Authors Posts by John Turner

John Turner

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By John L. Turner

Situated a mile east of Orient Point, the eastern tip of the North Fork and separated from it by Plum Gut, lies Plum Island, an 822-acre pork-chop shaped island that is owned by you and me (being the federal taxpayers that we are). 

The island’s most well-known feature is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC), situated in the northwestern corner of the property, but Plum Island is so much more. On the western edge lays the Plum Island lighthouse which was built in 1869 to warn mariners of the treacherous currents of Plum Gut. On the east there’s the brooding presence of Fort Terry, a relict of the Spanish-American War, with scattered evidence in the form of barracks, gun batteries, and the tiny tracks of a toy gauge railroad once used to move cannon shells from storage to those concrete batteries. (The cannons never fired except during drills).

And there’s the stuff that excites naturalists:

■ The largest seal haul-out site in southern New England located at the eastern tip of the island where throngs of harbor and grey seals swim along the rocky coastline or bask, like fat sausages, on the off-shore rocks that punctuate the surface of the water.

■ The more than 225 different bird species, one-quarter of all the species found in North America, that breed here (like the bank swallows that excavate burrows in the bluff face on the south side of the island), or pass through on their seasonal migratory journeys, or overwinter.

■ Dozens of rare plants, like ladies’-tresses orchids, blackjack oak, and scotch lovage that flourish in the forests, thickets, meadows, and shorelines of Plum Island.

■ A large freshwater pond in the southwestern section of the island that adds visual delight and biological diversity to the island. 

■ And, of course, the ubiquitous beach plums that gave the island its name!

For the past decade a struggle has ensued to make right what many individuals, organizations of all sorts (including the more than 120-member Preserve Plum Island Coalition), and many public officials consider a significant wrong — Congress’s order to sell Plum Island to the highest bidder, forever losing it as a public space. 

This ill-conceived path of auctioning the island was set in motion by a half-page paragraph buried in a several thousand- page bill to fund government agencies in 2009. Fortunately, this struggle has been won — the wrong has been righted — as language included in the recently adopted 2021 budget bill for the federal government, repeals the requirement that the General Services Administration sell the island. 

Thank you to Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Senators Christopher Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and members of Congress Lee Zeldin,Tom Suozzi, Rosa DeLauro and Joe Courtney!

Thanks is also due to New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright who sponsored legislation that was signed into law creating a Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle area in the waters surrounding Plum Island.

While this victory is a vital and necessary step to ultimately protect Plum Island, it is a temporary and incomplete one since the island can still be sold to a private party through the normal federal land disposition process if no government agency at the federal, state, or local level steps up to take title to the island. 

The Coalition’s next task, then, is to ensure that a federal agency such as the National Park Service (National Monument?), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (National Wildlife Refuge?) or the state of New York (New York State Park Preserve?) expresses a willingness to accept stewardship of this magnificent island, since they get first dibs to the island if they want it. A key enticement toward this end is the $18.9 million commitment in the budget to clean up the few contaminated spots on the island.

Why the sale in the first place? Since 1956 PIADC has been conducting top level research on highly communicable animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease. To this end, several years ago staff developed a vaccine for this highly contagious disease that holds great promise in controlling the disease globally.

Despite this successful research, Congress determined the facility was obsolete and should be replaced, approving the construction of a new state-of-the-art facility, known as the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), to be located on the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. NBAF is complete and will soon be fully operational so as a result PIADC is no longer needed; PIADC is expected to transfer all operations to Kansas and close for good in 2023.

Plum Island is a rare place — a remarkable asset that holds the promise of enriching Long Islanders’ lives —your family’s lives, if we can keep it in public ownership. The Preserve Plum Island Coalition, with the input from hundreds of Long Islanders, has painted a vision for the island … so, imagine throwing binoculars, a camera, and a packed lunch enough for you and your family into your backpack and participating in this realized vision by:

— Taking a ferry across to the island, debarking to orient your island adventure by visiting a museum interpreting the cultural and natural riches and fascinating history of the island before you wander, for countless hours, to experience the wild wonders of the island. A most worthwhile stop is the island’s eastern tip where, through a wildlife blind, you enjoy watching dozens of bobbing grey and harbor seals dotting the water amidst the many partially submerged boulders.

— Standing on the edge of the large, tree-edged pond, watching basking turtles and birds and dragonflies flitting over the surface.

-Birdwatching on the wooded trails and bluff tops to view songbirds, shorebirds, ospreys and other birds-of-prey, swallows, sea ducks and so many other species. Perhaps you’ll see a peregrine falcon zipping by during fall migration, sending flocks of shorebirds scurrying away as fast as their streamlined wings can take them.

— Strolling along the island’s eight miles of undisturbed coastline, with the beauty of eastern Long Island before you, offering distant views of Great Gull, Little Gull and Gardiner’s Islands, Montauk Point, and the Connecticut and Rhode Island coastlines.

— Lodging at the Plum Island lighthouse, converted into a Bed & Breakfast and enjoying a glass of wine as the sun sets over Plum Gut and Orient Point.

— Learning about the role Fort Terry played in protecting the United States and the port of New York as your explore the many parts of the fort — the barracks where soldiers stayed, the gun batteries that once housed the cannons angled skyward to repel a foreign attack.

— At the end of day, if you don’t stay over, taking the ferry back to the mainland of the North Fork, tired after many miles of hiking in the salt air of the East End stopping at a North Fork restaurant to share a chat among friends and family about what you’ve learned relating to this fascinating place.

This legislation has given Plum Island (based on the above perhaps we should call it Treasure Island!) a second chance and an opportunity for us to achieve this vision. But this law is only the first step. We need to take the vital second step of new ownership and management in the public interest if all of the above adventures are to become realities. We collectively need to tell those elected officials who represent us, and who can make a difference in determining the island’s fate, that we want Plum Island protected in perpetuity and the opportunity for its many wonders to become interwoven into the fabric of life on Long Island. 

Go to www.preserveplumisland.org to learn more about the Coalition, receive updates, and what you can do to help.

John Turner is the spokesperson for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition.

Grey Squirrel. Photo from Pixabay

By John L. Turner

While it was more than 50 years ago I remember the details sharply, as if the event had happened a few days ago. The oak I carefully but rapidly climbed was a young tree about 30 feet tall with a full canopy of branches, growing in a small patch of woods between the elementary school I had attended and a residential street (It was in these woods I first saw Pink Lady’s Slipper, a wonderful native orchid). And there in a nook where two branches emerged from the main trunk was the object of my scamper — the nest of a grey squirrel that I wanted to inspect.

My interest in squirrels and their nests came about from a book I had looked at in the junior high school library; I think it was entitled “Animal Homes”— although this factoid I don’t remember quite so clearly! But what I do remember in the book was the account which explained that grey squirrels make two types of nests — those in tree cavities, often used in winter, and the one I was going to inspect consisting of a globe-shaped leafy ball, known as a “drey,” wedged amidst branches, also used in winter but more often during the warmer months. The account mentioned that most dreys consisted of a single chamber although occasionally they make two chambers — the equivalent of a foyer leading into the living room.

