SIGNIFICANT HABITATS AND HABITAT
OF THE NEW YORK BIGHT WATERSHED
List of Species of Special Emphasis
I. SITE NAME: Great South Bay
II. SITE LOCATION: The Great South Bay habitat complex is that segment of the barrier beach and backbarrier lagoon on the south shore of Long Island, east of South Oyster Bay and west of Moriches Bay, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) east of New York City.
TOWNS: Babylon, Brookhaven, Islip
STATE: New York
USGS 7.5 MIN QUADS: West Gilgo Beach, NY (40073-54), Sayville, NY (40073-61), Bay Shore East, NY (40073-62), Bay Shore West, NY (40073-63), Amityville, NY (40073-64), Pattersquash Island, NY (40072-67), Howells Point, NY (40072-68), Central Islip, NY (40073-72), Bellport, NY (40072-78).
USGS 30x60 MIN QUADS: Long Island East, NY (40072-E1), Long Island West, NY-NJ-CT (40073-E1)
III. BOUNDARY DESCRIPTION AND JUSTIFICATION: The Great South Bay habitat complex includes the entire 25,920-hectare (64,000-acre) aquatic environment of Great South Bay, including all salt marsh islands, dredged material islands, undeveloped sections of the Jones Beach/Gilgo Beach and Fire Island barrier islands, Fire Island Inlet, and the nearshore waters of the New York Bight. The western boundary is the Gilgo Cut boat channel in Babylon separating Great South Bay from South Oyster Bay, and the eastern boundary is the Smith Point Bridge in Brookhaven. Developed portions of the barrier islands, exclusive of the beaches, and developed islands in the bay are not included in the habitat complex. This habitat complex also includes the major rivers, creeks, and marshes draining into Great South Bay from the Long Island mainland including, from west to east: Orowoc Creek wetlands and uplands, Champlin Creek estuary and tidal wetlands, Connetquot River estuary and watershed, Swan River, Beaverdam Creek, and Carmans River estuary. This boundary encloses regionally significant habitat for fish and shellfish, migrating and wintering waterfowl, colonial nesting waterbirds, beach-nesting birds, migratory shorebirds, raptors, and rare plants.
IV. OWNERSHIP/PROTECTION/RECOGNITION: Great South Bay riparian and underwater land ownerships include federal, state, county, town (Babylon, Islip, and Brookhaven), and private holdings. Heckscher and Connetquot River State Parks (on the Long Island mainland) and Gilgo, Captree, and Robert Moses State Parks (on the barrier islands) comprise the major state holdings. On the western barrier island (Jones Beach/Gilgo Beach), Islip and Babylon town lands are interspersed with state-owned parklands. On the eastern barrier island (Fire Island), Robert Moses State Park comprises the western end of the island, a mix of villages and the 7,689-hectare (19,000-acre) Fire Island National Seashore comprise the middle part of the island, and the 526-hectare (1,300-acre) Fire Island Wilderness Area managed by the National Park Service comprises the eastern end of the habitat complex. On the mainland, the shoreline is heavily developed to private residences, marinas, and marine-related industries. Undeveloped areas are primarily in federal and state ownerships, but a few parcels are either privately owned or in town ownership. Connetquot River State Park covers approximately 1,620 hectares (4,000 acres) in the southcentral part of Islip. The 972-hectare (2,400-acre) Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge along the Carmans River estuary and the 79-hectare (196-acre) Seatuck National Wildlife Refuge at the mouth of Champlin Creek are both managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Private preserves include the Finlay-Wolf Pond Preserve, Hollins Preserve, Orr Preserve, and Thorne Preserve owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats recognized by the New York State Department of State include, from west to east: Great South Bay-West, Gilgo Beach, Cedar Beach, Sore Thumb, Orowoc Creek, Champlin Creek, Connetquot River, Great South Bay-East, Swan River, Beaverdam Creek, and Carmans River. The New York State Department of State is developing a regional coastal management plan for the south shore of Long Island (South Shore Estuary Reserve) that includes this area. Wetlands are regulated in New York under the state's Freshwater Wetlands Act of 1975 and Tidal Wetlands Act of 1977; these statutes are in addition to federal regulation under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act of 1977, and various Executive Orders.
Several wetland parcels are recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as priority wetlands under the federal Emergency Wetlands Resources Act of 1986; these include Swan River, Beaverdam Creek, and the Carmans River. The Connetquot River has been designated as a recreational river, and segments of the Carmans River have been designated as Scenic and Recreational Rivers under the New York State Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers Act. Suffolk County and the town of Brookhaven recognize parcels along the Carmans River and the coastline of Great South Bay as Critical Environmental Areas under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. The Atlantic Coast Joint Venture of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan identifies the South Shore Mainland Marshes as a focus area. A focus area plan identifies 39 marsh sites for acquisition and/or restoration along the mainland from the Robert Moses Causeway east to Shinnecock Bay, including 22 sites along Great South Bay. The headwaters of the Carmans River are within the boundaries of the Long Island Pine Barrens Reserve. Fire Island, including parts of Jones Beach, has been designated and mapped as an undeveloped beach unit as part of the Coastal Barrier Resources System pursuant to the federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act, prohibiting federal financial assistance or flood insurance within the unit. Other parts of Fire Island have been designated and mapped as otherwise protected beach units pursuant to the Coastal Barrier Resources Act. The New York State Natural Heritage Program, in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, recognizes several Priority Sites for Biodiversity within the South Fork Atlantic Beaches habitat complex. These sites are listed here along with their biodiversity ranks: Jones Beach Island Macrosite (B2 - very high biodiversity significance), Sunken Forest (B2), Bow Drive Marsh (B3 - high biodiversity significance), Connetquot River State Park Site (B3), Fair Harbor (B3), and Fire Island Wilderness (B3).
