Nature Notes: Up a Creek, With Paddle

One strategic system of land that still needs to expand is the Long Pond Greenbelt
A dead yellow perch by Ligonee Creek in Sag Harbor was found not far from two dead eels. Jean Held

The South Fork is contracting and expanding at the same time. Its land volume is slowly shrinking as the seas warm up, and sea level rise pushes farther and farther inland with each tropical storm or northeaster. At the same time, its population continues to rise as its resort popularity grows. Traffic on the three east-west thoroughfares east of the Shinnecock Canal continues to expand. At the end of the last millennium it was barely tolerable, now it has become intolerable.

Where would we be without the passage of the community preservation act in 1998, which gave the five townships on the Peconic Bay estuary a new funding mechanism for land preservation? We preserved much land before the passage of the act by hook or by crook, and much more since its inception, especially here on the South Fork with its ultra rich real estate purchases. But we are far from finished.

One strategic system of land that still needs to expand is the Long Pond Greenbelt, a system of ponds, brooks, wetlands, and uplands between Sag Harbor and Montauk Highway. It just may be the richest set of water table ponds and streams east of the Shinnecock Canal. If we include the contiguous land south of the highway, i.e., Sagg Swamp and Sagg Pond, it represents more than eight square miles of preserved land owned collectively by Southampton Town, Suffolk County, and the Nature Conservancy.

The Dongan Patent gave all of Southampton Town’s waterways to the townspeople in 1686, 100 years before we took the rest of the land from the British by way of the Revolutionary War. The list of ponds is exhaustive. Otter Pond on the north, Sagg Pond on the south, with no fewer than 19 other ponds scattered between them. The largest of them, Long Pond, smack in the middle, gave rise to the name of Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt, the volunteer organization focusing its environmental and educational activities to the benefit of this natural system, while the Southampton Town Trustees manage the ponds, and streams running from them.

Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt was started two years before the new millennium and has been actively working to protect the system ever since, without skipping a beat. Dai Dayton and Sandra Ferguson have led the group since its inception. For the past several years they have been meeting and conducting weekly activities at the nature center owned by Southampton Town hidden away in the woods of the greenbelt east of the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike.

When I was a professor at Southampton College in the 1970s, I applied for a  National Science Foundation grant to survey the system of ponds making up the greenbelt, but was unsuccessful. However, one of my students, Russell Hoeflich, studied the system, particularly with respect to its bird species. He later became director of the South Fork-Shelter Island Nature Conservancy and continued the work. I spent many a day with Russell examining the flora and fauna of this wonderful area.

The late Pierson Topping, a trapper and wildlife observer, once trapped a mink at the edge of one of the ponds. To many a Bridgehampton and Pierson High School kid, including the environmentalists Pat Trunzo and Chris Chapin, the greenbelt was the place to go to find frogs and turtles and catch bass and pickerel. It was a spot where Mr. Chapin found his first eastern tiger salamanders, a species that has become so rare on Long Island and the rest of New York State that it is now considered endangered.

In the late 1970s, as interest in preserving the rest of the greenbelt grew, Joyce Burland, then a Suffolk County legislator, introduced legislation to help protect the greenbelt. Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., a Pierson High School and Southampton College graduate, has helped the greenbelt in a great many ways.

All of the waterways in the greenbelt represent the top of the upper glacial aquifer. They are groundwater at the earth’s surface, and they rise and fall with alternating wet and dry periods. In the famous drought of the 1960s several of the ponds, including Poxabogue and Little Poxabogue Ponds, dried up. Their only source of water is rain and snow. The groundwater “divide,” the very top of the aquifer, is situated on the north end of Crooked Pond. After a heavy rainfall, one can actually observe the water moving north into Long Pond from Crooked Pond. 

Indeed, Long Pond served as a source of early Sag Harbor’s potable water supply. Some of the trappings of the old waterworks structures are still seen south of Long Pond today. Today, Sag Harbor’s water comes from Suffolk County Water Authority wells situated along the village’s southeast border.

The tiger salamander is just one of the many rare animals and plants in the greenbelt. There are several rare plants including three different insectivorous plants and the pink tickweed, Coreopsis rosea, which comes and goes with the recession and flooding of the shoreline as water levels drop and rise, depending upon the year.

Jean Held once found and photographed a red-bellied turtle, considered alien, but I think native, laying eggs in the middle of the old Long Island Rail Road swath, which was covered with rails when trains ran to Sag Harbor from Bridgehampton. There are northern water snakes, bass, alewives, and eels among the many fish species inhabiting the ponds, and a great number of water birds that come and go, while a few nest. Osprey feed in the ponds and, lately, bald eagles have been seen in the trees at the edge of Long Pond or flying over it. Go there in April in the evening, and you will hear thousands of spring peepers peeping, and after a rain, the trill of many, many gray tree frogs.

Several years ago Jean Held devoted an entire summer to rooting out the phragmites from the northern end of Long Pond by hand with simple tools, but she recently told me this invasive species is still in force. There are a few bald cypresses at the edges of two of the ponds. They are southern coniferous species that occasionally reach to north of New Jersey. A few days ago she went to survey the scene. The little dam at the top of the brook was filled with mud, a freshly dead white perch was on the downstream side of the dam, and two dead male eels were on the upstream side. The upper and last several yards of the stream bed contained no water.

There are some large privately owned tracts in the vicinity of the ponds, which hopefully will never be developed but instead acquired for public use. South of Montauk highway and north of Sagg Swamp there is a big piece of agricultural land with “For Sale” signs. Go into Sagg Swamp a little way to the south of that piece and you run into the easternmost grove of Atlantic white cedar, another rare species on Long Island. The next nearest stands of this majestic tree, the wood of which lasts just about forever, are in the hamlet of North Sea near Little Fresh Pond.

Long Pond and Jeremy’s Hole, in Sagg Swamp, have supported alewife populations in the past. Jeremy’s Hole gets its seasonal run from Sagg Pond. Long Pond gets its via Ligonee Brook, which runs north into Payne’s Cove, which joins with Upper Sag Harbor Cove, which runs under the Route 114 bridge out into the bay. For the last several years, alewives have had a difficult time navigating Ligonee Brook. The culverts under Brick Kiln Road and the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike are not conducive to an easy up-and-down to and from Long Pond. The sides of Ligonee Creek southeast of the latter culvert are unvegetated and erosively scarred, which is not good for the health of the brook.

Common eels, which are no longer common, grow up in Long and Crooked Ponds from four-to-five-inch-long elvers, which make the journey up Ligonee Brook from the Peconic Estuary after a 1,000-mile trip up the coast from the Sargasso Sea out in the Atlantic north of the Caribbean islands. When the eels have matured, they move back down the brook and make their way out to the bays and around Montauk Point and all the way back to the spawning grounds from which they came. No easy trek, mind you. The females, two or three times larger than the males, go separately, the males go in large groups. 

Recently there has been talk of building an asphalted surface and creating a vehicle-impound area in the old former Sag Harbor landfill on the east side of the turnpike just north of the Long Island Power Authority’s high-tension electric line serving much of western Southampton and western East Hampton. Inasmuch as one pond, Deer Lick, makes up part of that area and since that spot to be paved and occupied with old vehicles is in the center of the greenbelt’s tiger salamander population, it is a bad idea. 

Larry Penny can be reached via email at