In the quietest moment of every Shelter Island winter, Mashomack Preserve allows about 20 people to explore the windswept beach, old farm fields and briar-choked forest of the Katherine Ordway Wildlife Refuge. This year, I got to go along, as happy as if I’d scored tickets to “Hamilton.” The music — mainly birdsong — was just as good.
The Ordway Refuge is a geologically and biologically fragile point of land that extends into Northwest Harbor on the southernmost point of the Island. At 2,039 acres, Mashomack is about 30 percent of the Island’s landmass, and the Ordway Refuge is a good chunk of that. Refuge means protected from human visitors for most of the year. It is the most sheltered place on Shelter Island.
Katherine Ordway was a student of botany, biology and land use who inherited a fortune in 1948. She put her money to work preserving thousands of acres of prairielands in the Great Plains and saving several Hawaiian Islands, as well as parts of Connecticut from development.
She gave $3 million to The Nature Conservancy to help preserve this important habitat for ospreys, eagles, least terns and piping plovers — all federally-listed endangered species. Her gift was as effective as it was generous. The numbers of these birds on the Island especially ospreys and eagles, have improved dramatically since Mashomack was protected in 1980, as any bicyclist who has been chased away from a roadside nesting pole by a furious osprey can attest.
The winter day I visited was one of those insanely warm ones that contributed to making this the warmest February in the U.S. in 39 years. Mashomack naturalists Cindy Belt and Tom Damiani guessed that it was the warmest day ever for the mid-winter visit to the Refuge by at least 20 degrees.
The Refuge is dotted with freshwater ponds formed in kettles — dings in the earth left behind by the retreating glacier that shaped and scoured the entire Peconic landscape 20,000 years ago. One of these kettles is called Ice Pond because it supplied ice for the farm that was once there, presumably back in the days when the month of February stayed cold enough to keep fresh water frozen.
The best setting for a good talk is a good walk, and this one, two miles on a well-marked path with plenty of beach and sky, sea and trees, was ideal for conversation. Birds were the most popular topic.
A knot of birders walked in formation, binoculars hanging from their necks, sharing intelligence on the sighting of an errant rufous hummingbird at a backyard feeder in Aquebogue that has the North Fork birding community in a dither.
When someone spotted a juvenile red-headed woodpecker on the trail, the speculation about the hummingbird immediately ended as everyone lifted their binoculars to determine if this was actually a red-headed woodpecker and not a more common variety.
Small trees, grasses and cat briar have taken over large areas that were once farmed and along the way we passed an elegantly rusted plough in an abandoned field like an exhibit in a museum of farming.
Standing in the tall grass of the fallow farm are nesting boxes erected and tended by Bill Zitek and the volunteers of the bluebird project, an organization that has steadily improved bluebird, tree swallow and purple martin numbers by maintaining nesting sites in spring and early summer. In my mind, the bluebird project sets a worthy example, showing how providing affordable housing on the Island can help local families stay and prosper.
Standing underneath two osprey nests in trees growing near the very tip of Mashomack Point, a birder named Kevin Brooks was prompted by Ms. Belt to tell the story of how in 1966 a Long Island researcher working at Brookhaven realized that DDT was thinning the eggshells of osprey and preventing reproduction, a discovery that fueled his determination to end the widespread use of the pesticide in Suffolk County.
With a group of colleagues, he sued the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission, and launched an environmental movement that led to a nationwide band on DDT and the foundation of the Environmental Defense Fund.
“The bald eagle was saved by regulations that banned DDT,” Brooks said. “Whatever you think about government regulations, that one worked.”
I paused to quietly chew on that thought until my reverie was ended by a rattling noise from above, that I learned later was the call of a kingfisher.
I think he wanted us out of his backyard.