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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.

Photo by John Turner

By John L. Turner

This is the second of a two-part series.

In part one of “Curious Books Upon My Bookshelf” (March 26 issue of Arts & Lifestyles) I focused on items I’ve collected through the years on walks along Long Island’s shoreline. In this part we go “inland” to discuss a few of Mother Nature’s gifts I’ve found while exploring Long Island’s fields and forests.

I like to stray off paths to “bushwhack” through a forest (a habit that has led me to meet more ticks than I’ve ever desired!), walking quietly, slowly and carefully in search of wildflowers, bird nests, snakes, box turtles and other objects of interest. It’s a bit like the method people use when walking around an old store filled with interesting antiques and nicknacks. If you do this (in the forest and not the store) it’s just a matter of time before you find one or more of these objects.

On numerous occasions I’ve come across the remains of a white-tailed deer — ribs, a pelvic girdle, vertebrae, sometimes skulls, but most often their shed antlers, laying amidst the leaves, slowly melting back into the earth. Their final resting spots are a solemn place and I invariably wonder what caused their death. Predator? (not yet at least, not until coyotes become more fully established on Long Island) Starvation? An accident? Succumbing to wounds from a hunting slug?I almost always don’t know.

Deer antlers are a thing of beauty; while they are generally variations on a central theme of a main shaft with arms or “points” emanating from it, each antler is unique. Grown and shed each year (unlike horns on a bison or bighorn sheep which are not shed but grow continuously throughout an animal’s lifetime), antlers generally get larger as the animal matures so an eight year buck will have a larger set of antlers than a three-year-old.

On occasion I’ll find an antler that has been extensively gnawed upon — this is not surprising. Antlers are composed of bone and contain calcium and minerals and a number of animals will take advantage of this prized “dietary supplement.” A four-state study to learn which animals eat antlers determined that grey squirrels most often gnawed on them; eleven species were tallied in all including, not surprisingly, other gnawing animals — chipmunks, rabbits, mice and woodchucks. A little more surprising were raccoons, coyotes, opossum, river otter and one beaver.

I occasionally encounter other mammal skulls besides deer. I have a few raccoon skulls, a woodchuck skull, a red fox skull, and my prized skull — that of a grey fox. This secretive and beautiful mammal is less well known than the more common red fox (the first grey fox I ever saw had climbed a persimmon tree in Maryland and was chowing down on tree ripe persimmons).

On Long Island I’ve been fortunate to have seen live grey fox, the most recent experience in the autumn two years ago. Spying him before he saw me as I fortuitously was hidden behind a bushy, young Pitch Pine tree, this beautiful grizzled looking animal was patrolling along a sandy trail in the Dwarf Pine Plains of the Long Island Pine Barrens.

Speaking of pines, pine cones are one of my favorite objects to collect; they adorn my shelves. Their varied but unifying symmetry is always a visual delight. I have many Pitch Pine cones, a few from White Pine, a Lodgepole Pine, a Norway Spruce, and even a Stone Pine from the west coast of Italy.

The smallest, most inconspicuous cone I have is my favorite though. It is a cone from a Pitch Pine but it doesn’t look like the other Pitch Pine cones I have; this one is a “closed” or “serotinous” pine cone from a dwarf pitch pine growing in the Dwarf Pine Plains on Long Island.

On tree-sized pitch pines the cones look like normal cones — as they mature the scales open up and the winged seeds flutter to the ground. But the pine cones that grow on the dwarf pine trees don’t typically open upon maturing. Rather, they remain resolutely closed, sometimes for decades — unless and until burned in a wildfire.

That this closed cone trait evolved with the dwarf pines makes sense because in a wildfire all of the dwarf stature trees are likely to burn, unlike in a forest of fifty-foot tall pines. If the pygmy pines had “normal” cones it is very likely all of the seeds would perish in a wildfire. The closed cones, however, protect the sensitive pine seeds inside the cone. It is a finely tuned system — the resins that hold the scales together in a serotinous cone melt in fire, allowing the scales to spread open over the course of hours, thereby releasing the seeds onto a forest floor with lots of available ash, nutrients, and sunlight — great conditions to start a new generation of dwarf pines in this fire-dependent forest.

The Dwarf Pine Plains, a globally rare part of the Long Island Pine Barrens, are situated in Westhampton. A circular interpretive hiking trail leads into the forest from the southern end of the parking lot of the Suffolk County Water Authority building located on the east side of County Route 31 about 200 yards south of the Sunrise Highway x County Route 31 intersection. That is where I saw the grey fox. If you go maybe you too will be lucky enough to see a fox sniffing in the sand in search of food!

