Grasslands and Capped Landfills

Female Bobolinks. Photo: Lloyd Spitalnik
Plains, prairies, steppes, veldts, llanos, and pampas: these names from around the globe conjure up a certain kind of vast, sweeping ecosystem, the grassland. And though these grassland types may differ in some specifics, they are all alike in that grasses (plants in the family Poaceae) are the dominant plant species, often accompanied by sedges, (Cyperaceae) and rushes (Juncaceae). Grasslands tend to occur in areas where water (and sometimes temperature or soil quality) is inadequate to support shrubs and trees. This open ecosystem is often maintained in part by fire and/or grazing by animals, and may occur naturally or under the purposeful management of human beings.
 
While most would not associate plains or prairies with New York City, our area hosted its own substantial grasslands not that long ago. Considered an “edge of the ice” ecosystem, our local prairies formed at the southern edge of the Wisconsin glacier, after it retreated 11,000 years ago. The glacier left behind a “terminal moraine” of rocks and sediment that created the rocky spine of Long Island. The silt and sediment that washed out from this moraine formed the south shore of Long Island, including several large areas of grassland ecosystem.
 
Over the last century, however, most of these grasslands, including some areas in New York City, have been lost to development. Nearby remnants include the Hempstead Plains and Sayville Grasslands. Species such as Short-eared Owl, Northern Bobwhite, Upland Sandpiper, and Grasshopper Sparrow were frequent sightings even in the lifetimes of some older birders today, but have now become scarce or nonexistent in the City.
 
Across North America, grasslands are among the most endangered of habitats: according to National Audubon’s North American Grasslands & Birds Report, fewer than 40 percent of the continent’s 550 million acres of historical grasslands remain. Not surprisingly, grassland bird species are among the most threatened groups of birds in the U.S. According to a 2019 report in the journal Science, populations of grassland species have declined more than 50 percent since 1970. 
 
Certain species have suffered even more severe losses: Eastern Meadowlark numbers fell by 89 percent between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Grasshopper Sparrow populations declined by 72 percent across the continent, and a shocking 97 percent in New York State.
Eastern Meadowlark. Photo: John Sutton/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a>
Eastern Meadowlark. Photo: John Sutton/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
New Urban Grasslands
Due to accidents of human land use and determined conservation efforts, however, New York City is now home to several grasslands that may bring some of these grassland species back. As in many areas of the country, two kinds of developed properties—airports and landfills—have provided opportunities to create and/or maintain grassland habitats for wildlife.
 
In NYC, these sites are predominantly areas of former salt marsh that were long ago filled with dredge spoils or garbage, creating upland. In fact, dumping began at many of these sites as a purposeful attempt to create developable land out of what was then considered “worthless” marshland. Though these invaluable salt marshes cannot be replaced, newly created grassland habitat upon filled lands provides critical stop-over sites for grassland birds passing through our city during migration. And some stay to nest: Savannah Sparrows breed at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett, while Grasshopper Sparrows have recently established a nesting population at Freshkills Park on Staten Island.
 
By delaying mowing till after nesting season and preventing disturbance by people and domestic animals, we can protect nesting grassland birds like the Savannah Sparrow. Photo: Kristine Sowl, USFWS/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a>
By delaying mowing till after nesting season and preventing disturbance by people and domestic animals, we can protect nesting grassland birds like the Savannah Sparrow. Photo: Kristine Sowl, USFWS/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Bird-Friendly Grassland Management
Grasslands should be managed to include a rich variety of native plant species, which host the native insects that birds need during migration and to feed their young, and which provide plentiful seeds to fuel long migration flights and sustain birds like Snow Buntings and Horned Larks over the winter. Ongoing maintenance is required to minimize the presence of invasive, non-native plant species, which requires adequate funding for park habitat management over time. Read more about the importance of native plants for birds
 
In the absence of large grazing animals and given the difficulty of employing fire on a large scale as a suppression method in our urban community, our grasslands must be actively managed to prevent the establishment of shrubs and trees. (White-tailed Deer have become a common species in Staten Island; deer may contribute to the maintenance of new grasslands at Freshkills Park.) If mowing is employed to maintain the grassland, mowing should be scheduled after the nesting season, to best support and protect nesting grassland birds. 
 
