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Just one of the many examples of wildlife you will find at the Elizabeth A. Morton Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Victoria Caruso)

Tucked away on the South Fork of Long Island, just west of Sag Harbor, is the Elizabeth A. Morton Wildlife Refuge — a 187-acre home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna.

The sanctuary hosts a variety of habitats, including ponds, fields, wooded bluffs, oak and cedar forests, salt and freshwater marshes, rocky and sandy beaches, and a lagoon. 

At any time of year, visitors are likely to cross paths with chickadees, wild turkey, and even white-tailed deer. As the days grow longer and the weather gets warmer, songbirds migrate back to the forests and fill them with music. The vast population of cardinals is a must-see in the spring and summer months.

Established in 1955, the Elizabeth A. Morton Wildlife Refuge is the first federally owned refuge to be named after a woman. With the recent mild weather, this is the perfect time to venture out to the South Fork and explore all the sanctuary has to offer. 

Looking Back

Long before this refuge was given its current name, it was inhabited by the Montauk and Shinnecock native tribes. The land was colonized by John Farrington and John Jessup in 1640, and later deeded to Jessup in 1669.  To this day, the refuge’s peninsula that separates Little Peconic Bay from Noyack Bay is known by locals as Jessup’s Neck.  

Elizabeth A. Morton was born in 1883 to a wealthy family from Southampton and grew up in a home on South Main Street. Morton’s father, Alexander Logan Morton, was a prominent lawyer in New York City and founded Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which is believed to be the oldest incorporated golf club in the U.S. In 1887, the land that is now named after Morton fell into her family’s hands, destined for her to inherit. 

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Morton spent most of her life as a philanthropist, often donating her time and money to organizations she cared deeply about. In 1954, Morton donated the inherited 187 acres to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Though there were several other female philanthropists who had donated land to protect, Morton was the first woman in the U.S. to have her name attached to such a philanthropic endeavor. 

Throughout Morton’s life, she defied traditional norms for women at that time. She divorced twice, returned to using her maiden name, and did not have any children. Because she possessed such wealth, she spent the rest of her days living alone on the beaches of Southampton and helping to manage the refuge up until her death in 1965.  Her beachside cottage became the first refuge office. 

Visiting the Elizabeth A. Morton Wildlife Refuge 

Located off of Noyac Road, the entrance to the refuge can be spotted by a copper-colored sign with a blue goose painted on it. The refuge opens a half hour before sunrise and closes a half hour before sunset. 

From the parking lot, visitors can start with the Wild Birds Nature Trail — a 1.2-mile loop path through the forest and onto the beach. The refuge’s relatively flat, dirt paths and low bridges make it a stroller-friendly option. 

Along the wooded trail, visitors with sunflower seeds and steady hands can hold out their palms and patiently wait for chickadees to land. There is also an observation deck near one of the refuge’s ponds, where green frogs and painted turtles can sometimes be spotted poking out of the water. To view waterfowl, the best time to visit is late October to early April. 

Heading toward the beach, visitors may come across picnic-goers enjoying the view and fishermen standing along the shore to haul in bluefish from the bay. 

Once visitors are at the beach, depending on the time of year, they can choose to continue to explore Jessup’s peninsula for another two miles. From April to August, a large portion of the beach is closed off to be used as nesting sites for endangered and threatened species like piping plovers. 

Things to Note Before Visiting

For trail maintenance and habitat preservation, there is an entrance fee of $4 per vehicle. The refuge also has a “leave no trace” policy, including bird seeds. The staff asks that visitors interested in feeding birds bring unsalted seeds and keep them in their hands to avoid attracting rats, which eat bird eggs.