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Apr 17, 2017 4:39 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Easter Week Nature Sightings

This beached red-throated loon is most likely injured or sick. RASA TARALAITE
Apr 18, 2017 10:20 AM

What do Easter eggs, the Easter bunny, Easter lilies, jellybeans and marshmallow chicks have in common? They are all symbols of resurrection, rebirth, life and fecundity following death.Most Christians view the holiday as a celebration of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead; others reject the celebration as a pagan spring festival revived by the Roman Catholic Church. Given the timing of Easter, how it is calculated, and what it celebrates, it’s hard not to see a close correlation to a much older celebration of spring and the end of winter.

The actual date of Easter Sunday varies from year to year and is based on a formula that may appear to some as very “pagan-like” in that the vernal equinox and full moon play prominent roles. Easter is the first Sunday following the full moon on or after the vernal equinox: March 21.

For knowledgeable naturalists, picking a single day to celebrate spring would be a random act, as the end of winter and start of spring is quite a long continuum of events. Even picking a single week out of the year as the “peak” of important springtime events—egg laying, parturition, leaf-out and flowering—would be difficult. But this year’s Easter week certainly coincided with some absolutely beautiful, spring-like weather here, and I hope you all had some time to get outside and enjoy it.

The warm, dry spell prompted the following Easter Monday warning from the National Weather Service: “The combination of warm temperatures, low daytime relative humidity, gusty winds and dry fuels will lead to an enhanced threat of brush fire spread this afternoon.”

Along with the amphibian eggs and larvae currently developing in our vernal ponds, my vegetable garden and I are looking forward to some rain that is forecast for the day this issue of the paper is printed and distributed.

East Hampton Town plover monitor Mark Gutzmer reported finding a number of dead loons, both common and red-throated, on our bay beaches last week. While running along the ocean shore between Main and Wiborg beaches, Rasa Taralaite and I encountered a beached red-throated loon. It appeared healthy, but it did not want to move even as Rasa approached within three feet to get a photo.

That’s very unusual and not a good sign. Loons have feet and legs located on the aft end of their large, heavy bodies, a design that makes them very proficient underwater swimmers capable of diving to a depth of 600 feet. However, that same design makes them very awkward on land. Unlike penguins, who also have legs far back on their body and are excellent underwater swimmers, loons cannot stand erect. Their movement on land involves pushing with their legs with their chest on the ground, a very slow and energy inefficient mode of locomotion.

As a result, loons rest on the water and only come ashore to nest. To minimize travel overland, their nests are constructed at the edge of the water, and are constructed of aquatic vegetation near at hand. As a general rule, a loon on terra firma is a loon that is injured or sick.

Being very high on the food chain, loons concentrate environmental contaminants and serve as beacons of water quality. They also have the bad habit of ingesting, along with small pieces of stony grit, shotgun pellets and lead sinkers for grinding their bony fish meals in their gizzard. The latter two have been linked to lead poisoning among loons.

Wildlife biologists with the NYSDEC are interested in monitoring the health of top-of-the-food-chain species, including osprey, loons, hawks, owls, and eagles. If you should find a carcass in reasonable condition, report the exact location to your town natural resource department, or Kevin Jennings at the NYSDEC (631)444-0307.

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