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John Turner

Photo by John Turner

By John L. Turner

This is the first of a two-part series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long-tailed duck. Photo by Luke Ormand

By John L. Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By John L. Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Luke Ormand

By John L. Turner

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

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

Photo by Luke Ormand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By John L. Turner

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

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

A male fiddler crab. Photo by Jay Gao

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

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

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

Fiddler crabs at Flax Pond. Photo by John Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By John Turner

This article is devoted to wood pewees everywhere.

The species names spill off the tongue quickly — “Oh, that’s a pink lady’s slipper … or a green darner … or a round-leaved sundew or great-crested flycatcher. Perhaps its a brook trout … or eastern chipmunk or a diamondback terrapin.” These names, and hundreds of thousands of others, are the scientifically established common names for these creatures, useful because they help to establish order, definition and identity. After all, we humans like to give every living thing a name as a means to begin to understand it and by so doing, legitimize its existence.

But these common names are almost always stated matter of factly, as if they are nothing more than dry words with nothing behind them. There’s no appreciation for the fascinating information these names convey, no thought about the creative and colorful descriptors they contain, illuminating some interesting aspect of the species. We say “diamondback terrapin” but fail to visualize the stunning concentric-ringed design of the diamond-shaped scutes on its top shell.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the “color” behind common names, relishing the rich universe of descriptive choices. Take the group of wildflowers known as “goldenrods” blooming now throughout Suffolk County. I smile just saying the name. I could struggle for hours, and would utterly fail, attempting to come up with a more apt and succinct name to describe this group of upright, buttery-yellow wildflowers common to Long Island’s fields and roadsides. Indeed, these plants are golden-colored with rodlike upright stems.

Many of the common names of species are descriptive to coloration — the white-throated sparrow has a bright white throat patch and the rufous-sided towhee has flanks the color of a brick, bathed in the warm light of sunset. Want to guess the color of a blue shark, white ibis or scarlet tanager? The color of the throat patch of a ruby-throated hummingbird? How about the skin and plumage patterns on a spotted salamander, barred owl or reticulated python?

Still, others names describe places where the species was first discovered or is most abundant. Thus, you have Cape May and Tennessee warblers, Mississippi kite, Carolina wren and Florida scrub-jay.

One species with a misperception regarding the geography of its common name is the Baltimore oriole. It gained its name not through its abundance or being first identified in Baltimore, Maryland, but rather from the fact the bird’s bright orange and black plumage matched the colors on the coat-of-arms of Lord Baltimore.

And then there’s the easy ones to understand — common names established to honor or recognize some person of prominence or fame. Hence, we have Wilson’s warbler and phalarope (Alexander Wilson has four North American birds named after him, more than any other person), Henslow’s sparrow, Swainson’s hawk and Audubon’s shearwater (what a great description of the bird’s flight habit of cutting the ocean’s surface with its wing tips as it dynamically soars in search of food).   

Still other names convey information about some anatomical or physical aspect of the organism; thus, you have weeping willow, shagbark hickory, gull-billed tern, scissor-tailed flycatcher and rough-stemmed goldenrod. And for sea creatures how can we ignore bottlenose dolphins or humpback whales?

Adding to the richness of species’ official common names are the numerous unofficial, alternative names associated with these species.  So for dodder, a golden-yellow parasitic vine common in Island fields and meadows where it grows in tangles atop other wildflowers, we have the following common names: hairweed, lady’s laces, wizard’s net, goldthread, angel hair, witches’ hair, devil’s hair, pull-down, strangleweed and my favorite devil’s guts.

If you want a bird example look no further than other names for the American woodcock: timberdoodle, whistling snipe, big mud snipe, mud bat, night peck, night partridge, bog-borer, bog Sucker, bog-bird, wood snipe, wood hen, siphon snipe, the whistler, hookum pake and the Labrador twister.

Dragonflies are a great group, filled with species having impressive and expressive common names. The group name of “dragonflies” is colorful enough — they must appear to be a flying, fire-breathing monster to any smaller airborne insect. Thus, we have ferocious and formidable dragonfly names such as sanddragons, sundragons, shadowdragons, snaketails, meadowhawks, pondhawks and dragon hunters (they like to eat other dragonflies). Contrast them with their diminutive, nonthreatening winged cousins, the damselflies, who have members with these names: jewel wings, bluets, spreadwings, rubyspots and, of course, the “dancers.” What damsel in distress wouldn’t want to be rescued by these gossamer-winged creatures?

