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Sep 2, 2019 10:43 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Summer Sightings

Sep 2, 2019 1:05 PM

Overall, based on the climate data posted for the weather station at Brookhaven National Laboratory for the months June through August, this was a hotter (by 2 degrees Fahrenheit) and drier (-0.3 inches) summer than normal (normal being the averages for the last century, when accurate measurements have been recorded).Despite the very wet winter and spring that covered our local swamps and marshes with a sheet of freshwater, and topped up all our vernal ponds, it did not seem to be a particularly bad summer for mosquitoes or the pesky little biting gnats commonly referred to as “no-see-ums.”

However, high water levels in spring provided perfect breeding conditions for our mole salamanders, arboreal frogs, such as the spring peeper and gray treefrog, and the ubiquitous Fowler’s toad.

The latter group, having metamorphosed from their aquatic larval stage in large numbers by mid-July, inadvertently ended up in many in-ground swimming pools while hopping about during their nightly hunting excursions. Although they are quite adept at swimming, backyard pools offer no escape ramp to exit the chlorinated water, and many perish before being scooped out by pool maintainers the next day.

This interesting species is very common and numerous at our bay and ocean beaches, but due to its nocturnal habits it is rarely seen. What can be seen is evidence of their nocturnal wanderings along the edges of the dune beachgrass searching for prey: their tracks.

Resembling 1.5-to-2-inch-long parentheses left by their hopping and walking gaits, they are the most common tracks left along the sandy edges of beach parking lots and paths to the beach. By day, they generally burrow into the soft sand to escape the heat.

Another group of animals that has aquatic egg and larval stages, and that may have benefited from spring high water tables, is the odonates, or damselflies and dragonflies. Many people commented on the dozens of dragonflies “hawking” insects in their backyards during June. I had anywhere from six to two dozen dragonflies of at least two species hunting in my yard on sunny days. Both the aquatic larval stage and the winged adult dragonflies are voracious mosquito predators — and beautiful creatures.

Thousands of dragonflies were found on the ocean beach wrack line in early June. I sent a photo to our state zoologist and odonate expert Erin White, and to naturalist Steve Walter, for an ID. I also inquired if they had any explanations for the big die-off that must have happened over the ocean.

Both identified the species as the great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans), but they were uncertain as to what may have caused the big die-off over the ocean. Steve speculated that a weather system may have pushed them offshore, where they died of fatigue and dropped into the sea.

Our monarch butterfly population seems to have rebounded this year, with lots of sightings of adults. If my backyard milkweed patch is any indication, based on the number of eggs and caterpillars there, it should be a healthy population headed south from here to Mexico this fall.

One of the most interesting bird sightings this summer was that of the sandhill crane feeding along Cranberry Hole Road, Amagansett, for several weeks. Standing 3 to 4 feet tall in the open dune heath habitat of Napeague State Park, it was hard to miss, prompting many vehicles to pull over for a closer look at the majestic creature. It appeared to be feeding on ripe bearberries, which were quite abundant in the area.

I spent a lot of time this summer taking advantage of the unique opportunity to observe bald eagles at the nest in Accabonac Harbor. Their typical nest is hidden beneath the canopy of a large, live tree but this pair decided to make do with an osprey platform erected by Silas Marder. And it seemed to suit them well, as two young fledged.

Interactions between the eagles and the many osprey that nest nearby were quite interesting. The latter, much smaller than the new resident eagles, eventually organized themselves into a “neighborhood watch” and harassed the adult eagles in groups of two and three as they flew over Accabonac, as well as at their nest site, causing the adult eagles to leave the nest within minutes of dropping off food for their young.

Fortunately, this behavior seemed to be initiated well after the eggs hatched and the hatchlings had developed to a point where they were fine on their own, come rain or shine. I never noticed the osprey bothering the young eaglets, even after they fledged and were making short flights in the vicinity of the nest.

One big factor in the notable productivity of both our local osprey numbers and our growing bald eagle population is an abundance of highly nutritional food. And that has been coming in the form of bunker, or Atlantic menhaden.

The size and extent of the bunker schools off our ocean beaches has been astounding this summer. Normally seen as dark patches at the ocean surface, this August the schools have stretched east to west along the shore as far as you can see, even with the aid of binoculars!

When a bird flies overhead, its shadow causes the tightly packed bunker to flee to the side, creating a wave of whitewater that moves along the surface of the ocean beneath the bird like a zipper parting the water for several hundred yards.

What a treat to look out over the ocean and see this abundance, along with schools of dolphins and small groups of whales!

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