09/07/11 12:37pm
09/07/2011 12:37 PM

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
08/09/2011 3:06 PM


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
07/26/2011 1:07 AM

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
07/14/2011 1:06 AM

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.

05/31/11 5:47am
05/31/2011 5:47 AM


With all the discouraging weather we’ve been having I put off writing Focus in hopes of finding that “perfect day.” Then like all good things that take time, the perfect day finally arrived with brilliant sunshine and low humidity. But now what to do with our first nice day? Perhaps for starters, I’ll take a stroll out to the garden.

As I stepped off the patio into the wet grass I could see the bright and glistening Star of Bethlehem plants that have made their new home throughout our lawn. Here they have faced those wet rainy days of the past giving us hope for better days ahead. Our yard is alive with birds singing their own special songs for this perfect day.

Then across the lawn and into the garden. It’s not much of a garden, since we haven’t had a chance to get into it and work as yet. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that soon and cut down the tall grass that has shot up everywhere; no place has been left barren as everything green now reaches for the sun.

The only bright spots in the garden were the tall, colorful blossoms of the iris that stood above everything else, bursting forth in all their splendor. As I stood there with the sun shining from behind them, I could think of nothing more gorgeous; the way the purple, yellow and white blossoms hung reminded me of dainty drapes of color in some fairy-tale palace. While I was standing there lost in thought I began to feel the wet, chilly dew that was slowly penetrating my sandals. My feet were soaked, but who cared; the sun was out and my iris were blooming.

The only other color that could be seen was in the buds of the peonies waiting for their day of sun. The big holly my dad had given me years ago had been pollinated even through the miserable weather, and now each branch was loaded with green berries that will slowly turn to red. Already a mockingbird has claimed it as his territory.

What to do next as the sun seemed to grow warmer and warmer with each passing hour. The sun is out, so let’s go down and see how the returning plovers and least terns are making out down on the causeway. We’ve seen them since their return but let’s check on them once more. They should be settled in by now. These dainty sand-colored creatures of the shoreline are having a particularly tough time in today’s modern world of beach vehicles, Frisbee games and wandering dogs.

When we arrived at the causeway we could hear the high-pitched call of birds — not the plaintive call of the piping plover but the call of the least tern. Here was another nester of our beaches and as we drove along the causeway where good-hearted volunteers have fenced the area in, we could see terns flying and settling on the beach. This was getting-acquainted time and courting time with new mates.

To think they had come all the way up from the marine coast of Central and South America to grace our shores. Who can begrudge these small wonders, as they ask nothing more than to nest and raise their young and then they’ll be gone.

Since the sun was still out and we were enjoying its warmth, we decided to make one more trip to check on spring and returning birds. We chose a wooded area with wet spots where a solitary sandpiper, scarlet tanager, indigo bunting and redstart had been seen, so we decided to try our luck.

What struck us most was the yellow of the yellow warblers as they flitted back and forth across the dirt road in among the blossoming yellow wild mustard. What a truly magnificent sight. I remember years ago photographing a pair of these yellow birds from a blind after the young had hatched. What a pleasure being so close and watching this family as it was fed and grew before my eyes.

05/16/11 1:38pm
05/16/2011 1:38 PM

In our family, spring’s true meaning arrives when the lilacs come into bloom. Whether you have them in your backyard or enjoy your neighbor’s, the clusters of assorted purple flowers and the aroma they bring might stir up thoughts of fishing since we were always told, “If the lilacs are in bloom, the weakfish are running.” It is also at this time that schools of bunkers move into our waters.

When I was a kid, schools of bunkers were common and a huge industry flourished by utilizing them for fertilizer, fish meal and other products. The causeway leading to Nassau Point was a favorite spot for farmers who would come down and haul their big nets in a circle around the schools of bunkers that could be seen as a dark cloud under the water. But mechanized commercial fishing of bunkers over the years depleted their numbers.

Today the industry has died, yet there are still remnants of those great schools that our ospreys thrive on in the early spring. Proof of these remnants is the osprey that lights on our windmill carrying a bunker almost daily now. We can tell it is a bunker for its silvery body and forked tail stand out in the late afternoon light. For an hour or more the osprey will feast first on the head and then on the body of the bunker before leaving.

