Articles by

Paul Stoutenburgh

12/16/11 1:47pm

Last week Squeaky was surprised in his quiet little nest by some boys picking up wood for the family stove. The last we saw of Squeaky, he was enjoying some peanut butter the boys had taken out to him when they realized they had disturbed his nest. Let’s get back to our story.

It was now getting to be late afternoon and soon to be Christmas Eve, so the father went out to the wood shed to get the tree. He didn’t know Squeaky was there enjoying the peanut butter, so he picked up the tree, Squeaky and all. “What’s happening now?” the mouse wondered. The tree rocked and swayed as the father carried it into the house through the swirling snow.

Inside it was warm, and Squeaky had never seen anything quite like it. There were special smells in the house and candles burning. It was like a dream world. The tree was set down for a minute and it was then that Squeaky thought it would be a good time to get out and hide. He ran under the big sofa against the side wall. He could see out, but no one could see him. He was lucky to be able to hide before anyone noticed him.

The tree was put up and the children decorated it as high as they could reach. The mother and father would have to take care of the rest. Over in the big kitchen, the mother had been preparing all kinds of good things to eat and drink for Christmas Eve because lots of people would be stopping in.

All this was kind of scary to Squeaky, who had never seen anything like it before. He was very tired from his busy day and climbed up inside one of the arms of the sofa and fell fast asleep.

In the big room the fire crackled in the old wood stove. The children, excited about Christmas, whispered and giggled. The smells — oh, the smells: apple cider, baked pies, fruit and nuts. Nuts — like Squeaky had never seen before — were in beautiful crystal bowls. People came in with packages, walked around, talked, ate and drank. The kids hung their stockings by the fireplace and went to bed, while grownups still came in and out of the house.

Then, most of the folks left to go to church at midnight. This was the first time it was quiet. Now Squeaky could explore. It was like a fairy world. The Christmas tree sparkled with lights all over it. Big balls and tinsel glittered, and around the tree were packages, big and small. He ran here and there. He jumped from box to box. He ran along the top of the table to where there was a dish with some cookies and a note alongside it. “Dear Santa: Hope you had a safe trip. Thank you for whatever you leave, especially if it is a new doll, an airplane and a baseball, bat and mitt,” signed, Peter, Peggy and Roger.

“Well, that was pretty nice for the kids to leave a note for Santa,” Squeaky thought, “but who is this Santa anyway? I’ve never heard of Santa”. He nibbled half of one of the cookies, for he hadn’t eaten since his peanut butter snack.
About that time he heard the folks returning from church so he scurried down the table, across the room and under the couch. Things were quieter now with the company gone. The mother and father brought out extra boxes, put them around the tree and turned out all the lights except those on one little tree on the side table. Then off to bed they went and it was quiet again. Snow had been falling for a long time now and the world outside was blanketed in white. Everywhere the snow glistened.

Never before had Squeaky been as scared as when his nest was destroyed and never before had he been so happy as in this nice warm house. This had been a big day for him, so being very tired, he went back to his little spot under the couch where he curled up inside the arm and fell fast asleep.

Squeaky was awakened in the middle of the night by some strange sounds outside. Then he could smell something different — someone smoking a pipe. Someone else was in the room with him.

When he peeked out from under the couch he could hardly believe what he saw. He just caught sight of a boot going up the chimney. Soot fell down and there was a lot of movement up on the roof. He heard what he thought were tiny hooves and he was sure he heard sleigh bells. Then down through the chimney there came a muffled voice calling, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

What could it mean? Things had changed a bit in the big living room. The empty stockings were now stuffed with goodies. A candy cane stuck out of each one. Who could have done that? And look! A new doll lay propped up against the Christmas tree, and there on the floor were a ball, a bat and glove. And sure enough, a beautiful silvery airplane! How did they get there?

Squeaky looked around. He had to get up higher to see what was going on so he climbed up to the table where the cookies had been. Lo and behold, the cookies and the milk were all gone! Squeaky couldn’t figure it out.

He climbed back down to his warm spot on the couch, twitched his little whiskers, cleaned himself off and settled down for a nice sleep. Just as he was about to doze off he remembered something he had heard the boys talking about when they loaded their wagon with wood. So this is what they were talking about! They told of food, gifts, friends, a visitor in the night. “Now I remember” Squeaky said, “They were talking about Christmas — that’s what it’s all about.” Squeaky was so happy he could hardly contain himself.

The old wood stove crackled away across the room and everything seemed so nice and warm and snuggly. The smell of evergreens drifted through the air from the beautiful Christmas tree that glistened above. He had an extra-special feeling that he just couldn’t explain. As he looked out the window, he noticed the snow had stopped and there was a special stillness that made him think the whole world had gone fast asleep. Squeaky was just about to curl up in the arm of the sofa when he jumped up and shouted in the loudest mouse voice he could muster, ‘Merry Christmas, everybody, and to all a good night!” Then he flopped back into the soft fluffiness of the big couch and fell fast asleep.

12/13/11 7:44am


Focus on Nature has written Christmas stories for the young and young at heart since 1985. This year I thought it would be fun to bring that very first children’s Christmas story about Squeaky the mouse back.

