Nature Notes: The Eagle Reigns Supreme

New Year’s Eve was the day of the Orient bird count
Cedar Point lighthouse is also known as the Cedar Island Lighthouse. Arthur Goldberg

The New Year is upon us. It may have been the warmest since weathermen and weatherwomen have been keeping records. New Year’s Eve was the day of the Orient bird count. As per usual, my group did East Hampton’s Northwest Woods, from Cedar Point Park to Barcelona Neck. It was partly overcast and a bit windy. There was a very thin layer of ice on rain puddles and pond surfaces here and there, but none of the tidal waters were frozen.

Cedar Point’s sand spit is traditionally the first place we scour. Both sides of it were drivable. My three companions had a hard time visualizing that the lighthouse, now at least 200 feet inland from the point, was built in 1868 out in the water beyond the point and was called the Cedar Island Lighthouse. The point itself keeps receiving sand eroding from the bluffs to the east, west of Three Mile Harbor. It seems ironic that the Montauk Lighthouse, more than 300 feet inland from Montauk’s easternmost point when it was erected more than 200 years ago, now stands less than 100 feet from the rock wall that keeps it from washing into the ocean, while the Cedar Point light gets higher and drier as the years go by.

On the other hand, as long as the rock jetties are maintained around Montauk Point, the Lighthouse will be safe well into the future, but the three feet of sea level rise — which may come as soon as 2050 — will have waves lapping at the base of the Cedar Point light.

On the north side of the spit we were greeted by a large flock of white and black sanderlings that flew low over the water in a spectacular formation, twisting and turning, moving in a rapid straight line a foot or so above Gardiner’s Bay at 30 miles per hour, forming into a tight ball, starling-like, in less than a few seconds, and then making a U-turn back towards the shore while re-creating the straight line. Very impressive. We normally encounter 10 or 15 sanderlings wintering over on Cedar Point, but never as many as we saw on Saturday.

There were no starlings at the lighthouse for the first time in more than 10 years. The structure is presently undergoing a renewal, which may account for their absence. We did see four horned larks on the spit and, east of it, an immature eagle flew over the bluff crest from the east and came to rest 15 feet up atop a dead tree snag. On any normal day in the winter the herring gulls greatly outnumber other gull species, but on this day, the ring-billed gulls, the ones with the greenish legs and the black ring on their bills, outnumbered them. And there was not a single great black-backed gull to be seen.

The little freshwater pond captured by the building sand shoal that sits to the northeast of Suffolk County’s park headquarters had about 40 resting black ducks, two mute swans, and a teal of some kind. When we approached it, the ducks got up, as well as a great blue heron. Someone mused that while in most years all the great blues move south so as not to lose the advantage of fishing in non-frozen waters, a few take the chance that waters will remain open and come spring they will not have to fly north 500 miles or so to their nesting site. Most such blue herons don’t make it through January and February.

Ely Brook Pond had a pair of buffleheads, a merganser, and three black ducks. As the blinds on the spit and those along the pond were empty of hunters this day, the ducks were taking advantage of the respite. 

Perhaps the best bird of the day loomed 200 feet across the pond as we scanned the tree line on the west side of the pond. There, about 40 feet up on a tree limb, was a very large dark bird with a bright white head standing motionless looking straight into our binoculars. You guessed it, an adult bald eagle!

The park also provided us with about nine wild turkeys, and a flock of juncos, chickadees, cardinals, downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches, several common crows, and a raven. Otherwise, small land birds were wanting throughout the rest of the territory. 

We did not see a single bluebird. It was not until we got to the old marina site at the foot of Mile Hill Road in Northwest that we found some field sparrows along with a tree sparrow. Then, as we left the Northwest Landing Road end, we came upon 20 or more male robins working someone’s yard on the east side of the road.

After we checked out Northwest Creek, over which a male marsh hawk (northern harrier) was hunting, we dropped in on Pat Hope. She is one of the few year-round residents remaining on the north side of Swamp Road, the Helena Curtiss, Staudinger, and Quigley houses having been removed following purchases of their lands by the Town of East Hampton. She provided us with a Carolina wren, more titmice, nuthatches, both white and red-breasted, another downy woodpecker, and a handful of mourning doves. That night a resident great horned owl hooted several times, the only one on our list.

Northwest Harbor is usually chockablock full of sea ducks, a.k.a. goldeneyes, three species of scoters, and red-breasted mergansers, but we could only find a small flock of old-squaw (now politely renamed long-tail ducks) and a couple of common loons. Northwest Creek, just in from the harbor, was similarly bare of waterfowl — one loon, six old squaw, and the only horned grebe of the day.

If only Victoria Bustamante, along with her telephonic eyes and ears had been free to accompany us, we may have set a record this time around. 

Nevertheless, for Arthur Goldberg, John Buchbinder, his companion and first-time bird watcher, Sam, and myself, it was a wonderful day and wonderful outing.

May your new year be a good and filled with nature!


Larry Penny can be reached via email at Larrypenny9@gmail.com.