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Patrice Domeischel

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.

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, 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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