Long Island housing boom threatens Eastern bluebird

Bluebirds have fled to Tiffany Creek Preserve

August 27, 1999|By John T. McQuiston | John T. McQuiston,New York Times News Service

OYSTER BAY COVE, N.Y. -- The Eastern bluebird, which returned to nesting grounds in western Long Island five years ago after a 50-year absence, remains a determined if tenuous resident in a sprawling meadow nature preserve here, fighting off sparrow hawks and Wall Street bulls.

Naturalists warn that the continuing survival of the rusty-breasted songbird along the North Shore is threatened by a recent wave of housing development, paid for with hefty Wall Street profits, on the remaining fragments of old Gold Coast estates.

The new construction has displaced feathered and furry refugees who have fled to the 197-acre Tiffany Creek Preserve here and to other North Shore wildlife sanctuaries. Forced from their old hunting grounds, sparrow hawks and other predators have taken up new posts atop the slant-roofed birdhouses designed by ornithologists to attract the bluebird, the state bird of New York and long a favorite of poets and songwriters as a symbol of happiness.

"The bluebirds came first, and then the ospreys," said Allan Lindberg, a wildlife biologist and supervisor of the North Shore Greenspace Preserves for the Nassau County Department of Recreation and Parks. The network includes Tiffany Creek, just south of Oyster Bay; the nearby Muttontown Preserve, and three salt marsh sanctuaries in Mill Neck, Bayville and Glen Cove.

Bluebird as barometer

The bluebird has become somewhat of a wildlife barometer for naturalists. The latest reading indicates that the songbird is showing signs of pressure, said Lindberg, whose efforts are regarded on Long Island as the most successful in attracting the birds.

"Their population no longer appears to be growing as much as it was, but it appears stable, and it's not declining," he said.

While no one has kept an official count of the Eastern bluebird population, Lindberg and other naturalists estimated that at least two dozen pairs have been seen in western Suffolk and Nassau Counties this spring.

Recently at Tiffany Creek Preserve, a swift sparrow hawk, which is a little larger than a blue jay, stood atop one of the 12 slant-roofed bluebird houses built during past winters by carpenters in a Nassau parks department workshop and placed by Lindberg on posts in a vast meadow.

"The hawk is no doubt using it as a promontory to survey his hunting ground," forcing bluebirds to seek safer nesting spots elsewhere, Lindberg said.

He said that bluebirds naturally face a lot of competition for nesting space from the more aggressive tree swallow. Three other bluebird houses on the grassy knoll were occupied by swallows, including several fledglings that huddled together atop one of the weathered wooden houses, testing their wings. Fortunately for them, there were no young sparrow hawks testing their hunting skills.

In the 12th house, tucked away in the northwest corner of the meadow, not far from three giant red oaks, was a family of bluebirds, apparently trying to raise a second brood. They laid their first set of eggs in late April, and now they feed their young with insects they gather in the meadow.

Heaviest concentration

The Eastern bluebird ranges east of the Rockies, wintering in the South and breeding in the North. The heaviest concentration of Eastern bluebirds in New York is in the Hudson River Valley.

"Our final goal is to get the fledglings to stay and build their nests the old-fashioned way in old crab apple trees and other tree cavities," Lindberg said.

Ten miles northeast of Tiffany Creek, at the Caumsett State Park on Lloyd Neck, just over the line in Suffolk County, naturalists installed nearly 50 birdhouses over the last three decades, and these failed to attract any bluebirds until this year, said Herman Wenz, a retiree of the Grumman Corp., who has tended them with his son, Martin.

Nearly a hundred birdhouses are maintained on the 2,400 acres of preserves operated by the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which spans Nassau and Suffolk Counties, much of it along the South Shore, said Robert Parris, the deputy project leader. "The suburbs continue to encroach on us, but we've had a lot of support from local and natural resource groups," Parris said. He said he has seen as many as eight pairs of Eastern bluebirds along his nature trails this year.

"We're under a little less pressure here than they are on the North Shore, and we've had our best year yet for bluebirds ever since we put the boxes in eight years ago," Parris said, referring to the birdhouses. "We have one pair feeding fledglings in a house not far from my office window," he said. "I keep seeing this streak of blue going back and forth."

Pub Date: 08/27/99

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