Environment & Nature

Bob de Zafra, fourth from left, seen here April 21 during a dedication of additional land to Patriots Hollow State Forest, was committed to preserving open spaces and maintaining the historical integrity of the Three Village area. File photo by Rita J. Egan

By Rita J. Egan

When he passed Oct. 10 at age 85 from complications following knee replacement surgery, civic leader Bob de Zafra left behind a legacy in the Three Village area that will be remembered for decades.

The professor and scientist

A resident of Setauket for more than 50 years, de Zafra was a former president of what is now known as the Three Village Civic Association and Three Village Historical Society, as well as a co-founder of the Three Village Community Trust. His love for the area began when he moved from Connecticut to start his career in Stony Brook University’s physics department as a professor, according to Linwood Lee, a research professor at SBU.

“He helped establish experimental physics in our physics department, which was very heavily theoretical at the time, and he was really a leader in doing that,” Lee said.

He added that de Zafra conducted research in atmospheric physics, which led to him studying the Earth’s ozone layer. During trips to the South Pole and McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, de Zafra and his SBU colleagues discovered in 1986 that chlorofluorocarbon, a type of hydrocarbon, was a cause for the expansion of the ozone hole. In honor of his revolutionary climate-change work there, an Antarctic rock ridge now bears his last name.

The civic leader

Bob de Zafra at a recent civic association meeting. File photo

In the 2002 Men and Women of the Year issue of The Village Times Herald, in which he was named Man of the Year in Civics as a “steadfast preservationist,” the professor emeritus said he saw his hometown in Connecticut “ruined” by development.

“I was sure that wherever I lived, I was going to do my best to make sure that sort of destruction didn’t happen,” he said.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said de Zafra accomplished his goal. When Englebright was running for county legislator 35 years ago, he said the Setauket resident approached him and told him there was a need to protect Detmer Farm, across from the Setauket Post Office on Route 25A. The property was eventually saved from development.

“It was the centerpiece of good planning,” Englebright said. “If we won the effort to protect that open space it would mean that we had protected an important part of the watershed of Setauket Harbor and the viewshed of everyone who visits our community, or we would have taken a step toward becoming something like Queens.”

The assemblyman said the importance of saving the Detmer Farm property was only the first of countless lessons he learned from de Zafra. Englebright said a traffic island once existed at North County Road and Ridgeway Avenue adjacent to Gallery North, and with de Zafra’s encouragement, he secured the Town of Brookhaven Highway Department to cover the road with truckloads of soil.

“It was one of the first restorations that rolled back the development wave, and it was Bob that said this should be accomplished,” Englebright said.

The assemblyman said he was impressed by how de Zafra, who was instrumental in the preservation of Forsythe Meadow in Stony Brook, used his own resources to buy older houses in the area and renovate them including his own home. With the woodlands behind his property, he bought the land parcel by parcel to protect the trees; the land includes a meadow of flowers. Most recently the civic leader bought the historic Timothy Smith House, recognized as the first town hall in Brookhaven, to renovate it.

“The model of what he did with his own personal resources to enhance our community is a heroic profile,” Englebright said. “He did it quietly without fanfare but in my mind he is a civic hero of the first order. He lived what he preached and was absolutely genuine.”

Bob de Zafra in his Stony Brook University office in 1976. File photo

Three Village Historical Society historian Beverly C. Tyler and de Zafra met in 1974 when the Three Village Bicentennial Committee formed. Tyler said de Zafra was responsible for the greening of 25A by having 222 trees planted along the road from the Stony Brook train station to East Setauket, and he was instrumental in convincing local shopping centers to use unified signs.

In The Village Times Dec. 30, 1976, de Zafra was named Man of the Year for his greening efforts. The professor said during his commute to SBU he became frustrated with what he felt was the destruction of Route 25A. While he was part of the civic association, the organization had other priorities at the time, so he saw the forming of the bicentennial committee as an opportunity to beautify the road. Through letter writing and fundraising, de Zafra raised more than $13,000 for the planting.

“You only get a chance to do something like this once every 100 years,” he said during the 1976 interview. “I’m glad I grabbed hold of mine when it came my way.”

The success of the project and many others of de Zafra’s didn’t surprise Tyler.

“Bob was very well organized and relentless,” Tyler said. “He just took on a project and was a bear about it. He just kept at it no matter what the problem was until he got a successful conclusion. He was very good at talking to people and getting them to see his point of view without overwhelming them.”

Herb Mones, a former president of the Three Village Civic Association, met de Zafra 25 years ago through the organization and praised his friend for working with builders and local elected officials to curb development and maintain the historical and architectural integrity of the area. Mones said right up until de Zafra passed, he attended any event that was for the benefit of Three Village residents. Mones said his friend felt a responsibility to make the area a better place to live in.

“The thing that always impressed me is that Bob had a tremendous amount of energy and interest in preserving, protecting and enhancing the community in every way possible,” Mones said.

