We met at sunset in anticipation. It was an early spring sunset, cold, still and glorious with a thin crescent moon. A deepening golden sky silhouetted the filigree of branches on bare trees. But we came to observe a spectacle that is first detected by ear. We heard twitters, clucks and chips as birds settled down for the night. Our puffy coats swished as we walked along paths crisp and crunchy with old snow. Dogs were barking in the distance as if communicating with each other in the gloaming. A flash of white tail betrayed a deer crashing through the winter-worn grass behind us. We could feel a dampness rising as the sun set still further. The ping from a car door being locked was a false alarm. It almost sounded like the “peent”– the very sound we had all been waiting for - the mating call of a male woodcock. Further along the trail we heard the deep-throated “who-who hoo” of a great horned owl. And then another one called across the meadow. I would have been satisfied to return home to my warm house at this point as the sound of a hooting owl is one thrill enough for me. We stood still listening to the owls as the first stars twinkled above. But the thrill continued as a low-flying bird seemed to come from nowhere. A rounded shape of a bird, with its tell tale beak visible, flew past us and landed in the long grass nearby. It immediately started its “peent, peent”. I did a “high-five” with one of my companions as we realized that the woodcocks were indeed here for their courtship ritual. Then the performance began. As we heard more peents around us, the first-sighted male lifted itself incredibly high and almost out of sight. It was a mere speck in the darkening sky and then I lost track of it. A whirring and kissing sound could be heard as it plunged earthward. Perhaps, an impressed female bird had viewed this full feat of love from amongst the dried stalks of grass. The owls hooting were no longer the center of our attention. For now, in this meadow at dusk, the woodcocks owned the show.
- Sue Avery
American Woodcock - (c) Tom Benson 2013
Scully Nest Box Work Continues
With the success of the pilot predator guard installation, Seatuck decided to outfit the remainder of the nest boxes at the Scully marsh with new baffles. Seatuck board member Mike Jaklitsh endured further cold and ice (and snow) to continue the installation process. This time, however, he had some good help! Jim & Brendan Belrose and Colby Rogers (pictured above) got up early this past Saturday to venture out on the marsh with Mike. They were a tremendous team as, despite the harsh conditions, they manged to protect another 6 or 7 boxes. Still a lot of work to be done, but the returning tree swallows will find the marsh at Scully more hospitable than ever this year! We're hopeful the new baffles will elminate the raccoon predation and result in more successful swallow fledges this year. We'll be watching carefully!
Thanks, Mike, Jim, Brendan and Colby - it's tough work, we're glad you guys are up to the task! I promise the winter condidtions can't last much longer!
The cold, snow and ice that's lingered into Spring has many of us fed-up and annoyed, but it can be much worse for other species. Seatuck Board member Mike Jaklitsh, who has been working on readying the next boxes at Scully, found this dead tree swallow today. It was frozen inside one of the boxes he was working on.
The wintry conditions are diffucult for migratory species expecting to find warmer weather (the timing of their migration is governed more by photoperiod and less by weather conditions). It's especially tough on some of the earliest-arriving migratory bird species, which have, in some cases, flown from South or Central America and arrive with seriously depleted fat reserves. This leaves them in drastic need of food. For those insectivorous species that rely on flying insects, such as tree swallows, being greeted by a serious cold snap can be fatal. If cold weather hits and lingers, insects don't emerge and the birds are at risk. While they do eat berries and other food sources when necessary, they don't have much time or energy to search.
It's a sad fact of nature. Hopefully Mike's good work on the nest boxes at Scully will result in a good fledging year at the property and make up for any loss in the population from the cold Spring.
And, I'm happy to report, Mike took the bird with him; he plans to have it mounted and displayed at Scully. Thanks, Mike.
The peconic river alewife counter is in the water!
But it wasn't easy. The portion of the impoundment that leads to the Grangebel Fish Ladder has changed significantly over the past few years. The first year we installed the system (2011) we barely encountered water more than waist deep. Now the middle of the channel is nearly 6 feet deep - certainly too much for chest waders. The answer to the problem: divers! Bill Pfeiffer and Gregg Tellone from Island Diving were good enough to bring their gear out to Riverhead and give us a hand. Not only were they able to navigate the deeper water, but they were able to get down in the water and get the system nice and level. Thanks, guys!
In addition to Long Island Diving, we owe a word of thanks to all our partners who braved the cold water to help us get it set up, including Peconic Estuary Program, NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation, Suffolk County and Cornell Cooperative Extension. Thanks everyone - many hands make light work!
