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Four Harbors Audubon Society

The Piping Plover could be completely lost from the shores of Long Island due to climate change. Photo by Kimberley Caruso/Audubon Photography Awards

By Brooke Bateman

Brooke Bateman

Fifty years ago on April 22nd, millions of Americans made their voices heard. It was this first Earth Day that brought on the environmental movement as we know it today, where concerned individuals collectively said that it was time to take action to be better for our planet. 

Across the country, people demanded that action be taken to clean up our air and water and protect our environment. The momentum of that day helped bring about public support in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and helped usher through the passage of key laws including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. 

As Earth Day 2020 is set to be celebrated in nearly 200 countries, this year’s celebration may look different to the crowd-filled events and rallies typical of this day; we are in truly unprecedented times. As I write this we are a few weeks into the pandemic quarantine, but I am blessed to be outside listening to the familiar calls of the birds I have come to know in my neighborhood. 

That’s the thing about birds; their presence can connect us to the local rhythms of nature, the signature of a time and place. As the majority of people are spending their days at home on lockdown, I have had many friends reach out to me about how much solace they are finding in birds right now. As one of the most beloved and ubiquitous forms of wildlife, birds are our connector to nature around us. Birds are also our messengers and if we pay attention, they’re showing us that our world is changing. 

Over the last 50 years, America has lost over one quarter of its birds, nearly 3 billion birds less fill our skies today then in 1970. Yet, the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is being dismantled, making it much more likely that even more will be lost and without any accountability for incidental loss. 

We are losing nature at an unprecedented rate, yet we are seeing rollbacks on some of our bedrock protections such as the Clean Air and Water Acts, making it easier for our planet to be polluted yet again. Looking forward to the next 50 years, climate change is the biggest issue both birds and people alike will face. Birds are already telling us that our climate is changing — birds ranges are changing, shifting and contracting as the climate conditions change across the globe. Birds like the Rusty Blackbird are lost to large parts of their historical range as climate conditions worsen. Whole communities are collapsing, with mass seabird die offs now happening yearly off our northern shores due to warming sea temperatures. Seabirds like puffins and murres are dying from starvation from the changes in the food web brought about by extreme heat in the oceans. 

Bird migration has shifted. As spring arrives earlier and earlier, birds are either having to migrate earlier or find themselves out of luck when they arrive too late and their resources have past their peak. Even the herald of spring, the American Robin, has decided that it may not have to fly south after all, sticking around through warmer winters in many places. 

Without global action, such as the Paris accord (of which the U.S. is no longer a part of), how can we meet the significant actions needed to limit global temperatures to 2C (or preferably 1.5C)? The consequence of not doing so is that our planet would be transformed into a more inhospitable place. 

The consequence is potentially losing billions more birds. Audubon’s Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink, a report forecasting the survival of birds to climate change, shows that two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extreme range loss and potentially extinction from unmitigated climate change. In New York, 116 species are vulnerable to climate change, including charismatic species like the Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, American Woodcock, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Piping Plover. 

The Piping Plover could be completely lost from the shores of Long Island due to climate change. No species will escape climate change, with birds (and the places they share with us) also facing multiple coincident climate change-related threats. New York will experience greater extreme heat events, increased coastal and inland flooding from sea level rise and heavy rainfall, increased pressures from urbanization, and disrupted ecosystems.

But this loss is so much more than just numbers. It is the loss of some of our familiar neighborhood birds we have come to know and love, of nature and our sense of place as we know it. It is not being able to share the joy of seeing a Piping Plover on our beaches with our children. It is the loss of our familiar seasons and weather patterns, where extreme events and natural disasters become more frequent. It’s some of our more vulnerable communities being put at further risk, as climate change will disproportionately affect our children, our elderly, lower income communities, and communities of color. 

However, we still have time, and as the threat of climate change grows, so does the work we need to do. If we can limit climate change to between 1.5C to 2.0C, then we can limit the loss we will come to see. Indeed, 76% of bird species will be better off if we can do just that, and our communities and environment will also not see such drastic affects. 

