Nature Matters

The banning of DDT in the United States in 1972 helped the bald eagle population rebound. Photo by John Dielman

By John L. Turner

John Turner

If ecologists have revealed anything from the thousands of studies of nature and its countless components, relationships, and interactions, it is the extent to which life is interconnected, with the fate of so many living things interwoven with the fate of others. Many of these studies have shown how species are tied together in many unforeseen ways, built on complex webs and relationships. 

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, knew this truism when he wrote about the “intricate tapestry of the natural world” and perhaps best reflected by his famous comment “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” 

Aldo Leopold, perhaps the most impactful conservationist this country has produced, understood this too, expressing it in a slightly different way: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Leopold recognized that adversely affecting one species in a natural community can trigger a set of undesirable ecological actions that  ripples throughout the community. 

There are many straightforward examples illustrating the ecological “ties that bind.” 

One basic concept involves food chains, constructs that help us to understand the connection of one species with another in “eat and be eaten” relationships and the pesticide DDT, banned long-ago, illustrates how species along a food chain can be connected.  DDT was once widely used throughout the United States (and still is used in other parts of the world) and commonly applied on Long Island in the 1950’s and 60’s in an effort to control mosquitoes, especially salt marsh species. 

The DDT in water was assimilated into algae and other phytoplankton, that were fed upon by zooplankton, and many species of zooplankton were, in turn, eaten by small fish who were consumed by larger fish. The larger fish were consumed by fish-eating birds like ospreys, bald eagles, pelicans, and cormorants. 

DDT is fat soluble and not easily excreted so it increased in concentration in the animals higher on the food chain, to the point that in birds it interfered with their ability to lay viable eggs. A loss of viable eggs meant declines in the abundance of these species.  DDT served as an unfortunate illustration of how food chains and webs worked, connecting phytoplankton and zooplankton (species lower on a food chain) to fish and ultimately to birds (higher on the food chain). 

In reality, the world is a much more complicated place and an ecosystem can have numerous food chains that interconnect in a larger and more comprehensive food web, resulting in “cause and effect” relationships that might not be apparent at first. 

As an example, let’s take Yellowstone National Park. For much of the twentieth century the National Park Service had a wrongheaded and myopic  policy of eradicating timber wolves within park boundaries, resulting in burgeoning populations of elk and deer that, in turn, increased browsing and grazing of the Park’s small trees, shrubs and grasses.  

The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park restored the park’s ecosystem. Photo from Pixabay

Wolves were reintroduced into the Park in 1995 and almost immediately created a cascade of effects that rippled throughout Yellowstone. Wolves disrupted elk herds, their primary prey, allowing for their preferred habitat — riverbanks of willows and aspens — to recover. This new growth provided breeding habitat for a variety of songbirds and the shade the trees created helped fish populations. Beaver increased (there was but one beaver colony when the wolves were brought back; now there are nine) responding to the new, fresh tree growth. Their constructed dams created impoundments for aquatic invertebrates and fish and freshwater marshes where moose and mink occurred. 

Coyotes declined due to wolf predation which allowed for foxes to increase and wolf introduction also benefited grizzly bears who had more berries to eat due to lessened browsing by elk. Prey carcasses also sustained a number of other species like lynx, wolverines, eagles, raven and magpies, grizzly bears just emerging from hibernation, and even beetle species. Ecologists have documented changes down to the diversity of microbes in the soil as a result of wolves reestablishment!   

Closer to home we have the case of the diamondback terrapin. A beautiful reptile with strongholds in the bays and harbors of Long Island’s north shore, it plays an important role in maintaining the health of salt marsh environments in which it lives. With very strong jaws, hard food objects are fair game and terrapins routinely eat several snail species, helping to keep them in check. A good thing because some of the snails feed on marsh grass (Spartina) and if their populations were not controlled it could result in the loss of marshes and the numerous attendant benefits salt marshes provide in the form of food production, attenuating coastal flooding, softening the impacts of coastal storms, and providing habitat for so many plant and animal species.  

A last example underscores how a species can help knit together two distant places with ramifications on human health — in this case India and East Africa. There’s a dragonfly known as the wandering glider and remarkably millions migrate across the Indian Ocean each year, leaving the rice patties and other wetlands where they were born and overwintering in East Africa. Here, they are voracious predators of mosquitoes, many of which carry malaria, an affliction which can be fatal if untreated. Scientists noted an increase in malaria cases in East Africa and tied it back to a reduction in dragonflies caused by pesticide use in Indian wetland pools.   

