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Tom Manuel, venue founder, shares firsthand account with TBR News Media

A teenager in Haiti learns how to play trombone from the Jazz Loft’s Tom Manuel. Photo by Leah Claire Borrie

By Tom Manuel

The Jazz Loft ambassadors’ annual mission to Haiti to teach children how to play instruments hit a blue note as the capital, Port-au-Prince, erupted with riots.

Elvoi, a music teacher that we had hired, shared words of wisdom with us after our trip. “Everything is OK thanks to God,” he said. “But in Haiti we live day by day, we live one day at a time.”

We had landed bright and early on a Wednesday morning, a six-person team consisting of music educators, professional musicians and an independent filmmaker from California. This was another regular trip under the banner of The Jazz Loft to continue building the music program in a school perched high atop a mountain that is making a difference in children’s lives one day at a time.

One part of The Jazz Loft’s trifecta mission is education, and we felt that our community outreach should stretch further than how we typically define community. Our definition includes thinking globally, and a partnership with True Love Missions, of Stony Brook, and their successful school in Haiti was a perfect match. Thanks to the philanthropic giving of Robert Lourie and Ivana Stolnik in addition to the generous giving which was the result of an annual fundraising concert, the Jazz Loft ambassadors embarked on their trip. Barrels of school supplies, instruments, clothing and food were shipped down in advance and the team packed as much as they could bring as well.

Tom Manuel. Photo by Leah Claire Borrie

Our days unfolded one after the next with early morning rises, hikes up and down the mountain to the school, and sometimes rides on motorbikes which rival any amusement park ride known to man. Relationships were begun or made stronger, and the universal language of music transcended that of English and native Creole. Teaching trombone was interrupted by giving out worm pills and conversations with the school principal and teachers regarding school-book needs were put on welcomed pause to feed quite hungry people. The confines of an article cannot contain nor explain the experience of a trip like this. The art of loving and being so genuinely loved in return can only be experienced by doing it.

Then 48 hours before our departure, a protest march against the Haitian government took place in Port-au-Prince. A day before our scheduled exit protests had turned to riots, and from the school high atop the mountain overlooking the city, we could see two fires that signaled something was wrong. We awoke early Monday morning, Nov. 19, ready for departure but as we assembled something was missing. The sound of Haiti had gone mute. There is an unmistakable sound of thousands of people, motorbikes, trucks and animals all joining chorus in organized chaos as the sun rises, and it had gone silent. In its stead, we heard a natural silence penetrated by the sound of vintage radios projecting singular voices speaking of riots throughout the night that had heightened. The city had been shut down. Schools and all businesses were closed. Our van was not coming, and all vehicles were banned from the roads. A call to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti signaled greater worry as it was closed.

Fearing escalation, being stuck beyond our planned time and worry over our general safety, we explored available options and were getting nowhere fast. Hours passed, our window of opportunity was quickly fading, and our final and only choices were to stay, or bribe the police to give us an armed escort to the airport. As if defying reality — because these things only happen in movies, right? — we were quickly packing ourselves into a civilian vehicle and a police truck. I wound up being the lone person in the police vehicle as there was no more room in the other vehicle. As we drove the final distance to the main drag, I thought to myself, “Am I blowing this out of proportion? Is this really necessary?”

As we hit the bottom of the street, there was an abrupt stop, and machine guns were locked and loaded, and handguns quickly appeared. We turned right, and I was amazed to see nothing but an empty street. Our speed was where the vehicle maxed out, and the sound of walkie-talkies, phones and borderline yelling filled the vehicle. The trip to the airport takes a solid hour and a half typically on a good day, and the main drag is marked by thousands of people trying to sell their wares to buyers that do not exist. Our trip that day lasted roughly 15 minutes.

Piles of debris and tires on fire occasionally blocked the road which we would veer around. Burned out vehicles and damaged abandoned police vehicles marked the journey. At one point we passed a black armored vehicle that moved down the street like a dinosaur.

