Authors Posts by John Turner

John Turner

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A whippoorwill. Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

In the early evening of a mid-June day, eleven intrepid participants hiked through the globally rare Dwarf Pine Plains, a unique forest of pygmy pines found in the Long Island Pine Barrens. Their mission? To hear the night-time calls of the “moonbirds” — Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows (or “whips” and “chucks” in birding vernacular), ringing out over the dwarf pines. For these nocturnal birds, the central Pine Barrens is their Long Island stronghold.

We know for the Whip-poor-will, and suspect for the Chuck-will’s-widow, their reproductive cycle is tied to the phases of the moon. “Whips” typically mate shortly after the full moon in May and the young hatch about 10 days before the next full moon in June. As the moon moves through its waxing phase and its reflected light gains in strength, whip-poor-wills can see better at night enabling them to hunt more efficiently for the moths and large beetles they eat and feed to their young. During this active time both species vocalize, their onomatopoeiac calls repeated often — one student reported a whip-poor-will calling 1,088 times consecutively! No wonder their common names were derived from the calls they make!

While their calls were very much appreciated by the night’s participants, it hasn’t always been the case their calls were welcome sounds. Superstition and meaning abound. A popular belief claimed that whoever hears a whip-poor-will will soon die; a variation portends a death of someone the listener knows. Or a whip-poor-will calling outside a house meant the death of an inhabitant, and perhaps, allowing the bird to grab their soul as it departs their body, which if they did would lead to further calling by the bird. If the bird failed in capturing the soul it would fall silent. Other legends imparted only bad luck but not death to the hearer of a call.

Another legend has it that a person with back ailments who does somersaults in cadence with the whip-poor-will’s call will see their back problems soon cured (makes you wonder, though, if a person could do somersaults every two to three seconds then maybe their back wasn’t in such bad shape to begin with?). 

Another “first of the year call” legend meant good luck — if you made a wish upon hearing your first call then that wish would come true. In Louisiana gardeners would use the date of the first call of the whip-poor-will as a guide to planting garden peas.

According to folklore legend, whip-poor-wills had importance to single women. If an unhitched woman heard her first whip-poor-will call of the year but the bird then went immediately silent, she would stay single all year long; but if she was quick enough to wish to be married upon hearing the call she would soon be so. Still another legend notes that if a single woman hears a whip-poor-will call before morning light and another whip-poor-will responds, her “future man” will think of her that day.

Native Americans were also intrigued by whip-poor-wills. The Iroquois, for example, believed that moccasin flowers (pink lady’s slippers) were the shoes of whip-poor-wills while Utes believed whip-poor-wills were gods of the night.

Henry David Thoreau had a different, more basic take on a whip-poor-will’s call: “It could mean many things, according to the wealth of myth surrounding this night flyer. The note of the whippoorwill borne over the fields is the voice with which the woods and moonlight woo me” he said.

“Whips” and “Chucks” belong to a group of birds known as “goatsuckers”, a name derived centuries ago from the mistaken belief they use their large, supple, flesh-lined mouths to suck on the teats of goats. They were even accused of blinding or killing livestock once they latched on! This perception of “goat-sucking” isn’t totally off-base since the goatsucker name developed in Europe where residents often observed European nightjars flying around goat pens. They weren’t there to latch onto goat teats but rather were likely attracted to the insects stirred up by the goats. 

Even the family of birds these species belong to — the Caprimulgidae —underscore this mistaken connection. Capra in Latin means goat and mulgare means “to milk”. Even a very wise person, Aristotle, apparently believed the bird-goat connection noting: “Flying to the udders of she-goats, it sucks them and so it gets its name”.

In addition to Whip-poor-will’s and Chuck-will-widow’s there are six other members belonging to this family in North America — Buff-collared Nightjar, Common Poorwill, Common Pauraque and Common, Lesser, and Antillean Nighthawks — and three occur on Long Island — “whips”, “chucks” and Common Nighthawks. This latter species is a very rare breeder on Long Island, if at all, but passes through in fall migration in the low thousands, as evidenced by the recent annual totals at the Nighthawk Watch conducted at the Stone Bridge in Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket by the Four Harbors Audubon Society.

These North American goatsuckers can be grouped into two categories: nightjars and nighthawks. “Whips” and “chucks” are nightjars — they have more rounded wings and plumper bodies than their nighthawk brethren, and also have large rictal bristles lining each side of their mouths, similar to cat whiskers, that assist them in catching larger prey. Nighthawks lack these bristles which are actually highly modified feathers.

While nighthawks like the Common Nighthawk generally feed on small aerial insects as they zip around — gnats, midges, mosquitoes, and the like — nightjars, so called due to the jarring call of some species, feed on larger insects, bigger moths and beetles mostly, flying up from the ground or from a perch. Chuck-will’s-widows are also known to eat birds and lizards. When viewed in a picture the birds appear to possess small mouths because of their small bills. But looks can be deceiving as their mouths are enormous. In fact, the genus Antrostomus means “cavern mouth”.

One of the distinctive features of both “whips” and “chucks” are their cryptic coloration. They blend in remarkably well with the leaf litter on the forest floor, a good thing since they are ground nesting birds and they and their eggs (typically two) and chicks are more vulnerable to predation. 

There is available on the Internet one photograph of a whip-poor-will on the forest floor and it is simply indistinguishable, in another closer photo the bird is partially revealed; it’s not until a second, even closer photo that the bird’s face and elongated body can be clearly seen.

This ground nesting habit is one reason why both species have declined. As Long Island becomes more developed and natural areas get fragmented by development, animals associated with that development — namely dogs, feral and free ranging pet cats, and wild animals such as raccoons attracted to easier food in suburban areas — frequent wild areas adjacent to the homes preying on a variety of vulnerable species including these nightjars. 

A reduction in the abundance of their insect prey appears to be another contributing cause. From 1980-1985 New York conducted its first statewide breeding bird survey; it replicated the effort in 2000-2005. In the first survey whip-poor-wills were detected in 564 quadrangles (one square mile of land); in the latter survey the species was detected in only 241 quadrangles, a reduction of 57%. A similar trend occurred with the Chuck-will’s-widow, with a 62% reduction. A third bird survey began in 2020 and will be completed in 2025; at that time we’ll have an up-to-date picture of the status of these two nightjars. 

Contrast this with John James Audubon’s 1838 account: “Hundreds are often heard at the same time in different parts of the woods, each trying to out-do the others; and when you are told that the notes of this bird may be heard at the distance of several hundred yards, you may form an idea of the pleasure which every lover of nature must feel during the time when this chorus is continued. Description is incapable of conveying to your mind any accurate idea of the notes of this bird, much less of the feelings which they excite”.

As I walked back to the car, ruminating about the experience of the “moonbirds” calling beneath the Strawberry Moon, some close enough to cause excitement, a random thought popped into mind — how human experience can be so enriched when we connect with other forms of life we allow to co-exist. May whip-poor-wills and chuck-will’s-widows call under full moons for many decades to come, serving all the while as harbingers of life, not death. 

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 stand of Christmas Fern. Photo by John Turner

By John L. Turner

Throughout the forests, woodlands, and wetlands of Long Island exists a group of plants with great lineage and I do mean GREAT lineage, with a fossil record that goes back approximately 360 million of years, well before the appearance of dinosaurs. In some places in the world, but not Long Island, these species reach tree size. Dozens of examples of this group can be found here, perhaps one or a few in an untouched section of your yard. What group might this be? Ferns and their relatives — the clubmosses and horsetails (the latter two will be the subject of a future article).

Because they aren’t colorful, ferns are often thought of as “background plants” in landscape settings. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful because many are very much so, given their fragile, graceful, and lacy appearances. Generally you can think of a fern frond as being “undivided, once-divided, twice-divided, or thrice-divided,” the lacier a fern the more “cuts” or divisions it has. (We don’t have any undivided ferns native to Long Island). 

Rare ferns seen at Fort Totten. Photo by John Turner

Remembering how many times a fern is divided is a convenient way to classify and identify species (it’s how I learned it many decades ago). So a fern like the well-known Christmas Fern, is a “once-divided fern” since its one division creates just a series of leaflets that collectively make up its frond surface. A twice-divided fern, like Bracken Fern, has leaflets like the Christmas Fern but in the Bracken Fern’s case, the leaflets themselves have cuts, creating subleaflets or pinnules. If, in turn, the subleaflets are cut to form even smaller lobes, as in Hayscented Fern, you’re looking at a thrice-divided fern.

