Authors Posts by John Turner

John Turner


By John L. Turner

John Turner

Walking out to get the morning paper the other day I noticed a small flock of robins land in a large American Holly growing in a corner of the front yard. They had landed to get their breakfast — an abundance of bright red holly berries scattered in bunches throughout the tree that will fuel them through part of the 40 degree day. 

American Holly (Ilex opaca) is the most well-known member of the holly family on Long Island and one of our more distinctive native trees. Its leaves are unique, rigid with spines (to prevent browsing), and their dark green color gives rise to the Latin species name of opaca. Their flowers are whitish-green and are as inconspicuous as the berries are conspicuous. The attractive, tannish smooth-skin bark has distinctive “eyes,” locations where branches once grew. This is the tree — with its attractive contrasting colors of red and green — that’s seasonally associated with our holiday season. 

If you pay closer attention, you’ll soon realize that not all American Hollies display bright red berries. Some trees have an abundance of berries while many others have none at all. The former are female trees and the latter male trees. All hollies are dioecious, meaning they have either male or female flowers but not both on the same tree. 

This trait is fairly uncommon in the plant world (your garden asparagus is another example); more common are monoecious trees of which oaks, hickories, and maples are a few examples, in which a tree possesses both female and male flowers. And to complicate things a bit further: among plant species such as in the Rose family you have what are known as “perfect” flowers in which male parts (stamens) and female parts (pistils and ovaries) not only occur on the same plant but on the same flower.   

American Holly is widely distributed on Long Island and you can see scattered trees in many forest tracts but two places standout if you want to see a forest dominated by hollies: the maritime holly forest situated in the Sunken Forest at Fire Island National Seashore and the forests on the north side of the road in Montauk State Park (quite viewable along the trail that takes you out to the viewing blind overlooking the popular seal haul-out site located in the northwestern corner of the park). In the Sunken Forest, the unique forest that grows between the holly co-dominates the forest with shadbush and sassafras. It is a very rare type of forest known from very few locations, being ranked by the New York Natural Heritage Program as both an S1 and G1 community, in the state and world, respectively. Another fine example of a maritime holly forest is a two hour ride from western Long Island: the holly forests at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. 

American Holly has long been prized for its berries and foliage and there are accounts in older botanical books rueing the wanton cutting of holly foliage during the holiday season. One author remarks he was glad that the holly wasn’t often cut down, although its wood is hard and can be easily stained or shellacked, “since the depredations of the Christmas-green pickers take toll enough.”    

Inkberry (Ilex glabra), an attractive shrub that grows throughout Long Island, is a member of the holly family; it is especially abundant in low-lying areas in the Pine Barrens such as long streams and pond edges. An extensive stand of Inkberry is found along the Paumanok Path as it passes just north of Owl Pond in the Birch Creek/Owl Pond section of the Pine Barrens located in Southampton. 

Inkberry is a classic “coastal plain” species and, not surprisingly, its distribution in New York State is restricted to Long Island.  Inkberry prefers sand soils where the water table is shallow, i.e., not far below the surface. It is not typically found growing in standing water but right alongside wet areas where the roots can easily access moisture. The species name refers to the glabrous or very smooth nature of the attractive green foliage of the plant — hairy it is not! The common name refers, of course, to the dark blue berries that stain your fingers an inky-purple if you crush them.

The winterberries from the third group of holly members on Long Island and unlike the prior two groups are not evergreen, dropping their leaves each autumn. But they are holly members, nevertheless, as can be seen by a glance at their bright red berries. Smooth Winterberry (Ilex laevigata) and Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are the two more common species; Mountain Holly (Ilex mucronata) and Mountain Winterberry (Ilex montana) also occur here.   

Back to the robins on a late November day: as their feeding demonstrated, while not edible to humans (in fact, they are poisonous to humans and their pets), birds, including the beautiful cedar waxwing, readily eat the brightly advertised holly fruits, especially later in the winter season when other more highly-preferred berries (read: higher fat content) have disappeared. Thus, hollies play a helpful role in keeping nature’s cafeteria open through the tough stretch of late winter through early spring, helping to sustain songbird flocks overwintering on Long Island.  

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

Above, recycled wrapping paper from Wrappily.

A Column Promoting a More Earth-Friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

John Turner

According to several Internet sources Americans throw away 2.3 million pounds (1,150 tons) of wrapping paper each year, much during the holiday season. This is enough paper to circle our fragile planet 9 times! So, this holiday season, why not give a gift to the Earth by wrapping your presents with wrapping paper made from recycled paper. Better yet, use existing paper such as easily recycled newspaper or place the present in a reusable bag or wrapped in a reusable cloth.   