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 first of a two-part series.

Like most people I’ve always liked to collect things. Some objects were mainstream — baseball cards and comic books as a kid, for example, but some were decidedly not. As an adult I’ve had a prolonged passion for old bird books dating from the end of the nineteenth century through the beginning of the twentieth.

Looking around my study from where I write this, I realize I have a lot of objects that fit the latter “non-mainstream” category — deer antlers, assorted shells and other marine objects, mammal skulls, numerous pine cones, and a bird nest or two lying scattered along the leading edge of the shelves that hold the beloved bird books.

I also realize these objects, collected from countless outdoor explorations, represent a window to the world of nature that lays accessible on the other side of each of our front doors.

I’ve especially liked to collect items found along the shore, of which we have a lot. I have a favorite piece of driftwood, its edges rounded and softened from years in the elements. In it sits two species of whelk shells — Knobbed and Channeled Whelk, both species of sea snails native to Long Island’s marine waters.

Knobbed Whelk gets its name from knobs or projections that lay along the coil situated on the top of the shell; the Channeled Whelk’s name comes from a coiled channel or suture that runs along the inside edge of the spiral. These two species are closely related, belonging to the same genus; sometimes referred to as conch, they are the source of scungilli, the Italian dish especially popular around the holidays.

If you spend anytime strolling along the shoreline of Long Island Sound you’ve probably seen further evidence of whelk — their tan-colored egg cases washed up in the wrack line. Complex objects they are, consisting of upwards of a dozen or more quarter-sized compartments, connected by a thread, reminiscent of a broken Hawaiian lei.

If you find an egg case shake it vigorously; if it sounds like a baby’s rattle you’ll be rewarded by opening up one of the leathery compartments, because the objects causing the sound are many perfectly formed, tiny whelks. 

As I recently found out, you can identify the whelk species by the shape of the egg case compartments — Channeled have a pinched margin like what a chef does to a dumpling while the margins of Knobbed have an edge like a coin. How an adult whelk makes this highly complex structure with several dozen baby whelks in each unit is a complete mystery to me.

On the shelf next to the driftwood is another egg case ­— this one from a skate and, as with whelk egg cases, it’s often found as an item deposited in the beach’s wrack line. Black, with a shine on its surface, it is rectangular with four parentheses-like projections sticking out from the four corners. Skates, related to sharks, are distinctive shaped fish with “wings” and several species are found in the marine waters around Long Island including Winter, Barndoor, and Little Skates. 

The cases are sometimes called “mermaids purses,” a wonderfully colorful name, although I’ve never seen any items a mermaid would carry inside one. If you look closely you can see the broken seam, along one of the shorter edges, where the baby skate emerged.

The distinctive shell of Northern Moon Snails are another common item found by beachcombers and a common item on my shelf — with four prized specimens, including the largest I’ve ever seen, they are the second-most common item I have. (Various pinecones are the most common but that’s for a future column).

Moon snails are shellfish predators, possessing a massive foot that’s 3x to 4x the size of the shell when it spreads out that it uses to push through sand. If you’ve ever picked up a clam or mussel shell with a round little hole through it you’ve just picked up a Moon Snail victim. They use a specialized “tongue” called a radula to rasp their way into the shell of a bivalve. Once through the shell, the snail secretes a weak acid that helps dissolve the tissue of the clam or mussel which the snail slurps up.

Twice while beach combing I’ve found other evidence of a Moon Snail — a sandy, semi-circular collar made of sand grains held together by gluelike mucus the snail secretes. These are egg masses, an intact one shaped like a nearly closed letter “C” (the two I found were half of that as they are fragile and easily broken). Each collar contains scores of snail eggs which develop and hatch if not predated by smaller snails like oyster drills and periwinkles.

Rounding out the discussion of my study’s marine objects are two other shells: Jingle Shells and Slipper Shells — the first a bivalve, the second a species of snail. Jingle shells, get their name from the jingling sound they make if you shake a few together in your hand and are used to make wind chimes you’ll sometimes see hanging from beach houses. They are beautiful and iridescent, coming in several different colors — orange, yellow, white, and grey. Jingle shells are also known as “mermaid’s toenails.”

Slipper shells are also fascinating animals. All slipper shells start off as male but as they mature they become female. They often stack with the larger females on bottom and the smaller males on top, making the species a “sequential hermaphrodite.” Occasionally you’ll see a slipper shell attached to a horseshoe crab. These gifts and others await you on a stroll along Long Island’s hundreds of miles of shoreline.

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.

