On a frigid Sunday in March, I set out to explore the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge. Donning an unseasonable spring jacket under a pair of binoculars and shivering into my coffee cup, I chose the longest path to make the most of nature’s offerings.
The Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge is a 2550-acre preserve, part of the 6500-acre Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The refuge is located on the south shore of Long Island and is bisected by the Carmans River, historically the Connecticut River, a 10-mile long stretch with four dams, which begins as 8 miles of freshwater and becomes more brackish as it leads into the Great South Bay. The habitat supports numerous waterfowl, box turtles, and osprey, as well as providing haven to other native Long Island species, like white-tailed deer, foxes, frogs, and fish.
My walk began upon a wide and well-marked trail, running briefly parallel to and in shadow of the railroad. The path was easily navigable, as signs were posted at all intersections and benches were accessible throughout for the comfort of even the most amateur hikers. Near the trailhead, passing trains were cause for great excitement to several young, novice walkers, who temporarily ceased collecting sticks and kicking mulch to point and wave at the railcars.
I chose the White Oak trail, which began in the Northeastern span of the refuge, a minutes’ walk from the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge’s visitor center. The trail continued in a southwesterly direction, before looping back on itself, staying entirely to the north side of the brackish marsh. The trail provided scenic views of the wetlands as well as a fairly isolated walk through the Pine Barrens, another mainstay in the pride of Long Island naturalist.
With my unusually long stride, I quickly found myself isolated along the waterfront and able to view the estuary in full. I noted a few geese paired off, while some seagulls and mallards were going about their topside fowl duties. Soon, the signs directed me into the pine barrens, to a more forested area on a narrower, yet also well-marked, trail. I was comforted to note the excellent upkeep by park employees.
For an afternoon in early March, the forest felt desolate and abandoned. It could have been January by the look of the land. No budding groundcover or greenery could be seen along the White Oak trail, aside from the distant pine canopy and an occasional English Ivy. Were I in a more depressed mood, I would have found the forest to be equally so, its continued hibernation rife with symbolism. Fortunately, rather than letting the gloom become me, I set my senses to seek out forest dwellers— ground rodents, birds, deer— to no avail. Finding none for the greatest duration of the trip, I marveled instead at the wild logistical adaptations which pine tree trunks and limbs will maneuver to ensure the most amount of sun exposure in a crowded canopy space. Their twisting branches and steeply angled trunks were truly fascinating to behold, especially as the trail looped northeast, back toward the marshlands and the scenic overlooks. I delighted at a brown sign with its depiction of binoculars, which led me to an accommodating wooden perch.
The sea of reeds sprawled between the river and the bay expansively. From the dock, acres of long-stemmed phragmites, a non-native invasive genus, were thriving in the brackish transitional waters. With the tide low, the waving reeds freely caught the breeze. It was truly a feast for the senses. I imagined the ospreys and hawks enjoying their predatory turns above this expanse, but, disappointingly, saw none circling overhead.
At the close of the walk, after 2 miles of observational vigilance for animal life, a solitary bird whistled into the late afternoon sun. Startled at my luck, I fumbled with binoculars as the bird jumped and resettled five times on five separate branches. I couldn’t help laughing as I realized how rusty I’d become over a cold, birdless, binocularless winter. It was a tufted titmouse, a somewhat common songbird to Long Island’s habitats, but not one I have personally seen often. His proud grey crest appeared tall and sure, and as he confidently hopped closer, he looked down on me as I looked up to him. I thought how strange or how delightful it must be for a songbird in a preserve, to have a parade of humanity pass so closely by his home regularly. After a few moments’ observation and not wanting to encroach on his territory, I moved on and made my way back to the car to head home.
The walk was an easy, solitary one, which promised burgeoning animal and budding plant life as the weather warmed to spring. The paths were well marked with signage more readily apparent than in most places I’ve visited, and important information was posted prominently. It was a walk I would recommend for the beginning hiker or the newly curious natural adventurer, and one I will likely return to once the seasons change. If you go, be sure to bring tick spray! You might spot raptors, songbirds, or the declining black ducks, all of whom make their home at the Wertheim Refuge.