Down on the southern edge of the Quogue Wildlife Refuge, across the railroad tracks and a crossroads of former wagon roads, is a magical place not often seen by refuge visitors.
The Fairy Dell on the edge of Quantuck Creek is a storied part of Quogue history. Once fully enclosed by towering trees and thick vegetation, it was a place where lovers rowed in to the depths of the creek on romantic excursions, where fishermen whiled away hours and where naturalists went to find a piece of undisturbed calm.
Back in the 1980s, the refuge built a boardwalk into the Fairy Dell, giving land-borne visitors an opportunity to see the beauty there. But Superstorm Sandy laid waste to that boardwalk, and few visitors have been there since.
This past year, thanks to a $142,000 matching grant from the Robert David Lion Gardner Foundation, the refuge hired Sea Level Construction to replace the boardwalk with marine grade hardwood stringers, topped with composite decking, adding detailed informational signage, benches and a welcome gate to encourage refuge visitors to spend time in the Fairy Dell.
The original boardwalk, built in the winter of 1983-1984, was one of the first projects authorized by New York State’s “Return a Gift to Wildlife” contribution program, funded by taxpayers who opt in on their annual state tax returns.
The dell is a prime example of how habitats change over time, said the refuge’s executive director, Michael Nelson, on a recent walk along the boardwalk. At the upland entrance, he pointed out the tupelo trees and freshwater marsh where, in the spring, ferns and skunk cabbages will begin to show their heads.
“Before they built the causeway on Montauk Highway (over Quantuck Creek), carriages would stop here so the horses could drink fresh water,” said Mr. Nelson, who added that the Quogue Ice Company had also harvested freshwater ice in the creek before having to move their operations back to the freshwater ice pond.. But after topographic changes caused by the 1895 digging of the Quogue Canal, and with rising sea levels, the creek has become more saline over time, killing off many of the freshwater marsh-tolerant trees that once stood here.
The boardwalk’s three extensions, which spread like veins out into the creek, look out over ghostly stumps of trees killed by the saltwater intrusion, with views across the creek to the causeway, surrounded further into the reaches of the creek by salt water-tolerant phragmites.
A resident osprey pole stands just yards away from one promontory of the boardwalk. Mr. Nelson said it’s been occupied every year — though one year an owl took possession of it before the ospreys returned from their winter travels to the Southern Hemisphere.
The refuge’s staff is looking forward to bringing kids from their camps and programs out to learn about the Fairy Dell’s unique habitat, wading into the water at low tide to find critters, and observing nature from the three platforms in the cree.
“People would come in here in rowboats to propose marriage, and it still has a magical feel,” said Mr. Nelson.
The Fairy Dell is open to the public from sunrise to sunset. Dogs and bicycles are prohibited. A grand opening celebration is being scheduled for the summer solstice, June 21 at 3 p.m.