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John Turner

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 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.

Russell Burke, a professor of biology at Hofstra University, shows how newly state-mandated terrapin excluder devices keep turtles out while crabs can still get in. Photo by Kyle Barr

It has been a slow crawl saving Long Island’s turtles, but local conservation groups are hoping new state regulations will speed up the process.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Long Island environmental groups gathered May 23 at the Suffolk County Environmental Center in Islip to celebrate new rules requiring crab cages — used in Long Island’s coastal waters including many of the bays, harbors and rivers that enter Long Island Sound — to have “terrapin excluder devices” (TEDs) on all entrances. As carnivores, terrapins are attracted to bait fish used in commercial, or what’s known as Maryland style crab traps or “pots.” As a result, male and female turtles of all sizes push their way through the entrance funnels and end up drowning.

John Turner, a conservation policy advocate for the Seatuck Environmental Association, shows the North Shore areas where turtles are getting caught and drowning in crab cages. Photo by Kyle Barr

“With each and every season these traps are not required to have TEDs, there are likely hundreds of terrapins that are drowning,” said John Turner, conservation policy advocate for Seatuck Environmental Association, which operates the Islip center. “To me, one of the signs of a real civilized society is how we treat other life-forms. We haven’t treated terrapins very well.”

He said in Stony Brook Harbor alone there are dozens, maybe hundreds of terrapins that will spend the winter in the mud, emerging once the water runs up high enough. Turner said many of the North Shore areas that are home to these turtles, like Setauket Harbor, Conscience Bay, Port Jefferson Harbor, Mount Sinai Harbor and Nissequogue River, play a key role in preserving the species.

“In contrast to where I am in South Jersey, I can go by the canals and I can see a dozen [terrapin] heads bobbing up and down,” said James Gilmore, director of the marine resources division at the state DEC. “Here, it’s very rare to see one. Hopefully these new rules will help us see more.”

Gilmore said the DEC began working on changing state regulations in 2013 but have known long before there was a problem.

Carl LoBue, The Nature Conservancy’s New York ocean program director, said it was in the late 1990s he’d witnessed recreational crab traps in Stony Brook Harbor. One day he lifted a cage out of the water while trying to move his landlord’s boat and saw it was filled with trapped terrapins. Two were still alive, but five
had already drowned.

“With each and every season these traps are not required to have TEDs, there are likely hundreds of terrapins that are drowning.”

— John Turner

“I’m sure the crabber wasn’t intent to kill turtles,” LoBue said. “But when I looked across the bay at the 60 or something crab traps this person had set, I was crushed thinking of the terrapins drowning at that very moment.”

In the early 2000s terrapins became a popular meal in New York, but the harvest of those turtles led to a massive decrease in population, especially the diamondback terrapin, which was identified as a species of greatest conservation need in the 2015 New York State Wildlife Action Plan. In September 2017 the DEC passed regulations banning the commercial harvest of diamondbacks.

Terrapin population has slowly increased since then, but researchers say there’s still little known about the population, like life expectancy or habits while in water. The species has a very slow birth rate, with low local clutches of 10 or so eggs — sometimes only one or two of which hatch and mature. 

Russell Burke, a professor of biology at Hofstra University, said terrapins could live very long lives, pointing to older specimens he has seen living to 60 years old, but he estimated some could be twice that age. While Burke said it’s hard to estimate the total population on Long Island, he said in Jamaica Bay alone, he knows there are approximately 3,500 adult females.

Terrapin, or turtles, are carnivores, attracted to fish typically used to catch crab. Photo by Kyle Barr

The TED devices are 4 3/4 inches by 1 3/4 inches, an exact measurement, to ensure that while crabs can get through, turtles cannot. According to Kim McKown, leader of the Marine Invertebrate and Protected Resources Unit at the state DEC, the small, plastic TEDs cost $10 for the three needed to secure a normal crab trap. The cost exponentially increases depending on how many traps a fisherman has, with some owning up to 1,000 traps.

Turner said his organization used its own funds and purchased 5,000 TEDs and gifted them to the DEC. The state agency is giving them to Long Island crab fishermen on a first come, first served basis.

