Nature Notes: The Ups and Downs

2018 was the fourth warmest year for the world on record
During a bird count last month in the Cedar Point to Grace Estate area, Victoria Bustamante came across these trees decorated with shells. Victoria Bustamante

One of the big birds counted in the Dec. 29 Orient Christmas Bird Count, which includes North Haven, was the female Barrrow’s goldeneye, seen by Terry Sullivan, who has been covering that territory during annual count for 26 years running. 

Victoria Bustamante covered the Cedar Point-Grace Estate territory. Her biggest find was not a bird but a new tree “species” for the area, the whelk tree (see photo). I’ll have more on the Orient Count and the others that took place across Long Island in the weeks before and after Christmas, but first a look at the warming climate, which may account for some of the newest birds to be tallied on these counts.

It turns out that 2018, was the fourth warmest year for the world on record. The final results are not in yet: So far the warmest year on record was 2016; 2015 was the next warmest, and 2017 was the third warmest. In other words: The four warmest years on record were in the last four years! Something is indeed happening out there. 

As of Monday, the nighttime temperature so far this month in Noyac, where I live, had yet to drop below 26, which is an auspiciously mild start for normally the coldest month of every year since1850.

However warm it is becoming, we must remember that 100 million years ago when green plants were developing, tropical species were trapped and fossilized in Canada. We also should take note of the fact that only 20,000 years ago, the glaciers extended throughout the Northern Hemisphere and reached far down across Asia and into Europe, and into the United States to what we now call the temperate zone, say, almost to Missouri. In the distant past, when oil and coal were being deposited in great volumes underground, heat was generated by other than carbon-based fuels.

Although the burning of fossil fuels must be having a significant effect on the latest surge in warm weather years, the story of the world’s ups and downs in climates and sea level rises and falls is a long and varied one. Seas came and went, some reached inland as far as Kentucky and the rest of the Appalachians, where marine fossils can still be found. Plus, the weight of the glaciers pressed on the land, lowering it. As they melted the land popped up a bit and apparently is still rising in many coastal areas. Ergo, sea level is not only a function of melting glaciers and rising seas, but also of sinking and rising of continental coasts.

I was talking with Jean Held after getting the Montauk bird count figures. When discussing the increase of such southern birds as the Carolina wren, mockingbird, and red-bellied woodpecker, to name few of the southern species now found in northern winters, she commented that all of our birds were once only residents in the south. When I thought about it, I had to agree. Yes, sparrows, robins, warblers, and the like now breed at our latitude and farther north, but during the time of the great glaciers — the ones that created 90 percent of Long Island’s land mass — these birds were not here.

As the glaciers retreated, the birds began to extend their ranges farther and farther to the north, while the few northern species that were present — snowy owls, for example — went farther north, all the way to the Arctic Circle. Migration, which started merely as range extensions in order to decrease the competition for food and nesting areas, kept building, until more than 200 species of what we now call North American birds breed at our latitude and farther north in southern Canada each year. As the late naturalist Gil Raynor once pointed out, a few, such as the great black-backed gull, even extended their breeding ranges in a southerly direction.

Recently, the East Hampton Town supervisor was quoted as saying global warming is likely responsible for the onslaught of the southern pine borer beetle that has been ravaging our pitch pines so badly lately, but what he probably didn’t know is that that same species of beetle has been spreading south into Central America and ravaging pines there, as well. Insects are what we call poikilothermic. In other words, they are cold-blooded; their body temperatures take on the temperature of the air or water surrounding them.

We are losing our eelgrass beds, which is bad for a lot of the shellfish we like to eat and that helped feed the 

irst residents of Long Island — the Shinnecocks, Montauketts, Corchaugs, Poospatucks, and others — for thousands of years before we got here. Some say it is the rising temperatures of the shallow marine waters in which they grow, but eelgrass, Zostera marina, grows up and down both American coasts and throughout European and Asian seas as well. Ours was probably adapted to doing well in colder temperatures, but eelgrass will flourish again, unless the growing pollution in the Peconics and Great South Bays accounts for much of the mortality experienced here.

Long Island in its first years free from the overriding glaciers came to look like the tundra of the Arctic Circle, then developed slowly into a taiga of larch, spruce, firs, birch, and other species of trees that now grow farther north in a band that circles the Northern Hemisphere. The white pines that make up the southern portion of parts of the North American taiga still grow in the Northwest area of East Hampton Town, but very rarely elsewhere on Long Island.

Certainly it would slow things down a bit if we all drove around in electric vehicles that derived their energy from solar panels, not by burning gasoline, but we have to be careful in our prognostications about climate change: It is highly unlikely that oil, gas, and electric heat will be converted overnight into heat from the sun or wind, although many politicians have promised such a complete metamorphosis in as little as 10 to 20 years from now. In the meantime, I’ll try to enjoy the warmer winters, as the thought of becoming a snowbird and overwintering in Florida every year doesn’t excite me at all.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at