A young student takes a turn with the trombone. Photo from Leah Claire Borrie

Having made this trip many times, I noticed familiar landmarks. We were getting closer and closer to the airport. The cop to my right was clicking a clave rhythm on the barrel of his gun. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was nervous or if this habit was normal. Ahead, a human-made roadblock of boulders and debris appeared causing the driver to slam on the brakes, fly into reverse and head right, the only other option available, only to be met by another roadblock.

Two police officers got out and started moving the boulders. A deafening sound, unlike any other, crescendoed and two masses of people began to converge from behind from both sides of our vehicles. It’s apparent that fear set in as the cops jumped back into the car, and we rammed whatever was left of the roadblock that couldn’t be moved.

Distance was quickly gained and this all seemed to end in an instant as we arrived at the airport and made our entrance almost seemingly under normal circumstances. Our plane took off an hour early, and within a few short hours we were home. It’s a bizarre reality, to say the least, to go from such contrasting environments in such a short period. The next days in Haiti saw increasing violence. Innocent people died. The New York Times published an article Nov. 23, but little of the drama in Haiti made it to our mainstream news.

In Haiti they live day by day. They live one day at a time. When things settle down, which they will, I will return to Haiti. I will continue to love, because in the end, even if I could move those Haitian mountains, even if somehow I could magically fix their broken and corrupt government, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. Love doesn’t rejoice about injustice but rather it rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, it never loses faith, it’s always hopeful, and it endures through every circumstance. Love makes all the difference and there are many children in a little school atop a mountain in Haiti that I love very much, and they love me. And that my friend is always worth the journey.

By Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky

Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky. Photo by Donna Newman

I like Christmas. There, I said it. This may be surprising for some people to hear from a rabbi, and it may be misinterpreted by others. But it’s true. I like the feeling of this time of year. I enjoy the songs, the lights, watching Charlie Brown and the Grinch and especially the sense of good will that exists.

I also like Hanukkah. I enjoy the gathering of family and friends, eating latkes (fried potato pancakes), lighting the Hanukkah menorah (9-branched candelabrum), playing dreidel (a spinning top game) and feeling a sense of warmth and light in the coldest, darkest time of the year.

But my enjoyment of both holidays does not mean that I see them in the same way. It does not mean that I view Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas. While I can enjoy aspects of both holidays, I am keenly aware of the need for both Christians and Jews to maintain a distinction between the two holidays, while also embracing a healthy respect for and appreciation of the practices of the other’s religion. And this begins, I am convinced, with a full understanding of what both holidays celebrate.

It is not for me to expound on the true meaning of Christmas. My Christian colleagues are much more equipped to do so. But I do know that the true religious significance of Christmas has little to do with trees and presents, songs and holiday foods. While these are lovely ways to enhance the enjoyment of a holiday, they should not replace the spiritual lessons taught.

By the same token, Hanukkah, which I am qualified to write about, is not about spinning tops, fried foods and gift giving, though these are all fun customs. It is about the story of a small group of Jews, the Maccabees, well over 2,000 years ago, winning the right to practice their religion freely, symbolized by the rededication of the holy Temple (“Hanukkah” means “dedication”). This episode has nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas, and only happens to fall at the same season because it was common to hold festivals of light at this time of the year. Hanukkah is a stirring story of freedom, but it nonetheless remains a minor festival in the Jewish calendar. Its elevation to a level of such prominence is due solely to the fact that it is marketed to compete with Christmas from a commercial standpoint. And this speaks to a problem in our society in general, as well as presenting a challenge for Christians, Jews and all people of faith alike.

I address this issue to a general audience, rather than specifically to my congregation, because I believe that it is important for all people of faith, whatever their religion or heritage, to reclaim the true meaning of their holy days. Rather than falsely seeking to unite ourselves through the idol of materialism, focusing on the trappings of the various holidays, let us instead form a true bond with one another by each celebrating our respective holy days and recognizing their real significance. By doing so, we strengthen our own religious conviction and are then able to enjoy the beauty and teachings of other faiths without feeling that our own faith is undermined.

