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Luke Ormand

Two fiddler crabs battle it out at West Meadow Beach last year. Photo by Jay Gao

By John L. Turner

If you visit just about any salt marsh fringing Long Island’s interdigitated coastline, you’ll experience the fiddlers — they simply can’t be avoided. And while you won’t hear fiddle music, despite the fact there are many hundreds if not thousands of fiddler’s ceaselessly “rosining up their bows,” you will certainly be entertained and amused by male fiddler crabs waving their unusually large claws back and forth like a convention of fiddle players at a folk music festival.  

This prominent and highly distinctive abnormally large claw possessed by the male fiddler crab, which can weigh half as much as the rest of its body, isn’t used as a defense against predators. Rather, it’s used in combat with rival males and for attracting a mate; male crabs possessing larger claws generally having more success (yes, for this species size appears to matter!).  

A male fiddler crab. Photo by Jay Gao

As a female crab walks by a courting male, he vigorously waves the claw back and forth in an attempt to interest her in mating (this behavior also explains their other name — the calling crab). If his display proves successful, she follows him back to his burrow to take a closer look. If she accepts him, the male grabs material to seal the burrow and within it mates with her. He will later emerge, resealing the burrow within which she is incubating the eggs. In a week or two she’ll emerge to release her eggs, generally timing release to coincide with a high tide. They hatch and the larvae float in the water column before eventually settling out; this dispersal helps to maintain genetic diversity among crab populations.   

Three species of fiddler crabs inhabit Long Island’s coastal environments: the mud fiddler (Minuca pugnax) appears to be the most common, followed by the sand fiddler (Leptuca pugilator) with the red-jointed or brackish-water fiddler (Minuca minax) being the least common. They segregate habitat as their names suggest — mud fiddlers found in the mud-rich, organic areas of salt marshes, sand fiddlers utilizing sandy areas, and the red-jointed fiddlers occurring in areas where waters are more brackish, containing lower salt content. They can be a bit of a challenge to identify but with some practice it can be done. 

Worldwide, 105 species of fiddler crabs are currently recognized. They are found along the coastlines of every continent, thus having a global distribution, specifically occurring along the coastlines of southern Asia, Africa (especially the east coast), northern Australia, both coasts of Central America, South America and the southern half of North America. They are distributed within a band of about 40 degrees north and south of the equator; our fiddler populations are among the farthest from the equator, being able to occur this far north due to the provisioning warmth of the Gulf Stream current. The colder waters bathing the coast of Europe preclude their presence there. 

Fiddler crabs at Flax Pond. Photo by John Turner

One of my favorite places to observe fiddler crabs in the Three Village area is Flax Pond, the wonderful natural area owned by New York State (hence you!) located in Old Field, in the northwestern corner of Brookhaven Town. A newly reconstructed boardwalk bisects the marsh, passing over a tidal marsh and stream. About 100 yards north of its beginning the boardwalk offers an ideal vantage point to view these intertidal crabs feeding below in the salt marsh, the boardwalk itself effectively serving as a blind.  

If you time the tides right (low tide or falling tide is best), many hundreds of fiddlers will dot the marsh surface — many courting, waving their big claw to and fro while many more take advantage of the exposed mud to feed. If you stroll along one edge of the boardwalk where the crabs can see you, the marsh will appear in motion from the action of countless crabs moving away from you. Other local productive sites include West Meadow Creek and Stony Brook Harbor.  

The fiddler’s burrow, as much as 2 feet long, is critical to a crab’s survival. Here it finds protection from predators and shelter from the high tides which twice daily inundate the burrow (they’re safe in their plugged, air-filled chamber). Even if water enters, they can survive since fiddler crabs have both gills allowing them to breathe in water and a primitive lung which allows them to breathe when feeding in the air on the marsh surface. Studies document their burrow is the “hub of the wheel” from which they never move too far. 

One study, by an Australian researcher, documented that crabs tend to orient themselves to their burrow, not by facing it or having their back to it, but rather sideways with one half of their set of four legs facing the burrow in the event they have to rapidly scurry sideways to gain protection from a predator.   

If you pay closer attention to the crabs’ enlarged claws, you’ll notice that they’re about evenly split between left-handed and right-handed individuals, with some populations having slightly more of one or the other. If the large claw is lost to a predator or in battle, the smaller claw enlarges to become the “fiddler” claw while the regenerated claw remains small, becoming the feeding claw.     

Watching crabs feed is fun; the females with two normal size claws feed more efficiently than do the males who can utilize but one claw, since the larger one is useless as a feeding tool. Recently, I watched several females feeding and they brought food to their mouths about once a second for minutes on end. Fiddlers feed on decaying vegetation, bacteria, algae and other organic matter found in the sand or mud, efficiently sifting out with their mouthparts the sand particles which they cast aside in the form of little balls or pellets.     