Current Three Village Civic Association President Jonathan Kornreich, who considers de Zafra a friend and mentor, echoed Mones’ sentiments.

“I can’t think of three people together who could fill his shoes, so great was the depth of his energy, passion and knowledge,” Kornreich said.

Local author John Broven also met de Zafra through the civic association and said the former president’s accomplishments were admirable as he fought random development rigorously, unknown to most residents.

“If Bob had been born in England, like his wife Julia, he would assuredly have been granted a knighthood for being such a dedicated community gatekeeper, let alone his incredible scientific achievements,” Broven said.

Bob de Zafra, second from right, with Norma and Walter Watson and his wife Julia at a Three Village HIstorical Society event. Photo by Maria Hoffman

Cynthia Barnes, co-founder of the Three Village Community Trust with de Zafra, said he knew a great deal of municipality and zoning code laws and was a skillful researcher. His contributions were vitally important to the trust’s mission of preserving local properties, which included moving the Rubber Factory Houses to the trust’s Bruce House headquarters.

“He was able to grasp the whole picture yet delve into the details to see where the trouble lay, and point to the areas of weakness to try to strengthen them,” Barnes said.

“He certainly brought us a long way toward [preserving],” Barnes said. “Because I think everything we saved, with the help of our elected officials as well, he was definitely a motivating force.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said de Zafra worked with her and her team on various issues and initiatives over the last few years. Most recently he was part of the Citizens Advisory Committee for Route 25A.

“Bob’s untimely passing is just before the acceptance of the 25A community visioning document later this month,” Cartright said. “Bob cared so deeply for community land use issues and for this project, and we would like to find a way to honor and recognize Bob’s massive body of work and contributions during the process and in the future.”

The person

On top of his accomplishments, those who knew him praised de Zafra as a modest man.

“He wouldn’t want to be called ‘doctor,’ he wanted to be called Bob,” Mones said. “He never referenced his degree, his status within his field, his experiences that he had. He never used that as criteria in determining what he had to say or what he was doing. It was always based upon on the merits of the case.”

Englebright said de Zafra will be remembered by many as a man of action.

“He was the leading voice for protecting the essence of this place,” the assemblyman said. “It wasn’t just his voice, it was his action as well.”

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who worked closely with de Zafra while she was president of the civic association, summed up how his family and friends were feeling the day of his funeral Oct. 17.

“The loss of Bob de Zafra leaves a hole in our collective heart,” she said. “He played a vital role in so many organizations as a watchdog for our community. Meticulous, passionate, diligent, generous, persistent and charming in his own way — he will be missed.”

New policy sets cap on accrual of daily fees while seized boats are in storage

'Kayaks at Bay' by Holly Gordon

By Alex Petroski

In a seemingly ongoing effort to solidify policies regarding the storage of kayaks in Port Jefferson Village, the board of trustees voted to approve additional code changes during an Oct. 16 meeting.

The latest code change will set a minimum opening bid for kayaks and other small vessels previously seized by the village for being left on racks at village beaches past the posted required date for removal to be auctioned off. Each year, residents interested in storage space for their boats enter a lottery, and those selected are permitted to use village racks for the season. Signage near the racks warns owners they need to be removed by Nov. 1, though the village typically allows a several week grace period before it starts seizing abandoned vessels and moving them into storage.

The village still has several unclaimed boats left on racks from the 2016 season, which will be auctioned off Nov. 9. Adherent to the new policy, the minimum bid for any vessel will be $75, or $1 per day in storage plus a $25 fee — whichever total is less. So for example, a vessel in village storage for 10 days would have a minimum opening bid of $35 at auction. Any vessel kept for more than 50 days would have a minimum opening bid of $75.

Signs detailing the Village’s kayak policy are visible year round. File photo by Alex Petroski

“The whole goal is to get this thing rolling,” Village Mayor Margot Garant said during the meeting. The goal behind the connected village policies is to incentivize owners of seized boats to retrieve them from storage while also deincentivizing rack users from leaving them through the winter.

The $1 per day in storage policy makes it less expensive for owners to retrieve abandoned boats then if they were to pay the fines, though they assume the risk of competing with other bidders. The new policy would eliminate the current $10 fee per day for storing abandoned vessels.

Art Worthington, a village resident for more than a decade, is a boat owner who stands to benefit financially from the policy change, though on principal, he said he’s not satisfied with the new rules.

Worthington said during a phone interview, and a village spokesperson confirmed by email, that he stored a 14-foot Sunfish sailboat on village property at the Crystal Brook Hollow Road beach during the 2016 season without a permit, and went to retrieve it for the winter in December 2016, about a month after the posted date warning of possible removal. He said at the time he asked the village by phone if they had seized his boat, and based on his description the spokesperson said it was not in storage. In Sept. 2017, Worthington was granted permission to inspect the storage area, and found that his boat was in fact in the village’s possession. Worthington has since been instructed to bid on his vessel to get it back at auction.

