Summer is winding down, but not with a whimper. It’s been a hot one, yes, but also one free of gypsy moths and cankerworms, and the woodlands as of this date are fully foliaged and resplendent in spots. We are blessed on Long Island with almost one of every kind of habitat in America’s lower 48, with the exception of deserts and alpine forests, and the East End has most of them, so it is an ecologist’s dream, at least this ecologist’s dream.
Some of these habitats are largish in extent, such as the central pine barrens dominated by pitch pines and oaks. Some are smallish like the dwarf pitch pine forest in Westhampton west of County Road 31. Many are tiny like the cranberry bogs in Napeague. Put them all together and they comprise a colorful crazy quilt when photographed from the air.
Putting the aquatic habitats — salt, brackish, and fresh — aside for the moment, North America has 8 major dry land habitat types, or biomes: deserts, prairies, transitional coniferous forest or taiga, eastern deciduous forest, southern pine woods, western and southwestern chapparal-shrublands, montane vegetation, and the great northern tundra. If we include Mexico we can add tropical forests. All of these are characterized by distinctive floras and faunas, however, none are etched in stone.
For example, under the influence of global warming the tundra underlain by permafrost is melting away. Only 10,000 years ago much of Long Island was covered with glacial ice, it took less than 1,000 years to melt away. A couple hundred million years earlier tropical plants grew where the tundra is now. It could very well happen in another 100 million years. Even in our lifetimes we have seen significant changes in the boundaries of some of these biomes. These changes may be speeding up.
On Long Island we once had the largest bona fide prairie in New York State. It was known as the Hempstead Plains and was inhabited by prairie chickens, the heath hen, now long extinct. Only 15 acres or so remain today, and they are not what they used to be. What used to be a bustling grassland in terms of wildlife and vegetation, is now a bustling, mostly paved area of commerce and residential life occupied by the Nassau Coliseum, Roosevelt Raceway, airports, tract housing, and much more.
The second largest Long Island prairie was in Montauk. It stretched from Fort Pond to Montauk Point. It was flat in some places, like the Montauk Downs golf course west of Lake Montauk, and hilly to the east. The Shinnecock Hills just west of the Shinnecock Canal was a third Long Island prairie. It is rapidly growing up with taller vegetation, much of it invasive, and also has houses, golf courses, and a college campus. The golf courses are the closest in appearance to the original Shinnecock grasslands and still contain many of the prairie species of grasses and shrubs that once covered the entire area from Hampton Bays to Tuckahoe. There are plans afoot to restore undeveloped parts of it to its former stead.
The South Fork has its own pine barrens of sorts, beginning in North Sea and running along the terminal moraine all the way to upland Amagansett, and thence to Montauk’s Hither Woods by way of the Napeague isthmus. Pitch pine is the dominant conifer, partially replaced in the Northwest section of East Hampton with white pine, the only other Pinus species native to Long Island.
Elements of the great eastern deciduous forest, akin to the Appalachian forest, which runs from Georgia and Alabama into New England, are well represented here. Six species of tree oaks and three of hickories, as well as walnuts, tulips, black cherry, sycamores, tupelos, dogwoods, sassafras, hop-hornbeam, and a poplar growing here on eastern Long Island, are part of it. Further west and north, Long Island has a few trees that we don’t have, such as sugar maple and liquidambar. The white-tailed deer thrives in these kind of broad-leafed deciduous forests, as does the gray squirrel, ruffed grouse, and wild turkey.
Tidal marshes, with their characteristic zonation, are a fourth major type of habitat on Long Island and are very well represented on the South Fork. Typically they consist of different zones, salt-water cord grass or intertidal marsh, salt marsh hay zone landward of the cord grass, and a shrub-dominated marsh boundary edge consisting of groundsel bush and marsh elder. Perhaps the largest intact salt marsh on the South Fork is the one in the hamlet of North Sea south of Scallop Pond.
