Nature Notes

April 8, 1999

    The Cretaceous period began during the decline of the dinosaurs, 160 million years ago. It was the time when flowering plants and insects, their chief pollinators, evolved and radiated. Those two groups have been together ever since. When the flowers first appear each spring, so do the nectaring insects, among them the butterflies.

     Things are blooming. It's no wonder that the butterflies are already putting in an appearance. Tim Sullivan reported the first butterfly, a cabbage white, at Gerard Point in Springs on March 26. As their name implies, the whites are fond of members of the mustard family, the crucifers, not only for feeding but as host plants for their larvae.

    Crucifers are among the first local species to flower and Gerard Point is a good place to find them flowering early. By mid-April, the sandy-gravelly spoil piles are often coated with the white of thousands of rock cress flowers.

Cabbages And Commas

     Chris Roberts saw his first cabbage white butterfly at Scoy Pond in Northwest on Sunday.

     On March 31, Chris was looking out his window at his feeders when he saw something bright-orange-hued on a tree trunk at eye level. A closer look revealed it was a butterfly, just out of the cocoon, judging from the brilliance of its coat.

     It was not possible to tell whether it was a "comma" or a "question mark." (Funny that the only two local butterflies with punctuation marks for common names can be so difficult to tell apart.)

     He would have to look at the underside of the wings to make the distinction, but the butterfly was not about to raise its wings to give Chris a look before it flew off.

Mourning Cloaks

     Vanessa Edwards was on a wooded trail in Springs near Gardiner's Lane Monday afternoon. She came across two largish butterflies, brown with an edging of creamy white, at two different spots. One was sitting on the trail, one was flying alongside it.

     Springs woodlands are the perfect spot for this butterfly, the mourning cloak, perennially among the earliest-appearing of all. Unlike the comma or question mark, it's a slow flier and can easily be identified on the wing.

     The writer raised one from a Culloden Point trail in Montauk on March 31. Chris Roberts put up one in Northwest's Grace Estate on Saturday.

Eels Are Out

     About the time the serviceberries begin to flower, the shad start their spawning runs up East Coast rivers (thus the more popular local name for the tree: shadbush). They won't be in flower for another two weeks, but meanwhile there are other fish runs in progress.

     The same day Tim Sullivan saw the cabbage white, he also came upon a gull eating a sand eel. When the sand eels (not eels at all - more akin to silversides) come out of the sand, things start happening.

     When the alewife schools come into the harbors and creeks, it can be just as exciting. On Long Island, we don't have shad runs, we have alewife runs.

No Place To Go

     The annual alewife run has been in progress for almost three weeks, about as long as the osprey have been back. They are wont to come in on moon tides, but any high tide that will get them into the headwater streams will suffice.

     On Monday at 4 in the afternoon, under the watchful eyes of Chris Roberts, who had just happened by, they were shoaling at the top of Soak Hide Cove at the south end of Three Mile Harbor. They were jamming up the culvert there as they fought to get under Soak Hide Road into Tan Bark Creek.

     It is perhaps a great irony: So many alewives, full of milt and roe, amok with thoughts of reproduction, and no place to go. There is no pond at the end of Tan Bark Creek, just a big swamp.

     Nature is not so perfectly knowing as much as it is hit and miss.

Sagg Sees Action

     A great blue heron was at the edge of the cove, having its fill. On Friday, an adult gannet, lustrously white and majestic, was repeatedly diving just off the entrance to Three Mile Harbor.

     Gannets are big herring-eaters. There's a good chance this one was hitting on the alewives while they were staging.

     Sagaponack Pond has been the scene of lots of recent fishing action, according to Bruce Horwith of Wild Bird Crossing. He's been there a lot lately. For two weeks now, cormorants, ospreys, herons, and gulls have been working it.

     Like Georgica Pond and Mecox Bay, Sagg Pond is one of those places that gets a lot of attention from alewives when it is open in early spring, and it's been open. The alewives try to make it all the way up to Jeremy's Hole, about a quarter-mile south of Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton.

Exceedingly Early

     In order to get there, Sagg stream has to be running, and they have to fight their way over a weir. Whether they make it to spawn or not, the fish-eating birds always make out big. They get them coming and going.

     The action at Sagg Pond has been so great, it's also been attracting a throng of shorebirds, including glossy ibis, dunlins, sanderlings, greater and lesser yellowlegs, pectoral sandpipers, a semi-palmated sandpiper, and a least sandpiper.

     The latter three are exceedingly early. In fact, the least sandpiper was first seen by Hugh McGuinness on the 29th of March, the earliest date yet for a New York State return by this species.

Spring Warblers

     Sagg Pond has been such a net that at least two of the species, glossy ibis and double-crested cormorant, hadn't yet made it across the fork to the Peconic Estuary in any kind of numbers as of Monday.

