Sunday, February 23, 2014

Spring is in the Air...and an Update on Plum Island

It's happening... the familiar calls of the red wing blackbird, “konkereee”, have just begun to fill the air!  This means spring is just around the corner and we can now begin to eagerly anticipate the arrival of St. Patrick’s Day.  No silly, not for the green beer (not that there is anything wrong with that!).  For the return of Long Island’s iconic bird, the osprey, who seem to consistently return around this holiday year after year.  This has been a cold and bitter winter, one we have not seen the likes of in many years.  But once the osprey returns, we will know that spring is within sight. Just like that, as all seasons pass, so shall winter, morphing into the bright colors and warmer days of spring.  Birds will wing their way back to our area, geared up for nesting season. Mammals will emerge from hibernation, hungry and ready to start families.  We will come out of our own hibernation as this winter becomes nothing but a memory in our minds.  Spring will be especially welcome this year!

It has been awhile since the last update on Plum Island.  As you might know, HOBAS was a founding member of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition and continues to be active in the efforts.  Below is a brief summary of some of what has occurred since our last update:

  1.  In the event of a sale of the island, zoning has been adopted the Town of Southold which will designate over 80% of the Island as a “Conservation District”.  This will exclude residential or commercial development, except as a limited accessory use to support the primary conservation use.
  2. A bill, "Save, Don't Sell Plum Island", was introduced by Congressman Tim Bishop in the House of Representatives, along with companion legislation which was introduced in the Senate by Senator Richard Blumenthal.  These bipartisan bills are aimed at protecting the Island's tremendous biodiversity and ecological value.  Future development of Plum Island would be prevented by the elimination of the current requirement to sell the Island at public auction.
  3. Commissioned by The Nature Conservancy, an appraisal report of the Island is expected to be complete sometime in March. 
  4. Better conservation stewardship of the Island is being proposed.  These measures would be in place whether or not the Island is sold or not and they include additional biological inventories conducted by the New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) and management and possible reintroduction of certain plants and animals.
  5. Completion of an inventory, remediation and disclosure of all hazardous waste sites on the Island as called for by Governor Cuomo.
  6. The Plum Island Coalition intends to participate in the Coastal Zone management Compliance Review by NYS.
  7. The Coalition is considering legal challenges to the completeness and findings of the FEIS submitted by the GSA for the sale of the Island. 

Please be sure to visit the Coalition website for updates.

 And remember...once the temperatures rise and the big thaw begins, be sure to get outside, rid yourself of that winter pallor and enjoy some warm and sunny days as you embrace the arrival of spring!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bird Feeding 101-Updated

Feeding birds in winter, while not necessary for survival (birds are equipped to survive winter weather without human assistance), can provide them with an edge during severe weather.  Furthermore, observing the antics of our feathered friends at feeders can provide hours of delight!  Let’s face it, feeding the birds in our yard is more for us than it is for them.  And in this case, as opposed to so many other instances of human “interference” when it comes to wildlife, if done properly, there is nothing wrong with providing them with that extra boost!

When feeding wild birds, make sure you feed high quality seed for maximum nutrition and energy. To attract the most species, black oil sunflower seed is best.  Peanut chips are a nice supplement to sunflower seeds, providing a great source of fat and energy.  This mix attracts nuthatches, cardinals, woodpeckers, chickadees, tufted titmice and house finches. Try not to feed the cheaper mixes, as this will attract unwanted, non-native house sparrows and starlings.  In addition, nyjer seed in a thistle feeder will be devoured by goldfinches.  Finally, birds love suet, which provides a concentrated source of fatty energy.  Suet should always be hung so that critters other than birds cannot get to it.   

In addition to these basics, you can provide your feathered friends with safflower seed (Cardinals enjoy it.  Squirrels do not!) and mixes containing seeds such as millet (juncos, Carolina wrens and mourning doves enjoy millet when sprinkled on the ground).  Try to avoid the cheap mixes that contains a lot of milo, a seed commonly used as a filler.  If you want to avoid a mess, do what I do-feed the birds sunflower hearts (I make my own mix of sunflower chips and peanut chips).  Yes, the chips are more expensive, but definitely worth it if you want to avoid shells on the ground.  I have noticed that the goldfinches at my feeders actually prefer sunflower chips to nyjer, so this is a good option all around. 