Above, recycled wrapping paper from Wrappily.

There are a few companies that offer wrapping paper made from recycled materials. Wrappily is one company that offers recycled wrapping paper; it’s made from newspaper. For those of the Jewish faith, Uncommon Goods also offers wrapping paper made from recycled materials; their products contain various Hanukkah designs.

There are a number of options if wrapping cloths, which can be used over and over again, interests you. These cloths, known as furoshiki, are popular in Japan as a means to conceal presents and are growing in popularity here.  Many companies offer these products on-line. When thinking about those you love this holiday season, don’t forget Mother Earth! 

Author Carl Safina with Alfie

Reviewed by John L. Turner

Perhaps it’s due to an owl’s forward facing eyes, imparting a humanlike aspect to its face, that is the source of the long-held belief that owls possess great wisdom and intelligence. Actually other birds, most notably members of the crow family like ravens, crow, and blue jays do best in intelligence tests but you wouldn’t know it from the photo of Alfie, a screech owl, that adorns the cover of Carl Safina’s new book Alfie & Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe. With an intense stare suggesting human level concentration possessing sickle shaped talons clutching the branch, Alfie is a vibrantly alive bird,  an impressive predator that fully “knows” how to be an owl.    

The book involves the author raising a young screech owl dealt a terrible hand that would have been a fatal one were it not for the intervention of the author. Along the way Alfie learns to become more independent, finds a mate and raises a family of three.     

Author Carl Safina

What becomes immediately clear and what I did not know despite being neighbors and friends of Carl and Patricia, but what I should have known given their abiding and deep interest in the natural world, is just how much time they spent closely watching Alfie reach her potential, blossoming into a fully functioning adult owl, one member of a five member family — all during the COVID pandemic. 

They both, but especially Carl, spent what must be hundreds of hours observing Alfie.  And as a reader of the book will soon discover, this world enlarges with the appearance of her mate Plus-One and the logical results of Plus-One appearing on the scene — three young baby screech owls. These babies, individually and together, are variously described as: “little spheres of fluffiness,” “a fat ball of a baby,” and a “fluff-jacketed cutie.” The quintet were named “The Hoo,” who together “remained down-jacketed, fluffy, light as the clouds above them.”

In this way the book is a classic story of a scientist delving deeply into the world of a wild animal, along the lines of Douglas Chadwick’s The Wolverine Way, Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven or Maria Mudd Ruth’s detailed study of the Marbled Murrelet in Rare Bird. There’s exploration and analysis, observation and interpretation, study and understanding, and most importantly the development of a strong relationship. 

What’s unique in Alfie & Me is this all takes place in an acre or so around their suburban home, and within that area most within a 50-foot envelope around the house. This story, the development of an intimate “around the house” wild bird-human relationship, ties Alfie & Me with Julie Zickefoose’s Saving Jemima, in which the author spends a good part of a year raising a blue jay to health and independence. There are many delightful parallels between the two books.  

Unlike Safina’s earlier books like Song for a Blue Ocean, A Sea in Flames, Voyage of the Turtle, and Eye of the Albatross, Alfie & Me, is more of an extension of, and elaboration upon, some of the concepts advanced in Safina’s three most recent books: The View from Lazy Point, Becoming Wild and Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. These later books explore the intellectual, emotional, and sensory world of animals, their societies and culture, and complexities in the relationship and attitudes of humans with other life forms, specifically, and the natural world generally. 

A fundamental aspect of the book is, of course, the interspecies relationship between a few humans and a few owls with colorful side notes on a few dogs and a flock of chickens; an overlapping connection between the one world of the two species, the author aptly emphasizing Alfie being able to place “a wing in ours, I, with a foot in hers.” Or “….the ability to walk the bridge Alfie had opened between their world and ours.”  

The Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) is one of two common woodland owls that find breeding habitat here on Long Island. Along with their much larger cousin, and sometimes mortal enemy the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), Screech Owls are surprisingly common in forests both large and small. Even parcels as small as ten acres are likely to host a breeding pair. Less common woodland owls here include Saw-whet (Aegolius acadicus) and Long-eared Owls (Asio otis) “whoo” are joined by open country visitors during the winter months — Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) and Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus), coastal and grassland inhabitants respectively.  

