Nature Notes: The Eagles Have Landed

The Montauk Christmas Count is the oldest east of the city, dating back to the early 1920s
Brown pelicans are occasional visitors to the South Fork, but are rare outside of the summer months. This one, a juvenile, was photographed near the Montauk inlet early in December. Vicki Bustamante

   Saturday saw the beginning of the Christmas Bird Counts on Long Island, something that was started in New York City in the first years of the 20th century and has been continued annually ever since. At the beginning there were no bird field guides, no roll film cameras, no digital cameras, no birdcall players built into cellphones, no spotting scopes, and the binoculars in use were barely equivalent to opera glasses. There were many fewer observers and parties were still traveling around in horse and buggies.
    The Montauk Christmas Count is the oldest east of the city, dating back to the early 1920s. No contemporary birders harken back to any of those first counts, but several of them have been doing counts for 50 years or more; having started in their teens, they’re now in their 70s. In those first years of counting only a handful of bird watchers were on any one count. For some present-day counts there may be close to 100 in the field, especially in areas such as Florida and California, which can compile as many as 200 different species in a single day.
    Saturday was Montauk Count Day, observers in the 15-mile diameter circle, which includes all of Montauk, Napeague, most of Springs, and Gardiner’s Island, were out before dawn to listen for owls and back out after sunset to listen for those they might have missed. Altogether, 35 or so, not counting the stay-at-home feeder watchers, participated. Two new co-compilers, Angus Wilson and Karen Rubenstein, organized the count and compiled the list of different species and the number of each observed. New-fangled devices were used to add a few birds to the list, such as the Virginia rails in the marshes of Accabonac Harbor, which responded vocally to the squeaks and chattering emanating from the digital players questioning them. One doesn’t have to see the bird to add it to the list.
    I had not participated in the Montauk count for several years and in the past had always worked with those on Gardiner’s Island. So it was something of a thrill for me to get back into the spirit of the moment. I jumped at the chance to work part of the eastern half of Montauk with Ed Johann and Vicki Bustamante, two who haven’t missed a count for many years running. We worked the area around Big Reed Pond in Montauk, which is well-known for its winter waterfowl populations. There were no duck hunters afoot, so the pond was covered with a variety of ducks, mostly greater and lesser scaup and ruddy ducks, but also several black ducks, buffleheads, and a single redhead. It was such a warm and pleasant day that the ducks, when not in view nevertheless could be heard mixing it up on the water in a kind of prenuptial frenzy.
    Gardiner’s Island is famous for its unusual assortment of winter birds, everything from large rough-legged hawks plying the grasslands, hovering in mid-air every once in a while scanning for rodents with their sharp eyes, to tiny Carolina wrens darting about in the undergrowth and, oddly enough, uttering their loud territorial songs now and then while doing so. As always, Angus and his fellow birders saw some unusual birds on the island, including a boat-tailed grackle, two brown thrashers, and several meadowlarks.
    The waters around the island and the mainland were thick with scoters, by some counts 7,000 or more, mostly surf-scoters, but also white-winged and black ones. A large number of gannets, as many as 800 of them, were seen gliding, hovering and diving for fish, it was either not cold enough to push them farther south at this time or the waters were ripe with herring and other baitfish.
    The latter reason is probably the answer, as there were some 1,500-plus red-throated loons in the waters, mostly on the ocean, and 550 common loons, both species of which are dedicated fish eaters.
    Screech and great-horned owls re­plied to calls played to them, and one saw-whet owl, our tiniest locally, was heard uttering its water-droplet notes at regularly spaced intervals. Hicks Island is famous for sporting a snowy owl just about every winter, and this year was no exception. As Karen reported, it was a female because it was more heavily barred than the males. One wonders if it’s the same owl year after year, settling in its winter spot after a 400 to 500-mile flight from its summer breeding grounds.
   The snowy owl was not the only boreal bird observed. In fact, it was a near record year for white-winged and red-crossbills, species with overlapping and hooked mandibles especially evolved for twisting pine nuts out of pine cones. They were seen feeding in many of the Japanese black pines that are on the Montauk Downs golf course and elsewhere around Montauk. The northern intruders also included red polls and red-breasted nuthatches, also seed-eaters.
    Was it a good breeding year in the Canadian provinces or was it a bad feed year because of the drought that caused these lemming-like irruptions? Maybe both.
    Altogether, 133 different species were observed, a goodly number and only seven less than the all-time mark achieved a few years ago.
    The youngest of observers was an East Hampton public school student, Miles, the son of Marguerite Wolffsohn, the town planning director. He’s been at it for a few years now. It’s nice to know that not all young boys and girls are shut in with their video games, but it would be wonderful if more would follow his example.
    Perhaps the most important observation of the day was made by Mary Laura Lamont. She is a Gardiner’s Island regular and last year she saw two adult bald eagles on a humongous nest in an oak tree with an immature eagle perched nearby. This year she made her way to the same spot and there was the nest, bigger than ever, and there were two mature bald eagles on it and around it, all the time scolding her. It was obvious to her that they had bred there during the summer, and like those many, many breeding bald eagles situated along the Connecticut River, are all-year residents. Why leave when the winters have become so warm and fish and animal carcasses are in such abundance?
    Mary Laura first came upon this nest in 2006 during the Montauk Count. She was almost convinced then that eagles were breeding on Gardiner’s Island (and on Long Island) for the first time since the Great Depression. The island wasn’t canvassed in the next three years as part of the Christmas Count, but after these last two years, seeing the nest in the same place and seeing mature bald eagles (the ones with the white heads) on it, she is almost 100 percent certain. The eagles have landed, and isn’t that marvelous!