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Nature Matters

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.

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.

Franklin the Bald Eagle at Sweetbriar Nature Center Photo by John Davis

By John L. Turner

“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” 

— Marshall McLuhan, Canadian Philosopher and Media Expert 

John Turner

Walking through the backyard to add some coffee grounds and banana peels to the compost bin, I looked up to see, to my surprise, an adult Bald Eagle circling over a phalanx of maple trees. A splendid white head and tail shone brightly, sandwiching a massive dark body and wings. For each of the first several circles it became partially hidden by the maples halfway through its arc but soon broke out entirely into the sky of blue before slipping north. 

I was uplifted by this chance experience,  not only by the presence of the eagle itself, but for what the eagle represented — resilience. I knew full well that were I to have walked to the compost bin anytime from the 1960’s through the 1990’s I would have little to no chance of spotting an eagle because they were very few in number.    

Hammered by the widespread use of DDT, a persistent pesticide once viewed as a miracle chemical, Bald Eagle populations plummeted from the late 1950’s through the late 1970’s. There was a real fear this bird of prey would be extirpated in the lower 48 states and perhaps disappear entirely — yet another extinct species in the sad legacy of human impact to other inhabitants of the planet. 

Scientists soon determined that DDT interfered with the ability of eagles and other birds to make eggshells. In some cases they laid yolks with no shells at all; in most cases the shells were thinner, often cracking or breaking under the weight of the incubating adult. The species got a reprieve with the federal ban on the use of DDT by the Environmental Protection Agency, a campaign, by the way, that has its roots in Setauket, where the Environmental Defense Fund, which led the charge, was born. 

But half a century after DDT’s banning, we are witness to the result: Bald Eagle populations are surging, as evidenced by its 2007 demotion from the federal Endangered Species list. Today, there are more than a dozen active eagle nests on Long Island as this iconic species re-establishes its historic presence here. Other impacted species, like Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys also high on the food chain, have rebounded too and are more common than they were decades ago. As these species illustrate, bad environmental outcomes can be reversed (i.e. if they are reversible, unlike outcomes such as extinction).  

The reversibility of environmental problems and the resilience of natural systems is highlighted by two well-known examples that helped usher in the modern environmental movement: The blanketing haze of air pollution that choked the residents of Los Angeles during the 1960’s and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire (yes a river catching on fire!) in 1969, fueled by copious amounts of oil dumped into it. Today, the air is much cleaner over Los Angeles as is the water in the Cuyahoga River, although there is, no doubt, still room for improvement in both places. 

With the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the nation began on a path toward markedly better air quality. Factories and incinerators were required to install pollution control equipment as were mobile sources like trucks and cars. Cars were equipped with  catalytic converters which break down pollutants. Today, despite there being more stationary sources like factories and Americans driving considerably more miles and more vehicles on the road, concentrations of the top six pollutants such as particulate matter, volatile organic chemicals, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone, and sulfur dioxide have decreased by more than 75%. 

Another metric highlighting the improvement in air quality is reflected by the reduction in the number of “unhealthy air days” tracked in 35 major American cities. In 2001 there were 2,155 such days collectively in these cities; by 2019 the number had dropped to 466 (it has jumped up slightly in the last two years due to the numerous western wildfires).  

And we can thank the federal Clean Water Act (passed in 1972 we celebrate its 50th anniversary this year), for marked improvements in the quality of the nation’s waters. Although more progress is needed, we have made great strides in meeting the Act’s goal to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters,” or as its goal has been better understood to say: “to make the nation’s waters drinkable, swimmable, and fishable.”

And these briny waters surrounding Long Island that we like to swim in and boat on are clearly cleaner than they were decades ago due to sustained governmental efforts catalyzed by the Clean Water Act. For example, if we jump to the Island’s North Shore and focus on the Long Island Sound we find water quality and overall environmental conditions have significantly improved since the 1980’s when collective intervention by the federal and state governments began to reverse downward trends in water quality. Foremost among these troubling signs were low to non-existent levels of dissolved oxygen (DO) levels (referred to as hypoxia and anoxia, respectively) suffocating bottom-dwelling species such as crabs and lobsters. 