“I’d pay $75 for it, sure, but the bottom line is they’re dead wrong,” he said. “They deprived me of the use of it for a season. They should be giving the people their boats back.”

Worthington said he believes his boat should be returned to him free of charge, and hasn’t decided yet if he will bid on it.

Members of the public can view the vessels up for auction Oct. 27 from 10 to 11 a.m. at East Beach to consider participating in the Nov. 9 auction.

The area east of Comsewogue High School and south of Route 112 will be protected under new legislation. Image from Google Maps

A Suffolk County legislator is looking to protect Port Jefferson Station and Terryville’s groundwater, and if her plan reaches completion, it will also preserve a massive chunk of green space.

The county passed a bill sponsored by 5th District Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) Oct. 3 that allows Suffolk to begin seeking appraisals from landowners of 62 separate properties within the Terryville Greenbelt, an approximately 75-acre plot of land, of which about 40 acres has already been preserved by Town of Brookhaven through open space land acquisitions.

The town is allowed by law to acquire open space based upon environmental sensitivity. Hahn’s bill allows for the appraisal of about 17 acres of the remaining unprotected land within the parcel, designated as a special groundwater protection area, located south of Route 112 and adjacent to the rear of Comsewogue High School. The bill requires signing by County Executive Steve Bellone (D) before it becomes law; then further legislation will be required to complete the purchases.

“For the past 50 years the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community has worked to offset its rapid growth with safeguards of its quality of life and environment,” Hahn said in a statement. She also serves as the chairwoman of the Legislature’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee. “Protecting these parcels, located within a special groundwater protection area in perpetuity highlights the continued commitment of Suffolk County to being a partner in this careful balance that ensures not only the local environment but also our resident’s quality of life.”

The plan has been in the works since 2003, when Terryville resident and preservation proponent Louis Antoniello began advocating for the protection of the greenbelt. After years with minimal action, in 2010, with support from former Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko (D) and former Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld (D-East Setauket), Brookhaven purchased 16 parcels of open space within the Terryville Greenbelt for $648,000.

“The dream of creating a greenbelt around Comsewogue High School started back in 2003 — we never gave up on the dream and now the dream is going to become a reality,” Antoniello said in a statement. “The preservation of the property helps to protect our drinking water; creates an ecosystem for the many species of animals that make the greenbelt their home and it creates a living biology classroom for the children in the Comsewogue school district.”

Antoniello, who thanked Hahn and Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) for their efforts in advancing the legislation during a phone interview, said the preservation of the land is important because it filters more than a million gallons of water per year that then proceeds into an aquifer, which holds much of the area’s drinking water. Antoniello also served as chairman of the Land Use, Parks and Open Space Committee for a 2008 Port Jefferson Station/Terryville hamlet study done in cooperation with the town.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, nearly all of Long Island’s drinking water comes from underground aquifers.

Charles McAteer, chairman of the Setauket to Port Jefferson Station Greenway Trail and also advocate for the preservation of open space, spoke in favor of Hahn’s bill.

“It is good to see more acres set aside to remain as Long Island woods for future generations to enjoy,” he said in an email. “This will allow the treed land to filter down rainwater to our Long Island aquifer system. It is a win-win for all of us in the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville hamlet.”

Students take samples from Nissequogue River to analyze. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Hundreds of students from Smithtown to Northport got wet and dirty as they looked at what lurks beneath the surface of the Nissequogue River.

More than 400 students from 11 schools participated in “A Day in the Life” of the Nissequogue River Oct. 6, performing hands-on citizens scientific research and exploring the waterway’s health and ecosystem. The event was coordinated by Brookhaven National Laboratory, Central Pine Barrens Commission, Suffolk County Water Authority and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Northport High School students analyze soil taken from the bottom of Nissequogue River. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

“’A Day in the Life’ helps students develop an appreciation for and knowledge of Long Island’s ecosystems and collect useful scientific data,” program coordinator Melissa Parrott said. “It connects students to their natural world to become stewards of water quality and Long Island’s diverse ecosystems.”

More than 50 students from Northport High School chemically analyzed the water conditions, marked tidal flow, and tracked aquatic species found near the headwaters of the Nissequogue in Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown. Teens were excited to find and record various species of tadpoles and fish found using seine net, a fishing net that hangs vertically and is weighted to drag along the riverbed.

“It’s an outdoor educational setting that puts forth a tangible opportunity for students to experience science firsthand,” David Storch, chairman of science and technology education at Northport High School, said. “Here they learn how to sample, how to classify, how to organize, and how to develop experimental procedures in an open, inquiry-based environment. It’s the best education we can hope for.”

Kimberly Collins, co-director of the science research program at Northport High School, taught students how to use Oreo cookies and honey to bait ants for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Barcode Long Island. The project invites students to capture invertebrates, learn how to extract the insects’ DNA then have it sequenced to document and map diversity of different species.

Children from Harbor Country Day School examine a water sample. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Further down river, Harbor Country Day School students explored the riverbed at Landing Avenue Park in Smithtown. Science teacher Kevin Hughes said the day was one of discovery for his fourth- to eighth-grade students.