As these examples illustrate the natural world is an exceptionally complex interwoven tapestry of life with many unforeseen connections. You can understand why Frank Edwin Egler, an American botanist, observed “Nature is not more complicated than you think, it is more complicated than you CAN think.” 

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.

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Walking along the edge of an uneven row of withered goldenrods, adorned with countless fuzzy heads brimming with seeds, I noticed some bird movement in the lower branches of the shrubs interspersed among the flowers. Lots of movement in all directions as the small earth-toned birds flitted up and down, toward and away from me. I was in the presence of a flock of fourteen white-throated sparrows actively feeding on the ubiquitous goldenrod seed. Their presence was a nice welcome to my morning. 

The white-throated sparrow is a most handsome bird, possessing, as its name makes clear, a distinctive white throat patch (its Latin name is Zonotrichia albicollis with albicollis meaning “white-necked”). Even more prominent in this species are the five bold longitudinal black and white head stripes (three white and two black) with a pretty splash of yellow just behind the bill in a place known as the lores on the two lateral white stripes.   

There’s an interesting story about these light-colored head stripes that underscores how the natural world is much more complex than it may, at first, appear.  These stripes come in two distinct colors: white and tan, so a sparrow may be a tan-striped white-throated sparrow or a white-striped white-throated sparrow. This color difference is genetically based, apparently due to a single chromosome part inverting while going through mitosis — remember genetics from high school biology class? In a case of mistaken identity John James Audubon thought white-striped individuals were male while tan-striped birds female, a reasonable assumption given the fact more colorful birds are typically male. You can see this mistake in his illustration of the species in his famous “Birds of America.”

Birds of the same species that display different plumages are referred to as “morphs” or “forms.” The Eastern Screech Owl is another local example of a bird species that exhibits morphs, having two colorful forms — grey and rufous birds. The Parasitic Jaeger, a gull-like bird occasionally seen in the ocean off the island’s south shore has three color morphs — light, intermediate, and dark.

White-throated sparrow

And you might reasonably think that white-striped males would always select a white-striped female as a mate and the same with tan-striped individuals, but it’s actually just the opposite. White-striped males overwhelmingly prefer tan-striped females (and vice versa) while tan striped males select white-striped females (also vice versa), a concept ecologists fancily refer to as “negative assortative mating.” Researchers have determined the morphs behave differently with white-striped birds being more aggressive but with less adept parenting abilities than tan-striped birds.  These two traits seem to balance out as the two morphs are about equally represented in the species overall.  

White-throated sparrows don’t breed on Long Island (with very few noted records) but are common winter visitors and one of the more common species to visit bird feeding stations, often feeding on the millet and other grain that spills to the ground.  If white-throated sparrows come to your feeders try to distinguish the two color morphs and note any difference in behaviors. As mentioned above, research suggests the white-striped forms are more aggressive and tend to dominate tan-striped individuals. Have you observed this? 

As winter melds into spring you might hear the distinctive song of this sparrow. One of the bird’s colloquial names — Old Sam Peabody — comes from its song that seems like it’s saying that fella’s name with a few extra Peabody’s thrown in at the end. Others liken it to My Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada. I think the second description is a wee bit more accurate both because it sounds closer to the bird’s song and because the species breeds across a broad swath of forest in our country neighbor to the North.  

Another common winter visitor to bird feeders is a sparrow that doesn’t much look like  one, as it doesn’t have the earth-tone browns and tans typical of most sparrow species.  It’s the Slate-colored or Dark-eyed Junco or as the famous New York naturalist John Burroughs called them  “snowbirds” since they often appear in New York around the time of the season’s first snowfall.  

A widespread breeder across North America (but not Long Island as it breeds further north) this species consists of 15 subspecies many of which look different, giving rise to distinctive names such as the white-winged, pink-sided, red-backed, and gray-headed juncos. Given their distinctive morphological differences, which is thought to have occurred a few thousand years ago, this species appears to be on its way to evolving into several other species. If we can hang around for a few thousand more years we might find out the answer. 

The junco (it’s Latin name is hyemalis meaning “of the winter”) is a handsome bird with “our” subspecies being dark grey on top with white on the belly and under the tail.  Females are tinged with brown on top. Both sexes have triangular pink bills, the color of bubble gum, which they use to capture insects, collect seeds and berries, and/or the food you put out in your feeders.   

