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Sep 16, 2019 1:24 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

September Sightings

Participants in the last of the summer series of nature paddles with the Peconic Land Trust toured Sag Harbor’s back coves, and stopped at this successful salt marsh restoration project. MIKE BOTTINI
Sep 16, 2019 2:05 PM

The sun is dipping below the horizon at 7 p.m., night temps are dipping below 60 degrees, crickets are dominating the nighttime insect chorus, and we’re starting to see some color changes in our foliage as we gradually shift from summer to fall.Most noticeable among the latter in my neighborhood are the leaves of flowering dogwoods. Much of their chlorophyll pigment has already disappeared, exposing anthocyanin pigments that give the leaves a pretty shade of red, burgundy and purple hues. A few red maples and tupelos have begun donning their fall colors, but the latter seem to be a few weeks behind schedule this year. Perhaps this September’s high water table and flooded swamps are delaying this water-loving tree’s shift into fall.

I also saw the first fall flock of American robins last week. Their appetites have now shifted from one favoring high protein insects and other invertebrates during the summer breeding season to a largely vegan fare high in carbohydrates and fats. Along with gobbling up crabapple fruits, they were plucking ripe dogwood berries; tupelo fruits are also high on their September menu.

The ocean has cooled slightly to just under 70 degrees, but the schools of Atlantic menhaden are still around, as are the humpback whales. Some monarch butterflies, the last of three generations that metamorphosed from eggs here on Long Island this summer, have begun the 1,000-mile southward migration to their overwintering sites in Mexico. But most are still in the larval and pupal stages, and won’t be ready for the long, incredible journey until October.

Last weekend was the last of the summer series of nature paddles sponsored by the Peconic Land Trust. A small fleet of kayaks, standup paddleboards, and a token canoe set out to explore the back coves of Sag Harbor Village. Bird observations were dominated by piscivores, and great egrets were the most numerous of the lot. Osprey, double-crested cormorants, great blue heron, green heron and belted kingfisher were also sighted, representing an assortment of fishing techniques: wading and spearing, aerial diving and spearing, aerial diving and snatching (with talons) and swimming underwater in pursuit of fish.

Returning from the outlet of Ligonee Brook, we encountered a school of foot-long Atlantic needlefish. Their common name refers to their very distinctive shape: a long, slender, rounded body that is thicker than it is deep, with its dorsal fin set well back near the tail and its other end adorned with a long, pointed, needle-like beak. The latter is armed with sharp teeth.

This coastal species reaches 2 feet in length when fully grown, and shows a wide tolerance to salinity levels, often wandering well up into the freshwater portions of estuaries and even into adjacent freshwater rivers. They move along the surface of the water, feeding on fish, which they catch sideways and then reposition to swallow them head first. Among their favored prey are mummichogs and Atlantic silversides.

Atlantic needlefish spawn in our estuaries; in New York that is thought to occur in May and June. As juveniles, the lower jaw grows faster than the upper, resulting in a “halfbeak stage,” during which they consume shrimp and other small crustaceans such as shrimp-like organisms called mysids, and copepods. Eventually, the lower jaw’s growth rate diminishes and the upper catches up, at which time their diet shifts completely to a fish-based one.

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