Whether they're third-grader on a class trip delving into their first experience with marine life or seasoned birders catching a rare glimpse of a fork-tailed flycatcher, those who visit Oceanside’s Marine Nature Study Area often find a reason to return.
Nestled between Oceanside Park and the Golf Club at Middle Bay, the 52-acre preserve — devoted to environmental education and natural history — features a marine and estuarine ecosystem that includes marine, insect and plant life, as well as more than 200 species of birds. It was named best environmental organization on Long Island earlier this month by Bethpage Federal Credit Union.
The nature area — a salt marsh cut by tidal streams — opened in 1970, and is operated year-round by the Town of Hempstead's Department of Conservation and Waterways. It’s divided into eight instruction zones that deal with different aspects of the marine environment, Hempstead Town Councilman Anthony D’Esposito said, who recalled first visiting the preserve as a child. He added that schools and summer camps from around Long Island frequent the area.
Diane Provvido, Oceanside’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and research, explained that the district’s third-grade classes take field trips to the preserve each year as part of the curriculum, which she said matches many of the lessons found throughout the ecological environment.
“You start to realize you have this amazing place in your own backyard, and we really wanted to make sure that kids had an opportunity to go there,” Provvido said. “You’re driving this winding [road] with houses, you think you’re in the middle of just a suburban little neighborhood, and then it opens up into that.”
But this pastoral escape serves more than just children.
Corey Finger, 39, of Queens, became interested in birding in 2005 while living in Albany, and said he has since become addicted to the hobby. He co-owns “10,000 Birds,” a website — named at the time for the rough estimate of bird species that exist — that touts itself as the most-visited birding blog in the world.
Finger, who has seen about 1,400 different species of birds, said he has made sure to visit the Oceanside preserve a few times each year over the last decade. He said the place offers a better view of wildlife than other salt marshes around Long Island, adding that the boardwalk through the heart of it helps keep people from trampling through the habitat.
“It’s just an absolutely great place to get up close to the creatures of the salt marsh,” Finger said. “There’s really nowhere better to get within feet — in New York anyway — of egrets and night herons.”
One summer day in 2015, Finger recalled, he observed a yellow-crowned night heron just five meters from him, unfazed by his presence. In his blog post, Finger spoke of seeing the bird walking along the edge of a tidal pool, its orange eyes scanning for fiddler crabs hiding in the mud. The hunter then went down, crushed the crabs in its bill and swallowed them. At such close range, Finger could hear the chomping.
“The saying is, nature is red in tooth and claw,” Finger said, “and then to really see that, to see this thing ripping the fiddler crabs apart and eating them was an absolutely awesome experience.”
Another blogger, Anthony Collerton, captured two photos of a fork-tailed flycatcher during one of his trips to Oceanside. Finger estimated that the Central American bird is seen in New York about once every five years. The sighting was September 2012, a month before Superstorm Sandy hit the preserve hard.
“Just as people have rebuilt their homes, we were kind of given the task of rebuilding this 52-acre preserve,” D’Esposito said.
The revitalization included a new boardwalk and a temporary classroom building as well as the restoration of display areas, fly boxes, fencing, trails and bridges. In 2014, students from Oceanside’s Project Extra Program, known as “sea janitors,” helped the effort under the guidance of faculty adviser Angela Maria Abend.
D’Esposito said the town would pursue bids for the construction of a permanent structure for the preserve’s classroom and student-interactive areas in the coming months to keep the destination a thriving community resource.
“Everyone that comes in and out of there has a great time and a great experience,” D’Esposito said, “and they often come back for years afterwards.”