Sunday was a perfect day to take a walk in the woods. Adelaide de Menil and I went to the South Fork-Shelter Island Nature Conservancy’s Sagg Swamp Preserve. Adelaide had never been there, I had not been since 1995 when I led a walk for the Conservancy.
In 1977 Rene Eastin, a geologist teaching at Southampton College, and I were given a small grant to study the preserve and write a master plan for it, which I believe was the first for a Nature Conservancy preserve on Long Island. That was Russell Hoeflich’s entryway into the Nature Conservancy; he was a student at the college and was hired to work on the study and plan. From there he went on to become the first director of the local Conservancy, later, the head of Oregon’s Nature Conservancy, a position he still holds today.Harbor and Sagaponack, we thought.
This was the longest string of blackbirds I had ever witnessed. It took fully a half-hour before the last laggard had passed. There must have been several thousand of them, all told. The waves came from slightly different directions, some from the south-southwest, some from the south, others from the south-southeast, as if they had left their separate feeding fields north of the ocean but were converging into one massive flock to overnight together.
Adelaide hears higher-pitched notes than I do. She heard the frail peeps of the spring peepers about to descend into their winter quarters. The only other sounds heard during our walk were those produced by a Long Island Rail Road engine stopping and starting up and a helicopter passing to the south.
We walked north toward Jeremy’s Hole, a small body of swampy water where wild ducks breed in the spring and spend their nights in the fall and winter. A very nicely constructed walkway skimming over the top had recently been repaired by a Nature Conservancy work crew headed by Paul D’Andrea, I was told by Marilyn Lindberg and her son, who came by on a different trail. Otherwise we would have had very wet feet.
Phragmites, that dreaded reed from Eurasia, had been making its way eastward and had already penetrated well into the swamp parts of the preserve. More annoying, however, was the amount of black swallow-wort encountered. This viny invasive, a member of the milkweed family, hails from southern Europe and is a newcomer to the South Fork. Victoria Bustamante recently found it ranging as far east as Montauk. It spreads very rapidly, like mile-a-minute-weed, another invasive new to the area. It could easily take over most of the preserve in a few years.
Water was flowing out over the weir at the foot of Jeremy’s Hole, the same sturdily constructed wooden weir that I had encountered in 1977. Jeremy’s Hole is one of the few places left on Long Island east of the Shinnecock Canal where alewives still breed. They come into Sagaponack Pond from the Atlantic Ocean when there is an opening, swim north under two bridges, enter Sagg Stream, and run up a quarter-mile or more to breed in Jeremy’s Hole. Not one was to be seen: They and their offspring were probably well back into the depths of the ocean by now.
We wanted to reach the grove of Atlantic white cedars on the north side of the preserve but the going was too impenetrable. We decided to drive around and enter from Montauk Highway to the north. Sagg Swamp is part of a chain of aquatic habitats stretching north to the village of Sag Harbor, one of the last stops on the greenbelt of ponds originating at Otter Pond and Sag Harbor Cove. The white cedar grove in question is the farthest east of them on Long Island, a few miles east of the upper Water Mill groves and the very large groves in North Sea.
Light was waning. As we walked in from the north, there were the white cedars in a circle no more than 100 yards wide, just as I left them 34 years ago, but about one and a half times taller, standing shoulder to shoulder. There were no little ones to take their places should they get blown over or succumb to fire.
We were about to enter the grove when about 20 feet off the ground something moved. “Hello,” I said. A friendly “hello” called back from a hunter dressed in camouflage manning a deer stand. We had seen three midsize females daintily feeding and making their way through the south end of the swamp 15 minutes earlier. There were many recent deer rub signs on the saplings skirting the cedar grove from bucks removing the velvet from their new antlers.
We left the hunter to his deer. No doubt, soon a few would be passing under or by the white cedar grove on their way to the lush grassy fields to the north, beginning south of the highway, to forage and spend the night. The sun was setting as we drove away. It had been a great day for a wonderful walk.
When we arrived, I was happy to see the same viny euonymous spiraling up a large tree at the preserve’s entrance. This foreigner is the only one I’ve ever witnessed on the East End and I now know that it is at least 34 years old because it was in the same tree when the three of us undertook the study. It had multiplied during the ensuing interlude and spread into the first 50 feet of the preserve.
It was warm, nary a breeze, just right for hearing nature’s sounds and seeing nature’s sights.
We worked our way along the well-maintained path, the same one we scientists had followed in 1977 to begin the study. The tupelos, red maples, oaks, and sassafras had put on another 25 feet of growth, some of them are almost 85 feet tall now. At least three red maples had been blown over recently, exposing a root disk 15 feet wide but only a foot or so thick. An edge that once had been horizontally anchored in the wettish soil was now pointing straight up. A small pocket of water filled the void created by the upheaval. Two frogs or pollywogs were quick to make their escape as we approached to get a close-up look. Tropical Storm Irene of late August, we surmised.
While we were marveling at the size of the exposed root disk and the way older blown-down maples had sent shoots straight up from their bases, some of which had become new trunks four or five inches in diameter, we heard clacking overhead. We looked up and there came from the south about 100 feet up a 50-foot wide swath of blackbirds. It was a little before 3 in the afternoon and they were heading in a northeasterly direction, 180 degrees out of whack if they were migrating. Going to a roost somewhere between Sag