Fall is here with all its glory. The air is lucid clear, the humidity is low, the breezes blow. Traffic is tolerable, kids are in school, birds are lingering while stuffing themselves with seeds, fruits, and insects, and asters and goldenrods are peaking white, blue, and yellow. One of the nicer fall phenomena is missing, however. There are almost no monarch butterflies on the move. Apparently they suffered a poor breeding season out here and in New England.
Speaking of arthropods, on the other hand, one of the less favorable of them is also in very short supply. Ticks have gone missing! I was first alerted to this peculiar situation three weeks ago by James Monaco, who resides in the hills of south Sag Harbor and likes to take walks in the woods. He suggested that turkeys, which are not in short supply, might have something to do with the dearth of ticks in his area.
Vicki Bustamante, who is frequently afield in Montauk, also reported a scarcity of ticks there near Big Reed Pond, Oyster Pond, Shadmoor Park, Culloden, Amsterdam Beach Park, the Point Woods, and Third House, all of which are well known for their abundant populations of lone star ticks and black-legged, or deer, ticks. In fact, Montauk ranks right up there with Shelter Island and Fire Island as one of the 10 tickiest places on Long Island, but for some unknown reason, not this year.
Vicki offers no explanation for the tick downturn. Her dog, Lola, usually accompanies her on these nature walks, after which she is regularly deticked, but this year, unlike every other year, she has had very few ticks on her. On Sunday during a long hike in northeast Montauk’s fields and woods, she did not pick up one tick.
Ever since hearing Jim’s and Vicki’s observations, I have been taking my tick flag — nothing more than a large white towel — with me to check for ticks when I visit this or that open space on the South Fork. In the last three weeks I flagged about 15 different tick-prone areas: the Montauk Moorlands where Dick Cavett and Paul Simon live, Shadmoor Park, the cranberry bog in the Walking Dunes, Sagg Swamp Nature Preserve in Bridgehampton and Sagaponack, road edges along Route 114, and a host of other brushy and grassy spots. I walk along dragging the towel, flat-faced, over the grasses and brush along trails and through trail-less fields for a couple hundred feet each run. Over that period I have flagged a couple of miles or more here and there, and as incredible as it may seem, I have not come up with a single tick.
The Monday before last while studying the vegetation behind the Pollock-Krasner House between Springs-Fireplace Road and Accabonac Harbor, I spent more than an hour dragging my towel here and there over grasses, low bushes, and even the salt hay of the high marsh zone. Not a single tick.
Later that same day I learned that the director of that museum, Helen Harrison, had come down with a serious case of chiggers a few days earlier. [Please see editor's note below.] That made sense as I picked up a couple of chigger bites during my flagging time there. Unlike tick bites, chigger bites don’t start to itch until several hours after the chiggers have burrowed into your hair follicles. By the time you experience the itch, the chigger itself, a microscopic larva, somewhat translucent and smaller than a tick larva, is long gone.
I was still not convinced of the scarcity of ticks in other places I had not visited, so on Monday I took my towel to five different sites in Bridgehampton and Water Mill. I flagged a grassy fallow field on Noyac Path, another on the north side of Head-of-Ponds Road, a lush field of grasses, goldenrods, and asters — prime tick habitat — on Deerfield Road, and a power-line trail off Deerfield Road. Finally, I flagged a green grass-covered swale receiving runoff from Middle Line and Deerfield Roads as well as the blueberry and huckleberry bushes in the woods surrounding it. Again, not a single tick in more than 2,500 feet of flagging.
The field north of Head-of-Ponds Road was jumping with grasshoppers. I have never seen so many in one small acre of land. I wondered if maybe grasshoppers and other insect predators, or perhaps even Jim’s turkeys, were gobbling up the ticks. Two more likely scenarios for the wonderful scarcity of ticks at the end of summer and beginning of fall have to do with this year’s varied meteorology or the possibility of some disease killing them off. This year, as in the past 20 Septembers, tick flagging should produce adults, tiny new larvae, as well as nymphs in generous numbers, but not one of these turned up on my towel this time around!
As I write this column, I would expect today’s chigger bites to be itching big time. Hmm. Not a one. I wonder, could the chiggers be next in line to leave the premises?
Editor's note: The presence of chiggers on Long Island has been consistently disputed by entomologists; no evidence for a population here has been found.