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  • Petrina Engelke

North Fork Audubon Society's John Sepenoski talks about Birds on Plum Island

Updated: Jan 4

During fall migration, birds need green places to rest – and to them, Plum Island has it all: Placed right on their path to the South, full of plants and insects also know as food, and no humans, dogs or cats to disturb the peace. Right? We asked John Sepenoski, North Fork Audubon Society’s compiler of data for the famous Christmas Bird Count, who is also a Southold Town GIS engineer.

John, which birds will stop over at Plum Island during fall migration, and for which ones should we look out at the shores of the North Fork?

Fall migration is mostly the usual species and the same ones that would be encountered throughout the North Fork. However, on the Audubon New York surveys we recorded three significant rarities in the fall. Based on eBird, Say’s Phoebe appear only in the eastern Suffolk County record; Ash-throated Flycatcher only Town of Southold record; Northern Wheatear only the second Town of Southold record. I can’t really quantify this, but having these three rarities is meaningful, especially when you consider the fact that, for obvious reasons, there is far more birding happening on the North Fork than on Plum Island.

Besides the Animal Disease Center on the west end of Plum Island, the island is not inhabited. How do migrating birds benefit from this?

That’s hard to really say definitively. The entire island is routinely patrolled by security and there is significant activity in other areas, in particular the former barracks area where there is a small firehouse, equipment storage and heliport. The former parade ground area is routinely mowed. The island definitely provides plenty of habitat for migrating species, but the assumption is that if the island is preserved and managed differently, it would enhance the habitat both for migrating and resident species.

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center controls wild mammals on the island. Which birds benefit from a lack of predators?

They mainly control deer, which aren’t predators as far as birds go. While we were surveying, they would occasionally undertake efforts to control raccoons, but there were always plenty of them left. The most obvious damage we saw from the raccoons was destroying turtle nests, but they likely were predating some bird species as well. Circa the 1990s, there was a documented heronry on the island. But it disappeared after raccoons arrived, either via construction materials or - depending on who tells the story - a fisherman live trapping them in Orient and letting them go nearshore so they could swim to Plum Island. If the island is preserved and managed differently, including dealing with the raccoons, it would benefit birds and other wildlife on the island and potentially end up with a heronry again.

We hear that on Plum Island, ospreys nest on the ground. Is that true?

No. We never found a ground nest of ospreys during the surveys. All nests we found were on manmade platforms. The ground nesting story probably comes from an old Roy Latham report that I believe was likely from pre-lab times. Raccoons would be a good explanation for why there are no ground nests. There are some ground nests on the North Fork, however. There were two this year in East Marion within a couple hundred feet of each other.



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