Once upon a time there was a little wood mouse named Squeaky who made his home in an old wood shed. The animal book calls him a deer mouse because his soft brown fur and white undersides are the colors of the white-tailed deer. He is a handsome mouse with big black eyes, unusually large ears, big long whiskers and a nose that is always sniffing.

Months ago he spent a lot of time building his winter nest, where he’ll spend most of his days curled up in a tight ball, fast asleep. After all, mice do most of their scurrying about at night. I guess that’s why they need those big, beady eyes to see in the dark, those large ears to hear every little sound and that nose to sniff every smell in the air.

Anyway, Squeaky thought he had things pretty well set, for, like a squirrel, he had gathered a winter supply of seeds and nuts to hold him over during the real cold and snowy days of winter. After all, a warm nest and lots of food for winter are just about all a mouse could ask for.

Two boys and a girl lived with their parents in a small house in the woods next to the wood shed. They were like other boys and girls — they had tree huts, they played in the woods and the girl always carried around an old doll that was growing shabby.

The big black stove in the kitchen never seemed to be satisfied and every day more wood had to be brought in. It was quite a job for the two boys, and on cold days it wasn’t much fun going outside to keep the wood box full.

The weatherman was talking about a snowstorm coming and the family hadn’t gotten their Christmas tree yet. With only a few days left before Christmas, the kids were pestering their parents to get one. After all, it would be awful if it snowed and they couldn’t get a tree. Well, as most good parents would, they got everyone together and headed out east to get their tree.

It was a long drive but a worthwhile one. When they got to the tree farm, there was a long line of trees to choose from. They had just been cut and smelled so good. But it’s not easy to pick out a tree, particularly when it’s cold and windy out. One of the children wanted a tall tree, another wanted a full tree; back and forth they went until finally they found it — the perfect tree. It was soon tied on top of the car and they all headed back home in great anticipation. They put the tree in the wood shed to protect it if it snowed. It surely looked like it would, for it was blustery and overcast — real Christmas weather.

The next day everyone was excited about Christmas, which was just a day away. Getting wood in the big red wagon was almost fun, since a little work might just help when it came to getting presents. The boys would have to fill the wood box to overflowing so they wouldn’t have to be bothered getting wood on Christmas day.

Just as they started their task, it started to snow. Oh, boy! Snow for Christmas! Santa surely would come in his sleigh this year. The wood seemed to fly from the big dry wood pile. Inside, Squeaky had been curled up in his usual way, sleeping the day away. Often he had heard movements outside when the boys got wood but had felt perfectly safe in his little nest. But now the noise and movement of wood were getting closer and closer! It even shook his nest a bit and woke him right up.

“What’s going on out there?” he wondered.

The wood pile was getting lower and lower and nearer and nearer to Squeaky’s nest. As a matter of fact, it was only two logs away when Squeaky jumped up and took a peek. It was bright outside, and he blinked his big eyes because he was not used to the daylight. What he saw scared him half to death.

There were two boys filling a big red wagon with logs, logs that were part of his house. He darted back into the safety of the pile. The boys filling the wagon didn’t see Squeaky peeking out at them and kept on working. Then a log moved and Squeaky’s whole nest, with all of his food supply, tumbled down. The boys noticed this and felt bad, but it was too late now, the damage was done. The nest lay in a loose pile of grass and bark on the dirt floor. The boys knew they had broken up a mouse’s nest but didn’t know what they could do about it.

They thought of picking up the pieces and trying to put them back together, but that was impossible. “What could we do to make it right with the mouse?” they wondered. After all, it was getting nearer to Christmas and they had the Christmas spirit that filled the air.

“Well, we could at least bring him something to eat,” they decided. So back to the house one of the boys went and he brought back some of the peanut butter they knew mice loved. But where should they put it?

“If we put it in the open,” they said, “a squirrel might get it.” They found a place deep inside the Christmas tree and smeared the peanut butter on a limb. This would be Squeaky’s Christmas present from them.

With that, the boys went into the house and forgot about their mouse because Christmas excitement was everywhere. After they were gone, Squeaky came out to look around for his nest. It was gone, but a certain twitching came to his nose. He smelled something special. He smelled peanut butter. A few short hops and jumps and there it was. What a surprise!

“This will hold me for a time,” he thought, as he sat there nibbling away.

P.S. Watch for Focus on Nature next week to find out how Squeaky’s Christmas adventure turns out.

11/16/11 4:00am

BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | Turkeys have started a comeback here on the North Fork. For years people have called about seeing turkeys alongside the highway or in their backyards. We finally had our own turkey stop by and visit us for a few days.

I’m sitting here in front of the big picture window looking out at the bird feeders. I’m looking for an unusual visitor who has been stopping by for the last two days. Only once before in all the years we’ve lived here has a wild turkey shown up in our backyard. We keep our fingers crossed in hopes it will return and continue to visit us and not end up on someone’s Thanksgiving table.

