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John Turner

KEEP OUT OF THE GARBAGE CAN: Spoiled fruits and vegetables along with eggshells, coffee grounds and used tea bags make wonderful garden soil if composted. Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

Pretend for a minute that you’ve just bought five spiffy new shirts and, pleased with your purchase, proudly place the shirts on the closet shelf. Three days later you visit the closet, pull two of the never-worn shirts off the shelf, walk outside and throw them into the garbage can. Sounds odd, strange, and disturbing, no? Well, welcome to the world of food waste, a huge, yet little recognized environmental problem. 

To put numbers around the problem, the average American family throws away roughly 240 pounds of food annually, between one-third and two-fifths of the food they buy, costing them about $1,800. That’s 50% of the seafood they bought, about 40% of the fruits and vegetables, 25% of the meat and 20% of the milk, and one-third of the grain. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, enough food is wasted nationally to annually fill 450,000 Statue of Libertys!

Why should we care about food waste? Because food production, consumption, and associated waste has relevance and is connected to so many important and interrelated issues: environmental degradation, hunger and food insecurity, economic inequality, and ethical use of animals, to name just a few.

Let’s take environmental degradation as one example. The environmental impacts resulting from the foods we eat (and waste) are nothing short of enormous: water depletion and water quality impacts, methane (a potent greenhouse gas) production from landfilled food items, loss of habitat (including wetlands) due to lands being converted to agriculture, widespread use of energy intensive fertilizers and agricultural poisons from pesticides, and a decline in abundance of marine life are several of the many results stemming from food production.  

If we reduce the amount of food we waste we proportionately reduce these impacts because we would not need to produce as much food as we do. That could mean more parks, forests, wetlands, grasslands and prairies and more food for the 57 million Americans who are food insecure.

Food waste constitutes a large fraction of garbage (about 24% of the garbage in a landfill is food). As it decomposes in landfills, food wastes generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas (according to the Environmental Protection Agency methane has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during its first several decades of circulating in the atmosphere). Rotting food in landfills is estimated to generate about 8% of the annual greenhouse gases released into the global atmosphere.

Water use stands out as another significant environmental impact made worse by food waste: fifty-six million acres of crops are irrigated in the United States, making agricultural water use the single largest consumer of water with eight out of every ten gallons of water used in the United States directed to agriculture for growing food — a total of more than 27 trillion gallons of water used annually. Unfortunately, pumping this amount of water to irrigate crops is depleting groundwater aquifers and drying reservoirs, rivers and streams.

And we could, of course talk about the amount of chemicals in the form of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides — and their impact to human and wildlife health — applied to our centralized food production system, but you get the picture.

Food waste occurs throughout the food production process from the point of harvest to consumption by consumers, from “farm to fork,” as the saying goes. For example, crops are often left unharvested due to changing market conditions, weather events, etc. This result was brought to bear with the COVID pandemic as millions of tons of various produce rotted on farms due to changes in the national food chain.

More food is wasted at the retail level, a fact made clear to me on a recent trip to a local Setauket supermarket. I was walking along the frozen/refrigerated food aisle and watched as an employee took packages out of the cabinets, gently tossing them into a shopping cart. Curious, I asked what he was doing. “I’m tossing them,” he said, “They’re past the expiration date.” While there’s no evidence that a food item a few days past the “expiration date” is not safe, I suspect the employee was simply following company direction.

Food waste is, of late, being addressed as lawmakers nationwide have started to grapple with the significance of the problem. New York State has already responded with the adoption of a law which becomes effective in January of 2022: the New York State Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling Law. This law requires large producers of food waste (averaging more than two tons of food weekly) to donate edible food and to compost food that has perished. These efforts can have a very positive result. For example, in the United Kingdom food waste has dropped by about 21% due to a similar coordinated public-private effort.

And now to the stage where most food is wasted — at the family or consumer level caused by throwing out leftovers or unused foods that are past their “sell-by or best-used-by” dates. If you’ve read this far in the article you’re probably thinking of ways you might be able to reduce the amount of food waste you and family members throw in the garbage. There are many ideas to reduce the amount of food waste and to be part of the solution. Here are five to get started:

Love your leftovers ­— Save uneaten food and once in a while, consciously and specifically, plan your dinner by “loving your leftovers.” For dinner target various leftover dishes that are patiently biding their time on your refrigerator’s shelves.

Your nose knows — As one website notes: “Expiration dates are misleading and nonstandardized, leading many to toss out perfectly good food.” Foods generally don’t go bad instantly and you have a very sensitive and accurate tool to determine if food is still edible and its conveniently located in the middle of your face. Your nose is quite adept at picking up scents or whiffs of food that’s gone or going bad- don’t hesitate to use it. Trust your sense of smell!

Buy “ugly” fruits and vegetables —Consumers want the perfect apple with no spots or blemishes, yet that imperfect, slightly-spotted apple is perfectly fine to eat. Purchasing imperfect but healthy and safe produce is a sure way to prevent food from being deep-sixed in the supermarket’s garbage dumpster.

Say no to the garbage can, yes to the compost bin — If food has gone bad, compost that spoiled salad lettuce rather than disposing of it in the trash. This same lettuce, which in the landfill generates dangerous methane, makes wonderful garden soil if composted.

Buy a smaller turkey at Thanksgiving — one-third of turkey meat (that’s 204 million pounds) is thrown away each year, created by a mismatch between the size of the store-bought turkey and peoples’ appetites for it. The solution is simple: buy a smaller turkey.

Food waste is a significant problem. The good news is that each of us can play a role in solving it.

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

For me, it is the most anticipated song of spring and until I hear it, typically the first day or two in May, the season is incomplete. The song is enthusiastic and energetic, sweet, and forceful — and unmistakable. The song belongs to “Baron Baltimore” who flits around tree canopies decked out in a feathered coat of radiant orange; we are talking, of course, about the resplendent Baltimore Oriole, a welcome part of Long Island’s bird life.

The Baltimore Oriole, a member of the blackbird family, is one of the more stunningly-colored songbirds in North America and what birders typically refer to as “eye candy.” 

While the females are more subdued in coloration, even they are a clear and bright orange. The males, however, kick it up a notch with bright orange underparts, a black hood and top of back, and white wing bars. They are so bright the males look like they are “internally illuminated,” especially when seen in full sun. Surprisingly, their conspicuous coloration fades when flitting around in the forest canopy and they’re much less noticeable, bordering on the inconspicuous. 