Long-tailed duck. Photo by Luke Ormand

By John L. Turner

In the early afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday I decided to explore McAllister County Park in the northwestern corner of the Village of Belle Terre with the goal of enjoying the stark winter landscape and seeing some winter birds, and secretly hoping to spy a Snowy Owl or Northern Shrike, winter visitors occasionally seen here, although none had been recently reported. 

This not-well-known county park is on the east side of Port Jefferson Harbor and consists of a mined out section of the Harbor Hill Terminal Moraine and a sand spit that extends west to the jetty connecting the harbor with Long Island Sound. This spit and the western one connected to Old Field embrace and enclose the Harbor, containing low-lying coastal dunes which are smaller versions typical of the south shore barrier islands, and are clad in characteristic dune vegetation carpeted in beach grass. But this article isn’t about plants and vegetation; rather it’s about ducks and one species in particular that I enjoyed watching that day — the Long-tailed Duck.

Long-tailed Ducks, so named because of their distinctive and elongated central tail streamers, are a winter visitor from Arctic breeding grounds to Long Island’s coastal waters, frequenting sheltered bays and harbors and near shore areas of the open ocean. They are one of nearly three dozen species of waterfowl (duck, swans, and geese) you can see on Long Island during the winter inhabiting the Island’s freshwater ponds, lakes and streams and the salty water bodies surrounding the Island.

As I walked along the jetty a skein of eight fast but low-flying ducks, which I immediately realized were Long-tailed Ducks, shot past and landed in the Harbor about 200 yards away. I was delighted to realize my walk along the coastline would take me past them and pass them I did. And it was serendipity that as I neared the small flock the ducks began to actively feed by diving, disappearing, and reappearing in a rather rhythmic pattern — feathered apparitions on wavelet waters.

In our waters Long-tailed ducks feed on clams, mussels, and crabs located on the harbor bottom; in general, they are well-known for their diving exploits and, in fact, this species is thought to be the deepest diving duck in the world. Being adept at diving so deeply has its risks, though, as Long-tails have been found drowned in fishing nets resting at a water depth of 180 feet.  

While it’s no longer a major ongoing source of mortality for the species, thousands of Long-tail ducks, overwintering in the Great Lakes, once routinely drowned in gill nets, according to reports published half a century ago.  Staggeringly, there are reports of hundreds of ducks drowning in a single gill net designed to catch whitefish, which on purpose remain suspended in the water column for several days.  In fact, in the winter of 1952-1953 19,562 ducks died from drowning in Lake Michigan alone!!! The same number had perished the year before.  

Long-tailed ducks breed throughout the Arctic region including North America and the broad swath of Siberia. The ducks take advantage of the tremendous hatch of insects and growth of freshwater plants during the short breeding season the Arctic provides. 

As summer melds into fall individual ducks head to open water with many coming south to Long Island and beyond. The birds here probably come from northern Quebec which may be fitting because the very vocal male ducks repeatedly make a call that sounds to me like the French phrase “ah alhoutte,” “ah alhoutte,” “ah alhoutte.” 

Indeed, Long-tailed ducks are among the most vocal of all ducks and is the reason the species was once called Old Squaw, a derogatory reference to talkative native American women. Even their Latin or scientific name references this garrulous nature as their generic name Clangula means “sound” or “noise.” I was not to be disappointed as the birds repeatedly called this “ah alhoutte” phrase after bobbing to the surface following their many-second submergent searches for sustenance.

Long-tailed ducks are both graceful and beautiful and if any duck can qualify as elegant it’s this species. Their winter plumage, which in an unusual occurrence is actually their breeding plumage, is like a photograph negative, being composed of varying shades of black, gray, and white: black back with graceful white scapular plumes arching over their shoulder, white sides, white top of the head, black side of the neck, black breast, white on the base and back of the neck and grey face with white eye arcs. Their pink bubble gum-colored bill, bracketed by black at the base and tip, provides the only bright color.

Like all birds, Long-tailed ducks molt their feathers, replacing worn out feathers with new, fresh ones. Unlike most waterfowl though, which molt twice yearly, Long-tails undergo a highly complicated molt and plumage sequence three times in a year involving a basic, alternate, and supplemental plumage; why this duck is unique among its waterfowl brethren in evolving this intricate feather replacement strategy- among the most complicated of the world’s many thousands of bird species — is not clear.

The experience with these lovely Longtails came to an end as they burst from the water, although I don’t know why they flushed, and took off together, rushing west toward the setting sun, with one bird “ah alhouetting” as it went. I’ll long remember this scene of the late afternoon sky and winter sun, reflecting off a wonderful slice of briny water, with trees lining the west edge of the harbor framing the scene, as these noisy Arctic visitors, gracing the harbor and my day,headed out into the open waters of Long Island Sound.

