With a state park, a national seashore, a National Audubon Society Important Bird Area, and the stateís only federally designated wilderness (Otis Pike Wilderness Area), Fire Island has a lot to offer. Ocean-washed beaches, dunes, maritime forests, the Fire Island Light Station, and the William Floyd Estate make Fire Island a blend of recreational, natural, and cultural resources. Just an hour east of New York City, the park is a world apart from the bustling communities around it.
Lying across Great South Bay off Long Islandís south shore, it is a classic barrier island: 32 miles long by a half mile wide by 30 feet tall. Its swales, dunes, and wide-open expanses are replete with Northern Bayberry thickets, cranberry bogs, mudflats, shell-strewn sandy beaches, salt marshes, and maritime woodlands. The best-known of the woods is the Sunken Forest, a 300-year-old holly forest that huddles down behind the high dunes west of Sailors Haven.
Throughout most of Fire Island, trees rarely grow tall because they are constantly assaulted by wind and salt spray off the ocean. The primary dune (the duneline that faces the ocean all along Fire Island) provides some protection. At the Sunken Forest there is a second set of dunes (secondary dunes) that shelter the trees and enabled the forest to develop. Trees near the top of the dune are low-growing and stunted because they get more salt spray. Farther down the dunes and in the middle of the forest, trees can grow to a more normal height. The twigs that grow above the dune line are cut back by the salt spray. In this way the ocean prunes the forest to a uniform height.
Throughout the forest, Gray Catbirds mew from the low branches of American Holly, Sassafras, Red Maple, and shadbush. Yellow Warblers, Eastern Towhees, and Brown Thrashers add their voices to the morning chorus from late April to September. Birding can be superb at Fire Island in autumn, especially at the islandís western end at Robert Moses State Park. Watch for migrating falcons and hawks.
Have you been to this park? How many stars would you give it?