“It all started in 1974, when a longshoreman spotted an egret with a twig,” said EJ McAdams of the discovery of nesting birds along a heavily trafficked—and polluted—Arthur Kill waterway in the heart of New York harbor.
We were speeding south on the New Jersey Turnpike, and it was a sunny day in early June 2004. McAdams, then the director of the New York Audubon Society, had invited my companion, Alexis Rockman, and me to join him, and an ornithologist, Paul Kurlinger, on a survey of black crown night herons at an 80-acre refuge known as Prall’s Island.
One of three islands wedged into the slender estuary known as Arthur Kill, which winds between western New Jersey and the eastern shore of Staten Island, Prall’s Island had once been a thriving bird sanctuary, boasting healthy populations of nesting egrets and herons. But then a spill in 1990 leaked 567,000 gallons of heating oil into the estuary. With their food supply contaminated, an estimated 700 wading birds had died. Since then, according to McAdams, nesting activity along Arthur Kill had been, at best, erratic.
McAdams gave his name at the security booth of a Conoco Philips-Bayway refinery in Linden, before introducing us to a heavyset communications coordinator, who ushered us down to a dock crowded with towering oil storage tanks.
It struck me as odd that we were embarking on a birding expedition from the headquarters of an oil refinery, especially since the refinery’s previous owner, Exxon, had been responsible for the calamitous 1990 spill. But when I asked McAdams about this, he brushed me off. Of the Conoco folks, he said, “They may be the bad guys, but they’ve been very nice to us. And they always let us use their boat.”
The ride across the Kill usually took ten minutes, but when Conoco’s captain suggested a tour of Prall’s periphery, we were happy to oblige. The Kill was calm, albeit filthy. While McAdams and Kurlinger discussed their plans for counting nests, Alexis, a painter, enthused about our first-hand encounter with what he called “toxic real estate.” Spotting a motorboat with a NYC Department of Parks and Recreation logo, McAdams explained that Prall’s belonged to the parks department, but a 30-year lease gave the Audubon limited access in the name of science and education.
Prall’s Island was originally called Dongan’s Island, after a New York Governor Thomas Dongan, who took office in 1688. Toward the mid-1700’s the island, a former center for cultivating feed for livestock, was renamed Prall’s, in reference either to its former Dutch-born owner, or a prominent Staten Island farmer, according to the Parks’ website. When business in New York harbor boomed more than a century later, Arthur Kills became an industrial hub with more shipping traffic than the Panama Canal. Prall’s Island, by contrast, slipped into neglect.
“What was amazing about Prall’s Island was that so many birds found shelter in the middle of these very, very active waterways,” said McAdams. “But everyone was so busy working that no one paid much attention.”
Proposed for a waste processing plant in 1916, Prall’s briefly assumed center stage in a political battle between the plant’s developer and Staten Island’s residents, according to an excellent book, “The Other Islands of New York City,” by Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller. Eventually a waste processing plant was proposed elsewhere, and apart from the two World Wars, when Prall’s provided anchor for occasional military ships, it saw little human activity.
In its relative obscurity it become a haven for wading birds until the 1960’s, when the waters of the surrounding Kill became so polluted that, according to Seitz and Miller, the fish and marine life providing the waders’ nourishment could no longer survive.
The birds proved resilient. Shortly after the passing of the Clean Air act in 1972, said McAdams, wildlife conservationists once again began to see birds building nests there. In addition, hundreds of thousands of migrating birds were using Prall’s and its neighboring islands as a seasonal sanctuary. Among the many birds that once called Prall’s island home are the glossy ibis, the snowy egret, the cattle egret, the great egret, the little blue heron, and the black-crowned night heron. Although none of these birds are endangered, this rookery in New York Harbor is considered the most important in the state, according to Seitz and Miller,
As our boat nudged into soggy marshland surrounding this former idyll, Alexis and I jumped off, and immediately sank into shin-deep mud. From the bow of our boat, the captain called, “You guys all set?”
McAdams arranged a time for our pick up. Then the motorboat pulled away, leaving us in its mucky wake.
Taking the lead in our march toward solid ground, Alexis exclaimed, “I love the contradiction of a bird sanctuary in a toxic waste dump,” his gleeful disgust in direct proportion to the distance his feet sank in the dark brown ooze.
“It’s the dirtiest part of New York,” agreed McAdams, gamely, “but that’s kind of a good thing, because there’re no people.”
Due to limited access on Prall’s Island, no trails had ever been cleared there. Alexis climbed up the riverbank into a thicket. Then he reached for my hand. That was when I noticed, to my terrified astonishment, that the thicket was completely overrun with poison ivy.
“I think I mentioned, they have a little poison ivy problem,” said McAdams.
Indeed, earlier that morning we had dressed, according to McAdams’ instructions, in long pants, long sleeved windbreakers, and hiking boots. But somehow in my excitement over what had sounded like an exotic excursion in the out-of-doors, I had ignored the possible degree of the infestation. Poison ivy snaked through every plant in sight, it’s shiny red leaves dangling from every raspberry bush, bramble, tree, and nettle. In order to count nests, McAdams, Kurlinger, Alexis and I would each have to find our own path through the dense underbrush.