We also owe thanks, as always, to Jim at the Peconic Paddler for his generous help.
And thanks to Seatuck board member Mike Reilly for the video footage and nifty editing work.
We'll have more soon - it won't be long before the alewife are heading up river!
The above photos from the DEC's Peter Malaty were passed along to me this week. The top photo shows Peter (I think) with a brown trout he recently caught ice fishing in Wildwood Lake in Riverhead (or maybe actually Northampton). The second photo shows a juvenile alewife that came out of the trout's stomach. The story raises a few interesting questions. First, since Woodhull Dam (which forms Wildwood Lake) is an 10-foot high wall of concrete that presents an absolute barrier to alewife migration (tens of thousands of alewife bump their noses up against the dam each spring), how is it that there's young alewife in the lake? The answer to this question I think I know. There are conservation-minded people out there that care about alewife and want to see them recover - for years they've been surreptitiously and illegally (but heroically?) carrying them over the dam and dropping them in the lake. But still, it's a bit surprising that there's enough alewife in the lake that a young-of-the-year was able to survive so long. There must have been quite a few more where this one came from last spring!
The second, more puzzling question is what was this young against-all-odds survivor still doing in the lake come March? Generally, young alewife move downstream into salt water by the time river/lake water temperatures start to drop in the fall. By winter they're usually deep in the bays or already finding their way out to the ocean. Other than landlocked alewife, I haven't heard or read any stories of alewife overwintering in freshwater. So, again, why was this fish still in the lake? The answer to this question I don't know. It may be that, given some combination of conditions, alewife will stay put and not heed the call to migrate. Or it may be that dams like Woodhull are more than barriers to upstream migration - maybe they present an obstacle to downstream migration as well, even for a tiny young alewife. Maybe the alewife shown above wanted to get downstream, but couldn't manage to find the spillway. Any thoughts on this question? I'd love to hear from you.
Regardless of what resulted in Peter's trout lucking into a winter alewife, there's hope that future alewife, both young and old, will have an easier time getting past Woodhull Dam. Suffolk County Parks is currently seeking designs for fish passage at the dam. With enough public and political support, they'll hopefully be funding available someday soon to construct a fish passage structure at the dam. The branch of the Peconic River that leads to the dam already hosts one of the strongest alewife runs on Long Island. If a fish passage can get them past Woodhull, the run will likey grow exponentially (and then our fish-carrying heroes can finally take a break!).
Scully Nest Boxes to Get New Predator Guards
Seatuck board member Mike Jaklitsh recently braved the cold and ice to install a new predator guard on one of our nest boxes on the marsh at Scully (see photo above). The boxes are designed to support small cavity nesting birds, such as tree swallows and eastern bluebirds. But because of relentless predation by raccoons over the past few years very few of the two-dozen boxes on the property have supported productive nests. Past efforts to protect the boxes have had mixed results. However, with this new baffle seemingly up to the task - and with some generous help from our friends at Wild Birds Unliminted in Oakdale - we're going to outfit every box on the marsh with a new baffle in time for the 2015 nesting season. Now (and I really do hate to say this) we just have to hope it stays frozen long enough so we can easily access the nest boxes!
If the baffles are successful - and if we can find additional support - we'll move our efforts over to protect the nest boxes at the South Shore Nature Center in East Islip.
Volunteers and supporters are welcome! Please let us konw if you'd like to help with the installation work or support the program. Thank you.
And thanks for the good work, Mike!
On an extremely cold day in early January, members of Seatuck’s Landscape Committee got together indoors for a seed propagation session. This project is an effort to expand planting in our own gardens. We have also donated some seedlings to local schools for their native plant initiatives.
Indeed, there is something satisfying about starting seed in the middle of winter. Seeds are teased from fluff, miniscule ones are sprinkled as from a saltshaker, and some that have extremely hard coats are scarified with sandpaper. Others are extracted from dried berries or from twisted brown pods. All are from native plants and collected this past summer and fall from the gardens on the Scully Estate or from excursions made along South Bay Avenue and the trails of the Environmental Center.
Finally the seed flats are labeled and watered. They are stored outdoors for the winter months as there is no need to further pamper native plant seeds. Winter’s cycles of freezing and thawing are necessary for their germination. We just wait for spring to find new plants emerging.
The winter of 2013/2014 was a historic one for snowy owls - fueled by a lemming-rich breedng season record numbers of snowies "irrupted" into the U.S. from the arctic. It was affetionately referred to as a "snowstorm" of snowy owls. Long Island was flush with the beautiful white birds for several months, with sightings commonplace at numerous locations, including Robert Moses and Cupsogue (Seatuck volunteer Ira Marder took these beautiful photos of one of last winter's Cupsogue snowies).
