Saturday, February 27, 2010

Preserving Plum Island

Preserving Plum Island
by John Turner, HOBAS Conservation Chair

Located less than a mile from Orient Point, the tip of Long Island’s North Fork, lays the 840-acre Plum Island. Well known from Nelson DeMille’s book of the same title and more so because of the Animal Disease Center research facility that exists there and takes up less than 10% of the island, less well-known is the fact that about 90% of the island is undeveloped and this portion of the island has significant ecological value.

This value is reflected in many ways. The narrow eastern portion of the island serves as a seal haul-out site for as many as several hundred harbor and grey seals during the colder months, making it one of, if not the most significant haul-out site in southern New England.

Piping Plovers, a federally threatened species, breed on the island and Common and Roseate Terns, a federally endangered species, rest on the beaches of this undisturbed setting and actively feed in the waters surrounding the island as do numerous species of loons, grebes, and sea ducks.

The shrubby coastal vegetation that covers the island (including extensive thickets of beach plum which gave the island its name) provides habitat for several dozen breeding birds as well as important migratory stopover habitat for migrating species. This latter feature has been shown to be important for songbird species migrating over water in that it allows them an opportunity to land and feed, thereby replenishing their energy reserves. A large freshwater wetland exists in the southwestern part of the island. Cultural resources on the island include the Plum Island Lighthouse and the remains of Fort Terry, an old military fortification.

Unfortunately, the future of the island is uncertain and its significant natural resource values in trouble. This is because of a decision by the federal government, through a law passed by Congress and signed by the President, to close the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and sell the island to a private party for development. Proceeds of the sale are to help defray the expense of building a new facility, proposed to be built in Kansas.

Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society has joined with the other Audubon chapters on Long Island (that collectively make up the LI Audubon Council) in an effort to reverse this action. We would like to see all or a significant fraction of the island dedicated as a national wildlife refuge, like the federal government has done so many times with other federally surplused properties, including several relatively close to Plum Island such as Sachuest Point, Block Island, and Nomans Island National Wildlife Refuges.

In early January Stella Miller and I, along with several representatives from the eastern LI Audubon chapters, met with Congressman Bishop to discuss the fate of the island and to express our position in support of preservation. While indicating his primary goal was to preserve the several hundred jobs that hang in the balance at the facility, Congressman Bishop stated his support for Audubon’s position regarding a conservation outcome. He also explained that due to the fact the buyer of the island is expected to cover the cost of constructing the new animal disease control facility, as mentioned above, and the decommissioning costs of the Plum Island facility it’s not likely anyone will come forward to purchase the island. Let’s hope Congressman Bishop is right because it will provide us a second bite at the apple.

In the weeks ahead we intend to meet with staff from the office of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand and public officials from Southold Town to discuss the future of the island. We also hope to work with other conservation and environmental organizations to establish a Plum Island Coalition to galvanize public attention on the issue.
Stay tuned as the story concerning the fate of this environmentally significant island unfolds in the weeks and months ahead.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Stella’s Book Review: "Where the Wild Things Were" by William Stolzenburg

When I heard about this book, I raced out to purchase it. Predators, or carnivores, are my favorite group of animals and I have been passionate about them since I was a little girl. I eagerly dug into this book and was utterly absorbed by it.

As suburbanites, many of you may be thinking, “Why should I care about predators?” Well, there is a very good reason why. Predators are a keystone or umbrella species. Protect them, and the vast habitats needed to sustain them, and you protect everything else that lives within that habitat, including birds. The very presence of predators also helps to maintain a healthy balance within the ecosystem.

One classic example of this can be found in Yellowstone National Park. Once wolves disappeared from the park, the ecosystem began to suffer. With no major predators to fear, elk and deer began to congregate, eat and demolish anything they could reach. Willow and aspen trees began to die out as these ungulates browsed them down to nothing. Returning wolves to the park has caused prey animals to disperse and spread out more, which is allowing these trees to now flourish. Browsed out riverbeds are once again lush and green. Where there are trees and shrubs, there are nesting birds. See the connection?

Wolves also provide food for other wildlife. Coyotes, ravens, bears, magpies and eagles have all benefited from wolf kills. The presence of wolves has helped bring down the coyote population, which was exploding and suppressing smaller predator populations. With the reduction of coyotes, these other predators, such as fishers, wolverines, bobcats, martens and badgers are increasing in number, leading to a more balanced ecosystem.

It is truly all a balancing act, and one that is carefully intertwined. Take one component out of the equation and watch an entire ecosystem begin to decline.
In other places, dominant predators keep the lower tier predators (or “mesopredators”) under control. Animals such as raccoons, red foxes and domestic and feral cats and dogs can decimate local bird populations. A study done in the chaparral country of California near San Diego is a classic example. In the study areas where there were no coyotes (which happen to be the natural top predator in this area) to keep red foxes, raccoons and cats under control there was a dearth of nesting birds. Further in the canyons, where coyotes flourished, the birds were thriving. Why? Coyotes were able to control the populations of the mesopredators, leading to less predation on the nests.