V. GENERAL HABITAT DESCRIPTION: The Long Island barrier beach/backbarrier lagoon system extends for 145 kilometers (90 miles) along the south shore from Coney Island in New York City east to Southampton at the eastern end of Shinnecock Bay. The bay complex occurs in the Outer Coastal Plain physiographic province. The bay and barrier beach sediments are composed predominantly of sand and gravel derived from glacial outwash and marine sources. The Great South Bay complex as defined here includes 47 kilometers (29 miles) of this system from South Oyster Bay east to Moriches Bay. This part of the Long Island backbarrier system is characterized by shallow open water habitat with extensive salt marshes along the backside of the barrier beach and along tidal creeks and rivers feeding into the bay from the mainland. Great South Bay occupies an area of 243 square kilometers (151 square miles) and has an estuarine drainage of 1,360 square kilometers (845 miles), with a daily average freshwater inflow of 19.8 cubic meters per second (700 cubic feet per second). The majority of this flow originates from six groundwater-fed bodies: Orowoc Creek, Champlin Creek, Connetquot River, Swan River, Beaverdam Creek, and Carmans River. Great South Bay is the only one of the Long Island south shore bays that has major riverine input (from the Carmans and Connetquot Rivers). In addition, the bay receives as much as 11% of its freshwater input directly from groundwater flows through its floor. The semidiurnal tides average from 0.2 to 4.0 feet, depending on location, and are highest at the inlets and lowest in the far reaches of the system furthest from the inlets. Fire Island Inlet is the only direct connection to the sea, with several indirect connections through South Oyster Bay and Moriches Bay. Fire Island Inlet is dredged biannually by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Sand is pumped out of the inlet and deposited downdrift to the west for about 8 kilometers (5 miles).
A number of benthic habitats make up the bay bottom; the dominant eelgrass (Zostera marina) community is one that has been most extensively studied. Benthic habitat in Great South Bay can be classified as muddy sandflat and sandflat habitats. Dominant benthic species that are found in both habitats include polychaetes such as yellow-jawed clam worm (Nereis succinea), orbiniid worm (Haploscoloplos fragilis), opal worm (Lumbrineris brevipes), and thread worm (L. tenuis), and the bivalves northern dwarf-tellin (Tellina agilis) and Atlantic awningclam (Solemya velum), amphipods Lysianopsis alba and Paraphoxus spinosus, and the isopod Idotea balthica. Sandy bottom types characteristically contain populations of polychaetes (Platynereis dumerillii), feather-duster worm (Sabella microphthalma), opal worm (Arabella iricolor), and common bamboo worm (Clymenella torquata), bivalves such as northern quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria), Morton egg cockle (Laevicardium mortuni), slipper shell (Crepidula fornicata), and blue mussel (Mytilus edulis), and mud crab (Dyspanapeus sayi). Muddy sandflats are dominated by polychaetes of the genus Harmothoe and the bivalve amethyst gemclam (Gemma gemma). Atlantic oyster drill (Urosalpinx cinerea), a predator of bivalves, is abundant in eelgrass beds in Bellport Bay, and rock crab (Cancer irroratus) occurs in the higher salinity areas of Islip, South Oyster, and Hempstead. The distribution and abundance of benthic species in the bay's eelgrass community is likely controlled by a number of factors that include eelgrass stem density, water temperature and salinity, sediment type, predation, food supply, and human harvest.
Great South Bay is the largest shallow saltwater bay in New York State, and one of the largest in the study region. Much of the bay is open water, but as the bay narrows at its western end near the Captree Bridge, open water merges into an extensive series of tidal salt marshes, salt marsh islands, and intertidal mudflats. These marshes and flats have developed on the protected northern edge of the barrier beach that shelters Great South Bay and the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. Extensive tidal marshes and flats have developed on the bay side of Fire Island as well. Eelgrass beds are concentrated in the shallow waters along the back side of Fire Island, especially at the eastern end, north and east of East and West Fire Islands and north of Captree and Cedar Island. Cordgrasses (Spartina alterniflora and S. patens) dominate the salt marshes. Common reed (Phragmites australis) borders portions of the high marsh, grading to dense thickets of bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) in drier areas. On the barrier beaches bordering the Atlantic Ocean and in swales behind primary dunes are found plants characteristic of stabilized older dune and coastal shrub communities. These include American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata), beach plum (Prunus maritima), bayberry, winged sumac (Rhus copallinum), beach heather (Hudsonia tomentosa), and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). The Sunken Forest on Fire Island is a regionally rare maritime oak-holly forest dominated by American holly (Ilex opaca), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis), with black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) in wetter depressions. The western barrier island from Captree to Jones Beach is divided roughly in half along its lengthwise axis by a four-lane, east-west roadway that separates salt marsh on the north from beach dune/swale plant communities on the southern portion of the barrier island.
VI. ECOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE/UNIQUENESS OF SITE: The Great South Bay habitat complex supports regionally significant populations of marine and estuarine fish, migrating and wintering waterfowl, rare plants, and other species associated with open water marshes, barrier beaches, and estuarine watersheds and the largest undeveloped barrier beach in the New York Bight study area. There are 210 species of special emphasis in the Great South Bay complex, incorporating 43 species of fish and 101 species of birds, and including the following federally and state-listed species. (Living resources and their habitats are dynamic; therefore, the ecological significance and species information presented here may not be complete or up-to-date. State and federal environmental agencies [see Appendix III for office contacts] should be consulted for additional information.)