And their distinctive pendulous nests are something to behold. On a Spring afternoon about twenty years ago I watched, for the better part of an hour, a female oriole constructing her nest in a downward gracing branch of a street-side Silver Maple. Common knowledge says this nest-building ability is driven by instinct, but I sensed something else as she deftly and with such accomplishment weaved, and I mean weaved, the grasses and fibers together to make the outer shell of the tightly-woven, pendant-shaped nest. Sure looked like I was witnessing decision-making and thoughtfulness, even insight and intelligence as she made countless decisions on precisely where and how to weave the pieces together. Checking up a few days later she had succeeded and the nest was finished.

You might reasonably ask — why the “Baltimore” in the name? Well, its not that they were first discovered to science near that Maryland city. Rather, it has to do with Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron of Baltimore, whose coat of arms contained the oriole’s plumage colors. “Oriole” comes from the Latin “aureolus”meaning golden.

Baltimore Orioles readily come to your feeding station but not for suet or seeds. Rather, they enjoy fruit jellies of various flavors and oranges (most people cut the oranges in half and impale them on boards or planks with nails sticking out). If you’re motivated to help orioles survive, in addition to providing them oranges and jelly, provide to yourself and family members shade-grown coffee. This product comes from coffee plantations in which the tropical forest canopy is still intact, offering habitat to a wide array of wildlife species. 

Shade-grown coffee stands in stark contrast to the overwhelming supply of coffee consumed, grown in sun plantations in which tropical forests are bulldozed and coffee plants are planted in neat rows, forming a monoculture. These sun-dominated coffee farms are much more dependent on pesticides and have much lower biodiversity, including orioles. Shade-grown coffee farms are almost as diverse, in terms of the number of bird species that inhabit them, as an undisturbed rain forest.

A cousin to the Baltimore Oriole is the smaller Orchard Oriole, a less common breeding bird on Long Island. This species has a slightly different song — less emphatic than the Baltimore’s and with more of a warble — and the bright orange of the Baltimore is replaced with a burnt orange color in the Orchard Oriole, similar to the breast color of a robin. It often nests near water. Residents of the western United States enjoy another five oriole species.

Now, that we’ve covered the Baron, who is the King? Well, its the Eastern Kingbird, one of a handful of flycatcher species that breed on Long Island. The species is called the kingbird not because of its power or size but due its aggressive, pugnacious behavior. It won’t hesitate to harass a crow or red-tailed hawk that comes too close to its nest, flying from its perch to intercept the intruder. It’s been known to pull feathers from its targets! If you see a smaller bird chasing and harassing a larger bird — say, a crow, heron, or hawk flying along — it’s a reasonable bet you’re watching an Eastern Kingbird (or a Red-winged Blackbird). It’s latin or scientific name is Tyrannus tyrannus, a double tyrant!

The Kingbird has a clean look to it. They sport a black head (with a hard to see red patch in the middle), grey back and tail, with a distinctive white terminal band, and white underparts, leading one birder to say they look like they’re wearing a business suit. And they’re all business during the summer months when they’re here on Long Island raising their family. Come late summer it’s a southbound migration to the Amazon where they join in mixed flocks scouring the forests for various tropical fruits.

I hope you make the acquaintance of the Baron and the King over the spring and summer before they depart in a couple of months on their southbound sojourns.

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

Scattered along Long Island’s North Shore, in pockets that indent the meandering coastline, are well known places we cherish and enjoy. These harbors and bays like Huntington, Stony Brook, and Mt. Sinai Harbors or Manhasset and Conscience Bays, are places where we fish, kayak, swim, and clam. They are popular places as the number of boats dotting their surface and bathers along their edges can attest. But there is one embayment that has no swimmers, boaters, or clammers — an embayment a bit off the beaten path that has much beauty and is worth exploring — the state-owned Flax Pond in Old Field.  

Flax Pond is not a pond now but once was, separated from Long Island Sound by a bermed beach stretching along its northern edge. In the early nineteenth century a section of beach adjacent to the northeastern corner of the pond was scooped away, connecting the Sound’s waters with those of the pond. Flax Pond, so named as it was once a popular place for retting flax, went from being fresh to salt in a matter of days.

You can’t help but notice a building as you pull into the parking lot at Flax Pond. It is the Flax Pond Marine Laboratory operated by the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SOMAS) at SUNY Stony Brook, in cooperation with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation which owns the building and the land upon which it sits. SOMAS conducts marine research here on a wide variety of topics including fish and shellfish biology and has a hatchery and algae grow-out center. The lab is used by scientists and graduate students for marine research and is also a destination for students of all ages to learn more about the species and natural communities found in Long Island’s marine environment.

Leaving the parking lot, you’ll pass an informative kiosk that contains an aerial photograph to orient you as well as basic information about the environment at Flax Pond. The easy traversable trail heads west past the Child’s Mansion, where today lectures and seminars are given but where many decades ago Eversley Childs and his family lived. He had bought the house (at that time much smaller and a different style) and several hundred acres which was soon converted into Crane Neck Farm, a working farm, with horse stables, pastures, and gardens.  An enormous (by Long Island standards) London Plane tree, a hybrid of our native mottled-bark sycamore tree shades the backyard.   

The trail continues through a coastal forest dominated by red cedar, past some artifacts of the outdoor gardens and an orchard that were part of the mansion grounds. Soon the trail forks; stick to the right and in moments will be on a new, elevated boardwalk that traverses the marsh. Shortly, you’ll be greeted with a panoramic view of a salt marsh spilling away on both sides of the boardwalk. 

As you near the point where the boardwalk becomes a “bridge,” spanning the tidal creek, look down on both sides in the edge of the marsh mud and if the tide is right (you want to visit at low tide both to see the crabs and to negotiate the trail further north to gain access to the Long Island Sound shoreline) you’ll undoubtedly see many dozens of fiddler crabs. They’ll likely be feeding with both male and female crabs hurriedly stuffing bits of mud into their mouths — the females using both of their arms but the males using only one since the other is an extremely enlarged fiddle that is of no help come dinnertime.  

Fiddler crabs are a common and important species in tidal wetland ecology. They recycle plant matter, breaking it down so it may be reincorporated into the salt marsh and are themselves prey items for other species higher up on the food chain like wading birds.  

The boardwalk continues, ending on a slightly elevated island. But keep following the highly visible trail markers with the hiking medallions affixed to them as the trail runs along the edge of the coastal forest. Here are the “driftwood skeletons” of many standing but dead red cedar trees, all a silver grey color from years of being burnished in the elements. They are visually stunning. 