To attract a variety of birds, different types of feeders should be purchased.  Unless you want to be eaten out of house and home, squirrel proof feeders are a wise investment.  For a basic set up I suggest a hopper feeder, nyjer feeder and suet cage.  Additionally, one can add a platform feeder close to the ground to attract birds such as sparrows, doves and juncos as well as a tube feeder for smaller birds.   

It is vital that you provide a safe, hygienic feeding station for your avian guests.  Please make sure that feeders are either at least 30 feet away or within 3 feet of windows to avoid deadly collisions, and make sure that there is cover nearby for the birds to retreat into.  In addition, feeders need to be kept clean in order to prevent diseases from spreading through the local population.  Avian conjunctivitis is a deadly disease which affects finches and it can easily be prevented by good hygiene. 

At least once a month, empty and clean your feeders with a mix of water and bleach.  Please be sure to dry thoroughly before refilling.

If you follow these guidelines, you will be treated to a delightful array of bird visitors all winter long. You may even find yourself entertaining more than just the “usuals”.  Through most of last January and February a very tame pine warbler visited my feeder each day.   I also was very lucky to discover something even more special than my pine warbler.  After hearing a fuss on my deck one night, I discovered a southern flying squirrel having his way with the feeders!  This was a squirrel species I was NOT going to try to deter!  For about two months, this adorable creature came in for his nightly buffet.  He became so tame that I was able to stand within a foot or so and watch in awe as he ate the pecans I put out each night (yes, I found myself leaving extra special treats for this extra special guest).  As the weather warmed, he found a mate and alas, they moved off.  

Is there a specific time to take the feeders down?  No, not really.  I generally take my feeders down once the grackles come back, because they can empty a feeder in a day, but hang them out again in mid to late summer to attract young of the year.  This summer my feeding station was an Avian Romper Room with baby chickadees, house finches, Carolina wrens, red bellied woodpeckers and cardinals all vying for space at Stella’s All-You-Can-Eat—Birdy Buffet!
These tips are just the basics.  Feel free to research online for more in-depth information on how to welcome birds to your yard.  Don’t stop at feeders, there is so much more you can do to provide a bird friendly yard…but I am getting ahead of myself.  Let’s save that for another time!

Providing extra energy and nutrition for your feathered friends is a rewarding experience for both humans and birds alike.  I wish you a delightful holiday season and winter enjoying the delightful antics of your feathered visitors.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Underhill Preserve and the Value of a Grassland

“Anyone can love a mountain, but it takes soul to love a prairie” - unknown.   

As a little girl I devoured the Little House in the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and dreamed of seeing the western prairies one day.  It wasn’t until 2007 that I was able to do so when I visited Prairie State Park in Missouri with a friend.  I tend not to use the word awesome very often because I think it is a word that is used too frequently and lightly.  But believe me when I tell you what lay before us was indeed awesome. Tall grasses and wildflowers were gently blowing in the breeze while birdsong filled the air.  Grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks and dickcissels sang together in a splendid chorus.  Bison roamed the short-grass areas, snorting and kicking up dust in their path.  We had only allotted one day to visit this preserve and knew immediately that it was just not enough.   While we stood watching the sunset we were treated to a sight that will remain with me forever - as the blazing red and orange sun descended into the horizon, the silhouette of a deer appeared, surrounded by tall grass and perfectly backlit by the flaming orb behind it. As we stood watching in awe, the deer turned and bounded into the sunset, as if swallowed up by a giant fiery ball of fire.  It was pure magic. Thus began my love affair with grasslands.  I have since traveled to grasslands in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Texas, each time marveling anew at the abundance of wildlife and beauty before my eyes. 

Unfortunately, grasslands have been declining faster than any other habitat in the United States, if not the world.  Human use and sprawl development has taken its toll on our grasslands, with only about 4% remaining. While grassland habitats modified by humans for agriculture had replaced some areas of grasslands to an extent, they too are now disappearing.   As grasslands decline, so do the wildlife species that depend upon them. Grassland birds are among the fastest and most consistently declining birds in North America; 48% are of conservation concern and 55% are showing significant declines.   Right here on Long Island, grasslands were once a significant feature of the landscape. Unfortunately, most have been developed into residential, industrial or commercial real estate or converted to ball fields and other intensely used recreational areas. For this reason it is crucial that all efforts should be made to restore and reclaim potential habitat as grassland whenever possible.

