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Dec 31, 2018 10:11 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

A Look Back At Nature Sightings And Observations Of 2018

Here on Long Island, osprey and menhaden had a great year, while monarchs and pitch pines did not fare well.
Dec 31, 2018 10:57 AM

In this week’s column I’ll attempt to summarize some of the memorable nature sightings of the past year, and topping the list is a brief word about 2018’s weather: wet! Tallying up the records as recorded at Islip airport, we had a total of 63 inches of rain this year, which is a whopping 16 inches or 25 percent above average.The temperature was 1.3°F above average for the year, a small but apparently significant incremental increase that is already impacting some organisms. Although I don’t have any data to back it up, the past year seemed to have an unusual number of very windy days.

It was another good year for menhaden, with huge schools seen in the bays and close to shore off our ocean beaches. This unusual filter feeder traps tiny plankton in a sieve-like structure called a gill raker, growing to 10 inches in length in just three years. The nutritious, oily fish provides a link in the food chain between the tiny marine plankton community and many top-of-the-food-chain piscivores including other fish, birds and marine mammals.

The big schools of menhaden made it another good summer for dolphin and whales sightings close to shore. They also enabled osprey and bald eagles to have another banner year raising chicks. The number of osprey nests on the East End has increased dramatically in recent years, and bald eagle sightings, both adults and juveniles, are now quite common.

Another fish-eater, the river otter, is also in the midst of making a big comeback here on Long Island and is faring very well. The 2018 river otter survey documented them inhabiting the Peconic River and portions of that river’s headwaters, Hubbard Creek Park and the Long Pond Greenbelt in Southampton, and Northwest Creek in East Hampton.

On the North Fork, the otters have expanded their range westward to Laurel Lake and eastward all the way to Orient Point State Park. These intrepid and adaptable creatures even found their way to the heavily congested and developed Lake Ronkonkoma area ... amazing! These areas were surveyed in 2008 and no sign of otters was found, so these findings represent a significant expansion of their range on Long Island. Very exciting news!

This past fall, many folks from the East End were recruited by NYSDEC biologist Casey Pendergast for a citizen science bat study. The initial study involved driving specific routes with recording devices mounted on the hood of the car to determine the presence of long-eared bats, which were recently discovered overwintering on Long Island. It appears that these bats, since they are not hibernating in caves infected with the fungus that causes “white nose syndrome,” are fungus-free. White nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in North America over the past decade.

Phase two of the study is now underway: collecting insects over the winter to determine what sources of food are available for the bats on warm winter nights when they are able to forage for food. Some of you may have noticed the swarms of small moths flying about on warm nights this month: excellent bat food! These moths are most likely in search of mates to breed and lay eggs before winter settles in.

Speaking of insects, it seemed to be a better year than last for the monarch butterfly, but another relatively poor year in terms of numbers. More pines were found to be infected by the southern pine beetle in the northwest area of East Hampton, and more trees were cut down. The loss of the evergreen canopy enabled more sunlight to reach the forest floor, and pine seeds have responded by germinating and sprouting. It looks like white pine seedlings are more prevalent than pitch, and some areas that had been mature pitch pine forests will transform into white pine forests in the decades to come.

Finally, speaking of forests and seeds, this was not a big year for our most abundant form of mast: acorns. During a “mast year” it rains acorns, and the sound of them bouncing off metal roofs, tarps and my overturned canoe is pretty constant for a few weeks. Another sign of a big acorn year is the width and depth of acorns on our road shoulders, where the crowned roads cause the roundish seeds to roll to the edges and settle there.

Gardeners will delight in knowing that the poor supply of acorns going into the winter means that our local mice and vole populations will dwindle. With their incredible rate of reproduction, a good supply of acorns translates into booming populations of these small rodents. Voles in particular can wreak havoc in the backyard vegetable gardens, nibbling sprouts as soon as they appear and chowing on pea seeds before they’ve even sprouted. They’ll also prune the roots of fruit shrubs until nothing’s left but the stem.

However, the dearth of acorns this winter will force our ubiquitous deer to nibble away at shrubs that, according to the experts, are “deer-proof” and usually bypassed by these large herbivores. It also does not bode well for the wild turkey, another recently reintroduced member of our local fauna whose population has blossomed, and who relies on a good acorn crop to get through the rigors of winter.

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