I took me longer than I expected, but I finally found a snowy - my first ever - at Jones Beach one bitter cold afternoon in January. Here's an entry I wrote about the encouter.
The big question through the fall was what would this winter hold? I read varying predicitons. Some say the year after a record irruption is usually quiet. Others predict a "shadow irruption" that includes many of the birds that successfully ventured far south last year. Early reports are that the movement of snowy owls seems strong again this year. Long Island has already had its first sightings. If your interested, Project Snowstorm is a collaborative project of dozens of researchers studying snowy owl movements - their website provides up-to-date information and maps about the latest sightings. More locally, you can also get updates from longislandbirds.com . I, for one, hope it's another big year. I'll be carefully watching the dunes at Jones Beach and Robert Moses for my second snowy!
My mother-in-law, Nancy, encountered this unique-looking sparrow in East Hampton on Sunday. She was watching a few wild turkeys across a field when she was surprised by what she described as a "white bird" flitting through the grasses. I opened one of the photos she sent me on my phone and said I thought it was a chipping sparrow based on the chestnut cap and white eyebrow streak - but I commented that I couldn't tell for sure because the photo looked kind of washed out. What I didn't realize until later was that the photo was actually quite clear - rather, it was the bird itself that was "washed out." Smart enough not to rely soley on her son-in-law for bird identifications, Nancy turned to Longislandbirding.com for an answer and learned that the bird was, in fact, a chipping sparrow, but that it had an abnormal plumange condition called leucism. The condition is apparenlty caused by a defect in the pigment cells that results in either 1) white patches, 2) paler overall plumage or 3) all white plumage. The East Hampton chippy obviously fell into the second category - it has some of its recognizable plumage, but was overall much paler than usual. The condition afffects a wide range of birds (including bluebirds and hummingbirds) and other animals. I'll confess that I've never heard of the condition and was fascinated to see its impacts across the animal kingdom. Kudos to my mother-in-law for the keen eye and fantastic photos! And thanks to Longislandbirding for the science lesson. - Enrico
The Smith Family, who have been long-time Seatuck supporters, recently spotted a rare bird in their backyard birdfeeder in Islip: a red-headed woodpecker. There have only been a handful of these birds reported on Long Island this year so far. The Smiths live just down the road from the Suffolk County Environmental Center - so we're keeping an eye out in the hopes the woodpecker will visit Scully soon! The stunning photographs of the bird were taken by Delee Smith, who is an accomplished amatuer photographer. Thanks for passing them along, Delee!
All photos: (c) D. Smith 2014 - All Rights Reserved
After a winter's worth of searching (mostly from the car, I confess), it finally happened today. On my way home from work I stopped in at the West End of Jones Beach and ... saw my first snowy owl! After surveying the dunes on the east side of the bathhouse at Field 4, I hopped in the car to try the west side. And as I drove over, there it was, sitting on the roof of the bathhouse! Just sitting there, like it had been there all winter. Like it was just waiting for me. Even still, I almost missed it. I only noticed it after another motorist stopped and quickly clamored out of his car with his camera equipment. I got out of the car, too. Not having a fancy camera to fuss with (see below for what I managed with my phone), I just stood and watched as the bird swiveled its gaze from side to side and the wind ruffled its thick feathers.
A third person arrived before long and reported immediately that it was a female. "How do you know?", I asked. "Because it has dark markings on its chest," he explained, "the males are all white." I knew what he said was true about adult birds, but that young birds of both sexes have dark markings. But I didnt' feel the need to correct him. After a while I got back in the car to head home. As I started to drive off, the bird launched itself off the roof in the direction of the setting sun. It flapped its powerful wings a few times, then dropped to glide just over the top of the snow-covered parking lot. It settled atop a snowy dune with the huge orange sun at its back. The other guys jumped in their cars and raced after it. I was content to continued on my way, deeply satisfied that I had finally encountered one of our beautiful artic visitors. - Enrico
Ira Marder, a long-time Seatuck volunteer and an accomplished nature & wildlife photographer, recently passed along a few fantastic photos he took of snowy owls this winter out at Cupsogue Beach County Park in West Hampton. They're such spectacular birds - every one is more beautiful than the next! It prompted to me to re-post (below) a column I recently wrote about what a great year it's been for snowy owls on Long Island, and thoughout the east coast. The column was originally printed in the Great South Bay Magazine. Thanks for the stunning photos, Ira. Keep 'em coming! - Enrico
Photographs by Ira Marder, 2014. All rights reserved.
