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Birding at Big John’s Pond in New York City

Big John's Pond by Johann Schumacher
This calm view of Big John’s Pond shrouded in fog gives no indication that the site is in America’s largest metro area. Photo by Johann Schumacher

It’s been quiet. Too quiet? “Nothing here,” I mumble. Nothing that is, except several Black-crowned Night-Herons dozing in the birch woods flanking the pond. The herons haven’t moved since I arrived. Not known to be loquacious, they utter a laconic qwok when disturbed and in the gathering dusk, when they vacate their day roost to fly with measured wing beats to their evening foraging grounds. In spring and summer, they are the signature avian species at Big John’s Pond. Their laid-back, languid nature is my standing invitation to tune into the rhythms of the pond and shed the impatience I have brought with me.

I’m joined by a young couple arriving at the blind, each sporting a pair of shiny black binoculars. They talk in whispers, as if expecting something to happen. After an appropriate interval, I decide to point out the night-herons. “Oh … yes, now we see them,” one says. ‘That’s what they’re called? We didn’t know. We’re ‘newbies,’ just getting into birding.”

We are totally unprepared for what happens next: A raucous rattle shatters the silence. A kingfisher appears, apparently out of nowhere — her call strident, her raised crest bristling. And now, suddenly, inexplicably, the bird bolts toward us, streaking straight for the blind. Then, in an instant, just before impact, she breaks her flight, hovers in mid-air, pivots, and is gone, her strange chatter trailing behind her. A collective gasp; three stunned observers. Wow!

What kind of place is this?

Barn Owl fledglings at Big John's Pond
Barn Owls watch from the entrance hole of a nest box on the north side of Big John’s Pond. Photo by Johann Schumacher

Leaving the city behind

I stumbled onto Big John’s Pond about 30 years ago. I was freelancing, doing graphic design, and keeping an eye on Micah, our 5-year-old. When work was slow, we’d scamper off to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a half-hour drive from our home in Queens, New York. Too much of a mouthful for Micah, who called it “the Life Preserve.” Understandably, Micah wanted to play, not to walk, so he feigned bouts of ambulophobia, pretending he had lost the use of his legs, collapsing to the ground. We settled on a compromise — the blind at Big John’s Pond. Miraculously healed, he happily settled down to dispatch a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chat with his imaginary friend “Marshee,” and fight the forces of evil with help from his collection of tiny action figures, casting fanciful shadows on the sunlit boardwalk.

A blip on the refuge map, the pond is easily overlooked; it’s a mere quarter-acre ditch collecting rainwater within earshot of Cross Bay Boulevard, the roadway slicing through Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a renowned birding hotspot in Queens with a bird list of more than 330 species. (The refuge is BirdWatching’s Hotspot Near You No. 233.) The story goes that an amicable bulldozer operator with time on his hands, approached by refuge brass, agreed to excavate a small freshwater pond several hundred yards east of the boulevard. “Big John” completed his task in just two days. Grateful rangers named the pond in his honor.

Originally intended to host native amphibians and reptiles, the pond attracts an impressive diversity of birds, located as it is within a world-class urban wildlife refuge at the confluence of the Atlantic and Hudsonian flyways. In my tenure at the pond, I have recorded well over 100 different avian species. 

A Barn Owl nest box at the north end of the pond more often than not produces a healthy brace of owl fledglings. Particularly compelling is the pond’s intimate scale and relative seclusion; it is sheltered by an impenetrable maze of phragmites, poison ivy, sumac, maple, and birch woods. The fortuitous placement of a plywood blind accessible by a short wooden boardwalk is the icing on the cake. Built by a troop of Eagle Scouts, the blind has endured fire, flood, and the ravages of superstorm Sandy that devastated much of the refuge and the adjoining communities of Broad Channel, Breezy Point, and the Rockaways.

This is my “go-to-place” for photography. Here I leave behind the clamor, hustle, and hubbub of the city. Casting off the commotion of my own thoughts, I put on the cloak of invisibility that the blind affords, ready to savor the serendipity of unscripted experience.

A heads-up and some common wisdom: Patience is a must, local knowledge indispensable. Attend instruction of winds and weather, the rhythms of the changing seasons, the habits of herons, hawks, waterfowl, and warblers; the songs of spring peepers, gray tree frogs; the summer chorus of cicadas. Ponder the ways of predator and prey; pay attention to language of light, to autumn reflections; contemplate the haunting calls of migrating shorebirds, the patterns wind weaves on the surface of the water, the silences of winter. Refuse to impose your agenda. Return repeatedly.

