SHINNECOCK TO MORICHES
The barrier beaches that fringe the easternmost bays of Long Island form the northern terminus of the huge system of beaches, barrier islands, sand dunes, marshes and bays that extends all the way down the Atlantic to Florida and, on the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Texas and Mexico. In the past, there was a single stretch from Fire Island Inlet to Southampton; it was all known as Fire Island and, until relatively recently, the only structures on this long stretch of beach were Coast Guard lifesaving stations. Although hurricanes and winter nor’easters regularly punched holes through the dunes, the natural transport of sand filled in the inlets, often surprisingly quickly. The result was that the South Shore bays – really lagoons fed mostly by underground springs plus a few larger creeks and rivers – were brackish (more fresh than salt) and there was little or no tidal movement. In 1932, a hurricane created the Moriches Inlet and, six years later, the famous 1938 hurricane created the present Shinnecock Inlet. Both of these inlets were stabilized and have been subject to dredging over the years to keep them open. The result is that the tides now reach the farthest upper corners of both Shinnecock and Moriches Bays and large amounts of sand are carried through the inlets on every high tide, forming extensive shoals, flats, islands and salt marshes. Bridges were built at Westhampton, Quogue and Hampton Bays (Ponquogue) and a paved road now runs the entire length of what has become a separate and nameless barrier island. This fragile strip of dunes is bordered by beach and ocean on the south, tidal salt marshes and open bay dotted with islands to the north, and inlets at both eastern and western ends. Although much of it has now been built up with low-rise residential structures, substantial stretches at each end remain in a relatively natural condition and the entire system is excellent for breeding, migrant and winter birds.
It should be pointed out that barrier islands form a dynamic system and this one, like all the others, is in a constant state of transition. Rising sea levels, the natural actions of storms and storm tides, and the often negative effects of human activity have caused extensive changes and will continue to do so. There is evidence that the barrier beach is gradually moving north and retreating inland by rolling over itself. Also, the action of wind and waves tends to redistribute the sand, depositing large amounts in the bay (forming islands suitable for avian breeding colonies) but thereby starving and weakening the beach. The highest tides regularly flood Dune Road, especially in the spring, but now at other seasons as well. The old inlets tend to fill in and, like the bays, they have to be constantly dredged. Meanwhile, new and unwanted inlets are regularly cut by storms. The most notable recent events of this sort were due to the so-called “Perfect Storm” and associated hurricanes of the early 1990s, which destroyed most of the houses and created two new inlets in the Pike’s Beach area of Westhampton Dunes. This formed the unusual peninsula that now juts out into the bay and creates excellent habitat for migrating and breeding birds. The new inlets were eventually filled in and it is now again possible to drive all the way between the old inlets.
The itinerary described below starts at Shinnecock Inlet and goes from east to west. An early morning start is recommended and this puts the sun in back of you for the early hours of the day (and, on summer weekends, helps to beat some of the worst of the beach traffic). It should be pointed out that parking is not allowed on Dune Road and cars left anywhere along its length are subject to ticketing and towing. Parking is available at public beaches and at certain ocean and bay pullouts along the way. The safest way to park at these designated spots is to obtain a beach sticker from the Town of Southampton. Generally speaking, however, there is little supervision between Labor Day and Memorial Day; even during the summer months there are personnel at the little parking lot booths only after 9 or 9:30am on weekends. These beaches are generally crowded only on weekend afternoons, another good reason for an early morning start. Even if there is someone collecting parking fees, it is usually possible to get a waiver by explaining that you do not want to use the beach but intend only to go birdwatching for an hour or so.
It should be mentioned that, notably in the late winter and spring, stretches of Dune Road are often flooded during tropical storms and hurricanes, during winter nor’easters, and sometimes at very high tides. The road may be closed at such times but it is usually possible to reach Shinnecock Inlet via Ponquogue Bridge and Pike’s Beach via one of the Westhampton bridges.
|BIRDING THE SOUTH FORK
WITH ERIC SALZMAN
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|DUNE ROAD, SECTION BY SECTION
CLICK ON EACH SECTION BELOW FOR MORE INFORMATION
(see "SHINNECOCK INLET" area on map)
FROM SHINNECOCK INLET TO PONQUOGUE BRIDGE
(see "PONQUOGUE BRIDGE" area on map)
PONQUOGUE BRIDGE TO TIANA
(see "TIANA" area on map)
TIANA BEACH TO QUOGUE
(see "QUOGUE" area on map)
EAST TO PIKE'S BEACH AND CUPSOGUE
(see "CUPSOGUE" area on map)
|DIRECTIONS TO SHINNECOCK INLET AND EASTERN DUNE ROAD
To get to Shinnecock Inlet take Sunrise Highway (Route 27) to Exit 65. Exit onto Route 24 south to Hampton Bays. Route 24 ends almost immediate at Montauk Highway. Turn left (east) and go through Hampton Bays to the second full traffic light. Turn right (south) on Ponquogue Avenue and go the end. Turn left (east) on Shinnecock Avenue and then right (south) on Foster Avenue. Cross Ponquogue Bridge and turn left (east) on Dune Road. At eastern end of Dune Road is Shinnecock Inlet. If you turn right after crossing bridge you will follow Dune Road to other areas marked on map.