Fire Island National Seashore: Smith Point

Shirley, NY


Take the Belt (Cross Island) Parkway to exit 25A. From there, go east about 50 miles, first on the Southern State Parkway to exit 44, then on the Sunrise Highway (Route 27). Take Route 46 (William Floyd Parkway) south for about 10 miles crossing Smith Point Bridge to Fire Island. There is ample parking on county property, ($2 fee, summers only), and signs direct you to National Park Service property.

Seven miles of sandy beach, dunes, swales, and pockets of hardy vegetation create a unique natural area along this stretch of Fire Island from Smith Point west to Watch Hill. The sole federally designated wilderness area in New York State, these 1,400 acres of barrier beach are accessible only by foot (with the exception of a boardwalk trail for the handicapped) to allow for a rich and relatively undisturbed coastal exploration. During migration periods, the ocean beach affords views of humpback and rare northern black right whales, along with numerous species of waterfowl and shorebirds. In fall, falcon migration can also be spectacular. In addition, the dunes and swale (interdunal areas) offer protection to such diverse animals as the brown thrasher, Fowler's toad, red fox, and white-tailed deer. The mudflats and salt marshes along the bayside add yet another dimension to this coastal jewel.

Begin walking along the beach at the ocean's edge. Fire Island is a barrier beach, formed within the last 3,000 years by constant wave action on the sandy substrate. Originally a long sandspit that stretched for more than 50 miles, it was separated by storms that caused the beach to give way to an open channel, which is now Moriches Inlet to the east. The beach can be a wild place -- with the Atlantic Ocean stretching endlessly toward the horizon, the air is filled with the sound of crashing waves that slowly alter the shoreline. Behind you an extensive dune system lines the upper edge of the beach and protects another unique community behind from the destructive force of the beating surf.

Take a closer look at the deep, soft sand that you trudge through and that helps build the 30- to 40-foot dunes. It is generally light in color, a clue to its chief mineral component: quartz. Yet strong winds may expose other minerals, and portions of the windblown upper beach are frequently covered by crystals of black magnetite and red garnet.

The sand is host to numerous marine organisms like fiddler crabs during some phase of their life cycle. Although the beach may look empty and barren, aside from the empty shells and organic debris deposited by the waves, some individuals survive beneath its protective cover, especially in the intertidal zone, which the seawater inundates twice a day. Certain creatures, such as the horseshoe crab, come to the beach only once a year to lay their eggs and then return to the ocean.

Late spring and early summer are times when you may have the rare opportunity to witness one of these landward breeding migrations. The horseshoe crab, a remarkable ancient arthropod related to spiders and mites, begins crawling ashore in early summer. Those individuals that brave the strong ocean waves can be seen along the beach here. The majority, however, will crawl up in the gentler surf on the bay. Shaped like a horse's hoof with a long barbed tail and two pairs of eyes, it is a living fossil that has remained virtually unchanged for 200 million years. The female molts up to sixteen times and lives for almost 9 years before reaching breeding age. With the smaller male in tow in a semi- piggyback style, she scrapes out a depression just below the high-tide line and lays up to a thousand eggs. She then drags her mate across the nest while he deposits sperm. The next wave or tide covers the tiny round light-green eggs with sand. The eggs hatch in a matter of weeks, and tailless larvae crawl out and head for the water. During their short journey many will be intercepted and consumed by crabs, mollusks, and shorebirds.

One of the shorebirds that might take advantage of this meal is the sanderling. Look along the water's edge for this plump, light-colored, starling-sized sandpiper with its dark shoulder patch and black legs and bill. Seemingly tireless, sanderlings play a feverish kind of tag with the broken waves as they follow the advancing and receding water, searching fro small food organisms. In flight, the little birds flash a broad and bright white wing-stripe. Sanderlings nest on the upland tundra in the high Arctic, where they subsist on buds and berries until the appearance of fly larvae in ponds. Seen during fall and spring migrations (August to September and April to May).

Also here during migration: black-bellied plovers, ruddy turnstons, dunlins, dowitchers, least and semi-palmated sandpipers. Staying here is piping plover. Common and least terns also nest in the area and can be seen feeding offshore, swooping and skimming the surface of the water.

Whales here.

Continue up the beach past two walkways that pass up over the dunes and head north into the swale. These walkways were erected to protect the fragile dunes, which can be severely damaged by trampling. Beach grass predominates on the outer edge of the dunes, with seaside goldenrod, beach pea, and dusty miller scattered throughout. Dusty miller looks as though it had been dusted with powder -- actually it is covered with woolly white fibers that help protect it from heat and desiccation.

The third walkway you come to offers benches and a white compass painted along the boards to show wind directions. This boardwalk takes you up over the dunes, through the swale, to the marshy bay areas along the Old Inlet. Follow it all the way to get a good comparison of bay and ocean habitats.

As you near Great South Bay, the vegetation changes drastically from the low plants and shrubs of the dunes and swale. Phragmites 8 to 10 feet high line the inner edge here, creating a thick barrier and obstructing views. This plant grows along the upper areas of the marsh where the soil has built up enough so that it is no longer inundated by tides. An exotic, meaning it was not a native species here, it has spread like wildfire along both fresh and salt waterways. But closer to the bay, still washed by the sea, salt-marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) has a hold. Glasswort and sea blite may also be nestled along the upper edge.

The Old Inlet was created as waves broke though the barrier island's interior, but since the early 1800s, has filled in with sand and mud to create this marsh. Loons, grebes, and brant are just a few of the larger waterbirds that may be resting just offshore in the usually calm bay waters. Whimbrels, willets, spotted sandpipers, and greater yellowlegs can be seen feeding along the marsh edge in spring and early fall.

Retrace your steps to the sand path that winds east through the swale. This walk is a rare opportunity to examine the beautiful, well-developed community that grows in the protection of the dunes. The swale is perhaps the most severe beach environment, because the dunes cut off cooling sea breezes and the concave topography radiates heat toward the center. The plants and animals living here are well adapted to survive in this desertlike environment.

The vegetation is noticeably different from that along the marsh and the ocean side of the dunes. Low, sprawling beach heather (Hudsonia tomentosa) dominates the area and is well suited to survive the dryness and heat with its thick, woolly, scale-like leaves. Scattered patches of thick-leaved bayberry and beach plum line the swale. Pitch-pine stands can be seen along the bay side. The deep sand and clumps of vegetation offer protection to a few hardy animals that carve out an existence here. White-tailed deer, red fox, cottontail rabbit, long-tailed weasel, and smaller rodent species make their homes here. Birds are numerous, and even reptiles and amphibians, such as the hognose snake and Fowler's toad, survive. Listen for the droning, buzzy, penetrating call of this toad in late spring and summer.

The sand trail eventually joins the boardwalk and leads back to the parking area.

The walk takes at least four hours. Bring lunch and water. Ferry service, which departs from Patchogue during May through November.

Source: Audubon Guide