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John Turner

By John L. Turner

Once in a while I get a phone call, text or email message along the following lines:  “John, could I have seen a canary? Moments ago I saw a bright yellow bird at my bird feeder.”. My response? Something along the lines of: “While there’s always the outside possibility of seeing a canary that’s escaped from its cage, it’s much more likely you’ve just seen an American Goldfinch, one of the more colorful native songbirds native to Long Island, brilliantly wrapped in its garb of lemon yellow marked with black wings, tail, and a cap.” 

The black coloration and the white wing bars and undertail coverts complete the colorful and distinctive plumage of this native songbird species, distinguishing its appearance from any exotic canary that has escaped from captivity. 

Goldfinch are common on Long Island both in wild places and as a regular visitor to backyard thistle feeders. They are routinely found in open habitats with trees — picture a meadow dotted with widely spaced trees — and are a common nesting bird here. Given their attraction to open habitats they are a species that has probably benefited from clearing and the removal of forests and are likely much more common today than when the country was founded. Underscoring their abundance, they were possible, probable, or confirmed breeders in 94% of the designated blocks in the 2005 statewide Breeding Bird Atlas; the only place they were routinely missed was in the heavily forested areas of the Adirondack Mountains, making them one of the top ten most widespread breeders in the state.

And, as mentioned above, they are a welcome and regular visitor to backyard feeding stations, favoring cylindrical thistle feeders where they often compete with each other to gain a perch upon which to snatch thin black thistle seeds. In the winter they are often joined by their finch cousins: Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls, all of which relish thistle seeds. Watching these three colorful species jostling to secure thistle seeds provides one of the birding delights of this season. 

Speaking of thistle, the goldfinch has an intimate relationship with the wildflower and it affects their breeding biology. Goldfinch, unlike almost all other songbirds, eat and feed its young very little animal protein such as caterpillars, moths, or beetles. Rather, they eat and feed their nestlings seeds, of which thistle makes up the bulk (but also seeds from other composites). Given this, unlike other songbirds that breed in spring, they have to wait until middle to late summer to breed, until thistle has bloomed and set seed. At a time when other birds have either finished breeding or are well into raising their second brood, goldfinch are just beginning their family-raising chores — it’s not at all unusual to see breeding in late July through August, even into early September.   

Thistle also plays an important role in nest building as goldfinch routinely use thistle down for lining the inner cup of their nest. This material helps the bird to make a tightly constructed nest, so well constructed it can hold water. The abandoned nests are sometimes used as wintering and food storage sites for mice and chipmunks, making snug homes and pantries.       

The most telltale sign of breeding is the male goldfinch’s nuptial flight. With the female watching from below, the male flies in a wide circle a hundred or feet above the ground in a classic undulating or roller coaster-like pattern, all the while singing which contains a phrase that has been likened to “potato chip, potato chip”! We heard a male goldfinch “potato chipping” regularly over our backyard patio while eating dinner outside on several late August nights, suggesting our yard was within breeding territory. I looked for a nest among the yard’s shrubbery but, alas, turned up empty. Henry David Thoreau observed the goldfinch’s nuptial display and characterized the bounding flight as if the bird was “skimming over unseen billows.” I, too, came up empty in feeling any buoyant billows but enjoyed the repeated phrases of “potato chip” as I ate potato salad.   

While the “potato chip” sequence may be the bird’s most familiar vocalization, they have other songs and calls. Their typical song is a delight — varied notes of different intensity and tone, given rapidly, imparting a happy quality to the song. They also have a call that has a distinctive “wheezy” quality, quite similar in sound to other finches.   

After the breeding season, the American Goldfinch experiences a full body molt replacing the colorful breeding plumage with a duller but still attractive feather coat of subdued colors. This is the goldfinch that visits your yard feeders during the colder months. With the arrival of Spring the male molts again, this time a partial molt involving only its body feather (but not its wings and tail) and the “canary yellow” plumage has returned.

Two other goldfinch species ­— Lesser and Lawrence’s — occur in North America. These are both western species and rarely if ever turn up here. So if you vacation in the West be on the lookout for these cousins of the American Goldfinch, and of course you might see American Goldfinch too, as their breeding distribution encompasses all of the lower 48 states. And if you see the American Goldfinch in Washington you will have seen its official state bird (it is also the state bird of  Iowa and New Jersey). 

Much folklore and indigenous American stories surround the goldfinch. Writing about indigenous people stories, one animal folklorist notes: “In one Iroquois legend, goldfinches were originally a drab black or grey color. Dissatisfied with their plumage, these finches only earned their gold coloration through an act of selfless kindness. As the story goes, a fox took a nap beneath a pine tree. As he did this, the sap dropped into his eyes and sealed them shut. He begged for help and the drab grey finches agreed to help him. They worked in shifts pecking at the sap until the fox could open his eyes again. The fox offered them a reward of their choice for their help.  When they asked him for brighter colors, the fox pressed yellow flowers into paint and painted the finches with his tail as a brush. The finches were so pleased with their new plumage that they began to flutter, dance, and sing. This is the reason that finches still flutter while they fly and sing such cheerful songs!” 

Given their bright and sunny colors, bubbly songs, and gregarious nature, goldfinches have long been symbols of good luck and to see one, or better yet, to watch a flock, was a good omen meaning good fortune. I think my spouse, Georgia, I and our three dogs Esmy, Henry, and Daisy are in line for much good fortune because during a recent walk we had a flock of twenty-four goldfinches perched in a copse of shrubs at Forsythe Meadow County Park in Stony Brook. For Georgia and me, though, the good fortune was watching and listening to this cheery flock of lemon-yellow sprites of sunshine, singing away for minutes on end. For the dogs, their fortune came when they each received a barbecue-flavored dog cookie at the end of the walk.    

I hope you also see goldfinch during your late summer rambles or later in the year at your bird feeders — and are imbued too with good fortune, not the least of which is just the opportunity to watch these most colorful and cheery of birds.   

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.

A view of Stony Brook Harbor from Cordwood Park in Head of the Harbor. Photo by Rita J. Egan

A rally held at Head of the Harbor’s Cordwood Park Aug. 27 combined a bit of history, nature’s beauty and activism in one short hour.

Protesters at the Aug. 27 rally in Head of the Harbor. Photo by Rita J. Egan

The Rally to Block the Docks, organized by Head of the Harbor resident Lisa Davidson, attracted dozens of local residents, environmentalists and Stony Brook University students. Village residents have voiced concerns over the possible construction of a 186-foot dock on private property next to Cordwood Park and the potential of another 200-foot dock a few houses away. The footage includes a combination of permanent and floating docks. A Sept. 6 Village of Nissequogue Planning Board meeting currently has a vote scheduled regarding the 186-foot dock.

Protesters cited among their concerns the 186-foot spoiling the view of Stony Brook Harbor and restricting access to those walking along the beach or using their canoes and kayaks in the water. Many also feel it may encourage other homeowners to build similar private docks, leading to harbor pollution due to more or large boats.

“One property owner should not be allowed to ruin what is cherished and loved by an entire community,” Davidson said.

Among the speakers at the event were state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket); Kevin McAllister, founder and president of Defend H2O; John Turner, conservation chair of Four Harbors Audubon Society; and Head of the Harbor/Nissequogue historian Leighton Coleman.

Davidson is a member of the Joint Village Coastal Management Commission, a waterfront board of the villages of Head of the Harbor and Nissequogue. She said she recused herself from the commission on the matter of private docks.

“Because after seeing the numerous petitions we get for private docks, I realized that this beautiful bay is in grave danger if we as a community do not come together and take action now before it is too late,” she said.

She encouraged residents to reach out to the Town of Smithtown and New York State Department of Conservation, both of which approve first-phase private dock permits, to prevent future approvals. Davidson said homeowners might argue that they have riparian rights. She said those rights are satisfied when walking in the water or taking a kayak or canoe out on it, and do not include building docks.

Because the harbor is shallow, the dock must be meet DEC requirements that it stands in 3 1/2 feet of water even at low tide, hence the lengths of the proposed docks.

McAllister said, based on his experience, when one dock is built, there tends to be a push for more docks and bigger boats in the body of water, which he said leads to issues in the water such as prop dredging and salinity problems where the water is always cloudy.

