Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for nature

The word “legacy” comes to mind a lot for Ann Marie Chapman, visitor services manager at Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge.

That’s because the 2,500-acre preserve where she works, located about 65 miles outside of New York City on Long Island, exists because of a gift made 70 years ago.

Maurice Wertheim, a New York investment banker and active philanthropist, amassed 1,800 acres on Long Island straddling the Carmans River as a hunting estate. In 1947, he and his wife, Cecile, donated this land to the U.S. government, and it ultimately became a large part of the refuge.

Switch Panic Grass

Fast forward 70 years, and Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge is the headquarters of the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes 10 different refuges and wildlife management areas totaling 6,500 acres.

These preserves are located within a heavily developed region on the East Coast, but they’re also an important thoroughfare for migrating birds, making their protection from development even more important.

“It’s one of the few places that wildlife has left,” Chapman says. “When we have school groups that visit, I try to stress with all the students that this is the home that our native wildlife have left, protected from development, protected from pollution.”

Wertheim protects a large area of the Carmans River, which is the largest protected watershed on Long Island. The size of the refuge, at more than 2,500 acres, provides a greater guarantee that animals can live without disturbance from human development.

“Being that we are an hour from New York City, it’s even kind of more special, because these places are so increasingly rare, and it’s not like they’re making any more of them,” Chapman said.

A refuge for birds

Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge is located on the Atlantic Flyway, meaning it provides important habitat for a wide range of migratory birds.

“Right now, we are seeing more activity from the waterfowl species,” Chapman said. “We get a lot of birds coming down from arctic region. Some of them, like the bufflehead, might be here all winter long. Some are just passing through.”

Wertheim is also home to one of only seven pairs of nesting bald eagles on Long Island. This year, the pair successfully fledged two eaglets.

Plants are habitat

Wertheim National Wildlife refuge is home to a number of different animal habitats, including oak and pine woodlands, grasslands and fresh, brackish and salt-water wetlands.

This means it houses a variety of plant life, and staff have begun to document this variety on the refuge’s Plants Map profile.

Chapman said she had help from student interns in setting up the profile, which has been useful in documenting the native pollinator garden planted around the new visitors center that was added to the refuge in 2012. Plants Map’s interactive plant signs and tags can be found on many of the plants in the garden.

Arrowwood Viburnum

“We are always getting inquisitive questions from the public about the plants we are using in our landscaping, but up until recently there was no story that went along with it,” Chapman said.

Those stories are many, from the range of seasonal colors native plants like Arrowwood Viburnum can add to a landscape, to the storied Black Tupelo trees that can be found at Wertheim, some of which have been growing for four centuries.

Providing details on the plants that were chosen for landscaping around the visitor center also serves Wertheim’s goal of giving visitors information they can take home to help them choose more native plants for their own landscapes.

“The message we are trying to send to people is that this is a haven for wildlife, but it doesn’t have to be the only haven,” Chapman said. “People can create backyard habitats, with pollinator-friendly native plants.”

Chapman and her team have also created a Plants Map profile for the Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge, located on Sag Harbor.

Improving habitat

A major focus for the refuge today has to do with protecting habitat for all kinds of creatures, including humans.

American Witchhazel

“Since we are such a large wetland area, we are trying to tell the story of how protected coastal wetlands play a large role in protecting inland communities form large storm events and sea-level rise,” Chapman said.

After Hurricane Sandy brought its devastating storm surge to New York and New Jersey in 2012, Wertheim received funding to help reverse past damage to wetlands in the region, which play an important role in absorbing that surge and protecting inland communities.

In the 1930s, ditches were dug all over the Long Island marshes in an effort to drain them in the name of mosquito control. The project ended up having the opposite effect, as the ditches destroyed fish habitats while creating large areas of standing water that were prime for mosquito breeding.

The refuge is currently leading a project to use coir logs, made of coconut fibers, to fill the ditches with a natural material that they hope will encourage plant life and restore the marshes.

“We are trying to use plant material to reconnect the marsh and make it whole again and hopefully more resilient to future storm events,” Chapman said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize the significant role these wetlands play in protecting their communities.”

If you visit

For visitors, Wertheim has more than 6 miles of hiking trails, and the Carmans River is a popular place for a peaceful canoe or kayak outing. With all of the birds passing through, the refuge is a popular destination for photographers.

The visitor center constructed in 2012 has dioramas featuring the main habitats of Long Island, a patio overlooking a bird feeding station and a “night room” that offers a presentation on surveying breeding birds.

It’s a protected slice of Long Island that still offers the same respite from development that Maurice Wertheim sought when he bought much of it as an estate in the early 20th century.

To learn more, follow Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge on Plants Map. Featured in the cover photo is a Cardinal Flower.