Ferns have no flowers — no nectar, pollen, or seeds and depend upon no insects or animals to successfully reproduce. Rather, they depend upon spores and vegetative spread (through rhizomes in most cases but also, as in the case of Walking Fern, an undivided species that doesn’t grow on Long Island, in which the fern tip arches downward to anchor in the soil from which another fern grows, hence the term “walking”). 

The tiny, almost microscopic, spores develop within a case known as a sporangia. Often the sporangia are clustered together in what are known as sori or fruit-dots (although this isn’t accurate). The location of the sori can be very helpful, in fact diagnostic, in identifying fern species. With some, such as Sensitive, Cinnamon, and Netted Chain Ferns, the sori are located on a separate stalk, while in others like Grape Ferns they are connected via a stalk to the main frond. Most often though, the sori are located on the underside of the frond leaflets and their shape and location on the leaflet can be diagnostic as to species. A five to seven power hand lens opens up a new world to you while inspecting the many distinctive spore cases produced by our native ferns.

You might reasonably assume that a spore, wafting away from a sporangia upon the slightest breeze, will eventually land in a suitable location, germinate, and develop into a new fern. Your assumption, while most reasonable, would be incorrect as the process is more complicated and this is where the concept of “alternation of generations” comes in. The spore does germinate and develop, but not directly into a new fern. Rather, it grows into a prothallus, a small structure shaped like a Valentine’s Day heart. The prothallus is the “gametophyte” stage because the prothallus contains the gametes or sex cells (sperm and egg) On one part of the “heart” is the antheridia, where the sperm come from, and nearby is the archegonia, which produces the egg. In optimal conditions, that is, when the prothallus is wet, the sperm travels the short distance to the egg. Upon germination a new spore-producing fern (the sporophyte stage) develops. The sporophyte is the fern stage that is before your eyes to identify and enjoy. So we have sporophyte-gametophyte-sporophyte-gametophyte, ad infinitum.

As mentioned, some ferns spread vegetatively through the growth of underground horizontally oriented rhizomes from which new fronds grow in a perpendicular fashion, emerging from the surface of the soil. Bracken Fern, the common fern species of the drier upland habitats in the Pine Barrens, is an excellent example of a fern that spreads through rhizomes. In some places bracken fern stands can cover as much as an acre or more.

Long Island is home to several dozen fern species, present in most habitats occurring here. Freshwater and forest habitats are especially well represented with ferns; however, none occur in salt marshes or on beach dunes. Let’s look at some!

The previously mentioned Christmas Fern is a common and widespread species growing throughout Long Island’s woodlands. It is often noted the species received its name from the similarity of a leaflet to a Christmas stocking hanging from a fireplace mantle. A competing explanation is that this fern species is one of the few plants still green through the winter, standing out around Christmas time.

Similar looking to Christmas Fern but smaller is the Common Polypody, so named due to the resemblance of the leaflets to lobed feet (think pody-podiatrist). This fern is uncommon here, growing on steep slopes and large boulders. This species was a favorite of Henry David Thoreau who on several occasions remarked about the “cheerful communities” of polypody growing on rocks in New England.

Sensitive Fern grows in more sunlit locations and is easy to identify, with a “once-divided” look. As mentioned above, the sporangia are on separate stalks growing from the rootstock. Come the fall and frost, Sensitive Fern quickly dies back, hence its name.

Cinnamon Fern is an abundant fern growing in moist woodlands and wooded swamps. It is quite distinctive with a beautiful growth form in which several sterile fronds radiate from a central rootstock with the spore-producing fronds coming up through the middle. The sterile fronds appear as unfurling fiddleheads (there are no species of ferns known as fiddleheads per se; a fiddlehead is a growth stage of some ferns in which the emerging frond at first is curled like the head of a fiddle; in some species, the fiddleheads are edible). They are coated in a cinnamon “wool” — giving rise to the common name — which is reportedly used by hummingbirds and a few songbirds as nest lining material.

Bracken Fern is, as mentioned earlier, locally common to abundant in the Pine Barrens, forming an extensive thigh-high layer, unmistakable due to its triangular growth form. Bracken Fern is one of the more widespread species of ferns, found in many other places in the world including Japan and Asia. While it spreads mostly vegetatively, it also produces spores located on the rolled margins of the leaflets. It was once harvested for food but this came to an end when the species was determined to be carcinogenic.

New York Fern is another common woodland fern. It is distinguished by the tapered nature of both the top and bottom of the frond. Supposedly, a New England botanist thought this tapered growth form reminded him of New York socialites who “burned their candles at both ends” and the name New York Fern stuck.

Most native ferns here are adapted to acidic soils and as a result we don’t have many ferns that prefer more basic, calcarious soils found in limestone regions. On a birding field trip six years ago to Fort Totten in northern Queens Andy Greller (a very fine botanist, naturalist, retired Biology Professor from Queens College, and all around good guy) and I found some Purple Cliffbrake and Blunt-lobed Cliff Fern growing in the mortar seams holding together the large stones of the fort. The mortar provided the right conditions for these limestone loving ferns to thrive.

There are many other ferns awaiting your discovery — Royal and Interrupted Ferns both of which are related to Cinnamon Fern (the latter so named because the leaflets on the sterile frond are “interrupted” by the fertile leaflets in the middle of the frond), the Chain Ferns, the Grape Ferns, the hard to identify but lacy Wood Ferns, Lady, Marsh and Hay-scented Ferns, the distinctive looking Ebony Spleenwort, and a few others.

Right now these species await your visit and if you go exploring, don’t forget to bring a hand lens!

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.

Elderberry produces flat-topped berry clusters relished by birds.
Make your home a haven for wild things

By John L. Turner

One of the basic axioms in ecology is that no living thing exists in isolation, that each species in an ecosystem is varyingly affected by others species and, in turn, has an effect upon them. John Muir, the famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, understood this more than a century ago when he observed: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” As it relates to  humans, this idea was made famous by John Donne’s famous quote: “No man is an island entire of itself,” that each of us is affected by those around us upon whom we also have an effect. 

In ecosystems these effects are numerous and varied, and can be both easy and hard to quantify. Competition for light, water, and nutrients between species is well known but as Suzanne Simard’s recent revelatory book Finding the Mother Tree  documents, a surprising amount of cooperation exists between trees in a forest, involving both individuals of the same species and between tree species.

Among animals there’s cooperation too. Parents nourish offspring (with older offspring of scrub jays helping parents feed newborn offspring), and dolphins, whales and pelicans hunting together. But there’s also competition among animals — witness the interaction between ospreys and the resurging bald eagle population on Long Island. In all ecosystems there are predators sustained by an even larger base of prey, there’s host — parasite relationships, and, importantly decomposers and recyclers who prevent dead organic matter from accumulating by recycling nutrients and energy back into the system.

These relationships can conveniently (and simplistically) fit into one of three categories — positive, neutral, or negative for the species involved, or often and more typically, positive for one and negative for the other (think: Osprey catching and eating a fish). But the relationship can be positive for both as is the case with a pollinating bee and a wildflower — the bee secures nectar, pollen or both for itself and its young and the plant produces new progeny, in the form of seeds, through the pollination process.  

Non-native species, like the overwhelming number of wildflowers, shrubs, and trees in most homeowners’ yards, turn this axiom on its head and that creates a big problem.  Many non-native plants routinely planted by homeowners in some ways live in isolation — they produce little to no nectar or pollen so they do nothing to sustain pollinating insects and their leaves are fed upon by few if any insects. They do not have an effect upon other species and aren’t “hitched” to other species as Muir would undoubtedly have noted. 

It doesn’t have to be this way and many homeowners, with more joining each day, are “going native,” planting plants in their yards that are indigenous to Long Island, that  upon planting, become part of the local food web.  These owners are embracing the above axiom by installing plants that positively affect the insect, bird, and mammal populations around them.     

 It’s easy to join this burgeoning movement as native plants are much more available as organizations, individuals, and nurseries outlets respond to consumer interest.  One not-for-profit environmental organization, the Long Island Native Plant Initiative (LINPI), has, as its mission, the propagation and sale of native plants. They have dozens of species available at their facility located in the St. Joseph’s Convent in Brentwood and is worth your support.    

There are four main foods produced by plants that sustain wildlife — nectar, pollen, leaves and fruits (berries, nuts, and acorns) — that you need to think about when planting native species. Various insects depend upon the first three, while birds and mammals typically focus on fruits (and nectar in the case of hummingbirds).  

Shrubs

Highbush Blueberry

There are, of course,  some plants which provide more than one type of food that sustains wildlife.  

