Well, finally, real December sets in. Only two and one half months until March. I’ll try to hang in there. Dec. 18, midafternoon, my wife was driving me home from the doctor’s office in Southampton. As we approached Long Beach and Noyac Bay by way of Brick Kiln Road, it suddenly got very dark. We had no sooner left the car and entered the house than there was a big swoosh and for the next five minutes, frozen snow descended, completely covered the roof, lawn, and vehicles, then was gone.
My next-door neighbor Ellen Stahl called the next afternoon. She thinks she has a female summer tanager hanging around, but coming and going. The scarlet tanager’s cousin, the summer tanager is a rare bird on Long Island, let alone in December when the temperature is in the mid-20s. It doesn’t bother with the seeds that Ellen puts out in her feeders, but it eats the beef fat that she buys in the market and puts in a wire holder with openings. In fact, it doesn’t leave the beef fat and stays right there until it is gone.
Ellen sent me a photo of the bird and it checked out in Sibley’s “A Field Guide to Birds of North America,” which is replacing the old standard Peterson guide. Her photo matched with the image in the guide for the female in every respect: biggish bill, pale yellow color with a touch of brown in the wings. Sibley’s father taught the ornithology course I took while majoring in wildlife conservation at Cornell. The father was more interested in the interior makeup and genetics of birds than what they looked like in the field. He was not very good at ID-ing birds during field trips. (I wonder if this shortcoming inspired the son’s wonderful and very accurate color drawings of the birds in his field guide.)
The day before, Ellen was walking down the west Barcelona trail when an immature bald eagle flew up with a big woosh and proceeded on a westerly course followed by a bunch of crows, which complained loudly but couldn’t keep up the pace. Ospreys have all gone south, so if you see a very large hawk-like bird all brown in coloration, you are probably looking at an immature eagle. They don’t enter maturity for three or four years after hatching out.
While on Barcelona Ellen found some scat near Staudinger’s Pond and thought it was different from other mammal droppings she had seen in the past. She took a photo of it and sent it to Mike Bottini, whose answer was “otter feces.” A month earlier while visiting the de Menils at the very end of Rousell’s Neck at Barcelona, I was shown a video of what looked like a mink by the grandson Max. After talking to Ms. Stahl, I think I was wrong, it was most likely an otter. In the meantime, keep your eye on Otter Pond in Sag Harbor. It hasn’t had an otter in it for more than a century. At the rate at which Mr. Bottini is documenting the comeback of otters on Long Island, I wouldn’t be surprised if one shows up there in less than a year or two.
All of the winter bird, or Christmas, counts will be completed by the last days of December. Locally, the Montauk Count, which took place on Saturday, is the longest running on the South Fork. It includes Gardiner’s Island, and is about the only time anyone other than its owners, the Goelets, gets to go there. It frequently accounts for the rarest bird seen on Long Island during the year, but Montauk isn’t far behind in that respect. Springs and Amagansett are part of that count territory. The Orient count that follows not only counts the birds on the eastern half of the North Fork, but also on Shelter Island, East Hampton’s Northwest, Sag Harbor, and part of Noyac, including the Elizabeth Morton Wildlife Refuge.
It will be interesting to see how the numbers tallied compare to those from 20 to 40 years ago, before global warming became a threat. We have also learned that North America has lost about three billion birds in the last few years. These end-of-the-year bird counts across the nation are used in conjunction with other counts to provide us with the major ups and down of our national bird population.
If you live in one of the count areas and maintain a feeder or two and you think you have an interesting or rare bird stopping by, give me a call or email me. I’ll see that it gets entered in the right count. Part of me hopes that the summer tanager next door hangs around until the Orient count comes around after Christmas. As far as I can tell, if it shows on a local count day, it will be the first time a summer tanager has been recorded on an eastern Long Island bird count.
Merry holidays and a happy New Year!
Larry Penny can be reached via email at [email protected].