An extraordinary event took place on Saturday — the annual Montauk Christmas bird count, now more than 100 years old and among the very oldest in the country.
Birders go out and rake over a 15-mile-diameter circle to record the number of different species and the number of each seen or heard from before dawn until well after dusk. The circle covers Montauk, Amagansett, including Napeague, Springs, and Gardiner’s Island, as well as part of the ocean, Block Island Sound, Napeague Bay, Gardiner’s Bay, and Accabonac Harbor.
Mary Laura and Eric Lamont and fellow observers have covered Gardiner’s Island each year since before 2000. The island plays host to a plethora of winter birds, several species of which are not normally observed elsewhere in the count area in any given year. It is particularly rich in raptors and waterfowl. In most years a snowy owl is counted along with other boreal visitors such as rough-legged hawks, great cormorants, and rare visiting geese species. With only one family, the Goelets, and a caretaker or two residing on the 3,300-plus-acre island, you might say this wondrously still wild, somewhat isolated place is literally for the birds.
Mary Laura called me Sunday evening quite excited. She discovered something new to the Long Island avifauna. On last year’s trip she found a very large nest in a large oak tree, not on a platform of the kind put up for ospreys throughout Long Island and along the entire East Coast.
She thought at that time that the nest was much too big to have been constructed by a pair of ospreys. So this time around, she went to a high spot on the island and looked in the direction of the nest.
In her absence it had grown even larger. But the most remarkable aspect about the nest was that there were two mature bald eagles in it. They were nervously twittering and moving about as they will often do when humans are within easy eyesight, especially in spots such as Gardiner’s Island where they encounter so few humans.
She continued to observe the pair when an immature bald eagle, one without the white head, entered the scene. Could it be a young of the year? she wondered. Immature bald eagles are seen regularly on Long Island during migration and visitations from New England, while adults are much less frequently seen.
Osprey young of the year often hang around the nest long after having fledged; why not bald eagle young?
The last bald eagles known to have nested in the Long Island area nested on Gardiner’s Island some 75 years ago, during the Great Depression.
Peregrine falcons have returned as regular nesters in Nassau County high up on the Nassau County Medical Center building for several years running. Four years ago Charlie Morici, the Hither Woods Park caretaker, discovered in a deserted World War II storage building on the edge of Fort Pond Bay the first Long Island turkey vulture nest with two young.
Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks have become quite common as nesters on eastern Long Island during the first decade of the new millennium. Long Island has at least one resident beaver, in Montauk, and several otter pairs, a few of which have raised young in the creek and bay waters of northern Nassau County. Dolphins are becoming more and more common in the Peconic Estuary with each passing year. Why not the return of the bald eagle, too, as a breeder, the final feather in the Island’s cap?
One might have guessed that something was up. This writer has never fielded so many eagle sighting calls as during 20ll, many of which were summer birds, not a few of which were unmistakably adults with bright white heads.
Mary Laura is not only a full-time ranger at the National Park Service’s William Floyd Estate, but a seasoned naturalist, as well, and the coordinator for many years of the Orient Bird Count, which covers part of the South Fork, Shelter Island, and much of the North Fork. It will be held on New Year’s Eve day. If I were she and experienced what she experienced on that fateful Saturday I would be in a state of perpetual joyous excitation and have a hard time sleeping.
Thanks to the Goelets for keeping their island as wild and undeveloped as possible. Thanks to all of the hard-working environmentalists and naturalists who have been working with politicians and federal, state, county, and local officials not only to save what’s left of Long Island’s wild environment, but also to return to it that which we thought was gone forever. They should take a second or two to pat each other on the back as the clock strikes 12 this New Year’s Eve. Their efforts are paying off.
The eagle has landed!