The others didn't appear particularly worried, but glancing up and down the shoreline, I felt suddenly lightheaded, all of the alarm bells in my body signaling danger. A horror movie starring poison ivy, as a human predator would probably look like this, I thought. I considered my choices. Waiting offshore in the mud, and having McAdams send the boat around to fetch me when the time came, sounded pathetic and boring. Also, in the company of such enthusiastic naturalists—all men—I was pretty loath to play the role of helpless damsel. So I followed Alexis inland, my body physically catapulting forward, as my mind drifted up to the treetops. From up there, at least, I was relieved to note, the poison ivy looked much smaller.
Prall’s Island is so narrow that, depending on the density of the trees and underbrush, you can sometimes see across to both coasts from the center. Kurlinger suggested that we divide into two groups, the better to maximize our total nest sightings. Sending McAdams and Alexis in one direction, he suggested that I follow him. When Alexis and McAdams disappeared into the underbrush, my heart fluttered erratically. In the canopy of leaves above, birds fluttered and squawked. Kurlinger rattled off their names—woodcocks, egrets, starlings. Whenever he spotted a heron nest I scribbled a notch in my notebook, in the hope of distracting myself. We had counted our 11th nest when it occurred to me that my pen was probably contaminated, and my notebook. The underbrush thickened. “They should make trails,” muttered Kurlinger, yanking apart the young shoots of a gray birch tree, and shimmying in between. Several steps ahead, he called out “PI at eye level.”
PI? I’d never heard it called that, but immediately I saw it, snaking like a cobra from above. With less than a foot of space to edge through sideways, I wondered, did the PI touch my hair? The underbrush was thick with nettles, and thorny vines that kept scratching my legs through my pants. If any of these branches had brushed against poison ivy, I realized, the nasty oils were probably now inside my clothes.
“How allergic are you to this stuff?” Kurlinger asked, as if my terror was finally dawning on him.
“Ever had any shots?”
I nodded. One winter, I told him, long before leaves were even visible, I was walking in the woods, fully dressed in a turtleneck, long pants, winter coat and boots. I caught the worst case of the poison ivy of my life. Having somehow penetrated my layers of winter gear, the nasty little plant had managed to cover my face, neck, chest, and back with a nasty rash of bumps and pustules. The rash spread under my arms, behind my knees, even into my belly button. After a month of itchy hell, it began spreading into my eyes, my mouth, and down my throat. Finally, a doctor agreed to give me a shot of some steroid considered too unhealthy for routine use.
Kurlinger had been listening intently, and for a while all I heard was the snapping of branches and the dull thud of our boots in the leaf litter.
“I see,” he said, finally. “Well. Huh.” Then he told me about someone descended from the original owners—the Dongans—whom he’d invited to Prall’s a week before. Apparently this guy Dongan hadn’t even known how to ID poison ivy. “I guess he’s okay, since he hasn’t called,” mused Kurlinger. “Then again, he doesn’t have my number.”
On several occasions we could hear Alexis and McAdams thrashing toward us. Each time, Kurlinger would instruct them to keep their distance. His motive for dividing us up, he said, had been somewhat selfish. He was hoping they would flush all of the birds in our direction. “You’re a quiet walker,” he told me.
On the forest floor, Kurlinger spotted remnants of a heron’s egg, which he said could have fallen from a nest after hatching. “Of course, it also could have been eaten by a raccoon,” he added. Further along, another shattered eggshell looked even more promising. I imagined a heron chick learning to fly. Kurlinger turned the shell over in his fingers. He believed the chick had hatched, he said. But fledglings also presented easy targets for predators.
There were fewer nesting trees than there had been, he observed, but there were also more nests than he’d seen nearly a decade. Many of the nests were old, but several were also newer, suggesting that our black crown night herons were, at least, attempting a comeback.
At a small clearing, I noticed off to our left, that the sun was much brighter. “Is the coastline through there?” I asked.
Was there poison ivy along the coastline? I wanted to know.
“Not so much,” he said. “You may have to cross a barrier of the stuff to get there. But on the other side you should be okay.”
I left Kurlinger to his nest counting and made my way toward the light.
“I’ll call out to you if I find any nests,” said Kurlinger.
Of the countless times I’d come into contact with poison ivy, I’d often managed to prevent an outbreak, by washing my hands with soap and warm water. On Prall’s Island, unfortunately, I had no soap, and the fetid water didn’t exactly encourage hand washing. A scallop-edged yellow foam ran along the length of the shoreline. Clusters of small the rocks were covered with black slime. I saw Kurlinger through the trees, more or less alongside of me.
“You think it’s alright to wash your hands in this?”
“If I were you I would. Just don’t lick your fingers after.”
I bent down and dipped my hands in the toxic filth. The only other exposed part of my body--my face--I didn’t dare let near the water.