To get there we need to listen to the science, and make changes now both as individuals and as a nation. We have done this before. One of the greatest environmental successes of our time came as concerned Americans listened to what the birds were telling us. Toxic pesticides, pollution and ecosystem destruction were devastating some of our beloved birds including the Bald Eagle and the Brown Pelican. We gathered evidence, and looked hard at our values. 

As Americans, we decided that we value clean water, clean air, and healthy ecosystems for our wildlife and natural spaces. We decided we did not want a world where unchecked environmental destruction quieted our birds as described in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. We listened to the science and we took action, and as the environment got healthier, the birds returned. I now marvel at the Bald Eagles and Osprey that have returned to Long Island, having never been a feature of my Long Island childhood.  

So where do we stand on this 50th Earth Day? We need to yet again examine our values and embrace science-based conservation. We need to take action, to set in motion the momentum to spark the next environmental movement taking us beyond just one day. We need to face these incredible challenges and opportunities collectively, to do what needs to be done to solve this climate crisis. 

The science illustrates how our warming planet will impact both the birds we all love, and the people in our communities, but also shows us that if we act there is still time to create a brighter future for birds and people. If we do something now to stabilize climate change, then we can improve the chances for the majority of these species. And we already have a lot of the tools we need to reduce the effects of global warming. 

Climate change is a global crisis, a threat that humanity faces as a whole. Even as we face the current global pandemic threat, the need for effective and coordinated advocacy for climate change action is greater than ever. We have shown through our current pandemic crisis we are able to come together (even by being apart), and we must harness this united energy as the climate is changing and the window to act is closing. Birds are telling us, the time to act on climate change is now. 

This Earth Day, and every day, we need to come together and listen and to act on our values.  We once again need to be a collective voice of change to protect the earth we all share. 

Brooke Bateman is a mother, nature lover, and scientist. She received her PhD in Ecology and Conservation and is the Senior Scientist, Climate at the National Audubon Society. The Stony Brook resident also sits on the board of Four Harbors Audubon Society.

Patricia Paladines teaches a child the art of seining during Setauket Harbor Day on Sept. 28, 2019. Photo by Maria Hoffman

By Patricia Paladines

Patricia Paladines at West Meadow Creek. Photo by Carl Safina

The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 catalyzed the modern environmental education movement. A few months after that first official celebration of the Earth’s natural environment, the Congress of the United States passed The Environmental Education Act, which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on October 30, 1970. Later, Nixon noted that it is “vital that our entire society develop a new understanding and new awareness of man’s relation to his environment – what might be called ‘environmental literacy.’” 

The Act states that “The Congress of the United States finds that the deterioration of the quality of the Nation’s environment and of its ecological balance poses a serious threat to the strength and vitality of the people of the Nation and is in part due to poor understanding of the Nation’s environment and of the need for ecological balance; that presently there do not exist adequate resources for educating and informing citizens in these areas, and that concerted efforts in educating citizens about environmental quality and ecological balance are therefore necessary.” 

The Environmental Education Act encouraged and provided financial support for the development of curricula that improved American’s understanding of policies that enhance environmental quality and maintain ecological balance. It called for the use of such curricula in model educational programs at the elementary and secondary school levels, the development of training programs for teachers, other educational personnel, public service personnel, community, labor, industrial and business leaders, and government employees at State, Federal and local levels. 

It supported the planning of outdoor ecological centers that would provide community education programs on preserving and enhancing environmental quality and maintaining ecological balance, and the preparation and distribution of material by mass media in dealing with the environment and ecology. 

In 1971, the U.S. Commissioner of Education, Sidney P. Marland Jr. wrote an article titled Environmental Education Cannot Wait in American Education. In the article he stated, “Environment as a high priority educational theme has also been assisted by strong student concern for the decline in environmental quality. Youth is more concerned with the future state of the environment than is the older generation because young people are, for one thing, going to spend so much time inhaling that future environment, swallowing it, and finding their way through it. Environmental concern offers an attractive neutral ground in which to work out the ‘alliance between generations’ which President Nixon spoke of at the University of Nebraska in January.”

