Cleanup’s for the birds South Brother Island sanctuary sparkles anew
Kayakers from the Long Island City Community Boathouse paddle on way to yearly cleanup of South Brother Island. South Brother Island, one of the city’s hidden ecological treasures, is a protected bird sanctuary with a fitting East River address – just west of the jailbirds on Rikers Island.
“It’s close enough that in the past, kayakers who have landed on South Brother Island have been blasted by megaphone by Rikers Island security,” said veteran Queens kayaker Erik Baard.
But last Saturday, Baard and a band of kayakers from the Long Island City Community Boathouse landed on South Brother Island without that megaphone serenade.
That’s because they paddled to the 7-acre speck, a part of the Bronx about equidistant from Astoria and Port Morris, to clean its shoreline as part of the American Littoral Society’s annual international coastal cleanup.
Making landfall at low tide, Baard and his floating cohorts cleaned the intertidal zone along South Brother, which is an important breeding ground for the waterbirds of New York Harbor, such as great egrets, snowy egrets and black-crowned night herons.
“Its a very rare environmental refuge,” Baard said of the uninhabited isle, which last year was purchased with federal funds and transferred to the city’s control. “You might be on the shoreline in Manhattan, the Bronx or Queens and see a beautiful bird and not realize that that bird relies on South Brother Island for its survival.”
During last year’s cleanup – now in its 23rd year in the state – more than 1,000 volunteers collected almost 21,000 pounds of debris from 23 Queens sites, said Don Riepe, director of the society’s northeast chapter.
This year, in addition to the efforts of Baard’s crew at South Brother Island, 26 other coastal and inland sites were cleaned, including portions of the shoreline at the Rockaways and in Broad Channel.
Richard Melnick, president of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, said that – for the fourth straight year – he and local volunteers used homemade grappling hooks to fish shopping carts, bicycles and garbage cans out of the shallows of Hallets Cove, along the Astoria Houses esplanade.
“It’s a strain on your back, but it’s very rewarding when it’s all done,” Melnick said.
The volunteer cleanups are intended to foster local stewardship of coastal areas. “This is meant to get people involved in their communities so they adopt their own beaches and do regular cleanups,” Riepe said.
Baard and company removed a mix of urban trash from South Brother, including styrofoam chunks, fishing line, plastic bags and bottles.
But they had a chance – however remote – of finding something a little less common.
In the early 1900s, South Brother was owned by brewer Jacob Ruppert Jr., who also owned the New York Yankees. He built a yacht house on the island, and legend has it that Babe Ruth would hang out there and club baseballs into the East River.
BY JOHN LAUINGER