Along with the lilacs we spoke of and the beautiful dogwoods in white and sometimes pink, you can also spot huge horse chestnut trees with their unusual upright clusters of blossoms that brighten up our highways. How many of you have picked up the horse chestnuts, as I have, when they become ripe and discovered that from their bristly covering emerge the most beautiful dark, shiny nuts, which as kids we carried around in our pockets like treasure.

At this time of year there is a mysterious wonder that comes to our shore, the horseshoe crab. My earliest recollections of them was when my dad would go down to the channel with tarred line and squid and a hefty lead sinker that he would whirl around and throw out in hopes of catching one of the early tide runner weakfish, as that’s when the biggest ones come up the creeks.

While Dad was fishing, I was free to wander around and I was always captivated by the huge masses of horseshoe crabs roaming along the high-water mark. Later I learned they were laying their eggs in the sand and then disappearing just as mysteriously as they had arrived, not to be seen again until the following year. Here is a relic of 300 million years ago that is still prodding our shorelines today.

Horseshoe crabs have been observed recently coming up out of the water and laying their eggs along the water’s edge. There the eggs will stay and be warmed by the sun until they are large enough to hatch and float away with the tide. They will shed over and over again as they grow.

While over in Napeague Harbor when camping with our grandchildren I passed some time with my son snorkeling, and lo and behold, I saw this plowed gravel bed and I could see who the culprits were — horseshoe crabs. This was my first introduction to how horseshoe crabs feed by living off small organisms and worms they plow up on the bottom. Their shells on the front were polished from this plowing along the rough bottom. Here was just one example of how much diving and snorkeling added to my knowledge of what goes on in the underwater world.

Our son stopped by the other night and as he was leaving he called our attention to a great horned owl that was silhouetted against the moonlit sky in the very top of a tall evergreen tree. This was probably the poor soul that has been harassed for days by crows. Once they find an owl in the daytime they call in all the troops around and dive and scream at it until they drive it away. But this only lasts for a short time before the troops are called again to rally around and once again bombard their archenemy, the great horned owl. Here we were able to see the owl enjoying a quiet time while the pesky crows had gone off for the night to roost.

Earlier in the evening Peter had noticed bats flying in the yard. We haven’t seen any bats in a long time. We even put up a bat house in hopes of luring them into the yard but had no luck. Bats are helpful to us, as they feed on the insects that man doesn’t particularly like to have around.

It reminded us of a few nights before when Roger had visited and was heading back up the lane in the dark. As he headed down our long driveway he called back, “There goes a big bat … and there goes another big one.”
The next time you see a bat flying in your yard at dusk be glad he’s there — you’ll have fewer annoying insects around bothering you. In fact, sources tell us that each bat can consume up to 1,000 insects in a night.

05/01/11 7:32am
05/01/2011 7:32 AM

Yes, there’s no place like home. What a difference in climate: Florida with its semi-tropical weather and its 80-degree water temperature, and then up here, the North Fork with its cold, miserable rain and cooler weather. But all that is going to change as spring has sprung.

As soon as we reached our beloved home in the woods and stepped out of the car, we were greeted by the calls of the red-bellied woodpecker, the white-breasted nuthatch and, in the far background, the call of the red-winged blackbird, who was already defending his newly found turf.

Yes, it was good to be home. The next morning we rose early to look over the pasture that lay below us. It was overcast and dreary, but that didn’t stop the birds from singing their hearts out. How can they do that when conditions are so miserable? Yes, the robin was running across the lawn, the tufted titmouse and nuthatch were at the feeders and a pair of cardinals was playing the courting game.

All that day we kept a record of the birds we saw. For six months there had been no feeders until the ones our son filled at 1 p.m. the day we arrived, and it was like opening Pandora’s box, with an array of birds that somehow had been told this was the place to be. The noisy little finches, along with the English sparrows, a dove and the noisy blue jay, scratched below the feeder, picking up seeds that were spilled from above.

In between all the activity of the other birds there was a continual flitting in and out by the chickadees. I think of them in the midwinter as the howling winds and low temperatures sweep across the country. Where were they during those nights? How did they survive the cold of last winter? They didn’t just migrate in; these are resident birds like the woodpeckers.

Somehow they had found a place to stay. I hope it was one of my bird boxes. Perhaps more than one would go in and snuggle down among the others, let their heartbeats drop and, yes, they would have made it through the night.