Federally listed endangered
peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)
roseate tern (Sterna dougallii)
Atlantic (=Kemp's) ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempi)
green sea turtle (Chelonias mydas)
Federally listed threatened
loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)
piping plover (Charadrius melodus)
seabeach amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus)
Federal species of concern(1)
northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin)
black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis)
1Species of special concern listed here include former Category 2 candidates.
least tern (Sterna antillarum)
Barratt's sedge (Carex barrattii)
slender nutrush (Scleria minor)
St. Andrew's cross (Hypericum hypericoides ssp. multicaule)
pygmyweed (Tillaea aquatica)
pixies (Pyxidanthera barbulata)
slender marsh-pink (Sabatia campanulata)
yellow milkwort (Polygala lutea)
eastern mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum)
northern harrier (Circus cyaneus)
osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
common tern (Sterna hirundo)
button sedge (Carex bullata)
angled spikerush (Eleocharis quadrangulata)
long-tubercled spikerush (Eleocharis tuberculosa)
few-flowered nutrush (Scleria pauciflora var. caroliniana)
weak rush (Juncus debilis)
crested yellow orchid (Platanthera cristata)
purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens)
swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
pinweed (Lechea pulchella var. moniliformis)
shrubby St. John's-wort (Hypericum prolificum)
sandplain flax (Linum intercursum)
southern yellow flax (Linum medium var. texanum)
golden dock (Rumex maritimus var. fueginus)
State-listed special concern animals
coastal barrens buckmoth (Hemileuca maia maia)
short-eared owl (Asio flammeus)
eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)
State-listed rare plants
Collin's sedge (Carex collinsii)
necklace sedge (Carex hormathodes)
red-rooted flatsedge (Cyperus erythrorhizos)
whip nutrush (Scleria triglomerata)
southern twayblade (Listera australis)
grassleaf ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes vernalis)
purple everlasting (Gnaphalium purpureum)
Nuttall's lobelia (Lobelia nuttallii)
pinweed (Lechea racemulosa)
slender pinweed (Lechea tenuifolia)
comb-leaved mermaid-weed (Proserpinaca pectinata)
fibrous bladderwort (Utricularia fibrosa)
small floating bladderwort (Utricularia radiata)
The shallow waters of Great South Bay are a highly productive and regionally significant habitat for marine finfish, shellfish, and wildlife. This productivity is due, in part, to the many salt marshes and mudflats fringing the mainland and the barrier islands; the estuarine habitats around stream and river outlets on the mainland; and the sandy shoals and extensive eelgrass (Zostera marina) beds that characterize the open water areas of the bay. As a result, Great South Bay has a commercial and recreational fishery of regional importance, affording essential habitat to many economically valuable finfish species that are estuarine-dependent during at least one stage in their life histories. Annual fish surveys in the bays by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation have shown a great diversity of fish species; during eight years of surveys, 85 species have been identified, about 40 of which occur regularly in the bay. The most abundant fish species in the bay, accounting for over 90% of all fish caught, are silversides (Menidia spp.), killifish (Fundulus spp.), menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus), and bay anchovy (Anchoa mitchilli). Forage fish species are found throughout the various aquatic habitats in the bay at different times of the year. Atlantic silverside, the most dominant member of the ichthyofauna throughout much of the year, is found virtually everywhere in the bay. Bay anchovy is the major mid-bay water column occupant in the summer during its spawning time in late June and July. Killifishes include mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus) in the salt marsh habitats, striped killifish (Fundulus majalis) over sandy habitat, and sheepshead minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus) in both habitats. Sticklebacks, including fourspine (Apeltes quadracus) and threespine (Gasterosteus aculeatus), are spring and summer spawners associated with submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV); although they are very abundant, their use as prey for other fish and birds is limited due to spines, body armor, and close association with vegetative cover. Northern pipefish (Syngnathus fuscus) is a zooplankton consumer preyed upon by both striped bass (Morone saxatilis) and summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus). American sandlance (Ammodytes americanus), probably the most abundant winter species, provides important forage for many species of special emphasis in the Bight.
The abundance of forage species makes the bay an important feeding and nursery area for a number of estuarine-dependent, commercially and recreationally important species, including summer flounder, winter flounder (Pleuronectes americanus), bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix), striped bass, weakfish (Cynoscion regalis), tomcod (Microgadus tomcod), and tautog (Tautoga onitis). The bay is a particularly significant nursery area for young-of-the-year and juvenile Hudson River striped bass and juvenile bluefish, as well as for striped bass from older age classes during the summer. Adult striped bass and bluefish congregate in the deeper waters of Fire Island Inlet. Bluefish is the most abundant piscivore (fish eater) in the Great South Bay. Winter flounder spawn in the bay from March to May and migrate offshore in the summer to avoid high temperatures. Summer flounder enter the bay in winter and spring and grow rapidly in the productive waters. Reef species, including tautog, cunner (Tautogolabrus adspersus), and black sea bass (Centropristis striata), use Great South Bay as a nursery area because the vegetative areas provide cover and are rich in prey species; all three species can also be found at an artificial reef in the bay. The bay supports an economically significant shellfishery for northern quahog and is a major spawning, nursery, and foraging area for blue crab (Callinectes sapidus). Other common aquatic species occurring in the backbarrier lagoon systems of Long Island include blue mussel (Mytilus edulis), bay scallop (Argopecten irradians), eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus), American eel (Anguilla rostrata), spot (Leiostomas xanthurus), Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus), northern kingfish (Menticirrhus saxatilis), and northern puffer (Sphoeroides maculatus). There are a number of significant trout resources in streams that drain into Great South Bay. Nine of the twelve verified wild brook trout populations of Long Island occur in the Great South Bay drainage. The Connetquot River, Swan River, Beaverdam Creek, Carmans River, Tuthills Creek, Brown Creek, Mud Creek, Patchogue Creek, and Terrel Creek all contain naturally reproducing populations of brook trout. Orowoc and Champlin Creeks no longer contain suitable habitat for brook trout due to stormwater runoff and flow reductions.