These conditions were caused by too much nitrogen entering the estuary, mostly from sewage treatment plant (STP) discharges. The nitrogen set off algae blooms, events which pull DO out of the water column when the algae decomposes. Today the duration and areal extent of hypoxic conditions in the Long Island Sound are markedly lower than several decades before because of the many operational upgrades made at STP’s that reduce nitrogen levels in wastewater.   

A school of menhaden. Photo by Stephen Borghardt

An example of ecological recovery is being played out in the coastal waters around Long Island, most notably in the Atlantic Ocean along Long Island’s south shore. This story involves an oily fish — the menhaden — that a lot of other fishes, birds, and marine mammals  like to eat. The fish, also known as bunker, has prospered ever since the state several years ago banned their commercial harvest in New York waters. Schools of fish ranging from tens of thousands to millions of fish frequent the nearshore waters of the South Shore (these schools are easily recorded from aerial drones and the videos posted on YouTube). 

This largess has attracted humpback whales that are regularly seen close to shore, with their characteristic feeding behavior of breaking to the surface with an open mouth in the middle of a large school of fish. Aerial videos captured by drones show large fish in the form of various shark and tuna species swimming through these schools. Eagles and ospreys feed on menhaden as they move into bays, harbors, and the mouths of Long Island’s countless rivers and streams. The passage of an important state law has fueled a resurgence of marine life in the briny waters around the island.    

Given the many environmental afflictions we currently face, what are the take away lessons from these examples? Some might conclude the lesson is a permission slip or a continued license to pollute since Nature often has the ability to restore itself, so what’s the harm? I prefer to think that the resiliency of Nature means, more profoundly, that we live in a world of second chances, that environmental problems need not be depressingly intractable and irreversible, but can be successfully ameliorated. In many cases, recent history has proven we can right environmental wrongs.

What are the ingredients necessary to achieve success in turning around an environmental problem? I think a person or individuals persuasively spotlight a problem and others in a position of power or authority to do something about it. 

People like Rachel Carson who revealed the dangers of widespread pesticide exposure to wildlife and EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus in a position to do something about it through the national ban on the use of DDT. Or staff within organizations like The Nature Conservancy explaining the ecological value of menhaden in coastal ecosystems to key individuals like New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright who introduced and secured passage of the legislation to shut down the commercial harvest of menhaden in New York waters.

 And here’s the really good news — the first ingredient of this formula lies even closer — in the latent power possessed by you and me, if we’re unwilling to accept a dying and unclean world, but, instead, demand a planet vibrant and alive, one filled with whales and menhaden, eagles, clean air and water, salamanders in woodland pools, bees in wildflower-filled meadows, and piping plovers sharing our beloved beaches, keeping all the while in the back of our mind a recognition from past experience the damage that has been done to this resilient planet and its inhabitants doesn’t have to be permanent — often it is in our power and ability to reverse it, and in fact, to paraphrase McLuhan: “it is our responsibility, all being part of the crew, to do so.”   

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.

Witch hazel flowers and last year’s seed capsules on the same branch, which is unusual. Photo by John Turner

By John L. Turner

John Turner

As the cooler days and nights of autumn take hold, the abundance of flowers diminishes with goldenrod and aster blossoms soon dominating the scene beginning in late August and blooming well into October. One might reasonably think that by the time Halloween comes around the year’s predictable procession of wildflowers, flowering shrubs, and trees has run its course. 

But while you’re making decisions as to what costume to wear for Halloween, there’s one more wildflower-producing plant to entice pollinating insects before the full cold of winter descends. That wild plant is a shrub, witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), which sometimes blooms after it has dropped its leaves. 

Widespread but uncommon throughout Long Island, witch hazel is a bit more common in the richer soils occurring in the northern half of Long Island where it grows as a multi-stemmed tall shrub or low stature tree. Witch hazel is scattered throughout the understory of the forest with groupings of plants; I know of no site where the species is abundant, although there are quite a few specimens growing on top of the wooded slope adjacent to Wading River marsh in the large Shoreham property that may soon become Long Island’s next large public space. 