Dark-eyed Junco

Speaking of feeders, according to Project FeederWatch, run by the Cornell University’s Project Laboratory of Ornithology, the Dark-eyed Junco is recorded at more feeders in North America than any other bird. 

Another plumage trait all juncos share are outer tail feathers that range from partially to fully white. These bright white “banner marks” are examples of deflective coloration and are a feature commonplace in birds. It’s hypothesized their function is to confuse predators or deflect their attack to a non-lethal part of a bird’s body but this purpose has not been proven experimentally beyond a reasonable doubt so the purpose remains  conjectural. The Eastern Meadowlark and American Robin are other examples of birds exhibiting banner marks. 

Another interesting aspect of junco life is that not all birds overwinter in the same area. Generally male juncos, both adult and young, overwinter in more northern locales while females migrate further south. The reason for this seems to be the desire for male birds to be closer to prime breeding territories, the adults to reclaim them and younger males in an effort to quickly find an available territory. Females have no such worries and can benefit from more moderate climates to the south.

So, what at first appears to be two nice uncomplicated winter visitors visiting your feeding station actually reveal, like when the layers of an onion are peeled back, a reality with complexity and depth possessed by all living creatures that share our world.

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

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.

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.

'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.

Photo by Rajesh Rajput/Unsplash

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Travis and I got our chairs positioned to be comfortable waiting for the show to begin. Facing west about a half hour after sunset on this July 4th evening, Venus dominated the sky shining brightly over a dark grey bank of clouds. 

And then the show began, first a bright flash above us and to our left and then to our right and a third in the middle, higher still. And then several scattered across the sky in a triangle shape. A fireworks display to celebrate the holiday at a public park? Nope, a firefly display in our backyard!  

Each night in early summer brings this show — free of charge — to a location near you, perhaps too in your backyard. It’s the annual mating flash of the firefly or as one prominent firefly expert calls it: “Silent love songs flashing their hearts out.” This yearly show is one of the joys of summer with so many childhoods having been enriched by children dashing to and fro temporarily capturing a few in a glass jar with some grass blades to watch the flashing fireflies up close. For us it’s fun to watch but for fireflies it involves the serious business of reproducing.  

Firefly. Pixabay photo

I remember a firefly display I witnessed about a decade ago at the NYSDEC’s Oak Brush Plains Preserve at Edgewood (located in Deer Park). I was there in the dark to listen for whip-poor-wills, the population of which might represent the westernmost breeding group remaining on Long Island. I headed into the property and broke north along a trail bordering an open meadow.  

In the meadow were many fireflies and I do want to stress many — what had to number in the hundreds winking and flashing in and along the edges of the meadows. Some flashed while perched on the top of tall grass. There were so many fireflies I was mesmerized and after a few minutes of watching thousands of flashes and blinks I found it almost disorienting.      

Fireflies are also known as lightning bugs but to be accurate they are neither flies nor bugs. Rather, they are beetles belonging to the family Lampyridae. (This is one of the few insect family names I’ve remembered by playing a little trick: these insects produce their own light just as lamps do.) Currently 173 species have been documented in North America with the majority occurring in the eastern half of the continent.  

Staff from the New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) have been assessing the diversity and abundance of fireflies in New York. According to Katie Hietala-Henschell, a zoologist with the state program, “27 species occur in NY” but believes the number  will very likely increase, as she notes “there could potentially be 37 species.”  

She further states: “For Long Island in particular, there are at least 10 species (probably more!) that have been documented. However, this is a very conservative estimate and likely an underestimate of the number of Long Island species.” 

The most common species both in the eastern United States and here is Photinus pyralis commonly known as Common Eastern Firefly or the Big Dipper Firefly, probably due to its flash pattern appearing reminiscent of the well-known star pattern. 

As for rare firefly species that may occur on Long Island, Katie indicates “The only documented IUCN Red List species that has occurred on Long Island is Photuris pensylvanica (Dot-dash Firefly) ranked as Vulnerable. … I suspect at least two other IUCN species that may occur on Long Island. It could be a long shot, but there is potential for Pyractomena ecostata (Keel-necked Firefly) ranked as Endangered and possibly Photuris bethaniensis (Bethany Beach Firefly) ranked as Critically Endangered by IUCN and petitioned to be federally listed as Endangered.”  

As I soon learned the dot-dash firefly is aptly named as its flash pattern consists of a short greenish colored flash (the dot) followed by a longer flash that lasts several seconds (the dash).   

