Your Turn

A northern flicker with two hatchlings at Frank Melville Memorial Park in the spring. Photo by Patrice Domeischel

By John Turner

When it comes to cavities it’s all about the type. A large cavity in your molar? A trip to the dentist because it’s a problem you need to have treated immediately. A deep cavity in the road you travel on the way to the dentist? Worth a phone call to the superintendent of highways before it destroys tires and rims. 

But cavities in a living white oak or dead pitch pine in an unused back corner of your property? Priceless assets appreciated by many species of birds, mammals and insects that nest or roost in them. This point is emphasized by the fact that more than 60 North American birds, mammals and reptiles use tree cavities of various sizes to roost or nest in, underscoring their fundamental importance in maintaining ecological balance. 

Cavity-using bird species include black-capped chickadees (a tiny bird beloved by many), titmice, nuthatches, screech owls (fairly common in the woodlands of the Three Village area), all species of woodpeckers, a few ducks, several species of bats, gray and flying squirrels, raccoons, opossums, mice and several species of tree-climbing snakes. Add to this many dozens of insects including bees that use cavities too.    

Cavities are such coveted features that species often compete for them. I once watched a several-days battle take place at my house between two woodpecker species — a red-bellied woodpecker and a northern flicker — and a European starling, all vying for a cavity in a large red maple tree on the far edge of the driveway, observable from a second-story window. The flicker had established first rights to it but was usurped by a pair of starlings as the day went on. But with great drama the flicker fought back and the next day had reclaimed ownership. The skirmish continued and the starlings reclaimed it, but then the red-bellied showed up, evicting the starlings. The red-bellied was the final victor and subsequently raised a family in the maple tree.

Woodpeckers play a prominent role in the tree cavity rental market since they make and use so many cavities that other wildlife eventually use (others are created by decay through fungal rot such as when a branch breaks off at the main trunk). 

The bigger woodpeckers — the aforementioned flicker and red-bellied — and the hairy and red-headed are especially adept in chiseling into the live wood to make cavities, the diminutive downy woodpecker not so much. Because of the cavity-making role woodpeckers play, and the reliance of so many wildlife species on cavities, woodpeckers are referred to as “ecological architects,” helping to shape the faunal composition of local forests.  

Two cavity-nesting birds are worth mentioning. Eastern screech owls routinely use cavities and, in fact, are dependent on them for roosting and nesting. It is not unusual but always a delightful surprise to find one sitting at the entrance to a nest hole doing its best impression of tree bark. We have two different color morphs or forms — gray and rufous — and they are both cryptically colored. These small owls, which don’t screech but rather have a tremolo-like call, are probably found in every woodland patch of five acres or more in the area.   

As mentioned earlier even some ducks use nesting cavities. Wood ducks, for example, nest in tree cavities, as do hooded mergansers, buffleheads and American goldeneyes. Hooded mergansers can be seen in the pond at Setauket’s Frank Melville Memorial Park during the winter and buffleheads in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson Harbor during the same time. Goldeneyes are winter ducks that are often seen floating on Long Island Sound. But wood ducks breed here and you might be lucky enough to see these spectacular looking birds (the male meets the avian definition of eye candy) at Frank Melville Park and other freshwater bodies in the area.   

How do fluffy wood duck ducklings leave the cavity and follow their mother to the local pond to feed? You may have seen the answer on one of the nature shows on TV in which the babies, encouraged by the piping call of the parents, fearlessly launch themselves from the lip of the cavity into the air, making a 30- to 40-foot plunge to the ground below.

Many cavities are in trees that are dead or failing, although living trees sport their share. If the tree poses no danger to property or hasn’t the potential to land on your or your loved one’s head, consider leaving it in place. Not only might it become a wildlife condominium through time as it becomes pocked with cavities, it also becomes a cafeteria for wildlife. Many insects such as beetles are drawn to decaying wood, and they play a key role in recycling wood in forests, releasing nutrients and minerals to be used by living plants nearby. In the form of grubs, the beetles and other insects become food for birds. 

So, if a dead tree, containing nesting cavities, presents a danger, by all means protect your head and house. But if it doesn’t threaten life or property, why not take a small step to protect your little area of planet Earth by leaving dead trees in place? You might even be rewarded by the call of a screech owl.   

