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Frank Melville Memorial Park

Bird lovers gather at the Stone Bridge at Frank Melville Memorial Park to witness the common nighthawk migration. Photo from Four Harbors Audubon Society

Calling all bird lovers!

Migration has begun! Join Four Harbors Audubon Society at Frank Melville Memorial Park’s Stone Bridge to witness the exciting annual migration of the most beloved members of the nightjar family — the common nighthawk. Migration might be any or all days through early October. Join them from 5:30 p.m. until dusk as they conduct the third annual nighthawk census, and enjoy the show! The Stone Bridge is located at One Old Field Road, Setauket. For more information, email fourharborsheron@gmail.com.

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The Frank Melville Memorial Foundation board is set to begin an appeal to raise funds for the park’s mill. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Friends of Frank Melville Memorial Park will be invited to help restore an FMMP staple.

The trustees of the park’s Frank Melville Memorial Foundation are set to send out a letter in September announcing a fundraising campaign asking the community for financial assistance to help restore the mill located on the north side of the park. The restoration, which will include shingling the roof and sides, is estimated to cost more than $60,000, according to Robert Reuter, foundation president.

A closeup of the shingles used on the structure. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Reuter said the shingles that cover the roof and sides are the originals and are thicker than the average shingle. They also have irregular cuts on the ends, so rather than lining up in a straight line they have staggered bottoms. This effect will be reproduced during the restoration, according to Reuter. Restorations will also include necessary repairs to the mill’s wheel and trim elements.

“It’s a building in great need of repair,” he said.

Reuter explained that one thing that won’t be repaired is the ridge of the structure that has a noticeable swayback as it was designed to look that way, giving it an old mill feel.

Richard Haviland Smythe designed the simulated mill in the mid-1930s to represent a series of grist mills that once existed along waterways in Setauket, including one that was constructed in 1665 and located in the park, Reuter said. Smythe was the go-to architect for philanthropist Ward Melville and designed many local buildings, including structures in Old Field Farm and stores in the Stony Brook Village Center.

“It was meant to be a place marker and a reference to the mills of the past,” he said.

Reuter added the mill is sometimes called a landmark folly, and it was included in the original design of the park, which is loosely based on English garden principles.

“It’s a very important building in the park, and maybe the most photographed element in the park,” Reuter said. “I would say it’s one of those iconic images that everyone takes a photo of.”

He believes it also serves a purpose beyond aesthetics, because even though it’s not an operating mill, it has a working wheel and the building is used for the Frank Melville Memorial Foundation’s office. The mill is also used for tours and is a stop during the annual Culper Spy Day held in September.

“It allows us to tell the story of that part of our history,” Reuter said. “How the mills moved as the ponds filled in and the mills had to move down, and this represented the last position for a mill that [was in Setauket].”

Three Village Historical Society historian Beverly Tyler said the mill is a stop on the Founders Day tour that the society conducts every spring for fourth graders. It’s also featured on the Woodhull tour that the TVHS offers and he leads.

Tyler said the mill serves as a learning tool to teach participants about millers and craftsmen who worked in the area throughout the centuries, especially during the Colonial period. He explained millers did more than grind grains — often acting as a storekeeper and banker in town because they had the resources to loan money.

“Without the mill, we wouldn’t have the ability to teach it as easily and dramatically as we can by having the mill there and explaining how the mill pond works and why there is a mill pond,” Tyler said, adding the pond exists because water was backed up by a dam to enable milling.

Reuter said the board hopes to begin the restoration project this year, and two FMMF trustees already have made a combined pledge of up to $10,000 to match donations for the restoration. Those who donate $50 or more will receive the 2020 Four Harbors Audubon Society Calendar, which features selected photographs from the recent A Valentine to Whitman’s Paumanok photography exhibition held at the Bates House.

Above, Carl Zorn with two of the plaques overlooking Conscience Bay. Photo by Leah Chiappino

By Leah Chiappino

Visitors to Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket have Eagle Scout Carl Zorn to thank for the new informational plaques that have been installed among the tranquil scenery. They include a general welcome sign detailing the history of the park’s founding and species that occupy it and two additional signs detailing the ecology of estuaries and watersheds. The welcome sign is located at the entrance to the park, and the other two signs are located side by side near the second bridge overlooking Conscience Bay. 

