Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Silver Lining of Brownfields and Golf Courses

I have mixed feelings about golf courses. I don't play golf, and most of the people I know who do tend toward the elitist in the way they deal with humanity. If there are birds around, they are just obstacles to a hole in one that must be eliminated.

On the last day of autumn, Dec. 20, 2014, my husband (MH) and I were scanning for birds next to the Bayonne Golf Club before attending a holiday party in nearby Jersey City. There was no wind but the cold was, literally, numbing. There were also no golfers. On a distant, high dune high next to the course's massive, lighthouse-styled clubhouse was a buteo scanning the fairways and sand traps for its next meal.

On the other side of the walkway where we stood the water was filled with waterfowl - gadwalls, blacks, mallards, red-breasted mergansers, buffleheads, American wigeon and a large raft of ruddys, among which was a horned grebe. A small flock of Brant geese were on the opposite shore while a much larger flock of Canada geese were standing on the lawn of the luxury apartment complex. I was surprised to find four killdeer on the exposed mudflats.

Killdeer (Margo D. Beller)
The walkway we were on was made possible by the golf course, which was opened in 2005. It sits atop a former waste disposal site. As part of the agreement to build an exclusive (the brochure doesn't list the membership fee but, as the saying goes, if you have to ask you can't afford it), Scottish-style course with sweeping views of the New York skyline and undulating, grass-covered dunes, the builders had to put in a public walkway to allow the citizens of Bayonne - 99.9% of whom were not going to be course members - access to the waterfront. I expect that was the same quid pro quo for the apartment complex across the water. 

The idea of using a former dump or hazardous waste site for a golf course or commercial strip - not residential housing - is known as brownfields, a program encouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency. It's a good idea, taking polluted property that would otherwise sit there useless or fixed at public expense and allow private people to spend the money to make it useful.

The government of Bayonne, which lobbied hard to get a cruise ship port, too, must've liked the idea of an exclusive course creating a more positive image for the gritty city (the brochure quotes restauranteur and member Mario Battali on the calming effect of playing in Bayonne). It is a striking landscape and the clubhouse dominates. Of course, there is no way to get on the course from the walkway - a high dune wall prevents that (although there is evidence some have made their way up anyway for a better look) and the only way to see some swatch of the landscape is from pedestrian bridges some distance away.

If the buteo we saw was the reported rough-legged hawk, it was in the right habitat. These hawks are sporadic winter visitors to airports and other tundra-like places such as beaches and golf courses. Just last month another winter visitor that favors tundra, snowy owl, was found at this course (last year many snowy owls were reported in the region as part of a major irruption). The first time we had walked near the golf course, in summer, we saw northern harriers, an endangered breeder in the state, and American kestrels, a threatened species, hunting over the dunes. There were marsh wrens, goldfinches and, somewhere in the reeds, rails.
Snowy owl at Island Beach State Park (Margo D. Beller)
I've been to plenty of parks that were created from millionaires' properties and opened to the public. I have also been to a county park, Natirar, that is at the base of a hill atop which is the former mansion of the King of Morocco, now an exclusive restaurant and spa. There's nature and there's the profit motive.

It's just not the same looking for birds from the edge of private property.

I don't know if Bayonne's is one of those courses now trying to create bird habitat by responsibly managing the environment at the same time they provide a luxury experience for members. Most golf courses don't have a good reputation and are considered by many toxic waste dumps. Too much water and chemicals to keep the lawns green. Sterile plantings that provide no benefits to birds or wildlife.

So it's a mixed bag. Useful property that draws birds where once were toxic chemicals - good. If there are raptors over the golf course, as was recently reported on the New Jersey bird list, that means there are rodents and other animals to feed them.

Exclusive clubs that cater to the few, rich and powerful at no benefit to the resident human population - not so good.

I am hoping this is one of the more enlightened golf courses. Of course, this place can afford to be enlightened and put up the chump change for that walkway we were standing on in the cold.

As long as the birds survive, they don't care either way.

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