Articles by

Paul Stoutenburgh

05/16/11 12:23pm

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 7:31am

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.

04/19/11 4:47am
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 12:49pm
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 11:34am

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.

03/07/11 5:55pm

Cast netting is a method universally used to catch fish. I can remember watching natives using them in New Guinea when I was in the service.

BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | Cast netting is a method universally used to catch fish. I can remember watching natives using them in New Guinea when I was in the service.

Though winter is still holding onto the North Fork, down here in Florida the colder days have left and days in the 70s and 80s are now more common. Our winter here was colder than usual but not like last year, when we had dead fish lining the water’s edge, casualties of the cold. We have no complaints when we watch the North Fork weather reports day after day.

With Florida’s nicer weather, people are heading to the beaches more, shorts instead of long pants are seen and short-sleeve shirts abound instead of hooded sweatshirts. The mackerel are running and the fishermen are happy.

We took a ride one afternoon down to the bridge between our island and the next and watched fishermen at the edge of the water and others on the bulkhead casting into the bay with light tackle. They were catching mackerel and their white buckets were filled. We also saw some using cast nets on the docks with good results.

While the fishermen stood and talked and we watched, we could see dolphins diving in and out after mackerel all along the waterway heading toward the bridge between the bay and the gulf. We never tire of watching these sleek black torpedo-like mammals. Usually you can see only the dorsal fin protruding from the water, but occasionally one leaps partway out of the water after some fish, probably a mackerel like the ones the guys on the dock were catching.

Dolphins were once common in our local waters and as a child I remember seeing them in the South Race off Robins Island. The dolphins we observed most recently on the East End were the well-known ones that came in to a small shallow creek in Sag Harbor a few winters ago; the local people worked hard to circle them and coax them back out to deeper water. We drove over and watched and it was bitter cold and windy as the people in the boats worked to save these dolphins.

I often wonder how fish and other denizens of the deep sleep. Dolphins do not sleep; they just rest for short periods of time. They merely take cat naps at the water’s surface for two or three minutes at a time. At night these naps increase to seven to eight minutes.

Another interesting fact about dolphins is that they don’t breathe automatically as other animals do; they have to breathe voluntarily, so if they are knocked unconscious they literally stop breathing and die.

As the men fished they talked of cooking and eating mackerel. Some say they make them into fish cakes, which sounded good, and others talked of filleting them and frying them, but when we researched mackerel, to our surprise we came up with an interesting recipe from the Gill-lectable Gourmet’s Guide to Long Island Fish:

Greenport Baked Mackerel
2 mackerel (8 ounces each), whole dressed or boned
1 cup tomato juice
Half of a fresh pineapple, diced
2 tablespoons vinegar
One-quarter green pepper, diced
1/4 teaspoon salt
Artificial sweetener to equal 6 teaspoons sugar
4 ounces onions, sliced, cooked and drained
Simmer all ingredients except onions and fish in saucepan for approximately 30 minutes. Add onions. Place mackerel in baking dish. Fill cavities with tomato mixture. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for approximately 25 minutes, or until fish flakes easily.
Serves 2.

We haven’t caught our own mackerel as yet, but plan to go out fishing in the next week when our son comes down, so we haven’t had a chance to try the recipe. It was kind of fun to just find Greenport listed in among the many fish recipes.
When we overheard some of our neighbors talking of going fishing, Barbara decided to watch for them when they returned to the dock to see if she could get some pictures of their mackerel. When she met them at the dock she found they had a good day on the water, but not a profitable fishing day. They had caught just one fish and she photographed it in the bright sunlight as it lay glistening on the dock.

Mackerel are elongated, streamlined fish with a compressed body and a pointed snout. They are dusky blue on top with silver undersides. They have small, needle-sharp teeth that help them catch fish, shrimp and squid.

Mackerel also pass through our area on the North Fork, which brings to mind years ago when one of my students invited me to go mackerel fishing with him. We used a rig with four or five jigs on the line and fished in the deep water between Shelter Island and Greenport. I was amazed how quickly and forcefully the mackerel took to our rigs. Sometimes we brought up three or four at a time. I look forward to doing some mackerel fishing soon down here in Florida.

02/21/11 8:00am
A noisy group of blue-crowned parakeets squabbles at a feeder.

BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | A noisy group of blue-crowned parakeets squabbles at a feeder.

As our lives have slowed down, Barbara and I have been spending our winter months down in Florida, where we follow our feathered friends by looking for them as we travel around on the shores or inland, but mostly by enjoying them daily as they visit our feeders.

Up North during the cold winter months when food becomes scarce feeders become more important and you are able to attract the regulars like the chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers and house finches.

You might also see some of the more unusual birds at your feeder during the extremely cold weather, such as the fox sparrow, the white-throated sparrow, the Carolina wren or the flicker.

The one bird that you have at your feeders that we see down here in Florida is the red-bellied woodpecker. They are at our feeder regularly with the grackles and English sparrows. Both the male and female red-bellied woodpeckers are around every day. If there doesn’t happen to be any food out when they arrive, we hear them scolding us even before we are up.

They enjoy sunflower seeds, and if there are any peanuts mixed in they’ll pick them out first. Just across from us there is a huge old Australian pine tree where the red-bellies stash their sunflower seeds into cracks and crevices for later use. They also use the telephone poles nearby where there are many holes from the servicemen who have used climbing spikes or gaffs to climb up the poles

The main food for all woodpeckers is insects and grubs that burrow beneath the bark of the tree. Their stiff tail feathers act as support as they work their way up and down the tree. This red-bellied woodpecker has the added advantage of being able to stick out its barbed tongue nearly two to three inches beyond the end of its beak to search under the bark. The tongue is sticky, making it easy to pull out prey from deep crevices.