As a larger animal, coyotes tend to prey on small mammals rather than nesting birds and eggs. In another example, in the Dakotas, ducks nests were being decimated by red foxes until the 70’s when a ceasefire was declared in the war on coyotes. The results? An increase in coyotes helped control the fox population just by their very presence. This in turn led to a 15% increase in nesting success. Stories like these abound from all over the United States.

Many people fear predators. They think the only good predator is a dead one. This is the farthest thing from the truth. As the above examples illustrate, these animals are essential to our natural world. Without these powerful and vital creatures, entire landscapes can change for the worse. Eliminating such an important component will create ecological havoc.

There are others who enjoy predators, but in a controlled situation, such as a zoo. As much as they enjoy the thought of mountain lions, bears and wolves, they would rather have them “safely” tucked away in a zoo or wildlife center.

For many people, my self included, predators fill more than just a niche in the ecosystem. They symbolize the last of the world’s last great wilderness areas and are a reminder of days gone by, when magnificent wildlife roamed the plains, forests and mountains of our country. They fill us with awe, fear and also a sense of peace. Even if all we ever do is tiptoe to the edge of nature and peer in, the knowledge that these wonderful creatures are still living in our wilderness areas stirs our blood and nourishes the wildness in our souls. Unfortunately, they are not the masters of their own destiny, we are their caretakers and it is up to us to ensure that they will have a future. Wildlife should have a chance to flourish in its natural habitat and not struggle to eke out some sort of desperate existence in a tiny patch of remaining wilderness or to just languish in some zoo, a sad reminder of what used to be.

Every animal, big or small, deserves a chance to live, and to do that the way they were meant to, with dignity and freedom. But this is not just about what is morally right. This is about what is vital to the survival of our natural world. Predators are especially important to our ecosystem. Please read this important book. With wildlife under siege in our modern world, it is vital that everyone know what we will be missing should we eliminate large predators from our planet. This book is a must read for anyone interested in our natural world.

Monday, February 1, 2010

How a Pint Sized Bird Became a Local Celebrity and Wormed its Way into Our Hearts!

As one of the (un) lucky people whose job was affected by our unfortunate economy, I knew that I couldn’t allow myself to wallow and sink into a blue mood. I decided to make hay while the sun shines and instead of sitting home moping, have been taking advantage of this free time to go birding. Alot. As in, 102 birds seen by January 31st. Not too shabby for 31 days! Although distressed about my situation, there is something about being outdoors in the brisk cool air that helps lift one's mood.

One bird that I was able to observe was the dovekie that found its way into a marina in Great River. See below for Brent's posting on the bird. Dovekies are alcids (or auks, a highly specialized and ecologically diverse group of marine, wing-propelled pursuit-diving birds, such as murrelets, puffins and razorbills) and normally birds of the open ocean. Thanks to the various storms, accompanied by high winds, that have been occurring, there has been a pretty large influx of them on Long Island. Dovekies are finding their way into wildlife rehabilitation facilities across the island and sadly, most of them are not making it. This individual defeated the odds long enough to become a local celebrity.

First spotted on Monday, January 25, 2010, this diminutive chubbette caused quite a sensation, making the local tv news, Newsday, birder's blogs and listservs. If you visit our Facebook page, you can follow the blogs and videos that chronicled it’s almost week long stay here. Never having seen one before, I raced out to catch a glimpse. Excited to add a lifer bird to my list, I was not prepared for what I encountered. This was not a bird to simply check off the list and move on from. This was an experience to savor and treasure.

The word cute doesn't even begin to describe this pint sized auk, who was observed motoring around as if were a windup toy over the inlet, eliciting “ooh”s and “aaaah”s and "he's so cute"s as it dove, swam and preened its way into the observing birders’ hearts. The dovekie stayed from Monday to Saturday giving birders extraordinary and rare close up views. I visited the dovekie three times and each time was just as enchanted as the first. This bird touched my heart in so many ways...its cuteness, its spunk, its determination to survive in unfamiliar territory. Much to our dismay, it was nowhere to be found on Sunday. As someone who understands wildlife and the perils of life in nature, realistically I know what probably happened to it. But I cannot help but wish and hope that this little dovekie, who wormed his way into so many people's hearts, managed to find his way back out onto the ocean.

For almost a week this little dovekie brought smiles to the faces of all that saw it and made me forget my troubles. This spunky small bird was a gift and we can only hope that wherever he is now, he is flying free, as he was meant to.