Nature Notes: Birds of Many Feathers

The Long Island Christmas Bird Counts

   The last of the Long Island Christmas Bird Counts — the Orient Count — took place on Saturday. The count compiler over the last 20 years has been Mary Laura Lamont of Northville in Riverhead Town, and as of Sunday night all of the results had not been turned in to her. Nonetheless, after talking with Mary Laura, it is obvious that this was a very good count, especially for the North Fork territories and Shelter Island. Our part of the count was Cedar Point County Park on the east to Morton Wildlife Refuge on the west.
    As they do every year, Terry Sullivan and Al Daniels covered much of Sag Harbor and North Haven. Barbara and Karen Rubenstein, Angus Wilson, Vicki Bustamante, and I covered Cedar Point, the Grace Estate, and Barcelona (Russell’s) Neck.
    It was a quiet morning accompanied by calm waters followed by a rainy afternoon with building winds. The owlers were out early; at least six screech owls were heard calling on this side of the bay, in the Greenport part of the territory, there were 13 of them out trilling. One saw-whet owl, the tiniest of our lot here on the East Coast, was also heard, with its seemingly never-ending series of toot-toot-toot-toot-toot calls.
    In our territory we were almost raptorless, while Terry and Al had a merlin streak across their windshield in pursuit of small birds, as well as an immature bald eagle. The same eagle was seen over western Sag Harbor by the Morton Wildlife Refuge party and perhaps later over Shelter Island. Across the bay a kestrel (a rarity in these times) and peregrine falcon were observed.
    The rarest duck was the Barrow’s goldeneye observed in upper Sag Harbor Cove. Not a single canvasback on our side, but scaup, both the green-headed greater and purple-headed lesser, were seen in respectable numbers. Hooded mergansers were almost as common as red-breasted ones. The most common sea ducks east of Sag Harbor were common goldeneyes. With more than 400 counted, they outnumbered Canada geese, black ducks, long-tailed ducks, buffleheads, and the three species of scoters combined.
    There was an unusually large number of common loons, and Angus came up with two red-throated loons as well as two razorbills, one of the auk species in Gardiner’s Bay. Two northern gannets were also tallied over the bay off of Hedges Banks. There was a fair share of horned grebes diving along with the loons in Northwest Harbor and Sag Harbor and Noyac Bays. The loons, grebes, and gannets, as well as the mergansers, wouldn’t be here at this time if there weren’t a copious supply of small fish to get them through the winter.
    Sanderlings were common on the outer side of Cedar Point feeding on a Sandy-sculpted stony shore edge with herring and ring-billed gulls. Mike Scheibel covered Mashomack on Shelter Island, where he came up with a semipalmated plover. Purple sandpipers, winter visitors, and a killdeer that didn’t go south were observed on the North Fork. Vicki and I had a great blue heron fly over our heads more than once, apparently looking for open water. In the State Department of Environmental Conservation-owned marshes west of Mile Hill Road, Vicki played Virginia rail calls more than once from her smartphone and was answered back by two real Virginia rails. On the other hand, her smartphone calls to spook out marsh wrens went unanswered.
    The Barbara-Karen-Angus party came up with all the local woodpeckers, including nine red-bellied woodpeckers, two hairy woodpeckers, and a yellow-bellied sapsucker that apparently forgot to go south. They also observed 2 brown creepers, 8 eastern bluebirds (our state bird), and 24 robins. A third member of the thrush family, a rarity in the winter, a wood thrush, was picked up on the North Fork.
    Red-breasted nuthatches were almost as common as white-breasted ones. There were a fair number of chickadees and titmice, and almost all of the sparrows — tree, field, white-throated, song, fox, and, on the North Fork, two white-crowned sparrows. Mary Laura had three of the northern finches, which are apt to visit us every winter — redpolls, pine siskins, and purple finches. We didn’t see a single yellow-rumped warbler, which was a surprise, but two warblers, the palm warbler and common yellowthroat, were observed on the North Fork.
    No pheasants, not a single bobwhite, but Angus and crew did come up with six wild turkeys, the game bird on eastern Long Island that in this millennium has come to outnumber quail, pheasants, and ruffed grouse combined. It was unusually quiet as far as birdcalls go throughout the day. Yes, the blue jays and crows were typically vociferous, and the Carolina wrens rattled out their rat-a-tat songs throughout the day, but most of the others were mute. Were they anticipating the rain, freezing rain, and snow that would fall later in the day?