A Yellow-crowned Night Heron snacks on a fiddler crab. Photo by Luke Ormand

Their distinctive stalked eyes provide an alien, other-world look to the species. They have compound eyes, like dragonflies, with up to 9,000 eye facets that can see into the ultraviolet range of the light spectrum! Being on stalks allows them to have slightly elevated, panoramic vision of the marsh around them, a good thing since they face numerous predators that frequent tidal wetlands. The visual sensors on top of their eyes enable them to see motion from overhead, a key adaptation since they are subject to predation by birds. 

Speaking of birds, several species routinely eat fiddlers. American bittern and clapper rails feed on them as do a variety of wading birds such as white and glossy ibis and American egret; yellow-crowned night herons, whose diet is largely restricted to crabs, especially focus on fiddler crabs. Diamondback terrapins eat them as do river otters. 

 Being a key part of the estuarine or coastal food chain is one of the important ecological benefits fiddlers provide; they also play a key role in recycling marsh nutrients through their feeding activities. Their burrows, which collectively can number in the many thousands in a large marsh, help to oxygenate the soil, helping marsh plants to grow such as cordgrass and salt hay. Their presence is also a “bio-indicator” — a general indication of a salt marsh’s high ecological health, generally occurring in tidal wetlands free of pollution and contamination.

Why not make their acquaintance before they retreat deeply into muddy burrows for their long winter slumber?

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.

Snowy Owl by Rainy Sepulveda

By Heidi Sutton

Something special is in the air. From Feb. 9 to 21, the Four Harbors Audubon Society (FHAS) will present a photography exhibit titled A Valentine to Whitman’s Paumanok, featuring the wildlife and landscapes that influenced the early life of one of America’s greatest poets, at The Bates House in Setauket. The venue is a fitting one as it is nestled in the 26-acre Frank Melville Memorial Park where many of the photographs in the exhibit were taken. 

In a recent interview, curator Patricia Paladines, outreach chairman of the FHAS board, said the show will feature the works of 12 photographers who were invited to submit up to five images each. 

The concept for the exhibition came about when Paladines heard from her friend Lise Hintze, who manages The Bates House, that the venue was interested in hosting an art exhibit of some sort. A shutterbug herself, Paladines was familiar with many talented nature photographers who shoot locally. “The whole idea worked very well with the mission of the Four Harbors Audubon Society,” she said. 

Kingfisher by William Walsh

Indeed, the 60-piece collection features breathtaking images of nature, from a great blue heron searching for his next meal, a juvenile kingfisher perched on a branch, a seahorse gripping onto a blade of seagrass in the swift current, to a nest of fluffy cygnets, each more visually stunning than the next.

Exhibiting photographers include Dr. Maria Bowling, Maria Hoffman, Joe Kelly, Anita Jo Lago, Luke Ormand, Christopher Paparo, Derek Rogers, Rainy Sepulveda, Alexandra Srp, Kevin Walsh, William Walsh and Debra Wortzman

“I wanted the show to be a platform for the work of these photographers who dedicate a lot of time capturing the natural beauty of Long Island and hopefully in turn inspire the viewers to make time to go out and enjoy it too in the many parks, preserve and natural shorelines that surround us,” Paladines explained, adding that the idea was to “raise awareness of the variety of wildlife that we can see if we just look around this lovely island.”

The fact that Whitman’s 200th birthday will be celebrated all over the country this year was just coincidental in referencing America’s most celebrated literary figure in the title. “Actually I found that out later,” said Paladines. “I was delighted to learn that it is the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth. I like his poetry and Long Island is where, of course, he was born and where he was inspired early in his life. He uses nature in a lot of his poetry. [When deciding the title] I though it’s Valentine’s Day, this exhibit should be about Long Island and I’ve always liked Whitman’s poem that starts out “Starting from fish-shape Paumanok …” 

Lined Seahorse by Chris Paparo

Paladines is hopeful that this show will become an annual event. “We’ll see how it goes this year,” she laughed.

Join the Four Harbors Audubon Society for an opening reception on Saturday, Feb. 9 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Special guest Darrel Blaine Ford, historian, ornithologist and Walt Whitman personator, will read a few poems from “Leaves of Grass” including “There Was a Child Went Forth.” Refreshments will be served. The exhibit will be on view at The Bates House, 1 Bates Road, Setauket through Feb. 21. All the photographs will be for sale. Call 631-689-7054 or visit www.thebateshouse.org for viewing hours.

Serving the Townships of Smithtown and Northwest Brookhaven, the Four Harbors Audubon Society’s mission is to advocate education and conservation efforts for the enjoyment, preservation and restoration of birds, wildlife and habitat in our communities. The society hosts monthly bird walks at Frank Melville Memorial Park and West Meadow Beach in Setauket, and Avalon Park & Preserve in Stony Brook; lectures at Emma S. Clark Memorial Library; Friday movie nights at the Smithtown Library; field trips; and bird counts including the popular Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch. For more information, visit www.fourharborsaudubon.com.

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.