Twice this spring I’ve sprayed myself with Deep Woods Off, tucked my pants into my socks and with fellow volunteers climbed into the cab of a pickup that smelled like wildlife and looked like the Recycling Center’s paper bin, to check on the Island’s bluebird population.
Last Thursday, Linda Hacker drove and Laurie Dobson, retired veterinarian Bill Zitek and I wedged into the pick-up for the brief but exciting trip to the first stand of nest boxes in Mashomack’s North Field.
As the truck pitched and yawed, I realized it was possible to get seasick on land under certain circumstances. Experienced box-checkers, the others hopped out after observing a tree swallow sitting on one of the boxes we were about to check.
In one we found a freshly built bluebird nest and in the other a partial nest lined with a few white feathers. “Enter the date and ‘TSOB,’ for tree swallow on box, and ‘PGNTS’ for partial grass nest tree swallow, since the feathers indicated a tree swallow nest,” Linda instructed me, explaining the system of codes that standardize entries in a logbook. It’s like a family Bible for Mashomack’s bluebirds, documenting generations of reproductive activity.
At the next group of nest boxes, we hit the jackpot. Ignoring my polite warning-knock on the box, the mother bluebird waited until I had the door open to depart. The elastic on the cuff of my jacket was loose, and her escape route almost went up my sleeve.
Inside the nest, five hatchlings snuggled. We counted, closed up the box and left mom to her duties.
Twenty years ago, Tom Damiani, the visitor center coordinator at Mashomack, erected seven bluebird nest boxes on the Hampshire Farms property, land that was later partially protected from development by a deal between the owners and the Peconic Land Trust. The bluebirds and tree swallows that took up residence in the boxes ate insects and berries, raised their young and returned to the nest boxes annually.
The boxes went missing last week when Tom went to check them, the land cleared by someone. It’s terrible news not just because of the loss of seven places for bluebirds to nest, but because as of the previous week, one of the boxes had five eggs ready to hatch. The box, nest and birds are gone.
The story of the fall and rise of the Eastern Bluebird is largely about housing. Named the New York State bird in 1970, during the first half of the 20th century they were nearly wiped out when imported species such as starlings took over nest sites like a hoard of well-heeled summer renters flushing out local workers. For the bluebirds, it was an existential crisis — you can’t reproduce without a place to lay your eggs.
The Mashomack nest box project is part of an initiative in the Northeast to establish and maintain trails of specially-designed boxes to encourage bluebird nests and to keep out predators. The nest box trails, organized and run by citizen scientists (a.k.a. volunteers) is responsible for the fact that the Eastern Bluebird is now thriving.
Local volunteers for the Mashomack nest box project that Tom started have been organized and deployed by Bill for 17 years. During that time, Bill documented the birth of 611 bluebirds, a 300 percent increase in the Shelter Island population.
Last fall, Bill passed the baton to Linda, who is now organizing more than 20 volunteers maintaining 61 nest boxes erected at sites around the 2,000-acre preserve and keeping records of temperature, nest status, the number of eggs and hatchlings.
On April 11, the Interior Department announced it was weakening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1923, by saying the law would not make companies pay fines for killing birds as long as it’s by accident.
The change in interpretation of the law benefits oil companies who no longer have to pay fines for dead and maimed birds due to an oil spill, but also for a company that for example, tears down a barn full of owl’s nests to make way for a new structure, killing the birds in the process.
Laurie pointed out that even land that we thought was protected is not really protected. The acres of cedar, cherry and locust trees cut in half near Menhaden Lane on Suffolk County property and plowing over of the bluebird boxes on partially-protected Hampshire Farms property, may be actions outside the reach of law. But they are not right.
Bill suggested, half-seriously, that the county should establish a public beach with a volleyball net adjacent to the site of the Menhaden Lane tree destruction so the folks whose homes now have a view of the water could also enjoy the charms of beach volleyball and the sounds of excited children swimming.
As we bumped along the dirt road in Mashomack, I felt the familiar tickle of insect activity, and Laurie — like an orangutan grooming a friend — removed a tick from my hairline. Between the four of us, we found a few more before we emerged from the beautiful woods and grassy fields of Mashomack, where bluebirds are nesting, and the land is cherished and protected.