Nature Notes: Environmental Champions

The great Long Island naturalists who have made their second job their first and best
One of many signs of spring, the trailing arbutus were blooming up a storm at Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor. Jean Held

A weekend with near-80-degree temperatures and it seems like spring prematurely turning into summer. Alewives, or river herring, are running, ospreys are sitting on nests, hardwood trees are budding, and at Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, trailing arbutus are flowering up a storm, according to Jean Held. 

But with the good comes the bad. Patricia Hope, a retired East Hampton High School science teacher, reported that after a very long absence dating back to before December 2016, the first lone star ticks are out. On Sunday she picked up two adults, male and female. (The female has the white spot on the back, thus the common name.)

Pat has been studying ticks for almost five years now and has already done enough research and traipsing through fields and woods to make her eligible for a Ph.D. She has a marvelous laboratory set up at home and for more than two years has been taking a daily walk through a prescribed territory with her dog, at the end of which she removes the ticks from herself and man’s best friend, and then identifies, tallies, and preserves them. The one good thing about ticks is that they are tiny and a million of them can fit in a shoebox.

Her research has yielded a remarkable finding: The black-legged, or deer, ticks are no longer the number-one tick enemy. They have been relegated to the colder months, but even then they have become very scarce. There is an old maxim, no two species can occupy the same habitat and niche for a long time without one becoming dominant and displacing the other. The niche is how the organism makes a living; the habitat is where it hangs out, feeds, and breeds.

It is only fitting that the deer tick — the primary vector of Lyme disease — is now taking a backseat to the lone star, as it was largely responsible for squeezing out the dog, or wood, tick, which used to be the common Long Island tick for so many years. Now the latter tick has become a great rarity, although I don’t think New York State will ever put it on its endangered and threatened list.

Pat’s steps to her new endeavor are not unlike that of the other great Long Island naturalists who have made their second job their first and best. Perhaps Long Island’s greatest naturalist ever, Roy Latham, was a potato farmer and part-time fisherman. Gil Raynor was a meteorologist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Dennis Puleston was a world trekker, then a P.R. person for that laboratory before he began banding ospreys and other birds. Paul Stoutenburgh peddled irrigation pipe for the Long Island Lighting Company, and then sold insurance and finally became an industrial arts teacher at Greenport High School, while all the while honing his naturalist and writing skills as the first weekly nature columnist on eastern Long Island. 

Leroy Wilcox, who wrote the first definitive scientific paper on piping plover behavior, was a duck farmer with his brother. Art Cooley was a teacher at Bellport High School and was instrumental in starting the Environmental Defense Fund with Dennis Puleston, as well as serving as the guiding light for the state’s bottle deposit law. He is still very much alive and active in environmental affairs in San Francisco. Jim Ash was a sheet metal worker, then a house and building washer, but always a naturalist, before he headed up the South Fork Natural History Museum. Their progeny are many and carry on the good environmental fight.

And now here come the women. Karen Blumer, the author of “Growing Wild on Long Island,” knows both her fauna and flora, and is very active on the environmental battlefield in the areas of clean water, watershed protection, and environmental education. Jean Held, after a long career with Time Inc., then Fortune magazine, helped start the South Fork Natural History Society and has been a force in the Sag Harbor Historical Society, all the while studying native flora and fauna, especially butterflies and dragonflies. 

She was the first to remove by hand invasive phragmites at a time when the State Department of Environmental Conservation was protecting it as it ran rampant on the north end of Long Pond in Bridgehampton. Ginnie Frati gave up a good job working for Suffolk County’s Public Works Department to work with injured and sick wild animals of all kinds at the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, which she was instrumental in establishing.

Louise Harrison on the North Fork is well versed in every aspect of the natural world and the human environment. Sara Davison, who at this very moment is busy trying to clean the choking mats of algae from Georgica Pond in East Hampton, as executive director of the Friends of Georgica Pond, once led the eastern Long Island Nature Conservancy, then jumped to the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons and ran that great dog-and-cat-caring organization for almost 20 years. Nancy Kelley, present executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Long Island, was the head of America’s Group for the South Fork for several years. 

Dai Dayton, the director of Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt, has been taking care of vineyards, estates, and the like, but her chief concern has always been the South Fork’s natural areas. And then there is my niece, Gwynn Schroeder, who works tirelessly for everything environmental on the North Fork, in addition to raising four children and being a right-hand aide to Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski.

And what about all of those wonderful women horticulturists, gardeners, and landscapers serving the South Fork?

I have only cited a few of my heroes and heroines. And there are so many other naturalists and environmentalists, long established or up-and-coming, that I have failed to name. They should not feel neglected, but should keep doing what they do best — taking care of Mother Nature in their own definitive way as long as they are able to.

I leave you with a saying attributed to an old Native American that I learned about for the first time at the end of an email by Karen Engel of the D.E.C.: “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.” 

Larry Penny can be reached via email at