And unique to the owl species found in eastern North America, screech owls come in two color forms or morphs. Alfie and Plus-One are red or rufous morph individuals which is the more common form on Long Island. Or as Safina notes “a magical russet comet.” The grey form, however, is more common throughout the species range.  

Safina is a highly gifted writer, quite adept at turning a phrase and the book is replete with colorful imagery and strong sentences, to wit: “I have always felt that my generation existed in a time spanning the last good years and the beginning of the end of the world,” “The air was stock still. Leafy canopies of maples and the spires of cedars formed a denser darkness against the star-studded vault of space”,  and “If they fell to the ground, they’d still climb straight up a trunk, but they were also realizing that crossing distances involved flapping their interesting upper limbs. In a way, they were finding their inner owl.”  

This book would be a worthwhile read if all it presented was a highly articulate description of  screech owls and their behavior and ecology. But it’s so much more. Alfie provides a feathered springboard for the author to discuss how western thought, espoused by western thought leaders (think Descartes, Bacon, Dawkins, et al.) has led to the dangerous result and our current predicament where so many members of human society are estranged from animals and nature with the resultant deterioration of the global environment. Their “reductionist” thinking of animals as being nothing more than soulless machines incapable of thoughts, emotions, even the ability to feel pain, was all pervasive resulting in the view that humans commanded a lofty and unique perch above lowly forms of life that gave them full dominion over all animals.   

In contrast, Safina documents, Eastern and North American Indigenous cultures and religions held views that better harmonized humankind with the animal kingdom and the natural elements of the world. A world with more passion and less consumption. Clearly, the book is an exploration of proffered beliefs, strongly held. 

This book also is an exultation of life and living things, a fundamentally and qualitatively unique aspect in this otherwise lifeless universe, a concept that Safina notes and embraces and Alfie illustrates. Life is something worth celebrating, cherishing, and protecting. “The owls gave us the opportunity to pay attention. That was their main gift to us: to be present for a while in the always magical here and now.”

Through Safina’s prose we all can take delight in his decision to intercede and change what was clearly a fatal trajectory for Alfie. We are all the richer for his intervention. Safina ends: “It was amazing how quiet and empty the air could feel once you subtracted owls. But now I knew they were out there, livening up the nights with or without me. Yes, I felt an empty nester. But I’d been dealt a full house, a winning hand.”   

Both Carl and Alfie have a lot to say. And we gain pleasure in listening. Alfie & Me is a most important book and a most compelling and worthwhile read — we too have been dealt a winning hand. 

SCWA offers customer account credits of up to $150 for the purchase of water-saving devices.
A Column Promoting a More Earth-Friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

John Turner

In your travels you’ve probably seen in-ground lawn sprinklers watering someone’s yard or a corporate lawn in the midst of a downpour. Such a scene indicates a system lacking a rain sensor, a device that prevents an irrigation system from operating when it’s raining or shortly after it’s rained. 

If you have an irrigation system but lack a rain sensor this piece of equipment can save you money in the long run and help conserve water. Misuse of water can result in lowering the water table elevations in our vulnerable aquifer system  resulting in the drying up of wetlands adversely affecting wetland dependent wildlife species such as turtles, fish, and frogs. It can also result in salt water intrusion in coastal areas which can be detrimental to public water supply wells. 

We each have a role to play in safeguarding our drinking water supply, so if you have an in-ground irrigation system but lack a rain sensor why not purchase one and install it. As an incentive the Suffolk County Water Authority is offering a $75 “water wise” credit for rain sensors and a $150 “water wise” credit for smart irrigation controller/timers. Information is available at Not only will these devices ensure you don’t waste water but over the long term will put a few extra dollars in your pocket. 

A cluster of cranberries. Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

John Turner

In a few weeks you’ll most likely be sitting down around a table with family members to enjoy an annual Thanksgiving Day meal with all the fixings: turkey, stuffing and gravy, mashed and sweet potatoes, green beans, and cranberries or cranberry sauce. The cranberries and/or sauce probably came from a commercial bog in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Oregon, or New Jersey, the states where large commercial cranberry bogs exist today. 

And here’s a surprise: If you had sat down to this same blessed feast about a century ago, there’s a strong likelihood the cranberries you enjoyed were harvested from a commercial bog situated somewhere on Long Island, probably from one of a dozen or so located in the Pine Barrens. Indeed, a century to a century and a half ago Long Island was the third largest supplier of cranberries to the nation.         

