The primary mission of the Great South Bay Audubon Society is to advocate for the conservation of habitats for native birds and other native wildlife on Long Island.
On the Chapter's January nature walk to Montauk Point and the South Fork, which I had the pleasure of co-leading with John Gluth, we saw some terrific birds. The focus of this trip is always on wintering seabirds, including various sea ducks and gulls, gannets and the much sought-after alcids. They did not disappoint. As we progressed our way through the trip, it occurred to me that the theme of this trip, and the December Montauk trip, as well, is really the ocean. In true Audubon naturalist fashion, our participants took equal pleasure in sightings of marine mammals. These, also, did not disappoint. In fact, collectively, the trip saw representatives of three major groupings, out of four that frequent our waters, on this really fun trip.
First up, we saw several true seals, although fewer than average. Generally, we see Gray Seals and Harbor Seals, but this year the grays were a no-show. Secondly, several of our group saw spouts of baleen whales. Northern Right Whales and Fin Whales are probably the most common locally in winter, but I would welcome input from readers more knowledgeable than I. We don't get to see whales every year, but these sightings do seem to be increasing on this trip. More about whales later.
In what I believe to be a land-based GSBAS nature walk first, we saw representatives of a third marine mammal group, as well, the ocean dolphins. This is a diverse group with over thirty species worldwide, including Killer Whales, formerly considered to be in the porpoise family. I have never seen dolphins in area waters in January, so this was quite unexpected. We saw dolphin pods in both Block Island Sound and Fort Pond Bay. The consensus among the group was that these were either Short-beaked Common Dolphins or Atlantic White-sided Dolphins. Dolphins and whales, as we all know, make extensive use of echolocation, or sonar, for communication, locating prey, and other activities. As our world is largely sight-dominated, theirs is sound-dominated.
Over the years, I have seen many whale researchers postulate that human generated noise in the oceans could be disruptive to marine mammals. Several years ago, marine mammal beach strandings were correlated with experiments being conducted by the Navy for anti-submarine warfare. These involved intense pulses of sonar blasts. The Navy subsequently modified their technology in an attempt to mitigate this impact. More recently, researchers have studied the impacts of commercial ship traffic, including cargo ships, oil tankers, and cruise ships. The engine and propeller noise these large vessels generate is considerable. Researchers at the Boston Aquarium have implemented very clever research techniques to study the effect of ship traffic on Northern Right Whales, the entire population of which is a precarious 475 individuals. They collected whale droppings, which float on the surface when fresh, and measured the levels of stress hormones. They then correlated this data with the amount of ship traffic. Their method of collection was a particularly innovative example of low-tech brilliance. They trained a dog to sniff out whale droppings on the water surface and lead the boat's driver in the direction. No, I am not joking! After analyzing all of the data, they determined that the whales were, indeed, highly stressed by the presence of ship traffic. This is likely to have impacts on reproductive success and may contribute to the dangerously low population of these whales.
Why were they there?
So why were dolphins present in local waters in January? The water temperature that day was 10C, three degrees above the historical average for the day. Is that enough of a variance to make a difference? Three degrees in the ocean is actually quite a lot, considering that 10C is an average water temperature for Montauk for early May. I suspect that this unusually warm winter allowed various schools of fish to remain in shallow local waters, where they were being exploited by the dolphins. I welcome input from our readers on this question.
In our previous column, we published a criticism of a photo caption from the Journal of Coastal Research. Post-publication, I sent the column to the journal editor, Dr. Charles Finkl. Here is his reply: " I unfortunately did not write the caption to the cover photo. I don't know much about penguins, but I must agree that they probably do not need icebreakers to clear the ice pack. The photo was from a friend of mine, a non-scientist and I perhaps should have caught the anthropomorphism in the caption. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. For the other point in my paper, it was just an idea and suggesting a theoretical possibility. It was a fun project, but in reality it probably will never be done. But then, as we get more desperate for resources all kinds of things will change, including rules and regulations." Apology accepted.