Today, hard clams are the bay's principal commercial resource, but this was not always the case. The once well-known eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) fishery collapsed in the 1940's and 50's; that collapse was linked to algal blooms of a minute species that inhibited shellfish growth. These blooms were believed to be the result of high inputs of organic wastes, primarily from large-scale duck farms located on tributaries of the bay, especially in Moriches Bay. Although these discharges were reduced, the oysters failed to regain commercial population status; this was due, in part, to the reopening and maintenance dredging of Moriches Inlet in the 50's. That action forever changed the salinity regime of the bay, which now favors the more saline-tolerant hard clam. Studies conducted in the bay conclude that today's limiting factor controlling primary production is turbidity, or the suspension of solids, which limits light penetration in the photic zone. Light-limited phytoplankton productivity is a relatively common phenomenon in high energy estuarine environments; this, in turn, determines or limits the success of higher trophic levels. Anadromous fish in the area include alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus), blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis), American shad (Alosa sapidissima), and Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus). Their abundance varies from year to year, with both herring and shad at somewhat steady, but low, levels. Considering the size of the south shore bays system, there are relatively few free-flowing, spring-fed streams in the south shore bays, and barriers to fish passage exist on most. There are 40 water control/dam structures within the Atlantic drainage portions of the study area of Long Island that impede the passage of fish; there are no fish passage facilities on Long Island.
The waters of Great South Bay support large concentrations of migrating and wintering waterfowl, particularly Canada goose (Branta canadensis), American black duck (Anas rubripes), brant (Branta bernicla), scaup (Aythya spp.), red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator), and common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula). Based on aerial surveys, Great South Bay supports the largest wintering waterfowl concentrations in New York State. The flocks of waterfowl are not evenly distributed in the bay. Dabbling ducks are concentrated in the shallow water and marsh areas behind Fire Island, the shoals near the East and West Fire Islands, Sexton Island, and Captree Island, as well as in the Carmans and Connetquot River estuaries (see below). Diving ducks are distributed more evenly throughout the bay, with consistent use areas including Bellport Bay, the south shore behind Fire Island, and along the north shore of the bay west of Blue Point. Eastern Great South Bay is one of the most important areas for diving ducks in the region. Sea ducks and diving ducks are also concentrated in Fire Island Inlet. In summer, the bay is an important feeding ground for least, roseate, and common terns, ducks and herons, many of which nest locally (see below). Nuisance species nesting in this area and of increasing concern include great black-backed (Larus marinus) and herring (Larus argentatus) gulls.
Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are frequently sighted in the bay during winter and consistently use haulout sites along both sides of Fire Island Inlet; grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) sightings have increased in recent years in similar locations. Cetaceans include minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), which occur in the nearshore waters throughout the year, and bottlenosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) which occur inshore during the summer and fall. Individual beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) have been consistently sighted in and off Fire Island Inlet. Sea turtles regularly using Great South Bay include juvenile Atlantic ridley sea turtles, juvenile loggerhead turtles, and juvenile and adult green sea turtles. Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) occur offshore of Fire Island Inlet, and loggerhead sea turtles occur in nearshore waters all along the Long Island barrier islands.
Focus Areas in Great South Bay
In addition to the waters and intertidal areas of Great South Bay itself, there are several focus areas within this complex.
Fire Island Inlet: Fire Island Inlet is critical to maintaining the high productivity levels of Great South Bay. Through daily tidal flushing the inlet maintains the necessary conditions, especially those related to salinity and water quality, that foster the diversity of marine and wildlife species throughout the bay ecosystem. Specific salinity levels are crucial to the continued production of hard clams and may be essential to spawning weakfish and other finfish. The inlet is also habitat for adult finfish of commercial and recreational value, especially striped bass and bluefish that congregate in areas of deep water, and the plankton-eating American sandlance, important as a forage base for both predatory fish and roseate terns. The inlet is the most important foraging area for roseate terns on western Long Island. Fire Island Inlet is a concentration area for sea turtles and marine mammals as noted above.
Western Great South Bay Marshes: This area includes all adjacent salt marsh, associated islands, and tidal flats in the western reaches of Great South Bay. Salt marsh islands from the Gilgo Cut boat channel east to Sexton Island are an uninhabited and expansive area of tidal salt marsh, mudflats, shallow pools, and manmade ditches. Dominant marsh vegetation includes the cordgrasses and, in drier areas, common reed, poison ivy, groundsel-bush (Baccharis halimifolia) and marsh elder (Iva frutescens). Several pairs of northern harrier nest in the dense common reed and poison ivy stands, while seaside and sharptailed sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus and A. caudacutus), marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris), clapper and Virginia rail (Rallus longirostris and R. limicola), and willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus) nest on the marshes. The mosaic of tidal pools, marshes, and mudflats provides a rich feeding area in summer for wading birds, especially snowy and great egrets (Egretta thula and Casmerodius albus), tricolored and little blue herons (Egretta tricolor and E. caerulea), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), and American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus), and during migration for shorebirds such as whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), yellowlegs (Tringa spp.), and black-bellied plover (Pluvialis squatarola). Migrating raptors, including peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), and merlin (Falco columbarius), use the Captree Islands as foraging habitat. The islands have supported nesting by least tern, common tern, and wading birds. A large heronry occurred on Nazeras Island in recent years, although no birds nested there in 1995. A few smaller heronries occur on islands in this area, including Pipe Island and Sand Island in 1995; the most abundant nesting waders are glossy ibis, black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), snowy egret, and great egret, with lesser numbers of tricolored heron, little blue heron, and yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea). Several of the islands have been used for nesting by common terns, including a large rookery on Captree Island (Seganus Thatch). Short-eared owl and northern harrier are common winter residents.
