The Nature Of Montauk

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The weather forecast for the recent Montauk Natural History Weekend, sponsored by NYC Audubon and the American Littoral Society every January and June, looked grim: an uncomfortable combination of heavy rain and wind. But the group of 30 naturalists seemed to have a bit of luck on their side. The first scheduled outing, a late Friday afternoon walk east along Gin Beach, provided everyone with a great look at a snowy owl, perched on a signpost, seemingly unperturbed by the excited onlookers.On Saturday morning, we gathered under leaden skies at Camp Hero Road, preparing for the hike along the Seal Haulout Trail in hopes of glimpsing some marine mammals basking on the rocks. While folks donned rain gear and waited for late arrivals, we were treated to an excellent look at a medium-sized hawk flying over a nearby field and banking off into the Point Woods.

This was not a species that I recognized. Its shape and flight pattern seemed very accipiter-like, but its plumage and size did not match any of the three accipiters found here: sharp-shinned, Cooper’s or Goshawk. Lenore Swenson, an expert birder, pointed out a few key features—a translucent patch on each wingtip, a strongly barred tail, and a reddish wash along the leading edge of its wings—that marked this as a red-shouldered hawk. Nice sighting!

This is a swamp hawk, preferring to hunt and nest in and near forested wetlands. Largely due to forest clearing and habitat loss, which has favored the larger and more aggressive red-tailed hawk, it was listed as a “threatened” species in New York State. As more farmland has reverted back to forest and breeding numbers increased in the state, it was re-listed as a “species of special concern” in 1999. Today, “Bull’s Birds of New York State” lists this as a rare but regular breeder on Long Island, even though there has been only one confirmed nest on the island.

Setting off down the Seal Haulout Trail, we noted several nature sightings that are often mistakenly referred to as “signs of spring”: flocks of robins and green-and-purple spikes marking the buds of skunk cabbage protruding from the water-logged edges of vernal ponds. The robins were busy feeding on American holly berries, a low-quality food that they resort to consuming when all else is gone.

At the Block Island Sound end of the trail, we were rewarded with a view of 32 basking harbor seals. The gusty winds were blowing from the southwest, making the seal haulout overlook a protected and quiet lee, and a perfect spot to sit and enjoy the seals and an assortment of diving seabirds: eiders, loons, grebes, mergansers and scoters.

The rain held off for the entire morning hike, but the afternoon trip was not so lucky. Sunny skies greeted us for Sunday’s outings to the Walking Dunes and a hike along the oceanfront trail loop at Napeague State Park.

Both outings are set in some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, and would have been a “success” even if we had not encountered any interesting wildlife. But en route to the Walking Dunes, we watched a first-year Northern harrier hunting over the Napeague Meadows (we later learned that we just missed a juvenile bald eagle fly over that same area). And on the oceanfront portion of Napeague State Park, we watched a merlin—a small falcon—perched at the top of a 6-foot-tall shrub.

Not too long ago, there was much debate and speculation as to whether or not merlins nested in New York State. Today, the New York Breeding Bird Atlas maps show more than 40 confirmed nesting sites for this species, most centered on the Adirondack Mountains.

Consider joining us for the June Montauk Natural History Weekend: hiking, bird watching, beachcombing, seining, kayaking and evening slide shows.

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