Early August Sightings

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Large numbers of dolphins have been sighted this month. Many have been very close to shore on the ocean beaches, providing onlookers with a brief but thrilling spectacle.The big news, however, is that more than 124 dead bottlenose dolphins were found on East Coast beaches between Virginia and New York last month. That’s seven times higher than average for the area in July.

The headless marine mammal that washed up near Wiborg Beach in East Hampton last week may have been a bottlenose, but it was too badly decomposed to tell. It did fit the size range for the bottlenose: 8-12 feet in length.

The cause of last month’s large die-off is being investigated but remains unknown. One of the dolphins was diagnosed as having the morbillivirus infection. This disease has been the cause of previous mass die-offs among seals and dolphins.

Dr. Artie Kopelman reports that this summer’s whale watching season out of Montauk has been excellent. Artie leads whale watches for the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island aboard one of the Viking ships based in Montauk Harbor. More info can be found at www.cresli.org/cresli/wwinfo_inshore.html.

The Nature Adventure and Water Safety Camp came across a very unusual mortality on Long Beach: a painted turtle. This is a strictly freshwater species that only leaves its home pond when seeking a site to lay its eggs, sometime in May or June. How this female painted turtle ended up in Noyac Bay is a mystery, but not long ago someone sent me a photo of a hatchling diamondback terrapin that they found at Jones Beach and, thinking it was a sea turtle, they released it into the ocean surf.

Bad idea. This is an estuarine species that cannot tolerate full strength seawater for very long. And the hatchlings spend their first year under the wrack line in the salt marsh. My best guess is that someone found this turtle in what they thought was a bad location, and thought they were helping it out by moving it to the bay.

The camp program involved seining in ponds, creeks and the bay, and we managed to catch some interesting fish: blowfish, kingfish, needlefish and pipefish, among others. For more info on the camp program, visit http://eastendecoventures.com/tours/nature-adventure-water-safety-camp/.

Some osprey fledglings are still being fed by their parents, as witnessed last week on Fishers Island. The young of the year appear as large as the adults. The only way I can distinguish between them is by the color of their backs and the topsides of their wings: a white-and-brown flecked pattern among the fledges, and solid chocolate brown among the adults.

I was on Fishers Island for a presentation on my March river otter survey results, and to lead a field trip to an otter scent station where folks could learn to identify otter sign. I arrived early enough to visit most of the scent stations that were mapped in the spring, and determine which would be best to visit on the field trip.

Last March we came across so much otter sign that I never imagined I might not be able to find a good, easily accessible site for the summer field trip. But as I worked my way along the length of the island, it was looking like the field trip would be a bust. A quick call to a colleague on Martha’s Vineyard reminded me that, while the otters were most likely around as they were in March, they don’t bother doing much scent marking in the summer.

Luckily, my last stop revealed plenty of fresh sign for the following day’s field trip: scat, scent mounds, leaf scrapes and matted down areas on the edge of the salt marsh where otters rolled around to dry off after fishing and take a nap in the shade.

My interest in surveying Fishers Island was based on the fact that the Fisher/Great Gull/Plum island archipelago linking coastal Connecticut and Rhode Island with Orient Point may serve as a conduit for otters to recolonize eastern Long Island. Both Connecticut and Rhode Island have robust otter populations, and the open water spans between the islands of the archipelago are within swimming distance of river otters.

Although the coyotes made the 2-mile open water crossing to Fishers from the mainland, I’m not sure they could handle the rougher, much longer crossing to Long Island via the archipelago. As we found on the March visit, there was plenty of coyote sign on Fishers.

Monarch butterflies have been around for a few weeks, but the first sighting of one in my milkweed patch this year took place last week. They usually start laying eggs on the undersides of the milkweed leaves in my backyard in mid-August, with the tiny larva visible the last week of this month and the strikingly beautiful chrysalises forming around September 10.

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