Sunday, April 19, 2015

Plenty of Osprey - and some Eagle Action

The Osprey were out in full force yesterday - I witnessed a pair (from an unknown nest location) mating - the male was nice enough to bring a fresh fish later as well.  The birds on the nest on the banks of the creek shared a fish and flew to their favorite snag across the way to enjoy, while an interloper Osprey came and harassed the established pairs.  For the most part - the Adult BE was sitting in the nest (not as noticeable as the subadult usually is) with the other bird sitting on a nearby tree, preening.

For awhile, the subadult disappeared - we saw a brief chase by an osprey from a nest probably 1 mile to the north, then the bird was gone again.  While waiting for something to happen, one of the Ospreys on the snag across the creek started chirping and took off like a rocket in our direction - we turned around and as expected, the sub-adult was on its way back and the Osprey wasn't having it.  After making its presence known, the Subadult called a few times (as seen in one of the images) and then landed on a tree nearby the nest and well, that was about it.

When Osprey had fish in the area, the subadult wasn't around so there were no chases for food to be seen.  The Eagles were also quite tolerant of a couple boats that passed by - not even acknowledging the noise from the boats (or those working on boats nearby).  At one point, another couple came with their cameras, took a few shots and left.  The most interesting thing we saw was one one of the osprey was eating its fish - a crow landed in the tree, one branch beneath and called incessantly, apparently begging for scraps but the Osprey kept on eating, not even bothering to move or chirp at the intruder.

I hope to get there today - but there of course are no guarantees.  In a week I'll be off on vacation - so I may not be down to check out the Eagles for some time. Lucky for me, I'll be going to a place that has the highest concentration of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 - Seattle and the San Juan Islands!  I'm very much looking forward to it, and can't wait to see these birds in numbers, instead of number 1 and number 2.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

EPCAL - A letter to the Riverhead Town Board

For those of you who subscribe to the NY Bird Listserv - you will have seen a disturbing post by a well respected member of the community.  The past president of ELIAS (and a few others) were harassed by Town Police and given a warning for "trespassing" on the western runway - a vacant runway that has been used by the general public for at least a decade and is the gateway to some of the best wildlife viewing on the island.  After hearing of this absurd response by the Town, I drafted and sent the following letter to members of the Town Board and the Supervisor of the Town of Riverhead.  I urge all of you do draft your own letters and do the same - please contact me or leave a comment if you have any questions or want to know how to contact these elected officials who have decided that PUBLIC LAND is no longer accessible to members of the public.

April 16, 2015

Dear Supervisor Walter and Honorable Council People,

A distinguished member of the birding community and past president of the Eastern Long Island Audubon Society (ELIAS) posted a message about her experience at EPCAL on the New York Birding listserv today.  The message stated that while she and two others were birding the western runway at EPCAL, four (4) police vehicles with a total of five (5) officers showed up and informed the birders that they were trespassing and that the runway was under constant surveillance.  After the officers took everyone’s personal information and issued them a warning, they were told if they were caught offending again that they would be jailed.  While walking is permitted in the adjacent grassland areas, the birders were told they cannot drive or walk on the concrete runway.

This response by the police department is unconscionable.  To threaten members of the community with the prospect of jail for driving their vehicles at a safe and responsible speed on an abandoned runway as they enjoy the sights and sounds of nature runs counter to everything local government should stand for.  As an environmental analyst for the Town of Brookhaven (and avid wildlife photographer), I understand the importance of nature, open spaces and encouraging the public to interact with our natural resources.  

I personally have visited EPCAL countless times over the past six (6) years and have cherished every moment of it, knowing one day it will be altered by development.  I have witnessed short-eared owls hunting at dusk, seen red-tailed hawks soar high above, watched as American Kestrels descend on the property during spring and fall migrations resulting in concentrations of this grassland dependent bird that cannot be found anywhere else on the island.  Discovering a family of fox and their adorable kits was one of my greatest joys I’ve ever had as a nature photographer and listening to the call of the Eastern Meadowlark is one of the truest signs of spring.  These experiences have all been made possible by my ability to traverse the runways in my vehicle in a safe and responsible manner.  In all of my trips to EPCAL I have only once witnessed a vehicle driving at excessive speeds, but on nearly every trip I have enjoyed the beauty that these grasslands offer.