Many of us were the “youth” Mr. Marland refers to in his article. We grew up inhaling, swallowing and finding our way through the environment our leaders at the time sought to protect. We raised our children on a less polluted planet than what we had begun to experience in the 1950s and 60s when we were children. 

Opportunities for learning about the natural environment that surrounds us are readily available around Long Island through nature centers, aquariums, universities, and our protected forests and beaches. 

On this 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, the world is on lockdown due to a pandemic which is believed to have originated from disturbance to wildlife and habitats. It is an opportunity to give us pause and reflect on how we now should work out an “alliance between generations” for preventing future Earth Days experienced in lockdowns caused by environmental illiteracy. 

Patricia Paladines is an environmental educator and photographer living Setauket. She works as a consultant for an organization that funds UNICEF’s Let Us Learn projects in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Liberia, Madagascar and Nepal. Patricia is on the board of various local environmental organizations including the Four Harbors Audubon Society and the Center for Environmental Education and Discovery in Brookhaven, and in the warm months enjoys leading trips around Stony Brook’s West Meadow Creek aboard the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Discovery tour boat.

This goose was found with netting on its face in Setauket on Nov. 9. Photo by Raina Angelier

By Patrice Domeischel

What could have been a plastic trash catastrophe for a Canada goose instead resulted in a happy ending, thanks to the efforts of Anita Jo Lago and Rob Trezza.  

Rob Trezza caught the goose on Lake Street. Photo by Anita Jo Lago

Birders on a Four Harbors Audubon Society walk at Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket on Nov. 9 encountered the goose in distress, actively attempting to free itself of plastic netting that had encircled its head and body. The goose managed to remove some netting but was unable to disentangle itself from the remainder encircling its neck and face. 

Lago, a park volunteer at Frank Melville, and Trezza, park security, were called in to assess the situation, and promptly went to work. The goose was captured, relieved of the netting and released. 

“We really did get it when necessary,” commented Lago. “Its flight was hindered as it was getting away from a cygnet going after it. It took flight but landed happenstance. It landed on the road, Lake Street, because flight was compromised due to the netting holding its jaw and head. When Rob got closer, he saw the goose desperately trying to free itself by banging its head, many times, on the ground. So we got there in time.”

A disaster averted, the goose was able to fly off, a bit stressed and tired from its efforts, but in good condition. 

All too often birds and animals suffer the consequences created by our use of single-use plastic. Wildlife can become entangled in discarded plastic, wire or string resulting in injury or death. Even plastic that is responsibly disposed of finds its way into our waters and litters our beaches. Be proactive, protect wildlife and the environment, and reduce or eliminate altogether your use of single-use plastic.

Patrice Domeischel is a member of the Four Harbors Audubon Society.

Bird lovers gather at the Stone Bridge at Frank Melville Memorial Park to witness the common nighthawk migration. Photo from Four Harbors Audubon Society

Calling all bird lovers!

Migration has begun! Join Four Harbors Audubon Society at Frank Melville Memorial Park’s Stone Bridge to witness the exciting annual migration of the most beloved members of the nightjar family — the common nighthawk. Migration might be any or all days through early October. Join them from 5:30 p.m. until dusk as they conduct the third annual nighthawk census, and enjoy the show! The Stone Bridge is located at One Old Field Road, Setauket. For more information, email [email protected]

Above, the author in front of the mirrorlike windows on Stony Brook’s South Campus with a dead Swainson’s thrush on the gravel in the foreground.

By John L. Turner

With the use of a helpful anchoring spoon, I swirled a large bundle of delicious linguine strands around the tines of my fork. As I brought the forkful of food forward, to meet its just fate as the first bite of a delicious pasta dinner, I looked up from the dining table to the view outside the large picture window in the adjacent living room. 

