Sights And Sounds Of Late July

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The South Fork’s major roads, unofficial bypasses and villages were all bursting at the seams this past week. But the frenetic energy was easily avoided by taking to the water.An evening paddling tour sponsored by the Peconic Land Trust last Wednesday, July 23, explored portions of Napeague Harbor and the remote shoreline of the Promised Land that borders Napeague Bay. Paddlers were treated to close looks at common loons, a magnificent bird that nests north of here and overwinters on the bays, sound and ocean waters of the East End. An amazing underwater swimmer, the loon is perhaps the most awkward and clumsy bird on land, having to resort to pushing itself along with its belly on the ground since it is unable to stand erect.

Juveniles remain here year-round until their third year, when they migrate north to suitable nesting grounds on freshwater lakes and ponds. Even then, most three-year-olds will not successfully breed. The average breeding age is six for this relatively long-lived bird that can reach 20 years of age in the wild. The closest nesting area is the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts.

Paddlers were also treated to sightings of two nocturnal shorebirds—both piscivores: the black-crowned night heron, a wading bird, and the black skimmer, a species that hunts by trailing its long, paper-thin lower bill through the water, feeling for small fish near the surface.

Thursday evening’s trip circumnavigated Sagg Pond, where large flocks of red-winged blackbirds gathered in their nighttime roosts among the phragmites thickets lining the salt pond’s shoreline. Last week’s Nature Adventure and Water Safety course also visited Sagg Pond. The children arrived in the morning to find several hundred swallows resting on the upper beach, probably waiting for the sun to warm up their breakfast: the pond and dune insect inhabitants.

After checking out the tern and plover nesting areas, and getting good views of least tern and piping plover chicks, we scoured the ocean wrack line for interesting items. A live northern pipefish, the smallest I’ve ever seen, was found washed ashore. Masses of dead mosquito larvae were noted along the windward shore of Sagg Pond.

Unlike last year’s course, this year we were unable to find any mole crabs on the ocean beach. On day three of the course we visited Long Beach, where the stony shoreline was thick with the armadillo-like creatures. We also captured the tiniest puffer fish I’ve ever seen, less than a half-inch in length.

Our last day, Friday, was spent exploring Little Northwest Creek. Thousands of emerald-green salt marsh grasshoppers (Orchelimum fidicinium), perfectly blending in with the salt marsh cordgrass that they feed on, were found in the lower marsh, along with a lone wild turkey that may have been enticed out of the adjacent forest by the bounty of protein-rich insects.

Sunday’s paddle, sponsored by the South Fork Natural History Museum (SoFo), was a short but beautiful excursion up Alewife Brook in Cedar Point County Park. One of the interesting finds there was a bright orange sponge growing on the creek bottom. I’m no expert on sponges, but my best guess is that these are redbeard sponges (Microciona prolifera).

Early naturalists were unsure if sponges were plants or animals. One of my reference books notes that sponges are the most primitive of multicellular animals. They are colonies made up of many individuals that filter feed. Identification to species on the basis of form and color is not always reliable. Distinguishing features are found in the tiny spicules that form the skeleton of the sponge and a careful examination of that requires a microscope.

Among the notable sounds heard this past week were the calls of the neighborhood screech owls and c cicadas. The former are territorial calls, as newly fledged juveniles disperse and seek unoccupied territories. I haven’t heard any katydids yet but they should be calling soon.

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