It was a bright, sunshine-filled Sunday afternoon when I pulled into the parking lot of Morton Wildlife Refuge in Noyac with my daughter, Angela, from San Francisco. The parking lot was jammed packed with vehicles. I found the only open spot — half in the woods, half out. With my camera and bag of black sunflower seeds at the ready, Angela and I proceeded into the reserve and followed the east trail, the one that takes you to the pond, the large tulip trees, and the state-endangered swamp cottonwoods.
The refuge was more ramshackle than ever, as Sandy had knocked down a lot of trees and half pushed over others. The trees were draped with the dead vines of Asiatic bittersweet, which had been cut through a couple of years before and had yet to fall to the forest floor. There were the usual invasives complementing the bittersweet — the honeysuckle, new garlic mustard seedlings, sweet cherry, phragmites, chickweed, and others. The vegetation along the main trail to the beach where the piping plovers and ospreys nest was festooned with a tan curtain of dead mile-a-minute weed, a vine that came to the refuge within the last three or four years and has already taken half of it over.
As soon as we stepped through to the park’s entrance, a black-capped chickadee came to greet us. I held out my hand, palm-up, with a few sunflower seeds and down he came, landing gently on my hand, he took about three to the nearest perch and worked on them, one by one. I persevered, but he flew off. It was already 3 in the afternoon and the mob of walkers and bird feeders had begun before noon. All of the birds should have been so full of seed by the time we came onto the scene that they probably wouldn’t have cared a fig about one more well-meaning human with an outreached hand. At first I thought that the little black-and-white featherweight that took the seeds from my palm was just being polite and didn’t want to slight me. But, then I thought, no, the bird was good at P.R. If people stood motionless for several minutes and there were no takers, they might be so discouraged as to not come back.
The wildlife refuge is one of the most popular in the tri-state area. And just think, the man who, while governor of California, said, “If you seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all,” Ronald Reagan, entertained the idea of selling it and the others on Long Island to save money when he became president. Our then very able representatives in the U.S. Congress, George Hochbrueckner and Patrick Moynihan, prevailed. The president’s plan never even passed first base. The refuge was saved and its future will probably never be in doubt again.
It was Elizabeth Morton, the last private owner of the land, who donated it to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. On maps such as the Hagstrom Suffolk County Atlas, the land occupied by the refuge is known as Jessup’s Neck after the Jessup family, who staked a claim to it and farmed it in the early 1700s, when Long Island was still part of England’s colonial empire in the Americas. At least one of the Jessups is still interred there, Abigail, the daughter of Isaac and Sarah Jessup, who died at about 11 years old, possibly from smallpox. The narrow “neck,” a remnant of glacial land that juts out into the Peconic Estuary between Little Peconic and Noyac Bays, almost reaches to the North Fork and may have at one time. It is less than a quarter mile wide at its thickest point and loses up to five feet a year from either side. Given that the erosion rate is expected to increase as sea-level rise accelerates, the neck part of the refuge may be gone before the beginning of the next millennium.
Which will win, erosion and loss to the enveloping seas or 100 percent occupancy and at the hands of the invasive plants? That is the question? For the time being, however, it is the closest thing to Walt Disney’s “Snow White” this side of New York City. The birds, tiny as chickadees, large as turkeys, brightly colored, abide the multitude of visitors. They fly onto their outstretched hands or feed on the ground at their feet, follow them around singing, chirping, croaking all the while, staging a gay and merry scene that Disney or Mother Goose themselves would have found impossible to improve upon.
There are some new colorful signs posted that discourage feeding lest rats and raccoons take over and the birds and chipmunks become indolent and sedentary, thus losing their wildness. But who are they fooling? It would take a very mean and nasty fed to enforce such a law. The children who flock to the preserve with their parents love the birds and the chipmunks, and the birds and the chipmunks love them back. There is no teasing, no bullying, no injuring, only a shared love of nature and nature’s gifts. I would even venture that having a tiny bird, a miracle of being, light on the hand of and take seeds from a very depressed person would surely be as curative as a day or two in a halfway house or psychiatrist’s office.
A rose is a rose is a rose. A refuge is a refuge is a refuge.