The Bird Man of Gardiner's Island


In 1948, a plucky British-born naval architect and amateur ornithologist named Dennis Puleston was invited to visit Gardiner’s Island. Puleston was fascinated by ospreys. He called them “mythical birds,” in part because he had rarely seen any before he came to America; they had been wiped out in the Thames estuary region where he grew up in England. On Gardiner’s, he followed the sandy trails that led through virgin oak forests and grassy meadows to the shoreline, where he found the legendary fish hawks — scores of them with their dramatic brown and white plumage and piercing calls for attention, some hovered midair with a fish stapled to their talons. 

“My first visit to the island . . . was an exciting experience,” he recounts in his memoir, The Gull’s Way, published a few years before he died in 2001. “I saw so many ospreys nesting contentedly, as well as a large heronry, plus dozens of geese, turkeys, and other spectacular wild birds breeding under ideal conditions.” 

Puleston was energetic. He had sailed to the South Seas as a young man and had just been awarded a Medal of Freedom by President Harry S. Truman. He was so enthused by the ornithological bounty before him that he convinced the Gardiner family, the famously private owners of the island since the 17th century, to allow him to return at least once a year to follow up on his observations of the osprey. He had no idea his informal study of the osprey would help revolutionize the modern environmental movement in America.  

The remote, wind-blown beaches and estuaries of Gardiner’s Island — a seven-mile-long comma of land situated between the two eastern forks of Long Island, then as now completely inaccessible without an express invitation from the family — were once home to the largest osprey colony in North America, some say the world. 

When a local naturalist named Roy Latham first went to Gardiner’s Island in 1905 in a rowboat in the middle of a late-March snowstorm to see the osprey arrive on their annual migration from as far south as Brazil, he counted more than 300 osprey nests, confirming the number of fish hawks — roughly a thousand or more — John Lyon Gardiner had written about in 1812.

When a local naturalist named Roy Latham first went to Gardiner’s in 1905 in a rowboat in the middle of a late-March snowstorm to see the osprey arrive on their annual migration from as far south as Brazil, he counted more than 300 osprey nests, confirming the number of fish hawks — roughly a thousand or more — John Lyon Gardiner had written about in 1812. In 1932, Captain C.W.R. Knight was sent by National Geographic to photograph the colony, which was still astonishingly large, with many of the Paleolithic-like, fortified nests filled with fledglings built right on the ground of the rocky beaches. They have no predators on the island. 

When Puleston first visited in the late 1940s, he estimated that there were still about 300 osprey nests on Gardiner’s. What he didn’t realize was that he had arrived at the tail end of the osprey’s glory days, at a precipitous moment when the fish they preyed on were still plentiful and the dire effects of the insecticide D.D.T. (first commercially produced in the 1940s) was not yet apparent. 

But over the next two decades Puleston witnessed the tragic dwindling of the colony to approximately 50 nests. At its low point, in 1965 and 1966, the entire colony produced just three or four surviving fledglings each year. 

“This is cataclysmic,” he angrily told a journalist at the time.

Puleston was incredibly energetic on behalf of the birds. At one poiint, his family menagerie included two crows, a screech owl named Wolcott, a robin, three canaries, a garter snake, turtles, and a dog. Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Clement.

Puleston came to believe that the near-extinction of the osprey on Gardiner’s was largely due to DDT’s detrimental effect on their reproduction. In 1967, he and a few fellow concerned conservationists, teachers, and scientists on Long Island established the Environmental Defense Fund to spearhead legal efforts — the first of their kind — to curb the use of D.D.T. and other pollutants. Charles Wurster, a professor of biology at Stony Brook University and one of the original cofounders of the Enviromental Defense Fund, told me their intent was to set a legal precedent. “It was a handful of people, 10 of us, with an idea, to take science to court.” The organization started with no funding, working out of an attic office above a post office, but its efforts to establish environmental law grew into a national campaign and, ultimately, succeeded. After years of court battles and legal hearings, the newly established Environmental Protection Agency declared a national ban on D.D.T. in 1972. 

Today, as the E.P.A. is being downsized, scientists’ warnings about climate change ignored, and protections against environmental contamination withdrawn, activists and scientists are concerned that important lessons are being forgotten. 

