Bird Hot Spots - NOT

APRIL 2017 by Betty Borowsky, President

Let’s be perfectly clear. There is no such thing as a bird “hot spot.” Birders use the term for relatively small geographic areas where birds tend to congregate. But developers use it differently; when they use it, they mean small geographic areas where birds permanently reside. Developers love the term because they can say “OK —we will not alter hot spots, only the surrounding areas. This will satisfy us, because we can expand into adjacent, currently undeveloped areas, and satisfy conservationists as well, because since the hot spots will be left alone the birds will not be harmed.” The “hot spot” concept gives developers an excuse to destroy local habitat.

But even developers must know that their interpretation of the term is nonsense.

Birds fly!

Birds may come to roost or nest in a relatively small area, but they require much more territory to survive. Indeed, without that additional surrounding territory, they will either go elsewhere or perish.

For example, in our catchment area, at the Long Beach Road and Daly Boulevard intersection in Oceanside, you will see hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants (pictured) perched on the wires on the west side of the road — a “hot spot.” But cormorants have to eat. During the day, they spread out through the estuary to fish. If they never moved from that “hot spot,” they would starve to death.

In other words, to protect birds you must protect the surrounding territory. Not only must you preserve the surrounding territory, but you must make sure that territory’s habitat provides the birds’ needs. Let’s say someone decided to convert the estuary near the cormorants into a temperate forest. One might think “So what’s wrong with that? Temperate forests occur naturally on Long Island, right?” Yes they do, but a forest is not going to support those cormorants.

Which brings me to the point of this column. Once again, Hempstead Lake State Park is threatened by development. This time it’s especially scary because there is so much pressure to do it, such a very short turn-around time during which it will have to happen, and there’s a great deal of money to fund it.

This initiative is being directed by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR). Among other things, the GOSR is charged with providing relief to residents who suffered losses from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It is also charged with trying to prevent a similar disaster, should there be another monstrous storm (“improving resilience”). One of the areas targeted for remediation is the Mill River Basin. The basin begins a bit north of the two northern ponds in Hempstead Lake State Park. Water then flows through the ponds, the lake, and the South Pond. Then the water flows through Rockville Centre’s Smith Pond, through the Mill River, and out into the Hempstead Bay.

Many Long Island residents were hurt badly by Hurricane Sandy, and we wish to do everything we can to make them whole again and to prevent similar devastation from future storms. We also applaud the federal and state governments for allocating a generous amount of money to do that.

Sadly, though, these goals do not seem to be the Mill River Basin planners’ first priority. They have said that their first priority is to restructure Hempstead Lake State Park.

I wonder why ever they are starting with the state park. The sooner the southern portion of Mill River (where people actually live) is remediated, the better — who knows when the next storm will come through?

Plans have been changed a few times since we first heard about this initiative, and some proposed park “improvements” seem to be only at the discussion stage now. But from what we’ve seen, not only are the priorities wrong, but much of what is planned for the park is entirely inappropriate to the stated purpose of those funds.

For example, the contractors have proposed that an educational center be built on a field near parking field 1. I fail to see how this will help with either remediation or with resilience. I also see no plans for sustainability. How exactly will that center be staffed? Our state parks are already severely short-handed, and it seems to me that the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation is perennially last in line for state funding.

Especially worrisome is that the plans are being developed based on the “hot spot” concept. Basically, the contractors have indicated that there should be no objection to developing the southern areas of the park because habitat in the northern part will be left “relatively” undisturbed.

We at South Shore Audubon Society treasure this park. It is a designated “Important Bird Area” and services exceptional species diversity; it is one of the very few places where Great Horned Owls nest on Long Island, and so far it is the only place where Bald Eagles can be found in Nassau County (let me point out here that last year the eagles roosted in the northern part but fed throughout the park). But especially noteworthy and, actually, pretty amazingly, over the years the park has somehow managed to become both an oasis for people to enjoy nature and a multiuse facility for all kinds of recreational activities, including fishing, boating, biking, hiking, horseback riding, barbecuing and picnicking, cross-country skiing, ice skating, and sledding; it has a carousel, tennis and basketball courts; and it has a playground. And it is only 737 acres in size! (In comparison, Connetquot River State Park Preserve is 3,473 acres.) How many more recreational opportunities can you pack into a park of this size?

Nevertheless, every year or so, some other major incursion is proposed for the park. I honestly do not understand why this modestly sized but extremely well-managed park is perennially the target of some new hare-brained idea to change it.

In my opinion, the elements of the Mill River Project that have been proposed so far for Hempstead Lake State Park represent the greatest threats to the park we’ve ever seen. Many more changes to the park than what have been mentioned here are proposed and, taken as a whole, if even a few of them are adopted, they will change the park forever.