Photos & Story by Luke Ormand
The tidal stream hid behind thick vegetation, tucked in the corner behind a car dealership and repair shop.
To the north, a lake was locked behind a pharmacy, an appliance repair store and a handful of other businesses sandwiched together along Montauk Highway.
For years, Swan Lake and its namesake river in East Patchogue were mere afterthoughts to residents, commuters and passersby. Nearly two-decades ago, the largest of the buildings on the north side of the road came down, with the underlying land then turned into a green space with benches and sidewalks.
Several years later, the town and county removed the remaining structures and a bridge was built over the spillway. A small parking area was added, with new trees dotting the reborn landscape for both kids and birds to explore. But across the street, the dilapidated and derelict buildings remained — the narrow stream yet to be discovered among the tangle of phragmites and red maples.
After the car dealership moved to a better location and the body shop made its last repair, the doors were locked and the buildings were forgotten. A double blow from Tropical Storm Irene and Superstorm Sandy left one of the buildings severely damaged with a sign dangling by one letter.
By this time, the town had purchased the property with open space funds and obtained a grant to refurbish the site. The plan, crafted by officials and technical staff, appeared complicated and ambitious, but the vision was clear: return these few acres to nature and let the public and wildlife enjoy it once again.
After the buildings were removed and the parking lot torn up, the first major step was to remove the drainage pipe that carried polluted stormwater (filled with garbage, sand and road salt) straight into the river.
Next, ponds were dug, with the first being designed to catch the “floating” bits of garbage before the water flowed into “settling” ponds that filtered out dirt and silt.
As the water moves toward the concrete spillway, special aquatic plants soak up harmful chemicals, cleaning the water before it enters the river. After a walking trail and bridge were installed and a parking lot (using permeable pavers) was set in place, the town planted native species of trees, shrubs, wetland plants and wildflowers.
It wasn’t long before nature took notice.
When walking around the ponds, it’s easy to spot gulls, mallards, geese and swans. But what happens when you stop and listen? The rattle of a belted kingfisher cracks the silence. The bird perches on a branch overlooking the stream. searching for an afternoon snack. Suddenly, a splash! You turn toward the pond and see a great egret — impossibly white with a long, school bus-yellow bill — snag a fish.
Your focus slowly shifts to a monarch butterfly dancing in the air and pausing on wildflowers, sipping the last of the season’s nectar to fuel the flight to the Mexican mountains.
A Wilson’s snipe, perfectly camouflaged, makes a brief appearance, probing the mudflats with its long bill as a greater yellowlegs walks by on its bright stilts.
In the last year, the ponds have gained new residents. Frogs (bull and green), turtles (watch out for the snapping ones!) and fish are now common finds when peering over the bridge into the water below. The stream, easily seen from the walking path, features trout, great blue herons and the occasional curious muskrat.
On your next trip (or first!) make a list of the different birds, bugs and animals you see and hear. You’ll be amazed at what you can find at your neighborhood nature preserve.