We have had fun watching as it pecks at the ground in search of seeds, insects and small nuts. It is a very cautious feeder, always on the alert, checking all around every four or five steps with head up and eyes high, searching.
Turkeys have large feet that they use to scratch for food, much like our common chickens. The second day the turkey was here scratching when dusk took over at the end of the day. I know turkeys roost in trees for I found their roosting trees once on a Christmas bird count on Gardiners Island. There was one spot where droppings had created cones of white beneath where they had roosted for the night.

I watched our new visitor in the backyard that night moving about looking for a place to roost. It was getting hard to follow the bird in the fading light. Finally, it made a move and jumped onto a bent cherry tree and proceeded cautiously to walk up the tree to the high branches above. Once off the ground, it became silhouetted against the fading light. Binoculars were brought out as we watched the bird move about in the tree, now about 20 feet in the air. We had probably watched something few people will ever get to see. It was one of the highlights that add spice to our life.

Being a little crazy as we are, Barbara and I were up at dawn to see if our turkey had made it through the night. In that rare light of dawn we could see its large body moving about as it stretched its wings and then flew gracefully to the ground, landing some 40 feet away. Cautiously but deliberately, it started its daily routine of scratching and picking for food. It has been fun watching it feed beneath our bird feeders; at one point it came right up to our door. Now it has disappeared. Hopefully it found better feed elsewhere.

We stayed watching it disappear along the hedgerow of the pasture that morning as other birds started their day. The cardinals, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches were all at our feeding stations. Many woodpeckers have been enjoying the suet we have hanging in wire feeders — the downy, red-bellied, the flicker and the rarer yellow-bellied sapsucker, which we’ve seen a few times. It’s the one that puts the series of holes in the bark of trees and returns later to not only enjoy the sap but the insects that it attracts. We have even seen the chickadees taking advantage of these sap holes.

We saw a black-throated blue warbler, a yellow-throated warbler, a redstart and a hermit thrush when they stopped by on their winter migration to the south. The first winter bird we’ve seen around our feeders was a lone immature white-throated sparrow. These white throats will be with us throughout the winter.

We have already seen early morning frosts covering the back pasture. The fish we enjoyed all summer in our little garden pond below our picture window have been covered up. They will stay there in the ooze at the bottom for the winter until we open it up again in the warm weather of spring. For weeks we’ve had at least 14 squirrels feeding on the hickory nuts that abound around our house. Some are being eaten and some are being buried for later use. One has to watch that you are not hit by falling nuts as the squirrels feed in the trees.

Later in the day we walked along the causeway searching for winter ducks. Sure enough, a small flock of white-winged scoters and surf scoters could be seen off to the east. They’ll spend the winter here diving to the bottom where they search for food. What a remarkable feat these ducks go through every day as they dive, finding small mollusks and occasionally fish that they feed on, then pop up to the surface their bodies warm and dry inside their thick coat of fat and feathers.

We did see one lonely loon that will probably be in our bays all winter. It, too, was scavenging for food along the bottom. Overhead we saw groups of cormorants flying in big strings that day, heading south to warmer climes.

All about us are signs of the changing season. Fall, with its spectacular colors and falling leaves, tells us that colder days are ahead so look for these signs of fall. All you have to do is look and marvel.

11/02/11 4:00am

These past few weeks we have reviewed our travels together in many parts of the world. This week finishes up those travels and next week we will return to fall on the North Fork.

In 1997 we traveled to Germany, Russia, the Scandinavian countries and London; so much in so short a time. We traveled across Germany in a train and saw fields of yellow rape grown for use in canola oil. We touched the Berlin Wall in East Germany and saw Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate.

In Russia we got to see the magnificent Hermitage, one of the world’s largest and oldest museums, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and open to the public since 1852. A museum of art and culture in St. Petersburg, it has a collection of 3 million items. We also went to see colorful country dancers while there.

Then we stopped to visit the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway with their colorfully painted homes and busy waterfronts. In Norway we visited the Viking ships and the Kon-Tiki that Thor Heyerdahl built in 1947. It was a primitive balsa raft he built in Peru and sailed to Polynesia to show that ancient South Americans could have contributed to the culture of Pacific peoples. Then it was on to Heathrow Airport to spend a few wonderful days in London before flying back home.

In 2000 we traveled on a cruise ship through the Panama Canal, where I’d taken the helm of a ship while in the service years before. Passing through the canal on Easter Sunday, we joined other couples married 50 years and renewed our wedding vows.

I went skin diving in Jamaica, then on to Cartagena on our trip to Colombia, South America. We traveled to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest in Costa Rica, where we saw magnificent bird life. In Mexico we watched the high divers at Acapulco. We took a catamaran tour in Puerta Vallarta, where we saw dolphins, sea turtles and whales and later watched whales along the Baja Peninsula in California, eventually ending up at the great San Diego Zoo and on to San Francisco to fly back home.

