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Hoffman Center: Slice of LI countryside

Naturalist Virginia Dankel points out to participants John

Naturalist Virginia Dankel points out to participants John and Camille Bapista of North Bellmore a Lady's Slipper, an endangered wild flower from the orchid family, during a tour of the trails and grounds of The Hoffman Center in East Norwich, home to the largest grasslands area on Long Island. (May 5, 2012) Credit: Bruce Gilbert

It's a little slice of the countryside in the middle of Nassau County -- and most people don't even know it's there. Hoffman Center, a privately owned preserve and wildlife center that spans 155 acres in East Norwich, opens its gates to the public twice a month for guided nature walks.

Visitors can see up to 150 species of plants -- some endangered -- plus native and migrating birds and butterflies that call the center's woods, wildflower meadows and three ponds home.

 

ABOUT THE LAND

In the early 1900s, the property was the summer estate of the George Brewster family. Since then, the grounds have changed hands many times, morphing into a country club and golf course, among other uses. In 1995, it was donated to a nonprofit foundation that has allowed the land to return to its natural state.

Walks are usually an hour long and start in the front yard of the mansion. Five miles of trails crisscross the preserve, going from woods to grasslands or passing beside ponds where sunning turtles plunk into the water at the approach of humans.

Naturalist Virginia Dankel of Great Neck has led the guided walks since 2005. On a recent walk, Dankel had a special treat for visitors.

"Walk exactly in my footsteps," Dankel tells the group as she leaves the trail for a flag-marked area a few yards into the woods.

 

A RARE ORCHID

The payoff? A close look at a lady slipper orchid, an endangered species native to Long Island. The rarely seen plants have pinkish-mauve flowers that really look like a miniature slipper.

"I didn't even know you had orchids growing wild in New York," marvels John Baptista, 63, of North Bellmore, who was taking the tour with wife Camille, 60.

Stopping again, Dankel bends down to point out the variegated leaves of another orchid, the rattlesnake plantain, which blooms later than the lady slipper.

As they leave the densely wooded area and walk into a field of hop clover and other grasses, Dankel invites walkers to use all their senses to experience the preserve.

"Smell this," Dankel tells Camille, as she crushes a sprig of Queen Anne's lace, which smells like a carrot.

 

IN THE SKY

The trail continued, bordered on one side by autumn olive trees and a wildflower meadow on the other. Along the way, Dankel identifies unseen birds by their calls. There was a grackle, with its cough-like signal. And the tiny towhee, trilling a high-pitched song.

The Hoffman Center restored the vast meadow to entice the bobolink, a ground-nesting bird, back to Long Island. While the bobolinks haven't yet returned, Dankel says, red-winged blackbirds are among several species that have.

"The males are guarding their territories," Dankel explains, as the group gazed up to see small birds chasing each other through the sky.

After what seems like much less than 60 minutes, the walk nears its end as the trail circles a pair of ponds.

"In a few weeks, you'll hear all these frogs," says Dankel, giving visitors a perfect excuse to visit again.

GUIDED WALKS AT THE HOFFMAN CENTER

WHEN | WHERE 1-2 p.m. Saturday, 6000 Northern Blvd., East Norwich. Continues first and third Saturdays of the month. For ages 10 and older. (Meet guide at entrance at 12:50 p.m. Gate locked when tour begins.)

INFO 516-922-3290

ADMISSION $5

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