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John Turner

By John Turner

This article is devoted to wood pewees everywhere.

The species names spill off the tongue quickly — “Oh, that’s a pink lady’s slipper … or a green darner … or a round-leaved sundew or great-crested flycatcher. Perhaps its a brook trout … or eastern chipmunk or a diamondback terrapin.” These names, and hundreds of thousands of others, are the scientifically established common names for these creatures, useful because they help to establish order, definition and identity. After all, we humans like to give every living thing a name as a means to begin to understand it and by so doing, legitimize its existence.

But these common names are almost always stated matter of factly, as if they are nothing more than dry words with nothing behind them. There’s no appreciation for the fascinating information these names convey, no thought about the creative and colorful descriptors they contain, illuminating some interesting aspect of the species. We say “diamondback terrapin” but fail to visualize the stunning concentric-ringed design of the diamond-shaped scutes on its top shell.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the “color” behind common names, relishing the rich universe of descriptive choices. Take the group of wildflowers known as “goldenrods” blooming now throughout Suffolk County. I smile just saying the name. I could struggle for hours, and would utterly fail, attempting to come up with a more apt and succinct name to describe this group of upright, buttery-yellow wildflowers common to Long Island’s fields and roadsides. Indeed, these plants are golden-colored with rodlike upright stems.

Many of the common names of species are descriptive to coloration — the white-throated sparrow has a bright white throat patch and the rufous-sided towhee has flanks the color of a brick, bathed in the warm light of sunset. Want to guess the color of a blue shark, white ibis or scarlet tanager? The color of the throat patch of a ruby-throated hummingbird? How about the skin and plumage patterns on a spotted salamander, barred owl or reticulated python?

Still, others names describe places where the species was first discovered or is most abundant. Thus, you have Cape May and Tennessee warblers, Mississippi kite, Carolina wren and Florida scrub-jay.

One species with a misperception regarding the geography of its common name is the Baltimore oriole. It gained its name not through its abundance or being first identified in Baltimore, Maryland, but rather from the fact the bird’s bright orange and black plumage matched the colors on the coat-of-arms of Lord Baltimore.

And then there’s the easy ones to understand — common names established to honor or recognize some person of prominence or fame. Hence, we have Wilson’s warbler and phalarope (Alexander Wilson has four North American birds named after him, more than any other person), Henslow’s sparrow, Swainson’s hawk and Audubon’s shearwater (what a great description of the bird’s flight habit of cutting the ocean’s surface with its wing tips as it dynamically soars in search of food).   

Still other names convey information about some anatomical or physical aspect of the organism; thus, you have weeping willow, shagbark hickory, gull-billed tern, scissor-tailed flycatcher and rough-stemmed goldenrod. And for sea creatures how can we ignore bottlenose dolphins or humpback whales?

Adding to the richness of species’ official common names are the numerous unofficial, alternative names associated with these species.  So for dodder, a golden-yellow parasitic vine common in Island fields and meadows where it grows in tangles atop other wildflowers, we have the following common names: hairweed, lady’s laces, wizard’s net, goldthread, angel hair, witches’ hair, devil’s hair, pull-down, strangleweed and my favorite devil’s guts.

If you want a bird example look no further than other names for the American woodcock: timberdoodle, whistling snipe, big mud snipe, mud bat, night peck, night partridge, bog-borer, bog Sucker, bog-bird, wood snipe, wood hen, siphon snipe, the whistler, hookum pake and the Labrador twister.

Dragonflies are a great group, filled with species having impressive and expressive common names. The group name of “dragonflies” is colorful enough — they must appear to be a flying, fire-breathing monster to any smaller airborne insect. Thus, we have ferocious and formidable dragonfly names such as sanddragons, sundragons, shadowdragons, snaketails, meadowhawks, pondhawks and dragon hunters (they like to eat other dragonflies). Contrast them with their diminutive, nonthreatening winged cousins, the damselflies, who have members with these names: jewel wings, bluets, spreadwings, rubyspots and, of course, the “dancers.” What damsel in distress wouldn’t want to be rescued by these gossamer-winged creatures?

