Tags Posts tagged with "Nature Matters"

Nature Matters

Forest leaves in the canopy. Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

John Turner

I had walked for 20 minutes before reaching the intended destination: Hunter’s Garden in Eastport, located in the eastern end of the Manorville Hills, an 8,000-acre section of the LI Pine Barrens. 

An opening in the forest, Hunter’s Garden is the spot of a longstanding tradition — where bay- and sportsmen, farmers, and others that live off the land, many bearded and sporting all patterns of flannel shirts, come together to share steaming bowls of chowder and camaraderie. The soup and socialization takes place each May in a secluded pocket in the Hills, reached via a sandy road coming off  County Route 51. An etched marker stone commemorates the event.   

I sat on the ground, leaned against the slanted marker stone, took a deep breath and began to listen. Birdsong soon surrounded me. A few seconds passed and I detected a robin singing in the distance followed by another song that sounded like a robin’s but richer — a Rose-breasted Grosbeak! Lucky for me the grosbeak came closer and I could see it moving around in a lower stretch of the tree canopy. 

Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Pixabay photo

I slowly raised my binoculars to enjoy one of the more beautiful songbirds found in eastern North America — a black and white plumage pattern with a bright red triangle in the middle of its breast which gave rise to its macabre common name of “Cut-throat”. (A bit of an apocryphal story told by Roger Tory Peterson, who more than anyone else popularized birding, is that he once was contacted by a woman in Texas wondering what she could do to help a bird in her yard that had been shot in the chest and was bleeding profusely; not to worry he reported, explaining it was just the bird’s natural plumage).  

As the minutes rolled by I heard and saw more birds — a Red-eyed Vireo sang incessantly from somewhere in the overhead canopy and much lower to my right came the “veer-veer-veer” of a Veery, a type of thrush. And then, as if almost on cue, its cousin the Wood Thrush began its ethereal song from deeper in the woodland. Scientists have learned that this species, as with many other birds, is actually capable of singing two songs simultaneously due to the complexity of its syrinx or voice box. Soon, the Veery came into view and I could see its distinctive plumage generally indicative of the thrushes — a spotted throat, white belly, and buckskin brown back.  These two thrush species are fairly common breeding birds in the Pine Barrens along with the less common Hermit Thrush. 

Other sights unfolded. A large glade of wood ferns with highly lacy fronds spilled away from me on the other side of the trail creating an interesting visual effect. It was if the ferns were always fuzzy and out of focus due to the highly dissected form of the fronds. No matter how I looked at them, even with squinted eyes, they appeared out-of-focus although, in reality, they weren’t. Being in the shade the tree canopy overhead formed another series of interesting textures and patterns and I appreciated the distinctive architecture of each tree species. The same held true for individual leaves. 

Tiger Swallowtail

Sitting still I began to more acutely pick up movement and soon came the butterflies. In quick succession I saw a mourning cloak fluttering through the understory and then a darker, more rapidly moving butterfly which I realized was a red-spotted purple. And then a tiger! as in Tiger Swallowtail, the largest butterfly found on Long Island, erratically dashing over shrubs in the understory.  

While sight and hearing were the two senses at first most triggered by the immersion in this extensive forest, smell and touch soon came into play. I began to feel the coolness of the earth I was sitting on and the texture of the slightly uneven ground. Scuffing a little of the leaves out of the way caused a pleasant earthy aroma to waft upward, an aroma very much like one experiences while planting vegetables in the spring garden. 

It also changed my focus from looking at trees and birds both distant and afar to immediate close-ups of soil creatures including a pill bug (which you may know by its more colorful name: a roly-poly). I was instantly transported back to my youth when I and friends routinely found roly-polys while turning over logs to investigate what creatures might be living beneath.  

I was practicing a version of what the Japanese refer to as Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” an activity in which one immerses oneself in a forest and uses the full suite of senses — sight, sound, touch, smell and even taste — to take in the sights, sounds, odors, and textures of the forest, thereby achieving “sensory engagement.” 

Shinrin-yoku doesn’t have to  take place only in a forest although the practice is quite conducive there; it can be in a meadow or along the shoreline or other natural or mostly natural landscapes. And research, most conducted in Japan where the practice began in the early 1980’s and is widely practiced today, shows demonstrable mental and physical health benefits from regular episodes of forest bathing. 

Forest leaves in the canopy. Pixabay photo

These peer-reviewed, scientific papers indicate that practitioners are calmer and more relaxed, have lower stress hormones, and are generally happier from regularly “bathing” in the forest. According to the research “forest bathers” also sleep better and have an enhanced ability to focus.  The benefits also accrue to those who experience nature indoors — a study of hospital patients with a wall in their room displaying a forest scene, or who could visually see the outdoors through a window, spend less time in the hospital than patients with no visual connection to nature. 

To practice forest bathing you don’t have to sit still as I did. You also can gain benefits from a leisurely to mid-paced stroll through a forest. The key is to open your “sensory self” to the living landscape happening all around you.   

After an hour or so I arose from my stationary ground-level seat, stretched some lightly aching muscles and slowly walked the mile back to the car, feeling physically and mentally  relaxed yet with my senses quite alert to the surrounding forest landscape.  I wondered: Is this state what a wild animal like a deer, fox, or box turtle always experiences?  

I hope you take a bath soon.

A resident of Setauket, author John L. 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 Greater Yellowleg searches for food during low tide. Pixabay photo by Steph McBlack

By John L. Turner

I first heard their piercing, three-parted “tew-tew-tew” calls while sitting on the slatted bench in the northwest corner of the Three Village Garden Club property on a day in early May. I’m looking out over the mudflats revealed during low tide at the southern end of Conscience Bay and on the far bank are eighteen Greater Yellowlegs, a highly migratory species of shore bird feeding on the west bank of the bay. 

Living up to their name, the birds have spindly, bright yellow legs that stand out amidst the brown background of the intertidal mud. Their piercing calls have led to a few colorful colloquial names: the telltale and the tattler. 

The flock could have begun their northbound journey as far south as southern Argentina in February or March and during the intervening weeks  moved north, soon passing the equator, all the while hopscotching from one fresh or saltwater wetland to another, like the ones at the southern sliver of Conscience Bay. By the next day they had departed to make their way another thousand miles to the north to nesting grounds — a wide swath across the middle of Canada. 

The bay was a waystation for these hemispheric globetrotters and I felt blessed to watch them live a tiny sliver of their wild lives and it reinforced an important concept in conservation — the need to preserve wild habitat, not just for resident wildlife like squirrels and box turtles, but also for species that depend upon these critical sites during some part of their annual cycle. As the Yellowlegs illustrate, Long Island’s wild habitats are a type of “migratory motel”  for many birds and other mobile species.    

Behind me I hear the season’s first Baltimore Oriole, its sweet but piercing whistle emanating from the top of a tall oak and toward the end of his song a newly  arrived Grey Catbird joins in, emitting a low-key series of sweet and jangled notes, as if practicing vocals for the first time.  And then, behind me to the left, the bubble-up song of a Parula Warbler. The presence of these birds and scores of other species announce that spring has arrived in the northern hemisphere.  

