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John Turner

Barn owls can catch their prey in complete darkness due to their acute sense of hearing. Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

John Turner

As you begin to read this article please pause for a moment and take stock of your immediate surroundings. What do you feel? Your fingertips feel the largely smooth texture of the surface of the newspaper (perhaps using Meissner corpuscles as I have since learned) and your legs and back feel the chair you’re sitting in. What do you see? Obvious is the fine print of this article and other articles and different shades of color contained in this  edition. Lift your gaze to look around a palette of several dozen colors. As for smell? Maybe the aroma of your morning coffee or tea accompanying this reading experience. 

Maybe your dog is curled up nearby. While you’d have no reason at this moment to think about it, the worlds you and your dog are currently experiencing are very different. Our entire set of sensory skills — which allows us to perceive and react to the world, varies markedly from a dog’s.  We see color while dogs experience a more limited palette. We can detect many scents and odors but is far surpassed by the capability of dogs. 

Some research papers indicate their ability to detect smells — “their sense to detect scents” — is 100,000 times more sensitive than ours. And as far as hearing goes, your furry pet far surpasses your ability in what it can hear, especially noises at higher ranges (remember a dog whistle which, when blown, cannot be heard by the person blowing it but is definitely heard by the dog?)    

Now, let’s expand this idea outward to capture, say, some animal groups that might inhabit your backyard, such as birds, bats and insects. These groups perceive a very different world than we do. It is well known that some bird and insect species, for example, perceive ultraviolet or UV light, which humans, with rare exceptions, cannot (UV is the light spectrum below a wavelength of 380 nanometers). And a UV illuminated world for them is very different than the world illuminated for us. Certain floral patterns which we can’t see stand out as runways on flower petals for UV capable insects. Birds that have, to our eye, plumage that looks drab, actually have feather coats that radiate under UV light. 

As for bats, their famous ability to echolocate — emitting high pitch sounds (too high for us to hear) to locate prey with a high degree of accuracy — is a sense and capability so far outside the realm of human experience as to seem “other worldly.” Several bird species also are capable of echolocation. In the Western Hemisphere that includes the oilbirds of northern South America. 

Numerous marine mammal species also are known to echolocate — dolphins, as but one example. And unlike bats whose echolocation skills enable them to “only” detect the outer contours of their prey, dolphins can “see” inside their targets to perceive their organs and skeleton.    

Another hard to grasp sense of birds is their ability to detect and utilize the Earth’s magnetic fields which they use to migrate effectively. Researchers aren’t fully sure of the mechanism allowing them to achieve this, but it appears to involve proteins in a bird’s retina. 

‘An Immense World’

And I do mean hard to grasp — I’ve read, several times, the same explanatory article in Scientific American on the details of the current hypothesis regarding magnetic field perception in birds and how it aids their migration and I don’t fully understand what’s going on — involving stuff like cytochrome proteins in a bird’s retina, a blue photon hitting the cytochrome causing an electron to jump from an amino acid to a dinucleotide molecule which create a certain spinning of electrons that are, in turn, influenced by the Earth’s magnetic fields which the bird is able to utilize in determining direction. And I’ve left off the last most complicated steps…call me stupid but amazed!  

Many other species, such as sea turtles and spiny lobsters, but not us humans, also are known to navigate by using the planet’s magnetic fields but the mechanisms they employ are less well understood. These “other worldly” abilities, and so many more which are so different from ours, are richly revealed in a wonderful, recently published book, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, by Ed Yong. As the subtitle suggests, Yong takes the reader through dozens of examples of how animals perceive the world in a very different way than we do, using senses we either don’t have or that are far more sensitive or acute. The book is 355 pages of profound discovery and a most worthwhile read. 

As an example of the first are animals that can hear or transmit infrasound (below 20Hz), like whales and elephants. Humans can hear sounds as low as about 20 Hz, sounds lower than that are imperceptible to us unless extremely loud, so infrasound is outside our normal perceptive world. Not so with elephants who regularly communicate with infrasound, often involving elephant herds separated by impressive distances such as several miles. 

Whales, using the medium of water, easily make sounds that easily exceed this distance, with the blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, generating sounds that can carry many hundreds, if not thousands of miles, in the ocean. When first suggested the idea was thought implausible even ridiculed; it is now widely accepted.  

Ed Yong, author of An Immense World
Photo by Urzula Soltys

Or how about being able to feel the warmth of another person’s body that is not close to you but rather is several feet away? 

Well, you’ve entered the realm of rattlesnakes which can detect the infrared radiation given off by a mouse from several feet away. And their ability to strike prey just by heat detection is so accurate that blindfolded rattlesnakes can successfully hunt.     

As for senses more acute than ours we turn to the hearing of a barn owl. In well-known (and well designed) experiments, barn owls were capable of routinely seizing prey in complete and utter darkness and they have a special feature we lack. Their ear openings are asymmetrically placed, positioned at slightly different heights on the side of the head. So not only can they accurately determine if a sound is coming from their left or right, in the vertical plane (something we do well), they can also tell where the maker of the sound is in the horizontal plane, since if the sound is coming from below, sound waves will reach the lower ear milliseconds before they reach the higher ear, the bird’s brain can process this information and pinpoint its prey.   

