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May 9, 2017 11:32 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

May Nature Sightings

This pair of recently hatched red-tailed hawks are among many hatchlings keeping their parents on a busy feeding schedule. MIKE BOTTINI
May 9, 2017 11:46 AM

As I pulled into the boat access for the first nature paddle of the year last week, I noticed three white-tailed deer wander across the dirt parking lot. All were still in their grayish-brown winter overcoats, which are slowly being shed, exposing small patches of their cinnamon-colored summer garb underneath.While unloading kayaks, a large patch of feathers in the adjacent salt marsh caught my eye. Some showed the characteristic small white dots on a black background of the loon, and not far away was the meatless skeleton and skull of a common loon, most likely scavenged by a host of locals including raccoon, red fox and American crows.

Last month I mentioned that local plover monitors reported finding a surprising number of dead loons on our beaches, the cause of which was never determined. I was forwarded a report from the California coast that documented 76 dead loons in late April, along with hundreds of other sick and dead seabirds found on their beaches. The culprit is thought to be a harmful algal bloom containing the toxin domoic acid. The algae is eaten by crustaceans and fish such as sardines and anchovies, which are unaffected by the toxin but which concentrate the domoic acid in their body tissues. However, seabirds feeding on these fish, shellfish and crabs are affected.

Most loons that overwinter here on Long Island, both common loons and red-throated loons, have migrated north to their nesting grounds. But juvenile common loons, those in the one to two years old range, remain on their wintering grounds since they are not ready to mate. We’re fortunate to have the company of these juveniles on our bays in summer while out paddling or sailing when we can enjoy their striking calls.

I usually find that loons stick to relatively deep water in Gardiners Bay, Block Island Sound and Long Island Sound. But we found several fishing in the shallows of Accabonac Harbor last week, perhaps taking advantage of the masses of Atlantic silversides gathering to spawn in the salt marsh at high tide.

Other piscivores noted on the paddle were double-crested cormorants, osprey, great egrets and snowy egrets. I did not see any great blue herons, another fish-eater that, as with the loon, does not nest here on Long Island and is more common in winter than summer.

American oystercatchers allowed us to approach quite close to them as they worked the edges of the salt marsh peat, enabling us an excellent view of this handsome black and white colored bird with its oversized blood orange beak even without the aid of binoculars. One of my favorite nature writers has described this species as resembling “a clown dressed in a tuxedo.”

The salt marsh is beginning to green up, dogwoods are in full bloom, and the Baltimore orioles arrived right on schedule to pick through the blossoms of my front yard crab apple in search of insect pollinators. Juliana Duryea reported lots of tiny turtle trails in the ocean dunes near Hook Pond, most likely hatchling snapping turtles from last summer that decided to remain in their nest, using that as their overwintering site, and delay emerging from their nests until spring.

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