Each species’ wintering range, from which they depart as they begin their spring migration, is unique although many species have similar ranges. For example, both the oriole and catbird have a wintering range that includes the peninsular section of Florida, the Caribbean, and eastern Mexico and Central America, just dropping into South America, although the oriole goes a bit deeper into this southern continent.  

You might think that spring and fall migration are mirror images of each other – birds head north in the spring and south in the fall, with each migration season taking about the same amount of time.  And while the “north in the spring and south in the fall” aspect of these seasonal migrations is true, they are more like images in a distorted mirror. Many species take different routes in the spring than they do in the fall and in some cases involve a strong east-west component. 

Also, spring migration is a more compressed affair beginning in earnest in late February and ending by early June, a period of about 3 ½ months. In contrast, fall migration can last as much as 5 to 6 months. In the spring male birds have an imperative — to gain high quality territories from which to advertise their availability to prospective females. In the fall this mating urge has dissipated and it’s the increasing scarcity of food that propels the birds south. 

 It is hard to overstate the physiological demands that migration places on birds, particularly those species that traverse great distances without stopping to feed.  Many songbirds familiar to us like warblers, vireos, grosbeaks, and thrushes head north through Central America and then, instead of continuing through Mexico, diverge east to the Yucatan peninsula.

The Yucatan is the launching point for the birds that populate eastern North America and they face the daunting task of flying across the 550 or so miles of the Gulf of Mexico as “trans-Gulf” migrants.  If they benefit from good weather containing a tail wind, these birds may make it to the coast of Texas or Louisiana in 16 to 20 hours. During this trip their heart will have beat more than half a million times and the bird will have flapped its wings nearly 200,000 times. For birds that fly greater distances like Red Knots which launch from northeastern Brazil and make landfall on the beaches of Long Island’s south shore in one flight, the heart beats and wing flaps are counted in the millions.       

Physical stress is not the only hazard migrating birds face. Avian predators, like bird-eating hawks, are omnipresent and the lack of such predators at night is one reason why so many songbirds are nocturnal migrants. Another reason is the atmosphere is generally calmer allowing for efficient flight and birds can use the circumpolar star constellations to navigate.  

But birds now migrate in an increasingly human-dominated world and the lit glare of urban centers can disorient and/or attract them. They’re drawn to this glow and come morning they can face a hostile environment of countless buildings clad with glass exteriors, which reflect surrounding landscapes. 

Birds, of course, often cannot distinguish between a row of trees reflected in a large window from the real thing — with fatal consequences. Birds dying from flying into windows is the second leading cause of avian mortality, with as many as one billion birds dying annually in North America alone. Shutting off your outdoor lights and applying window stickers can help you become part of the bird conservation solution. 

Remarkably, for a few millennia scientists didn’t believe or understand that birds migrated at all. They were thought either to hibernate out of sight only to reemerge in warmer weather, transform from a migratory species into a resident species, or perhaps most astoundingly, a belief birds went to the moon, returning when the spring came around. 

This last concept, which seems so strange to us now, made sense hundreds of years ago — after all scientists at the time had no understanding of the vacuum in space that is fatal to life and they regularly noticed and documented birds flying in front of the  moon when full or near so. Many of these stories and more — such as the first efforts of banding birds and later the use of radio transmitters to track the migratory movements of birds — is documented un Rebecca Heisman’s wonderful new book, Flight Paths — How a Passionate and Quirky Group of Pioneering Scientists Solved the Mystery of Bird Migration.

A relatively new and very useful Internet tool for gaining a sense of bird migration is Birdcast. The website provides remarkably specific information on real-time migration both on a continent wide and local scale.  For example, the data shows that on the morning of April 26, 2024 at 12:50 a.m. an estimated 336.2 million birds were winging it north through the United States on spring migration. And for the Setauket area on the night of Memorial Day an estimated 3,000-6,000 birds passed overhead. 

What Birdcast cannot do is tell you specifically where you’ll see Greater Yellowlegs, Baltimore Orioles, Parula Warblers, or Catbirds. For that you’ll have to head out and explore Long Island’s parks and preserves.  

A resident of Setauket, author John L. 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 river otter caught on a trail camera in Bellport. Image courtesy of Luke Ormand

By John L. Turner

John Turner

I slung on the backpack, shut the car door and walked off quickly, fueled by excitement and expectation. After  a brisk walk on a shady forest path, bordered by a few small fields hinting at the property’s past farm use, I reached my destination — a wooden observation platform providing sweeping views of a freshwater pond situated within the North Fork’s Arshamomaque Preserve. I immediately began a binocular scan of the water and the far shore for any sign of movement revealing their presence. Nothing. Scanned for a few more minutes and nothing. I soon fall into a pattern of picking up the binoculars and looking first along the water surface and then the vegetated far shore. This goes on for an hour. Still no action. 

I learned a long time ago that nature is not a zoo and the comings and goings of animals are never done to please us humans, but always in response to their needs. So I will see them, if I see them at all, on their schedule. I continue to patiently sit, soaking in the beauty of the warm sunshine, bolstered by a large cup of strong coffee and a cinnamon-raisin bagel. 

 I was also enjoying the many marsh mallow shrubs blooming in profusion amidst the abundance of cattails ringing the pond. The flowers of this species border on the spectacular — three to five inches across, deep but bright pink petals with a red throat or base, and a prominent tower containing both the stamens and the stigmata. This species is related to the plant whose roots were once the source of that delicious confectioneries used to make s’mores — marshmallows.  

Suddenly, there was rippled movement along the far shore. It took me a moment to process what I was looking at but it was a family of  four river otters (Lontra canadensis) — two adults and two pups — weaving in and out of the wetland plants.  I enjoyed them for about 15 seconds until they all broke back into cover of the cattails at the eastern edge of the pond. A minute or two later they reappeared this time swimming along the wooded shoreline before doubling back to the cattails. 

What I was witnessing is a small part of a welcome recovery of the species taking place over several decades now, as an increasing number of otters are colonizing suitable wetland habitat on Long Island, after decades of their dearth. According to Paul Connor’s definitive Mammals of Long Island published by the New York State Museum in 1971, otters were thought to be extirpated from Long Island in the latter part of the 19th century. He states that Daniel Denton in his 1670 description of Long Island mammals noted the presence of otters, but goes on to mention that more than 170 years later J.E. DeKay declared the species extirpated from Long Island. 

Through the 20th century otters were occasionally seen or reported but there was no sense of a sustained recovery of the species on Long Island. Connor reports no sightings in all the field work (conducted over several field seasons in the late 1960’s) that formed the basis for his monograph. This began to change in the first few years of the 21st century when sightings of otters became more commonplace. One of the first sightings  was near the well-known Shu Swamp sanctuary in Mill Neck, Nassau County. 

Mike Bottini, a well-known Long Island naturalist and founder of the Long Island River Otter Project, has studied this recovery as well as other aspects of otter ecology and biology and published an informative published paper investigating the status of river otter in 2008. He states: “This survey estimates that there are at least eight river otters inhabiting Long Island: four on the north shore of Nassau County, one in the Nissequogue River watershed, one in the west end of the Peconic Estuary, one on the south shore, and one in the Southold-Shelter Island-East Hampton area.” Remarkably, a mere decade later otter signs were found in 26 watersheds; the recovery was well underway.