The trail traverses a low-lying marsh area between the island and the higher ground that separates Flax Pond from Long Island Sound. Please watch for fiddler crabs and their burrows, making sure to not crush any crabs or openings. 

If you make it to the beach, you’ll flank a coastal forest dominated by red cedar and post oak. Take a closer look at the oak and you’ll notice its distinctive leaves; thick and leathery, they have rounded lobes telling you they’re a member of the “white oak’ family of oaks and their cross-shape illustrates they are post oaks — no other oak tree species on Long Island has leaves with quite the same outline. The species has an affinity for the coast, and it is along Long Island’s coast, especially the north shore where it is most prevalent. 

The wood of the post oak is strong and heavy and is used for making – ready for this? Posts! The wood is also made into railroad ties and tunnel props in mines. 

The trail terminates at the shore. In the colder months it’s worth scanning the Sound waters for waterfowl species like scoters, eiders and long-tailed ducks, and for gannets, loons, and horned grebes.  In warmer months look for plovers and terns. In all seasons enjoy beachcombing for jingle and slipper shells! 

IF YOU GO: To get to Flax Pond take Nicolls Road north to Route 25A in Setauket. Make a left onto Route 25A heading to Stony Brook. Make a right onto Quaker Path Road and veer left onto Mt. Grey Road. Follow Mt. Grey Road past West Meadow Beach Road. Make a left onto Crane Neck Road (look for a stone pillar with a Crane Neck sign on the front). The road winds and passes Holly Lane; shortly after this make a right onto Shore Drive. The Childs Mansion will be on your left; go past it and make a left into the Flax Pond Lab parking lot.

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.

Reviewed by John Turner

Ecologists (scientists who study the interactions between wild things and their environment) many decades ago coined the term “keystone species.” The term is derived from the fact that like the keystone in the middle of the top of a doorway’s arch, being the stone which supports the entire arch, keystone species in natural communities have disproportional ecological importance in maintaining the stability and integrity of the communities in which they live. Lose a “keystone” species and the community or ecosystem is adversely changed.  

If we were to search the breadth and width of Long Island, might we find a keystone species? Doug Tallamy would certainly suggest oak trees as we learn in his recently released book, The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees.  

Author Doug Tallamy

Being important members of various types of forests, a dozen species of oak are native to Long Island including white oak; swamp white oak; black oak; red oak; scarlet oak (most common in the Pine Barrens); pin oak; the exceedingly rare willow oak; post oak (a coastal species); blackjack oak; chestnut oak found in rocky and gravelly soils; and scrub oak and dwarf chestnut oak, both common species forming an almost impenetrable thicket in the understory of the Pine Barrens.   

What might be the elements of the oaks’ “keystoneness”?  Well, there’s both their intact and fallen leaves, a resource for wildlife; those nuggets of nutrition called acorns; the nooks and crannies of the bark that provide hiding places for small moths and spiders; and the tree wood itself which, as it rots, forms cavities, creating roosting and nesting sites (think raccoons, woodpeckers, screech owls and chickadees). All of these attributes support wildlife, many species of wildlife. Not to mention, as Tallamy explains, the numerous “ecosystem services” oak trees and oak-dominated forests provide free of charge. 

As but a few examples we learn that the canopy of each mature oak tree intercepts about 3,000 gallons of water annually, preventing it from running off and causing erosion, thereby helping to protect streams and rivers. And there’s the locking away of carbon that oak trees do really well, as a means to combat climate change.    

Let’s take a closer look at an obvious attribute: acorns. This unique nut, high in fat, protein, and minerals is a vital food to more than just the obvious species like squirrels and chipmunks. These nuggets of nutrition sustain a surprisingly large variety of animals  including mice and voles, flying squirrels, raccoons, rabbits, opossum, grey fox, white-tailed deer, and black bear. 

As for birds, blue jays love them (and are thought to have been the main dispersal agent allowing for the oak forests of the northern United States to become reestablished after the glaciers scoured the continent) as do crows, some other songbirds, several species of ducks, turkeys, and woodpeckers, including the acorn woodpecker which really likes them.    

We learn from the book that several butterflies (as caterpillar larvae) and more than 70 moth species gain required nutrition by feeding on the fallen leaves of oaks.  Further, many insects seek protection in the fallen leaf layer that accumulates each autumn to overwinter safely (think of Mourning Cloak butterflies as one species that benefits), providing a rationale to leave your leaves in flower beds, beneath oak trees, and other parts of your yard.    

But it’s live oak leaves, Tallamy explains, where the value of oaks come into full focus. More than 500 species of butterflies and moths feed on oak leaves, including many geometrid caterpillars (or inchworms as we learned in our childhoods). Many hundred more other insect species eat oak leaves (or tap into the sap of oaks too), including leafhoppers, treehoppers, and cicadas, among others. These leaf-eating species, in turn, sustain many dozens of songbird species we love to watch — warblers, orioles, thrushes, wrens, chickadees, grosbeaks and more.    

This book is a logical and more specific extension of Tallamy’s decade long argument, laid out in detail in two previous works: Bringing Nature Back Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants and Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard.  

In these prior works he makes a compelling argument for eliminating the “biological deserts” we’ve created around our homes, due to regularly choosing non-native plants that don’t sustain local wildlife, and replacing them with native species that are part of the local food web. 

In “Oaks,” Tallamy backs up this recommendation with good science. For example, working with graduate students he found that non-native plants supported 75% less caterpillar biomass than native plants. Less caterpillars means less things that feed upon them, such as the aforementioned beloved songbirds.  Another graduate student determined that chickadees trying to raise young in a habitat with too many non-native species are 60% less likely to succeed due to the dearth of insects to feed their nestlings.  

Tallamy weaves a clear story documenting the ecological importance of oaks for wildlife while illustrating this significance through fascinating life history details of some of these many oak-dependent species. As with his other books, Tallamy’s latest publication provides strong motivation and rationale to “go native.” Perhaps most central to the thesis of the book is that he wants you to include oak trees as a key part of this effort! What better way to celebrate Earth Day 2021 than by planting an oak and watch as it sustains life for decades to come? 

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Author Doug Tallamy is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, where he has taught insect-related courses for 40 years. The Nature of Oaks is available at Book Revue in Huntington and online at www.timberpress.com, www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com. For more information on the author, visit www.bringingnaturehome.net.

