Looking back on the past year, the nature sightings that topped my list were related to the bunker, or menhaden, schools found in our bays and along the ocean beaches from late spring through fall. From the densely packed schools of juvenile “peanut” bunker to schools of 10-inch-long adults, the number of fish was astounding!Regarding this species, the third edition of “Fishes of the Gulf of Maine” states: “The ecological role of menhaden cannot be overstated. They convert energy from phyto- and zooplankters … into hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish flesh. In turn, they are of paramount importance as a prey species for numerous piscivorous fishes, mammals and seabirds.”
Most likely related to the abundance of this member of the herring family were the number of dolphins and whales sighted along our ocean beaches this summer. And then there was the huge bunker kill in the Shinnecock Canal this November. One estimate put the amount of dead bunker at five million pounds; with the adults averaging 1 pound in weight, that would be approximately five million fish!
I would also have to list the overall weather among the interesting nature news of the year. With the exception of a nor’easter named Jonas that dumped as much as 2 feet of snow on parts of Long Island, it was a very mild winter. Coincidentally, that winter storm arrived on the day of the funeral for our well-known weather observer Richard G. Hendrickson of Bridgehampton, delaying his service. In addition to his role as long-standing weather observer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Richard was a wealth of information on local human and natural history, and an invaluable resource when I was writing the paddling and trail guides for this area.
The spring, summer and fall growing seasons were warm and dry. This was one of the factors that helped our local beach nesters, the plovers and terns, to have a fairly productive breeding season. It was not good for the frogs, toads and salamanders that breed in our vernal ponds, however. Many of the temporary ponds, in some cases better described as pools, dried out before the aquatic larvae could metamorphose into their respective terrestrial forms.
On a wet, warm evening in mid-December, the spring peeper, one of our common vernal pool breeders, was heard calling in Napeague!
The lack of rain during the growing season impacted our wild fruit yield. It was not a good year for collecting beach plums and highbush blueberries. However, some fruit- and nut-bearing plants fared well, including cranberries, the non-native autumn olive and our native oaks.
The latter did better than usual in terms of seed production, and we had the second consecutive “mast” year, or year of heavy acorn, beechnut and hickory nut production. That will keep local populations of mast eaters happy and their numbers high; that includes mice, voles, deer and turkey. A lot of folks will not be happy about that!
November’s “super moon” event, when the moon is as close as it gets to earth in its orbit and is full, was quite spectacular, with the moon noticeably brighter and larger than usual.
Finally, our resident and apparently lone coyote was photographed again this year at the end of May.