John Turner, a Setauket resident, is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

A ‘Bill of Health’ certificate stating that the whaling vessel Splendid is free of plague or disease with 28 men on board, including the master, Richard P. Smith, on Oct. 27, 1853. From the Whaling Museum Collection

By Nomi Dayan

Have you ever been asked to please stand by? Ever told someone not to barge in? Have you hung on to the bitter end, or been given a clean bill of health? If so, you have spoken like a sailor. 

Each type of human activity, noted essayist L. Pearsall Smith, has its own vocabulary. Perhaps this is most evident in the speech of mariners. 

The English language is a strong testament to how humans have been seafarers for millennia, with a multitude of words and phrases having filtered from life at sea to life on land. Today, a surprising number of phrases, words and expressions still have nautical origins, notably from sailing terminology in the 18th and 19th centuries. While some adopted phrases have fallen by the wayside, many expressions in our everyday language are derived from seafaring.

Barge in: Referring to flat-bottomed work boats, which were awkward to control

Bitter end: The last part of a rope attached to a vessel

Clean bill of health: A document certifying a vessel had been inspected and was free from infection

Dead in the water: A sailing ship that has stopped moving

Down the hatch: A transport term for lowering cargo into the hatch and below deck

Figurehead: A carved ornamental figure affixed to the front of a ship

Foul up: To entangle the line

Fudge the books: While the origins of this term is unclear, one theory connects it to a deceitful Captain Fudge (17th century)

Give leeway: To allow extra room for sideways drift of a ship to leeward of the desired course

High and dry: A beached ship 

Jury rig: Makeshift or temporary repairs using available material

Keel over: To capsize, exposing the ship’s keel   

Show the ropes: Train a newcomer in the use of ropes on sailing vessel

Letting the cat out of the bag: One explanation links this phrase to one form of naval punishment where the offender was whipped with a “cat o’ nine tails,” normally kept in a bag  

Passed with flying colors/Show one’s true colors: Refers to identifying flags and pennants of sailing ships

Pipe down: Using the boatswain’s pipe signaling the crew to retire below deck

A new slant: A sailor will put a new slant on things by reducing sails to achieve an optimum angle of heel to avoid the boat from being pulled over

Slush fund: The ship’s cook created a private money reserve by hoarding bits of grease into a slush fund sold to candle makers

Steer clear: Avoid obstacles at sea

Taken aback: Sails pressed back into the mast from a sudden change of wind, stopping forward motion 

The author is the executive director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.

by -
0 325
Grandparent's Day is Sept. 9, 2018. Photo from Metro

For 40 years grandparents have had a day of recognition all their own, and rightfully so. Many grandparents play an essential role in the lives of their grandchildren, even at times helping to raise them.

The writer’s grandparents circa 1980. Photo from Rita J. Egan

President Jimmy Carter signed a proclamation in 1978 making the Sunday after Labor Day National Grandparent’s Day. Recently, a few friends and I were commenting on a Facebook thread about the importance of grandmothers and grandfathers in our lives. There were commenters who spent many weekends, holidays or summer vacations with them, or like me, actually lived with their grandparents.

I moved in with my grandparents, Hannah and Charlie Zimmerman, in Smithtown after my parents’ separation when I was in fourth grade. It was a bit of a bumpy ride at times. Having people raise me who grew up two generations before was a little tricky. There were a lot of things they wouldn’t let me do that other kids were allowed to because my grandparents didn’t get it. For one, I missed out on a lot of pajama parties because they didn’t understand the whole sleeping over someone else’s house when I had a bed and a home of my own.

Despite living with that and other old-fashioned rules, I learned a lot from my grandparents. They were young adults during the Great Depression, and I heard firsthand accounts about the era, which gave me a different perspective on finances when I experienced a couple of
recessions or tight financial times of my own.

I also would go with my grandparents to visit great-aunts and great-uncles and second cousins — people I may not have met if I lived with my parents. In doing so and hearing my grandparents’ stories of their families, it left me with a deeper appreciation for my ancestors.

Grandparent’s Day is Sept. 9

Then, of course, there were the differences in our preferred styles of music, which in later years has only enhanced my knowledge of songs from a wide array of eras. There were plenty of Sundays watching “The Lawrence Welk Show,” many New Year’s Eves with Guy Lombardo and his orchestra playing in the background, and even a few nights singing along with Mitch Miller and the Gang.