In a season during which many people flee Long Island for warmer climes, this winter has already been a historic one for visitors. Since mid-November, our region has seen record numbers of snowy owls the large, spectacularly-white, diurnal raptors popularized in the Harry Potter movies. While winter usually brings a few snowies to Long Island, this year there have already been dozens reported. The birds, which usually live far north in the Arctic Circle, have been spotted from Jones Beach to the Hamptons, and across the North Fork. They're generally found on beaches and amongst the dunes, areas that are similar the treeless, open tundra of their Arctic homes.
The unusual outbreak of snowies on Long Island has been part of a much larger movement of the birds out of Canada. Record numbers have been seen from the Pacific Northwest to the upper Midwest and throughout the Great Lakes region. But the largest numbers have been seen in the east. And it's in the east that the movement has been so extensive: the large white birds have been spotted all the way down to Florida, even out to the Bahamas!
The southerly movement of snowy owls out of the Arctic is't a true migration, as it doesn't happen annually. It is an event "called an irruption" that occurs irregularly pursuant to environmental conditions, usually every 4 to 6 years. But scientists are still trying to fully understand the conditions that drive such irruptions. One theory is that a drop in the population of lemmings "snowies" primary food sources forces the birds to move south in search of other prey during the winter. Another theory is that a boom in the lemming population (as occurred this past spring) produces higher-than-normal success in snowy owl breeding, which results in more snowy owls than the Arctic winter can support. This forces some owls, generally the younger ones, to move south in search of food.
Some of the snowy owls on Long Island will move back north as the weather warms and more prey becomes available on the tundra. Others won't make it through the winter (most of our visitors are young birds still learning how to hunt). But for the next few weeks Long Islanders have a unique opportunity to see one of the most striking and beautiful bird species in the world. It's a good reason to bundle up and take a drive to the beach!
- Enrico Nardone (Originally published in Great South Bay Magazine, Feb. 2014)
As a rule, I like winter. I enjoy the brisk air and the stark beauty of the season. And I still get excited about a good snowstorm. But every rule has its exception, and I'll admit, this winter is starting to get old. Even 'm already looking forward to spring. Still, whenever I get the urge to complain as I'm bundling up against single-digit temperatures or digging out from the latest snowstorm, I think about our wildlife neighbors. If they can tough it out, then so can I, right?
But how do Long Island wildlife get through deep cold stretches and winter storms? They actually employ a range of strategies to see them through the season until spring.
For starters, many species, as we know, don't stick around to deal with the cold. With the dropping temperatures and shorter days of fall, many birds, reptiles, fish, insects and even some mammal species move on to more hospitable locations. Some songbirds, such a warblers, fly to South and Central America to spend the winter. Others, like robins, simply move a few hundred miles south to where they can more easily find food. Monarch butterflies migrate to the mountains of Mexico. Dragonflies head south, but scientists are still trying to figure out how far and where they go. Sea turtles and some fish head down into the Gulf of Mexico before our coastal waters get too cold. And bats migrate from our region to more mountainous areas where they can find caves in which to spend the winter.
So, like the human "snow birds" of Long Island, many of our wildlife species simply flee the cold of winter. But what about the animals that stick around? How do they get by? Well, the animals that don't migrate generally fall into two categories: those that sleep through it and those that tough it out.
The first category includes reptiles, amphibians and many mammals. These animals hibernate through the winter by going into a state of torpor during which their body temperature and metabolic rate drops considerably. These animals tunnel, burrow, dig or (in the case of bats) fly into the ground to take advantage of the earthâ€™s thermal inertia. Because of the ground's great mass, its temperature varies much less throughout the year than the air above it. Within a few feet of the surface the ground temperature remains generally constant, hovering near the average temperature for the area (around 50 degrees on Long Island). So hibernating animals get into the warmer earth and as far away from the cold air as they can.
We generally think of bears as hibernators, but, in fact, they're not, they go into a state of dormancy during which their body temperature only drops a few degrees and from which they can awake relatively quickly. Other mammals, such as groundhogs and chipmunks, are true hibernators. Their body temperatures can drop below freezing and their heart rates slow to only a few beats per minute. And it takes them several days to fully "wake up."
