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Nature Matters

Moths are drawn to bright lights because they confuse its navigational systems. Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

“For an increasing proportion of the Earth’s surface, the darkest conditions of night no longer occur” 

— The Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting

In 1884 William Dutcher, a well-known New York based ornithologist, published notes on a phenomenon which was receiving a lot of attention by avian conservationists of that time — night-time migrating birds, mostly songbirds of many species, crashing into lighthouses including the Fire Island lighthouse, especially on foggy and cloudy nights. Dutcher recognized, as did many others, the birds were attracted to the bright light of the lighthouse with often fatal consequences. It was one of the first accounts to document what we now know to be a much larger, multi-faceted issue —the negative affects of light pollution.

Today the directed light of lighthouses has been supplemented by the direct and diffused light of countless shopping centers and other commercial complexes, high-rise buildings, homes, airport ceilometers, sports stadiums, communication towers, street lighting, even the annual 9-11 paired tribute that send two powerful beacons of light into the night-time sky of southern Manhattan each September 11th. 

Well-lit urban areas have then become traps for many birds as they become entrained within the cities’ collective mesmerizing glow. Like the birds that were victims of collisions with lighthouses, the effects can be just as devastating for these birds today.

Artificial lighting near the shore can cause sea turtle hatchlings to become disoriented and wander inland, where they often die of dehydration or predation. Pixabay photo

Night lighting, in all its myriad forms, not only negatively affects birds but many other animals. A notable example involves sea turtle hatchlings which are attracted to light (a phenomenon called positive phototaxis). To prevent them from moving inland, drawn by the light of street lights and motels, several southeastern states have enacted regulations requiring lights to be as low to the ground as possible and to be shielded.

Other animal groups are affected too. This includes other reptiles, some amphibians, a variety of mammals (including us humans!), fish, some marine invertebrates, and numerous insects, most notably moths and beetles. Even plants can be negatively affected by night lighting!

Many plants and animals, including humans have circadian rhythms which help them to regulate activity and sleep cycles through the production of certain hormones. These hormones are vital to certain life functions such as reproduction, resting/sleep, and migration. In humans a key hormone affected by light is melatonin which plays a significant role in restful sleep and may help to build muscle and body strength by helping the body to generate Human Growth Hormone (HGH); it also may have tumor fighting properties. Unfortunately, too much night light suppresses manufacture of melatonin which, in turn, can cause adverse health impacts including, possibly, several types of human cancer.

Perhaps no other animal is more associated with lighting — being attracted to it and affected by it — than moths (think of those fluttering around your porch and patio lights). I vividly remember a bird tour I led to western Texas many years ago. We met an entomologist while birding in a campground who mentioned he was going “blacklighting” that night and invited the tour participants along. 

By the time we arrived later, surrounded by pitch blackness, he had set up the light trap. It consisted simply of a white bed sheet hung from a thin wooden frame with various types of battery operated lights including black lights (those that emit UV wavelengths) radiating and illuminating the sheet. It was nothing short of remarkable.

Scores upon scores of different moth species sat on the brightly illuminated sheet — some small and drab, other small ones colorful, a bunch of medium sized moths of every color and hue and then the stars — the large, several inch long, colorful moths. The diversity of body shapes matched the diversity of colors. We had a few silk moths, many “underwing” moths belonging to the genus Catocala (a genus of moths found on Long Island — quite attractive!), and hawk moths. And there was no shortage of other non-moth insects, bugs and beetles of all sorts, and many emerald green lacewings.

Moths play a critical role in local food webs — as pollinators and food for birds, bats and other animals. Unfortunately, moths that get entrained in lights can result in them losing valuable time to feed which can affect health and reproductive success or cause them to perish directly, resulting in their being removed from the local food web.

As mentioned with the feeding and reproduction of moths, sublethal health effects of too much illumination at night is an underappreciated concern and is likely more pervasive than we realize. For example, artificially high light levels at night are known to discourage some amphibians from eating or mating and can adversely affect the reproductive success of fireflies. These species aren’t being killed directly, as with the bird and sea turtle examples, but their longterm fitness and abundance may suffer.

Another victim of excessive night lights was the topic of the December column of Nature Matters ­— the night sky and the “Milky Way.” Tens of millions of Americans, those who live in urban areas, can no longer see the Milky Way. According to one estimate, one out every three inhabitants of planet Earth cannot see the Milky Way, including 80% of Americans and nearly 60% of Europeans. We are being bathed in an ever expanding “sky glow” at the expense of seeing star’s planets and the Milky Way.