Three years later, in 2021, Mike noted: “otter home ranges included all the watersheds on the north shore from Oyster Bay east to Orient, the Peconic River watershed and a significant portion of the Peconic Estuary, and two watersheds on the south shore.”  Painting a rosy picture, Mike concludes: “Much excellent otter habitat on Long Island remains unoccupied, especially on the south shore. 

In addition to the obvious confirmation formed by actual sightings or finding their tracks in mud or snow, the use of latrines or “otter bathrooms” by this highly aquatic mammal is one of the ways researchers use to gain a better sense of their distribution on Long Island. For reasons that are not entirely clear, otters often defecate (known as scat) in upland areas adjacent to the waterways, these latrine sites thought to be used to communicate information. 

I have found their latrines in a few places, the closest being at Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket on both sides of the northern pond. Their scat often contains the remains of scales and bones of the fish they prey on, and such was the case by a recent inspection of the latrines at the park — scales and delicate fish bones were prevalent in the sushi meals the otter was consuming. While otters favor fish, they are opportunistic and will eat frogs, turtles, crayfish (yes, we do have crayfish species on Long Island), and freshwater clams and mussels. 

Otters are carnivores and are members of the weasel family whose other Long Island members include, according to Connor, Mink, Long-tailed weasel, and perhaps Short-tailed weasel. Further afield in the North American continent we have badgers, the federally endangered Black-footed ferret, and the famous and remarkable wolverine. Thirteen otter species occur around the globe. 

As evidenced by my North Fork experience and several other accounts, otters are reproducing on Long Island with their pups presumably helping to fuel the resurgence.  As their young (typically between 2-5 pups are born) are quite helpless at birth, being hairless and blind, they grow and develop in dens which provide some degree of protection from the elements. The dens are in close proximity to the water and may, in some cases, be connected to it. As of this writing I don’t know of anyone who has conclusively discovered an otter den here. 

The use of remote cameras installed in the field at sites likely to be utilized by otters have proven instrumental in learning some new streams and creeks otters are frequenting. Luke Ormand, a staff member in the Town of Brookhaven’s Division of Land Management, has placed several cameras in numerous locations in Brookhaven Town that have been successful in recording otters. With these cameras, otters have been confirmed in the Carmans River watershed and the Motts Creek drainage system in Bellport.

A significant damper on the continued recolonization and expansion of river otters on Long Island are motor vehicles, as otters are sometimes struck and killed. An otter was recently struck on Jericho Turnpike near the famous bull statue in Smithtown and the total number of road killed otters recorded for Long Island stands at 29 animals. 

Bottini notes that the peak time is between March and May both when males are searching for females in estrus (ready to mate) and yearling individuals are striking out on their own. The likelihood of being hit by a vehicle is especially high in places where otters are forced to cross a road that spans a stream containing too narrow a culvert or a dam where the dam is under the bridge; the dam face prevents downstream or upstream access, forcing the otter to climb up the banks and lope across the dangerous roadway.  Solutions involve  the placement of stacked cinder blocks to form a ramp or aluminum ramps which otters can negotiate.  

I had the pleasure of working with the aforementioned Mike and Luke one day a few years ago in constructing a cinder block ramp along a dam face on the Little Seatuck Creek in East Moriches. Camera footage soon showed otter use of the ramp although the two otters in the area illustrated different personalities; one otter immediately took to using it while the other was quite hesitant.  

Mike notes that otters are “ambassadors of wetlands” and given their broad appeal and popularity this is true. Who doesn’t remember wildlife films on Disney and other shows depicting otters tobogganing in the snow, frolicking about in what appears to be joyous play? Perhaps this iconic and charismatic species can help to generate public support on Long Island in better protecting our waterways — important habitats — which sustain so many species. 

 Let me end by stating the obvious: you “otter” take time out of your busy schedule to look for these furry, very attractive ambassadors. But please drive slowly to your intended destination, all the while keeping an eye out for a sleek, rich brown animal loping across the road.  

A resident of Setauket, author John L. 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

John Turner

Oh those lighter-than-air balloons! As the helium gas inside seeps away, causing them to lose their buoyancy, they come back to earth and their deflated outlines appear everywhere —  in natural places such as fields, forests, and the island’s wave-lapped shorelines — and human constructed landscapes like dangling from utility lines, even the support wires of traffic lights. Sometimes they’re single balloons tethered with nylon string, other times they’re in bunches — a half dozen or more tied together. Some find their way to the ground while more entangle themselves amidst tree branches.  

While most have generic messages, like the “Happy Birthday Princess” balloon I recently found in a hike in the Pine Barrens with 30 6th grade students, if they have a message at all, in a few cases I’ve been able to tell the original purpose of the balloon purchase: a Happy 40th Birthday to Beth! exclaimed one mylar balloon, dangling from a young understory oak tree while another mylar balloon announced “Todd’s 3rd Birthday” with a triangular cake wedge adorned with three candles. As these examples illustrate, buoyant balloons have become a common, unwelcome, and  unfortunate, presence in the environment.  

Photo by John Turner

The ubiquitous presence of balloons in the environment has real consequences beyond forming unsightly litter, and these effects are felt most acutely by marine animals — sea turtles, cetaceans (whales and dolphins), and a wide variety of seabirds. Websites, both governmental ones such as the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and conservation organizations like Ocean Conservancy, contain countless photos of dead sea turtles and stranded whales and dolphins, all having perished from ingesting  balloons, mistaking them for food. 

This deceit is especially telling for leatherback sea turtles for which jellyfish comprise a significant part of their diet. Compare photos of a deflated balloon floating on the ocean’s surface with a jellyfish and it’s easy to see why a sea turtle might easily mistake a balloon for an easy-to-capture meal. Well, mistake them they all too often do, with fatal results, when the balloon lodges in their digestive tract. The same results often occur with larger mammals. 

With marine birds entanglement, not ingestion, is the main cause of death. Tassels of long  string which ties balloons together are often made of nylon or other material which is  slow to degrade, easily wrapping around a seabird’s wings, neck, feet, or bill as it floats on the water.      

Photo by John Turner

There are two basic types of lighter-than-air balloons — latex and mylar. Both pose risks to wildlife: in the case of latex, a threat for many years, and for mylar many decades. Not surprisingly, balloon manufacturers have long claimed that balloon releases pose no risk to wildlife and the environment, and that latex balloons, especially, are biodegradable. This is a fact not borne out both by objective experiments and numerous observations. In fact, the biodegradable claims are largely an example of greenwashing (when a company presents a more environmentally favorable view of its activities than is warranted).  

A 1989 balloon industry study contended that most balloons pose no risk since they rise in the atmosphere to the point they burst due to low air pressure, creating “harmless” pieces of rubber, and those that don’t burst are so few as to be dispersed in a density of about one balloon per every 15 square miles (about a four mile square). From my anecdotal experience hiking and traveling around Long Island, the density of balloon landings is significantly greater than that, more like several balloons per square mile, an observational density borne out by coastal clean-ups.  

