Nature Notes: Montauk Endures

Coastal ponds have unique communities consisting of flora and fauna that can adjust to varying salinities and varying temperatures
The American oyster the pond was named after still thrives there in most years. Victoria Bustamante Photo

   You hardly hear anyone call it Lake Munchogue these days. The Hagstrom Suffolk County Atlas still has it down by its Native-American name, while including Oyster Pond in parentheses below. Many of the other water bodies on the South Fork retained names derived from the local dialects of the Algonkian language since settlement. There are Shinnecock, Noyac, and Mecox Bays as well as Lake Agawam, Poxabogue, Wickatuck, and Sagaponack Ponds and Sebonac Creek in Southampton Town. While in East Hampton there are Accabonac and Napeague Harbors and Napeague Bay. While Montauk still has its Lake Montauk named after the Montauketts, all of its other waters go by anglicized names, from west to east, Block Island Sound, Fresh Pond, Fort Pond Bay, Fort Pond, Tuthill Pond, Peter’s Run, Stepping Stones Pond, Little Reed Pond, Big Reed Pond, Oyster Pond, and Money Pond.
    With the exception of Money Pond, Oyster Pond is different from all the others, which are either tidal or fresh. It is a coastal pond (like Georgica Pond in Wainscott and Sagg Pond in Sagaponack, Mecox Bay in Bridgehampton, and Squire Pond in Squire Town, Hampton Bays), and thus varies in salinity from year to year, depending upon the number and extent of tidal excursions that take place in any one year. Hook Pond in East Hampton Village was a true coastal pond with an intermittent opening until the Maidstone Golf Course came along in the 1930s.
    After Hurricane Sandy visited at the end of last October, Oyster Pond was widely open to Block Island Sound.  It became salty and is still quite salty almost four months later.
    Coastal ponds have unique communities consisting of flora and fauna that can adjust to varying salinities and varying temperatures. Such coastal ponds up until the mid-20th century were the breeding grounds of one of these very adaptable species, the southern leopard frog, now approaching the endangered level in New York State. In the 1990s the only viable southern leopard frog breeding habitat on Long Island was Oyster Pond, but since then none have been found despite exhaustive annual searches. The leopard frog’s tadpoles were able to tolerate brackish conditions, an ability not found in the genomes of the other 15 or so amphibian species found on Long Island.
    Of course the American oyster (Ostrea virginica), after which the pond was named, thrives in such brackish waters, and in most years, Oyster Pond is chock full of them. From time to time they have been used by the East Hampton Town Trustees in shellfish transplant programs to stock oysters in other town waters where their numbers had become depleted. Before Shinnecock Bay was opened to the ocean by the storm of the last century, the Hurricane of 1938, and thus became permanently tidal, much of the bay’s waters and those connected to it on its west end were rife with oysters. Oddly, Georgica Pond, which has similarly brackish waters that vary throughout the year from almost fresh to quite marine, has no oysters and attempts to start them there have not been successful.
    Oyster Pond also has an unusual water snake (Nerodia sipedon) that can handle the salt content, as well, and feeds on killifishes and probably fed on the larvae of the leopard frog during its heyday there. The only other semi-marine habitat where I have found this water snake on the South Fork is in Squire Pond. While the Long Pond chain of ponds situated between Sag Harbor and Sagaponack also has water snakes, they are not quite the same.
    Then, too, there are several rare-to-New York plants found along the edges of Oyster Pond, the rarest of which is the sea purslane, a succulent dwarfish plant with tiny nondescript flowers lacking petals, looking a little like the flower garden portulaca with less colorful flowers. When the pond is low, say after a drought period, this plant takes root and flourishes. When the pond is high, it waits in the wings to start anew. Some of the rushes and sedges along the pond’s shores are also uncommon.
    Although it is relatively isolated and visited by only a handful of people in a given week, Oyster Pond suffers its share of slings and arrows. It is in the watershed that includes most of Montauk east of Lake Montauk and which stretches all the way south to the ocean bluffs. Thus a sewage spill in the mid-1980s that originated in the old Fort Hero Base housing, went under Montauk Point State Parkway and reached all the way to Oyster Pond. Then in the winter of 1990-91, an oil storage tank behind the bluffs of Fort Hero burst and oil made it all the way to the pond. It may have been one of the causes of the demise of the southern leopard frog population which occurred a year or two later.
    Oyster Pond was once an arm of Block Island Sound that has managed to survive in an area of duny shoreline severely under attack in this century by northeasters and tropical storms. Some parts of this shoreline running from the Montauk Lighthouse to Big Reed Pond on the west have lost more than five feet a year since the beginning of the new millennium. Thus, even though it is owned and protected by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, it may be gone before the beginning of the next century, a victim of rising sea level.
    Its significance to the Montauketts, whose village was hardly more than a stone’s throw away, is yet to be completely explained. Until European settlers came along, aside from skirmishes with the Indian groups on the north side of Long Island Sound, the Montauketts never had it so good.
    They had Fort Pond, the second largest freshwater lake on Long Island, Big Reed Pond, the third largest lake, with its seapoosed alewife runs, Block Island Sound, and the ocean. There were shellfish galore — blue mussels, oysters, hard clams, soft clams, bay scallops, and lobsters. They had access to the only rocky intertidal headland on the ocean north of the Caribbean Sea, wild turkeys, waterfowl, the heath hen, bobwhites, acorns, hickory nuts, and the like, a high vantage point from which to survey the rest of the world and the warmest climate on Long Island. And no deer ticks, lone star ticks, or chiggers.
    It certainly was worth much more than a few gold coins, patent jewelry, pots and pans, and a free ride and repatriation to much less fruitful quarters.
    Since the proprietors bought the land, the takeover by Arthur Benson in 1885, the rise and fall of Carl Fisher, and the opening of Lake Montauk to the sea in the early 1920s, and all the others that followed including the Montauk Holding Company, Macy’s Leisurerama, and so on, someone or some group has always tried to subdue Montauk with a heavy hand. No matter how much they try, Montauk will remain completely in the hands of God, Mother Nature, and the surrounding seas. In years to come it won’t be that much different than when the Montauketts more than 5,000 years ago first camped on the banks of Oyster Pond, uh, make that Lake Munchogue.