A great example is the woody shrub Highbush Blueberry, a common species growing in freshwater wetlands throughout Long Island. Its bell-shape flowers produce nectar consumed by many species of bees and butterflies; its pollen is eaten by some bees and other insects; the tasty berries are eaten by a variety of birds and small mammals (and, of course, a large mammal with two legs with whom you may be familiar if you like blueberry muffins or pies); and the leaves sustain caterpillars of many moths and butterflies including a wonderful group of small butterflies which includes the hairstreaks and elfins).  So Highbush Blueberry is a “go-to” plant in moving your yard from paucity to productivity. 

Another woody shrub to consider is elderberry which produces flat-topped berry clusters relished by birds. I enjoy watching the mockingbirds and catbirds each summer visit the ripened berry clusters of several elderberry bushes I’ve planted in the backyard.  

Others shrubs to think about (and there are still others) include Spicebush, which is used by the beautiful Spicebush swallowtail butterfly as a food source while a caterpillar;  and shadbush and chokeberry, both of which produce berries eaten by quite a few bird and small mammal species. If your property has moister soils think about planting Sweet Pepperbush, also known as Summersweet due to the strong and distinctive odors the plant gives off in summer. Many insects are attracted to these odiferous blossoms.  Lastly, two other native “woodies” you might to consider for wetter soils are Steeplebush, also known as Spirea and Swamp Rose.   

Trees

Speaking of woody plants, a number of tree species provide benefits to wildlife. Oaks, willows, hickories, cherries, beech, birch, dogwood, and sassafras are all especially valuable. Oak leaves, for example, are known to support hundreds of different kinds of caterpillars which are eaten by dozens of bird species. And bright red sassafras berries are consumed by a host of birds including cedar waxwings, catbirds, and several thrush species.   

Wildflowers and grasses

Goldenrod

You can also affect positive change with non-woody plants such as wildflowers and grasses. Two excellent groups of plants that pollinators love are goldenrods and asters. Goldenrods (what a wonderful and evocative common name!) produce copious amounts of nectar that many bees, beetles, and butterflies consume as well as the plants’ pollen. (By the way — it’s not goldenrod pollen that causes hay fever — their pollen grains are too big — but rather ragweed, blooming at the same time, which has much smaller pollen grains since they are wind pollinated.) 

Standing on the edge of a thick stand of goldenrod in bloom in late summer is to visit the busiest insect airport imaginable — dozens of bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and butterflies probing the countless flowers for nectar and pollen. Many moth and butterflies, as caterpillars, feed on goldenrod leaves. Several dozen goldenrod species are native to Long Island so there’s a lot of variety to choose from.  Why not plant some “sunshine concentrate” in your flower beds?

Asters, too, are important wildflowers for wildlife providing nectar. Like goldenrods, they are beautiful, adding bright splashes of color to your yard such as the stunning purple rays of New England Aster. Several aster species are available for sale. 

Milkweeds

Many other native species can become part of your local ecosystem. Milkweeds are another group, perhaps most well-known because Common Milkweed is the common host plant for the Monarch Butterfly, a species that’s the focus of a great deal of conservation concern due to their declining numbers (although in 2021 there appears to be a slight uptick in their numbers). 

Besides Common Milkweed you should think about planting Swamp Milkweed if you have wetter, richer soils and Butterflyweed, a bright orange member of the milkweed family. Many species of insects are attracted to the nectar produced by these species and Monarch caterpillars can successfully grow eating Butterfly Weed leaves as the five caterpillars that came from a small flower garden by my back door can attest. 

Other native wildflowers that sustain wildlife include, but are not limited to, Joe-pye weed, Boneset, Thoroughwort, Northern Blazing Stars, Bush Clovers, Mountain Mint, and Beggars Ticks.  

To attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds you need to plant red flowers — three good ones are Cardinal Flower (a stunner)!, Wild Bergamot (also known as Oswego Tea) and  Trumpet Vine.  

There’s value in planting a number of the same plants together, forming clumps rather than single plants. Some beetles don’t fly as well as other insects so its worth clumping together some natives to assist them. And odors and chemicals given off by groups of the same species are much stronger than scents given by individual plants so more is better!  

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If want to do more to make your yard wildlife friendly here’s a few other ideas:  

A great project with the kids is to make a bee hotel.

 

Build bee hotels. Many bees, wasps, and other pollinating insects can benefit from “bee hotels” placed around your property. A great project is to engage your children in researching, constructing and installing small bee hotels suitable to your property. These hotels will help some of the several hundred native bee species like mason bees which, unlike the European honeybee, nest solitarily. There’s many different designs you can find on-line such as drilling holes of various diameters into a several foot long segment of a “4 by 4”. Tying together a bunch of hollow bamboo stalks into a wood frame that hangs is an alternative design. 

Can your Spray Can! It is tempting to turn to the easy fix of chemicals to control garden pests. The problem is these chemicals work too well; remember pesticides, herbicides, and other “cides” are all poisons, some of which have broad and deadly impacts to a large number of species. Research other, more benign options for controlling unwanted species — by doing so you allow the wanted species to flourish.  Turn away from poisons. 

Leave the Leaves and Save the Stubble! Layers of fallen leaves and standing stem stubble in your garden beds and throughout your yard sustain many species, especially insects that overwinter under leaves and in hollow stems. 

Frog Logs to the Rescue! If you have an in-ground pool you may want to buy frog logs or ramps to allow animals like chipmunks a chance to escape. The “logs” are semi-circle floats in which a fabric ramp connects the float with the anchor portion filled with sand.   

If you put away the poisons, invest in some frog logs if needed, retain leaves in flower beds and in the corners of your yard and, most importantly, plant native species to nourish pollinators and many other species of wildlife, your yard will become part of the living fabric of the larger world surrounding you. It’s axiomatic! 

A resident of Setauket, author 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 and pens a monthly column for TBR News Media titled Nature Matters.

*This article originally appeared in TBR News Media’s Summer Times supplement on June 24.

An osprey carries a fish back to its nest. Photo from Unsplash

By John L. Turner

I vividly remember the first time I saw an Osprey (also called the Fish Hawk due to the fact their diet is, with very rare exception, entirely comprised of fish). As a ten-year-old, a friend and I were birding on the back side of Miller’s Pond in Smithtown, now a county park off of Maple Avenue, but at that time a private estate. We came along the edge of small stream that fed the pond, still hidden a little bit by a shrub thicket of stream-side sweet pepperbush. Peering across the stream we noticed a HUGE bird (isn’t everything bigger when you’re small?) perched on top of a dead tree with an orange object wriggling in its feet. Well, the object was a nice-sized carp, the feet were actually very sharp talons, and the big bird holding the carp was an Osprey.

Ospreys have made an amazing comeback on Long Island. Unsplash photo

We didn’t realize it at the time but this Osprey sighting was becoming an increasingly uncommon event. Due to the widespread use of DDT, a persistent pesticide that can last in the environment for decades, Ospreys and many other birds higher on the food chain (e.g., Bald eagle, both pelican species, Peregrine falcon) plummeted. Scientists soon learned that the pesticide interfered with the ability of the birds to lay viable eggs, causing some bird populations to decline as mush as 90% and causing the extinction of the eastern United State race of the Peregrine falcon. 

Fortunately, in one of the first great environmental victories of the environmentally enlightened era of the early 1970s (you may be old enough to remember the first Earth Day and the adoption of the Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts) DDT was banned in 1972 for use in the United States. The Center of this intense national fight? Right here in the Three Villages where the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) was established! 

Now an international environmental organization focusing on global environmental issues such as climate change and loss of biodiversity, EDF started in a modest office, first in Stony Brook (in a cramped second floor office above the Post Office, ironically, behind the flapping Bald eagle) and then in a house in Setauket on Old Town Road, where it successfully took on the fight to stop the use of this bird-killing pesticide. This several year struggle is chronicled in the highly informative and readable book DDT Wars, written by Charlie Wurster, a retired Stony Brook University professor, EDF board member, and long time resident of Old Field.

Over the past couple of decades Ospreys have bounced back big time throughout North America with an estimated 30,000 pairs (making the continent the global stronghold for the species), an increase mirrored on Long Island with several hundred pairs of Ospreys and growing (as a result the Osprey has been removed from the New York State list of Endangered and Threatened Species). 

Helping to fuel this growth are the presence of several coastal fish species including alewife, American Eel, but especially menhaden (or bunker) which has undergone a resurgence in the past half a decade due to a ban on their commercial harvest in New York State waters.