I, for one, am opposed to calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree. I am opposed to Christians feeling pressured to water down their religious beliefs because others may feel offended. But I am also opposed to anyone who mistakes proud displays of faith with the right to impose such faith on others. Celebrating Christmas, or any holy day, should be encouraged, as long as it is done with the understanding that we all choose to practice, or not practice, our faith in different ways.

Ironically, for me, Christmas helps reinforce the true message of Hanukkah, just as the true message of Hanukkah, I believe, strengthens the celebration of Christmas. We are so fortunate in our community and country to have the freedom to worship and celebrate freely. May we appreciate this freedom by expressing ourselves appropriately, while also embracing those of other faiths who choose to do the same, but in a different way. By so doing, we will truly find warmth and light at this season.

Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook.

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.

Members of the bus trip pose for a photo between the statues of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr with dueling pistols.

By Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan

Twenty-seven enthusiastic day trippers boarded a chartered bus at the headquarters of the Three Village Historical Society at dawn on Nov. 3. Led by TVHS historian Bev Tyler, they arrived in comfort before 10 a.m. at Philadelphia’s newest tribute to the founding of our nation, the Museum of the American Revolution. There, the drama of the American Revolution and the ideas that inspired it came to life through the personal stories of the people who were there, from the early stirrings of unrest in Boston to the opening shots of the War of Independence and beyond, to the creation of the American Republic.

A must see was the recently opened exhibit, Hamilton Was Here: Rising Up in Revolutionary Philadelphia, on display through March 17, 2019. While New York City, our nation’s first capital, is the focus of attention in the Broadway hit “Hamilton: An American Musical,” it was in Philadelphia, the second national capital, that many of the major events in the life and work of Alexander Hamilton took place.

Museum visitors prepare to load and fire a cannon

The exhibition highlights different aspects of Hamilton’s contributions: his role as an artillery officer in Washington’s army and, later, as adviser to President Washington; his writings that persuaded states to accept the United States Constitution; creator of the U.S. Coast Guard; and first Secretary of the Treasury who envisioned the financial future of the nation.

Through interactive displays, hands-on activities and wall texts, the museum presents the struggles by Hamilton, who favored a strong central government, with Jefferson and Madison, who believed that power should lie with each state. These are questions that we still struggle with today: How do we achieve a proper balance between the rights of each state to act independently and  the need for federal oversight?

Other permanent exhibits are exceptional as well. The museum proudly displays Washington’s war tent, in which he worked and slept alongside Continental Army battlefields. Another remarkably stirring exhibit is housed in a small amphitheater containing life-size, three-dimensional representations of members of the Oneida Indian Nation. Each one “speaks” in turn, presenting arguments for and against sending their warriors to take part in the Saratoga Campaign in the autumn of 1777. Should they support the Patriot cause and fight alongside the Americans, or should they side with the British Army? The Oneidas wrestle with their decision and decide to fight with the Continental Army. The Saratoga Campaign became a turning point of the war.  

A scene from the Oneida Indian Nation exhibit at the museum.

Is this an appropriate museum for children? Yes, bring a child to see Washington’s war tent, or follow the 10 steps it takes to load and fire a cannon, or design a coin or paper currency for the new nation, or dress up in reproduction 1790s clothing to attend one of Martha Washington’s “levees.” All can sit in comfort to see excellent, informative short films.

That said, the museum’s exhibits appear to be designed primarily for high school and college students and adults. They pose serious questions — questions that the nation still struggles to answer. At the end of the day I asked one of the knowledgeable participants among the group to share his impression. “It was good,” he said, “but not great.”  When asked why the lower rating, he said, “Too politically correct.”

Hmm. Yes, the museum has expanded upon the history many of us learned about our country’s origins, mostly told from the perspective of affluent white Protestant males. Little was said in most textbooks or high school class discussions about the impact of the American Revolution on Native Americans, enslaved Africans, women, Catholics and other religious minorities and French and Spanish occupants of the land. For them, the revolution offered promise and peril. Some chose the cause of independence and others sided with the British.