The most colorful and descriptive common names of all? Moths are the best, hands down, reaching new levels in imagination, revealing that lepidopterists have quite the sense of humor. Lest you think I’m making this up go on the internet and check out the following moth species, found in the eastern United States, that have been formally described by science and given these names: the old maid, the thinker, the laugher, abrupt brother, the joker, and there’s the elegant prominent, hooked silver Y, sebaceous Hebrew character, striped chocolate-tip, approachable sallow, afflicted dagger, owl-eyed bird-dropping moth, sharp angle shades, the slowpoke, grateful midget and cloaked marvel.

Then there’s the intractable Quaker and the cynical Quaker, grieving woodland, the German cousin and the nutmeg. Lastly, there’s stormy arches and if you like this one, how about stormy’s cousins: neighborly arches, disparaged arches, bridled arches, explicit arches, laudable arches and implicit arches.

Let’s close with my all-time favorite common name, the wood pewee, a neo-tropical migrant that overwinters in South America. Living up to his spritely name he’s a small, nondescript flycatcher, whistling his distinctive up-slurred “pee-awee” from the end of a dead tree branch in the middle of a Long Island forest. His name defines his essence.

What’s your favorite name?

A resident of Setauket, John Turner 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.

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.

Above, the author in front of the mirrorlike windows on Stony Brook’s South Campus with a dead Swainson’s thrush on the gravel in the foreground.

By John L. Turner

With the use of a helpful anchoring spoon, I swirled a large bundle of delicious linguine strands around the tines of my fork. As I brought the forkful of food forward, to meet its just fate as the first bite of a delicious pasta dinner, I looked up from the dining table to the view outside the large picture window in the adjacent living room. 

At that precise moment a blue jay (after all a birder is always birding!) launched from a low branch of an oak tree on the other side of the road, swooped across it and headed straight for the aforementioned window. Certainly it will veer to a side as it comes closer, or turn abruptly to perch on the roof, I thought to myself, but no such luck — it flew, beak first, directly into the window. It bounced off and down into the bushes in front.   

A female common yellow-throated warbler recovering after she struck the window of a building at SBU. Photo by John Turner

After shouting an expletive, I jumped from the dining room table and out the front door to see if the blue jay was alright. I anxiously scanned around and through the waist-high ornamental shrubs looking for what I expected to be a lifeless body that moments before had been so alive. I didn’t see it. I went behind the bushes, figuring perhaps it had fallen straight down. No bird. I looked through the web of branches. No bird. I looked under the shrubs, in the dirt in front of the shrubs and on the lawn. Still no bird. 

A solid 10-minute search while my pasta dinner grew cold produced nothing. I had to conclude the bird had survived the glancing blow to the window and after being momentarily stunned flew off. Standing near the sidewalk in the front yard I had the view the bird had experienced moments before — the window looked like an opening in the forest that reflected a dogwood tree on the right and taller oak trees in the distance. 

Most window strike victims are not as lucky as this blue jay was and as I soon learned what I had experienced is not uncommon — in fact it happens with frightening regularity, with estimates ranging from 1 to 3 million North American birds dying this way each and every day. This means an estimated 365 million to 1 billion birds dying from window strikes every year in the United States. 

The victims range from tiny to large, from dull to colorful. Hummingbirds are common victims and birds of prey, although less common, also collide with windows. The large group of birds referred to as songbirds — thrushes, vireos, warblers, sparrows and the like — form the largest bulk of collision victims. 

Migrant birds die more often than resident birds such as blue jays, the apparent reason being that resident birds better “know” their territory while migrant birds, transients in migratory habitats, don’t. 

Why do birds fly into windows and die in such large, almost unimaginable numbers? For the same reason people walk into glass doors, windows and dividers (often enough to produce a series of four-minute-long videos you can watch on YouTube!) — they don’t see the glass given its transparent qualities. 