Fortunately, governments have moved to address the issue. A number of local municipalities on Long Island, including the Town of Brookhaven, have enacted exterior lighting standards designed to minimize light spillage into the sky and surrounding areas. New York City may soon move to enact legislation and there is ongoing discussion about state legislation that would mandate “lights out” in urban areas.

Let’s close the discussion on two excerpted quotes:

Taken from the book referenced in the quote at the beginning of the article: “So let us be reminded, as we light the world to suit our needs and whims, that doing so may come at the expense of other living beings, some of whom detect subtle gradations of light to which we are blind, and for whom the night is home.”

And if the effects of light pollution on animals isn’t your thing but art is — keep in mind this excerpt from the website of the International Dark-Sky Association “Van Gogh painted his famous ‘Starry Night’ in Saint Rémy, France, in 1889. Now, the Milky Way can no longer be seen from there. If he were alive today, would he still be inspired to paint ‘Starry Night’?”

If either or both of these excerpts resonate with you and you wonder what you can do to contribute to a more fully dark night here’s some ideas: use outdoor lighting judiciously (don’t leave it on all night), install timers or motion detectors, use bulbs with “warmer” wavelengths, install only fully shielded outdoor lighting fixtures, and shut window blinds and curtains to reduce light “bleeding” outside (this also helps to keep heat in during the winter!). 

Essentially light only what, when, and how much you need, nothing more. If you take these steps you’ll help countless animals, perhaps your health, and you’ll see the beloved Milky Way just a little bit brighter.

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

If you’re like most people you’ve always had at least a mild interest in the constellations of the night sky and may have even taken a crack at identifying some of the constellations in the Northern Hemisphere. Well, here’s MY crack at providing a method for you to learn some of the constellations and other night objects during the winter season when the sky is clearer and generally contains less atmospheric moisture.

A future column will be devoted to learning the Summer constellations.

A great jumping off point to learn the winter constellations and sky objects is the constellation of Orion (the Hunter), perhaps the most conspicuous constellation of all. Orion is hard to miss with its three prominent stars in a line forming the hunter’s belt and the four prominent stars that form its shoulders and knees. 

Above the belt and to its left, forming Orion’s right shoulder, is Betelguese (pronounced beetle juice), a red giant (and it does look reddish) which is estimated to be about 400 times the size of our sun and 3,000 times as bright! Forming the hunter’s left knee is Rigel, another bright star, but unlike Betelguese it burns a bright blue-white. Orion’s right arm is holding an identifiable club and his left arm is holding a shield to fend off Taurus the Bull which is next door.

Pixabay photo

The three straight-in-line belt stars of Orion hold his sword, which “hangs” from the central belt star. This area is rich in star formation and your binoculars (and if you don’t have binoculars remember the holiday season is coming) will show a fuzzy cloud, the result of the collective light of the stars in the region. The Great Nebula is situated here.

If you follow the three stars of the belt to your left (east) and down you’ll soon arrive at the brightest star in the heavens — Sirius, the Dog Star located in the constellation of Canis Major, the Big Dog. It is almost twice as bright as the next brightest star, Canopus, a star of the Southern Hemisphere. Sirius means “blazing” in Greek, an apt description given its luminosity.

Use the three belt stars of Orion heading in the opposite direction and you’ll head toward Taurus the Bull; continue in a line and you’ll come to a group of tightly packed bright stars — the “Pleiades” which looks like a tiny Big Dipper for which it is occasionally mistaken. The Pleiades star cluster (also known as the Seven Sisters, although the seventh star is hard to see) is the logo of Subaru, the car manufacturer, something you can confirm the next time you pull up to a Subaru at a light. 

Below and to the left of the Pleaides you’ll see another reddish star — Aldebaran, which is the eye of the Bull, as it is rushing toward Orion. A little above and to the right of this red star is another star cluster — The Hyades. This is the closest star cluster to the Earth, a mere 150 light years away (that’s still pretty far at 900 trillion miles away for those who are curious) meaning the light you see emanating from these stars began their travel across the vast expanse of space in 1871.

Taurus has two other fascinating objects — the Crab and Horsehead Nebulas; the former is barely visible with 10x binoculars while the latter (which indeed looks like the head of a raging stallion facing left) requires much more powerful instruments. The Crab Nebula is thought to be the remains of a supernova that exploded back in 1054, an event that Chinese astronomers made note of (some reports suggest that the supernova was 500 million times as bright as our sun during its explosion). 