It’s also fairly common in the morainal region of the South Fork. The famous naturalist from Orient, Roy Latham, reported in 1926 a witch hazel from Montauk with a six inch diameter. A very large, multi-stemmed specimen, accompanied by an informational sign, is in full view just north of the dirt parking lot at Prosser Pines County Park situated in Middle Island (on the east side of County Route 21). 

American Hazelnut leaves

Why the very late blooming season for witch hazel? We’re not sure but it may follow the strategy used by skunk cabbage in the Spring, that is, blooming at a time when plant competition for insect pollinators is reduced, thereby increasing the likelihood of reproductive success. The flowers are visited by wasps, gnats, and several types of flies. As insurance against a lack of pollinators due to early cold, the flowers can self-pollinate. 

Speaking of flowers, those of witch hazel are distinct and not likely to be confused with any other species. Growing on small branches below the leaves, the flowers are straw-yellow in color and have four narrow but long, ribbonlike petals that give the flowers the appearance of windblown confetti. There are several horticultural cultivars available, some of which have been developed adorned with bright orange petals. 

If you look closely you’ll see the flowers in close proximity to the woody capsules containing the seeds — last year’s flowers that were successfully pollinated having formed seeds. In the fall the seeds are forcefully ejected from the capsule and, remarkably, can travel 25 feet or more, leading to another colloquial name: snapping alder. It is uncommon for flowers and the product of last year’s flowers — seeds — to be on a plant at the same time. This trait of witch hazel gives rise to the plant’s generic name Hamamelis, a Greek word meaning “fruit at the same time.”  

The leaves are as distinctive as the flowers. The medium-sized leaves have scalloped, roundly toothed edges and prominent parallel veins that extend to the edge. Most notably, and for reasons unknown, the leaves are asymmetrical in that the base of the leaves attach at slightly different points along the main stem, or as one famous botanist noted, the leaves are: “inequilateral at the broadly rounded or subordinate base”.  

Witch hazel liniment, used for skin inflammation or irritation, is derived from the plant’s bark and twigs. Through the years the liniment, still available over-the-counter at local drug stores, has been touted as a cure for a bunch of health ailments including sore throats, rheumatism, insect bites, bruises, scrapes, burns, even “frozen limbs, lame back, and bleeding lungs.” 

Witch hazel has another magical property: use in divining rods to pinpoint water through the process of “water witching.” Indeed, the “witch” in witch hazel has nothing to do with human witches but is a derivation of the Anglo-Saxon word “wych” or “wicen” meaning “to bend,” a reference to the use of pliable witch hazel branches as divining rods.    

American Hazelnut flowers

American hazelnut (Corylus americana), a member of the Birch family, is not known to be used as a soothing liniment like witch hazel, but does share a history with the species as its branches are a tool in “water witching.” And like its commercially important European cousin, European hazelnut or filbert (which are twice as large), its nuts have value as a wildlife food. They are eaten by turkeys, quail, blue jays, pheasants, chipmunks, squirrels, white-footed mice and several other bird and mammal species. 

As suggested by the number of animals that eat them, the nuts are a superfood of sorts: they contain 25% protein and 60% fat, a high calorie food item wildlife love. The nuts don’t look like nuts when on the shrub since they are enveloped in a covering that looks like torn clothing. Deer, rabbits and not on Long Island — beavers browse upon the branches and twigs. 

The species is smaller than witch hazel, being a medium-sized shrub, often forming thickets, a habit which makes it valuable to nesting songbirds. Like witch hazel it is uncommon on Long Island but widespread. I have seen it in a number of locations including a population growing on the east side of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail in northern Islip Town.   

The leaves are pretty, being pointy and heart-shaped and are much larger than witch hazel’s. But unlike witch hazel’s flowers which, as previously mentioned are insect pollinated, the small, almost inconspicuous reddish female flowers of hazelnut are pollinated by the wind. They bloom in April. The male flowers, in the form of long, cigar-like catkins are more prominent. These are consumed by several species of game birds like ruffed grouse (feared to have been extirpated from Long Island).

