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A sun-lit saltmarsh dotted with oak hummocks, Merrill Lake Sanctuary is one of the most beautiful coastal marsh complexes on eastern Long Island, with panoramic vistas of Accabonac Harbor and a primordial quiet broken by the calls of ospreys and terns hunting their scaly prey.
Here, where the land meets the sea, is a rich breeding ground for algae, plankton and marine invertebrates and nursery for a wide variety of finfish. This abundance of aquatic life in turn makes the sanctuary ideal resting, feeding and breeding grounds for shorebirds, waterfowl and other wildlife.
During the early 1900s, the saltmarsh was ditched to control mosquitoes, but by reducing the standing water, they also altered the wetland’s ecology. The Conservancy is working with the Town of East Hampton to restore the marshes. Pools of trapped water are used to support populations of fish that eat mosquitoes.
Merrill Lake Sanctuary is a bird watcher’s paradise, both for nesting and as a stopover during annual spring and fall migrations. It is also a great place to hike and contemplate the saltmarsh’s incredible capacity to nourish life.
The trails are open for hiking and observing nature from dawn to dusk. It’s a good idea to wear rubber boots at all times of year when exploring Accabonac Harbor.
The trail winds through old pasture and woodland, then loops around through the saltmarsh meadow. Wildflowers abound in the pasture throughout the summer. By July, the huge lavender umbels of Joe-pye weed tower above the grasses and goldenrods. When the pastureland floods, look for black duck, willet, black-bellied plover, and glossy ibis.
The next field, beyond the woodlands, is frequented by meadowlarks, bobwhites and kingbirds. Among the wildflowers are seaside goldenrod and orange-blossomed butterfly weed, with islands of shrubby bayberry.
At the upland edge of the saltmarsh grow marsh elder and groundsel tree. The willet, which breeds on this part of the marsh, announces its presence in July with its distinctive ringing willett call. In the true tidal zone, which floods at high tides, you’ll find glassworts and seaside lavender. The path is an old road once used by local farmers with horse-drawn carts to harvest salt hay.
At the shoreward edge of the high tide line, eelgrass and brown seaweed called wrack provide protection for numerous finfish and shellfish. Eelgrass is also a source of food for waterfowl. Once abundant in Accabonac Harbor, eelgrass declined drastically in the 1980s due to brown tide; the Conservancy is working to restore eelgrass, which is critical to the health of the Peconic region. Amidst the spartina grasses at water’s edge you can also find periwinkles, horseshoe crabs or even blue-eyed scallops clapping their shells to propel themselves through the water.
This 29.3-acre preserve is located in Springs, New York.