For birds, though, a window’s transparency isn’t its only deadly feature. Its reflectivity can be worse. The reflected images in the window of trees, shrubs, sky and clouds fool birds into thinking they are the real thing. The result is a bird moving through space, at normal flying speeds, toward trees reflected in the distance until it abruptly meets the glass pane — most of the time with fatal results. 

This has occurred with increasing frequency as architects have moved toward using more and more highly reflective glass in building design, to produce dramatic views of the surrounding landscape. And the tall skyscrapers don’t pose the biggest problem — more than 90 percent of birds that perish from collisions do so by flying into the windows of homes and one- to four-story office buildings. It’s the lower stories of the building that reflect the features of the ambient environment creating the “fatal attraction” to birds. 

Amid all this death there is cause for optimism. The technology exists to make windows more bird friendly by creating the “visual interference” necessary for them to see the windows for what they are. 

For example, a number of exterior decal and sticker products are sold, ideal for home applications, that can be applied to a window’s outer surface (volunteers with the Four Harbors Audubon Society have placed more than 2,000 square decals on the windows of Endeavour Hall and other buildings on SUNY Stony Brook’s South Campus, thereby significantly reducing the number of songbirds dying from collisions with the highly reflective windows there). Better yet are readily available exterior window films that completely cover the window surface. 

Window manufacturers have also stepped up to the plate in making glass embedded with dots (called fritting) and with various other patterns. Even more promising are cutting edge window products reflecting patterns of ultraviolet light. Birds see UV light that we don’t; so these windows create the desired visual interference for birds but not for us — to us they look like normal windows.  

To his credit New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has sponsored legislation, awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) signature, that creates a “bird friendly building council” to research the issue and report back to the Legislature with a series of recommended strategies to reduce the carnage statewide, such as the use of bird-friendly building materials and design features in buildings; it’s Assembly bill A4055B/Senate bill S25B.   

I hope that you too care about reducing the number of vibrant and colorful songbirds that meet their untimely fate. If you do, please take a moment to pen a letter to Gov. Cuomo urging he sign the measure into law. His address is:  

The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo

Governor of New York State

NYS State Capitol Building

Albany, NY 12224

Birdsong is a gift to us. If birds could also speak, the many species killed at windows would thank you for YOUR gift to them of caring enough to take the time and effort to support the bill.  

A resident of Setauket, John Turner 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.

By John Turner

One of the many joys of summer in Setauket is spending time in the backyard relaxing with a book, swimming in the pool, gardening or enjoying a family meal together. I’ve come to realize that during these backyard experiences we’re often not alone. We’re sharing the space around us — as wrens, orioles and robins fly about and butterflies dance among flowers. Sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of a chipmunk or squirrel scampering around, all going about their daily lives.

I’ve come to look especially forward to seeing one creature each summer and to do so I must gaze skyward to look for a small bird in ceaseless flight, dipping and zooming here and there, all the while twittering away.

Photo courtesy of the National Audubon Society

I’m referring to the chimney swift (Chaetura pelagica), a sooty brown bird with sharp sickle-shaped wings that’s been aptly described as a “cigar with wings.” I think that’s a little bit inaccurate — it’s more like a “half-smoked cigar with wings,” with its stubby tail reminiscent of the chewed on end of the cigar. The genus name Chaetura means “bristle tailed” in Greek, a reference to the stubby tail, tipped with small pointy feathers (these bristles help anchor the bird when roosting on vertical surfaces).

The chimney swift is one of four swift species native to North America; the other three — the slightly smaller Vaux’s swift and the slightly larger black- and white-throated swifts are western birds.

When nesting and roosting, chimney swifts live up to their names, taking refuge within chimneys, old wells, the eaves of barns and other human structures. Before human structures became available, they presumably nested on cliffs and in caves and tree hollows, which a few still do today.

