Small Wonder

T ucked between I-95 and the Long Island Sound, the Long Wharf Nature Preserve is easy to zip by but rewarding to visit. On a sunny morning last week, I parked in the small lot across from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, not far from the entrance to the .4-mile loop trail.

From signage provided by the New Haven Land Trust (now Gather New Haven), I learned the preserve is approximately 15 acres at low tide and contains mudflats, salt marsh and beach as well as uplands with a wildflower field and woods. I followed the path between two cottonwood trees, through cordgrass and other marsh plants—where a startled rabbit hopped into the grass—and over a small bridge. Mussel, oyster, clam and scallop shells were strewn across the beach while a few water bottles and bits of plastic rested at the high tide line. Less scrutable were clear, ribbed, jelly ovoids being pulled into the harbor by the rising tide. I later discovered these were comb jellies, a native, non-stinging invertebrate.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven - The Great Give

The small preserve gets a lot of mileage from its position next to the glistening expanse of New Haven Harbor. Ducks and gulls fly and swim near shore, drawing the eye out to sea. Despite manmade points of interest—the Sound School on one end, the Q Bridge at the other, industrial areas between—I found myself gazing into the slip of blue that stretched toward the open Sound. Above, puffy clouds drifted in the brine-scented breeze.

Continuing along the trail, I crossed a couple of small wooden bridges, where I saw holes in the mudflats below, evidence of hermit crabs. Along the edge of the marsh, I watched a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron catching and eating fish. (The Night-Heron is one of the many “regulars” at the Long Wharf Nature Preserve, according to Arthur Shippee, a member of an eBird group dedicated to sighting and identifying birds at the preserve.)

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The Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop - The Leonardo Challenge

Enticed by the sound of a woodpecker, I headed back into the shade of the woodlands five to six feet above sea level. The entire area was underwater until 1949 when, to allow for larger ships, the harbor was dredged and “sediment was dumped,” creating the land I walked on, where most of the trees and plants are the “result of natural seed dispersion.” In 2015, the preserve was categorized as an urban oasis, and multiple environmental agencies provided volunteers to remove invasive species so that native plants would thrive.

Enjoying the result of their efforts—though you can still find pesky, invasive phragmites here—I continued along the loop trail, passing blooming cherry trees, budding staghorn sumac and a small pastel-colored pavilion on the way back to the entrance, where I could see the traffic I’d been hearing from the preserve. Its constant whir is an intrusion but also a reminder to cherish this small but diverse stretch of reclaimed nature.

Long Wharf Nature Preserve
Along Long Wharf Drive near the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (map)

Written and photographed by Heather Jessen.

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Heather Jessen is a poet and writer who likes asking questions. She’s in awe of the educators, artists and social workers who’ve helped New Haven kids and families during the pandemic.

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