I hope you make the acquaintance of both species, starting with Witch Hazel, perhaps on a trip to Prossers Pines County Park to walk off the extra Halloween candy you indulged in. Just watch out for those exploding witch hazel seeds!

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.

Stony Brook Harbor. Photo by Elyse Buchman

By John L. Turner

It was on a rising tide in mid-afternoon, on an 82-degree late summer day, that I slipped into the opening of the kayak, placed my feet on the rudder controls and pushed off the gently sloping bank in the southern reaches of Stony Brook Harbor, not too far from the famous Hercules Pavilion positioned along the harbor’s edge. 

Stony Brook Harbor. Photo by John Turner

Even in shallow, foot-deep water I was easily able to ply the kayak along the shoreline. The first view that drew my attention were nine bright white, long-necked wading birds. Egrets they were, both the larger American Egret and the more diminutive Snowy Egret feeding in the shallow water of the creek that spills from the Stony Brook Grist Mill. Their likely targets were small, two-inch long baitfish, schools of which I would repeatedly see in the hours ahead as I explored the harbor. 

Within a couple of minutes I had plied across a deeper channel running alongside Youngs Island and moments later alongside one of the many marsh islands found within the harbor.   

For the next four hours I explored the many gifts Stony Brook Harbor had to offer — red beard sponges, several species of floating seaweeds, fiddler crabs scuttling across sand flats, baby horseshoe crab molts, the aforementioned baitfish and their pursuers — baby bluefish known as snappers, snapping the placid tension of the water surface — countless shells, and, of course, the birds: Double-crested Cormorants (many, comically, with their wings outstretched, drying in the sun); more long-necked and long-legged wading birds; a small plover pulling on a long red worm; the plaintive, three part call of Greater Yellowlegs; the ubiquitous gulls; and an adult Bald Eagle, dominating the sky over the southern edge of the harbor. 

Like tiny sailboats, many bird feathers floated over the placid surface of the water during the visit, a tell-tale sign that late summer is a time for many birds to molt by replacing older worn out feathers with new ones.  

That small plover was not a Piping Plover but its darker colored cousin — the Semipalmated Plover, so named because its feet are partially webbed. A handsome bird the color of chocolate on the top of its head and back, a bright white belly, breast, and throat offset by a black chest band and line through the eye, and an orange bill and yellow-orange legs, the Semipalmated Plover breeds in the far north; this bird probably flew south from Labrador, Nova Scotia, or Northern Quebec, but perhaps even further north in its breeding range above the Arctic Circle, to make its way to Stony Brook Harbor on its much longer journey to the Caribbean or South America.

The same is true for the Greater Yellowlegs, a slightly larger shorebird with a salt-and-pepper plumage with, you guessed it! — bright yellow legs. The plover was feeding in a sand/mud flat and the three yellowlegs in very shallow water adjacent to the flat. Suddenly, the yellowlegs exploded into the air, winging away rapidly, apparently due to some danger they could (but I could not) perceive. Their emphatic calls rung out over the water, harkening to more desolate and windy places. 

This little shorebird vignette in the harbor illustrates and underscores the value it and countless other coastal embayments on the East Coast play as critical way stations for migrating shorebirds that stitch together the Northern and Southern  hemispheres. These are like the highway rest stops we use while traveling, providing opportunities for these long distance migrants to feed and rest.   

Ribbed mussels along the harbor. Photo by John Turner

As I turned south into the more open waters at the southern end of the harbor I slid by a long muddy embankment, the leading edge of a salt marsh, when two objects caught my eye — many clumps of Ribbed Mussels and dozens of Cordgrass or Spartina plants in full bloom.   