Oak Beach: Oak Island is an inhabited marsh island with 54 homes built on land leased from the town of Babylon. The island is accessible only by boat. Development is limited to the southernmost fringe of the 39-hectare (96-acre) island. The remaining natural area is used as foraging habitat by northern harriers, wading birds, and waterfowl. Oak Beach is directly south of Oak Island, and is part of the main western barrier island. It is composed of salt marsh and dune-swale habitats, and is in both town of Babylon and state of New York (Gilgo State Park) ownerships. The Oak Beach marsh is extremely productive, and is distinctive as one of the few remaining unditched salt marshes in the Northeast. Northern harriers here may reach their highest breeding densities in the state and, possibly, the region. There is also evidence that seaside and sharptailed sparrow densities are higher at Oak Beach than on adjacent ditched marshes. This is the only known location on Long Island where black rail are regularly heard or observed and the only documented breeding location for sora (Porzana carolina). The marsh also supports nesting American black duck, mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), Canada goose, and clapper rail, and is important as a spawning and/or nursery ground for weakfish, blue crab, and forage fish species. The extensive tidal mudflats support high concentrations of shorebirds during migration, especially sanderling (Calidris alba), sandpipers, dowitchers (Limnodromus spp.) and plovers, while the shallow tidal pools are used as a feeding area by resident and migratory waterfowl and wading birds.
Fire Island Inlet Beaches: The barrier island beaches on both sides of Fire Island Inlet, from Gilgo Beach to Captree on Jones Beach Island and Democrat Point on Fire Island, are undeveloped barrier beaches and dunes that support significant numbers of beach-nesting birds, migratory shorebirds, and rare beach and dune plants. Four specific segments of beach are described here in more detail.
Sore Thumb/Overlook Beach: This sandy beach area extending into Fire Island Inlet was historically an important nesting ground for least tern and piping plover, but the area has been eroded in recent years. This area remains, however, an important feeding and resting area for migratory shorebirds.
Cedar Beach: One of the largest common tern nesting colonies in the world (over 6,500 pairs in 1987) was found behind the primary dunes at Cedar Beach in the late 1980s, and a smaller colony (500 pairs in 1995) has occurred there in recent years. As many as 100 pairs of roseate tern (the fourth largest colony in the Northeast) have nested at this site as well, but only 19 pairs nested in 1995. This area has been one of only a few sizable roseate tern colonies in the northeastern United States and is important to the recovery of this species. The colony also supports several pairs of piping plover and averages over 200 pairs of black skimmer (Rynchops niger), making it one of the largest skimmer colonies in the New York Bight study area. Predation of the Cedar Beach tern/skimmer colony in 1995, possibly by American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), resulted in complete destruction of eggs and loss of chicks, leading to abandonment of this large colony. A pair of northern harriers nests adjacent to the nearby salt marsh, and both harriers and short-eared owls use these marshes and dunes as foraging areas during winter. Cedar Beach is an area used by large numbers of nesting northern diamondback terrapins that also feed and winter in the tidal areas north of the tern colony. Cedar Beach is considered one of the best examples of maritime beach and maritime interdunal swales on Long Island. Rare, beach-dependent plants occurring at Cedar Beach and Gilgo Beach include seabeach amaranth and seabeach knotweed (Polygonum glaucum) on the beach, and rusty flatsedge (Cyperus odoratus), golden dock, red pigweed (Chenopodium rubrum), salt-meadow grass (Diplachne maritima), and seaside bulrush (Scirpus maritimus) in the interdunal swales at Overlook Beach.
Gilgo Beach: Gilgo Beach is the site of one of the largest least tern nesting colonies on Long Island. This area also supports breeding piping plover, seaside sparrow, and northern harrier, as well as high concentrations of nesting northern diamondback terrapin and rare plants.
Democrat Point: Democrat Point is the westernmost point of Fire Island, a dynamic sand spit adjacent to Fire Island Inlet. The Point is a nesting area for least tern and piping plover that also supports several rare plant species, including seabeach amaranth and seabeach knotweed on the beach and grassleaf ladies'-tresses and purple everlasting (Gnaphalium purpureum) in the interdunal swales.
Fire Island: This area includes the barrier island (Fire Island) and its associated tidal wetlands and intertidal mudflats, focusing on the area between Watch Hill/Davis Park and the Smith Point Park Bridge. The sandy beaches and dunelands of the barrier island in the eastern reach of the Great South Bay support a few nesting sites for least tern and piping plover. Nesting success by piping plover in this long stretch of undisturbed beach may be limited by a lack of available feeding areas such as open vegetation, ephemeral pools, inlets, and access to bayside foraging areas, and possibly by predation. Human and off-road vehicle disturbance may also be a cause for low nesting success. In recent years, plover breeding activity of territory establishment and courtship has increased on Fire Island; about ten pairs have nested, primarily along the beach in the Wilderness Area and south of Old Inlet. The area is also important for migrating and wintering northern harrier, which are possible breeders, short-eared owl, and snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca), all of which forage over swales and the extensive salt marshes fringing the barrier island on its northern edge. These tidal marshes and associated mudflats provide resting and feeding habitat for thousands of migratory shorebirds, especially sandpipers, sanderling, plovers, and dowitcher during both spring and fall passages.
This portion of the barrier island supports a major breeding population of eastern mud turtle and is one of the few Long Island locations where black rail have been sighted. Clapper rail and seaside sparrow are common nesters in the salt marshes. The productive bay waters of the Fire Island National Seashore Wilderness Area are known for high concentrations of wintering waterfowl, especially scaup, pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), American black duck, and red-breasted merganser, which gather to feed and rest there. Adult striped bass and bluefish congregate in the deeper waters of the eastern bay around the Smith Point Bridge where forage species such as menhaden are plentiful.
The Sunken Forest on Fire Island is a 16-hectare (40-acre) maritime oak-holly forest occurring behind the secondary dune, one of only a few mature maritime forests in the New York Bight Study area (see Raritan Bay - Sandy Hook Bay habitat complex and Island Beach in Barnegat Bay habitat complex), and the northernmost holly-dominated maritime forest on the Atlantic barrier island chain. This community type is considered globally imperiled (G2) by The Nature Conservancy. Rare plants found along the beach on Fire Island include seabeach amaranth and seabeach knotweed; swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) and slender marsh-pink occur in interdunal swales at the eastern end. A hawk watch and count at the lighthouse on Fire Island averages over 9,000 raptors during the autumn migration. The most abundant raptors counted, in declining order of abundance, are American kestrel (Falco sparvarius), merlin, sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus), northern harrier, osprey, peregrine falcon, and Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii).