Storybook touch screens called Finding Freedom introduce the African-American London Pleasants, who ran away from slavery in Virginia in 1781 and joined the British Army as a trumpeter. We hear about Eve, owned by the Randolph family of Williamsburg, Virginia, who fled to the British when they occupied the city. She and her son George enjoyed a period of freedom, working under the British, until she was recaptured at Yorktown in 1781. We learn of Elizabeth Freeman, who sued her owner for freedom based on the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution — and won.

The museum focuses attention on the most revolutionary legacies — personal liberty, citizenship, the right to vote and social equality. Is the museum “Politically Correct,” or simply “Correct”?

On the bus ride back to Setauket, the participants from the Three Village Historical Society were treated to a screening of the TBR News Media film about Nathan Hale, “One Life to Give.” They also had time to think about what they’d learned at the Museum of the American Revolution. If that was the goal of its designers, they accomplished their purpose.

The author is the former director of education at the Three Village Historical Society and an educator, writer and lecturer on art, artists and American history.

All photos by Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan

3 monarch butterflies at West Meadow Wetlands Reserve

By Teresa Dybvig

We almost missed the stunning sight — hundreds of monarch butterflies in one place at our very own West Meadow Beach, or to be more precise, the West Meadow Wetlands Reserve.

 If you have walked along the beach recently, you’ve probably noticed the field of seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) lighting up the edge of the dunes all the way down the beach. 

On Thursday, Oct. 4, my husband and I happened to turn away from the water to gaze at the goldenrod glowing in the late daylight. As we approached, we saw hundreds — probably thousands — of buzzing bees and wasps on the flowers. Then we saw a flash of orange, then another, and another. To our astonishment, everywhere we looked, we could see up to 10 monarch butterflies without turning our heads!

We returned on Sunday with a camera and more time. Walking steadily down about a third of the beach, we counted 144 monarchs! I’m sure there were many more; the field is so deep we couldn’t see every flower, and when monarchs fold their wings to eat, they are as thin as a blade of grass from the front. And we didn’t even get to two-thirds of the field. I’m not exaggerating when I say there were, literally, hundreds of monarchs on the beach that day.

 If you have ever seen a monarch butterfly, you know it is gorgeous. It also has a jaw-dropping multigenerational migratory life cycle. The monarchs feasting on the goldenrods at West Meadow are fueling up to fly 2,700 miles to Mexico, at an average rate of 25 to 30 miles per day. Some have already traveled great distances to get here. 

This generation of monarchs is sometimes called the “supermonarch” because it’s the only generation strong enough to make the trip, overwinter on a cool, damp Mexican mountaintop, and fly north again to lay eggs in the earliest-growing milkweed in the southern U.S. before its life comes to an end. The eggs laid by the supermonarchs will grow into monarchs who will fly north and repeat the process, living only two to five weeks. 

The next supermonarchs are the offspring of the offspring of the previous generation of supermonarchs. Sometimes they are the offspring of the offspring of the offspring. So no monarch flying to Mexico has ever made the trip before. Yet thousands of generations have made the journey. 

 Our eastern monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus is in a heartbreakingly steep and dangerous decline. For every 10 monarchs in the sky two decades ago, there are now only two. Researchers estimate that this species could be extinct within 20 years. If the monarch ceases to exist, we humans will have been the cause.  

Monarchs are in danger because of human activities. We have cut down the trees monarchs require to overwinter in Mexico, we have killed milkweed that is critical for monarch caterpillars by spraying fields and their peripheries with herbicides like Round-up, we have paved over land where monarchs used to fuel up on nectar for their spectacular fall migration to Mexico, and we have contributed to changes in weather that can render the monarch’s route dangerous.

 But we humans have also been working to help the monarch stay in the skies. People in Mexico are growing trees to replace the ones that were cut. Government agencies and ordinary citizens in the U.S. and Canada are planting milkweed in reserves and home gardens.  And we are planting more fall-blooming native plants to fuel the long migration to Mexico.

 This is where West Meadow Wetlands Reserve comes in! The seaside goldenrod there is one of the primary foods for monarchs migrating south. The wildflower’s blooming season is relatively short, so if you want to see the miracle in action, keep a lookout next fall in late September and early October. 