At that precise moment a blue jay (after all a birder is always birding!) launched from a low branch of an oak tree on the other side of the road, swooped across it and headed straight for the aforementioned window. Certainly it will veer to a side as it comes closer, or turn abruptly to perch on the roof, I thought to myself, but no such luck — it flew, beak first, directly into the window. It bounced off and down into the bushes in front.   

A female common yellow-throated warbler recovering after she struck the window of a building at SBU. Photo by John Turner

After shouting an expletive, I jumped from the dining room table and out the front door to see if the blue jay was alright. I anxiously scanned around and through the waist-high ornamental shrubs looking for what I expected to be a lifeless body that moments before had been so alive. I didn’t see it. I went behind the bushes, figuring perhaps it had fallen straight down. No bird. I looked through the web of branches. No bird. I looked under the shrubs, in the dirt in front of the shrubs and on the lawn. Still no bird. 

A solid 10-minute search while my pasta dinner grew cold produced nothing. I had to conclude the bird had survived the glancing blow to the window and after being momentarily stunned flew off. Standing near the sidewalk in the front yard I had the view the bird had experienced moments before — the window looked like an opening in the forest that reflected a dogwood tree on the right and taller oak trees in the distance. 

Most window strike victims are not as lucky as this blue jay was and as I soon learned what I had experienced is not uncommon — in fact it happens with frightening regularity, with estimates ranging from 1 to 3 million North American birds dying this way each and every day. This means an estimated 365 million to 1 billion birds dying from window strikes every year in the United States. 

The victims range from tiny to large, from dull to colorful. Hummingbirds are common victims and birds of prey, although less common, also collide with windows. The large group of birds referred to as songbirds — thrushes, vireos, warblers, sparrows and the like — form the largest bulk of collision victims. 

Migrant birds die more often than resident birds such as blue jays, the apparent reason being that resident birds better “know” their territory while migrant birds, transients in migratory habitats, don’t. 

Why do birds fly into windows and die in such large, almost unimaginable numbers? For the same reason people walk into glass doors, windows and dividers (often enough to produce a series of four-minute-long videos you can watch on YouTube!) — they don’t see the glass given its transparent qualities. 

For birds, though, a window’s transparency isn’t its only deadly feature. Its reflectivity can be worse. The reflected images in the window of trees, shrubs, sky and clouds fool birds into thinking they are the real thing. The result is a bird moving through space, at normal flying speeds, toward trees reflected in the distance until it abruptly meets the glass pane — most of the time with fatal results. 

This has occurred with increasing frequency as architects have moved toward using more and more highly reflective glass in building design, to produce dramatic views of the surrounding landscape. And the tall skyscrapers don’t pose the biggest problem — more than 90 percent of birds that perish from collisions do so by flying into the windows of homes and one- to four-story office buildings. It’s the lower stories of the building that reflect the features of the ambient environment creating the “fatal attraction” to birds. 

Amid all this death there is cause for optimism. The technology exists to make windows more bird friendly by creating the “visual interference” necessary for them to see the windows for what they are. 

For example, a number of exterior decal and sticker products are sold, ideal for home applications, that can be applied to a window’s outer surface (volunteers with the Four Harbors Audubon Society have placed more than 2,000 square decals on the windows of Endeavour Hall and other buildings on SUNY Stony Brook’s South Campus, thereby significantly reducing the number of songbirds dying from collisions with the highly reflective windows there). Better yet are readily available exterior window films that completely cover the window surface. 

Window manufacturers have also stepped up to the plate in making glass embedded with dots (called fritting) and with various other patterns. Even more promising are cutting edge window products reflecting patterns of ultraviolet light. Birds see UV light that we don’t; so these windows create the desired visual interference for birds but not for us — to us they look like normal windows.  