In the middle of this nebula, in the aftermath of this cataclysmic explosion, exists a neutron star. Neutron stars are incredibly dense objects and in the “really, really hard to believe they’re real category” please note that a square inch of neutron star material is thought to weigh about 3 billion tons; yes that’s billion with a “b.” Taken from a Wikipedia account regarding neutron stars: “A neutron star is so dense that one teaspoon of its material would have a mass about 900 times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza.”  This is one of many bizarre features existing in the Universe in which we live!

On especially clear nights, when sufficiently dark, if you look above Orion (just above Betelguese) you might notice a diffuse, irregularly shaped band of white that runs across the sky. This “milky” band is the light of tens of billions of stars that collectively make up the Milky Way Galaxy, the galaxy in which our Solar System resides. If you imagine the galaxy as being shaped like a pinwheel with slender arms, our solar system is situated about half way out on one of the arms. Scan the Milky Way with your binoculars and you’ll be instantly overwhelmed by the sheer and blinding number of stars, varying pinpricks of light in the velvety blackness. 

When I last looked at the Milky Way, a couple of days ago, it reminded me of our most humble place in the universal ethos and of a famous line by the poet Robinson Jeffers: “There is nothing like astronomy to pull the stuff out of man, His stupid dreams and red-rooster importance: let him count the star-swirls”.

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.

John Turner, center, with participants of this year's Nighthawk Watch. Photo by Thomas Drysdale

By John L. Turner

At dusk on Oct. 6 volunteers with the Four Harbors Audubon Society (4HAS), a local chapter of the National Audubon Society, concluded their fifth year of conducting the Nighthawk Watch and as like the previous four years, this year’s tally brought new wrinkles to the unfolding story of nighthawk migration. 

1,819 Common Nighthawks were seen this year at the Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch, located at the southern end of Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket. The season started off slow but picked up in the latter third, similar to what happened in 2019; the 2021 total is less than the previous four year totals of: 2,046 in 2017, 2,018 in 2,018, 2,757 in 2019, and 2,245 in 2020.

You might reasonably ask: Why establish the Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch to count Common Nighthawks, a species related to the more familiar Whip-poor-will?

Well, first of all its fun and entertaining and great camaraderie developed among the regular participants. Nighthawks are quite distinctive in flight and can be downright mesmerizing to watch when they’re in active feeding mode, erratically darting to and fro in pursuit of aerial insects with their white wing blazes flashing.

A nighthawk spotted during the 4HAS’s
annual watch this year. Photo by John Heidecker

Second, the watch provides an educational opportunity by allowing members of 4HAS to engage with people walking by, informing them about the status of nighthawks, the threats they and other birds face, and wildlife and environmental issues generally. In this way nighthawks can provide the opportunity for a broader discussion about conservation, the condition and fate of the planet and all its member species. 

Third, it’s our hope that as the years pass, we’ll assemble a useful set of data, an additional source of information, that can help researchers develop a more complete picture about nighthawk population trends.

We know that the current picture is a troubled one for nighthawks and other birds, like swallows, swifts, and flycatchers that feed on aerial insects (these insect-eating birds are referred to as aerial insectivores). 

The continent-wide Annual Breeding Bird survey documented a two-percent decline in nighthawks from 1966 through 2010, resulting in a 60% decline in overall number nighthawk numbers; this means for every ten nighthawks there were in 1965, there are four today. The main culprit? A reduction in the amount of aerial insects such as gnats, midges, beetles and bugs, moths, and mosquitoes. 

This reduction has been noticed by a lot of people at least as evidenced by anecdotal stories. Mine includes two: Growing up in Smithtown in the 1960’s I remember, when driving any significant distance on Long Island, my father needed to clean the windshield with wiper fluid every once in a while to remove the countless smudges caused by hundreds of insects colliding with the windshield. Today, I can drive all day around Long Island without the need to do the same.

The second is the significant reduction in the number of moths and other night-flying insects attracted to the lights of local ball fields. I vividly remember watching, in the 1960’s and ’70’s many nighthawks zooming around the lights at Maple Avenue Park during night softball games, feeding on moths. Not so today, with significantly fewer moths and other insects attracted to the ball-field lights. For example, in three visits over the past decade in the month of September to night games at the stadium where the Long Island Ducks play,  I’ve seen a total of one nighthawk.

Another cause is loss of breeding habitat, involving two types — natural areas being converted to agriculture, shopping centers, and housing and loss of suitable rooftops. This latter “breeding habitat” illustrates the habit of nighthawks nesting in urban areas using gravel rooftops which mimic the natural and open substrates they often nest on in natural settings. Unfortunately, gravel roofs are being replaced by sealed rubber roofs which do not provide nighthawks with suitable nesting substrate.