Commercial crab fisherman Fred Chiofolo, who hunts in Brookhaven Town along the South Shore, experimented with TEDs on his own for years before the regulations were passed. He said the devices
even improved the number of crabs caught.

“It made a significant difference with the pots that had them versus the pots that didn’t,” Chiofolo said. “Last year I put them in every pot I had — about 200 of them. I’m not going to lie it’s a lot of work to put them in, but we don’t want to catch the turtle. I don’t want them, and [the TED] does keep them out.”

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.

By Patrice Domeischel

Our local Audubon chapter, Four Harbors Audubon Society, is on a mission — to eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, bird mortality at Stony Brook University. We recently learned of a severe window-strike problem at two of its campuses. Of special concern is the South Campus, consisting of a cluster of interconnected buildings, each one-story tall, and covered in mirrored windows.

Window collisions are a prime cause of bird fatalities (second only to falling prey to cats), causing anywhere from 365 to 988 million deaths per year in the United States. Collisions are most apparent to us during migration but occur all year. A 2014 window-strike study published by the American Ornithological Society indicates that the greatest total number of bird collisions in the United States occurs with residential (one to three stories tall) and low-rise (four to 11 stories tall) buildings, not skyscrapers (over 12 stories) as one might expect.

A South Campus walk to determine the severity of the strike problem, conducted by Four Harbors Conservation Chair John Turner, revealed numerous bird mortalities and some stunned birds, including species such as the American redstart, Canada warbler, black-and-white warbler, Swainson’s thrush, common yellowthroat, gray catbird, common grackle, dark-eyed junco and American robin. A total of 20 dead and stunned birds were found during one visit, and more during two subsequent visits. Turner found the mirrored windows to be particularly dangerous for birds as their highly reflective quality appeared to be a continuation of the nearby landscape. Mortality at these buildings far exceeded the national average for buildings of low height.

A proposal to embark on a project to address the problem was brought to the Four Harbors board, voted upon and approved. Research into the most effective and least costly way to address the window strikes at SBU resulted in a plan to affix ultraviolet decals to as many of the South and Main Campus windows as possible, emphasizing the worst strike areas. Our goal is the elimination, or at least a sharp reduction, in the incidence of bird window strikes occurring at the university.

Why window decals?

These small 4-by-4-inch stickers reflect ultraviolet light, invisible to us, but appearing as a bright, glowing area to birds. The decal alerts birds to the presence of an obstacle, causing them to redirect their flight pattern and get out of harm’s way. Four Harbors used Window Alert* decals, but there are many other brands and styles of decal on the market, and additional deterrent choices, such as window tape and netting, to choose from. The most effective solution on already-existing windows, but also most expensive, is to erect netting. Prior to Four Harbors involvement, a concerned individual employed this solution on a particularly lethal wall of windows with 100 percent effectiveness. For our chapter, though, window decals seemed the next best thing.

Getting the job done

In October 2017, after obtaining the necessary permit from the university, Four Harbors board members and volunteers spent two days affixing over 1,200 ultraviolet window decals and dabbing ultraviolet liquid on windows of all 11 buildings comprising the South Campus, including the worst culprit, Rockland Hall, where the highest number of strikes had occurred.

As we applied the stickers, additional birds were discovered, including Philadelphia vireo, Tennessee warbler, northern waterthrush, swamp sparrow, northern parula warbler and Swainson’s thrush, and, to our dismay, two yellow-rumped warblers hit as we were applying the decals. Fortunately, one of these two seemed to sustain no injury and after some rest was soon able to fly off.

I think we all felt a bit exhausted afterward, but elated also, knowing that there had been a positive effort to eliminate window strikes at the university. Next on the Four Harbors agenda are plans to continue with the project at the Main Campus.

Prevention is key

Many of you have wondered what you can do to assist and protect birds in this hazardous world. Each day, birds must contend with numerous obstacles: predation, hazardous weather conditions and hunger and starvation. Window strikes are an additional deadly threat, but one that we can do something about. By employing this simple and easy window-strike solution at your own home, you can do your part to make life for our birds a safer one.