Coleman said commerce once took place at the park, which had a negative impact on the harbor.

Head of the Harbor/Nissequogue historian Leighton Coleman talks about the history of the Cordwood Park location. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“We are now standing at the site of what was once an active boatbuilding yard and shipping port, where New York City’s manure was traded for cordwood to fuel the city’s numerous town houses,” the historian said.

He added, eventually, a boatyard’s use of arsenic to cure wood along with human and livestock waste runoff affected the harbor’s health. It was in the 1870s that Smith siblings, descendants of Smithtown’s founder, bought up large parcels of land. The harbor was then used for more leisurely activities, he said, until the 1920s brought to the area “commercial dredging for mining of sand and gravel, and the subdivision of the large estates into developments,” which threatened the waterway’s health once again. This led to the formation of incorporated villages, which in turn created zoning laws to protect the harbor and, in the 1940s, the Stony Brook Harbor Association was created.

“Sadly, the old guard has passed on, and we were left, apparently, with a false sense of security that our harbor’s healthy future was in safe hands, but thankfully as of today I see that we have a new generation of stewards stepping forth,” he said.

In the 1920s and ’30s, when there was dredging of the harbor as well as others on the North Shore, Englebright said, it was important that villages were formed to protect them. He called those who wanted to dredge the waters “essentially gangsters” who were “buying influence” with the towns, and “the towns were selling out the harbors.”

“That is the legacy of this village,” Englebright said. “That’s your birthright. That’s how you came into existence as a municipal jurisdiction in state law. There was no other way at the time to prevent the disposition of the permits by the towns.”

He added, “The Town of Smithtown has sold out the harbor bottom with approving the initial permit for a dock.”

Englebright said the body of water’s bottom is public property and “to give away public property is illegal.”

“It’s an echo of the outrage that led to the creation of these villages,” he said.

While waiting for the rally to begin, Turner said he saw a bald eagle, osprey, snowy egrets and more.

“Any time hiking the harbor, you know that the harbor, from an ecological and biological perspective, it’s just a really vibrant ecosystem,” he said.

Turner added there are several diamondback terrapins in the harbor, too. The DEC has listed the decrease in the animals a concern. They come ashore in June to lay their eggs, Turner said, and a dock could increase human traffic which in turn could have an adverse impact on the terrapins.

“We hope that the villages and the Town of Smithtown will not grant private access to a public trust resource that could ultimately have a really adverse impact upon the harbor,” he said.

Turner added he looked at the Suffolk County GIS viewer and counted approximately 54 properties around the harbor.

“If these are approved, what prevents those other 52 or 50 owners down the road from requesting permits to build docks — docks that are on the same scale as what these are,” he said.

To pay homage to the history of the location, rally organizers served ginger ale and root beer, and the Once Upon a Tyme Barbershop Quartet performed for the attendees at the beginning and end of the rally.

Davidson said she and others have been working on circulating a petition which they will present to the Nissequogue Planning Board on Sept. 6.

Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

August is my birthday month and as I sat staring at the computer screen deliberating the topic for this month’s “Nature Matters” column, the realization occurred to me that I will be celebrating (or at least recognizing) two-thirds of a century of existence. Yes, my 67th trip around the sun on this blessed, pearl blue planet, the only place we know in the entire physical universe where this most unique and fascinating thing called life exists.  

So, while I graciously accept your projected birthday greetings, I’m going to devote this column to laying out birthday wishes for Planet Earth, wishes that I humbly request you consider acting upon. 

Here’s my eclectic list of wishes for our planetary home and all of its inhabitants:

‘Don’t Bag It’

One of the downsides of our love for the grass lawn is, well, the grass, or more specifically, the cut grass. Common practice for many homeowners is to bag grass clippings, placing the bags at the curb for their municipality to deal with, as though the clippings were a waste product to be gotten rid of. We now know the opposite is true — clippings are an asset which should be left on the lawn to rapidly decompose (or if you object to the clippings being left on the lawn then spread out in your compost pile). Doing so returns moisture and nutrients to the lawn and can reduce your water and fertilizing needs (saving money!). These clippings do not add to the creation of thatch, a common misperception. Plus, grass clippings brought to the dump can result in methane generation, a bad thing since methane is a potent greenhouse gas.  Clippings are bad for both the planet and your pocketbook!  

Recycle aluminum

Manufacturing aluminum from bauxite ore to turn into cans and foil has enormous environmental impacts. It creates significant air pollution, requires lots of energy, and consumes large amounts of water. It is one of the top ten industries driving climate change. In contrast, making cans and foil from recycled aluminum uses about 5% of the energy needed to make these products from scratch. The good news is aluminum is endlessly recyclable and about two-thirds of consumed aluminum is recycled each year so the more we increase that percentage the less we impact the planet from the effects of bauxite ore mining and aluminum manufacture derived therefrom. 

An easy way to promote aluminum recycling is to pick up discarded cans like those  you undoubtedly see in parking lots and along roadsides. I see them too and I collect them, putting them in a small plastic bag I keep in the car until I dump them in a much larger bag lining a garbage can. I bring the bags filled with foil and cans to a local waste or scrap metal company (PK Metals on Route 112 in Coram is currently paying 40 cents a pound)  and then donate the money to the Four Harbors Audubon Society, creating a true triple win situation — more aluminum recycled, less roadside litter, and funds for conservation. Will you join me in this effort?  

Protect birds 

Many bird species are in trouble. A recent study has documented a 30% decline — or about 3 billion less birds in North America today than 50 years ago. There are many causes including habitat destruction, feral and pet cats, window strikes, oil spills, drowning due to at-sea fishing activities, ingestion of lead shot and fishing sinkers, and pesticide poisoning, to name but a few. But these problems present opportunities and there’s much we each can do to protect birds by directly responding to these threats — putting window stickers on problem windows so birds can see them, avoiding a fatal collision, keeping your pet cat indoors or if you can’t, make your next pet cat an indoor animal, not using lead split shot and recycling fishing line, drinking shade grown coffee, and throwing away the pesticide can. Birds very much need our help, and let’s remember we are their only hope, so let’s help them!  

Be kind to other living things 

All life shares a common ancestry that began several  billion years ago, when the first signs of life emerged. This is a fact which we can, perhaps uniquely, understand, fostering an opportunity for a kinder, gentler relationship with all living things. So please be kind to them — move turtles out of the road, while driving slow down for squirrels and other wildlife, and practice accommodation by placing outside, unharmed, house-inhabiting spiders, mice, and snakes. 

To bolster this view of valuing life’s sanctity, remember a thought your parents probably shared with you when it came to empathy for the predicament of others — “putting yourself in the shoes of another.” Imagine, for a moment, being that box turtle or squirrel trying to get across a road. Wouldn’t you love it for the human driver bearing down on you to take their shoe-clad foot off the gas pedal for a moment or maybe safely pulling to the side of the road, stopping, and moving you out of harm’s way? 

Connect to nature by connecting to a local park 

Walk slowly through a park or preserve, practicing the Japanese art of “Shinrin-yoku” or forest bathing. It is shown to lower blood pressure and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Leave human distraction behind; listen for a variety of bird songs and calls and the deep croaks of frogs, the lapping waves or running water; breathe in the rich scents of the forest or the salty air of the seashore; and quietly observe all the surrounding life, breathing deeply and intently while you do so.

Connect to the vibrancy that is around you — the green fuse of plant life, the orderly activities of ants around an ant mound, the many patterns of tree bark, the cloud formations you take for granted, and the patrols of darting dragonflies. Maybe you’ll even see the blur of an actively feeding ruby-throated hummingbird seeking nectar from jewelweed. 

Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forester, said in a speech at the United Nations half-a-century ago: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Go forth, being taught by nature, and fall in love, perhaps for the first time or maybe for the 487th time with her beauty, complexity, and magic.    

If these things are done you will have taken measurable steps toward improving your relationship with planet Earth and its treasured forms of life that share the only place in the universe so blessed. What a great birthday present that would be, enough to make me skip the birthday cake.  

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.

