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Wrecked By Superstorm Sandy, Conservationists Work To Restore Migratory Birds' Refuge

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hurricane Sandy destroyed a lot of homes and businesses in 2012. But it also ruined crucial natural habitats - in particular, two freshwater ponds in New York City that migratory birds depend on. Now the National Park Service is working together with conservation organizations and volunteers to fix the damage. Eilis O'Neill brings us this story from New York.

EMILY NOBEL MAXWELL: When Hurricane Sandy hit, a lot of salty water inundated this site.

EILIS O'NEILL, BYLINE: This is Emily Nobel Maxwell with the Nature Conservancy.

MAXWELL: You know, there is the actual breach in the trail just ahead. And that is where there was an inland freshwater pond. The bay flowed into it, so now it's brackish. You can see, you know, dead birch trees.

EILIS O'NEILL: Birch trees and other plants that can't survive salty water died while salt tolerant plants moved in. That's why, on this overcast Friday morning, about 80 volunteers are braving poison ivy and intermittent rain to help put native plants in the ground.

LAUREN ALLEMAN: So we have about 2,400 plants throughout the site.

EILIS O'NEILL: Lauren Alleman with the Nature Conservancy is showing them how it's done.

ALLEMAN: The first thing we have to do is to make sure that the hole that was dug is going to be enough room for the plant to live in. Can you come over and give me a hand? Do you want to just take a scoop of soil out, please?

EILIS O'NEILL: Volunteer Quincy Johnson's here with his school group.

QUINCY JOHNSON: I'm 21. Planted my first plant today. I was really excited about it. To be in nature itself is really nice.

EILIS O'NEILL: This wildlife refuge is technically part of New York City. But the buildings and streets and chaos seem far away - across the bay from here.

KEITH WHITE: Right when I walked up, there's yellow warblers copulating right above.

KAT MCGLYNN: (Laughter).

EILIS O'NEILL: Keith White, with the National Park Service, and Kat McGlynn, with the Nature Conservancy, are both dedicated birders.

MCGLYNN: Yeah, we saw - there's orioles here. There's a lot of red starts in our project area. We saw a national warbler.

WHITE: Oh, great.

MCGLYNN: We saw a black-throated...

WHITE: Green or blue?

MCGLYNN: Green, yeah. Black-throated green warbler.

EILIS O'NEILL: Every year, about 350 species of birds and lots of people use this refuge. One of those is Erika Bree.

ERIKA BREE: Me and my mom have been here lots of times just walking around. Like, I looked for some of the birds by the beach. But I look around, like, what type of plants.

EILIS O'NEILL: Erika's here with her mom, Paula Bree.

PAULA BREE: I told her - I said, you know what, you're taking from school today. I says let's do something - 'cause she's been wanting to do this. It's a special place for us.

EILIS O'NEILL: Their special place will never again be exactly how it was before Hurricane Sandy. As climate change advances and sea levels rise, scientists expect the refuge to flood again and again. So they're putting in plants that are friendly to birds but can also withstand some salt water. For NPR News, I'm Eilis O'Neill in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.