We have a pretty clear understanding of the underlying but complicated chemistry producing the magical flash in fireflies. Using organs in their abdomens, oxygen mixes with calcium, a chemical named luciferin, an enzyme — luciferase, and ATP (adenosine phosphate; remember this from the cellular biology you learned in high school?). Oxygen, the release of which fireflies can control, appears to be the “switch” that sets off the process. Nitric oxide gas also plays a role. This illumination is extremely efficient with the firefly giving off very little heat while emitting lots of bright light. 

Their flash is an excellent example of bioluminescence — light made by living things. Bioluminescence is known across the living world — besides fireflies, a number of jellyfish, worms, squid (to be precise it’s the luminescent ink they shoot out to avoid predation), many fish species including deep-sea fish, algae, and fungi produce and emit light.  There are approximately 1,500 species of fish alone that are bioluminescent!   

In the category “the world is always more complicated than we think,” most female fireflies can’t fly since they lack wings or possess only vestigial wings, rendering them earthbound from where they flash (we know them as glowworms); the males of a few firefly species also cannot fly; and not all fireflies use flashing light to attract, with some employing scent attractants known as pheromones — species-specific chemicals that attract the opposite sex. And not all flashing is designed to entice mating. In some cases female fireflies mimic the male flash of other species to entice them so the females can dine on their bodies and incorporate the poisons contained within.  A firefly femme fatale, if you will.   

Fireflies, like so many insect species, are declining. Habitat loss and pesticide use are culprits. But perhaps the number one problem facing this iconic group of insects is excessive night lighting.  As more homes are built and more of us leave front and back  porch lights on, more ambient light is created, creating confusion for and competition to the flashing fireflies.  This brightening glow of night lighting disorients migrating birds, dims the stars and the Milky Way, and, now, is having an adverse effect upon fireflies.  

If you want to know what you can do to protect fireflies: Turn off outdoor lights as the lighting competes with the flashes of fireflies. Additionally, avoid using pesticides or chemical fertilizers and leave the leaves for the benefit of female fireflies and some firefly larvae which are found on the ground. 

Here’s to hoping that fireflies make summertime memories for jar-carrying kids and their parents for countless summers to come. 

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.

Several bird species use the shed skin of a snake during nest building to scare off predators, including the Carolina Wren as seen above. Photo by John Turner

By John L. Turner

John Turner

On one of many strolls to the compost bin this Spring, I walked past a tall Norway spruce and noticed the head of a Mourning Dove jutting above a few head-high horizontal branches. Suspecting it was an incubating bird on a nest, I didn’t disturb her, giving her and the long horizontal branch wide berth. Later in the day when the nest was temporarily unattended I moved in for a closer look.   

Two eggs sat together in a shallow bowl made of small branches, in a splayed out pattern reminding me a little of the pattern that happens during a game of pick-up sticks. This was not a tightly woven nest and even with the spruce branches supporting it I could see small holes through the nest and branches to the ground below.  I wondered if eggs or young ever fall through the doves’ nest although I suspect they don’t. 

Mourning Dove nests are known to be loosely constructed in which you typically see through the floor, a trait that makes them distinctive. Some other bird nests also are distinctive to species, the pendulous, highly interwoven nest of a Baltimore Oriole being an excellent example. Their nests, hanging from the end of maple branches, often become apparent after leaf fall in the autumn. Another distinctive nest is that of the American Robin, always containing mud in the outer shell that helps to keep the cup rigid and firm.     

Not surprisingly, many birds try to conceal their nests or make them less visible. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird, for example, embellishes the outer sides of its tiny nest with lichens, making it appear to be little more than a lichen-encrusted bump on a branch. Ground nesting birds like Eastern Meadowlarks have nests with an entrance hole on the side making the nest invisible from above. The same is true for the Ovenbird, a warbler species which is a common nester in woodlands throughout Long Island and especially the Pine Barrens. Its ground nest also has an entrance from the side and looks like an old fashion dutch oven, hence the bird’s name.  

Bird nests come in many shapes and sizes, constructed with many materials, in many different physical locations, and are a perfect blend of form and function. The purpose is, of course, to provide a place where the eggs, hatchlings, and nestlings can be more safely protected and for many species to successfully complete their development. (Precocious young such as piping plover chicks leave the nest at birth never to return). 