Walk past the left end of the swimming area until you see the shining field of yellow flowers. Stand facing it for about a minute, and you will see a flash of orange, then another, and another. “We did this,” you can say to yourself. Our community. We set aside land for these flowers to grow, and they are helping these amazing creatures stay in the sky.

The author is a resident of Stony Brook.

A ‘Bill of Health’ certificate stating that the whaling vessel Splendid is free of plague or disease with 28 men on board, including the master, Richard P. Smith, on Oct. 27, 1853. From the Whaling Museum Collection

By Nomi Dayan

Have you ever been asked to please stand by? Ever told someone not to barge in? Have you hung on to the bitter end, or been given a clean bill of health? If so, you have spoken like a sailor. 

Each type of human activity, noted essayist L. Pearsall Smith, has its own vocabulary. Perhaps this is most evident in the speech of mariners. 

The English language is a strong testament to how humans have been seafarers for millennia, with a multitude of words and phrases having filtered from life at sea to life on land. Today, a surprising number of phrases, words and expressions still have nautical origins, notably from sailing terminology in the 18th and 19th centuries. While some adopted phrases have fallen by the wayside, many expressions in our everyday language are derived from seafaring.

Barge in: Referring to flat-bottomed work boats, which were awkward to control

Bitter end: The last part of a rope attached to a vessel

Clean bill of health: A document certifying a vessel had been inspected and was free from infection

Dead in the water: A sailing ship that has stopped moving

Down the hatch: A transport term for lowering cargo into the hatch and below deck

Figurehead: A carved ornamental figure affixed to the front of a ship

Foul up: To entangle the line

Fudge the books: While the origins of this term is unclear, one theory connects it to a deceitful Captain Fudge (17th century)

Give leeway: To allow extra room for sideways drift of a ship to leeward of the desired course

High and dry: A beached ship 

Jury rig: Makeshift or temporary repairs using available material

Keel over: To capsize, exposing the ship’s keel   

Show the ropes: Train a newcomer in the use of ropes on sailing vessel

Letting the cat out of the bag: One explanation links this phrase to one form of naval punishment where the offender was whipped with a “cat o’ nine tails,” normally kept in a bag  

Passed with flying colors/Show one’s true colors: Refers to identifying flags and pennants of sailing ships

Pipe down: Using the boatswain’s pipe signaling the crew to retire below deck

A new slant: A sailor will put a new slant on things by reducing sails to achieve an optimum angle of heel to avoid the boat from being pulled over

Slush fund: The ship’s cook created a private money reserve by hoarding bits of grease into a slush fund sold to candle makers

Steer clear: Avoid obstacles at sea

Taken aback: Sails pressed back into the mast from a sudden change of wind, stopping forward motion 

The author is the executive director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.

A juvenile male common yellowthroat. Photo by Joe Kelly

By Joseph Kelly

Those of you that view the work of nature photographers may enjoy the photographs of birds without thinking very much about what goes into these shots. “A bird. On a branch. Pretty bird.” While these are correct and true observations, they don’t really capture what is actually involved in taking a photograph of a bird, or any wild animal for that matter. 

I’m not complaining or bemoaning my lot in life. In fact, I’m hoping that parts of this little essay will bring a smile to your face. Mix in some nature, a little humor and a dash of knowledge, bake for 30 minutes and maybe we’ll all get to enjoy some wild creatures and places. And maybe we, or our children, will try to preserve the recipe.

Okay, back to the premise at hand. I was talking about photographing birds before I went all philosophical there. It happens, get over it. Photographing birds is not as easy as one might think. First off, you have to find the bird. I know, I know: They’re everywhere, right? But they’re not. Not really. We all have robins or sparrows or blue jays or crows in our backyards. Or pigeons for you city dwellers. But if I or any other wildlife photographer just took pics of those guys, we wouldn’t generate much interest. People might get to thinking that they’d seen all there was to see and why seek for more? No one would want to preserve open spaces or parklands. They wouldn’t understand the why of it.

I did it again. I was talking about finding birds and I went all sideways with it. So, really, you have to find the bird. You need to go where the birds are, whether it’s a park, a river or wetlands, a seashore or wherever. Again, you need to go where the birds are. You’re not done yet. Even when you’re in the right place, you still need to find your quarry. It’s not like birds are lining up to meet you. 