To his credit New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has sponsored legislation, awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) signature, that creates a “bird friendly building council” to research the issue and report back to the Legislature with a series of recommended strategies to reduce the carnage statewide, such as the use of bird-friendly building materials and design features in buildings; it’s Assembly bill A4055B/Senate bill S25B.   

I hope that you too care about reducing the number of vibrant and colorful songbirds that meet their untimely fate. If you do, please take a moment to pen a letter to Gov. Cuomo urging he sign the measure into law. His address is:  

The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo

Governor of New York State

NYS State Capitol Building

Albany, NY 12224

Birdsong is a gift to us. If birds could also speak, the many species killed at windows would thank you for YOUR gift to them of caring enough to take the time and effort to support the bill.  

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.

Alan F. Poole

Four Harbors Audubon Society will present a summer lecture titled “Osprey 2019: The Revival of a Global Raptor” at Avalon Park and Preserve’s Barn on Shep Jones Lane in Stony Brook on Saturday, July 13 at 6:30 p.m. Guest speaker Alan F. Poole, who has been studying ospreys for over 35 years, will speak about the extraordinary resurgence in osprey numbers globally and bring participants up-to-date on the current state of one of our best-loved birds of prey. Free and open to all. Reservations are required by emailing fourharborsher[email protected]

Snowy Owl by Rainy Sepulveda

By Heidi Sutton

Something special is in the air. From Feb. 9 to 21, the Four Harbors Audubon Society (FHAS) will present a photography exhibit titled A Valentine to Whitman’s Paumanok, featuring the wildlife and landscapes that influenced the early life of one of America’s greatest poets, at The Bates House in Setauket. The venue is a fitting one as it is nestled in the 26-acre Frank Melville Memorial Park where many of the photographs in the exhibit were taken. 

In a recent interview, curator Patricia Paladines, outreach chairman of the FHAS board, said the show will feature the works of 12 photographers who were invited to submit up to five images each. 

The concept for the exhibition came about when Paladines heard from her friend Lise Hintze, who manages The Bates House, that the venue was interested in hosting an art exhibit of some sort. A shutterbug herself, Paladines was familiar with many talented nature photographers who shoot locally. “The whole idea worked very well with the mission of the Four Harbors Audubon Society,” she said. 

Kingfisher by William Walsh

Indeed, the 60-piece collection features breathtaking images of nature, from a great blue heron searching for his next meal, a juvenile kingfisher perched on a branch, a seahorse gripping onto a blade of seagrass in the swift current, to a nest of fluffy cygnets, each more visually stunning than the next.

Exhibiting photographers include Dr. Maria Bowling, Maria Hoffman, Joe Kelly, Anita Jo Lago, Luke Ormand, Christopher Paparo, Derek Rogers, Rainy Sepulveda, Alexandra Srp, Kevin Walsh, William Walsh and Debra Wortzman

“I wanted the show to be a platform for the work of these photographers who dedicate a lot of time capturing the natural beauty of Long Island and hopefully in turn inspire the viewers to make time to go out and enjoy it too in the many parks, preserve and natural shorelines that surround us,” Paladines explained, adding that the idea was to “raise awareness of the variety of wildlife that we can see if we just look around this lovely island.”

The fact that Whitman’s 200th birthday will be celebrated all over the country this year was just coincidental in referencing America’s most celebrated literary figure in the title. “Actually I found that out later,” said Paladines. “I was delighted to learn that it is the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth. I like his poetry and Long Island is where, of course, he was born and where he was inspired early in his life. He uses nature in a lot of his poetry. [When deciding the title] I though it’s Valentine’s Day, this exhibit should be about Long Island and I’ve always liked Whitman’s poem that starts out “Starting from fish-shape Paumanok …” 

Lined Seahorse by Chris Paparo

Paladines is hopeful that this show will become an annual event. “We’ll see how it goes this year,” she laughed.