Working my way up the tree I reached the destination and with a little bit of anxiety bordering on trepidation stuck my hand into the nest and felt around. Fortunately no one was home, which is what I expected since several bangs on the main trunk next to the drey had elicited no response. I quickly realized I had a two chamber nest.

The entrance chamber was the smaller of the two and I could feel a partial wall separating the two. The back chamber was about 50% bigger than the size of a curled squirrel (say that tens time fast!) I was surprised by how solid the nest felt and how thick the walls were (they can contain more than 20 layers of leaves; one researcher tickled apart the wall of a drey and found 26 leafy layers).

The thick wall of a squirrel nest serves two vital functions — helping to keep rain out and body warmth in and the leafy layered wall exceeds in doing both. The leaves act like shingles on a roof and their overlapping positioning helps to prevent water from infiltrating the nest. Similarly, the leaves help to retain heat and many experiments have documented their thermal benefits, by keeping internal nest temperatures high when occupied by the squirrel. In one study in Finland researchers found that once a red squirrel entered a drey it quickly warmed up, making the temperature inside the nest 60 to 80 degrees warmer than the surrounding air.

The latin or scientific name for the grey squirrel is Sciurus carolinensis; the genus name means “shadow tail,” a reference to the shadow the tail makes when its arched over the back of the squirrel, a common position when the animal is eating. The species name relates to Carolina, where the first squirrel was presumably first discovered and described to science.

Grey squirrels live up to their name, being grey in coloration, but if you get a chance to view a squirrel up close you’ll see the pelage is a bit more colorful. Occasionally while birding I’ll train my binoculars on a nearby squirrel and I am always taken by their subtle beauty, enrobed as they are in muted earth tone colors. The squirrel’s underside is white and it’s face, tail, and armpit is diffused with brown. There’s a flecking of black, white, and brown or tan peppered throughout the grey fur. Melanistic (all black) and albinistic (all white) squirrels occur with melanistic being the more common of the two rare pelages, but even these blacks squirrels make up less than one percent of the population. I remember, as a child,when visiting my aunt who lived in Rye, New York seeing a population of black squirrels that lived in the forest next to a golf course.

When it comes to managing their food supply rodents generally display two types of behaviors: scatter hoarding or centralized or “larder” hoarding, with grey squirrels practicing the former (chipmunks employ the latter). If you watch grey squirrels in the fall you’ll see them carrying acorns and other nuts burying them (or caching them) in dozens of locations. This behavior suggests they possess very good memories, which they indeed do, since 95 to 99% of the cached nuts are recovered and eaten.

I recently watched acorn caching involving a squirrel on my front lawn. The squirrel walked slowly and then stopped to paw the earth, followed by some sniffing, the way a squirrel assesses the suitability of the site in the grass in which to hide the acorn. It did this three or four times apparently unhappy with something about each of the sites until it finally met the right set of squirrelly conditions at a site near a tall holly tree. Scratching quickly with its front paws the squirrel quickly buried the acorn. Its scattered larder was now one acorn larger.

Grey squirrels are quite adept at differentiating acorns from different oak species; they “know” that acorns from white oaks germinate in the fall while those of red oaks do so in the following spring and, not surprisingly, eat the white oak acorns first while storing acorns from red oaks. Another advantage to this strategy, besides eating acorns that would be lost to germination if they tried to store them, comes from the fact that tannin levels in red oak acorns (tannin is the ingredient that makes your lips pucker when drinking red wine) lessens over time, making the acorns less bitter and more palatable.

We’re not sure if squirrel lips pucker when eating tannic acorns but I do know they develop a large stained moustache while and after eating black walnuts. Despite the impending facial smudge they’ll develop, they look like the definition of contentment as they hold the prized walnut in their paws and proceed to gnaw through the green husk to get to the walnut shell and meat that lays within.

We have another squirrel species that roams the forest of Long Island: the Southern Flying Squirrel. Strictly nocturnal, this little living fabric of “flying” carpet can be seen at bird feeding stations where it’s especially fond of suet. Of course, they don’t fly but rather glide from one tree to another, using an extended fold of skin on each side of its body connecting front and back legs. Their flattened tail helps to serve as a rudder and brake.

Many years ago I worked in a nature preserve and one day went to look at some white baneberry growing along a trail I knew was developing fruits (also known as doll’s eyes due to the resemblance of the fruits to the eyes once used in old fashioned porcelain dolls, white baneberry is in the buttercup family). As I neared the plants I noticed, at the base of a large chestnut oak on the other side of the trail, a small brownish object. Inspecting it I realized it was a freshly dead flying squirrel. I sadly wondered if the squirrel had misjudged the location of the tree or got carried by the wind and collided with the tree with such force that it caused its demise.

While I’ll never know what killed that flying squirrel so many years ago, I do know the cause of many squirrel deaths today— roadkill. Grey Squirrels routinely cross roads that are within their territory; unfortunately, they have no awareness of cars as lethal objects. In one study a state wildlife biologist counted 390 dead squirrels along a fifty mile stretch of highway in New Hampshire.

As I drive Long Island roads I’m constantly alert for squirrels bounding out from the road shoulder (and other wildlife like box turtles); so far so good — while I’ve had a number of close calls with darting squirrels I haven’t hit one.

I’m very grateful I haven’t hit a squirrel with my car and even more grateful of the experience I had, climbing an oak tree half a century ago, since it was the catalyst for developing a lifelong fondness of squirrels.

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.

Photos courtesy of Pixabay

Black-throated Blue Warbler. Photo by Luke Ormand

By John L. Turner

I have always wanted to have a vegetable garden with fruit trees and bushes to grow food for my family, but the Nassau County house we lived in for 35 years, unfortunately, just didn’t have the yard space. In that small space my effort at growing veggies and herbs was restricted to pots of tomatoes and basil on a wooded back deck and I simply had no room for bushes or trees.

But moving to Setauket, on a property with a long back yard, gave ample opportunity to construct a large garden, and construct I did. Surfing the Internet in general, and Pinterest specifically, I scrutinized dozens of different designs, layouts, and materials before finally settling on the idea of two raised, double concrete block beds, one in the shape of the letter “S”, the other its mirror image and one more rectangular bed in the front (I’ve since expanded the garden about 50% by adding on two wings).

I liked the idea of the concrete blocks because it meant not having to spend so much time with 65-year-old knees on the ground, concrete because it will never rot out and need to be replaced, and because I could plant herbs in the hollows of the blocks. The S-letter configuration would allow easy access to any part of the two beds. I planted twenty blueberry and twelve raspberry and blackberry bushes along with a very young fig tree around the garden’s perimeter. A peach and Italian Plum tree are on order.