A nighthawk spotted during the 4HAS’s
annual watch this year. Photo by John Heidecker

Being dependent on aerial insects, nighthawks leave the northern hemisphere, as temperatures cool and insects decline and ultimately disappear, to overwinter in South America, especially in and around the Amazon River basin and the adjacent Cerrado savanna/grassland region to the southeast. Generally, fall-migrating nighthawks in North America head southeast, leaving the continent either by crossing the Gulf of Mexico or heading south through Florida and passing over the Caribbean to South America. 

For reasons that are not clear, nighthawks from the western United States and Canada head southeast too, rather than what appears to be the shorter route of heading directly south, staying over land through Mexico and Central America. The nighthawks that fly over us at the Watch are birds heading more directly south coming from New England and eastern Canada and generally continuing south to join other nighthawks in Florida before continuing on. Some though, appear to shortcut the southbound journey by venturing out over the Atlantic Ocean.

The 2021 daily totals of nighthawks generally followed numbers from past years with more nighthawks passing by during the first half of the count period. The top daily tally was 169 birds, occurring on Sept. 12 and we had six nights with one hundred or more birds. We had only one evening with no nighthawks — the day when the remnants of Hurricane Ida passed through Long Island.

We saw many other interesting things besides flitting nighthawks while spending 41 days standing on the Stone Bridge ­— ­ beautiful sunsets and sometimes dramatic and foreboding skies; many clouds, some shaped like animals; one rainbow; the planets of Venus, Jupiter (and the four Galilean moons), and Saturn all seen through a 60x birding scope; several Bald Eagles including a low-flying white-headed adult; many Ospreys and other birds-of-prey; flights of Great Blue Herons and American and Snowy Egrets; a steady stream of Double-crested Cormorants almost always heading from the northeast to the southwest; a daily rush of blackbird flocks that plunged into the protective reeds of Conscience Bay; a daily dose of a pair of kingfishers; occasional songbirds flitting about in nearby trees; and on most nights when dusk settled over the ponds, a few Red and Brown Bats ceaselessly swooping in erratic loops, lines and circles over the surface of the pond.

So, if you already possess your 2022 calendar, circle Aug. 27, the date we’ll return to the Stone Bridge to once again watch the daily aerial ballets of Common Nighthawks. As always, they’ll be urged by instinct to move south, passing over Long Island, through the southeastern United States to cross the equator, where they’ll spend many months feeding in the balmy skies of South America, enjoying their “perpetual summer” existence.

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.

The red-eyed Eastern Towhee's scientific name is Pipilo erythrophthalmus. Photo from Unsplash

By John L. Turner

Human beings (Homo sapiens). Domestic dog and cat (Canus lupus familiaris and Felis catus, respectively). White Oak tree (Quercus alba). Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus). 

You may remember these “Latin/Greek “ or “Scientific” names from your high school biology days and probably have given them little to no thought ever since. Further, I bet you currently ignore them whenever you see them in a book, magazine or on-line article, quickly passing over these obscure, hard to pronounce, often multisyllabic words, tucked neatly inside a pair of parentheses.

First a little bit about the rules and convention concerning scientific names. All species on planet Earth have been assigned a binomial name, the first referring to the genus and the second the species; so with humans the scientific name “Homo sapiens” means that human beings belong to the genus Homo (the only existing species in the genus) and are unique belonging to the species “sapiens”. The generic name is capitalized but not the species name. Both are either italicized or are unitalicized but underlined. So in the case of the Blue Jay either Cyanocitta cristata or Cyanocitta cristata conforms. (By the way, the name means a chattering blue bird with a crest.)

You might well ask what’s the purpose of scientific names? Plain and simple, it is to eliminate ambiguity and prevent mistakes. It’s a way to ensure that a scientist on Long Island and a scientist elsewhere in the world are communicating about the same species…an uncertain outcome if these scientists are communicating using the common names of species. 

For example, two scientists discussing otter biology need to know what otter species they’re talking about. Is it the Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris)? Or maybe the River Otter (Lontra canadensis) or Asian Small-clawed Otter (Aonyx cinereus)? How about Giant River Otter, (Pteronura brasiliensis), European Otter (Lutra lutra) or any other of the thirteen species of otters found in the world. In discussing some aspect of otter ecology or biology, just mentioning “otter” may not be sufficient to provide the level of specificity or accuracy needed. Researchers need to know they’re both talking about the same species of otter. Or bacteria. Or slime mold. Or many other species that can affect us.