My grandparents’ house was also where my creative side was nurtured. After my grandfather retired as a sheet metal worker from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he took up oil painting. I remember watching him at his easel, and I still have a few of his creations, including one he started when I first moved in. He would sit with me and help me with my school projects and taught me how to draw houses, trees and faces. While my creative talents may have developed in another way through writing, I don’t doubt for a second that being able to think creatively through drawing helped with my craft.

I lost my grandfather when I was 18 and my grandmother when I was 22. Despite that being decades ago, I still find myself many times in life saying, “Grandma was right about this,” or “Grandpa was right about that,” though I would shake my head at some of the advice when I was younger.

Many years later, I’m glad their advice and the memories live on. So, thank you to them and all the grandparents who make a difference in the lives of children.

A yellow-crowned night-heron takes a sip of water. Photo by Patricia Paladines

By John L. Turner

If you like to spend time in early evening sitting on the southernmost bench at West Meadow Beach, enjoying the panoramic view of Stony Brook Harbor in the shadow of the Gamecock Cottage, you’ve probably seen or heard them. Feeding at the mouth of West Meadow Creek or along the main channel to the harbor or perhaps hearing their distinctive “wonk or quonck” call as one or more fly past. These are the night-herons and two species call the Three Village area home — the common black-crowned night-heron and the less common yellow-crowned night-heron.

They are called night-herons because of their habit of feeding most actively during sunset and into the night. This habit is reflected in their scientific names: Nycticorax nycticorax for the black-crowned night heron (nycticorax meaning “night raven” for their “wonk” sounding call they emit at dusk and through the night) and Nyctanassa violacea for the yellow-crowned night heron, meaning “a violet-colored night queen.”  

A black-crowned night-heron searches for his next meal. Photo by Luke Ormand

On Long Island these two species inhabit the salty coast, rarely found away from the island’s salty brine environs. It is here they call home, feeding on the marine life that sustains adults and young alike. For black-crowned night-herons this means an assortment of fish, mussels, crustaceans, even the occasional mouse; whereas for the yellow-crowned it means almost exclusively crabs, which make up 90 to 95 percent of their diet. Fiddler and mud crabs beware! Because of their diet, night-herons, like owls, regurgitate pellets.

Watching them hunt is to observe a lesson in patience. With Zen-like focus they remain motionless or move very slowly through shallow water or along mud banks, essentially blending into the background so their prey no longer sees them for the predators they are. Then with a lightening strike it’s too late.

While they look similar, appearing as chunky wading birds lacking the grace of the egrets and great blue heron, they are easy to tell apart. The black-crowned has a “two-toned” quality with wings and a neck that’s gray with a dark back and crown. In contrast, the yellow-crowned is uniformly dark gray (sometimes casting a violet to purplish color as mentioned above) and has a distinctive and diagnostic white cheek patch, and a namesake yellow crown. Both species have long attractive plumes emanating from the back of their heads.

Identifying the juveniles, however, is more difficult. They both appear as chocolate brown birds with a lot of spotting. At closer glance there are clues to use to separate the species: the juvenile yellow-crowned has an all black bill while the young black-crowned heron’s bill is yellowish. Also, the yellow-crowned has a slenderer aspect to it with longer legs and finer spotting.   

A yellow-crowned night-heron. Photo by John L. Turner

They nest in loose colonies often in association with other wading bird species such as snowy and great egrets. Young’s Island situated in the mouth of Stony Brook Harbor is a good place to observe these mixed species wading bird rookeries. The scruffy looking young are nothing short of comical looking with fine hairlike feathers splayed this way and that like the hair style of a mad scientist.

And it was scientists who realized they were declining many decades ago for the same reason that caused bald eagle, osprey, peregrine falcon and brown pelican populations to plummet — the widespread use of DDT, a persistent pesticide that affected the ability of birds higher on the food chain (those that eat animals) to produce eggshells. Fortunately, with DDT being banned by the EPA in the early 1970s, night-herons and these other species have largely recovered.