Instead of driving members of the public away (many of them Riverhead Town taxpayers) with big concrete barriers and threats of jail time (for birding!), the Town of Riverhead should be encouraging people to come to EPCAL and enjoy all that it has to offer.  The Town is proud of their efforts to construct a pathway around the border of the property to be used by bikers and joggers alike, but wishes to punish those who want to drive the runways in search of birds, fox, groundhogs and deer.  While it may be easy for some like myself to walk long distances with heavy equipment, there are many others in our community who are not as mobile - nevermind the very real threat that ticks pose to anyone walking in the grasslands.  Driving is easier, safer and allows visitors to see significantly more wildlife.  

It is my hope that the Town of Riverhead can find a happy balance.  Permit vehicles on the western runway from dawn to dusk.  The Town can post speed limit signs and Town police can routinely patrol the area and go after people who are acting in an unsafe manner.  I can assure you that everyone who visits the area would be happy to pay a nominal fee for a runway access permit (with strict guidelines regarding hours, speed, etc.).  If anything, whatever “policy” the Town has chosen for access to the runways should be clarified to the general public.  It is clear that the barriers as installed have not been effective and I can attest that the policies for access have changed many times over the past half decade with no rhyme or reason.  

I ask you, the stewards of Riverhead Town, to please reconsider the policies regarding access to the Western Runway.  Myself and others (particularly members of ELIAS) would be happy to work with you to craft a policy that meets everyone’s interests.  I have attached some of my favorite images from EPCAL taken over the years for you to all enjoy and I ask that you reconsider.  These grasslands are a special resource in your Town and we all know that the land will one day likely be developed - please let myself and others enjoy all it has to offer while it lasts.  Thank you for your time and consideration and I look forward to your responses.  


Luke Ormand

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Bald Eagle Update and a noisy warbler

One day you'll be closer... or I'll be in a kayak
Around noon today I found myself in Robert Cushman County Park in Manorville conducting a baseline inspection for a proposed project nearby.  It was a brief hike in the woods (and I managed a few ticks on my jeans) but Pine Warblers were singing in good numbers.... lighting was well, less than ideal, but I can illustrate the difference between the female (drab) and male (brightly colored) with these photos:

After work I took advantage of the nice weather and headed down to the Bald Eagle nest - but to my disappointment the Adult was once again very far away - perched on the washed up tree, just like last weekend.  The Osprey were both on the nest - but after another osprey passed with a fish (see below) and the male pursued lazily after it, the female headed across the river to a favored perch where the Male joined it for a little preening.  A scan back to the Bald Eagle and I found it was missing - only to locate it far far up in the sky hunting over the bay.  Oh well, maybe this weekend!

Osprey with a flounder that appears to have had its head bitten off

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Osprey Turf Battle

On Saturday my wife and I visited the Eagle/Osprey nest along the south shore.  Once we arrived, my wife quickly spotted the adult BE very far way with her Nikon Binoculars.  Based on measurements on Google Earth, the adult was about 1,500 feet away and basically invisible to the naked eye.  The perch it chose was an uprooted tree that had drifted its way to the marsh over winter - a nice place to hangout during the day and avoid the punishing winds whipping out from the west.  We hung around for about an hour watching and waiting... waiting and watching but all the while the Eagle stayed put, far far away.  A couple boats passed by (including a SC Police Boat) but the bird didn't put up (or flinch).  Some crows and even a close pass by an Osprey failed to get the Eagle to move.  It seems as though the Bald Eagle is quite secure in his territory and superior size and is not overly concerned with defending anything other than its nest (or free food).

While the Eagles were overall rather "boring" (especially when you consider my first visit which saw several Osprey chases and a parental care switch), the Osprey made up for it.  Even with a scope and binoculars (and an assistant) I had a very difficult time keeping track of who was who and what was what.  The female osprey on the nest at the mouth of the creek was very loud - posturing the whole time.  I had seen and heard this before (coupled with the mate flying around with a fish, going very high at times) but it didn't really click that maybe it had to do with mating and courtship.  When I reviewed the photos and did a bit of googling, it became apparent that what we observed (and what I photographed) was the aerial courtship display known as a "sky-dance" which culminated with the male bringing a fresh fish to his life partner.  (You can read more about it here - since it's easier to read than a re-hashed version provided by me:  Osprey Information).


It wasn't until I saw the photos at home that I realized the osprey had brought a whole fish to the nest. When I was observing the various Osprey (including one particularly fun chase) the bird was carrying a half-eaten fish (a very common sight) and I assumed this is what the bird had brought back - but to my surprise it was a nice whole in-tact fish (species unknown).  What interests me is that the Bald Eagle seemed to have no interest in bothering this Osprey (that had the fresh fish) or the other osprey with the half eaten fish.  Perhaps it was too windy to bother, or the Osprey were too far away, or the Eagle just didn't "notice" but it was interesting to see the male Osprey bring a whole fish to the nest with the Bald eagle in view (albeit nearly a 1/4 mile away).