I have friends that can find and identify birds by their calls. I am not so gifted. I have several CDs of bird calls but I find my retention for such recordings — or lack thereof — do not help me in the field. Also, I am mostly deaf in one ear so even if I could recognize a particular call, zeroing in on the location of a particular call is nigh on impossible. By the way, I can hardly believe I found an excuse to use the word “nigh” in a sentence.

Okay, so you’re in a right place and you’ve found a bird. You don’t always see it right off. Sometimes, it’s just a rustle among the branches or a disturbance in the flowers. But it’s a bird. It’s right there, maybe just a few feet away. You know it’s there. Maybe you can even hear it. But can you see it? Can you get a photograph? Is that bird sitting there, proud and dignified, waiting for you to take its picture? Most times, at least for me, the answers are no, no and no. Birds flit and fly from branch to branch and from tree to tree. It turns out that the darn things have wings.

But sometimes, those sweet wonderful sometimes, you get lucky. The bird peeks out from the foliage or the flowers and is right there. All you need to do then is put it in focus. And that is an entirely different conversation. 

A resident of Stony Brook, Joseph Kelly is the official photographer of the Four Harbors Audubon Society. Visit his blog at www.joekayaker.com.

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.

Your adventure awaits! Photo from Sue Avery

By Karen Smith

There are days when we need a break from the general craziness of life, and we just want to get outdoors to walk in a peaceful place. Three Village residents are fortunate to have a number of options for this peaceful pursuit and one of the very loveliest is the Three Village Garden Club Arboretum, accessible through the parking lot of the adjacent and separately owned Frank Melville Memorial Park, 101 Main St., Setauket.

This “hidden haven” contains 4.5 acres of wooded pathways that meander through an open meadow, past 30 varieties of specimen trees and shrubs, and offers views of the Conscience Bay headwaters. It’s a habitat for birds, butterflies, frogs, turtles and the rabbits, squirrels and deer that are found throughout our area. 

In early spring you can view the trees and shrubs starting to bud, and as the months pass there are flowers in bloom, then the fall colors and finally the stark beauty of winter. Each offers a different experience, but the feeling of tranquility always is there.

While the arboretum is open to the public, it is privately owned and maintained by the Three Village Garden Club, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Our volunteer and hardworking arboretum administrators oversee the planting of new trees, shrubs and plants, regular mowing of the meadow, removal of invasive plants and management of bamboo. In addition, arborists are called in as needed to remove tree limbs, and when necessary, entire trees. When required, wood chips are added to pathways to ensure that trails remain dry. 

The thousands of dollars expended annually on this maintenance by the TVGC is deemed necessary to ensure the safety of all visitors and the beauty of the property. 

In addition, many hours of volunteer work are provided by members of Students Taking Action for Tomorrow’s Environment (S.T.A.T.E.), part of the Avalon organization, and at times, Scouts and of course, garden club member-volunteers.

The arboretum also is used for educational purposes, chief among which are the Arbor Day celebration held in spring and the Meet the Trees program in the fall. 

Second-grade students from all elementary schools in the Three Village School district are invited to visit and have these “hands-on” experiences to supplement their science curriculum. For the past 10 years it also has been the site of a Teddy Bear Picnic for preschoolers and their parents, offering a walk through the property to introduce them to the natural environment.

You’re cordially invited to visit! Come with a friend or family member. Leashed pets are permitted. Enjoy this beautiful haven whenever you’re in the mood for a peaceful place!

Karen Smith is a member of the Three Village Garden Club.

By Nomi Dayan

Nomi Dayan

Whaling was a risky business, physically and financially. Life at sea was hazardous. Fortunes were made or lost. Whale hunts were perilous, as was the processing of the whale. Injuries were rampant and death was common, sometimes on nearly every voyage. In some instances, the deceased was none other than the captain.