We don’t have lakes per se, but some of our ponds are mighty big, such as Fort Pond in Montauk, the second largest freshwater body on Long Island. These have two types of vegetation, aquatic vegetation such as water lilies and leafy pondweeds, which grow in and under the water, and edges of emergent reeds, rushes, and sedges. Unfortunately, a Eurasian genotype of the worldwide species, Phragmites australis, or common reed, has taken over many of these wetland edges, especially along the less shaded shores of Fort Pond, Hook Pond, Wickatuck Pond, Wainscott Pond, and Old-House Pond, to name a few.
This same obnoxious “weed” has also invaded the brackish marshes of Georgica Pond and Scallop Pond, as well as cranberry bogs and small wetlands in the dune swales associated with the Peconic Estuary on the north and the Atlantic Ocean on the south. It is often accompanied by other invasive marsh plants such as purple loosestrife, also Eurasian in origin.
Our swampy wetlands dominated by red maples and tupelos such as Crooked Pond and Scoy Pond in East Hampton’s Northwest, Fresh Pond and Hidden Pond in Montauk’s Hither Woods, Big Fresh Pond in North Sea, and Sagg Swamp in Bridgehampton, shade out the would-be phragmites intruders. They are the least sullied of our freshwater wetland habitats.
Dune plant communities dominated by American beach grass, beach pea, marram grass, seabeach goldenrod, and beach plum are also extensive on the South Fork, especially along the ocean, but also here and there on the edges of Peconic, Gardiner’s, and Napeague Bays and Block Island Sound. On Napeague these dunelands have become heavily populated with Japanese black pine at the behest of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s former plant distribution program. Fortunately, they are shorter-lived than the native pitch pines and subject to a variety of diseases caused by borers, nematodes, moths, and other organisms as well as fatal damage at the hands of tropical storms and northeasters. In one Napeague spot recently named South Flora on the side of Montauk Highway, a dune form of pink lady slipper orchid grows, to my knowledge the only ones of its kind growing on a Long Island duneland.
A particular kind of inner-dune flatland habitat is situated on the south side of Cranberry Hole Road, running along the north side of Napeague. It is like no other duneland on Long Island or north or south of Long Island. I call it a dune plain and it is covered with a thick carpet of beach heather and bearberry, a few shrubby bear oaks, lichens, and fine-stemmed grasses. In a few lower spots it has little boggy wetlands. In one spot surrounded by pitch pines, it is home to the rare pale crested orchis, Habenaria cristata pallida, which grows nowhere else on Long Island or New York State, except one small patch in Hither Woods on the other side of Napeague Harbor. The dune plain deserves special recognition by the New York State Heritage Office, which keeps track of state rarities.
Then there is the shore vegetation that is found along the higher seagrass wrack lines at almost all of our marine beaches. The dominants here are sea rocket, beach clotbur, sea-blites, wormwoods, saltwort, seabeach sandwort, orache, and the like. Here we occasionally find the rare seabeach knotweed and the federally endangered seashore amaranthus from the south.
Finally, in Montauk, along the ocean, are some of Long Island’s rarest plant communities. Here, three miles of windswept bluffs with plants growing on the bluff faces as well as the bluff tops have a unique flora found nowhere else on Long Island, with such rarities as the orchid Arethusa and a diminutive subspecies of the yellow-flowered sundrops. There are no other ocean bluffs on Long Island or, indeed, the Atlantic Coast all the way to the tip of Florida.
A little inland from the bluffs, we find the heathlands, known locally as the Montauk moorlands. They are dominated by shads, purple chokeberry, highbush blueberry, arrow woods, southern and northern. In grassy and weedy spaces away from the small trees and shrubs in this dwarf forest, we have the federally endangered sandplain gerardia, and the New York State-rare New England blazing-star. Shadmoor and Amsterdam Beach Parks are wonderful examples of Montauk moorland, bluff-top, and bluff-face plant communities.
Let’s face it. The South Fork not only has myriad different habitats and microhabitats, much of which has already been salted away in perpetuity, it’s a botanist’s and a naturalist’s playground. To keep it so, we must defeat the inroads already made by phragmites and other exotic species, while simultaneously keeping the destructive hand of man at bay. As the 350-year-old East Hampton Town Trustees and 400-year-old Southampton Town Trustees are wont to say, it all belongs to the “freeholders,” and we are the freeholders.