The Bluebird: An East Hampton Flyer Who Sparks Delight

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An East Hampton Airport bluebird. Edward Sambolin Photo

Can there be anything that flies out of East Hampton Airport that could make everyone happy?

Unlike jets, helicopters and seaplanes, bluebirds don’t make a lot of noise. In fact, as thrushes, they sing a lovely song — and the wooden boxes in which they nest on the grassy terrain around the airport are on track to yield about 60 birds this season.

That’s two-thirds of the 90 bluebirds expected to have fledged — born, raised and able to fly from the nest — by midsummer at all 10 sites where bluebird nesting boxes are maintained on the South Fork, according to Joe Giunta, who tends the sites as a volunteer for the South Fork Natural History Museum and runs his own birding tourism company, Happy Warblers. Bluebirds raise two sets of young each season and are now in the midst of their second broods. Most will be migrating to Virginia and North Carolina by late fall.

The airport, where 60 birds also fledged last year, has six “bluebird trails” and, Mr. Giunta believes, it is the most productive fledging site in southern New York State. First installed by the South Fork History Museum and the town’s Department of Natural Resources in 1987, each “trail” is a series of wooden nesting boxes on posts equipped with racoon guards along the edge of the pin oak and scrub pine woods, facing the cleared grasslands at each end of the airport’s three runways.

Joe Giunta installs a replacement bluebird box at East Hampton Airport. Frank Quevedo photo

This year’s expected fledging totals are no record, said Mr. Giunta, 72, a retired New York City public school math teacher with homes in East Hampton and Rockville Centre, in an interview on Monday. The airport and the same collection of bluebird nesting trails from Montauk to North Haven produced a record 153 birds in 2014, the year before a surge in the flying squirrel population destroyed every nest around the airport in 2015.

Because the squirrels had been able to glide onto the airport’s nesting boxes from the nearby scrub oak woods, Mr. Giunta in 2016 moved all the nests he could further away from the trees — and that stopped the carnage. But about 15 boxes would have been too close to the runways, Mr. Giunta said, so they were eliminated, cutting the total number of nest boxes down to about 45. That’s what makes a new fledging record unlikely.

There have never been reports of conflict between the bluebirds or, for that matter, the tree swallows that also compete for the nest boxes, according to Jim Brundige, the airport director.

“One of the first things I noticed” when he first arrived as airport manager in 2005, said Mr. Brundige last week, “was all these bluebird nests around the edge of the forest. So I went to Larry Penny, who was head of the East Hampton Town Natural Resources Department at the time, and I said, ‘Larry! What makes you think bluebirds and airplanes mix?’

Mr. Penny assured him that bluebirds stick close to the woods and conduct only low-level hunts for insects in or just over the grass. “He said they just dart out from their nests, get their insects and come right back to the nests,” Mr. Brundige added. “I’ve been watching them and that’s exactly what they do.”

The tree swallows do fly higher and further away in their hunts for insects but they “have never been an issue” for pilots, Mr. Brundige said.

The state bird of New York, bluebirds prefer to nest in just the kind of borderlands along the edges of dense woods that were swallowed up by suburban sprawl in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s, according to Mr. Giunta, people were making bluebird trails to help them along. Ever since, their population in New York has been rebounding. Schoharie County, east of Cooperstown, has the most bluebird trails of any area in the state, according to Mr. Giunta.

After the airport, the most successful fledging site on the South Fork is on Barcelona Neck, where 23 bluebirds fledged in 2018, Mr. Giunta said. Two boxes on a preserved parcel in the village of North Haven have had no bluebird activity.

 

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