Captain Sluman Lothrop Gray met his untimely end on a whaleship. Born in 1813, very little is known of his past, his family or his early experiences at sea. In 1838, he married Sarah A. Frisbie of Pennsylvania in the rural town of Columbia, Connecticut. His whaling and navigational skills must have been precocious, because in 1842, in his late 20s, Gray became a whaling captain — and a highly successful one. 

His wife Sarah joined him in his achievements, living with him at sea for 20 years. Three of their eight children were born during global whaling voyages. Gray commanded a string of vessels: the Jefferson and Hannibal of New London, Connecticut, to the Indian and North Pacific oceans; the Mercury and Newburyport of Stonington, Connecticut, to the South Atlantic, Chile, and Northwest Pacific oceans; and the Montreal of New Bedford, Massachusetts, to the North Pacific Ocean.  

While financially successful, Gray’s crew felt his harsh personality left much to be desired. Some of his blasphemies were recorded by a cabin boy on the Hannibal in 1843. Gray did not hesitate to flog crew members for minor mistakes. Unsurprisingly, when Sarah once reported her husband had taken ill, the crew rejoiced. To their chagrin, he recovered.

As Gray aged, he attempted to retire from maritime living and shift into the life of a country gentleman. He bought 10 acres of land in Lebanon, Connecticut, and lived there for seven years, where his house still stands. 

This bucolic life did not last, and Gray returned to whaling. With his wife and three children — 16-year-old Katie, 10-year-old Sluman Jr. and 2-year-old Nellie, he sailed out of New Bedford on June 1, 1864, on the James Maury. Built in Boston in 1825 and sold to New Bedford owners in 1845, the James Maury was a hefty ship at 394 tons. Gray steered the course toward hunting grounds in the South Pacific. 

Unexpectedly, after nine months at sea in March 1865, he suddenly became ill. The closest land was Guam, 400 miles away. Sarah described his sickness as an “inflammation of the bowels.” After two days, Gray was dead. The first mate reported in the ship’s logbook: “Light winds and pleasant weather. At 2 p.m. our Captain expired after an illness of two days.”  He was 51 years old.

Sarah had endured death five times before this, having to bury five of her children who sadly died in infancy. She could not bear to bury her husband at sea. Considering how typical grand-scale mourning was in Victorian times, a burial at sea was anything but romantic. It was not unheard of for a whaling wife to attempt to preserve her husband’s body for a home burial. But how would Sarah embalm the body?

Two things aboard the whaleship helped: a barrel and alcohol. Sarah asked the ship’s cooper, or barrel maker, to fashion a cask for the captain. He did so, and Gray was placed inside. The cask was  filled with “spirits,” likely rum. The log for that day records: “Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather; made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits.”

The voyage continued on to the Bering Sea in the Arctic; death and a marinating body did not stop the intentions of the crew from missing out on the summer hunting season. 

However, there was another unexpected surprise that June: the ship was attacked by the feared and ruthless Confederate raider Shenandoah, who prowled the ocean burning Union vessels, especially whalers (with crews taken as prisoners). The captain, James Waddell, had not heard — or refused to believe —that the South had already surrendered. 

When the first mate of the Shenandoah, Lt. Chew, came aboard the James Maury, he found Sarah panic stricken. The James Maury was spared because of the presence of her and her children — and presumably the presence of her barreled husband. Waddell assured her that the “men of the South did not make war on women and children.” Instead, he considered them prisoners and ransomed the ship. Before the ship was sent to Honolulu, he dumped 222 other Union prisoners on board. One can imagine how cramped this voyage was since whaleships were known for anything but free space.

A year after the captain’s death, the remaining Gray family made it home in March 1866. The preserved captain himself was shipped home from New Bedford for $11. 

Captain Gray was finally buried in Liberty Hill Cemetery in Connecticut. His resting place has a tall marker with an anchor and two inscriptions: “My Husband” and “Captain S. L. Gray died on board ship James Maury near the island of Guam, March 24, 1865.” Sarah died 20 years later and was buried next to her husband.

It is unknown if Gray was buried “as is” or in a casket. There are no records of Sarah purchasing a coffin. Legend has it that he was buried barrel and all.

Nomi Dayan is the executive director at The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.

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