Nature Notes: It’s a Jungle Out There

Ticks

    We are two-thirds of the way through summer and the last third promises to be one of the toughest to get through, unless you stay inside or remain in your car. If you go outdoors, either in the field or in the water, on the South Fork you’re in for it. A host of pests will be waiting for you. They have to get their dinners before turning into adults or laying eggs.
    Last Thursday I was showing a companion the different kinds of habitats in Montauk and the Northwest area of East Hampton. It was a fine day, the sun was shining bright and it was warm, even hot. We visited Staudinger’s Pond and the persimmon grove off of Swamp Road, and Chatfield’s Hole on Two Holes of Water Road. The sweet pepperbushes were in bloom and the air was redolent with their overpowering perfume. The boreal leatherleaf thicket out in the water was also flowering. The outdoors couldn’t be more inviting.
    While driving to another spot, my companion began to notice little dark specks on her ankles and feet, which were propped up on the dashboard. They were moving slowly and tickling her as they went. Tick larvae! Even though we kept to the trails, somehow we must have bumped into a patch of newly emerged ticks. After picking off several, we continued on to Montauk.
    A while later, my companion, whose skin was much more sensitive than mine, began to itch in places where we could see no ticks. I thought to myself, “No, not chiggers too!”
    After I dropped her off and arrived home around 4 in the afternoon, I examined myself closely. Yes, I found a couple of larval ticks, which I cellophane taped to my daily log. But around my ankles I, too, began to scratch in places where there were no ticks to be seen.
    The next morning my ankles were covered with little red pustules centered in hair follicle pits. I was right, we had been secretly assaulted not only by ticks, but by chiggers as well. I called up my companion, who had taken a very hot shower immediately upon arriving home. She said, “I look like I’m covered with chicken pox.” The chigger [See editor's note below] season had officially started and from now on until the end of September I would be cursed with these little no-see-um larvae, as I have been every year since tramping through the Culloden Point forest in Montauk in September of 1986. Ticks and chiggers do not a picnic make.
    On Sunday and Monday, I caught 3.5 inches of rain in my five Noyac rain cres of prime vernal ponds to serve as freshwater mosquito breeding sites throughout the South Fork. Then too, there will be all of those catch basins along the side of the road in low-lying areas, say around Accabonac Harbor, Upper Sag Harbor Cove, Napeague and Beachampton in Amagansett, and throughout much of Montauk, which hold road runoff for weeks while providing the perfect dark, dank, sequestered spots for breeding mosquitoes in the complete absence of mosquito predators.
    Ticks, chiggers, and mosquitoes. What other unpleasant small biters awaits us? On Saturday at the edge of Northwest Creek I was attacked by both greenhead flies and deer flies. They have been out in force in many of our marshy woodland edges since late June. DEET and other insect repellents keep them off to a certain degree, just as they repel mosquitoes and gnats fairly efficiently. For those who reside next to salt marshes, where the greenhead flies breed, put up traps, which can be purchased or built, to remove them from the air quite efficiently.
    Just as the mosquito traps that give off carbon dioxide attract mosquitoes, the greenhead fly traps use a different bait, a black body, usually round, which looks like a very large bowling ball. This trick to luring them into the trap is something that I relearned two weeks ago when I pulled up to the edge of a salt marsh in my black Toyota Tundra pickup. As soon as it was stopped, a legion of greenhead flies and deer flies attacked. The truck was warm and dark, just like many animals in pastures and fields that are prime targets for biting flies.
    Escape to the water, you say. Not so fast. Chris Chapin called me on Sunday to report that “swimmer’s itch” zooplanktonic animals were biting people in the inshore waters of Napeague Bay in Amagansett. Fresh Pond and Accabonac Harbor’s tributaries to the bay are often the scene of swimmer’s itch assaults, especially in August during hot weather periods. Chris said these were tiny larvae, possibly of crustaceans, with two eyes and some appendages. The cercaria of flatworms that spawn inside mud snails, of which we have thousands inside tidal lagoons such as Fresh Pond, Hog Creek, Accabonac Harbor, and Northwest Creek, are the most common swimmer’s itch assailants in such waters.
    As for chigger bites, my patented method for relieving the itching worked out over many years worked for me once again. This method is not for everyone, however. You take a very sharp needle — I used to use a hawthorn thorn — and puncture the pustule, then apply drugstore alcohol for several seconds. Works like a charm, but it hurts like hell, especially when applied to certain vital parts.
    Did I mention black widows and brown recluse spiders? Watch out! It’s a jungle out there.

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. There is no scientific evidence that brown recluse spiders are present on Long Island.