A whippoorwill. Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

In the early evening of a mid-June day, eleven intrepid participants hiked through the globally rare Dwarf Pine Plains, a unique forest of pygmy pines found in the Long Island Pine Barrens. Their mission? To hear the night-time calls of the “moonbirds” — Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows (or “whips” and “chucks” in birding vernacular), ringing out over the dwarf pines. For these nocturnal birds, the central Pine Barrens is their Long Island stronghold.

We know for the Whip-poor-will, and suspect for the Chuck-will’s-widow, their reproductive cycle is tied to the phases of the moon. “Whips” typically mate shortly after the full moon in May and the young hatch about 10 days before the next full moon in June. As the moon moves through its waxing phase and its reflected light gains in strength, whip-poor-wills can see better at night enabling them to hunt more efficiently for the moths and large beetles they eat and feed to their young. During this active time both species vocalize, their onomatopoeiac calls repeated often — one student reported a whip-poor-will calling 1,088 times consecutively! No wonder their common names were derived from the calls they make!

While their calls were very much appreciated by the night’s participants, it hasn’t always been the case their calls were welcome sounds. Superstition and meaning abound. A popular belief claimed that whoever hears a whip-poor-will will soon die; a variation portends a death of someone the listener knows. Or a whip-poor-will calling outside a house meant the death of an inhabitant, and perhaps, allowing the bird to grab their soul as it departs their body, which if they did would lead to further calling by the bird. If the bird failed in capturing the soul it would fall silent. Other legends imparted only bad luck but not death to the hearer of a call.

Another legend has it that a person with back ailments who does somersaults in cadence with the whip-poor-will’s call will see their back problems soon cured (makes you wonder, though, if a person could do somersaults every two to three seconds then maybe their back wasn’t in such bad shape to begin with?). 

Another “first of the year call” legend meant good luck — if you made a wish upon hearing your first call then that wish would come true. In Louisiana gardeners would use the date of the first call of the whip-poor-will as a guide to planting garden peas.

According to folklore legend, whip-poor-wills had importance to single women. If an unhitched woman heard her first whip-poor-will call of the year but the bird then went immediately silent, she would stay single all year long; but if she was quick enough to wish to be married upon hearing the call she would soon be so. Still another legend notes that if a single woman hears a whip-poor-will call before morning light and another whip-poor-will responds, her “future man” will think of her that day.

Native Americans were also intrigued by whip-poor-wills. The Iroquois, for example, believed that moccasin flowers (pink lady’s slippers) were the shoes of whip-poor-wills while Utes believed whip-poor-wills were gods of the night.

Henry David Thoreau had a different, more basic take on a whip-poor-will’s call: “It could mean many things, according to the wealth of myth surrounding this night flyer. The note of the whippoorwill borne over the fields is the voice with which the woods and moonlight woo me” he said.

“Whips” and “Chucks” belong to a group of birds known as “goatsuckers”, a name derived centuries ago from the mistaken belief they use their large, supple, flesh-lined mouths to suck on the teats of goats. They were even accused of blinding or killing livestock once they latched on! This perception of “goat-sucking” isn’t totally off-base since the goatsucker name developed in Europe where residents often observed European nightjars flying around goat pens. They weren’t there to latch onto goat teats but rather were likely attracted to the insects stirred up by the goats. 

Even the family of birds these species belong to — the Caprimulgidae —underscore this mistaken connection. Capra in Latin means goat and mulgare means “to milk”. Even a very wise person, Aristotle, apparently believed the bird-goat connection noting: “Flying to the udders of she-goats, it sucks them and so it gets its name”.

In addition to Whip-poor-will’s and Chuck-will-widow’s there are six other members belonging to this family in North America — Buff-collared Nightjar, Common Poorwill, Common Pauraque and Common, Lesser, and Antillean Nighthawks — and three occur on Long Island — “whips”, “chucks” and Common Nighthawks. This latter species is a very rare breeder on Long Island, if at all, but passes through in fall migration in the low thousands, as evidenced by the recent annual totals at the Nighthawk Watch conducted at the Stone Bridge in Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket by the Four Harbors Audubon Society.

These North American goatsuckers can be grouped into two categories: nightjars and nighthawks. “Whips” and “chucks” are nightjars — they have more rounded wings and plumper bodies than their nighthawk brethren, and also have large rictal bristles lining each side of their mouths, similar to cat whiskers, that assist them in catching larger prey. Nighthawks lack these bristles which are actually highly modified feathers.

While nighthawks like the Common Nighthawk generally feed on small aerial insects as they zip around — gnats, midges, mosquitoes, and the like — nightjars, so called due to the jarring call of some species, feed on larger insects, bigger moths and beetles mostly, flying up from the ground or from a perch. Chuck-will’s-widows are also known to eat birds and lizards. When viewed in a picture the birds appear to possess small mouths because of their small bills. But looks can be deceiving as their mouths are enormous. In fact, the genus Antrostomus means “cavern mouth”.

One of the distinctive features of both “whips” and “chucks” are their cryptic coloration. They blend in remarkably well with the leaf litter on the forest floor, a good thing since they are ground nesting birds and they and their eggs (typically two) and chicks are more vulnerable to predation. 

There is available on the Internet one photograph of a whip-poor-will on the forest floor and it is simply indistinguishable, in another closer photo the bird is partially revealed; it’s not until a second, even closer photo that the bird’s face and elongated body can be clearly seen.

This ground nesting habit is one reason why both species have declined. As Long Island becomes more developed and natural areas get fragmented by development, animals associated with that development — namely dogs, feral and free ranging pet cats, and wild animals such as raccoons attracted to easier food in suburban areas — frequent wild areas adjacent to the homes preying on a variety of vulnerable species including these nightjars. 

A reduction in the abundance of their insect prey appears to be another contributing cause. From 1980-1985 New York conducted its first statewide breeding bird survey; it replicated the effort in 2000-2005. In the first survey whip-poor-wills were detected in 564 quadrangles (one square mile of land); in the latter survey the species was detected in only 241 quadrangles, a reduction of 57%. A similar trend occurred with the Chuck-will’s-widow, with a 62% reduction. A third bird survey began in 2020 and will be completed in 2025; at that time we’ll have an up-to-date picture of the status of these two nightjars. 

Contrast this with John James Audubon’s 1838 account: “Hundreds are often heard at the same time in different parts of the woods, each trying to out-do the others; and when you are told that the notes of this bird may be heard at the distance of several hundred yards, you may form an idea of the pleasure which every lover of nature must feel during the time when this chorus is continued. Description is incapable of conveying to your mind any accurate idea of the notes of this bird, much less of the feelings which they excite”.

As I walked back to the car, ruminating about the experience of the “moonbirds” calling beneath the Strawberry Moon, some close enough to cause excitement, a random thought popped into mind — how human experience can be so enriched when we connect with other forms of life we allow to co-exist. May whip-poor-wills and chuck-will’s-widows call under full moons for many decades to come, serving all the while as harbingers of life, not death. 

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.

Above, a stand of Christmas Fern. Photo by John Turner

By John L. Turner

Throughout the forests, woodlands, and wetlands of Long Island exists a group of plants with great lineage and I do mean GREAT lineage, with a fossil record that goes back approximately 360 million of years, well before the appearance of dinosaurs. In some places in the world, but not Long Island, these species reach tree size. Dozens of examples of this group can be found here, perhaps one or a few in an untouched section of your yard. What group might this be? Ferns and their relatives — the clubmosses and horsetails (the latter two will be the subject of a future article).

Because they aren’t colorful, ferns are often thought of as “background plants” in landscape settings. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful because many are very much so, given their fragile, graceful, and lacy appearances. Generally you can think of a fern frond as being “undivided, once-divided, twice-divided, or thrice-divided,” the lacier a fern the more “cuts” or divisions it has. (We don’t have any undivided ferns native to Long Island). 

Rare ferns seen at Fort Totten. Photo by John Turner

Remembering how many times a fern is divided is a convenient way to classify and identify species (it’s how I learned it many decades ago). So a fern like the well-known Christmas Fern, is a “once-divided fern” since its one division creates just a series of leaflets that collectively make up its frond surface. A twice-divided fern, like Bracken Fern, has leaflets like the Christmas Fern but in the Bracken Fern’s case, the leaflets themselves have cuts, creating subleaflets or pinnules. If, in turn, the subleaflets are cut to form even smaller lobes, as in Hayscented Fern, you’re looking at a thrice-divided fern.

