Designated as a Wild and Scenic River by the US Department of the Interior and a Scenic and Recreational River by the state of New York, the Peconic River is a natural gem located at the gateway to the North Fork.
With its headwaters located near Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, it slowly flows eastward as it winds through pristine pine barrens. Approaching downtown Riverhead, the water begins to become salty and eventually empties into Flanders Bay. Each of these habitats is home to a plethora of wildlife that can be easily viewed from shore or by my preferred method, a kayak.
Although raccoons are primarily a nocturnal animal, you can frequently catch a glimpse of the local masked bandit at dawn and dusk. For many, seeing a raccoon is anything but exciting. They are typically considered a nuisance as they root through trash cans making a mess, kill livestock such as chickens and ducks, and can potentially carry the rabies virus. However, seeing one in its natural setting is quite a treat. Having five toes on their front paws, they are quite dexterous, which allows them to easily feed on a wide variety of food items. Fruits, plants, insects, clams, crayfish, fish, eggs, birds and even other small mammals are all on the menu for a racoon.
To aid in a raccoon’s nighttime lifestyle is a distinctive “mask” located around the animal’s eyes. Similar to athletes applying black grease on their cheeks, it’s believed that this mask reduces glare and allows them to see better in dark conditions.
Birds are extremely plentiful in all areas of the Peconic River. An abundance of food in the way of insects attracts flocks of tree swallows. These small, aerobatic birds zip through the air like fighter jets, snatching bugs with ease while still on the wing. Usually nesting in tree cavities, they will regularly take up residence in birdhouses placed along the shoreline.
The cedar waxwing is a beautiful songbird that usually feeds on fruits such as cedar berries, strawberries, mulberries, raspberries, mistletoe, juniper, and honeysuckle. During summer months it will often switch to a diet consisting of insects, especially when presented with a new hatch of winged insects.
Not all of the birds you spot will be feasting on insects. Closely investigating the water’s edge, you have the potential to spot several types of wading birds. Many of the species you encounter will be fairly large and conspicuous (i.e. snowy egrets, great egrets and blue herons). They will prod and poke the shallows, catching small fish, frogs and even snakes.
One species, however, will require a keen eye to notice. The green heron is much smaller than wading birds. Their plumage allows them to easily blend into their jungle-like surroundings. They too search for small fish along the shore of the river, but their technique is much more sophisticated than the egrets and blue heron. They are one of the few birds that use tools to assist in feeding. Researchers have documented green herons dropping insects, twigs, feathers and other objects into the water in order to lure small fish within striking distance of their lightning fast bill.
Reptiles are also rather plentiful along the river. Every patch of water where light penetrates the forest canopy, turtles will bask in the warmth of the sun. Pond turtles, like all reptiles, are cold-blooded animals. This means their body temperature is the same as their surroundings. Lying in the sun not only warms their core temperature, it aids in digestion. Painted turtles are one of several native pond turtles that can be found in the freshwater reaches of the Peconic. Sadly, red-eared sliders are becoming a more common sight along the banks of the river in recent years. Originating from the Mississippi River Basin, red-eared sliders are commonly sold in pet stores. This fast-growing turtle quickly outgrows its tank and becomes difficult to care for. At this point, they are “set free” (which is completely illegal) into local ponds. Once released, they are very capable of surviving in the wild. Unfortunately, they are an extremely aggressive species that will displace native species, such as the painted turtle.
Another group of animals well represented along the river are amphibians (frogs, toads and salamanders), with the king being the bullfrog. The largest of North American frogs, they can grow to eight inches and weigh up to one pound. As an ambush predator, they will sit and wait for something to come within striking distance of their large mouths. Insects, fish, snakes, small turtles, small mammals, birds and even other bullfrogs are all possible prey for a hungry bullfrog.
The Peconic River is often overshadowed by fish kills, algal blooms and other environmental issues. Although the Peconic is facing these issues, it is not a “doom and gloom” scenario. The Peconic River is still a beautiful place, full of scenic views and fascinating wildlife that is worthy of exploration.
With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. Additionally, he is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Paparo on Facebook and Instagram @fishguyphotos.