Barred owl

By John L. Turner

A great joy from spending time outdoors emersed in nature is the opportunity, afterwards, to share the experience with others. Directly recounting a memorable nature experience with a friend or family member, say, of an osprey successfully plunging from fifty feet high, with talons flaring, to hit the water and seize a fish, or a more gentle scene of watching a pair of monarchs dancing around a buttery yellow blossoms of seaside goldenrod is, of course, the most common way to share.  A more lasting way is through painting a favorite landscape, thereby providing a permanent record of beauty, wonder, and illumination.  And then, there’s the very popular alternative of sharing taken photographs.

Another way to share a memory is with the pen or keyboard and that’s where my favorite way to memorialize a nature experience comes into play: writing a haiku about it. A haiku is a short poem typically structured to have three lines with the first and last lines containing five syllables and the middle containing seven, for a total of seventeen syllables. Haiku developed in Japan as far back as the ninth century but really took hold several centuries ago as a way to remember and celebrate nature.

What I’ve always enjoyed about writing haikus is that it requires your mind to distill the experienced moment into its essence, jettisoning extraneous material. This is, I find, not so easy to do. After all, you have but seventeen words to tell a story. Oh, the value of discipline!  

Any subject in nature can be the focus of a haiku.

I find birds to be an especially appealing subject: 

Hidden in white pine,

An owl hoots from the darkness,

With North Star above.

 

Barn and tree swallows,

flit, dash, and turn in sunlight, 

flashing metal tints.

 

Overhanging branch,

Reflects bird in still water,

Belted Kingfisher

 

A woodcock spirals,

Toward the belt of Orion,

With love on his mind.

 

Bluebirds in rapture,

Tumble from a perch of oak, 

The sky is falling. 

 

With sun as loci, 

Red-tailed hawk pair pirouettes, 

Fanning brick toned tails.

 

From a city tree,  

House finch song sweetly echoes,

Off brownstone buildings.

 

Miniature forms,

These metallic hummingbirds,

Are other worldly.

 

Woodpecker on tree,

Hammering of bill wears wood,

Like water does stone.

 

Red knots on mud flat, 

hemispheric globetrotters, 

bind us together.

 

Noisy blackbird flock,

Descends to ground from treetops,

Tossing leaves to feed.

 

Next to birds I’ve probably written more haikus involving the ocean than any other topic: 

Miles from Island’s end,

Leviathan surfaces,

Birds flock and fish leap.

 

A lone sanderling,

Searches for food in wave foam,

Along the sea’s edge.

 

A fishing boat plows,

Through strong wind and crested waves,

Wearing cap of gulls.

 

A grey green ocean,

With waves made angry by wind,

Hurls against the shore.

 

Devonian forms,

Pairs of horseshoe crabs spawning,

Bathed in bright moonlight.

 

Mysterious sea,

With implacable surface,

Teems with life beneath.

Plants can be great haiku subjects too: 

Spring dogwood petals,

Floating in woodland gloaming,

Like lotus on pond

 

A gift from a tree,

A yellow and red leaf falls,

Autumn has arrived.

 

Splitting sidewalk crack, 

bursts of chicory purple,

the power of plants.

 

The smooth bark of beech,

Ripples like animal skin,

An elephant tree.

 

A fragile flower, 

Unfurls like spreading fingers, 

Of an upturned hand.

 

Under crisp blue sky,

Orange pumpkins dot brown earth,

A field with freckles.

 

On white pine sapling,  

The weight of a wet spring snow, 

makes the tree curtsy.

 

A goldenrod field,

Filled with bright yellow flowers,

Sunshine concentrate.

How about insects?

Monarch butterfly,

With Mexico on its mind,

Flutters over road.

 

In warming spring sun, 

A mourning cloak butterfly flits, 

Over forest leaves.

 

And then there’s miscellany:

Strand of orange sky,

The sun has fallen again,

The earth spins through space.

 

An orange sliver,

The western sky glows brightly,

Soon stars will appear.  

 

Grasses look like hair,

On hills that look like muscles,

This animal earth. 

 

Snowflakes rock downward,

On to a whitening earth,

Hiding all things.

 

A snowy blanket,

Covers everything in sight,

It is quiet and hushed.

 

Why not give haikus a try?

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.

 

Diamondback Terrapin. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

By John L. Turner

Taking a deep gulp of air sometime in October, probably around the middle of the month, the diamondback terrapin slipped beneath the surface of Conscience Bay, swimming downward to its muddy bottom.  

Of course, the turtle didn’t know it but that breath of air would be the last one it was to take for many months; perhaps for as long as half a year or more. All terrapins are asleep now, perhaps dreaming deeply reptilian thoughts, during the many months they’ll spend on the surface of, or ensconced within, the muddy bottom of Long Island’s harbors and bays. 

Out of sight but not out of my mind, this fascinating adaptation for survival is a cold-weather strategy, the turtle having gotten its cue that its time for winter dormancy (known as brumation, it is the reptilian equivalence of mammalian hibernation) from the cooling water temperatures of autumn. Here in their muddy beds, formally known as hibernacula, terrapins metabolically shut down, significantly decreasing their need for oxygen. The little amount of dissolved oxygen received to fuel their metabolism comes from the water and is absorbed through skin near the cloaca. They will wait for Spring’s cue — warming waters — to trigger their re-emergence in their cyclical and alternating pattern of life: dormancy, activity, dormancy, activity.

The diamondback terrapin, so named for the diamond-shaped scutes on its back, is a gorgeous, brightly marked coastal turtle that frequents brackish waters around Long Island. They are found in all of Long Island’s north shore coastal embayments. I’ve seen them in Stony Brook Harbor, Setauket Harbor, West Meadow Beach and creek, the aforementioned Conscience Bay, Little Bay, Mt. Sinai Harbor, and the lower, more saltier reaches of Nissequogue River. The species is also found in the Peconic Bay system as well as the South shore bays and creeks. 

Off Long Island it is found in the lower stretches of the Hudson River and, further afield along the East Coast, it occurs from Massachusetts south to Florida, wrapping around the Gulf Coast to Texas. There are seven recognized subspecies.

Diamondback Terrapin

Terrapins re-emerge in May and become active, warmed by the strengthening sun. Soon the species turns its attention to two primal instincts: feeding and reproducing. With a strong beak pretty much anything in the marshes, along the shoreline, water column, and bay bottom is fair game — hard shelled crabs, snails, and mussels, fish if they can catch them and carrion. During the first several days they satisfy a ravenous appetite, driven by a desire to replenish what they’ve lost during the long winter dormancy.

Mating takes place in water with the much smaller males (the females can be 2x to 3x bigger than the males) clasping onto the female’s shell, assisted by wrapping their long tails underneath to anchor. And soon it is the time when most terrapins are seen, as the female leaves the water and move ashore in search of suitable sandy locations into which to lay her precious cargo — her pink-tinged grape-sized eggs containing the next generation of terrapins. 

