Nature Notes: Ravens at Havens

Not too long ago the raven was considered to be threatened in New York State, but just like the osprey it has come back strong
Ravens, like this one photographed at Havens Beach in Sag Harbor, were once considered threatened in New York State but have come back strong. Terry Sullivan

It’s that time of year when all of the birds start arriving and setting up homesteads here on eastern Long Island. More and more southern birds have been overwintering so it has become hard to say which ones are year-round residents and which ones are part-timers.

The most common early spring arrivals — the grackles, the redwings, and the robins — have been back for almost a month. In all three the males arrive three or four weeks before the females. The sexes are segregated until it is time to breed.

Last Thursday in the grassy strip between the sidewalk and Main Street in Sag Harbor near the library, there was a bunch of little dirt mounds, each one only a few inches apart from the closest neighbor. The earthworms had come up during the dampish evening. Before earthworms show up on lawns, they show up on the grassy shoulders of roads; that’s why the male robins seem to prefer hunting on the road shoulders while they wait for the females to return.

The redwing blackbird males started singing their screechy territorial songs early on, even before the females arrived. Each male serially courts more than one female, so the males stake out their territories early. Year-round residents have just begun singing their mating songs. Male cardinals were singing outside my window on Sunday but were quiet on Monday after the snowstorm.

In the last five or six years, some of the part-time residents have become full time. The turkey vulture is one such bird. Bob Adamo, a longtime birder of note, has been keeping track of the vultures that roost in trees and on buildings on both sides of Roanoke Avenue in Riverhead for several years. The winter flocks have been increasing and there are now as many as 55 turkey vultures in that area. This year they have been joined by three black vultures, much rarer to Long Island than the sibling species. It’s too early to tell whether this is another sign of global warming or just another case of a southern bird extending its range because it has become such a successful breeder and because its food supply, namely roadkill, has become more common as a direct result of the annual increase in motor vehicle traffic on our roads.

Ravens are also becoming a local item. A pair has been breeding on the Hampton Bays Water District water storage tower for at least four years running, but now other pairs are seen farther east. Indeed, Terry Sullivan photographed a pair on the ground at Havens Beach in Sag Harbor a week ago. Not too long ago the raven was considered to be threatened in New York State, but just like the osprey it has come back strong. When I was a boy growing up on the North Fork, we had neither ravens nor vultures.

And what about our national bird, the bald eagle? There are at least five nests on Long Island, one on Gardiner’s Island more than 10 years running. Just about everyone has seen one of them flying over the road here or there thus far this spring, but we have yet to find a nest on the South Fork proper, even though there have been more and more sightings each year.

The ospreys are back, notwithstanding the four back-to-back northeasters with gale-force winds and snowfalls in March. On Monday, there were two pairs on two of the Long Beach nests in Noyac and singletons on the newish nest on North Haven on the north end of the Route 114 bridge into Sag Harbor. Another was seen on a tree limb near the nest on the west side of Payne’s Cove in Noyac east of Noyac Road. Jean Held told me that Edi Kelman, who keeps track of the nest in Mashashimuet Park in Sag Harbor, had reported that it was occupied again by a pair of ospreys. Jean researched her photo collection and to her surprise discovered that she had photographed that very nest with baby ospreys in 2010, in other words, it has been used every year since.

Howard Reisman, who lives on North Sea Harbor and has been keeping track of Long Island’s largest alewife run since the very early 1970s, reported that they are back. However, the main entourage is still out there somewhere in Peconic Bay or the harbor. He’s seen several dead alewives at the little bridge on Noyac Road, where the stream runs to Big Fresh Pond, where their spawning area originates. He has also noted several ospreys overhead, the usual bunch of black-crowned night herons in the trees along the stream and at least one bald eagle making circles in the sky. Alewives and ospreys go together like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Karl Nilsen, who took a marvelous photograph of the brown booby that was hanging around Lake Montauk in the fall, just photographed the earliest local breeding bird of all, the great horned owl. An adult and an almost fully grown young one in what looked like an old red-tailed hawk nest in a tree in North Sea. By nesting as early as mid-January, these large owls get to pick the best nests constructed by a hawk or crow in the previous year, thus all they have to do is fix them up a bit. The risk must be worth it.

One last note: You may have read that the North Atlantic right whale population, which numbers only 300 to 400 individuals, has failed to produce a single calf this year. This was the whale of choice for those early South Fork settlers who waited and watched for one to come close enough to shore so they could launch a whaleboat through the surf and row out to harpoon it, a very dangerous way of making a living. The last one to be harpooned in this fashion was taken in the early 1900s by a crew off East Hampton’s shores. I was told by the late Norman Edwards, a scion of that great fishing family, that its skeleton is hanging from the ceiling of the American Museum of Natural History.

The installation of 16 or more 600-foot-tall wind turbines directly in the south-to-north migration route of this highly endangered species is a risky idea. When there were only 27 California condors remaining, they were all caught alive, taken to zoos, and bred “in house,” so to speak. As of the end of 2016 there were more than 400 back in nature. How would one go about capturing and breeding right whales, which can be 70 feet long and weigh up to 150,000 pounds? 75 tons? Impossible, yes, impossible!

Larry Penny can be reached via email at