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

Many Long Islanders look forward to the winter. It’s a time for skiing, skating, sledding and building snow people. It’s the time of year to walk along quiet coastal shorelines devoid of the maddening crowds and, during the holidays, provides the opportunity to reconnect with family and friends. For folks inclined to stay indoors during the cold, it’s a time to catch up on best-selling books accompanied with the obligatory hot chocolate, wine or spirits of a stronger nature (a smooth tasting bourbon, anyone?).

My primary attraction of the winter? Waterfowl or, more precisely, ducks, swans and geese and the more the merrier! Each winter I look forward to the arrival of nearly three dozen colorful waterfowl species that fly south to overwinter on the Island’s ponds, lakes, harbors, bays and near-shore ocean waters, making our island one of the premier waterfowl viewing locations in North America. 

They join several species that are on Long Island year-round, such as mallards and mute swans. They arrive here from far-flung places where they’ve spent the breeding season: northern forested ponds, the tundra wetlands of the far north ranging above the Arctic Circle and North America’s “duck factory” — the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas, Montana and the prairie provinces of Canada.

All waterfowl are avian eye candy and, unlike many other birds that are challenging to identify because they constantly flit around, generally stay put on the water, giving the viewer ample opportunity to enjoy their rich tapestry of color and texture and to make the correct species identification. 

If you think I’m exaggerating about their beauty, as soon as you finish this article, look up the following species – wood duck, harlequin duck, redhead, common eider, hooded merganser, ring-necked duck and long-tailed duck (especially the male). Or how about the little butterball-shaped buffleheads, or the similarly small ruddy duck and green-winged teal. Let’s not forget common goldeneye, graceful northern pintail or larger northern shoveler, which uses its unique spatulated bill to feed on algae, duckweed and small aquatic animals available in freshwater ponds.

One duck I always look forward to seeing is the least showiest — the gadwall (one of the prairie pothole species). They overwinter on ponds throughout the Three Village area and are regular winter visitors on the pond at Frank Melville Memorial Park and the pond extending south of the Old Field Road bridge.

Take the time to look closely at a male gadwall and you’ll agree with one of the monikers birders’ call it -— the duck in the herringbone suit. The feathers are finely barred, with subtle reticulated patterns reminiscent of a maze diagram a child would try to solve; no surprise these beautiful little feathers are prized by fly fisherman for fly tying. As you watch gadwalls don’t be surprised if they turn “bottoms up,” plunging their heads below their surface with only their rumps showing as they feed on aquatic vegetation that sustains them through the winter.

Over the past decade us waterfowl aficionados have more reason to enjoy the winter season, as several “exotic” waterfowl species like barnacle and pink-footed geese have become regular visitors. These are species common to regions in Europe that have begun to nest in northeastern Canada and instead of crossing the Atlantic Ocean to overwinter in Europe, they head south to coastal New England and Long Island. 

And due to taxonomy (the science of biological classification) we get a new species of Canada goose called the cackling goose in our midst, identifiable by its smaller body and shorter neck.

To satisfy my seasonal waterfowl fix I recently visited the bluffs adjacent to the Old Field Lighthouse, overlooking Long Island Sound. I was in search of hardy sea ducks and I wasn’t disappointed. 

Focusing the 40× scope on the rafts of sea ducks, I was quickly rewarded by a wonderful collection of feathered beauty — common goldeneyes, red-breasted mergansers and several species of scoters (black, white-winged and surf).

Also bobbing in the waves was my favorite — the exotic looking long-tailed duck (a future article on this duck awaits). Common loons and a few gull species were sprinkled throughout the calm, near-shore waters. Many ducks were actively feeding, diving to the bottom to forage on mussels and snails. The weather was below freezing and I marveled at the birds’ abilities to thrive in such conditions without a problem.

Not so for me, as my fingers and feet were growing uncomfortably numb after an hour of standing in the relentless chill. But as I ambled back to the warmth of a car, with binoculars slung around my neck and birding scope on my shoulder, forefront in my mind were the beautiful images of all these ducks — an annual gift of the winter season I never tire of receiving. 

If you haven’t yet enjoyed taking a closer look at winter waterfowl, consider it a holiday present wrapped in pretty paper with a gaudy bow. I hope you take the time to unwrap this winter gift in the weeks ahead.