When she finds the place to her liking (often by sniffing the sand), she slowly and methodically excavates the sand with her back feet, using the webbing as a sort of shovel, quickly making a flask-shaped nest cavity about six inches deep into which she’ll drop between as few as four to as many as twenty eggs (the average is about a dozen for clutch). If all goes right they’ll hatch in about seventy to eighty days. Eggs laid later in the summer will often overwinter and the hatchlings emerge the next Spring, thereby avoiding exposure to freezing temperatures.

Terrapins face a gauntlet of threats in a human-populated world. They are hit by boats and jet skis, run over by cars on their way to nesting sites, drown in crab pots (lured into the pots by the bait) and intentionally killed for food. Fortunately, steps have been taken to address these last two threats. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) closed the legal season in 2017 so terrapins can no longer be legally harvested for food. 

Terrapins have long been eaten  by humans — terrapin soup and stew were once enormously popular dishes — and in such numbers that boggle the imagination. As but one example, in 1891 in Maryland alone, 45 tons of terrapins were harvested. If you assume an average terrapin weighs a pound each that’s 90,000 terrapins killed in one year in one state. Given this intense pressure it’s no surprise that terrapins have declined steeply in abundance.

New York State closing the legal harvest was quickly followed by steps to curtail drowning in crab pots. Conservationists successfully advocated for a requirement to have crab pots placed in shallow water be equipped with terrapin excluder devices (TEDS). TEDS , 1 3/4 inches high by 4 3/4 inches wide, are placed on the vents of the pot secured by zip ties or hog rings. The TEDS allow for blue-claw crabs to enter the pot but block out 80 to 90% of the terrapins. 

In an effort to defray the financial impact to baymen, both the Seatuck Environmental Association and the Long Island Chapter of The Nature Conservancy purchased thousands of TEDS and distributed them free of charge to baymen through NYSDEC’s Division of Marine Resources in East Setauket. 

Climate change may be the mother of all impacts to terrapins and underscores how the changing and generally warming climate can cause little understood or realized adverse impacts to species. As it relates to the sex development of the embryo in the egg, terrapins exhibit (as do many turtles and other reptiles) what is known as temperature sex determination, meaning the sex is not genetically determined but, rather, is determined by the temperature of the egg in the nesting cavity. 

Lower temperatures produce males while higher ones create females. Historically, in cavities one could expect a mix of sex ratios, probably close to 50/50, with females nearer the surface of the nest cavity where it’s a little bit warmer and males created in the lower portion of the cavity where its cooler. The fear of climate change, then, is that it may create increasingly skewered sex ratio toward females and away from males if ambient air temperature continues to increase, as it is expected to do.

We are still very much in the grips of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere, but the Earth continues its circuit around the sun. So Spring WILL arrive and with it those harbingers of Spring Long Islanders look forward to seeing — garden bed snowbells first, followed by crocuses and daffodils, red-winged blackbirds returning from the South, and the choruses of Spring Peepers ringing out from ponds and sumps. 

A bit later, as the Earth moves further along in its sojourn around the solar system’s central radiance, the heads of terrapins will appear, like so many floating wine bottle corks, dotting the wavelet surfaces of our local bays and harbors. But for now — in the middle of winter’s embrace — we leave them to their dreams.

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

Situated a mile east of Orient Point, the eastern tip of the North Fork and separated from it by Plum Gut, lies Plum Island, an 822-acre pork-chop shaped island that is owned by you and me (being the federal taxpayers that we are). 

The island’s most well-known feature is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC), situated in the northwestern corner of the property, but Plum Island is so much more. On the western edge lays the Plum Island lighthouse which was built in 1869 to warn mariners of the treacherous currents of Plum Gut. On the east there’s the brooding presence of Fort Terry, a relict of the Spanish-American War, with scattered evidence in the form of barracks, gun batteries, and the tiny tracks of a toy gauge railroad once used to move cannon shells from storage to those concrete batteries. (The cannons never fired except during drills).

And there’s the stuff that excites naturalists:

■ The largest seal haul-out site in southern New England located at the eastern tip of the island where throngs of harbor and grey seals swim along the rocky coastline or bask, like fat sausages, on the off-shore rocks that punctuate the surface of the water.

■ The more than 225 different bird species, one-quarter of all the species found in North America, that breed here (like the bank swallows that excavate burrows in the bluff face on the south side of the island), or pass through on their seasonal migratory journeys, or overwinter.

■ Dozens of rare plants, like ladies’-tresses orchids, blackjack oak, and scotch lovage that flourish in the forests, thickets, meadows, and shorelines of Plum Island.

■ A large freshwater pond in the southwestern section of the island that adds visual delight and biological diversity to the island. 

■ And, of course, the ubiquitous beach plums that gave the island its name!

For the past decade a struggle has ensued to make right what many individuals, organizations of all sorts (including the more than 120-member Preserve Plum Island Coalition), and many public officials consider a significant wrong — Congress’s order to sell Plum Island to the highest bidder, forever losing it as a public space. 

This ill-conceived path of auctioning the island was set in motion by a half-page paragraph buried in a several thousand- page bill to fund government agencies in 2009. Fortunately, this struggle has been won — the wrong has been righted — as language included in the recently adopted 2021 budget bill for the federal government, repeals the requirement that the General Services Administration sell the island. 

Thank you to Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Senators Christopher Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and members of Congress Lee Zeldin,Tom Suozzi, Rosa DeLauro and Joe Courtney!

Thanks is also due to New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright who sponsored legislation that was signed into law creating a Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle area in the waters surrounding Plum Island.

While this victory is a vital and necessary step to ultimately protect Plum Island, it is a temporary and incomplete one since the island can still be sold to a private party through the normal federal land disposition process if no government agency at the federal, state, or local level steps up to take title to the island. 

The Coalition’s next task, then, is to ensure that a federal agency such as the National Park Service (National Monument?), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (National Wildlife Refuge?) or the state of New York (New York State Park Preserve?) expresses a willingness to accept stewardship of this magnificent island, since they get first dibs to the island if they want it. A key enticement toward this end is the $18.9 million commitment in the budget to clean up the few contaminated spots on the island.

Why the sale in the first place? Since 1956 PIADC has been conducting top level research on highly communicable animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease. To this end, several years ago staff developed a vaccine for this highly contagious disease that holds great promise in controlling the disease globally.