And then there’s electricity generation. Electricity runs through the human body and is vital to human life. Elements like sodium, magnesium, calcium, and potassium, which we ingest through food and supplements, have electrical charge and enable us to perform basic tasks like nerve generation and transmission and the creation of a heartbeat through muscular contraction. It is reported that the energy output of a resting human adult is equivalent to powering a 100 watt light bulb. 

Some animals take electricity, though, to a new level. The best example involves electric eels. By discharging ions within electrocytes, which are specialized cells in specialized organs, the world champion eel has the ability to generate 860 volts of electricity — that’s nearly eight times the strength of the electricity available from your home’s wall outlet and is enough to debilitate and perhaps kill you. While we have little to worry about, not so for the fish and other aquatic animals that share the eel’s domain.    

As Yong’s impressively detailed book repeatedly illustrates, the animals that share our planet display a mind-bogglingly rich suite of survival skills for which one article cannot begin to do justice. Let me prove it by one tiny slice of life — a single shorebird species — the Red Knot, a medium sized bird with a robin red colored breast and a spangled pattern of gold, buff, tan, and black on its back.  Overwintering in the southern part of South America, flocks of Red Knots move north on the continent in April, launching in mid-May from the beaches of northern Brazil, driven by invisible impulses which we cannot understand, flying unerringly north toward the East Coast of the United States. 

Shaming human triathletes by their efforts, they will fly nonstop for several days as they traverse the waters of the western Atlantic, using the Earth’s magnetic fields, perhaps also using the Sun’s polarized light, propelled by breathing in a way so much more efficient than the human respiratory system. Their heart will have beaten perhaps a million beats and their wings flapped several hundred thousand times during this leg. 

They land, perhaps along Long Island’s South Shore or southern New Jersey, and begin to feed voraciously, sustained by tiny packets of protein in the form of horseshoe crab eggs — the perfect snack food. They feed so effectively that in a week to ten days they can add 50% more weight onto the weight they had upon arrival; in some cases they may double their weight in the form of subcutaneous fat. 

Gaining enough stored energy they head further north for the last leg of their improbable flight, landing in the High Arctic, perhaps guided by those magnetic fields to the same hummock of dwarf tundra plants where, the year before, they established a breeding territory. They have finished their almost impossible to comprehend 9,000 mile long journey. Just one remarkable story illustrating the unique senses and abilities of species, in a global tapestry of species’ stories that collectively form the planet’s book of life. 

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.

Stock photo
A Column Promoting a More Earth-friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

John Turner

You’ve just boiled some potatoes, eggs, or maybe rice. Or perhaps it was pasta. If you are like most people the leftover water quickly finds its way down the kitchen sink drain. 

Want a better use for that water? After cooling it (a nice bonus in the winter to let the heat from the water move into the kitchen), use it for making soup, thinning sauces or watering indoor or outdoor plants. Regarding this last use, boiling these and other foods (couscous anyone?) results in water containing minerals and carbohydrates; this enhanced water thus has become a form of liquid fertilizer that can benefit your plants. 

There is one caveat to keep in mind when using the previously used water for your plants — if you salt the water while cooking pasta or other foods do not use it on your plants as it can either damage or kill them; it is fine, though, to use it for making other foods.  

Reusing your cooking water not only captures these minerals and nutrients for the benefit of your plants, it means water used in a more efficient manner — a key element of sustainability.   

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.

North America has lost 3 billion birds or one-fourth of its continental population since 1970. Photo by Raina Angelier

By John L. Turner

John Turner

On Saturday, April 22nd, citizens of the world will have the opportunity to participate in the 54th celebration of Earth Day. An event beginning in 1970, Earth Day has helped to galvanize public awareness about environmental issues and the plight of our planetary home. 

So, in recognition of Earth Day 2023, here are 23 events, accomplishments, and issues to think about, reaching as far back as the first Earth Day more than five decades ago; some are good news, others bad. As these developments show, we’ve made great strides in living in greater harmony with the planet but at the same time, problems remain while new, highly significant ones have emerged. 

1. A green wave washes over the nation: Fueled by the same sentiment that led to the first Earth Day, Congress, in a flurry of activity, passes the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968), National Environmental Policy Act (1969), Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and Endangered Species Act (1973). Several other important environmental initiatives were adopted administratively including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970). Collectively, these actions form the foundation of the federal government’s framework to protecting the environment.

2. The Long Island Pine Barrens is protected: After a four year David vs. Goliath battle between the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and the Towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead, and Southampton, Governor Mario Cuomo, in 1993, signs the Pine Barrens Protection Act into law. The legislation preserves more than 55,000 acres of pine forest and tightly controls development in another 47,000 acres. 

