Nature Notes

December 19, 1996

It's been wet, very wet, very, very wet. It's hard to remember a time when the ponds have been fuller. Georgica Pond is nearly as full as it was when the East Hampton Trustees opened it earlier in the fall at near-record height.

Abetted by runoff and an elevated water table, not to mention overwash from the ocean at the gut during the latest northeaster, the pond has been rising about a foot a week on average since it closed more than a month ago.

Hook Pond, too, is very high. It has a relief valve, an overflow pipe to the ocean. Sagaponack Pond got so full that it opened last week and ran out to the ocean.

Fort Pond Overflowing

Fort Pond in Montauk is flooding over onto the lawn at Kirk Park. Little Reed Pond on the northeast edge of Lake Montauk is drowning in freshwater, gushing up from the ground and rushing in from Big Reed Pond to the east.

John Holzman lives on the edge of Peter's Run, a small stream running into Lake Montauk along its west side, of long standing - it's one of the few streams shown on the 1838 U.S. Coastal Survey Maps for East Hampton Town.

On Friday morning, this stream had so overswollen its banks that it was 18 feet up onto John's lawn, not very far from the foundation of his house.

Scoters Seize Opportunity

Sagg Pond's outletting attracted a crowd of opportunists. Hugh McGuinness was there last Thursday, counting the scoters massed and feeding on the pond's leavings. There were some 1,500 of them off the gut.

Further out were 500 common eiders. A few days earlier, Hugh had recorded 50 common eiders off Georgica Pond. This is an exceptional amount of eiders for the South Shore waters.

It must represent overflow from the waters around Montauk Point, where the common eiders are overwhelming the scoters. Andy Baldelli was there on Saturday and estimated there were as many as 20,000 of them.

Arctic Ducks

The eider species, along with the harlequin duck, are mostly boreal ducks that sustain themselves on small shellfish gleaned from the sea floor.

There used to be another one of these Arctic ducks, the Labrador duck. It was shot and "egged" into extinction late in the 19th century.

The eiders were about to follow in its footsteps, because they were the chief source of eiderdown, used in pillows, quilts, and winter coats. However, they've been making a comeback - witness the large numbers of them seen this fall off Long Island - and are well on their way to recovery.

The turkey vulture first reported by Joe Gaviola in Montauk County Park a little over a month ago has been seen again lately. Hugh McGuinness and Andy Baldelli saw it on Dec. 3 at Montauk Point.

It may have moved since then, or there may be two of them, because Henry Gant of the East Hampton Town Highway Department spotted one on Friday morning, crowned with naked red head, working on a roadkill deer by the side of the Springy Banks Road near Wigwam, west of Three Mile Harbor.

All these vulture sightings were of adults; that is, those having the red on the head.

Return Visitors

The immature bald eagle that has been visiting the east Montauk area for more than two months now has also been seen again. Erik Stahl saw it perched in a tree near Oyster Pond at 2 p.m. two Tuesdays ago.

The cattle egret at the ranch in Montauk was still around as of this weekend. Hugh and Andy have been keeping close tabs on it in hopes that it will be here on Saturday, the day of the Montauk Christmas Count.

However, the golden plover that had been in the same field is gone.

Spooked By The Roadside

While Jay Schneiderman was motoring home along Old Montauk Highway east of Napeague the night of Dec. 11, he caught a big owl in the beam of his headlights. It was by the side of the road, working on a cottontail rabbit.

Spooked by Jay and his vehicle, it relinquished its hold on its prey and flew up to the top of a utility pole, where it perched, abiding Jay's presence. It was very big, and not white, with a little white around the eye.

It must have been a great horned owl, although Jay doesn't remember seeing any ear tufts. But things happened so fast, and the light was poor.

Pavlov's Owl

Mary Laura Lamont lives in the Long Island Sound hills north of Riverhead; she is the compiler of the Orient Christmas Bird Count, which includes the northern edges of East Hampton Town, Sag Harbor, North Haven, and Noyac.

In talking to her about the upcoming count, on Jan. 4, the writer learned she had a screech owl that frequently visits the bird feed she puts on the ground in her yard. Last year, she actually saw the owl take a mouse at that spot.

She thinks some of the mice, in particular the voles, approach the feed by way of their subterranean labyrinth, and that the owl waits for them to pop up to steal the seed.

She wonders if the owl isn't also taking a little bird food on the side, inasmuch as it comes so often and spends so much time there.

Feeders Fed On

We know that bird feeders attract not only birds that feed at them, but hawks that feed on the birds that feed at them. Now we discover that

It's hard to remember a time when the ponds have been fuller.

some feeders have two sets of feeders: birds by day, mice (and rats) by night, and two sets of raptorial predators. Since we don't often observe our feeders during the night, we are generally not privy to this dualism.

Dan Cohen of Settlers Landing in East Hampton, west of Three Mile Harbor, called on Monday. The feed in his bird feeder had gone untouched for several days, and he wondered what could be wrong.

The Nature Conservancy has gotten a few "where are the birds" calls, and this is not the first that the writer has received. It's quite possible that the presence of a sharp-shinned hawk or merlin at Dan's site has become so overbearing that the feeder birds are staying away until things improve.

American Coot

If you've driven by the Maidstone's golf course on Further Lane in East Hampton lately, perhaps, you've noticed the strange-looking duck-like fowl grazing there, black bodies with white bills.

Sigrid Owen was making a sick-waterfowl check on Sunday when she noticed them. Marvin Kuhn also saw them there and called them to the writer's attention. Both reported seeing about 50.

The American coot, sometimes called mudhen, is a peculiar bird allied with the rails - not the ducks, geese, and swans - that carries on like a diving duck. As the Canada goose and the "dabblers," it feeds sometimes on aquatic vegetation, sometimes on grasses and other succulents up on dry land.

It is particularly fond of the leafy pondweeds that grow in Hook Pond next to the golf course. Almost every year at this time, if Hook Pond isn't yet frozen over, you will find this species there, along with the geese and the dabbling ducks.

Canvasback Comeback

Like the eiders, the canvasback duck has also been making an impressive comeback, as we've alluded to many times over the years in this column.

One of the largest rafts of canvasbacks in memory was witnessed by Marvin Kuhn on Dec. 9 in the waters along the west side of Agawam Lake in Southampton Village. Marvin judged there were at least 1,000, quite possibly several thousand.

At this writing the Montauk count is four days away, the Sagaponack-to-Hook Pond count five days away. As of last Thursday, there were two whistling swans in Sagg Pond, according to Hugh McGuinness. As of Dec. 10, there were a king eider and razorbills off Montauk Point.

If you have something out of the ordinary hanging around, or anything you think is unusual but you're not sure, give a holler.