Another fun observation was multiple chases between Osprey.  One would land on the marsh and hangout for a bit - out of the brunt of the wind - until another bird came in and would goad it into a chase.  I believe I counted six (6) different Osprey in the hour that I was there - including one who was making passes at the female on the nest.  I'm aware of at least one nest on the south side of the Eagle nest - but not sure of others but clearly they are around.  What's really amazing is that even when I moved back to NY (12 years ago) Osprey were not terribly common.  Sure there were plenty of occupied nesting platforms - but the thought of so many Osprey fighting for territory with multiple nests in view?  That's something new.  I can only hope we reach that point with Bald Eagles in the not-so-distant future.

Kestrels and Ospreys - They're everywhere!

Around 12:30 my wife and I arrived at EPCAL to do a quick drive through and see what was around and looking for any signs of fox kits.  No fox (just a few fat groundhogs) but there were kestrels - everywhere!  It's my guess that there were at least 30 on the western runway - meaning at least double that when taking the eastern runway into consideration.  There were almost certainly more kestrels to the north at the old radar station and at the cemetery, as these are the other large "grassland" areas around.  While Kestrels can be found throughout the year at EPCAL, during migration (spring and fall) the numbers can really swell.

The problem with Kestrels (at least in these parts) is that they're very skittish and seemingly never stop moving.  There are perches for them everywhere (they really love the old common mullien stalks) and I noticed a few butterflies and dragonflies which they surely are feeding on in addition to small birds and rodents.  There were plenty of red-tailed hawks as well, though they were very high in the sky.  Only saw a handful of Eastern Meadowlarks, and none seemed to be calling out which was a bit disappointing, so with only 1 "decent" shot from EPCAL (despite many attempts) I moved on to Woodhull dam in Riverside which I've heard about in the past but never actually had visited.

The dam is on an offshoot of the Peconic River as it branches off south toward Wildwood Lake.  When the alewife run, they concentrate at this dam in large numbers and make it very easy for the Osprey.  As soon as I arrived I could smell fish in the air - and there was someone canoeing/fishing on the other side of the dam - but I couldn't didn't see any fish despite having my polarized dragon sunglasses on.  While looking in the water I heard the unmistakeable "chirp" of an osprey, and looked up - sure enough there was a big ol' Osprey staring at me.  I actually had to take a step back in order to get the bird completely in the frame (just look at those talons!).  The bird couldn't have cared less that I was there and kept cocking its head to look down at the water, just waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting fish.

Unfortunately for me, the bird wasn't the only one who was really hungry - so I left after a couple minutes (another osprey came by and perched a bit further north, imploring the same tactic).  I'd like to come back again in the near future as the very cold winter has kept water temps low and the alewife push hasn't reached its peak yet.

On the way home we drove down Dune Road in search of the Snowy Owl that had been reported as recently as yesterday, but to no avail.  We didn't look to hard but would have been nice to see it regardless.  A few egrets were the only birds of note as we packed it in for the day, deciding not to stop and check in on the Bald Eagle as it was getting pretty late in the day.  I'm hoping to get out once or twice this week in the evening to take advantage of the warm light and sun that sets a bit later each night.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Neighborhood Merlin

A few weeks ago I was out the door a few minutes early on a Friday morning in order to get to a Natural History conference - as I got to a stop sign a block away I saw a small bird on a neighbors snag and turned down that road to get a closer look.  Sure enough - a Merlin, and it had prey.  I called my wife and asked if she could get my camera bag and bring it to the door to save me from having to go get it... a couple minutes later I was photographing the bird as it consumed what I later determined to be a House Sparrow (non-native/invasive species, so as prey items go this was a great choice!).

On my way home from the conference it was snowing and I hoped the Merlin would be there - but I wasn't in luck.  My wife returned home a few minutes later to report she saw an Osprey nearby so I headed out to try and get a shot of that bird in the snow which certainly would make for an unusual shot.  By the time I got to the location the Osprey was gone, but as I returned back home, who was there waiting for me?  The Merlin.

The next morning as I left to go look for birds - I lucked out a 3rd time.  There was the Merlin on the same tree and this time the sun was actually shining!  What a treat.

