Cold Winter Takes its Toll on East End Wildlife


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Swans, Canada Geese and baby deer have been particularly affected by the cold weather this year, as snow cover has limited their food source. Photo by Michael Heller. 

By Mara Certic

Watching swans can be a serene, almost ethereal, experience. Tuesday morning, however, a group of wildlife rescue volunteers spent several hours wracking their brains to figure out how to save an immobile swan in Sag Harbor Cove, before eventually allowing nature to take its course.

Volunteer Jane Gill said she got to the causeway on Redwood Road next to WLNG just after 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning when she spotted two sluggish-looking swans huddling on the ice, about 100 feet away from the shore.

The cove was frozen in spots but the ice wasn’t particularly thick, and Ms. Gill said she knew it was too dangerous to walk out onto the ice and that she couldn’t retrieve the bird.  She called Sag Harbor Village Police, who would not help her get to the birds, she said, and told her not to try herself.

One of the two swans was not moving, the other seemed more alert, but wasn’t leaving its mate’s side. Swans, like black vultures, and some other animals, mate for life and are known to go into deep depressions when their partners die.

Eventually the more mobile swan made its way off the ice and swam under the causeway, where it looked for food under water.

After much time was spent trying to find a kayak or canoe, the zoom lens on a camera showed that the stationary swan’s head appeared to be frozen under the water. The would-be rescuers decided it was too late to save the animal and any effort would only put one of their lives in danger.

The Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays keeps a flat-bottomed boat at its facility in Hampton Bays for this sort of situation, according to the president of the center, James Hunter.

According to Mr. Hunter, this winter has taken a heavy toll on the animals of the East End, in particular waterfowl. The center has had 11 animals brought in this week so far, and 124 since January 1.

“It hasn’t been good,” he said on Wednesday morning. “Long snow coverage here has denied them food, and the first muscle that deteriorates in a Canada Goose, say, is the wing muscle.” He said the center currently has dozens of the birds at its facility. They give the birds some “r&r” he said, and fatten them up before releasing them back over the water.

Healthy swans can go a month without eating, Mr. Hunter said, which suggests that the swan  that perished in Sag Harbor Cove this week was likely already ill.

“It could have been old age,” Mr. Hunter said, “Swans do die.”

By Tuesday evening, the dead swan’s mate had swam back toward the dead bird and appeared to be settling in there for the night.