Nature Notes: Cause for Celebration

The first eagles to breed on Mashomack, the Nature Conservancy’s pearl on Shelter Island, in more than a century are just about to fledge their chicks

First, a short note to cheer you all for the 4th of July. On Monday I received a communiqué from Kara Jackson, who handles the news for the Nature Conservancy. She said the first eagles to breed on Mashomack, the Nature Conservancy’s pearl on Shelter Island, in more than a century are just about to fledge their chicks. They could easily be in the air on the 4th. Wouldn’t that be terrific? The national bird born and raised and flying above the treetops in the center of the Peconic Estuary; some would say that’s a much better celebration of the independence of our great country than rockets and Roman candles.

It’s been 10 years since the canker worm moth population collapsed, 12 years since the end of the last gypsy moth outbreak. So I got to thinking, are those scourges gone for good? If not, why are they taking so long to come back. Have the oaks, hickories, and other hardwoods worked out a failsafe defensive strategy? Plants don’t have brains, but they can act and react.

I got in my vehicle Monday and retraced the routes I had taken during last week’s whippoorwill listening outing. It was one through the back roads in Southampton and East Hampton Towns, and some in the villages of Sag Harbor and North Haven. This time, however, I made the trip through those same oak, hickory, pitch pine, the white pine, and American beech forests during the day, not at night. I was looking for signs of defoliation, because if it was happening, by this time there would be some bare trees and some mature gypsy moths or canker worm moths flying around looking to mate.

Major’s Path, Noyac Path, Deerfield Road, Edge-of-Woods Road, Millstone Road, Middle Line Highway, Watermill Towd Road, Old Sag Harbor Road, Brick Kiln Road, Noyac Road, and Sagg Road were some of the roads I traveled from noon to 2 p.m. making “windshield” checks of the vegetation on each side of the road.

Then I rested, had a cup of coffee, and started out again, this time covering those very same East Hampton roads where I had searched for whippoorwills and chuck-will’s-widows a week earlier — Route 114, Swamp Road, Two Holes of Water Road, Bull Path, Old Northwest Road, Hand’s Creek Road, Stephen Hand’s Path, Northwest Road, Alewife Brook Road, Springy Banks Road, Accabonac Road, Abrahams Path, Springs-Fireplace Road, Old Stone Highway, Red Dirt Road, Stony Hill Road, Neck Path, Fresh Pond Road, Bendigo Road, and the western section of Cranberry Hole Road.

At the end of four hours of driving and straining my eyes this way and that way I was tired and both relieved and overjoyed. Why? Because I found not one sign of defoliation. The trees along all those roads were as green and as fully leaved as could be. I gave them all “lushness” ratings ranging from 8.5 to 9.5. If it doesn’t rain within a week the lushness ratings could drop into the 7s, but I don’t think there is any chance of any serious defoliation this year and probably not much next year, if at all. True, a tropical storm without rain could come along and shrivel the leaves the way Superstorm Sandy did to so many local white pines in October of 2012.

A second major finding of my trip around the South Fork was that there was very little sign of understory devegetation, the kind caused by gypsy moths, canker worms, or deer. The low-bush blueberries and huckleberries that dominated the subshrub layer throughout and along most of the above-mentioned roads covered 75 to 95 percent of the ground. I similarly gave the subshrub layer lushness values between 8.5 and 9.5. So much for the deer eating up the forests. The only area that was nearly devoid of understory was where it was to be expected, under the beeches that dominate the woods north of Town Lane in Amagansett, especially manifest along both sides of Stony Hill Road.

Last week’s nighttime search was a disaster; this daytime one was nothing but a big, big positive. When I talked about defoliation late in the day with Vicki Bustamante, who was on her way back from Stony Brook, she said, “That’s funny, I saw a lot of freshly defoliated trees along Nichols Road,” the section that runs north from the Long Island Expressway all the way to Stony Brook University. Having taken that road on many occasions since 1980, I am not surprised. The gypsy moth cycle along it is one of the shortest in America, never mothless for more than five years running, it would seem.

Vicki did point out another cyclic downturn in tree health UpIsland. Large patches of mature pitch pines along Sunrise Highway were dying back or already dead. When she finds out the cause she will pass it on.

You may remember that one of the largest wildfires in the history of Long Island occurred in the pine barrens of Westhampton north and south of Sunrise Highway. It happened after a rather severe browning of many of the pitch pines there. Pitch pines are different than oaks, hickories, and white pines. They populate fire climax forests that drop most of their pine nuts after being hit by a hot fire. Trees that are not killed outright re-sprout from the bare trunks, and, given a little rain, the seeds germinate on the burnt-over ground.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at