Join the Four Harbors Audubon Society for an opening reception on Saturday, Feb. 9 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Special guest Darrel Blaine Ford, historian, ornithologist and Walt Whitman personator, will read a few poems from “Leaves of Grass” including “There Was a Child Went Forth.” Refreshments will be served. The exhibit will be on view at The Bates House, 1 Bates Road, Setauket through Feb. 21. All the photographs will be for sale. Call 631-689-7054 or visit www.thebateshouse.org for viewing hours.

Serving the Townships of Smithtown and Northwest Brookhaven, the Four Harbors Audubon Society’s mission is to advocate education and conservation efforts for the enjoyment, preservation and restoration of birds, wildlife and habitat in our communities. The society hosts monthly bird walks at Frank Melville Memorial Park and West Meadow Beach in Setauket, and Avalon Park & Preserve in Stony Brook; lectures at Emma S. Clark Memorial Library; Friday movie nights at the Smithtown Library; field trips; and bird counts including the popular Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch. For more information, visit www.fourharborsaudubon.com.

A northern flicker with two hatchlings at Frank Melville Memorial Park in the spring. Photo by Patrice Domeischel

By John Turner

When it comes to cavities it’s all about the type. A large cavity in your molar? A trip to the dentist because it’s a problem you need to have treated immediately. A deep cavity in the road you travel on the way to the dentist? Worth a phone call to the superintendent of highways before it destroys tires and rims. 

But cavities in a living white oak or dead pitch pine in an unused back corner of your property? Priceless assets appreciated by many species of birds, mammals and insects that nest or roost in them. This point is emphasized by the fact that more than 60 North American birds, mammals and reptiles use tree cavities of various sizes to roost or nest in, underscoring their fundamental importance in maintaining ecological balance. 

Cavity-using bird species include black-capped chickadees (a tiny bird beloved by many), titmice, nuthatches, screech owls (fairly common in the woodlands of the Three Village area), all species of woodpeckers, a few ducks, several species of bats, gray and flying squirrels, raccoons, opossums, mice and several species of tree-climbing snakes. Add to this many dozens of insects including bees that use cavities too.    

Cavities are such coveted features that species often compete for them. I once watched a several-days battle take place at my house between two woodpecker species — a red-bellied woodpecker and a northern flicker — and a European starling, all vying for a cavity in a large red maple tree on the far edge of the driveway, observable from a second-story window. The flicker had established first rights to it but was usurped by a pair of starlings as the day went on. But with great drama the flicker fought back and the next day had reclaimed ownership. The skirmish continued and the starlings reclaimed it, but then the red-bellied showed up, evicting the starlings. The red-bellied was the final victor and subsequently raised a family in the maple tree.

Woodpeckers play a prominent role in the tree cavity rental market since they make and use so many cavities that other wildlife eventually use (others are created by decay through fungal rot such as when a branch breaks off at the main trunk). 

The bigger woodpeckers — the aforementioned flicker and red-bellied — and the hairy and red-headed are especially adept in chiseling into the live wood to make cavities, the diminutive downy woodpecker not so much. Because of the cavity-making role woodpeckers play, and the reliance of so many wildlife species on cavities, woodpeckers are referred to as “ecological architects,” helping to shape the faunal composition of local forests.  

Two cavity-nesting birds are worth mentioning. Eastern screech owls routinely use cavities and, in fact, are dependent on them for roosting and nesting. It is not unusual but always a delightful surprise to find one sitting at the entrance to a nest hole doing its best impression of tree bark. We have two different color morphs or forms — gray and rufous — and they are both cryptically colored. These small owls, which don’t screech but rather have a tremolo-like call, are probably found in every woodland patch of five acres or more in the area.   

As mentioned earlier even some ducks use nesting cavities. Wood ducks, for example, nest in tree cavities, as do hooded mergansers, buffleheads and American goldeneyes. Hooded mergansers can be seen in the pond at Setauket’s Frank Melville Memorial Park during the winter and buffleheads in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson Harbor during the same time. Goldeneyes are winter ducks that are often seen floating on Long Island Sound. But wood ducks breed here and you might be lucky enough to see these spectacular looking birds (the male meets the avian definition of eye candy) at Frank Melville Park and other freshwater bodies in the area.   