Our thanks to Tom Lanzilotta, SUNY, Stony Brook, for acting as our director; Financial Services for Facilities & Administration, SUNY, Stony Brook, for granting permission for this project; to Carl Safina, for alerting us to the problem; and to the Safina Center and Seatuck Environmental Association for their generous donations to cover the partial cost of the decals.

*Four Harbors Audubon Society does not endorse any brand of window-strike deterrent on the market. See the following websites for additional information on window-strike prevention:

https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/learn/top10/ windowstrikes.php

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/why-birds-hit-windows-and-how-you-can-help-prevent-it/

http://www.collidescape.org/

http://www.duncraft.com/

All photos by Patrice Domeischel

John Turner is a champion for open space preservation and environmental conservation. Photo by Maria Hoffman

By Anthony Frasca

A familiar face in the Setauket area is at the forefront of environmental preservation and conservation.

“It was good news when John and Georgia Turner moved to town,” said Robert Reuter, president of the Frank Melville Memorial Foundation. “John is a legendary leader for protection of the environment and an admired naturalist and educator.”

John Turner has been involved with numerous groups whose focus is on either open space preservation or environmental conservation. Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said she has considered Turner a vital resource since she was elected to office.

“I am constantly impressed by [the] scope of his knowledge about the town’s history and natural environment,” Cartright said. “His involvement with organizations such as the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, his teaching and author background, along with his constant desire to update existing knowledge with continued research makes John a wealth of information the town is lucky to have.”

The naturalist was co-founder of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, a group whose mission is to promote education, to advocate for the protection of Long Island’s drinking water and to preserve open spaces especially in the Pine Barrens. According to the society’s website, with a large swath of land in Suffolk County slated for development, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society filed suit in 1989 against the Suffolk County Department of Health and the town boards of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton. At the time it was New York state’s biggest environmental lawsuit, leading to the Pine Barrens Act, thereby protecting the Pine Barrens and establishing the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning & Policy Commission.

Turner is one of the co-founders of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. Photo by Maria Hoffman

As a spokesman for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, Turner has also been active in trying to prevent Plum Island from being sold and developed. The environmentally sensitive island is currently at the center of a swirling controversy and is the subject of a legal battle against the federal government under the Endangered Species Act and other laws, according to a TBR News Media July 14, 2016, story.

Made up of numerous diverse environmental groups, from the Connecticut-Rhode Island Coastal Fly Fishers to the North Fork Audubon Society, the Preserve Plum Island Coalition has advocated for the signing of a petition to save the island along with encouraging a letter-writing campaign to local elected officials. The island provides a habitat for a diverse variety of local and migratory wildlife.

Carl Safina, founder of the Safina Center at Stony Brook University and the endowed professor for Nature and Humanity in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said he has worked with Turner on a variety of environmental initiatives on and off since the 1980s.

“I consider John Turner to be the finest naturalist, and among the top handful of most engaged conservationists on Long Island,” Safina said. “He’s a true leader.”

As the conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, Turner led the Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch this past fall. The group recorded and tallied nighthawk sightings at the Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket. A significant nighthawk population was noticed at the park in 2016 and the open vistas provided an important location for cataloging the bird’s migration. The nighthawk research was supported by the board of the park, another organization that, according to Reuter, Turner “has adopted with vigor.”

“We’ve walked every part of the park, looking for opportunities to improve habitat and interpret our diverse natural environment,” Reuter said. “The man certainly knows his plants and wildlife. He’s passionate about sharing his knowledge. Rather than just toss out ideas, John has prepared for the park a written blueprint for improvements and educational opportunities. It’s an honor to have his guidance.”

New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said he considers Turner one of the finest naturalists on Long Island.

“He has brought his ‘inner pied piper’ of the environment to Setauket at the Melville Bridge,” Englebright said. “I watched through the years as the crowd grew. He has helped bring an awareness of the tidal wetlands of Setauket Harbor and has done it in a gracious and compelling manner. He is truly extraordinary, the essence of what a naturalist should be. He’s a special part of our community.”

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.

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