Early June Sightings

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There were several unusual sightings over the weekend, and perhaps the most interesting one was the rescue (and photograph) of a tiny owlet found in the middle of a road in the Stony Hill area of Amagansett. Christina Brierley spotted the tiny, four-inch-tall creature just before driving over it. Fortunately, it did not come in contact with any of the car’s tires, and was unharmed.Curious and concerned about the young, flightless owl, Christina contacted East Hampton veterinarian Dr. Jonathon Turetsky who correctly advised her to leave the young owl in a safe place near where she had found it. It’s possible that the owlet’s parents will feed it on the ground, or even carry it back up into the nest.

This is a young eastern screech owl, our most common owl on Long Island whose frequently heard call at night (made by both the male and female) is described as resembling the whinny of a horse. A fully grown screech owl measures 8.5 inches in length and tips the scales at a mere six ounces. I’ve encountered this species hunting earthworms just before dawn in early spring.

One of my references states that populations of this cavity nester have been adversely impacted by the use of creosote on utility poles in which they nest. The reference did not explain whether the adults, eggs, or chicks (or all of them) were poisoned from contact with the creosote-soaked wood.

Another flightless chick was sighted on our bay and ocean beaches last week: newly hatched piping plovers. During their first week after hatching, these precocial chicks resemble tiny cotton balls on long, toothpick-thin legs and over-sized feet as they dart about the beach. If they sense a danger that they feel they can’t outrun, they will dart into the nearest depression on the beach, hunker down, and freeze until the danger passes. We learned that the “danger” could be a motor vehicle moving at normal speed along the beach, and the depressions on the beach are often tire tracks that the vehicle may be using for easiest travel. Enough plover chicks have died in this fashion to warrant a change in management strategy for the endangered species: closing that particular section of beach to motor vehicles for the four weeks between hatching and fledging, after which the young plover can take flight to avoid danger.

A third unusual sighting was reported by Brookhaven Town Planner Diane Mazarakis, who spotted, and netted, a large female box turtle in the middle of Flanders Bay while sailing with friends. This is a woodland, terrestrial turtle species that does not require pond or freshwater wetland habitats. I’ve had several sightings of box turtles in salt water, but never one so far from shore. Diane noted that the turtle “looked very comfortable floating out there. It looked very buoyant and kept its head high.”

We’re in the midst of turtle nesting season, and I’ve had lots of reports of turtles, mostly snappers, out on our local roads. Many thanks to those who have stopped and moved the slow moving creatures out of harm’s way.

Speaking of snapping turtles, Bruce Horwith reported finding eight female snappers digging into a large pile of dredge material and phragmites that was removed from Georgica Pond and awaiting transport to the landfill. The turtles were safely removed from the pile to nest elsewhere.

It’s interesting that so many turtles were drawn to this new potential egg-laying site. All the snapping turtle nesting sites that I’ve seen were composed of relatively sandy, well-drained soil, very unlike the organic material that this particular pile seemed to be made of. Perhaps the turtles were able to detect heat emanating from the composting material and were attracted to that?

Last Friday’s big rainfall filled many vernal ponds and was followed by choruses of gray treefrog trills and Fowler’s toad squawks (a long “whaaaaa!”) from those wetlands turned breeding pools. I visited the walking dunes area on Saturday with Don Reipe and his Montauk Natural History weekend group of NYC Audubon and American Littoral Society members. Conditions were good for hearing the mating call of the elusive eastern spadefoot toad, but none were detected in the freshwater wetlands there. However, we noted some interesting changes in the cranberry bog that I’ll report on next week.

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