For example, according to a press account in a local paper, “the Eastern Long  Island Chapter of the Surfrider Organization collected 774 balloons on 38 beaches from June 2017 to December 2018.” Further, a New York Sea Grant newsletter indicated that in 2016 coastal clean-ups in the mid-Atlantic states produced 8,400 balloons and balloon fragments. 

Photo by John Turner

According to NOAA’s website: “In 2014, 236 volunteers found over 900 balloons in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia in a three-hour period. Recent surveys of remote islands on Virginia’s Eastern Shore documented up to 40 balloons per mile of beach.” Closer to home, a 2018 clean-up involving 33 volunteers at Jones Beach alone picked up 308 balloons or pieces of balloons. 

A colleague, Pete Osswald, to whom I was recently chatting with about the problem balloons pose to wildlife, sent me a comment which is especially illustrative of the problem: “I have been navigating the waters around Long Island both inshore and offshore for over 50 years as a fisherman and Seatown boat captain. I have seen many things both wondrous and appalling. One of the intolerable sights that bothers me the most is the abundance of balloons I see floating in the water on a daily basis. I had hopes for the problem being remedied a few decades back when there was an apparent push for educating the public about the dangers to marine life from releasing balloons. Unfortunately the defiling has become worse There are slick calm days out on the ocean where I see scores of downed launched balloons floating like foreboding headstones of the unwitting turtles and marine mammals that consume them.” 

All these observations and findings suggest a density a bit greater than one balloon every four square miles, don’t you think?  

Lawmakers have responded to the issue. Many municipalities throughout the country have enacted bans on the intentional release of balloons as have several Long Island municipalities. To its credit, the Suffolk County Legislature in September 2019 passed a law sponsored by then Legislator Sarah Anker banning the release of lighter-than-air balloons and requiring businesses which sell these items to post a statement indicating that intentional release of balloons is prohibited in the County; the County Executive soon signed it into law and it became a revised Chapter 310 of the Suffolk County Code.   

Several states have enacted release bans with Florida poised to become the next. Legislation has been introduced in New York State over the past several sessions but, to date, there’s been no action on the bills. 

Another problem with lighter-than-air balloons, especially mylar balloons which have a metallic coating, is contact with high voltage power lines. Contact can cause an explosion often shorting out electrical power. If you type in “Balloons Exploding on Powerlines” in the search box of the YouTube website you can see videos of such events. 

Some organizations think “release bans” don’t go far enough as it is impossible to monitor such behavior; rather supporting a prohibition on the sale of lighter-than-air balloons, understandably believing a ban on purchase is a much more effective strategy than banning their release.  

Many environmentally benign alternatives exist to replace balloons during special events. The “Balloon Blows” website lists the following options: streamers, kites, pinwheels, garden spinners, flags, ribbon dancers, bubble blowers, and inflatable, weighed-down characters.  

There is an old Greek adage, paraphrased here: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” While there are no shortage of malevolent acts intended to kill wildlife — the sickening, still legal use of leghold traps for trapping foxes, muskrats, skunks, and weasels on Long Island, comes to mind — the “stupidity” involved, to soften it a bit, is more often the purview of ignorance or thoughtlessness. 

The logical inference of this is if people knew the consequence of their thoughtless acts would be to cause animal suffering and death, they would not have acted this way in the first place.  This perspective gives great credence to the phrase as it relates to lighter-than-air balloons —“Say no to letting it go.” Better yet, in recognition of the countless wildlife species that make up the living fabric of our oceans, let’s commit on this Earth Day, to not buying lighter-than-air balloons. 

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

By John L. Turner

John Turner

It’s late morning on a deeply overcast day in early February and a uniform sky of pewter grey threatens rain but, so far, it’s held out. So, wanting to get away from yet another day of news as gloomy as the weather, I decide to do something that always works to pull me out of melancholy — a hike in nature’s realm — knowing that at some point I’ll connect with something seeing or feeling, something that ushers in elation.

Given the season, I won’t gain this expected happiness from seeing colorful things — nature’s color palette this time of year is too subdued, basically a mosaic of brown, black, and grey. Instead, my mind latches on to the concepts of textures and patterns and I’m quickly rewarded by focusing on the skin of trees, many of which possess bark patterns distinctive enough to identify to species. From decades of hiking the Island’s forests they are like familiar friends.  

The heavily wooded preserve doesn’t disappoint as I immediately pass several black or sweet birch trees of varying age. Black birch is widespread in the richer soils of Long Island’s north shore. When young, black birch has generally smooth reddish-grey bark with distinctive horizontally parallel rows that are slightly elevated. These rows are known as lenticels and are thought to help the tree “breathe” by allowing gas exchange through the bark. In older specimens the bark becomes more three dimensional with cracks and fissures that look as if a black bear (or mythical dragon) ran its sharp claws down the trunk. 

A few of the larger trees are afflicted with the Nectria fungus, or black birch canker, a disfiguring condition that can damage the tree and kill it in severe cases.  When growing on the main trunk and larger branches it can cause hollows — while hiking the Tiffany Creek Preserve in northern Nassau County several decades ago, I spied a screech owl sitting in just such a canker-created hollow. The tree’s loss was the bird’s gain. 

Another well-known aspect of black birch is that it was once a critical source for a tasty flavoring — oil of wintergreen. Indigenous people used the oil to treat muscle aches and to “purge the body,” while its oil was used in a wider variety of foods and medicines. If you come across a black birch and break off a twig and begin to chew on it, you’ll immediately taste the refreshing flavor of wintergreen.  

Moving further along the trail I pass by four of the ten or so oak species native to Long Island  — white, black, scarlet, and red oaks. White oak, as its name suggests, has pleasant light-colored bark consisting of thin vertical plates. As the tree ages the bark gets a bit thicker (true for almost all trees) and more “sloughier” with the top and bottom of the bark plates curling a bit.  

The other three are a tougher group to identify to species absent their leaves, especially distinguishing the bark of black oak from scarlet oak. Red oak can be distinguished from the other two by its longitudinal “ridges and valleys”; as one botanist has insightfully noted, the surface of red oak bark is reminiscent of what a ski course looks like from the air, the valleys serving as the ski courses while the ridges are the forests left intact in between. 

Continuing the amble, I come to another medium sized tree standing alone although surrounded by oaks a little distance removed. I can tell from its somewhat smooth and attractive light grey bark with shallow fissures that I’ve not come across another oak but rather a pignut hickory, one of several hickories found on Long Island.  The ridges diverge and blend in a random way creating an intriguing pattern that is fun to look at. This is the group of trees of barbeque fame, their wood imparting a distinctive smokiness to backyard barbeque fare. 

While I don’t see any on my walk through this Setauket forest, a cousin to the pignut hickory has among the most distinctive bark of any you’ll see on Long Island — that of the shagbark hickory. If you see the tree you’ll immediately know why it got its name with large patches of shaggy bark curling away from the trunk. It is uncommon on Long Island. A more common hickory which I didn’t see on the hike is mockernut hickory, so named because the very small nut “mocks” the person making the effort to harvest it. 

