The Naturalist


Some years are more eventful than others but the events in the natural world in the Mill Neck area would be tough to beat!

Let’s start by looking at the Ospreys. When Necklace arrived from her winter home in the southern climes in 2016, she had a different husband. Squirt, her husband of the past 15 years, was not with her. Who knows what happened. I suppose we should be grateful for each year that these birds survive age, illness, accident, poisoning, predation, and exhaustion on the long flight from South America or the Caribbean to Long Island every spring.

Necklace seemed cheerful. She and the new partner set up housekeeping on the weather beaten old nest. But right away it became evident that the new husband was not a stick gatherer. Necklace is an architect, but she doesn’t gather sticks. Nevertheless, she and the new husband managed to raise two chicks in that flat old nest. One chick was weaker and died in July but the other one thrived. I called her The Dragon Lady, and after some strenuous wing-flapping and flying from one side of the nest to the other throughout July, she took to the air on July 28th, 2016.

In August, we recorded two unusual deaths – a Great Blue heron dragged itself to the mud island called Crocodile to die on the 25th, and, later that day, a Cormorant was grabbed around the neck by a Snapping Turtle and drowned. But to offset these funereal events, the number of Great Egrets roosting in the trees behind the Osprey nest grew to 43 that night, and that was the high number for the year.

In September, an adult Bald Eagle landed on the empty Osprey nest for a bit, then flew to a tall flat-topped pine north of the causeway, and sat peremptorily there for an hour. “Aha! A perfect nesting place,” I thought. And furthermore, I could see it in my scope from the porch!

In October, I was able to witness the great surge of Menhaden (Bunker fish) in Mill Neck Creek. The fish were so thick below the causeway that it looked as if you could walk across the water on their backs. The consensus of the Experts’ opinion was that they crowded the inlet trying to escape predators like Bluefish to such an extent that many of them died for lack of oxygen. The effect was to draw a lot of Bald Eagles, a few late Ospreys (ours had already gone south!), dozens of gulls, herons and egrets.

And in November, I kept count of Greater Scaup, Ringneck Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, Ruddy Ducks, Mallards, and Canada Geese (up to 500) in the lake.

By December, it was obvious that the Osprey nest had been stripped of every remaining stick by a pair of Bald Eagles which obviously had the intention of building a nest of their own. It was suddenly apparent that all the young Eagles flying around had disappeared, leaving a handsome pair of adults in charge of the area. (Young Bald Eagles have patchy brownish plumage for their first four years before they molt into the gorgeous black and white plumage of the adult.)

In January (2017) Jim Madden of Bayville discovered the Eagle nest. It was not on the top of that lovely flat-topped pine Tahiti that they should have used but in a thick patch of pine and oak on the west side of the inlet, actually in Bayville. Jim checked it every day and was able to record that the female began to brood eggs on the 2nd of February, extremely early. We hoped to have the first nesting in Nassau County but, alas, the nesting failed – perhaps the eggs froze. Then Newsday reported that Great Neck South High School had a nesting pair of Eagles in woods at the edge of their playing fields! Was it successful? I don‘t know, but that makes four nests in Suffolk and two in Nassau!

In March, along came St. Paddy’s Day and Necklace’s arrival from winter quarters. I wished I could have seen her face when she discovered her denuded nest, but it didn’t take her long to move out and take the abandoned Osprey nesting platform on the north side of the causeway. Then I’m sure I heard her advertising for a husband who could provide BRANCHES! And she got one! He got right to work and that nesting platform was covered with huge long branches, laid on the nest and over the side so that it looked like a Hawaiian skirt! Necklace’s head was barely visible at the top. She spent days whipping that nest into shape and began to sit on eggs on April 21. The hatch was on May 25th , and I still don’t know how many chicks there are, mostly because I was down, looking up!

Then in April, Peter Daniel, a Marine Biology professor from Hofstra, instigated the seeding of Menhaden fish in Beaver Lake in order to restore the balance of nature. This was done because the new fish ladder, which would at last give Menhaden access to the fresh water lake, could not be installed while the Oyster Bay-Bayville traffic was being diverted over Cleft Road and the causeway due to repairs on Shore Road. Two trucks equipped with oxygenated water tanks went to Riverhead in the morning and netted 400 Menhaden from the river. Then, dropping off 150 fish at Twin Ponds en route, they brought the rest to Beaver Lake. It took a crew of nine to do this: two guys at the trucks, the rest crowded around a table set up on my little dock. A few fresh fish were dumped into a basin, a gal grabbed one and passed it to another gal seated at the table. She weighed it, measured it, called out “male” or “female”, then took a scale near the dorsal fin which she handed to another gal who collected it and recorded it. Then she took a sterilized needle from Peter, made a tiny hole in the fish’s belly, and placed a container there with a number in it. Finally, Peter took a sterile scissors and nipped a bit of the fish’s dorsal fin to prevent researchers from ever doing that fish again. Finally it got thrown into its new home, Beaver Lake, where it now has to avoid being eaten by an Osprey or an Eagle!

In May, a new young pair of Ospreys, (Chloe and Trey) took over Necklace’s old nesting pad and began to try to build a nest on it. First Trey brought slender budding branchlets which he made into an arbor over Chloe’s head. Chloe said: ”No! No! Sticks, Trey”! Then came a bunch of finger-sized sticks. “No – no, Trey. We need branches that are curled first!” Finally we had a couple of these which were laid in the nest. Then there was much wing-flapping, falling over, tugging, and – finally - the addition of some white paper. (At this time, Necklace had added a diaper to the southwest corner of her nest.) Then Chloe brought a piece of fluffy white toilet paper to drape over the top of her nest. Could Chloe be Necklace’s daughter? The end product is was mess. But Chloe has been hunkered down in the mess since May 25. She is on eggs and should hatch around June 25.

So I take a deep breath and stand still on my driveway because now I hear soft flute-like whistles drifting from my woods – the Wood Thrushes have arrived. A week ago I heard that sound in Muttontown and Shu Swamp. Three days later, one arrived at my house and has filled the trees with its ethereal music ever since. What more could you ask for to grace the month of June?

     Barbara H. Conolly
     June 7, 2017