May 2024: Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge

12 for 12! This month, it’s the one and only Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge! Situated right in the Pine Barrens and consisting of much of the Carmans River and its all-important watershed, this park surpasses nearly all others in terms of its ecological significance. Just because a park is valuable for what it preserves, though, doesn’t mean it’s an enjoyable park to visit. So, how does Wertheim compare to some of Long Island’s other locales?

Since only a few months ago we reviewed the Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge, it’s only natural to compare that park to Wertheim. When it comes to ease of access, Wertheim trounces its fellow preserve. Not only is it situated in Shirley, rather than all the way out on the East End, but its parking lot is much more spacious, it has an immense visitor center (complete with immaculately clean restroom facilities), and it’s completely free to enter! As if all that wasn’t enough, right behind the visitor center is a wheelchair-accessible observation platform, meaning that anyone and everyone can take in the beautiful views of the Carmans River.

When it comes to taking a hike, Wertheim has two trails: the White Oak Trail and the Black Tupelo Trail. The last time I visited Wertheim, I walked the White Oak Trail, and I recalled it being a bit too thin for my liking, and a bit confusing to navigate. If you look at a map of the preserve online (or take a map from among the many informational aids available a at few information kiosks at the front of the park), you’ll see that the White Oak Trail is a loop with a chord running across its middle, whereas the Black Tupelo is a straight line with a loop at its end. I decided to try out Black Tupelo Trail on this visit, and I’m very glad that I did. Not only is the trail a straight line through the park – which means you’ll spend less time worrying about where you’re walking and much more time marveling at what you’re looking at – but it’s such a wide trail that you would have to actively try to get ticks on you. If you walk along the center, you’ve got anywhere from two to four feet of trail on either side of you at all times. For those of you who are especially paranoid about ticks (as I am) this will come as an immense relief. The trail itself is basically a dirt-gravel mix for most of its run, though the loop at the end is covered in short grass (ticks here!), and there are brief points where roots cover the ground, and the elevation shifts rapidly. Overall, though, I’d argue that the Black Tupelo is one of the most accessible trails we’ve covered this year in 12 for 12: it’s about on par, perhaps a bit superior, to Morton, and behind only the main, paved trail at Caleb Smith.

Wandering through Wertheim in the middle of the day is a perfect experience for any birder. This is peak warbler migration season, and on my walk, I managed to catch sight of three different species of these adorable birds: Yellows, Common Yellowthroats, and American Redstarts. I also heard, though failed to see, Blue-winged Warblers and Northern Parulas. Few families of bird on Long Island present as great a challenge as the warblers, and yet these birds also provide the greatest reward, with their beautiful plumage and lovely little songs. I also saw many other birds that, in my experience, are more obscure: Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Eastern Towhees, and a Brown Thrasher.

As you may be able to gather from the diversity of birds I just named, there’s a surprising amount of diversity in the habitats you’ll travel through, considering that the whole park consists of the Carmans River watershed. There’s proper Pine Barrens, but also deciduous forest, grasslands, and marshland. At the end of the Tupelo Trail is Indian Point, a nice, secluded outlook onto the Carmans River. Of course, the one huge downside to the park following the flow of the river is that it can get exceedingly buggy. Mosquito repellant is your friend at Wertheim!

Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge is perhaps the perfect example of a “crowd pleaser” park. It can appeal to a wide range of sensibilities and is accessible to a wide range of abilities. Wildlife abounds, and the park’s simplistic layout streamlines the process of hiking, meaning more of your time and energy will be dedicated to marveling at the beauty of Long Island. All of that, coupled with the fact that it’s free to enter and located in a relatively central part of Suffolk County, means that it’s a great park to recommend to everyone.

By Travis Cutter, Long Island Pine Barrens Society