While we enjoy watching the red-bellied woodpeckers at our window feeder, our real treat down here in Florida is the daily visits of the colorful and noisy parakeets. We have three different species that visit us: the monk, the blue-crowned and the black-hooded.

Parakeets originate in South America, where they are a major agricultural pest. The most common of the three are the monk parakeets, with their bright green upper parts, pale gray forehead and breast, and an orange hooked bill. The monk parakeet is most common as it can withstand the cold of the northern climate. There are colonies up around our area in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Kept as pets these noisy birds can acquire a large vocabulary. We recently spoke to someone who saved a young monk parakeet that had fallen out of its nest. They raised it to adulthood, when it became quite a pet and a friend to the family dog.

The monk parakeet is the only one that builds a large stick nest in trees or man-made structures, where many pairs live together rather than having a single hole or crevice in a tree. We’ve seen these nests in many places where we have traveled, and right here around the block from us there was a big nest with many noisy families living together at the top of a telephone pole.

The parakeet that comes to our feeder in the greatest numbers is the blue-crowned parakeet. This is one of the largest parakeets. Its nest is just a hole in a tree. It has green plumage, a long tapered tail, black and tan colored beak and has a most noticeable featherless eye ring. The dull blue covering covers the forehead, crown and cheeks. The tail feathers are green on top, maroon to reddish brown underneath, changing to a bright orange and scarlet as they fly. As the morning or late afternoon light hits the colorful feathers of these birds at the feeder they are an unforgettable sight.

The black hooded parakeet.

BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | The black hooded parakeet.

Of the three parakeets that visit us, the one that shies away from our feeder but sits and screams on the wires above and in the treetops is the black-hooded parakeet — as we write this there are two screaming outside as they look simply striking feeding high in the tree near us in the late sun of the day. Caged birds have been released in numerous places, and in nearby St. Petersburg they have been well established.

It is hard to describe the coloring on this bird. As it sits in the sun feeding with others of its kind, we can see the black facial mask and beak. It has black trailing flight feathers on its wings and a long tail edged in blue. The upper chest is bluish green and the lower chest has paler green feathers, while on the thighs there are very noticeable red feathers (almost circus-like in color).

It is said they are known for their very loud call, as we have noticed. In fact some, and we, would say they “scream.” You can always tell when they are in the area.

While we have some of the birds that you have during the winter on the North Fork, the birds that catch our attention most down here are the noisy and colorful parakeets.

01/25/11 9:08am

After our cold, windy winter weather here we decided to get out and see what Mother Nature had done to our beaches. We found that she did the same thing here in Florida that she does on Fire Island and Long Island; she eroded the beaches with extremely high tides and devastating winds that cut the beach off sharply half-way up from the water’s edge.

As we stood there looking at the winter beach we recalled an earlier visit we had made. We had walked this beach to the south of Beer Can Island and enjoyed seeing great numbers of shore birds — gulls, terns of all kinds and black skimmers — resting on the white sandy beach.

Hundreds of these birds were lined up like a high school marching band on the upper beach. They seemed perfectly content to rest in the sun, probably because their bellies were full. None of them seemed to mind if we were walking around or crawling around them for photographs. Black skimmers are social birds that form large colonies or flocks. They gather with different species of terns, getting some protection from the terns’ aggressive behavior.

One lonely tern was trying to take a nap away from the crowd while we took pictures of it. Standing on one foot and resting the other, it laid its head on its back, tucking its bill under its wing, its ears always alert to any danger.
The skimmer is a large bird with a knife-like bill that catches small fish in shallow water. We watched in amazement one night at the end of our pier as feeding skimmers flew low over the water with their bills open and their lower mandibles slicing through the surface.

The skimmer’s red-orange bill is uniquely designed so that when the bird flies close to the water it can lower its bill into the water and pick up a meal on the wing. When the lower bill touches a fish it snaps down instantly to catch it. It’s always a thrill to see Nature’s design work out so beautifully.

We had been fishing off the end of the pier, and when darkness approached, these birds, which usually enjoy dawn and dark feeding, flew past the lights of the pier and then out into the darkness to continue their nightly feeding.

It reminded me of years ago when I camped overnight on the Moriches Flats with Judd Bennett and we could hear the skimmers’ doglike bark as they skimmed the water and snapped up the fish near us.
We spoke earlier of the terns’ aggressiveness, which the skimmers enjoy for protection as they nest or flock on the beach. Terns are noted for this aggressiveness when threatened by any predator.

I remember when Judd Bennett and Dennis Puleston and I went into a tern colony to band some of the birds, the diving, chattering terns would dive at our heads. They would draw blood if you weren’t protected by a hat. If you wore a hat it would become white-washed from the excrement that was flying through the air from the birds’ excitement. This situation is also true when the volunteers band large numbers of terns on Gull Island off Long Island. They wear large brimmed hats to protect themselves there as well.

We see terns and black skimmers in our bays today, but nothing like years ago. In reading through one of my journals recently about some of the boats we owned over the years, I ran across this entry,

“June 16th, 1967 — Took boat out and slept overnight off Robins Island. The terns and skimmers are really doing fine over there. I can remember their nesting over there when I was a kid (in the ’30s) but lately they were driven away — glad to see them back.”

Keep your eyes open for the terns in and around our bays and watch carefully for the time you will see your first black skimmer glide slowly by, slicing the water with its lower mandible and waiting for a small fish to hit to snap it up.

We will be spending time visiting the beautiful white sandy beach down here in Florida again as the weather warms up and the beach repairs itself. We look forward to spending time with the shore birds and photographing them as they rest and relax along the beautiful beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.