Connetquot River Estuary/Connetquot River State Park: The Connetquot River is part of a 1,823-hectare (4,500-acre) undeveloped coastal watershed system, unique in this urbanized location, and is one of only four major rivers on Long Island. The river is fed by several natural cold water streams originating from groundwater sources. The estuarine portion of the watershed, from the mouth of the river at its outlet in Great South Bay to the limit of tidal influence, is approximately 3 kilometers (2 miles) in length, and includes adjacent state-owned tidal wetlands. Waterfowl in great numbers use the Connetquot River estuary as a major wintering area and as a stopover point during migration. The most abundant waterfowl include American black duck, mallard, scaup, canvasback (Aythya valisineria), redhead (Aythya americana), bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), and Canada goose. The large open and shallow Connetquot River estuary provides essential habitat for a diversity of fish and wildlife species. Of particular significance is the estuary's importance as a nursery ground for yearling striped bass and bluefish that concentrate to feed in the tidewater areas before commencing coastal migration. Unusual for Long Island, anadromous species such as alewife and white perch (Morone americana) are possible spawners here. The estuary supports a sea-run brown trout (Salmo trutta) fishery and a native brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) fishery in Connetquot Brook. Weakfish congregate to spawn in the sandy shallow of nearby Heckscher Flats. One of the northeasternmost known occurrences of pirate perch (Aphredoderus s. sayanus) is in the Connetqout River.
The majority of the Connetquot River watershed has been protected by the Connetquot River State Park and contains a variety of upland and wetland habitats that support an unusual diversity of regionally rare plants as well as a diversity of bird species. Over 100 species of birds have been reported as possibly breeding here. Rare plants include Long's bittercress (Cardamine longii) in a tidal freshwater marsh along the Connetquot River, weak rush in a sedge meadow near the river, and Collin's sedge and southern twayblade in red maple swamps in the watershed. Wet pine barrens interspersed with bridle paths and fire breaks support several rare plants, including Barratt's sedge, button sedge, hay sedge (Carex argyrantha), bent sedge (Carex styloflexa), yellow milkwort, slender nutrush, whip nutrush, pinweed, slender pinweed, crested yellow orchid, stargrass (Aletris farinosa), swamp oats (Sphenopholis pensylvanica), Nuttall's lobelia, and coastal violet (Viola brittoniana), while a disturbed site along the railroad right-of-way contains rusty flatsedge.
The headwaters of the Connetquot River, which flows south into Great South Bay, and of the Nissequougue River, which flows north into Long Island Sound, are separated by a only a short distance (about 3 kilometers [1.9 miles]) in the village of Hauppague in central Long Island. The riparian corridors of these two rivers thus form a nearly continuous belt of upland and aquatic habitat across the island. Although much of the land between the headwaters has been developed, there is a somewhat fragmented corridor of open space between the northern end of the Connetquot and the southern end of the two branches of the Nissequogue. This is one of the few places in central Long Island where there is a cross-island open space corridor for birds, insects, and amphibians. The land between the headwaters contains a few coastal plain ponds supporting the eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma t. tigrinum). Bow Drive Marsh at the headwaters of the Nissequougue River is a high-quality, coastal plain, poor fen supporting tiger salamander and several rare plant species, including Nuttall's lobelia, comb-leaved mermaid weed, long-tubercled spikerush, and stargrass (Aletris farinosa).
Champlin Creek and Orowoc Creek: Champlin Creek is a relatively undisturbed, clean, freshwater coastal stream. The upper portions of Champlin Creek provide habitat conditions suitable for natural reproduction by one of only six known wild populations of brook trout on Long Island. At its southern terminus near Great South Bay, the stream enters Seatuck National Wildlife Refuge and, ultimately, a system of freshwater, brackish, and tidal marshes and ditches. As in other coastal streams along the shoreline, the interface of fresh and salt water provides rich spawning and nursery habitats for commercially valuable marine species, including white perch and yearling striped bass and bluefish. Osprey nest in the National Wildlife Refuge and across the creek at Heckscher State Park, and least tern have nested on dredged material deposited along the park shoreline. The wetlands and nearby uplands of Heckscher State Park support several rare plant species, including slender marsh-pink, Nuttall's lobelia, angled spikerush, and pinweed, and a nearby pond has small floating bladderwort. Rare plants along Champlin Creek include Nuttall's lobelia and whip nutrush. Orowoc Creek is a freshwater coastal stream harboring a locally rare population of naturally reproducing brook trout. The upper watershed of Orowoc Creek, which is approximately 2 kilometers (1.5 miles) north of the bay, remains relatively undisturbed and is under consideration for public ownership through town and/or county purchase. Many species of birds, reptiles, and amphibians unusual for an urbanized area inhabit the wetlands and riparian woodlands. These include wood duck (Aix sponsa), DeKay's brown snake (Storeria dekayi), box turtles (Terrapene spp.), and numerous songbirds. A pine barren seep area along a tributary of the Orowoc has several rare plants, including Elliot's goldenrod (Solidago elliotttii), pixies, yellow milkwort, and whip nutrush. A peat (Sphagnum spp.) bog harboring sundews (Drosera spp.), cranberry (Vaccinium spp.), several species of orchid, and other plants of special botanical interest also occurs along the Orowoc. A nearby shallow pond contains comb-leaved mermaid-weed, an uncommon species in the region. Redfin pickerel (Esox americanus) are also found in this part of the Orowoc.
Lower Carmans River Watershed: This area includes the Swan River and Beaverdam Creek, Carmans River estuary, and Yaphank Creek.