A Great Egret at Big John's Pond.
A Great Egret, its feathers swept by a strong wind, clings to a branch at the pond. The image was among the top 100 photos in a 2018 National Audubon Society contest. Photo by Johann Schumacher

Dazzling white egrets

On a wind-still April morning, the birch in our backyard illumined in a halo of gently falling snow, I hurry to the refuge, envisioning newly arrived breeding-plumaged egrets in a landscape of snow flurries. I find the pristine vista I imagine — the pond transfigured — but not one egret, nor it seems, any other living creature. But what a morning. Drawn into the palpable silence and great peace of the pond, I stay for a long time, quietly watching the magic of falling snow.

A day later, the front passes, and the egrets show — a flock of them, no less — many exquisitely plumed. More than two dozen birds: Great and Snowies mostly, several night-herons, ibis, and a trio of little blues — one adult and two piebald juveniles. It appears the herons chose the pond as a roosting site, a first for Big John’s.

Though the event proves short-lived, the occasion presents a unique opportunity to chronicle another chapter in the life of the pond. I am well pleased by intimate photos made during that time. In one of these, photographed under a brooding sky and strong northwest winds, a powerful gust has swept up an egret’s plumes, embracing the solitary, dazzling white bird in an exquisite filigreed silver shawl. On a whim, I entered just this one image in Audubon’s 2018 photo contest. Chosen from over 8,000 photographs, it was included in the top 100. It is worth noting that 2018 happened to be the centennial of the historic Migratory Bird Treaty Act that halted the senseless, brutal slaughter of egrets and other plumed species.

A Black-and-white Warbler
A Black-and-white Warbler at Big John’s Pond. Photo by Johann Schumacher

A warbler spectacle

By any measure, autumn is my favorite time to visit Big John’s. A succession of cold fronts, followed by several days of brisk northwest winds, usher in migrating waves of songbirds; a palette of deep yellows, ochre, olive, russet, and wine has supplanted the showier shades of summer. In these last weeks of October and early November, I enjoy the fall migration of Yellow-rumped Warblers that in bumper years is a spectacle not to be missed; birches along the shoreline of the pond literally dripping with Yellow-rumps — a shimmering, throbbing, frenzied blaze of warblers — a host of miniature feathered projectiles feeding, flitting, fluttering, darting here and there in perpetual motion. The effect is mesmerizing, as if some irrepressible, puckish force of nature convened an outlandish badminton contest substituting living, breathing warblers for shuttlecocks.

I also come in search of woodland hawks. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks pursue migrant fall songbirds in the birch woods. They’re concealed among the tangle of branches, sharp-eyed yet ever so patient. Or they glide inches above the water — dark, silent shadows, poised for the opportune moment to strike.

With short, wide, rounded wings and long tail serving as rudder, the raptors possess superb flying skills. Autumns past, I observed a juvenile Sharpie throwing caution to the wind, literally hurtling through the maze of bare birch woods that flank the western shore of Big John’s Pond, bobbing, twisting, turning with the agility of Houdini, the bravado of a skydiver. On another occasion, I recall a robust, sub-adult Cooper’s hellbent after a Northern Flicker. The predator streaked across the pond within inches of the woodpecker’s tail feathers — the flicker squealing in terror. Despite all odds, it managed to evade the harrowing talons of the raptor.

Curiously, I have rarely observed Sharpies or Cooper’s Hawks with prey. I remember, wistfully, the following anecdote: a Sharp-shinned Hawk clutching a Yellow-rump in its talons had just landed on a nearby birch branch. The raptor faced away from me. Still, chances were good it would shift position to allow for a better view, until footsteps were on the boardwalk. Before I could even whisper a warning, an oblivious photographer lurched into the blind. A friendly sort, he beamed a greeting and shoved his camera into the nearest opening. End of photo op. I chose not to launch into a tirade on blind protocol. This was, after all, a public venue. Smiling ruefully, I shouldered my equipment, wished him a good day and exited the blind. I suspect my friend never had a clue of what he just missed. So it goes. To be sure, photography at the pond requires a double dose of patience and then some.

Cooper's Hawk at Big John's Pond
Cooper’s Hawks are present throughout most of the year. Photo by Johann Schumacher

Where they live is special

A chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs” greets a sphinx-faced Snowy Owl rising upward against a slate-black sky. A garter snake slithers silently in a green algae-covered pond, its sinuous shape suggesting the letter “S.” A cherry-red songbird with spiked hairdo pops up on the screen; “A cardinal, a cardinal, that’s a cardinal.” A nesting pair of Red-tails looking positively regal appear next. “I sawd one catcht a squirrel with my dad …” The excited chatter of the children’s voices blends with the high-pitched barking of Snow Geese and the sing-song clamor of a flock of skimmers in sunset flight at the shore’s edge.