Bird-friendly grassland management also involves minimal use of chemical pesticides that kill the insects upon which birds depend—and that may travel up the food chain when ingested, reducing reproductive success and harming birds in other ways scientists are just beginning to understand1.
 
Finally, grasslands, like any other habitat, are best for birds when disturbance by humans and their domestic companions, dogs and cats, is kept to a minimum. The Parks department must be encouraged to apply resources and assign Urban Park Rangers and Parks Enforcement Patrol officers strategically, as stewards to remind park-goers with pets of the rules regarding off-leash dogs—and to issue citations and fines when necessary. The public must also demand a bird-friendly and humane policy regarding feral cats. Learn more about the danger that domestic and feral cats pose for birds.
The protected grasslands of Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field includes wildflowers such as Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), which produces seeds eaten by birds including American Goldfinches, Black-capped Chickadees, and many kinds of sparrows. Photo: Valary/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a>
The protected grasslands of Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field includes wildflowers such as Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), which produces seeds eaten by birds including American Goldfinches, Black-capped Chickadees, and many kinds of sparrows. Photo: Valary/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Priority Grassland Habitats
NYC Audubon leads the NYC Grassland Working Group, which convenes local agencies, nonprofits, and academic researchers to discuss grassland research and collaborate on conservation strategies and recommendations for grassland management in New York City. We conduct collaborative advocacy to preserve and protect and advocate for bird-friendly management of City grasslands, and conduct native plant restoration projects including plantings and bird species monitoring. 
 
The protection of grassland habitat at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field was one of NYC Audubon’s early conservation successes, and we continue to identify priority grasslands in the City and work to protect them. Learn more below. 
Grassland restoration at Floyd Bennett Field, 1986. Individuals present included Gateway National Recreation Area Superintendent Robert MacIntosh, Floyd Bennett Field Unit Supervisor David Avrin, longtime NYC Audubon supporters Jean and Ron Bourque, and other volunteers. Photo: Robert MacIntosh
Grassland restoration at Floyd Bennett Field, 1986. Individuals present included Gateway National Recreation Area Superintendent Robert MacIntosh, Floyd Bennett Field Unit Supervisor David Avrin, longtime NYC Audubon supporters Jean and Ron Bourque, and other volunteers. Photo: Robert MacIntosh
Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn
One of NYC Audubon’s early conservation advocacy wins was the preservation of grassland habitat at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field. Built in 1931 as the City’s first municipal airport, Floyd Bennett Field was constructed atop filled Jamaica Bay salt marsh. The maintained grassland areas between runways, however, inadvertently provided habitat for grassland birds. 
 
When the airport was decommissioned in 1971, the management practice of suppressing woody vegetation by frequent mowing ceased; natural succession started to occur. In 1985, NYC Audubon partnered with the United States Department of Interior’s National Park Service to initiate a grassland restoration project (GRAMP) on 130 acres of the 1,500-acre property. Trees and shrubs were removed and mowing was resumed (in sections, and scheduled long after the nesting of grassland birds to minimize disturbance to them). 

An adult Willet with a days-old chick. Willet chicks are “precocial and nidifugous,” meaning that at hatching they are covered with down, able to feed themselves, and able to leave the nest. Photo: Lloyd Spitalnik "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> An adult Willet with a days-old chick. Willet chicks are “precocial and nidifugous,” meaning that at hatching they are covered with down, able to feed themselves, and able to leave the nest. Photo: Lloyd Spitalnik


Today, Savannah Sparrow and Willet breed in Floyd Bennett Field, and American Kestrel and Northern Harrier are frequently observed hunting over its meadows. Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark stop by during migration, while species such as Horned Lark and Snowy Owl winter here. 
 
The grasslands are managed for bird- and pollinator-friendly native plants such as Little Bluestem, Common Milkweed, Butterfly Weed and Panic Grass. Milkweed and Butterfly Weed serve as host plants for Monarch Butterflies. Various mammals and reptiles also find shelter and food within the grasslands.
A mural featuring Shirley Chisholm in Shirley Chisholm State Park, Brooklyn. Photo: Akilah Lewis (mural artwork by Danielle Mastrion)
A mural featuring Shirley Chisholm in Shirley Chisholm State Park, Brooklyn. Photo: Akilah Lewis (mural artwork by Danielle Mastrion)
Shirley Chisholm State Park, Brooklyn
Shirley Chisholm State Park, first opened to the public in 2019, is named in honor of Brooklyn-born Shirley Chisholm, the first African American congresswoman and the first woman and African American candidate for the U.S. presidency. The 407-acre park bordering East New York and Jamaica Bay sits atop the former Pennsylvania and Fountain Avenue landfills, which were in operation from 1956 to 1983. 
 