Interestingly, the effort to ban DDT began here in the Three Village Area when a number of local scientists like Charlie Wurster and Bob Smoelker, among others, joined with other concerned scientists to form the Environmental Defense Fund as a means to galvanize public support for banning the chemical. Now an effective environmental organization with an international reach, EDF began in the Three Village Area with the first office being on the second floor of the Stony Brook Village Center right behind the famous flapping bald eagle (likely the only eagle on Long Island at the time with no DDT in its tissues!).  

You can bask in the glow of this good news of ecological healing as you sit attentive on that southward facing bench at West Meadow Beach, waiting for the herons of sunset to appear.   

John L. Turner, a Setauket resident, is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding and Natural History Tours.

By Susan Perretti

In the end, my visit to the campaign kickoff for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) in Smithtown June 28 was more about the words I never got to say than the few I did utter before I was threatened with arrest if I didn’t leave the premises at once.

Zeldin was not yet on the stage when a man in a suit told me I had to go. “Why?” I asked. He leaned in and spoke into my ear: “If you don’t go now you will be arrested.” Why? I asked again. Trespassing. Trespassing? Zeldin, my congressman, invited me, and I had registered. After finding my name on a list, a man had waved me into the Elks Lodge. Three like-minded friends didn’t even get in.

Susan Perretti

I went because there were some things I wanted to say to Zeldin. Not in a mean, accusing way. I try not to enter conversations them versus us, Republicans versus Democrats, right versus left. It doesn’t solve anyone’s problems.

As a reporter for a Long Island weekly, I often covered election campaigns. I’ve heard folks on both sides of the aisle verbally abuse their opponents. But at the Zeldin soirée, there was more vitriol and hate rhetoric than I’d ever encountered, on the job or as a private citizen. It got to me. I felt sick over it.

A monsignor was asking God to bless Zeldin, and he mentioned justice and welcoming the stranger. For a moment, I didn’t feel quite so alone. Compassion, unity, working for peace. As a Christian, I’d grown up hearing those words, and I’m still a believer. But when Sebastian Gorka took to the stage, there were rousing, Trump rally-like chants of “Build the Wall! Build the Wall!” And this was less than 20 miles from my home. I looked around the room, but the monsignor had cut out. I was on my own.

Gorka had the crowd in a near frenzy when I found myself shouting: “But we are all Americans.” To my surprise, a few people nodded in agreement. It was during Sean Spicer’s speech that I lost it. “Enough of the hate.” I yelled. “Enough is enough.” I went on in that vein for maybe a minute. Nearby Zeldin supporters told me to shut up. For a moment, remembering the way Trump had handled protesters, I worried I would be toppled. Then the man in the suit tapped me and said I had to get out. Pleading for an end to the demonizing would not be tolerated.

I never got to see Zeldin and ask him the questions I had come with. Questions about crying children being snatched from the arms of asylum-seeking parents. Another case of gun violence that day at a Maryland newspaper and our nation’s grotesquely lenient gun laws. I wanted to ask what will become of the poor, elderly and disabled, like my 90-year-old, Medicaid-dependent mother, if more social services programs get axed — or our water and air if the Environmental Protection Agency continues to be dismantled. But mostly I wanted to urge him to follow his heart, even if that means casting votes that might anger the president, the NRA and his other big-money donors.

I was going to say, “Mr. Zeldin, it’s not too late to be your own man,” but I didn’t have the chance.

One of the five men who escorted me out asked why I didn’t just go to Zeldin’s office. I told him I had, but that I was met by two police officers and a gruff aide who directed me to write my concerns on a prepared form. And, I told my escort, Zeldin doesn’t hold town hall meetings like his predecessors did. Questions are accepted ahead of time only and are carefully screened. They’ve never picked mine. More words I meant to say.

Congressman Zeldin’s campaign has been invited to write a reply.

Your adventure awaits! Photo from Sue Avery

By Karen Smith

There are days when we need a break from the general craziness of life, and we just want to get outdoors to walk in a peaceful place. Three Village residents are fortunate to have a number of options for this peaceful pursuit and one of the very loveliest is the Three Village Garden Club Arboretum, accessible through the parking lot of the adjacent and separately owned Frank Melville Memorial Park, 101 Main St., Setauket.