Swifts don’t so much fly as appear to flutter. With surprisingly shallow wing beats, this fluttering bird cuts through the air remarkably well, flying ceaselessly about in wide and tight circles as it searches for the aerial prey that sustains them.

In fact, swifts are the most aerial of all birds. A study published in 2016 documented a common swift, the European counterpart to our chimney swift, staying in the air for 10 months; that’s right, flying around for 10 entire months, not 10 weeks or 10 days, which would be enough of an outstanding feat to make any ultra-marathoner proud, but 10 months of not touching land! Scientists made the obvious conclusion the bird routinely slept on the wing, shutting down half its brain at a time while keeping the other half active. She finally came back to earth to mate, lay eggs and raise young.

Occasionally swifts break from their typical fluttery flights to display courtship behavior. During these displays a mated pair flies together, about a foot or two apart, and synchronously throw their wings into a deep V-shaped position and glide for a second or two before resuming regular flight. It’s a little joy to behold and life is worth living due to little joys, right?

Chimney swifts raise their young in small, half-moon-shaped nests made of small sticks built onto the sides of walls. Both sexes help to build the nest and they employ an interesting material to bind the nest together — saliva. During the breeding season the salivary glands of both sexes swell, producing a gluelike saliva that hardens to hold the nest together.

On a related note: If you’ve ever heard of, or perhaps tried, bird’s nest soup, you’re consuming a food made from the edible saliva of two bird species related to the chimney swift — Asian swiftlets. These nests support an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In fact, the nests of swiftlets are among the most expensive animal products in the world, fetching as much as several thousand dollars per kilogram. So if you’ve tried the soup, kudos to you because you’re obviously financially well off!

The eggs are incubated for about three weeks and, once born, the young grow rapidly, fledging in about the same amount of time. Development of the young is accelerated by “helpers at the nest”; unpaired adult swifts that sometimes assist in the raising the young of paired swifts, helping the young birds to fledge more quickly.

Ornithologists aren’t exactly sure why the helpers do this although it is a behavior seen in a few other bird species. Research has shown that some of the unpaired birds are young from the previous year so perhaps they know they’re helping to pass along genes similar to their own.  

Wooden chimney swift towers at West Meadow Beach. Photo by John Turner

One last fascinating aspect of chimney swifts is their ability to go into torpor, a physical condition halfway between full active mode and hibernation. In torpor a swift’s breathing and heart rate diminishes, as does its overall metabolic activity, thereby helping to get them through periods of cold, inclement weather when little to no food, in the form of small aerial insects, is available. 

Some good places nearby to see chimney swifts are the Stony Brook Village Center and Port Jefferson Village. A little further afield you can enjoy their flight over more urban areas of Long Island, where chimneys are available, including downtown Riverhead, Islip and Bay Shore.

As part of an Eagle Scout project, wooden chimney swift towers were constructed at West Meadow Beach in the hopes of attracting them but to date do not appear to be used. Perhaps someday they will be.

A resident of Setauket, John Turner 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.

Above, a view of Conscience Bay from the shoreline of the Besunder property. Photo by John Turner

By John Turner

One of the great joys of living in the Three Village area are the plethora of parks and preserves to be explored and enjoyed. These public spaces, true community assets, include the Frank Melville Memorial Park/Three Village Garden Club complex and Lee Koppelman Nature Preserve in Setauket; Patriots Hollow State Forest in East Setauket;  and Forsythe Meadows County Park, the Town of Brookhaven’s West Meadow Beach, and the rambling, privately owned Avalon Preserve in Stony Brook. 

We can now add another public property to the list to be savored: the small (7 acres) but beautiful state-owned property at the entrance to Strongs Neck. Offering commanding views of the eastern shore of Conscience Bay, it was purchased on our behalf by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation last summer.  