Cranberries, being related to blueberries and other heaths, have an affinity to sandy, acid soils so the Long Island Pine Barrens, or more specifically wetlands in the Pine Barrens, provided highly suitable habitat to create bogs and cultivate cranberries.  

Most of these commercial bogs were located within the large watershed of the Peconic River, flowing easterly through the Pine Barrens, including three of the river’s four tributaries — the Fox/Sandy Pond area, Swan Pond, and the Swezey’s Pond/Little River draining north from Wildwood Lake — and on the main stem of the river itself just west of where Edwards Avenue crosses over it (just north of Exit 71 of the Long Island Expressway). 

Long Island’s first cranberry bog was established on the Brown’s River in Bayport around 1870; today most of it is within the 316-acre San Souci County Park and Camp Edey, a 95-acre owned by the Suffolk County Council of Girl Scouts.    

The Woodhull Bog, where Cranberry Bog County Nature Preserve is situated, was perhaps the most commercially successful bog but its success was far from a sure bet when the Woodhull brothers embarked on their effort to convert low-lying swamp habitat to a cranberry bog. Here, they spent four years, beginning in 1885 years, ripping out countless trees and shrubs, damming up the Little River tributary with an earthen dike, placing a several inch blanket of sand on the organic peat of the bog, installing perimeter and internal ditches throughout the bog to ensure rapid water coverage, and, of course, planting thousands of cranberry vines. (With the adoption of the New York State Freshwater Wetlands Act, and local wetland laws, this kind of activity fortunately cannot legally happen now on Long Island). 

Workers harvest cranberries by flooding the area. Pixabay photo

In 1889 the first harvest was achieved with a whopping 10 bushels provided by the bog. The next year was better with 90 bushels produced and the upward trend continued in 1891 with 500 bushels. In 1892 the  vines were three to four years old and had really matured and the tally for the year shows, with 21,100 bushels, going for about $2 a bushel, at market.  For many years after that the bog remained profitable and productive.  Other bogs like the Brown’s Bog in Calverton and the Davis Bog further west in Manorville were also productive and profitable. No wonder they called it Red Gold!

In the early years cranberries were picked by hand, the hands provided by hundreds of residents who gained supplemental income each autumn harvesting berries. Bog operators used a simple but ingenious strategy to ensure maximum crop harvest among the distracted workers busily chatting and socializing while picking.  They laid down parallel rows of  string like bowling alleys; each picker had an easier job of making sure all the berries within their “alley” were harvested.  

The cranberry scoop was soon invented and provided a more efficient means to harvest berries. The wooden scoop, a popular item in antique stores, had tines like a fork,  spaced apart a distance just slightly less than the width of a cranberry.  Scoops gave way to mechanized equipment that was more efficient still and once bog owners/operators learned that ripe cranberries float they began to flood the vine-filled bogs and turned to powerful vacuum hoses to suck up the crop. You may have seen Ocean Spray commercials with harvesters up to their chests in a bright red surface of floating berries. Today, a few  people can do the job that once required dozens. 

Flooding the bogs, also done to prevent a seasonal frost from destroying the crop, and over the winter to protect the vines from freezing temperatures, meant a reliable water supply had to be available and this was the case for every Long Island bog. 

For the Woodhull Bog this was the water from Swezey’s Pond, created by the aforementioned earthen berm. For the Davis Bog, water was supplied from Swan Pond. When an operator wished to flood the bogs to protect the berries or vines, or to facilitate autumn harvest, they would remove the wooden boards nestled in the concrete part of the dam next to the water supply source and install the boards at the outlet of the bog. A motor would kick on and spin a driveshaft attached to a large belt connected to a paddlewheel and water would quickly flood the bog. In spring the reverse would occur. 

A cranberry bush. Pixabay photo

To allow for bees and other pollinators to access the cranberry flowers (the name cranberry is thought to have derived from the name “crane berry”, a reference to how the flowers look similar to the head of a crane) boards would be installed in the slots of the concrete dam next to the water supply and boards removed from the far end of the bog, thereby draining it.     

By the 1920’s nearly a dozen bogs were in operation here. But about 15 years later it was down to six, according to a fine article by Tim Huss published in the New York Almanack. Long Island had several problems that made cranberry production less profitable — there were no processing facilities to make value-added products and the costs of labor and land were higher, reflected in higher property taxes, when compared with other more rural areas.

