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Jul 25, 2017 8:47 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Bunker: Food For Ocean Dwellers

Some of the 2.5-inch-long bunker found washed ashore at Main Beach in East Hampton last week.  MIKE BOTTINI MIKE BOTTINI
Jul 25, 2017 9:15 AM

Extensive schools of bunker, or menhaden, have been reported along our ocean beaches and inner bays this summer, making this at least the third consecutive year we’ve had large numbers of this oil-rich and bony member of the herring family in our region. Schools of two-inch long “peanut bunker,” full-grown, foot-long adults and every size in between have been plying the East End waters this past month.A filter-feeding fish by way of its net-like gill rakers, bunker occupy one of the lower rungs of the marine food chain, converting tiny algal and animal plankton into a highly nutritious and energy-rich mass of fat and protein that, in turn, feeds a wide array of other wildlife species higher up on the food chain.

Among the beneficiaries of our recent bumper crops of bunker are bluefish, striped bass, osprey, whales and dolphins. The latter two marine mammals, including several large pods of dolphins, have been regularly sighted close to shore on our ocean beaches in July.

Based on two recent nature paddles—one in Sag Harbor’s back bays and coves, and another in Accabonac Harbor—it appears that our local osprey have had another excellent breeding season. Some years ago an ornithologist studying osprey on Gardiners Island lamented the poor productivity of his study subjects, and theorized that a very limited prey base was the cause of the low recruitment.

That situation seems to have changed dramatically over the past three to four years. Nearly all artificial nesting platforms are occupied with fledged or nearly fledged young this year, and quite a few natural nests in snags and live trees are also occupied.

On the other hand, no diamondback terrapins were found on either excursion. Twenty years ago, it was not unusual to get a “head count” of thirty or more basking diamondbacks in the cove opposite Sag Harbor’s WLNG radio station.

The bait in crab pots attracts not only crabs but terrapins, and once they work their way into the pots they will eventually drown. Turtle excluder devices are simple wire or plastic rectangles attached to the pot openings and are designed such that harvestable-sized crabs can enter but most terrapins can’t fit through. Studies have shown that the excluder devices do not lower crab catches, and efforts are being made to amend the New York State crab harvest regulations to require the simple excluder devices on commercial crab pots in specified areas of Long Island.

The campaign to better protect and manage Long Island’s diamondback terrapin population includes an amendment to prohibit harvest of this species. To learn more about this issue, visit fireislandandbeyond.com/help-protect-long-islands-terrapins-public-comment-opportunity-through-august-25-2017/, and, vimeo.com/226392764. Many thanks to The Nature Conservancy’s Carl LoBue for putting this information together.

In response to last week’s column on the eastern cottontail’s nest, Richard Poveromo reported on the backyard cottontail nest his dogs discovered this past month. The young (two) were fully furred and of much less interest to the dogs than the now empty, rabbit fur-lined nest, which must have a particularly alluring scent for the dogs.

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