     People have been regularly going to Pussy's Pond in Springs looking for glossy ibis, but as of the weekend they've stiffed the pond, Accabonac Harbor, and the rest of Springs.

     Among the earliest spring warblers are the yellow-rumped warbler ("Audubon's" or "myrtle" warblers in older books) and the pine warbler. Beulah Pollock was visited by a yellow-rumped in fine feather on Saturday morning at her Northwest home.

Chipping Sparrows

     Pine warblers, with songs like chipping sparrow trills, nest in the pines around Chris Roberts's house every year. He logs their return each spring. This year it was on Friday, April 2, most years it's the first day of April.

     Hugh McGuinness reports that Andy Baldelli saw a slew of pine warblers farther west on Friday, as well.

     Chris Roberts recorded his first chipping sparrow on Easter Sunday. On Monday, Hugh McGuinness saw one in Massachusetts and the writer saw one in Montauk.

     Chipping sparrows may have come back in the company of pine warblers this year, or they may have come back by themselves.   Pine warblers and chipping sparrows make typical hemispherical nests, fastening them to tree limbs.

     Several cavity-nesters are also coming back, a few earlier than usual. It's time to clean out those birdhouses and get them up.

Bluebird Tenants

     Bruce Horwith saw four tree swallows on March 31, hanging around a bird box at the end of Flying Point Road at the edge of Mecox Bay. Chris Roberts saw his first tree swallow over Scoy Pond on Sunday.

     On Friday, Chris was cleaning out some bluebird boxes at the Peach Farm in Northwest when a pair of eastern bluebirds parked overhead and began complaining. Apparently, Chris was fooling with the box they had chosen.

     The bluebirds have to set up before the tree swallows and house sparrows, or they will lose it. If they wait until May 1, they'll have to contend with the greediest interlopers of all, the house wrens.

     Better get at it earlier and hope for an April that's warm and not too wet.

Youngest Owls

    Red-tailed hawks continue to flaunt their territories.

     One raptor already has fledged young. Last week, Steve Mars of the Fish and Wildlife Service happened to be at the Pilgrim State site UpIsland when he spotted two great-horned owl young, just out of the nest, with their parents.

     According to Bruce Horwith, short-eared owls have been regularly seen around Sagg Pond. A pair of them used to nest in the vicinity of Peter's Pond, Sagaponack, in the early 1980s.

     Bruce watched a peregrine try to catch a mourning dove but miss at Shinnecock Bay on Sunday.

     Walter Galcik and Todd Dion were at Sammy's Beach on Monday at noon when two harriers, a brownish one, presumably a female, and a blue-gray one, a male, flew back and forth over the marshes. What could they have been thinking?

Deep South Hawk

     A hawk answering the description of a Cooper's hawk flew into Beulah Pollock's yard last week, trying to get a tufted titmouse. Beulah knocked on the window, distracting it. The titmouse escaped.

     We may have had a swallow-tail kite visiting the area on Friday. Only very occasionally do we get one of these hawks from the deep South, black with an all-white head.

     Lois Markle saw such a bird perched on a utility pole in Amagansett, just west of Napeague, on Friday. It was eating something.

Ospreys In Residence

     The two highest osprey nest sites on Long Island are both occupied, according to Lisa D'Andrea, who is making a survey of East Hampton's osprey nests. There is a pair setting up on the radio tower nest on Napeague and one working on the nest atop the old fish factory power plant chimney east of Devon.

     Both great and snowy egrets were back at Sammy's Beach as of Friday. Common loons and horned grebes are coloring up for their summer breeding lakes; they are looking resplendent. They'll leave any day now, the way the geese left.

     Game birds are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Walter Galcik flushed a ruffed grouse from a second-growth area of Culloden Point on March 31. It exploded from under his feet.

     Bruce Horwith picked up a woodcock off the surface of the water at Three Mile Harbor Saturday evening. It had an injured bill and was taken to a rehabilitator.

Birdseed In The Hand

     Howard Reisman of Southampton College was with a party that went by Little Gull and Great Gull Islands, where seals congregate each winter. He said there must have been several hundred harbor seals and quite a few gray seals. There are still quite a few harbor seals working the Block Island Sound waters around the rocks between Lake Montauk and Montauk Point as well.

     The writer took his grandson, Mathew, to Morton Wildlife Refuge on Saturday. What a place! Every 100 feet or so along the trails, there was someone standing perfectly still, holding out a hand with birdseed. Not only the chickadees were availing themselves of the perches, but tufted titmice, too.

     Lisa D'Andrea says her hand has even been visited by a white-breasted nuthatch while there. So many people communing with nature and on such an intimate level.

     Just to think, in the mid-80s there was a movement afoot to junk all of Long Island's wildlife refuges. George Hochbrueckner helped put a stop to that. If it ever comes up again, I'm sure our current Congressman, Mike Forbes, would do the same.