The Top Nature Sightings Of 2013

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This column is a summary of the more interesting East End nature sightings over the past year. Topping my list is the eastern coyote.While surveying Fishers Island for otter sign last winter, I noted that this 4-square-mile section of Southold Town, Suffolk County, that lies within two miles of Rhode Island and Connecticut had lots of otter sign, lots of coyote sign, and no sign of the whitetail deer. According to local naturalists and birders, the island’s coyote population has had a ripple effect on other wildlife populations there. Feral cats are gone, grassland birds are flourishing, deer survive but are scarce, and there are no deer ticks.

The coyotes apparently made the two-mile swim to Fishers Island from breeding populations in coastal Connecticut and Rhode Island, and the occasional coyote sighted in Manhattan and Queens is assumed to cross over from breeding populations in the Bronx. But how a coyote made its way out to Bridgehampton without being detected in points west remains a puzzle. Over the past summer, the lone coyote was photographed several times on the flank of the moraine in the Water Mill-Bridgehampton area.

The local population of our more common canid, the red fox, has been on the upswing for the past few years and, as often happens near the peak of its population cycle, it contracted a bad case of the mange. Sightings and photos of nearly hairless fox were common. Some individuals looked so strange that they were not even recognized as fox at first.

In early June, Christina Brierley sent me a photo of what appeared to be a tiny fur ball with big eyes and an unusual beak. This was a screech owlet that must have fallen from a nearby nest. A commonly heard species here, but a great find … I’ve never seen one of their young.

The most talked about nature observations over the past year were related to Hurricane Sandy: coastal erosion, the new inlet on Fire Island, large shoals in bays and harbors, and salt spray damage to evergreens. In this category, I was most interested in observing impacts to the cranberry bog in the walking dunes.

It appears that the bog was inundated with saltwater during the storm surge, killing a number of pitch pines and dramatically impacting this year’s cranberry harvest. Very few of the rare orchids growing there flowered this year, and it is not clear whether the orchids themselves will recover. I could not find any trace of the rare bog clubmoss. On the other hand, the insectivorous sundews seemed to be thriving.

A virus (cetacean morbillivirus) is the tentative cause of the massive number of dead bottlenose dolphins that washed ashore all along the Eastern Seaboard this year, from Florida to New York. Some 1,300 dolphins have been documented in this “unusual mortality event,” first noted in July. This is a fourfold increase in the average annual number of bottlenose dolphin strandings documented since 2007. Scientists are still investigating potential triggers of this outbreak.

What happened to the monarch butterflies this year? According to researchers, very few East Coast monarchs completed the 2012 fall migration to their overwintering area in Mexico, and even fewer numbers completed the return trip to Long Island (made by several different generations in stages) in the spring of 2013. There appear to be a number of factors at work impacting monarch populations, at both summer and winter sites and all along their flyway. Let’s hope we see a rebound next year.

Finally, this is the winter to see snowy owls here on Long Island! Ornithologists are reexamining their original, long-held theory that big movements of snowys far south of their normal range, an event referred to as an “irruption,” are caused by low prey densities in the Arctic.

Keep an eye out for these very visible owls in our tundra-like habitat: dunes and beaches.

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