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Oct 28, 2019 1:27 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Some Walks In The Woods

Two of the half dozen spring peepers encountered during Sunday afternoon's otter workshop in the Long Pond Greenbelt. MIKE BOTTINI
Oct 28, 2019 4:05 PM

Two river otter workshops were held last weekend, both designed to inform and train interested volunteers in how to survey for this elusive species: where to look and what to look for.

Unregulated hunting and trapping during the fur trade era wiped out this charismatic, top-of-the-food-chain predator and valuable fur-bearer from large portions of its historic range in North America. Long Island, having been settled by European colonists in the 1600s, most likely lost its otter population many years ago.

Well-known naturalist and author James DeKay wrote in his 1842 publication, “The Zoology of New York,” that the otter had long been extirpated from the Long Island region and at that time was no longer found in most of New York State, except for its most remote northern reaches.

The recovery of this species in New York began with the implementation of a ban on hunting and trapping otters from 1936 to 1945, and trapping regulations and other conservation laws, including an otter reintroduction program in western New York State, enacted in later years.

Otters have been slowly, and naturally, recolonizing Long Island for at least the past 25 years. Much suitable habitat here remains unoccupied, and citizen scientist volunteers have been helpful in documenting their recovery over the past decade.

The weather for Saturday’s field trip was warm and sunny with very little wind. By midday, when we set out for the Arshamomaque Preserve in Southold, the temperature was in the low 60s, necessitating tick precautions.

While bushwhacking between two different otter latrines, also known as scent stations, we disturbed a garter snake basking in a secluded, sunny spot. In a flash, before I could reach for my camera, it disappeared into the leaf litter.

I counted three great blue herons hunting in the shallows of the pond, and a single great egret. This is the time of year when the great egrets move south of Long Island, and great blue herons move in. Where the latter arrives from, I’m not sure. Although great blues can be found here in summer as well, Long Island does not have a breeding population of this elegant bird with the dinosaur-like call.

Why they do not nest here is yet another question that I have no answer for, since great blues nest to our south, west and north. Among their favorite nesting areas are beaver ponds, where they will build rather flimsy-looking stick nests in the snags created by the beaver’s re-engineering of the pond or creek’s water level.

In 2006, when a beaver set up a base in Scoy Pond, East Hampton, and raised the pond’s water level 2 to 3 feet, several hundred mature trees around the pond’s flooded banks were killed. I had hoped that might attract a great blue heronry, but that never transpired, and winter remains the season when great blue herons are most numerous here.

While I was focused on the ground, counting otter scat piles, one of the group was looking up at the sky and spotted a raven flying overhead. As if on cue, to confirm its identity to the group, it gave us its loud, classic, deep “Croak!”

Sunday’s workshop was a different location (Long Pond Greenbelt), different crowd and different weather. We headed out into the field with a warm, steady rain and gusty wind. Not a good day for basking snakes, but, with two professional herpetologists in the group — Sarah Bailey, who works at the South Fork Natural History Museum, and Alex Novarro from The Nature Conservancy — there was mention of it being a good day for box turtles to be moving around.

We did not encounter any reptiles, but both pointed out many spring peepers moving on top of the wet leaves on the forest floor, and managed to catch two of them for a close look. Many people have heard the piercing “peep” call of the appropriately named spring peeper, but few ever see this highly vocal yet reclusive harbinger of spring. It was interesting to see Sarah and Alex in action, and their trained “search image” for these tiny, well-camouflaged, very-easy-to-overlook amphibians at work.

Among their adaptations is an ability to change the color of their skin to match their surroundings. The two peepers in hand were quite different-looking at a glance, one being a light tan and the other a dark, almost black, brownish color. This reflected the variations in the color of the leaves on the forest floor.

In addition to its small size and trademark call, the distinguishing feature of the spring peeper is the X, or cross-like, marking on its back, which is the root of the latter part of its scientific name, “crucifer,” although this key feature can be quite distorted and even lacking in some individuals.

The lack of any significant webbing between the toes of its rear feet, and the presence of rounded disks at the tips of all its toes, are features found among the arboreal treefrogs. The toe disks secrete a sticky mucous that enables these frogs to climb quite well, even smooth, vertical panes of glass!

Although the peeper is still in the treefrog family (hylidae), I recently learned that taxonomists moved this species from the genus hyla (true treefrogs) to pseudacris (chorus frogs). This was done because of the very small size of the peeper’s toe disks.

Although an excellent climber, the peeper is rarely found more than 3 feet off the ground and spends most of its time in the forest leaf litter. There, it feeds on a wide variety of insects and other invertebrates, and its diet includes a large number of spiders.

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