Abondoned dock on North Brother Island.Abondoned dock on North Brother Island. Credit: Photo by Gabriel Willow ’00An eroding slab of concrete juts out from the southern edge of New York City’s North Brother Island where an armless swivel chair faces not the nearby console TV, but a bramble of winged sumac and honeysuckle that have subsumed the island since the last human inhabitants left over a half-century ago. It’s a muggy July evening a few hours before sundown.

A city water taxi idles offshore while some eighty passengers gather on its top deck for the Brothers Island EcoCruise, led by Gabriel Willow ’00 and sponsored by New York City Audubon. Overhead, a black-crowned night heron wings its way slowly across the fading sky, impervious to the crowd of binoculars tracking its flight path.

Given the human history of this twenty-acre island northeast of Manhattan, it’s easy to imagine any number of ghosts have come home to roost. In 1904, the passenger steamboat General Slocum caught fire and ran ashore off North Brother. More than a thousand people burned to death or drowned in rotten life preservers that had been furtively filled with iron bars so as to meet weight requirements. A decade or so later, Typhoid Mary was quarantined in a one-room cottage that was part of the island’s Riverside Hospital. Tended to by hospital staff, she endured twenty-three years of near isolation and squalor until her death in 1938, the hospital closing soon afterwards. The last humans left in 1963 after the hospital—briefly repurposed into an adolescent drug treatment facility—closed its doors.

In the years since, nature reclaimed the abandoned infrastructure. Once an island for social welfare, North Brother is now a protected bird refuge, one of the city’s seventeen Harbor Heron Islands, monitored by New York City’s Audubon Society and the city Department of Parks and Recreation. Large colonies of great egrets, snowy egrets, and black-crowned night herons are among a number of colonial wading waterbirds who raise their young here and on nearby South Brother Island, the seclusion making for an ideal habitat.

Origins
Homeschooled in rural Maine, Gabriel Willow ’00 has become something of an urban denizen, working both as an urban naturalist and a DJ. His Audubon EcoCruises reveal the wildlife colonizing voids left by humans.Homeschooled in rural Maine, Gabriel Willow ’00 has become something of an urban denizen, working both as an urban naturalist and a DJ. His Audubon EcoCruises reveal the wildlife colonizing voids left by humans. Credit: Photo by Heather Candon ’99Gabriel, who was reared roaming the woods in the even deeper seclusion of rural Montville, Maine, is now something of an urban denizen, working as both an urban naturalist and a DJ, deftly navigating both the city’s wildlife and its nightlife. But between Maine and New York came Mexico. Having participated in one of COA’s early Yucatan terms, Gabriel returned after graduation, spending three years exploring the extensive biodiversity of the Yucatan peninsula. He guided tours, designed environmental education programs, participated in conservation efforts, and worked with a radical artist collective, creating installations in half-finished buildings and deserted construction sites.

In 2003, Gabriel left Mexico for New York, intending to enroll in art school. He’d been planning to examine themes of urban ecology and urban decay, conservation and climate change through a conceptual, creative lens. He literally stumbled upon Prospect Park Audubon Center while looking for a bathroom. The staff knew a good thing when they saw it, approaching him to design the EcoCruises. He promptly wrote a script. The island cruises began soon thereafter with Gabriel offering rare glimpses into unseen and unknown parts of New York, places where wildlife has colonized the void left by humans. Meanwhile, he began teaching at Prospect Park Audubon Center, working his way up to senior naturalist.

Abandoned and reclaimed
Even in a city of eight million, Gabriel is a rarity. Only a handful of guides offer glimpses into New York’s wildlife. And no one else takes the interdisciplinary approach that Gabriel does, blending urban exploration with natural and human history, glancing into what was, what is, and what might be. “I think people want to reconnect to the natural world,” Gabriel says. “I try to facilitate that through a human ecological lens. Rather than looking towards the ‘wild’ or the ‘authentic’, I show people the nature all around us, in overlooked urban nooks and crannies. There’s no separation between the wild and the urban, or human activities and the adaptive response of the life forms surrounding us.”

In summer he narrates three different routes, cruising the East River past islands in the Lower Harbor and into nearby Jamaica Bay. He also takes people out in the colder months to see the seals and waterfowl that winter in the region. An evocative storyteller, Gabriel gives off-the-cuff observations of passing scenery, every few beats interjecting his wry musings.

“It’s like a peek into the future,” he says. “It’s a little post-apocalyptic, but I think it’s interesting to see the different ways that the environment responds to abandonment. Most of these islands and places where you’re finding these birds nesting are little microcosms of abandonment.

They used to have buildings, communities, infrastructure, electricity, sidewalks—and all that’s gone now. And so you’re seeing plants, vines, birds taking over. But at the same time, it’s also these stories emerging from the past because these buildings are 150 years old or more. It’s both a past and a future that we’re glimpsing, and I see that as a form of renewal.  

For me that’s inspiring. A reminder that wildlife has this amazing capacity to adapt.”