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 Luke Ormand

By John L. Turner

Like any avocation or hobby, nature study provides the opportunity to learn as much or as little as you like. For example, a natural place to start, and where many nature enthusiasts limit their level of learning, is to learn the name of a plant or animal − oh, that’s an eastern chipmunk, red-tailed hawk or “chicken-of-the-woods” mushroom. We feel we know something about the species if we know its name, right? 

But a person’s name − Heidi or John or Georgia or Carl or Patricia − provides you with the bare minimum about that person. Similarly, knowing what a plant or animal is called merely scratches the surface of what there is to know about it.

Photo by Luke Ormand

Many naturalists take a deeper dive, yearning to learn details of an organism’s “life history.” What does a red-tailed hawk’s nest look like and what is it made of? What types of animals does it prey upon? How many young are raised in a typical year? How many eggs does a female lay to make up a typical clutch and what do they look like? Does it migrate? If so, where to? Do male and female hawks look different? and so on.

These questions are straightforward and obvious, but the deepest dive for a naturalist is to explore much less obvious aspects of a plant or animal that reveal deeper, broader and more profound ideas, principles or phenomena. 

As an example let’s take the blue jay, a bird just about everybody knows since it’s a common species in suburbia, often frequenting backyard feeders and making jay! jay! sounds as pairs and packs fly about the neighborhood. Blue jays are wonderful examples in better understanding bird coloration and the character of the forests of eastern North America, especially after the last Ice Age ended approximately 20,000 years ago.

Let’s take bird coloration first. You may want to sit down for this since you’ll be shocked to know: Blue jay feathers aren’t blue! Bird feathers derive their colors in one of two basic ways − from pigments embedded in their feathers and from the microstructure in feathers that scatter certain color wavelengths. 

Most birds, those that are brown, black, yellow, orange and red (like a cardinal) owe their colors from the pigments embued in their feathers. In contrast, birds that are colored purple, and especially blue, appear the color they do because their feathers absorb all the other colors of the visible light spectrum except the color you’re seeing, which is reflected off the feathers to your eyes.

So what color is a blue jay feather? Actually a mousy grayish-brown that can be revealed by a simple experiment. If you find a blue jay feather (usually common in late summer after they have molted) hold it in your hand. 

At first hold it so you are between the feather and the sun with the sun illuminating it; the feather will look blue, as all the shorter wavelength blue light reflects back to you. Now, slowly move your arm in a half circle so the feather is between you and the sun. No blue will reflect at all given the angle, and the actual color of the blue jay’s feathers pigments is revealed: gray brown in color. If the blue in a blue jay were derived from pigments, holding it in that position would reveal a pale or washed out blue, but blue nonetheless.

(It should be mentioned that green-colored birds and iridescence like the male mallard’s head or the ruby-colored throat patch of the ruby-throated hummingbird are caused by more complex interactions between light reflection and feather pigments.)

Now on to the contribution blue jays have made to the forests of eastern North America. After the last Ice Age event, some 18,000-20,000 years ago, all of New York, New England and much of the Upper Midwest were devoid of trees; the forests that once existed there destroyed by the bulldozing activities of the advancing glaciers. Yet, today there are extensive oak forests many hundred miles north of the southernmost location to which the glaciers advanced.

Now, acorns are generally round and they’ll roll after falling from a tree but what’s the maximum distance − 25 feet? maybe 50 feet in extraordinary instances? Well, clearly mere gravity can’t explain the forests rebounding. Maybe we credit squirrels or chipmunks for dispersing the acorns? Given their modest home ranges of several acres each, they couldn’t be the agents of dispersal. So how to explain the reestablishment of these critically important forests? In large part we need to thank blue jays.

In the fall blue jays cache scores to hundreds of acorns, a staple of their diet through the winter, by carrying several at a time in their crop, a storage organ in the throat reminiscent of the pouches of a chipmunk. (We could discuss another fascinating aspect of blue jays and their relatives − crows, ravens and nutcrackers − their incomparable memory skills, being able to remember countless locations where they’ve cached seeds, acorns and pine nuts.) They’ll fly up to several miles to store their prized acorns so imagine the acorn that’s forgotten or never retrieved because a hawk killed the jay that stored it − it has the chance to become a mighty oak tree. And so miles at a time through nearly 200 centuries the oak forests returned.

Ever since I took the “deeper dive” and learned these two things − that blue jay looks are deceiving and their role as ecological engineers − I look at them with a new-found appreciation. 

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.

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

By John L. Turner

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

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

A male fiddler crab. Photo by Jay Gao

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

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

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

Fiddler crabs at Flax Pond. Photo by John Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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