Thinking about it reminded me of the time I was on a bird count on Gardiners Island and I walked over to an old fisherman’s shack on the south end of the island. I walked into the doorless structure and looked around at what was once a busy place, with stove and sink and an old frying pan. I walked over to the stove and lifted the lid and there in a small circle, curled up one behind the other, were deer mice spending the winter huddled together, awaiting spring.

Back to the chickadees — I was talking about them keeping warm overnight in the cold, wild weather. Where was all the food for them? Nature has provided them with a bill that can maneuver deep under the bark of trees and pick out tiny insects to provide them with survival food so life would go on.

Days after our arrival home, new birds were added to our list. A small flock of colorful yellow-and-black goldfinches, recognizable by their up-and-down flight and soft, sweet lyrical song, arrived to enjoy our special thistle feeder.
Then we had a real treat as we ate breakfast: An eastern phoebe, a member of the flycatcher clan, sat on our patio railing. He must have had thin pickings for his meals of flying insects, for it was still cold and raw outside, with temperatures below 50 degrees.

This bird was not the only one scurrying around for survival food. The long, pointed bill of a house wren worked over the patio bricks, where there must have been something in the crevices, for it picked away and then moved along and finally flew off. How do they make it?

Of course, our big treat came when a pair of ospreys flew over our windmill, one landing on it for a while, looking it over. Perhaps they were part of a new generation still looking for a nesting site. Let’s hope we’ll see them back.

Within a week our pasture has turned to green, the star magnolia that my dad gave me some 65 years ago was alive with its pure white, and, of course, the forsythia outshown everything but the daffodils.

The discouraging part of our return was the damage done by deer. We purposely built 300 feet off the road on 7 1/2 acres of woodland in hopes that it would bring us a little closer to nature. This idea prevailed for many years, but during the winter, I guess, when food was scarce, the deer devastated every bud, leaf and shrub between our house and the road. Now we seem to be on the highway, with all the noise of the traffic that was once so subdued by our woodland buffer. It is as if someone had set out to clear the land — everything is open.

In the evening a week after our return, we could hear the familiar sound of the spring peepers down at the pond. How reassuring their call is, for we look forward to them each year. Their calls let the world know that nature has swung around full circle and is ready to start again bringing us the wonders of the natural world.

04/15/11 1:31pm
04/15/2011 1:31 PM

Eagles have bounced back since the ban on the use of DDT proved so effective, and they're now off the endangered species list.

BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | Eagles have bounced back since the ban on the use of DDT proved so effective, and they're now off the endangered species list.

Barbara is in the kitchen finishing up the dinner dishes while I try to get started on my last article written down here in Florida. The winter has gone by quickly with lots of challenges in the world around us. Looking back, it was one of the coldest winters we’ve seen in the six years we’ve spent here. And yet in the past few weeks spring finally arrived with perfect weather, the exception being the one-hour storm that came upon us recently, with its many tornadoes leaving lots of damage to the north of us.

It was one of the closest things to a hurricane I’ve seen, with wind gusts up to 70 mph along with torrential rains of up to four or five inches. There was a big celebration near us with small planes from all over the country participating. At least 40 of the planes flipped over or were damaged, streets were flooded, mobile homes and tractor trailers were blown over and trees were downed everywhere; some 78,000 homes were without electricity.

Yet soon the weather bounced back and we were able to get out and check on an eagle’s nest that friends told us about. The nest is about 150 feet in the air on one of those high communication towers. It is a huge cone-shaped nest; eagles make the largest nest of any bird in North America.

One can see why the eagle was chosen as the national bird. My, but they are regal-looking. They have an evenly brown body with a white head and tail; male and female are identical in color, the female being the larger of the two. They are big birds with a body length of 28 to 38 inches and a wingspan of 66 to 88 inches, and weighing from 6 to 13 pounds. The two young looked almost as large as their parents and were easily identified by their dark brown coloring. What a beautiful sight, watching the adult birds as they flew into the nest with food for the young — something we don’t get to see back home.

The bald eagle was affected by the use of DDT, as our ospreys were, and the population was once reduced to some 400 nesting pairs in the United States. By the 1950s, regulations and environmental education advanced the eagle’s recovery to where it now has a stable population and has been officially removed from the list of endangered species.

Bald eagles mate for life; as with osprey, should one die or get killed, sooner or later the surviving one will choose another mate. The life expectancy of these handsome birds can sometimes reach 30 years.