Despite this successful research, Congress determined the facility was obsolete and should be replaced, approving the construction of a new state-of-the-art facility, known as the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), to be located on the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. NBAF is complete and will soon be fully operational so as a result PIADC is no longer needed; PIADC is expected to transfer all operations to Kansas and close for good in 2023.

Plum Island is a rare place — a remarkable asset that holds the promise of enriching Long Islanders’ lives —your family’s lives, if we can keep it in public ownership. The Preserve Plum Island Coalition, with the input from hundreds of Long Islanders, has painted a vision for the island … so, imagine throwing binoculars, a camera, and a packed lunch enough for you and your family into your backpack and participating in this realized vision by:

— Taking a ferry across to the island, debarking to orient your island adventure by visiting a museum interpreting the cultural and natural riches and fascinating history of the island before you wander, for countless hours, to experience the wild wonders of the island. A most worthwhile stop is the island’s eastern tip where, through a wildlife blind, you enjoy watching dozens of bobbing grey and harbor seals dotting the water amidst the many partially submerged boulders.

— Standing on the edge of the large, tree-edged pond, watching basking turtles and birds and dragonflies flitting over the surface.

-Birdwatching on the wooded trails and bluff tops to view songbirds, shorebirds, ospreys and other birds-of-prey, swallows, sea ducks and so many other species. Perhaps you’ll see a peregrine falcon zipping by during fall migration, sending flocks of shorebirds scurrying away as fast as their streamlined wings can take them.

— Strolling along the island’s eight miles of undisturbed coastline, with the beauty of eastern Long Island before you, offering distant views of Great Gull, Little Gull and Gardiner’s Islands, Montauk Point, and the Connecticut and Rhode Island coastlines.

— Lodging at the Plum Island lighthouse, converted into a Bed & Breakfast and enjoying a glass of wine as the sun sets over Plum Gut and Orient Point.

— Learning about the role Fort Terry played in protecting the United States and the port of New York as your explore the many parts of the fort — the barracks where soldiers stayed, the gun batteries that once housed the cannons angled skyward to repel a foreign attack.

— At the end of day, if you don’t stay over, taking the ferry back to the mainland of the North Fork, tired after many miles of hiking in the salt air of the East End stopping at a North Fork restaurant to share a chat among friends and family about what you’ve learned relating to this fascinating place.

This legislation has given Plum Island (based on the above perhaps we should call it Treasure Island!) a second chance and an opportunity for us to achieve this vision. But this law is only the first step. We need to take the vital second step of new ownership and management in the public interest if all of the above adventures are to become realities. We collectively need to tell those elected officials who represent us, and who can make a difference in determining the island’s fate, that we want Plum Island protected in perpetuity and the opportunity for its many wonders to become interwoven into the fabric of life on Long Island. 

Go to www.preserveplumisland.org to learn more about the Coalition, receive updates, and what you can do to help.

John Turner is the spokesperson for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition.

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Owner Brian Baker cuts the ribbon at Bellport Brewing’s grand opening Dec. 3, while the Turners — John, Travis and Georgia — on the left look on. The event was attended by Brookhaven Town Councilmen Michael A. Loguercio Jr. and Dan Panico, County Legislator Rudy Sunderman, members of the Bellport Chamber of Commerce, family and friends. Photo from Leg. Sunderman’s office

People may be surprised when they hear that Setauket resident and environmentalist John Turner and his wife, Georgia, have entered the brewery business, but the new venture is all about family.

Georgia and John Turner, investors in the brewing company, and owner Brian Baker. Photo from Leg. Sunderman’s office

Turner said his son, Travis, 29, a few years ago began working with Brian Baker, who opened Bellport Brewing on Station Road in the South Shore village Dec. 3. The father said his son developed quite an interest in brewing beer while working with Baker and became an assistant brewer. When Baker thought about opening a brewery in Bellport, the Turners decided to become investors in the new business and support their son’s career dreams.

“Kind of the stars aligned right, and we decided for that reason and a few others, to take the plunge,” Turner said.

Baker, a former IT network administrator turned brewer, agreed that everything fell into place regarding going into business with the Turners, and the location that he spotted seven years ago finally became available. He credits his wife, Danielle, for being “absolutely amazing” during the process and is grateful for the Turners who he described “like a fairy godmother.” He said he couldn’t have done it by himself.

“I’m grateful for everything that everybody has ever put into this brewery to make me a success and to make this brewery a success,” he said.

Turner said the brewery is in an ideal spot as those walking around the village may pass by and drop in to check it out.

“We hope to get a lot of people just walking on the street during the summertime,” he said, adding he hopes walk-ins combined with social media will provide a good following.

Turner, who is the Town of Brookhaven’s open space program coordinator on a consulting basis, said he and Georgia hope in the future to become more than investors in the brewery, maybe even part owners. Leading up to the grand opening, he said his family enjoyed working with the Bakers in helping to get the building, the former Rooster’s Cafe, ready.

In the future, Baker said he would like to have an outdoor space and a food truck, maybe even cornhole and bocce ball games.

For now, Turner said he and his wife are learning a lot about beer making. From first boiling the water to opening the tap to pour it out, there are certain steps one must go through carefully that he compared to chemistry.

“If any one of those steps isn’t followed completely, you’re not going to turn out with the beer with the alcohol content, and the flavor and the character and body that you hope to have,” he said.

Baker agreed that creating a beer recipe is similar to a chef’s job.

“You need to know what the malts will do by themselves and how they work with others,” he said.

The brewer added Long Island was once one of the best locations to get hops from.

“The soil is everything for the hops environment,” he said. “When you have great soil and great farmers you get great hops and malt.”

Turner said the family has enjoyed helping Baker to shape the flavor and character of the business as well as speaking with potential customers to see what they like.

“It’s exciting but there’s also some trepidation because obviously the brewery opened up in the middle of a pandemic,” Turner said.

Despite the challenges the pandemic has created for businesses, Baker said both families are grateful for what they have today, even though they don’t know what tomorrow may bring. At the same time, they are aware of the current business climate and public health crisis.

“Today we have a brewery,” he said. “Today we have our health. Today we have our family. You know, let’s focus on that and not so much of what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Grey Squirrel. Photo from Pixabay

By John L. Turner

While it was more than 50 years ago I remember the details sharply, as if the event had happened a few days ago. The oak I carefully but rapidly climbed was a young tree about 30 feet tall with a full canopy of branches, growing in a small patch of woods between the elementary school I had attended and a residential street (It was in these woods I first saw Pink Lady’s Slipper, a wonderful native orchid). And there in a nook where two branches emerged from the main trunk was the object of my scamper — the nest of a grey squirrel that I wanted to inspect.

