Late November Observations

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Thanksgiving brought some mild weather to the area at a time of the year when the balance between autumn and winter seasons can often swing towards the latter. However, with the exception of two sightings this past week, most of my nature sightings were typical of the transition into winter.One of the exceptions was the pair of Carolina wrens that has established its winter territory in my backyard. This species defends a winter territory as well as a summer nesting territory. It’s very possible that this is the same pair that nested here over the summer. A pair will stay together for life, on both their winter and summer territories. The male has been very vocal with the mild weather, singing a loud, piercing, two-syllable version of its varied song, which is often described as the three-syllable “tea kettle, tea kettle.”

The Carolina wren is one of those bird species that has shifted its range northward since the mid-1990s. Some say this is in response to relatively warm winters. Habitat fragmentation and backyard feeders may have also played a role.

A particularly cold winter, or as some would state, a normal winter, in this area will result in a big die-off of our local population. There was a dramatic decline in the Northeast population of this species during the winter of 1977 that took a decade to recover from.

Over the last 15 years, my pair has nested in an overturned flower pot, a Peterson bluebird box, my propane tank cover, and the porch eave. They spend a significant amount of time foraging on the ground, where they feed on insects and spiders, and will completely disappear into the leaf litter, flicking apart the bottommost, largely decayed layer with their long, curved bill. I thought I was watching one doing just that a few days ago, but when it reappeared from under the leaves it was a chipmunk!

I hadn’t seen this attractive ground squirrel, our smallest member of the squirrel family, in a few weeks and had assumed that the first frost sent it into its winter den. But there it was, probably foraging for acorns. I have two huge white oaks in the backyard, and although white oak acorns will sprout in autumn soon after falling to the ground, I could only find one with the smallest trace of a tap root protruding from its husk.

Two yearling white-tail deer, sporting their dull, brownish-gray winter coats, have been foraging in my yard this past month, not 10 feet from my kitchen window, in the middle of the day, and far from the nearest oak. My guess is they were feeding on the crab apples that littered the ground there.

While removing my boat mooring from Accabonac Harbor over the weekend, a task that requires getting in the water to free the mushroom anchor from the thick, black mayonnaise that lies two feet deep on the harbor bottom, a young child inquired as to the whereabouts of the hermit crabs.

Hermit and fiddler crabs, along with mummichogs, silversides, killifish, and sand shrimp that are all so commonly encountered along the shallows of our bays in summer, have shut down for the winter. Some have migrated to deep water; others will overwinter in the bottom sediments. The only signs of marine life were the ubiquitous mud snails and the colony of barnacles clinging to my mooring line.

The latter, along with clams, oysters, scallops and ribbed mussels that are visible in the crystal clear water, are probably not very active right now. These are all filter feeders of some sort, relying on tiny phytoplankton and zooplankton particles suspended in the water column for nourishment. The amazingly clear water is a sign that the bay has very little plankton available to support these shellfishes over the winter months, when feeding and growth is minimal.

The past weekend’s tides were fairly dramatic, corresponding to the arrival of the new moon—and a “spring” tide—on Tuesday. While surfing in Montauk at low tide, I noticed quite a number of herring gulls picking up moon snail shells in the swash zone. Big surf on Thanksgiving, combined with the extremely low tide, seems to have left these normally subtidal snails exposed to the ever-hungry gulls.

I received a number of inquiries over the last two weeks about the identity of the dark ducks that could be seen by the thousands along the ocean beach. That would be scoters. There are three species: white-winged scoter, surf scoter, and black scoter. All nest north of here in Canada, and spend winters along the coast, where they dive, using their webbed feet to propel them underwater in search of crabs, mussels, clams and snails.

Snowy owls have arrived. The first sighting of the season that I’m aware of was at Hicks Island by Angus Wilson on November 24. Since then, this majestic owl has been seen at Sandy Hook (NJ), Floyd Bennett Field (Brooklyn), Tiana Beach (Hampton Bays) and Napeague. Three different snowy owls have been confirmed in the Napeague area.

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