By Cayla Rosenhagen
In 2011, Stitch, a young Red-tailed Hawk, was flying low over the grasslands hunting for her next meal adjacent to Sunken Meadow Parkway. She could never have foreseen how drastically her life was going to change that day. The hawk spotted a rodent darting out onto the highway and she swooped in. With all her attention focused on her prey, she did not notice the cars hurtling toward her and was struck.
Fortunately, a good Samaritan rescued Stitch, and she found her way to Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown to be expertly cared for. The team at Sweetbriar did an amazing job rehabbing Stitch back to health. Although she cannot be released into the wild as a result of losing an eye and part of her wing, she now lives a comfortable and happy life at the Center.
Over 2000 animals, like Stitch, are taken to Sweetbriar every year to be rehabilitated, including various reptiles, rodents, opossums, deer, and birds. The staff at the Center work tirelessly tending to the animals and eventually releasing many of them back into the wild. The dedicated team also cares for about 100 permanent animal residents who cannot be released and often answer 50 to 100 calls a day regarding animals in need. Additionally, they run educational programs and events to encourage the public’s appreciation and respect of Long Island’s unique wildlife and ecosystems.
On July 11th, I attended an event at Sweetbriar hosted by Long Island BIRDtography, a Facebook group made up of local photographers and birding enthusiasts. The fundraiser allowed the photographers to meet and photograph Sweetbriar’s ambassador raptors. Participants heard the extraordinary backstories of the birds of prey and how each one made their way to the Nature Center.
We met Bee, a female American Kestrel who was captured for falconry and malnourished, as well as Nugget, an Eastern Screech Owl who was rescued from a collapsed nest in a storm, and Tiger Lily, a Great Horned Owl who was hit by a car. Other birds of prey we met included Cleo the Harris Hawk, Nebula the Barn Owl, Seven the Barred Owl, and of course, Stitch the Red-Tailed Hawk.
All of these birds are now permanent residents of Sweetbriar because of their inabilities to survive in the wild due to injury or imprinting on humans. In addition to our feathered friends, we were greeted by some furry ones, too. As we were snapping photos of the birds, Charlotte, a very amiable white-tailed deer, sauntered up to us looking for attention. Also, Ricky, an Eastern Grey Squirrel, and Tulip, a Virginia Opossum nearly stole the show with their cuddly antics.
Among the 2 dozen photographers at the fundraiser, Susanne Bellocchio, one of the administrators of BIRDtography, warmly expressed, “It was just a perfect day…Everyone is so kind…I am thrilled…These birds would never be something I could get to photograph.”
The team at Sweetbriar was so welcoming and eager to share their extensive knowledge about the animals. The employees and volunteers I met with greatly expressed how much they love their time at the Nature Center and how rewarding their jobs are.
Veronica Sayers began her career there as a volunteer to care for the baby squirrels and she was later hired as the program coordinator three years ago.
“I love teaching people of all ages about our local wildlife and the environment around them. When I see people excited about what I’ve just taught them, it’s a wonderful feeling. The wildlife rehab part of my job is a passion of mine as well. Nursing an animal back to health and seeing it released back into the wild is a thrill,” Veronica explained when asked about her favorite aspects of working at the not-for-profit organization.
Isabel Fernandes, the Wildlife Care Coordinator, feels it is critical to educate people about wildlife, so they become good ambassadors in their own homes and communities. She loves “seeing kids so excited to see the animals up close and personal.”
Sweetbriar’s many upcoming events can be viewed on their website. They truly have something for everyone. Check out their adult and children programs and the long-anticipated Taps and Talons beer-tasting event, presented on September 19th for those 21 and over. The Center also offers frequent yoga classes in person as well as online.
The Center and Preserve are open for the public to visit daily. The grounds are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and are free of charge to enter. The main house is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m and the butterfly house is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for a minimal entry fee. I encourage you to visit the outdoor animal enclosures and walk along the Preserve’s beautiful nature trails.
Sweetbriar Nature Center is a 501c3 not-for-profit organization and therefore relies on the community’s generosity to continue their invaluable work. Make a difference by attending their programs, visiting the Center, or through a donation. Monetary contributions can be given through the Donate Now button on their website or by participating in AmazonSmile and selecting Environmental Centers of Setauket Smithtown to receive donations. They also use Amazon Wishlist to ask for necessary animal care supplies.
Visit Sweetbriar’s website, sweetbriarnc.org, to learn more about their mission, to see complete listings of their programs, and to view heartwarming photographs of the animals they have rehabbed. The site also provides comprehensive resources for what to do if you should find an animal in need.
In the words of Veronica Sayers, when asked what else community members can do to support Sweetbriar, she replied enthusiastically, “Share, share, share! Talk about us and what we do. Let your schools and libraries know we do programs. If you learned something about wildlife through us, please share it. Become a Sweetbriar member. Attend our events! On social media, comment and share our posts. If you have the time and can commit, consider volunteering.”
Cayla Rosenhagen is a local high school student who enjoys capturing the unique charm of the community through photography and journalism. She serves on the board of directors for the Four Harbors Audubon Society and Brookhaven’s Youth Board, and is the founder and coordinator of Beach Bucket Brigade, a community outreach program dedicated to environmental awareness, engagement, and education. She is also an avid birder, hiker, and artist who is concurrently enrolled in college, pursuing a degree in teaching.