How do fluffy wood duck ducklings leave the cavity and follow their mother to the local pond to feed? You may have seen the answer on one of the nature shows on TV in which the babies, encouraged by the piping call of the parents, fearlessly launch themselves from the lip of the cavity into the air, making a 30- to 40-foot plunge to the ground below.

Many cavities are in trees that are dead or failing, although living trees sport their share. If the tree poses no danger to property or hasn’t the potential to land on your or your loved one’s head, consider leaving it in place. Not only might it become a wildlife condominium through time as it becomes pocked with cavities, it also becomes a cafeteria for wildlife. Many insects such as beetles are drawn to decaying wood, and they play a key role in recycling wood in forests, releasing nutrients and minerals to be used by living plants nearby. In the form of grubs, the beetles and other insects become food for birds. 

So, if a dead tree, containing nesting cavities, presents a danger, by all means protect your head and house. But if it doesn’t threaten life or property, why not take a small step to protect your little area of planet Earth by leaving dead trees in place? You might even be rewarded by the call of a screech owl.   

John Turner, a Setauket resident, 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 juvenile male common yellowthroat. Photo by Joe Kelly

By Joseph Kelly

Those of you that view the work of nature photographers may enjoy the photographs of birds without thinking very much about what goes into these shots. “A bird. On a branch. Pretty bird.” While these are correct and true observations, they don’t really capture what is actually involved in taking a photograph of a bird, or any wild animal for that matter. 

I’m not complaining or bemoaning my lot in life. In fact, I’m hoping that parts of this little essay will bring a smile to your face. Mix in some nature, a little humor and a dash of knowledge, bake for 30 minutes and maybe we’ll all get to enjoy some wild creatures and places. And maybe we, or our children, will try to preserve the recipe.

Okay, back to the premise at hand. I was talking about photographing birds before I went all philosophical there. It happens, get over it. Photographing birds is not as easy as one might think. First off, you have to find the bird. I know, I know: They’re everywhere, right? But they’re not. Not really. We all have robins or sparrows or blue jays or crows in our backyards. Or pigeons for you city dwellers. But if I or any other wildlife photographer just took pics of those guys, we wouldn’t generate much interest. People might get to thinking that they’d seen all there was to see and why seek for more? No one would want to preserve open spaces or parklands. They wouldn’t understand the why of it.

I did it again. I was talking about finding birds and I went all sideways with it. So, really, you have to find the bird. You need to go where the birds are, whether it’s a park, a river or wetlands, a seashore or wherever. Again, you need to go where the birds are. You’re not done yet. Even when you’re in the right place, you still need to find your quarry. It’s not like birds are lining up to meet you. 

I have friends that can find and identify birds by their calls. I am not so gifted. I have several CDs of bird calls but I find my retention for such recordings — or lack thereof — do not help me in the field. Also, I am mostly deaf in one ear so even if I could recognize a particular call, zeroing in on the location of a particular call is nigh on impossible. By the way, I can hardly believe I found an excuse to use the word “nigh” in a sentence.

Okay, so you’re in a right place and you’ve found a bird. You don’t always see it right off. Sometimes, it’s just a rustle among the branches or a disturbance in the flowers. But it’s a bird. It’s right there, maybe just a few feet away. You know it’s there. Maybe you can even hear it. But can you see it? Can you get a photograph? Is that bird sitting there, proud and dignified, waiting for you to take its picture? Most times, at least for me, the answers are no, no and no. Birds flit and fly from branch to branch and from tree to tree. It turns out that the darn things have wings.

But sometimes, those sweet wonderful sometimes, you get lucky. The bird peeks out from the foliage or the flowers and is right there. All you need to do then is put it in focus. And that is an entirely different conversation. 

A resident of Stony Brook, Joseph Kelly is the official photographer of the Four Harbors Audubon Society. Visit his blog at www.joekayaker.com.