“It’s all about letting them see and experience the Nissequogue River,” Hughes said. “At first, they’ll be a little hesitant to get their hands dirty, but by the end you’ll see they are completely engrossed and rolling around in it.”

The middle schoolers worked with Eric Young, program director at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, to analyze water samples. All the data collected will be used in the classroom to teach students about topics such as salinity and water pollution. Then, it will be sent to BNL as part of a citizens’ research project, measuring the river’s health and water ecosystems.

Smithtown East seniors Aaron Min and Shrey Thaker have participated in this annual scientific study of the Nissequogue River at Short Beach in Smithtown for last three years. Carrying cameras around their necks, they photographed and documented their classmates findings.

“We see a lot of changes from year to year, from different types of animals and critters we get to see, or wildlife and plants,” Thaker said. “It’s really interesting to see how it changes over time and see what stays consistent over time as well. It’s also exciting to see our peers really get into it.”

Maria Zeitlin, a science research and college chemistry teacher at Smithtown High School East, divided students into four groups to test water oxygenation levels, document aquatic life forms, measure air temperature and wind speed, and compile an extensive physical description of wildlife and plants in the area.

Smithtown High School East students take a water and soil sample at Short Beach. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

The collected data will be brought back to the classroom and compared against previous years.

In this way, Zeitlin said the hands-on study of Nissequogue River serves as a lesson in live data collection. Students must learn to repeat procedures multiple times and use various scientific instruments to support their findings.

“Troubleshooting data collection is vital as a scientist that they can take into any area,” she said. “Data has to be reliable. So when someone says there’s climate change, someone can’t turn around and say it’s not true.”

The Smithtown East teacher highlighted that while scientific research can be conducted anywhere, there’s a second life lesson she hopes that her students and all others will take away  from their studies of the Nissequogue River.

“This site is their backyard; they live here,” Zeitlin said. “Instead of just coming to the beach, from this point forward they will never see the beach the same again. It’s not just a recreational site, but its teeming with life and science.”

Smithtown Library officials renamed the playground at the Kings Park branch after Otis Thornhill, who died in December 2016. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

The work of a former Smithtown Library trustee will forever be remembered by the laughter of children playing.

The Smithtown Library rededicated the playground outside its Kings Park branch Oct. 7 to the late Otis Thornhill. A former library trustee he also served as president of The Friends of the Smithtown
Library for seven years.

“He saw the value of the library and the need for us to continue to improve the buildings; he worked tirelessly toward that end,” Anthony Monteleone, representing The Friends of the Smithtown Library, said. “Otis was a true person of the community. It’s people like him that make Smithtown what it is today.”

Thornhill and his family first moved to Commack in 2001. That same year the library playground was constructed as a joint effort between Kings Park Chamber of Commerce and the Town of Smithtown, according to chamber president Tony Tanzi, in an attempt to draw residents to spend more time in the downtown area and shops.

“Come down here any day in the summer and you’ll see just that,” Tanzi said. “Moms and dads, and their kids, sitting downtown in Kings Park. That’s what it is all about.”

Smithtown Library officials renamed the playground at the Kings Park branch after Otis Thornhill, who died in December 2016. Photo from Facebook

In 2011, Thornhill was encouraged to run for a library trustee seat by Monteleone. He served until his death in December 2016.

“As a library trustee, he offered his support and guidance to make sure the library served the reading and educational needs of this community,” Robert Lusak, library director, said. “If I could say it to him, I would say I sorely, sorely miss the safe advice and guidance he provided to me as the director of The Smithtown Library. I will miss him very much.”

Thornhill and his wife, Elaine, were familiar faces around the community as they often worked together to sell 50/50 raffle tickets to raise funds for The Friends of the Smithtown Library during the summer concerts.

In addition to his service to the library, Smithtown Councilman Ed Wehrheim (R) remembered Thornhill as a member of the Rotary Club of Smithtown Sunrise, which regularly meets at the Millennium Diner in Smithtown. Wehrheim said his fellow Rotarian focused his efforts on his community, improving education and veterans. Thornhill served in the U.S. military reserves.

“I know that Otis is here looking down on us, looking down at his playground and his sign, and seeing those three things — education, veterans representation and a wonderful playground for the community,” Wehrheim said.

Dawn Bent, owner of Signarama in Huntington Station, made a memorial sign declaring the playground as The Otis M. Thornhill Memorial Playground. The sign also bears the names of those individuals and business who gave donations to offset the sign’s cost.

Eric Thornhill, Otis’ son, spoke on behalf of the family who said they were deeply touched by the tribute.

“It was a comfort to [Otis] to have this connection to you as he was progressing through his life,” he said of his father. “It meant everything. It kept him strong to the very end, and that meant everything to him. We are so appreciative that you also thought something of him.”