My interest in squirrels and their nests came about from a book I had looked at in the junior high school library; I think it was entitled “Animal Homes”— although this factoid I don’t remember quite so clearly! But what I do remember in the book was the account which explained that grey squirrels make two types of nests — those in tree cavities, often used in winter, and the one I was going to inspect consisting of a globe-shaped leafy ball, known as a “drey,” wedged amidst branches, also used in winter but more often during the warmer months. The account mentioned that most dreys consisted of a single chamber although occasionally they make two chambers — the equivalent of a foyer leading into the living room.

Working my way up the tree I reached the destination and with a little bit of anxiety bordering on trepidation stuck my hand into the nest and felt around. Fortunately no one was home, which is what I expected since several bangs on the main trunk next to the drey had elicited no response. I quickly realized I had a two chamber nest.

The entrance chamber was the smaller of the two and I could feel a partial wall separating the two. The back chamber was about 50% bigger than the size of a curled squirrel (say that tens time fast!) I was surprised by how solid the nest felt and how thick the walls were (they can contain more than 20 layers of leaves; one researcher tickled apart the wall of a drey and found 26 leafy layers).

The thick wall of a squirrel nest serves two vital functions — helping to keep rain out and body warmth in and the leafy layered wall exceeds in doing both. The leaves act like shingles on a roof and their overlapping positioning helps to prevent water from infiltrating the nest. Similarly, the leaves help to retain heat and many experiments have documented their thermal benefits, by keeping internal nest temperatures high when occupied by the squirrel. In one study in Finland researchers found that once a red squirrel entered a drey it quickly warmed up, making the temperature inside the nest 60 to 80 degrees warmer than the surrounding air.

The latin or scientific name for the grey squirrel is Sciurus carolinensis; the genus name means “shadow tail,” a reference to the shadow the tail makes when its arched over the back of the squirrel, a common position when the animal is eating. The species name relates to Carolina, where the first squirrel was presumably first discovered and described to science.

Grey squirrels live up to their name, being grey in coloration, but if you get a chance to view a squirrel up close you’ll see the pelage is a bit more colorful. Occasionally while birding I’ll train my binoculars on a nearby squirrel and I am always taken by their subtle beauty, enrobed as they are in muted earth tone colors. The squirrel’s underside is white and it’s face, tail, and armpit is diffused with brown. There’s a flecking of black, white, and brown or tan peppered throughout the grey fur. Melanistic (all black) and albinistic (all white) squirrels occur with melanistic being the more common of the two rare pelages, but even these blacks squirrels make up less than one percent of the population. I remember, as a child,when visiting my aunt who lived in Rye, New York seeing a population of black squirrels that lived in the forest next to a golf course.

When it comes to managing their food supply rodents generally display two types of behaviors: scatter hoarding or centralized or “larder” hoarding, with grey squirrels practicing the former (chipmunks employ the latter). If you watch grey squirrels in the fall you’ll see them carrying acorns and other nuts burying them (or caching them) in dozens of locations. This behavior suggests they possess very good memories, which they indeed do, since 95 to 99% of the cached nuts are recovered and eaten.

I recently watched acorn caching involving a squirrel on my front lawn. The squirrel walked slowly and then stopped to paw the earth, followed by some sniffing, the way a squirrel assesses the suitability of the site in the grass in which to hide the acorn. It did this three or four times apparently unhappy with something about each of the sites until it finally met the right set of squirrelly conditions at a site near a tall holly tree. Scratching quickly with its front paws the squirrel quickly buried the acorn. Its scattered larder was now one acorn larger.

Grey squirrels are quite adept at differentiating acorns from different oak species; they “know” that acorns from white oaks germinate in the fall while those of red oaks do so in the following spring and, not surprisingly, eat the white oak acorns first while storing acorns from red oaks. Another advantage to this strategy, besides eating acorns that would be lost to germination if they tried to store them, comes from the fact that tannin levels in red oak acorns (tannin is the ingredient that makes your lips pucker when drinking red wine) lessens over time, making the acorns less bitter and more palatable.

We’re not sure if squirrel lips pucker when eating tannic acorns but I do know they develop a large stained moustache while and after eating black walnuts. Despite the impending facial smudge they’ll develop, they look like the definition of contentment as they hold the prized walnut in their paws and proceed to gnaw through the green husk to get to the walnut shell and meat that lays within.

We have another squirrel species that roams the forest of Long Island: the Southern Flying Squirrel. Strictly nocturnal, this little living fabric of “flying” carpet can be seen at bird feeding stations where it’s especially fond of suet. Of course, they don’t fly but rather glide from one tree to another, using an extended fold of skin on each side of its body connecting front and back legs. Their flattened tail helps to serve as a rudder and brake.

Many years ago I worked in a nature preserve and one day went to look at some white baneberry growing along a trail I knew was developing fruits (also known as doll’s eyes due to the resemblance of the fruits to the eyes once used in old fashioned porcelain dolls, white baneberry is in the buttercup family). As I neared the plants I noticed, at the base of a large chestnut oak on the other side of the trail, a small brownish object. Inspecting it I realized it was a freshly dead flying squirrel. I sadly wondered if the squirrel had misjudged the location of the tree or got carried by the wind and collided with the tree with such force that it caused its demise.

While I’ll never know what killed that flying squirrel so many years ago, I do know the cause of many squirrel deaths today— roadkill. Grey Squirrels routinely cross roads that are within their territory; unfortunately, they have no awareness of cars as lethal objects. In one study a state wildlife biologist counted 390 dead squirrels along a fifty mile stretch of highway in New Hampshire.

As I drive Long Island roads I’m constantly alert for squirrels bounding out from the road shoulder (and other wildlife like box turtles); so far so good — while I’ve had a number of close calls with darting squirrels I haven’t hit one.

I’m very grateful I haven’t hit a squirrel with my car and even more grateful of the experience I had, climbing an oak tree half a century ago, since it was the catalyst for developing a lifelong fondness of squirrels.

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.

Photos courtesy of Pixabay

Black-throated Blue Warbler. Photo by Luke Ormand

By John L. Turner

I have always wanted to have a vegetable garden with fruit trees and bushes to grow food for my family, but the Nassau County house we lived in for 35 years, unfortunately, just didn’t have the yard space. In that small space my effort at growing veggies and herbs was restricted to pots of tomatoes and basil on a wooded back deck and I simply had no room for bushes or trees.