This “hidden haven” contains 4.5 acres of wooded pathways that meander through an open meadow, past 30 varieties of specimen trees and shrubs, and offers views of the Conscience Bay headwaters. It’s a habitat for birds, butterflies, frogs, turtles and the rabbits, squirrels and deer that are found throughout our area. 

In early spring you can view the trees and shrubs starting to bud, and as the months pass there are flowers in bloom, then the fall colors and finally the stark beauty of winter. Each offers a different experience, but the feeling of tranquility always is there.

While the arboretum is open to the public, it is privately owned and maintained by the Three Village Garden Club, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Our volunteer and hardworking arboretum administrators oversee the planting of new trees, shrubs and plants, regular mowing of the meadow, removal of invasive plants and management of bamboo. In addition, arborists are called in as needed to remove tree limbs, and when necessary, entire trees. When required, wood chips are added to pathways to ensure that trails remain dry. 

The thousands of dollars expended annually on this maintenance by the TVGC is deemed necessary to ensure the safety of all visitors and the beauty of the property. 

In addition, many hours of volunteer work are provided by members of Students Taking Action for Tomorrow’s Environment (S.T.A.T.E.), part of the Avalon organization, and at times, Scouts and of course, garden club member-volunteers.

The arboretum also is used for educational purposes, chief among which are the Arbor Day celebration held in spring and the Meet the Trees program in the fall. 

Second-grade students from all elementary schools in the Three Village School district are invited to visit and have these “hands-on” experiences to supplement their science curriculum. For the past 10 years it also has been the site of a Teddy Bear Picnic for preschoolers and their parents, offering a walk through the property to introduce them to the natural environment.

You’re cordially invited to visit! Come with a friend or family member. Leashed pets are permitted. Enjoy this beautiful haven whenever you’re in the mood for a peaceful place!

Karen Smith is a member of the Three Village Garden Club.

The Sound Beach Veterans Park memorial

By Ernestine Franco

A few weeks ago, Ann Moran, a member of the board of the Sound Beach Civic Association, was getting the Sound Beach Veterans Park’s garden ready for its upcoming Memorial Day celebration when she noticed something she had never seen before.

On the horizontal slab of the granite stone that displays the plaques of the seven fallen veterans of Sound Beach, someone had left two coins in front of each plaque, two quarters to be exact, and she wondered why. Moran knew that people sometimes leave a small stone on a headstone in a cemetery to indicate that they had been there but had no idea what it meant to leave a coin. When she stopped by the park a few days later someone had left a number of long-stemmed red roses in front of every plaque next to the coins.

When she told me about the coins, I was moved and knew it meant something to the person who left them there — but what? In an effort to understand this ritual, I decided to do some research.

People have been leaving small items on or near the graves of loved ones for a very long time. Excavations of even the earliest graves have uncovered goods meant to serve the deceased in the next world, such as pottery, weapons and beads.

Coins have been around since the late seventh century B.C., and as societies began using monetary systems, the practice of leaving currency at grave sites began as yet another way of equipping the dear departed for the afterlife.

Mythologies of different cultures added specific reasons for coins being left with the dead. In Greek mythology, Charon, the ferryman of Hades, required payment for his services. A coin was therefore placed in the mouth of the dear departed to ensure Charon would ferry the deceased across the river Styx and into the world of the dead rather than leave him or her to wander the shore for a hundred years. Although it is unclear when and why this started, in England and the United States  pennies were routinely placed on the closed eyes of the dead.

 

Coins left on the headstone of Ann Moran’s late husband

Leaving a coin is meant as a message to the deceased soldier’s family that someone has visited the grave to pay respect. Which coin is left on the headstone seems to symbolize different things. Leaving a penny at the grave means simply that you visited. A nickel indicates that you and the deceased trained at boot camp together, while a dime means you served together in some capacity. By leaving a quarter at the grave, you are telling the family that you were with the soldier when he or she died.

Traditionally, the money left at graves in national cemeteries and state veterans cemeteries is eventually collected, and the funds are put toward maintaining the cemetery or paying burial costs for indigent veterans.

In the U.S., this practice became common during the Vietnam War, due to the political divide in the country over the war. Leaving a coin was seen as a more practical way to communicate that you had visited the grave than contacting the soldier’s family, which could devolve into an uncomfortable argument over politics relating to the war. Some Vietnam veterans would leave coins as a “down payment” to buy their fallen comrades a beer or play a hand of cards when they would finally be reunited.