The Huntington Lighthouse is one of 11 overlooking the Long Island Sound in which the U.S. Coast Guard is looking to replace and update the foghorn system. Photo from Pamela Setchell

A proposed plan to change the foghorn at Huntington Lighthouse is already raising alarm among North Shore boaters.

The U.S. Coast Guard is awaiting final approval to switch out the lighthouse’s foghorn from the current automated system to a new boater-operated model. Shifting the responsibility for operation of this essential safety device to the watercraft owners has raised objections from both residents and Huntington Town officials.

“This is not something that should be installed here at all due to the nature of the boating community,” said Pamela Setchell, president of the Huntington Lighthouse Preservation Society. “The Town of Huntington encompasses five harbors and 5,000 boaters. A lot of those 5,000 boaters are inexperienced.”

The lighthouse’s foghorn is currently activated by a sensor, according to Mark Williams, officer in charge of the Aid and Navigation Team for the Long Island Sound. Williams said the sensor sends out a signal that measures for half-mile distance, if fog or other weather conditions cause visibility drops below a half-mile the foghorn will activate and sound until it clears.

The Coast Guards’s plan is to switch this sensor-activated system out to a new Marine Radio Activated Sound System, known as MRASS for short, in 11 lighthouses overseeing the Sound is an attempt to save time and money on maintenance. In addition to Huntington, other locations on the list include Montauk Point and Orient Point.

“The equipment out there is old, antiquated and almost impossible to find replacement parts for now,” Williams said. “We are going with a new system that the U.S. Coast Guard has tested and approved.”

The MRASS system requires a lighthouse’s foghorn to be activated by boaters with a
Marine Very High Frequency Radio, commonly referred to as a VHF radio, by turning to the 83A frequency and touching the key, which activates the radio fives times, equally spaced apart. Once this signal is received, Wiliams said the lighthouse’s foghorn will sound for the next 30 minutes.

Both Williams and Setchell agree that Huntington Lighthouse is distinctive and unique compared to the many other lighthouses where the new foghorn is proposed, given its close proximity to residential communities and services mostly recreational boaters.

Setchell said as an experienced boater that she fears the new foghorn could be problematic as watercraft owners are not required to have a VHF radio onboard under New York state law — and some recreational boaters don’t. Also, her concern is it places the burden of raising alarm on an individual already in distress.

“When you are lost in the fog in a boat, it’s frightening because you have no idea where you are,” she said. “To sit there and think an inexperienced boater will have the wherewithal and calm to grab their VHF radio, remember to go to 83A, and key the mike five times is ridiculous.”

Williams admitted there is no requirement for boaters to own a VHF radio, but it is highly encouraged.

“There might be small boaters who don’t have anything,” he said. “But we hope vessels of that size with little equipment are not out in the fog or restricted visibility weather.”

Setchell said the residents near the lighthouse, along with the boating community, fear a user-operated system could become the “focus of pranks” by drunken or irresponsible parties. If the signal is keyed in repeatedly, the foghorn will continue to sound for a full 30 minutes from the last time it was activated — with no immediate shutoff.

Huntington Town officials have raised their own concerns about whether changing the foghorn system is in the best interests of the boating community.

“The town shares the Huntington Lighthouse Preservation Society’s concerns about whether a boater-operated foghorn is appropriate for an area that is almost exclusively used by recreational boaters,” Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) said in statement. “We look forward to working with the Lighthouse Preservation Society, the Greater Huntington Council of Yacht and Boating Clubs and the Coast Guard to address the issue of a new foghorn that will increase boater safety without unnecessarily intruding on the serenity of those who live along the shore.”

The Town of Huntington has filed a letter with the U.S. Coast Guard outlining its concerns for consideration before the plan is approved.

The same MRASS foghorn plan was proposed for the Huntington Lighthouse in 2009, according to Setchell, but was tabled due to overwhelming public objection after less than a week.

The system has been widely installed across northern New England, according the Williams, with very few complaints.

Any individual or organization who either supports or has concerns about the proposed foghorn replacement can write to the U.S. Coast Guard by sending an email to  mark.p.williams@uscg.mil.

From left, Zachary Lippman and Dave Jackson, professors at CSHL who are working on ways to alter promoter regions of genes to control traits in tomato and corn. Photo by Ullas Pedmale

By Daniel Dunaief

He works with tomatoes, but what he’s discovered could have applications to food and fuel crops, including corn, rice and wheat.

Using the latest gene editing technique called CRISPR, Zachary Lippman, a professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, developed ways to fine-tune traits for fruit size, branching architecture and plant shape. Called quantitative variation, these genetic changes act as a dimmer switch, potentially increasing or decreasing specific traits. This could help meet specific agricultural needs. Looking at the so-called promoter region of genes, Lippman was able to “use those genes as proof of principal” for a technique that may enable the fine-tuning of several traits.

For decades, plant breeders have been looking for naturally occurring mutations that allow them to breed those desirable traits, such as a larger fruit on a tomato or more branches on a plant. In some cases, genetic mutations have occurred naturally, altering the cell’s directions. At other times, breeders have sought ways to encourage mutations by treating their seeds with a specific mutagenic agent, like a chemical.