Ribbed mussels are less well-known and appreciated than the edible Blue Mussel since, unlike the latter species, they are not harvested for food. Nevertheless, they are very important to the healthy functioning of tidal wetlands. So named because of the numerous parallel ribbed lines that run the length of its shell, this species grows in bunches in the mud, often tangled in the roots of Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), with which they have a “mutualistic” or mutually beneficial relationship.  The mussels benefit from anchoring their shells, through the use of byssal threads, to the roots of Spartina and also benefit from the density of the plant shoots that makes it harder for predators, like crabs, to gain access.

The plant benefits by the waste products excreted from the mussel as it is high in nitrogen which acts as a plant fertilizer. The material also helps to build the marsh — filtering tiny organic particles out of the water column and depositing it on the marsh. Because of these important services the Ribbed mussel is referred to as an “ecosystem engineer.”   

Cordgrass in bloom along Stony Brook Harbor. Photo by John Turner

Cordgrass is the most recognizable plant of the marsh. It dominates the view of much of the harbor and along the lower elevations of the tidal marsh, with its sister species Salt Hay (Spartina patens), occurring in the higher portions. These are two of only a small number of plants that can tolerate the presence of salt and its desiccating qualities; they do this by extruding the salt from pores in the surface of the frond; take a close-up view and you can often see the salt crystals sparkling along the stems of the plant. 

Cordgrass is wind pollinated and not surprisingly, therefore, their interesting one-sided flowers aren’t showy nor do they exude nectar in an effort to lure pollinating insects. The winds care not for such things. Still, they are beautiful and arresting as the hundreds of flowers on each stalk move in the slightest breeze.  

Unfortunately, a storm cloud has appeared over the harbor that would likely compromise its beauty and ecological quality. This “cloud” is in the form of two large docks proposed on properties located in the harbor’s shallow southern end in the Village of Nissequogue. 

Despite the fact there are two commercial marinas in the northern reaches of the harbor at which a boat can be stored or the fact each property owner currently has access to launch kayaks or canoes from the shore, these residents are seeking approval to install monstrously long docks that would jut well out into the water. One is more than two hundred feet long.  

The proposed site for one of the docks. Photo by John Turner

Installing the dock pilings would be disruptive to the harbor bottom, cause turbidity and sedimentation problems, affecting wetland dependent wildlife such as diamondback terrapins (I saw a dozen terrapins floating and swimming in the southern portion of the bay on the kayak visit and fifteen from a vantage point onshore at Cordwood Park about a month earlier). 

Turbidity problems and disruption to the harbor bottom by “prop scouring” will occur each and every time boats are run out on low tide. Further, the docks will make it more difficult for you and I to walk along the shoreline as is our legal right “to pass and repass” along the shoreline as guaranteed by the Public Trust Doctrine and did I mention the ugliness and visual blight caused by the docks at a site landscape painters find inspiration? 

Perhaps of greater concern is the precedence that approval of these two docks could establish. If these are approved, what’s to stop the harbor’s “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” as several dozen other property owners ringing the harbor, through time, request the same? 

And is it reasonable to assume that, as the years roll by, these owners clamor for the very shallow southern reaches of the harbor to be dredged to ease navigation and better accommodate their boats?  Yes, it is. 

For the sake of this most special and unique place the request for these mega docks must be denied. The public interest in, and use of, Stony Brook Harbor and recognition of the significant ecological value of the harbor dictate against approval and must prevail. Will public officials heed the call?   

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


‘Beween Stony Brook Harbor Tides’

If you wish to learn more about the human and natural history of Stony Brook Harbor, I encourage you to read “Between Stony Brook Harbor Tides — The Natural History of a Long Island Pocket Bay” authored by Larry Swanson and Malcolm Bowman, two professors who taught at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. The book provides an overview of the natural conditions that shape the harbor, the human imprint on the harbor, and the many species of wildlife that call it home. It is a most worthwhile read.  

— John Turner


By John L. Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

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

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

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

‘Don’t Bag It’

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

Recycle aluminum

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

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

Protect birds 

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

Be kind to other living things 

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

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

Connect to nature by connecting to a local park 

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

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

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

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

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

A whippoorwill. Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By John L. Turner

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

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

Rare ferns seen at Fort Totten. Photo by John Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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