But moving to Setauket, on a property with a long back yard, gave ample opportunity to construct a large garden, and construct I did. Surfing the Internet in general, and Pinterest specifically, I scrutinized dozens of different designs, layouts, and materials before finally settling on the idea of two raised, double concrete block beds, one in the shape of the letter “S”, the other its mirror image and one more rectangular bed in the front (I’ve since expanded the garden about 50% by adding on two wings).

I liked the idea of the concrete blocks because it meant not having to spend so much time with 65-year-old knees on the ground, concrete because it will never rot out and need to be replaced, and because I could plant herbs in the hollows of the blocks. The S-letter configuration would allow easy access to any part of the two beds. I planted twenty blueberry and twelve raspberry and blackberry bushes along with a very young fig tree around the garden’s perimeter. A peach and Italian Plum tree are on order.

I had several motivations for the garden. I have long wanted to live more sustainably and one way to do that is to eat healthy, pesticide- and fertilizer-free foods close to where they’re produced. Well, I never use pesticides or fertilizers and I couldn’t get much closer than the 200-foot distance between the garden and kitchen. And given the omnipresence of the COVID pandemic and its regular and depressing drumbeat of death filling the world with despair, I needed to participate in something that was life affirming and enriching. I had embraced the saying: “When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden.”

There is another garden saying: “There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.” Well, I conducted my first “experiment” when I planted too many plants too close together, ensuring a vegetable jungle in the weeks and months ahead. The beans didn’t behave themselves despite my effort to “grow them vertical,” climbing on everything around them and their viny web and the tomato tangles made it a wee bit difficult to get some of the beans and cherry tomatoes once ripe.

Despite the tangle creating more shade than is preferable, all was good though and the eggplants (graffiti, Japanese, American) tomatoes (Beefsteak, heirloom, and two types of cherry), squash (Spaghetti, Butternut, zucchini), cucumbers, artichokes, strawberries, broccoli romanesco, one lonely artichoke bought on a whim, collard greens, beets, kale, swiss chard, corn, many types of melons, numerous pepper varieties, leeks, and basil filled the beds. Herbs I diligently planted in the hollows of the blocks included parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme (an ode to Simon and Garfunkel), dill, mint, chocolate mint, lavender, cilantro, and oregano.

Watching countless YouTube videos about vegetable gardening I soon learned the value in “going vertical” as a means to incorporate more veggies. So to add vertical dimension to the garden I arched cattle panels — four foot wide, sixteen foot long meshed metal fences — over the paths, connecting to the beds. The panels provided a surface for the squash, beans, and tomatoes to grow on, thereby using space more efficiently and allowing me to plant more veggies in the beds.

All was good until the local deer paid a visit. The first night they were surreptitious, revealing their presence with only a scattered hoof prints in the beds and a few nipped peppers. And here I made a true mistake. Applying human and clearly non-deer logic, I assumed the deer discovered the garden, explored it, and made the decision that given their very modest amount of damage, that it generally wasn’t to their liking. Well, the next night they returned and “liked” it a lot more, in fact I might use the word love — they devastated the peppers and beets, and ate all of the broccoli and the swiss chard but one. With the help of my son Travis, a Rube Goldberg style, yet effective eight foot high deer fence was soon installed and has worked like a charm since.

One unexpected result in the garden were the appearance of mystery veggies and fruits I never planted, springing up in places where I didn’t plant them. Indicating the presence of seeds in the eight yards of topsoil/compost mix I used to fill the beds were some cantaloupes, melons, and tomato varieties I hadn’t bought. At first I was confused and then it dawned on me — unless screened very well there are a lot of seeds in soil, as evidenced by how quickly neglected dirt piles at construction sites start to sprout growth.

There was enormous satisfaction for starting something and then letting nature go at it. I marveled at the rapid growth of the plants, their strength and vitality, as they prospered due to the simple combination of adequate water, ample sunlight, and rich soil. Within a month eggplants, two inch high plants when planted, had grown to three feet and started blossoming in multitudes, their beautiful purple petals the texture of tissue paper contrasting with the bright yellow pistils. Tomatoes grew six to eight feet in two months and squash, adorned with brilliant flowers, rested atop the archways. Melons and cucumbers splayed this way and that. By late summer life was riotous in the garden.

And the scents and smells — basil, thyme and rosemary, in full sunlight, effervescing aromas into the air around them, the addictive smell of the good earth when trowel intrudes the surface to make room for planting a small pepper plant filled with so much promise. And the taste of vine-ripe tomatoes, so tomatoey (is that a word?) filling both palate and nose with the unique smell of this ubiquitous member of the nightshade family.

Birds were omnipresent throughout the gardening season. A pair of red-tailed hawks, screeching overhead, gave cause to gaze skyward; this pair bred, I think, in the nearby state-owned Patriots Hollow property. Catbirds regularly “meowed” from the bushes around me and a mockingbird regaled in song on a daily basis amidst the sweet whistling song of Baltimore Orioles.

Both Carolina Wrens and Song Sparrows often perched on the panel arches, probably eyeing which tomato they were going to pierce! Speaking of perched birds on panels — as I was harvesting cherry tomatoes on an October morning Emmy, one of my Springer Spaniels, flushed a bird from the ground. It flew toward me and momentarily perched on the top of a cattle panel. Suddenly and delightfully, three feet away at eye level was a resplendent male Black-throated Blue Warbler. Eye candy in the garden.

We found great joy in harvesting the bounty of vegetables and using them in various recipes. Swiss chard with raisins and pine nuts, collard greens with turkey bacon, various eggplant dishes, sautéed peppers and leeks, roasted tomatoes and beets, and fresh blueberries were but a few of the meals the “back 40”provided. Often the veggies never made it to the house — occasionally a salt shaker would accompany me to the garden. I’m not sure there’s anything tastier than a sweetened, freshly picked cherry tomato sprinkled with a little dash of salt.

I also found joy in composting. All the veggie discards from food prep ended up in a large jar regularly brought to the compost bin. With each jar dump the product of this year’s garden was being recycled, for use as a soil supplement next year, connecting this year to the next. I felt good about this, in knowing I wasn’t adding waste to the garbage stream the town picks up at curbside which is incinerated with the ash being dumped at the town landfill, but rather was used to make soil that will nurture the growth of future plants.

After the first year, I’ve learned a lot about gardening; things done well and things done poorly, some reflecting beginner’s luck while others were gained through experience and insight. What is most clear to me is that I obtained so much more than a bounty of tasty vegetables as I too gained a bounty of lessons, experiences and memories. This reminded me of one last quote by a gardener who noted: “I like gardening. It’s a place where I find myself when I need to lose myself.”

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.