All the coins that Moran found at the memorial park were quarters. Because the veterans honored there died in action between 1942 and 2005, she knew the coins could not mean that the person who left them was with the soldier when he passed. She knew it was a sign of homage and remembrance. 

This past week she went to Calverton National Cemetery to visit the grave of her husband Matt and she left a nickel and a dime — one to remember him and one to just say hello. She did remove the coins at the Sound Beach park and put them in the civic association’s fund for upkeep at the Veterans Park.

We all remember the day that a friend or family member died and we mourn their passing. Memorial Day is the national day of mourning when we as a nation, as a people, remember those who have died to preserve our freedoms. 

Small tokens are left by visitors for no greater purpose than to indicate that someone has visited that particular grave. When visiting the grave of a good friend buried at Calverton, I left a tiny statue of a bunny at her grave for no other reason but that she loved bunnies.

A close-up of the roses and coins left at the memorial.

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) expressed her feelings about Memorial Day by saying, “For 150 years, America has paused on Memorial Day and honored those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our liberty. These brave souls truly defined what a hero is: someone who has given his or her life for something bigger than themselves. It’s a day to mourn their loss and honor their sacrifice, but also to thank God that such men and women have lived.”

A remarkable scene around Memorial Day at grave sites of men and women who have died for our country is the placement of American flags at each grave by Scouts at national cemeteries throughout the U.S. Sound Beach resident Nancy Ford, whose daughter Katie is now in the Air Force Reserves, places another kind of flag at Calverton each year in remembrance of her husband Jim, who served in the Air Force and was in the Sound Beach Fire Dept. Ford said, “Placing a fireman’s flag each year helps to renew my sense of patriotism in Jim’s military service.”

So this Memorial Day, if you visit a soldier at a national cemetery or a family member at a local cemetery, if you place a flag by the grave site, if you position flowers in front of the headstone, if you leave a memento that meant something special to the person buried there, or if you simply leave a coin, know that you are part of a tradition that remembers and honors the person buried there as well as lets family members know that someone has visited, that the person is  remembered. 

The traditions of a people are born from and nurtured by history. History remembers and safeguards the traditions that make up the spiritual center of a people. We follow them because somehow these rituals connect us with our past and link us to our future.

Ernestine Franco is a member of the Sound Beach Civic Association and a proofreader at Times Beacon Record News Media.

All photos by Ann Moran

By Nomi Dayan

Nomi Dayan

Whaling was a risky business, physically and financially. Life at sea was hazardous. Fortunes were made or lost. Whale hunts were perilous, as was the processing of the whale. Injuries were rampant and death was common, sometimes on nearly every voyage. In some instances, the deceased was none other than the captain.

Captain Sluman Lothrop Gray met his untimely end on a whaleship. Born in 1813, very little is known of his past, his family or his early experiences at sea. In 1838, he married Sarah A. Frisbie of Pennsylvania in the rural town of Columbia, Connecticut. His whaling and navigational skills must have been precocious, because in 1842, in his late 20s, Gray became a whaling captain — and a highly successful one. 

His wife Sarah joined him in his achievements, living with him at sea for 20 years. Three of their eight children were born during global whaling voyages. Gray commanded a string of vessels: the Jefferson and Hannibal of New London, Connecticut, to the Indian and North Pacific oceans; the Mercury and Newburyport of Stonington, Connecticut, to the South Atlantic, Chile, and Northwest Pacific oceans; and the Montreal of New Bedford, Massachusetts, to the North Pacific Ocean.  

While financially successful, Gray’s crew felt his harsh personality left much to be desired. Some of his blasphemies were recorded by a cabin boy on the Hannibal in 1843. Gray did not hesitate to flog crew members for minor mistakes. Unsurprisingly, when Sarah once reported her husband had taken ill, the crew rejoiced. To their chagrin, he recovered.

As Gray aged, he attempted to retire from maritime living and shift into the life of a country gentleman. He bought 10 acres of land in Lebanon, Connecticut, and lived there for seven years, where his house still stands. 

