Nature Notes: Spring Awakening

There is still a lot of food out there to be had in the fields and woods — the leftovers of fall
Amid a light rain, a flock of an estimated 1,000 red-winged blackbirds rose from a Wainscott field last week, a sure harbinger that spring is soon to come. Terry Sullivan

One would think that with this mild weather and melting snow the area would come alive with all sorts of wildlife that, except for the gray squirrels, has largely been in hiding. 

Indeed, on Feb. 8 my chipmunk came scurrying out and about, picking up sunflower seeds that had dropped from the feeder outside my bedroom window. It was also there the next day, but then, after the snowstorm, it disappeared. That is very early for chipmunks to emerge from hibernation, but it has happened before, about four years ago, when I saw one scamper about during a February thaw at Morton National Wildlife Refuge, finding seeds that the birds had missed.

Terry Sullivan had a red-winged blackbird at his feeder on Sunday, and a week before that saw a flock of a thousand or so blackbirds in Wainscott. White-throated sparrows, tufted titmice, juncos, chickadees, and a few cardinals have been coming to my feeder, up until Monday, when none appeared. Even the overwintering Carolina wren, which sings two or three songs every day, was absent.

Why fuss with sunflower seeds and the like when the warm weather and disappearing snow lets you carry on as you normally would, sans bird feeders? There is still a lot of food out there to be had in the fields and woods — the leftovers of fall.

One would think that animals such as raccoons, foxes, opossums, and cottontails would become active on such warm days and mild nights. The way I measure mammalian activity is by counting roadkills on the South Fork’s back roads. They have been very scarce thus far this winter. However, on Monday a freshly killed raccoon and cottontail rabbit showed up on the south side of Long Beach Road, which connects Noyac with North Haven. Terry alerted me about the raccoon, and when I went to see it, I also spotted the cottontail. The raccoon may have been the largest that I have ever encountered.

Does it mean that the raccoon and cottontail populations are at a low locally? And while there have been several gray squirrel roadkills and a few deer, I’ve encountered only two or three roadkill opossums. Opossums generally are the most likely to turn up dead on roads, after gray squirrels, which over the 30 years that I have been keeping roadkill records have always been the animal to be run over most frequently.

In Noyac this has been a slow year for deer to come into yards. They usually walk down the edge of the road and enter a yard that way, leave, return to the road, visit another yard, and so on. I’ve queried several Noyac residents, and most shake their head and ask, “Where are the deer?”

On Monday while checking out the roadkill, I surveyed the three osprey nests along Long Beach Road — not an osprey back yet. But by the middle of February almost every year that I’ve resided on the South Fork, someone has reported an osprey back at this time. Don’t be surprised if several turn up this week and next.

I have yet to see a robin, but if I do, I won’t be able to tell if it is one of the overwinterers — all males — that regularly show up at Barcelona and neighboring areas during the Orient bird count at the end of December.

Crows come by every day. Two were roosting not too far from the two roadkills at Long Beach. Roadkills make up a large part of crows’ diets on Long Island, not so much where there are as many vultures as crows in the states south of New York.

Herring gulls also make a racket in the morning near my house, which is close to Noyac Bay. They never seem to mind the cold and spend a lot of time sailing back and forth, hardly moving a feather. I don’t know where the bald eagles are. They generally don’t migrate, but I haven’t been receiving reports of them.

The usual numbers of Canada geese are around. They feed in the farm fields during the day and spend the nights resting on freshwater ponds such as Hook Pond, as well as Georgica Pond and Mecox Bay and on Shorts Pond at the edge of the Atlantic Golf Course on the north side of Scuttlehole Road in Bridgehampton. Funny, when I was a boy growing up on the North Fork, to see a Canada goose was a sight to behold. These days you see them almost everywhere, more common in winter, but even as breeders in the summer.

There is now a China goose that mysteriously showed up in the water where the ducks are fed at the edge of the Nature Trail on the north side of David’s Lane in East Hampton Village. Terry was able to photograph it; Dell Cullum verified it.

While it was warm and peaceful across most of the South Fork on Monday, where the stream from the Nature Conservancy’s Sagg Swamp Preserve enters Sagg Pond, Terry witnessed a sad event in the morning. A large number of carp were milling about, trapped, as it were, in the stream, because the pond had been let out and there was no water left south of the bridge.

On the one hand, carp are an exotic species from Eurasia, but long naturalized in America. On the other hand, they serve a valuable purpose in coastal ponds such as Sagg and Georgica as they are vegetarians and keep the aquatic vegetation from overpopulating the ponds, which can lead to fish kills of native species when the vegetation dies and rots. And ospreys feed on them. 

Thus far, I have heard of no national plan from the new administration to round them up and ship them back to Eurasia.


Larry Penny can be reached via email at

A Chinese goose has turned up at the Nature Trail in East Hampton Village. Terry Sullivan