This is the time of year when parental demands peak among many of our local wildlife species. Young have grown considerably in size and appetite but are not yet able to forage for themselves. As a result, adults are working around the clock to satiate the appetites of their young.The normally secretive and largely nocturnal habits of some species—for example, the red fox—can be observed in midday hunting mice and voles for its family. It will take the quickest and most direct route back to its den, with as many as three fat voles protruding from its mouth, even if it means trotting along the shoulder of the road while inquisitive motorists slow down for a closer look.
That is most likely why black skimmers, an unusual and striking shorebird in both appearance and fishing technique, have been reported feeding during the day in local harbors and coves.
Adapted to “feeling” fish with its long, paper-thin lower beak skimming the top 2 inches of the water’s surface, black skimmers do not rely on sight and therefore can feed during the night, when, as most fishermen know, fishing is best. It is possible that their young are now requiring much more than a nighttime feeding, so the adults are out skimming at all hours of the day, until the young have fledged and can hunt for themselves.
Turkey sightings seem few and far between, and many of the songbirds in my neighborhood have quieted down. All are busy raising young and trying not to attract attention to themselves and their offspring.
Many fawns have been sighted this past week. Some are out foraging on their own and obviously weaned; others are not quite so independent and have been spotted close on the heels of a doe.
Bucks are sporting the traces of what will become antlers. All are in their reddish-brown summer coats.
The weekend Field Naturalist course spent an afternoon at the Walking Dunes in Napeague and found many of the grass pink orchids in peak bloom. I have never seen so many cranberry flowers there; providing we don’t have a major midsummer drought, it should be a bumper crop of berries this fall.
Among the interesting sightings this past week was one by my sister-in-law Marybeth Bottini on Norfolk Drive in Springs. She had a baby duck in her swimming pool, and it obviously couldn’t get out. I arrived to find a healthy wood duck (aix sponsa) hatchling.
When approached, it dove and swam, surprisingly proficiently, quite some distance underwater to the opposite end of the pool. Marybeth reported that it had been feeding on the wide assortment of insects trapped in the pool skimmer.
This was probably one of at least a dozen two-day-old hatchlings that were being led by their mother, on foot since they can’t fly, on the dangerous journey from their nest site to a nearby pond to forage on insects and seeds from the relative safety of the water. I doubt that the mom had the backyard pool in mind as a destination and, with a small flock in tow, left the errant hatchling behind to fend for itself.
I managed to scoop it up with a long-handled net and drove around the neighborhood looking and listening for its siblings and parent, to no avail. Returning home, I placed it in a fenced area with food and water while I figured out what would be best to do.
Examining an aerial map of Clearwater, I thought that I might locate the brood in the brackish marsh bordering Teak Lane, the closest suitable habitat to where it was found. Wood ducks, along with a few other duck species such as common goldeneye, hooded and common merganser, and bufflehead, are cavity nesters, usually nesting in hollow trees or stumps (or fabricated nest boxes). Wood ducks are the only tree cavity nesting ducks that commonly breed on Long Island, although a hooded merganser did nest at Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island in 1980.
Their preferred nesting habitat is a wooded area in or near a freshwater swamp, pond or stream, so I was a bit puzzled about finding the hatchling in the well-developed, residential Springs neighborhood of Clearwater. According to the literature, the optimum natural tree cavities are 20 to 50 feet above ground, much higher than most artificial wood duck boxes I’ve seen in and near our local ponds. Clutches of up to 50 eggs have been reported in a single nest, the result of as many as 10 females laying eggs in the same cavity.
This behavior, called egg dumping, is a reproductive strategy that some females employ in an attempt to maximize the chances of their genetic material surviving for another generation—a strategy that one might call “not putting all of your eggs in one basket,” since the eggs are “dumped” in several different nests.
Wood duck hatchlings display a very strong ability to “imprint,” enabling them to follow their parent on the journey from nest to water before they can fly. Marybeth joked that the tiny hatchling plucked from her pool might now confuse me with its parent, but their imprint is already well-developed by the time they leave the nest cavity.
During incubation, the female will periodically call softly to the developing eggs so that, even before they have hatched, the young have imprinted their mother’s call. Immediately after hatching, the young will reinforce this imprint with sight, imprinting on the first thing that moves in the nest.
The sight and sound imprints are very important. Although precocial, the hatchlings sit tight in the nest cavity for a day and await a signal from mom before leaving the nest. The signal is a call, as mom is out of sight on the ground just below the cavity nest. And how do they make their way to the ground from a nest cavity 20 to 50 feet in a tree? They free fall!
Picking the little hatchling out of the net, I noticed that it had surprisingly sharp-clawed feet. This, I later learned, was an adaptation that enables them to climb out of the cavity, even ones as deep as 8 feet, or the height of a typical deer fence around here, and enabled the tiny, two-day-old duckling to escape from the pen that had contained my Rhode Island hen chicks for several weeks!
Many people consider the wood duck our most beautiful bird. Unlike many birds, it begins courtship in autumn, so the males are dressed in their exquisite breeding plumage from fall through winter and spring. As soon as the female begins incubating eggs—egg-laying dates on Long Island are early April through early June—the male begins to molt, exchanging his brilliant feathers for a much more drab outfit.
This is one of many bird species that verged on extinction in the early 1900s, a situation created by overhunting for the millinery trade, the lack of conservation laws, and habitat loss.
One of the most interesting sightings this past week was reported by Richard Poveromo, our hard-working, volunteer East Hampton trails maintainer. Richard documented the second turkey vulture “nest” ever found on Long Island, both in East Hampton.
More on that next week.