateful to Doug Adamo and George Frame (NPS) for providing helpful information contained on this page.

Literature Resources

Below is a list of scholarly articles describing research occurring at or near the impoundments:
  • AFSBSPT [Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Business Strategy Planning Team]. Hurricane Sandy Rapid Assessment – Final Report. Manomet, MA: Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences; 2013.
  • ALS [American Litoral Society]. Assessing the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on coastal habitats. Highlands, New Jersey: American Littoral Society; 2012.
  • Brand, C. J., R. M. Windingstad, L. M. Siegfried, R. M. Duncan, and R. M. Cook. 1988. Avian morbidity and mortality from botulism, aspergillosis, and salmonellosis at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, New York, USA. Colonial Waterbirds 11:284-292.
  • Brown, K. M., J. L. Tims, R. M. Erwin, and M. E. Richmond. 2001. Changes in the nesting populations of colonial waterbirds in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, New York, 1974-1998. Northeastern Naturalist 8:275-292.
  • Burger, J. 1988. Jamaica Bay studies VIII: an overview of abiotic factors affecting several avian groups. Journal of Coastal Research :193-205.
  • Burger, J. 1983. Jamaica Bay studies IV: factors affecting distribution of Greater Scaup Aythya marila in a coastal estuary in New York, USA. Ornis Scandinavica :309-316.
  • Burger, J. 1982. Jamaica Bay studies: I. Environmental determinants of abundance and distribution of Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) and Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger) at an East Coast Estuary. Colonial Waterbirds :148-160.
  • Burger, J. 1981. Movements of juvenile herring gulls hatched at Jamaica Bay Refuge, New York. Journal of Field Ornithology 52:285-290.
  • Burger, J., J. R. Trout, W. Wander, and G. S. Ritter. 1984. Jamaica Bay studies VII: Factors affecting the distribution and abundance of ducks in a New York estuary. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 19:673-689.
  • Burger, J., R. Trout, W. Wander, and G. Ritter. 1983. Jamaica Bay studies: IV. Abiotic factors affecting abundance of brant and Canada geese on an east coast estuary. The Wilson Bulletin :384-403.
  • Foderaro, L. W. 2014. Environmental Group Proposes Options for Breached Pond at Jamaica Bay in Queens. The New York Times February 10, 2014:A24.
  • Kriensky, D. Shorebirds and Horseshoe Crabs in Jamaica Bay: 2014 Update. Presentation given at Harbor Herons Working Group Annual Meeting. New York, New York: New York City Audubon; December 11-12, 2014.
  • Maillacheruvu, K., D. Roy, and J. Tanacredi. 2003. Water quality characterization and mathematical modeling of dissolved oxygen in the East and West Ponds, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part A 38:1939-1958.
  • Manomet [Manomet Center for Conservation Science]. A Plan for Monitoring Shorebirds During the Non-breeding Season in Bird Monitoring Region New York– BCR 13: Jamaica Bay Complex. Manomet, Massachusetts: Manomet Center for Conservation Science; 2008.
  • NPS [National Park Service]. West Pond Environmental Assessment. Staten Island, NY: National Park Service, Gateway National Recreation Area; 2015.
  • NYCA [New York City Audubon]. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge: Restoration recommendations for the West Pond. New York, New York: New York City Audubon; 2014.
  • Stalter, R., and E. E. Lamont. 2002. Vascular flora of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Long Island, New York. Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 129:346-358.
  • Tsipoura, N., D. Mizrahi, and M. Bisignano. Breeding bird surveys for Gateway National Recreational Area. Fort Collins, Colorado: National Park Service; 2013. Report nr NPS/NCBN/NRTR—2013/739.