Wurster’s book D.D.T. Wars is one of a slate of recent publications about the birth of the environmental movement and the lessons we cannot afford to forget — how conservationist citizens convinced the America public of the necessity of protecting our environment. Were it not for safeguards and regulations like the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, they remind us, many of our rivers would be little more than flammable sewers, our cities choking on smog, our bald eagles perhaps extinct, and the many osprey nest platforms on the East End bleakly abandoned. 

When Jennifer Clement, Puleston’s daughter, is asked what her father would think about current attacks on environmental regulation, she shakes her head and looks at the ground before responding.

“He would be so angry,” she finally mutters. 

Jennifer still lives and farms (alpaca) on the rustic property in Brookhaven where her father and mother, Betty Wellington, settled in 1940. Before getting married, Puleston had spent many years sailing the globe in small boats, supporting himself by painting watercolors and teaching sailing. In 1942, he became a U.S. citizen and during World War II he helped design the amphibious craft used in the invasion of Normandy, the reason he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Truman in 1948. It was the same year he started a new career in the information office of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton and discovered the ospreys of Gardiner’s Island. 

Puleston hiked across the island’s primal landscape at a very fast clip, from dawn to dusk, wading through marshes and climbing to the tops of trees to survey the numbers and habits of birds. It was a dream come true. The sheer abundance of bird species on the island — snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, oystercatchers feeding on the mud flats at low tide while hundreds of terns and gulls wheeled and screeched in the sky overhead — was transporting.

“He would come back on Sundays from his weekends on Gardiner’s Island invigorated,” his daughter said. “He had a look in his eyes that made me want to go there, too.” 

At home in Brookhaven, Jennifer made do with her extended family, which in addition to her two brothers and sister included the many pets and wounded birds the Pulestons adopted. At one time, she said, this menagerie included two crows, a screech owl named Wolcott, a robin, three canaries, a garter snake, turtles, and a dog. 

It wasn’t until the early to mid-1960s that Puleston and his close friend Paul Stoutenburgh, a North Fork conservationist, were allowed to bring their kids along on their bird-counting sojourns to the island. Usually, it was Jennifer, then in her early 20s, and Peter Stoutenburgh, Paul’s son. At first, these family outings were restricted to canoe trips to band terns on Cartwright Shoal, a long sandbar off the island’s southern shore. 

By the time Peter and Jennifer were allowed on the main island, the ospreys were in serious decline, and their responsibilities included counting the crushed and deformed eggs that littered the osprey nests.

Puleston suspected that D.D.T. was thinning the ospreys’ eggshells. Pioneering studies at the time showed a correlation between increased concentrations of D.D.E. (a breakdown of D.D.T.) and thinner shells in the eggs of peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, and other large raptors. But the evidence was still considered circumstantial, and proponents of D.D.T.’s use, not just in agriculture but to kill domestic pests like flies and mosquitos, dismissed these conclusions as speculation and the work of extremist ecologists. 

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962, had awakened the slumbering American public to the dangers of pesticides like D.D.T., but four years after the book’s publication and two years after Carson’s death, in 1964, nothing had been done. More than 50,000 tons of D.D.T. were still being manufactured in the U.S. each year and blanket-sprayed over trees, farm fields, lakes, and estuaries, including those on the East End of Long Island. One Suffolk County official went so far as to say that D.D.T. was safe enough to eat.

One memorable day, Puleston was explaining D.D.T.’s decimating effect on the osprey population to a high school biology class taught by his friend Art Cooley, and one of the students piped up: “If it’s killing the ospreys,” the kid asked, “why don’t you tell them to stop?” 


Peter tells the story of the memorable day when Puleston was explaining D.D.T.’s decimating effect on the osprey population to a high school biology class taught by his friend Art Cooley, and one of the students piped up: “If it’s killing the ospreys,” he asked, “why don’t you tell them to stop?” Puleston and Cooley decided to take up the challenge.

