September Sightings

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Last weekend’s paddle on Georgica Pond in East Hampton was timed to coincide with the peak of the monarch butterfly migration for this area, listed as September 8 to 20. The cool, overcast conditions and southerly wind were not ideal—but I still was surprised that we only glimpsed a single monarch all morning.We did get a good look at some other migrants. One of the largest flocks of lesser yellowlegs that I’ve ever seen congregated at the south end of the pond on the wet beach sands, not far from an even larger flock of terns in their winter plumage. Without my field guide, I could not say for certain which species the latter flock represented, but, based solely on size, my guess is they were common terns.

At least a half dozen semipalmated plovers and a single spotted sandpiper rounded out the crowd on the pond’s edge, just a stone’s throw from the ocean. Unlike the yellowlegs and terns that were clearly resting on the beach, the plovers and sandpipers were in a constant state of motion, dabbing their bills into the wet sand for food.

One of their nectar food sources along the coastal migration route is the seaside goldenrod, and that was in flower, although a close look at the plants revealed that most flower buds had not opened yet. Peak bloom time for this species will be later in early October.

Conspicuous among many of the goldenrods’ stems was a frothy white substance resembling spit. This is the handiwork of the larvae of the aptly named spittlebug, a.k.a. froghopper. The derivation of the latter name is based on the amazing jumping ability of this species while in its adult stage: Leaps of 70 centimeters amount to 100 times their body length!

Both the larvae and adults feed on plant juices. The “spittle” is basically reconstituted plant juice and serves several important functions for the larvae: insulation and moisture control (they would desiccate in the dunes on a hot day), and protection from predators and parasites (the spittle has an unpalatable, acrid taste). Only the larvae produce the frothy foam. As a general rule, these insects do not seriously harm their host plants.

Eric Salzman notes that robins, catbirds and flickers have recently gone vegetarian and are feasting on a variety of berries that are ripe this month: tupelo, poison ivy and pokeweed. Most of the tupelo berries in my neighborhood (and all of the highly nutritious arrowwood berries) have been plucked. Dogwood fruits are now ripe for the picking, while American holly’s berries are still mostly green.

Water temperatures even out among the bays, harbors and ocean at this time of the year. Cool nights have lowered temps in Accabonac Harbor and Gardiners Bay to 66 degrees, just about what is being reported for the ocean.

Ripe acorns are dropping. It does not look like a big acorn year. The last big mast year, according to my records, was 2007.

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