As with an animal that routinely dives into water to catch highly slippery prey, Ospreys have evolved a number of adaptations that provide the tools for a successful hunt. Their sharp talons are instrumental in holding onto fish but their feet have two other adaptations. The skin on the bottom of their feet are pocked with small bumps known as spicules that impart a sandpaper-like quality to the skin, aiding the bird in gripping the fish. And the osprey can rotate one of its three front talons to swing to the back so the bird can better hold onto the fish with a two-in-front, two-in-back talon arrangement. Oh, and did I mention they close their nostrils to keep water out when diving for prey?

Their plumage, too, is adapted to emersion in water. Ospreys have the oiliest feathers of any bird-of-prey, the oil helping to repel water. This oil imparts a musty smell to museum skins, a trait that museum curators have occasionally noted. After Ospreys take-off from a plunge they almost always shake their bodies like a golden retriever, as the water drops easily shed from their highly waterproofed feathers.

Their bulky stick nests are a common and iconic site in many coastal areas of Long Island, sometimes built in sturdy trees, others on buoys, lighthouses, or channel markers. Most often, though, the nests are on elevated platforms some caring individual or organization has erected (if you put up a nesting platform make sure to install a predator guard and one or more perches angled from the side of the platform). 

From the ground it is hard to see the contour of the nest but from above you can discern its shallow bowl shape, containing softer material such as phragmites, finer sticks and even seaweed, which line the bowl. Ospreys are notorious for adding human-made objects to their nest with dozens of items being documented; we don’t have an understanding of why they do this; maybe they just like to collect things like rope, net fragments, rubber boots, items of clothing, even children’s dolls!

Osprey chicks in various stages of development are in nests all around Long Island now. Both parents incubate the eggs (two to three in a typical clutch, although occasionally a four-egg nest is reported). If the hatchlings make it through the wind and rain at their exposed nest sites, they grow rapidly, fledging in about two months. If you want to watch Ospreys go through nest building, incubation, and raising of young there are a number of webcams on-line in which to view ospreys. 

PSEG has two productive webcams to enjoy, one in Oyster Bay and the other on the south side of Main Street in Patchogue Village. As I write this I’m listening to the piercing call of an adult Osprey vocalizing from the webcam nest in Oyster Bay; two small young have hatched and there’s an unhatched egg that hopefully will hatch very soon. The two young in the Patchogue nest are several days older.

Bald Eagles have made an amazing comeback on Long Island. Unsplash photo

A larger cousin to the Osprey — the Bald Eagle — is another beneficiary of the DDT ban and as the eagle has resurged throughout the country, so too on Long Island. As a result of this population growth the species was removed in 2007 from the federal Endangered Species List, although it is still listed as a Threatened Species in New York DEC’s list. While largely free from pesticide contamination concerns, many Bald and Golden Eagles today face poisoning from a different source — lead. The lead is ingested from spent shot, bullet fragments, and perhaps even long lost fishing sinkers first ingested by waterfowl they preyed upon.

Sightings of adult and immature eagles have become almost commonplace, especially near areas where they nest. The first eagle nest, evidence of this comeback, was discovered on Gardiner’s Island in 2006 and for several years was the sole nest on Long Island. (In fact, prior to the current resurgence, the last Bald Eagle nest was on Gardiner’s Island way back in 1932.) But by 2015 the number of nests had climbed to five and by 2018 reached eight. Now there are more than a dozen nests. The nest in Centerport, just north of State Route 25A and west of the harbor, is perhaps the most conspicuous. Good views of the eagle nest at the William Floyd Estate can be gained, looking south across Home Creek, from the Town of Brookhaven’s Osprey Park.

As with the scientific name of many species, the Bald Eagle’s scientific name imparts information about the species; Haliaeetus leucocephalus means the sea eagle with the white-head.

The resurgence of these two impressive birds-of-prey, over the past several decades, has been inspirational, not only for the grace, power, and beauty they add to our daily experience, but also because they are living proof that if we do the right things — banning poisons (let’s take the next step in their restoration by working with hunters to get the lead out!), cleaning our nation’s waters, protecting their food supply, and providing nest sites — these birds and nature can begin the healing process and meet us halfway. These birds present, indeed, impart to us an important and valuable lesson in this time of planetary peril. It’s up to each of us to learn from them — what say you, are you willing to embrace the lesson?

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.

'Eel Spearing in Setauket' by William Sidney Mount

By John L. Turner

This is part two of a two-part series on a remarkable pair of fish. 

The life cycle of the American Eel is a bit more complicated than river herring and consists of six stages: egg, larvae, glass eel, elver, yellow eel, and silver eel. 

Mature adults reproduce just once in their lifetime with all the eels emanating from the East Coast unerringly migrating to the Sargasso Sea where mass spawning takes place. (The Sargasso Sea, situated south of Bermuda, has no land borders but is distinct by being bounded by four strong ocean currents, including the Gulf Stream, resulting in quiet waters entrained within the gyre; here masses of sargassum weed abound giving shelter to many marine species including hatchling sea turtles). 

Shortly after spawning here the adult eels die. A grown eel releases as many as several million eggs and they hatch within a week. At first the leptocephali don’t look eel-like, being transparent and flattened, described as looking like a willow leaf; they are carried north by the currents, including most notably, the Gulf Stream. 

American Eel. Wikipedia photo

After about half a year they metamorphose into “glass eels,” still transparent but shaped like baby eels, and this is the stage, along with the slightly pigmented elver stage, that arrives at the mouths of Long Island’s streams. They wriggle their way up vertical faces and over wet land to make their way into freshwater ponds and lakes (although some spend their adult lives in brackish waters of Long Island’s estuaries).

While living for decades in ponds and lakes they move through a few more color stages, including yellow and silver eels. Here they become fully integrated members of the local food web, feeding on a variety of different aquatic prey while being preyed upon by many other animals including ospreys and bald eagles (stay tuned: June’s “Nature Matters” column!). 

Eels are also food for humans (remember one of Long Island’s most famous paintings  — William Sidney Mount’s 1845 “Eel Spearing at Setauket”?). Eventually some internal trigger “tells” these decades-old fish to head to the ocean and back to the Sargasso Sea to create a new generation of eels. To assist them in their long journey their bodies change a little — their eyes enlarge as do their pectoral fins.

Eel are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), beginning in 2006 with the first species management plan. The Commission sets harvest quotas for all age classes of eels including those to be used as bait and for direct consumption. The news has not been good over the past several decades with eel abundance on the decline and ASMFC currently classifies the eel stock as “depleted.” 

Ways to increase abundance? Reduce all causes of eel mortality, especially among younger animals, among adults trying to navigate the perils of turbines at hydroelectric dams and increase opportunities for eels to migrate to freshwater areas where they can survive, becoming mature adults through time.

The Seatuck Environmental Association has been at the forefront of documenting the migratory occurrences of Long Island’s alewives and eels through its signature river herring and eel surveys and has, for decades, been working to protect existing runs while facilitating others. If you want to participate in trying to find new sites of alewife runs or eel migration or document more completely whats’s happening at existing sites, go to Seatuck’s webpage.

In pre-colonial times, before the advent of dams and other obstructions, many, if not all, of Long Island’s streams and rivers likely teemed in Spring with alewives and eels. They, in turn, provided nourishment to many species of wildlife from otters to ospreys to eagles. However, the Long Island of today is a very different place, with so many ecological threads severed or frayed. The reduced abundance of these fish illustrate the pervasive loss of ecological connectivity that has occurred on Long Island in the past few centuries. The good news? Many individuals, organizations, and governmental agencies are working to enhance connectivity here – to reconnect severed ecological threads – through the installation of additional ladders and passageways, and better yet, the removal of more dams, all steps to give these remarkable animals a chance to recover and perhaps even prosper.

I hope you make their acquaintance.

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, alewives at Woodhull Dam in Riverhead. Photo by Byron Young

By John L. Turner

This is part one of a two-part series on a remarkable pair of fish. 

Each Spring, driven by impulses and guided by signals not fully understood, they migrate to Long Island to create the next generation. But unlike red-winged blackbirds, with their bright red shoulder patches and reedlike konk-a-ree calls, or Spring Peepers with their distinctive “sleigh bell” calls ringing from recharge basins and wetlands around Long Island, these migrating animals arrive quietly, their arrival and presence unknown to almost all Long Islanders. And while we may not be aware of their arrival, many other animals like bald eagles, ospreys, otters and great blue herons certainly do.

