The Naturalist


NSWS Annual Meeting – Oct. 22, 2014

Wildlife is never static and a lot has been going on in the past year! Some of it good, some of it not so good and all of it interesting.

In late November, an adult Bald Eagle was seen just below the Beaver Dam causeway, carrying a stick and heading west. Eagles did nest in the Wertheim Preserve in 2012 and though their efforts were unsuccessful, we are always hoping for another attempt, possibly in Nassau County. And indeed we did have another nesting, on Centre Island, this year but this also did not produce young. It is to be remembered that large birds like Eagles often make several tries before they succeed.

You were probably aware of the unprecedented incursion of Snowy Owls on our beaches last winter. A friend saw 12 in one trip to Jones Beach in January. Determined to see at least one, I drove over to West End Jones Beach one January day on the Meadow Brook Parkway and halfway there, a mature Bald Eagle swooped over my car, probably from a Hempstead Lake population which was being studied last winter.

I did get to see a Snowy Owl that day. It was brindled, a young bird. Adult Snowys are pure white. The theory for their appearance all up and down the Atlantic coast last winter was that there had been an exceptional abundance of Lemmings on their tundra nesting grounds the summer before which enabled the adult nesting Owls to raise a huge number of babies. So many that there wasn’t enough food for all of them last winter and therefore they were forced to migrate south en masse. We even had one in Florida! The prize however goes to southeastern Newfoundland where 301 Snowy Owls were listed on their Christmas Count!

But back to the West End of Jones Beach in spring! On April 12th, my granddaughter Abbey and I drove to the Coast Guard Station there for a look-see. There is a calm bay adjacent to the Station which that day yielded a Horned Grebe in breeding plumage (black hat, cream eye-stripe and underparts of bright rusty red). That was rewarding but then we saw a Surf Scoter quite close by. Surf Scoters are big black salty ducks, seen more often on the ocean, flying in long lines or feeding in big flocks. They are black all over except for two patches of white, one on the forehead and one on the back of the head. The white on this individual was so bright it was almost three-dimensional. In addition the bill was brilliant orange-red. This bird was stunning. It floated peacefully in front of us and we could see that it was holding a foot, also brilliant red, up along its wing as if it was injured. That would explain why it wasn’t out on the ocean with its flockmates.

We said a prayer for it and went out to the inlet where we saw two snappy Oystercatchers and one tiny Piping Plover, the color of sand. We were thrilled to see this little fellow who had been invisible in the sand, get up and quietly trot away.

The bird of the spring appeared in Central Park one day in May. It had been seen flying in and we realized what a tough call that was because it so closely resembles a cousin, the chief difference being just a slightly larger size. Luck was with us, it had perched, lengthwise along a limb in plain sight. It was a Chuck-Will’s-Widow, the larger cousin of our Whip-Poor-Will. I hear this bird in late March on Sanibel in Florida each year, calling, “Tsk-Poor-Weeil” at dawn and at dusk. It even sang on my porch railing this year and try as hard as I could to sneak up on it with a light, I never could get a glimpse of it! After seeing this one, even Eagles seemed a little ordinary!

On June 28th, I made a foray to the Dump at Piping Rock. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Dump has been evolving from a disaster when hundreds of Piping’s felled trees were dumped there covering all the weeds that migrating birds were feeding on (where else could they put the logs?) to a lesser disaster when the ne3xt year trees were cut into manageable lengths and in a summer,many weeds were able to find a foothold on the heaps; to another large disaster when a mulching machine turned the logs intoa soft covering blanket, compounded by a bulldozer moving and quite a few turn up to feed in the patches of weeds that are left. There wasn’t much on this day and I was leaving, walking back through the adjacent Black Walnut field when a bird stuck it’s head out of the hedgerow. I had a good look at its handsome bridled face – it was a Lark Sparrow, a very rare bird in spring. Then I heard prolonged singing in an Ailanthus patch There. It was a Scarlet Tanager and as I was drinking in this scarlet beauty, I glimpsed a lean bird enter the hedgerow and that was a Crested Flycatcher. All was not lost!

Within days, Indigo Buntings, Cedar Waxwings, a Baltimore Oriole and a Towhee joined them And in mid-August there were many Chipping Sparrows in the dump as well as a couple of Phoebes, 4 Flickers and an early Field Sparrow. At the end of August, A Nashville Warbler, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a flock of Goldfinches were bustling around the south end of the area where there were still some thick stands of Mugwort and Greater Ragweed. On Sept. 20th,a male Bluebird sat quietly for about 20 minutes on a tall dead tree. There were still 20 or 30 Goldfinches there with a couple of Indigo Buntings and the first of the Purple Finches had arrived from the north . Within a few days, the dump was inundated by a huge flock of Goldfinches. A Rose-breasted Grosbeak was “Tweeking” and an early Whitethroat Sparrow had shown up. That day, I watched a Sharp-shinned Hawk soaring leisurely overhead before drifting out of sight over the woods. Shortly I heard Crows marking him down in the woods and I was able to see a small bird or two actually creep under thick leaves and freeze there. When a Sharpie moves in,and sneaks up on birds from the woods, all birds vanish and you might as well go home. So I went home!

Now as for the Ospreys – it was June 28th before I saw two baby Ospreys flapping in the nest. Pretty soon I was able to tell they were two females , the larger one possessing a big tawny ruff on her neck and the smaller one a smaller tawny ruff. Hence Tawny and Tessie. Tawny, the first- born, was a husky bouncy chick while Tessie, the second-born was a wimp. Tawny flew first, tore apart her fish dinner first, and was the first to try toe-rinsing like her mom. In fact, on July 19th, she toe-rinsed 10 or 12 times, getting deeper each time until finally she went too deep and cart-wheeled into the water. Unphased, she hauled herself out and continued to toe-rinse. Tessie in the meantime spent most of her time, sitting in the nest and whimpering for food .

In August the whole family was airborne and coming and going, learning Osprey stuff. But one Day in late August, something happened which I have yet to understand. One morning, Tawny suddenly appeared, settled down in the nest and never left it for three days. Her father fed her the second day and probably other times that I missed seeing. The 4th day, she got the strength and courage to roost in the dead tree “upstairs”where she continued to beg for food for nearly three weeks! Finally little by little, she left the nest-pole for longer and longer stretches of time. On Sept. 10, an odd encounter happened. A migrating Nighthawk tackled Tawny in a brisk encounter which abruptly ceased when Squirt arrived from somewhere and the Nighthawk left.

Twice the whole family was on the scene and I believe they all left for the south but Tawny – whom I’d seen catch a fish by herself (and then have to call for help when she couldn’t subdue it right away) --remained here alone until at least Oct. 8th.

Around then, the geese began to arrive from the north. I hear those loud excited voices and hear an echo of them at night when they honk at the trains.

This year as many as 20 Black-crowned Night Herons (uncommon this summer) clustered in a daytime roost at the north end of Heron Roost Preserve till Oct. 19 when a cold front gave them adventitious winds on which to fly south. 32 Great Egrets will hang on a little longer in the trees behind the Osprey nest and the more than a hundred Cormorants will peel off little by little until the roost becomes an empty forest for the winter and I must work my through my annual empty nest syndrome as the curtain descends on another year of life on Long Island.

     Barbara H. Conolly
     Oct. 19, 2014