The most colorful and descriptive common names of all? Moths are the best, hands down, reaching new levels in imagination, revealing that lepidopterists have quite the sense of humor. Lest you think I’m making this up go on the internet and check out the following moth species, found in the eastern United States, that have been formally described by science and given these names: the old maid, the thinker, the laugher, abrupt brother, the joker, and there’s the elegant prominent, hooked silver Y, sebaceous Hebrew character, striped chocolate-tip, approachable sallow, afflicted dagger, owl-eyed bird-dropping moth, sharp angle shades, the slowpoke, grateful midget and cloaked marvel.

Then there’s the intractable Quaker and the cynical Quaker, grieving woodland, the German cousin and the nutmeg. Lastly, there’s stormy arches and if you like this one, how about stormy’s cousins: neighborly arches, disparaged arches, bridled arches, explicit arches, laudable arches and implicit arches.

Let’s close with my all-time favorite common name, the wood pewee, a neo-tropical migrant that overwinters in South America. Living up to his spritely name he’s a small, nondescript flycatcher, whistling his distinctive up-slurred “pee-awee” from the end of a dead tree branch in the middle of a Long Island forest. His name defines his essence.

What’s your favorite name?

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, Carl Zorn with two of the plaques overlooking Conscience Bay. Photo by Leah Chiappino

By Leah Chiappino

Visitors to Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket have Eagle Scout Carl Zorn to thank for the new informational plaques that have been installed among the tranquil scenery. They include a general welcome sign detailing the history of the park’s founding and species that occupy it and two additional signs detailing the ecology of estuaries and watersheds. The welcome sign is located at the entrance to the park, and the other two signs are located side by side near the second bridge overlooking Conscience Bay. 

A new plaque welcomes visitors to the park. Photo by Leah Chiappino

Zorn, who has been a Boy Scout since first grade, chose to design informational signage for the park as his Eagle Scout Leadership Project because he wanted to do something that would have a lasting impact on the community. “I wanted something where if I moved to a different state and came back here to visit, I could look at it and say that I did that,” he said. The Scouting organization also fostered a love of nature in Zorn who described his childhood as “always being outdoors and camping with the Boy Scouts and my family.”

After getting the idea from a family friend in July, the Setauket resident began his project last September and completed it in early February.

As the Frank Melville Park Foundation, along with the Zorn family, donated the funds for the materials, most of Zorn’s time completing the project was spent researching the content for the plaques. He admits the start of the project was overwhelming. “At first, I had no idea what to do or how to learn about the wildlife here, ” he explained. 

Kerri Glynn, director of education for the park, stepped in to assist Zorn in gathering the information for the plaques with the hope they would help people become more environmentally aware. “I hope people come to understand the fragility of the ecosystem. Many people come to the park and think it is lovely, but they don’t understand the ecology of it,” she said.

Zorn consulted with Town of Brookhaven historian Barbara Russell in order to highlight the unique history of the park, which was built by Ward Melville and donated by his mother Jennie as a memorial to her husband Frank Melville in 1937. “Essentially it’s private land for public use,” she said. 

A community treasure, the 26-acre park features two ponds, an estuary and woodlands. On any given day, visitors can see swans, deer, songbirds, turtles, herons and wood ducks as they stroll along shaded paths past a simulated grist mill and a 20th-century barn. The park and its buildings are included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Local environmentalist and conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, John Turner, also assisted Zorn with his research, and highlighted the importance of education on watersheds, or land in which below-ground water feeds into a water source. 

“People live work and play above their water supply. The quality of the waters in the aquifers underneath the Long Island surface are affected directly and intimately by the activities that we conduct on the land surface, so a clean land policy means a clean water policy,” he explained. 

From left, Andrew Lily, Joe Pisciotta, Andrew Graf, Carl Zorn, Aiden Zorn (in forefront), Tim Petritsch and Mark Muratore at the installation in February. Photo by Steve Hintze

Turner called Zorn’s project “well-conceived and well-executed.” He also praised the park’s board of trustees, as well as the park’s president, Robert Reuter, for recognizing the value of the project. “You have a captive audience in the park, but up until now there was limited information. [These plaques] have taken advantage of that captive audience to try to instill a greater appreciation and awareness of the resources around them,” he said.

After gathering the information and submitting several drafts for approval by the board, Zorn then had the task of designing the signs, with pictures provided by the park. He found a sign company, Fossil Industries in Deer Park, to make the signs, a process that took about three months. He then focused on configuring the specific intricacies of the project, such as the location, and making sure the signs were low enough to be at eye level for children but still readable to adults. 

Weather also delayed the installation, as the ground would freeze. Once the signs were finished, Zorn along with eight other Boy Scouts joined together in order to install them. 

Reuter praised Zorn’s work ethic and the final result, calling the project “a long and thorough process and a real achievement.” Russell also added praise for the finished product. “He did a wonderful job. There’s a nice combination of the history and environmental facts affecting the park [on the signs],” she added. Zorn was equally pleased with the results. “This is exactly what I wanted in an Eagle Scout project and I got it,” he said.

