Marshlands Conservancy’s 151 acres is made up of 5 distinct habitats, each of which supports a unique mix of plant and animal life.
Now at around 16 acres, the meadow is no longer grazed by exotic animals, but instead supports such diverse wildlife as White-tailed Deer, small mammals (i.e. mice, shrews, voles, and rabbits), Wild Turkeys, Eastern Box Turtles (a Species of Special Concern in New York), two snake species, and a multitude of butterfly, beetle, bug, bee, and other insect species. Raptors hover low over the meadow searching for a meal, small songbirds take cover and feed among the tall grasses year round, and the spring ushers in a growing list of migratory warblers, swallows, and other birds which come mostly to feed on the insects making their homes on the wildflowers and crabapple trees that dot the landscape.
Early spring evenings are the best time to witness the bizarre but beautiful courtship display of the American Woodcock, which has returned to this same spot for hundreds of years to perform their mating dance. Botanically, the meadow is dominated by such wildflowers as Goldenrods, Asters, Field Thistle, Dog Bane, Milkweeds, Mountain Mint, grasses including Little Blue Stem, Orchard Grass, Indian Grass, Sweet Vernal Grass, Switch Grass, and many other varieties of sedges and rushes. While controlled burning was the primary management practice in the past, since the 1970s the meadow has been mowed annually by the Friends of Marshlands to encourage herbaceous plant growth.
Other sections of the forest include young Red Maple and wild Crabapple trees behind the visitor’s center, a middle succession Oak-Hickory forest, shady climax Beech-Tulip forest, and wet areas where Spicebush and Skunk Cabbage thrive. The quiet hiker can be treated to sights of White-tailed Deer browsing on saplings and shrubs, flocks of Wild Turkeys kicking away fallen leaves in search of seeds and insects to eat, Grey Squirrels scurrying up the trees, and woodpeckers and other birds flying among the treetops.
Plants grow in different tidal zones based on their salt tolerance, with the highly-adapted grasses of the Spartina genus growing directly in the water and making up the majority of the marsh, Marsh Elder and Groundsel shrubs in an intermediate zone, and Common Reed Grass (Phragmites) at the edge of the causeway where less salt water reaches. Nutrients brought in by rain water from the uplands combined with an abundance of decomposing organic matter makes the salt marsh one of the most productive habitats on earth, and an important breeding ground and nursery for salt water fish, shrimp, crabs, and shellfish including mussels and snails.
The mudflats among the marsh grasses also provide excellent foraging habitat for egrets and numerous species of other herons, sandpipers, and plovers during the warmer months, and ducks and geese paddle through the channels year-round.
“Parson’s Pond,” near Marshlands’ eastern border, is much older, and was created in the early 1800s as an ice pond for the Parsons family who owned the land. Look closely in the snow or mud near this pond for the tracks of an elusive muskrat family that forages on the aquatic plants.
The Conservancy is home to the oldest known continuously-managed meadow in New York State. While such sizable grasslands of this type do not naturally occur in the Northeast (in contrast to the native prairies typical of the Midwest), by consistently curbing the growth of saplings in the area, grasses and wildflowers are given the opportunity to flourish on their own. Historically, the Siwanoy Indians burned sections of the forest for both agricultural purposes (likely corn) and to create grazing land for deer, rabbits, and other hunted animals. Later when the property became an estate, the meadow area had an abundance of uses, including cultivation of wheat, oats, and hay, serving as both a training field for hunting dogs and as a World War II emergency landing strip, as well as providing pasture land for cattle, sheep, donkeys, and even imported zebras!
The bulk of the walking trails at Marshlands wind through the woodland area, allowing visitors to see several different stages of forest succession and the tree species unique to each of these areas. The Sweet Gum grove, a relatively young forested area, is one of the most northern naturally-occurring stands of these typically southern trees in the country. These tall cathedral-like trees once provided shade for livestock when this area was part of a pasture, and eventually young saplings were seeded by the mature trees. The tiny seeds inside the spiky “gum balls” provide food for squirrels, finches, and other small songbirds.
Marshlands Conservancy was named for its extensive salt marsh, the largest remaining marsh of its kind in Westchester County. This salt marsh is also unique in its estuarine location in Milton Harbor, where fresh water from Blind Brook to the north mixes with salt water brought in by the tides from Long Island Sound to the south. The harsh environment of high salt concentrations, consistently damp or water-covered soil, and low oxygen greatly limits the types of plants that can grow in the marsh, leading to near-monocultures because of the lack of competition.
Milton Harbor, an inlet of Long Island Sound, is home to a great diversity of marine life, including fish, crabs, shrimp, shellfish, and Horseshoe Crabs, ancient animals which have emerged from the water each spring for thousands of years to lay their eggs in the sand. Be sure to take a look at the aquarium tanks in the visitor’s center to see some of these creatures up close. Above the water, migrating Buffleheads, mergansers, scaup, and other ducks swim among the icy waves in the winter, and gulls, terns, and Ospreys are some of the birds you may see flying over in the summer.
All of the islands at Marshlands are naturally occurring, although the causeway trails leading out to some of them were built up by the families living on this property in the 1800s. Although the islands have an elevation of barely 10 feet at their highest, the land is far enough out of the salt water to allow trees to grow, most notably hickories and the leathery-leaved Post Oaks which lean over the sand. Exposed bedrock at the water’s edge (and the coarse sand caused by its erosion) is composed of metamorphic rock peppered with bands of the shiny mineral Mica. Smaller rocks closer to the water provide cover for Asian Shore Crabs, and an anchoring site for the aptly-named Rockweed (distinguished by its brown color and air bladders) and bright green Sea Lettuce marine algae.
The Conservancy is home to two spring-fed ponds, both of which were man-made but now support aquatic life such as Northern Green Frogs, Common Snapping Turtles, juvenile stages of many insect species, and freshwater plants including the prolific Duckweed. The pond you see on your right as you enter the parking lot was dug out of a naturally marshy area in 1970 when the driveway and visitor’s center were built.