Swan River and Beaverdam Creek: Beaverdam Creek empties into Bellport Bay without a blockage structure and, thus, supports a significant concentration of sea-run brown trout. The Swan River that flows east of Patchogue is an example of a free-flowing, spring-fed, stream habitat that supports both a native brook trout population and a sea-run population of brown trout in the tidal section below the Montauk Highway (Swan Lake Dam); it also contains a population of the regionally rare pirate perch.
Carmans River Estuary: The Carmans River estuary is one of only four major riverine ecosystems on Long Island. The river drains approximately 184 square kilometers (71 square miles), and has an average annual discharge of about 0.7 cubic meters per second (25 cubic feet per second). The tidal river begins approximately 3 kilometers (2 miles) north of Bellport Bay (part of Great South Bay) just below the Southaven Dam, and is primarily within the 972-hectare (2,400-acre) Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge. Extensive and undeveloped tidal wetlands on both sides of the river provide outstanding habitat for a great diversity of fish and wildlife species. The freshwater and tidal portions support over 40 species of fish. The Carmans River estuary is one of the most significant nursery areas for yearling striped bass in Great South Bay. Juvenile bluefish are also found in abundance. Both species may spend a year or more in tidal portions of the river before commencing coastal migration. Alewife, sea-run brown trout, and white perch spawn in the estuary, which also provides important nursery habitat for these species. Freshwater fish species that occur in the river and ponds include a naturally reproducing population of brook trout, yellow perch (Perca flavescens), white perch, and common carp (Cyprinus carpio). The commercially and recreationally valuable blue crab spawns around the nutrient-rich salt marshes fringing the estuary. Forage fish such as killifish and Atlantic silverside also use the shallow waters of tidal wetland areas as spawning and nursery grounds. The estuary provides regionally important wintering habitat for high concentrations of waterfowl including canvasback, hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), redhead, northern shoveler (Anas clypeata), northern pintail (Anas acuta), gadwall (Anas strepera), American wigeon (Anas americana), American black duck, mallard, red-breasted merganser, scaup, and bufflehead. Other species of birds inhabiting the wetlands bordering the river are breeding osprey, sharp-tailed sparrow, seaside sparrow, and clapper rail, and migrating and wintering northern harriers, peregrine falcons, and other raptors that hunt over the tidal marshes during migration. Wetlands and uplands in the Carmans River watershed support nesting by nearly 100 species of migratory birds, including many Neotropical migrant songbirds.
The Carmans River is one of two rivers draining the Long Island Pine Barrens; the other is the eastward-flowing Peconic River. The network of wetland and upland habitat in the pine barrens supports regionally significant concentrations of rare plant and animal species. The four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) breeds in the upper reaches of the Carmans River and Eastern tiger salamander breed in a network of ponds in the watershed. Rare plants occurring in the Carmans River watershed include pygmyweed and purple milkweed along the river and Collin's sedge in a red maple swamp. A coastal plain pond in the upper watershed (Week's pond) has several rare plant species, including an exemplary occurrence of fibrous bladderwort, few-flowered nutrush, whip nutrush, and button sedge. The headwaters of the Carmans River are within the central Long Island Pine Barrens. (See Long Island Pine Barrens - Peconic River habitat complex for additional details on this area.)
Yaphank Creek: Yaphank Creek is a completely undisturbed tributary of the Carmans River. At the creek's headwaters is an extensive emergent freshwater marsh; this regionally rare natural community is in excellent condition. Bordering the marsh is acidic bog vegetation, including Sphagnum moss, round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), bladderwort (Utricularia spp.) and gerardia (Agalinis spp.), specifically adapted to live in the low-nutrient waters characteristic of sandy coastal plain soils. The fast-moving headwaters of upper Yaphank Creek are a spawning ground for one of Long Island's naturally reproducing populations of native brook trout, as well as for redfin pickerel. Upper Yaphank Creek provides nesting and foraging habitat for diverse avian species, including osprey, wood duck, American black duck, mallard, gadwall, and eastern bluebird. Northern harriers forage over the wetlands and associated sphagnum bog. Yaphank Creek is one of only four known New York State locales where the eastern mud turtle breeds in the brackish marshes and is one of the few Long Island habitats suitable for declining northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon). Lower Yaphank Creek also supports yearling striped bass and is a spawning area for white perch and several forage fish species.
VII. THREATS AND SPECIAL PROBLEMS: Although many of the remaining undeveloped lands around Great South Bay are already publicly owned, recreational pressure from a growing human population is strong. This is especially problematic on the western barrier island, where town-owned lands of wildlife significance have repeatedly been opened to increased public access and more intensive use. Predation by small mammals, gulls, and crows of beach-nesting birds, including piping plover, least tern, common tern, roseate tern, and black skimmer is an increasing problem. Pressure on the ocean beaches from recreational use and associated beach management is extreme. Beach management threats include beach grooming, patrols by off-road vehicles, and garbage collection; in addition, placement of garbage cans on beaches attracts predators. Though fencing is erected around nesting areas, beach goers are not always respectful of fencing, especially when popular beach access points are closed. Some activities such as beach parties, volleyball games, and kite-flying occur outside the fencing, and disrupt incubating birds within fenced areas. Human activity within the intertidal zone disrupts plover chicks that forage along the water's edge, outside of fenced areas. Organized events, such as fireworks displays and annual festivals, draw large crowds to the beach. Beach stabilization, beach nourishment, dune alterations, and groin or jetty repairs and maintenance are all threats.
