My final outing with my Naturalist Program was to Sunken Forest on Fire Island, another place that I have never visited during my time spent here on Long Island. Fire Island is a barrier beach protecting Long Island from the ocean waves, but the portion known as Sunken Forest was truly an interesting place. Over time, two lines of dunes formed on this section of the island protecting the growth that would become Sunken Forest.
Our day began with a 20 minute ferry ride over to Fire Island. Once there, we were met by a park ranger who would give us and interpretive tour of this unique ecosystem. A boardwalk led into a forest of cherry, oak and sassafras trees. I thought we had entered a magical kingdom; walking through a shaded woodland with the bay visible on one side and the sound of ocean waves reaching us over the dunes.
The forest has the appearance of being “sunken” since it is below the height of the secondary dune; the vegetation never growing higher than the dune that protects it from the salt spray coming off the ocean. As we continued our journey, I noticed some interesting tree shapes along the way and wondered if that was a result of the harsh environment.
During our journey, our guide pointed out a shadbush, the bark riddled with holes. Apparently this was the result of yellow bellied sapsucker activity creating shallow cavities that would attract insects to feed on the sap. It was interesting that only one tree in the area had this appearance and we speculated if the sapsucker could detect that one tree was sweeter than another.
Soon we paused to admire a holly tree grove, a unique feature of this maritime forest. In fact, the New York Natural Heritage Program lists this holly forest as “globally rare”. Our guide told us that most of these trees were over 250 years old. Unfortunately, we also noticed that there was no new growth sprouting up to replace these magnificent trees as they reached their lifespan, the result of deer overfeeding on the undergrowth.
Continuing along the boardwalk, we reached an area that gave us a view of a completely different world. We had left the shade of the forest behind us and were looking down at the shallow area between the two dunes, known as the swale. Here we discovered a land inhabited by vegetation more acclimated to harsher conditions. Pitch pine and Japanese Black Pine were the only trees visible during our walk through this uncomfortably hot portion of our journey. Low profile plant life, such as beach heather, reindeer lichen, everlasting and bayberry seemed to thrive here.
After enduring our ramble under the hot sun, we were all very happy to arrive back at the much cooler starting point of our journey. After this rewarding tour, we grabbed a table in a shaded area to enjoy our lunch.