Early May Observations, Continued


This past week’s new sightings included Baltimore orioles, common and least terns, catbirds, and greater yellowlegs, all recent arrivals from their wintering areas further south.
A Baltimore oriole has been feeding among the flowers high up in my crab apple tree. Is he after insects that are inside the blooms, feeding on the nectar and, in the process, pollinating the flowers? Or is he feeding on the nectar himself, using his unusual bristle-tipped tongue to scoop out bits of crab apple nectar?

John Bull’s “Birds of the New York Area,” published in 1964, lists the spring arrival date for this species as the first week in May, and a half century later it is right on time! In his book, Bull also mentions that a study of 500 Baltimore oriole nests found that this species has quite specific preferences for where it builds its incredible hanging nests. Sixty percent were located in elms and 30 percent were in maples, while 75 percent were in trees over or near roads. No nests were found in woodlands.

It manages to weave strands of grasses and other fibers into a basket that hangs from a twig, and supports a clutch of eggs and an incubating adult…an amazing feat!

I usually see my first box turtle of the year during the first week of May, but not this year. Eric Salzman reports that they are out at his home in East Quogue.

My neighbor, Leonida Karpik, found a hatchling painted turtle that must have just perished in May. Turtle eggs and hatchlings have extremely high natural mortality rates, a situation that they have successfully dealt with for millions of years. It’s the relatively recent high mortality rates among adult turtles that is wreaking havoc on local populations, a phenomenon whose origins can be traced to the development of roads and motor vehicles.

This past weekend’s paddle outing explored a very picturesque but little known stretch of tidal creek called Little Northwest Creek. We launched from Haven’s Beach in Sag Harbor, where piles of earth and heavy machinery dotted the park’s eastern landscape, along with the much more numerous and much smaller piles of dog droppings. Apparently, this is a great spot for lazy and inconsiderate dog owners to “walk” their dogs while sitting in the car.

The machinery is on hand to transform a portion of the park, and the narrow ditch that runs through it, back into what it used to be—a marsh. The plan is to create a shallow marsh system and direct the contents of the culvert at the park’s south end (stormwater runoff from route 114) into the marsh. If planned and constructed properly, the stormwater will spend enough time working its way through the marsh grasses such that the pollutants it carries will be filtered out and broken down before the water enters Northwest Harbor, and the nearby public swimming area.

This plan has seen a number of permutations over the past twenty years and is long overdue. Kudos to the Sag Harbor Village board for making it finally happen. Next item: dog owners who think their pooch’s waste is a gift to the beach.

The southwesterly wind was formidable at the launch, being channeled through the low-lying topography of the park. But soon we were in the lee of the bay-front bluffs, paddling in crystal clear, smooth water.

The entrance to Little Northwest Creek never looks the same, and at times it is easy to paddle past a low sand spit blocking most of the tidal creek’s mouth and completely miss it. But last weekend the opening was as large as I’d ever seen it, partly due to our arrival there near the time of high tide.

Once off the bay and inside the creek, the route wound its way through an extensive salt marsh. Although the creek here is quite wide, most of it is shoal water, even in a shallow draft kayak. The ten-inch-deep skeg on the standup paddleboard I was using required that I stick close to the channel, surprisingly deep in many places, and watch out for shallow chunks of peat further upstream to avoid an abrupt halt, and possible man overboard, something I could not avoid on two occasions.

At the largest sandy shoal were three pairs of horseshoe crabs, the first signs of these interesting creatures this year. A pair of osprey sat forlornly on a log nearby; they may have been the pair whose nesting pole was toppled over the winter. Noisy willets flushed from the marsh grasses, regal-looking great egrets took advantage of the flood tide and hunted the upper marsh near the edge of the oak woods, and spotted sandpipers foraged on the marsh–creek edge, delicately balancing on the steeply sloped peat.

At a point where the adjacent tupelo and red maple forest pinches the creek on both sides, we found the remnant pilings of the old wooden bridge that held horse-drawn carts bound to and from markets in Sag Harbor. This was part of a bypass to avoid the toll road that is now route 114.

A bit further upstream is the confluence of Rattlesnake Creek, a tributary carrying freshwater and nearly reaching the turnpike’s paved shoulder. Readers might think that the name “rattlesnake” is a stretch for a Long Island creek, but rattlesnakes were part of our local fauna until surprisingly recent times. Reports of this species became less and less frequent, but the feared animals were still found on Long Island in the early 1900s.

We explored both the main tributary and Rattlesnake Creek until the waterway became too narrow to paddle or, as was the case with the main creek, we ran into a nesting mute swan. Turning to ride a tailwind back out to the bay, the unsettled weather finally began to set its course for the day: rain. We managed to secure the boats and boards and head home for soup and dry clothes just as the wind picked up a couple of notches.

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