With 8 million residents, things in New York can get pretty wild. But in reality there is a plethora of actual wildlife living in the five boroughs. Thanks to the great zoos and parks with diverse and thriving ecosystems, it’s not hard to find white-tailed deer, walrus and even peacocks. Here are ten picks for the best places to encounter wildlife in New York City – from a 2,700-acre park in the Bronx to a townhouse on the Upper East Side.
New York Aquarium
New York City’s only aquarium is appropriately located near the shores of Coney Island. Unfortunately that location also means that the aquarium sustained massive flooding damage during Hurricane Sandy. The crew worked around the clock to save its collection of 300 marine species, including mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. It reopened on May 25th, 2013 with most of its exhibits accessible, including the Glover’s Reef (featuring sea life from Glover’s Reef, Belize), the outdoor spaces with walrus, sea lions, otters, penguins and harbor seals, and the exhibits in Conservation Hall. The Aquatheater was also remodeled and a new sea lion demonstration this summer. The remaining exhibits are set to open in 2016, alongside a massive expansion in the works for the aquarium. The $150 million renovation project includes a building overhaul to better connect the aquarium to the boardwalk and an expansion to house a new exhibit called Ocean Wonders: Sharks! Once open, visitors will be able to walk beneath a 500,000-gallon shark tank. 602 Surf Ave., Brooklyn, nyaquarium.com. $9.95.
It may be a long subway ride from midtown, but the Bronx Zoo offers more than a full day’s worth of events that are worth the trip. With 4,000 animals representing around 650 species from around the world, the Bronx Zoo is one of the largest metropolitan zoos on Earth. The zoo is a massive 265 acres – the Bronx River flows throughout the land and is incorporated into the exhibits. Exhibits include a Congo Gorilla Forest, wildlife from Madagascar, Tiger Mountain, the African Plains, a Butterfly Garden, and the Himalayan Highlands. For summer 2013, the zoo will host a Dinosaur Safari in a two-acre wooded space – two dozen life-sized, animatronic dinosaurs placed throughout the park that can roar, gnash their teeth, and wiggle their limbs (open May 25 to September 8, 2013). The zoo also features tons of kid-friendly activities like the Bug Carousel, a Children’s Petting Zoo, and a 4-D theater. 2300 Southern Blvd., the Bronx, bronxzoo.com. From $17 per adult, from $13 per child age 3-12.
Queens County Farm Museum
It’s easy to forget that New York City was once mostly farmland. And the Queens County Farm Museum goes way back – all the way to 1697. The 47-acre space is the city’s largest remaining tract of undisturbed farmland, and the longest continuously farmed site in the entire state. Cows, chickens, horses, sheep, pigs and goats live among historic farm buildings, a greenhouse complex, planting fields, an orchard and a vineyard. The animals are easily accessible to visitors, and the museum sells feed for the kids who like getting up close and personal. Year round, the farm hosts free guided tours of the farmhouse to the public on Saturdays and Sundays. Hayrides are offered on weekends from April through October. 35-50 Glen Oaks Parkway, Queens, queensfarm.org. Free.
Central Park Zoo
At just 5.6 acres, this isn’t New York’s largest zoo. But it is the most conveniently located, right on the east side of Central Park. There are 130 different specifies inhabiting the zoo, as well as a variety of different habitats. As if Central Park wasn’t wild enough, the zoo is home to an indoor rainforest, a penguin house, a polar bear pool, and a snow leopard exhibit. There are daily feedings of sea lions, harbor seals and penguins throughout the day. The Tisch Children’s Zoo, located just a short walk from the main zoo, has lots of animals to pet and feed, as well as fun exploration areas for the kids. You can cover the entire zoo in about two hours, so it’s a nice midway stop through a tour of Central Park. This was also New York City’s first official zoo – it opened in the 1860s as a menagerie and has been operating ever since, even though the zoo in its most current incarnation didn’t open until 1988. 830 5th Ave., centralparkzoo.com. $18 per adult, $13 per child age 3-12.
The New York Audubon Society
Birds literally flock to New York City, and the New York Audubon Society hosts birding expeditions all over the five boroughs. On Staten Island, join serious birders on the trails of Great Kills Park, 1,200 acres of woods, marshlands, dunes and beaches. The trails leading to the mudflats, at the northern end of the park, are your best bet for birding opportunities in the springs when egrets, American Oystercatchers and Red Knots populate the area. Other Staten Island parks popular for birding include Wolfe’s Pond, the Mount Loretto Nature Preserve, and Blue Heron Park. The Audubon Society also hosts events like sunset cruises of the Harbor Heron Islands and fall migration walks in Central Park. The New York Audubon Society, nycaudubon.org/index.php/local-trips-and-classes. Prices vary per event.
