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Long Island Aquarium Has Got the Birds and the Bugs in Riverhead

Dan’s recently stopped in Riverhead to look in on the fish, but got a lot more than we expected. If you haven’t been to Riverhead’s Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center in a while, you might be surprised to find out how far beyond the water-dwelling and water-associated creatures the place has gotten.

You’ll come for the fish, but you’ll stay for the bugs. Or, more properly, insects.

Lest you think we’re talking only about creepy crawlies, think again. When you first enter the Butterfly and Bird Exhibit, located down a hall, off to the right of the Aquarium gift shop, it’s all about butterflies. They’re in what’s called the Enchanted Garden, heated and humidified to a tropical climate (80°, at least 70 percent humidity) and alive with butterflies—up to 1,000 of them at a time.

“We get them at the chrysalis stage, and they metamorphose in our lab,” says Assistant Butterfly Curator Jeffry Petracca. “Then we release them into the Enchanted Garden.” At any given time, between 40 and 50 different species of butterfly will be flying. If you stand still, some of them might even land on you. Otherwise, there are a number of tropical flowering plants and bushes for the colorful guys to flit around on, which is a delight to watch.

The Enchanted Garden has butterflies from all over the world. Blue morphos, Gallegos—aka owl butterflies, Chinese paperkites, plus atlas moths and silk moths. Exotic butterflies from the Philippines, all over Asia and South America, as well as from Florida and Texas. It’s quite a sight!

Though they may exist somewhere, there are probably very few children who would be frightened by butterflies. However, there are certainly quite a few children who would rather not look at some of the other insects on display, just as there are other children who would love nothing more. Luckily, the Butterfly and Bird Exhibit accommodates both types of kid. There’s a display of insects, but it’s located on a kind of catwalk above the butterfly exhibit. There’s no danger of a squeamish child accidentally seeing a bug that would cause distress and nightmares.

For those children who enjoy looking at exotic bugs, there’s plenty to see. Giant beetles, stick bugs, some freaky translucent things, all part of Petracca’s personal collection. Unlike the usual, dry academic way of presenting insects in museums, Petracca has mixed his bugs.

“I went for a more artistic approach, mixing species and colors” he says, in keeping with the emphasis on fun and color that pervades the entire Riverhead facility.

Speaking of fun and color, beyond the Enchanted Garden lies the true pleasure-center of the whole complex. The Bird Exhibit is an aviary that you can actually enter. Full of colorful members of the parrot family, it’s like Disney World’s Enchanted Tiki Room brought to real life. There are friendly, fluorescent conures, love birds, and Indian ringnecks. One thing though: These birds don’t talk. They will, however, eat straight from your hand. You can buy a handful of birdseed for $1 at the front desk. But be prepared to have birds all over you. Watching four birds together eating seed from your hand, you’ll understand what people mean by “eat like a bird.” It takes a while, but it’s a lot of fun.

In the works for the future of the Butterfly and Bird Exhibit is a rare treat for lovers of the creepy and the crawly. A live insect show! According to Petracca, the Exhibition Center plans to play host to a fabulous party of exotic bugs of all kinds.

“We’re working on getting some leaf insects [they look like leaves], some rare types of preying mantises, like orchid mantises, some of the giant beetles, like the atlas beetle, some giant stick insects.” And spiders. Big spiders.

For the right type of kid, that could be just the thing. Petracca’s shooting for the fall, and, who knows, maybe it will be up in time for Halloween.

But for now, take your chance to commune with just the birds and the butterflies right in Riverhead!

Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center is located at 431 East Main Street, Riverhead. For more information, visit liexhibitioncenter.com or call 631-208-9200.

See birds up close at Long Island Aquarium!
See birds up close at Long Island Aquarium! Photo: Kelly Laffey
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