What animals might they be? Fish — or more precisely alewives (Alosa pseudoharengus) [meaning false herring], a species of river herring, and American Eel (Anguilla rostrata), one of nineteen species of snakelike fish with a worldwide distribution. Alewives return as adults to Long Island waterways, ranging from 9-12 inches long, while eels arrive as “babies,” just several months removed from their birth in the open ocean. Alewives are a shimmering silver in color with a distinctive dark spot behind the gill cover and are almost indistinguishable from their cousin, the blueback herring. When small, eel are translucent, gaining pigment as they mature.

 

Photo by John Turner

These species are diadromous fish, “dia” meaning “through or across” and “dromous” meaning ”running,” a reference to the migratory habit of these fish moving between the two worlds they inhabit as part of their life cycle — freshwater and saltwater. Alewives and other river herring develop and mature in the salty waters of the North Atlantic, moving into freshwater systems to spawn, while eel typically develop in freshwater and spawn in salt water, in the famous stretch of the mid-Atlantic Ocean known as the Sargasso Sea. 

To be more specific, biologists segregate diadromous fish into two other categories: anadromous fish like alewives, other river herring such as American Shad, striped bass, and salmon which mature in salt water but move upstream (“ana” meaning upward) to spawn in freshwater, and catadromous fish (“cat” meaning downward) such as American Eel which develops in freshwater but moves downstream to spawn in salt water.

Schools of alewives, three to four years old, seek out the freshwater stream of their birth, apparently finding their natal stream by its unique and distinctive chemical scent, although fishery biologists are not sure of the precise mechanism they use that allows them to find their way. Once these river herring find suitable habitat they spawn, depositing from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of eggs, and the adults soon leave to head back to the ocean. The eggs left behind hatch and the young develop over many weeks before, in mid-summer, heading out to open water too.

Cued by warming waters silvery, shimmering schools of alewives (and smaller numbers of their cousin, blueback herring) arrive in Spring — typically from late March to early May — congregating en masse at the mouths of many streams around Long Island. They then move inland and the “run” has begun! (For a wonderful account of alewife runs and their importance to colonial America, I encourage you to find a copy of The Run by John Hay, published in 1959). 

A fish ladder on the North Shore. Photo by John Turner

Several hundred years ago the days of “alewife runs” were a time of great excitement for local residents as the fish provided them with an abundance of food at a critical time of year, but also as food for swine, and fertilizer for crops, most notably for “fish corn,” the practice of burying a piece of a fish (often the head) under the planted corn kernel. The rotting fish provided nutrients and minerals to the corn stalk as it grew, a practice originating with Native Americans.

Alewife runs were so important that some of the earliest wildlife laws in the United States were enacted to protect them. A very early law, passed in 1709 in Massachusetts stated: “That no wears [weirs], hedges, fishgarths, kiddles, or other disturbance or encumbrance shall be set, erected or made, on or across any river, to the stopping, obstructing, or straightening of the natural or usual course and the passage of the fish in their seasons, or spring of the year, without the approbiation and allowance first had and obtained from the general sessions of the peace in the same county”. Another law, adopted several decades later in 1741, related directly to the fish: “to prevent the destruction of the fish called alewives, and other fish.”

Their original abundance, especially when contrasted with current levels, was marveled at. John Waldman, a fisheries biologist whose book Running Silver, a wonderful treatise on migratory fish, has noted this abundance by numerous historical references. One account, from 1634, notes: “Alewives came up to the fresh rivers to spawn in such multitudes it is almost incredible, pressing up such shallow waters as will scarce permit them to swim.” Another quote nearly one hundred years later in 1728, noting alewife abundance in Virginia, says: “In a word, it is unbelievable, indeed, undescribable, as also incomprehensible, what quantity is found there. One must behold oneself.” The abundance of alewives today is a tiny and pale shadow of what once existed.

Unfortunately, many obstacles confront alewives and eels today on Long Island as they attempt to move upstream to spawn — not the aforementioned weirs, fishgarths, and kiddles of old, but dams, dams, and more dams (also other structures like poorly designed road and railroad culverts). 

Constructed to channel water for the operation of sawmills, grist mills, and woolen mills, and to create impoundments for growing cranberries and harvesting ice, these dams and culverts have almost entirely foreclosed the ability of these fish to pass unimpeded in streams here. The stream at North Sea, Alewife Brook, draining Big Fresh Pond and emptying into North Sea Harbor is one of the very few remaining free-flowing, unimpeded streams remaining on Long Island (and one of the best places to visit to see alewife runs).

The response to solve the dam problem has been the construction of fish ladders or ramps on and around the obstacles. Fish ladders and rock ramps, angled so the fish can make it from the lower stream section to the higher water levels in the upstream impoundment, has proven to be an alternative and somewhat effective strategy for river herring to gain access to spawning areas. To assist eels, pegged boards or tangled rope netting have been deployed which the young eels can wriggle up. 

Fish ladder (on right) and eel passage (on left) on the Peconic River. Photo by John Turner

Ladders and ramps have been placed on the main stems of the Peconic and Carmans Rivers, as well as the Swan River in East Patchogue, Massapequa Creek in Massapequa, and another at Betty Allen Park in Huntington. Two important ladders (due to the amount of freshwater the ladders will access) are being constructed — one on the Woodhull Dam in Riverhead providing access to an entire tributary of the Peconic River and another at the base of Mill Pond in Rockville Centre. A ladder is in the planning stage for Bellmore Creek which is expected to be installed in 2023.

A more effective but more controversial solution is dam removal. In many places in the United States dams have been removed but on Long Island this has not been the case as pond-side homeowners fear the loss of their physical and visual access to the water. 

One possible area of success is at West Brook within Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Oakdale where the Seatuck Environmental Association has been advocating for the State Parks to not reconstruct the concrete dam that failed on the stream. The dam failure has opened up more than a mile long stretch of West Brook that heretofore was not accessible for migratory fish.

*Part two of this series will appear in the issue of May 12.

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.

Photo by John Turner

By John L. Turner

This is the second in a two-part series on Long Island’s water supply.

‘We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us’ — Pogo

Imagine, for a moment, you’re driving on a road that skirts one of New York City’s water supply reservoirs such as the Croton or Ashokan reservoir. You come around a bend and in a large gap in the forest, offering a clear and sweeping view of the reservoir, you see thousands of houseboats dotting the reservoir’s surface. An unease falls over you — after all this is a drinking water reservoir that supplies drinking water to millions of people — and letting people live on their water supply doesn’t seem like a very good idea to ensure the purity or even the drinkability of the water.

Pixabay photo

Shift your focus to Long Island and you can see these “houseboats.” They’re in the form of hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses sitting on the surface. The drinking water reservoir however is invisible beneath our feet, leading to a “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality, which, in turn, has led to decades of mistreatment by the approximately 2.7 million Long Islanders who live, work, and play above a water supply they cannot see. Perhaps it is this visual disconnection which explains the checkered stewardship.

At the risk of understatement, Long Island’s drinking water system, and the coastal waters hydrologically connected to it, are facing significant, big-time challenges. By just about any measure (a few exceptions include detergents and several types of pesticides) there are more contaminants in greater concentrations in Long Island’s groundwater than any time in its history. 

In a way this is not surprising as Long Island has built out with a land surface containing ever increasing numbers of actual and potential sources of contamination, and hundreds of poorly vetted chemicals coming on the market every year. Layer on this the quantity dimension: that in certain areas there’s simply not enough water to meet current or projected human demand and the needs of ecosystems (like wetlands) and it’s not surprising that Long Island’s drinking water system is under stress like never before.

To be clear, government agencies have not sat passively by in an effort to protect and manage the aquifer system. There are many examples over the past several decades where various government agencies, statutorily responsible for safeguarding our water resources, have delineated a problem and moved to address it. Let’s run through a few.

You’ve heard the expression: “oil and water don’t mix.” The same is true for gasoline, as evidenced by the many leak and spill incidents in the past caused by hundreds of gasoline stations scattered throughout Nassau and Suffolk Counties. As more and more contamination was discovered from gasoline plumes in the Upper Glacial aquifer half a century ago, gasoline storage tanks buried at every filling station were becoming known as “ticking time bombs”. This is because tanks installed many decades ago were single-wall, and made of corrodible cast iron — two undesirable traits for tanks containing thousands of gallons of gasoline buried in the ground. 

The solution? Both counties mandated tank replacement; Suffolk County through the enactment of Article 12 of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code. New requirements included double-walled fiberglass or specialized steel tanks with a leak detection system in between the two walls to detect a leak in the inner wall. Older readers may remember, years ago, the presence of excavators and backhoes in gas stations throughout the island as the industry moved to comply with this important new water quality safety measure. Because of these two county laws gasoline leaks — and subsequent plumes — from station tanks are almost entirely a thing of the past.