A bit further on and from some light tan leaves fluttering lightly in the understory I knew I had yet another tree species — an American Beech. The bark of beech is light grey and is smooth, making it often an unfortunate target of etched initialed inscriptions. It’s hard to look at the bark and trunk of a large beech and not think of an elephant leg, especially if the wood beneath the bark has a little wrinkle as it often does. The elephant leg analogy is even stronger at the base where the roots flare, looking like elephant toes. Over the past few years many beech trees have been afflicted with beech leaf disease which can be fatal; fortunately this tree shows no signs of the affliction.

One of the main purposes of bark is, of course, to protect the living tissues just underneath from pathogens such as numerous fungal species. But it can also help to protect it from another force — wildfire. And nowhere can you see a better example of this than the bark of pitch pine, the dominant pine of the Long Island Pine Barrens. Pitch pine has very thick bark which provides an insulating layer to protect the living cambium tissue.    

Near the end of the loop walk I hit a bunch of medium sized  trees of another oak species — chestnut oak, including one multi-trunked specimen sending five, foot-thick trunks skyward. It’s the largest tree in the preserve. Chestnut oak, common in rocky soils found on the Ronkonkoma Moraine, gets its name from the similarity of the leaves to those of the American chestnut, except in the oak the marginal lobes are rounded rather than having little bristles. Its bark is dark grey and deeply furrowed. 

At the end of this grouping is another smaller chestnut oak, or so I thought at first. Deeply furrowed bark with inch high ridges, it looks like chestnut oak but I realize the identification is wrong when I look up into the finer branches in the canopy and notice a few of them have smooth green bark (yet another function of bark is, in some trees, to photosynthesize). Suddenly it dawns on me I’m not looking at an oak but rather a mature Sassafras tree, a common species throughout Long Island.  I realized I had been barking up the wrong tree … 

A resident of Setauket, author John L. 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.

The banning of DDT in the United States in 1972 helped the bald eagle population rebound. Photo by John Dielman

By John L. Turner

John Turner

If ecologists have revealed anything from the thousands of studies of nature and its countless components, relationships, and interactions, it is the extent to which life is interconnected, with the fate of so many living things interwoven with the fate of others. Many of these studies have shown how species are tied together in many unforeseen ways, built on complex webs and relationships. 

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, knew this truism when he wrote about the “intricate tapestry of the natural world” and perhaps best reflected by his famous comment “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” 

Aldo Leopold, perhaps the most impactful conservationist this country has produced, understood this too, expressing it in a slightly different way: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Leopold recognized that adversely affecting one species in a natural community can trigger a set of undesirable ecological actions that  ripples throughout the community. 

There are many straightforward examples illustrating the ecological “ties that bind.” 

One basic concept involves food chains, constructs that help us to understand the connection of one species with another in “eat and be eaten” relationships and the pesticide DDT, banned long-ago, illustrates how species along a food chain can be connected.  DDT was once widely used throughout the United States (and still is used in other parts of the world) and commonly applied on Long Island in the 1950’s and 60’s in an effort to control mosquitoes, especially salt marsh species. 

The DDT in water was assimilated into algae and other phytoplankton, that were fed upon by zooplankton, and many species of zooplankton were, in turn, eaten by small fish who were consumed by larger fish. The larger fish were consumed by fish-eating birds like ospreys, bald eagles, pelicans, and cormorants. 

DDT is fat soluble and not easily excreted so it increased in concentration in the animals higher on the food chain, to the point that in birds it interfered with their ability to lay viable eggs. A loss of viable eggs meant declines in the abundance of these species.  DDT served as an unfortunate illustration of how food chains and webs worked, connecting phytoplankton and zooplankton (species lower on a food chain) to fish and ultimately to birds (higher on the food chain). 

In reality, the world is a much more complicated place and an ecosystem can have numerous food chains that interconnect in a larger and more comprehensive food web, resulting in “cause and effect” relationships that might not be apparent at first. 

As an example, let’s take Yellowstone National Park. For much of the twentieth century the National Park Service had a wrongheaded and myopic  policy of eradicating timber wolves within park boundaries, resulting in burgeoning populations of elk and deer that, in turn, increased browsing and grazing of the Park’s small trees, shrubs and grasses.  

The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park restored the park’s ecosystem. Photo from Pixabay

Wolves were reintroduced into the Park in 1995 and almost immediately created a cascade of effects that rippled throughout Yellowstone. Wolves disrupted elk herds, their primary prey, allowing for their preferred habitat — riverbanks of willows and aspens — to recover. This new growth provided breeding habitat for a variety of songbirds and the shade the trees created helped fish populations. Beaver increased (there was but one beaver colony when the wolves were brought back; now there are nine) responding to the new, fresh tree growth. Their constructed dams created impoundments for aquatic invertebrates and fish and freshwater marshes where moose and mink occurred. 

Coyotes declined due to wolf predation which allowed for foxes to increase and wolf introduction also benefited grizzly bears who had more berries to eat due to lessened browsing by elk. Prey carcasses also sustained a number of other species like lynx, wolverines, eagles, raven and magpies, grizzly bears just emerging from hibernation, and even beetle species. Ecologists have documented changes down to the diversity of microbes in the soil as a result of wolves reestablishment!   

Closer to home we have the case of the diamondback terrapin. A beautiful reptile with strongholds in the bays and harbors of Long Island’s north shore, it plays an important role in maintaining the health of salt marsh environments in which it lives. With very strong jaws, hard food objects are fair game and terrapins routinely eat several snail species, helping to keep them in check. A good thing because some of the snails feed on marsh grass (Spartina) and if their populations were not controlled it could result in the loss of marshes and the numerous attendant benefits salt marshes provide in the form of food production, attenuating coastal flooding, softening the impacts of coastal storms, and providing habitat for so many plant and animal species.  

A last example underscores how a species can help knit together two distant places with ramifications on human health — in this case India and East Africa. There’s a dragonfly known as the wandering glider and remarkably millions migrate across the Indian Ocean each year, leaving the rice patties and other wetlands where they were born and overwintering in East Africa. Here, they are voracious predators of mosquitoes, many of which carry malaria, an affliction which can be fatal if untreated. Scientists noted an increase in malaria cases in East Africa and tied it back to a reduction in dragonflies caused by pesticide use in Indian wetland pools.   

As these examples illustrate the natural world is an exceptionally complex interwoven tapestry of life with many unforeseen connections. You can understand why Frank Edwin Egler, an American botanist, observed “Nature is not more complicated than you think, it is more complicated than you CAN think.” 

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

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Walking along the edge of an uneven row of withered goldenrods, adorned with countless fuzzy heads brimming with seeds, I noticed some bird movement in the lower branches of the shrubs interspersed among the flowers. Lots of movement in all directions as the small earth-toned birds flitted up and down, toward and away from me. I was in the presence of a flock of fourteen white-throated sparrows actively feeding on the ubiquitous goldenrod seed. Their presence was a nice welcome to my morning. 

The white-throated sparrow is a most handsome bird, possessing, as its name makes clear, a distinctive white throat patch (its Latin name is Zonotrichia albicollis with albicollis meaning “white-necked”). Even more prominent in this species are the five bold longitudinal black and white head stripes (three white and two black) with a pretty splash of yellow just behind the bill in a place known as the lores on the two lateral white stripes.   

