Forever Wild Preserves
The Forever Wild Program is an initiative of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation to protect and preserve the most ecologically valuable lands within the five boroughs. The third largest of the City’s Forever Wild Nature Preserves, Van Cortlandt Park’s preserve is comprised of over half of the Park’s 1,146 acres.
The preserve occupies the northern section of the park, with four distinct areas: the Northwest and Northeast Forests, the Tibbetts Brook/Van Cortlandt Lake Wetlands, and Vault Hill. Fifteen thousand years ago, the massive glaciers covering New York receded and left behind the characteristic sketch of Van Cortlandt Park—steep ridges, gradual hills, and open flats—and exposed its three major rock components: Fordham Gneiss, Inwood Dolomite, and Manhattan Schist. Among the animals that burrow, nest, feed, and rest in this urban wild, some of the most noteworthy are red fox, which have been seen in the hilly forests, and a small flock of eastern bluebirds (New York’s state bird) which have been glimpsed crossing the Vault Hill meadow during spring, fall and winter migrations.
Fordham Gneiss, one of the oldest rock formations on Earth, characterizes Van Cortlandt’s dramatic cliffs in the Northwest Forest, the largest forest in the preserve (188 acres). This oak–hickory forest grows on rocky heights overlooking valleys dominated by tulip trees and century–old oaks. Ground layer wildflowers are extraordinarily diverse and abundant in the Northwest Forest. There is bloodroot, trout lily, rattlesnake root, and many asters, including heart–leafed aster. The forest contains one of the highest concentrations of rare plants in the city, including giant yellow hyssop, golden seal, and wingstem. The Northeast Forest contains low–lying, moisture–retaining land ideal for sweetgum, red maple, and pin oak trees. Tibbetts Brook cuts through soft Inwood marble on its way from Westchester County to Spuyten Duyvil (the waterway between the Bronx and Manhattan that flows between the Hudson and East Rivers) and feeds the manmade Van Cortlandt Lake. Tibbetts Brook and its associated wetlands are a must–see for bird watchers, where predators like barred owls and red–tailed hawks hunt, and wood ducks, known for jumping from their high nests soon after hatching, have been sited. Meadows are not typically found within the City, yet Vault Hill boasts one of the prettiest and most varied, composed of switchgrass, little bluestem, and such wildflowers as birdsfoot trefoil, ironweed, and sweet white clover. This is one of the few places in the City where the eastern bluebird (the New York State bird) can be seen during migration season.
Birding in Van Cortlandt Park
Van Cortlandt Park is one of only four city parks that is designated a National Audubon Society Important Bird Area. The northern half of the park is composed of mostly mature, deciduous forest. The Tibbetts Brook wetland, including Van Cortlandt Swamp, runs south to Van Cortlandt Lake; Vault Hill Meadow is a small field and each of these habitats support their own unique bird communities. Even the heavily used Parade Ground on the west side of the park can attract uncommon grassland birds. Together, these habitats support a rich list of 240 species, including the distinct “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal subspecies and nine escapees or releases.
Great 19th and 20th century naturalists and ornithologists such as Roger Tory Peterson, and John Kieran have studied birds in Van Cortlandt Park. Roger Tory Peterson was creating his first 1934 guide at the time. Despite changes in habitat over the years, most of the 79 species that have been recorded nesting in the park have remained. Unique species include nesting Wood Duck and Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and a winter flock of Rusty Blackbirds. These may be found in Van Cortlandt Swamp. Please contact us if you see anything unusual at (718) 430-1890 or firstname.lastname@example.org and we have a bird log book outside the Nature Center for you to share your sightings with other birders. Click here for a bird list (PDF, 580 KB).
For an interesting read about the birds of Van Cortlandt Park on the NYC Audubon website click here.