In an article in the journal Cell, Lippman said the results reflect a road map that other researchers or agricultural companies can use to create desirable traits. This article provides a way to “create a new, raw material for breeders to have access to tools they never had before,” he said. Lippman has taken a chunk of the DNA in the promoter region, typically on the order of 2,000 to 4,000 base pairs, and let the CRISPR scissors alter this part of the genetic code. Then, he and his scientific team chose which cuts from the scissors and subsequent repairs by the cell’s machinery gave the desired modifications to the traits they were studying.

Invented only five years ago, CRISPR is a genetic editing technique that uses tools bacteria have developed to fight off viral infections. Once a bacteria is attacked by a virus, it inserts a small piece of the viral gene into its own sequence. If a similar virus attacks again, the bacteria immediately recognizes the invader and cuts the sequence away.

Scientists sometimes use these molecular scissors to trim specific gene sequences in a process called a deletion. They are also working toward ways to take another genetic code and insert a replacement. “Replacement technology is only now starting to become efficient,” Lippman said. Clinical researchers are especially excited about the potential for this technique in treating genetic conditions, potentially removing and replacing an ineffective sequence.

In Lippman’s case, he used the scissors to cut in several places in the promoter regions of the tomato plant. Rather than targeting specific genes, he directed those scissors to change the genome at several places. When he planted the new seeds, he explored their phenotype, or the physical manifestation of their genetic instructions. These phenotypes varied along a continuum, depending on the changes in their genes.

By going backward and then comparing the genes of the altered plants to the original, he could then hone in on the precise changes in the genetic code that enabled that variation. This technique allows for a finer manipulation than turning on or off specific genes in which an organism, in this case a plant, would either follow specific instructions or would go on a transcriptional break, halting production until it was turned on again.

At this point, Lippman has worked with each trait individually but hasn’t done quantitative variation for more than one at a time. “The next question,” he said, “is to do this multitargeting.” He will also use the tool to study how genes are instructed to turn on and off during growth, including exploring the levels and location of expression.

Lippman is talking with agricultural and scientific collaborators and hopes to go beyond the tomato to exploring the application of this approach to other crops. He is working with Dave Jackson, who is also a professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, on applying this model to corn.

The scientific duo has known each other for 20 years. Jackson taught his collaborator when Lippman was a graduate student at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Jackson was chair of his thesis committee.

They have worked together on and off since Lippman became a faculty member about nine years ago. Last year, the two received a National Science Foundation genome grant to work on using CRISPR to study the effect of changes in promoter regions in their respective plant specialties.

“Unfortunately for us, tomato has a faster life cycle than corn, but we hope to have some results in corn this fall,” Jackson explained in an email. Lippman hopes to continue on the path toward understanding how regulatory DNA is controlling complex traits. “We can use this tool to dissect critical regulatory regions,” he said. “When we create this variation, we can look at how that translates to a phenotypic variation.”

Lippman said he is especially excited about the fundamental biological questions related to plant growth and development. When other scientists or agricultural companies attempt to use this approach, they may run into some challenges, he said. Some plants are “not transformable [genetically] easily.” These plants can be recalcitrant to plant transformation, a step sometimes needed for CRISPR gene editing. Still, it is “likely that CRISPR will work in all organisms,” he said.

Lippman hopes others discuss this technique and see the potential for a system that could help to customize plants. “My hope and my anticipation is that people all over the world will look at this paper and say, ‘Let’s start to try this out in our own systems.’ Hopefully, there will be a grass roots effort to import this tool.”

John Turner, center, points to a flock of common nighthawks passing overhead. Photo by Patricia Paladines

By Patrice Domeischel and John Turner

If you happen to have driven recently on Old Field Road in Setauket, where it crosses over Frank Melville Memorial Park, you may have noticed anywhere from a few to a dozen and a half people staring at all angles skyward with binoculars and wondered what’s got their attention. Looking at cloud formations? Maybe UFOs? Waiting for sunset? Watching the monarch butterfly migration? Or perhaps observing numerous bird species as they fly by?

If you picked the last choice, you’d be right (although any migrating monarchs are dutifully noted by observers too!). Specifically, these observers have tuned into an annual phenomenon — common nighthawks passing through Long Island on their annual migration, traveling from their breeding grounds in New England and Canada to their wintering grounds in South America.

These medium-sized birds with long wings that sport distinctive white bars may be seen agilely flitting incessantly over the pond, most often at dawn to an hour later and an hour before, right up until, dusk. These erratic flight movements are not a show for our pleasure but a feeding tactic employed to catch their main food source, small insects like midges, mosquitoes, gnats etc. on the wing.

