Secrets of Long Island

A hidden gem at Jones Beach

Nature center allows study of plants and animals


The Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center at Jones Beach State Park serves as an educational environment for Long Island residents and a wildlife conservation area for animals.

The center holds year-round children’s programs and activities such as beach exploration, nature discovery, bird-watching and stargazing. At the center, families can see whale bones in the Discovery Bone Cove, explore a shipwreck or take a walk on the boardwalk that leads out and around the beach dunes.

The area around the nature center was originally a barrier beach open to bathers, and the building that houses the center was once a bathhouse. The beach, West End 1, was closed due to low attendance and transformed into the nature center under the direction of former State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro. The center, which uses solar power and geothermal air conditioning, opened in May 2000.

When it was being developed in the 1990s, the parking lot was reduced and beach grass was planted to revitalize the area and make it more natural. The beach has become home to the piping plover, a shore bird that the nature center is working to remove from the endangered species list.

Hurricane Sandy changed the landscape of the beach by depositing sand and eroding the dunes. “All the primary dune that was closest to the water was kind of pushed all over the beach, so it’s a much larger flatter area now,” said Patrick Kaminski, an environmental educator and “plover steward” at the nature center. “It’s actually really good for the piping plover because that’s what their nesting habitat is like.”

As a plover steward, Kaminski is responsible for looking after and taking care of the rare birds.

“We don’t want anyone disturbing these delicate birds that need to be protected,” said Hank Leggio, Jones Beach’s director of operations, who urges people to stay out of the roped-off areas on the sand near the center. He explained that a piping plover chick is so small that it looks like a dandelion. When Leggio enters a restricted area, even he needs an escort to carefully guide him around the nests.

The center hosts many educational programs, in which kids can learn about and touch plants and animals in their natural environments. On Aug. 10, nature center employees of the Mid-Tide Splash Program used a seine, or drag net, to catch small fish and other sea life for a group of about five families to identify and collect. The children held killifish, baby flounder, hermit crabs, sea snails and a horseshoe crab molt. They also saw blue and green crabs.

Denise Wulff-Vanderpuije, of Rockville Centre, said she has been taking her family to the nature center for the past six years. Last week she brought her daughters, Teagan, 8, and Avery, 1.

“We usually come to the outdoor programs,” she said. “It’s very hands-on, and that’s great for the children. They like to touch!”

Malachi Tallman, 8, a classmate of Teagan’s and a nature enthusiast, was at the center for his first time that day. “Malachi is definitely into nature,” said his mother, Corry. “This is exciting because I usually take him to the piers to do solo exploring, but being here with professionals is better.”

Tallman said that the group experience and the instructor’s knowledge at the Mid-Tide Splash Program made beach exploring safe and educational.

“I love taking indoorsy kids and making them into outdoorsy kids,” said Emily Ulceus, who led the program that day. Ulceus has been working as an environmental educator at the nature center since she graduated from SUNY Potsdam with a degree in biology in 2006.

“Doing programs like this that are really hands-on is great,” she said, “because with little kids, sometimes you see their eyes light up and you think, Oh, maybe I just made a new biologist!”

Ulceus said that from Memorial Day to Labor Day, patrons have to pay the Jones Beach parking free to visit the nature center, but the rest of the year there is no charge. Educational programs are $4 per person, and reservations are required.