Haven't seen the bird since (it has likely migrated north as they don't breed this far south) but this morning while running near the Swan River I saw two falcons - I'm quite confident they were Peregrines but have only seen them around here once and it's possible they were Merlin.  Either way, anytime you get to see a falcon this close (to me AND to my home) it's a real treat.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Warm day for some Spring Birds

One of the advantages  of my job is being able to get out "in the field" every now and then.  Today I had to walk a very large site which may potentially be developed as a solar farm as well as check out a piece of Open Space to ensure no dumping has occurred, check on the status of the vegetation and see if I could spot any new species for that location.  As a bonus, I was able to go visit the Bald Eagle nest at lunch - though it was probably 10 degrees cooler down by the water!

The first site wasn't too thrilling - very thick woods.  I wasn't expecting to see anything, especially this early in spring but there's always the potential for nesting owls or a fox den, however the habitat isn't quite right for fox (at least where I walked).  I did hear one distinct call - a very notable trill but couldn't figure it out.  As luck would have it, a friend of mine posted a video on facebook later in the day with audio of the same call, and with the help of others we determined it to be the aptly named Pine Warbler.  Reading this blurb from Cornell's website certainly confirms this is the bird I was hearing:

The best way to find Pine Warblers is to narrow them down by habitat and voice. Head for a pine forest in the eastern United States (check a range map for specifics), and then listen for a clear, steady, trilling song. Chipping Sparrows and 
Dark-eyed Juncos sound very similar and can occur in the same habitats, so be aware you might find these birds instead. Pine Warblers tend to stay high in pines and can be obscured by tufts of needles, but a bit of patience is likely to be rewarded.

When I got to the second site (AKA lunch spot) I enjoyed a sandwich waterside while observing the osprey on their still shabby looking nest.  One of the birds brought some nesting material before disappearing and I could see an Eagle on the nest in the distance.  After lunch I observed the Osprey fiddling with some twigs in the nest, adjusting their position.  It's really incredible to look at the construction of these things and imagine them being put together by talons and beaks.  I spent quite a bit of time scanning the surroundings my new Nikon binoculars - but couldn't locate the "Adult" Eagle anywhere.  It was confirmed that it wasn't anywhere near me when another pair of osprey (I believe nesting to the west of the Eagles) soared high in the sky chirping very loudly.  If the Adult BE was around it probably would have made its presence known.

Since the tide was low, I was able to take advantage of a spit of sand that juts out into the creek which was covered with just a couple inches of water.  My new waterproof Salamon hiking shoes (which I bought for an upcoming trip) worked as advertised - submerged in about 3 inches of water and not a drop on the inside.  So much better than lugging some overshoes or wading boots around... As I scanned the marsh again (where I saw the Eagle on Friday) I watched as 4 Great Blue Herons landed.  I thought this to be odd, because aside from maybe seeing two together in a marsh, I'd never seen these birds together (especially not flying together).  A quick check of Cornell's website shows that
these birds are solitary except when on migration - so there you have it!

I re-located the two Osprey - busy preening on a snag across the creek, near the Eagle nest.  Not sure if this was intentional or not, but likely making their continual presence and "ownership" of the area known.  With my lunch break over, I headed out to a property known as "Pheasant Meadow" which Brookhaven Town purchased in conjunction with Suffolk County and preserves as a meadow habitat. The property has a wide variety of wildlife (I'll include the list I've made later if I can remember to find it) and is a unique habitat worth talking a walk through if you're in the area.  I wouldn't be surprised if Eagle's began nesting on the southern tip (known as Haven's Estate) within the next 5 years due to the habitat and location.  While wildlife wasn't terribly abundant here - I did see one raptor though couldn't ID it and spent a few minutes photographing the very active Tree Swallows, including 1 who was very curious about a nest box that the Eastern Long Island Audubon Society (ELIAS) had erected.

I love when an opportunity like this presents itself.  With more time and my tripod I could have gotten the "perfect shot" but I'll take what I got considering.  Whenever a bird returns to a perch consistently, and you have good lighting behind you - you pre-focus your camera and wait until the bird approaches before firing off shots.  Sure, 9 out of 10 will be terrible, but sometimes you get lucky!  With at tripod and a remote trigger, this is really easy because you don't have to hold the camera and have both eyes available to see when the bird comes back to the perch.  I hope to try this again sometime soon with even better results.

As my time int he field would down I got two new birds for the property on my way out - a Northern Flicker and a Purple Finch.  And lastly I heard a rustling that I knew I wasn't responsible for and looked down to find this little guy: