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Inwood Hill Park

Fall foliage season has arrived, and if you are looking for somewhere other than Bedford Avenue to enjoy a crisp autumn day in the outdoors, let me recommend Inwood Hill Park, on the northern tip of Manhattan. Here you will find Manhattan's most diverse natural habitat, including the island's only remaining old growth forest. If you've never seen a glacier pothole, or you just have a hankering for a place where trees are the only tall things scraping the sky, this is where to go without actually leaving the city limits. And for extra added adventure, you might catch a glimpse of a bald eagle - four of them were brought to the area in June.

When you head for the park, you'll take the A train to the last stop 207th street, and get out in the neighborhood of Inwood, a predominantly Dominican enclave which was also once an Irish and Jewish hub. Now, with the occasional juice bar situated among ninety-nine cent stores, donut shops and bingo parlors, and a recent, if small, influx of young downtown yuppies and artists seeking reasonable rents, Inwood could go the way of Williamsburg given a few more years. For now, latin music continues to waft out of windows, people chat on milk crates outside of bodegas and uniformed parochial school kids hang out on street corners in the afternoon. Surrounded by parks and water, and far removed from the frenetic craziness that distinguishes much of Manhattan, Inwood is one of the city's most scenic neighborhoods. To the south is Fort Tryon Park, home of the Cloisters Museum and the Met's medieval collection, to the north and east is the Harlem River, and to the west is Inwood Hill Park and the Hudson. (Spuyten Duyvil, the place where the Harlem and Hudson rivers meet, means, approximately, "in spite of the devil," in Dutch.)

In addition to old growth forest, tidal marshes and meadows, Inwood Hill Park contains ball fields, tennis courts, playgrounds and the Inwood Hill Nature Center. It's also home to part of the Henry Hudson Parkway and its toll plaza, but you wouldn't necessarily know that from just walking around.

Tidal marshes are unique brackish water habitats formed from the Hudson's fresh water as well as salt water from the ocean's tides. Such marshes used to line much of the city's waterfront, and they support brackish water plants and animals that are an important link in New York's ecosystem. You can see much of this marsh in a horseshoe shaped inlet at the northeast corner of the park; it affords spectacular views of the park's hills and the Harlem River, and ducks, geese, and even a few swans glide regally over the water's calm surface.

To really feel that you've escaped the city, take a nice long walk on the several miles of trails that run through the park's forest, where cathedral-like light filters down through thick leaves. Some of the area's oak and tulip trees are centuries old. The heart of the park is the area known as the Clove, a densely forested valley surrounded by high, rocky ridges. The distinctly angled landscape was shaped when glaciers moved through the area some 10,000 years ago. Look out for the glacier potholes - curious, deeply carved holes in certain rocks that look man-made but were actually formed when the glaciers passed through. If you're observant, you might see one of many wild species, including wild turkey, red-tailed hawk, southern flying squirrels, and red-backed salamander, and you'll hear the calls of many different types of birds.

Admittedly, you will also hear the honking of a Metro-North train and the passing of a jet overhead from time to time, and you'll probably see some cigarette butts, a few beer cans, and the occasional piece of abandoned clothing. But the park has initiated some cleanup and restoration programs in recent years and given that they're working in Manhattan, they're already doing a pretty good job.

In fact the area has had to withstand the abuses of human activity ever since European settlers arrived several centuries ago. Europeans killed wild animals to protect their farm animals, introduced new species of plants, and destroyed tidal marshes with shipping docks and piers. One spot, recently marked by a plaque on a rock, is supposedly the site of the principal Manhattan Indian village, where Peter Minuit, in 1626, purchased Manhattan for beads and trinkets. (Other sites downtown also claim this honor.) That area of the park was recently renamed Shorakapok, meaning either "the wading place," "the edge of the river," or "the place between the ridges," in honor of Manhattan's original residents.

Part of the recent effort to maintain and/or re-establish Inwood's original habitat is the American Bald Eagle Re-introduction program, which had been under works for several years, but was accelerated by the events of 9/11 - it was thought that bringing the national mascot back to New York would be a positive symbolic gesture. Eagles had not lived in the park for over 100 years.