Reptiles and amphibians go through a similar process. Aquatic turtles, such as snapping turtles or sliders, bury themselves in the mud at the bottom of ponds and rivers. Their metabolic rate drops so much that they don't even need access to the water or air to breathe, they can get the oxygen they need from the mud through special cells around their necks and heads. Terrestrial turtles, such as the box turtle, burrow into the ground (sometimes several feet!) to find more moderate temperatures to spend the winter. Some of these critters even have a special substance in their bodies that acts as antifreeze and allows them to survive truly frigid conditions.
But most impressive, for me, is the final category of wildlife, those animals that just stick around above ground in the winter and tough it out. I'm amazed by animals like whitetail deer (whose hollow hair helps them survive freezing temperatures) or gray squirrels and red fox (that use their fluffy tails as blankets to pass cold nights). If it's really cold, squirrels and fox may also stay tucked away in a den or tree cavity to sleep it off, sometimes huddling with other animals to conserve warmth. But as soon as the temperatures are bearable again, they're right back out there searching for food.
Especially amazing are the birds that stick it out through the winter. I'm always astonished to see tiny chickadees, titmice or woodpeckers flying around in harsh winter weather. Cardinals, too, we've all seen images of them sitting in stark contrast to driving snowstorms. To stay warm, these birds have incredibly high metabolic rates, which requires them to feed almost constantly (one of the reasons feeders are so important when the weather is at its worst). Their feathers, of course, are the key reason they're able to withstand subfreezing temperatures. When fluffed-up (did you ever notice how big they can look in winter?), their downy feathers are incredibly effective at minimizing heat loss. But what about their legs and feet? Well, special physiological adaptations reduce the temperature of the blood flowing into their legs so heat loss is reduced. Pretty amazing, right?
Despite their impressive adaptations, harsh winter weather can take a toll on even the toughest animals. Prolonged storms and ice are especially problematic as they make it hard for these animals to find the food necessary to keep their engines running and stay warm. But, unless it's really nasty outside, you can feel confident that the next time you're putting on an extra sweater and complaining about the cold, the animals outside are doing just fine.
While ticks and mosquitos are certainly insect-public-enemies #1 and #2 on Long Island (depending on the vector-borne disease news of the day), there is another pesky (but, thankfully, less dangerous) insect that, for those that know it, is the subject of similar ire: the deer fly. Anyone who has visited the Scully Estate during the heart of summer knows them too well. When they're at their peak, the deer flies literally create a swarm around your car by the time you reach the parking lot at the Environental Center. It's an intimidating sight, enough to sometimes keep people in their cars and moving along. We like to joke that they're our first line of security at Scully (it's not a funny joke, of course; we're trying to attract people to the facitly, not scare them away).
Brian Kelder, Seatuck's former fisheries biologist and Scully caretaker, remembers the deer flies at Scully well. Unfortunately, much to his chagrin, he's still dealing with them in his work with the Ipswich River Watershed Association near Boston. This week he sent us a note with some advice for dealing with the troublesome flies that had been passed along by Jim MacDougal, a biologist from Massachusetts. Here's the bulk of the email:
For those of you who work in the woods or are talking to open space managers, there is a way to reduce Deer Flies to manageable levels without using insecticides or repellants. For many years now, when I am doing wood's roads surveys ... in July and August, I don my "fly hat"; I use an old hat, place a piece of tape on it and lightly coat the tape with Tree Tanglefoot, a stick goo (find a good place to hang the hat when not in use, this goo is goey).
It only takes a few flies to make life miserable when you are in the woods. This hat and method uses the flies behavior to your advantage. They like to perch on the highest point of a mammal and they hang around puddles and sun glades along the trail until a moving mammal comes into view. Then they tag along for a while making you miserable. They sticky hat removes them from your life, and theirs. As you walk along, you will notice fewer and fewer flies. Once they are removed, it is difficult for their local populations to recover.
I have taken this method to the next level. I am now placing the tape and goo on the rear-view mirror of the car. And you can see the result. After two days of going in and out of the driveway, I have eliminated the deer flies. I recommend that managers of Parks, Forests, Sanctuaries and other conservation land consider placing these tape strips on their trucks, 4 wheelers and every other vehicle they use in the woods to reduce the number of deer flies along their trails. This also works very well when placed on a biker's helmet. There are many people who have abandoned the woods at this time of year because of the deer flies. This need not be the case with a bit of education and a touch of goo. See you in the wood. - Jim"
Based on Jim's email, it sounds like the deer fly situation in New England is worse than it is here on Long Island. Still, I think I might be worth getting some goo and trying to catch us some deer flies at Scully. Thanks for the tip, Jim.