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In spite of a rainy and very hot summer, the residents of each community on Fire Island made the best of the weather and still called the island a paradise. And, there are those who will put aside the inconvenience of what nature has in store for them and look forward to enjoying the beach even in the winter. But, only a few year-round residents will stay on Fire Island. There will be no grocery, hardware or doctor and few ways to get off the island. It is a quieter and more peaceful time on the island. In the winter, the beaches and dunes are blanketed in soft, white snow and the shapes of driftwood and storm fences can be seen poking through the drifts. Those few people who stay are the ones who will experience the solitude and natural beauty of winter on the beach. Only the breaking sound of the surf and the cry of the gulls will be heard by those brave enough to stay the winter. But, they are not alone. The seashore is alive with wildlife in the off season.
Harbor seals, harp seals and hooded seals may sometimes bask on the winter shoreline interrupted only by an occasional white-tailed deer slowly making tracks in the snow while exploring the beach. Mammals such as whales and dolphins will sometimes swim close to shore. In the iced crevices of the salt flats in the Great South Bay, wild ducks will call it their winter haven.
Before the winter sets in, September and October will be the season where thousands of birds and monarch butterflies make a temporary home on the barrier beach as they rest and eat to refuel in anticipation of their southbound journeys. In addition, more than one-third of North America’s bird species stop over to enjoy the abundant food at the shore and the forest areas. The island’s rich mosaic of marsh habitats, forest and dunes are prime areas for resting fall bird migrators of which there have been 330 species recorded on Fire Island alone.
The tiny masked and short-tailed shrew is common throughout the island. In the winter the little shrews are active in the airspace between the ground and snow cover. Their nests are built in an underground chamber or under a piece of driftwood or log and will be lined with fur. Another rodent you might notice in the quiet of the day is a white-footed mouse hopping on the snow drifts. They are active all winter and are dedicated to building snow tunnels. They are equally skilled aerialists, shimmying up the thinnest stems and branches of bushes using a semi-prehensile tail for extra support.
Another winter visitor to Fire Island is the cottontail rabbit. They remain brown through the winter unlike their cousins the snowshoe hares whose fur becomes white with the start of the snow. One seldom sees cottontails in the open during the winter months. They seem to realize their increased vulnerability due to the sharp contrast of their brown bodies against the snow. If you have a sharp eye you might be able to pick one out.
Red fox with his heavy copper colored coat will venture out of their dens at the base of the dunes to forage for food. They will feed on dead fish and small rodents like the meadow vole. Their tracks crisscross flat beaches that end in miniature cliffs sculpted by the wind. They mate in winter and then care for their young well into the summer. After mating, the female will build a den in which the family unit will live for the duration of the rearing season.
The strikingly beautiful and somewhat mysterious Snowy owl will scan the open beach and dunes for small mammals. Their primary food source on the Arctic breeding grounds is lemmings but when that food source thins out, they then find their way south for the winter to find food. They are beautifully disguised and can be as white as the snow.
And of course, the cry of our seagull is forever ongoing. Gulls are perhaps the one year-round coastal bird that doesn’t fly away at the slightest hint of winter weather. While many birds will fly south for the winter, the local gull population seems to have a strong sense of community and remain all year long.
You might find yourself cozying up by a fireplace, watching waves crash during a storm, or you may enjoy the sound of the wind on an uncrowded beach on a clear, sunny day. Of course, those sunsets are sensational. If you are fortunate to live on a Fire Island beach in the winter, listen for the sounds of the wild. There is a secret world waiting for those lucky ones.
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