The bird of the hour, the common nighthawk. Stock photo

Not a hawk at all, nighthawks are referred to as “goatsuckers” and are members of the Caprimulgidae family (capri, Latin for goat, and mulgare, Latin for milking). This name is derived from the mistaken belief, originating as early as 2000 years ago, that these wide-mouthed birds sucked the teats on farm goats. In actuality the birds were attracted to the insects stirred up by roving livestock. Other members of this family found on Long Island include the whip-poor-will and the Chuck-will’s-widow.

Common nighthawks, once a common breeder on Long Island (there have been no confirmed breeding records for several decades), and other members of the goatsucker family are experiencing population declines. Published data indicate that nationally common nighthawk numbers have dropped by more than 60 percent over the last 50 years.

This same trend has been seen in New York. Common nighthawks here have declined by 71 percent as a breeding bird between 1985 and 2005, whip-poor-will’s by 57 percent and Chuck-will’s-widows by 62 percent. Prime contributing factors are thought to include rampant pesticide use resulting in diminished insect populations and loss of nesting habitat (being ground nesters they are especially vulnerable to feral and free-roaming cats, fox, skunks and other mammalian predators) and pesticide use.

Pesticide use is highly significant as it has also been implicated in the decline of other birds that feed in the air who also depend upon small aerial insects — species such as swallows, swifts and flycatchers.

There are simply significantly less insects than there were a few decades ago, before the advent and widespread use of pesticides.

Nighthawks do not build a nest, but, as mentioned above, lay their eggs (typically two) directly on the ground, preferring gravelly surfaces. Old gravel rooftops in urban areas once provided additional, appealing nesting habitat for nighthawks, but many roofs are no longer surfaced with gravel, but of rubber, and are not a viable nesting alternative. The shift to other types of roofing materials is also thought to have contributed to a decline in nighthawk numbers.

At the stone bridge on Main Street, the Four Harbors Audubon Society, with the support of the board of the Frank Melville Memorial Park, is conducting a census of nighthawks in an effort to provide an additional source of data about population trends. It is hoped that an annual count, through time as information over the span of years is compiled, can provide additional data on the species’ population trends, helping to supplement the findings gained by the annual nationwide Breeding Bird Survey and periodic statewide Breeding Bird Atlas.

Local birder Richard Haimes, right, with his son and grandchildren, at a recent nighthawk watch at Frank Melville Memorial Park. Photo by Patrice Domeischel

Named the Frank Melville Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch, pedestrians can watch each evening between 5:30 p.m. until dusk as Audubon members don their binoculars and tally nighthawks and any other avian or winged creature passing through. Several bats are regular visitors at dusk, and a bald eagle, peregrine falcon and other falcon species and hawks have been sighted as have ruby-throated hummingbirds, green herons, belted kingfishers and red-bellied woodpeckers.

It first became evident in October of 2016 when significant nighthawk migration was noticed and recorded at this location, that Frank Melville Park’s stone bridge lookout, with its open vistas overlooking the pond in both directions, might be a hot spot. It was recognized that this location was an important nighthawk migration thoroughfare and a great vantage point to witness them as they traveled through the area. It was also recognized as a hot spot for nighthawks due to the prolific hatch of aerial insects such as midges coming off the two ponds that become ready prey for these birds.

So, an idea was born of curiosity and the desire to help this fascinating, declining species. Why not conduct a common nighthawk survey at the stone bridge? There were questions that needed answering. When do nighthawks arrive here and in what numbers? Are they continuing to decline and at what rate? What can we do to help them?

The data, to date (the nighthawk counting season is not yet complete), have been quite interesting and exciting. The count has been as high as 573 on a wildly exciting evening, where there were “kettles” of birds, circling and feeding, to the only day where no nighthawks were spotted, on a windy, rainy, tropical storm day. Recent data also seem to indicate that most birds travel in a westerly direction, likely following the Long Island Sound coastline before continuing south.

Will data from coming years support our findings from this current year? Will our results mirror the national and statewide trends of declining abundance? Years of data will need to be collected and analyzed; a reliable conclusion cannot be reached based on one year’s findings. But each year’s count results will help us gain a better understanding of the common nighthawk, its numbers and migration trends, and through our research, better protections may be formulated and instituted. Until then, we continue to stand at the stone bridge and count, witness to the exciting phenomenon of nighthawk migration.

The Stone Bridge Nighthawk Count will be ongoing through Oct. 15. All are welcome. Bring your binoculars, your desire to see goatsuckers, and come watch the show. For more information or directions, please call 631-689-6146.

From left, photographers Donna Crinnian, Anita Jo Lago and Lorraine Sepulveda and Colleen Hanson, trustee, Reboli Center after the event. Photo by Heidi Sutton

Nature lovers fill Reboli Center The Reboli Center for Art and History in Stony Brook Village hosted a successful Third Friday lecture on Sept. 15. Titled “Photographing Nature,” the event featured three local nature photographers Lorraine Sepulveda, Anita Jo Lago and Donna Crinnian who take their inspiration from the parks, harbors and lakes in the Three Village area. The trio shared their photographs of wildlife taken in the local area with a slide show and offered tips and strategies on how to become a better nature photographer during a Q&A. All three photographers have work on exhibit in the rear galleries of the Reboli Center. For more information, call 631-751-6408.