Another pollutant that is largely a thing of the past is salt. Before the adoption of legislation mandating the enclosed covering of salt piles managed by transportation and public works departments, stockpiled for winter road deicing applications, salt piles would sit outside exposed to the elements. Not surprisingly, plumes of salty water, well above drinking water standards, often formed under these piles. In some cases plumes beneath salt piles located near public water supply wells ended up contaminating these wells. Today, by law, all highway department salt stockpiles have to be covered or indoors to prevent saltwater plumes.

Nitrogen pollution has been a more intractable problem. Emanating from centralized sewage treatment plants, agricultural and lawn fertilizers, and many thousands of septic tanks and cesspools (there’s an estimated 360,000 of them in Suffolk County alone), nitrogen is ubiquitous. This excess nitrogen has fueled adverse ecological changes in our estuaries including loss of salt marshes and various types of toxic algae blooms, which in turn, have killed off scallops, clams, diamondback terrapins, and blue-claw crabs. Too much nitrogen in drinking water can have adverse health consequences for humans, especially babies, a concern since an increasing number of public wells have nitrogen levels exceeding the state health limit of 10 parts per million.

So how to get ahead of the nitrogen curve? Generally there are three ways, each relating to each of the major sources of contamination — 1) nitrogen laden water from home septic tanks/cesspools, 2) nitrogen laden water from sewage treatment plants, and 3) nitrogen pollution stemming from fertilizer use, most notably in farming but also by homeowners for lawn care.

Through the Septic Improvement Program, under its “Reclaim Our Water” Initiative, Suffolk County has thrown its eggs in the “septic tank/cesspool” basket by attacking the nitrogen generated by homeowners. How? By working with companies that have made vast improvements in the technology used to treat household sewage; basically these companies have developed mini-sewage treatment plants in place of septic tanks/cesspools, resulting in much lower nitrogen levels in the water recharged into the ground (from 70 to 80 parts per million ppm nitrogen to 10-20 ppm. 

The County now provides financial subsidies to homeowners to replace aging systems with new Innovative/Advanced systems (known as I/A systems). The downside with this approach is that because of the huge number of homes that need to convert their cesspools/septic tanks to I/A systems (remember the 360,000 figure from above?) it will take many decades to bend the nitrogen-loading curve meaningfully downward, to the point we’ll begin to see a difference.

An additional complimentary approach to reduce nitrogen loadings, but likely able to do so more quickly, is through the tried and true strategy of “water reuse.” Here, highly treated wastewater from sewage treatment plants (STP’s) which contains low concentrations of nitrogen, is used in ways which “pulls out” the nitrogen. Water reuse is common practice in many places in the United States including Florida and California where the trademark purple-colored distribution piping is commonplace. Approximately 2.6 billion gallons of water is reused daily in the country, mostly for golf course irrigation but also for irrigating certain foods such as citrus trees.

The largest water reuse example on Long Island involves the Riverhead STP-Indian Island County Golf Course. With this project, from April to October, highly treated wastewater is directed to the adjacent Indian Island County Golf Course rather than being discharged into the Peconic River. According to engineering projections, the effort annually results in about 1.4 less tons of nitrogen entering the estuary, being taken up by the grass, and keeps about 63 million gallons of water in the ground since golf course wells no longer need to pump irrigation water from the aquifers.

With funding support the Seatuck Environmental Association has hired Cameron Engineering & Associates to develop an islandwide “Water Reuse Road Map” to guide future reuse projects. A potential local project, similar to the Riverhead example, tentatively identified in the roadmap involves redirecting wastewater from the SUNY Stony Brook STP which currently discharges into Port Jefferson Harbor and use it to irrigate the St. Georges Golf Course and Country Club, situated several hundreds away from the STP on the east side of Nicolls Road in East Setauket.

The third source of nitrogen contamination — fertilizers — has also received focus although progress here has been slower. A Suffolk County law, among other things, prohibits fertilizer applications from November 1st through April 1st when the ground is mostly frozen and little plant growth occurs. It also prohibits, with certain exemptions such as golf courses, fertilizer applications on county-owned properties. Several bills, both at the county and state level, have been introduced to limit the fraction of nitrogen in fertilizer formulations and to require “slow release” nitrogen so it can be taken up by plants and not leach into groundwater.

A basic concept that has emerged from a better understanding of how Long Island’s groundwater system works and the threats to it, is the value of the aforementioned “deep-flow recharge areas” serving as groundwater watersheds, these watersheds recharging voluminous amounts of water to the deepest portions of the underlying aquifers. And we’ve also learned “clean land means clean water.” 

Where the land surface is dominated by pine and oak trees, chipmunks, native grasses, blueberries, etc., the groundwater beneath is pure, as there no sources of potential contamination on the surface. It has become clear that Long Island’s forested watersheds play an important role in protecting Long Island’s groundwater system.

In recognition of the direct relationship between the extent to which a land surface is developed and the quality of drinking water below it, a state law was passed establishing on Long Island SGPA’s — “Special Groundwater Protection Areas” — lightly developed to undeveloped landscapes within the deep-flow recharge zones that recharge clean water downward, replenishing the three aquifers; the 100,000 acre Pine Barrens forest being the largest and most significant SGPA. 

There are seven other SGPA’s including the Oak Brush Plains SGPA just east of Commack Road and south of the Pilgrim State Hospital property; the South Setauket SGPA in northwestern Brookhaven Town, bisected by Belle Meade Road; one on the North Fork; two on the South Fork; and two in northern Nassau County. These areas collectively recharge tens of millions of gallons of high to pristine quality water to the groundwater system on a daily basis. The state law mandated the development of a comprehensive plan designed to safeguard the land surface and the water beneath it in all the SGPA’s. Landscape protection took a step further in the Pine Barrens, where state law has safeguarded nearly 100 square miles of land from development.

Protecting a community’s water supply has been a challenge throughout recorded history. Many past dynasties and civilizations (e.g. China, Bolivia, Cambodia, Egypt, Syria, southwest United States) have collapsed or been compromised by failing to ensure adequate supplies of clean water. In modern times maintaining the integrity of a water supply has become one of the fundamental responsibilities of government. It is clear that various levels of government, from Washington, DC, to Albany, to local governments, have advanced a host of laws, regulations, strategies, and programs all designed to safeguard our water supply. 

The jury is still out, though, as to whether this collective governmental response will be adequate enough. While Pogo has been correct so far — we, the 2.7 million Long Islanders in the two counties have been the enemy — perhaps with the implementation of additional proactive responses we might prove the little opossum wrong.

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.

Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

This is the first in a two-part series on Long Island’s water supply.

When thinking about Long Island’s groundwater supply — its drinking water aquifers — it is helpful to visualize a food you might eat while drinking water — say, a three-tiered, open-faced turkey sandwich — a slice of cheese on top, a juicy, thick tomato disk in the middle, a slice of turkey on the bottom, all resting on a piece of hard, crusty bread. 

Well, substitute the Upper Glacial Aquifer for the cheese, the thicker Magothy Aquifer for the tomato, the Lloyd Aquifer for the turkey, and a “basement of bedrock” for the bread and you’ve got Long Island’s tiered groundwater system. It is this collection of groundwater aquifers — these sections of the sandwich — that are the sole source of water for all the uses Long Islanders use water for. Hydrologists estimate there’s about 90 trillion gallons of water contained in Long Island’s groundwater supply.

Our sandwich model described above is not fully accurate in that there is another layer called the Raritan Clay formation separating the Magothy and Lloyd Aquifers. This clay layer, about 200 feet thick, retards water movement (for a number of reasons water moves painfully slow through clay) and is referred to as an aquitard. So, in our sandwich model let’s make the thin but impactive clay formation a layer of mustard or mayonnaise. With the exception of this clay-confining layer, Long Island is essentially a million-acre sandpile whose geology is generally distinguished by subtle changes in the composition, texture, and porosity of its geological materials — varying mixtures of silt, clay, sand, gravel and cobbles which affects rates of water transmissivity or movement.

The basement of bedrock (the bread in our sandwich) that underlies all of Long Island is metamorphic rock estimated to be about 400 million years old. It slants from the northwest to the southeast dipping at about 50 feet to the mile. So, while the thickness of the freshwater aquifers in northwest Queens is only a few hundred feet, it is approximately 2,000 feet thick in western Southampton.