The 18-year-old recently graduated from Ward Melville High School and will attend Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, in the fall as a music business major, combining his passion for music with his ambition to work for the Disney Corporation.

However, according to Reuter, as Zorn wished, the plaques will have a lasting impact on the community. “Frank Melville Memorial Park is now enriched with really useful and attractive interpretive signs that inform park visitors about the park’s history and environment. But, don’t take my word for it — go see for yourself.” 

Frank Melville Memorial Park is located at 1 Old Field Road in Setauket. For more information, call 631-689-6146 or visit www.frankmelvillepark.org.

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.

By John Turner

One of the many joys of summer in Setauket is spending time in the backyard relaxing with a book, swimming in the pool, gardening or enjoying a family meal together. I’ve come to realize that during these backyard experiences we’re often not alone. We’re sharing the space around us — as wrens, orioles and robins fly about and butterflies dance among flowers. Sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of a chipmunk or squirrel scampering around, all going about their daily lives.

I’ve come to look especially forward to seeing one creature each summer and to do so I must gaze skyward to look for a small bird in ceaseless flight, dipping and zooming here and there, all the while twittering away.

Photo courtesy of the National Audubon Society

I’m referring to the chimney swift (Chaetura pelagica), a sooty brown bird with sharp sickle-shaped wings that’s been aptly described as a “cigar with wings.” I think that’s a little bit inaccurate — it’s more like a “half-smoked cigar with wings,” with its stubby tail reminiscent of the chewed on end of the cigar. The genus name Chaetura means “bristle tailed” in Greek, a reference to the stubby tail, tipped with small pointy feathers (these bristles help anchor the bird when roosting on vertical surfaces).

The chimney swift is one of four swift species native to North America; the other three — the slightly smaller Vaux’s swift and the slightly larger black- and white-throated swifts are western birds.

When nesting and roosting, chimney swifts live up to their names, taking refuge within chimneys, old wells, the eaves of barns and other human structures. Before human structures became available, they presumably nested on cliffs and in caves and tree hollows, which a few still do today.

Swifts don’t so much fly as appear to flutter. With surprisingly shallow wing beats, this fluttering bird cuts through the air remarkably well, flying ceaselessly about in wide and tight circles as it searches for the aerial prey that sustains them.

In fact, swifts are the most aerial of all birds. A study published in 2016 documented a common swift, the European counterpart to our chimney swift, staying in the air for 10 months; that’s right, flying around for 10 entire months, not 10 weeks or 10 days, which would be enough of an outstanding feat to make any ultra-marathoner proud, but 10 months of not touching land! Scientists made the obvious conclusion the bird routinely slept on the wing, shutting down half its brain at a time while keeping the other half active. She finally came back to earth to mate, lay eggs and raise young.

Occasionally swifts break from their typical fluttery flights to display courtship behavior. During these displays a mated pair flies together, about a foot or two apart, and synchronously throw their wings into a deep V-shaped position and glide for a second or two before resuming regular flight. It’s a little joy to behold and life is worth living due to little joys, right?

Chimney swifts raise their young in small, half-moon-shaped nests made of small sticks built onto the sides of walls. Both sexes help to build the nest and they employ an interesting material to bind the nest together — saliva. During the breeding season the salivary glands of both sexes swell, producing a gluelike saliva that hardens to hold the nest together.

On a related note: If you’ve ever heard of, or perhaps tried, bird’s nest soup, you’re consuming a food made from the edible saliva of two bird species related to the chimney swift — Asian swiftlets. These nests support an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In fact, the nests of swiftlets are among the most expensive animal products in the world, fetching as much as several thousand dollars per kilogram. So if you’ve tried the soup, kudos to you because you’re obviously financially well off!

The eggs are incubated for about three weeks and, once born, the young grow rapidly, fledging in about the same amount of time. Development of the young is accelerated by “helpers at the nest”; unpaired adult swifts that sometimes assist in the raising the young of paired swifts, helping the young birds to fledge more quickly.

Ornithologists aren’t exactly sure why the helpers do this although it is a behavior seen in a few other bird species. Research has shown that some of the unpaired birds are young from the previous year so perhaps they know they’re helping to pass along genes similar to their own.  

Wooden chimney swift towers at West Meadow Beach. Photo by John Turner

One last fascinating aspect of chimney swifts is their ability to go into torpor, a physical condition halfway between full active mode and hibernation. In torpor a swift’s breathing and heart rate diminishes, as does its overall metabolic activity, thereby helping to get them through periods of cold, inclement weather when little to no food, in the form of small aerial insects, is available. 

