In nature, it’s not the more things change, the more things stay the same, but the more things stay the same the more they change. Halfway through the last century, if you had kept a list of local birds it would have been very different from the one you may be keeping now. And it isn’t because of global warming or increased environmental protection, wars, or some other global phenomenon. Mother Nature doesn’t stand still; she’s always on the go.
As far as Long Island goes, 10,000 years ago the eastern four-fifths of it was nothing more than a pile of rubble — boulders, rocks, stones, gravel, soil, sand, and water with very little in the way of greenery. The glacier that created it was retreating into northern New England. It was very cold. Summers were Icelandic climate-wise. Sea level was 100 or so feet below its present level.
If Europeans had sailed to our shores at that moment, they would have turned around and gone right back. It was desolate and barely habitable.
Little by little the island’s surface became vegetated, first with mosses and lichens, then with higher plants, ultimately with trees, bushes, grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. Winds and birds had to carry in most of the seeds for the new beginning. Obviously, most came from the west and south. Some seeds came by sea and rivers. Insects either flew in or were delivered here passively by atmospheric forces. In that first 1,000 years after the retreat of the ice sheet, Long Island looked the way northern Canada and upper Siberia look today.
The tropics were spared the devastation — the glaciers didn’t reach that far down. And, while they were colder during the ice age, they were still very much the tropics and almost as verdant as they are today. But as rich as they were, the equatorial plant communities had a carrying capacity that couldn’t keep up with the expanding populations.
Some of the more mobile ones, namely the birds, began wandering north to find food. The ones that ate insects could only go as far north as the spreading insect population would allow. The seed and fruit eaters had an advantage over them. Those birds that were omnivorous, both granivorous and insectivorous, say, the orioles, had a definite advantage — they could switch from a scarcer food stock to a more plentiful one to get by and raise young.
The raptors spread north with them, and along the coasts, the sea birds, shorebirds, and waterfowl moved north as far as meteorological events and available food stocks would allow. As the seas warmed up, marine fish spread north. Piscovorous birds like the osprey, herons, terns, cormorants, loons, and mergansers, began to range farther and farther north, as well. It wasn’t so different from what happened later when the first European-Americans, having established themselves along the East Coast, began looking westward for new territories and new homesteads. Some were pioneers; some were stay-at-homes. It was the same with the northward movement of the birds after the glaciers receded.
Since pre-colonial times, at least, there have been regular north-south, spring-fall migrations across Long Island of more than 150 bird species. As many as half of these now breed on Long Island. Of the last to establish here, some are migrants, others are drifters.
Among the drifters are the mockingbird, cardinal, red-bellied woodpecker, and tufted titmouse that began breeding on eastern Long Island in the 1960s through the 1980s. Different incentives caused them to proliferate here: For the mockingbird, it was winter stocks of rugose and multiflora rose hips, as well as cedar berries and other overwintering fruit; for the cardinal, red-bellied woodpecker, and tufted titmouse, the last to establish, it was the fruit as well as the seeds provided by winter bird feeders. Mockingbirds preferred the more open areas of the coastal strand, while the latter three species were right at home in suburban settings, in many situations the half-acre or acre residence was just the right size to accommodate a breeding pair.
Four migratory water birds were among the range extenders that established here. The last of these to breed on eastern Long Island was the double-crested cormorant, which established rookeries in trees on Gardiner’s Island and elsewhere in the late 1990s. While this species was common enough as a non-breeding summer resident prior to establishing rookeries here, it is now much more common and the one bird species that has become a serious threat to the continuance of certain rare fish stocks in Long Island waters, primarily the winter flounder.
Before the cormorant became a breeder, the oyster catcher, willet, and cattle egret began breeding on eastern Long Island. In 1957, the late Long Island naturalist Dennis Puleston discovered the oystercatcher breeding on Gardiner’s and Cartwright Islands. In 1954, a cattle egret showed up on a turkey farm in East Moriches. In 1970, Puleston found a nest with two young on Gardiner’s Island. In 1973 a pair nested at Jones Beach. The cattle egret has the ability to go both ways: catch fish, invertebrates, and frogs, or insects, snakes, and lizards in fields where livestock are grazing, even settling on the back of a cow or a horse in between foraging. It picked up its upland diet on the veldts of Africa among the migratory herd animals. It came here by way of South America, where it also lived among the ungulates, cammelids, and cervids.
The glossy ibis has a similar history. It started out in the Old World, came to the New World tropics early on, and for the past 50 years has been moving up the Atlantic Coast. It first bred here in 1961 at the Jamaica Bay refuge. By 1969 it was nesting on Gardiner’s Island. Since that time, a year doesn’t pass on the East End of Long Island without a stop-down, pass-through, or breeding of this bizarre looking long-legged marsh bird with the downturned bill.
In 1967 the willet, now a common fixture in most South Fork salt marshes, began breeding on Long Island at Jones Beach, and a year later at Tiana in Hampton Bays.
Black skimmers, krill eaters, were among the earliest of the 20th-century water birds to establish on Long Island beaches, as early as 1934 along the beaches of what is now called the South Shore Estuary. Mark my word: The next water bird to make a big splash here will be the brown pelican. Some wander by every year after breeding farther to the south.
In 1969, the chuck-will’s-widow began breeding here and by the 1980s several pairs had spread out each June uttering their eerie calls in evenings in scrubby woodlands from Quogue to Montauk Point. They are now as common here as a close relative, which also has an onomatopoeic name — the whippoorwill, a species that has practically disappeared from eastern Long Island during this millennium. Similarly, the fish crow, a wee bit smaller than the common crow and with a nasal upstate voice, has moved north from a south coastal base and now is a regular breeder here, say, around Sag Harbor and Accabonac Harbor.
The turkey vulture may be the latest of species to call Long Island its new home. A pair bred here for the first time in 2008 in a dilapidated World War II-era concrete ordnance building in Montauk. The young turkey vultures were discovered by two adventurous Montauk teenagers, who at first thought they were young turkeys. Charlie Morici, the caretaker of the Hither Woods park assemblage, saw them and confirmed that they were, indeed, turkey vultures.
Two migratory songbirds stopped in and began to breed here in the 1990s on East Hampton’s Grace Estate nature preserve. They were the cerulean warbler, discovered by Pat Lindsay, and the black-throated green warbler, found by Eric Salzman.
*Note: Much of this information for this column was taken from John Bull’s “Birds of New York State,” 1974, Bull’s “Birds of New York,” 1998, edited by Emanuel Levine, and Elon Howard Eaton’s two-volume “Birds of New York,” 1909.