On the North and South Forks and the south shore barrier islands, freshwater doesn’t extend all the way to bedrock as it does in Nassau County and much of western and central Suffolk County. It is shallowest on the barrier islands, the freshwater lens extending down only several dozen feet. 

On the North Fork it goes a little deeper before the water becomes salty and it is deepest on the wide South Fork where the freshwater lens extends downward about 550-600 feet. The depth of the aquifer is influenced by how many feet above sea level the water table is. There’s a hydrological formula, called the Ghyben-Herzberg principle, that states for every foot of water above sea level there’s 40 feet of freshwater beneath.

The water in the groundwater aquifers isn’t stored in large subterranean pools or caverns, as it is in some other places in the country with markedly different geology, Rather, the water is situated between the tiny, interstitial spaces existing between the countless sand particles that collectively make up Long Island. Given this, it is not surprising that groundwater flows (under the influence of gravity) slowly downward and sideways (depending where in the aquifer the water is located) moving on the order of just a few feet a day at most but typically in the ballpark of about one foot per day. 

It takes dozens to hundreds to thousands of years for water to move through the system, all depending where it first landed on the island’s surface. Water pumped from the seaward edge of the lowest aquifer — the Lloyd Aquifer — may have fallen as rain many years before the beginning of the ancient Greek Empire.

In the late 1970’s several governmental studies helped us to better understand some of the basics as to how the groundwater system works. One of the important takeaways from this research was that it is the middle half to two-thirds of the island that is most important for recharge — this segment is known as the “deep-flow recharge area” because a raindrop that lands here will move vertically downward recharging the vast groundwater supply. 

The middle of this area is knows as the “groundwater divide”; a water drop that lands to the south of the divide will move downward and then laterally in a southern direction discharging into one of the south shore bays or the salty groundwater underneath the Atlantic Ocean while a drop to the north will move eventually into Long Island Sound or the sandy sediments beneath it.

Hydrologists have determined that for every square mile of land (640 acres) an average of about two million gallons of rain water lands on the surface with about one million gallons recharging the groundwater supply on a daily basis. What happens to the other one million gallons? It evaporates, runs off into streams and other wetlands, or is taken up by trees and other plants that need it to sustain life processes such as transpiration (a large oak tree needs about 110 gallons of water daily to survive). 

In contrast, raindrops that land in locations nearer to the coasts such as in Setauket, northern Smithtown, southern Brookhaven, Babylon, or other places along the north and south shores don’t become part of the vast groundwater reservoir; instead, after percolating into the ground the water moves horizontally, discharging either into a stream that flows to salty water or into the salty groundwater that surrounds Long Island. These landscape segments are referred to as “shallow-flow recharge areas.”

The higher elevations along the Ronkonkoma Moraine (the central spine of Long Island created by glacial action about 40,000 years ago) are also the highest points in the water table although the water table elevation contours are a dampened expression of the land surface. So, in the West Hills region of Huntington where Jayne’s Hill is located, the highest point on Long Island topping out at a little more than 400 feet, the elevation of the water table is about 80 feet above sea level. 

Below the water table is the saturated zone and above it the unsaturated zone where air, instead of water, exists in the tiny spaces between the sand particles (in the Jayne’s Hill case the unsaturated zone runs about 320 feet). It is the water (more precisely its weight) in the higher regions of the saturated zones that pushes on the water beneath it, driving water in the lower portions to move at first sideways or laterally and then to upwell into the salty groundwater under the ocean. Due to the weight of the water the freshwater-saltwater interface is actually offshore on both coasts, meaning you could drill from a platform a mile off Jones Beach and tap into freshwater if you were to drill several hundred feet down.

A wetland forms where the land surface and water table intersect. It may be Lake Ronkonkoma, the Nissequogue or Peconic River, or any of the more than one hundred streams that drain the aquifer discharging into bays and harbors around Long Island. So when you’re gazing at the surface of Lake Ronkonkoma you’re looking at the water table — the top of the Long Island groundwater system. Since the water table elevations can change due to varying amounts of rain and snow and pumping by water suppliers these wetlands can be affected; in wet years they may enlarge and discharge more water while in droughts wetlands can largely dry up which happened on Long Island in the 1960’s.

It is clear, given the isolated nature of our water supply — our freshwater bubble surrounded by hostile salt water — that we are captains of our own fate. Our groundwater supply is the only source of water to meet all of our collective needs and wants. There are no magical underground freshwater connections to Connecticut, mainland New York, or New Jersey. We are not tied into, nor is it likely we will ever be able to tap into, New York City’s water supply, provided by the Delaware River and several upstate reservoirs. As the federal Environmental Protection Agency has declared — Long Island is a “sole source aquifer.” To paraphrase the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moyhihan: “Long Islanders all drink from the same well.” Indeed we do.

The next article will detail the quality and quantity problems facing our groundwater supply.

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.

Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it; the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.” — Andrew Wyeth

Not sure if planetary scientists can explain why, when the earth was forming, it became tilted about 23.5 degrees off a perfect perpendicular axis to its orbital plane around the Sun. However, they can offer an unequivocal statement of fact that this planetary quirk is the reason for the portfolio of seasons we enjoy. And now, as has been often true for more than four and one-half billion years, when the planetary axis that runs through the North Pole points away from the Sun, the Northern Hemisphere receives weaker, more obtuse rays of sunshine, resulting in the colder temperatures of winter. 

Today, as they have for millenia, countless number of plants and animals have responded in their own species-specific ways to survive this most challenging of seasons.

A discussion about the pervasive effects of winter on nature cannot happen without talking about another word that begins with the letter “w” and ends in an “r” — water. Water, or more particularly the fact that it becomes ice at 32 degrees, has had profound impacts in shaping the response of organisms to winter. As water becomes ice, it’s no longer available to plants, making winter, in effect, a five to six month long drought. The response of deciduous trees to no available water? To shed their leaves that are water loss structures and become dormant. How do evergreen or coniferous trees, which obviously keep their leaves, tolerate the winter’s loss of available water? Their small leaves with waxy coatings are highly effective at retarding water loss. They simply use little water in the winter.

How else does ice affect species? Ducks, geese and swans that depend upon open freshwater ponds and lakes to feed need to move in the event their ponds freeze over. Same with kingfishers and other fish-eating birds. This “freezing over” occurs because ice, by rare virtue of being less dense than liquid water, floats on the surface of the surface of the pond or lake, rather than freezing at the bottom which would happen if ice were denser than water, which is the norm with so many other liquids. This unusual, almost unique, attribute — of solid water (ice) being lighter than liquid water — has played a hard to overstate role in allowing for life on earth to evolve and flourish, for if ice were denser the entire waterbody would freeze solid to the detriment of everything living in it.

Unlike immobile species such as trees, mobile species (i.e. animals that fly!) adapt to winter by simply leaving it behind, winging to warmer climates where they can continue to feed (some species living a perpetual summer existence!). Such is the case with dozens of bird, bat, and insect species that migrate vast distances to find climates and associated food supplies to their liking. 

For example, ospreys depart from northern latitudes because the fish they depend upon are unavailable, either because they can’t access them due to ice or because salt-water fish move into deeper water where they cannot be caught, forcing ospreys to move to habitats within climates where food is available. Insect-eating songbirds move off too but in their case because of the disappearance of available insects.

Mobile species that don’t migrate employ a variety of other strategies to survive the winter. A perhaps most well-known — but relatively rare — strategy is hibernation. Hibernating mammals species adapt to winter by so reducing their energy and water needs they can tide over from autumn to spring. 

The woodchuck (aka groundhog) is the best known hibernator. Curled in an underground den, a hibernating woodchuck’s heart beat drops from about 100 beats per minute to four to five and its body temperature more than half, from about 99 degrees to 38-40 degrees. Bats that don’t leave for warmer climates also hibernate. All hibernating species depend upon stores of fat, built up from continued feeding in the autumn, as the energy source to make it through winter.

Just below hibernation is torpor, a physiological state in which the animal’s metabolism, heart and breathing rates are reduced but which still allows it to be alert enough to react to danger. Chipmunks (and bears) are well known examples and speaking of chipmunks — they illustrate another common practice of many animals to make it through the winter — storing up food in winter larder. Beavers do the same by bringing leaf-laden branches underwater, a wet refrigerator of sorts, where food is safely ensconced.

Regulated hypothermia is yet another adaptation to surviving winter. In this case, the animal reduces its temperature while sleeping, enabling it to reduce the amount of heat lost to the air overnight. Black-capped chickadees are a well-known example. During the winter chickadees drop their temperature each night from about 108 degrees to the mid-90’s by employing this practice. They also seek sheltered places like tree cavities (another reason to let dead trees stand if they pose no safety risk) and dense vegetation where they can stay warmer.