A new plaque welcomes visitors to the park. Photo by Leah Chiappino

Zorn, who has been a Boy Scout since first grade, chose to design informational signage for the park as his Eagle Scout Leadership Project because he wanted to do something that would have a lasting impact on the community. “I wanted something where if I moved to a different state and came back here to visit, I could look at it and say that I did that,” he said. The Scouting organization also fostered a love of nature in Zorn who described his childhood as “always being outdoors and camping with the Boy Scouts and my family.”

After getting the idea from a family friend in July, the Setauket resident began his project last September and completed it in early February.

As the Frank Melville Park Foundation, along with the Zorn family, donated the funds for the materials, most of Zorn’s time completing the project was spent researching the content for the plaques. He admits the start of the project was overwhelming. “At first, I had no idea what to do or how to learn about the wildlife here, ” he explained. 

Kerri Glynn, director of education for the park, stepped in to assist Zorn in gathering the information for the plaques with the hope they would help people become more environmentally aware. “I hope people come to understand the fragility of the ecosystem. Many people come to the park and think it is lovely, but they don’t understand the ecology of it,” she said.

Zorn consulted with Town of Brookhaven historian Barbara Russell in order to highlight the unique history of the park, which was built by Ward Melville and donated by his mother Jennie as a memorial to her husband Frank Melville in 1937. “Essentially it’s private land for public use,” she said. 

A community treasure, the 26-acre park features two ponds, an estuary and woodlands. On any given day, visitors can see swans, deer, songbirds, turtles, herons and wood ducks as they stroll along shaded paths past a simulated grist mill and a 20th-century barn. The park and its buildings are included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Local environmentalist and conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, John Turner, also assisted Zorn with his research, and highlighted the importance of education on watersheds, or land in which below-ground water feeds into a water source. 

“People live work and play above their water supply. The quality of the waters in the aquifers underneath the Long Island surface are affected directly and intimately by the activities that we conduct on the land surface, so a clean land policy means a clean water policy,” he explained. 

From left, Andrew Lily, Joe Pisciotta, Andrew Graf, Carl Zorn, Aiden Zorn (in forefront), Tim Petritsch and Mark Muratore at the installation in February. Photo by Steve Hintze

Turner called Zorn’s project “well-conceived and well-executed.” He also praised the park’s board of trustees, as well as the park’s president, Robert Reuter, for recognizing the value of the project. “You have a captive audience in the park, but up until now there was limited information. [These plaques] have taken advantage of that captive audience to try to instill a greater appreciation and awareness of the resources around them,” he said.

After gathering the information and submitting several drafts for approval by the board, Zorn then had the task of designing the signs, with pictures provided by the park. He found a sign company, Fossil Industries in Deer Park, to make the signs, a process that took about three months. He then focused on configuring the specific intricacies of the project, such as the location, and making sure the signs were low enough to be at eye level for children but still readable to adults. 

Weather also delayed the installation, as the ground would freeze. Once the signs were finished, Zorn along with eight other Boy Scouts joined together in order to install them. 

Reuter praised Zorn’s work ethic and the final result, calling the project “a long and thorough process and a real achievement.” Russell also added praise for the finished product. “He did a wonderful job. There’s a nice combination of the history and environmental facts affecting the park [on the signs],” she added. Zorn was equally pleased with the results. “This is exactly what I wanted in an Eagle Scout project and I got it,” he said.

The 18-year-old recently graduated from Ward Melville High School and will attend Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, in the fall as a music business major, combining his passion for music with his ambition to work for the Disney Corporation.

However, according to Reuter, as Zorn wished, the plaques will have a lasting impact on the community. “Frank Melville Memorial Park is now enriched with really useful and attractive interpretive signs that inform park visitors about the park’s history and environment. But, don’t take my word for it — go see for yourself.” 

Frank Melville Memorial Park is located at 1 Old Field Road in Setauket. For more information, call 631-689-6146 or visit www.frankmelvillepark.org.

