Nature Notes: Hullabaloo Was Worth It

beach at Ditch Plain
The ocean rose up over the beach at Ditch Plain on Sunday at about 9 a.m. Tom McMorrow

     Hurricane Irene has come and gone. Last year Earl swept up the coast near the end of August with a great deal of hullabaloo. It missed us but did carry away some of Montauk’s valuable ocean beach sand. Irene had decidedly better aim and hit when the tide was high, washing away beaches and dunes from the Rockaways to Montauk Point.
    The ocean beaches from Town Line Road in Wainscott to Ditch Plain and the end of Deforest in Montauk that I photographed and paced off last Thursday and Friday shrank by more than 50 percent and were about two feet lower in grade on Monday. This time the hullabaloo was worth it.
    A small portion of the displaced sand washed up to the north along the several road ends and trails accessing the ocean beach in Montauk and Wainscott. Wainscott, East Hampton Village, and Amagansett beaches got hit pretty hard, but Montauk suffered the worst. The major portion of the sand ended up a couple hundred yards offshore in the form of a sand bar, upon which waves were breaking on Monday afternoon during low tide. By the time this goes to press several of Montauk’s downtown ocean beaches will have been rebuilt.
    At Ditch Plain and elsewhere, an interesting geologic feature resurfaced. Where ponds and bays, such as Mecox Bay, were adjacent to the ocean thousands of years or so ago, they held their water because they were underlaid by a thickish stratum of clay, gravel, sand, and silt. Over time this stratum became reddish as a result of bacteria precipitating out iron from the overlying water. Napeague Harbor’s reddish hue is a reflection of this bacterial activity. The result was a hard, almost rocklike layer that is almost completely impervious to water, something akin to breccia.
    Such a layer extends along the back shore at Ditch Plain under the dunes facing the ocean. On Monday it was well exposed and pieces of fossil wood mired in it were also exposed. Where did the wood come from? Possibly from very early growth at the edges of the pond or, more probably, all the way from New England by the glacier that created the South Fork some 15,000 years ago. Every now and then geologists find a piece of fossil wood sticking out of an exposed bluff face in Montauk. The wood in question remains to be dated by carbon 14 or some other dating methodology well beyond the capability of yours truly.
    From the west end of Napeague to the Montauk Lighthouse another curious aftermath of the storm became more and more obvious as one proceeded east along Montauk Highway. The leaves of the bear oaks, shads, winterberry hollies, and other deciduous hardwoods had turned brown. The north and south wooded edges of the state parkway through Hither Woods revealed a similar pattern, a coloration that one might expect after a long summer drought. East of downtown Montauk the browning off of the vegetation was even more apparent. The brown landscape the rest of the way to the point was dominated by withered fox grape leaves. My guess is that the wild grape crop for which Montauk is famous will not be a bumper one come September.
    You may remember that after Hurricane Bob, which came ashore in late August of 1991, the vegetation on the south side of the South Fork also turned to brown seemingly overnight. The combination of the wind and salt spray off the ocean was more than the leaves could bear. Irene produced the same effect.
    Something unusual happened in the early fall following Bob. Trees and shrubs that had already bloomed in the spring and summer resprouted green leaves and began blooming all over again in a kind of renaissance. Most woody plants have the ability to refresh their foliage come monsoonal rains after a drought or heavy pillaging by gypsy moth caterpillars, but flower for a second time? That’s most unusual.
    It didn’t take long for the animal part of nature to get back to normal following the storm. On Monday afternoon there were swarms of darning needles and damselflies at the edges of the several freshwater ponds bordering Lake Montauk. Mosquito fish were in abundance. Mourning doves, goldfinches, song sparrows, catbirds, terns, robins, and crows were going about their business of feeding and preening, building up fat reserves and manufacturing new wing and tail feathers for the trip south to start but a few weeks later. Two months ago it was breeding and singing that preoccupied them, now it is feeding, feeding, feeding, and more feeding.
    Humans also belong to that branch of nature. They were out on the beaches sunning, walking, or out in the water, wading, swimming, and surfing. Montauk and Wainscott beaches were packed. No matter the magnitude of the storm and the narrowness of the beaches, they were not going to let the last week of summer pass by with a whimper. Demographers tell us that birth rates go up following blackouts, thunderstorms, and hurricanes. We will have to wait and see.
    Meanwhile if we have another one of these tropical storms within a month, there will be hell to pay, as the dunes are weakened and the beaches are almost as narrow as they are in winter. Keep a weather eye open.