Horseback Riding in Prospect Park
In the unassuming, quiet neighborhood of Kensington, Brooklyn, there’s a very unlikely amenity: a horse stable. The Kensington Stables have been in the neighborhood since 1930, and it is now the only remaining stable in the Prospect Park area. You can book a 3.5-mile, hour-long guided trail ride through the park that begins at the Park Circle entrance and goes to the Lake, to the Nethermead Arches, and through the Midwood section of the park. Your tour guide also provides historic facts about the park as you ride through it. All levels of experience are accommodated. Children ages 11 and up can ride on their own, younger children will receive a ground person to help them through the trail. The Kensington Stable also offers lessons and spring and summer riding programs. 51 Caton Pl., Brooklyn, 718-972-4588, kensingtonstables.com. From $37 per person for an hour-long ride.
Art Farm NYC
You might expect to find a petting zoo in the park, but on the residential Upper East Side? Located on the bottom two floors of a townhouse, this unique “farm” lets kids feed bunnies, play with frogs, and check out lizards, turtles, birds, tropical fish and chinchillas. (Sometimes a pig, chicken, goat or sheep will make an appearance.) A staffer is always on hand to work with the kids, and treats are always available for animal feeding. Art Farm holds drop-in hours on weekend mornings and hosts events, birthday parties and cooking classes during the week. 419 E 91st St., theartfarms.org/afic. $15 per child, $5 per adult.
Alley Pond Park
Alley Pond Park is the second largest park in Queens, and a great spot to catch wildlife in its natural habitat. Because the park occupies part of a terminal moraine – a ridge of sand and rock formed by a glacier 15,000 years ago – it is supplied with fresh water formed from melted ice, while salt water also comes into the park from Little Neck Bay. The supplies of water accommodate a rich biodiversity; Alley Pond is made up of freshwater and saltwater wetlands, tidal flats, forests and meadows. More than 300 species of birds call Alley Pond home, and you can observe nesting and migration patterns here every autumn. During the spring, animals of all species levels begin hatching and foraging for food. The Alley Pond Environmental Center hosts tours of the park as well as family programs. The Center, right along the shore of the Little Neck Bay, is where to go to learn more about the diverse wildlife thriving in Queens, tucked away from the bustling traffic of Northern Boulevard. 67th Ave. and 230th St., Queens, alleypond.com. Free.
Peacocks at Saint John the Divine
The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, a magnificent and massive Gothic Revival church that stands imposingly in Morningside Heights, has some unexpected parishioners: Three majestic peacocks. Two blue peacocks and another white one roam the grounds of the church, which are open to the public. The first peacocks to live at the church were donated by the Bronx Zoo in the 1980s; the current set arrived here in 2002. They roam the 13 acres that surround the church. To find them, just follow the screeching. Early spring is the best time to see them open their tails. Saint John the Divine is well-known among animal lovers, mainly for the mass given on St. Francis Day in early October (in 2013 it will be October 4). There is a special service for the Blessing of the Animals, and all creatures are invited (previous attendees include yaks, a tortoise, baby swans, a macaw, and a kangaroo). Passes are distributed the morning of the service, and are first-come, first-serve. 1047 Amsterdam Ave., stjohndivine.org.
Pelham Bay Park
Imagine the massive size of Central Park. Then triple that and you have Pelham Bay Park (New York City’s largest park). Naturally, it is home to diverse species who live in the forests, marshlands and coastlines. At a swamp in the Central Woodlands, you’ll find songbirds and hummingbirds. Harbor seals swim up to the coastline in the winter months, when the tide is low. In May and June, horseshoe crabs arrive on Orchard Beach to mate. Red-tailed hawks soar through the sky above the forest, and white-tailed deer are usually spotted on the edges of forests. The Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary is located along the west side of the park and is comprised mostly of salt marshes. Here you will find raccoons, coyotes, egrets and herons. Marine fish breed in the marsh inlets, and red-winged blackbirds and marsh wren settle along the marsh’s upland edges. There are three nature trails leading through the park. Try the Split Rock Trail, a 1.5 mile course that meanders through Goose Creek Marsh and the Wildlife Sanctuary, for the best wildlife viewing. Pelham Bridge Rd., the Bronx, nycgovparks.org/parks/pelhambaypark.
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