Remarkably, a few birds like the Fairy Tern of the South Pacific make no nest at all; this species lays its one egg in a dimple or depression on a thicker branch. Somehow through the rigors of incubation and hatching the egg and chick defy gravity and stay safe. Closer to home we have the “nests” of Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows which are nothing more than leaves on the ground upon which the adult lays her two lightly splotched eggs. 

Piping Plovers do a little more in nest construction by hollowing out a small depression with the male adorning the nest with white shell fragments. The nests of terns are similar, being nothing more than a shallow depression in the sand — simple but effective.    

The use of earthen burrows — horizontally oriented tunnels of varying lengths with an entrance hole excavated in a vertical surface — is another nesting strategy employed by some birds. On Long Island there are three burrow-nesting birds — the Belted Kingfisher and two swallow species — Bank and Northern Rough-winged. They excavate the tunnel (sloping it slightly upward to keep the rain out) which can be as long as five feet ending in a slightly enlarged chamber where the eggs are incubated. All are dug into a vertical face such as a steep slope, road or railroad cut,  bank of a sandpit or in a bluff face. The bluffs along Long Island’s north shore are often used, especially by Bank Swallows. If you walk along a north shore beach flanked by a bluff you might see many small nest holes in the bluff, with handsome brown and white birds with a distinct upper chest band zooming about — you’ve entered a Bank Swallow colony.    

Cavities comprise another important nesting strategy employed by birds. Usually the result of work by woodpeckers such as Red-bellied, Hairy, and Downy Woodpeckers, (but not always as I once watched a pair of Black-capped Chickadees excavate a nesting cavity in a rotted grey birch stump), these created cavities are vital to the many bird species that utilize or require cavities in which to nest. These species include the familiar aforementioned Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatch, Great-crested Flycatcher and Screech Owl, not to mention many woodpecker species and numerous insect and mammal species too.   

The overwhelming number of birds including most songbirds make nests having two to three distinct layers — coarser sticks in the outer frame, finer twigs and roots in the inner cup, which is lined with soft material such as moss, animal hair, and feathers. This provides necessary rigor while providing a softer surface for the eggs and young. 

Birds put some quirky stuff in their nests. Ospreys are notorious for placing all manner of junk in their large nests — pack rats with wings!  According to Alan Poole’s fine book “Ospreys: The Revival of a Global Raptor,” materials found in this species’ nests include pieces of fishing nets, plastic buoys, six-pack holders, party balloons and their dangerous ribbons; basically nest materials “can be a bizarre reflection of what is available in the local landscape.” Carolina Wrens and Great Crested Flycatchers are known to reliably include a strange material in their nests — pieces of or entire snakeskins. Speaking of Carolina Wrens, they’re known to nest in some pretty weird spots such as old shoes, flower pots, and pails. 

 As expected, larger birds make larger nests. The Bald Eagle has perhaps the most impressive nest of any North American bird species; some are large enough for a small child to nestle in the bowl of the stick-constructed nest. According to reports they can  weigh nearly a ton (I remember seeing one such massive nest in coastal Maryland several decades ago). Not surprisingly, their nests are typically constructed  in large trees with thick branches that can support the weight of the nest. Osprey nests are smaller but still can be impressive affairs, composed of interlocking sticks that stand up to the buffeting winds of the coast.    

A few birds, the Great Horned Owl being a classic example, rarely make their own nest, rather using the nest site of a previous occupant such as another bird of prey or crow. 

Almost as diverse as the birds themselves, the nests birds construct illustrate many different designs and a wide variety of forms — all variations to achieve the same purpose — a place where bird eggs and babies can be protected at a most vulnerable time in their lives.  There’s avian architecture on display all around us!

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.

A male Buck Moth. Photo by John Turner

By John L. Turner

John Turner

On my way to redeem some bottles, involving some brands of craft beer that were thoroughly enjoyable, I did a double take passing by what I thought was a small bit of wind-blown garbage, moved by a gentle breeze, along the curb in a supermarket parking lot. Something about its movement caught my eye though and upon a closer look this was no multi-colored piece of trash but rather was something alive, fluttering weakly against the curb. Bending down to take a closer look I suddenly realized I was staring, improbably, at a  male Polyphemus Moth (I could tell it was a male by its quite feathery antennae). 

I picked the moth up and moved it out of harm’s way, placing it under a nearby row of shrubs, realizing all I did was buy it a little more time free from a certain death by a car tire or  pedestrian foot. Having no mouth with which it can feed (all of its energy is carried over from the caterpillar stage) a trait it shares with related species, its life as an adult is short-lived. 