In 2001 we cruised the Seine and went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889. We saw the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, the religious center of the city of Paris. We drove down the Champs-Elysées, the prestigious avenue in Paris, and saw the Arch of Triumph. We were lucky to have a special guide at the Louvre where we got up close to the Mona Lisa. During that trip, which our children gave us for our 50th anniversary, good friends loaned us their lovely home there. We were driven up to Claude Monet’s home in Giverny and sat for a while to relax in his water gardens. During our stay in Paris we met up with friends from home who joined us for a lovely dinner at the home where we were staying.

In August of that same year we were invited to go salmon fishing in Canada and we took you along with us. We caught no fish but had a wonderful time trying. Every day we would be taken in canoes up and down the river not only fishing but enjoying the fabulous evergreen forests that surrounded this magnificent area. You may remember the little hummingbird we saw tumble down from the porch ceiling all tangled up in spider webs; we were able with the people in the kitchen there to cut it free and send it off, hopefully to look for something besides spider webs for its nesting material.

In 2002 we traveled by train with its magnificent sky dome across Canada. We started by first stopping at Niagara Falls and going on the Maid of the Mist, then we boarded our train to travel across the country of Canada; across the great prairie lands of wheat and corn, etc. Our room aboard the train was set up so we had chairs during the day to sit in and look out a full window at all we could see of Canada. At nighttime the room converted into a bedroom and we had a pleasant sleep aboard the moving train.

Across Canada we went out to Alberta Province, where views became spectacular. We visited Jasper National Park, the gentle giant of the Rockies, the ice fields of the Columbia Glacier and Banff National Park, where we ate in a beautiful hotel overlooking Lake Louise. We couldn’t resist the gondola rides in these parks, up high for sights in all directions of this magnificent area. We ended our trip on Vancouver Island, where we visited the well-known beautiful Butchart Gardens and had tea in a gorgeous hotel where the Queen stopped when visiting the island.

10/05/11 5:03am


Let’s pick up where we left off last time after traveling around our country and continue with the writings and travels of Focus on Nature.

When we were married in 1950 we borrowed a tent from the Goldsmith family for a trip to Montauk to see if we’d like camping. Later we purchased a large, heavy Army-like tent with one side all screened. I remember one time we spent three rainy days in it in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where we ran into Southold schoolteacher Bea Payne and her husband, Bill, from Shelter Island.

The last time we used the tent — on a camping trip to Maine when the kids were older — we went to pick it up in the morning and found a snake coiled up underneath it! That night I remember, too, the mosquitoes were so bad, inside and out, that we all got in the car and drove around to try to get away from them. With no air conditioning and the windows open, the mosquitoes got in the car with us anyway so we headed back to the tent and fought them there.

We then graduated to an 18-foot Holly trailer, which we used to travel around the Great Lakes in 1962, the year after the road opened north of Wawa. We visited the big Fond du Lac Indian Reservation and stopped at huge grain elevators, where we watched grain being dumped from freight cars into waiting ships at the docks. They shook the cars as if they were empty egg cartons to get every piece of grain out.

We were so far north that it stayed light late and the kids could swim until 10 p.m. We had two flat tires 50 miles apart and had to cross the border twice from Canada to the U.S. to get to a Montgomery Ward store to replace them. We found out later the company had bought up tires that were sitting in storage for a long time for that particular camper.

With these added expenses, money was getting tight as we traveled on our summer school vacation. We called to say we would be heading home and not complete our trip all the way around the Great Lakes, but we were told, “Don’t come home. Your house is rented.” Actually, Barbara’s mother had rented our house to Douglas Moore’s protégés, John Kander and Fred Ebb, who together wrote the music and words for “Cabaret” on our piano while spending that summer in our home.

One year, we headed to Newfoundland, where Peter and I figured we could get to see and photograph the famous Atlantic puffins and razor-billed auks that nested in burrows there. When we stopped on our way to camp along the coast of Maine we went on a lobster boat out to Machias Seal Island, where we spent a night in the lighthouse with fresh fish chowder for supper and a place to sleep on the floor. At first light, we found our puffins and auks and spent the morning photographing them.

While we spent our time on the island, Barbara, Roger and Peggy spent their time camping at Cobs Cook State Park. Once we were able to get the pictures we were after, we didn’t need to travel farther north, so it gave us time to spend camping and exploring Acadia National Park, where I got to see my first moose.

Over the years Focus has received many letters. One lady moved away from our area and when reading a Focus article about picking and making beach plum jam said she could “just smell the beach plums cooking.” At the time, Barbara’s Aunt Libby was picking and making beach plum jam for her church to sell, so I talked her into sending a jar to the lady.

Once, when camping down south, I wrote about yellow pine kindling known as firewood. A classmate of mine living in Texas read my article and on a trip back home he brought me a can of it.

Fran Woodward never got to Hawaii but told us when we returned from our tenting tour of four of the islands there that she had been able to travel along with us via Focus. She said they had always planned to make the trip when they retired but her husband died before they got there so she was able to enjoy it through our eyes. This is just a sample of some of the many comments we’ve received from our readers over the years.

Focus got mixed up in politics once. Our opponents asked Troy to stop Focus while I ran for public office — first for town trustee and later for councilman. They felt it was an advertisement for me. Troy said as long as the article didn’t get political, he wouldn’t stop it. Once we mentioned the name of a candidate from Fishers Island while sailing out that way and Troy cut his name out.

