One long day, 220 species identified

06/10/2010 12:00 AM |

PHOTO COURTESY OF RICHARD KASKAN
This woodchuck was photographed at the Swan Lake golf course in Manorville during last month’s Fauna-thon, during which nature lovers fanned out across the East End to record animal sightings.

Southold resident Gigi Spates trudged through the muddy wetlands with friend and fellow naturalist Evelyn Voulgarelis. They’d been tracking wildlife together since the early morning, each hoping to catch a glimpse of some rare species but with little success. Nothing unusual had crossed their paths in nearly six hours.

Suddenly, Ms. Voulgarelis stopped short and motioned for Ms. Spates to join her. Following her friend’s gestures, Ms. Spates peeked down a small channel near the trail’s edge and scanned the water, holding her breath as she grabbed the binoculars for a closer look. There, some distance down the channel, a spotted turtle basked in the hot noon sun of mid-May.

“I was very excited,” Ms. Spates said later. “I didn’t see one last year, and I didn’t see one the year before. I suspect nobody has seen a spotted turtle in a couple of years. It was lucky. Really, it was quite lucky that we saw it.”

Her sighting was one of many in this year’s Fauna-thon, an annual event organized by the Group for the East End, an environmental advocacy and education organization founded in 1972. More than 220 kinds of animals were spotted during the day-long search two weeks ago, including Ms. Spates’ rare spotted turtle, the survival of which is officially of “special concern” in several U.S. states.

Every year, individuals and organizations pledge to donate a certain amount of money for every species identified during the Fauna-thon — the more species spotted, the more money raised for Group for theEast End’s environmental education program. For most participants, through, the event is a fun way to get outside and appreciate Long Island’s diverse spectrum of critters.

Participants this year saw a wide variety of birds, including Baltimore orioles, goldfinches and indigo buntings. Altogether, Fauna-thon spotters identified 156 birds, 14 mammals, eight amphibians, six reptiles and 37 butterflies and dragonflies, raising an estimated $4,500 for environmental education programs on the East End.

“Some people might say, ‘So what?’â” said Ms. Spates. “But we need that diversity because they have a place. They have a niche in life, and without them, we lose that little niche that keeps the fabric of the environment together.”

“People just aren’t aware of the range of natural diversity that’s out here. That’s the best way to describe it,” said Fauna-thon organizer Steve Biasetti, a veteran East End environmentalist. “People are sometimes shocked to know that harbor seals are around on the shores for much of the year, or that we can have snowy owls visiting our shores in the winter.”

Since the Fauna-thon began 15 years ago, the event has raised more than $70,000. Mr. Biasetti, who serves as the group’s director of environmental education, visits elementary and middle school classrooms during the year, showing kids the wonders of wildlife and teaching them how to identify different species.

“His enthusiasm is just so catching,” said Fauna-thon participant Iren Tully. “He makes it so reachable … I never realized just how many species we’ve got here, and that should be advertised. We are unique. Let’s be grateful and protective of that and get other people to notice.”

According to Mr. Biasetti, Fauna-thon participants have spotted 248 of the 460 bird species found in New York State, an enormous concentration of diversity for such a relatively small geographic area.

Richard Kaskan, a birdwatcher who spent most of the Fauna-thon searching for species in Southold and Riverhead, started the day at 4 a.m. with a pair of binoculars, a telescope, a notebook and a large stack of three-by-five cards, jotting down the names of species including whippoorwills and other migrants that pass through Long Island.

“It’s sort of a quirky thing to be interested in,” Mr. Kaskan said. “Most people know they have robins in their yard, but most people probably wouldn’t have guessed that you could see so many other types of species.”

bdegnan@timesreview.com

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