Kurlinger disappeared toward the island’s interior, and I picked my way quietly past the garbage that littered the shoreline--empty beer cans and plastic bags. Someone called to me from the underbrush—a man, Mike who had been dropped with several others at the far end of the island. My crew had been looking for him. He asked if I wanted to join them. I said thank you, but no.
Eventually Kurlinger called to me. “Just keep heading north,” he said. I didn’t have a compass. I continued in the same direction. The boat with the Parks Department logo droned past at a distance. Not far from the tip of the island, a long wooden beam had washed up along the shore. I decided to take a break and sit down. An old apothecary bottle laid half buried in slime. I fished it out with a stick.
Eventually I heard the sound of a motor. Moments later, our boat captain waved. Alexis, McAdams, and Kurlinger were all clad in bright orange life jackets. All told, they’d counted a minimum of fifteen and a maximum of thirty nests.
Back at the oil refinery, we sat parked in a steamy van, while a Conoco official went to make a phone call. The first sign of sweat activated what I immediately recognized as my body’s response to poison ivy. My skin began to tingle. The tingling began to itch.
I needed to scrub my entire body with warm soapy water as soon as possible. But we weren’t authorized to leave until all of our permits and papers were approved and signed off on. Kurlinger said he needed to go talk to someone. My heart raced. To kill time while we waited, our driver told us a story.
In December 1989, he said, months after the disastrous spill in Valdez, Alaska, Exxon wanted to assess what the response would be if there were a spill along Arthur Kill. “All of us contractors--we had the same response,” said the driver, who declined to give his name on account of his current employment with Conoco. “We said we’d come in with one boat, maybe two, and a couple of men.”
After deeming these responses insufficient, he said, Exxon acknowledged that they were not adequately prepared for a disaster in Arthur Kill. They planned to train eight people a week for a period of about two years, he said. By the end of the first week, he admitted, “I’d learned a few things.” But then, two weeks later, on January 2nd, a spill was reported. So soon after New Years, he said, it was difficult to find contractors willing to work, making response even slower than it would have been otherwise. “I was one of the people who showed up,” he said.
The air was cooler than the water, he said, so there was fog everywhere, making visibility extremely low. When he finally saw the water, he said, he was shocked to discover that it was completely green. He described blindly motoring through the water, trying to locate the source of the leak. Then he spotted a geyser, rising like a fountain about three feet above the water. He said he and his men began skimming. “We skimmed and skimmed for days,” he said, in accordance with Exxon’s recent—but limited--training. “Turns out, oil has a pretty thin surface,” he said. “We skimmed about 6 inches deep,” then the water looked clear.
When Kurlinger returned, the driver escorted us to our car. I ran into a bathroom reserved for truckers, and scoured my face and hands with warm water and apricot scrub. The following day, after repeated showers and scrubbing, a dermatologist administered a steroid shot in my arm, in addition to prescribing a topical foam and a pill, a powerful antihistamine the better to stave off a reaction.
Now six years later, it occurs to me that my skin fared much better than the nesting herons on Prall’s island. In the spring of 2007, an infestation of Asian longhorn beetles forced Parks to reduce nesting trees on the island to their stem, according to a 2009 Audubon survey. McAdams is now an associate director of philanthropy at the New York Conservancy, because, as he said recently, “I learned at the Audubon that money was a big limiting factor. According to Susan Elbin, an ornithologist, and currently the NYC Audubon’s director of conservation, some 30,000 gray birch trees were chopped down. “Then they chipped them. Then they burned the chips,” she said.
As if this were not trouble enough, the island has since become rife with nest predators such as red-tailed hawks and raccoons she said. Although the future still holds promise for herons seeking to raise their young on Prall’s Island, their projected presence depends on several key factors, according to Ms. Elbin. “One big question mark is what will happen when the Fresh Kills Park gets up and running,” she said, referring to the 2,200 urban park scheduled to open in the next year down the channel from Arthur Kill. Predators present a second problem. “But even if you get them off,” she said, “there’s still oil embedded in the sediment, which needs to get covered over.”
Yet Susan remains optimistic. “At one time the islands in Arthur Kill were among the most productive in the whole harbor heron system,” she said. “We have great hopes of attracting birds back. We want Prall’s Island once again to be a thriving colony.”
Her words reminded me of a particular moment in my 2004 visit that I will always cherish. I had just rinsed the mud from the apothecary bottle I’d found in the Kills, when I accidentally touched my pants. Certain the fabric was contaminated with poison ivy, I waded in a little deeper into the mud to rinse my hands.
That was when I saw the birds—hundreds of them—egrets, ibises, and herons. McAdams, Alexis and Kurlinger—or maybe Mike’s group—had flushed them out. Gazing up at the sky, I watched the birds cross paths with airplanes taking off from Newark Airport. I’d gotten lost. I didn’t care. For that moment, at least, all the risks I’d taken were worth it.
Dorothy Spears is a New York-based writer and arts journalist. Her anthology, Flight Patterns: A Century of Stories About Flying, was published last year by Open City Books.