Sunken Meadow State Park, located on the north shore of Long Island, is a popular destination for residents who want to enjoy time at the beach and beautiful hiking trails. Perhaps less well known to visitors is the 400-acre tidal marsh complex located south and west of the mouth of the Nissequogue River.
Tidal marshes, or salt marshes, are coastal wetlands that provide critical nesting and foraging habitat for birds and serve as nursery areas for commercial and recreational fish species. These marshes also protect coastal communities and infrastructure by acting as natural storm barriers, and they filter out water pollutants.
Over 50 state-rare plant and animal species are known to occur in, or use this type of habitat. The marsh plants are uniquely adapted to tolerate the tides and the salt. Tidal marshes themselves are imperiled in the state and uncommon in the world, making protection even more urgent in the face of climate change.
Since the 1950s, human activity has altered the flow of water through the marsh at Sunken Meadow.
Mosquito ditches, which are long trenches that crisscross the marsh, were installed to drain the marsh of water and control mosquitos. The additional construction of a large earthen berm, a mound of soil built across Sunken Meadow Creek near its mouth, was installed to prevent the tide from flowing into the marsh. Over time, the marsh deteriorated. Large mudflats developed—entirely devoid of vegetation—and an invasive reed, Phragmites australis, moved into other areas of the marsh, crowding out some of the native plants.
To restore the health of the Sunken Meadow marsh and ensure its resilience to sea level rise, Audubon, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (“New York State Parks”), Save the Sound, and the New York Natural Heritage Program are working together to improve natural tidal flow and restore native vegetation.
Improving the health of the marsh habitat at Sunken Meadow would be a victory for birds like the Clapper Rail, American Oystercatcher, and Greater Yellowlegs, and for insects like the Seaside Dragonlet (a dragonfly) and Saltmarsh Tiger Beetles, which are increasingly threatened by sea level rise that degrades suitable foraging grounds and breeding habitat. It would also benefit native plants like Glasswort, Sea Lavender, Salt Marsh Hay, Smooth Cordgrass and others that only grow in these tidal marshes.
“This work at Sunken Meadow helps us restore and maintain a healthy marsh and provide important bird habitat while enhancing recreational opportunities for the public to enjoy our parks. Healthy Long Island wetlands and ecosystems help us protect water quality and prepare for climate change impacts like sea level rise,” said George Gorman, Long Island Regional Director at NYS Parks.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy breached the Sunken Meadow Creek berm that had choked the creek since the 1950’s and introduced salt water back into the marsh system.
This change represented a sudden and significant opportunity to jump-start marsh restoration.
New York State Parks and Save the Sound restored and rehabilitated 4.3 acres of salt marsh at Sunken Meadow State Park between 2015 and 2019 through funding provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“Sunken Meadow Creek and its marshes experienced historic degradation for more than a century,” said Katie Friedman, New York Ecological Restoration Program Manager at Save the Sound. “We are proud to have worked with New York State Parks to restore this critical habitat by implementing innovative green stormwater infrastructure practices and engaging the local community in hands-on wetland restoration. We are happy to provide continuity and technical guidance as efforts to restore this dynamic ecosystem move forward.”
Save the Sound worked with several contractors and hundreds of volunteers to reclaim the marsh from invasive species, regrade sections of the marsh to re-create suitable habitat for native flora and fauna, and plant several acres of native grasses. To improve water quality in the marsh complex, Save the Sound also led the design and construction of large-scale green infrastructure to capture and treat stormwater runoff from the adjacent 17-acre parking lot through constructed wetlands and bioswales.
“Over the past several years State Parks partnered with Save the Sound and others to obtain a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant to evaluate the creek for fish passage, as well as hire an environmental educator for several summers to provide public education on the importance of the creek ecosystem. The grant also provided funds to help restore marsh habitat by planting spartina (a native salt marsh plant) in two locations in the creek,” said Annie McIntyre, Long Island Regional Environmental Manager at NYS Parks.
Audubon New York recently received funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Long Island Future Funds to design a salt marsh restoration project to improve the health of the marsh. Restoration activities include removing mosquito ditches and creating natural tidal channels to improve water flow across the marsh, and applying a thin layer of sediment to raise the elevation of portions of the interior marsh – creating conditions that will support healthy, high marsh habitat.
Those areas will be planted with native vegetation, in hopes of creating an important refuge for at-risk species such as the Saltmarsh Sparrow.
Though there are not currently Saltmarsh Sparrows or Seaside Sparrows nesting at Sunken Meadow, Audubon staff and our partners are optimistic that the changes taking place at the park will encourage these threatened species to embrace this new habitat as a permanent home.
These marshes are stunning to look at and so rich with life. They provide not only natural beauty and a place for physical and mental wellness, but also protect our waters, ecosystems, and provide resilience to climate change. We look forward to continued work with our partners to be good stewards of these vital places.