They select a nesting site close to a large body of water that contains fish, their predominate food. These birds of prey hunt and fish by swooping down and snatching the fish out of the water with their talons. The bald eagles we see in Florida are resident birds, so they hunt and fish year ’round.

Years ago, when there was a movement to establish the bald eagle as the national symbol, Benjamin Franklin suggested that instead the wild turkey be chosen as the symbol of American qualities. He described the bald eagle as a bird of bad moral character that was too lazy to fish for itself but survived by robbing the osprey of its catch.

I can verify this, as I once watched an eagle out in Orient chase an osprey flying back to its nest with a fresh catch. Once the eagle caught up with the osprey, the osprey let go of the fish and the eagle quickly snatched it out of the air. What a sight!

Of course, Florida’s spring awakened weeks ago, with blossoms of all kinds of colors showing in flowers, shrubs and trees; yes, many of the trees or tall shrubs have colorful blossoms. It’s a fairyland of awakening.

By the time this article appears, snowdrops and the rugged early blossoms of the crocus will be long past on the North Fork. What we really look forward to seeing are our latest daffodils that were put in before we left for Florida. Our previous planting, which was down our driveway, became a disaster. For some reason a squirrel or raccoon went along and dug up all the newly planted bulbs and left them to rot. Was this some sort of game they were playing? We love daffodils and with the wide variety of colors and shapes that are offered today they are always something to look forward to.

Florida is a great place to be, especially this year when you up north had your share of cold temperatures, ice, snow and dreary weather. It’s time again to head north and anticipate seeing the spring flowers and shrubs and trees as they burst forth for another year.

P.S. As we write this, the first hummingbird of the season, on its migration north, stopped by from its winter in the Caribbean to check out our petunias. What a jewel.

04/07/11 12:46pm
04/07/2011 12:46 PM
These two little sandhill crane chicks try to keep up with their parent, who's teaching them to feed on their own.

BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | These two little sandhill crane chicks try to keep up with their parent, who's teaching them to feed on their own.

Since our taxes had been sent in and it was another beautiful day down here in Florida, we decided to go on one of our mini-adventures away from the island that’s become so much a part of us.

We thought we’d try driving out into cattle country, so with a couple of bottles of water, snacks, cameras and binoculars, we were off. As we started out we were surrounded by early morning business traffic with its congestion and rushing cars, but soon we found ourselves in the country, where the pace was more to our liking.

Many years ago parts of Florida were cleared and turned into pastureland where cattle of all kinds — Black Angus, Longhorn, Charolais and others — can be seen today. As we drove the back roads we could see cattle nibbling on what seemed to us like parched earth; evidently they are able to eke some kind of nourishment from it until the next rains come and paint the pasture green.

As we stood watching, we could see white birds feeding around the cattle. A quick check with binoculars revealed tan coloring on the chest and top of the head, which identified them as cattle egrets. From a distance they resembled the white snowy egrets we see in creeks and marshes on the North Fork, but cattle egrets spend their time along roadsides and in pastures, following cattle, horses and even tractors to catch the insects they stir up.

I remember seeing my first cattle egret on Long Island, sometime around 1950. I was in East Moriches with Roy Wilcox, a well-known birder. Since then, the cattle egret has become somewhat common on Long Island. It was native to Africa and Asia and later found in South America. It arrived in Florida in the 1940s and eventually came up our way.

As we drove the country roads, we saw garlands of Spanish moss hanging from the trees. Spanish moss grows on other plants but does not rely on the host plant for nutrients. It makes its own food from rain and particles in the air. We saw great clumps hanging on oak trees. Spanish moss has wiry, curly silver-scaled stems and leaves and tiny seeds that are dispersed by the wind and birds. It was harvested for years as stuffing for furniture and mattresses and today is popular as mulch and is used by the floral industry to hold moisture in floral arrangements.

Every once in a while we’d find a shady spot under a tree to pull off and get out of the car. Almost always we’d hear a mockingbird mocking other birds’ calls. It seems they have found a spot in almost everyone’s backyard. We have them at home on Long Island, where they have done quite well. They usually find a berry tree, like a holly or Russian olive, claim it for themselves and fight off anyone who intrudes. This cache of berries, whether frozen or dried, will see Mr. and Mrs. Mockingbird through harsh winter months.

