In The Field On Fishers Island

South Fork Outdoors

Publication: Southampton Press,
Published on: Oct 20, 2020
Columnist: Mike Bottini

Photo c/o Dave Denison

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending two days on Fishers Island, the easternmost of an archipelago of islands including Plum, Great Gull and Little Gull, located two miles south of the coast of Connecticut and 10 miles from the closest points to Long Island (Montauk and Orient). Despite its proximity to Connecticut, and sole ferry link to New London, it falls under the jurisdiction of Southold Town, Suffolk County, New York State.

A relatively small piece of glacial moraine, Fishers is a long, narrow piece of land measuring six miles in length and between 1.5 and 0.5 miles in width, with a total land mass of four square miles. For East Enders, by comparison, Shelter Island has 10 square miles of terra firma.

I had last visited the island in 2013, when I surveyed its fresh and tidal waterways for sign of the North American river otter. This time, my quarry was the Eastern coyote.

With the help of Ferguson Museum’s director, Pierce Rafferty, and island resident Terry McNamara, I had mapped several areas that they suggested I focus my survey efforts. Naturalist Tracy Brock, Dartmouth undergrad McKenna Gray, and James Hilton, an undergrad from Columbia University who is interning with the Long Island Coyote Study Group this fall, joined me in the field for day one.

Our goal was to determine suitable sites to collect coyote scats for a year-long study of Fishers’ coyote population. The scats were destined for a laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History, where staff mammologists and geneticists would analyze the material to determine the island coyotes’ diet, which shifts over the year, and the number of coyotes residing on the island.

DNA “fingerprinting” of these coyotes would also enable us to determine the source of the eastern Long Island coyotes: Did they trek east from Queens, bypassing lots of suitable, unoccupied habitat, or did they manage to swim the archipelago from Fishers to Orient?

Our first stop was the large grassland area on the western end of the island, called the “Parade Grounds,” adjacent to the small airport. We managed to collect four scats. All were composed of fruit and berry material, in stark contrast to all the scats collected from Long Island sites this summer and fall, which were entirely fur and bones.

Tracy Brock confirmed the Fishers coyotes’ appetite for fruit: Every single pear disappeared the night before she planned to harvest the fruits on her two quite small pear trees. There wasn’t a single pear left behind — and they had the nerve to leave pear-loaded scats along the adjacent driveway!

We also learned some interesting anecdotal information about the island’s fauna. On Fishers, deer hunters actually outnumber deer this year, and as deer hunting season approaches, the days are numbered for the one deer that resides on the island.

American mink, another Mustelid related to the otter, have found their way onto the island, and in recent years they have obviously bred successfully and are quite commonly seen.

Eastern cottontails, on the other hand, once the most commonly seen four-legged, wild mammal on the island, is no longer as plentiful. Most residents seem to suspect the coyote for that, but the mink is quite capable of making a dent in a relatively small island’s rabbit population.

What most surprised me was the notion that another Mustelid, the fisher (Pekania pennanti), has been sighted on the island. Also known as the fisher cat, despite its common name it does not fish for food and it does not share its otter and mink relatives’ penchant for swimming.

My sense is that, with only a slight difference in body length, the dark brown mink has been occasionally identified as the similarly shaped and colored, but larger, fisher.

We did not have as much luck searching the edges of the golf course property on the east end of the island, until we ran into a woman at one of the island’s trailheads. She directed us to a wooden bridge on the golf course, where we scraped a scat with fur, bones, claws and teeth into our collection bag. A nickel-sized ball of fur wedged firmly between two planks was a challenge to retrieve but was worth the effort: Inside was a small rodent skull.

Lunch break was well-timed, as a soaking torrent of rain passed over the island. Next stops were focused on wooded and grassland areas located in the middle of the island, appropriately named the “Middle Farms.” This area included several otter scent stations, which we checked, finding fresh scats composed of bones and scales, the latter measuring 1/16th of an inch in diameter, and most likely representing the remains of the ubiquitous mummichogs and striped killies that otters found in the adjacent tidal pond.

The earlier downpour seemed to prompt spring peepers out of their daytime resting spots, as a surprising number were noted moving atop the wet leaves of the forest floor. I’m not sure when this hardy, cold-tolerant, 1-inch-long tree frog commences its winter dormancy beneath an insulating layer of leaves, but the cold front may have prompted many to start searching for appropriate winter quarters.

Day two’s goal was to train interested island residents in the relatively simple process of collecting scat. Most important were measures to ensure that the genetic material in the scat did not get contaminated, and noting several key pieces of information on each collection bag.

Before setting out, we ran into Pierce Rafferty and a group of birders, all excited that the previous night’s cold front would prompt many birds to pass over the island en route to their southern wintering grounds. We later confirmed that they had a spectacular “hawk watch,” with kestrels, our smallest falcon, topping the list at 40 sightings for the day.

Two Fishers Island teachers were among the trainees, and they planned to get their students involved in the project. By day’s end, we had collected a total of 12 coyote scats and left the school with a remote camera for the students to experiment with. Perhaps they will prove me wrong and capture an image of a fisher.

In any event, the Fishers Island component of the coyote study is off to a great start.

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