A different perspective
The water taxi cruises north up the East River at about twenty knots, the breeze offering a reprieve from the city’s punishing humidity. Cars stream along the FDR Drive, soundless in the distance. Midtown Manhattan’s skyline appears to rise directly from the water, its towers incongruous with the dense wilderness of the forgotten islands.

The East River is the eastern boundary of Manhattan Island, and not a river at all, but a tidal strait, its flow reversing between ebb and flood every six hours. Subway tunnels burrow a hundred feet beneath the riverbed while bridges transect the half-mile width from above. Intermittent jet rumbles announce nearby LaGuardia Airport. Barges, speedboats, and yachts travel the river’s length just as steamboats and wooden ships did a century ago. Before the first European charted a northward course up the river in 1614, Lenape fishermen speared striped bass from their dugout canoes.

Contrary to what many New Yorkers believe, there’s a lot of wildlife to see. “I get jokes a lot,” Gabriel says. “Oh, you lead bird walks in New York, what do you look at, pigeons?” He shakes his head, bemused. “The waterfront has a lot of species you can see: nesting egrets, cormorants, herons. There are peregrine falcons, bald eagles, harbor seals, even occasionally humpback whales and dolphins.

You’ve got ducks, geese, loons, and grebes wintering out there. For me, it’s the most exciting thing, the most compelling thing, to get New Yorkers out, re-evaluating their own city and seeing it from a different perspective.”

Recovery
Unlike its fellow islands, U Thant Island, named for the third secretary general of the United Nations, is a relative newcomer to these historic waters. Midway between Manhattan and Queens on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, this 100-by-200-foot islet was merely a granite reef below the water’s surface until late  in the nineteenth century, when piano entrepreneur William Steinway set out to continue the trolley line from his company town in Queens, underground to midtown Manhattan.

The rubble blasted to create a tunnel under the East River built the reef into a small island. Today, the ➆ train shoots through the tunnel every few minutes while above a colony of double-crested cormorants make U Thant their home. DDT almost spelled the cormorant’s demise, as the pesticide rendered their shells too thin. Eggs would break under the weight of the nesting parent. Today, the population has rebounded. Cormorants subsist on fish, diving underwater for their prey.  Because they can’t fly when wet, they perch with their wings outstretched to dry, as if always on the verge of flight.

The cormorants rule the islet, draping over an old metal arch and perched in the skeletal navigation tower. Against the taciturn steel skyline of Long Island City, the birds are an arabesque contrast of curves, welcomely animate, seemingly oblivious as to whether their nest is industrial or natural. “If they choose a manmade structure to nest upon, it’s because they presumably deem it suitable for their requirements,” Gabriel offers. “Many a happy hawk has been born on a New York City skyscraper.

Peregrine falcons have far more habitat thanks to bridges and skyscrapers, as cliffs were in short supply in the eastern US.” Midway between U Thant and the Brother Islands lies Mill Rock, where more double-crested cormorants silently adorn a near-leafless tree. Great black-backed gulls clamor along the shoreline of the thin peninsula, their calls hoarse and low.  Egrets cluster amidst the short willow and poplar trees towards the island’s center.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw egrets hunted to the brink of extinction, plumage on hats being the rage of the day. Today, snowy and great egrets are on abundant display, perching on trees at the edge of the islands throughout the East River. “I think most native or lifelong New Yorkers are kind of surprised both by the proximity of these strange, abandoned islands to the city and the abundance of wildlife found on them,” says Gabriel. “Really charismatic, dramatic wildlife. Charismatic megafauna. The egrets are pure white, they’re very large, they really stand out, and when I look up, there are cormorants and egrets flying overhead all the time. In the city’s hustle and bustle, how many New Yorkers even look up? If they did, they might be surprised at what they find soaring above them.”

Surrounded by the country’s most densely populated city, the desolate structures and dilapidated buildings of these islands serve as a reminder of how quickly wilderness can reclaim a place, and how resilient the natural world can be.

For more on Gabriel Willow’s Audubon EcoCruise, visit nycaudubon.org or facebook.com/urbannaturalist.

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Having spent nearly two decades living on islands, first in Maine, then in Spain, Heather Candon ’99 is a writer living in New York.

PHOTO CAPTIONS

Once an island for social welfare, North Brother is now a protected refuge for birds. Following Typhoid Mary’s death in 1938, Riverside Hospital, later repurposed as an adolescent drug treatment facility, was closed for good in 1963. Photo by Gabriel Willow ’00

Abandoned dock on North Brother Island. Photo by Gabriel Willow ’00

Double-crested cormorants perch upon the “oneness” arch on U Thant Island. Photo by Heather Candon ’99.

Homeschooled in rural Maine, Gabriel Willow ’00 has become something of an urban denizen, working both as an urban naturalist and a DJ. His Audubon EcoCruises reveal the wildlife colonizing voids left by humans. Photo by Heather Candon ’99.


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