Cranberries, like most agricultural monocultures, are afflicted by pests and such was the case with Long Island’s cranberry bogs. Two notorious pests were (and still are) the cranberry fruit worm and black-headed fireworm which affects both the fruit and leaves. Cranberry producers turned to chemical means in an attempt to control the insects, with amino triazole being the pesticide of choice. This pesticide soon was in the crosshairs of the then Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). 

On “Cranberry Black Monday,” November 9, 1959, HEW declared amino triazole a carcinogen (cancer causing). The cranberry market was dealt a severe blow with even Mamie Eisenhower declaring she was foregoing the traditional cranberry sauce at the White House Thanksgiving Dinner in a few weeks, serving apple sauce instead. Untold cartons and cans of cranberries and sauce languished on supermarket and warehouse shelves.      

A cluster of cranberries. Pixabay photo

The Davis Bog in Manorville was the only cranberry bog to survive this event. For years they sold their berries to the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (remember A&P supermarkets around Long Island?), but the bogs south of Swan Pond were harder and harder to maintain and in 1974 this last cranberry bog ceased operation. The Long Island cranberry industry was no more. 

If you want to gain some sense of the industry that was once so vital to Long Islanders both as a source of food and employment, a visit to the Suffolk County Cranberry Bog Nature Preserve south of the Suffolk County Center in Riverhead is in order. A small dirt parking lot provides parking and a wide trail leads to Swezey’s Pond which was the water supply source to the Woodhull Bog. 

A picturesque trail runs around the pond (I like to walk it in counter-clockwise fashion) and by hiking the trail you’ll see where sand was excavated to make the earthen dike, the dike itself, a few of the perimeter ditches that once lined the edge of the bog, and a concrete pump house near where the stream drains from the pond into the bog. If you visit during the warmer months you should see turtles, numerous birds, dragonflies, and waterlilies. Better yet, go in the colder weather, say the day after Thanksgiving, as a way to burn off the calories from all that turkey, gravy, and cranberry sauce you ingested with relish the day before.       

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

Participants of the 2023 Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch. Photo by Kathy Ishizuka

By John Turner and Patrice Domeischel

The 2023 season of the Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch, run by the Four Harbors Audubon Society (4HAS) in cooperation with Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket, came to a close on Oct. 6 with 36 Common Nighthawks observed, many of which circled overhead as they actively fed on aerial insects above both ponds. We suspected the birds were feeding on a recent hatch of aquatic insects — midges, gnats, etc. — supplied by the nurturing waters of the ponds.

The Watch runs annually from 5:30 p.m. to dusk from Aug. 27 to Oct. 6, and is designed to count Common Nighthawks migrating from New England and eastern Canada during their southbound autumn migration. Many pass over Long Island on their journey to the Amazon region of South America so Long Island serves as a “migratory motel” for this species.  

The seasonal total was 1,022 nighthawks, by far the lowest total 4HAS has tallied in the seven years we’ve been conducting the count. Previous totals (year — number of common nighthawks seen) were: 2017 — 2,046; 2018 — 2,018; 2019 — 2,757; 2020 — 2,245; 2021 — 1,819, 2022 — 1,625; 2023 — 1,022. 

We don’t have a clear reason why the total was so much lower than in past years.  The numbers were “dampened” somewhat by three days in a row of rainy weather at the Watch, the first time this has ever happened. We speculate the fires that have raged for so long in eastern Canada, where some common nighthawks breed, also played a role in either affecting reproductive success or shifting their migrational movements away from smoke and Long Island. 

We thank the many dozens of people who visited the Watch this year including two individuals from California and one from New Zealand! It was fun to be able to tally nighthawks together and to marvel at their abilities in flight and their long distance migratory exploits. 

It was also rewarding to answer the questions posed by inquisitive visitors to the park as they walked by on the Stone Bridge, inquiring what the crowd of birders were doing. Hundreds of individuals now know a little bit more about nighthawk ecology and migration and the challenges these birds face as they head to overwinter in the Amazon. 

Visitors also learned about the current plight many migratory birds face and what they can do to help birds, such as putting decals on their windows, making their pet cat an indoor cat, drinking shade-grown coffee, and limiting the use of pesticides and other chemicals. 

See you next August! 

John Turner and Patrice Domeischel are members of the Four Harbors Audubon Society.

Photo from Long Island Repair Cafe Facebook
A Column Promoting a More Earth-Friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Visit a Repair Café! 

All too often in our throwaway society an appliance that no longer functions is thrown away and a new one purchased. Setting aside the fact there really is no “away” on our planet, many items can be readily fixed or repaired, preventing the item from taking up space at the local landfill. Enter the Repair Café which has a neat mission: “To transform our throwaway society one item at a time.” 

