10/05/11 5:01am
10/05/2011 5:01 AM


Let’s pick up where we left off last time after traveling around our country and continue with the writings and travels of Focus on Nature.

When we were married in 1950 we borrowed a tent from the Goldsmith family for a trip to Montauk to see if we’d like camping. Later we purchased a large, heavy Army-like tent with one side all screened. I remember one time we spent three rainy days in it in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where we ran into Southold schoolteacher Bea Payne and her husband, Bill, from Shelter Island.

The last time we used the tent — on a camping trip to Maine when the kids were older — we went to pick it up in the morning and found a snake coiled up underneath it! That night I remember, too, the mosquitoes were so bad, inside and out, that we all got in the car and drove around to try to get away from them. With no air conditioning and the windows open, the mosquitoes got in the car with us anyway so we headed back to the tent and fought them there.

We then graduated to an 18-foot Holly trailer, which we used to travel around the Great Lakes in 1962, the year after the road opened north of Wawa. We visited the big Fond du Lac Indian Reservation and stopped at huge grain elevators, where we watched grain being dumped from freight cars into waiting ships at the docks. They shook the cars as if they were empty egg cartons to get every piece of grain out.

We were so far north that it stayed light late and the kids could swim until 10 p.m. We had two flat tires 50 miles apart and had to cross the border twice from Canada to the U.S. to get to a Montgomery Ward store to replace them. We found out later the company had bought up tires that were sitting in storage for a long time for that particular camper.

With these added expenses, money was getting tight as we traveled on our summer school vacation. We called to say we would be heading home and not complete our trip all the way around the Great Lakes, but we were told, “Don’t come home. Your house is rented.” Actually, Barbara’s mother had rented our house to Douglas Moore’s protégés, John Kander and Fred Ebb, who together wrote the music and words for “Cabaret” on our piano while spending that summer in our home.

One year, we headed to Newfoundland, where Peter and I figured we could get to see and photograph the famous Atlantic puffins and razor-billed auks that nested in burrows there. When we stopped on our way to camp along the coast of Maine we went on a lobster boat out to Machias Seal Island, where we spent a night in the lighthouse with fresh fish chowder for supper and a place to sleep on the floor. At first light, we found our puffins and auks and spent the morning photographing them.

While we spent our time on the island, Barbara, Roger and Peggy spent their time camping at Cobs Cook State Park. Once we were able to get the pictures we were after, we didn’t need to travel farther north, so it gave us time to spend camping and exploring Acadia National Park, where I got to see my first moose.

Over the years Focus has received many letters. One lady moved away from our area and when reading a Focus article about picking and making beach plum jam said she could “just smell the beach plums cooking.” At the time, Barbara’s Aunt Libby was picking and making beach plum jam for her church to sell, so I talked her into sending a jar to the lady.

Once, when camping down south, I wrote about yellow pine kindling known as firewood. A classmate of mine living in Texas read my article and on a trip back home he brought me a can of it.

Fran Woodward never got to Hawaii but told us when we returned from our tenting tour of four of the islands there that she had been able to travel along with us via Focus. She said they had always planned to make the trip when they retired but her husband died before they got there so she was able to enjoy it through our eyes. This is just a sample of some of the many comments we’ve received from our readers over the years.

Focus got mixed up in politics once. Our opponents asked Troy to stop Focus while I ran for public office — first for town trustee and later for councilman. They felt it was an advertisement for me. Troy said as long as the article didn’t get political, he wouldn’t stop it. Once we mentioned the name of a candidate from Fishers Island while sailing out that way and Troy cut his name out.

Another time there was a half-page vertical ad of our grandson fishing from a dock and the Focus on Nature story was about fishing with him. Troy said I could run one or the other but not both. I chose to run the ad — and I won. The ad showed our then 3-year-old grandson Robby sitting on a dock with a fishing pole in his hand saying, “Vote for my Pa and there’ll still be fish around when I grow up.”