Above, a small salt pond surrounded by a tidal wetland fragment in the middle of the Besunder property. Photo by John Turner

The entrance to the preserve is through a split rail fence along North Road. Here you’ll see the rock placed to recognize the contribution of the Besunder family who sold the property to the state. The trail passes by the plaqued rock and a small coastal salt pond on the right that is connected to the bay through a series of ditches in the salt marsh. Here I recently watched a great blue heron hunt for fish with zen-like patience, remaining perfectly still for minutes on end, lest it give away its presence due to some detectable movement. 

The red cedars, along with pitch pine, the two more common coniferous trees native to Long Island, form thick stands throughout the property, growing in areas that are a few feet above the elevations of the surrounding marshland and only a few more feet above the high tide levels of Conscience Bay.   

Thinking about the low-lying condition of this coastal forest caused a strong feeling of melancholy to usher over me, for I knew this forest, consisting of many hundreds of trees, will not likely survive more than two or three decades more. The cause for its ultimate demise? Elevated coastal waters due to sea level rise fueled by global warming. 

In New York, sea levels are projected to rise, under the most optimistic conditions, 8 inches by the 2050s and, if the worse occurs, by 30 inches in the same period. Since 1900 they have already risen a foot due to the warming of ocean water with 8 inches of this rise having occurred over the past 50 years, indicating this rise is accelerating. 

Given these projections, it is a certainty the property will lose its forests and very likely evolve into a salt marsh or into open water if the sea levels continue to rise. If this happens Strongs Neck will become “Strongs Island” and dozens of homes and businesses in the Three Village area will no longer be inhabitable. 

The culprit for this unwanted change? Our stubborn refusal to enact the needed policies to limit carbon emissions by the amounts necessary and at a pace that’s rapid enough and a refusal colored by some “leaders” who still throw out the canard that global climate change is a myth. 

Well, the best science is telling us that this “myth” is an incontrovertible “reality wall” that we will, with certainty, drive into with devastating consequences for us humans and the other living forms that share our planet — if we do not, very soon, begin to change course.    

Soon I came out to the shore and my spirits brightened considerably, bathed as I was in this beautiful coastal scene of a gentle and sheltered harbor. Small wavelets lapped on the shoreline. Plus, seeing birds always helps the mood. 

An adult male bufflehead. Photo by Luke Ormand

Along a distant shoreline a snow white American egret flew along, presumably heading to or from a feeding episode, and 150 yards from where I stood on the shore was a loose flock of buffleheads, a duck that is the definition of cuteness. The males are distinctive with their uniquely patterned heads — heads dominated by a white patch such that, if the duck’s head was a clock face, it would be white from 9 to 11 o’clock. The rest of the “clock” is dark and flashes iridescence from green to purple depending on the angle to the sun. 

Flocks of buffleheads often dive synchronously leading to a “now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t” phenomenon as they dive below the surface to feed, before bobbing like released corks back to the surface. Where there were no ducks two seconds before, suddenly half a dozen are floating on the surface together. 

Small as ducks go, their heads are large and that explains their common name. They were once called buffaloheads — shortened to buffleheads — since their heads were disproportionately large, just like the American buffalo (more accurately the American bison). 

Buffleheads grace our coastal waters during the winter months.       

As I walked out of the preserve and past the rock, I read the plaque and under my breath said, “Kudos to the Besunder family for committing to conservation and to the DEC for helping them to fulfill that commitment.” The images of buffleheads disappearing and re-emerging in the frigid waters of Conscience Bay, cavorting unconcerned about the elements, snug as they are in their feathered garb, stayed with me for the ride home. 

A resident of Setauket, John Turner 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.

An adult male yellow-rumped warbler in spring or breeding plumage.

By John Turner

On an Indian summer kind of morning in mid-October, I decided to explore the Preserve owned by the Village of Nissequogue at the end of Long Beach Road, on the north side of Stony Brook Harbor. I was hoping to see a lingering diamondback terrapin in the marshes fringing this side of the harbor. 