This bucolic life did not last, and Gray returned to whaling. With his wife and three children — 16-year-old Katie, 10-year-old Sluman Jr. and 2-year-old Nellie, he sailed out of New Bedford on June 1, 1864, on the James Maury. Built in Boston in 1825 and sold to New Bedford owners in 1845, the James Maury was a hefty ship at 394 tons. Gray steered the course toward hunting grounds in the South Pacific. 

Unexpectedly, after nine months at sea in March 1865, he suddenly became ill. The closest land was Guam, 400 miles away. Sarah described his sickness as an “inflammation of the bowels.” After two days, Gray was dead. The first mate reported in the ship’s logbook: “Light winds and pleasant weather. At 2 p.m. our Captain expired after an illness of two days.”  He was 51 years old.

Sarah had endured death five times before this, having to bury five of her children who sadly died in infancy. She could not bear to bury her husband at sea. Considering how typical grand-scale mourning was in Victorian times, a burial at sea was anything but romantic. It was not unheard of for a whaling wife to attempt to preserve her husband’s body for a home burial. But how would Sarah embalm the body?

Two things aboard the whaleship helped: a barrel and alcohol. Sarah asked the ship’s cooper, or barrel maker, to fashion a cask for the captain. He did so, and Gray was placed inside. The cask was  filled with “spirits,” likely rum. The log for that day records: “Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather; made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits.”

The voyage continued on to the Bering Sea in the Arctic; death and a marinating body did not stop the intentions of the crew from missing out on the summer hunting season. 

However, there was another unexpected surprise that June: the ship was attacked by the feared and ruthless Confederate raider Shenandoah, who prowled the ocean burning Union vessels, especially whalers (with crews taken as prisoners). The captain, James Waddell, had not heard — or refused to believe —that the South had already surrendered. 

When the first mate of the Shenandoah, Lt. Chew, came aboard the James Maury, he found Sarah panic stricken. The James Maury was spared because of the presence of her and her children — and presumably the presence of her barreled husband. Waddell assured her that the “men of the South did not make war on women and children.” Instead, he considered them prisoners and ransomed the ship. Before the ship was sent to Honolulu, he dumped 222 other Union prisoners on board. One can imagine how cramped this voyage was since whaleships were known for anything but free space.

A year after the captain’s death, the remaining Gray family made it home in March 1866. The preserved captain himself was shipped home from New Bedford for $11. 

Captain Gray was finally buried in Liberty Hill Cemetery in Connecticut. His resting place has a tall marker with an anchor and two inscriptions: “My Husband” and “Captain S. L. Gray died on board ship James Maury near the island of Guam, March 24, 1865.” Sarah died 20 years later and was buried next to her husband.

It is unknown if Gray was buried “as is” or in a casket. There are no records of Sarah purchasing a coffin. Legend has it that he was buried barrel and all.

Nomi Dayan is the executive director at The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.

The American woodcock is back in town. Photo by Luke Ormand

By John Turner

If, in the next couple of weeks, you visit the fields of the wonderful Avalon Preserve off of Shep Jones Lane in Stony Brook at sunset and cup your ears, you might hear twittering and squeaking in the sky and moments later a more emphatic “peenting” call coming from a patch of ground in front of you. 

Cast your eyes skyward into the evening gloaming and you might catch a chunky-shaped bird zooming up from the ground rapidly and circling several times — “sky dancing” as the great conservationist Aldo Leopold once described it — before plunging earthward, typically close to an interested female. His up-and-down spiral flights at twilight are all part of a display he employs in the hope of attracting a mate. 

What is the source of this crepuscular magic? It’s the annual spring mating flight of the American woodcock, a bird that one birder has described as a “flying meatloaf,” due to its chunky nature and rich brown coloration. The woodcock has other names too, some rich in folklore, including the timberdoodle, Labrador twister, bogborer, bogsucker, night peck, whistling snipe, mud bat and night partridge.  And two names shrouded in mystery — the hookum pake and Cache-cache rouge.

The American woodcock. Photo by Luke Ormand

The woodcock is a member of the shorebird family like the piping plovers that nest at West Meadow Beach, but unlike these plovers is never found near the shore. It is a bird of fields, thickets and woodlands, preferably where they are adjacent — fields for spring displays and thickets and woods for nesting and feeding. The species is a widespread breeding bird on Long Island but is declining in abundance as the natural habitat it requires to meet its needs is destroyed by humans to meet their own needs through the construction of housing, shopping centers and industrial parks.