Cold blooded animals such as reptiles and amphibians make it through winter by experiencing their own form of hibernation — an activity known as brumation. Like with warm blooded animals, brumating reptiles and amphibians significantly reduce their heart, breathing and general metabolic rates. Some species, like diamondback terrapins, are spared the full brunt of winter by brumating in the muddy bottoms of bays, harbors, and river mouths where the temperature never drops below freezing. Not so with the wood frog, a wide ranging amphibian that in March emerges to explosively breed in woodland vernal pools around Long Island. 

Wood frogs are known to freeze solid, becoming ‘frogsicles’ during the winter and getting as close as a live animal can get to being dead. As autumn slides into winter, wood frogs undergo a several-step physiological process whereby water is pulled out of cells and is stored between them. This movement of water from inside the cell to sites between the cells occurs because water stored within the cell, if frozen, would form sharp ice crystals, likely puncturing cell membranes, thereby destroying the cell. 

The frog’s metabolism, breathing, and heartbeat stop and the frog remains in a state of animated suspension for many weeks. Come the Spring though, and this very dead looking frog slowly comes back to life, none worse for the wear. It becomes active and vibrant, soon filling small wetlands with its quacking duck calls.

For the lover of nature and the outdoors there are gifts of winter: clear night skies; falling snow and geometric snowflakes; frost patterns on windows; sledding and hot chocolate (or for some adults mulled apple cider spiked with a little spirit!); no leaves to hide bird nests or tree buds, like those of American Beech, which Henry David Thoreau called “the spears of Spring”; the dried stalks of countless wildflowers; the “pen and ink” quality of landscapes; the presence of snowy owls and snow buntings at the beach; or the arrival of many types of ducks and geese. Winter is not an absence of summer; it is a season complete and whole to itself.

Perhaps this article won’t serve to change your thinking if you’re among the crowd of people who find winter to be their least favorite season. Still, winter illustrates so clearly and compellingly the fine-tuned lives of so many plants and animals, each unique to this time of cold, lives that have developed, over eons of time, countless strategies to make it through the unrelenting cold and sparse food supplies of the winter season.

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.

Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

If you’re attracted to birds then you’re also very aware of how they can elicit reactions. Watching an Osprey dive into the bay with talons flaring and pulling away with a wriggling fish, creates head-nodding awe. A Scarlet Tanager or Baltimore Oriole flitting among oak flowers in the dappled sunlight of a Spring forest produces a breathtaking wow. There’s one bird, however, that elicits a different response —whenever I see one it automatically puts a smile on my face, often followed by a verbal “hello little fella” response. The species? The Black-capped Chickadee. 

Black-capped Chickadees are the definition of cute. They’re active, vocal, and small, have an extensive and distinctive black throat bib, and a head fitted with a black cap (the species part of the scientific name Poecile atricapilla means “the black hair of the head” and Poecile is Greek for pied — a reference to the two tone look of the bird — grey on top, white on the bottom). Given the distinctiveness of their plumage they are not likely to be confused with any other bird here on Long Island. 

A black-capped chickadee at Elizabeth Morton National Refuge. Photo by John Turner

Chickadees are animated birds, often flitting around in both trees and shrubs, probing the recesses of bark, amidst leaves, and along branches for prey, often vocalizing their well-known onomatopoeic “chick-a-dee” call (or their ‘hey sweetie’ whistle) as they move about. They are quite adept at finding prey and due to special muscles and tendons in their legs are able to hang upside down to probe for food on the underside of leaves and branches. 

In wintertime chickadees form mixed species flocks with other songbirds including Tufted Titmice, Downy Woodpecker, both White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Brown Creeper. These flocks move systematically through a woodland seeking food. By flocking this time of year with other species chickadees can feed more efficiently since there are more eyes to discern predators (Eastern Screech-Owls and Sharp-shinned Hawks eat chickadees) and to find food. 

Wait you say, maybe more eyes helps spot predators but don’t the other birds in the flock mean direct competition for food at a time of year when food supplies are at a yearly low? Wouldn’t this competition for food outweigh the benefit of being able to more easily see predators? Actually no. Ecologists who have studied this find these birds feed in different parts of the tree — nuthatches and creepers on the main trunk, the chickadees and titmice on larger branches, and kinglets on the smaller side branches. By doing this — a concept ecologists call “niche partitioning” — they are able to divvy up a common resource in a way that reduces or eliminates competition between them. Ecological elegance.

Chickadees, being small animals that live in harsh climates where the temperature in the winter routinely drops well below freezing (in fact in northern Canada and Alaska they may experience night-time temperatures as low as -50 degrees!!), have, not surprisingly, evolved a number of behavioral and physiological adaptations to increase their likelihood of surviving the cold. 

At night they seek out cavities or dense vegetation where winds are blocked or reduced, resulting in slower heat loss (bent tail feathers are a telltale sign of this cavity nesting habit — look for crooked tail feathers with the chickadees visiting your feeders). Studies have documented a 50% reduction in heat loss in cavity roosting birds as compared to those which roost in more open situations. On rare occasion, chickadees huddle together in cavities, further reducing heat loss. They also tuck their bill and front part of their head (and the unfeathered eye) into their shoulder feathers to reduce heat loss from these unfeathered areas.

Perhaps the most remarkable adaptation — called regulated hypothermia — allows for chickadees to reduce their body temperature and metabolism, an effective strategy for reducing their heat loss at night; by lowering their body temperature from 108 degrees (they are hot-blooded!) to the mid-to-low 90’s overnight, chickadees can reduce the amount of energy they burn during the night by 20-25% — perhaps the difference between life and death. To help stay warm chickadees intentionally shiver through the night, burning the fat they were able build during the day from feeding. So, while they’re very cute, chickadees are also tough creatures!

About a decade ago I watched a pair of chickadees excavate a nesting cavity in a dead grey birch. Chickadees have small bills and are not able to excavate cavities in live wood, depending instead on soft, rotting wood like the birch they were working on. The tree was located about ten feet from the edge of a paved bike trail in the Massapequa Preserve but the birds didn’t seem to mind the traffic.

I watched the industrious pair work to excavate the cavity, dutifully carrying the wood chips away in their bills, flying some distance from the nest site before spreading the chips (presumably to make it impossible for any nest predator to cue in to the nesting location from the chips). I monitored the progress of the nest and the success of the fledglings over the next couple of weeks; I’m not sure of the total but on several occasions I saw three young birds together.

There are six other chickadee species found in North America. The Carolina Chickadee is the chickadee of the southeastern United States, breeding as far north as southern New Jersey where it is displaced by the Black-capped (there are numerous reports of the two species interbreeding, resulting in hybrids). In the west there’s the Mountain Chickadee and along the Pacific Coast the beautiful Chestnut-backed Chickadee. The Mexican Chickadee barely enters the United States in southeastern Arizona. 

In the far north we have the Gray-headed Chickadee and the Boreal Chickadee; the Boreal Chickadee has a large range across Canada dipping down into the United States. It breeds in the Adirondacks so New York has two resident chickadee species. Titmice, of which Long Island has the Tufted Titmouse, are close cousins to the chickadees. In Europe and Asia there are many more chickadee and titmice species. The Black-capped Chickadee is the state bird of Massachusetts and Maine. 

If you wish to experience Black-capped Chickadees up close and personal, plan a winter trip to the Elizabeth Morton National Wildlife Refuge in Noyac. Here, a population of tame chickadees, along with Tufted Titmice and White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, will land in your hand if it’s filled with unsalted sunflower seeds (they don’t eat millet and some of the other ingredients in commercial bird feed). 

If you get there early you may have several birds lined up waiting to land in your seed-filled hand waiting not so patiently to grab a seed. I’ve had two species of birds land on my hand at one time, assessing which seed to take, one of which is almost always a chickadee. Some birds flit to a spot nearby to hammer open the seed while others fly farther away to cache it for a future meal. Chickadees, you see, have very good spatial memories and can remember where they’ve hidden hundreds of food items. (If you end up with a lot of unused seed please take it home for another trip rather than dumping it along the trail where it could attract unwanted animals).

Being able to watch these wild, free-flying, but trusting birds a mere arm’s length away is an absolute joy — children love it and it is a great way for them to connect with wildlife and nature. I hope you feel the tickling of tiny chickadee feet on your outstretched hand sometime this winter, thereby making the acquaintance of these avian ambassadors. Bet they put a smile on your face too.

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.