There’s an interesting story about these light-colored head stripes that underscores how the natural world is much more complex than it may, at first, appear.  These stripes come in two distinct colors: white and tan, so a sparrow may be a tan-striped white-throated sparrow or a white-striped white-throated sparrow. This color difference is genetically based, apparently due to a single chromosome part inverting while going through mitosis — remember genetics from high school biology class? In a case of mistaken identity John James Audubon thought white-striped individuals were male while tan-striped birds female, a reasonable assumption given the fact more colorful birds are typically male. You can see this mistake in his illustration of the species in his famous “Birds of America.”

Birds of the same species that display different plumages are referred to as “morphs” or “forms.” The Eastern Screech Owl is another local example of a bird species that exhibits morphs, having two colorful forms — grey and rufous birds. The Parasitic Jaeger, a gull-like bird occasionally seen in the ocean off the island’s south shore has three color morphs — light, intermediate, and dark.

White-throated sparrow

And you might reasonably think that white-striped males would always select a white-striped female as a mate and the same with tan-striped individuals, but it’s actually just the opposite. White-striped males overwhelmingly prefer tan-striped females (and vice versa) while tan striped males select white-striped females (also vice versa), a concept ecologists fancily refer to as “negative assortative mating.” Researchers have determined the morphs behave differently with white-striped birds being more aggressive but with less adept parenting abilities than tan-striped birds.  These two traits seem to balance out as the two morphs are about equally represented in the species overall.  

White-throated sparrows don’t breed on Long Island (with very few noted records) but are common winter visitors and one of the more common species to visit bird feeding stations, often feeding on the millet and other grain that spills to the ground.  If white-throated sparrows come to your feeders try to distinguish the two color morphs and note any difference in behaviors. As mentioned above, research suggests the white-striped forms are more aggressive and tend to dominate tan-striped individuals. Have you observed this? 

As winter melds into spring you might hear the distinctive song of this sparrow. One of the bird’s colloquial names — Old Sam Peabody — comes from its song that seems like it’s saying that fella’s name with a few extra Peabody’s thrown in at the end. Others liken it to My Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada. I think the second description is a wee bit more accurate both because it sounds closer to the bird’s song and because the species breeds across a broad swath of forest in our country neighbor to the North.  

Another common winter visitor to bird feeders is a sparrow that doesn’t much look like  one, as it doesn’t have the earth-tone browns and tans typical of most sparrow species.  It’s the Slate-colored or Dark-eyed Junco or as the famous New York naturalist John Burroughs called them  “snowbirds” since they often appear in New York around the time of the season’s first snowfall.  

A widespread breeder across North America (but not Long Island as it breeds further north) this species consists of 15 subspecies many of which look different, giving rise to distinctive names such as the white-winged, pink-sided, red-backed, and gray-headed juncos. Given their distinctive morphological differences, which is thought to have occurred a few thousand years ago, this species appears to be on its way to evolving into several other species. If we can hang around for a few thousand more years we might find out the answer. 

The junco (it’s Latin name is hyemalis meaning “of the winter”) is a handsome bird with “our” subspecies being dark grey on top with white on the belly and under the tail.  Females are tinged with brown on top. Both sexes have triangular pink bills, the color of bubble gum, which they use to capture insects, collect seeds and berries, and/or the food you put out in your feeders.   

Dark-eyed Junco

Speaking of feeders, according to Project FeederWatch, run by the Cornell University’s Project Laboratory of Ornithology, the Dark-eyed Junco is recorded at more feeders in North America than any other bird. 

Another plumage trait all juncos share are outer tail feathers that range from partially to fully white. These bright white “banner marks” are examples of deflective coloration and are a feature commonplace in birds. It’s hypothesized their function is to confuse predators or deflect their attack to a non-lethal part of a bird’s body but this purpose has not been proven experimentally beyond a reasonable doubt so the purpose remains  conjectural. The Eastern Meadowlark and American Robin are other examples of birds exhibiting banner marks. 

Another interesting aspect of junco life is that not all birds overwinter in the same area. Generally male juncos, both adult and young, overwinter in more northern locales while females migrate further south. The reason for this seems to be the desire for male birds to be closer to prime breeding territories, the adults to reclaim them and younger males in an effort to quickly find an available territory. Females have no such worries and can benefit from more moderate climates to the south.

So, what at first appears to be two nice uncomplicated winter visitors visiting your feeding station actually reveal, like when the layers of an onion are peeled back, a reality with complexity and depth possessed by all living creatures that share our world.

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

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Walking out to get the morning paper the other day I noticed a small flock of robins land in a large American Holly growing in a corner of the front yard. They had landed to get their breakfast — an abundance of bright red holly berries scattered in bunches throughout the tree that will fuel them through part of the 40 degree day. 

American Holly (Ilex opaca) is the most well-known member of the holly family on Long Island and one of our more distinctive native trees. Its leaves are unique, rigid with spines (to prevent browsing), and their dark green color gives rise to the Latin species name of opaca. Their flowers are whitish-green and are as inconspicuous as the berries are conspicuous. The attractive, tannish smooth-skin bark has distinctive “eyes,” locations where branches once grew. This is the tree — with its attractive contrasting colors of red and green — that’s seasonally associated with our holiday season. 

If you pay closer attention, you’ll soon realize that not all American Hollies display bright red berries. Some trees have an abundance of berries while many others have none at all. The former are female trees and the latter male trees. All hollies are dioecious, meaning they have either male or female flowers but not both on the same tree. 

This trait is fairly uncommon in the plant world (your garden asparagus is another example); more common are monoecious trees of which oaks, hickories, and maples are a few examples, in which a tree possesses both female and male flowers. And to complicate things a bit further: among plant species such as in the Rose family you have what are known as “perfect” flowers in which male parts (stamens) and female parts (pistils and ovaries) not only occur on the same plant but on the same flower.   

American Holly is widely distributed on Long Island and you can see scattered trees in many forest tracts but two places standout if you want to see a forest dominated by hollies: the maritime holly forest situated in the Sunken Forest at Fire Island National Seashore and the forests on the north side of the road in Montauk State Park (quite viewable along the trail that takes you out to the viewing blind overlooking the popular seal haul-out site located in the northwestern corner of the park). In the Sunken Forest, the unique forest that grows between the holly co-dominates the forest with shadbush and sassafras. It is a very rare type of forest known from very few locations, being ranked by the New York Natural Heritage Program as both an S1 and G1 community, in the state and world, respectively. Another fine example of a maritime holly forest is a two hour ride from western Long Island: the holly forests at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. 

American Holly has long been prized for its berries and foliage and there are accounts in older botanical books rueing the wanton cutting of holly foliage during the holiday season. One author remarks he was glad that the holly wasn’t often cut down, although its wood is hard and can be easily stained or shellacked, “since the depredations of the Christmas-green pickers take toll enough.”    

Inkberry (Ilex glabra), an attractive shrub that grows throughout Long Island, is a member of the holly family; it is especially abundant in low-lying areas in the Pine Barrens such as long streams and pond edges. An extensive stand of Inkberry is found along the Paumanok Path as it passes just north of Owl Pond in the Birch Creek/Owl Pond section of the Pine Barrens located in Southampton. 