Ferns have no flowers — no nectar, pollen, or seeds and depend upon no insects or animals to successfully reproduce. Rather, they depend upon spores and vegetative spread (through rhizomes in most cases but also, as in the case of Walking Fern, an undivided species that doesn’t grow on Long Island, in which the fern tip arches downward to anchor in the soil from which another fern grows, hence the term “walking”). 

The tiny, almost microscopic, spores develop within a case known as a sporangia. Often the sporangia are clustered together in what are known as sori or fruit-dots (although this isn’t accurate). The location of the sori can be very helpful, in fact diagnostic, in identifying fern species. With some, such as Sensitive, Cinnamon, and Netted Chain Ferns, the sori are located on a separate stalk, while in others like Grape Ferns they are connected via a stalk to the main frond. Most often though, the sori are located on the underside of the frond leaflets and their shape and location on the leaflet can be diagnostic as to species. A five to seven power hand lens opens up a new world to you while inspecting the many distinctive spore cases produced by our native ferns.

You might reasonably assume that a spore, wafting away from a sporangia upon the slightest breeze, will eventually land in a suitable location, germinate, and develop into a new fern. Your assumption, while most reasonable, would be incorrect as the process is more complicated and this is where the concept of “alternation of generations” comes in. The spore does germinate and develop, but not directly into a new fern. Rather, it grows into a prothallus, a small structure shaped like a Valentine’s Day heart. The prothallus is the “gametophyte” stage because the prothallus contains the gametes or sex cells (sperm and egg) On one part of the “heart” is the antheridia, where the sperm come from, and nearby is the archegonia, which produces the egg. In optimal conditions, that is, when the prothallus is wet, the sperm travels the short distance to the egg. Upon germination a new spore-producing fern (the sporophyte stage) develops. The sporophyte is the fern stage that is before your eyes to identify and enjoy. So we have sporophyte-gametophyte-sporophyte-gametophyte, ad infinitum.

As mentioned, some ferns spread vegetatively through the growth of underground horizontally oriented rhizomes from which new fronds grow in a perpendicular fashion, emerging from the surface of the soil. Bracken Fern, the common fern species of the drier upland habitats in the Pine Barrens, is an excellent example of a fern that spreads through rhizomes. In some places bracken fern stands can cover as much as an acre or more.

Long Island is home to several dozen fern species, present in most habitats occurring here. Freshwater and forest habitats are especially well represented with ferns; however, none occur in salt marshes or on beach dunes. Let’s look at some!

The previously mentioned Christmas Fern is a common and widespread species growing throughout Long Island’s woodlands. It is often noted the species received its name from the similarity of a leaflet to a Christmas stocking hanging from a fireplace mantle. A competing explanation is that this fern species is one of the few plants still green through the winter, standing out around Christmas time.

Similar looking to Christmas Fern but smaller is the Common Polypody, so named due to the resemblance of the leaflets to lobed feet (think pody-podiatrist). This fern is uncommon here, growing on steep slopes and large boulders. This species was a favorite of Henry David Thoreau who on several occasions remarked about the “cheerful communities” of polypody growing on rocks in New England.

Sensitive Fern grows in more sunlit locations and is easy to identify, with a “once-divided” look. As mentioned above, the sporangia are on separate stalks growing from the rootstock. Come the fall and frost, Sensitive Fern quickly dies back, hence its name.

Cinnamon Fern is an abundant fern growing in moist woodlands and wooded swamps. It is quite distinctive with a beautiful growth form in which several sterile fronds radiate from a central rootstock with the spore-producing fronds coming up through the middle. The sterile fronds appear as unfurling fiddleheads (there are no species of ferns known as fiddleheads per se; a fiddlehead is a growth stage of some ferns in which the emerging frond at first is curled like the head of a fiddle; in some species, the fiddleheads are edible). They are coated in a cinnamon “wool” — giving rise to the common name — which is reportedly used by hummingbirds and a few songbirds as nest lining material.

Bracken Fern is, as mentioned earlier, locally common to abundant in the Pine Barrens, forming an extensive thigh-high layer, unmistakable due to its triangular growth form. Bracken Fern is one of the more widespread species of ferns, found in many other places in the world including Japan and Asia. While it spreads mostly vegetatively, it also produces spores located on the rolled margins of the leaflets. It was once harvested for food but this came to an end when the species was determined to be carcinogenic.

New York Fern is another common woodland fern. It is distinguished by the tapered nature of both the top and bottom of the frond. Supposedly, a New England botanist thought this tapered growth form reminded him of New York socialites who “burned their candles at both ends” and the name New York Fern stuck.

Most native ferns here are adapted to acidic soils and as a result we don’t have many ferns that prefer more basic, calcarious soils found in limestone regions. On a birding field trip six years ago to Fort Totten in northern Queens Andy Greller (a very fine botanist, naturalist, retired Biology Professor from Queens College, and all around good guy) and I found some Purple Cliffbrake and Blunt-lobed Cliff Fern growing in the mortar seams holding together the large stones of the fort. The mortar provided the right conditions for these limestone loving ferns to thrive.

There are many other ferns awaiting your discovery — Royal and Interrupted Ferns both of which are related to Cinnamon Fern (the latter so named because the leaflets on the sterile frond are “interrupted” by the fertile leaflets in the middle of the frond), the Chain Ferns, the Grape Ferns, the hard to identify but lacy Wood Ferns, Lady, Marsh and Hay-scented Ferns, the distinctive looking Ebony Spleenwort, and a few others.

Right now these species await your visit and if you go exploring, don’t forget to bring a hand lens!

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.

Elderberry produces flat-topped berry clusters relished by birds.
Make your home a haven for wild things

By John L. Turner

One of the basic axioms in ecology is that no living thing exists in isolation, that each species in an ecosystem is varyingly affected by others species and, in turn, has an effect upon them. John Muir, the famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, understood this more than a century ago when he observed: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” As it relates to  humans, this idea was made famous by John Donne’s famous quote: “No man is an island entire of itself,” that each of us is affected by those around us upon whom we also have an effect. 

In ecosystems these effects are numerous and varied, and can be both easy and hard to quantify. Competition for light, water, and nutrients between species is well known but as Suzanne Simard’s recent revelatory book Finding the Mother Tree  documents, a surprising amount of cooperation exists between trees in a forest, involving both individuals of the same species and between tree species.

Among animals there’s cooperation too. Parents nourish offspring (with older offspring of scrub jays helping parents feed newborn offspring), and dolphins, whales and pelicans hunting together. But there’s also competition among animals — witness the interaction between ospreys and the resurging bald eagle population on Long Island. In all ecosystems there are predators sustained by an even larger base of prey, there’s host — parasite relationships, and, importantly decomposers and recyclers who prevent dead organic matter from accumulating by recycling nutrients and energy back into the system.

These relationships can conveniently (and simplistically) fit into one of three categories — positive, neutral, or negative for the species involved, or often and more typically, positive for one and negative for the other (think: Osprey catching and eating a fish). But the relationship can be positive for both as is the case with a pollinating bee and a wildflower — the bee secures nectar, pollen or both for itself and its young and the plant produces new progeny, in the form of seeds, through the pollination process.  

Non-native species, like the overwhelming number of wildflowers, shrubs, and trees in most homeowners’ yards, turn this axiom on its head and that creates a big problem.  Many non-native plants routinely planted by homeowners in some ways live in isolation — they produce little to no nectar or pollen so they do nothing to sustain pollinating insects and their leaves are fed upon by few if any insects. They do not have an effect upon other species and aren’t “hitched” to other species as Muir would undoubtedly have noted. 

It doesn’t have to be this way and many homeowners, with more joining each day, are “going native,” planting plants in their yards that are indigenous to Long Island, that  upon planting, become part of the local food web.  These owners are embracing the above axiom by installing plants that positively affect the insect, bird, and mammal populations around them.     

 It’s easy to join this burgeoning movement as native plants are much more available as organizations, individuals, and nurseries outlets respond to consumer interest.  One not-for-profit environmental organization, the Long Island Native Plant Initiative (LINPI), has, as its mission, the propagation and sale of native plants. They have dozens of species available at their facility located in the St. Joseph’s Convent in Brentwood and is worth your support.    