Task force inspires local governments to join forces

Suffolk County Leg. Kara Hahn, Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Assemblyman Steve Englebright, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine and Laurie Vetere and George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, sign a memorandum of understanding to protect Setauket Harbor Sept. 23. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Cooperation between members of government, especially from differing political parties, is a scarce natural resource these days, but don’t tell that to leaders from Brookhaven Town, Suffolk County and New York State. Setauket Harbor and the surrounding area is set to be the beneficiary of that cooperation, as leaders from each of the three municipalities formed an agreement Sept. 23 aiming to protect the historic and natural resources of the harbor.

“The Parties are committed to conserving, improving, protecting and interpreting Setauket Harbor’s historic and natural resources and environment through preservation of historic sties, wildlife areas and viewsheds to enable appropriate uses of harbor resources,” the agreement read in part. It also stated that preventing, abating and controlling water, land and air pollution will be a part of enhancing the health and safety of the people who live within or visit the Setauket Harbor Watershed.

The agreement is a Memorandum of Understanding, meaning it is not law, but rather a set of guiding principles or a moral commitment to follow in the years ahead.

On Sept. 23, North Shore residents enjoyed Setauket Harbor Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

The cosigners of the document, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station); Suffolk County Leg. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket); state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket); and representatives from the Department of Environmental Conservation and Setauket Harbor Task Force left the agreement open-ended in the hopes that other branches of government and organizations will follow suit. The Setauket Harbor Task Force, a three-year-old community organization dedicated to improving water quality and the marine habitat in the harbor, spearheaded the agreement after finding local levels of government share a common interest in protecting and improving the harbor, though they were working concurrently rather than coordinately in some ways.

The memorandum was signed on a town dock off Shore Road in Setauket as part of the third Setauket Harbor Day, an annual event established by the task force in 2015.

The first mission laid out by the document is to develop a natural and cultural resource inventory of the harbor, which will be a springboard toward creating a management plan designed to achieve the preservation goals of Setauket Harbor and the roughly three-square miles surrounding it, known as the watershed, by acquiring lands within it, preserving historic sites, sharing ideas, engaging in open, ongoing discussions and contributing funds.

“You need to have a starting point and a vision for how all these pieces come together, and I think that’s what’s so great about this designation,” said George Hoffman, co-founder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force.

Englebright credited the task force with getting everyone involved and focused on the problems associated with Setauket Harbor, which among others include nitrogen pollution and the presence of coliform bacteria, mostly due to storm water runoff into waterways. The harbor falls within the larger Port Jefferson Harbor Complex, which lets out into the Long Island Sound.

In Sept. 2016, state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) announced he had secured a $1 million grant from the state to be used on enhancing the quality of the harbor’s waters, and the town dock on Shore Road. Englebright thanked Flanagan for his leadership in bringing issues regarding the harbor to light, but a recent annual study completed by Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences still shows the body of water is an area of concern.

“Some of the parcels we’re trying to protect are very vulnerable,” Englebright said. He added although the agreement is only an understanding and not law, he hopes that will change in the future. “What I’m hoping we can do within the context of a completed plan is that we can revisit that question at the state legislative level and write something that may have broad applicability. I think this whole plan has the potential to be a model.”

Romaine said he was excited for the possible benefits to the environment the agreement could bring, but also for the potential economic benefit of a healthier harbor.

On Sept. 23, North Shore residents enjoyed Setauket Harbor Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

“The Harbor has been closed to shell fishing for more than 10 years,” he said. “We’d like to see it open up. We’d like to see some of the contaminants eliminated from this harbor so that it can restore itself. It’s very important to the town. I want to thank Steve because he’s done tremendous work, and we’ve worked together as colleagues for more than 35 years.”

Hahn suggested homes in the watershed could be prime candidates for Suffolk County’s Septic Improvement Program, an initiative that offers funds to homeowners within the county to replace outdated cesspools and septic system, which are major contributors to nitrogen pollution in waterways.

The federal government is not currently on board as part of the agreement, though DEC Regional Director Carrie Meek Gallagher said she expects that to change once a plan is in motion. The significance of the collaboration across party lines and municipality lines in lockstep with a community group like the task force was not lost on Cartright.

“This should be a prime example of how government on all levels should work together with the community,” she said.

Kevin McAllister, the founder of the nonprofit Defend H20, said while the agreement is a positive step, it will be largely symbolic if it is not followed up with action, and more importantly, funding.

“Providing greater funding for a host of projects, land acquisition, more protective zoning, denying shoreline hardening permits — these type actions, individually and collectively will define the resolve as put forth in the MOU,” he said in an email.

Englebright implored members of the public and community groups to not only get on board, but to take the additional step of holding elected officials to the terms of the agreement, including those who come after the incumbent lawmakers.

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