Tags Posts tagged with "John Turner"

John Turner

METRO photo
A Column Promoting a More Earth-Friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Make your next pet kitten an indoor one…

According to the American Bird Conservancy and other researchers, the number one cause for wild bird mortality  is by free ranging outdoor cats each year. Experts estimate that upwards of 2.5 billion (yes billion with a “b”!) wild birds are killed annually by cats including many species that frequent bird feeders such as cardinals, chickadees, and woodpeckers. Additionally, several billion small mammals— such as voles and mice— which form the base of natural food chains and webs, are also killed, reducing the availability of these animals for predators such as hawks and owls which depend upon them.  

While it can be very difficult to turn a current outdoor pet cat into an indoor pet cat, this is not the case with a new pet that has no expectation or habit to go outside. Being an indoor cat has other obvious benefits to both the cat and cat owner — no worry about being hit by a car, getting into a fight with another cat or animal, or picking up a disease. 

A significant majority of dog owners don’t let their dogs run free because of the havoc they can cause. If cat owners embrace the same belief and responsibility not only will their pet benefit but many types of wildlife will be much better protected, allowed to live out their wild lives free from the risk of pet cat predation.  

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

See more information on this issue here:


John Turner, center with participants from a previous Nighthawk Watch. Photo by Thomas Drysdale

On Aug. 27 at 5:30 p.m., the Four Harbors Audubon Society will begin its seventh “Common Nighthawk Watch” on the Stone Bridge located along the southern boundary of Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket. The watch will run through to Oct. 6. 

The Common Nighthawk, a bird quite adept in flight, passes through Long Island on its southbound migration in the autumn after leaving their breeding grounds across northern North America and heading to the Amazon region and beyond in South America. The nighthawks passing over the Watch are very likely birds that nested in eastern Canada and New England. 

The Audubon chapter began the Watch in 2017 in response to concerns about declining nighthawk numbers. Based on the last published NYS Breeding Bird Atlas, this species has experienced a 71% reduction in the number of birds that possibly or probably bred or were confirmed as breeders in New York State  from 1985 to 2005.  While continental figures paint a slightly better picture, the trend in nighthawk numbers is still a downward one. 

Common Nighthawk. Photo by Dennis Whittam 2021

“Anyone who witnesses the daily evening migration of Common Nighthawks at the Stone Bridge is hooked; the spectacle is no less than addicting. Yet the bigger picture is disheartening, as we know nighthawks are in steep decline, and the numbers we see are but a small percentage of their historic population levels,” notes Patrice Domeischel, a chapter board member and a co-founder of the Watch. “Hopefully in time our data collection will prove useful in determining ways to preserve this species.” 

Why so many nighthawks appear over the Stone Bridge is not fully clear but two aspects appear to contribute: the geographic position of Setauket along Long Island’s north shore is ideal for intercepting southbound nighthawks as they reach Long Island after crossing the Sound and the presence of the pond that regularly produces an insect hatch that provides a cafeteria for the birds. 

“Common Nighthawks are related to whip-poor-wills” said John Turner, Conservation co-chair of the chapter and a chapter board member, “but are distinctive with their bright white wing bars that flash as they dip and turn in pursuit of the aerial insects that form their diet.” 

The reduction in the abundance of aerial insects due to spraying and habitat loss appears to be the main driver of reduced nighthawk numbers. “These birds serve as bellwethers for the quality of the environment and their decline should be a concern to us all,” Turner added.     

The totals for the number of common nighthawks counted as they zip, bob, and weave erratically overhead for the past six years is as follows: 2,046 nighthawks in 2017, 2,018 nighthawks in 2018, 2,757 nighthawks in 2019, 2,245 nighthawks in 2020, 1,819 nighthawks in 2021, and 1,625 nighthawks in 2022. The single best day observers have had was on Sept. 8, 2017 when 573 nighthawks passed overhead. Last year the best day was the first— Aug. 27 — when 243 birds moved through. 

Many other bird species are observed at the Watch including Bald Eagles and Ospreys, Double-crested Cormorants, Barn and Tree Swallows and Chimney Swifts, several duck species including the beautiful Wood Duck, Belted Kingfisher, wading birds such as Great Egrets, and many species of songbirds. Toward dusk, several species of bats often emerge to feed over the pond and if any planets are visible in the sky a birding scope is set up to look at them (the ring of Saturn can be seen with a high powered bird scope).     

