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Jan 8, 2019 11:25 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Winter Egg Layers And Newborns

The fragile-looking tiger salamander will make its way across frozen ground to ice-covered ponds this month to breed. LINDSEY ROHRBACH
Jan 8, 2019 11:27 AM

Although January is officially our first “whole” month positioned in the winter season, there are a number of wildlife species whose life strategies include behavior this month that is more commonly associated with spring. Among them is our largest breeding owl: the great horned owl.The great horned owl stands two feet tall with a wingspan of 40 inches and a pair of distinctive, feathered tufts on its head that are positioned such that they appear to be ears. Actually, they are not located near the ear openings and have no function related to hearing. Their function has been a source of conjecture and a number of theories, but remains unknown.

Among the theories is one that states the tufts are a form of camouflage, helping to break up the outline of the head to better resemble a broken branch. However, tufts are not found on two other common woodland owl species: the screech owl and the barred owl.

This impressive bird is busy readying its nest this month, mating, and announcing its nesting territory with a series of six deep, soft hoots. Both males and females call. The nest is usually one constructed the previous nesting season by a red-tailed hawk, American crow, raven, heron species or even squirrels, and refurbished with lining material. They seldom use the same nest the following year.

January 28 is the earliest known egg date for great horned owls nesting in the Long Island region, so by the end of January they may be incubating eggs. The month-long incubation period even here will involve quite a few nights sitting on eggs in sub-freezing weather, and at least a few days in a nest rimmed with snow.

That begs the question: why nest during the coldest period of the year? This seemingly counterintuitive strategy is thought to allow the juveniles more time to learn and hone hunting skills during mild weather before the onset of the next winter. But I could not find any explanation as to why great horned owlets need more time than other owl species to learn the tricks of their trade.

Another relatively early nester that is busy working on getting its nest in order and mating this month is the bald eagle. Sightings of this massive bird of prey on eastern Long Island are getting fairly common these days, and even the juveniles lacking the distinctive white head are easy for non-birders to notice as their 6- to 7.5-foot wingspan dwarfs most of our local winged creatures.

Bald eagles usually nest in the largest live tree around, and always choose a site near the water. They will use the same nest every year, and in late fall and early winter they begin adding new material to their 6-foot diameter structure, gradually increasing mostly its height. Over time, these nests can become quite massive, weighing a half ton. One in Florida measured an astonishing 20 feet in height!

Last I heard, there are six bald eagle nests on Long Island. They will be incubating eggs the second week in March, just when the first osprey return from their overwintering areas farther south, and following a five-week incubation period, they’ll be feeding their newly-hatched nestlings by mid-April.

Trumping the late January and early March egg layers is the gray seal, who is nursing pups this month. The closest major pupping area is a mile-long, low, sandy, treeless island northwest of Nantucket called Muskeget. After an 11-month-long pregnancy, females give birth to 3-foot-long, 35-pound pups and begin a short but intense three-week-long period of nursing without returning to the sea to feed.

When weaned, the pups will have gained three pounds a day on their mothers’ rich milk, and top the scales at 90 to 100 pounds. Most of that growth goes into girth in the form of blubber, for the pup is now on its own and remains at the pupping site for another three weeks without feeding.

During this time it molts and loses quite a bit of weight before entering the water for the first time and attempting to hunt for food. Pup mortality is high during this period; approximately 50 percent do not survive their first few months.

Gray seal pups that are three to four months old first show up on the East End of Long Island in March, and it is not uncommon to encounter them resting on our ocean and bay beaches.

As I’m writing this, a steady downpour of rain is flooding the street out front and a good portion of my backyard is covered with a thin sheet of water. Freshwater ponds, swamps, marshes and vernal pools are brimming and in many cases overflowing into adjacent, normally upland forest areas. These soaking rains in late January often stir one of our most unusual creatures out of its underground haunts in the middle of winter. Lacking blubber, fur, feathers or any other type of insulation against the cold, this tropical-looking, cold-blooded creature slowly makes its way to vernal pools that in some years may be covered in ice. There, this air breather enters the water to mate and lay eggs before returning to terra firma and its fossorial habitats. This, of course, is the tiger salamander.

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