BY TARA SMITH
There’s a tranquil view of a six-acre lake as you enter Walden Pond in East Moriches. It embodies eastern Long Island life, serene and slow. It’s what drew George Fisher and wife Lynne to move to East Moriches five years ago, to escape the fast-paced beat of the island west.
“Thoreau would have loved it,” the Walden Pond adult community website boasts. “It’s kind of funny that I live at a Walden Pond, albeit in a different state. [Thoreau] was certainly an inspiration to a lot of people,” Fisher said. In his own life, Fisher takes a page from the transcendentalist. Though he doesn’t live in a 10-by-16 cabin in the Massachusetts woods, Fisher has observed and admired nature for all of his life, carrying a field guide in order to call things by their name.
In his 40 years of birding, Fisher thought he had seen it all.
Until one February morning, when Lynne looked out onto their back deck, which faces the woods. She spotted a white bird, one she had never seen, and called George into the room to see.
Binoculars in hand, Fisher held them up and observed.
“It took me a few seconds to realize what I was looking at. I thought it could have been an escapee, someone’s tropical pet bird that got out,” he said, adding that those encounters are common.
Closer inspection led Fisher to believe that the bird was a cardinal. A white one?
Fisher pulled out a 300-mm lens and tried for a perfect shot. “The bird was kind enough to sit there for me,” Fisher said. “I was lucky he waited and posed with the other cardinal there,” he said. Below the suspected albino bird, a northern cardinal also sat, perched on a branch.
Fisher believes the bird taking up residence in his backyard is a rare albino cardinal, with a white coat and red tinting on its wing tips.
Bird-watching has taken Fisher throughout New England, upstate New York and Pennsylvania, but started here on Long Island. When his children were young, the family spent countless summer days on Fire Island, camping near Watch Hill. Fisher always had a camera strapped around his neck, snapping photos of nature, animal sightings and sunsets. “I always found myself taking pictures of birds — egrets, gulls — but I couldn’t identify all of them,” he explained. “I got to know some of the more common ones, but I wanted to call everything by its name,” he said.
Soon, Fisher would carry both a camera and pair of binoculars around his neck as he hiked the Sunken Forest, on the mainland at Wertheim Preserve and even out to Mashomack on Shelter Island.
But his favorite places to observe are right here at home. “[Long Island] is one of the best places you’ll find. There’s such an interesting mix of marsh and beach habitats, forests. It’s a paradise. It always has been for birds,” Fisher said. His list of spotted species has soared to over 300, from pelagic birds in Montauk to rarities passing through on their way south.
As for the unusual cardinal, research suggests that color abnormality does not always mean the bird is albino. When it comes to identification, it’s usually in the eyes. This bird, Fisher said, did not appear to have red or pink eyes. Pale-feathered birds with normal eye colors, rather than albinism, likely have a condition known as leucism. Unlike albino birds that lack color-producing melanin, leucistic birds produce the pigment but are unable to deposit the color into their feathers.
“The poor bird will be ostracized during mating season,” Fisher joked. They haven’t named their new sighting yet, but they think he will continue to hang around as he frequents their bird feeders. Since first spotting the bird in February, Fisher reports still seeing the bird well into spring. In April, Fisher spotted a juvenile bald eagle flying over the Walden Pond complex. After nearly a century of absence, the majestic birds have begun nesting on Long Island again. “It’s the first [bald eagle] I’d seen here, and No. 104 on my Walden bird list,” Fisher said.
Photo Caption: There are lots of places to view wildlife and birds on Long Island. This is one of my favorites: the Elizabeth A. Morton Wildlife Refuge in Sag Harbor. I remember coming here as a kid to feed the chickadees.