3. Continental bird decline: Researchers publish a major paper in 2019 documenting that since the first Earth Day, North America has lost 3 billion birds or one-fourth of its continental population. Cat predation, window collisions, and habitat destruction are the leading causes. Loss of insects, affecting aerial insectivores like common nighthawks, swifts and swallows have led to additional declines. Many species have dropped by 50% or more in abundance during this time. 

4. Eagles and ospreys surge: With DDT  banned for use in 1972 in the United States birds that feed “higher on the food chain,” such as birds-of-prey and waterbirds, have rebounded. Hundreds of osprey nests dot Long Island’s coastal landscapes and bald eagles, which were extirpated as a breeding bird, have returned with the first nest found at The Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island more than a decade ago.    

5. The emergence of “forever” chemicals: Over the past several years “forever” chemicals such as PFAS and PFOS  have emerged on the scene. A group of more than 3,000 chemicals, they are ubiquitous, having been used in non-stick pans, stain resistant fabrics, even fire-fighting foam. They have contaminated water supplies throughout the country and have affected public water supply wells on Long Island. These chemicals increase the risk of cancer and can damage human organs, notably the kidneys. One study documented PFAS in 97% of  the participants, suggesting  the chemical is widespread in the environment. 

6. Cleaner water in Long Island Sound: Due to a significant commitment of public funds expended to upgrade sewage treatment plants, conditions in Long Island Sound are improving. Hypoxic or low dissolved oxygen levels, stressful to lethal for bottom-dwelling marine animals such as lobsters, crabs, and shellfish have declined, both in terms of extent and duration.  Stressful conditions still exist in the western portion of the Sound due to sewage discharge from New York City’s large sewage treatment plants.     

7. Plastics pollution is a problem!: In the past two decades plastic use has exploded, resulting in massive pollution of land and ocean. Scientists estimate that about eight million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year.  When plastics fragment, they become micro-plastics and many marine species ingest it, thinking its food items,  often with fatal consequences. In an often referred to but highly alarming statistic, it’s estimated that by 2050 there will more plastic debris, by weight, in the ocean than fish biomass. 

8. Bag the plastic bag!: First in Suffolk County, and then in New York State, the use of single use plastic bags is banned and a fee is placed on the use of paper bags.  Reusable, multi-use bags have become the norm for shoppers. Our roadsides are now cleaner and are largely devoid of  windblown bags.    

9. Waste reduction takes hold: Waste reduction is the most effective but least used waste management strategy, better than recycling, burning, or burying garbage.  One great example of a waste reduction strategy was approved by the NYS Legislature last year which phases out small, single use, shampoo and hair conditioner bottles provided in hotel bathrooms. Soon, your hair needs will only be supplied by refillable, pump receptacles located in shower stalls. This legislation will result in tens of millions less plastic containers being burned or buried in New York annually.   

10. Bats are suffering: Over the past several decades many bat species, especially those roosting colonially, have been afflicted by a contagious virus called white-nosed syndrome or WNS. Some species have declined by more than 90%, resulting in a few once common species facing extinction.  Non-colonial roosting bats are doing better. 

11. Coastal waters are alive with menhaden: Due to a ban on the commercial harvest of menhaden in New York waters, this species has staged a remarkable comeback. Its remarkable abundance, with schools containing millions of fish, has fueled a resurgence in species that feed upon it — humpback whales and other cetaceans, tuna, sharks, marine birds, and birds-of-prey like bald eagles and osprey.  

12. Suffolk County’s Drinking Water Protection Program: Funded by a 1/4 cent fraction of county sales tax, this program, first adopted in 1987 and approved several times by Suffolk County voters, has allowed the County to buy thousands of acres of environmentally important properties and to advance water quality protection projects.  The program has been especially critical for Pine Barrens purchases. 

13. Global climate disruption: Climate change or climate disruption, as it is more aptly described, is having enormous impacts to human society and the natural world. An all encompassing threat caused by the manufacture and use of fossil fuels, countries still are adding climate-changing gases to the atmosphere at an alarming rate. We’re tossing the planetary dice and still collectively suffer too much from denial by a critical mass of society whose intellectual and emotional support is badly needed. 

14. Otters have returned, coyotes have arrived: River otters are slowly reestablishing themselves in Long Island waterways with sightings in many places.  Coyotes have begun to colonize Long Island, probably reaching here via a bridge or tunnel connecting the island to the Bronx and perhaps by island hopping the eastern island archipelago of Plum Island, Little and Great Gull Islands, and Fisher’s Island. Being hit by vehicles remains a critical concern to their recovery/colonization.  

15. The hole in the ozone layer isn’t closed (yet)!: First detected in the late 1970s, a “hole” in the Earth’s stratosphere over the planet’s two polar regions slowly has been  getting smaller. Caused by certain man-made chemicals that destroy ozone, these chemicals were phased out by an international agreement in 1986. 

16. Water reuse becomes a reality: In 2016 the first Water Reuse project on Long Island comes on-line involving the Riverhead Sewage Treatment Plant and Indian Island County Golf Course. Instead of dumping wastewater into the Peconic River/Flanders Bay the water is used to irrigate the grass on the golf course next door and by so doing keeps an estimated 1.2 tons of nitrogen from entering the estuary and g 63 million gallons of water in the ground. 