Not surprisingly, like all animals the American woodcock is well adapted for its lifestyle. Often on the forest floor where it rests and forages, the bird’s highly camouflaged plumage serves it quite well, a fact that was reinforced to me on a bird trip to Ohio several years ago. At a very popular birding hot spot a woodcock decided to nest at the edge of the parking lot in some old grasses with scattered branches. Park staff had found the nest and put ribbon around the nest, creating a 15-foot protective perimeter around the incubating adult. Even with help the first time it took me 15 or so seconds to locate the nesting bird. I passed by the nesting site on several occasions over the next couple of days and would stop each time to peer at the incubating woodcock. Even though I knew precisely where the nesting bird was situated, it took several seconds each time to make out her cryptic shape as she sat Zen-like blended in amid the fabric of leaves, grasses and branches.

The bird’s primary food are earthworms, and the woodcock’s long, sensitive bill can easily probe in the ground and, acting like forceps, pull worms out of the ground.  Evolution has been at work here too, with natural selection, acting over eons of time responding to its feeding strategy, which involves spending much time facing downward with a bill thrust into the soil. How so you might ask? By moving its eye position from the front of its face toward the top and back of its head, and by so doing allowing the bird to have a complete 360-degree field of view of its surroundings (in contrast humans have an approximate 210-degree field of view) including, remarkably, a 20-degree binocular-vision field of view behind its head — a good thing since this is where a woodcock is most vulnerable to attack from a predatory fox or hawk.  

This movement in eye position has caused other anatomical changes. The ears, in most birds behind the eyes, have in woodcock, moved under them. More remarkably, the shift in the position of the eye sockets back and up have caused the woodcock’s brain to rotate so that it is almost upside down!     

As woodcocks feed they rapidly probe the ground and, based on specialized cells in their bill, are able to locate their slippery prey. Walking from one set of probing holes to make another set a couple of feet away, the bird simultaneously rocks back and forth and up and down, “walking-like-an-Egyptian” through the leaf litter. What’s the adaptive value of walking like this? Ornithologists aren’t sure but think it may help them detect earthworm prey. Watch a video on YouTube and this behavior (comical to us, serious to the bird) will undoubtedly put a smile on your face.

The nature of their diet means woodcocks have to vacate colder, snow and ice-covered regions, lest they run the real risk of starvation once the ground freezes. So come autumn they leave Long Island heading south to overwinter in the southeastern United States. But return this time of year they do and right now and for a little while longer the “flying meatloaves” are advertising at Avalon and other natural venues near you!

John Turner, a Setauket resident, is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding and Natural History Tours.

Photo by Corinne Conover

Homage to Conscience

By Corinne Conover

I was truly blessed to live 12 wonderful years with great memories and milestones in Strong’s Neck. I wrote this non-fiction piece as a heartfelt thank you to a place that has so much enriched history and beautiful landscapes that, combined with my loving parents and sister, was “home.” Our new ventures take us to Queens and Manhattan. Thank you for reading.

Photo by Corinne Conover

This would be my last time at my “other home.” The home where we played volleyball in the rain — countless barbecues, bike rides around Conscience Point and round the bend to the church steeple, carriage house and the old tavern where George Washington would go to when he would visit, which now is a historic home.

The home where we would visit a secret garden at Avalon, where a wealthy father dedicated a park with hiking, and trails in loving memory to his young son who passed away. Endless kayaking trips with me and dad and Sonny, even after years later, when the kayaks finally gave in and deflated. We had to float back home with our arms spread out. Dad said, “We were penguins that day.”

I offered to take my sister’s dog Foster on the last day for a nice walk, just him and me. We made it to Conscience Point. Gazed at the sun starting to set. The tall tree overlooking the inlet to the ocean and headed to the shoreline. There, before us, sat hundreds of colored rocks from seaweed, salt and growth. And, thought “Who am I, to choose one rock that no longer gets to stay here in its natural state?” It is a lot similar to how I feel of the natural inward beauty that some people exude in life with a conscience. So, I left the rock in its place. “Home.” Looked up at the setting sun. Thanked God and solemnly said … Goodbye.

Social

9,198FansLike
0FollowersFollow
1,123FollowersFollow
33SubscribersSubscribe