A few days ago two photos of a large brown raptor taken in Montauk by Debbie Kuntz popped up on my smartphone. The bird had a fierce look, and its wingtip feathers were spread in flight the way an eagle’s primaries can be. Debbie thought bald eagle, and she was right. In fact, it was an immature bald eagle, and one missing a toe. According to an Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center spokesperson, it was the young eagle that the facility had let go on Napeague on Aug. 17 of this year after rescuing it in Montauk months earlier and caring for it at the Hampton Bays facility until it was ready for release.
In the last 10 years, bald eagles have become regulars on Long Island. At least four different pairs have built and tended four different nests and raised four sets of eaglets annually. Our national bird, whose population numbered in the hundreds only 40 years ago and which was listed as endangered, now numbers in the thousands, having made a wonderful comeback under the auspices of the federal Endangered Species Act.
Eagles in the Northeast are migratory, or at least semi-migratory. Mostly fish eaters, they retreat to the edges of open waters in the winter, which moves them south as far as they have to go to find them. They often gather in small over-wintering groups along major rivers feeding our larger estuaries such as the Chesapeake Bay and the inland waterway farther to the south. But unlike a rival species, the osprey, which has also greatly benefited from the act, eagles can get by on other food sources, including mammals — both road kills and living — as well as large birds, turkeys, pheasants, and the like if need be. Ospreys, on the other hand, invariably survive on live-caught fish.
So, while the bald eagle is a noble bird, aristocratic by American standards, it is also a member of the hoi polloi when the need arises. And it is not above stealing from ospreys and other species if the moment dictates. It will do anything to survive. However, it did not stand a chance during the age of widespread DDT use in the last century, and was an easy target for those indiscreet shotgun hunters who were out for sport more than for food.
Other hawks, as well as vultures, are nearly all migratory in eastern and middle America. Otherwise it would be a very dull time during the fall at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. At this high-up spot in the Appalachian range, hundreds, if not thousands, of raptors in the throes of migration soar by daily on their way south. At the same time, some raptors that breed on the tundra, like the rough-legged hawks, goshawks, and gyrfalcons, along with snowy owls, move down from subpolar areas and have the place all to themselves.
There are several strictly piscivorous bird species that breed in the north but migrate south in the winter when lakes, ponds, and rivers ice up and fish become scarce in the ocean and bays. The belted kingfisher is one of them. It feeds over open water. The cormorant is another. The double-crested cormorants go south. An occasional great cormorant, a bigger bird bred and raised in northern climes, is adapted to the cold; a few visit Long Island each winter where they eke out a living on the few fish available.
Diving waterfowl — the scoters, oldsquaws, mergansers, buffleheads, eiders, loons, and grebes — on the other hand, can make it in the unfrozen sea, where they fish for and feed on fish and other marine organisms. It may be raw and turbulent on the surface, but is generally calm and peaceful underwater. Such open water waterfowl are most commonly observed in the winter and rarely seen here in the summer.
Of course, global warming is changing the course and dimensions of annual migrations south. It can be more advantageous for some species to tough it out here than to face the rigors of a long flight and uncertain weather conditions. On the old continent, the European starling is frequently migratory, but here in North America it tends to stick around during the winter months. The movements of blue jays are driven more by feeding needs than by temperature. In this record oak nut year, blue jays are not likely to stray very far from the acorn. Two close blue jay relatives, our two local crow species, have opposite agendas. The fish crow migrates south early on; the common crow chooses to stay around and spend the night in large roosts such as the one up in the hills south of Noyac or on Barcelona east of Sag Harbor.
Then there is that member of the thrush family, almost as American as the bald eagle — the red-breasted robin — that comes bob, bob, bobbing along. On record it is a migratory species, but during the last 20 years, more and more robins tough it out on Long Island rather take their chances moving south. What keeps them here is certainly not earthworms, a warm-season mainstay. They feed on fruit, namely that of the winterberries, hollies, junipers, roses, privet, honeysuckle, and so on. The New York State bird, the eastern bluebird, another thrush, often sticks around too. Mockingbirds also hang around, feeding largely on rosehips of the multiflora rose.
The winter feeder birds — chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, woodpeckers, cardinals, juncos, white-throated sparrows, Carolina wrens, goldfinches, mourning doves, and the like — move from feeding station to feeding station, from woodlot to woodlot. Why exert all that energy flying south, when there are plentiful seeds and other goodies, replenished daily on “platters” on posts or in hanging baskets, or merely strewn on the ground?
Wild turkeys are adept at short-run flights and flying up into tree roosts come evening, but they are not good flyers for longer runs. They keep busy scratching up the leaf layers in the woods for acorns and other nuts and the like. Ring-necked pheasants and ruffed grouse survive the winter in similar fashion.
Finally, it would not be winter without a consortium of gulls, namely, herring, black-backed, and ring-billed gulls working the landfills, shopping plazas, and seacoasts. They spend as much time gliding as flapping their wings, both conserving energy and enjoying their long sails. They are always among the most numerous birds in the many Long Island bird counts that take place in December of each year. They might just be the most impervious to winter weather of them all!
Winter is almost upon us, take care, and enjoy the birds.
Larry Penny can be reached via email at Larrypenny9@gmail.com.