Central Park Opens Secret Sanctuary for 30 Minutes

When a coyote came to Manhattan last winter and needed a private place to sleep during the day, she chose the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, a tiny forest fenced off for animals hidden right in the busiest part of the park. The preserve has been off-limits to the public since 1934 as a bird sanctuary. But the Central Park Conservancy offers a handful of half hour tours every year or so and I got to go on one today.

The deal was that only the first 20 people to show up at 59th Street and 6th Avenue could come. I feared it would be a typical New York City hoarde trying to get into anything remotely off-limits, so I got there early. Amazingly, only three New Yorkers showed up.

Two volunteers from the Central Park Conservancy, Anna and Terri, led us to the three acre penninsula that juts out into the pond.  On the way to the gate, they pointed out a pretty waterfall over Manhattan schist on Hallett, which I’d always imagined was fed by a wee babbling brook inside the Hallett. Once we got past the giant chainlink gates, the reality was a lot less intriguing. Like so many water features in Central Park, the waterfall is man made. And since no one is on the island, it’s just fed by a big black hose. The birds still liked it, though.

Our guides said the island was set aside for animals and as an experiment into what would happen to the forest if it wasn’t maintained. In 2002, after an Asian Longhorn beetle was found there, that experiment ended. The beetle was just one of many invasive species that invaded the Hallett. The conservancy since weeded many of them out and replaced them with native plants. They targeted wisteria and alianthus (tree of heaven), but they also take out some saplings of native black cherry (the most popular tree in the park), fearing a monoculture. Each spring a group of teen volunteers grooms the island and restores woodchip paths that go around the western part of the preserve. No paths go on the east side.

A recent  photography experiment by National Geographic documented dozens of species living within one cubic foot of the Hallett over 24 hours. They found evidence of all kinds of creatures–mainly bugs, but also a raccoon, titmouse and other interesting birds.  We saw the usual suspects for urban birds–starlings, grackles, pigeons, robins, sparrows. I did catch a glimpse of a northern flicker and plenty of woodpecker evidence and a mysterious (to me) red bird, maybe a grosbeak or juvenile cardinal. We didn’t see any obvious place the coyote–really a coywolf–slept. The tour was a bit padded out with an explanation of the surrounding area. Since we couldn’t go on the eastern island, we saw it from the shore and saw turtles and a black-crowned night heron. The big appeal of Hallett, to both animals and people, is that there aren’t any people there.

Where to Go See Wildlife in New York City

Hallett Tour
Hallett Tour

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