The Polyphemus Moth is one of more than a dozen species of Giant Silk Moths found on Long Island. This family contains some of the largest moths in the world and they range from attractive to beautiful to spectacular. 

Take the Polyphemus Moth as an example. Tan colored with bands of peach on the forewings and black on the hind wings, the moth has four eye spots with the two on the hind wings being especially prominent. The center of the eyespots appears cellophane-like and is translucent. The central eyespot gives rise to the species name as it is reminiscent of the eye of the cyclops of Greek mythology with the same common name as the moth. 

A Polyphemus Moth. Photo by Carl Safina

The eye spots also play a role in the family name — Saturnidae, as some eye spots have concentric rings like those of the planet Saturn. And as moths go this creature has a huge wingspan, being as much as five inches from the tip of one forewing to the other. Its caterpillars feed on oak trees. 

The richly-colored brown, olive, and orange Cecropia moth, with its bright orange body, is slightly larger than the Polyphemus and its eyespots are more in the shape of a comma. They have a purple patch of the tip of each forewing that reminds me of the ghosts in Pac-Man, the popular video game. Cecropia prefer cherry trees as a food plant. 

The most tropical looking member of the family is undoubtedly the lime green-colored Luna Moth, a feeder of walnut leaves. The hindwings of the species, also possessing two eye spots, are longer than other Giant Silk Moth members and have a distinctive twist to the two “tails.” The spots on the fore or front wings are smaller, oval and are connected by a line to the purplish/maroon-colored line that runs along the front of the forewing. It is a showstopper!   

A non-native Giant Silk moth has been introduced to Long Island — the Ailanthus Silk Moth also known as the Cynthia Moth. It can be seen in areas of the island where Ailanthus trees commonly grow such as Brooklyn and Queens. 

Two beautiful, closely related silk moths are the Tulip-tree Silk Moth and the Promethea Moth. The latter species is sexually dimorphic, meaning the male and female look different as they are of “different morphs or forms.” The female is a rich blend of browns with an orange body while the male is a deep charcoal grey with olive to tan borders on both wings. As the name suggests, the former species as a caterpillar feeds on the leaves of the Tulip Tree, a spectacular columnar tree that grows in richer soils along Long  Island’s north shore. 

Related to these other Giant Silk Moths is a smaller inhabitant found in the Long Island Pine Barrens — the Eastern Buck Moth. And unlike other giant silk moths, and moths in general, the buck moth is strictly diurnal, flying from late morning through mid-afternoon on days in late September through mid-October. Why the radical difference in lifestyle compared to typical night flying moths?  It has to do with living in a fire-prone environment. Unlike other members of the family, buck moths don’t pupate by forming a cocoon that hangs from a branch because it would run the real risk of being destroyed by fire. Rather, the buck moth pupates in an earthen cell underground, out of harm’s way, waiting until the threat of the fire season lessens. This means a shift in emergence to the fall, and since it can get cold at night, buck moths have shifted their active period to the warmer daytime. 

In the same subfamily as the buck moth is the beautiful Io Moth. This species too is dimorphic with the female being darker than the male’s bright yellow coloration. Both sexes have large eyespots on their hindwings which are revealed when the forewings are thrown forward by a disturbed moth; suddenly the here-to-fore innocuous insect appears to be the face of a mammal which may deter predation or allow the momentarily confused predator to give enough time for the Io moth to escape. 

In yet another subfamily are the remarkable Pine Devil moth, Royal Walnut Moth (which  as a caterpillar is the famous hickory horned devil!), Imperial Moth, three species of oak webworms common in the Pine Barrens, and the Rosy Maple Moth, the color of raspberry and lemon sherbet.   

Unfortunately, all of these species have become less common on Long Island with some perhaps on the verge of extirpation (local extinction), done in by a loss of habitat and the widespread use of pesticides. Their rarity, paired with exceptional beauty, makes seeing a member of the Giant Silk moth family a special visual treat. Good luck!     

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

John Turner

It’s a warm Spring day and I’m relaxing on a bench on the edge of Swezey’s Pond within Cranberry Bog County Nature Preserve. Situated in western Southampton Town, about three quarters of a mile south of the Riverhead traffic circle, the preserve contains the remains of one of the larger commercial cranberry bogs that once prospered on Long Island.