Another time there was a half-page vertical ad of our grandson fishing from a dock and the Focus on Nature story was about fishing with him. Troy said I could run one or the other but not both. I chose to run the ad — and I won. The ad showed our then 3-year-old grandson Robby sitting on a dock with a fishing pole in his hand saying, “Vote for my Pa and there’ll still be fish around when I grow up.”

09/20/11 1:54pm

BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | Standing beneath the Great Arches of Utah made me feel humble and proud of this great country of ours.

Looking through some old files we came across notes written in 1996 about the beginning of Focus on Nature. These notes never saw the light of day; they were written and filed away. Interesting to us how, over the years, things seem to fade in our minds, but once on paper they are there forever. It sharpened our memories and we thought you might be interested in going back to the beginnings of Focus with us.

1996: In checking Focus on Nature articles written 35 years ago when Herb Blais was working for The Sunday Review in Riverhead, then run by the Forbes family in the old Studebaker building, he paid me a visit one evening.

He was staying with Barbara’s stepbrother Malcolm in Norwold on Mud Creek, just a ways up Skunk Lane [in Cutchogue] from where we live. He came to ask if I would write a nature column for the paper and if I would, he wondered what we would call it. That night was the beginning of Focus on Nature as you know it today.

Dennis Puleston, the great naturalist/artist from Bellport and a longtime friend of mine, offered to do sketches for each week’s article. I would call him at the beginning of the week and tell him what I was going to write about and he would make a sketch to go with it. In those days his sketches were done in black and white and we still have the originals.

This article [1996] is being typed on a very small laptop computer and sent by a modem to the paper, or email or even a fax (as was done many times when we were out of town), and could be in print soon after it was written. In 1961, when Focus was first born, we used an old Royal portable typewriter that had taken me through college. We would carry it with us and type on beaches, in campgrounds, wherever we happened to be.

One time when we forgot it, Barbara had to go into a hotel lobby on Prince Edward Island and borrow their typewriter in order to get Focus in on time. The articles written from Sable Island, the graveyard of the Atlantic off the coast of Canada, when I was a naturalist on the Lindblad cruise ship, were written in longhand and probably not appreciated very much by those back at the paper.

We sometimes had guest writers back in those days when we went for extended trips with the kids in the summertime. After I went back to college at the age of 35 to become a teacher, it gave us summers to spend traveling. Dennis Puleston wrote, as did his daughter Jen. Judd Bennett, a great friend and naturalist from East Marion, wrote many times. Harold Evans, a farmer, teacher and friend from Riverhead, wrote a particular one I can still recall on “birding from a tractor” and Larry Penny wrote a guest column just after he graduated from Cornell.

In those days, Larry and I often went skin diving and birding together. Today he heads up the natural resource department for the Town of East Hampton and has had his own column in The East Hampton Star for many years.

Celebrating our first 35 years together, Focus traveled around the world to Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Lichtenstein, where we saw many plants similar to ones we have here at home, like the daisy, dandelion and the blue-flowered chicory. Then Focus traveled to Mexico, Iceland, Alaska, Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia to see many of the things we’d always heard about and finally got to see first-hand. We tented through many of these countries, with one backpack holding our clothes and another our camping equipment.

In Australia we watched fairy penguins come up out of the water at night headed for their burrows and young after feeding all day; at Homer, Alaska, we saw great huge halibut caught where bald eagles were as common as ospreys on Long Island. In Australia we enjoyed a lunch with our friends the Finkles, who traveled with us when a kangaroo decided to join the party.

When I had spent 100 days on my back after surgery I thought my traveling days were over. What I decided I really wanted to see once I was up and around again was more of this great country of ours, particularly the great plains of the West. So our next trip took us in a popup camper (on top of our pickup), along with our traveling cat, 14,000 miles around the U.S. visiting family, friends and places we’d only read of before: Big Bend in Texas, Yosemite, the Redwoods, the Great Arches of Utah, the rain forest in the Olympic Peninsula and much, much more.

We finally got to visit with the Bill Christopher family in the state of Washington. He was once a science teacher at Southold High School and his wife, Judy, is my niece. We made stops in Minneapolis and Chicago to see Barbara’s nieces JoAnne and Mary Jane and their families. We also got to see the beautiful campuses in Tempe, Ariz., and Ogden, Utah. where our sons had gone to college.

We’ll continue follow more Focus on Nature through the years in the next few columns. We enjoy having you along.

09/07/11 12:37pm

The recent visit from Hurricane Irene reminded me of the giant of all hurricanes, the now famous ’38 hurricane. I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating.

When the hurricane struck I was in high school in Southold. It had poured rain all that day and the ground was soft, making it easier for trees to be blown over — but I’m getting ahead of my storm.

In those days there was one school bus driven by J. Henry Wolf that picked us up along the Main Road. My sister and I had to walk a mile and a quarter each day to catch it. We carried our brown paper lunch bags with us and on the way always had to sneak a goody Mother had put in for lunch. The bus reminded you of a toy-box affair with no rounded corners and no sweeping curves. Kids were continually opening the windows, and that angered “J. Henry,” who always hollered “Close those windows!”

