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Smell, see and touch at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown

Emily Coffey, 4, of St. James, smells the

Emily Coffey, 4, of St. James, smells the black birch, cedar and white pine trees at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown. Credit: Marisol Diaz

In the new interactive forest exhibit at the Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, kids can come eye-to-eye with a box turtle. If it weren’t for a glass dome separating them, they could probably give the turtle a kiss.

How can they get so close? Picture a king-size bed. A handful of box turtles lives on the top in a bed of wood chips. Kids crawl into a maze built underneath, pop their heads up into the dome in the middle of the “bed” and, if there’s a turtle looking into the dome at that moment, it’s a close encounter of the turtle kind.

“We wanted it to be interactive, really interactive through the different senses,” says Eric Young, Sweetbriar’s program director. “All in one little room.”


The dual mission of Sweetbrair includes nature education and wildlife rehabilitation. A half-dozen rooms in a 1930 house offer a home to animals such as a special-needs squirrel and a hive of honeybees. During warmer weather, people can wander the center’s 55 acres.

Sweetbriar runs school programs, scouting outings, school break offerings and birthday parties. It previously added a Tropical Rain Forest Room upstairs to simulate a rain forest environment with an intricate wooden bridge and a faux mangrove swamp. The only thing missing? “We can’t make it rain in here,” Young says.

The forest addition, which officially opens Dec. 26, both fits into and expands Sweetbriar’s offerings, Young says. The box turtles in the exhibit all are unable to live in the wild, for instance. “One is missing his front claw,” curator-artist Janine Bendicksen says. Another had a too-small shell due to malnutrition. “They all have a story,” she says.

The new room, created using a $3,400 New York State grant, flows from the upstairs Rain Forest Room. Many Long Island birds fly south to spend our winter in a rain forest, and back north to us for the summer, Young says.


Sense of sight? Check. In addition to the live box turtles, kids in the forest room can learn about animals common to Long Island that Bendicksen has painted onto the walls, such as white deer, foxes and raccoons. The tunnel underneath the turtle area also has diorama boxes showing animals that live underground, such as a chipmunk.

Also in the room with the turtles is a 3-D wall display of three different trees — black birch, cedar and pine. “These trees all smell really wonderful,” Bendicksen says. Sense of smell? Check. Each tree has a jar of natural scents tucked into a knot hole.

Kids can play with pine cones and other woodland items at a touch table. Sense of touch? Check.

And at a computer screen, visitors take turns guessing which animal is making a certain sound. Is it a katydid? A chipmunk? An owl? Sense of hearing? Check.

“We don’t do taste,” Young jokes.

New interactive forest

WHEN | WHERE 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at Sweetbriar Nature Center, 62 Eckernkamp Rd., Smithtown

INFO 631-979-6344,

ADMISSION Free, but to go upstairs to the Rain Forest Room and new Woodlands Room is $2 per person

Here are three more must-dos at Sweetbriar:

- Visit Ricky the squirrel. The cute little guy has a neurological disorder — he runs as if he’s had a bit too much eggnog. Eric Young, Sweetbriar’s program director, says he thinks Ricky must have been injured by falling from a tree, but curator Janine Bendicksen’s theory is that environmental factors caused him brain damage. Ricky lives in one of the rooms of the house, running free on the hardwood floor. He shares the room with free-roaming Ginger the rabbit and chinchillas that live in cages.

- See what Bendicksen calls “the bone room.” A china cabinet is chock full of actual skeletons of common animals such as a rat, a snake and a crow.

- Talk to Elliot, an umbrella cockatoo. See if you can get him to fan his head feathers (hence his umbrella name) or persuade him to say, “I love you,” back to you. If you start dancing, he may join in.


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