As soon as I exited the car in the small parking lot, flanked by coastal plants, there was flittering movement all around — movement that I half expected given the time of year. The ceaseless motion was in the form of a dozen or so small birds, and I knew I was witnessing the seasonal invasion of the “butter-butts,” or as a friend calls them “budda-butts” — a species that, whatever you call it, is formally known as a yellow-rumped warbler due to the conspicuous and distinctive bright yellow rump patch on the top side of the tail base.   

At any one time there were half-a-dozen birds flitting in the red cedar trees and groundsel bushes, and one hovered over the top of a seaside goldenrod plant for several seconds, presumably attracted to small, late-season, nectar-seeking insects in the bright yellow flowers. 

An adult male yellow-rumped warbler in spring or breeding plumage.

The butter-butts were joined by half a dozen even smaller birds that flashed yellow too; not from the tail but from the top of the head. These were golden-crowned kinglets, a species that competes for the title of North America’s smallest songbird (hummingbirds are smaller but are not songbirds). It is closely related to the ruby-crowned kinglet, another bird that breeds north of Long Island but passes through these parts during spring and fall migration. This invasion will last through the winter until next spring, when the warblers and kinglets depart northward to their breeding grounds.    

Yellow-rumped warblers are one of 54 colorful species of warblers found in North America, of which approximately three dozen occur in the eastern half of the country. This group of birds has often been referred to as the “butterflies of the bird world,” given their resplendent plumage patterns of orange, red, yellow, blue and green colors in between. Their passing through Long Island during spring migration, when males are in their gaudy breeding plumages, is one of the highlights to a birder’s year. 

Warblers, as a general rule, flood out of the middle and northern portions of North America, overwintering in South America, Central America, the Caribbean and the southern United States. They do so because their food source — almost entirely insects — disappears with the cold weather since to stay in cold climates would be to risk starvation. The yellow-rumped is an exception and regularly overwinters throughout the United States. Why is this so you might reasonably ask? It’s due to the species unique ability to sustain itself by eating a type of food that other warblers and most other songbirds apparently do not or cannot — wax.

The wax is in the form of a waxy outer coating on berries, and there are two plant species on Long Island that best fit the bill, producing large quantities of waxy fruits — bayberry and poison ivy. Wax is difficult for birds to digest, and only a couple of dozen species worldwide have become adept at capitalizing on this novel food source, including our butter-butts.

An immature yellow-rumped warbler, also referred to as YOY – a young-of-year bird.

Scientists studying the phenomenon of wax digestion in yellow-rumped warblers have found several traits that allow wax assimilation — very slow digestive times with the wax broken down in the gizzard, high bile salt levels in their gall bladders to more effectively break down the wax into its fatty acid components and, remarkably, the ability to move partially digested foods back into the gizzard from the intestines to further break down the wax (which partially explains the slow digestive times). It can take a small warbler upward of four hours from when the wax berries are eaten until the digested remains are excreted. In contrast, songbirds eating sweet fruits in the summer and early fall can pass the material in as little as 20 minutes.   

Further south in their winter range, from New Jersey southward, yellow-rumped depend more upon wax myrtle, a close relative of bayberry, that also has wax-covered fruits. The bird’s association with this plant is so strong that for many decades the yellow-rumped warbler was known as the myrtle warbler.   

In the western United States, the yellow-rumped warbler is joined by its close associate: the Audubon’s warbler, which looks very similar to the yellow-rumped, except that it has a yellow throat patch while the yellow-rumped has a white patch.  

Golden-crowned kinglets apparently do not eat waxy fruits and survive the winter eating dormant insects, their eggs, spiders and oozing sap. If you pay close attention, the males can be separated from the females — males have orange-tinged head crowns while females have yellow. This bright orange coloration is the reason why this species in Europe is not called a kinglet, although it’s the same species, but instead the rather descriptive “firecrest.”

You can see kinglets and butter-butts until early spring — then they both wing back north, throughout New England and across much of Canada, for the breeding season. Here they’ll raise their next generation of birds that will brighten our winter days with a little dash of yellowy sunshine a year from now.  

A resident of Setauket, John Turner 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.