I had several motivations for the garden. I have long wanted to live more sustainably and one way to do that is to eat healthy, pesticide- and fertilizer-free foods close to where they’re produced. Well, I never use pesticides or fertilizers and I couldn’t get much closer than the 200-foot distance between the garden and kitchen. And given the omnipresence of the COVID pandemic and its regular and depressing drumbeat of death filling the world with despair, I needed to participate in something that was life affirming and enriching. I had embraced the saying: “When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden.”

There is another garden saying: “There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.” Well, I conducted my first “experiment” when I planted too many plants too close together, ensuring a vegetable jungle in the weeks and months ahead. The beans didn’t behave themselves despite my effort to “grow them vertical,” climbing on everything around them and their viny web and the tomato tangles made it a wee bit difficult to get some of the beans and cherry tomatoes once ripe.

Despite the tangle creating more shade than is preferable, all was good though and the eggplants (graffiti, Japanese, American) tomatoes (Beefsteak, heirloom, and two types of cherry), squash (Spaghetti, Butternut, zucchini), cucumbers, artichokes, strawberries, broccoli romanesco, one lonely artichoke bought on a whim, collard greens, beets, kale, swiss chard, corn, many types of melons, numerous pepper varieties, leeks, and basil filled the beds. Herbs I diligently planted in the hollows of the blocks included parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme (an ode to Simon and Garfunkel), dill, mint, chocolate mint, lavender, cilantro, and oregano.

Watching countless YouTube videos about vegetable gardening I soon learned the value in “going vertical” as a means to incorporate more veggies. So to add vertical dimension to the garden I arched cattle panels — four foot wide, sixteen foot long meshed metal fences — over the paths, connecting to the beds. The panels provided a surface for the squash, beans, and tomatoes to grow on, thereby using space more efficiently and allowing me to plant more veggies in the beds.

All was good until the local deer paid a visit. The first night they were surreptitious, revealing their presence with only a scattered hoof prints in the beds and a few nipped peppers. And here I made a true mistake. Applying human and clearly non-deer logic, I assumed the deer discovered the garden, explored it, and made the decision that given their very modest amount of damage, that it generally wasn’t to their liking. Well, the next night they returned and “liked” it a lot more, in fact I might use the word love — they devastated the peppers and beets, and ate all of the broccoli and the swiss chard but one. With the help of my son Travis, a Rube Goldberg style, yet effective eight foot high deer fence was soon installed and has worked like a charm since.

One unexpected result in the garden were the appearance of mystery veggies and fruits I never planted, springing up in places where I didn’t plant them. Indicating the presence of seeds in the eight yards of topsoil/compost mix I used to fill the beds were some cantaloupes, melons, and tomato varieties I hadn’t bought. At first I was confused and then it dawned on me — unless screened very well there are a lot of seeds in soil, as evidenced by how quickly neglected dirt piles at construction sites start to sprout growth.

There was enormous satisfaction for starting something and then letting nature go at it. I marveled at the rapid growth of the plants, their strength and vitality, as they prospered due to the simple combination of adequate water, ample sunlight, and rich soil. Within a month eggplants, two inch high plants when planted, had grown to three feet and started blossoming in multitudes, their beautiful purple petals the texture of tissue paper contrasting with the bright yellow pistils. Tomatoes grew six to eight feet in two months and squash, adorned with brilliant flowers, rested atop the archways. Melons and cucumbers splayed this way and that. By late summer life was riotous in the garden.

And the scents and smells — basil, thyme and rosemary, in full sunlight, effervescing aromas into the air around them, the addictive smell of the good earth when trowel intrudes the surface to make room for planting a small pepper plant filled with so much promise. And the taste of vine-ripe tomatoes, so tomatoey (is that a word?) filling both palate and nose with the unique smell of this ubiquitous member of the nightshade family.

Birds were omnipresent throughout the gardening season. A pair of red-tailed hawks, screeching overhead, gave cause to gaze skyward; this pair bred, I think, in the nearby state-owned Patriots Hollow property. Catbirds regularly “meowed” from the bushes around me and a mockingbird regaled in song on a daily basis amidst the sweet whistling song of Baltimore Orioles.

Both Carolina Wrens and Song Sparrows often perched on the panel arches, probably eyeing which tomato they were going to pierce! Speaking of perched birds on panels — as I was harvesting cherry tomatoes on an October morning Emmy, one of my Springer Spaniels, flushed a bird from the ground. It flew toward me and momentarily perched on the top of a cattle panel. Suddenly and delightfully, three feet away at eye level was a resplendent male Black-throated Blue Warbler. Eye candy in the garden.

We found great joy in harvesting the bounty of vegetables and using them in various recipes. Swiss chard with raisins and pine nuts, collard greens with turkey bacon, various eggplant dishes, sautéed peppers and leeks, roasted tomatoes and beets, and fresh blueberries were but a few of the meals the “back 40”provided. Often the veggies never made it to the house — occasionally a salt shaker would accompany me to the garden. I’m not sure there’s anything tastier than a sweetened, freshly picked cherry tomato sprinkled with a little dash of salt.

I also found joy in composting. All the veggie discards from food prep ended up in a large jar regularly brought to the compost bin. With each jar dump the product of this year’s garden was being recycled, for use as a soil supplement next year, connecting this year to the next. I felt good about this, in knowing I wasn’t adding waste to the garbage stream the town picks up at curbside which is incinerated with the ash being dumped at the town landfill, but rather was used to make soil that will nurture the growth of future plants.

After the first year, I’ve learned a lot about gardening; things done well and things done poorly, some reflecting beginner’s luck while others were gained through experience and insight. What is most clear to me is that I obtained so much more than a bounty of tasty vegetables as I too gained a bounty of lessons, experiences and memories. This reminded me of one last quote by a gardener who noted: “I like gardening. It’s a place where I find myself when I need to lose myself.”

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.

Deer at Avalon Park. Photo by Mimi Hodges

By John Turner

A White-tailed deer nibbling peacefully on lush green leaves along the roadside, its namesake tail twitching in the twilight of early evening. A screeching, Red-tailed hawk drawing circles around the sun, the bird of prey’s discordant call still being used today to emphasize the most dramatic moments in western movies. Its distant cousin, an Osprey, drops into a rapid stoop, hitting the water with knife-tip sharp talons flared like the legs of a claw lamp, a strategy to enhance capture of slippery fish.

The nightly summer show of incandescence put on by the otherworldly display of fireflies. The seasonal parade of Monarch butterflies feeding on seaside goldenrod at coastal beaches, filling up their migratory fuel tanks on their autumn journey to Mexico. A Grey squirrel sitting on a tree branch in a light rain, feeding on a walnut, adorned with a walnut-stained beard and moustache, its fluffy tail arched over its back and head serving as a most effective umbrella. The dancing flights of Ruby-throated hummingbirds nectaring in wildflower beds, their improbable tubular tongues gaining sustenance through the nectar the plants calculatingly provide.