It’s time to garden!

Join the staff at Frank Melville Memorial Park, 1 Old Field Road, Setauket for a free gardening class at the Red Barn on Saturday, May 25 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Come share garden success stories and Master Gardener Haig Seferian will answer your questions. And, no one will go home empty-handed. For more info, call 631-689-6146.

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Cormorant and snapping turtles relax on lower mill pond at Frank Melville Memorial Park. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

The intersection of Main Street and Old Field Road in Setauket marks the entrance to the Frank Melville Memorial Park. The horseshoe-shaped park, completed in 1937, includes extensive plantings, a simulated grist mill, a magnificent view of Conscience Bay and the cottage of the last Setauket miller Everett Hawkins. From the park, there is an entrance to the Frank Melville Memorial Foundation sanctuary grounds with its extensive nature paths.

The Setauket Millpond was a center of commerce for the community from the time it was settled in 1655 until early in the 20th century. It is easy to imagine almost any time in Setauket history while in the park.

Looking out over the mill dam, Conscience Bay reflects the 8,000 years the Native Americans lived here before the English settlers came to Setauket. The mill tells the story of the farmer grinding grain in the 1700s. The recently restored red barn was originally made from World War I barracks buildings at Camp Upton in Yaphank. The stable remembers the horse Smokey and speaks of a 19th-century horse and carriage. The stone bridge relates how an immigrant great-grandson came to Setauket and gave it an image of the countryside of rural England and Europe with a park.

Just after dawn the Setauket Millpond shimmers with morning mist and reflects the early morning sky and the trees that partly surround it. Walking along the path in Frank Melville Memorial Park, the only sounds, except for the occasional car going by, are the birds in the trees and the ducks in the pond. They contrast with the greens, browns and grays of early morning. The contemplative surroundings start the day with the beauty of God’s creation and gives perspective to the rest of the day.

Birdsong by Beverly C. Tyler

Spring, the park at morning.

Woodpeckers rat-a-tat, the whoosh of wings — Canadian geese, a soft grouse call is heard.

Bird song, first near and then far, across
the pond.

Bird song left and right.

A gentle breeze turns the pond to silver, moving patterns of dark and light.

The background sounds of water flowing over the mill dam and into the bay.

Pairs of mallards gliding slowly across
the pond.

The trumpet calls of geese announcing flight as they rise from the pond and fly across the mill dam, across the marsh and into the bay.

Trees surrounding the pond make patterns of greens of every shade.

Dark evergreens and climbing vines add vertical splendor climbing skyward.

Bright green beech and silver-green sycamore trees stand stately and strong.

Patches of white dogwood add depth
and contrast.

A heron glides effortlessly across the surface of the pond, rises and disappears into the cover of a black birch tree.

I am overwhelmed by gentle sounds and contrasting scenery, by muted colors in every shade and texture.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

Compliments of Anita Jo Lago

Hometown: Stony Brook

Day job: Production Manager for Marketing and Communications at Stony Brook Medicine.

“The rapid pace of invention in photography technologies has changed what we are capable of capturing. The art in photography is expanding and nothing seems impossible in terms of imagining what a photo can be of, look like or what camera (or mobile device) it can be taken with. Creativity has no boundaries and is never ending. To be riding that wave at this moment is very exciting.”

Photographer: “I started taking photos back in the late ‘80s on film cameras. I got more serious in 2002 when I started travelling and wanted to capture what I saw during walks around cities. After my office changed locations in 2014, I found myself passing the Frank Melville Park in Setauket daily. That sparked my curiosity in nature and started my latest adventure in photography.”

Favorite camera: “I find the Nikon D850 and the Canon 5D Mark 4 to be very challenging and rewarding cameras.”

Favorite lenses: “For macro photography (extreme close-up photography), Nikon 200mm f/4, Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 and Canon 65mm f/2.8 are all fantastic lenses. They have taught me a true test of patience. Zoom lenses like the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G, Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 and Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E have a great range for capturing wildlife near and far.”

