Rainy, windswept night at Mashomack

JULIA BRENNAN PHOTO | Fifteen lucky birders got to stay overnight in the Manor House at Mashomack Preserve on the Saturday before Mother’s Day. Pictured here on the main stairway are (clockwise from far left): Jonathan Dey, Richard Quaglio, Mashomack volunteer host Peter Van Hensbroek, Amy Jacobus, Debra North, Walter and Katherine Chabla, Jeanne Merkel, David and Shirley Merle, and (center) Paul Merle.

JULIA BRENNAN PHOTO | Fifteen lucky birders got to stay overnight in the Manor House at Mashomack Preserve on the Saturday before Mother’s Day. Pictured here on the main stairway are (clockwise from far left): Jonathan Dey, Richard Quaglio, Mashomack volunteer host Peter Van Hensbroek, Amy Jacobus, Debra North, Walter and Katherine Chabla, Jeanne Merkel, David and Shirley Merle, and (center) Paul Merle.

Fifteen lucky birders had a rare treat recently at Mashomack Preserve — an overnight stay at the freshly restored Manor House.

They came to participate in the annual early morning “Birds and Breakfast” program run by naturalists at the preserve, and as they were among the first responders to an invitation issued last fall, got to sleepover night in one of the Manor House’s 10 bedrooms.

It was a first for some guests; others were veterans of the program. John Dey of Massapequa has attended for eight years, staying as a last-minute guest his first year in the home’s smallest bedroom, one of just two without an en suite bath.

“It was a squeeze for me and I wasn’t a morning person then,” he recalled, seated at the long dining table with other guests the evening of May 13. “I was still bleary when we went out with the guide [Tom Damiani].

“I was new to birding and was amazed at how he spotted birds mostly by ear,” Mr. Dey said.

Hooked ever since, Mr. Dey was hoping this time to see a scarlet tanager, “a bird so bright it makes a cardinal look drab.”

Katherine and Walter Chabla, who were sharing dinner with Mashomack’s volunteer host for the evening, Peter Van Hensbroek, said they became interested in The Nature Conservancy after their son worked at a TNC preserve near their home in Stratford, Connecticut.

Ms. Chabla had visited Shelter Island in the late 1970s, when Mashomack was a private hunting club. She signed up for the birding weekend not really knowing what to expect, and then attended the annual trip to Mashomack Point in February and was smitten. When the couple arrived Saturday, she was delighted to find in their room a copy of “Where They Go by Water,” a history of Mashomack written by Muriel Porter Weaver.

“The author says one of the best ways to get to know it is by going out in all kinds of weather and all seasons,” she said. “I think that’s a good message.”

Shelter Island resident Jeanne Merkel, who volunteers at Mashomack but was there as a guest, said the overnight stay was a way to treat herself for Mother’s Day, and to continue a tradition she’d begun with her late husband. Ms. Merkel recalled an encounter with a pair of kingfishers after her husband’s memorial service, a story that caused the chit-chatter in the dining room to fall silent.

“I went down to take a walk on our beach and said ‘this is my last walk with you,’” she said, describing a beach near their home in Mattituck where a large rock had emerged from a bluff during their 20 years of walking there together. “I get to that rock and there are these two white birds with the silhouette of kingfishers and the clacking noise of kingfishers … taking turns spiralling above that rock.”

She watched them for an hour, wondering what type of kingfisher might be all white.

“I went back and looked in my bird book that has bird lore as well as bird behavior. I found that the story of the kingfisher is part of a Greek myth about a widow named Halcyon whose husband has gone off to sea.

“She goes up and down the beach everyday to watch for his return. One day, his body washes up on shore and she was so overcome with grief that she throws herself into the water to drown. At that point, she and her husband are turned into kingfishers,” she said.

“I’m reading this after his memorial service and it was just so moving,” she recalled. “It was one of those amazing encounters where you felt like, ‘O.K., we are still in connection.’”

The kingfisher family is, in fact, known as Halcyoniadae after the mythical widow. Why the two birds Ms. Merkel saw that day on the beach were all white remained a mystery.

Amy Jacobus of Brooklyn coordinated the trip for herself and friends, Paul Merle, of Brooklyn, and his brother and sister-in-law, David and Shirley Merle of Yorktown Heights. While visiting friends on the Island, she spotted a notice about the $75 per person overnight event and said, “We have to do this!”

Ms. Jacobus is a floral designer and the Mashomack event coincided with Mother’s Day, one of the busiest days for florists.

“Everyone at work is so mad at me,” she said, noting that she’d put in 12 straight hours before heading out to Mashomack. “My manager couldn’t believe I’d pick birdwatching over working!”

Cindy Belt, Mashomack’s education and outreach coordinator, who organized the event, said beforehand that a night at the Manor was a chance for guests to unplug from the stresses of modern life and enjoy an old-fashioned night by a crackling fire.

Ms. Jacobus and the Merles came prepared to take advantage of the peace and quiet, gathering at the end of the dining room table to play “Settlers of Catan,” a board game in which players find their way in an unihabited land, an apt way to spend a dark and stormy evening surrounded by 2,039 acres of unsullied nature.

Fortunately for the birders, the forecast for the weather on Mother’s Day improved overnight. It remained cold and cloudy, but the group went out with Mr. Damiani and fellow guide, Mike Scheibel, and then enjoyed a delicious breakfast cooked up by Tom Hashagen.

To learn more about Mashomack, visit The Nature Conservancy at nature.org or email [email protected]

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