If you’re like most residents who spends some time outdoors you’ve probably had one or more of the above experiences, or something similar, connecting you to the diversity of wild animals which grace Long Island’s parks, ponds and natural areas. Maybe these experiences have occurred through happenstance or due to your desire to seek them out. Either way, wild animals, what we call “wildlife,” fully living their independent, yet intertwined lives, enrich both ours and theirs and naturally leads to the question: what actions can I take to help wildlife?

Well, the short answer is there are dozens of direct and indirect things each of us can do to protect wildlife both here and further afield. A direct action? Making sure you recycle broken fishing line and not leaving it in or along the edge of a pond where aquatic wildlife, like ducks and swans, and geese, can get entangled and die.

Driving more slowly and looking for box turtles and other animals that might be in harm’s way on the road way. Minimizing bright outdoor lighting which adversely affects nocturnal animals (motion detecting lights are a good compromise between security and the needs of wildlife for darkness).

Indirect actions? Reducing energy and water use, composting the compostable portion of your garbage, recycling the recyclable part, and most importantly, generating less garbage to begin with.

Following are but a few actions for you to consider and there are many, many more, limited only by your imagination. These measures can be placed in two basic categories: things you should do and thing you shouldn’t.

Taking first those activities that you shouldn’t — paramount among them is to avoid the use of pesticides. Despite greenwashing by the chemical industry, it’s important to remember that pesticides are chemical poisons intentionally designed to kill things and they often kill many other insects and other animals besides the ones they’re designed to.

Photo by Tom Caruso

Rampant pesticide use (we use about one billion pounds of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides annually; yes, billion, that’s not a typo) is the leading cause for the decline of scores of important pollinating insects including native bees, flies, butterflies, moths, beetles, and the European honey bee.

Many non-target mammals, birds, fish, and numerous reptiles and amphibians are harmed or killed by pesticide use too (many box turtles exposed to pesticides appear to develop painful abscesses in their middle ear cavity which can be life threatening). There is much on-line information about less destructive ways to control undesirable insects, weeds, etc., than through using poisons.

Another “don’t” action involves your cat. Cats, both feral and free roaming pets, are the leading cause for small mammals and bird deaths and their decline. Billions of mice, voles, and hundreds of millions of songbirds, involving dozen of species, are killed by cats annually in the United States. And collar bells on cats make no difference as birds don’t associate bells with danger.

Most people don’t open the front door to let their dog out, freeing it to roam the neighborhood, but don’t think twice about letting the cat out where it can and does wreak ecological havoc. While it is difficult to make a pet cat used to going outside exclusively into an indoor cat, there are transitioning strategies you can employ available on-line for review. And make your next pet cat an indoor one!!

Now for the do’s — do make your yard friendly for wildlife! Make it a cafeteria and shelter! This effort should start by planting or expanding the use of native plant species which are life sustaining for hundreds of insects which form the base of local food chains.

Doug Tallamy, in his wonderful new book ,“Nature’s Best Hope,” states that a White oak tree can sustain several hundred different species of insects — insects, both in adult and larval forms (caterpillars) that birds like Black-capped chickadees and Downy woodpeckers need to survive.

Another great native plant — a shrub — is Common elderberry (yes, THAT plant whose berries are made into wine). The small white flowers provide nectar to a variety of small pollinating insects and the red-purple berries, often produced in copious amounts, are eaten by a number of songbirds. Compare these species to non-native exotic plants, say a Winged Euonymus or Arborvitae, typically planted by homeowners and landscapers. These plants are ecological deserts never becoming part of the local food chain since no or few insects feed upon, insects which sustain so many other living things.

Add sterile lawns and we’ve created landscapes around our home that provides little in the way that wildlife needs. In contrast, planting native wildflowers, shrubs, and trees is a highly effective strategy for hosts of animals that feed on the bounty that native plants provide in the form of nectar, seeds, fruits, and nuts.

And leaving leaf cover in your flower beds and other out of the way places during the autumn cleanup provides shelter from the winter’s cold for a variety of overwintering caterpillars and other insects.

Placing decals on your home’s windows is another measure you can take around your house to meaningfully help birds. Nearly a billion birds in North America are estimated to die annually from flying into building windows they don’t see, due to either of the two deadly characteristics windows possess — transparency and reflectivity. Hummingbirds are especially common collision victims. There are several type of attractive decal products available for purchase on-line which, when installed, help enable birds to see windows for what they are.

By now you may have had the thought — John, you’ve discussed these other ways to help wildlife but what about perhaps the most obvious way: by feeding birds. In truth, that’s a common and pervasive misperception as feeding birds does nothing to help them survive since no wild bird species depends upon backyard bird feeding stations to continue to exist.

Wild birds are quite adept at finding enough wild food for themselves even during the winter and for their young during the breeding season to survive. They don’t need or depend on the seed, suet, sugar water, jelly, and oranges many homeowners put out to entice them. And the species that frequent backyard feeders — Black-capped chickadees, Tufted titmice, Common grackles, Carolina wrens, and a variety of woodpeckers — are common suburban birds whose populations are doing well. The species whose populations are declining and are in trouble — many migratory warblers, vireos, swallows, swifts, nighthawks, thrushes, and flycatchers — rarely, if ever, frequent feeders.

So, if you’re feeding birds because you enjoy watching them up close that makes sense (a point hard to argue given their beauty and fascinating behaviors!), but if you’re feeding them because you think individual birds and species of birds need your help, it would be better to spend the bird feed money by writing a check to a bird conservation advocacy organization like the National Audubon Society (the local chapter is the Four Harbors Audubon Society) or the American Bird Conservancy.

The 2020-2021 Federal Duck Stamp features a pair of black-bellied whistling-ducks painted by Alabama artist Eddy LeRoy.

Even better, you should take some of the money you’ve saved and buy a federal Duck Stamp, one of the best kept secrets in conservation. More than five million acres of wildlife habitat have been permanently protected, purchased through the use of Duck Stamp funds, including much of the National Wildlife Refuge system (we have some wonderful refuges on Long Island you can explore like Wertheim and Elizabeth Morton).

Simply stated, animals need habitat to survive. Like us, they need water, food and shelter and the Duck Stamp program has provided a way to protect huge expanses of habitat. Buying land that contains valuable wildlife habitat can help bird species survive. Duck stamps are available for purchase at a place which has been much in the news lately: your local Post Office.

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.

*This article first appeared in Harvest Times 2020, a supplement of TBR News Media

The first evidence of coyotes appearing on Long Island happened on June 24, 2013, in Bridgehampton on the South Fork. Stock photo

By John L. Turner

In March of 1995 wildlife officials began a fascinating ecological experiment in Yellowstone National Park, one that is still playing out today twenty-five years later. For in that month they released fourteen grey wolves in the park. Wolves were, as recently as 75 years before, a key ecological component of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem but hatred and prejudice toward predators at the time resulted in their extermination.

