Last week, when the temperature on the East End never rose above the freezing point for days on end, the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons had a number of new admissions related to the cold and ice and an up-tick in the volume of calls it receives.
However, Ginnie Frati, the executive director of the rescue center in Hampton Bays, said that 95 percent of the time when someone reports a swan, goose or duck frozen to the ice on a pond, the bird is actually just resting. It is typically only when a bird is injured that it becomes stuck, she said.
On Tuesday, one of the patients at the rescue center was a Canada goose, which was found with a broken left wing on Mill Pond in Water Mill. Frati said it had been shot by a hunter.
While Canada geese are legal to hunt, she said that last week a caller reported that a loon was found on a pond in Flanders after being shot illegally; it had to be euthanized. There were 24 pellets in the body, and the incident was reported to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Many other calls turn out to be false alarms, Frati said. Swans and geese pick a spot on a frozen pond to rest, and even though their legs are not visible, the birds' whole bodies are on top of the ice, rather than stuck in it.
Typically during the winter, the rescue center receives two or three reports a day of animals in distress, Frati said, but when the temperature drops to below freezing the volume of calls to the center's emergency line rises to five or six. But she said many callers have overreacted.
"If there is an obvious injury, they should call right away," Frati said. Otherwise, they should wait three or four hours before calling to see if the bird moves. She also suggested that they can gently slide a rock on the ice to startle the bird to see if it moves.
"One time," Frati recalled, "we went and took binoculars and it was a decoy."
Low temperatures and winter weather create more hazards for birds than just ice. The rescue center treats non-native and migrating birds that get lost or beached in the snow and wind.
For instance, a razorbill auk — which Frati said is only the second the rescue center has ever admitted — was found on Hook Pond in East Hampton on Jan. 21, thin and anemic. "It's an unusual bird," Frati said.
According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, "Razorbills are short (17 inches long), chunky seabirds with short, stubby wings. ... The razorbill is found in arctic and subarctic marine waters from Maine to northern Russia. There are about 700,000 razorbills in the North Atlantic, and over 70 percent of the population nests in Iceland."
A dovekie, which Frati said is in the same family as razorbill auks, was found beached in East Hampton on Jan. 19. It was obviously in distress because dovekies usually stay offshore, she said.
The winter weather also somehow cast a bird that is typically only spotted as north as Florida far off its path. Fishermen spotted the purple gallinule about 70 miles west of Nantucket, struggling in the water, and brought it to the rescue center. Frati said purple gallinules, which are wading birds, do not belong out at sea. "He doesn't have webbed feet to swim."
At least three local mute swans have come in since the cold hit. "They always seem to get disoriented when there's a lot of ice," Frati said. "They start walking in yards, acting goofy."
She said one winter a swan was found wandering the street in Water Mill. "They just don't know where to go."
Injured or disoriented birds are usually also suffering from hypothermia, and they are warmed with heating pads, Frati said. During a cold snap, local mammals do OK, she said. "It's the ice and water birds that usually suffer."
Animals that need help are picked up by trained volunteer animal rescuers — the next training class is Feb. 9. Among the volunteers is Beth Ostrosky Stern, who rescued and then released a seagull in 2011.
To report an animal in distress to the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons, call 631-728-WILD (9453). To inquire about volunteering, call 631-728-4200.