If you have an interest in nature and natural history, I’d encourage you take a second look at scientific names as they often impart some helpful information about or describe some aspect of a species, referring to the geographic range of the species or where it was first discovered. It may also provide information regarding some physical characteristic of the species, say possessing a long tail or having a red cap on its head.

For example, the Latin/Greek name for the Ring-billed Gull, a common gull on Long Island, is Larus delawarensis, the species name meaning “of Delaware,” stemming from the fact the first specimen of this species was collected near the Delaware River south of Philadelphia. And as but one of many examples relating to a physical feature, the scientific name for the Eastern Towhee is Pipilo erythrophthalmus; the species name is Greek for red-eyed — “erythros” meaning red and “ophthalmos” meaning eye (think ophthalmologist). Indeed one of the conspicuous features of this beautiful member of the sparrow family, a common breeding bird in the Long Island Pine Barrens, is its red eye.

The scientific name for the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) presents another example in which a scientific name expresses a physical feature — leucocephalus means white-headed and Haliaeetus means salty sea eagle, a description of the type of habitat it frequents, so the name provides an apt description of the species — the salty sea eagle with the white head.

Other scientific names honor their discoverer or someone who the discoverer of the species wants to honor. Former Presidents Reagan, Carter, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump have all been so honored with a species named after them as has all the members of the Rock Band Queen (Lead singer Freddie Mercury is honored with the name Heteragrion freddiemercuryi, a species of damselfly). So too the members of the Rolling Stones, Rush, and the Ramones. Lady Gaga and Beyonce have been so honored, so has Bob Dylan, and comedian and late night host Stephen Colbert has done very well — with three species named after him: a beetle, spider, and wasp.

In addition to honoring an individual or providing some basic information about the species, some Latin names provide a more complete picture of the species. 

Let’s take Trailing Arbutus as an example. A beautiful low-growing plant with five-petaled, light pink flowers which grows along sandy trails in the Pine Barrens, the Latin name for the species is Epigaea repens. “Gaea” is Greek for the Earth or Earth Goddess and “Epi” mean “upon.” So the generic name means “upon the earth”. The species name “repens” comes from repent. What position are you typically in when repenting? Trailing or prostrate on the ground. So, the scientific name for Trailing arbutus means to “trail upon the earth” an accurate description of the plant’s growth form.

Another example involves the Northern Mockingbird, a common breeding bird in suburbia. Well-known for its ability to mimic the songs and sounds of other birds, the Mockingbird’s scientific name, Mimus polyglottis, means “many throated or many tongued mimic”; poly meaning many and glottis referencing the throat or tongue.

While the Latin names for the arbutus and Mockingbird are accurate, for some other scientific names of species the jury is still out with regard to accuracy of the name. Take us humans (Homo sapiens) which means “wise man.” Given the path we’re on, of global destabilization of this planet’s finely tuned climate, with potential catastrophic effects for human societies and the natural world, perhaps a change to our scientific name is in order. Indeed, time will soon tell whether “sapiens” should be kept or replaced.

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.

Dandelion seeds

By John L. Turner

Here’s a question for you to ponder: How, if you’re a stationary plant, can you be successful in having your seeds dispersed so that your progeny (new plants) can grow and prosper, thereby passing your genes on to the next generation?

If you look around your neighborhood answers abound and one of them found its way into my mouth recently in the form of a handful of black cherries. Black cherry is a common tree native to Long Island, scattered about in richer woodlands. Each summer, from late July through mid-August, these cherries produce copious amounts of fruit which are tasty — mind you, not as tasty or meaty as cultivated supermarket cherries — but still pretty good. I ate the pulp of each and one by one spit out the hard pits (and I’m proud to say a few went more than 10 feet!).  

The seeds of native milkweeds are dispersed primarily by wind. Pexels photo

Cherries illustrate one of the primary means by which plants disperse their seeds: through ingestion by mobile animals. These animals, birds and mammals mostly, digest the pulp of the fruit but poop out the unaffected pit or seed, often many miles from the parent (with the poop providing a little bit of fertilizer to give the seed a head start). Many other plants, basically any fruit producing species such as tupelos, mulberries, raspberries and blueberries, depend upon animals for dispersal through ingestion.

For nuts and seeds its a bit more complicated. In this case, say with acorns or hickory nuts, but unlike fruits, if the nut is eaten then no new tree will grow. But even a squirrel or blue jay with a good memory is bound to forget the cached location of a few acorns it has stored, or perhaps was killed by a predator. In this case the movement of the nut by the animal is beneficial — just so long as it is not consumed.