Elimination or alteration of tidal marsh, intertidal areas, and dune habitat, degradation of water quality, and increased human presence near breeding grounds can create negative and irreparable impacts to the natural communities of terrestrial and marine wildlife species, especially those already in decline such as federally listed threatened or endangered species. Overexploitation of marine resources has already resulted in population declines for economically valuable finfish, such as weakfish, and hard clams in Long Island waters. Degradation of water quality, especially by nonpoint source runoff, is of mounting concern. The Great South Bay is the receptacle for water from the more than a million people that live within the bay's drainage basin. Nonpoint sources dominate the releases into the bay, producing nutrient loading that is followed by eutrophication and increased levels of fecal bacteria, which in turn lead to closure of large segments of the bay to shellfishing and other water-related activities. These pollution effects are further exacerbated by intensive and competing human use factors that include commercial fishing, aquaculture, recreational boating, swimming, and commercial transportation and shipping. The current distribution of primary production in the bay reflects excessive nutrient loading, resulting in higher levels of phytoplankton growth, high turbidity, and increased macroalgal growth. These eutrophic (high nutrient) conditions tend to shift primary production from eelgrass-dominated to phytoplankton and seaweed-dominated systems. Other factors causing declines in eelgrass include eelgrass wasting disease, dredging and filling operations, and disturbance by power boats. Loss of eelgrass beds may eliminate other species by no longer providing them with specific benthic habitat requirements. Periodic noxious phytoplankton blooms (brown tides) occurring in the bay have major impacts on scallops and other invertebrates, fish, and wildlife. The cause of these blooms has not yet been established. Continuing discharges to ground and surface water of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as increased runoff and nitrogen loading from roads and septic systems, are adversely impacting water quality and vegetation in the area, altering spawning and nursery habitats to the detriment of the many marine species dependent on these systems. Special attention should be given to protection of the few existing wild brook trout fisheries in this complex. This can be achieved by protecting these important freshwater flows from nonpoint stormwater inputs, maintaining the adjacent wetland buffers, and providing adequate flow regimes.
Other wildlife species of concern, including piping plover, least, common, and roseate terns, and northern harrier are undergoing loss or disturbance to critical nesting habitats. Development of remaining private lands in sensitive areas such as the Carmans River estuary would eliminate or disturb wetland and forest habitat, with potentially devastating consequences to the ecology of the river, Great South Bay, and the rare or uncommon fauna and flora occurring in these habitats. Development of land in the watershed of the Carmans River would have an irreversible, negative impact on the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge by fragmenting wildlife habitat that is now contiguous with refuge holdings, eliminating species sensitive to human disturbance, increasing predation on refuge wildlife by domestic cats and dogs, and increasing vandalism within refuge confines. Contaminant surveys at Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge showed levels of cadmium, chromium, and manganese exceeding at least one of the levels of concern reviewed. Biannual dredging and dredged material deposition of Fire Island Inlet may eliminate natural coastal features such as interdunal swales.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering a range of options for the reformulation of the Fire Island segment of the south shore of Long Island, including developing an unbroken 15-foot-high dune ridge along the entire length of the island. These actions will result in degradation or loss of beach habitat for rare plants and animals, especially species such as piping plover or terns, which are dependent on overwash and inlet areas. A steel bulkhead proposed by the New York State Department of Transportation along the south side of Ocean Parkway at Gilgo Beach would destroy valuable beach habitat.
VIII. CONSERVATION RECOMMENDATIONS: The entire Great South Bay estuary, including the bay waters, barrier beaches, tidal marshes, and coastal streams and rivers identified, should be considered for recognition or designation as a National Estuarine Research Reserve or as a Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. This would be especially beneficial to those publicly owned lands that are now primarily managed to accommodate human recreation, with little attention afforded to protection and/or enhancement of wildlife habitats. There are excellent opportunities to protect and enhance the value of Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge by adding adjacent properties to refuge holdings, thus completing the design originally proposed, preserving the integrity of the refuge, and possibly adding additional watershed and pine barren areas. The fact that a significant number of acres remain vulnerable to degradation, including those that are publicly owned, indicates a need for further protection. Extensive areas of degraded tidal marsh along the south shore of mainland Long Island have been identified by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan - Atlantic Coast Joint Venture for restoration as American black duck and associated species habitat. These marshes should be enhanced, restored, and/or acquired. A total of 28 sites from Gardiner Park in Islip east to Smith Point marina were identified for possible restoration in a plan put together by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Proposed actions include open marsh water management, freshwater diversion channels, breaching of berms, removal of fill, excavation of tidal channels, cuts through bulkheads, and culvert additions/replacements.
Beach habitats of nesting piping plovers and terns are highly vulnerable to various human-related disturbances, and stringent protective measures are necessary throughout the critical nesting and young-rearing seasons (April to August); these include protective fencing, beach closures, predator removal/control, and warden patrols. Predator control at Cedar Beach where predation resulted in complete loss of the large tern and skimmer colony in 1995 should be a high priority. Protection of the full geographical extent of both current and recent historical nesting beaches should be sought as a means of ensuring the long-term survival of beach-nesting birds in this region. Special emphasis should be placed on implementing objectives and tasks outlined in the recovery plans for piping plover, roseate tern, and seabeach amaranth.
Erosion control projects along Fire Island and Jones Beach Island should be done in a way that recognizes the dynamic nature of the barrier islands, including natural processes such as overwash and breaching, the needs of the natural communities, and the fish, wildlife, and plant species occurring in the nearshore waters on the beach and dunes and in the backbarrier bays and marshes. More information is needed on the impacts of various erosion control options on the beach resources, especially the federally listed threatened seabeach amaranth and piping plover, and on the bay resources before these projects proceed.
Additional research is needed on the cause and prevention of brown tides. Inputs of nutrients into Great South Bay from point and nonpoint sources need to be greatly reduced. Public outreach efforts should be focused on reduced use of fertilizers and pesticides and proper maintenance of septic systems by landowners. Evaluate cumulative environmental impacts of coastal projects, such as erection of steel bulkheads along Ocean Parkway and biannual dredging of Fire Island Inlet with associated beach nourishment, and make adjustments to projects as necessary to protect natural resources.
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List of Species of Special Emphasis
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