The site is one of several landfills in the City that have been capped and repurposed for public recreation and wildlife habitat. This long and complex process involves installation of an impermeable plastic cap and a below-ground barrier to fully encapsulate the landfills, as well as a piping system to remove (and in some cases collect) methane gas emitted by slowly decomposing landfill contents. Tons of clean soil are then spread atop the barrier—in the case of Shirley Chisholm State Park, 100,000 dump trucks-worth—and native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees are planted.
 
A male Ring-necked Pheasant performing a “drumming” breeding display. Photo: Steven Kersting/<a href=\"https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/\" target=\"_blank\" >CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a> "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> A male Ring-necked Pheasant performing a “drumming” breeding display. Photo: Steven Kersting/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a>


Since Shirley Chisholm State Park’s opening, visitors to the park’s resulting grassland, coastal meadow, and marsh habitats have already observed grassland specialists such as Ring-necked Pheasant, American Pipit, Eastern Meadowlark, Snow Bunting, Bobolink, and Blue Grosbeak. Learn more about birding in and visiting Shirley Chisholm State Park.
Freshkills Park grasslands, with Manhattan on the horizon. Photo: Leonel Pence/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-NC 2.0</a>
Freshkills Park grasslands, with Manhattan on the horizon. Photo: Leonel Pence/CC BY-NC 2.0
Freshkills Park, Staten Island
The name “Fresh Kills,” from the Dutch “kille” meaning “riverbed” or “water channel,” refers to the network of freshwater and estuarial creeks that drain much of western Staten Island, emptying into the Arthur Kill. This 1,000-acre tidal wetland system includes wetland areas that remain in relatively natural condition today, such as Isle of Meadows marsh and William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge, as well as three major tributaries including Main Creek, Richmond Creek, and Springville Creek. 
 
And in the middle of this vast watershed complex towers one of the highest points in New York City, created by our city’s trash. The sustained dumping that created Fresh Kills Landfill, once the largest of its kind in the world, began in 1948. Initially, the dumping was planned by NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to last for just three years, in an attempt to create upland for development. Dumping continued for 50 additional years, however. A state law mandating closure of the landfill was passed in 1996 following intense public pressure, and it ceased regular operations in 2001. 
 
Grasshopper Sparrows are now breeding in Freshkills Park. Photo: Ryan Mandelbaum/<a href=\"https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/\" target=\"_blank\" >CC BY 2.0</a> "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> Grasshopper Sparrows are now breeding in Freshkills Park. Photo: Ryan Mandelbaum/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY 2.0</a>
Fresh Kills Landfill’s transformation from infamous, smelly eyesore to the 2,200-acre Freshkills Park (three times the size of Central Park) is an immense experiment in urban renewal and restoration. And it is an enormous undertaking: park construction began in 2008 and will continue through 2036. The park is divided into four capped “mounds,” each of which include a system that collects methane and other emissions from decomposing materials underneath. 
 
The mounds have been planted with native grasses, and this habitat has attracted a good variety of grasslands birds including nesting populations of Grasshopper and Savannah Sparrows, possibly nesting Eastern Meadowlark, and Ring-necked Pheasant. Other wildlife include Muskrat and White-tailed Deer.
 
 A variety of public spaces and facilities are planned for the park, including playgrounds, athletic fields, kayak launches, horseback riding trails, and large-scale art installations. As the park is developed, it will be important that local community members remain vigilant to ensure that management decisions are made with the well-being of birds and other wildlife in mind. Learn more about birding in and visiting Freshkills Park.
Citations
1)    Arya, A.K., Singh, A. and Bhatt, D., 2019. Pesticide applications in agriculture and their effects on birds: an overview. Contaminants in agriculture and environment: health risks and remediation, 5(10).
Additional Sources
Smith, Jeremy M.B. Grassland. Encyclopædia Britannica, March 13, 2020. Accessed September 6, 2020.
 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southern New England - New York Bight Coastal Ecosystems Program. Long Island Grasslands. Significant Habitats and Habitat Complexes of the New York Bight Watershed, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.