“Exploring the Other Island,” John Turner’s recent book on Long Island’s unique and fascinating natural history, is the latest in a long series of modern-day publications on this subject dating back to Robert Cushman Murphy’s “Fish-Shape Paumanok: Nature and Man on Long Island” of 1962. Prior to Mr. Turner’s book, the late Dennis Puleston penned his vast Long Island natural history experiences in the 1992 publication “A Natural Journal.”
It wasn’t that long ago that a New York State high court made it official: Long Island, indeed, is an island. It’s vegetatively and geologically different from most of the East Coast, and so its natural history, its flora and fauna, is deserving of a separate and dedicated treatment.
Mr. Turner’s book does just that. Not only does the author describe the Island’s salient and separate ecological communities, from the East River to the tip of Montauk and Orient Points, he does so in chronological fashion, the way another Long Islander, Edwin Way Teale, did it 60 years earlier. Spring, summer, fall, winter, and, oh yes, throw in the night sky when it is most observable, in winter.
It would be difficult for the average Long Islander not to find some facet or fact of nature that did not personally relate to him or her, as just about every neighborhood has a personality all its own. In terms of plant communities and the wonderful animals that live in them, each is covered. To the west you have the Hempstead Plains remnant, a prairie that once extended 14 miles in one direction and in almost every respect resembled the ones west of the Alleghenies. It is now reduced to less than 100 acres in size. To the east you have the rugged Montauk Moorlands and grasslands, with rocky shores to the north and south.
In between you have the oak-hickory morainal hardwood forests, the diluvial plains and their rich soils on the north and south, and, most of all, the pine barrens, almost 100,000 acres of intact pine-oak woodlands with special niches like the dwarf pine plains of Westhampton Beach, and the wetlands associated with the state’s largest groundwater river, the mighty Peconic, running easterly and draining parts of the north and south moraines. It is particularly for the creation of the Central Pine Barrens Preserve that we owe Mr. Turner a large debt of gratitude.
He and two buddies, John Cryan and Bob McGrath, all three barely out of college, came up with the absurd idea to save what George Washington had called “ill-thriven pines” 170 years earlier. They established the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, now one of the Island’s most prestigious and powerful conservation organizations, as currently directed by Richard Amper. Well, these young naturalist turks succeeded, now didn’t they.
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In between writings and for 30 years running, Mr. Turner has been an ardent activist for Long Island’s ecology and natural heritage, which was about to go up in flames in the latter part of the 20th century. Many of us thought that Nassau and Suffolk Counties would become just one 80-mile-long paved-over shopping center. The idea of saving the pine barrens came along just in time, because until we began looking at it for the marvelous collection of plants and animals that it represents, it was just another piece of land to cut down and develop.
In the book, we find out about all of its magical attributes, the native lupines, the midget yet full-grown pines with cones that shed their seeds only during a fire, the beautiful buck moth that is dependent upon the little pines, and all the rest of the goings-on in a vast forest that used to be home to bobcats, wolves, rattlesnakes, heath hens, and, yes, even bears.
The seasons progress starting with early spring and the ospreys’ return, the runs of alewives upstream at the same time as the shad bloom, the barking of wood frogs, the chirping of spring peepers, and the buzzing of Fowler’s toads and the silence of mole salamanders, among them the state-protected tiger salamander, emerging from the earth and slipping into the cool waters of vernal ponds to reproduce. Cool spring is followed by warm spring and the migrations of a hundred or more bird species — water birds, hawks, shorebirds and songbirds, 40 different species of warblers — and the forests just ablaze with leaves are lit up with song.
At the same time, the diamondback terrapins are leaving the water, and if they can bypass the shore armor and slip between the tires of passing cars on coastal roads they will get to lay their eggs to start a new generation. Concomitantly, coupled horseshoe crabs are whispering on moon tides to lay and fertilize their eggs in the sandy upper intertidal, which they’ve been doing for millions of years, we imagine.
Then come the whippoorwills, the birds of summer, the ripening of the blueberries and other native fruits, and the South Shore bays filled with tropical fish of every color and form. Before you know it, we’re into the fall migration, with the return of the shorebirds from the north as early as mid-July, followed by the retreat of the ospreys, then the nighthawks, streams of merlins and sparrow hawks along with monarch butterflies and green darners moving over the South Shore dunes from Napeague to Staten Island. And so on, until we are into cold weather and the waterfowl are setting in for a long winter’s night.
Montauk in the winter becomes the place to visit. The witch hazel trees are still in bloom, and one can still see the stars at night. The waterfowl coming and going off the Point are the most colorful things on the winter seascape. Seals of five species cavort in the surf when they’re not pulling up on the rocks along the north side west of the Lighthouse.
Having read “Exploring the Other Island,” I personally have come to a better understanding of why we have all been working so hard to keep what we have and live where we live. Why go to Maine or the Carolinas when Long Island’s marine, aquatic, and upland habitats have so much to offer? From one day to the next throughout a given year, it may be the same inside where you live, but it’s always different outside. Amen.
John Turner, former director of Brookhaven Town’s Division of Environmental Protection, taught ornithology at Southampton College for many years. A resident of Massapequa Park, he teaches a course on seabirds and marine turtles at the State University at Stony Brook.
“Exploring the Other Island” is a revised and expanded second edition.