Favorite location: “Frank Melville Park is a hidden treasure. The environment and “vibe” of the park is peaceful. The Red Barn, Mill House and Bates House give the sense of history of the land and community. The North and South Ponds, the trails, the gardens, all contribute in ‘packing a punch’ when it comes to the beauty of nature and wildlife. Experiencing rare bird sightings, watching eggs hatch, nestlings learning to fly, bird migrations, reemerging turtles after winter hibernation, beekeeping … there are millions of happenings, hours of enjoyment, something for everyone. Every visit is a memorable one. Imagine taking photos there!

Other hobbies: “Besides spending time watching wildlife year-round, I enjoy computer technology, learning about mute swans, craft beer and finding a great slice of pizza!”  

Best advice to get that perfect shot: ‘Take photos of things that you’re immersed in, that you feel a deep connection with and that you love being around. If you shoot often enough, there comes a point where you don’t realize you have a camera in your hands and that your eye is looking through the viewfinder. There, you are in the zone — you found the sweet spot. Those are the photos that you will cherish as perfect.”

Favorite aspect about taking photos: Getting lost looking through the viewfinder. The excitement of seeing what I’m seeing is astonishing. There is so much discovery unfolding in nature that goes unnoticed. To have an opportunity to share those photo stories with others is extremely gratifying. It’s fulfilling to connect others to things they may never have an opportunity to experience and see firsthand.” 

Renovations on the Red Barn in the Frank Melville Memorial Park, including straightening the building, were recently completed. Photo by Rita J. Egan

The weather was finally ideal for Frank Melville Memorial Park trustees, volunteers and friends to celebrate the completion of much-needed repairs to a historic structure.

Workers began restoring the park’s Red Barn at the beginning of September and completed the project a few months later. The 1,056 square-foot barn needed structural restoration, which included straightening, and the building up of the existing foundation to a level where it will be protected from flooding.

“The Melville Park is a historic oasis that now has an improved focal point, the Red Barn, to use to serve a larger population and build a new audience.”

— Kathryn Curran

On May 20 guests of the trustees enjoyed a reception complete with wine, hors d’oeuvres, dinner and desserts from Farm to Table Catering, as well as music from a few of The Jazz Loft performers.

Robert Reuter, president of the Frank Melville Memorial Foundation, thanked those who played a part in restoring the barn including Kathryn Curran, executive director of the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, who helped to secure a $44,330 matching grant for the park.

“Kathryn Curran and the trustees of the foundation saw the real community value in what we’re doing here,” Reuter said. “I think they understood when they saw the application that this really is one of the centers of our community. It’s part of a large area that is rich in history, and it’s often interpreted as that by the historical society and some of the others who celebrate that history.”

He said in addition to the foundation’s endowment, the community’s support also played a big part in the restoration. Trustee Greg Ferguson’s family foundation and another trustee who wished to remain anonymous created a $10,000 matching challenge. Reuter said the trustees’ friends exceeded the goal and came close to matching the Gardiner grant. He said the balance needed for the barn came from park funds that were budgeted for park repairs.

Curran said the Gardiner Foundation seeks out projects through community outreach that advance regional history.

“The Melville Park is a historic oasis that now has an improved focal point, the Red Barn, to use to serve a larger population and build a new audience,” she said.

Curran said she and the foundation board members were pleased with the completed project. Scott Brown was chosen to work on the renovations by the FMMF board and has worked on other Gardiner projects including the Ketcham Inn in Center Moriches, the Modern Times Schoolhouse in Brentwood and the Caroline Church of Brookhaven’s Carriage Shed in Setauket.

“As a restoration carpenter Scott’s empathy to our historic sites is rooted in respect for their traditional construction,” Curran said. “His work helps bring these buildings back to life for their newly designated purposes.”

SOME SPRINGTIME GREEN

Joe Kelly (www.joekayaker.com) captured this photo of a great egret in breeding colors and plumage at Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket on April 18. He writes, ‘You really can’t see much of the plumage in this shot but just look at the green in its face. Even the Hulk would be impressed with that color! Frank Melville Park is a good place to catch these guys in action. Come down to the park and take a stroll. It’s a beautiful place.’

Send your Photo of the Week to leisure@tbrnewspapers.com.

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.