Because of reuses’s water quality and quantify benefits, the Seatuck Environmental Association in 2023 prepares an islandwide water reuse road map. If the top 17 reuse projects are funded 15 less tons of nitrogen will enter LI’s coastal waters and nearly 600 million gallons of water will be kept in the ground helping to maintain wetlands and preventing salt water intrusion.  

17. Terrapin excluder devices (TEDS) are required: In 2017 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation enacts a regulation requiring all commercial crab pots located in Long Island’s bays, harbors, and steam/creek/river mouths to be equipped with TEDS. Putting TEDS on the vents of crab pots can reduce diamondback terrapin drownings by 75% while having no discernible effect on crab harvest.  

18. Keeping the deer in Deer Park: In three separate stages — in 1983, 1984, and 1998 — New York State creates the 850-acre Oak Brush Plains Preserve in Deer Park from properties once used by the Edgewood and Pilgrim State Psychiatric facilities. This  westernmost forest of the Pine Barrens is home to fox, many songbirds, birds of prey, and even whip-poor-wills, and living up to its name given the community in which it is located — deer. Efforts are currently underway to add another 115 acres to the Preserve. 

19. Reconnecting nature: All throughout the country efforts are underway to mitigate, and in many cases eliminate, obstacles to the movement of wildlife such as those posed by roads and dams. Dozens of small dams have been removed and some that haven’t have been equipped with fish ladders. In areas with high roadkill under- and overpasses are being installed to allow for the safe movement of animals. The recently passed federal Infrastructure Act provides $400 million for such projects. 

20. SEQRA is adopted: SEQRA, the New York State version of the National Environmental Policy Act, passed in 1975. This law establishes a legal requirement for agencies and legislative bodies to “look before they leap” when it comes to approving projects that might have an adverse impact on the environment and to mitigate those impacts. This Act has been responsible for ensuring that the quality of the environment is a factor in decision making. 

21. West Meadow Beach is restored: After years of unfortunate divisiveness, dozens of privately owned cottages at the Town of Brookhaven’s West Meadow Beach are removed, opening the property to broad public use and enjoyment, allowing for this ecologically significant habitat to begin recovery. The action constituted one of the few “de-development” actions ever undertaken on Long Island. 

22. The Pebble Mine dies the death it deserves: The proposed Pebble Mine, situated in southwestern Alaska, would have resulted in a 12-square copper-gold-molybdenum mine sandwiched between globally important salmon rivers upon which Native Alaskans depend. These rivers flow into Bristol Bay which supports a $1.5 billion fishing industry. The mine would have been the largest in North America and there was great fear that a mine collapse (this happened at a different mine by the  company that wanted to operate the Pebble Mine) would have sent acid tailings and enormous amounts of sediments into the rivers destroying the environment for miles around the mine and the critically important fish runs.   

23. Wetlands, both freshwater and tidal, are better protected: A few years after the first Earth Day, New York State passes important laws to protect fresh- and tidal wetlands preventing their wholesale destruction through draining and filling. The law to protect freshwater wetlands was significantly strengthened in the 2022 state legislative session.  

This list, of course, is just a very small sample of the environmental challenges and problems we collectively confront. If we are ever to get ahead of the curve in protecting our planetary home, we’re going to have to do more than adopt one or a few actions each year that protect some aspect of the global environment, as meaningful as they are, which we then celebrate each Earth Day. Our survival requires much more than an annual Earth Day celebration. Rather, we need to realize that we have to act like Earth Day is every day, which it is, since we still depend upon the sustenance of the planet on those  other 364 days.

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.

Purple signs like this may become commonplace on Long Island in the near future. Photo by Grendelkhan/Wikimedia Commons

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Like all islands, Long Island is defined by water. Lapped on all sides — the Great South Bay on its southern flank, the thick finger of the Long Island Sound to the north, the bowl of the Peconic Bay filling between the forks, and one of the planet’s great oceans embracing all of this.  

And beneath us, in the pore spaces between the sand that make up Long Island (Long Island is basically a million-acre leaky sandbox) is a prolific aquifer system made up of several trillion gallons of freshwater that we depend upon, made available by scores of public water supply wells, for drinking and making coffee, washing cars, showering and brushing teeth, and from which water oozes to fill our ponds and lakes and makes our rivers and streams run — a freshwater groundwater system made up of three aquifers like layers in a sandwich, all resting on a basement of bedrock. 

It is OUR water supply — there are no other realistic possibilities to turn to: no ability to connect to New York City’s impressive surface water reservoirs and no river from New England that upwells into our sand under Long Island Sound (as one Long Island elected official once assured me, in explaining why we didn’t need to be concerned with the impacts of development). We are, hydrologically speaking, captains of our own fate.  