Wind is a less visible but no less important dispersal agent. Many plants have evolved elaborate structures that aid in carrying seeds aloft to land well away from the parent plant. The native milkweeds are one example. Each seed is attached to silken hairs that form a structure similar to a parachute. Once the pod dries and splits open the seeds can be easily carried aloft by a strong breeze. 

Another, perhaps even more well-known example involves dandelions, the circular seed head of which every child has blown on to scatter the silken seeds hither and yon. Each seed has a structure known as a pappus made up with one hundred or so hairlike bristles that carry the seed aloft, allowing it in steady winds to travel miles. Physicists have recently learned that air blowing upward through the pappus creates an area of low pressure above the seed which facilitates upward movement, allowing it to potentially travel great distances. 

An alternate design that eases dispersal by the wind is found in maple seeds; they have winged membranes. This creates resistance to the air enabling the seeds to twirl away, some distance from the shade of the parent tree.

Dandelion seed

The most remarkable dispersal strategy involves propulsion and we have an excellent example on Long Island — jewelweed, also known as touch-me-not. Jewelweed is a common wildflower here, growing in moist to wet environments such as along streams and pond edges; locally it grows on the western side of the pond at Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket and is abundant in the southwestern corner of the pond. The orange flowers are quite distinguishable and noticeable. Hanging on slender stalks, they have a unique, bell-shaped outline with a curled spur in the back (giving rise to another colloquial name — ladies earrings). It is a favorite among pollinating insects and ruby-throated hummingbirds. 

But what is really remarkable about the plant are its exploding seed pods which are elongated and five sided. As they mature the pods develop tension and if one ignores the admonition to “touch-it-not” and touches a pod it abruptly ruptures along the five sutures, with the seeds propelled outward several feet; the result is an exploded-looking seed pod with the sides curled outward.

The other name — jewelweed — comes from one of two explanations. Rain and dew bead up on the leaf surface and in the sunlight the water drops sparkle like jewels. The other has to do with the jewel-like shimmer of the leaf’s underside when submerged in water. The shimmer is caused by minute pockets of air caught in the hairs on the undersurface and gives rise to yet another name — silverleaf.

With regard to aquatic plants it is not surprising they often depend upon water for dispersal of seeds. Coconuts are perhaps the best example and they display a common and unsurprising trait of water dispersed seeds — they float. Closer to home we have several species of woody plants and wildflowers whose seeds float on the water, including birch and willow trees, and pondside flowers like irises.

Another novel strategy plants employ to spread seeds involves those which get entangled in the fur of mammals and feathers of birds. A few local examples include tick trefoil, cocklebur, beggar’s ticks, and common burdock. 

Tick-trefoil, of which there are a few species, produce pods, not surprising since they are members of the Pea family. The pods are covered with many tiny hair-like hooks enabling the pod to easily dislodge and attach to an animal’s fur — or your pants leg! I’ve occasionally come back from a hike with several dozen pods clinging resolutely to pant legs, socks, and shoes. 

The seeds of beggar’s ticks act similarly although in their case the seed has two “horns,” each equipped with tiny barbs that serve as fasteners. In the case of cockleburr and burdock, the plants produce oval burrs, their surfaces chock-filled with hooks. An animal brushes against the plant and the easily dislodged burrs go for a ride.

It was such a ride on an animal, George de Mestral’s dog Milka to be precise, that led to the invention of a product that is ubiquitous today — Velcro. Back in 1941, after a walk with his Irish pointer, de Mestral took a closer look under a microscope at the burdock burrs stuck to his pet’s fur. He was intrigued by the many hooklike structures and began to experiment. Fourteen years later he patented Velcro, so named from two French words: “velour” meaning velvet-like (one surface of Velcro) and “crochet” meaning hook (the other surface); together they mean “hooked velvet.”

You can see common burdock, the inspiration for Velcro, along nature trails throughout Long Island and perhaps burdock burrs will find their way onto your shoes and clothing equipped with that modern invention — Velcro — they served to inspire.

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.

Monarch butterflies. Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

While snipping off shoots from a few tomato plants growing on the edge of the vegetable garden, a fluttering movement caught my eye. Turning to look in the direction of a small stand of Common Milkweed pinched against the garden’s deer fence, I watched as a Monarch Butterfly danced from one milkweed plant to another. After a minute or two she left (in addition to the egg-laying habit of females, you can distinguish male and female by the presence of two black dots on the hind wings of male Monarchs and the thicker black wing veins of females) and I had a chance to see the results of her activity — four tiny white eggs laid on the underside of milkweed leaves. 