With wolves eliminated from the park, elk populations flourished. Their abundance wasn’t such a good thing for the park’s vegetation though, especially in the richer, low-lying areas along rivers, creeks, and other wetlands where they overgrazed the vegetation, destroying habitat and creating erosion problems. The situation quickly changed with the reintroduction of the wolf and for the past two and a half decades wolves have fundamentally reshaped the park’s ecosystem, causing a series of expected, and a few unexpected, changes.

Elk became both less abundant due to predation and more dispersed in an effort to avoid wolves, allowing riverside forests of cottonwood and aspen to become reestablished. The return of these forests set the stage for beavers to increase. It also meant the growth of more berry producing plants which grizzly bears favored. Coyotes decreased as a direct result of wolf predation and less coyotes meant more foxes which, in turn, affected the abundance of birds, rabbits and other small mammals.

Changes in these species affected other plants due to changes in their grazing and eating intensity of leaves, fruits, and seeds. All of these ripple effects, created by restoring wolves to their rightful place in the Yellowstone ecosystem, underscores the brilliance in John Muir’s famous quote:

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to

everything else in the universe.

Well, let’s fast forward to the present and focus locally for we have a similar ecological experiment involving the appearance of an apex predator unfolding before us — but its not Grey wolves and a western National Park but the Eastern coyote and the land mass we call Long Island, the last place in the continental United States the coyote was absent from.

The first evidence of coyotes appearing on Long Island happened on June 24, 2013, in Bridgehampton on the South  Fork. A potato farmer, working in one of his fields, spotted an animal that looked like a German Shepherd but it wasn’t any breed of domestic dog, nor was it a red or gray fox. He was able to snap a photograph and a review by experts confirmed it as an Eastern coyote, the first that had ever been sighted on Long Island.

Since then there have been several other conclusive sightings of coyotes in a few places and then, most notably, a breeding pair (and subsequent family) set up a territory near LaGuardia Airport. Unfortunately, people began to feed them. Adapting to human presence because of the feeding they became more visible and some neighbors began to view them as a safety threat. They were able to convince staff from the federal Department of Agriculture’s “Wildlife Services” Program (an agency that despite its innocuous sounding name kills wildlife as its main mission) to exterminate the family (save one fortunate individual that escaped).

This was a setback but through subsequent colonization attempts the wily coyote has established itself in northwestern Long Island where several breeding pairs now exist. These occurrences, and past efforts, suggest that it’s but a matter of time before coyotes extend their hold here and fully colonize Long Island. As they do, their presence will likely have far reaching impacts to both human and natural communities, as coyotes are likely to cause ecological effects that will ripple through the natural communities on Long Island and the wildlife species that make them up, not unlike what wolves caused at Yellowstone, although obviously involving different species.

Though generally shy and retiring and typically avoiding direct contact with humans, coyotes will, nevertheless, establish territories adjacent to, and within, suburban developments. This fact suggests Long Islanders should change some behavioral habits to minimize adverse interactions.

For example, coyotes are known to prey on pet and feral cats and small dogs in urban and suburban communities, so it is imperative that pet owners remain diligent and aware. Releasing a pet cat outside to “do its business” (a bad idea because of the ecological damage cats cause by preying on birds and small mammals) in areas where coyotes occur can put the cat’s life in peril. Letting small dogs out into the backyard unattended for the same reason may result in the same outcome.

There are a few strategies that can be employed to reduce the likelihood of coyotes visiting your yard in the first place. These include keeping pet dishes empty outside and securing household garbage.

Another potential source of conflict between humans and coyotes involves livestock and other domestic animals, although this is not likely to become a major issue here given the relatively few sheep, goats, and pigs. In view of the popularity of chickens though, predation might become an issue, so those who have free ranging chickens might want to consider another strategy like indoor enclosures, within which the birds can safely spend the night.

Coyotes have a highly varied diet and some of these diet items can be viewed favorably from a human perspective. For example, in addition to preying on feral cats (and pet cats as mentioned before) that have a devastating impact on backyard birds and small mammals, coyotes eat roadkill thereby helping to clean up roadsides. They also prey on white-tailed deer fawns which may help to reduce their current unhealthy population levels or at least slow down the growth in deer populations.

The current density of deer is having an adverse impact to Long Island forests by eating native plants to such an extent that many forest trees are unable to replace themselves, causing forests to lose their understory and overall diversity. One specific example is the loss of our native orchids such as pink ladies slippers which have become increasingly rare due to deer browsing.

Coyotes also prey on rabbits, opossums, reptile and bird eggs (including the eggs of the ubiquitous Canada Goose), and a variety of berries. Notably, they eat numerous rodents, the reduction of which may be positive in reducing the number of white-footed mice that play a fundamental role in the transmission of the Lyme’s disease spirochete.

Some studies have documented that coyotes often displace fox in shared habitat so one of the ecological effects scientists will look out for is the long-term impact of coyotes on fox populations. There will be interest in assessing their impact on other mammals, such as prey like woodchucks and mammalian competitors like raccoon and fox.

We’re not sure of these ecological outcomes and how precisely these ecological effects will unfold; such is the unpredictability and complexity of the natural world. Perhaps coyotes will have no impact in reducing deer numbers, no role in assisting in the recovery of Long Island’s forests, displacing foxes, or play no part in affecting Lyme’s disease. But like the wolves of Yellowstone National Park, coyotes by their mere presence, as part of the Long Island environment, WILL have an ecological impact and, likely, a broad and significant one at that.

The coyotes have begun the experiment and naturalists and ecologists look forward to seeing how it plays out both for their sake and for the two and four-legged occupants who live here.

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.

Queen Anne's Lace blooms through October on Long Island. Stock photo

By John L. Turner

I apologize in advance to all the driving school instructors among the audience who read this article and find their ire rising. Why? Because I confess that as I drive around Long Island’s roads and highways during the summer wildflower blooming season, I’ll routinely take my eyes off the road for a moment here and there to scan the roadside to enjoy the colorful profusion of wildflowers populating the edge. A dozen or so native and non-native wildflowers that routinely grace our road margins are my focus, beginning their ‘pageantry of petals’ in June and running through to autumn.

Two of the most common and conspicuous examples are Chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace. The latter species, also knows as “Bird’s Nest” because of the resemblance of the pollinated flower cluster to a cupped bird’s nest, is a member of the parsley family and is distantly related to the garden carrot.

Most of these white flower clusters possess a little purple floret in the middle. Legend has it that the purple flower is the blood of Queen Anne of England (1665-1714), where the wildflower is native. You see, the Queen pricked her finger with a sewing needle while making lace and the single drop of blood landed in the middle of her lace embroidery. Inspect the next Queen Anne’s Lace cluster you see and perhaps you’ll see the queen’s blood drop! Why the species has this one colored flower amidst all the white ones remains a botanical mystery. Perhaps you’ll solve this mystery and become famous?