08/10/11 1:05pm
08/10/2011 1:05 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.

05/30/11 10:03am
05/30/2011 10:03 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.

05/01/11 7:31am
05/01/2011 7:31 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 12:49pm
04/07/2011 12:49 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.

11/23/10 9:43pm
11/23/2010 9:43 PM

We were on Southwest Flight 1003 headed for Florida before the first snowflakes fell on the North Fork. We cruised above the clouds and every once in a while when there was an opening we could see the ribbon of land along the coast. Within an hour of landing. our taxi delivered us to our waiting winter home. It was great to feel the warmth of Florida’s sunshine after we enjoyed the speed of modern-day travel.
After a day or two, we had settled in and Barbara had things pretty well organized to begin our winter vacation. The one thing we always look forward to when we are here is reacquainting ourselves with the wonders that Florida offers.
From our windows we can see brown pelicans almost touching the water with their wings as they glide by. They are fun to watch as they dive into the water for a meal, and when they surface there is always a gull waiting for its share. It isn’t uncommon for the gull to sit on the pelican’s head waiting to grab a tidbit.
Of course, there are always fish crows about, sometimes as many as 20 or more. Gradually we are seeing more and more of these smaller crows back home on the North Fork. They have an entirely different call from the common crows, and that is the easiest way to tell them apart. The fish crow has a raspy call.
Looking out toward the dock we spot a vulture sitting on one of the pilings. This is a bird we have begun to see more and more on the North Fork and on our windmill up in the back pasture, where they love to sit and rest.
Other old friends we see diving around the pilings of the dock are the cormorants. They are the same ones we have at home and create the same problems that many a sailboat owner can vouch for: Their excrement can turn a polished boat into a whitewashed nightmare. Like the cormorants, though much smaller, Forster’s terns can be seen diving for small fish. That comma-shaped black ear patch in winter plumage helps identify this super-white tern.
When we took a walk out along the fishing pier, not too far away we spotted the silhouette of a frigate bird gliding by overhead. This unique-looking large black seabird with its long, angled wings and scissor-like tail is always exciting to see. It is notorious for its habit of stealing meals from other birds.
As we write, a white ibis is passing along the waterfront with a juvenile bird in tow. The adult white ibis is all white with a red bill and feet, and the immature is gray. After a rain one day about 20 of these beautiful all-white birds flew in to enjoy the huge puddle left by the rain at the end of our road. A sight we won’t soon forget.
After getting well settled in we decided to take our first adventure here in Florida, so we headed south to the Mote Aquarium, where wildlife in the area was studied after the Gulf oil spill — a huge complex of education, research and exhibits.
We drove past the main buildings and on toward the water to a preserve, where we looked for shore birds. There is a nice, wide boardwalk through a mangrove swamp area. Mangroves are a most important part of a saltwater ecosystem here in Florida, for they act as a nursery area, spawning area, water quality indicator and a host of other resources that play a vital role in making a habitat for the building blocks of the food chain. They act in the same capacity as our salt marshes back home. It was good to have the hard surface of the boardwalk on which to meander through this important area.
We came to a section of the walk that led out into the bay. Since it was low tide at the time and the birds were feeding, we could see snowy egrets, great egrets, great blue herons, black-bellied plovers, a willet and a little blue heron.
And there were a number of adult white ibis. We could see why nature had provided this bird with its long, specially curved bill, for it was probing deep into the soft mud where other birds couldn’t reach. It was the first time we had witnessed the almost complete submergence of the bird’s bill and head into the soft mud to feed.
As we continued along, the boardwalk opened into a mowed grassland. Here, jittering about before us along the walkway, were some small warblers. We sat for a while in the warm air and with our binoculars were finally able to identify them as palm warblers. Most notable in identifying them was the constant bobbing of their tails.
As we finished off our walk, an osprey called from near its nest high on a 150-foot tower nearby. This was our first of many adventures, with more to follow.