All photos by Luke Ormand

A common grackle collects mud from the banks of the Swan River in East Patchogue to use to build its nest. Photo by Luke Ormand

By John Turner

As the famous philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching,” and between the passage of the 2,018 common nighthawks we tallied over the 41 days of the 2018 season at the Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch, we had plenty of time to watch and observe.

One of those observations involved the daily movement of large mixed-blackbird flocks, flying north each evening, their destination being the communal nightly roost they established in the reed (Phragmites) beds at the southern edge of Conscience Bay, just north of the Grist Mill in Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket.

Joined by European starlings, red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds, the flocks, numerically dominated by common grackles, would stream over us at the Stone Bridge and then, as they passed over the northern bridge at the northern end of the pond, descend abruptly to land on the narrow and slightly arching stalks of the Phragmites.

Their predictable movement each night of the Nighthawk Watch reminded me of another characterization, this one by the famous scientist Rachel Carson, who described the regular movement of birds such as these blackbird flocks as “faithful commuters” in the sky.

As they flew over us, the members of the flock vocalized continuously with quick sharp calls and we wondered why they might do that. One answer for the continuous calling may be a way for a bird in a flock to let neighboring birds — in front, behind and to the sides — know of its presence, helping to maintain a buffer between the birds, thereby reducing the chance of collisions.

Maintaining this space is vital given the fact the several dozen to several hundred members of the blackbird flock are moving through the sky together, at 20-30 miles per hour, separated by mere inches. Makes you wish drivers on the Long Island Expressway were so talented, no?

One evening recently my wife Georgia and I walked to the north bridge to watch the blackbirds spill from the sky into the reeds. They descended into the marsh on both sides of the meandering tidal creek that flows from the spillway at the bridge. A constant cacophony of squeaks (one call sounds like a rusty gate opening), rasps and whistles filled the air as the birds called incessantly. Having landed, the grackles and other blackbird species must now be vocalizing for a different reason, but frankly we have no idea.

Scientists conjecture that crows murmuring together at the end of a day in a winter communal roost do so to exchange information about the day they just experienced, such as what predators they encountered and food sources discovered. Could this be at least a partial answer to explain the thousands of garrulous grackles vocalizing into early evening, as they settle in to sleep for the night in the marshes of Frank Melville Park? Could there be other reasons? Maybe, but we just don’t know.

I often encounter grackles in different settings, as evidenced by a recent walk in the county park just north of the Sherwood-Jayne House. Heading up the west side of the property, I came to an opening in the forest where a small flock of 20 to 25 grackles was feeding on the ground. They systematically flipped over leaves, pieces of bark and other woodland debris searching with their beautiful golden-yellow, black-centered eye, for food which for them consists of a variety of small insects, other invertebrates like slugs and worms, caterpillars, small salamanders and fruits and seeds, which collectively make up their omnivorous lifestyle.    

If you are an astute observer of grackles you might notice that adult birds vary in their coloration. Not surprisingly, males are showier than the females, their plumage infused with a purplish iridescence. But you might occasionally see, especially during the colder months, individual grackles tending to have more of a bronzy-colored tint to their feathers, rather than purple. The latter bird is referred to as the “bronzed grackle” while the former is the “purple grackle.” For many years they were considered different species but are now recognized for what they are — interbreeding color morphs of the same species.   

If you leave the friendly confines of the Three Village area and travel to the Island’s South Shore, you might encounter another grackle species native to Long Island — the boat-tailed grackle. This larger species, a breeder amid the salt marshes of the South Shore bays, gets its name from the keel shape tail tip of the bird, quite visible when a male flies directly away from you.

Want to experience grackles and their blackbird brethren closer to home though? Just head to the bridge next to the Grist Mill in Frank Melville Park (www.frankmelvillepark.org) as dusk descends on an autumn day and face north toward the dense phalanx of reeds. If your senses aren’t overloaded by the sound and movement, perhaps you can figure out what the birds are saying to each other.

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 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.”