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Apr 8, 2019 12:36 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Early April Sightings

Apr 8, 2019 3:04 PM

Last week, I wrote that the sun had warmed up the ground enough to stir terrestrial earthworms out of their winter dormancy, as evidenced by their small piles of “castings” everywhere.The same was not true of the “earthworm of the salt marsh,” the fiddler crab, whose winter burrows are still being kept cool by their twice-daily inundation with bay waters. By month’s end, this ubiquitous burrower will be out and about, feeding at low tide.

Our bays and tidal creeks will soon meet the 50 degree threshold for our common river herring, the alewife, to begin its annual spring spawning run. They will ride an incoming tide to reach the freshwater portions in the upper reaches of the tidal creeks. High groundwater levels this year should enable the Ligonee Creek cohort to reach their spawning grounds in Long Pond, south of Sag Harbor, something that doesn’t happen every year.

Throughout the Northeast, much effort has been put toward removing obstacles such as dams, or providing structures such as fish ladders, to allow fish to swim over dams and access historic alewife spawning areas. This effort not only will boost the population of alewives but will benefit the myriad fish predators in our area. The latter includes just about every avian piscivore on Long Island, from the tiny belted kingfisher that preys on young-of-the-year as they make their first journey out to the sea, to the 6-foot wingspan group that includes the bald eagle, great blue heron and northern gannet.

While at Indian Wells Beach last week, I noticed northern gannets riding a west wind and heading east, close to shore. They were not feeding. They made long, gradual glides, disappearing behind the swells within inches of the surf but not touching the water, then taking a half dozen flaps of their long, pointed wings to rise 50 feet into the air, resuming the long glide eastward, parallel to shore.

This went on for the entire hour I was at the beach, so I decided to count how many gannets went by in the course of a minute: 70 that I could easily discern within sight of the beach. Multiplied over the hour I was there, that amounted to more than 4,000 gannets ... amazing, and they were still coming by when I left!

Northern gannets winter as far south as the Caribbean side of Mexico, and north to the Gulf of Maine. It is not unusual to see them off Long Island all winter. They are now migrating to their nesting grounds on the coasts of Eastern Quebec and Newfoundland, where they have six well-established colonies on inaccessible cliffs.

Gannets mate for life and return to the same nest site each year, laying a single egg. They are best known for their spectacular plunge dives from heights of over 100 feet into schools of fish prey. Although most dive depths are within 10 feet of the surface, with the aid of their wings helping to propel them in the water, they are capable of diving as deep as 70 feet.

While at the Louse Point boat ramp last week looking for signs of fiddler crabs, I noticed a crew of Department of Environmental Conservation police donning dry suits and getting ready to board their outboard. Curious as to what they were up to, I stuck around until it was apparent that they were having difficulty starting their Honda four-stroke outboard—something I’ve experienced quite often—and decided to drive up to the point and inlet for a look-around.

There, on the small shoal a stone’s throw from the point and Wood Tick Island, was the sighting of the week: the crew from Riverhead Foundation Marine Research and Preservation, with a very large dolphin stranded high and dry on the outgoing tide.

It was a beautiful animal, with mottled light gray coloring, a bulbous head and lacking a pronounced “bottlenose” snout. I later learned that it was a male Risso’s dolphin, measuring 10.5 feet in length, very much alive, and weighing an estimated 800 pounds, requiring six able-bodied and strong-backed people to get it on a specially designed stretcher and haul it by foot into 3 to 4 feet of water for it to swim free.

The mottled appearance is the result of scarring from social interactions, a common feature in the toothed whales, and a very prominent feature in this particular species. It is also unusual in that it lacks upper teeth, a feature that is somehow related to catching its main prey—squid and octopus—although I don’t know the exact reason for this.

The crew of DEC, Riverhead Foundation and East Hampton Town Marine Patrol managed to line it up with the inlet’s deep channel before sliding it off the stretcher, where it started to swim toward Gardiners Bay. But, just halfway out the inlet, it hooked right and ran into the large shoal that covers the inlet’s south side, thrashing about in less than 2 feet of water and eventually facing back in the direction of the harbor.

Things did not look good, but in a matter of minutes, it had thrashed around in a complete circle and was back in the channel, heading out to the bay, where it soon was lost from sight in the windblown whitecaps.

The stranding was unusual for several reasons. Risso’s dolphins are a deepwater species, usually traveling and hunting in over 1,000 feet of water. It is also not generally solitary but travels in groups, sometimes forming “super-pods” of several thousand individuals. They avoid running around by making high frequency vocalizations and listening for the reflections, a form of echolocation similar to what bats use to find prey and avoid collisions.

Although, in terms of its physical appearance, it seemed fine, clearly there is something wrong with this animal’s echolocation function to have worked its way into the estuary and run around.

Considering that the whole process of setting it free took a half day, it would have been interesting to tag it and see if it turns up somewhere else along the East Coast this spring.

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