Some good places nearby to see chimney swifts are the Stony Brook Village Center and Port Jefferson Village. A little further afield you can enjoy their flight over more urban areas of Long Island, where chimneys are available, including downtown Riverhead, Islip and Bay Shore.

As part of an Eagle Scout project, wooden chimney swift towers were constructed at West Meadow Beach in the hopes of attracting them but to date do not appear to be used. Perhaps someday they will be.

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 view of Conscience Bay from the shoreline of the Besunder property. Photo by John Turner

By John Turner

One of the great joys of living in the Three Village area are the plethora of parks and preserves to be explored and enjoyed. These public spaces, true community assets, include the Frank Melville Memorial Park/Three Village Garden Club complex and Lee Koppelman Nature Preserve in Setauket; Patriots Hollow State Forest in East Setauket;  and Forsythe Meadows County Park, the Town of Brookhaven’s West Meadow Beach, and the rambling, privately owned Avalon Preserve in Stony Brook. 

We can now add another public property to the list to be savored: the small (7 acres) but beautiful state-owned property at the entrance to Strongs Neck. Offering commanding views of the eastern shore of Conscience Bay, it was purchased on our behalf by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation last summer.  

Above, a small salt pond surrounded by a tidal wetland fragment in the middle of the Besunder property. Photo by John Turner

The entrance to the preserve is through a split rail fence along North Road. Here you’ll see the rock placed to recognize the contribution of the Besunder family who sold the property to the state. The trail passes by the plaqued rock and a small coastal salt pond on the right that is connected to the bay through a series of ditches in the salt marsh. Here I recently watched a great blue heron hunt for fish with zen-like patience, remaining perfectly still for minutes on end, lest it give away its presence due to some detectable movement. 

The red cedars, along with pitch pine, the two more common coniferous trees native to Long Island, form thick stands throughout the property, growing in areas that are a few feet above the elevations of the surrounding marshland and only a few more feet above the high tide levels of Conscience Bay.   

Thinking about the low-lying condition of this coastal forest caused a strong feeling of melancholy to usher over me, for I knew this forest, consisting of many hundreds of trees, will not likely survive more than two or three decades more. The cause for its ultimate demise? Elevated coastal waters due to sea level rise fueled by global warming. 

In New York, sea levels are projected to rise, under the most optimistic conditions, 8 inches by the 2050s and, if the worse occurs, by 30 inches in the same period. Since 1900 they have already risen a foot due to the warming of ocean water with 8 inches of this rise having occurred over the past 50 years, indicating this rise is accelerating. 

Given these projections, it is a certainty the property will lose its forests and very likely evolve into a salt marsh or into open water if the sea levels continue to rise. If this happens Strongs Neck will become “Strongs Island” and dozens of homes and businesses in the Three Village area will no longer be inhabitable. 

The culprit for this unwanted change? Our stubborn refusal to enact the needed policies to limit carbon emissions by the amounts necessary and at a pace that’s rapid enough and a refusal colored by some “leaders” who still throw out the canard that global climate change is a myth. 

Well, the best science is telling us that this “myth” is an incontrovertible “reality wall” that we will, with certainty, drive into with devastating consequences for us humans and the other living forms that share our planet — if we do not, very soon, begin to change course.    

Soon I came out to the shore and my spirits brightened considerably, bathed as I was in this beautiful coastal scene of a gentle and sheltered harbor. Small wavelets lapped on the shoreline. Plus, seeing birds always helps the mood. 

An adult male bufflehead. Photo by Luke Ormand

Along a distant shoreline a snow white American egret flew along, presumably heading to or from a feeding episode, and 150 yards from where I stood on the shore was a loose flock of buffleheads, a duck that is the definition of cuteness. The males are distinctive with their uniquely patterned heads — heads dominated by a white patch such that, if the duck’s head was a clock face, it would be white from 9 to 11 o’clock. The rest of the “clock” is dark and flashes iridescence from green to purple depending on the angle to the sun. 

Flocks of buffleheads often dive synchronously leading to a “now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t” phenomenon as they dive below the surface to feed, before bobbing like released corks back to the surface. Where there were no ducks two seconds before, suddenly half a dozen are floating on the surface together. 

Small as ducks go, their heads are large and that explains their common name. They were once called buffaloheads — shortened to buffleheads — since their heads were disproportionately large, just like the American buffalo (more accurately the American bison). 

Buffleheads grace our coastal waters during the winter months.       

As I walked out of the preserve and past the rock, I read the plaque and under my breath said, “Kudos to the Besunder family for committing to conservation and to the DEC for helping them to fulfill that commitment.” The images of buffleheads disappearing and re-emerging in the frigid waters of Conscience Bay, cavorting unconcerned about the elements, snug as they are in their feathered garb, stayed with me for the ride home. 

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.