Nature Notes

April 2, 1998

Spring broke with a passion. The soaring temperatures burgeoned the forsythias, the Russian olives and honeysuckles popped open their leaf buds, swamp maples are awash with drooping festoons of crimson flowers. It is the season for reproduction.

On Saturday at dusk, Allen Planz was planted at the junction of Noyac Road and Alewife Brook stream, running out of Big Fresh Pond into North Sea Harbor. He had arrived just in time to see a phalanx of alewives leave the harbor and head upriver through the culvert under the road.

It didn't matter that the tide was more at ebb than flooding; they were not to be deterred - there was a good flow of water coming down the culvert.

Taken In Nets

Many never made it into the culvert mouth but were taken in nets manned by several fishermen standing along shore. Many of the fish netted were ripe with roe.

Nonetheless, the bulk of the shoal was able to make it into the stream. Having got past the nets, they would have few impediments during the remainder of the half-mile trip to the pond.

The run has been in progress for more than two weeks now. It looks like a good year for alewife spawning.

As we've said before so many times, each year the ospreys tie their return to these alewife runs, apparently with great precision. Reports of arriving ospreys have been coming in over the phone line hot and heavy.

Alexander Bainbridge called March 25. An osprey was on the nesting platform on the south side of Shelter Island just east of the ferry terminal. Another was perched along the highway in Orient.

Terry Sullivan, who had been at the bridge over Sagaponack Pond Friday morning and seen evidence of an alewife run there - the great blue herons were lined out, as it were, and an osprey overhead - was at Accabonac Harbor in Springs Saturday morning.

A pair of ospreys was back, sitting on the pole, atilt from winter storms, stuck out in the marsh in the armpit between the nexus of Fireplace Road and Gerard Drive.

Ospreys Report In

Cile Downs reports seeing an osprey perched on the Louse Point Road platform on the south side of Accabonac Harbor the same day. On Sunday afternoon, Paul and Lisa D'Andrea saw a pair on that platform.

On Sunday Leslie Moir observed three ospreys flying near the Promised Land platform at the edge of the road to Lazy Point. These probably were the same three seen contesting for that nesting site on March 24.

A little while later, Leslie saw a single osprey flying over Gerard Drive.

Also on Sunday, late in the afternoon, Bob and Bea Wehle saw the same three ospreys around the Lazy Point Road nest, and one at Fresh Pond in Amagansett. Apparently at least one member of the long-standing Fresh Pond pair is back.

Long Beach Plovers

Piping plovers are more surreptitious, and about 20 times smaller. They blend in with their beachy surroundings so they could be back and you'd never know it, unless you picked up on their piping notes, or kicked up one and saw it move in front of you. Several are back, however, just waiting to be discovered.

On March 25 at 6:30 a.m., Ellen Stahl, a neighbor, was taking her daily constitutional with her friend Loretta along Long Beach when she saw not one but two piping plovers, not obvious members of a pair as they were well separated. The next morning, last Thursday, they were not to be seen, but on Friday, one was seen and another heard.

One of these two was sticking to a spot where last year a pair bred, a possible indication of the great degree of site fidelity from one year to the next which these birds often exhibit. Ellen and Loretta have been the first to see the plovers return to Long Beach each year for several years running.

Bang-Up Entrance

The piping plovers came back to the Gerard Drive and Louse Point areas not with a whimper, but with a bang! Polly Bruckmann was at Gerard Point late Sunday afternoon and found a pair, the male of which had striking colors, and a singleton male. She bumped into Lisa and Paul D'Andrea, who were also out reconnoitering for arriving plovers.

The singleton male began whooping it up, flying back and forth, over the water, over the shore, calling loudly all the while. The cause for the consternation was the sudden appearance of four additional males, also decked out in brightly contrasting tones.

After about 10 minutes of these nonstop goings-on, the male quieted down. He had evidently been striking a claim for that bit of turf.

Horned Larks

There was a chance that the four males had come from Louse Point across the inlet; Lisa and Paul had seen four piping plovers there a half-hour earlier. When they went back to Louse Point to check, they found two plovers there, for a total of nine.

During their first stop at Louse Point they were treated to the songs of at least three different horned larks, singing from the ground, out in the open. They had bright yellow throats and yellow lines over the eyes.

Horned larks often nest on the ground, often in the proximity of piping plovers and killdeer. They nest early, at times in the first week of April.

Raptor's End

Keep your eyes open, look aloft; an adult bald eagle could fly over you or your house at any moment. One was seen- dark body, white head and tail - by Allen Planz, Friday noon.

It was over Route 114, flying toward Hook Pond in the Village of East Hampton.

Another raptor on the South Fork came to a tragic end last week. On March 24, Cile Downs found an owl's wing in a brushy area in her yard on the west side of Accabonac Harbor. She brought it in for a look-see. It turned out to be that of a barn owl.

On Friday she found the rest of the bird, still quite fresh. It had been gnawed on.

Barn Owls

The barn owl is a beautiful, whitish owl that occurs all over the world, especially in warmer climes. It is near the top of its range on Long Island.

Barn owls are great mousers. It has been well advertised how they are able to locate prey in complete darkness, owing to their unique sound-detection apparatuses.