There are four main foods produced by plants that sustain wildlife — nectar, pollen, leaves and fruits (berries, nuts, and acorns) — that you need to think about when planting native species. Various insects depend upon the first three, while birds and mammals typically focus on fruits (and nectar in the case of hummingbirds).  

Shrubs

Highbush Blueberry

There are, of course,  some plants which provide more than one type of food that sustains wildlife.  

A great example is the woody shrub Highbush Blueberry, a common species growing in freshwater wetlands throughout Long Island. Its bell-shape flowers produce nectar consumed by many species of bees and butterflies; its pollen is eaten by some bees and other insects; the tasty berries are eaten by a variety of birds and small mammals (and, of course, a large mammal with two legs with whom you may be familiar if you like blueberry muffins or pies); and the leaves sustain caterpillars of many moths and butterflies including a wonderful group of small butterflies which includes the hairstreaks and elfins).  So Highbush Blueberry is a “go-to” plant in moving your yard from paucity to productivity. 

Another woody shrub to consider is elderberry which produces flat-topped berry clusters relished by birds. I enjoy watching the mockingbirds and catbirds each summer visit the ripened berry clusters of several elderberry bushes I’ve planted in the backyard.  

Others shrubs to think about (and there are still others) include Spicebush, which is used by the beautiful Spicebush swallowtail butterfly as a food source while a caterpillar;  and shadbush and chokeberry, both of which produce berries eaten by quite a few bird and small mammal species. If your property has moister soils think about planting Sweet Pepperbush, also known as Summersweet due to the strong and distinctive odors the plant gives off in summer. Many insects are attracted to these odiferous blossoms.  Lastly, two other native “woodies” you might to consider for wetter soils are Steeplebush, also known as Spirea and Swamp Rose.   

Trees

Speaking of woody plants, a number of tree species provide benefits to wildlife. Oaks, willows, hickories, cherries, beech, birch, dogwood, and sassafras are all especially valuable. Oak leaves, for example, are known to support hundreds of different kinds of caterpillars which are eaten by dozens of bird species. And bright red sassafras berries are consumed by a host of birds including cedar waxwings, catbirds, and several thrush species.   

Wildflowers and grasses

Goldenrod

You can also affect positive change with non-woody plants such as wildflowers and grasses. Two excellent groups of plants that pollinators love are goldenrods and asters. Goldenrods (what a wonderful and evocative common name!) produce copious amounts of nectar that many bees, beetles, and butterflies consume as well as the plants’ pollen. (By the way — it’s not goldenrod pollen that causes hay fever — their pollen grains are too big — but rather ragweed, blooming at the same time, which has much smaller pollen grains since they are wind pollinated.) 

Standing on the edge of a thick stand of goldenrod in bloom in late summer is to visit the busiest insect airport imaginable — dozens of bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and butterflies probing the countless flowers for nectar and pollen. Many moth and butterflies, as caterpillars, feed on goldenrod leaves. Several dozen goldenrod species are native to Long Island so there’s a lot of variety to choose from.  Why not plant some “sunshine concentrate” in your flower beds?

Asters, too, are important wildflowers for wildlife providing nectar. Like goldenrods, they are beautiful, adding bright splashes of color to your yard such as the stunning purple rays of New England Aster. Several aster species are available for sale. 

Milkweeds

Many other native species can become part of your local ecosystem. Milkweeds are another group, perhaps most well-known because Common Milkweed is the common host plant for the Monarch Butterfly, a species that’s the focus of a great deal of conservation concern due to their declining numbers (although in 2021 there appears to be a slight uptick in their numbers). 

Besides Common Milkweed you should think about planting Swamp Milkweed if you have wetter, richer soils and Butterflyweed, a bright orange member of the milkweed family. Many species of insects are attracted to the nectar produced by these species and Monarch caterpillars can successfully grow eating Butterfly Weed leaves as the five caterpillars that came from a small flower garden by my back door can attest. 

Other native wildflowers that sustain wildlife include, but are not limited to, Joe-pye weed, Boneset, Thoroughwort, Northern Blazing Stars, Bush Clovers, Mountain Mint, and Beggars Ticks.  

To attract Ruby-throated Hummingbirds you need to plant red flowers — three good ones are Cardinal Flower (a stunner)!, Wild Bergamot (also known as Oswego Tea) and  Trumpet Vine.  

There’s value in planting a number of the same plants together, forming clumps rather than single plants. Some beetles don’t fly as well as other insects so its worth clumping together some natives to assist them. And odors and chemicals given off by groups of the same species are much stronger than scents given by individual plants so more is better!  

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If want to do more to make your yard wildlife friendly here’s a few other ideas:  

A great project with the kids is to make a bee hotel.

 

Build bee hotels. Many bees, wasps, and other pollinating insects can benefit from “bee hotels” placed around your property. A great project is to engage your children in researching, constructing and installing small bee hotels suitable to your property. These hotels will help some of the several hundred native bee species like mason bees which, unlike the European honeybee, nest solitarily. There’s many different designs you can find on-line such as drilling holes of various diameters into a several foot long segment of a “4 by 4”. Tying together a bunch of hollow bamboo stalks into a wood frame that hangs is an alternative design. 

Can your Spray Can! It is tempting to turn to the easy fix of chemicals to control garden pests. The problem is these chemicals work too well; remember pesticides, herbicides, and other “cides” are all poisons, some of which have broad and deadly impacts to a large number of species. Research other, more benign options for controlling unwanted species — by doing so you allow the wanted species to flourish.  Turn away from poisons. 

Leave the Leaves and Save the Stubble! Layers of fallen leaves and standing stem stubble in your garden beds and throughout your yard sustain many species, especially insects that overwinter under leaves and in hollow stems. 

Frog Logs to the Rescue! If you have an in-ground pool you may want to buy frog logs or ramps to allow animals like chipmunks a chance to escape. The “logs” are semi-circle floats in which a fabric ramp connects the float with the anchor portion filled with sand.   

If you put away the poisons, invest in some frog logs if needed, retain leaves in flower beds and in the corners of your yard and, most importantly, plant native species to nourish pollinators and many other species of wildlife, your yard will become part of the living fabric of the larger world surrounding you. It’s axiomatic! 

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 and pens a monthly column for TBR News Media titled Nature Matters.

*This article originally appeared in TBR News Media’s Summer Times supplement on June 24.

An osprey carries a fish back to its nest. Photo from Unsplash

By John L. Turner

I vividly remember the first time I saw an Osprey (also called the Fish Hawk due to the fact their diet is, with very rare exception, entirely comprised of fish). As a ten-year-old, a friend and I were birding on the back side of Miller’s Pond in Smithtown, now a county park off of Maple Avenue, but at that time a private estate. We came along the edge of small stream that fed the pond, still hidden a little bit by a shrub thicket of stream-side sweet pepperbush. Peering across the stream we noticed a HUGE bird (isn’t everything bigger when you’re small?) perched on top of a dead tree with an orange object wriggling in its feet. Well, the object was a nice-sized carp, the feet were actually very sharp talons, and the big bird holding the carp was an Osprey.

Ospreys have made an amazing comeback on Long Island. Unsplash photo

We didn’t realize it at the time but this Osprey sighting was becoming an increasingly uncommon event. Due to the widespread use of DDT, a persistent pesticide that can last in the environment for decades, Ospreys and many other birds higher on the food chain (e.g., Bald eagle, both pelican species, Peregrine falcon) plummeted. Scientists soon learned that the pesticide interfered with the ability of the birds to lay viable eggs, causing some bird populations to decline as mush as 90% and causing the extinction of the eastern United State race of the Peregrine falcon. 

Fortunately, in one of the first great environmental victories of the environmentally enlightened era of the early 1970s (you may be old enough to remember the first Earth Day and the adoption of the Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts) DDT was banned in 1972 for use in the United States. The Center of this intense national fight? Right here in the Three Villages where the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) was established! 