The butterfly’s dance was a dance of life, for she was creating the next generation. Various milkweed species serve as host plants for Monarch caterpillars, provisioning them with all the food they’ll need to develop into adults.

Feeling a tad bit paternal, I checked on the eggs daily. On the fourth day I was in for a surprise. On the underside of a milkweed leaf was a small caterpillar about a third of an inch long. With the diagnostic colors of white, black, and yellow I knew it was a very young Monarch. As the next few days went by the hungry little caterpillar grew, reaching about half an inch in length. 

When I next checked in, it had molted its skin for the first time, which sat like a tiny rumpled shirt stuck to the leaf surface. I anticipated seeing several more molts before the caterpillar was fully grown. However, when I inspected the next day there were no signs of the caterpillar, not in the form of nibbled milkweed leaves, nor the caterpillar itself despite an extensive search in which I turned over every milkweed leaf in the small stand of plants. It was gone. Disappeared. Nowhere to be seen.

Plant common milkweed to help Monarch butterflies thrive. Photo by John Turner

The disappearance of this caterpillar serves as a metaphor for the species, as the Monarch butterfly is disappearing before our eyes. The Western Monarch population which overwinters in southern California is critically endangered with a few thousand butterflies separating it from extinction and in the past two decades Eastern Monarchs have declined by 85%, primarily due to the loss of milkweed in the Midwest, killed by herbicides designed to reduce competition with agricultural crops like soybeans and corn. 

Here the story turns to Monsanto, the chemical industry giant. Monsanto developed, and for many decades manufactured, ROUNDUP, the most widely used herbicide in the United States. And while herbicides can kill unwanted weeds, they can also have a negative effect on crops, a problem Monsanto solved by developing genetically engineered corn and soybeans, immune to ROUNDUP’s effects. 

Now, Monsanto could sell both countless tons of soybeans and corn kernels and the herbicide that’s effective at eliminating competing plants, like milkweeds, all made the easier by the farmer not having to worry about the herbicide killing the crops. Spray away! 

Not surprisingly, in the past twenty-five years ROUNDUP use has increased 20-fold. The result of all this spraying? The Midwest has lost 99% of its milkweed stands. Wonderful profits for Monsanto but deep peril for Monarchs — so deep that a petition to have the butterfly added to the federal Endangered Species List has been submitted to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and accepted with merit.

The life cycle of the Monarch is complex, unique, and remarkable. By the middle of March adults begin to disperse northward from their overwintering sites in Mexico with virtually all funneling through Texas. These females lay eggs on milkweeds and the young that hatch out become the 1st generation; the adults die but the eggs hatch, the caterpillars grow and the adults move north before repeating the process. 

The butterflies repeat the process, several hundred to a thousand miles to the north, so by the time we’re seeing Monarchs here on Long Island it may be the 3rd or 4th generation of butterflies for the year. These northward bound generations are much shorter lived than the southbound generation, individuals of which can live for six months. Few other insects undergo such long-distance migrations or have generations part of an annual cycle that behave so differently.

In autumn, the last generation of Monarchs move south, leaving the eastern United States (we see them as they flutter past or perhaps nectaring on fall blooming wildflowers) on their way to one of a dozen or so major colonies situated in the oyamel fir forests scattered in the mountains of central Mexico, where, for the next five or so months, they’ll overwinter. 

The climate conditions in these evergreen forests are ideal for Monarchs, a range of cool-to-cold temperatures that allows them to enter a metabolic pause. This can be risky though, as sometimes temperatures drop below freezing and the butterflies perish in huge numbers.

These winter colonies provide another way to measure the Monarch’s status: by looking at the extent of their collective size, measured in acres. The colonies are assessed annually and the trend in the last couple of years has been cause for alarm. This past winter (2020-2021) the colonies covered a little more than five acres, the lowest amount in five years; in 2019 they totaled just shy of 15 acres.   

Once Monarchs arrive on Long Island females quickly seek out milkweeds on which to lay eggs. And here an ages-old battle plays out between the plant and the animal. The caterpillar eats leaf tissue that the milkweed doesn’t want to provide. So milkweeds, living up to their name, defend against this by leaking latex-like sap, a poisonous liquid containing cardiac glycosides in an attempt to gum-up the works. This sometimes works with newly hatched caterpillars occasionally dying, not from the poisons but from the stickiness of the sap. But the caterpillars have a trick up their sleeve — they feed in a pattern that blocks off the flow of latex to the portions of the leaf upon which they subsequently feed, without the worry of sticky sap. 