Inkberry is a classic “coastal plain” species and, not surprisingly, its distribution in New York State is restricted to Long Island.  Inkberry prefers sand soils where the water table is shallow, i.e., not far below the surface. It is not typically found growing in standing water but right alongside wet areas where the roots can easily access moisture. The species name refers to the glabrous or very smooth nature of the attractive green foliage of the plant — hairy it is not! The common name refers, of course, to the dark blue berries that stain your fingers an inky-purple if you crush them.

The winterberries from the third group of holly members on Long Island and unlike the prior two groups are not evergreen, dropping their leaves each autumn. But they are holly members, nevertheless, as can be seen by a glance at their bright red berries. Smooth Winterberry (Ilex laevigata) and Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are the two more common species; Mountain Holly (Ilex mucronata) and Mountain Winterberry (Ilex montana) also occur here.   

Back to the robins on a late November day: as their feeding demonstrated, while not edible to humans (in fact, they are poisonous to humans and their pets), birds, including the beautiful cedar waxwing, readily eat the brightly advertised holly fruits, especially later in the winter season when other more highly-preferred berries (read: higher fat content) have disappeared. Thus, hollies play a helpful role in keeping nature’s cafeteria open through the tough stretch of late winter through early spring, helping to sustain songbird flocks overwintering on Long Island.  

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

A cluster of cranberries. Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

John Turner

In a few weeks you’ll most likely be sitting down around a table with family members to enjoy an annual Thanksgiving Day meal with all the fixings: turkey, stuffing and gravy, mashed and sweet potatoes, green beans, and cranberries or cranberry sauce. The cranberries and/or sauce probably came from a commercial bog in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Oregon, or New Jersey, the states where large commercial cranberry bogs exist today. 

And here’s a surprise: If you had sat down to this same blessed feast about a century ago, there’s a strong likelihood the cranberries you enjoyed were harvested from a commercial bog situated somewhere on Long Island, probably from one of a dozen or so located in the Pine Barrens. Indeed, a century to a century and a half ago Long Island was the third largest supplier of cranberries to the nation.         

Cranberries, being related to blueberries and other heaths, have an affinity to sandy, acid soils so the Long Island Pine Barrens, or more specifically wetlands in the Pine Barrens, provided highly suitable habitat to create bogs and cultivate cranberries.  

Most of these commercial bogs were located within the large watershed of the Peconic River, flowing easterly through the Pine Barrens, including three of the river’s four tributaries — the Fox/Sandy Pond area, Swan Pond, and the Swezey’s Pond/Little River draining north from Wildwood Lake — and on the main stem of the river itself just west of where Edwards Avenue crosses over it (just north of Exit 71 of the Long Island Expressway). 

Long Island’s first cranberry bog was established on the Brown’s River in Bayport around 1870; today most of it is within the 316-acre San Souci County Park and Camp Edey, a 95-acre owned by the Suffolk County Council of Girl Scouts.    

The Woodhull Bog, where Cranberry Bog County Nature Preserve is situated, was perhaps the most commercially successful bog but its success was far from a sure bet when the Woodhull brothers embarked on their effort to convert low-lying swamp habitat to a cranberry bog. Here, they spent four years, beginning in 1885 years, ripping out countless trees and shrubs, damming up the Little River tributary with an earthen dike, placing a several inch blanket of sand on the organic peat of the bog, installing perimeter and internal ditches throughout the bog to ensure rapid water coverage, and, of course, planting thousands of cranberry vines. (With the adoption of the New York State Freshwater Wetlands Act, and local wetland laws, this kind of activity fortunately cannot legally happen now on Long Island). 

Workers harvest cranberries by flooding the area. Pixabay photo

In 1889 the first harvest was achieved with a whopping 10 bushels provided by the bog. The next year was better with 90 bushels produced and the upward trend continued in 1891 with 500 bushels. In 1892 the  vines were three to four years old and had really matured and the tally for the year shows, with 21,100 bushels, going for about $2 a bushel, at market.  For many years after that the bog remained profitable and productive.  Other bogs like the Brown’s Bog in Calverton and the Davis Bog further west in Manorville were also productive and profitable. No wonder they called it Red Gold!

In the early years cranberries were picked by hand, the hands provided by hundreds of residents who gained supplemental income each autumn harvesting berries. Bog operators used a simple but ingenious strategy to ensure maximum crop harvest among the distracted workers busily chatting and socializing while picking.  They laid down parallel rows of  string like bowling alleys; each picker had an easier job of making sure all the berries within their “alley” were harvested.  

The cranberry scoop was soon invented and provided a more efficient means to harvest berries. The wooden scoop, a popular item in antique stores, had tines like a fork,  spaced apart a distance just slightly less than the width of a cranberry.  Scoops gave way to mechanized equipment that was more efficient still and once bog owners/operators learned that ripe cranberries float they began to flood the vine-filled bogs and turned to powerful vacuum hoses to suck up the crop. You may have seen Ocean Spray commercials with harvesters up to their chests in a bright red surface of floating berries. Today, a few  people can do the job that once required dozens. 

Flooding the bogs, also done to prevent a seasonal frost from destroying the crop, and over the winter to protect the vines from freezing temperatures, meant a reliable water supply had to be available and this was the case for every Long Island bog. 

For the Woodhull Bog this was the water from Swezey’s Pond, created by the aforementioned earthen berm. For the Davis Bog, water was supplied from Swan Pond. When an operator wished to flood the bogs to protect the berries or vines, or to facilitate autumn harvest, they would remove the wooden boards nestled in the concrete part of the dam next to the water supply source and install the boards at the outlet of the bog. A motor would kick on and spin a driveshaft attached to a large belt connected to a paddlewheel and water would quickly flood the bog. In spring the reverse would occur. 

A cranberry bush. Pixabay photo

To allow for bees and other pollinators to access the cranberry flowers (the name cranberry is thought to have derived from the name “crane berry”, a reference to how the flowers look similar to the head of a crane) boards would be installed in the slots of the concrete dam next to the water supply and boards removed from the far end of the bog, thereby draining it.     

By the 1920’s nearly a dozen bogs were in operation here. But about 15 years later it was down to six, according to a fine article by Tim Huss published in the New York Almanack. Long Island had several problems that made cranberry production less profitable — there were no processing facilities to make value-added products and the costs of labor and land were higher, reflected in higher property taxes, when compared with other more rural areas.

Cranberries, like most agricultural monocultures, are afflicted by pests and such was the case with Long Island’s cranberry bogs. Two notorious pests were (and still are) the cranberry fruit worm and black-headed fireworm which affects both the fruit and leaves. Cranberry producers turned to chemical means in an attempt to control the insects, with amino triazole being the pesticide of choice. This pesticide soon was in the crosshairs of the then Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). 

On “Cranberry Black Monday,” November 9, 1959, HEW declared amino triazole a carcinogen (cancer causing). The cranberry market was dealt a severe blow with even Mamie Eisenhower declaring she was foregoing the traditional cranberry sauce at the White House Thanksgiving Dinner in a few weeks, serving apple sauce instead. Untold cartons and cans of cranberries and sauce languished on supermarket and warehouse shelves.      

