Sandy soils and the coastal influence of the North Atlantic have fashioned a range of unique habitats here, from Maine's blueberry barrens to New Jersey's "pygmy forest" of dwarf pitch pine and scrub oak. Some natural wonders have already vanished, like the sea mink hunted to extinction in the 19th century. But visitors may still glimpse the increasingly rare New England cottontail rabbit in tangled thickets or the wetland-dwelling bog turtle and ringed boghaunter, an orange-striped dragonfly among the rarest in North America.
Two destinations better known for their beaches host a particularly impressive roster of coastal-dwelling curiosities. Wildlife is recolonizing Cape Cod National Seashore, meaning increased sightings of weasel-like fishers, American oystercatchers and a booming population of seals. The seals, in turn, have attracted great white sharks to what amounts to a sandbar smorgasbord.
A springtime bonanza of plankton can lure endangered North Atlantic right whales to within spotting distance, while summer rains bring the reclusive eastern spadefoot toads from their burrows for an evening of frenzied mating in the Province Lands' vernal pools. Protective mesh fences mark the well-camouflaged nesting sites of one of the region's biggest natural attractions, the threatened piping plover.
Likewise positioned along the Atlantic migratory flyway, Fire Island National Seashore is prime birding territory in the spring and fall along the 32-mile-long barrier island. The piping plover and the endangered roseate tern breed here every year; plovers can sometimes be seen darting along the beach. Visitors to Sailors Haven can stroll the boardwalk through the dune-protected sunken forest, marked by American holly trees up to 300 years old and tangles of wild grape, greenbrier and other vines. The threatened seabeach amaranth, a low-growing, waxy-leaved plant with reddish stems, sprouts intermittently above the high tide line. Edible beach plums blanket the dunes' backsides, and insectivorous plants like sundews grow farther inland in the low, moist soils.