Nature Notes

October 10, 1996

As this is being written, thar's a nor'easter in the loomin', coming up the coast fast, the second in two weeks. It's looks as if it's going to be a busy fall and winter. We are still appreciating some of the artifacts deposited by the last storm, the chief one of which is the white pelican. There have been several sightings of this large white waterbird along our coast and far from its home territory ever since Fausto came through on Sept. 17 and 18.

Why the cormorants decided to get up at that time, where they were off to, and why one stayed on is just another mystery, one of the many in nature we witness every day.

As you may recall, Fausto came all the way from the Gulf of Baja, and on its way here swept through a large region of the West, Southwest, and central prairies, where white pelicans are likely to be found. Four showed up here at Towd Point on North Sea Harbor on or about Sunday, Sept. 27. They immediately attracted a lot of attention.

Jimmy Grimes called up to report he had seen the pelicans on the following Monday morning while preparing to decamp to Robins Island. Hugh McGuinness had been over there on the next morning, and he'd seen them too. By Monday of this week they had become a cause celebre in the world of birding, but the pelicans had settled in and didn't mind the scores of stoppers and starers.

Big Bird

White pelicans rank right up there with condors and swans as our largest North American birds. They're almost one and a half times larger than our other pelican species, the brown pelican. From head to tail they are almost five feet long, and their wings can measure as much as 10 feet from tip to tip.

They eat fish, mostly sardine size, which they scoop up into their expansive "gullets" while swimming. (The brown pelican dives from the air in the manner of a tern or gannet to catch its prey.) They're just in time for the snappers and the young-of-the-year alewives that gather in North Sea Harbor at this time of year.

These pelicans will probably stay on until the fish run out or it gets really cold. Perhaps they'll be swept away to some other exotic place by the nor'easter this week.

Aswirl With Birds

The migration is on and there's a lot of action out there. Just the other day Allen Planz took a day off from his job of counting and measuring fish caught by recreational fishermen and went fishing in Block Canyon a hundred or so miles off Montauk. The air was aswirl with pelagic birds, the kind that only come to land to breed once a year; the rest of the time they're out to sea, generally far out to sea.

He saw petrels, shearwaters, jaegers of more than one species, and one with a very long tail that could have been the long-tailed jaeger, the rarest of all. He also saw a skua, one of the most seldom seen oceanic birds of all, and like the jaeger a hassler of other seabirds, causing them to drop their prey in order to glean it for themselves.

Waterfowl On The Move

Allen was fishing yellowtail tuna - there were a lot of them. There were also a lot of dolphins. He saw a pod of nearly a thousand dolphins go by, heading north in a big V. Back in port, he checked out Fort Pond in Montauk, on the north side of which he found a single golden plover.

Hugh McGuinness found three or four golden plovers over the weekend and 16 royal terns around Mecox Bay. A second species of large tern, the Caspian tern, was around as well. John Burke, who runs the "rare bird alert" network in the metropolitan area, saw a host of them feeding offshore near Mecox Bay, several at the edge of the bay.

Waterfowl were moving over the weekend. Flights of snow geese were noted by several observers, including Eric Salzman, who saw at least two flocks of 50 to 60 birds fly by. All three scoter species - white-winged, surf, and black - were observed at Shinnecock Inlet.

Other than the pelicans, the most interesting bird around was the dicksissel, a ground finch of the Midwest prairies looking very much like a small meadowlark, having yellow breast with a bold black V. One was seen by Eric near Shinnecock Inlet.

Sharp-Tailed Sparrows

Eric was also able to ferret out four Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows. This is a species that used to be lumped with the common sharp-tailed sparrow of our intertidal marshes - appropriately renamed the salt marsh sharptail sparrow - but has been separated from it and given species status, we might add, not for the first time.

This species breeds much farther to the north. The four that Eric saw in the marshes at Shinnecock Bay over the weekend were probably from the race that breeds in the Canadian Maritimes. The orange-yellow markings on the face, throat, and upper chest are paler than those of the salt marsh sharptail, and the streaks on the chest are more blurred.

By Monday of this week the white pelicans had become a cause celebre in the world of birding, but they had settled in and didn't mind the scores of stoppers and starers.

We will have to examine those winter stay sharptails more closely during the upcoming Christmas counts to see if they belong to the new species or the old one.

Cormorant Conundrum

Marvin Kuhn was at the inlet to Accabonac Harbor Sunday morning. A flock of about 30 cormorants was gathered there, sitting at the edge of the shore. One got up and flew away, in a southerly direction. Another followed suit. Then another. Then another, and so on, until only one remained. Why they decided to get up at that time, where they were off to, and why one stayed on is just another mystery, one of the many in nature we witness every day.

Hawks are passing through on their way south, but why are there so few kestrels among them? This is one of the first falls the writer can remember that merlins are as common as kestrels.

Harry and Millie Hansen just happened to look out their Meeting House Lane, Amagansett, window on Saturday afternoon and there was a merlin standing on the ground in front of them, plucking a bird it had just caught. It could have been a dove.

The merlin was gray blue, most likely an adult male, with the telltale black markings on the face. There arose a little bit of commotion caused by some starlings that came into the yard, which caused the merlin to pick up and move off; it took the victim with it.

Making A Comeback

Ana Dumois has a house in a wooded area on the west side of Three Mile Harbor. On the weekend after Memorial Day she was visited by a broad-winged hawk. She heard its call, then she saw it perched in a tree.

This forest species had become very rare on the South Fork, and only in the past dozen years has it been making a comeback, especially so in the piny woods along Route 114 and to the north and east near Northwest Creek and Northwest Harbor.

It turns out that Ana had a pair of broadwings living in the neighborhood. The male came to a limb outside a window with a mouse in its talons and had stashed another nearby. The male was calling and pointing in a particular direction. Ana looked and saw a second hawk, the female. The two constructed a nest and had young, one of which fledged.

Bid Farewell

The three of them would fly around together. When they would catch someting to eat, they would often bring it to that particular limb Ana called "the dining room." As the summer latened, the parents moved off, but the youngster stayed on, now that it could fend for itself.

In mid-August, two weeks after the parents had gone, Ana sensed that the young one was leaving. It was calling in an "insistent" manner. Ana went out to look and there was the young hawk in the dining room waving a snake in a talon. Ana thinks it was waving at her, because it got up shortly after, snake and all, and flew away, not to be seen since.

Lisa Brice came into the office on Monday. She had a small container inside of which was a snake, a pretty little red-and-gray thing, no bigger around, and not much longer, than a pencil. She had been to Dr. Jonathan Turetsky, the veterinarian, and he sent her over to the writer for an I.D.

It was a milk snake, a young of the year, which had done quite well in Three Mile Harbor, where Lisa had found it that morning. Milk snakes are great mousers. Following hibernation this fall and winter, this one would have to put on several inches in length and get quite a bit thicker before it would be ready to take on a mouse.

It's blowin up a bit and rain clouds fill the sky. It's time to get this to The Star and batten down the hatches.