Now an international environmental organization focusing on global environmental issues such as climate change and loss of biodiversity, EDF started in a modest office, first in Stony Brook (in a cramped second floor office above the Post Office, ironically, behind the flapping Bald eagle) and then in a house in Setauket on Old Town Road, where it successfully took on the fight to stop the use of this bird-killing pesticide. This several year struggle is chronicled in the highly informative and readable book DDT Wars, written by Charlie Wurster, a retired Stony Brook University professor, EDF board member, and long time resident of Old Field.

Over the past couple of decades Ospreys have bounced back big time throughout North America with an estimated 30,000 pairs (making the continent the global stronghold for the species), an increase mirrored on Long Island with several hundred pairs of Ospreys and growing (as a result the Osprey has been removed from the New York State list of Endangered and Threatened Species). 

Helping to fuel this growth are the presence of several coastal fish species including alewife, American Eel, but especially menhaden (or bunker) which has undergone a resurgence in the past half a decade due to a ban on their commercial harvest in New York State waters.

As with an animal that routinely dives into water to catch highly slippery prey, Ospreys have evolved a number of adaptations that provide the tools for a successful hunt. Their sharp talons are instrumental in holding onto fish but their feet have two other adaptations. The skin on the bottom of their feet are pocked with small bumps known as spicules that impart a sandpaper-like quality to the skin, aiding the bird in gripping the fish. And the osprey can rotate one of its three front talons to swing to the back so the bird can better hold onto the fish with a two-in-front, two-in-back talon arrangement. Oh, and did I mention they close their nostrils to keep water out when diving for prey?

Their plumage, too, is adapted to emersion in water. Ospreys have the oiliest feathers of any bird-of-prey, the oil helping to repel water. This oil imparts a musty smell to museum skins, a trait that museum curators have occasionally noted. After Ospreys take-off from a plunge they almost always shake their bodies like a golden retriever, as the water drops easily shed from their highly waterproofed feathers.

Their bulky stick nests are a common and iconic site in many coastal areas of Long Island, sometimes built in sturdy trees, others on buoys, lighthouses, or channel markers. Most often, though, the nests are on elevated platforms some caring individual or organization has erected (if you put up a nesting platform make sure to install a predator guard and one or more perches angled from the side of the platform). 

From the ground it is hard to see the contour of the nest but from above you can discern its shallow bowl shape, containing softer material such as phragmites, finer sticks and even seaweed, which line the bowl. Ospreys are notorious for adding human-made objects to their nest with dozens of items being documented; we don’t have an understanding of why they do this; maybe they just like to collect things like rope, net fragments, rubber boots, items of clothing, even children’s dolls!

Osprey chicks in various stages of development are in nests all around Long Island now. Both parents incubate the eggs (two to three in a typical clutch, although occasionally a four-egg nest is reported). If the hatchlings make it through the wind and rain at their exposed nest sites, they grow rapidly, fledging in about two months. If you want to watch Ospreys go through nest building, incubation, and raising of young there are a number of webcams on-line in which to view ospreys. 

PSEG has two productive webcams to enjoy, one in Oyster Bay and the other on the south side of Main Street in Patchogue Village. As I write this I’m listening to the piercing call of an adult Osprey vocalizing from the webcam nest in Oyster Bay; two small young have hatched and there’s an unhatched egg that hopefully will hatch very soon. The two young in the Patchogue nest are several days older.

Bald Eagles have made an amazing comeback on Long Island. Unsplash photo

A larger cousin to the Osprey — the Bald Eagle — is another beneficiary of the DDT ban and as the eagle has resurged throughout the country, so too on Long Island. As a result of this population growth the species was removed in 2007 from the federal Endangered Species List, although it is still listed as a Threatened Species in New York DEC’s list. While largely free from pesticide contamination concerns, many Bald and Golden Eagles today face poisoning from a different source — lead. The lead is ingested from spent shot, bullet fragments, and perhaps even long lost fishing sinkers first ingested by waterfowl they preyed upon.

Sightings of adult and immature eagles have become almost commonplace, especially near areas where they nest. The first eagle nest, evidence of this comeback, was discovered on Gardiner’s Island in 2006 and for several years was the sole nest on Long Island. (In fact, prior to the current resurgence, the last Bald Eagle nest was on Gardiner’s Island way back in 1932.) But by 2015 the number of nests had climbed to five and by 2018 reached eight. Now there are more than a dozen nests. The nest in Centerport, just north of State Route 25A and west of the harbor, is perhaps the most conspicuous. Good views of the eagle nest at the William Floyd Estate can be gained, looking south across Home Creek, from the Town of Brookhaven’s Osprey Park.

As with the scientific name of many species, the Bald Eagle’s scientific name imparts information about the species; Haliaeetus leucocephalus means the sea eagle with the white-head.

The resurgence of these two impressive birds-of-prey, over the past several decades, has been inspirational, not only for the grace, power, and beauty they add to our daily experience, but also because they are living proof that if we do the right things — banning poisons (let’s take the next step in their restoration by working with hunters to get the lead out!), cleaning our nation’s waters, protecting their food supply, and providing nest sites — these birds and nature can begin the healing process and meet us halfway. These birds present, indeed, impart to us an important and valuable lesson in this time of planetary peril. It’s up to each of us to learn from them — what say you, are you willing to embrace the lesson?

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.

'Eel Spearing in Setauket' by William Sidney Mount

By John L. Turner

This is part two of a two-part series on a remarkable pair of fish. 

The life cycle of the American Eel is a bit more complicated than river herring and consists of six stages: egg, larvae, glass eel, elver, yellow eel, and silver eel. 

Mature adults reproduce just once in their lifetime with all the eels emanating from the East Coast unerringly migrating to the Sargasso Sea where mass spawning takes place. (The Sargasso Sea, situated south of Bermuda, has no land borders but is distinct by being bounded by four strong ocean currents, including the Gulf Stream, resulting in quiet waters entrained within the gyre; here masses of sargassum weed abound giving shelter to many marine species including hatchling sea turtles). 

Shortly after spawning here the adult eels die. A grown eel releases as many as several million eggs and they hatch within a week. At first the leptocephali don’t look eel-like, being transparent and flattened, described as looking like a willow leaf; they are carried north by the currents, including most notably, the Gulf Stream. 

American Eel. Wikipedia photo

After about half a year they metamorphose into “glass eels,” still transparent but shaped like baby eels, and this is the stage, along with the slightly pigmented elver stage, that arrives at the mouths of Long Island’s streams. They wriggle their way up vertical faces and over wet land to make their way into freshwater ponds and lakes (although some spend their adult lives in brackish waters of Long Island’s estuaries).

While living for decades in ponds and lakes they move through a few more color stages, including yellow and silver eels. Here they become fully integrated members of the local food web, feeding on a variety of different aquatic prey while being preyed upon by many other animals including ospreys and bald eagles (stay tuned: June’s “Nature Matters” column!). 

Eels are also food for humans (remember one of Long Island’s most famous paintings  — William Sidney Mount’s 1845 “Eel Spearing at Setauket”?). Eventually some internal trigger “tells” these decades-old fish to head to the ocean and back to the Sargasso Sea to create a new generation of eels. To assist them in their long journey their bodies change a little — their eyes enlarge as do their pectoral fins.

Eel are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), beginning in 2006 with the first species management plan. The Commission sets harvest quotas for all age classes of eels including those to be used as bait and for direct consumption. The news has not been good over the past several decades with eel abundance on the decline and ASMFC currently classifies the eel stock as “depleted.” 

Ways to increase abundance? Reduce all causes of eel mortality, especially among younger animals, among adults trying to navigate the perils of turbines at hydroelectric dams and increase opportunities for eels to migrate to freshwater areas where they can survive, becoming mature adults through time.

The Seatuck Environmental Association has been at the forefront of documenting the migratory occurrences of Long Island’s alewives and eels through its signature river herring and eel surveys and has, for decades, been working to protect existing runs while facilitating others. If you want to participate in trying to find new sites of alewife runs or eel migration or document more completely whats’s happening at existing sites, go to Seatuck’s webpage.