There was a big handle on the door that, when pulled, opened and closed the door. One time when the bus was loaded with kids, he pulled over to the side of the road. (We knew JH was a champion tobacco chewer.) He swung the door open and spit this gob of tobacco juice out the open door, as all the kids booed, whistled and moaned, and then the bus went back on the road again.

The day of the hurricane I was in study hall and the view I remember was from the window that looked out on Oaklawn Avenue. There’s still some of that old Southold High School building there, but all the new buildings that have since gone up around the original building dwarf it today. It just so happened they were putting a new roof on the school, and the roof was only half done when the storm hit and it went scurrying across the ball field, tossing 2x4s and roofing material in a thousand directions.

We watched the great elm trees that lined the streets slowly go down, each one finally resting on its side with a huge clump of dirt clinging to its roots. Clumps of dirt like those can still be seen in the woods around our home today. They lie there like tombstones marking the death of the mighty oaks that once stood straight and tall. You could tell the direction of the wind by the way the trees fell.

As the storm grew in intensity, our principal, Mr. Blodgett, thought it was time for the students to get home before the storm got any worse. So we kids piled into the bus with our driver at the wheel and headed west. All went well until we got about a half mile toward home and were stopped in our tracks by downed trees and branches that blocked our way. Then it was everyone for himself. I always liked walking, so the distance of five or six miles didn’t seem like too much of a problem to me — but what a problem it turned out to be for those of us who chose to walk.
Electric wires dangled everywhere. We climbed over and under the downed trees. Cars were held captive by downed trees in front and in back of them. All through the howling wind and rain, for me, there was a bit of excitement and adventure.

When you’re that young, danger is not for you. We crossed fields to make better time where there were no downed trees to slow you up and, unlike today, farm fields were everywhere. It was getting dark when I finally got home and could literally not see our house there were so many trees down. Was my mother ever glad to see me!
From that first day after the hurricane passed, it was cleanup. My dad had Uncle Henry’s two-man saw and an ax that we proceeded to use to clear a walkway through the jungle of trees and broken limbs. I still have that two-man saw; it hangs on the wall as a remembrance of the ’38 hurricane.

There were so many trees down that my dad finally stopped cutting firewood sizes for the big wood stove. He just cut lengths that he, or should I say “we,” could carry. It made a formidable pile that later was cut up by a farmer’s buzz saw. It was a wicked piece of machinery with its three-foot, belt-driven blade that screamed at you as each piece of wood was pushed into its spinning blade.

I remembered how that belt-driven saw cut through the pile of my dad’s wood, so when we had to cut down 15 or more trees to make room when we were building our house, I shopped around and found an old buzz saw in a farmer’s junk pile. I don’t believe it had been used since that devastating ’38 hurricane. It was rusty and falling apart. I repaired it and with the help of Pete Kujawski, the farmer up the lane, and his power take-off from his International “H” tractor, we once again had a buzz saw singing every time we pushed a log into that swirling blade.

Back to the 1938 hurricane — the general public never saw the hurricane coming. It hit us on Sept. 21, 1938, and no one knew anything about it except for Charlie Pierce, a junior forecaster in the U.S. Weather Bureau. He predicted the storm but was overruled by the chief forecaster and the Weather Bureau experts (Allen, 1976). Later that day, the greatest weather disaster ever to hit Long Island and New England struck in the form of a Category 3 hurricane. It changed Long Island, New York and New England forever.

In the “History of Southold Town,” town historian Toni Booth says that in Southold the wind blew 100 miles an hour that day and 600 of Southold’s trees were uprooted.

Scott Mandia, physical sciences professor, speaks about the one positive aspect of the hurricane: “One positive economic outcome of the 1938 Hurricane was that it effectively ended the unemployment experienced near the end of The Great Depression. At that time most people were out of work and would gladly work for the standard wage of $2 per day. Because so much damage had occurred to homes and buildings and so many trees were blocking roadways, thousands of people flocked to Long Island in search of clean-up work and repair. In fact, more than 2,700 men were brought into New York and New England by Bell Systems just to repair the downed phone lines.”

08/09/11 3:06pm


We were surprised the other night when Lou called from Southold to say he had found a four-foot black snake badly tangled in some plastic deer fencing he had around his tomatoes. He wasn’t afraid that the snake was poisonous; he was just concerned about how to set it free without harming it. I suggested he snip the plastic with scissors or just leave it, in the hope it would make its way out. We talked about it for a while and decided perhaps the snake could untangle itself overnight and he said he would call in the morning to let me know how it all worked out.

It was just minutes later when an excited Lou called back! He had taken scissors out and spent a little time cutting the fencing around the snake’s head; the plastic was tangled so tightly around its neck Lou was afraid the snake wouldn’t be able to get free without some help. The fencing had tangled close to the snake’s eye, and Lou said, “We were eye to eye as I cut the last of the plastic.” It probably took a minute for the snake to realize it was free, but with a little time it moved away under some tomato plants where it rested a bit before it eventually slipped away. We don’t know who was more relieved, the snake or Lou.