As their website indicates, Repair Cafés are meeting places where you can bring an item that needs repair to local volunteers who have the expertise to fix them. There is a cost for a replacement part, but the labor is provided for free. There are 191 Repair Cafés in the United States and nearly 2,500 cafés worldwide, most of which are in Europe. 

What types of items can be fixed? A partial list includes jewelry, clothing, various tools (including those which need sharpening), lamps, many types of small appliances, some furniture such as chairs, vacuum cleaners, bicycles, and toys.   

While the main office for Long Island Repair Café (they have a Facebook page) is at 1424 Straight Path in Wyandanch, run by Starflower Experiences, an environmental educational organization, volunteers host repair cafés throughout Long Island. The main office can be reached at (516) 938-6152. 

If you don’t want to visit a local Repair Café, the website: has more than 60,000 video guides illustrating how to repair a particular item. With the convenient availability of actual and virtual repair capabilities at your beckon call, it’s easier to follow their motto: “Toss It? No way — Repair Cafe.”

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


'Music of the Birds'

By John L. Turner

John Turner

From time to time I’m asked a variation of the following question: What bird-nature-environmental books did I enjoy reading or am currently reading?  This got me thinking — why not share the Nature Matters column to explore some of my favorite books on aspects of nature including a first article on birds. So beginning with this column focused on birds, future articles will focus on what I think are broader important and worthwhile books on nature and our relationship with it including numerous environmental struggles, the personalities involved in these struggles, and broader issues of planetary sustainability.

Tens of millions of Americans have an interest in birds, an interest that ranges from  mild to downright intense. Many authors have catered to this, producing thousands of books on a wide variety of bird related topics — bird identification (a future column itself on guides), migration, feathers, coloration, adventures to see birds, how to be a better birder, bird song, bird flight, the history of ornithology and birding, and conservation issues, to name a few. Hundreds of more technical books on birds have been written on such topics as evolution, anatomy and physiology, and mating systems.

So the following are a few of the books on birds I recommend you consider cracking the covers of: 

There are a number of books that are overviews of the avian world that should serve as the core of any bird library. Birds & People by Mark Cocker is an example. It is a tome,  coming in at 591 pages, and as you might guess is exhaustive in its treatment — covering all of the world’s bird families with the author providing fascinating information about each bird group with an emphasis on human interactions, folklore, and cultural significance.  

Another book that has a slightly different format but is richly informative is The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior (numerous authors). It, too, discusses the unique qualities of different bird families but before the family discussion has five chapters that delve into great detail about Flight, Form, and Function; Origins, Evolution, and Classification; Behavior; Habitats and Distributions; and Populations and Conservation. If I were able to recommend only one book for your nightstand to increase the breadth and depth of your knowledge about birds it would be this book.      

Yet another book in this genre — a comprehensive overview of birds — is Kenn Kaufman’s Lives of North American Birds. Here the author focuses at the species level rather than the family, providing basic and important information about various aspects of specific birds’ life histories such as diets and habitats used.  Also worth your consideration is the comprehensive species guide — Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion.

Shore birds — sandpipers, plovers, and the like — are one of my favorite groups of birds and they have been the focus of a number of books. Two classics are Peter Matthiessen’s The Wind Birds and Fred Bodsworth’s Last of the Curlews, a story about the sickening demise of the Eskimo Curlew, a bird once common on Long Island but now believed extinct due to the rapaciousness of uncontrolled sport and market hunting. Perhaps these books can be secured on eBay or at a used bookstore.  

The World of the Shorebirds by Harry Thurston is another worthwhile addition to your bird library replete with stunning photographs of shorebirds and the wetland habitats they frequent.

More recently, the red knot, a plump robin-colored shorebird which has declined precipitously in abundance, has been the subject of a few books including Moonbird by Phillip Hoose, The Flight of the Red Knot by Brian Harrington, and The Narrow Edge by Deborah Cramer. The first book chronicles the life of a single red knot that has lived long enough during its annual migrations to have traveled the distance to the moon and halfway back, the second a straightforward overview of the species, and the last book exploring the relationship between red knots and horseshoe crabs, the eggs of which the bird depends upon on its northbound journeys in the Spring.      

