The natural history of the Ashley Schiff Preserve was heavily shaped by the end of the last glacial maximum, when large continental ice sheets stretched from modern-day Long Island all the way across North America to the West Coast. About 18,000 years ago the southward advance of this ice sheet slowed down, and the melting edge of the glacier sat in this spot for several thousand years, dumping plenty of rocks and sediment. These deposits form the line of hills along northern Long Island which we now call the Harbor Hill Moraine. Once the glaciers retreated, about 11,000 years ago, these hills grew forests.
The community of plants and animals likely changed over the past several thousand years, managed to some extent by the Native American communities on Long Island, until European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries cut many of the native forests to make room for agricultural fields. Historical research by SBU undergrad Victoria Wood discovered that the area was maintained as a woodlot in the 19th century, and was likely cut in the early 20th century when most of the large American chestnut (Castanea dentata) trees were infected with the chestnut blight fungus. Since then the area has been a successional forest, dominated by a mix of different oak species and other deciduous broadleaf species like sassafras, birch, locust, beech, maples, flowering dogwood, and tulip poplar.
Much of the understory is composed of mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) and many young trees. Along the forest floor you can find a number of different wildflowers, including partridgeberry, false Solomon’s seal, American wintergreen, and even the rare trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). Animal life in the woods includes everything from white-tailed deer, which can often be seen in the evenings, to small reptiles, like the occasional garter snake, to a number of birds. Many of those birds are residents that spend the whole year, including many different woodpecker species, but during the spring and fall there are many colorful migrants that pass through on their way to and from the Tropics and their breeding grounds in the Boreal forest to the North. Beneath the surface there are many organisms, from worms to insects to fungi that play the all-important role in decomposing the leaf litter and soil. A walk through the Preserve in the fall will reveal many interesting mushrooms.
As a temperate forest, the character of the forest changes dramatically through the seasons. The snow and cold of winter quiet the woods and keep almost everything dormant until spring brings the calls of migratory birds and small wildflowers. During summer the forest seems like a completely different place, as the calls of breeding birds and the chorus of insects fills the Preserve with the sounds of life. During the fall you can watch the squirrels and chipmunks collecting food for the next winter. A visit at any time of year is a rewarding experience!