The light is bright and the warmth most inviting, both for me and the eight painted turtles of various sizes that have scrambled up on two nearby logs. At first the water appears to be still but looking a little more closely I can see a current moving from right to left or from south to north. This water drains from Wildwood Lake about a mile to the south providing the base flow to the Little River, one of the four tributaries to the Peconic River. 

At the far end of the pond a ghost white American Egret stalks the shallows and to its right, much closer to me, I hear the “phoe-be” call of a spring migrant Eastern Phoebe flitting around the spindly-spiraled top of an Atlantic White Cedar.    

I am in the middle of the Pine Barrens, the largest intact forest remaining on Long Island, protected by state law after a long and intense legal battle that Newsday called the “War in the Woods.” It was a battle well worth fighting as the protection of the tens of thousands of contiguous pine-clad acres adds immeasurably to the quality of life of Long Islanders. 

From a pragmatic point of view the Pine Barrens sits over the largest and cleanest groundwater supplies on Long Island with an estimated five trillion gallons of water contained in the saturated sands beneath the barrens. Also, the Pine Barrens is ecologically significant as it provides habitat to many hundreds  of species of plants and animals, some with novel adaptations that enable them to survive wildfire and other harsh conditions of the ecosystem. 

And like Manhattan’s Central Park, a destination for  countless visitors and city dwellers, the Pine Barrens, Long Island’s Central Park, will, through time, become the same. Already used by many Long Islanders to hike, camp, bird, and canoe, the Pine Barrens will undoubtedly  be visited by many more as it becomes better known.   

Pitch Pine is the dominant plant of the Pine Barrens and provides half of the epithet — the Pine Barrens (the other half relates to the sandy, porous, and nutrient-poor soils that underlie the area). In many places, typically areas that have burned more frequently,  it is the only tree found; in other areas of the Pine Barrens it shares the canopy with various oak species such as scarlet, white, and black oak. 

Beneath the canopy, in the shrub layer, two dwarf oaks — bear oak and dwarf chestnut oak — form extensive thickets. These oaks are genetically dwarfed and even if their acorns are planted in soils rich in nutrients, the species will never obtain the height of our native tree oaks. Intermingled in these shrubby thickets are the heath species, such as black huckleberry, and early and late lowbush blueberries. On the forest floor where there’s ample sunlight you can find both common and striped wintergreen and the beautiful trailing arbutus. 

In the wetlands a host of other plant species abound — water lilies in the open water of ponds and lakes to a number of rare plants growing in the shallow water near shorelines and along the sandy shorelines themselves — including several carnivorous plant species as bladderworts and sundews. Highbush blueberry rings many wetlands and fills small bogs. These wetlands provide habitat to  turtles, frogs, toads, and salamanders while ovenbirds, scarlet tanagers, whip-poor-wills, pine warblers, and may other songbirds fill the forests and wetlands with song.  

Fire has long played a dominating role in shaping the character of these pine dominated forests, having swept through the barrens for thousands of years. Many of the plants and animals have adapted to fire with pitch pine having thick bark; in the unique and globally rare dwarf pine plains the dwarf pines depend upon fire to open their cones which remain resolutely closed in fire’s absence.   

It’s no accident that nearly one hundred square miles of the Pine Barrens has been permanently preserved. Were it not for the direct and intensive intervention of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, both in the courts and in the court of public opinion, the Pine Barrens would, no doubt, have succumbed to development. But in a classic David (the Society, other conservation organizations) vs. Goliath (municipalities and wealthy, well-heeled developers) contest, the environmental community won with the passage of the 1993 Pine Barrens Protection Act that established the 105,000 acre Central Pine Barrens including the 55,000 acre Core Preservation Area in which development is not allowed.  

All Long Islanders will long be the beneficiaries of the Pine Barrens being preserved and this preservation effort has a unique aspect to it: it ensures in a bi-county region, cheek-to-jowl with one housing subdivision after another, surrounding industrial parks, strip shopping centers and large malls, where 2.7 million Long Islanders work, live, and play, there will always be wildness available — a wild character where if you’re positioned in the hollow of the morainal hills in Manorville you will hear no human sounds, where at night the pin prick light of stars shine amidst the inky blackness and from which the rhythmic calls of the whip-poor-will or deep hoots of the great horned owl can still be heard. It is a landscape where, in so many places you can hike on meandering trails for many miles and see no one, or evidence of anyone save the footprints of fellow hikers seeking the same solitude. 

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.