We may be captains but we haven’t been such good stewards of our groundwater supply as it is under stress like never before. More than two and one-half million Long Islanders live, work, and play above the water supply, and with gravity always at work, water, and whatever contaminants are dissolved in it, is always carried downward. 

The Upper Glacial Aquifer, the aquifer closest to the surface, has been rendered unusable in many places due to contamination.  In some areas this pollution has moved down into the thicker Magothy Aquifer below, the main source for drinking water today. And below the Magothy lies the Lloyd Aquifer, resting on a basement of bedrock, which has begun to feel the stresses of  over pumping and fingers of contamination.  

Some freshwater lakes and ponds are suffering quality issues too, the victims of “HAB’s” — harmful algal blooms. 

And in parts of Long Island we have a quantity problem, illustrated by lowered water table levels causing streams and ponds to shrink or dry out and allowing saltwater intrusion from salty water pushing in from sides of the groundwater supply. Hundreds of acres of wetlands have disappeared or been diminished by lowered water table levels, adversely affecting wetland dependent wildlife species.  

Nor have we been the stewards of the shallow coastal waters surrounding us that we should be. Driven by excessive nitrogen from sewage treatment plants (STP’s), home cesspools and septic tanks, and hundreds of thousands of fertilized lawns, the island’s coastal ecosystems are  showing significant stress. This stress is illustrated by numerous algae blooms or colored “tides,” perhaps made most visible by the green sheets of Ulva or sea lettuce which blankets the bottom of much of our tidal creek and bays. 

Some of these blooms involve algae species that are toxic to wildlife or are species that shellfish cannot eat to sustain themselves. Moreover, coastal waters containing excess nitrogen can weaken tidal marshes, a dangerous trend given their wildlife habitat, pollution control, and storm buffering value.

Photo by John Turner

The good news is that we have the means to address these problems and one of them involves water recycling or reuse. As the name suggests, water recycling involves the use of highly treated wastewater discharged from sewage treatment plants for some other worthwhile purpose. And the Riverhead Sewage Treatment Plant water reuse project serves as an excellent example.  Here, during the warmer months (April to October), highly treated wastewater is diverted from discharge into the Peconic River/Bay and, instead, is pumped next door to Suffolk County Parks’ Indian Island Golf Course. The water, containing low levels of nitrogen, is used to irrigate the golf course, the nitrogen being taken up by the turf grass. The water is subject to UV disinfection which kills 99.9% of the viruses and bacteria that might remain in the wastewater from initial treatment. 

What’s the benefits you might ask of this water reuse project? The engineering consultants to the project estimate it will divert more than one ton of ecosystem-changing nitrogen annually from entering coastal waters with the nitrogen serving as fertilizer for the golf course grass. And it gets better — approximately 63 million gallons of water which used to be pumped out of the aquifer can stay in the ground, reducing stress on the groundwater system.  An added benefit is that it may also save taxpayer dollars due to decreased energy and fertilizer costs.

Given these dual quality and quantity benefits it is not surprising water recycling is commonplace in some states and in many other countries.  California, Florida, and Arizona are among the leaders as are countries like Israel in the Middle East. (You may have seen evidence of water reuse projects while traveling in these or other states since the pipes conveying the water are painted purple — the universal color for water recycling. I saw them a few years ago while traveling through Clearwater, Florida north of St. Petersburg). 

Today, more than 2.6 billion gallons of water are reused daily in the United States. And the potential on Long Island is great with several dozen golf courses being within two miles of a sewage treatment plant. 

There are other reuse applications besides irrigation of golf courses though… irrigation of agricultural crops and municipal ballfields, industrial cooling, wetland restoration, washdown water at sewage plants, even potable reuse which is now happening in California. Anyone want a beer brewed using highly treated wastewater? There are half a dozen brands now available, in Canada, Germany, and California, if you so desire!

To better understand and quantify this potential, and to provide a framework for prioritizing potential projects, the Seatuck Environmental Association, with funding kindly provided by the Greentree Foundation, hired Cameron Engineering to help develop a Long Island Water Reuse Road Map or Blueprint. This road map lists nearly 100 projects in which an STP is coupled with a target of the reclaimed wastewater — most typically a golf course or agricultural operation — situated within a two mile radius. They are listed in priority fashion based on the amount of water potentially saved, amount of nitrogen potentially reduced, and estimated cost for improvements needed to implement.        

Closer  to home, what might be some potential water recycling projects? One that jumps out (ranked #10 in the prioritized matrix) is using treated wastewater generated from the sewage treatment plant located on the SUNY Stony Brook campus to irrigate St. George’s Golf Course situated in close proximity on the east side of Nicolls Road. A successful project here would keep hundreds of pounds of nitrogen from entering Port Jefferson Harbor (the effluent from the SUNY SBU STP is piped to the Port Jefferson plant first before discharge into the harbor) and keep an estimated 34 million gallons of water in the aquifer.  