For more information, visit www.4has.org.

A Column Promoting a More Earth-Friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

John Turner

If you’re one of the many thousands of Long Islanders who bring clothes to your local dry cleaning establishment, you know you get back those freshly-pressed and cleaned clothes on a wire hanger. 

That’s good news in that there’s no need to throw away or attempt to recycle by tossing the hangers in your curbside recycling bin. Just bring them back to your dry cleaners to be used again…..and again…and again!    

But many people don’t as approximately (and mind bogglingly) 3.5 billion wire hangers  are thrown away every year in the United States! That amounts to 312,000 pounds of wire hangers or 156 tons.  

Wire hangers can be used many times before they become sufficiently twisted or bent and can no longer be used and the dry cleaning establishment appreciates you returning them for reuse since you’ll be helping out their financial bottom line as they have to purchase fewer new hangers.

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


Photo by Rajesh Rajput/Unsplash

By John L. Turner

John Turner

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

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

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

Firefly. Pixabay photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By John L. Turner

John Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you read the label look for words such as bird friendly, fair trade, certified organic, etc.
A Column Promoting a More Earth-Friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

John Turner

If you watch birds you’ve undoubtedly enjoyed watching them in the early morning while having a cup of coffee. Want to enjoy the latter while better helping the species you enjoy viewing? Drink shade-grown coffee. 

As the name suggests, shade-grown coffee is composed of coffee shrubs and trees grown in the understory of a shady tropical rainforest in which the ecosystem remains largely intact. Unfortunately most coffee consumed by Americans are sun-grown varieties where the rainforest is destroyed and manicured rows of coffee plants grow. Sun grown coffee farms have many fewer wildlife species, such as the birds we love — Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks to name but a few; in some cases sun-grown coffee farms have 5% of the species found in shade grown farms. 

Shade grown coffee brands are available in some stores and certainly on-line. They are a  bit more expensive but if more consumers buy coffee sustainably grown, prices should come down. And you will gain something more than you ever could by consuming a cheaper cup of sun-grown coffee — knowing you’re helping migratory birds that visit us during the Spring and Summer survive.

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


A Froglog can save countless animals from drowning.
A Column Promoting a More Earth-friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Countless numbers of wild animals, from chipmunks and mice to raccoons and skunks drown in in-ground pools every year unable to climb out of the water along the pool edge. (Two chipmunks unfortunately drowned in my pool last year the first day I uncovered the pool and before I had placed several water exiting devices I had in the shed). Smaller reptiles and amphibians drown too.   

There are products you can buy to minimize the chance of wildlife drowning in your pool. They are installed or placed on the edge of the pool and serve as a ramp to allow for animals to climb out. Two products come to mind: 1) Skamper-ramp, for larger animals such as mammals (and your pets!) and 2) Froglogs, effective for smaller animals. Even knotted nylon rope hanging into the water can help smaller mammals escape. Four to six Froglogs or rope are recommended for the average size pool (I placed eight of these to be extra safe).

With these devices in place you can have greater piece of mind knowing your pool is only a place for fun and relaxation!

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


A male Buck Moth. Photo by John Turner

By John L. Turner

John Turner

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

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

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

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

A Polyphemus Moth. Photo by Carl Safina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By John L. Turner

John Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

METRO photo
A Column Promoting a More Earth-friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

John Turner

There’s an expression in lawn care “Cut it high and let it lie.” Leaving grass on the longer side is healthier for the grass as it dries out more slowly and there’s more grass blade to produce food as it photosynthesizes. And letting it lie is good for both your lawn and the planet. The clippings quickly break down, returning nutrients back to the grass and soil and the clippings do not, contrary to popular belief, add thatch to your lawn. 

The second best option is to compost grass clippings with other yard waste and to apply the compost to your lawn and flower beds once it’s ready. 

The worst option, which so many homeowners choose, is to bag the clippings and leave curbside for the town to pick up (or worse yet, dump it in a neighboring preserve or parkland). This waste is harder to recycle, inefficient to burn, and costs the town more to manage. So, for the sake of a healthier lawn and planet, let those grass clippings lie.      

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.