Pine Barrens Blog
The weather could not have been better for Alula’s “Cook’s Tour of the Pine Barrens” on October 9th. It was sunny and unseasonably warm with temperatures in the mid 80’s and a sky that was Robin’s egg blue.
Eight participants joined Eileen and me at the commuter parking lot at Exit 63 of the LI Expressway to begin the day’s journey. Our first stop was to the Calverton Ponds Preserve, made up of Fox, Sandy and Cranberry Ponds and preserved in a joint effort between The Nature Conservancy and Suffolk County. This area is part of the much larger Robert Cushman Murphy County Park which safeguards much of the watershed of the Peconic River. Sandy Pond was quiet bird wise save for a lone Great Blue Heron that we unfortunately startled from the far shore but we enjoyed beautiful views of this shallow “coastal plain pond”. These ponds have a wealth of plant life that grows along the pond edge which moves up and down or back and forth depending on water table elevations. This dynamic process allows for the herbaceous (non-woody) species to flourish since wetland trees like red maple and black tupelo cannot become established in intervening high water years and shade out the wildflowers, sedges, rushes, and grasses which bloom in abundance in lower water years. An informative kiosk along the pond edge indicated that the greatest concentration of rare and endangered plant and animal species in all of New York State occur in these coastal plain ponds which, themselves, are very rare natural communities.
We left Calverton and headed east, making our next stop at Peconic or Suffolk Hills, an 800+ acre park situated on the Ronkonkoma Moraine, and as the name suggests contains rugged rolling topography. The entrance is off of County Route 51 and our destination was the summit of Bald Hill which reaches the nose bleed elevation of about 370 feet above sea level, making it the highest point on eastern Long Island! With a little huffing and puffing all the participants made it to the top, passing through forests of oak and pine on the way, where they enjoyed panoramic views of the south shore and Peconic Bay. On the way up and down the summit we saw a few Blackpoll Warblers in their fall costume, one Black-throated Green Warbler, and a lone Blue-headed Vireo. We also enjoyed looking at the native plants of the Pine Barrens, most notably trailing arbutus.
Next stop on our tour was to Cranberry Bog County Nature Preserve where, along the picturesque shores of Sweezy’s Pond, we broke for lunch. After gaining sustenance we enjoyed a hike around the pond looking at the landscape shaped by its past use as a commercially active cranberry bog (one of the bigger bogs in Suffolk County). We passed along the edge of a small grove of stately Atlantic White Cedar, distinctively straight and columnar in their growth. Soon we hiked onto the small wooden bridge that crosses the Little River, a tributary of the Peconic River draining Wildwood Lake. This is one of my favorite spots in the Pine Barrens, both because of the relative ease of observing some wetland plants from the arching bridge, like a large population of Virginia chain fern, and the beauty of watching the crystal clear stream water flowing under your feet as it makes its way toward the Peconic Bay estuary.
It was on to the Quogue Wildlife Refuge next, where we once again hiked around the pond, in this case Ice Pond, so named because of its use many decades ago as a source for harvesting block ice. Here we had another quick glimpse of a Black-throated Green Warbler and enjoyed close views of pitcher plants, a very distinctive carnivorous plant, one of the three such groups groups found in the Pine Barrens (sundews and bladderworts being the others).
The weary participants then piled back into the cars for the last stop of the day – the globally rare Dwarf Pine Plains in Westhampton. Here we were hoping to see some buck moths, one of the iconic species of the Pine Barrens, as they undertook their annual autumnal flight. These beautiful day flying moths come out in early October to mate and are garbed (the males especially) in black, white, and orange – the colors of Halloween. We had no luck in seeing flying moths but we were treated to a frenzy of bird activity, dominated by fall plumaged Blackpoll Warblers with a few Pine Warblers mixed in and yet another Blue-headed Vireo. During the entire time we hiked on the new 1/2 mile long Dwarf Pine Plains trail that has its entrance point just south of the SCWA building on County Route 31 we had flitting birds in view. In the many decades I’ve been hiking around the Plains I have never seen it so birdy! It was a great way to end a great day!
Photos by Dianne & Joy