Monarchs are unaffected by, and in fact are immune to, the poisonous sap, with recent research finding the species has undergone three mutations that negates the damage caused by the liquid. Remarkably, the caterpillar is able to incorporate the plant’s poisons into its own tissues making it poisonous and highly distasteful to birds, a fact quickly learned by inexperienced birds and which is reinforced by the bright and bold colors of the Monarch (you can imagine this lesson being lost on birds if the Monarch was an indistinctive, brown-colored butterfly). 

Young birds quickly associate the butterfly’s bright coloration (known as aposematic coloration) with their poisonous qualities and leave them alone.

If you wish to protect Monarch butterflies there’s a few things you can do to help ensure the future for “North America’s best-known and most-loved insect.” The first is to plant milkweeds, its host plant. Common milkweed is best but swamp milkweed and butterflyweed work too. Stay away from tropical milkweed which isn’t native and is much less effective at growing caterpillars. While you can buy milkweed seeds, better to collect seed pods from local plants and use the seeds once removed from the pods, making sure to let them become cold hardy.

The second is to plant wildflower species that provide nectar for resident and migrating Monarchs. If you live along the coast, a highly desirable native plant that Monarchs enjoy is seaside goldenrod. Other favorable plants include many aster and goldenrod species, Northern Blazing Star, Bee balm, New York Ironweed, and Joe Pye Weed.

Third, move away from using pesticides and other garden and lawn chemicals.

Two weeks later another female Monarch visited the edge of the garden and laid several eggs. A few hatched and the caterpillars have prospered. So, perhaps a few more Monarchs will survive to soon participate in the southbound journey to the mountains of Mexico.

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.

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

By John L. Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By John L. Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By John L. Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barred owl

By John L. Turner

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

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

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

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

I find birds to be an especially appealing subject: 

Hidden in white pine,

An owl hoots from the darkness,

With North Star above.


Barn and tree swallows,

flit, dash, and turn in sunlight, 

flashing metal tints.


Overhanging branch,

Reflects bird in still water,

Belted Kingfisher


A woodcock spirals,

Toward the belt of Orion,

With love on his mind.


Bluebirds in rapture,

Tumble from a perch of oak, 

The sky is falling. 


With sun as loci, 

Red-tailed hawk pair pirouettes, 

Fanning brick toned tails.


From a city tree,  

House finch song sweetly echoes,

Off brownstone buildings.


Miniature forms,

These metallic hummingbirds,

Are other worldly.


Woodpecker on tree,

Hammering of bill wears wood,

Like water does stone.


Red knots on mud flat, 

hemispheric globetrotters, 

bind us together.


Noisy blackbird flock,

Descends to ground from treetops,

Tossing leaves to feed.


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

Miles from Island’s end,

Leviathan surfaces,

Birds flock and fish leap.


A lone sanderling,

Searches for food in wave foam,

Along the sea’s edge.


A fishing boat plows,

Through strong wind and crested waves,

Wearing cap of gulls.


A grey green ocean,

With waves made angry by wind,

Hurls against the shore.


Devonian forms,

Pairs of horseshoe crabs spawning,

Bathed in bright moonlight.


Mysterious sea,

With implacable surface,

Teems with life beneath.

Plants can be great haiku subjects too: 

Spring dogwood petals,

Floating in woodland gloaming,

Like lotus on pond


A gift from a tree,

A yellow and red leaf falls,

Autumn has arrived.


Splitting sidewalk crack, 

bursts of chicory purple,

the power of plants.


The smooth bark of beech,

Ripples like animal skin,

An elephant tree.


A fragile flower, 

Unfurls like spreading fingers, 

Of an upturned hand.


Under crisp blue sky,

Orange pumpkins dot brown earth,

A field with freckles.


On white pine sapling,  

The weight of a wet spring snow, 

makes the tree curtsy.


A goldenrod field,

Filled with bright yellow flowers,

Sunshine concentrate.

How about insects?

Monarch butterfly,

With Mexico on its mind,

Flutters over road.


In warming spring sun, 

A mourning cloak butterfly flits, 

Over forest leaves.


And then there’s miscellany:

Strand of orange sky,

The sun has fallen again,

The earth spins through space.


An orange sliver,

The western sky glows brightly,

Soon stars will appear.  


Grasses look like hair,

On hills that look like muscles,

This animal earth. 


Snowflakes rock downward,

On to a whitening earth,

Hiding all things.


A snowy blanket,

Covers everything in sight,

It is quiet and hushed.


Why not give haikus a try?

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