In pre-colonial times, before the advent of dams and other obstructions, many, if not all, of Long Island’s streams and rivers likely teemed in Spring with alewives and eels. They, in turn, provided nourishment to many species of wildlife from otters to ospreys to eagles. However, the Long Island of today is a very different place, with so many ecological threads severed or frayed. The reduced abundance of these fish illustrate the pervasive loss of ecological connectivity that has occurred on Long Island in the past few centuries. The good news? Many individuals, organizations, and governmental agencies are working to enhance connectivity here – to reconnect severed ecological threads – through the installation of additional ladders and passageways, and better yet, the removal of more dams, all steps to give these remarkable animals a chance to recover and perhaps even prosper.

I hope you make their acquaintance.

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.

Above, alewives at Woodhull Dam in Riverhead. Photo by Byron Young

By John L. Turner

This is part one of a two-part series on a remarkable pair of fish. 

Each Spring, driven by impulses and guided by signals not fully understood, they migrate to Long Island to create the next generation. But unlike red-winged blackbirds, with their bright red shoulder patches and reedlike konk-a-ree calls, or Spring Peepers with their distinctive “sleigh bell” calls ringing from recharge basins and wetlands around Long Island, these migrating animals arrive quietly, their arrival and presence unknown to almost all Long Islanders. And while we may not be aware of their arrival, many other animals like bald eagles, ospreys, otters and great blue herons certainly do.

What animals might they be? Fish — or more precisely alewives (Alosa pseudoharengus) [meaning false herring], a species of river herring, and American Eel (Anguilla rostrata), one of nineteen species of snakelike fish with a worldwide distribution. Alewives return as adults to Long Island waterways, ranging from 9-12 inches long, while eels arrive as “babies,” just several months removed from their birth in the open ocean. Alewives are a shimmering silver in color with a distinctive dark spot behind the gill cover and are almost indistinguishable from their cousin, the blueback herring. When small, eel are translucent, gaining pigment as they mature.

 

Photo by John Turner

These species are diadromous fish, “dia” meaning “through or across” and “dromous” meaning ”running,” a reference to the migratory habit of these fish moving between the two worlds they inhabit as part of their life cycle — freshwater and saltwater. Alewives and other river herring develop and mature in the salty waters of the North Atlantic, moving into freshwater systems to spawn, while eel typically develop in freshwater and spawn in salt water, in the famous stretch of the mid-Atlantic Ocean known as the Sargasso Sea. 

To be more specific, biologists segregate diadromous fish into two other categories: anadromous fish like alewives, other river herring such as American Shad, striped bass, and salmon which mature in salt water but move upstream (“ana” meaning upward) to spawn in freshwater, and catadromous fish (“cat” meaning downward) such as American Eel which develops in freshwater but moves downstream to spawn in salt water.

Schools of alewives, three to four years old, seek out the freshwater stream of their birth, apparently finding their natal stream by its unique and distinctive chemical scent, although fishery biologists are not sure of the precise mechanism they use that allows them to find their way. Once these river herring find suitable habitat they spawn, depositing from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of eggs, and the adults soon leave to head back to the ocean. The eggs left behind hatch and the young develop over many weeks before, in mid-summer, heading out to open water too.

Cued by warming waters silvery, shimmering schools of alewives (and smaller numbers of their cousin, blueback herring) arrive in Spring — typically from late March to early May — congregating en masse at the mouths of many streams around Long Island. They then move inland and the “run” has begun! (For a wonderful account of alewife runs and their importance to colonial America, I encourage you to find a copy of The Run by John Hay, published in 1959). 

A fish ladder on the North Shore. Photo by John Turner

Several hundred years ago the days of “alewife runs” were a time of great excitement for local residents as the fish provided them with an abundance of food at a critical time of year, but also as food for swine, and fertilizer for crops, most notably for “fish corn,” the practice of burying a piece of a fish (often the head) under the planted corn kernel. The rotting fish provided nutrients and minerals to the corn stalk as it grew, a practice originating with Native Americans.

Alewife runs were so important that some of the earliest wildlife laws in the United States were enacted to protect them. A very early law, passed in 1709 in Massachusetts stated: “That no wears [weirs], hedges, fishgarths, kiddles, or other disturbance or encumbrance shall be set, erected or made, on or across any river, to the stopping, obstructing, or straightening of the natural or usual course and the passage of the fish in their seasons, or spring of the year, without the approbiation and allowance first had and obtained from the general sessions of the peace in the same county”. Another law, adopted several decades later in 1741, related directly to the fish: “to prevent the destruction of the fish called alewives, and other fish.”

Their original abundance, especially when contrasted with current levels, was marveled at. John Waldman, a fisheries biologist whose book Running Silver, a wonderful treatise on migratory fish, has noted this abundance by numerous historical references. One account, from 1634, notes: “Alewives came up to the fresh rivers to spawn in such multitudes it is almost incredible, pressing up such shallow waters as will scarce permit them to swim.” Another quote nearly one hundred years later in 1728, noting alewife abundance in Virginia, says: “In a word, it is unbelievable, indeed, undescribable, as also incomprehensible, what quantity is found there. One must behold oneself.” The abundance of alewives today is a tiny and pale shadow of what once existed.

Unfortunately, many obstacles confront alewives and eels today on Long Island as they attempt to move upstream to spawn — not the aforementioned weirs, fishgarths, and kiddles of old, but dams, dams, and more dams (also other structures like poorly designed road and railroad culverts). 

Constructed to channel water for the operation of sawmills, grist mills, and woolen mills, and to create impoundments for growing cranberries and harvesting ice, these dams and culverts have almost entirely foreclosed the ability of these fish to pass unimpeded in streams here. The stream at North Sea, Alewife Brook, draining Big Fresh Pond and emptying into North Sea Harbor is one of the very few remaining free-flowing, unimpeded streams remaining on Long Island (and one of the best places to visit to see alewife runs).

The response to solve the dam problem has been the construction of fish ladders or ramps on and around the obstacles. Fish ladders and rock ramps, angled so the fish can make it from the lower stream section to the higher water levels in the upstream impoundment, has proven to be an alternative and somewhat effective strategy for river herring to gain access to spawning areas. To assist eels, pegged boards or tangled rope netting have been deployed which the young eels can wriggle up. 

Fish ladder (on right) and eel passage (on left) on the Peconic River. Photo by John Turner

Ladders and ramps have been placed on the main stems of the Peconic and Carmans Rivers, as well as the Swan River in East Patchogue, Massapequa Creek in Massapequa, and another at Betty Allen Park in Huntington. Two important ladders (due to the amount of freshwater the ladders will access) are being constructed — one on the Woodhull Dam in Riverhead providing access to an entire tributary of the Peconic River and another at the base of Mill Pond in Rockville Centre. A ladder is in the planning stage for Bellmore Creek which is expected to be installed in 2023.

A more effective but more controversial solution is dam removal. In many places in the United States dams have been removed but on Long Island this has not been the case as pond-side homeowners fear the loss of their physical and visual access to the water. 

One possible area of success is at West Brook within Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Oakdale where the Seatuck Environmental Association has been advocating for the State Parks to not reconstruct the concrete dam that failed on the stream. The dam failure has opened up more than a mile long stretch of West Brook that heretofore was not accessible for migratory fish.

*Part two of this series will appear in the issue of May 12.

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

Photo by John Turner

By John L. Turner

This is the second in a two-part series on Long Island’s water supply.

‘We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us’ — Pogo

Imagine, for a moment, you’re driving on a road that skirts one of New York City’s water supply reservoirs such as the Croton or Ashokan reservoir. You come around a bend and in a large gap in the forest, offering a clear and sweeping view of the reservoir, you see thousands of houseboats dotting the reservoir’s surface. An unease falls over you — after all this is a drinking water reservoir that supplies drinking water to millions of people — and letting people live on their water supply doesn’t seem like a very good idea to ensure the purity or even the drinkability of the water.

Pixabay photo

Shift your focus to Long Island and you can see these “houseboats.” They’re in the form of hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses sitting on the surface. The drinking water reservoir however is invisible beneath our feet, leading to a “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality, which, in turn, has led to decades of mistreatment by the approximately 2.7 million Long Islanders who live, work, and play above a water supply they cannot see. Perhaps it is this visual disconnection which explains the checkered stewardship.

At the risk of understatement, Long Island’s drinking water system, and the coastal waters hydrologically connected to it, are facing significant, big-time challenges. By just about any measure (a few exceptions include detergents and several types of pesticides) there are more contaminants in greater concentrations in Long Island’s groundwater than any time in its history. 