If bird intelligence is of interest to you The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman should be on your mandatory reading list. As the title suggests this book covers many fascinating aspects of bird intelligence and memory. Take, for example, the Clark’s Nutcracker, a western species, that can successfully find tens of thousands of seeds its cached scattered across several square miles, displaying memory prowess that put ours to shame.   

The Bird Way is another book by Ackerman which probes the ways in which birds talk, work, think, and play. It contains one of the most startling things I’ve ever read about bird behavior: apparently some Australian raptors (e.g. hawks and eagles), knowing how it is easier to capture animals fleeing from a wildfire, are known to pick up smoldering sticks and drop them away from a fire in an effort to expand or start a fire!     

Many books have been written about birds and their singing prowess. One of my favorites is Lang Elliot’s Music of the Birds: A Celebration of Bird Song. Besides containing many beautiful color photographs and highly informative text on the function of song, the difference between calls and songs, and how song has inspired humans for millennia, etc., the book comes with a CD filled with bird songs, calls, and the famous “dawn chorus.” 

Three outstanding books on bird migration, definitely worth your time, are A Season on the Wind by Kenn Kaufman and A World on the Wing and Living on the Wind by Scott Weidensaul. In these books the two authors document their experiences traveling around the world trying to better understand the fascinating movement of migratory birds. Songbird Journeys by Miyoko Chu is another enjoyable book on this topic.  

If the global movement of birds excites you then Eye of the Albatross by Carl Safina is a most worthwhile read.  An outstanding nature writer, Safina chronicles the travels and travails of Amelia, a wide-ranging albatross; besides learning about albatross migration and biology and aspects of the ocean environment, Amelia is a “window” for understanding the struggles all wildlife face on a planet being increasingly usurped by humans.   

Two very different books by Bridget Stutchbury are worthy reads: Silence of the Songbirds and The Private Lives of Birds: A Scientist Reveals the Intricacies of Avian Social Life. The former discusses the threats facing birds in today’s wounded world while the latter focuses on how birds interact.  

Back to Peter Matthiessen, we have his delightful overview of the world’s cranes in The Birds of Heaven. An added bonus are the beautiful paintings by Robert Bateman. The author travels around the world learning about this iconic and charismatic group of birds including the two species native to North America — Whooping and Sandhill Cranes.   

Lastly, if you’d like to see a current, real world example of bird evolution happening before your very eyes I invite you to read The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner, for which the author won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. In this fine book the author documents the extensive studies of Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have spent their lives documenting changes to the various finches (and their bills) that live in the Galapagos Islands located off the west coast of South America and made famous by Charles Darwin.    

As Long Island turns away from summer and colder weather arrives, driving most of us indoors, why not explore the fascinating avian worlds presented in these books (and many others not covered here!) All you need is a glass of wine, a comfortable chair, and a curious mind.  

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

Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

As described in the article on navigating the night sky in winter (Nature Matters/November 2021), which used the constellation of Orion as a starting point, it’s equally important to have a beginning point for learning the stars and constellations of the summer sky. The best object? Without a doubt it’s the Big Dipper, which, surprisingly, is not a constellation itself (being what’s known as an asterism) but part of a larger constellation of the Big Bear or Ursa Major. 

Start by learning the outline of the seven conspicuous stars that comprise the Big Dipper (four make up the bowl and three the handle). Two of the stars of the bowl — the two furthest from the handle — form the “pointer stars” which lead to finding the North Star which is the base of the handle of the Little Dipper, also an asterism. 

The North Star is in a straight line about five times the distance the pointer stars are apart. Knowing the North Star will always help you if you get lost! If you move back a bit toward the Big Dipper you’ll see the four stars that comprise the bowl of the Little Dipper, if it’s sufficiently dark.  The brightest of these stars, Kochab, is also known as the “Guardian of the Pole”. 

If you continue on a line through the North Star but bend it slightly to the right you’ll come to a distinctive constellation that is shaped like the letter “w” or “m” or “e” or number “3” depending on the time of night.  (I stayed up late to watch the Perseid meteor shower in mid-August and watched over many hours as the constellation went from a “w” to the number 3 to the letter “m”).  You’ve arrived at the constellation of Cassiopeia, the Queen. 

If you have a very clear sky you’ll notice that the constellation is within a fuzzy band of countless stars that make up our very own Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers tell us that our solar system is situated about halfway out on one the galaxy’s spiral arms about 26,000 light years from its center. 

