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

PAUL STOUTENBURGH PHOTO

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.

05/01/11 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.

04/07/11 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.

11/10/10 1:34am
11/10/2010 1:34 AM

We had been enjoying the kaleidoscope of fall’s colors when the cool 38-degree temperature this morning nudged us on to start packing. It didn’t take us long to put things together and get ready to head south for the winter.
Outside there are signs of winter everywhere you look. We’ve been watching friendly frogs around our pond just outside our window all summer, but suddenly the cool weather lured them to their winter’s sleep at the bottom of the pond. Here they will lie submerged in the pond bottom until the warmth of spring once again will spark their cycle of life.
On warm, rainy summer nights bullfrogs of all sizes go overland and may be seen in numbers on country roads. Bullfrogs are big, from 3 1/2 to six inches in body length; adding the length of their legs gives them seven to 10 inches more. Our son once watched a dozen large frogs crossing the road on a warm night and I, myself, have watched masses of half-inch frogs moving to new locations during rainy weather. This gives the impression of frogs actually coming from the sky, or some say it is “raining frogs.”
Barbara and I recently took a walk along the boardwalk at the beach and were amazed to see small birds flitting from bush to tree. They moved so rapidly it was hard to tell exactly what they were, so we pulled out the identification bible and tried to determine just who they were and where these tufts of feather were headed.
Our guide narrowed it down for us to a myrtle warbler. Myrtle warblers can be identified by the yellow rump patch and yellow sides. This is a winter bird we find that stays with us, and we were surprised to see them here so soon. What they were doing was enjoying bayberries. As a matter of fact, proof of that was in a photograph taken by Barbara where you could actually see a berry in the bill of one of the birds.
Back home we were met with more feathered surprises. While eating dinner and keeping an eye on what was going on outside, we suddenly realized our thistle feeder was being used. Since there had not been any goldfinches in the yard for some time, we reached for the glasses to check on the new visitors only to find the goldfinches had returned. What a pleasant surprise.
Their bright colors we are so used to seeing when they are about the feeder and among the dandelion blossoms on the lawn were missing but now we were seeing them with more subdued colors, a mixture of tans and yellow, with the most noticeable sign being the wing bars giving them away.
Today as we looked out the big picture window, a flock of 15 to 20 juncos flew in. These birds can be seen in loose flocks here on the North Fork during the winter. Juncos are ground feeders, all gray above with a white belly and a pinkish-white bill and white tail feathers that flash as they move about. They stayed in and around our home most of the day. It was good to see them back in such numbers. There won’t be that many that stay around all winter.
A short time later we had the best surprise of all when our son called in that he had just seen a flock of snow buntings in Greenport, which seemed early for them to be here. One of the things you can look for to identify them are the large white wing patches. They are one of our favorite birds. Even on a warm day their mostly white plumage puts one in mind of a winter snowstorm.
Usually we think of them as rugged little birds associated with cold and windy winter weather. A typical place and time to see them is after a snowfall when the plows have been out exposing the soil along the roadside. Somehow they can find seeds there to nourish themselves.
As this goes to press we spot something white flying across the pasture, where the three white-face cows are lying down relaxing in the sun. A cattle egret has moved into the area, and then a quick call from someone nearby where another one was spotted. Keep your eyes open as the seasons change. There’s always a surprise for you.

10/11/10 8:46pm
10/11/2010 8:46 PM

This beautiful monarch butterfly, with its striking orange and black markings, stops to refuel on its long and treacherous journey south. One way you can attract butterflies of all sorts is by planting butterfly bushes in your garden.

Barbara and I are sitting out in the orchard in the sunshine and one of those noisy helicopters just went over. As the noise passed and things got back to normal, we noticed three monarch butterflies dancing by along the fence, heading south on their fall migration. What remarkable insects they are. Weighing a bit more than a feather, these fragile little insects fly through storms and rains like those we’ve been having lately.
What draws them here to our garden are the butterfly bushes we put in years ago, and they really work. There is a pleasant smell to them, something like a lilac bush. Sometimes we’ll have five or six butterflies at a time flitting about the bushes gathering nectar from the variety of colorful blossoms.
We have some concern about the area where the monarchs are going as they pass by on their long journey that will eventually wind up in Mexico. Loss of habitat and other pressures over the years have brought their population down to an all-time low. With help from interested organizations, it is hoped this area will be well protected in the future.
The monarchs are the only butterflies to make such a long two-way migration every year. Though they usually fly alone, they will cluster at night while moving southward. We witnessed this while working at the Fire Island Seashore, where hundreds of these colorful butterflies made a stop one night on a cedar tree near where we were living. I was up early the next morning to watch as they slowly woke in the morning sun and warmed their wings to ready themselves for the long journey ahead. What a magnificent sight it was — one I will always remember.
We see others in our back pasture that are starting to make their way on their migration south. A Cooper’s hawk just flew over and landed on a limb high in the old cherry tree. When this fellow is around everyone seeks shelter. One bird must have missed seeing the hawk in time and provided the hawk with a meal, as evidenced later by the clump of feathers below where the hawk landed.
This migration we speak of is all part of the cycle that moves out of the cold and into warmer parts of the world. Some will go just as far as the warmer southern states, while others will continue on, some going even as far as the Caribbean. Some — like the little hummingbird that visited us just last week — will, believe it or not, fly nonstop across the Caribbean on the way far south; remarkable endurance for such a fragile little bird. The ruby-throated hummingbirds that we see in our area are usually by themselves and make the long flights south alone.
When we first came down into the pasture a mockingbird was guarding his supply of Russian olive. He will challenge any bird that comes into his area with the idea of having a feast of berries. Each community has its own mockingbird. When we go down to the causeway to take a walk on the beach and we hear the lapping of the waves, in the background we can hear the mockingbird singing his heart out. It would be wonderful if more people could see and hear this bird, for it has an enormous repertoire of songs.
As we get up to head back to the house something catches my eye — a little bird has flown up on the fence. It’s a little flycatcher. It will stay here as long as there are insects in the air. It waits patiently for some movement on the ground, goes after it and then lights back up on the fence to wait for a passing insect that it can snatch out of the air.
It stays here quite late in the season, but eventually it will have to leave when it turns cold because there will be no insects moving. It’s surprising how long it will stick around. We have seen a single individual that has been able to find insects to catch into November, when ice has covered the pond. Somehow it can find a spot where warmth still breeds insects.
As we leave the garden and head for the house we can see hundreds of starlings have come to pick over the leaves that have started to cover our lawn. I’ve seen this phenomenon of turning over leaves with other birds, such as the grackle, as they pass through. Evidently this activity is part of their fattening up before they leave on their long migration south. This group of birds arrived on the lawn and quickly moved across it, much like a Panzer division, and then they were gone.