It was nice to hear that, with so few snakes actually seen around the North Fork today, Lou was interested enough to take the time and effort to help out this black snake, which found itself in an embarrassing situation in his garden. Most people never get to see a huge black snake.

We haven’t seen any snakes around our place in a long time. We miss them. There used to be garter snakes in our garden or resting in the warm sun in our driveway, but it’s been a long time since we have seen a single snake around. Snakes are beneficial; they eat rodents of all types — rats, mice, voles — and should not be killed.
Some people are a bit apprehensive when it comes to snakes. Our good neighbor Winnie Billard, not being too fond of snakes, told us years ago that one had found a home under her back porch. She put up with it for years, each respecting the other. If that philosophy could reign with most of our wildlife, we’d have a better world by far.

What we are seeing every day now — and perhaps you are, as well — are the beautiful butterflies drifting through the air and visiting our flowering blossoms. Yellow swallowtails, spicebush swallowtails and monarchs are all passing through. Our great-grandkids are busy with their butterfly nets trying to catch any that come near.

The spicebush swallowtail was the first to appear, sitting on some impatiens blossoms near our pond. It returned time and again to fill up on nectar from the colorful flowers. This swallowtail is a strikingly beautiful butterfly, with its forewing mostly black, with ivory spots along the margin. The upper surface of the hind wing is bluish (female) or bluish-green (male). While spicebush swallowtails can be seen flying and feeding low to the ground, they also enjoy trees, such as the tulip tree.

Speaking of tulip trees, our son lost one in a recent thunder and lightning storm when it was struck and debarked by a lightning bolt. He remembers hearing a sizzling sound in the back of his house during the storm but never realized how close it hit until he saw the tulip tree in his backyard. The lightning strike stripped one whole side of the tree, leaving it dried and wrapped like a cinnamon stick. Now all the leaves are brown and dying and the tree is gone.

Back to our butterflies — the bright colored yellow tiger swallowtail stands out among the foliage. One day we noticed two flying in unison among the branches of one of our hickory trees — what a beautiful sight! It is native to North America.

Probably the most popular butterfly seen in our area is the monarch, which passes through on its annual migration. We often see these in our garden, where the main attraction is the butterfly bush. We have them in all colors and the butterflies congregate on them.

The monarch is famous for its long southward migration and its northward return in the spring, which spans the life of three to four generations of the butterfly. These long flights have been documented by actually putting lightweight stickers on the butterflies’ wings to tag them along the route they follow, which are later checked when they arrive some 3,000 miles away in Mexico, where they congregate on the trees by the thousands. Checking the stickers must be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Some 2,000 schools in the country are involved in this study following the amazing monarch migration south. Butterflies in the last generation to leave our area do not die right away but migrate south and live six to eight months in Mexico until they awake from hibernation in the spring, mate and lay eggs; then, withered and tattered from their migration and hibernation, they finally die.

The next generation that starts its flight northward lives for only six to eight weeks and goes through the life cycle again. This cycle continues through the months until they finally leave here in September or October to head out on their long journey south. The whole cycle of the monarch butterfly seems almost impossible.

07/26/11 1:07am

The heat that hit us over the past few weeks kept us indoors, out of the sweltering 80 and 90 degree weather. If it wasn’t the temperature that knocked us out, it was the humidity. Yet there was always some activity going on around our place — like today, when we looked into the little pond under our picture window and the three frogs that wintered over there jumped out to sit on the rocks and enjoy the humid day.

They’ve doubled in size since they emerged from the bottom of our little garden pond, which was covered over for the winter. We’ve never seen them catch anything, although they are under constant observation. You’d think one of us would have seen them snatch a fly or bug with their sticky, rubber-band tongues. Not to be left out as survivors of the winter, our two big goldfish also made it through and are lazily nibbling algae around the edge of the pond. Their big job, of course, is to eat mosquito larvae.

We have woodlands around our home so, of course, it goes without saying we have deer almost every day. However, we did miss them for a while recently and then realized why. Our daughter and her grandchildren were walking through the woods and they spotted a fawn curled up at the base of a tree, not blinking an eye. Here was the reason we had not seen any deer around for a while: They were evidently busy with the newborns.

Yesterday we saw two of these new fawns frolicking in joyful play in the yard, stopping only to try to nurse when the mother approached. Evidently this wasn’t the time for feeding, as she led them off into the woods. Today, three spotted fawns were having a drink at our fish pond down the driveway.

Not only have we seen the young deer around but a number of our resident birds have brought their young to our feeders. First to arrive were the chickadees. The young were so unafraid they would sit on the table or on our knees or arms, calling all the time to be fed. As the parents approached with food the young trembled with excitement. Then the titmice family followed, along with the cardinals and sparrows.

When they first arrived, the young sparrows were so noisy calling to be fed that they arrived they caught our attention and Barbara tried to photograph them. As they lined up on a tree limb they were facing the wrong way and all she was able to get was their four little butts. It reminded me of years ago when I was photographing a family of nuthatches. The young all decided to make their way out on a limb and wait to be served. Slowly, one at a time, they slipped off. It was fun to watch and I caught it on film as you can see.

