Nature Notes

August 27, 1998

As this column is being written, the tropics are heating up. Conditions are pre-hurricane. Bonnie is on the way. Where will she make landfall? Will she make landfill?

Whether she hits or not, her swells will be pounding the coastline and changing it in a big way. The summer could end more quickly than we think.

These lazy end-of-August weeks, a kind of doldrums on land, are teeming with activity in the sea. It goes without saying that a very big storm could change all that in an instant. Seeming stability and preparation for migration would come to a quick end. The terrestrial and aquatic flora and fauna would be turned on end.

Trees would be downed. Eelgrass beds would be uprooted in some instances, covered with sand in others. A period of extreme instability could ensue.

Awaiting A Storm

The opportunists would seize upon the moment to claim more territory. Phragmites would wage a new campaign to conquer more wetlands, codium would try to cover some of the sea bottom vacated by the eelgrass, Japanese honeysuckle and Asiatic bittersweet would be stimulated to usurp more woodlands from the natives.

Gross disturbance and gross instability go hand and hand, whether they stem from human activities or from an Act of God. The outcome is always a crapshoot and seldom propitious.

What is happening as we wait for a storm that might never come? The nocturnal insects, and a few of the diurnal ones, are noisy, some would say almost deafening. The tree crickets and cicadas are holding sway. They are at the peak of their form.

Blown Away

Their tremolos and chirps would come to a quick halt, most likely not to resume, if a hurricane should hit. They'd simply be blown away. Miles away, if not hundreds of miles away.

But now, they are king. There isn't a single tree or shrub on the South Fork that doesn't resound with their calls.

Just think, they've been singing this way for millions of years, before there was a Long Island, before apes learned to talk. They are older than Bonackers, older than the pre-Bonackers. They're as old as the hills.

They know how to put on a good concert. A little night music, please.

Crickets And Temperature

The writer keeps track of their chorusing activities each summer and early fall. He checks to see, among other things, how accurately tree crickets can indicate the ambient temperature, according to formulae compounded by naturalists.

One of these formulae is found in Palmer's "A Fieldbook of Natural History": Count the chirps in 15 seconds and add 37.

On Monday night, for example, at 11:50, the tree crickets were synchronously chirping at the rate of 39 chirps every 15 seconds; 39 plus 37 equals 76. The thermometer read 74; they were a little off.

On Sunday night at 9:30 the crickets were averaging 37.5 chirps in 15 seconds; 37.5 plus 37 equals 74.5. The thermometer read one-tenth of a degree higher - right on!

To date, except for Monday night, when there were two contrapuntal choruses competing, each trying to drown the other out, the formula, and the crickets, have worked smashingly. They've never been more than half a degree off.

Turtles Laying Eggs

While we worry, in the face of the impending storm, about the green turtle's clutch of eggs in Amagansett, box turtles continue to race with the hares - not quadripedally but reproductively.

Jenelle Myers of Sag Harbor, near Havens Beach, called early Monday evening. A large box turtle with bright orange markings was half-buried in her asparagus patch. Normally, that could only mean one thing: the turtle was laying eggs.

Last week one of the neighborhood box turtles at Hog Creek and Springs-Fireplace Roads in Springs ended up in Tim Sullivan's swimming pool. When it gets warm, box turtles often take a dip and remain for hours under water.

It was fished out.

Birds On The Move

Arthur Guilder in Beach Hampton called on Saturday. A sizable box turtle crawled into his yard; he thinks it's the one that first visited him four years ago. If conditions are to their liking, box turtles will stay around for years, perhaps even for a century. In most cases their territories are small, only a few hundred yards wide and long.

The birds are moving in and moving out in bits and drabs. You may have noticed the blackbird flocks, the redwings, grackles, and cowbirds, gathering strength as August progresses.

On Saturday Eric Salzman was on the beach at Mecox Bay when he heard the distinctive calls of curlews. They were whimbrels, six of them. As they came closer, they began making bubbling calls, the kind of calls these large birds with long, down-curved "sickle" bills make during the courtship season.

They wheeled and wobbled and set in, not far from Eric's observant eye, chased each other around, and took off in a bound. Had to be migrating, Eric concluded.

Migratory Swallows

The second massing of migratory swallows is assembling. Eric saw scores of tree swallows on the sod fields in north Riverhead over the weekend while he was finding a few golden plovers, lots of peep sandpipers, and a few other species.

On Sunday afternoon Lisa and Paul D'Andrea were at Gerard Point in Springs and so were the tree swallows, more than 100 of them. These numbers will swell and swell, and the number of small flying insects will decrease and decrease.

If Bonnie comes, forget it, the masses will disperse, the swallows will be done for the season.

Goose Flyways

Waterfowl have been making their presence known lately, especially the Canada geese. Marvin Kuhn has been following their movements. For the past week-and-a-half small flocks of geese have been passing back and forth over his house south of the highway at the west end of Amagansett; he surmises these geese are already establishing one of their fall-winter local flyways between feeding fields in northern Amagansett and overnight quarters in Hook Pond in East Hampton Village.

When he went to check out Hook Pond he found about the same number there that have been flying over his house.

Marvin has also observed Canada geese flying in small numbers north and south over Montauk Highway between Wainscott and Southampton Village, and a group of 40 to 50 in Lake Agawam, during the same time period.

Pied-Billed Grebes

These are probably locally bred, not northern-bred birds. Families from different neighborhoods, for example, Fort Pond in Montauk, have been coalescing into "tribal" flocks.

They'll retain their affinities for each other into the fall, to some degree, even after they merge into the November and December flocks of thousands that we will see on Hook Pond, Short's Pond in Bridgehampton, Mecox Bay, and selected South Fork farm fields.

The pied-billed grebe is one of the earlier migrants among the waterfowls, the horned grebe one of the latest. Two pied-billed grebes were seen last week, one by Marvin and colleagues in the western part of Hook Pond, one by Alonzo Leon and Seth Plitt in Scoy Pond on the Grace Estate in Northwest.

There is always the remote chance that these grebes bred in Hook and Scoy, as they have bred at least once in Poxabogue Pond, but it is unlikely.

Is It Water? Is It Mites?

Common loons began returning from northern breeding lakes as early as the last week of July. Bill Wise of the State University at Stony Brook saw one in that area at that time. Sandy Shumway of Southampton College saw at least eight in Shinnecock Bay at the same time. They have been slow to appear since.

Blanche Soccolich has reason to be concerned. She lives in the Amagansett dunes, as close to Eden as one can get on the South Fork, maybe. Last year one of the grackles that visited her had all the feathers missing from its head, it was bald. She called up on Monday: She still has a bald grackle, but she also has two bald bluejays.

Is it the water, is it mites, what is it? A friend of the writer who also lives in Noyac has two dogs that began to lose their hair. She finally decided to give them bottled water instead of water from the tap. Their hair began to grow back.

My friend has just been treated for breast cancer. What's happening?

Rachel Zeiglin, who is 6, found a three-foot-long dead shark answering to the description of a female smooth dogfish on the shore at Gerard Point Monday morning. This is our smallest local shark, one of our most common, and viviparous. The female gives rise to living young.

This one had a hole in the head. Occasionally they are killed and left to die when caught, a particularly bad habit which, fortunately, is dying out.

So here we are at another crossroads. With the exception of a few pratfalls, nature's end-of-summer buzz is one of harmony, one of tranquillity. All is in order, as well as it can be in order. Bonnie could shatter that harmony and send flora and fauna reeling.

The non-human realm is a realm without the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Nature's inhabitants do not carry Federal flood insurance.