It is clear that with political support and adequate public funding, water reuse can significantly contribute to intelligent management of the water upon which we depend for drinking and water that we enjoy swimming in. As the LI Water Reuse Road Map has shown, water recycling, implemented comprehensively, can prevent tons of nitrogen from entering Long Island’s groundwater supply and adjacent coastal waters while keeping billions of gallons of freshwater in the ground. To borrow from an often used phrase: “That there’s a win-win situation” for all Long Islanders.

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

METRO photo

You have undoubtedly learned about the value of recycling as it has become commonplace on Long Island, with every town and village here operating recycling programs. Recycling helps to reduce impacts to landfills, reduces air and water pollution, and results in less energy use.

Especially important is recycling aluminum. Why? Because unlike other materials such as paper, aluminum is infinitely recyclable and requires much less energy to make a new aluminum product from recycled aluminum than from virgin ore (bauxite). For example, it takes 20 times the amount of energy to make a can from virgin ore as it does from recycled aluminum. Said another way, creating new aluminum cans from recycled cans uses 95 percent less energy than making new cans from ore. Or how about: Tossing away an aluminum can wastes as much energy as pouring out half of that can’s volume of gasoline!!

To put this in a broader perspective, using an example from around your home: recycling one aluminum can save enough energy to keep a 100-watt bulb burning for almost four hours or run your television for three hours. This adds up as last year 54 billion cans were recycled saving energy equivalent to 15 million barrels of crude oil — America’s entire gas consumption for one day. These examples make it clear that recycling aluminum is a sure-fire way for you to combat climate change. So, please recycle those aluminum pie tins, take-out containers, and cans!

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
John Turner

Friends of Flax Pond invite the community to join them at the Childs Mansion, 19 Shore Drive, Old Field on Sunday, March 26 at 3 p.m. for a lecture titled “Diamondback Terrapin: the Turtle with the Clown Lips” presented by John Turner.

These amazing turtles inhabit our local coastal areas. Late each spring and early summer the females come ashore to nest on our local beaches. Conservation is key to their continued survival.

Turner will present information about these fascinating creatures as well as some of the local conservation efforts. As always light refreshments will be served. Please bring a reusable coffee mug to reduce waste. The lecture is free, but donations are gratefully accepted. Parking is at the Flax Pond Lab, adjacent to the Childs Mansion. If you need other arrangements for parking and have a “handicap parking pass,” please e-mail or text 631-767-6287 to make arrangements.

For electric dryers only.
A Column Promoting a More Earth-friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

Photo from John Turner

Most of us own an electric dryer to dry our clothes. In the summer you want the warm and damp air generated from dryers to be vented to the outside. But wouldn’t you want that warm, moisture- laden air to vent inside in the winter to help keep your home warm, perhaps resulting in less furnace activity?

Well, there’s a product available on-line or at local home  improvement stores that does just that. Called a Dryer Heat Saver or Dryer Heat Diverter, it’s a rectangular box fitted into your dryer vent hose and held in places by O-rings. It has a baffle or shunt to direct the hot air where you want it — in  the summer to the outside but in the winter into your house. A screen prevents lint (which needs to be occasionally  removed) from entering your house.

So why not take advantage of the energy your clothes dryer has produced to warm your home and in so doing, giving your furnace a little bit of a break?

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.

Striped Skunk. Photo by Dan Dzuirisn/Wikimedia Commons

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Although the hike was twenty-four years ago, I remember the experience as if it had happened last week. 

I was heading west along an old asphalt road, broken up by time and weather and flanked on both sides by an interwoven  fabric of dwarf pines and scrub oaks, vegetation typical to the globally rare Dwarf Pine Plains of Westhampton. Ahead and to my left I suddenly noticed several birds making a commotion. A pair of brown thrashers and a rufous-sided towhee were flitting up and down around a large clump of scrub oak, a clear signal that something had them agitated.  My interest piqued, I went to investigate. 

Coming around a rounded clump of scrub oak I saw the target of their concern — a striped skunk ten to twelve feet away, actively feeding on what I believe was a hatch of flying termites which formed a gauzy cloud above the skunk. (Several years earlier an intense wildfire roared through this area killing even the fire resistant scrub oaks — I surmised the termites were feeding on the decaying wood of the large, somewhat exposed rootstocks.) 

So excited was I by this first live sighting of a skunk on Long Island that I lost my common sense and got closer than I should have, trying to get a better idea of what it was eating. That I crossed the line became immediately clear when the skunk turned its back to me and stomped the ground with its front feet — a telltale sign a skunk is agitated and will likely spray. Obviously not wishing for this odoriferous outcome, I quickly (and comically) turned around and ran thirty or more feet, leaping over and around blueberry and huckleberry bushes and fallen logs to gain a safe distance, desperately hoping to avoid getting sprayed as I dashed away.  My hope became reality as the skunk didn’t spray.  

Several years later, this time in the southeast sector of the Dwarf Pine Plains, I had my second sighting of a skunk. It was early evening and I was with a friend birding a bit before nightfall at which time we were going to listen for whip-poor-wills.  We headed east on a wide sandy trail when a striped skunk suddenly broke out of the dwarf pines  and started to waddle toward us. It came within 25-30 feet of us before nonchalantly breaking back into the thicket.