Puleston asked Wurster to test some osprey eggs in his lab at Stony Brook University. Wurster confirmed that they were contaminated by high concentrations of D.D.E. In the spring of 1966, Puleston, Wurster, and Cooley joined up with a lawyer, Victor Yannacone, and others to file a lawsuit against the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission demanding that they stop the spraying of D.D.T. During the court hearing, Puleston presented a set of food-web charts he had drawn that demonstrated how D.D.T. spread through the ecosystem and became concentrated in the fatty tissues of raptors like ospreys and bald eagles. Justice Jack Stanislaw, who had seen the blue crab almost disappear from Long Island waters, was swayed, and shortly after the suit was filed he issued an immediate injunction to stop the spraying. 

“That really electrified us,” Wurster said, “because conservationists had been trying to do something about D.D.T. being sprayed on the marshes for years and they never got anywhere.”

Though the case was ultimately dismissed (on grounds of legal standing), the resulting publicity of the trial not only stopped the spraying in Suffolk County, but resulted in New York State banning D.D.T. in 1970. 

The Suffolk case proved that the courts might be a viable venue for creating and enforcing environmental law. It was a watershed moment.

Citizen groups across the country approached Yannacone for advice on how to ban D.D.T. spraying in their own neighborhoods. It was then that Puleston, Cooley, Wurster, and several others including Yannacone created the Environmental Defense Fund, with the goal of banning D.D.T. nationally. Puleston was made founding chairman. He had a difficult first few years raising money and establishing the organization’s legitimacy. But the loss of a court case in Michigan was followed by a big win in Wisconsin. That victory and ongoing, alarming revelations that high levels of D.D.T. were everywhere in the environment — even in human mothers’ milk — turned things around. A few years later, in 1971, with a swelling membership and funding from large organizations like the Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund prevailed in a case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., forcing the E.P.A. to commence deregistration procedures for D.D.T.

In this photograph by Dell Cullum, a pair returns to a nest made of branches and debris. Concerned citizens built poles like this in hope of ospreys’ return, but for years the nests stood barren. 

After the ban of D.D.T., Puleston, Jennifer, and her children, and a select few others continued to visit Gardiner’s Island a few times a year to check on the osprey. While their numbers increased dramatically elsewhere — as have the numbers of eagles, pelicans, and peregrine falcons — the oprey’s recovery on Gardiner’s was slower. Good years were followed by disappointing ones, and it was a long time before Peter remembers finally finding a nest with four healthy eggs. “It was a big deal,” he says.

The osprey colony has never regained its former sovereignty of Gardiner’s Island. Perhaps, Peter suggests, it’s because their place has been usurped by burgeoning colonies of aggressive black-winged gulls and voracious cormorants who compete with them for fewer and fewer fish.  

Mike Scheibel, the manager of natural resources at the Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island, who used to accompany Puleston on bird counts on Gardiner’s, points out that the ospreys are no longer restricted to remote, protected areas of Long Island.  “There used to be very few osprey nests in western Suffolk, but now with the use of nesting platforms their range has expanded all the way back to Jamaica Bay.” 

Scheibel credits Puleston’s boundless energy for his success in helping to bring back the osprey: “Dennis had a contagious enthusiasm. Even in his 80s, it was impossible to keep up with him.”

Today’s conservationists may well have to borrow some of Puleston’s energy and optimism in facing the challenges ahead. Just the other morning, a helicopter spraying the mosquito insecticide methoprene swooped low over Accabonac Harbor yards away from an osprey nest, spurring the male to take flight. Methoprene breaks down easily and apparently doesn’t cause any harm to humans and birds. But at least one study indicates that it may have an insidious effect on the reproductive rates of lobsters and crabs. It was recently banned in Connecticut, and other states now restrict its use. 

Sound familiar?    




Gardiner's island fledglings, as seen by Puleston’s camera, 1960s. At top: Dell Cullum caught an osprey and its prey returning home on a summer day.
Glyn Vincent

An author and journalist, Vincent has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Huffington Post, The New York Observer, The Paris Review, Columbia Magazine, and other publications. He was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and is the author of "The Unknown Night," a biography of the American painter Ralph A. Blakelock. He keeps a small boat in Accabonac Harbor for fishing forays to Gardiner’s Island and beyond.