A cluster of cranberries. Pixabay photo

The Davis Bog in Manorville was the only cranberry bog to survive this event. For years they sold their berries to the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (remember A&P supermarkets around Long Island?), but the bogs south of Swan Pond were harder and harder to maintain and in 1974 this last cranberry bog ceased operation. The Long Island cranberry industry was no more. 

If you want to gain some sense of the industry that was once so vital to Long Islanders both as a source of food and employment, a visit to the Suffolk County Cranberry Bog Nature Preserve south of the Suffolk County Center in Riverhead is in order. A small dirt parking lot provides parking and a wide trail leads to Swezey’s Pond which was the water supply source to the Woodhull Bog. 

A picturesque trail runs around the pond (I like to walk it in counter-clockwise fashion) and by hiking the trail you’ll see where sand was excavated to make the earthen dike, the dike itself, a few of the perimeter ditches that once lined the edge of the bog, and a concrete pump house near where the stream drains from the pond into the bog. If you visit during the warmer months you should see turtles, numerous birds, dragonflies, and waterlilies. Better yet, go in the colder weather, say the day after Thanksgiving, as a way to burn off the calories from all that turkey, gravy, and cranberry sauce you ingested with relish the day before.       

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

'Music of the Birds'

By John L. Turner

John Turner

From time to time I’m asked a variation of the following question: What bird-nature-environmental books did I enjoy reading or am currently reading?  This got me thinking — why not share the Nature Matters column to explore some of my favorite books on aspects of nature including a first article on birds. So beginning with this column focused on birds, future articles will focus on what I think are broader important and worthwhile books on nature and our relationship with it including numerous environmental struggles, the personalities involved in these struggles, and broader issues of planetary sustainability.

Tens of millions of Americans have an interest in birds, an interest that ranges from  mild to downright intense. Many authors have catered to this, producing thousands of books on a wide variety of bird related topics — bird identification (a future column itself on guides), migration, feathers, coloration, adventures to see birds, how to be a better birder, bird song, bird flight, the history of ornithology and birding, and conservation issues, to name a few. Hundreds of more technical books on birds have been written on such topics as evolution, anatomy and physiology, and mating systems.

So the following are a few of the books on birds I recommend you consider cracking the covers of: 

There are a number of books that are overviews of the avian world that should serve as the core of any bird library. Birds & People by Mark Cocker is an example. It is a tome,  coming in at 591 pages, and as you might guess is exhaustive in its treatment — covering all of the world’s bird families with the author providing fascinating information about each bird group with an emphasis on human interactions, folklore, and cultural significance.  

Another book that has a slightly different format but is richly informative is The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior (numerous authors). It, too, discusses the unique qualities of different bird families but before the family discussion has five chapters that delve into great detail about Flight, Form, and Function; Origins, Evolution, and Classification; Behavior; Habitats and Distributions; and Populations and Conservation. If I were able to recommend only one book for your nightstand to increase the breadth and depth of your knowledge about birds it would be this book.      

Yet another book in this genre — a comprehensive overview of birds — is Kenn Kaufman’s Lives of North American Birds. Here the author focuses at the species level rather than the family, providing basic and important information about various aspects of specific birds’ life histories such as diets and habitats used.  Also worth your consideration is the comprehensive species guide — Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion.

Shore birds — sandpipers, plovers, and the like — are one of my favorite groups of birds and they have been the focus of a number of books. Two classics are Peter Matthiessen’s The Wind Birds and Fred Bodsworth’s Last of the Curlews, a story about the sickening demise of the Eskimo Curlew, a bird once common on Long Island but now believed extinct due to the rapaciousness of uncontrolled sport and market hunting. Perhaps these books can be secured on eBay or at a used bookstore.  

The World of the Shorebirds by Harry Thurston is another worthwhile addition to your bird library replete with stunning photographs of shorebirds and the wetland habitats they frequent.

More recently, the red knot, a plump robin-colored shorebird which has declined precipitously in abundance, has been the subject of a few books including Moonbird by Phillip Hoose, The Flight of the Red Knot by Brian Harrington, and The Narrow Edge by Deborah Cramer. The first book chronicles the life of a single red knot that has lived long enough during its annual migrations to have traveled the distance to the moon and halfway back, the second a straightforward overview of the species, and the last book exploring the relationship between red knots and horseshoe crabs, the eggs of which the bird depends upon on its northbound journeys in the Spring.      

If bird intelligence is of interest to you The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman should be on your mandatory reading list. As the title suggests this book covers many fascinating aspects of bird intelligence and memory. Take, for example, the Clark’s Nutcracker, a western species, that can successfully find tens of thousands of seeds its cached scattered across several square miles, displaying memory prowess that put ours to shame.   

The Bird Way is another book by Ackerman which probes the ways in which birds talk, work, think, and play. It contains one of the most startling things I’ve ever read about bird behavior: apparently some Australian raptors (e.g. hawks and eagles), knowing how it is easier to capture animals fleeing from a wildfire, are known to pick up smoldering sticks and drop them away from a fire in an effort to expand or start a fire!     

Many books have been written about birds and their singing prowess. One of my favorites is Lang Elliot’s Music of the Birds: A Celebration of Bird Song. Besides containing many beautiful color photographs and highly informative text on the function of song, the difference between calls and songs, and how song has inspired humans for millennia, etc., the book comes with a CD filled with bird songs, calls, and the famous “dawn chorus.” 

Three outstanding books on bird migration, definitely worth your time, are A Season on the Wind by Kenn Kaufman and A World on the Wing and Living on the Wind by Scott Weidensaul. In these books the two authors document their experiences traveling around the world trying to better understand the fascinating movement of migratory birds. Songbird Journeys by Miyoko Chu is another enjoyable book on this topic.  

If the global movement of birds excites you then Eye of the Albatross by Carl Safina is a most worthwhile read.  An outstanding nature writer, Safina chronicles the travels and travails of Amelia, a wide-ranging albatross; besides learning about albatross migration and biology and aspects of the ocean environment, Amelia is a “window” for understanding the struggles all wildlife face on a planet being increasingly usurped by humans.   

Two very different books by Bridget Stutchbury are worthy reads: Silence of the Songbirds and The Private Lives of Birds: A Scientist Reveals the Intricacies of Avian Social Life. The former discusses the threats facing birds in today’s wounded world while the latter focuses on how birds interact.  

Back to Peter Matthiessen, we have his delightful overview of the world’s cranes in The Birds of Heaven. An added bonus are the beautiful paintings by Robert Bateman. The author travels around the world learning about this iconic and charismatic group of birds including the two species native to North America — Whooping and Sandhill Cranes.   

Lastly, if you’d like to see a current, real world example of bird evolution happening before your very eyes I invite you to read The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner, for which the author won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. In this fine book the author documents the extensive studies of Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have spent their lives documenting changes to the various finches (and their bills) that live in the Galapagos Islands located off the west coast of South America and made famous by Charles Darwin.    

As Long Island turns away from summer and colder weather arrives, driving most of us indoors, why not explore the fascinating avian worlds presented in these books (and many others not covered here!) All you need is a glass of wine, a comfortable chair, and a curious mind.  

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