Kathryn D’Amico at the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center...

Kathryn D’Amico at the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center in Oyster Bay. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman

Gardens of native Long Island flowers, shrubs and grasses completed in Oyster Bay during the pandemic are bringing visitors on foot and by wing.

At the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center, 21,000 native plants have taken root in the soil and the birds have taken notice, said the center’s director, Kathryn D’Amico.

“The food that they need is there and the nesting material that they need is there,” D’Amico said. Just a few years ago, hummingbirds never stopped by the sanctuary, but “the past three years, the whole spring and summer season, I see hummingbirds every single day,” she said.

Once-rare sightings of goldfinches and wood thrushes have become commonplace, she noted.

The gardens were designed to create an ecosystem to support birds and serve as a teaching tool for Long Islanders.

“In order to attract birds, you have to give them habitat, you have to get them food sources and insects,” said Molly Bourne, a principal at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects PC, the Manhattan-based landscape architecture firm that designed the gardens. “And so the way to do that is to use native plants, and native plants attract certain pollinators.” 

The sanctuary’s gardens are a “bird bodega” in an area that is one of the biggest stopovers for migrating birds on the East Coast, Bourne said.

What’s good for the birds offers benefits to property owners as well, experts say. This year the Audubon Center received a $20,000 grant from the Long Island Community Foundation to help fund its programs — including workshops — that teach the benefits of “going native” to professional landscapers as well as nonprofessional gardeners.

“Native plants require much less water than a lawn or an ornamental plant would require,” D’Amico said. “Typically they adapt to their location and don’t need irrigation and watering.”

They also don’t rely on fertilizer and pesticides the way non-native species do because they’ve evolved for this environment, she said.

Jessica Gurevitch, professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, said that while that’s generally true, climate change and invasive insects and diseases mean even native species may need some help, sometimes.

“We’ve had really severe drought on Long Island … and when conditions have changed a lot, you may still need to use some water even for the native species,” Gurevitch said.

Coveted suburban lawns offer little to native wildlife.

“All of the native plants from this area on the island have co-evolved with the birds and caterpillars and all of the other insects and wildlife in the habitat,” D’Amico said. “So once you take those things out … What you’re essentially doing is creating this food desert.”

Gurevitch said though people may buy colorful plants for their gardens at chain stores like Home Depot, they may lack diversity.

“Our landscapes become homogeneous and there’s no place left for the native plants,” Gurevitch said. “The non-native species often are very poor substitutes in terms of supporting the birds and butterflies and other organisms that we love.”

The gardens at the sanctuaries were designed to be at a residential scale to demonstrate to visitors that they can incorporate some native plants on their own properties, Bourne said.

NATIVE PLANTS BY ZIP CODE

Audubon provides an online source to search for native plants by ZIP code. Some examples in Oyster Bay, ZIP code 11771, include:

  • Anise-Scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora)
  • Black-Eyed-Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
  • Bluebell-of-Scotland (Campanula rotundifolia)
  • Cardinal-Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  • Coastal-Plain Trumpetweed (Eutrochium dubium)

SOURCE: Audubon.org