Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge

Location: Noyack, NY

Size: 187 acres

Date of hike: Aug. 17, 2018

I'd seen many pictures and videos online of birds eating right out of hiker's hands at Elizabeth M. Morton National Wildlife Refuge, and I knew I had to one day experience it myself.  Since the refuge is about an hour from my home though, it took me a while to finally visit.  I first went there on Mother's Day when I brought my non-hiking mom, followed by a lovely lunch in downtown Sag Harbor.  Well, a few months later I was back.  But this time, I was set to explore the trails in totality.

Before exploring, I conducted some pre-hike research on the refuge's history and habitats.  The refuge is located on a peninsula, called Jessups Neck, that has "exceptionally diverse" habitats and is bordered on the west by Little Peconic Bay and on the east by Noyack Bay, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's website.  It contains roughly three miles of undeveloped coastlines and includes everything from sandy and rocky beaches to maritime forests to wooded bluffs that overlook the bays, the website said.  The refuge was created through a donation by the Morton family in 1954 and is a part of the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which consists of seven refuges, two refuge sub-units and one wildlife management area, according to a pamphlet.  "Each unit is unique and provides a wildlife oasis among Long Island's urban settings essential for the livelihoods of migratory birds, threatened and endangered species, and fish and other wildlife," the pamphlet said.  Apparently, the units are situated along the Atlantic Flyway, a bird migration path used for nesting and wintering.  For visitors, the park opens a half-hour before sunrise and closes a half-hour after sunset, and pets are prohibited as they'll "disturb wildlife," the pamphlet said.

The refuge's entrance is on the north side of Noyack Road, with a parking lot big enough for about two dozen cars.  After parking, I passed a welcome kiosk that asked visitors to pay a self-service fee using tiny beige envelopes, then stopped to admire some monarch butterflies floating around the flowers in front of the refuge office.  Next, it was trail time.  The refuge has two trails: an out-and-back trail that goes to the beach and dunes, and a 1.2-mile loop called the Wild Birds Nature Trail that goes through woodland areas.  First, I walked the beach trail, which has an elevated platform that gives visitors awesome views of the bays and peninsula.  Unfortunately, the peninsula portion is closed from April through August to protect sensitive nesting birds, but binoculars are installed to help people see beach-dependent wildlife like piping plovers.  "This shore bird will feed on marine worms, crustaceans and insects, and nests high on the beach close to the dunes for protection from spring tide," the pamphlet said.  You'll also spot ospreys, which a nearby sign described as "fish-eating specialists." 

As for the Wild Birds Nature Trail, it has everything from wooden boardwalks to wild turkeys to a picturesque pond with swansTo feed the birds, I grabbed cheap seed at a local store.  Someone once told me it's more likely for the birds to land on your hand if the seed is dark, as it's easier for them to see, but I had light-colored seed and that seemed to work just fine.  For me, the trick was to walk around until I heard a chirping bird, or spotted one sitting on a low branch.  Then I'd remain motionless, hoist my seed-filled hand into the air, and patiently wait.  It only lasts a second when a bird finally lands, so be prepared.  Also, their claws are quite sharp, I must say.  As for the trail's pond, a water-control structure installed there lets refuge staff raise and lower water levels.  "Manipulating water levels is a management tool used to provide the best quality of habitat for waterfowl and other life," the pamphlet said.       
I should also note that there are numerous signs advising visitors not to leave behind seed.  "It attracts rats that are harmful to birds," the signs said.  The pamphlet took the topic one step further by saying: "Many well-meaning visitors have taken to leaving piles of bird seed on the trail and on the boardwalk railings in order to attract different species of birds that do not readily come to the human hand.  But birds are not the only wildlife eating these seeds; chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, fox, raccoon and, more recently, rats will also partake of this convenient feast.  Refuge staff report that the animals have become less fearful of humans, expect food, and are now quite aggressive."  Needless to say, please don't leave any seed.

With regard to wildlife, you might see everything from white-tailed deer to fowler's toads to painted turtles.  Meanwhile, the waterfowl features long-tailed ducks, common goldeneyes and white-winged scoters.  "Small streams offer the water so necessary for wildlife survival, while shrubs, trees and ground cover offer shelter and food," the pamphlet said.  In addition, you'll likely find phragmites, a tall bamboo-like plant.  "These non-native, undesirable plants invaded when the marsh was ditched in an effort to control mosquitoes," the pamphlet said.

In summary, I'd say the refuge is a must-see for all hikers or bird lovers visiting Long Island's South Fork.  It's not every day you get a wild bird to land on your hand.  Plus, the sounds of the songbirds was so beautiful that I didn't once reach for my iPod.  Sure, I would've liked to hike the peninsula in its entirety, but that only gives me a reason to return for another visit! 

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