Not Just For The Birds: North Fork Audubon Celebrates at 50

Pictured Above: North Fork Audubon Board Members (l-r) Theresa Dilworth, Peggy Lauber, Mimi Fahs and Paola Marra in the rain garden at the Red House in Greenport.

It’s not a coincidence that so many East End nature organizations are sharing a 50th Anniversary this year. At the height of the environmental movement prompted by the first Earth Day in 1970, residents of the region surrounding the Peconic Estuary took a look around them and realized this was an important natural place worthy of protecting.

If you haven’t gotten involved with the Audubon Society, you might think this non-profit is all about the birds. But the North Fork Audubon Society, which is celebrating its golden anniversary this year, has long taken its mission deeper, exploring all the ways that natural and unnatural habitats affect birds, bees and pollinators, and, in turn, the entirety of the ecosystem that surrounds us.

“I feel really fortunate to live on the North Fork, to live in an area that has so much natural beauty,” said North Fork Audubon Society President Peggy Lauber, who’s been involved with the organization for about nine years, in a recent interview. “I’ve been here 42 years, and the more time I spend here, the more connected I feel.”

Ms. Lauber said the chapter’s current board, comprised of nine can-do women, is building on the active community engagement that has been a hallmark of North Fork Audubon for years.

The group, which is the steward of Inlet Pond County Park in Greenport and the red house there that serves as a nature center, manages the trails in the park, plants native gardens to attract birds and other pollinators, leads seminars on native gardens and invasive species and two annual native plant sales, and has an active shoreline bird monitoring program, in addition to birdwatching outings like the long-running Tuesdays with Tom series. They also run summer nature camps and young birder programs.

The group has taken the lead locally on promoting public awareness of the dangers of climate change — a stance shared by the National Audubon Society, which sees the change in bird migration patterns as a bellwether for future climate disruptions.

“We have some real dedicated people on our board who are really moving us forward,” said Ms. Lauber. “We want to do a giant maser plan for the park, long-term, on how we’re going to tackle invasives and make it more cohesive.”

She said the group also has an active volunteer base that helps monitor more than 23 nesting pairs of piping plover and helps maintain the park.

The Roy Latham Nature Center, also known as the Red House, at the park, is named for a famed naturalist from Orient, Roy Latham, whose collections of flora and fauna are found in many noted museums.

“We hope to have some of his collections in the future,” said Ms. Lauber. “We were in the process of transforming the Red House into an active nature center, open to the public, and then Covid put it on hold. Now we want to finally set up the nature center.”

The 55-acre park has a network of trails through the woods and around Inlet Pond, and beachfront along the Long Island Sound.

 Peggy Lauber (second from left) with honorees (l-r) Farmer Ira Haspel, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele,  conservation biologist Louise Harrison and farmer Fred Lee at North Fork Audubon’s 50th Anniversary celebration in June. |. North Fork Audubon photo
Peggy Lauber (second from left) with honorees (l-r) Farmer Ira Haspel, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, conservation biologist Louise Harrison and farmer Fred Lee at North Fork Audubon’s 50th Anniversary celebration in June. |. North Fork Audubon photo

Board member Theresa Dilworth is in charge of maintaining the trails, and much of her work involves removing invasive species, which in the fall usually means cutting back privet, this year from a section of oak trees to the east of the pond that is one of the most mature woodlands in the park, she said, because it was never farmed.

“We want to save the good, mature trees, the keystone species — oak, cherry, walnut,” she said, adding that it’s easy to identify privet through the winter because it stays green.

She has also been cutting phragmites, the tall reeds often found along East End shorelines, a laborious years-long task that requires depriving the underground rhizomes of nutrients by repeated cutting. She said she’s seen some recent success with the initiative, as saltmarsh fleabane — a kind of aster — and swamp hibiscus, also known as rose mallow, return to the areas that had been invaded by phragmites.

“We want to set an example of how invasives have taken over throughout the East End and elsewhere, and how important it is to address the situation,” said Ms. Lauber. “It’s really an uphill battle. Birds will eat berries on shrubs, including invasives such as Chinese bittersweet and spread them, and those vines will strangle trees and kill them.”

She added that she was surprised on a recent visit to Fishers Island to see how different their habitat is because there aren’t many deer there.

“The understory is completely different than here,” she said. “It made me realize what a problem we have here.”

But there has been some success.

“The other morning, I went out and could see rare birds and river otters swimming in the pond,” she said of the trails at the park. “We live in an amazing microclimate. We want to make sure everybody’s aware of it, and feels a responsibility to protect it.”

The gardens surrounding the nature center, nurtured by horticulturist Robin Simmen, also on the group’s board, are demonstrations of how anyone can turn their own backyard into a native habitat, including a mature rain garden right in front of the Red House, an 1/4 acre songscape garden in the works to attract birds to the property, and a new project, “Berries for Birds,” led by board member Ellen Birenbaum and longtime Audubon volunteer Rick Kedenburg.

This fall’s Native Plant Sale. |. George Cork Maul photo

Ms. Birenbaum gave a Sept. 22 Zoom presentation on the project.

Inspired by wildlife ecologist Doug Tallamy’s book “Nature’s Best Hope,” which encourages homeowners to turn their property into backyard habitats, Ms. Birenbaum pointed out that “biodiverse ecosystems can better withstand environmental stresses.”

She encouraged attendees to grow berry-bearing native plants for all seasons, including shadbush, red mulberry and black cherries for the spring and summer, and spicebush, flowering dogwoods and sassafras for the autumn. 

Mr. Tallamy’s effort includes a website, homegrownnationalpark.org, which contains advice about starting your own ecosystem, and a map where you can upload information about your own garden. Ms. Birenbaum’s garden at the tip of the North Fork is on the map.

This summer, through a partnership with CAST in Southold and thanks to the generosity of donors to North Fork Audubon’s 50th Anniversary Gala in June, the group was able to provide scholarships for its summer camp programs at Inlet Pond County Park to several students whose families receive assistance from CAST. 

The work, of course, isn’t finished, and like many non-profits on the East End, board members would love to see more young people involved with their efforts.

“This is a group of very open and entrepreneurial women, but we need more diversity,” said board member Paola Marra. “We need more people under 30 to get involved. They can be migratory — they can come only in the summer if they want.”

Ms. Lauber urges everyone who wants to join North Fork Audubon to join directly through their website, northforkaudubon.org, instead of through the national Audubon Society, to ensure their dues go directly to their chapter and they’re put in touch directly with the volunteers working here.

North Fork Audubon runs frequent educational programs via Zoom and in person. Visit northforkaudubon.org for more info.” —BHY

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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