May Sightings: Spring On The Peconic

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Working in the garden this past weekend, I found that the uppermost few inches of soil is extremely dry and powdery. When was our last significant rainfall? My search of the weather archives revealed that, since April 1, we have not had a rainfall event exceeding a third of an inch, and our total accumulation over the past 40 days barely tops 1 inch.Combined with a long string of warm, sunny days, that solar energy striking the largely shadeless forest floor, with leaves unfurling and the process of transpiration pumping more and more water out of the ground and into the atmosphere, there has been a significant drop in water levels in our local freshwater ponds and creeks, and vernal pools.

The latter has already impacted the 2015 recruitment of several of our amphibian species. Many of the eggs laid earlier this spring by mole salamanders, wood frogs, and spring peepers are no longer sitting in water and won’t complete their incubation process.

Speaking of amphibious vernal pool breeders, I heard my first Fowlers toads calling in the Atlantic Double Dunes Preserve on Sunday. Their long and loud “Waaaah” breeding call is unmistakable. By midsummer, the inch-long newly metamorphosed toads will leave the shallow breeding pools and, under the cover of darkness, head for the dunes. Close on their heels will be their main predator: the Eastern hognose snake.

Among the many plants in bloom right now are the flowering dogwoods, beach plums and shadbush. Despite the long and late winter, leaf and flower times seem to be back on schedule.

The lack of precipitation was very noticeable on Saturday’s nature paddle down the Peconic River. Water levels are usually perfect during the May trips, but this one required paddlers to exit boats and walk over short stretches of shoal water, as during most midsummer trips down the river.

The theme of this paddle was “Signs of Spring.” Most of the riverside vegetation is in various stages of greening up, with the exception of the white oaks and tupelo trees. Swamp rose, swamp loosestrife (aka water willow) and sweet gale were among the wetland shrubs leafing out. Willow was flowering, while red maple’s flowers had already transformed into winged seeds. A number of herbaceous plant shoots were visible: arrowhead, pickerelweed, and the flat blades of blue-flag (an iris). Two ferns had unfurled: royal and sensitive.

Despite the overcast day, painted turtles were basking on logs and exposed stumps, while snapping turtles floated near the surface. Green frogs were heard but not seen.

Many new birds have moved into the area, and the lack of fully leafed-out trees and shrubs made them easy to locate. Yellow warblers, kingbirds, tree and barn swallows, and towhees were among the songbirds observed, and a large shorebird, the greater yellowlegs, was seen feeding in one of the river’s many shallow shoals.

Canada geese have already hatched a brood. Seven 5-inch-tall hatchlings fed on a riverside lawn under the watchful eye of the adults. Mute swans were still laying. Five nests were seen on the short stretch of river called Peconic Lake, or Forge Pond, upstream of the Forge Road dam; one nest seen up close had four eggs, probably not a full clutch.

I was shocked to see the “improvements” under way at the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s South River Road access to the river. This was a very discreet and natural-looking but functional river access not long ago. A significant portion of the forest has been cleared to make way for a parking lot and an oversized concrete boat ramp; keep in mind that the boats found on this section of the river are either paddle craft or small aluminum fishing skiffs with electric outboards.

Right now, the site looks terrible … another blight on Long Island’s longest river. But DEC fisheries biologist Chart Guthrie explained that the clearing was limited to a half acre, and the boat ramp is the minimum size for trailers. And once the parking area work is completed, the site will be re-vegetated with native plant material, so, hopefully, it will blend in a bit better with its wild surroundings over time.

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