And finally, the biggest of all, the crow family arrived and took over the back yard. We watched as a young crow walked up and took a taste of a five-inch mushroom, which wasn’t to its liking. They walked around under the bird feeders picking up leftovers and chasing any squirrels that believed they were there first.

In the high heat and humidity you could see these large crows cooling off with their bills partly opened. Birds, like dogs, open their mouth to cool off in hot weather. We’ve seen the lawn ripped up where moss was growing and believe the crows are turning it over to find bugs and insects to feed the young or teach them how to find food for themselves.

At the end of the day — as we watched for the deer to return across the lawn, the bats to come out for their evening insect meal, and the fireflies all over the place lighting up the yard — we noticed something going up the ramp just alongside the pond. Looking closer, we could see it was Mr. Raccoon. He also checked out the feeder fallout and then was off across the lawn to see what he could find in the garden. A baby rabbit has been enjoying the new lettuce leaves in the garden and runs completely across the lawn occasionally as if something were hot on its heels.

We ate lunch outside one nice day outside and, to our surprise, we spotted perhaps this same raccoon climbing up a tall cherry tree along the pasture fence. We could hardly believe our eyes and were curious what it was doing. After a while Barbara walked across the lawn and watched as this raccoon, 30 feet up in the tree, stood on its hind legs and reached for a small limb, pulling it down as it picked off the cherries, ate them and dropped the pits. As Barbara stood there trying to get a picture of this through all the leaves, pits were dropping all around her. That was a new one for us.

So it seems all is well with the creatures of the wild during this humid hot spell, for they are all busy with their everyday survival activities.

07/14/11 1:06am

When driving along our highways during the past month, have you noticed the clumps of tall orange flowers growing along the roadside? This introduced perennial plant that primarily originated from East Asia is called the orange day lily. It has been in cultivation for a long time.

These old-fashioned day lilies are rarely offered today by the horticulture industry but have been replaced by hybrids of various colors, sizes and lengths of blooming time. The orange day lily blossoms for a month and each large 3 1/2-inch flower lasts only a single day, giving it its common name — day lily. The plant was well known in our parents’ and grandparents’ time, often outlasting the buildings that surrounded it and their inhabitants.

This colorful orange day lily was the first flower I became aware of in my dad’s garden. It was probably brought into his flower garden from a random clump found nearby where an old house once stood. Through the years I’ve always appreciated this relic of the past.

Many years ago, we enjoyed watching a pair of orioles as they built an intricate gourd-shaped nest on the end of a branch of a big hickory tree in our backyard. They returned for many years and we always enjoyed watching them. When we knew there were orioles around we used to put pieces of cotton string around for them to use. We miss hearing their song coming from the tops of the trees and miss seeing these brilliantly colored birds living in our backyard.

We were fortunate recently to receive a call from our son, who had a pair of orioles that had built near his porch on a low-hanging tree branch. He said the pair was busy feeding young and thought we might like to watch them and try to photograph them. We were out the door as soon as we could grab our equipment and some lunch! What a delightful few hours we had as we sat and watched and photographed this colorful pair of birds flying in and out, feeding their young.

These birds are migratory and arrive in the states during the spring to breed and raise their young. Then they return to Mexico and Central and South America in the fall. They nest all across eastern North America, where their nests are hung by the rim from low-hanging branches woven from hair, plant fibers and maybe some string.

The Baltimore oriole was first illustrated and described by Mark Catesby in 1731. It was thought to have been called an oriole after the Old World oriole, but the Baltimore oriole is actually a small blackbird. The male is brightly colored in orange and black and the female is a yellow brown with darker wings and dull orange on its breast and belly.

The parents we were watching seemed to have no difficulty in finding food for their young. Orioles eat caterpillars, fruit,  insects, spiders and nectar. What we saw them feeding were small green inchworms. They were in and out of the nest quickly as food was so plentiful, often both arriving back at the nest at the same time with food in their mouth and having to decide who would deliver first and then leave quickly so the other could deposit their fresh-caught meal.

While keeping our eyes closely on this busy family we began to notice movement in the soft hanging nest. Sure enough, the young were moving about inside. It was then that we watched as the female slowly worked her way down into the nest — all the way into the nest until you could see no sign of her at all. Could she have been cleaning the nest or just rearranging things to handle the growing young? We’ll never know. Most birds clean their nests by removing the feces in its mucous sac and carrying it away from the nest, depositing it in someone else’s backyard.

The most unusual oriole nest I ever saw was when we had sheep in our back pasture. The orioles decided to build a unique nest down by the pond by taking the wool caught on the fence where the sheep had been rubbing and weaving it into an exquisite wool nest. To this day it is hanging in the Hay Shack up back, where it can be seen as a reminder of how unique Mother Nature is.

If you happen to be lucky enough to have an oriole nest in your yard or nearby in someone else’s yard, enjoy the beauty of these beautifully colored birds and the uniqueness of their delicately woven nest.