Speaking of galaxies you can use Cassiopeia to locate another galaxy — the nearby Andromeda Galaxy. If you visualize the constellation being oriented like the letter “w,” locate the two lower stars of the letter. The lower star to the south or to the right is a little bit lower and fairly bright. This is the star Schedar. If you drop a line about the width of Cassiopeia and a little to the right you should see a fuzzy patch. If you do, congratulations! as you’re looking at the Andromeda Galaxy — the most distant point the unaided eye can see in the universe — about 2.5 million light years away. Said another way that’s about 5.8 trillion miles away multiplied by 2.5 million. If I did the math correctly that’s 12,936,000,000,000,000,000 or 1.29 x 10(15th power) miles away or 1.29 quadrillion miles. That’s a long trip on your bicycle, no? 

Going the other way — arcing from the handle of the Big Dipper “arcs you to Arcturus,” the brightest star in the constellation of Bootes the Herdsman or Hunting Farmer.  Whoever saw a herdsman from this pattern of stars in which Arcturus forms the right knee must have been imbibing a bit too much as I can’t begin to make out anything resembling a person. Arcturus is spectacular, a red giant — a senior citizen among stars — with a diameter about 25X as large as our sun’s.  Arcturus is Greek for “keeper or follower of the bear”, a reference to its proximity to Ursa Major, which as mentioned contains the Big Dipper.  

I think Bootes looks much more like a kite or especially an ice cream cone (who doesn’t think of ice cream on summer nights, right)? with a small dollop of ice cream on top. Why a small dollop? Because much of the ice cream has fallen off the left side of the cone in the form of a small half circle of stars known as the Northern Crown or Corona Borealis. Native Americans report this constellation reminded them of a camp circle. 

And what constellation in the form of a strongman lies next to this fallen scoop of ice cream? Hercules, of course, made strong from eating so much of the tasty stuff.  This constellation doesn’t have any especially bright stars but, by his left shoulder, lies the Great Cluster of Hercules, which appears in ideal conditions as a milky smudge, visible with binoculars. It consists of about 100,000 stars! The cluster was discovered in 1714 by Edmond Halley, of Halley’s Comet fame. It is a mere 25,000 light years away. 

If you look to the side of Hercules away from the Corona Borealis you’ll see a very bright star — Vega, in the constellation of Lyra, the Harp. Vega is the brightest star in the summer sky and forms one of the three points of the other famous summer asterism — the Summer Triangle, which forms a pretty good rendition of an isosceles triangle. Deneb in Cygnus, the Swan and Altair, in Aquila the Eagle form this highly noticeable triangle.      

Let’s close by looking south. If you are in a place where you can see pretty low in the southern horizon you should be able to see two constellations that resemble their names — Sagittarius, the Archer (also known as the Teapot) and Scorpius, the Scorpion. In Sagittarius the handle of the teapot is to the left and the spout to the right. The teapot is boiling over and the stream of steam in the form of a milky band you see emanating from the spout is our Milky Way galaxy. If you view this constellation as an archer, he is shooting to the right aiming at the Scorpion.

Speaking of the Scorpion, its stinging tail is near Sagittarius and its pincers further away.  The brightest star, Antares, is quite visible and appears to have a reddish hue. Like the aforementioned Arcturus it is a red giant too, making it a senior citizen among stars, nearing the end of its life. It is estimated to be 300 times larger than our sun!     

While the weather is warm and comfortable, get outside and become starry eyed! There’s so much to see and behold in the heavens over your head.

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

METRO photo
A Column Promoting a More Earth-Friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Make your next pet kitten an indoor one…

According to the American Bird Conservancy and other researchers, the number one cause for wild bird mortality  is by free ranging outdoor cats each year. Experts estimate that upwards of 2.5 billion (yes billion with a “b”!) wild birds are killed annually by cats including many species that frequent bird feeders such as cardinals, chickadees, and woodpeckers. Additionally, several billion small mammals— such as voles and mice— which form the base of natural food chains and webs, are also killed, reducing the availability of these animals for predators such as hawks and owls which depend upon them.  

While it can be very difficult to turn a current outdoor pet cat into an indoor pet cat, this is not the case with a new pet that has no expectation or habit to go outside. Being an indoor cat has other obvious benefits to both the cat and cat owner — no worry about being hit by a car, getting into a fight with another cat or animal, or picking up a disease. 

A significant majority of dog owners don’t let their dogs run free because of the havoc they can cause. If cat owners embrace the same belief and responsibility not only will their pet benefit but many types of wildlife will be much better protected, allowed to live out their wild lives free from the risk of pet cat predation.  

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

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