Possessing a unique bluish-purple color, Chicory can be abundant along roadsides. Also known as “blue sailors,” chicory is a member of the dandelion family. On occasion I’ve seen white or pink flowers on a plant adorned mostly with blue flowers adding a colorful element to the scene. Take the time to inspect the flower as it is a joy — a melding of beauty and design. The petals are symmetrical and radiate from the center of the flower with each petal having five evenly shaped teeth at the margin and the pistil and stamens have a pretty and unique architectural form.

Chicory root is roasted and used in making a coffee substitute, and less commonly in beer making. It is especially prevalent as a beverage in the southern United States and I’ve enjoyed it in New Orleans (in which to dunk beignets)! It is said the roots can also be roasted like turnips or parsnips although I’ve never tried. The highly nutritious leaves are used in salads.

Three milkweed species — Common, Blunt-leaved, and Butterfly weed — grow along Paumanok’s roadsides. The Common is most abundant and its ball-like clusters of fragrant pink flowers adorning the tall flower stalks is a common sight. Blunt-leaved milkweed is much less common and more easily overlooked due to its lower stature and smaller flower clusters. This species’ leaves have attractive wavy edges, unlike Common’s straight edged margins. Butterfly weed is bright orange and is the shortest of the trio; all three are important sources of nectar for pollinating insects.

Common Evening Primrose, another common roadside species, can grow in abundant stands if not mowed. These tall wildflowers have lemon-yellow petals. As the name suggests, the flowers open during the evening (and close during the day), and, presumably, are pollinated by moths and other night-flying insects. They are neither annual flowers or perennial but rather biennial, meaning they complete a two-year cycle from germination to producing seed producing flowers. The plant has been used as a medicinal herb for many decades.

Common mullein is another tall, biennial yellow-flowered plant of Long Island’s road medians and shoulders with a distinctive spike. The plant produces a basal rosette of leaves in the first year and in the second year the spike takes off, growing several feet in a few months. Unlike the primrose, this species is not native to North America but it had great utility once established here (as well as long being used in Europe and Asia where it is native). The thick, stiff stalks were dipped in fat and used as torches and the thick, cushioning basal leaves were reported to have served, in the days of old, as a natural “Dr. Scholl’s,” being inserted in shoes to cushion colonial feet.

Bird’s-foot trefoil is a smaller stature roadside flower naturalized here. A member of the pea family, it has, as its name suggests, three prominent leaflets growing amidst a packet of five. The flowers are a luscious buttery yellow. Due to its low stature it can sometimes survive being mowed.

The pink-purple spotted knapweed, a bit smaller than Chicory, is another common roadside flower. Related to asters, the numerous flower petals rise from a tight cup. This species was accidentally introduced in North America and has spread prolifically; it is invasive and considered a serious agricultural pest, but along our roadside poses less of a problem.

Perhaps the most prolific of all our roadsides flowers are the goldenrods. Several species of these important nectar-producing plants, with such a wonderfully descriptive common name, grow here and a sure sign that summer is on the wane is when they bloom by the hundreds. They are related to asters of which a few species also grow along the road.

As with so many places in the eastern United States, Long Island’s road and highway shoulders are regularly mowed. While cutting is obviously necessary to provide a safe place for a vehicle to pull off, and to prevent the growth of woody plants too close to the road which could pose a danger to drivers, the width of many mowed area along the shoulder and median is often more than it needs to be to accommodate two vehicles.

Collectively, the result is hundreds of acres of potential wildlife habitat for a wide variety of wildflowers and grasses never being allowed to evolve from what is essentially a linear lawn. Especially frustrating is mowing all of the area within a clover-leafed intersection. Why, pray tell, do we need to do this? Can’t we accommodate more elegance and beauty and habitat for butterflies and countless other living things instead of promoting sterile grass everywhere near our road network?

While writing this article I was reminded of the last stanza in “Rose Pogonias,” my favorite poem by Robert Frost, regarding a small bog graced with the beauty of Rose Pogonia orchids:

‘We raised a simple prayer,

Before we left the spot,

That in the general mowing,

That place might be forgot,

Or if not all so favored,

Obtain such grace of hours,

That none should mow the grass there,

While so confused with flowers.’

I hope Long Island’s roadside wildflower communities might be more often “forgot” in the future or if that is not possible “obtain such grace of hours” until their flowering is done.

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.

Northern Mockingbird

By John L. Turner

A fact about living in suburbia is the presence of neighbors and we are blessed in having a bunch of wonderful neighbors in the Setauket neighborhood in which we live.

Lately though, I have become aware of, and begun to appreciate, another set of neighbors: those of the feathered kind. We are neighbors to the birds and this spring I’ve watched families of birds, going about their lives, amidst our property and that of some of our neighbors. Our human properties are embedded within the “properties” in which they nest.

In a side shrub a pair of Song Sparrows made a nest while in a front yard shrub it was a Robin. On an eye-level branch of a Norway Spruce located along a boundary of the backyard I watched a pair of Mourning Doves raise a pair of young that successfully fledged, and further back in a blackberry bramble was a Catbird nest.

We also routinely see several woodpeckers species feeding in the yard and have Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, for whom our property is a cafeteria. Most recently, we’ve been witness to a family of Screech Owls — two parents and three young — as they have begun, on silent wings, to expand their world.

But the most conspicuous neighbor of all has been a pair of Northern Mockingbirds. I haven’t located their nest but our property along with the neighbors that flank each side are within the pair’s territory as evidenced by the trees the male alternates flying to and singing from the tops of.

And, wow, do Mockingbirds sing. They are most well-known for “mocking” or copying the songs of other songbirds, with some birds having a repertoire of several dozen songs absconded from others. In total, Mockingbirds can sing hundreds of different phrases — a combination of unique calls interspersed with the mimicked songs of others.

About a month ago the male sat atop a tall Spruce tree along my northern border and enthusiastically sang continuously for 20 minutes. In his long song sequence I discerned songs that included the Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Killdeer, Great Crested Flycatcher and two different Blue Jay calls. On several occasions it quacked like a duck! (Many years ago I heard a Mockingbird singing along the edge of a field in Hauppauge making a sound that sounded exactly like a car alarm!! I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t directly witness the sound emanating from the open and moving bill of the bird).

Their scientific name — Mimus polyglottis — literally means “many throated mimic,” an obvious reference to their ability to sing other bird songs.

That the Northern Mockingbird is a feathered virtuoso has long been recognized by professional ornithologists and curious naturalists alike. J.P. Giraud in his seminal 1842 work “The Birds of Long Island” noted: “It is the nightingale of America, and according to those who have heard the native notes of both, its voice, both in variety and fullness, is superior to that of Europe’s sweetest songster. Its power of imitation is so great, that this highly gifted bird runs over the varied notes of all our songsters, and executes with so much skill, that it would seem as if Nature had so attuned its voice that it might exceed all of the feather choir.”

Frank Chapman, the longtime curator of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, and the father of the National Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count, wrote: “The Mockingbird might be called our national song-bird; his remarkable vocal powers have made him famous the world over … He is a good citizen, and courting rather than shunning public life, shows an evident interest in the affairs of the day. He lives in our gardens, parks, and squares, and even in the streets of the town …” and in regard to his singing Chapman notes: “… if his song does not thrill you then confess yourself deaf to Nature’s voices.” — an opinionated but accurate statement if their boisterous singing fails to put a smile on your face!