The most recent (and shortest) sighting of a skunk occurred in October of 2021.  Driving west on Sound Avenue around dusk an animal ambled across the road about a mile west of Briermere Farms (famous for its pies). This sighting led me to think about the first several experiences I had with striped skunks on Long Island — individuals that unlike the experience above, unfortunately all involved roadkills and all in the Pine Barrens — along County Routes 111 in Manorville, 51 in western Southampton, and 94 (Nugent Drive) in Calverton.      

All of the sightings were exciting to me as they indicated that this distinctive mammal was still part of Long Island’s fauna and that it hadn’t disappeared. For several decades before naturalists weren’t sure of its status here as there were few if any reports of skunk sightings. Some feared it had been extirpated from Long Island. 

The striped skunk is a striking and beautiful animal, reminiscent of a negative photo image involving the stark contrast of black and white.  It has a black face with a white line running down the nose between the eyes.  The top of the head is white as if wearing a cap of cotton or snow with the white continuing down the back in two slightly separated racing stripes which sandwich a black back and rump. The bottom of the animal including its legs and feet is black. The rather fluffy tail is a mixture of black and white hairs. All in all, it is a most distinctive mammal!  

Three other skunk species occur in the United States ­— the spotted skunk, hog-nosed skunk, and hooded skunk. These are primarily western species.  Skunks were long grouped  with the “mustelid” mammals,  animals such as otters, badgers and weasels; they have since been broken out of this group and are now in their own mammalian family.  

Paul F. Connor, in his definitive 1971 New York State Museum publication “The Mammals of Long Island, New York,” had much to say about the species. He notes the skunk was once common on Long Island but became much less so in the twentieth century.  He ascribes two reasons for its decline. One is as roadkill victims in the ever increasing network of roads constructed on Long Island over the years (the home range of male skunks involves many hundreds of acres over which they wander in their search for food and mates) ensuring in most places here they will intersect a road.  The second reason for decline was due to poisoning from the widespread use on eastern Long Island of Paris Green, an arsenic based pesticide used to control the Colorado Potato beetle which skunks apparently ate with devastating results.  (Skunks readily eat insects — remember the episode above where I almost got sprayed?). 

During Connor’s survey he found only one skunk — in 1961, a road-killed animal near Sag Harbor, although he did find ample signs of skunk in the form of droppings, tracks, its tell-tale odor, even finding a den — in the pine barrens of Manorville. Connor notes several reports by other observers who saw skunks in the early 1960s in Montauk, Calverton, Napeague (Hither Hills State Park), and Yaphank, even as far west as the North Hills region of northwestern Nassau County.  

Connor mentions Daniel Denton’s earlier account (1670) of striped skunks on Long Island, stating they were once common and, surprisingly, were widely eaten by Indigenous people.  The famous naturalist Roy Latham backs this up by stating, in personal communication, to Connor: “the skunk was one of the more common mammals discovered in his Indian archeological excavations on eastern Long Island, found at most sites.” 

Remarkably, beaver and wolves, species long ago eradicated from Long Island, were also found at these sites. Latham also reported to Connor observing a pair of albino skunks in Montauk, in June of 1928. 

It is clear the striped skunk is hanging on here and, in fact, appears to be slowly rebounding. According to a Dec. 12, 2022, Newsday article written by Joan Gralla, recent skunk sightings have occurred in Smithtown, Commack, and Northport and a colleague, Dave Taft, recently mentioned to me in a phone conversation of a road-kill skunk he saw on the shoulder of the Cross Island Expressway in Queens. Tim Green, a manager in the Environmental Protection Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory, reports that skunks are “fairly common but low numbers” at the property and recently saw a road-killed skunk on Middle Country Road in Calverton.   

The acquisition of so much parkland, and thus wildlife habitat, throughout Long Island — especially the preservation of tens of thousands of contiguous acres of Pine Barrens throughout central Suffolk County — gives reason for optimism that Pepe Le Pew will long remain a distinctive and unique component of Long Island’s fauna.

The Seatuck Environmental Association is interested in better understanding the presence and distribution of striped skunk and other mammals native to Long Island. To this end, Seatuck has launched a 2022 version of Paul Connor’s seminal 1971 report through its Long Island Mammal Survey and you can contribute to it as a “Citizen Scientist.”  This initiative will involve the use of trail cams to detect mammals and experts will utilize live traps to confirm the presence of small mammal species like flying squirrels, shrews, moles, and mice. If you wish to contribute sightings you can do this through the iNaturalist website. 

An informative program entitled “Terrestrial Mammals of Long Island,” given by Mike Bottini as part of Seatuck’s Community Science Webinar series, is available at https://seatuck.org/community-science-webinars/.  Mike is a wildlife biologist at Seatuck who you may know through his important work in tracking the recovery of river otters on Long Island (a future “Nature Matters” column!) 

I hope you see a skunk during one of your hikes or journeys in the wilds of Long Island. If you do, just remember, unlike me, to keep your distance! 

