Nature Notes: The Coming of Winter

The ospreys flew south three weeks ago. On Wednesday a week ago, a laggard dived into the mouth of the Peconic River at around 5:15 in the afternoon as Victoria Bustamante and I crossed the Route 105 bridge on the way back from a grasslands conference at the Whitney Estate in Manhasset. We were headed to the Eastern Audubon Society dinner at Cowfish in Hampton Bays. 

Vicki was quick to point out that the more than 80 mute swans that normally hang out in those waters were missing. Something was up! Today on Long Island the State Department of Environmental Conservation is having one last-ditch open meeting about what to do about those majestic birds: off them or leave them be. Will their fate be sealed?

The fish crows have yet to leave for the Florida coast, where they spend their winters. On Monday they were making a racket above the streets of Sag Harbor. Our winter sparrows, in particular the white-throateds and juncos, are slow to arrive. The white-tailed deer are in the rut, so please drive carefully.

This is the moving south season. The marine fish, namely the striped bass, but others as well, are going south. The monarch butterflies are mostly long gone, but Arthur Goldberg managed to find a lingerer on Sunday on one of the few remaining goldenrods still in bloom on the sands of Long Beach in eastern Noyac. The monarchs have done much better this year — Vicki has counted 168 thus far.

Each morning the same common crows from the roost up in the moraine near the Bridge golf course begin calling one minute later, as dawn comes later on the way to winter. One has a distinctive ka-ka-ka-ka, ka-ka-ka-ka call, another goes ka-ka, ka-ka, ka-ka, ka-ka, as if it has the hiccups.

Look carefully on a sunny day and you will see a few parachuting seeds from asters and goldenrods, but also milkweeds, almost invariably going from west to east in the prevailing breezes. On Long Island, Montauk Point or the ocean waters just off it is the last place to receive them. Every would-be botanist knows why species of the aster family — all those with plumed seeds that waft around willy-nilly come autumn — are so common here and there on Long Island and throughout the rest of the East Coast.

The snowy tree crickets have pretty much ended their nightly concerts. They were not as fired up this summer as usual. The katydids, which in most years are still katydidding at this time, ended their chorus early. It barely ran into September. A screech owl behind my house fills the void each evening with several downward spirally trills, then a monotonic one, and then like Shakespeare’s “poor player” is heard no more.

There are not nearly as many acorns this year as last year, and the chipmunks, squirrels, turkeys, and blue jays are scrapping for them. The spring peepers have already gone underground. It will be more than five months before they re-emerge to greet the spring breeding season. Box turtles are also digging in. There is nothing as sad as one that tries to get under but discovers that the ground is already frozen. Keep your eyes open for marine turtles, they are heading south slowly, but each year a few get partially paralyzed by a cold snap and end up stunned on the beach. The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation stands ready to retrieve them as soon as notified.

Our several snake and salamander species all retreat below ground at this time of year into their hibernacula, as do some of us old codgers. And where are those pretty leaves? Oops, I’m falling asleep. See ya.


Larry Penny can be reached via email at