But why is it that Mockingbirds, a rarity among songbirds in singing the songs of other birds, evolved this fascinating behavior of vocal mimicry? For the same reasons that other male birds sing — to defend a breeding territory and attract a mate. They’ve just taken it to a new level driven by the fact that females are apparently attracted to males with larger song repertoires.

This new level includes singing at night, especially on nights when the moon is strong. While I’ve not yet heard “our” birds singing at night, I had night singing Mockingbirds routinely while I lived for many years in Massapequa Park and before that during my childhood in Smithtown.

Mockingbirds are related to two other songbird species native to Long Island with which you might be familiar: the Gray Catbird and the Brown Thrasher. All three belong to the family Mimidae, the Mimic Thrushes, and they all mimic other birds, although the Mockingbird stands alone in its skill.

With a little bit of effort you can see them. The Brown Thrasher prefers wilder habitat. It is a fairly common breeding bird in the vast expanses of the Pine Barrens, where it prefers to lurk about in the understory while Catbirds and Mockingbirds frequent the suburban habitat around your home.

If you have a Mockingbird as a neighbor, perhaps the “Many-throated Mimic” will grace you with his night-time serenade on a moonlit night.

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.

Luna Moths are among the largest moth species in North America.

By John L. Turner

With a 65th birthday looming on the horizon for later this summer, I recently found myself, not surprisingly, thinking about “Bucket Lists” — lists comprising places to visit or things to do before “kicking the bucket.” It’s a concept made popular from the movie “The Bucket List,” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two terminally ill older men living out their last desires, and the impending birth date — signaling a lifetime spanning two-thirds of a century — motivated me to develop “bucket list” priorities for the time I have left.

So I began to think about different types of bucket lists. Travel destinations with my family; bird trips; visits to major league baseball stadiums (been to about half of them) and, of course, the ultimate global nature bucket list — snorkeling with Whale Sharks in the coastal waters off Belize, witnessing the Wildebeest migration in the African Serengeti, sitting quietly near any one of our closest relatives — Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Bonobos, or Orangutans in the tropical forests of African and Asian countries — or walking in reverence amidst tens of millions of Monarch Butterflies at their winter roost in the highland fir forests of Mexico.

But there will be no exotic far-flung places for this article; this bucket list is more modest in scope, relating to natural phenomena that I long to see on Long Island. For a few of these, I’ve witnessed them many years ago but for others I await the first experience.

Here goes:

Seeing a Smooth Green Snake 

 Of the nearly dozen native snake species found on Long Island, undoubtedly the most beautiful is the Smooth Green Snake. It is a tropical lime green color on top and lemon yellow on its belly with a golden-colored eye. They are a bit wider than a pencil with adults reaching about two feet in length. You’d think such a brightly colored snake would stand out but laying motionless in grass they can disappear. I have never seen one on Long Island or anywhere else and would love to!

While on the subject of snakes I’d also love to see a Hognose Snake again and especially one performing its famous ‘death feign’ act. I’ve seen this behavior twice in my life, once on Long Island, but both experiences were decades ago. If disturbed the snake often but not always feigns its death by writhing spasmodically and rolling onto its back and abruptly “dies”. Adding to the convincing nature of the act the Hognose can even spill blood from its mouth by rupturing capillaries that line it. Of course, it’s all a ruse to stop a potential predator from attacking.

Finding an Ovenbird nest 

 In larger woodlands the Ovenbird sings out with its ringing teacher! teacher! song filling the spaces between and under the trees. With a little bit of luck you might find this songbird perched on a branch in the sub-canopy as it sings, its little warbler body shaking as song spills forth loudly. Despite years of searching on many a forest floor I’ve never found their “Dutch oven”-shaped nest which gives the bird its name. 

Twice in the Pine Barrens, once in Shoreham, the other in Riverhead, I’ve made a concerted effort to look for their nests, after observing nearby adults with food in their mouths. On my knees I very slowly and carefully inspected the forest floor starting where I thought, based on the bird’s behavior, the nest might be. Methodically, I spiraled outward in my search but, alas, despite half an hour of on-my-knees-searching came up empty.

Spotting a Giant Silk Moth 

Buck Moth

If you want to familiarize yourself with a remarkable, stunning, spectacular (fill in your own adjective here once you’ve seen what they look like) group of insects native to Long Island, check out photos of the following moth species: Luna, Cecropia, Polyphemus, Promethea, and Buck Moths. These are among the largest flying insects we have with wingspans as large as six inches. 

At one time they were common but no more. The host trees they depend upon as caterpillars are still relatively common to abundant on Long Island so its not a loss of food that explains their decline; widespread spraying of poisonous pesticides is the suspected cause for their significant drop.

The last of three live Luna Moths I’ve seen on Long Island was a decade ago. I’ve never seen a live Promethea or Cecropia and the last Polyphemus was six years ago — a ragged individual so beat up from bird strikes it was weakly fluttering along the asphalt in a shopping center parking lot. I scooped it out of harm’s way but it died later that day. 

Fortunately, the beautiful black, orange, and white Buck Moth, one of the iconic species of the Pine Barrens, is still common. Spared from spraying in its vast Pine Barrens forests, the Buck Moth can be observed during the day flying around the dwarf pines of Westhampton in the autumn as male moths seek out females to create the next generation.

Seeing a River Otter 

One of the bits of good news relating to Long Island wildlife is the sustained natural reintroduction of river otters, presumably from wandering individuals emigrating from Westchester and western Connecticut and island hopping to the North Fork via the island archipelago of Plum, Little Gull, Great Gull, and Fisher’s Islands. However the prospecting animals did it, they’re here now. And while I’ve seen wild otters in locations off Long Island and seen otter signs on Long Island, in the form of otter runs and scat (fishy poop) as close by as Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket, I’ve not seen one of these charismatic creatures here.

Observing a Mola mola  

Mola mola

This strange looking enormous fish (in fact it really doesn’t look like a fish) is often seen by fisherman and whale watchers afloat in the Atlantic Ocean in the summer. Also known as the ocean sunfish, they are world’s largest bony fish weighing in at more than one thousand pounds. They can dive deeply and after returning from cold ocean depth, they warm up by turning on their side to bask in the sun, showing off a flattened profile, a view that many (except me!) have enjoyed.

Do you have a nature-themed bucket list?

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

By John L. Turner

Insight as to the value placed on a wild plant by past generations can be gained by how many common names it’s been given. Typically, a plant with the minimum of just one name has it as a means by which to recognize it and to distinguish the plant from other species. A plant with a number of names, though, suggests a species of greater significance, value, and utility, and such is the case with Shadbush, a common understory shrub or small tree which grows in Long Island’s deciduous forests.

