The Sweetbriar Nature Center is a 54 acre preserve located at Landing Avenue and Eckernkamp Drive in Smithtown. It is owned by the town of Smithtown and leased to the Environmental Center of Smithtown-Setauket, whose mission is to "provide natural science education services for Long Island residents of all ages and to engage in native wildlife rehabilitation services".
Sweetbriar is a former working farm that was donated to the Town of Smithtown and The Nature Conservancy by Edith Blydenburgh. It features some very pleasant trails through north shore woods bordering on the Nissequogue River.
In addition to the woodlands, Sweetbriar includes some well maintained gardens, various wildlife enclosures and an aviary where injured birds can stretch their wings while being rehabilitated. A popular attraction during the warmer months is the butterfly house, known as a Vivarium, where many species of native butterflies can be seen. There is a small fee charged to enter the Vivarium. Some old fields on the property are periodically mowed to prevent forest regeneration and provide meadow habitat for various bird and other species.
Sweetbriar is a good place to introduce children to short enjoyable hikes and keep them interested while viewing the animals housed on the property. Sweetbriar is funded mostly though membership fees and revenue from the educational programs that they conduct. There are a number of excellent programs for children throughout the year. There are no visitor fees (except for the Butterfly House) but visitors may very well be tempted to become members.
The main entrance is on the south side of Eckernkamp Drive via a dirt road framed on one side by a row of tall Eastern Red Cedar. At the end of the road with its own circular driveway is the main house which serves as Sweetbriar’s office and is used for exhibits and displays and is the main venue for educational programs. Turn left before entering the circular drive to reach the main parking area near some smaller structures.
Just to the east of the house are the formal gardens and behind the house is a large lawn surrounded by the various wildlife enclosures. At any one time, temporary residents may include foxes, various species of hawks and owls, vultures, and waterfowl. Many are being cared for while they recover from injuries, but there are a number of permanent residents. A treat for all to view are the two bald eagles that are unable to fly and are permanent residents of Sweetbriar. Another favorite are the diminutive Fennec Foxes, natives of North Africa.
At the back of the lawn, near two enclosures that most recently have housed a fearsome looking pair of Great Horned Owls is a path to access the start of the red blazed self guided nature trail. This is the main trail for touring the preserve and it is marked by red rectangles painted on trees and posts as it traces a ¾ mile loop through open fields and rich north shore woods bordering the Nissequogue River before looping back.
After a very short walk from the owl enclosures the red trail is reached. Also present are the white blazes of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail, a 33 mile long trail which passes through Sweetbriar and at this point follows the same route as the red trail. Turn left on this trail which soon traverses the edge between the forest and an open field. This field, and the plants that are present during the growing season, give cover and food to birds and other wildlife. The red trail passes through the field and then bends to the right as it parts company with the Greenbelt trail and heads downhill through some woods where it briefly joins a dirt road. This is the main road through the property and it bisects an area containing more animal enclosures and an old red barn. In addition to raptors, waterfowl and other birds, residents here have included domesticated animals such as goats and pigs. Growing in this area are several large Black Walnut trees.
Just past the barn, as the dirt road turns to the left, the red trail turns to the right and enters the woods where it parallels the Nissequogue River. The trail is dual blazed both red and blue. The blue trail follows the same path along the river, and then loops back to the barn. In these woods can be found Black Birch, Red Maple, White and Black Oak, White Pine, White Ash, Black Cherry and a considerable variety other tree species. As part of the self guided tour, there are occasional signs that identify trees and plants and explain their historical importance.
Just as interesting is the diverse under story and ground cover including, among many others, sassafras, dogwood, spicebush, mountain laurel, holly, sweet pepperbush, maple-leaf viburnum, arrowwood, mayapple and various ferns. An interesting and nostalgic, if somewhat sad feature in the understory is the small American Chestnuts that still sprout from the old stumps of trees that long ago succumbed to Chestnut blight.
There are a couple of locations where the red trail itself or short side paths lead downhill to the river’s edge. This section of the river is the start of the tidal estuary and it is in a fairly wide valley where the main channel of the river will be mostly obscured by tall cattails and non-native Phragmites. Still, the river’s edge offers the opportunity to glimpse the occasional Muskrat or Osprey, ubiquitous skunk cabbage and various other wetland plants, as well as some homes built along the opposite bank of the river. White tailed deer are also sometimes spotted here, having recently migrated back into the Nissequogue River watershed after a decades-long absence.
The trees along side the river area are quite tall with Red Maple, Black Birch, White and Black Oak seeming the most numerous. There are a couple of immense trees which have blown down in recent years and been cut away from the trail but otherwise left to slowly break down and in the process provide habitat for wildlife. One of these still covers several other sizeable trees which were also destroyed when it fell.
Just before the red trail turns back uphill away from the river, there is a short side trail to a rest area with some benches. Along side this area, a small stream tumbles down a mossy ravine carpeted with skunk cabbage and ferns.
Back up the hill, the red trail turns to the left as the blue trail diverges and returns to the red barn. The red trail continues through dense woods until it once again meets up with the white blazed Long Island Greenbelt trail. Scattered throughout this area are numerous large white pines, and some impressively tall red cedar, reminding that this part of the property has long ago reforested from earlier agricultural use.
After making a right at the intersection with the Greenbelt trail, it is a short distance back to the path that started the walk near the Owl enclosure.
There are other options for short hikes at Sweetbriar. On the east side of the property is a yellow blazed trail known as the Chipmunk trail which loops through the hillside west of Landing Avenue. This trail, geared for children, can be accessed from the dirt road at the intersection with the Greenbelt trail just up the hill from the barn.
Another option is to follow the Greenbelt trail to the west, exiting Sweetbriar onto Summerset Drive. A 100 yard road walk is required before reaching a right-of-way on the left (south) side of Summerset Drive. This leads to a fairly short but lovely section of trail that passes through a wetland before reaching Route 25A near the statue of the Smithtown bull.
More information about the Sweetbriar Nature Center, membership and activities can be found at their web site:
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