Late April Observations


As I write this column at the counter facing my kitchen windows, I’m interrupted by a feisty black-capped chickadee that seems intent on getting my attention. “What are you doing inside on such a beautiful day?” it seems to chide.
It is probably battling a perceived intruder, one that bears a striking resemblance to itself, in the form of a mirror image, and after a few minutes of beak and body blows to the glass, it either tires of the fight and retreats or leaves triumphantly, I cannot say. But it has piqued my curiosity and, pushing my laptop aside, I step outside for a quick look around for its nest.

It often raises young in my front yard bluebird house, but that is still filled with last year’s nest remnants of the resident Carolina wrens, so I clean out the large mass of slender twigs. The wrens have moved into my new porch this year, constructing a covered nest that somewhat resembles a miniature beaver lodge tucked into a high corner of the eaves and already filled with eggs.

Spreading high over the bluebird box, a flowering dogwood’s plump buds, which resemble tiny heads of garlic, have opened enough to reveal their white, petal-like sepals, while the nearby red maple flowers have already transformed into seed. That transformation is not quite complete, as the seed wings are mere nubs not more than a quarter of an inch long.

Perched on the edge of the tiny water-filled basin I installed many years ago at the prompting of Andy Sabin, in order to attract spadefoot toads that were heard calling in this neighborhood, another nester is busy collecting wet plant material. With a considerable mass of dead and dripping fern fronds, sedges and grasses hanging from its beak, the American robin flies across the street to continue constructing its bowl-shaped egg holder.

Back inside, out of the cool wind, I return to the laptop. I have no hard data to back it up, but it seems to me that this has been a particularly windy year so far. And a recent prolonged wind out of the west may have been the cause of an interesting sight first reported to me by Dick Lynn of Amagansett. While hiking along the east shore of Napeague Harbor last week, Dick came upon a big flock of gulls busily feeding on what he estimated were thousands of scallops pushed up into the shallow waters and exposed by the falling tide.

Yesterday, I went out to see for myself, and I was surprised to find that many of the scallops were still alive. These are the stock for the 2013 spawning season, a cohort that, according to East Hampton Town hatchery director Barley Dunne, had already been much reduced in numbers by Hurricane Sandy. He estimates that approximately 74,400 hatchery-reared scallops perished in Sandy.

An estimated 88,800 survivors had been placed in Napeague’s football field-sized scallop “spawner sanctuary” at a predetermined density (90 scallops per square meter) to provide maximum possible spawn later this spring. Spawning is induced by water temperature, and influenced to some degree by food availability. As the bay waters warm up to around 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), scallops release their sperm and eggs into the water column, where fertilization occurs. A minimum density of scallops in an area ensures a higher likelihood that eggs will be fertilized; hence, the 90 scallops per square meter goal.

Our bay scallops are hermaphrodites, meaning that each individual has both male and female sex organs. To prevent self-fertilization and ensure the exchange of genetic material within a population, individual scallops will not release both eggs and sperm simultaneously. It is not clear to me how this is orchestrated within a given area—for example, the population residing in the Napeague spawner sanctuary (there is another scallop spawner sanctuary in Three Mile Harbor). Obviously, in order to have fertilization occur, some portion of the population must release their eggs while another portion releases only their sperm.

Scallops are ready to spawn at 1 year of age, and many don’t live to spawn a second year. However, they make up for the one-year breeding cycle by releasing an average of 16 million eggs during that time.

Here on eastern Long Island, spawning begins in May but peaks in June, and a second spawn occurs in early fall. Some of the smaller-sized (0.75-inch) scallops on the beach this week would be those from the fall 2012 spawn, and they 
may not be ready to spawn themselves until the fall of this year.

In the area of the beached scallops were plate-sized depressions that resembled horseshoe crab nests. April is a bit early for this species to be mating, and I could not find any sign of them or their eggs. But I did come across a mole crab, one of the few creatures that has adapted to the intertidal surf zone, and a nice meal for shorebirds heading north.

Consider joining me on Saturday, April 27, for the first nature paddle of the season: a trip along the tidal portion of the Nissequogue River near Sunken Meadow State Park, where we are sure to find lots of interesting signs of spring. For details, email, or call (631) 267-5228.

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