The Shadbush blooms in late April to early May (top photo) and produces edible fruit in late spring to early summer (above). Stock photos

This attractive tree goes by a few names: Shadbush, Shadblow, Serviceberry, and Juneberry. The reference to shad stems from more ancient knowledge of recognizing patterns of nature. Many years ago shad, a species of river herring, was significantly more abundant than today and the spring shad runs up major rivers to reach their spawning grounds was an important event for many people, providing an ample supply of cheap protein. 

Perhaps it was the shad fisherman, or maybe others, but they noticed this tree blossomed at the time the shad were on the move. The five-petaled white blossoms meant migrating shad, hence the connection made permanent by the common name of Shadbush.

The white blossoms of the Shadbush in late April through early May also provided another signal — that winter was done, the ground has thawed, and the dead could receive burial service with caskets sometimes adorned with sprigs of the Serviceberry blossoms.

If the flowers are pollinated, berries form in late spring to early summer, giving rise to the last of its common names — Juneberry. The berrylike fruit is delicious and relished by numerous wildlife, including many birds. Us humans like them too and often turn the fruit into pies, jellies and jams. Technically, the fruit is known as a pome, as are apples, and this isn’t surprising since both apples and Shadbush are members of the Rose family.

The genus name Amelanchier is a french word first used to describe the species.

Four species of Shadbush occur on Long Island, with three of the species found in rich but well drained soils  and one on the eastern end located on sandier, more droughty soils. They range from being a modest multi-stemmed shrub just a few feet tall to a tree 20 to 30 feet high. In forest settings, given its smaller stature, Shadbush grows under taller oaks, black birch, and hickories and, where common, produces scattered “blossom clouds” of white beneath these taller trees. It has attractive smooth grey bark and its leaves are small and oval with toothed margins. Come autumn the foliage turn orange/red, adding a nice splash of color to the forest.

Whatever you wish to call it Shadbush has so much going for it — from its rich folklore, to pretty flowers, attractive bark, and tasty fruit — that I hope you make its acquaintance and perhaps try a berry or two.

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.

The Cerulean Warbler is on the New York State Special Concern list. Photo by Gary Robinette/National Audubon Society

By John L. Turner

For many years there has been a broad public perception that the primary effect of dumping excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, from the burning of fossil fuels (and the release of other gases such as methane from landfills, gas and oil wells, and other sources), was the warming of the atmosphere — a phenomenon that was first called “global warming” or the “greenhouse effect.” 

Higher average daily and annual temperatures in the atmosphere have, indeed, occurred, so that label is partially correct — 2019 was the second hottest year ever measured, only slightly behind 2016, and according to records of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the past five years are the warmest years on record in the 140-year span the federal government has been measuring atmospheric temperatures; today’s earth is more than two degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer than it was in 1950.

But while the term “global warming” has become shorthand to describe the effect increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 have on climate, a wide number of scientists recognize that warming temperatures are but one of many adverse environmental effects caused by too much atmospheric CO2 and, in fact, in some places excess CO2 has caused cooling. 

Thus, the term “global warming” both is inaccurate and too restrictive to capture the full range of ecological/environmental impacts and resultantly has fallen into disfavor, replaced by the more accurate label of “climate change” or “climate disruption”. But even these more accurate, expansive labels don’t completely portray the full suite of environmental effects occurring around the world, effects that go far beyond climate, as concerning as that alone would make the climate crisis.

Below is a description of but a few of the many commonly recognized “faces” of climate change that have emerged over the past decade:

More extreme and destructive weather — A warmer atmosphere has more energy and holds more water vapor. This has resulted, in the past decade, of more intense weather events such as increased rainfall and associated flooding, hurricanes, and in some places just the opposite: droughts, often resulting in catastrophic wildfires. Poor Texas: in 2011 the state experienced day time temperatures of over 100 degrees for more than 100 straight days! and experienced a “500-year” storm (a storm of such intensity it is expected to occur once every 500 years) for three straight years (2015-2017).

Sea level rise — As temperatures rise so does the level of the ocean due to thermal expansion and the large volumes of meltwater running off of glaciers and ice caps; it is 2.6 inches higher than 1993 and is rising about one-eighth of an inch per year, a rate that some fear will increase and perhaps increase quickly. 

The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has published sea level rise projections for Long Island; for the 2050s the low projection is an eight inch rise, the medium range projection is 16 inches and the high projection is 30 inches. If the medium to high projections occur, Long Island’s shoreline will be redrawn with marshes and beaches disappearing and thousands of homeowners having to relocate. Miami and many other coastal cities are already being inundated.

Ocean Warming & Acidification — The world’s oceans are warming too and also absorbing the significant majority of excess CO2. When CO2 combines with seawater a weak acid — carbonic acid — is formed. This is not good for shell making creatures like clams and corals. Due to ocean warming and the shifting of pH, coral and other shell making creatures are increasingly stressed. A 2008 study on the health of the planet’s coral reefs indicated that one-fifth are gone with another 15-20% under significant stress.

Impacts to Wildlife — Every other species on Spaceship Earth will potentially be affected by climate change; many have already. Birds, for example, run the risk of starving due to a timing mismatch between when they migrate and when their insect food emerges. A report from the National Audubon Society published in late 2019 finds that two-thirds of North American species are at heightened risk of extinction due to climate change.

Spreading of disease — A number of disease-causing pathogens are likely to get worse as the climate becomes warmer and wetter. Malaria is but one example and it is not a small example. According to the World Health Organization 405,000 people died from contracting malaria last year with 228 million contracting the disease. Closer to home, scientists think both West Nile Virus and Lyme disease will become more prevalent as the planet warms.

A popular slogan seen at climate change rallies is “There is no Planet B.” We can continue to sleepwalk through the issue by electing leaders who “deny” climate change, and pretend there’s a Planet B awaiting us once we finish befouling Planet A. Collectively, we have a fundamental choice to make — we can recognize the madness of this idea, or recognize there is, of course, only one hospitable planet — Planet A — and as occupants of it, we are in a great position to do something about it.

The “faces” of climate change are profound and the magnitude of what needs to be done may seem intractable and overwhelming, leading us to throw up our collective hands in despair. 

A much better response is to use those same hands to reduce our carbon footprints by: holding a pen to check the box on the election ballot for candidates who recognize the serious threat climate change poses to nature and humanity, use another pen to write a check to a solar company if you can afford to install roof-top solar panels, twist some new LED light-bulbs into ceiling and lamp sockets, grab a screwdriver and install a dryer vent deflector to have the moist and warm heat from your dryer warm your house in the winter rather than be vented (and wasted) outdoors, lift the lid of your compost bin to compost organic waste, and drop recyclable materials, especially aluminum cans, into your recycling can.

And by completing these actions, and others, you’re acknowledging there is no Planet B, and further, that Planet A, this one small and fragile blue marble floating in a vacuum void, is all we have and all we will ever have. Taking these concrete steps to address the many faces of climate change is bound to put a smile on your face.

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.