It’s “career day” at the A.C.E. Academy Geraldine Ferraro campus in Maspeth, Queens. I’m doing a show on local wildlife for second- and third-graders at our granddaughters’ school. I soon find out that the “scholars” — yes, that’s what they’re called here — already know a bit about bird migration, and this morning more than a few of them can tell me what the word “habitat” means. So, we’re on the same page.

At the end of the program, I talk about the need to protect our wild, unfettered neighbors and the places they call home. Just then, a little girl, her voice full of sincerity, blurts out: “Oh yes, yes, I so want to protect these beautiful birds.” Startled, I glance in her direction, taken aback by the child’s heartfelt zeal and earnestness.

I decide to walk home, taking time to reflect on my experience of the morning. I’m all too aware that these young boys and girls are already adrift in a sea of random images, disconnected from personal experience and place. I wanted the children to know that where they live is special. I wanted to affirm their instinctive delight and curiosity in living things, to connect them to the surprising, wonderful variety of living creatures waiting to be discovered in our urban backyards, parks, and wildlife sanctuaries.

I believe in working locally. My images are made within a 70-mile radius of my home in Queens. I assent to the notion that living here, in one of the most densely urbanized areas of the eastern seaboard, and being a nature photographer, a bird photographer to boot, is not an oxymoron. You really don’t need to visit exotic far-away places to make compelling images. So, as I enter my 75th year, I continue, quite shamelessly, to celebrate and explore “ordinary” local places season after season, year after year. After all, it takes time to properly value and get to know a place. Perhaps even a lifetime.

A Sora at Big John's Pond. Photo by Johann Schumacher
A Sora at Big John’s Pond. Photo by Johann Schumacher

Postscript: Autumn 2020

The resident Ospreys at the refuge have moved on, and at the edge of the south marsh, Tree Swallows are staging. A solitary Great Egret, buffeted by a brisk west wind, flashes white against a dark pewter sky. At Big John’s Pond, the water level has dropped significantly, revealing a birch-leaf speckled shoreline and an untidy collection of scattered cinder blocks that serve as convenient perches for several opportunistic yellowlegs, peeps, and two Solitary Sandpipers that find the altered habitat an open invitation to forage. Two years have passed since “career day.”

The green plywood shack is gone, torn down, replaced by a new blind. The refuge remains open, but the visitor center has been shut down for months. This autumn, no yellow school buses idle in the parking lot, and rangers do not lead gaggles of school children along refuge trails. And I no longer think it odd that birders, photographers, visitors — everyone I run into, including friends — are wearing masks.

COVID-19 has thrust our lives and our world into unchartered territory. Though New York City is no longer the epicenter of the pandemic, statistics reveal the litany of human grief — 266,000 cases of the virus and more than 24,000 deaths in the city through October — and counting.

Our refuge photography community, too, has been diminished. Rick Hill was only 50, about 25 years younger than me. Early mornings, I’d run into him in the parking lot or on the trails, especially during migration. We’d exchange the latest birding scoop; he’d share his favorite digital captures. When he stopped showing up during the height of the spring warbler migration, I knew something was wrong. From a mutual friend, I found out that he had been hospitalized and intubated. Not long after, his sister posted a note on Instagram that he passed away.

Last night on favorable northwest winds, Yellow-rumped Warblers arrived in numbers. They seem to be everywhere. At the blind, I am this morning’s only guest. I watched them for hours cavorting in and out of birch woods that border the pond. Suddenly, lightning-quick, a Sharpie strikes — and misses. The flock scatters, yet within a brief span of time, the warblers return.

It’s back to business as usual as if nothing happened. Yellow-rump chutzpah? Perhaps. But it’s more than that. Yes, the danger is real. Yes, we are mortal. Yes, we face problems that appear insurmountable at a time when our nation is paralyzed by division, mistrust, and partisan politics. These are dire times, yet despite the uncertainties we face, there is much to cherish. Every day is a gift — an occasion for gratitude. We don’t have the luxury to opt out or be ruled by our fears. We don’t have much time. Our grandchildren, yours and mine, deserve better than that.

Birds of Big John’s Pond

A sampling of the species the author has spotted at the pond: Ring-necked Duck, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Hooded Merganser, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Green Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, American Bittern, Least Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Wilson’s Snipe, American Woodcock, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Northern Harrier, Osprey, Northern Flicker, Belted Kingfisher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Purple Finch, White-eyed Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Wren, House Wren, Winter Wren, and over 20 species of wood-warbler

This article was first published in the January/February 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

Click through the slideshow below to see more photos Johann Schumacher has taken while birding at Big John’s Pond.

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Johann Schumacher

Johann Schumacher is a graphic designer, nature photographer, and writer living in Queens, New York, and a longtime contributor to this magazine. In our December 2016 issue, he wrote about Brooklyn’s first male Painted Bunting.

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