As we walked around we spotted a dozen vultures held in a thermal’s upheaval. As they circled they reminded me of scenes from old westerns where some poor soul had met his maker and the vultures were starting to move in. Round and round they went, hardly moving their wings; one never tires of watching these gliders in the sky.

On our way back we decided to drive down Creekwood Boulevard, where we’d heard there was a pair of sandhill cranes with two young. And, sure enough, after we pulled up to the municipal pond, it didn’t take five minutes for us to spot the family probing in the soft mud.

How interesting to see the contrast in size between the stately, four-foot-tall adults — gray with a splash of red on their forehead — and the small, fuzzy, tan chicks feeding in and around their parents’ long legs. They paid no attention to us or anyone else around, even though the pond was only a short distance from the busy highway.

We were told that later the cranes would go to spend the rest of their day in a large open field. How lucky we were to finally get to see this family up close; we had seen the one that visits the farm fields in Orient a few times, but only at a distance.

We were in no more hurry on to move on than the sandhill cranes. They took their time in the sun, wandering and feeding at the pond’s muddy edge, among purple pickerelweed and tall arrowhead plants with white flowers swaying in the wind. And we just relaxed and watched them.

03/22/11 11:33am
03/22/2011 11:33 AM

BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | We watched this North Fork osprey pick up the nesting material he is carrying from along the edge of the beach.

Slowly our ospreys are arriving back on the North Fork after their winter vacation, which could have taken them as far away as Brazil. Many people on the North Fork look forward to seeing “their” ospreys return to last year’s nest, which could be down by the causeway, behind the golf course, on a high-tension tower or out on the marsh — where one true follower put up a man-made platform for “his” returning ospreys — etc., etc.

Barbara and I are still down in Florida, where we have watched the local ospreys refurbish their nests and incubate their camouflaged eggs of mottled brown, olive and black. Where we are there are few trees ospreys can nest in, so, while some ospreys nest on the top of telephone poles, most nests we see are on the cell phone towers scattered throughout the area. As we watched them begin their new season we saw them carrying material to rebuild their nests and now we can see they are incubating.

I’ve looked into many nests throughout the years and it’s surprising to see what birds use for building materials. The great majority of the nest is made up of dead limbs and twigs picked off in flight. As the bird cruises along the shoreline it might also pick up clumps of seaweed that could contain monofilament fish line, an old sneaker, clothing of some sort and/or plastic bags. These plastic bags, particularly the large black ones, become a problem when matted down in the nest as they hold water when it rains, which can cool the eggs and kill the embryos.

Probably the biggest problem that comes from any of these items is the discarded monofilament fishing line. This needs special mentioning because the monofilament gets tangled in the feet of the ospreys as they move around in the nest and causes problems. My attention has been brought to this situation a number of times.

I once received a call from someone nearby the nest on Goldsmith Inlet in Peconic who said that an osprey was hanging from the nest. My son and I went up immediately with a ladder and were able to cut it free and get it to Dr. Zitek, well known for his interest and care of wildlife on the North Fork. Dr. Zitek took care of the bird and we were able to return it to the nest.

Another near disaster with monofilament fishing line happened in Mattituck’s Husing Pond, where we had put a telephone pole down with a platform on the top for a nest when the pond was frozen over. The reason for this was that an osprey family had built its nest on top of the lights in the nearby ball park. The people at the park were concerned that the heat from the lights would set the nest on fire; therefore the nest site needed to be moved. With a lot of help, the new osprey nest in the pond worked out well.

However, one of the ospreys from that nest got tangled in some monofilament fishing line and, being unable to fly, fell into the pond. A gentleman called me to say he had seen the osprey thrashing around in the water and took his boat out to retrieve it.

After getting it out of the water, he untangled it and took it ashore, where he dried it off and put it on his roof. When we arrived the bird was still sitting there, looking a little damp and unhappy, but the gentleman called us later to let us know that the osprey took off once it was dry enough. Another good ending to what could have been a disaster.

While on a vacation in Cancun, we were watching what was happening outside our window when I saw an osprey fly over. I kept my eye on it as it hovered above one of the hotel’s decorative ponds. Then to my surprise it dove straight into one of them. I kept watching. Sure enough, in minutes it flew off with a nice-sized coy (a big goldfish) for dinner. I chuckled as I thought perhaps that could have been one of our North Fork ospreys enjoying his winter vacation and having no trouble finding food to keep him through the winter.