There are still scattered grasslands across the island, but even when protected, they face a grave threat: non-native invasive species.  One such already protected area in trouble is Underhill Preserve in Jericho.  This 75 acre preserve, protected as open space in 2002, contains almost 35 acres of grassland, with a mix of native and non-native grasses. 

Unfortunately, much of it has now been overrun by invasive non-native plant species.  Several years ago I fell in love with this parcel and have watched with concern as each year it has become more degraded by this invasion as well as the encroachment of successional habit.  Thanks to the efforts of Senator Carl Marcellino, I was able to sit down with the property’s owners (NYSDEC, Nassau County and the Town of Oyster Bay) to encourage them to create a plan to manage and restore Underhill.  During this meeting, HOBAS was asked to take the lead on developing such a plan.  The DEC has already named us stewards of their portion of the preserve and we are hopeful we can obtain the same designation from the other entities. As you know, the funds raised at our first Run/Walk for Conservation in the fall of 2012 are dedicated to this project.  We recently applied for a grant in order to develop and implement a comprehensive restoration plan.  As of this writing, we have not received word yet on the grant, but our fingers are crossed.  If we are not awarded this grant, we will continue to explore other funding opportunities.  

The expansion of Underhill’s grasslands and meadows would attract a greater diversity and abundance of butterflies, birds and other wildlife, thereby creating a wildlife haven which could potentially attract nesting grassland birds such as eastern meadowlarks.  In addition, shrubland birds are also on the decline and providing healthy native edge habitat for birds such as these is equally vital.
Over 100 species of birds have been documented at the preserve, including two grassland species that are in decline: bobolinks and the aforementioned eastern meadowlarks. There is an abundance of eastern bluebirds in the meadows and the numerous kettle ponds provide habitat to various waterfowl, including wood ducks and hooded mergansers, arguably our most beautiful North American ducks.  Blue-winged warblers are most likely nesting here and during the winter months, this is possibly the best spot around for fox, American tree and field sparrows. In addition, Underhill could have potential as a future introduction site for northern bobwhite, a bird that has seen a 65% decline over the last twenty years. Various species of turtles such as snapping, painted and eastern box (a NYS Species of Special Concern) have been documented at Underhill.  

Grasslands not only host birds and mammals; they support butterflies and insects.  The iconic monarch butterfly is declining due to habitat loss in the United States as well as its wintering grounds in Mexico. Milkweed is an important host plant for Monarchs and there are several species growing in Underhill, including the only known Long Island colony of whorled milkweed as well as a colony of green comet milkweed, which is listed as NYS Rare. Horace’s duskywing, a butterfly considered rare in Nassau County, utilizes the meadows, as does the red-banded hairstreak, another butterfly which was considered rare at one time but is now increasing in numbers. 

An abundance of plants play host to numerous insects, which in turn, provide food for breeding birds. All told, Underhill has an impressive list of natural resources. In addition to the over 100 species of birds and almost 200 species of insects, close to 300 plants and seven species of reptiles and amphibians have been recorded since 2008.  Unfortunately, these natural resources are in danger of being swallowed up by non-natives such as Japanese honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, porcelain berry, multi flora rose and autumn olive.  In addition, trees are taking root in some areas of the grassland and should be removed.  Currently we are working on setting the wheels in motion for a management plan that will include a restoration project and are hopeful that NYS, the Town and County will support this endeavor.   While we will never be able to restore Underhill back to its former glory (unless someone wants to gift us with a few hundred thousand dollars!) we do hope to give back its dignity by allowing native vegetation to flourish once again, thereby providing critical habitat for birds and other wildlife. Keep your eyes peeled for future updates and your fingers crossed that our hopes will become a reality!  

Grasslands are often dismissed as monotonous stretches of empty landscape.  Far from monotonous and empty, tall-grass, short-grass and mixed grasslands contain a remarkable and diverse number of species, from plants to reptiles to birds to mammals to insects.  It is true that anyone can love a mountain…or a forest or a shoreline.  Their beauty is in your face and splendid. It takes soul to look beyond the obvious. A prairie must be understood to be loved, for once you have experienced the magic and subtle grandeur that is a prairie you will never be the same.