In a way this is not surprising as Long Island has built out with a land surface containing ever increasing numbers of actual and potential sources of contamination, and hundreds of poorly vetted chemicals coming on the market every year. Layer on this the quantity dimension: that in certain areas there’s simply not enough water to meet current or projected human demand and the needs of ecosystems (like wetlands) and it’s not surprising that Long Island’s drinking water system is under stress like never before.

To be clear, government agencies have not sat passively by in an effort to protect and manage the aquifer system. There are many examples over the past several decades where various government agencies, statutorily responsible for safeguarding our water resources, have delineated a problem and moved to address it. Let’s run through a few.

You’ve heard the expression: “oil and water don’t mix.” The same is true for gasoline, as evidenced by the many leak and spill incidents in the past caused by hundreds of gasoline stations scattered throughout Nassau and Suffolk Counties. As more and more contamination was discovered from gasoline plumes in the Upper Glacial aquifer half a century ago, gasoline storage tanks buried at every filling station were becoming known as “ticking time bombs”. This is because tanks installed many decades ago were single-wall, and made of corrodible cast iron — two undesirable traits for tanks containing thousands of gallons of gasoline buried in the ground. 

The solution? Both counties mandated tank replacement; Suffolk County through the enactment of Article 12 of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code. New requirements included double-walled fiberglass or specialized steel tanks with a leak detection system in between the two walls to detect a leak in the inner wall. Older readers may remember, years ago, the presence of excavators and backhoes in gas stations throughout the island as the industry moved to comply with this important new water quality safety measure. Because of these two county laws gasoline leaks — and subsequent plumes — from station tanks are almost entirely a thing of the past.

Another pollutant that is largely a thing of the past is salt. Before the adoption of legislation mandating the enclosed covering of salt piles managed by transportation and public works departments, stockpiled for winter road deicing applications, salt piles would sit outside exposed to the elements. Not surprisingly, plumes of salty water, well above drinking water standards, often formed under these piles. In some cases plumes beneath salt piles located near public water supply wells ended up contaminating these wells. Today, by law, all highway department salt stockpiles have to be covered or indoors to prevent saltwater plumes.

Nitrogen pollution has been a more intractable problem. Emanating from centralized sewage treatment plants, agricultural and lawn fertilizers, and many thousands of septic tanks and cesspools (there’s an estimated 360,000 of them in Suffolk County alone), nitrogen is ubiquitous. This excess nitrogen has fueled adverse ecological changes in our estuaries including loss of salt marshes and various types of toxic algae blooms, which in turn, have killed off scallops, clams, diamondback terrapins, and blue-claw crabs. Too much nitrogen in drinking water can have adverse health consequences for humans, especially babies, a concern since an increasing number of public wells have nitrogen levels exceeding the state health limit of 10 parts per million.

So how to get ahead of the nitrogen curve? Generally there are three ways, each relating to each of the major sources of contamination — 1) nitrogen laden water from home septic tanks/cesspools, 2) nitrogen laden water from sewage treatment plants, and 3) nitrogen pollution stemming from fertilizer use, most notably in farming but also by homeowners for lawn care.

Through the Septic Improvement Program, under its “Reclaim Our Water” Initiative, Suffolk County has thrown its eggs in the “septic tank/cesspool” basket by attacking the nitrogen generated by homeowners. How? By working with companies that have made vast improvements in the technology used to treat household sewage; basically these companies have developed mini-sewage treatment plants in place of septic tanks/cesspools, resulting in much lower nitrogen levels in the water recharged into the ground (from 70 to 80 parts per million ppm nitrogen to 10-20 ppm. 

The County now provides financial subsidies to homeowners to replace aging systems with new Innovative/Advanced systems (known as I/A systems). The downside with this approach is that because of the huge number of homes that need to convert their cesspools/septic tanks to I/A systems (remember the 360,000 figure from above?) it will take many decades to bend the nitrogen-loading curve meaningfully downward, to the point we’ll begin to see a difference.

An additional complimentary approach to reduce nitrogen loadings, but likely able to do so more quickly, is through the tried and true strategy of “water reuse.” Here, highly treated wastewater from sewage treatment plants (STP’s) which contains low concentrations of nitrogen, is used in ways which “pulls out” the nitrogen. Water reuse is common practice in many places in the United States including Florida and California where the trademark purple-colored distribution piping is commonplace. Approximately 2.6 billion gallons of water is reused daily in the country, mostly for golf course irrigation but also for irrigating certain foods such as citrus trees.

The largest water reuse example on Long Island involves the Riverhead STP-Indian Island County Golf Course. With this project, from April to October, highly treated wastewater is directed to the adjacent Indian Island County Golf Course rather than being discharged into the Peconic River. According to engineering projections, the effort annually results in about 1.4 less tons of nitrogen entering the estuary, being taken up by the grass, and keeps about 63 million gallons of water in the ground since golf course wells no longer need to pump irrigation water from the aquifers.

With funding support the Seatuck Environmental Association has hired Cameron Engineering & Associates to develop an islandwide “Water Reuse Road Map” to guide future reuse projects. A potential local project, similar to the Riverhead example, tentatively identified in the roadmap involves redirecting wastewater from the SUNY Stony Brook STP which currently discharges into Port Jefferson Harbor and use it to irrigate the St. Georges Golf Course and Country Club, situated several hundreds away from the STP on the east side of Nicolls Road in East Setauket.

The third source of nitrogen contamination — fertilizers — has also received focus although progress here has been slower. A Suffolk County law, among other things, prohibits fertilizer applications from November 1st through April 1st when the ground is mostly frozen and little plant growth occurs. It also prohibits, with certain exemptions such as golf courses, fertilizer applications on county-owned properties. Several bills, both at the county and state level, have been introduced to limit the fraction of nitrogen in fertilizer formulations and to require “slow release” nitrogen so it can be taken up by plants and not leach into groundwater.

A basic concept that has emerged from a better understanding of how Long Island’s groundwater system works and the threats to it, is the value of the aforementioned “deep-flow recharge areas” serving as groundwater watersheds, these watersheds recharging voluminous amounts of water to the deepest portions of the underlying aquifers. And we’ve also learned “clean land means clean water.” 

Where the land surface is dominated by pine and oak trees, chipmunks, native grasses, blueberries, etc., the groundwater beneath is pure, as there no sources of potential contamination on the surface. It has become clear that Long Island’s forested watersheds play an important role in protecting Long Island’s groundwater system.

In recognition of the direct relationship between the extent to which a land surface is developed and the quality of drinking water below it, a state law was passed establishing on Long Island SGPA’s — “Special Groundwater Protection Areas” — lightly developed to undeveloped landscapes within the deep-flow recharge zones that recharge clean water downward, replenishing the three aquifers; the 100,000 acre Pine Barrens forest being the largest and most significant SGPA. 

There are seven other SGPA’s including the Oak Brush Plains SGPA just east of Commack Road and south of the Pilgrim State Hospital property; the South Setauket SGPA in northwestern Brookhaven Town, bisected by Belle Meade Road; one on the North Fork; two on the South Fork; and two in northern Nassau County. These areas collectively recharge tens of millions of gallons of high to pristine quality water to the groundwater system on a daily basis. The state law mandated the development of a comprehensive plan designed to safeguard the land surface and the water beneath it in all the SGPA’s. Landscape protection took a step further in the Pine Barrens, where state law has safeguarded nearly 100 square miles of land from development.

Protecting a community’s water supply has been a challenge throughout recorded history. Many past dynasties and civilizations (e.g. China, Bolivia, Cambodia, Egypt, Syria, southwest United States) have collapsed or been compromised by failing to ensure adequate supplies of clean water. In modern times maintaining the integrity of a water supply has become one of the fundamental responsibilities of government. It is clear that various levels of government, from Washington, DC, to Albany, to local governments, have advanced a host of laws, regulations, strategies, and programs all designed to safeguard our water supply. 

The jury is still out, though, as to whether this collective governmental response will be adequate enough. While Pogo has been correct so far — we, the 2.7 million Long Islanders in the two counties have been the enemy — perhaps with the implementation of additional proactive responses we might prove the little opossum wrong.

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.