On eastern Long Island they are few and far between. There are probably no more than 10 pairs on the South Fork, if that many. They nest in barns, deserted buildings, water towers, tree cavities, and nesting boxes, and tend to be monogamous.

Ironically, a barn owl box had just been put up in the area where the dead owl was found. The poor owl may have had its eyes on that box.

Four Furry Fox Pups

To give one an idea of how warm the winter has been, Jay Schneiderman was out walking in Montauk on Sunday when he came upon a fresh fox den. It was not only fresh, four furry pups with their eyes not long open came to its mouth.

It had to be an early birth for this family - somewhere near the beginning of March.

Jay wondered where the mother was, if she had abandoned the young and that's why they were up, or had she been run over on the road, or killed in some other way.

He will be checking to see how the pups are doing in the event that they have to be rescued.

Wainscott Strandee

Oystercatchers are back! Terry Sullivan saw one on the flats along Gerard Drive on Saturday. Leslie Moir saw two on the Hicks Island shore at Napeague Harbor on Sunday.

Two plovers that looked to be of the semipalmated species were seen on Gerard Point by Leslie on the same day.

Seals continue to strand themselves on local beaches. Last Thursday, Marylee Wootan discovered a small seal, dark in pelage, high up on the beach in Wainscott. She kept her dog at bay, and called the writer at the town's Natural Resources Department.

The Riverhead Foundation seal rescue unit was summoned. One man came, looked around, and was about to leave without the seal, when Marylee came along and found it for him.

Happy Ending?

She hopes the story will have a happy ending. It should have. The foundation has been doing an outstanding job in helping these sick young seals recover so that they can be returned to the sea.

Not all the waterbirds that are going to leave had left as of Sunday. Leslie Moir spotted a male goldeneye, 10 or so red-breasted merganser, the same number of bufflehead, and a hooded merganser in Napeague Harbor a little after noon.

Bob and Bea Wehle came upon three pairs of red-breasted mergansers going up and down in Napeague Bay at the Fresh Pond Road end in Amagansett late Sunday afternoon.

Polly and Donald Bruckmann encountered about 20 Bonaparte's gulls, not much bigger than terns, on the ocean beach near the gut at Georgica Pond midday on Sunday. Bonaparte's gulls almost never come to land when they are overwintering; these must have been a group that had stopped to rest during migration.

They had yet to molt into their black-headed breeding plumages.

Hello, Blackbird

All of the blackbird species that are going to come back, are back at this time. The females of some of them are also arriving.

Cile Downs has had a female redwing around her feeder for more than a week.

Leslie Moir saw two female redwings over the weekend.

Marvin Kuhn recorded two male cowbirds in his yard on Saturday.

Leslie spotted a few yellow-rumped warblers in new spring feathers around her Beach Hampton, Amagansett, house on Saturday and Sunday.

Woodcock Nuptials

Larry Joline lives in the Shinnecock Hills. On two different occasions recently, at dusk or shortly after, he has seen, in the headlights of his car, two woodcocks in his driveway, not far from each other. In years past, he's had woodcocks nest and fledge young.

The Shinnecock Hills historically have been one of Long Island's outstanding woodcock breeding grounds. At about this time every year 10 to 20 pairs would spread out over the open ground; the males would ascend into the air shortly before dusk and sing their nuptial twitterings while making a helical descent - the final gesture of which was a swoop to the ground with a long bzzzzz at the end of it - in answer to the female's similar bzzzzzz, uttered from a fixed point where the male alights.

Such behavior can go on for two or three hours before the two are done for the night.

Salamander Search

On the night of March 25 at Montauk Point, it was clear and cold; the writer was out with three others looking for amphibians.

During the day, we had found three four-toed salamanders under pieces of wood along a sphagnous stream edge. In the dark, with lights, we found both blue-spotted salamanders and eastern newts at the bottom of shallow ponds, along with a large number of fairy shrimp and many insect larvae.

But it was too cold for spring peepers. We only heard a couple of weak peeps in three hours of reconnaissance.

Hearty Chorus

The warm spell that descended on us Friday really got the spring peepers into full song, which, once started, carried throughout the weekend.

Among those reporting hearty peeper choruses were Bea and Bob Wehle, who heard peepers on Sunday afternoon singing in the Amagansett wetlands around Bendigo and Cranberry Hole Roads, and along Fresh Pond Road.

Andy Sabin heard them singing in several spots in Montauk Sunday night. What Andy was unable to hear, however, on that night in Montauk distressed him considerably.

He couldn't hear the call of the rare Southern leopard frog, at the place where he has been able to find it year after year at this time since the early 1980s, in a pondlet annexed to Oyster Pond.

Blame The Northeaster?

It is conceivable that this small population, perhaps the only one left on the South Fork, was harmed by the very high water levels in the pond that resulted from the last northeaster, the same storm and flood that lifted the new footbridge off its moorings and floated it several feet at a spot not far from the leopard frog site.

That same storm sealed off Fresh Pond, Amagansett, so that its waters, too, reached near-record levels. Its tidal wetlands were still submerged as of Friday.

During the entire week, there were no tides in Fresh Pond - only statistically high water.