So on June 20, 2002, four eaglets, several weeks old and sponsored by the Urban Park Rangers with the help of BP (apparently trying to put out an environment-friendly image), were brought to the park from Wisconsin by falconer Tom Cullen. Each eaglet was taken from a different mother, because often only the oldest eagle in a nest of three or four survives; the ones shipped east were younger and probably would not have otherwise lived. Upon arrival in Inwood Hill Park, the eagles found themselves in two nest boxes in a high treehouse overlooking the Harlem River. The area was fenced off to park visitors, and was monitored by one to three park staff, twenty-four hours a day.

Because their mothers could not teach them how to hunt for food, meals were rigged up to the treehouse using a rope. Fairway Market agreed to donate 16 pounds of fish per day for this purpose. As the eagles learned to fly (and this was no easy feat - 40% of eagles don't survive their first flight), they also learned to hunt fish from the Harlem River mud flats, and other animals, such as muskrats, squirrels and rabbits. As they got better at hunting and flying, the two males and two females started leaving the area, venturing into the Bronx, New Jersey, and as far north as Bear Mountain. Park visitors could see them flying high above ground on the streets surrounding the park, or around the inlet, or on the telescope trained on them from the Inwood Hill Nature Center, or even on a webcam at www.nyc.gov/parks (the camera has been disabled until the spring).

Community response, according to Park Ranger Leslie Niblack, was overwhelmingly positive. Many Inwood residents were surprised at the renovations that had taken place since the Nature Center (218th and Indian Road, 212-304-2365, open Wednesday-Sunday, 10am - 4pm), was opened in 1995, she added. As the eagles matured, however, they started leaving the area for longer periods of time, their appearances at the treehouse became seldom, and now, three of the four have apparently wandered off for good, as they have not been seen since September 15.

The oldest male was the first to go; he was last spotted on August 17, flying north with an older wild female. The two females left shortly thereafter. Tom Cullen, the falconer, and the Urban Park Rangers, see the departures as a success: the eagles have learned not to depend on their twenty-four hour staff of one to three rangers. Hopes, however, had been that the eagles would settle in the area -- eagles live for up to thirty years, and they mate for life, usually nesting within one hundred miles of where they were raised. But new eaglets will be re-introduced each summer for the next four years, so there will be additional chances in the future.

The only eagle who has not yet taken off, the younger male, unfortunately is in the care of the falconer, with a broken leg. He'll be released in Inwood Hill Park when the injury has healed. An excerpt from the eagles' updates page on the Parks Department website describes his condition:

The youngest male seems to be our most accident-prone eaglet. In his first flight, he ended up stuck in the mud, literally, and needed to be bathed at the nature center after our wildlife management team removed him from the salt marsh. Subsequently, he was swept into the salt marsh inlet by a summer rainstorm, and had to be rescued. Always scruffy, it was recently determined that his bedraggled looks were actually a symptom of a serious case of roundworm that required antibiotics and seven day of house arrest. Shortly after being re-released, he was found immobile on the Amtrak line by the Hudson River, and diagnosed with a broken leg. An animal rehabilitator repaired the bone and attached a splint to the bird's leg.

For a complete week-by week log of all the eagles' activities, click here.

Directions to Inwood Hill Park and the Nature Center, courtesy of www.nyc.gov/parks:

Take the 1 or the 9 train to the 215th Street stop. Walk North to 218th Street. Take a left and walk on 218th Street. The entrance to the park is at the end of the street. The Nature Center is located in Inwood Park. OR
Take the A train to 207th Street. If you are in the last car of the train (near the handicap elevator), proceed west to Seaman Avenue, then north to Isham Street. If you are in the first car of the train, you will exit onto Isham Street. Go west to Seaman Avenue and proceed north into the park, keeping the baseball field to your right. Walk toward the Water. The Nature Center is the building on the water.

For a map of the park, visit:

http://www.whik.net/maps/inwoodmap.html

-- Christine Leahy

 



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