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.

From left, Three Village Community Trust member Norma Watson looks on as Brookhaven Town Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich, New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright and Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn unveil a new sign at Patriots Rock on Nov. 3. Photo by Rita J. Egan/TBR News Media

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Perhaps you remember the parable of the six blind men, standing alongside a road when an elephant passes by. They desire to know what an elephant feels like so they reach out, each man touching a different part of the animal — one strokes a tusk believing it’s a spear, another a stout leg proclaiming he’s touching a tree trunk, yet another the side of the elephant stating he’s touching a wall, while a fourth grabs the tail, thinking he’s grabbed a rope. The fifth touches an ear believing he’s made contact with a fan while the sixth man feels the trunk and announces he’s grabbed a snake. Based on their unique individual impressions, they argue vigorously about what the elephant looks like, each understandably, but firmly, convinced their own impression is correct and the others are wrong. 

Coming across this parable recently got me thinking about how it’s possible to have such differing, even disparate, impressions about the same subject. And it made me think of an individual: so let’s replace the elephant at the center of the discussion with New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright, because just like the elephant being so many simultaneous things, Steve is too. 

If you’re familiar with his long standing involvement for preserving historic structures in the Three Villages, like the Roe Tavern or the Rubber Factory houses, or his interest and expertise regarding local history, you would say he’s a history buff, passionate about preserving historic structures. 

Get him over to the bluffs at McAllister County Park at the mouth of Port Jefferson Harbor and listen to him explain what he’s seeing in the wind-blasted rocks on the beach or the features of the bluff face itself and you’d know him to be a geologist, deeply informed about, and interested in, Long Island’s unique geology. 

Or if you were a student at Stony Brook University, perhaps your connection to Steve was as a professor through one of the courses he teaches, learning about contemporary environmental issues or the history of environmental politics learning about the influential role played by John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold. 

Furthermore, if you’re a saltwater fisherman or general enthusiast of the marine waters surrounding Long Island, then your connection to Steve might be through the legislation he carried to stop the harvest of menhaden (also known as bunker) in New York water’s, thereby fueling a resurgence in the food chain as evidenced by the sharp increase seen in the numbers of humpback whales, tuna, sharks, and birds-of-prey. Breaching whales are now part of our ocean landscape. 

Or perhaps it might be through an earlier connection you have with Steve — when he was Director of the Museum of Long Island’s Natural Sciences. Situated on the Stony Brook University campus, the museum introduced the wonders of the natural world to countless students and visitors. Steve the educator was at work.   

But perhaps it is through his efforts to preserve land that most people know of Steve Englebright’s work. Following in the footsteps of one of the Three Village’s favorite sons — Robert Cushman Murphy — Steve amplified Murphy’s call for the preservation of the Long Island Pine Barrens, the extensive pine forests stretched over tens of thousands of acres of pine forest in Suffolk County; pine trees that knit together a rare ecosystem and which sits over much of the County’s drinking water supply. 

In honor of R.C. Murphy, Steve sponsored a resolution, while a Suffolk County Legislator, to rename Peconic River County Park to Robert Cushman Murphy County Park. As a county legislator he played a key role in shaping the County’s $70 million Open Space Bond Act that resulted in the preservation of about two dozen environmentally significant properties throughout the County. 

If that’s not enough, he also was critical to the success of the  Drinking Water Protection Program, funded by a tiny percentage of the county sales tax, still in force today. This program has made a huge difference in protecting Suffolk County’s open spaces and drinking water supplies. And closer to home Steve was an open space champion in successfully advocating for the preservation of Patriot’s Hollow and Rock.

So just like the elephant is a “tree,” a “fan,” a “wall,” a “spear,” a “snake,” and a “rope,” Steve Englebright is a professor,  geologist,  historian, hydrologist, an educator, a legislator for both Suffolk County and New York State, and a conservationist. But here’s where the parable and reality diverge; while with the parable different experiences led to radically different points of view, different experiences with Steve all point to the same thing … what a remarkable difference maker he has been in safeguarding what is special about the Three Village community and the Long Island environment. 

We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Steve for what he’s accomplished on our behalf. Thank you Steve!! 

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.

An outlet gasket
A Column Promoting a More Earth-friendly Lifestyle

By John L. Turner

If your house is like most, the walls are insulated to keep the heat in. But I bet you’d be surprised to learn there are as many as a dozen or more places in your exterior walls where there is little to no insulation — the electric wall outlets! If you put your hand near one on a winter day you may feel the cold air seeping in (or hot air in the summer).

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to eliminate this drafty situation and to make  your house a little more energy efficient (and saving you a little bit of money  over time) — insulate the outlet by installing a foam rubber gasket under the plate cover. Installation is a snap — just remove the cover with a screwdriver,  place the gasket on the outlet, reinstall the cover and you’re done. It takes about 30 seconds!

The insulating gaskets are available online and at home improvement stores. They cost about 10 cents each.

You can help protect the planet one outlet at a time!

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.